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Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s


By Richard Wolin


The Montréal Review, April 2012


"The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s" by Richard Wolin (Princeton University Press, 2010/2012) 


"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


It is a remarkable fact that some forty years later, the year 1968 remains an obligatory point of reference for contemporary politics. In many respects 1968 was a annum mirabilis with global political repercussions. The specter of revolution materialized in Peking, Mexico City, New York, Chicago, Berlin, Warsaw, and Prague, where, tragically, hopes for "socialism with a human face" were brutally crushed under the tread of Soviet tanks.

In France, however, events unfolded according to a somewhat different logic. As elsewhere, the revolt was begun by students. But one of the May uprising's unique aspects was that, within a fortnight, French workers decided to join forces with the student demonstrators. This potent student-worker alliance led to a massive general strike that paralyzed the central government and, at one point, compelled President Charles de Gaulle to flee. When the smoke had cleared, eight to nine million French men and women had joined in the strike. France had experienced its greatest social unrest since the 1930s.

Paris, May 1968

The Wind from the East represents a modest contribution to making sense of these challenging and tumultuous events. By focusing on one of May '68's neglected "backstories" - the wave of Sinophilia that crested in France later that same decade - it seeks to illuminate the whole.

The story begins with a small group of gauchistes - political activists who had positioned themselves to the left of the French Communist Party - who were students of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser at the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure. Fascinated and impassioned by political events that were transpiring nearly half a world a way, they began to identify profoundly with Mao's China - which they came to perceive as a panacea for metropolitan France's own multifarious political ills.

None spoke Chinese, and reliable information about contemporary China's was nearly impossible to come by, since Mao had basically forbidden access to outsiders. Little matter. The less these normaliens knew about contemporary China, the better it suited their purposes. Cultural Revolutionary China became a projection screen, a Rorschach test, for their innermost radical political hopes and fantasies - which in de Gaulle's France had been deprived of a real world outlet. China became the embodiment of a "radiant utopian future." By "becoming Chinese," by assuming new identities as French incarnations of China's Red Guards, these dissident Althusserians sought to reinvent themselves wholesale. Thereby, they would rid themselves of their guilt both as the progeny of colonialists and, more generally, as bourgeois.

Increasingly, the "real" China ceased to matter. Instead, at issue were questions of political eschatology. The "successes" of Chinese Communism - or its imagined successes - would magically compensate for the abysmal failures of the communist experience elsewhere. The young gauchistes viewed themselves as pur et dur - as true believers who refused to compromise with the sordid realities of contemporary France. In their eyes, there could be no going back to the faded glories of French Republicanism - a tradition that, in their view, had been fatally compromised by the legacies of colonialism and Gaullist authoritarianism. One senses that if the Cultural Revolution didn't exist, the gauchistes would have had to invent it. Mao's China offered the students a way to perpetuate the intoxications of the French revolutionary tradition - the glories of the Bastille, of Valmy, and of the Paris Commune - in an era when oppressive nature of "really existing socialism" had reached undeniably grotesque proportions.

Were it not for the political maladroitness of the Pompidou government, which in spring 1970 abruptly arrested the Maoist leaders and banned their newspaper, their story, when set against the overall tapestry of the May events, would probably rate a minor footnote. But owing to the authorities' heavy-handedness, overnight the unheralded Maoists became a cause célèbre. None other than Jean-Paul Sartre took over the Maoist newspaper, in bold defiance of the government's arbitrary and brutal political sweep. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Maoism had acquired immense caché as political chic. It began attracting prominent intellectuals - Michel Foucault as well as Tel Quel luminaries Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva - who perceived in Maoism a creative solution to France's excruciating political immobilism. After all, the Socialist Party was in total disarray. The Communists had become a "party of order." The Gaullists, with Pompidou now at the helm, pointedly refused to relinquish the reigns of power. Yet, here was a left-wing groupuscule active in the Latin Quarter that, in many respects, had become the heir of May's '68's emancipatory quest.

It was at this point that French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, they bid adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like "mandarins" and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May's aftermath they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of "society" and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truths. Ultimately, the gauchistes came to realize that human rights and the values of libertarian socialism, rather than operating at cross-purposes, were mutually complementary.

The Maoists' story is worth telling insofar as it represents a paradigmatic instance of a constructive political learning process. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of "cultural revolution" was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.


Among historians and political commentators, May '68 has had its share of naysayers and detractors. Critics on the right, led by none other than de Gaulle himself, have accused the sixty-eighters of abetting a "breakdown of civilization." Cynical observers on the left have dismissed the May uprising as a little more than a way-station on France's long march to capitalist modernization - a political blip on the road to "post-Fordism" or "flexible response" production.

These objections notwithstanding, French society did change radically in the May uprising's aftermath, although undoubtedly the transformation was not as far-reaching or thoroughgoing as many former sixty-eighters had hoped. The changes that occurred were more subtle and long term, more evolutionary than revolutionary. For the most part they transpired in the more indeterminate realm of "cultural politics," which helps to account for the significance that the Chinese Cultural Revolution assumed in the eyes of various leftist student groups. The transformation in question pertained to modes of sociability and the perception of social roles; to questions of sexuality, claims to authority, and the status of heretofore underrepresented or marginalized social groups - women, immigrants, gays, and the unemployed.

