The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s Hardcover – 21 Jul 2010
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A National Public Radio (npr.org/blogs) 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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The first chapters look at the activists, the small groups or grupuscules, such as Gauche Proletarienne. The second section covers the intellectuals – Sartre, Kristeva, Foucault.
One must wonder from the start what the ideas of Mao might possibly have to do with an industrial technocracy such as France. He offers plausible connections.
The youthful French left was disillusioned both with Soviet-style communism, and with western consumer society. They looked east. Opposition to the Vietnam War preceded and patterned the explosion of May in Paris. Added to this was a frustration with the archaic structures of French higher education. This led to a new form of politics, both in content and style.
The student rising never threatened the French state, but it manifested a widespread feeling of wanting to do a different politics. This was not stilled by the settlement with the trade unions and the electoral victory of De Gaulle.
In their spontaneous energies they seemed to parallel the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. This put the Maoists in the driving seat after May. They brought not an adherence to Mao as such but an openness to fresh ideas and styles, allied with commitment.
From this milieu came much that was to last long after the graffiti faded on the walls of the Odeon. Wolin attributes to them workers’ control [autogestion], women’s liberation, gay liberation, prison reform, health reform [specifically Medicins sans Frontieres].
Drawn into their orbit were many intellectuals. This section is quite a hard read. A familiarity with Lacan and Althusser will not be a disadvantage here. Foucault emerges as particularly influential and – how should I express this? – genuine. Julia Kristeva – much less so on either account.
For a brief period, too, China caught the imagination of the fashionable elite, radical chic. The author does not pay them too much attention.
In 1976 Mao died, his errors and cruelties were exposed. This led many to abandon Marxism altogether. They became vocal champions of human rights. Practically they gave support to the dissident movement in Eastern Europe, and in Foucault’s case, the boat people.
Decades passed, their youth faded and many ascended to the higher echelons of the French state – as civil servants and government ministers.
When young they spouted a lot of nonsense. They did not make a revolution either. But, concludes the author, they changed France.They helped inaugurate a different kind politics– of gender and sexuality, of identity and exclusion, of street and home. And that, he writes, is with us today.
I think he is a little too generous, but his view is only one of many we can expect in the anniversary year of 2018..
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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But first, let's review the arguments. Chroniclers of left-wing radicalism often argue that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons. The radical youth who fueled the contestation movement were in many respects seeking to win the antifascist struggle their parents' generation had lost, or to redeem their sense of self-respect after the complacency their elders had shown toward totalitarian regimes. This is why it is in Germany and in Italy (and also in Japan) that leftists crossed the line to engage in terrorist acts, whereas in France, despite gauchisme's popularity, similar tendencies were kept at bay. According to this line of reasoning, the repressed fascist past came back to haunt the present in the early seventies and influenced political perceptions in several crucial respects. It discouraged moderation and encouraged a culture of political extremism. It fed the belief that liberal institutions were chronically weak--hence, incapable of thwarting a fascist relapse. Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Red Army Fraction, and Japan's United Red Army held the belief that bourgeois democracy and fascism were natural political bedfellows. Therefore, these groups adopted the strategy of attempting to "unmask" the fascist character of the state via violent provocations, which led to their criminalization and drift toward terrorism.
This argument has several weaknesses. First, the call to subvert the powers that be, by any means necessary, was not limited to former fascist dictatorships. In fact, even in countries like the UK and the US with a rich democratic tradition and a proud history of antifascism, there were groups on the far left who called for the violent overthrow of the government. Revolution was in the air, echoed in the words of popular songs, and some people took these words seriously. The expression “fascist pigs” was coined and used generously around that time, and insults against capitalism’s watchdogs in English-speaking countries matched in their imagination the “lubric vipers” and “dactylographic hyenas” used against their enemies by unreformed Communists on the European continent. Despite Mao’s contention that “the wind from the east has triumphed over the wind from the west”, the wind of revolt mostly blew from the west, and European student activists were certainly more influenced by the radicalism of US campuses and inner cities than by the obscure quotes from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
Second, it is wrong to oppose the French pristine past of antifascism to the tainted historical record of terrorist-prone nations. Although official history emphasizes the Résistance on the homeland and the France libre led by de Gaulle in London, the reality is that the Vichy regime collaborated with Nazi Germany, going somewhat beyond the demands of the occupying forces. This collaboration was exposed by American historian Robert Paxton at about the same time student demonstrators were taking on French streets, and the leaders of the radical movement were very well aware of it. Hence their use and abuse of the fascist epithet, or their ill-fated comparison between police anti-riot brigades (the CRS) and SS troops. Although the Vichy syndrome prevented the public to recall the French government's active participation in the Holocaust, the generation of student activists were haunted by this repressed past. The campus radicals were acting out the fights against fascism that their elders had stayed clear from. This was also true for Jean-Paul Sartre, the prominent philosopher who was anxious not to repeat the political passivity he manifested during the Occupation and who therefore associated with the most radical of student leaders. If there was a return of the repressed, it took place in France and not in Germany, where the whole country bore the blame and atoned for Nazi crimes.
