The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s.Richard Wolin Princeton University Press, 391pp, $35.00
The Unfinished Revolution
by Douglas Greene
In late 2010, the French working class launched constant strikes against the latest austerity measures of the Sarkozy government. The workers of France showed that far from going gently into the night, rather\they were going to use their collective power to resist.
The example of the French workers has reminded many commentators of the spirit of May 1968 when ten million workers and students brought the country close to a revolutionary overturn. It is the spirit of May 1968 and the Maoist movement that emerged from it that Richard Wolin seeks to recapture in Wind from the East.
Maoism may seem out of fashion nowadays, after-all China has definitely taken the capitalist road. Yet capitalism has been in tailspin since the 2007-8 collapse and Maoist movements remain an alternative in both India and Nepal. In this light, it seems only appropriate to look at revolutionary alternatives that once existed. In his work, Wolin does an admirable job of showing the strengths and weaknesses of French Maoism, but his work is marred by liberal political conclusions.
The Maoists of France came out of the general upheaval of the 1960s that was spreading from Bejing to Chicago.
Wolin though locates the Maoists as emerging and responding to the particular problems of French society. France in the 1960s was undergoing massive changes. The student population was more than doubling, the peasantry was shrinking and a spirit of consumerism was expanding. It seemed that France was quickly entering a golden age. However, all that glitters is not gold. French universities were overcrowded, marred by draconian regulations, and staffed by elusive professors. Furthermore, the expansionism of consumerism brought to the fore that “happiness could not be quantified” (55). Indeed, questions of everyday life, as Wolin points out would be one of the defining features of the May revolt.
However, in discussing the domestic roots of the May revolt that shaped French Maoism, Wolin makes a large omission.
He neglects any large-scale analysis of the working class. Wolin goes as far to say that French “structural transformation of work and the attractions of the affluent society combined to render the traditional Marxist notion of class struggle antiquated” (47). That view doesn’t seem to line up with what happened in France in May 1968.
One of the things that made the French May so distinctive among sixties movement was not its student radicalism or concern for changing every day life. These trends, in various forms and to various degrees, could be found across countries. What made the French May so distinctive was that student radicalism helped to spark a general strike that nearly brought a socialist revolution to France.
The French Communist Party didn’t see the May revolt as revolutionary and did everything possible to hold it back, earning the stigma of the Maoists. Perhaps the Marxist notion of class struggle is not necessarily so antiquated.
International events also shaped the views of the French Maoists. There was most prominently the Vietnam War, the US’s unjust attempt to deny independence to the Vietnamese. France had also had recent experience in colonial wars such as Vietnam (1945-54) and Algeria (1954-62), involving large commitments of troops and torture. In the case of Algeria, the French war brought an attempted military coup and near civil war in France itself.
Yet it was in China that the Maoists drew their greatest inspiration, especially with the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Wolin says that for the Maoists and their sympathizers, what counted was “that the illusion of a radiant utopian future was preserved” (124). The Maoists saw the Cultural Revolution as proof that no blueprints existed, but sought to “place their faith in the people‘s capacities to continually adapt their struggles to new situations” (302). According to Wolin, for the French Maoists the primary focus was on France, not on China.
This thesis seems to hold up well, but Wolin does not really explain what the Cultural Revolution was about. To him, it was largely a “naked power, rife with persecution and abuse for anyone for anyone who was suspected of being insufficiently revolutionary” (110). Mao is also said to have that in revolution, the people were “well-meaning amateurs. The party cadres, conversely were knowledgeable and trustworthy professionals” (113). However, one thing that made the Cultural Revolution distinctive was that many party notables, who were previously untouchable, were criticized by the masses. Wolin’s focus may be on France, but he should’ve looked more closely at the Cultural Revolution.
Wolin also doesn’t really offer any examples of the Cultural Revolution that could’ve appealed to the French Maoists. He emphasizes the persecutions, abuses, and the economic stagnation.
This is all old hat to anyone living in the west (or China). Yet one doesn’t have to be a Maoist to see the many innovative aspects of the Cultural Revolution. Factories were completely reorganized in many cases, bringing greater worker involvement. The arts were transformed. The famous barefoot doctors traveled to the countryside. Education at all levels was revamped to allow for greater mass involvement. Ordinary people in the Cultural Revolution were encouraged to experiment, to act, and to think.