At base, the May revolt effectuated a sweeping and dramatic transformation of everyday life. The politics of everyday life functioned as an "exit strategy" allowing French youth to escape from the dogmas of orthodox Marxism as well as the ideological straightjacket imposed by the French Communist Party. It enabled the activists to address a variety of pre-political, "existential" concerns: issues pertaining to psychology, sexuality, family life, urbanism, and basic human intimacy. It was via the discourse of everyday life that the student militants were able to renew the lexicon of contemporary social criticism, making it relevant for the peculiar challenges of the modern world. For one of the activists' central problems was that under conditions of late capitalism domination was no longer confined to the wage labor-capital dyad that had been central for Marx. Instead, in advanced industrial society the logic of commodification - the process whereby relations among persons become quantifiable, opaque, and thing-like - had surpassed the workplace, penetrating and suffusing social life in its totality.


Since the eighteenth century French writers and intellectuals have enjoyed the status of a lay aristocracy. In Republican France they functioned as arbiters of the True, the Right, and the Good. The high-water mark of this trend occurred during the Dreyfus Affair, when, under Emile Zola's tutelage, intellectuals helped to reverse the miscarriage of justice that had victimized the unjustly disgraced and imprisoned colonel.

The May insurrection provided French intellectuals with a lesson in humility. None had anticipated it. The structuralists had famously proclaimed that historical change was illusory. "Events," they declared, were a thing of the past. The mainstream left looked to the French working class to play its assigned historical role as capitalism's gravedigger. But, in truth, French workers were quite content to enjoy the fruits of postwar affluence: les trentes glorieuses or the "thirty glorious years." Hence, when the May revolt erupted, intellectuals were relegated to playing a series of bit parts and supporting roles - menial tasks to which this proud guild was largely unaccustomed. The marxisant bias of postwar French political culture was still predominantly focused on the workplace. Yet, the revolt had broken out elsewhere: Nanterre, the Sorbonne, and the oblique byways of the Latin Quarter. The only intellectuals who had accurately foreseen the transformed parameters of revolt were those located to the "left of the left": the gauchistes who were associated with innovative avant-garde organs such as the Situationist International, Arguments, and Socialism or Barbarism. One of the hallmarks of the May revolt was that ideals of direct democracy and worker control migrated from the periphery to the center. We have seen these ideals revived today among the Occupy Movements and calls for Horizontal Democracy that have emerged in response to the global economic crisis.

Were the story of French intellectuals and Maoism purely a tale of political folly, it would hardly be worth recounting. In retrospect, the Maoist intoxication that gripped France during the early 1970s stands out as a generational rite of passage. Among students and intellectuals, the identification with Cultural Revolutionary China became an exit strategy to escape from the straightjacket of orthodox Marxism. Early on, revolutionary China ceased being an empirical point of reference. Instead, it became a trope: a projection of the gauchiste political imaginary. The figure of "Cultural Revolution" was detached from its Asian geopolitical moorings. In a textbook case of unintended consequences, it fused unexpectedly with the "critique of everyday life" as elaborated by the 1960s French cultural avant-garde.

The May movement signaled the twilight of the "prophetic intellectual": the celebrity writer or thinker who claimed to possess privileged insight into the course of history and who prescribes the line of march for the benighted masses. The student activists helped to reinvent the lexicon of political radicalism. By virulently opposing the idea of a revolutionary vanguard, they took an important step in consigning the Leninist model to the dustbin of history.

The new spirit of humility would find expression in Foucault's conception of the "specific intellectual" who undertakes acts of "contestation" in concrete, local struggles. Foucault and his allies thereby jettisoned the traditional revolutionary expectation of a radiant utopian future in favor of "resistance" that was always situated and site-specific.

Yet, Foucault's endorsement of the specific intellectual would not be the last word. The 68ers realized that they could not entirely dispense with the Dreyfusard ideal of the universal intellectual who morally shames the powers-that-be by confronting them with higher ideals of Justice or Truth. Solzhenitsyn's devastating exposé of the Soviet Gulag, which was first published in France in 1974, along with macabre revelations about the Killing Fields in Cambodia - another experiment in Cultural Revolution that drastically miscarried - helped convince French intellectuals that the idea of Human Rights merited renewed attention. Few believed that they represented a political panacea. Yet most conceded that Rule of Law acted as a "magic wall" - a juridico-political stopgap - that kept despotism in check and thereby helped to avoid the worst. In this way, the May movement's anti-authoritarian spirit nourished the development of a thoughtful and sustained anti-totalitarian political credo.


Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History, Comparative Literature, and Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His books, which include Heidegger's Children and The Seduction of Unreason (both Princeton), have been translated into ten languages. His articles and reviews have appeared in Dissent, the Nation, and the New Republic.


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