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The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s [Kindle Edition]

Richard Wolin
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Julia Kristeva, Phillipe Sollers, and Jean-Luc Godard. During the 1960s, a who's who of French thinkers, writers, and artists, spurred by China's Cultural Revolution, were seized with a fascination for Maoism. Combining a merciless exposé of left-wing political folly and cross-cultural misunderstanding with a spirited defense of the 1960s, The Wind from the East tells the colorful story of this legendary period in France. Richard Wolin shows how French students and intellectuals, inspired by their perceptions of the Cultural Revolution, and motivated by utopian hopes, incited grassroots social movements and reinvigorated French civic and cultural life.

Wolin's riveting narrative reveals that Maoism's allure among France's best and brightest actually had little to do with a real understanding of Chinese politics. Instead, it paradoxically served as a vehicle for an emancipatory transformation of French society. French student leftists took up the trope of "cultural revolution," applying it to their criticisms of everyday life. Wolin examines how Maoism captured the imaginations of France's leading cultural figures, influencing Sartre's "perfect Maoist moment"; Foucault's conception of power; Sollers's chic, leftist intellectual journal Tel Quel; as well as Kristeva's book on Chinese women--which included a vigorous defense of foot-binding.

Recounting the cultural and political odyssey of French students and intellectuals in the 1960s, The Wind from the East illustrates how the Maoist phenomenon unexpectedly sparked a democratic political sea change in France.

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A National Public Radio ( John Wilson Favorite Book of the Year in Books & Culture for 2010

One of Financial Times's Best Books in History for 2012

"The Wind From the East must be regarded as a monument of committed scholarship. It is also a fascinating chronicle of people who, however ludicrous they may seem at times, did on occasion think and act with profound seriousness. For that reason the book is a valuable addition to the literature of the era."--David Gress, Wall Street Journal

"Wolin surveys a wide range of French intellectuals' responses to Mao's China. The best of these responses creatively appropriate the concept of cultural revolution, leading to a new libertarianism and to the embrace of causes such as gay rights, women's liberation, and prison reform; the worst of them became fatally compromised by a blind endorsement of the crimes of Chinese communism. . . . Wolin skewers irresponsible intellectual posturing in a manner reminiscent of the late Tony Judt, but reveals an underlying sympathy with the goals and ideals, if not always with the choices, of the Gauchistes. A masterful performance."--Choice

"Even as he is documenting the delusions of the sixty-eighters--often with considerable wit, and with a seemingly encyclopedic familiarity--Wolin grants credence to their skewed perception of the status quo in France and in the West more generally. Disagreements and exasperations aside, I found this book compulsively readable. The history of Sixties is a long way from being exhausted."--John Wilson, Books & Culture

"[A] fascinating and dispassionate account of one of the more curious follies of recent times."--Jeremy Jennings, Standpoint

"Wolin argues that fascination with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution reflected, not simply a taste for exoticism, but a delayed response to postwar capitalist modernisation."--Scott McLemee, The National

"Richard Wolin has provided us with an informative and readable account of a fascinating episode in twentieth-century French intellectual history, knowledgeably placing it into its wider biographical and political contexts."--Moritz Föllmer, French History

"The Wind from the East tells the story of the '68 generation with a much needed awareness of the complexities of its intellectual odyssey. It is, in the end, a meditation of considerable depth on the formation of political judgments. As such, it is an important book, both within the field of French history and beyond."--Michael C. Behrent, H-France Review

"The Wind from the East will be a rewarding and exciting reading for all those with an interest in French studies, politics, and intellectual history."--Viola Brisolin, European Legacy

From the Back Cover

"Most accounts of 1968 in Paris are either bathed in nostalgia or marinated in disappointment. We are thus all in Richard Wolin's debt for his careful and dispassionate account of those years. The Wind from the East is by far the best history I have read in any language of the Maoist moment in France. Sympathetic without being apologetic, Wolin is particularly deft at evaluating the heritage of France's controversial cultural revolution for contemporary politics. No one interested in the upheavals of the sixties should miss this book."--Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945

"Richard Wolin has written a fascinating account of the French Left's Maoist moment, which pays all due attention to its follies and fantasies, but also manages to capture and to value its liberating effects."--Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study

