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Scott McLemee Reviews Richard Wolin's "Wind From the East"

Scott McLemee Reviews Richard Wolin's "Wind From the East"
The National

The Chinese revolution's influence on French thinking

"The Wind from the East" examines the effect on the Chinese Cultural
Revolution on French political and philosophical discourse, writes Scott
McLemee

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

Richard Wolin, Princeton University Press

During even the coldest years of the Cold War, there were small circles,
far to the left of the communists, who warmed themselves with the
thought of revolutionary socialism. To be sure, they meant by this
something bearing no resemblance to the monstrosity embodied in those
regimes where May Day was celebrated with tanks and choreographed
expressions of obligatory mass cheer. Their egalitarianism was
essentially libertarian, and vice versa. In France, one such group was
led by Cornelius Castoriadis, who had, in the 1940s and 1950s, analysed
the Stalinist system as a form of what he called “bureaucratic
capitalism” – fit only to be abolished by revolts from below.

Vaguely similar ideas could be heard following May 1968, when students
and workers in France filled the streets in a general strike that nearly
brought down Charles de Gaulle. Castoriadis welcomed the uprising, but
the sudden emergence of ultra-radicalism among trend-conscious
intellectuals was another matter. In the late 1970s he referred to “a
whole tribe of pen-pushers” who had “discover[ed], in the course of
their third or fourth adolescence, the virtues of ‘subversion,’ only to
identify it immediately with Maoist totalitarianism…”

He was thinking of Michel Foucault, for example, who hinted that the
trouble with the young Parisians waving Mao’s little red book was that
they were not prepared to kill enough people when the time came – not to
mention the aesthetes around the journal Tel Quel, who translated the
Great Helmsman’s poetry and festooned their editorial offices with
posters denouncing bourgeois ideology. “O China,” Castoriadis wrote in a
sarcastic aside, “how distant you are, and how beautiful are your
signifiers…”

No such blistering denunciation will be found in the pages of Richard
Wolin’s The Wind from the East, a study of the generation of French
intellectuals that pledged itself to what used to be called “invincible
Mao Zedong thought”. Perhaps the horse is so long dead that flogging it
now seems an unappetising prospect. But I suspect there is more to it
than that. The whole episode has come to assume an improbable centrality
to various narratives of recent political and cultural history. The list
of erstwhile Maoists or their fellow travelers among French thinkers
(Althusser, Badiou, Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, Rancière…) amounts to a
syllabus of major influences on some parts of the humanities over the
past few decades. The season for polemics is over, but the time of
interpretation has just begun.

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 (the Great Bourgeois
Cultural Revolution, so to speak). Between 1945 and 1975, the number of
people in the agricultural sector shrank from one third of the workforce
to just 10 per cent. In industry, automation reduced the demand for
skilled labour. Between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s, the university
student population grew by more than 300 per cent, straining educational
institutions to breaking point. The standard of living went up, and the
mass media stoked the fires of consumerism. But such progress brought
frustration and anomie – a sense that life was polarising between
extremes of atomisation and bureaucracy.

As the Soviet and Chinese parties exchanged barbed letters debating the
general line of the international communist movement in the early 1960s,
their pertinence to such moods was not exactly obvious. But the images
that began coming out of China during the summer of 1966 were a
different matter. They showed young men and women on the march,
encouraged by Mao to “bombard the headquarters” of any “capitalist
roaders” in the party and the state. Their faces expressed both rage and
ecstasy. The Red Guards revelled in sacrificing their own comfort, not
to mention any that a distinguished old bureaucrat might enjoy. They
were – this seemed obvious –not bored.

The effect on French political and intellectual life was not immediate,
and at first it was limited to small circles – in particular, to members
of the Union of Communist Students, including those around the
philosopher Louis Althusser, whose theoretical work sought to create a
rigorous Marxist-Leninist “science” purified of ideological
contaminants. Some of them went out to work in factories, the better to
get the ideological muck out of their systems. Thus was forged the
nucleus of what later became the largest and most active Maoist
formation, called the Proletarian Left.

But first came the fabled “events of May 1968”, which involved hundreds
of thousands of students and workers – very few of them Maoists, even if
they regarded the Cultural Revolution as interesting, exciting or
vaguely supportable. Indeed, many members of the self-designated
proletarian vanguard denounced the uprising as a provocation by police
agents, at least at first, until this became just too awkward.

For all the talk of “learning from the masses,” they had, at the crucial
moment, hesitated to throw themselves into the struggle. Over the next
few years, they would try to make up for this. They tried to follow
Mao’s commandment to “serve the people” through adventurous actions
(such as kidnapping particularly obnoxious bosses) or militant advocacy
of the rights of those ignored by the established left (women,
homosexuals, prisoners, immigrants). They published newspapers which the
government tried to shut down – at least until Sartre lent his prestige
by serving as honorary editor for three of them, which made things
embarrassing to the authorities. (Maoist intransigence exuded its own
glamour, but they were not averse to borrowing some when it would help
the cause.)

The most important thing about all this hypomanic activism – at least in
Wolin’s eyes – is that it fostered a new sort of relationship between
thinkers and mass movements, thereby revitalising civil society. A
radical intellectual of the old model, such as Sartre, spoke out on
behalf of the voiceless, invoking universal principles of truth and
justice with the authority that came from his own accumulated cultural
capital. Even at its most democratic in intent, it was elitist, if not
authoritarian, in practice.

The Maoist stance was more populist. The intellectual could serve the
masses by joining their struggle and helping them to express themselves,
as when Foucault and his comrades published reports on prison conditions
written by prisoners. And this influence continued even after most of
the Maoists themselves were disillusioned by revelations about the
regime they had adored. Homosexuals were executed under Mao, but early
gay-liberation militants in France had waved his red book. Their
movement transcended its inspiration.

I find this assessment to be persuasive only up to a point. The problem
is not that it is wrong as such (it certainly corresponds to what Sartre
and Foucault considered an important effect of the Maoist experience)
but that Wolin draws far too narrow a map of its subject. Roughly half
of the book is devoted to a few famous authors who were supporters
rather than committed Maoist cadres. The movement’s rank-and-file
members are nearly invisible. The Maoists themselves tried to abolish
the hierarchy elevating intellectuals above the masses, but this book
preserves it in full force.

Unfortunately, it is not very thorough even in patrolling the Latin
Quarter. Any list of important Maoist intellectuals in France during the
late 1960s would have to include Samir Amin and Charles Bettelheim –
political economists whose work was an influence, for good or ill,
around the world, particularly in formerly colonial countries. Their
names do not appear in The Wind from the East. For several years, the
seminal journal Cahiers du Cinéma turned itself into a Maoist
collective, running film clubs as part of its ideological struggle
against Hollywood. This would seem to merit at least a mention, but
there is none. Jean-Luc Godard is present solely for La chinoise (1967),
his satirical film about a Maoist collective holed up in a bourgeois
apartment in Paris. None of the work he directed following his own
surrender to Mao Thought is discussed at all.

These omissions may not be deliberate, but they are more than
oversights. They do not quite fit the story told in The Wind from the
East – one in which the Maoists, pursuing an extremist course to destroy
bourgeois society, actually improved it a bit, in spite of themselves.

For Amir and Bettelheim Maoism was an actual alternative to capitalist
development for poor countries to consider following. For the cineastes,
it was a way to destroy complacency and revolutionise culture. Better to
recognise this movement for what it was meant to be: a stick of
dynamite, not a knickknack for the mantelpiece.

[Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle
award for excellence in reviewing.]