‘The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960’ reviewed by Dhruv Jain

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

Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2012. 400pp., $24.95 / £16.95 pb
ISBN 9780691154343

Reviewed by Dhruv Jain

About the reviewer

Dhruv Jain is a PhD candidate in the Social and Political Thought programme at York University. His …


It is difficult to locate Richard Wolin’s book neatly within existing frameworks of May ’68 scholarship. Wolin’s account is clearly ‘conservative’ as it mirrors key aspects of Raymond Aron’s account which Wolin himself classifies as “conservative” (103). Wolin’s indebtedness to Aron’s conservative account is evidenced in two ways: the first is obvious – Wolin, like Aron, argues that there was a “chasm” between the “rhetorical intentions” of the May ‘68 youth movement, and their “real intentions”, and was the French revolution’s “last dying gasp”; the second is less obvious, it is Wolin’s use of clinically-charged categories to analyse his subject material (8). Thus, Wolin spends much of his book trying to demonstrate the foolishness, hypocrisy and rhetorical intentions of the Maoist intellectual milieu. However, Aron’s account does not fully represent the position that Wolin articulates as Wolin merges the Aron account with a Lefortian emphasis on “new logics of social contestation” (104). This in turn produces an account that he sums up thus, “if pressed to define the “rational kernel” of the 1960s, I would say that it was quite simply the era that rediscovered the virtues of participatory politics. The 1950s had witnessed the triumph of political technocracy … In the United States and elsewhere, the 1960s signified an attempt to wrest control of `the political’ from elites: to counter the ills of `technological liberalism’ via recourse to logics of grassroots political engagement and thereby to restore confidence in basic democratic systems.” (x) The real significance of May ’68, specifically French Maoism, was not its attempt to capture state power, but its unintentional emphasis on direct democracy and the “revolution of everyday life”. Wolin’s book is not what it appears to be, a scholarly account of French intellectual Maoism, rather, it is a political ‘lesson’, as he himself admits, about what should be learned from May 68 (xi): i.e., that political goals like the capture of revolutionary power are the fanciful delusions, often “hysterical”, of an elite educated few and what is actually required is the achievement of real intentions, which can never include the up-rooting of parliamentarian-capitalism, through a robust public dialogue and democratic system.

The book begins with a prologue that introduces the ‘Maoist temptation’ in general and is followed by a chapter that formally introduces the reader to the Maoists through a particularly heated confrontation regarding the rape and murder of a working class girl, supposedly, by a bourgeois man. This is then followed by two chapters about the situation in which May ’68 and the Maoist movement occurred including familiar topics such as the role of the Algerian war, youth discontentment in universities, libidinal politics, the ‘anti-authoritarian’ anti-Leninist Left etc. This takes up just under half of the book and is followed by four chapters focused on four key intellectuals/groups: Alain Badiou, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tel Quel group (Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva), and Michel Foucault; followed by a conclusion.

Throughout the book, in an often distracting manner, Wolin makes his hostility for the French Leninist Left apparent. Wolin, for example, dismisses the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) and its parliamentary positions, as being that of those who “delighted in playing the role of “spoiler,” seizing every available opportunity to undermine prospects for political consensus.” (41) It is comments like these, frequent throughout the book, which betray a less than scholarly, and explicitly political, tone. The exceptions to Wolin’s disproval are the anti-Leninist libertarian Left like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Claude Lefort, Michel Foucault, and those former Maoists who would compose the ranks of the “New Philosophers”. Wolin repeats in a book ostensibly about French Maoism numerous anecdotes about Cohn-Bendit, which whilst entertaining often feel like gossip, and it is not particularly clear what is gained besides, at best, ‘mood’. Wolin does not even cite any polemics that Cohn-Bendit must have produced about French Maoism. What is redemptive about Cohn-Bendit, for Wolin, and again reflects the political nature of his account, is that he “fully understood that Bolshevik rule – from Lenin to Stalin to Brezhnev – had been an unbroken history of repression … Cohn-Bendit’s insights into Bolshevism’s historical shortcomings meshed with the May movement’s libidinal-libertarian component” (82). It becomes evident that the French Maoists are in fact a foil to this libertarian tendency, although Wolin has an admittedly ambiguous relationship to Maoist libertarian groups, and that only those episodes when the Maoists came close to a democratic libertarianism earn applause. Wolin establishes an often contradictory narrative framework in which the French Maoists cannot win his regard. Wolin argues that May ’68 was an important youth revolt against the cloistered nature of French society yearning to break free and that the achievement of these freedoms was its real intention (81). Simultaneously, he condemns the Maoists for having realised this, dismissed it as petit-bourgeois, and opted instead to focus on the French working-class (94). The Maoists’ refusal to not simply abandon its working-class focus for a youth-oriented one is thus evidence of a prevalent elitism amongst intellectuals. Indeed, Wolin subsequently struggles to square this account with his own retelling of the 2000-3000 Maoist students who went into the factories of France to integrate with the working class in what Wolin admits were harsh working conditions. Wolin simply adds an uncited anecdote by an unnamed former Maoist about how she had to abandon the factory (129). It becomes further unclear why one would consider the Maoists as having made a political misstep for having preferred to not concentrate on the student movement, when Wolin himself recognises that because of Maoist involvement a militant working class movement rose up post-May 1968 (138-9). The difference lies in intentions: Wolin prefers the supposedly misstated democratic goals of the libertarian Left to the revolutionary aspirations of the French Maoists. This is made abundantly clear when Wolin writes that the Mouvement libération des femmes (MLF) and Front homosexual d’action révolutionnaire (FHAR), two libertarian Maoist organisations that fought for feminist and homosexual liberation, having won basic constitutional rights – like decriminalising homosexuality and allowing for greater access to contraception – had rendered themselves “superfluous” (152-3). One cannot but be wary about Wolin’s play, given its gender-specific clinically-charged nature, on the word “historical”, now rendered “hysterical”, in his brief account of the rise and fall of the MLF, especially as it evolved into a Feminist group in which members discussed their “individual and relational problems” (147). It stands in sharp juxtaposition to his concern that Kristeva may have consigned “women politically to a condition of permanent marginality” (260).