"The imperative to unify theory and practice has often led intellectuals down garden paths, perhaps none as hazardous as the one followed in the l960s by the French thinkers who embraced Mao's Cultural Revolution from afar. With understanding for their motivations, exasperation for their self-delusions, and appreciation for the unintended consequences of their actions, Richard Wolin recounts with sympathetic irony the follies and glories of intellectual commitment at its most extreme."--Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

"A lively and engaged history, sure to provoke debate."--Warren Breckman, University of Pennsylvania

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Richard Wolin's history of French Maoism attempts to fulfills a much needed role in explaining a curious political phenomenon of the 1970s. Wolin recuperates the movement by claiming to find the positive, unintended consequences of French Maoism in moving away from Marxist ideas of revolution and class struggle towards a liberal political modality wherein the rights of the oppressed and marginalized are defended. French Maoism's foolishness is recognized as a positive mediator between the nasty Jacobin-authoritarian political world pre-68 and the rebellious, libertarian world of resistance and recognition struggles he identifies with good liberal practice today.

This may already indicate something of the problem with the book. For whilst ostensibly a defense of the 68 generation (and of the Maoists as a part of that history), the sympathies do not in fact extend very far. At best the French Maoist organizations were a necessary evil, only redeemed by their later move away from revolutionism and their renunciation of past commitments. As such Wolin's supposedly sympathetic take on French Maoism adds up to little more that a reading of its history through the prism of the 'new philosophers', most of them once belonging to its most adventurist outfit, the Gauche Proletarienne. Their détournement on how political militancy transforms into authoritarianism and/or fascism is a motif recycled throughout the book.

Similarly, the 'new philosopher'/cold-warrior trope of how Marxism is just a form of religious hysteria is forced upon the reader at every possible occasion. Marxists are "delusional", gripped by "religious fervour", "true believers", intellectually immolating themselves under "servile reverence", and so on.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just about Maoism 31 Mar. 2011
I came to this book expecting it to be a fairly factual account of the formation and activity of Maoist organizations in France, in the style of scholarship relating to Maoism in other countries, such as Kuhn's work on Maoism in Germany, Stalins Enkel, Maos Söhne: Die Lebenswelt der K-Gruppen in der Bundesrepublik der 70er Jahre. What surprised me about this book and what made it excellent rather than just good was that the author looked at Maoism not just from an organizational point of view (although this is all there) but also in terms of the broader receptions and utilizations of China in France during the post-May period. For this reason, I found the best parts of the book to be the chapters on Sartre, Foucault, and Tel Quel. The most important acknowledgement that underpins the entire book is that the reception of China was less about the concrete Chinese historical experience or about the events that were actually going on in China during the 60s and 70s (which only became fully or partially known in the 1970s) than it was about processes of imagination and appropriation - that is, left-wing intellectuals transposing their own aspirations and hopes onto China, and China being manipulated to realize a diverse range of political projects. Or, as one Chinese cadre apparently said to the members of a foreign delegation who had visited China during the Cultural Revolution, it is about intellectuals seeing in China what they wanted to see and ignoring what they didn't want to see. Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A study of the intellectual legacy of the events of '68 30 Jan. 2011
By Jay M. Eisenberg - Published on
A very favorable review from Julian Jackson in the Guardian:

In a notorious speech during the 2007 presidential election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy lambasted the "legacy of 1968" in France for having ushered in "intellectual and moral relativism". This opportunistic gesture towards the conservative electorate was rather surprising since no politician with Sarkozy's tumultuous private life would have had any chance of being elected president without the liberalisation of moral attitudes that occurred in France after May '68. To confuse matters further, once he had been elected, Sarkozy chose as foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins sans Frontières, who had been an activist in 1968 and sees himself as faithful to the values of that year.
What this shows is that the legacy of '68 remains hotly debated in France, and this readable book by the American academic Richard Wolin is an important contribution to that debate. If people tend to remember May '68 nowadays in terms of sexual liberalisation, at the time protesters spoke the language of Marxism, and Wolin focuses on one particularly radical Marxist group - the French Maoists - whose heyday was the period 1967-73. This might seem a somewhat narrow subject until we remember that the supporters of the Maoists included such luminaries as Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre (who had nothing else in common).
This was a time when the language of politics was extraordinarily violent. André Glucksmann, now one of the anti-totalitarian "new philosophers" of whom the most famous is Bernard-Henri Lévy, believed in his Maoist phase that France was a fascist country; Sartre called for popular tribunals to counteract bourgeois justice. Not to be outdone, Foucault advocated a "people's justice" without courts on the lines of the September massacres of 1792.
Curiously the Maoists had missed out on 1968 itself. Blinded by dogmatism, they assumed that an event led by students could not be serious. It must be a plot hatched by de Gaulle and the French state as a pretext to crush the proletariat. This complete contradiction between the reality on the streets and what theory said must be happening caused one Maoist leader, Robert Linhart, to have a nervous breakdown. After May 1968, they tried to make up for lost time, and achieved notoriety when de Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou (ignoring de Gaulle's wise maxim regarding Sartre: "you do not arrest Voltaire"), arrested two of their leaders and outlawed their newspaper. Suddenly they become a cause célèbre. The Rolling Stones even interrupted a Paris concert in 1970 to allow a French Maoist to address the audience.
Sartre's flirtation with the Maoists is especially interesting. In the 60s, Sartre's philosophy of political engagement had been eclipsed by the fashion for structuralism, which abolished agency and the "subject". Structuralism was potentially fatalistic about the prospects for political change: "structures do not take to the streets", observed the philosopher Lucien Goldmann. Then in 1968 "events" suddenly asserted themselves after all. Sartre was the only member of the intellectual old guard to be invited to address the students in the occupied Sorbonne. What attracted Sartre to the Maoists - and vice versa - was their energy, anger, voluntarism and moral outrage.
For others Maoism was merely a question of opportunism. Wolin has a chapter on the Maoist flirtation of the literary journal Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers, has jumped on every political bandwagon (though always a little late). In the 1960s he supported art for art's sake in the form of the hermetic new novel, then moved to Stalinism, then Maoism, until finally in 1978 he called for a vote for the centrist Giscard d'Estaing. The Tel Quel group visited China in 1974 and were enthused by what they saw. When a repentant French Maoist later said to his former Chinese guide that he had been shown only the positive side of communism, the response was: "we showed you what you wanted to see." Julia Kristeva, one of that group, was so taken by China that she praised the barbaric practice of binding women's feet as an example of the power of Chinese women. My only complaint about Wolin's book is that he spends too much time on Kristeva, who perfectly exemplifies the capacity of intelligent people to write nonsense in impenetrable prose.
There are no Maoists left now except for the unrepentant - but now bizarrely fashionable - philosopher Alain Badiou, who is still willing to defend the Khmer Rouge with Mao's chilling comment "the revolution is not a dinner party". But Wolin's book is not just about a strange few years of political folly. He argues that by a process of unintended consequences Maoism allowed a generation of French political activists to rediscover the language of human rights. This is not a totally original argument, but Wolin expounds it effectively. The Maoists might live with "China in our heads", as the saying went, but their political activism also caused them to explore what French society was really like.
Following Mao's dictum that "one must get down from the horse in order to pluck the flower", many idealistic young Maoist radicals went to work in factories. In the same spirit Foucault helped to found the Prison Information Group (GIP) to investigate and denounce the conditions in French prisons. This experience led him to substitute Sartre's idea of the all-knowing "universal" intellectual with that of the "specific" intellectual who comments only on concrete cases that he knows about. In another curious twist of history, it was through a Maoist-influenced group called Vive la Révolution that homosexual liberation first entered French radical politics in 1971.
For Wolin, then, if France is today less authoritarian than it once was, with a more active associative life where many people are engaged in causes such as the defence of sans-papiers - illegal immigrants - that is one of the legacies of the strange Maoist moment. If that's true, no wonder Sarkozy dislikes May '68 so much.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Dan Brown of intellectual history 25 May 2013
By S. Matthews - Published on
I started this confident that I was going to like it. Wolin is one of those writers who is sort of there, of whom you assume it is only a matter of time before you get around to reading them. However now that I actually have finally gotten around to reading him, I discover that he is to intellectual history what Dan Brown is to fiction. Writing is on walls, time bombs are about to go off, icebergs have tips (at least twice), student groups are hotbeds of revolution, and french youth is radicalised by the unacceptable behaviour of the government (what, all of it? including Simone in Amiens, who spent most of her weeks in 1968 looking forward to walks with Jean on weekends, and Michael, who had just signed up with the CRS?).