The meat of Wolin’s work is taken up by the Maoist movement between 1968 and 1973.
According to Wolin, many of the Maoists were initially skeptical of the May revolt (particularly the UJC-ML, which later split) since it was sparked by students. However, unlike the French Communist Party (PCF), the Maoists quickly threw themselves into the fray. As the May movement petered out, the Maoists sought to carry the revolution forward.
Maoist movements proliferated across France. There was the Union des communistes francais marxistes-leninistes (UCF-ML), that was interested in providing revolutionary leadership. The UCF worked with immigrants, dwellers of shantytowns, and working with the rank-and-file of factories.
Many of the most moving pages of Wolin’s work deal with Maoist activists who investigate working conditions and go to work in factories for the first time in their lives. Wolin doesn’t try to hide the genuine idealism of these activists.
There was also the Maoist group gauche proletarienne (GP) that had to fight censorship of its flagship paper La Cause de Peuple, which ended up hiring Jean-Paul Sartre as chief editor.
There is a long chapter on Sartre’s involvement and later distancing with the GP. Wolin does an excellent job of looking at how Sartre was attracted to GP and revised his role of intellectuals to emphasize that “he [the intellectual] forsakes his privileges, or tries to, an actions” (215). Sartre’s involvement with the Maoists extended to demonstrations and writing articles. Wolin also discusses Sartre’s later disillusionment with the GP and revolution in general.
The GP was also engaged in mass mobilizations in Bruay-en-Artios after a young woman was brutally murdered by a town notable. GP activism in Bruay did much to highlight class and sexual oppression. GP activists did a great deal to encourage worker self-reliance and wildcat strikes that challenged the PCF.
GP activists also teamed up with the philosopher Michel Foucalt to help free imprisoned comrades. Wolin has a long chapter about how the concerns of Foucalt for questions of power and prisons and the Maoist investigations of prison abuses led to a massive campaign. Foucalt’s work with the GP inspired his work Discipline and Punish on prisons.
There was also a split-off from the GP, called the Vive la revolution! (VLR). The VLR was much more attuned to the concerns of everyday life than either the GP or UJC (although both groups also showed concern for these issues). The VLR was intimately involved in France’s women and gay rights movement. Wolin doesn’t try to hide the positive reforms and far-seeing views of the Maoists on these issues compared to their rivals on the left.
Despite the massive Maoist movement in France after 1968, within five years the Maoists were seemingly a spent force. Wolin believes that the movements ultimately ran out of steam due to revulsion among GP activists following the Munich killings of 1972 and their own turn to violence. In general, Wolin believes that revolution was a lost cause in France by the early seventies. It seemed that reform was a more effective route to change. He also cites a general revulsion on the left against the Cultural Revolution and an embrace of Solzhenistyn‘s exposure of the gulag. Out of the ruins of the Maoist movement would come the anti-totalitarian “New Philosophers” who would champion Eastern European dissidents and humanitarian intervention (for example, attacking Yugoslavia and Iraq). Wolin believes that the Maoist influence can be seen in current struggles for immigrant rights and a social minimum.
However, Wolin doesn’t offer much criticism of the later turns of the Maoists. For instance, so-called humanitarian interventions have been nothing more than a well-crafted shield for current imperialism. Service to the French state by ex-radicals is more much very similar to the behavior of the PCF that the Maoists criticized in their youth.
The most glaring criticism of Wolin’s book is that he seems to celebrate the decline of the left in the aftermath of the May revolts. He believes that the single-issue campaigns that many of the Maoists embraced helped to promote a more democratic left. Yet the single-issue campaigns and the associations that promote them leave the fundamental bases of French capitalism intact (although they may promote worthwhile reforms). Wolin makes much of how post-May movements have worked with the state to create reforms such as the 35 hour week, a celebration of the ‘humane’ French state. However, recent austerity measures by Sarkozy make these sentiments taste bitter.
In conclusion, Wolin does an over-all admirable job of explaining the rise of French Maoism. There are omissions and distortions in Wolin’s work to be sure, but that doesn’t detract from its value. Still, it seems to be appropriate to offer a correction to Wolin’s work. Although he is glad that the more democratic/associational legacy of the Maoists remains in France, it seems that is the wrong lesson to draw. With capitalism in crisis the last few years and the French state imposing austerity, it seems that the Maoists of yesteryear had it right. Not reform, but revolution is the solution for France.