Third, the argument that only countries tainted by their fascist past gave rise to ultra-left terrorism obfuscates the fact that France wasn't spared by the Euroterrorism wave. Action directe was a French revolutionary group which committed a series of assassinations and violent attacks in France between 1979 and 1987. They were inspired by a mix of Marxism-Leninism and anarchism with, for some of them, a direct link to Maoist cells. They were no less radical in their outlook, violent in their methods, and nihilistic in their aspirations than their partners in crime in other European countries. They were disbanded and their leaders put under arrest at the end of the eighties, after having orchestrated a series of assassinations and terror attacks. Although their actions were widely condemned, the French public shows a surprising complacency for the crimes and lifestyle of outlaws inspired by radical ideology. Jacques Mesrine, a hardcore criminal, courted the sympathy of the public in the late seventies by claiming that his crimes were politically motivated. The bloody runaway shoot-out of Florence Rey and Audry Maupin in 1994 caused the death of three policemen and a taxi driver, but the couple nonetheless became an icon of the counterculture because they had read the literature of the Situationistes.
So the question really boils down to this: what prevented most radical militants to turn to terrorism as a continuation of their fight by any means necessary? Why were they extremists by words but not by deeds? It is here that Richard Wolin’s detailed history of the Maoist movement in France is useful, not for the answers that he brings, but for the picture that he provides. For him, May 1968 and the social upheavals that followed were a turning point in French social, political, and intellectual life. French Maoism, which spanned the years 1966-74, was a relatively minor episode in that story. Caught completely off-guard by the May uprising, the Maoist leadership elected to condemn it. They subsequently divided between a political avant-garde, advocating armed struggle and "terroristic nihilism", and a "libidinal branch", favoring "Revolution now!" and the politics of everyday life. For Wolin, the second movement had the most lasting consequences: "just as in the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution marked the entry of 'work' into the public sphere, May 1968 marked the entrance of 'everyday life'". Colin credits May 1968 with operating a "revolution in everyday life" and with rediscovering the virtues of "participatory politics": "the prior rigidity of social relations disappeared, symbolic hierarchies were loosened, a new humanitarian consciousness concerning civic responsibility for disenfranchised social groups emerged." It is a political orientation that the author fully associates with: from an American academic perspective, the intellectual ebullience of Parisian life certainly seems attractive.
According to Wolin, three factors prevented the Maoists to plunge into terrorism: their intellectualism, their elite upbringing, and their Jewish origins. "When the chips were down, many militants found it difficult to simply jettison their training in the classic texts of French humanism and assume the role of urban guerrillas." Some underwent “the long march through the institutions” and ultimately joined the Green and Socialist parties, or even—as with Philippe Sollers, from the literary group Tel Quel—the forces of conservation. The many Normaliens who formed the backbone of the movement considered their four-year stipend at the Ecole normale supérieure as a subsidy to engage in revolutionary activities. When they graduated from the ENS, they moved to more scholarly pursuits. Lastly, for several ex-gauchistes, reconnecting with their long-repressed Jewish origins became a means of providing meaning and orientation once the wave of left-wing revolutionary fervor had subsided. As with Benny Levy, founder of the Gauche prolétarienne and secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre, their intellectual odyssey led them "from Mao to Moses", as they metamorphosed from "Jewish radicals" to "radical Jews". For intellectuals, Normaliens, and French Jews, the mechanism often was the same: "from a social-psychological standpoint, Maoism allowed a gifted contingent of French youth to resolve problems of identity formation amid a turbulent and confusing era."
The picture Wolin draws, however, tells a different story. He begins his narrative with a “showdown at Bruay-en-Artois” where radical groups considered resorting to mob justice to avenge the rape and murder of a working family’s daughter. Some advocated the formation of “people’s tribunals” to compensate the class bias of bourgeois justice. Others, including Michel Foucault, believed such trials represented too much of a formal constraint on the spontaneity of popular will, and favored “direct action” instead. Jean-Paul Sartre spilled oil over the fire by calling on the spirit of Robespierre who decreed that under revolutionary circumstances, “terror” was a manifestation of “virtue”. In fact, for Sartre, “the revolutionaries of 1793 probably didn’t kill enough”, and modern communists needed to become more stalinist, not less.
It is here that I would credit the two arch-enemies of the gauchistes, the Communist Party and the repressive state, with preventing the formation of a terrorist movement in France. Orthodox communists still attracted a good deal of popular support in France. For decades, the French proletariat's interests had been well served by the Parti communiste français and its trade union allies. For the most part class conflict had been successfully institutionalized. This is why the Maoists' efforts to reach out to factory workers fell completely flat on the proletarians they were supposed to mobilize. Workers simply didn't pay attention when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir handed out La Cause du Peuple, the Maoists' newsletter, at the exit of Renault's factory, or when young intellectuals became “etablis” and abandoned their studies to work as blue-collar workers in industrial workshops.
Lastly, France benefited from a well-functioning police and an efficient state apparatus. In May 1970, Interior minister Raymond Marcellin summarily banned the Gauche prolétarienne and stomped on clandestine cells. Political militancy eventually landed dozens of Maoist activists in French prisons. Wolin sees this as an egregious mistake: it gave instant publicity to an ultra-minoritarian group and won then the support of prominent media figures and intellectuals, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Michel Foucault. In prison, the Maoist activists wasted no time and started “investigating”--that is, undertaking enquetes on—their new surroundings. But it can also be argued that France's repressive state nipped in the bud cells that were comploting against society, and prevented the formation of a terrorist movement. This tradition of state surveillance and police control lives on. It certainly explains why France was relatively spared by Islamist terrorism despite having a large Muslim population—radical Islam and blind terror by Islamist militants is a cause that certainly attracts less sympathy among French intellectuals than the Maoists of yesterday.
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.
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