[Marxism] Maoist influence on the French left

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 14 07:05:03 MDT 2010

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 

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 

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.

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