The Wind from the East

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

Richard Wolin
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 408
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    The Wind from the East
    Book Description:

    Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Julia Kristeva, Phillipe Sollers, and Jean-Luc Godard. During the 1960s, a who's who of French thinkers, writers, and artists, spurred by China's Cultural Revolution, were seized with a fascination for Maoism. Combining a merciless exposé of left-wing political folly and cross-cultural misunderstanding with a spirited defense of the 1960s,The Wind from the Easttells the colorful story of this legendary period in France. Richard Wolin shows how French students and intellectuals, inspired by their perceptions of the Cultural Revolution, and motivated by utopian hopes, incited grassroots social movements and reinvigorated French civic and cultural life.

    Wolin's riveting narrative reveals that Maoism's allure among France's best and brightest actually had little to do with a real understanding of Chinese politics. Instead, it paradoxically served as a vehicle for an emancipatory transformation of French society. French student leftists took up the trope of "cultural revolution," applying it to their criticisms of everyday life. Wolin examines how Maoism captured the imaginations of France's leading cultural figures, influencing Sartre's "perfect Maoist moment"; Foucault's conception of power; Sollers's chic, leftist intellectual journalTel Quel; as well as Kristeva's book on Chinese women--which included a vigorous defense of foot-binding.

    Recounting the cultural and political odyssey of French students and intellectuals in the 1960s,The Wind from the Eastillustrates how the Maoist phenomenon unexpectedly sparked a democratic political sea change in France.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3437-2
    Subjects: History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    According to an oft-cited maxim, all history is the history of the present. Try as they might, historians are incapable of abstracting from contemporary issues and concerns. In fact, were they to do so, their work would surely reek of antiquarian sterility. At best, historians can make their biases clear to ensure they do not exercise an overtly disfiguring influence on their presentations and findings.

    The “presence of the past” is especially true of the 1960s. Analysts and commentators have heatedly debated their meaning and import, but nearly all agree that the decade was a watershed. Whatever their ultimate meaning,...

  4. INTRODUCTION: The Maoist Temptation
    (pp. 1-22)

    It is a remarkable fact that some forty years later, the year 1968 remains an obligatory point of reference for contemporary politics. During the 2008 presidential election, one of Barack Obama’s campaign pledges was that he would elevate American politics to a plateau of unity beyond the divisiveness of the 1960s. The John McCain campaign, for its part, tried repeatedly to tarnish Obama’s luster by dramatizing his association during the early days of his political career with former 1960s radical William Ayers. Similarly, during the 2007 French presidential campaign, both main candidates felt compelled to take a stance on the...

    • CHAPTER 1 Showdown at Bruay-en-Artois
      (pp. 25-38)

      April 6, 1972. The scene was a mining town in provincial Normandy, Bruay-en-Artois. A young working-class girl, Brigitte Dewevre, had been sadistically murdered, her mutilated, unclothed corpse left in a vacant field. The crime scene bespoke a level of brutality to which France was entirely unaccustomed. Adding to the event’s macabre nature was the fact that Brigitte’s body was discovered the next day by her younger brother in the course of a pickup soccer match.

      Within a fortnight of the murder, the police had arrested a local notable, Pierre Leroy. Leroy was a notary public who specialized in real estate...

    • CHAPTER 2 France during the 1960s
      (pp. 39-69)

      From 1958 to 1969 General Charles de Gaulle wholly dominated the landscape of French politics. One cannot understand France during the 1960s, as well as the nature of the political system against which the sixty-eighters rebelled, without examining the general’s central role. By the same token, the political closure the general had mandated engendered a trenchant body of oppositional cultural criticism that ultimately succeeded in undermining Gaullism’s credibility as a political model. As the decade evolved, pathbreaking works of fiction, film, and theory emerged, forming a cultural template through which the sixty-eighters viewed the shortcomings of postwar French society.


    • CHAPTER 3 May 1968: The Triumph of Libidinal Politics
      (pp. 70-108)

      Prescient political prognostications were never Fidel Castro's forte. But in his 1968 New Year’s Day speech, the Cuban revolutionary leader seems to have more or less “gotten it right.” Reeling from Che Guevara’s summary execution the previous year at the hands of Bolivian military authorities, Castro foresaw that 1968 would be “the year of the heroic guerrilla.” His prophecy would not be far off.