His style is a continuous wash of analytic cliché punctuated by crassness (his section on feminism in the aftermath of 1968 is called "From historical materialism to hysterical materialism"). A lot of the time it is impossible to clearly distinguish what he thinks from what the people he is discussing think (positions are quoted without comment or analysis, but with implied agreement - though at least some of the time I think it is just sloppy writing). He serves up ex-cathedra grad-student satire like 'The May revolt corresponded to a new, multivalent political dynamic that transcended the Manichaean oppositions of a class-based society' at the rate of several a page without a trace of irony.

I abandoned this about 160 pages in, when it became definitively clear that I was not going to learn anything from it. The only remaining mystery is how it managed to get the good reviews that I read - bit like Dan Brown, really.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting history, poor analysis 9 Sept. 2011
By M. White - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
One reviewer commented that the author is critical yet sympathetic of les maos, yet that's a misleading statement. Mr. Wolin is not sympathetic toward the goal of socialism; rather, he is sympathetic toward the struggle for certain civil liberties that leave the the structural relation between bourgeois and proletarian firmly in place. In the book, the Maoists (or Leninist or Marxists in general) are to be condemned because they dare to envision a different economic order. So long as Maoists embrace women's/ gay liberation and the like, they are to be lauded. Indeed, at one point the author refers to "psuedochoices" that existed in consumerist France pre-1968 ("lifestyle choice") which would later become the key focus of political activism in the 1970s which he describes in sympathetic terms. Simply put, the author is a Dissent-contributing liberal who supports equality so long as capital calls the shots.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating, Engrossing Read 11 Oct. 2012
By The Peripatetic Reader - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Sixties were perhaps the most tumultuous decade of the last century, and there was no year in which the forces of that decade crashed head-on than 1968. In that year there were world-wide student revolts, fueled by revolutionary fervor and protest. One of the most dramatic locales of that protest was in Paris, where student revolts nearly brought down the Fifth Republic.

This book brilliantly describes the intense intellectual debates which occurred in Paris in the late 60's, early 70's. While student activity was world-wide, there was no other place where the activity was more intellectually intense than Paris. The German Student Revolt was more focused on political action and change and the American Student Revolt was more interested in modification of lifestyle and public event promotion. While elements of these revolts were reflected in events in Paris, the focus was more towards establishing a change in the intellectual paradigm to effect that change. Thus, heated debates raged between the Structuralists, Post-Structuralists, De-Constructuralists, Marxists, Trotskites, and Socialists, which affected the way the matters of literature, culture, film, and society are viewed. This was a time when intellectual affiliation meant something and was relevant. The glue that held them together and pulled them apart was the common adjuration of Mao Tse-Dung and the Cultural Revolution. In one of the greatest anomalies of the past century, the Paris intellectuals, as the rest of the world, knew next to nothing about the real events of the Cultural Revolution, let alone of a minimal knowledge of Mao. Still, Mao and the Cultural Revolution served as a catalyst to this incredible spurt of intellectual dialogue.

Ever present, of course, was the Vietnam War, which galvanized the entire movement world-wide. It is difficult to appreciate the effect these protests had at the time and how polarizing they were. The recent protests of the OWS and of the Iraq War come very close. Today, the State response to those protests have been perfected so that their effect on the general population, who are generally exhausted by years of economic and political turmoil anyway, is lessened considerably. The State has also learned from the Sixties to simply not broadcast news of these protests and of the Iraq War on the mainstream media; in the Sixties this was a new phenomenon which was accordingly on the evening news every night. But following a decade that preached extreme conformity to a general population, the Fifties, who did not know how to respond to these protests, these developments were jarring and disorienting.

Many of the participants of May 1968 are still among us and are still writing books. The issues from that time continue today and their input constitutes an important, if unrecognized (at least in the United States), contribution to an understanding of society and how to change it.

The writing of this account is as impassioned as the movement itself. It is a highly recommended read and a fascinating account of a little-known event.
5.0 out of 5 stars great book 3 Nov. 2013
By P.N. Abinales - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Intellectual history and social history combined. Magisterial in its scope but also detailed in its analysis of French leftwing intellectuals
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