Book of the week: The Wind from the East

Beneath the political theory, the future: Tim Unwin asks whether it is still too soon to tell what May '68 meant

August 12, 2010

When Mao Zedong launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966, even he could not have foreseen the infatuation with Marxism à la chinoise that was about to sweep the West. Within a year, Sinophilia was the height of radical chic in Paris, as depicted memorably in Jean-Luc Godard's classic film La Chinoise. Left-wing thinkers came to see the Chinese model as a serious alternative to orthodox Marxism, in some cases long after Mao's brutality had been exposed.

As Richard Wolin explains in The Wind from the East, Maoism is one of the neglected back-stories of the period. In fact, it turns out to be much more than that, providing an almost perfect vantage point from which to view the upheavals of May 1968 in France and their legacy. Wolin focuses not so much on the detail of how Maoism was read as on the alternative vision that it inspired - first of revolutionary struggle, then of a new politics that morphed into a celebration of plurality and cultural difference.

Since the Soviet Union had succumbed to the disease of social imperialism, disenchanted Marxists looked to Maoism in the first instance for a purer model of the doctrine. From among Louis Althusser's students at the École Normale Supérieure, a young Maoist group rose to prominence in the lead-up to May 1968. These normaliens were in truth blissfully ignorant of the realities of contemporary China, a blank canvas on to which they projected their utopian dreams. And when the events of May erupted, they were absent, for they believed that since this was not a true proletarian revolution it should not concern them.

It was a disastrously arrogant stance, and one they would come to regret. As Wolin stresses, May 1968 was about something more than class opposition: it was a broad-based contestation of technocratic and bureaucratic models of social control. But what the Maoists initially failed to realise was that a cultural revolution in France might not be so much about seizing control as about transforming the dynamics of power throughout the social system.

In the wake of May 1968, the student Maoists split into two groups. The hardliners stuck to an Althusserian view of Chinese communism as a form of unrepentant Stalinism. A more pragmatic group saw in the spectacle of 1968 a kind of Dionysian revolution-as-festival and expanded their own idea of revolution along cultural-political lines. Their biweekly publication Tout! (named after the 1968 slogan: "What we want: Everything!") soon became the mouthpiece of a new politics. The next revolution, they proclaimed, must reach the parts that other revolutions cannot. It must be a revolution of desire, the body, sexuality, daily life, everything. And so was born a new emphasis on cultural politics and the legislation that underpins it, with the focus resolutely on civil liberties, education, women's issues and gay rights.

Wolin's account of this long march is divided into two parts. The first part, "The hour of rebellion", looks at May 1968 in its broad context, charting the rise of French Maoism. The second, "The hour of the intellectuals", focuses on the reaction to the events of May 1968 by France's vaunted caste of intellectuals. In fact, as Wolin points out, les événements took these intellectual mandarins almost completely by surprise. They were not the inspiration behind the uprising: rather, they followed (or failed to follow) where students and others had led. Indeed, intellectuals had to reinvent themselves in the light of what had happened, not least as a consequence of their failure to understand the magnitude of what had gone on around them.

The most successful, in the short term, was Jean-Paul Sartre, whose doctrine of human freedom was vindicated by May 1968. If the structuralists had attacked Sartre's most cherished concepts in the 1960s, structuralism was in Sartre's view a pitiful denial of history. "Structures don't go out into the streets to make a revolution," proclaimed Lucien Goldmann in a memorably Sartrean statement that summed up a more general frustration at structuralism's failures.

Sartre himself now found in Maoism a compensation for another failure, that of revolutionary Marxism, and he championed the student Maoist groups. Reinventing himself as a man of the people, he got involved in the action. Far from being a lost cause bogged down in his endless book on Flaubert, as the dejected heroine of Godard's La Chinoise portrayed him, he fruitfully reassessed his role as a public intellectual.

The group centred around the journal Tel Quel, on the other hand, is shown by Wolin to be a model of political opportunism and incompetence. This was mainly down to the journal's editor, Philippe Sollers, who always had an eye on the next intellectual trend. Sollers' craving for the intellectual limelight was, Wolin drily notes, the only constant in Tel Quel's vacillating political allegiances. When Sollers finally embraced the cause of Maoism, it was far too late.

The farcical coda to Tel Quel's Maoist moment came in 1974 when Sollers and his fellow editors (among them Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes) travelled to China and naively allowed themselves to be manipulated by their hosts. Wolin dismisses their subsequent rationalisations of this Maoist phase as decidedly unconvincing.

If there is a hero in Wolin's very readable tale, it is undoubtedly Michel Foucault. Although Foucault was teaching in Tunisia in 1968, thereby missing the events in Paris, he had by now become politically sensitised in a seriously dangerous environment. On his return to France, his transformation from card-carrying structuralist to political activist was complete.

What particularly attracted Foucault to Maoism was its grass-roots approach to revolutionary action and its quest to efface all traces of social distinction between intellectuals and people. However, he saw Mao's China as providing the impetus, but not necessarily the blueprint, for cultural revolution in France, where the structures of power were so different. When he created his notorious Prison Information Group, Foucault had a broad political aim: not to smash the system, but to unpick its power bases from within. Beyond the prison system itself, this reconceptualisation of the mechanisms of power, eventually expounded in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), would have vast influence and spur widespread reforms.

It has been said that May 1968 was an interpretation in search of an event. The ferment of discourses that characterised that period is still in evidence today. But, four decades on, Maoism certainly appears to offer one of the most convincing lines of interpretation. And in Wolin's sympathetic yet authoritative account, French Maoism in the end produces something mercifully remote from Mao's Cultural Revolution.

After 1968, there would be a huge surge of "associational democracy" and an unprecedented expansion of social movements and local groups. The scene would be set for radical changes in the relationship between the individual and the state, and these were subsequently underpinned by legislation in the Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand eras. In this view, Maoism's legacy in France might almost have been to usher in a kind of "Big Society" avant la lettre.

But, as Wolin wisely cautions, the very nearness of the 1960s makes it difficult to consign them to history just yet. Anyone tempted to think that French Maoism offers a blueprint for changes closer to home would do well to remember Zhou Enlai's view on the outcome of the French Revolution: "It's too soon to tell."

THE AUTHOR

Richard Wolin is distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He received his BA from Reed College, and his MA and PhD from York University in Canada. Before joining CUNY, he taught at Reed College, Central European University and then Rice University, where he was D.D. McMurtry professor of history.

His research interests relate to 20th-century French and German political thought, and his books on figures such as Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger have been translated into eight languages. He has won grants and awards from the German Marshall Fund, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He writes a blog on liberal political issues for Dissent, a quarterly magazine of politics and culture.

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

By Richard Wolin

Princeton University Press 400pp, £24.95

ISBN 9780691129983

Published 19 July 2010

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