- The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s
In the prologue to his account of the vicissitudes of French Maoism in the 1960s and 1970s, Richard Wolin writes that he considers “The Wind from the East foremost a political book” (p. xi). Credit is due for Wolin’s frank admission that his book is not a work of dispassionate historical scholarship. Known for his excoriations of the “seduction of unreason” that has misled so many champions of postmodernism, Wolin has turned his sights on a subject that presents special challenges to his adjudicative approach to intellectual history. Wolin presents himself as a product of “the sixties,” and in particular the turn toward a more participatory model of democratic politics accomplished by the various movements that are habitually grouped under this heading. [End Page 756] In this regard, the protagonists of the events of May 1968 in France are treated as cousins, comrades in a common cause. And yet they are wayward cousins, given that their progressive endeavors, during and in the wake of May, were often couched in the language of their Maoist sympathies. This presents Wolin with a conundrum that gives his book its personal tone and driving question: how could historical actors that accomplished so much have been taken in by ideas that were so evidently misguided?
Part of Wolin’s answer is that French adherents to “Maoism” did not have a genuine understanding of what Maoism was in practice. This part of Wolin’s explanation squares awkwardly, however, with another of his central claims: that the distinguishing features of “Mao Tse-tung Thought” within the Marxist canon—for example, the emphasis on culture and politics over base materialist determinism, the insistence on conducting enquêtes or “investigations” of particularly intense sites of social antagonism, the valorization of youth—were ultimately instrumental in the success with which the protagonists of May brokered new forms of associational democracy. Despite their manifest historical relation, however, there is a fundamental mismatch between “May” and “Mao” in Wolin’s account, which is divided into a first section on the events of the former and a second devoted to intellectuals’ infatuation with the latter. Indeed, as he remarks, “as the May events unfolded, the Maoists were nowhere to be found” (p. 15). Nevertheless, the discourse of Maoism helped shape much of the milieu, and the result was a “constructive political learning process” (p. 4) wherein the doctrinaire ideas of Maoism fused with the emancipatory spirit of May. In the last instance, the argument is homeopathic; French intellectuals were “cured” of their “infantile revolutionary longings” (p. xii) by their exposure to a diluted dose that wafted in on the “wind from the east.”
The main strength of Wolin’s book lies in its recognition that the historical relationship between French Maoism and the events that took place in China in the 1960s and 1970s was one of fantastical projection rather than informed inspiration. The capacity of ideas to take on a life of their own and produce novel historical effects thus forms a central thread to the narrative. Wolin convincingly shows how the expansion of left-wing politics beyond nominal class confrontations galvanized a segment of French youth sensitive to the general flattening of class relations in Gaullist France. The ultimate disillusionment with China that eventually complemented this capacious view of politics is not so much demonstrated as assumed, but Wolin’s fundamental point holds. The language of Maoism found a new and different kind of purchase in French soil. Just how extensively Maoist ambition became [End Page 757] domesticated is revealed in Wolin’s own casual description of the “transformation of everyday life and the regeneration of civil society” as “more circumscribed tasks” than revolution (p. xii). Romanticism clearly knows a plurality of forms.
With their romantic cast, the cultural history sections of The Wind from the East make for more compelling reading than...