Revolutionary Space: The Situationist Excursions of 1968

By David Pinder

may-68-sorbonne.jpgThe Sorbonne, May 1968

A map of the fifth arrondissement of Paris, dated May 10th 1968, shows Rue Gay-Lussac and numerous streets south of Place du Panthéon blocked by black lines. Appearing in an account of the May uprisings in Paris by the Situationist René Viénet, the map marks ‘the defense perimeter and the emplacement of principal barricades in the occupied quarter’.[1] 60 barricades were spontaneously thrown up that evening by thousands of demonstrators who converged on the Latin Quarter after the police had blocked their route to the Seine. Assailed by the police using gas and grenades, and fighting back with paving stones and Molotov cocktails, the protesters held onto the quarter until the early hours of the morning. Evidence of the fierce battle that raged was readily apparent the next day as smoke cleared from overturned cars lying across the streets, as barricades and uprooted cobblestones were cleared, and as hundreds of people were treated for injuries or were held by the authorities.

The violence of the police that night, which followed earlier repressive actions, garnered considered public sympathy for the demonstrators and helped to fuel the discontent and political demands that stretched far beyond the universities. A massive demonstration and general strike followed on May 13th. The Sorbonne was occupied. Social and cultural institutions such as the Théatre de l’Odéon were seized and opened for political debate. Ignoring the disapproval of the Communist Party and trades union officials, workers occupied factories and work places through wildcat actions. Within days around ten million people had joined the general strike. Much to the consternation of the bureaucrats of both left and right, the aims of participants could not be simply channelled into piecemeal demands.

The map of barricades speaks of a moment when the city as a space of circulation was interrupted. Streets as conduits for flow, dominated by traffic and commerce, gave way to spaces and times of congregation, dialogue, encounter and struggle. ‘Capitalised time stopped,’ writes Viénet in his account Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement des occupations, written in July and published in France that year. ‘Without any trains, metro, cars, or work the strikers recaptured the time so sadly lost in factories, on motorways, in front of the TV. People strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. Desires began to become, little by little, reality.’[2]

His map is also indicative of the significance of spatial struggles in the May 1968 uprising more widely. Conflicts over the uses of streets, public spaces, buildings and neighbourhoods were crucial to the constitution of revolutionary movements, not only in Paris but also in many other cities in France and elsewhere. Makeshift barricades, themselves a product of the unleashing of playful activity connected with the disappearance of forced labour, according to Viénet, may have had limited effect strategically but played a significant political role, staking broadly defined positions between insurgents and the police. Walls were filled with posters and slogans, clamouring with different voices and desires. Streets and public spaces became arenas in which elements of the uprising came together, exchanged views and were challenged through encounters.

‘The critique of everyday life successfully began to modify the landscape of alienation,’ recalls Viénet. ‘The Rue Gay-Lussac was named the Rue du 11 Mai. Red and black flags gave a human appearance to the fronts of public buildings. The Haussmannian perspective of the boulevards was corrected and the green belts redistributed and closed to traffic. Everyone, in his own way, made his own critique of urbanism.’[3]

Streets and public spaces were particularly significant in one of the most challenging aspects of the revolts, namely its horizontality: how to forge connections between students and workers, between intellectual and manual labour, between social categories typically kept apart; how not simply to accept those categories with their specialisations and assumptions of expertise but to question and undermine them, and to reach beyond the spaces through which they are constituted, such as faculty, factory, office, farm and so on; and, in the process, how to cut across hierarchies of power, to strive for equality?[4]

Viénet had been a member of the Situationist International (SI) since 1963. Alongside other Situationists and enragés he participated during May 1968 in efforts by the Occupation Committee of the Sorbonne to institute direct democracy and to encourage occupations across the country, and later in activities by the Council for Maintaining the Occupations to communicate revolutionary positions and connect struggles between different places until its disbandment on June 15th. But the SI’s influence as a revolutionary organisation also spread more widely through its role in preceding years in criticising, agitating and encouraging autonomous revolt and contestation.

Only six months earlier, the Situationist Guy Debord had published La société du spectacle, a devastating attack on the alienation and commodification of post-war societies. Prevailing images may promise happiness and unity, he noted, but people were estranged and separated from one another and their true selves, rendered passive by the spectacle.[5] It was a book that, so the Situationists noted at the time, lacked only one or more revolutions; and, in the month of May, words from its pages appeared on walls, not only in Paris but further afield, as they found a receptive audience among those wanting to overturn dominant power relations.

map-paris-may-68.jpgMap of Paris, May 1968

For the Situationists the occupations movement involved throwing off alienation and hierarchical dispossession. It was ‘a festival, a game, a real presence of people and of time’, they wrote. ‘The recognised desire for genuine dialogue, completely free expression and real community found their terrain in the buildings transformed into open meeting places and in the collective struggle.’[6] They were particularly delighted to see the return of the slogan ‘never work!’ on the boulevard Port-Royal, some fifteen years after Debord had written it on the walls of the rue de Seine, as captured in a photograph reproduced in their journal and described as their ‘minimum programme’.