In a book about intellectuals, there is little more than a passing glimpse at their intellectual production and its relationship to Maoism. Rather, Wolin’s focus is on the biographical and he simply supplements these biographies with summaries of any given thinker’s thought. The chapter on Badiou, whilst hostile, provides an accessible sketch of Badiou’s thought of politics. Wolin’s intent in this chapter is to cast Badiou as 1) a philosopher “partial to violent philosophical imagery, a tendency that goes hand in hand with his defence of blood-letting” (162); 2) as occupying a “relatively lonely place” due to his continued fidelity to Maoism (164) and; 3) as having post-Maoist politics with “a certain random, opportunistic, and eclectic quality” (166). Indeed, although Badiou “at long last” is “disillusioned with the criminal excesses of revolutionary vanguardism”, he has not shown the same maturity as those other former Maoists who have rejected their past fidelities in favour of the human rights discourses that Wolin favours and does not recognise “the advances that democratisation and rule of law can provide” for social struggles in both capitalist and post-communist countries (164-5, 167).

The chapter on Sartre is far more sympathetic inasmuch that Wolin’s commends Sartre for having an openness to May ’68, in which he revived his role as an engaged intellectual, but feels that Sartre remained intellectually hemmed in due to his “residual” workerism (192). Wolin appreciates Sartre’s insistence on the concept of “sovereignty” of the individual, rather, than the Bolshevik-inspired capture of power, thus marrying Sartre to Cohn-Bendit (192-3, 205). But Wolin condemns Sartre’s endorsement of revolutionary violence in colonial Algeria or post-’68 France (207-212). However, Sartre is finally redeemed because of his latter-day rejection of “revolutionism” and his embrace of “anti-totalitarianism” in the form of an initiative with the aforementioned Aron to support Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing communism and to boycott the Moscow summer Olympics (227). For Wolin, the Sartre-Aron initiative spelled an end for ideological politics of Left-Right and grounded a new humanitarianism represented by non-governmental organisations (227-8).

The chapter on Foucault is similarly sympathetic and Wolin credits Foucault’s best-known works, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, to his involvement in the Prison Information Group (GIP), which did solidarity work for Maoists prisoners, because it attuned to him the fine sensibilities of everyday life (289). Like Sartre, Foucault’s sympathies for Maoism are placed in a narrative arch that covers his career and can be at times informative, but adds little to existing scholarship. Wolin finds particularly noteworthy in Foucault’s work the concept of the “specific intellectual”, who does not attempt to stand outside of the relations of power but within them (308), which allows Foucault and the New Philosophers, Wolin argues, to become committed human rights advocates who had a clear fidelity to ‘universal human rights’ (342). Wolin reconstructs, in a manner surprising to many, the post-Maoist Foucault as “a passionate advocate of humanitarian intervention” (343) and trumpets the New Philosophers’, including several former Maoists, “new humanitarian sensibility” (344).

