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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.
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on 31 March 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. This is an important acknowledgment that should encourage readers to think about the relationship between the familiar and the distant and about how the imagining of China historically (and even contemporarily) can often tell us more about the positions and conditions of the people doing the imagining than it can about China itself. The author also seeks to show how the legacy of 1968 was ultimately emancipatory rather than totalitarian and that Maoism was frequently part of the process of activists moving away from a focus solely on the seizure of political power and towards greater consideration of cultural inequalities and power relationships and the role of a flourishing civil society in a democratic polity - in doing so they also provide a robust defense of a set of events (May 68) that is more often detracted and dismissed.

If there is one immediate criticism I have of this book it is that it didn't give me much of an idea of what the initial sources of interest in China were. Other books that cover the history of Maoism in the developed world like the edited volume Kulturrevolution als Vorbild? or Elbaum's Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che have pointed to the specific articles and texts that led activists to latch onto China as a political resource, and have emphasized in particular how the most important sources of interest were generally texts that had been produced by Western intellectuals rather than the official propaganda texts that were produced by bodies like the Foreign Languages Press - but this discussion is seemingly missing here, as all we get (to simplify somewhat) is an amusing vignette about a porn magazine getting models to dress up in Chinese army uniforms. Still, this does not detract from what is overall a fascinating work.

This is, in sum, a book that is about much more than just Maoist organizations, it is an analysis of the role of Maoism in an important period in modern French history, especially the intellectual and philosophical dimensions of that period. Be warned, however, because this book has a definite philosophical focus, it may put some readers off if they are not interested in reading about the tensions between existentialism and structuralism or about Kristeva's contributions (or lack thereof) to French feminist thought. A straightforward political or organizational history this book is not.
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