A key insight emphasised by the SI concerned the importance of changing everyday space as part of the struggle to change everyday life. Debord argued that revolution entailed a ‘critique of human geography’, whereby people would construct spaces and places commensurate with the appropriation of their ‘total history’. In this regard it is interesting to compare the map of the barricades with other maps of Paris produced by Debord in 1956-57, shortly before the establishment of the SI, when he was a member of the Letterist International.

These ‘psycho-geographical maps’, including most famously ‘The naked city’ and ‘Psycho-geographic guide to Paris’, were composed of chunks cut from existing maps of the city, shown floating in white space with red arrows between them, indicating movements of attraction and repulsion. The maps came out of radical attempts to explore, to experience and otherwise to transform urban space. As such they challenged existing cartographic representations of Paris, presenting a fragmented city based on experiences while wandering through its spaces. Their form further suggests a perspective on the city as a realm of contestation, struggle and tactical manoeuvring, a far cry from the often depolicitised and altogether looser associations given to the term psycho-geography in more recent years.

A strangely prescient report by the Letterists on an area of the Latin Quarter they termed ‘Continent Contrescarpe’ in 1956 advocated closing off the streets and constructing ‘architectural complexes’ to create new situations. The radicalism of the proposal became apparent twelve years later, when barricades were thrown up precisely in that district.

The spatialities of May ’68 were also drawn out by the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, a sometime associate of the SI and then a professor at Nanterre University. In his own account, published as L’irruption de Nanterre au sommet in 1969, Lefebvre described how ‘Paris changed and was restored – the vistas, the streets, the Boulevard Saint-Michel – which, rid of automobiles, again became a promenade and forum’.

In the Latin Quarter and Sorbonne unfettered speech ‘burst forth in the crowded lecture halls, courtyard, on the square, in the vast forum’, and ‘concrete utopia now proclaimed a unified culture transcending the division of labour and fragmented specialisations’.[7] Lefebvre often argued that the initial stirrings at Nanterre had their roots in the students’ experience of uneven development, as they witnessed the divisions between classes and ethnic groups daily as they travelled to and from the bleak campus buildings in the outskirts of Paris. Lefebvre’s writings, like those of the Situationists, also draw attention to other geographies of the movement. Of particular importance were questions, often erased in subsequent representations, about how the occupations of the Latin Quarter were connected with those less well documented in cities, villages and farms in other parts of the country; and further, how these were related at the international scale to anti-war, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles and hence to experiences in Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, Palestine and elsewhere.

Occupying streets and public spaces became a means by which people resisted powerful interests and re-appropriated what had been taken away from them, having been driven from the city centre. It also became a means of articulating other demands, dreams and visions. There were significant differences between the positions taken by the Situationists and Lefebvre on these matters and much else, following their falling out some years earlier. But, in their different ways, their accounts of May ’68 in France serve as powerful rejoinders to those who all too often close down the political significance of these revolutionary movements – in the effort to rewrite their history as inevitably doomed – as a dead-end, as an ‘immature’ student rebellion, as a generational conflict, and as paving the way for the individualism of later years.

Instead, their accounts invite us to think again about what these movements opened up, about the challenge they posed to political practice, and about the potential – then and now – for contestation stirring from the streets rather being than channelled through party leaders and vanguards. They also raise questions about the possible. In today’s era, when the mantra ‘there is no alternative’ has taken such a hold, attending to what is possible yet hidden or suppressed under current conditions, and using that as a lever for change, remains vital.


[1] René Viénet, Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement des occupations (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), translated as (New York and London: Autonomedia and Rebel Press, 1992)
[2] Viénet, Enragés and Situationists , p. 77.
[3] Ibid., p. 82.
[4] A theme too often sidelined in writings on May ’68, as argued by Kristin Ross in her important May ’68 and its Afterlives (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002).
[5] Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967), translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith as The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994).
[6] ‘Le commencement d’une époque’, Internationale situationniste 12 (Sept 1969), pp. 4, 3; translated as ‘The beginning of an era’, in Ken Knabb, ed., Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, rev. ed.), p. 289.
[7] Henri Lefebvre, L’Irruption de Nanterre au sommet (Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1969), translated by Alfred Ehrenfeld as The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1969), pp. 118-19.

David Pinder teaches Geography at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth Century Urbanism (Edinburgh University Press, 2005), which explores the utopian urban visions of the Situationists and of other avant-garde and Modernist movements.