Whereas, Badiou, Sartre and Foucault are obvious choices for a book on French intellectual Maoism, the Tel Quel group’s inclusion, given their less-than-serious relationship to Maoism, is odd. Wolin represents Sollers as an intellectual who consistently tried to reposition the Tel Quel group in a “cunning” manner to suit intellectual fashion, which in turn resulted in them being engaged in a macabre political comedy of errors (243-7, 261-2, 269-77). Their hypocrisy is evidenced by Kristeva’s failure to realise that her beloved literary modernism had only been allowed to flourish under democracies and “[under] revolutionary regimes, conversely, the practitioners of literary modernism have been consigned to silence or to camps” (255-6). Wolin pointedly states that while Sollers’ revolutionist naiveté could be passed over, Kristeva’s could not, having come from “one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive Stalinist regimes”, and she should have known better (265). Wolin does not simply intend to discredit the Tel Quel group politically, for their admittedly unserious foray into communist politics, but also wishes to discredit post-structuralism. Wolin crows that, “A somber, moderate, humanist approach has supplanted post-structuralism’s latently nihilistic negative hermeneutics … The rarefied theoretical hairsplitting among philosophical titans that dominated Parisian intellectual life during the 1960s has yielded to a more cautious and pragmatic temperament” (285-6). Unfortunately, this lesson comes at the cost of a number of truly important French Maoist intellectuals that are omitted and not even mentioned in his book. For example, Wolin could have discussed the work of Charles Bettelheim, a noted Maoist intellectual and economist, who served as an advisor to Nehru and Nasser, and produced serious works of Maoist scholarship including his monumental work, Class Struggles in the USSR. Bettelheim would have also been interesting to mention because of his relationship with Robert Linhart in the production of a Maoist intellectual journal, Études de Planification Socialiste, that focused on Soviet economics. Or, Wolin could have instead dedicated a chapter to Althusserian-Maoist journals like Les Cahiers Marxiste-Léninistes, which he mentions in passing, or Théorie et Politique which he does not mention at all, and included articles by key Maoist intellectuals like Badiou, Ranciere and others. It is likely that Wolin simply found them too unreadable to discuss. Even a chapter on France-based Arab Maoist circles, of which the noted Maoist intellectual, Samir Amin, was a member, would have been preferable to the chapter on Tel Quel. However, these suggestions would complicate a simple narrative of French intellectuals who were initially more concerned with political fantasies and who subsequently grew up to become somber, moderate, democratic and anti-communist thinkers (except for Badiou and Kristeva).

Despite being a scholarly book, Wolin often fails to provide citations for many of the claims that he makes, controversial or otherwise, and at other times is simply incorrect. Three indicative examples demonstrate this. Wolin argues that Sartre was ambivalent about how to relate to the Maoists and provides two pieces of evidence to this effect: the first is a quotation in which Sartre clearly affirms his support for their actions with an accompanying citation, the second piece of evidence is simply a one-line statement by Wolin that a few days later after the cited press release Sartre offered more “cautious” support for their articles, but fails to provide any citation or quotation (201). Another is Wolin’s assumption that “we now know” that Mao was basically losing power and that the Cultural Revolution was a “power grab” (109). However, Wolin does not provide any citations for how we “know” these things (109). The only scholarly treatment cited is Roderick MacFarquhar and Martin Schoenhal’s conservative account of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s Last Revolution, is hardly reflective of what scholars in the field of Cultural Revolution studies “know” and completely ignores the existing body of scholarship that rejects this narrative. Finally, Wolin accuses Althusser of being a “devout Communist who revered Stalinism as the movement’s glorious pinnacle”, conveniently forgetting Althusser’s attack on Stalinist humanism in particular and Stalinism in general. Althusser was not a stalwart Stalinist, but was a “devout Communist”, of that part Wolin is right, who wanted to de-Stalinize the PCF from the Left and not the Right. Wolin leaves one dumbfounded when he writes, “In retrospect, it seems clear that subtending “scientism” lay a nostalgia for Stalinism: a deep-seated intolerance for aleatory perspectives and views” (121). This statement is incredible as Althusser dedicated his entire career developing an “aleatory materialism” that ran counter to Soviet-sponsored “dialectical materialism” and penned a series of highly influential essays outlining the nature of the “aleatory”!

In sum we can conclude that Wolin’s book within the confines of its narrative structure is politically effective in firmly establishing the importance of free democratic systems and pluralism. However, if one begins to inspect the structure itself with any historical or theoretical scholarly rigour, one finds that the book quickly falls apart at the seams. Indeed, the scholarly content is secondary to the political message that Wolin wants to impress on the reader and is often drowned out by the latter. One is consistently reminded that Wolin’s account is much like that of Diogenes Laertius in that it is both deeply partisan in its interpretation, and is often predicated on anecdotes, gossip and unsubstantiated claims which have to be constantly questioned, thus making the book difficult to read.

7 January 2014

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