Thursday, 31 January 2019

Book review - The aftermath of 1968

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 66 (January 2019)

Tout! : Gauchisme, Contre-Culture et Presse Alternative dans L'Après-Mai 68 
By Manus McGrogan
Éditions L'Échappée,
Paris, 2018, €18
ISBN 978237309038

Manus McGrogan's fascinating account of the French revolutionary journal Tout! (Everything), based on his doctoral thesis, has been published in French translation. An English version would be greatly to be welcomed, but in its absence a brief review can draw out some points of interest for an  Anglophone readership.

Tout! was short-lived – sixteen issues in a little under a year from 1970 to 1971. It belonged to the frenetic student and lycée pupil milieu in the aftermath of the 1968 general strike, when, not unreasonably, many activists believed a revolutionary period was opening up. Organisations and publications of the far left were born, flourished and faded with alarming rapidity.

McGrogan's account is carefully documented on the basis of archives and many interviews with surviving participants, including Siné -  best known in Britain for his pictures of cats but also a virulent political cartoonist. While focussing on Tout!, McGrogan gives us much detail on the whole milieu of far left publishing, including HaraKiri, which later became the now sadly famous Charlie Hebdo.

Tout! originated from a political group called Vive la Révolution (Long Live the Revolution). They were, in a sense, Maoists – but not the sort of Maoists who believed all problems could be solved by a quotation from the Great Helmsman.  They were inspired by what they believed was happening in the Chinese Cultural Revolution – which was probably extremely remote from what was actually going on. There was considerable stress on spontaneity – hence they were often given the nickname “mao-spontex”.  They were influenced not only by China, but by Lotta Continua in Italy and the Black Panthers and yippies  in the USA. One of their slogans was the need to “change life”  (changer la vie) - so they focussed not only on economic and political demands, but
on questions of culture and everyday life.

In August 1970 Tout! was launched. (The title came from the slogan “What we want - Everything”.) The aim was to get away from the style of the traditional left publication, with its slabs of print presenting the “correct line” - a genre unfortunately still with us today, though its sales are diminishing. Tout! sought originality not only in content but in design and lay-out - in particular it made use of colour  (colour was still relatively little used even in the mainstream press). Use of a technique called split fountain printing meant that no two copies were identical.

Politically Tout! sought to develop militant opposition to the post-Gaullist regime which was establishing itself in France. It wrote not only of the student milieu but of the working class; there were detailed accounts of working conditions in factories and on the railways, combined with an ultra-left rejection of trade unions. It gave particular attention to the situation of immigrant workers – thus it told the story of a Pakistani worker who starved to death while waiting for a British visa. The aim was to give a voice to the voiceless. But factory-gate sales never really took off.

It campaigned against the imprisonment of Maoist leader Alain Geismar, while being critical of the way he was glorified by the Maoist press - “Let's free Geismar, including from the roles in which he has been trapped.”  Tout! supporters  were involved in physically confronting Ordre Nouveau, one of the forerunners of the Front National.

It also dealt with the cultural milieu. It embraced rock culture, but rejected its commercialisation -  the 1970 Isle of Wight festival was denounced as a “psychedelic concentration camp”. Tout! supporters helped to organise the mass invasion of rock concerts without payment.  But the description of Joan Baez as a “slut” (salope) was clearly a very stupid piece of sexist ultra-leftism.

The emergence of sexual politics was central to the development of Tout!. Women's oppression had not been an issue in 1968; the – mostly male – student leaders were often aggressively macho. But their assertiveness soon provoked female – and gay – assertion. The orthodox far left had little time for this – Lutte ouvrière dismissed the emerging gay movement as “socialism in one bed” - but Tout! was much more positive. And the imaginative style, often transgressing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, was  taken up. At a lecture by an antiabortionist professor a woman hurled a calf's liver onto the table and shouted “I've just had an abortion, professor!”

Internal contradictions and tensions were too strong for Tout! to survive long, but its heritage survived in other sections of the left press, including Libération, which became a mainstream daily. In its ultra-leftism Tout! never mentioned Mitterrand, who was already beginning his political ascent during Tout!'s brief life. But in 1972 Mitterrand's Socialist Party stole Tout!'s slogan “Change life”.

Ian Birchall

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