on 16 July 2011
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. What's more, the attribution of dogmatic passions to the 68 militants is conversely supplemented by an almost total absence of discussion of their theoretical positions. Given the centrality of Louis Althusser for French Maoism - which Wolin is quick to acknowledge himself - Althusser is painted as such a gross caricature it is hard not to think Wolin simply never bothered to read much about him (the book's bibliography would seem to suggest as much). Althusser was a "devout communist who revered Stalinism as the movement's glorious pinnacle." (p.118) (Incidentally, intellectual character assassination by roughshod association is something of a trademark for Wolin, who has previously tried to make the unconvincing case that Hans-Georg Gadamer's quietism in 1930s Germany amounted to outright Nazism).
Now, it is possible to argue that there are implicit Stalinist tendencies in Althusser's thought, but to attribute Althusser as revering Stalinism, and to thereby to imply that French Maoism influenced by Althusser was Maoist for its rejection of Krushev's humanist oriented de-Stalinization, makes no sense of why students' enamored by voluntarism would turn to Maoism. The lack of sympathy for his subject means that Wolin is generally unable to understand his subjects, who are just portrayed as youthful loons with psychological complexes about not being born working class - the cheap shots at the sons and daughters of the bourgeoise turning to Marxism are relentless.
All that said, if one is happy to source their theoretical understanding elsewhere and read the book in the way one reads The Economist (i.e. by skimming off the ideological layering and extracting the raw factual information) then The Wind from the East is a useful text for scholars of the period.