      By any stretch of the imagination, 1968 was an annus mirabilis—a year ofévénements,or events. Historians have repeatedly sought to fathom how it was possible that within a span of twelve months spectacular youth...

    • CHAPTER 4 Who Were the Maoists?
      (pp. 109-154)

      In May 1966 Mao Tse-tung launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, pitting youthful Red Guards against Chinese Communist Party stalwarts and city dwellers suspected of bourgeois habitudes.¹ To much of the outside world, the Cultural Revolution appeared as a noble attempt to reignite Chinese communism’s fading revolutionary ardor. Thereby, perhaps China could escape the bureaucratic sclerosis that had afflicted the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies.

      However, we now know that Mao was rapidly losing his grip on power. His credibility as a leader had suffered greatly from the debacle of the Great Leap Forward: the disastrous agricultural modernization...

    • EXCURSUS: On the Sectarian Maoism of Alain Badiou
      (pp. 155-176)

      As we have seen, when viewed in terms of the longue durée, French Maoism, which spanned the years 1966–74, was a relatively short-lived episode. In most cases revelations of the Cultural Revolution’s manifold persecutions and atrocities definitively cured the Maoists, as well as their “democratic” sympathizers, of their pro-Chinese leanings. One of the initial reasons they had turned to China was that the Soviet experiment in “really existing socialism” had been totally discredited. Maoism seemed the last best hope for a utopian alternative to the dislocations and disappointments of “really existing democracy.” But already during the early 1970s, the...

    • CHAPTER 5 Jean-Paul Sartre’s Perfect Maoist Moment
      (pp. 179-232)

      During the 1960s the structuralists had declared Sartre, as well as the paradigm of existential phenomenology he represented, obsolete, or “passé.” However, May 1968 signified a resounding vindication of Sartre’s doctrine of human freedom, for May demonstrated that “events” happened, that history was more than the opaque, frozen landscape the structuralists had made it out to be. Thereafter, Sartre’s concerted involvement with the Maoists—at one point, he served as the titular editor of no fewer than three Maoist publications (La Cause du Peuple, J’Accuse, and Tout!)—catapulted him to the center stage of French political life. Since the May...

    • CHAPTER 6 Tel Quel in Cultural-Political Hell
      (pp. 233-287)

      During the 1960sTel Quel, led by consummate literary entrepreneur Philippe Sollers, rode to notoriety the crest of nearly every passing intellectual trend: the nouveau roman, structuralism, and poststructuralism. Unsurprisingly, the journal’s political loyalties were equally mercurial. After cultivating a studious apoliticism, it lurched from the most rigid Stalinist orthodoxy to an equally fervent embrace of Cultural Revolutionary China—an instance of revolutionary romanticism that culminated in a celebrated 1974 trip to Beijing. As Communist Party loyalists, the Telquelians “missed out” on May 1968. In a now-legendary episode, Sollers—whose father, incidentally, was a leading Bordeaux industrialist—actively denounced the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Foucault and the Maoists: Biopolitics and Engagement
      (pp. 288-349)

      Through no fault of his own, Michel Foucault missed out on May 1968. When the explosion erupted, he was hundreds of miles away teaching philosophy at the University of Tunis. Nonetheless, the May events had a profound effect on Foucault’s intellectual and political trajectory. Foucault himself acknowledged as much, observing that May was the unanticipated “political opening” that gave him the courage to investigate the mechanisms of power operating in Western societies and to “pursue [his] research in the direction of penal theory, prisons, and disciplines.”¹

      Before 1968, Foucault’s name was still primarily associated with his improbable 1966 best seller...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Impossible Heritage: From Cultural Revolution to Associational Democracy
      (pp. 350-370)

      In 1972 a final crisis—in many ways, the coup de grâce—befell the Gauche prolétarienne. Since the UJC-ML’s (Union des jeunesses communistes marxistes-léninistes) inception in 1966, the Maoists had firmly supported the Palestinian cause as a gesture of solidarity with a colonized and oppressed people. In the wake of the Six-Day War in June 1967, vows of mutual support escalated. As a result of Maoist initiatives, PLO solidarity committees mushroomed throughout France. The Maoists, for their part, hoped that by invoking the Palestinian struggle, they could induce France’s large Arab immigrant community to support their own political struggle. Following...

  7. Bibliography
    (pp. 371-384)
  8. Index
    (pp. 385-391)