Scholars from Columbia, Princeton, and the Czech Academy of Sciences spent Tuesday afternoon discussing a new volume from Suture Press titled Revolutions for the Future: May ‘68 and the Prague Spring.

1968 resembled 2020 in more ways than one. Students and workers took to the streets to challenge established institutions and secure their liberation, all against the backdrop of global crisis. In two locales, 1968 was an unusually potent juncture in history: France and Czechoslovakia. Scholars from both countries continue to debate the success and purpose of the events of 1968 in these two countries, with Czechoslovakia’s revolutionary period remembered as “the Prague Spring” and France’s simply as “May ‘68.” One such undertaking has come in the form of a new compendium of essays titled Revolutions for the Future: May ‘68 and the Prague Spring. The book, released in November of last year, was edited by Jana Ndiaye Berankova, Michael Hauser, and Nick Nesbitt. Contributors include Jacques Rancière, Étienne Balibar, Vincent Jacques, Jana Ndiaye Berankova, Reza Naderi, Nick Nesbitt, Michael Hauser, Petr Kužel, Jan Kober, Ivan Landa, Jan Mervart, Katarzyna Bielińska, and Joe Grim Feinberg.

All contributors listed above, save Rancière, Kober, and Mervart, appeared Tuesday on Zoom to discuss the contents of the book. Originally intending to appear on behalf of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, the group later decided to switch to a Princeton University platform in solidarity with Columbia’s graduate workers. 

According to Nesbitt, Professor of French and Italian at Princeton, the May ‘68 and Prague Spring project began in 2017 and is divided into three sections: one on May ‘68, another on Prague Spring, and a final postscript on the revolutions of 1989. May ‘68 and the Prague Spring, Nesbitt said, revolutionized both “structure and experience.” May ‘68 represented France’s largest general strike in history, bringing the entire country to screeching halt for an entire month. Students enjoyed what he called “sustained anarchic freedom” as classes were put on hold and, in some cases, streets were barricaded. Meanwhile, the Prague Spring was snuffed out by the invasion of Soviet troops, ending years of cultural freedom and instituting a “normalization” period in Czechoslovakia that lasted until 1989. Nesbitt said he uses Marx’s “Das Kapital” to frame his understanding of the events of 1968 as well as the events of 1989. 

Berankova, a graduate student at Columbia’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservations and President of Suture Press, then remarked on our own precarious and revolutionary situation in 2021. She said that the title of the book refers to how history sometimes proceeds in “breaks, leaps, and ruptures,” and she noted themes that resurge at various revolutionary moments. For example the name of Spartacus, leader of a massive revolt of Roman slaves, was then applied to Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture as well as the Spartacus League, a revolutionary organization active in WWI Germany. May ‘68 and Prague Spring, according to Berankova, are “heterogeneous” in some ways. May ‘68 was led by students and trade unions, while the Prague Spring reforms were partially perpetuated by the Czechoslovak state. Memory also plays an important role in and of itself; many innovations of the Prague Spring have sadly been forgotten and subsumed by the memory of the Russian invasion, she said. 

The chief question addressed in the book is “How does philosophy relate to these historical events?” Balibar, Columbia Professor of French and Comparative Literature and a philosopher in his own right, added that “to publish books as works of art is an act of resistance” in the current era, and he feels that the book is certainly a work of art. He describes the book as a merger of highly abstract, pure theory and politics in a “disjunctive synthesis.” This synthesis is highly productive and stimulating: in his words, like a “suture” as in “Suture Press.” He qualifies this, though, by adding that there are not just two substances or events that have been sutured in the book; it’s a multilateral exploration of these events. 1968 was in some ways a “refoundation” of socialism and communism — an explosion of radical critique which nonetheless, he clarified, was not made a tool of capitalism. Balibar reflected that in 1989, many said there were no lessons to be learned from 1968 and the entire socialist period. He says that this book now revisits the period and contends that there absolutely is value in revisiting it. With regard to Jacques Rancière’s essay in the book, Balibar said that we need a third category beyond the heterogeneous “insurrection” and “institution”, which he says are thought to be polar opposites. This third category should be the apolitical, or “impolitical.” 

Feinberg, a graduate student at the Czech Academy of Sciences, said that capitalism has remarkable abilities to rebound and recuperate after revolutionary events, but it also had to adjust after the events of ‘68. He said it is important to examine the concept of the political, or the “turning towards the political” in 1968, and that it is more complicated than just that May ‘68 was a purely political revolution. Marx said, “The revolution is apolitical because it is social”, but there was also a distinct turn toward political questions in France, he added.

Balibar then chimed in by noting that there was a “neoliberal counterrevolution” after May ‘68 which students and workers actually anticipated and preempted in some ways. May ‘68 was amazing, he said, in that it encouraged a form of individualism that was not “neoliberal” and not “antithetical to solidarity.” 

Ivan Landa, Professor of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences, then presented on the defining aspects of Eastern Marxism, as opposed to the Marxism of Western Europe. Eastern Marxism, he said, focuses on the impact of politics on society as opposed to the “primacy of culture and arts” in the West. He added that Eastern Marxism is generally more optimistic, while Western Marxism is more pessimistic. He describes Western Marxism as confined to the University and its “ivory tower.” Eastern Marxism, meanwhile, tried in earnest to adhere to historical materialism and ameliorate material conditions for the working class; they had a “longing for total revolution.” Eastern Marxists still “understood themselves as engaged intellectuals,” but saw themselves as contributors to the liberation of the working class first. He elucidated a concept he calls “Meta-Marxism” — the “retreat from concreteness”, the obsession with “extracting logic” from Marx’s works, particularly Das Kapital, rather than devotion to struggles on the streets. In opposition to Meta-Marxism, Landa brought up Gyorgy Lukacs’ “philosophy of praxis”, that people inherently participate in the dialectic as part of their lived experience and that the dialectic is not something that merely exists out in the ether of theory. 

Nesbitt concluded that the book revels in (and in indeed readers must revel in) what we still don’t know and can’t know, in “resonances and gaps” between East and West, philosophy and politics, and the political and impolitical.

You can purchase Revolutions for the Future: May ‘68 and the Prague Spring from Suture Press here.

France via Bwog archives.