Phantasms of Revolution

Phantasms of Revolution

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

by Richard Wolin
Princeton University Press, 2010, 391 pp.

IT WOULD BE EASY—and perhaps entertaining—to write a history of Maoism in France that would lampoon the misjudgments, blind spots, and grandiosity of the movement. (Maoism in the United States never attained the power or cachet that it garnered in France; Maoism in certain other places—such as Peru, as embodied in the Shining Path, and Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge—was no laughing matter.) After all, chastising the Left of the 1960s, and blaming it for as many contemporary ills as is conceivably possible, has, apparently, become a requirement of political discourse in both the United States (see under: Bill Ayers) and France (note Nicolas Sarkozy’s linkage of riots in immigrant suburbs with the student radicals of 1968). It is to Richard Wolin’s great credit that he abstains from the seductions of derision—though not from the responsibilities of criticism—in The Wind from the East, his history of Maoism in the French Left and, in particular, of the influence that China’s Cultural Revolution exerted on French intellectuals.

Wolin’s book is, first, a welcome defense of the actions, and the legacy, of the student movement—which blossomed, briefly but importantly, into the student-worker movement—that now goes by the shorthand “May ’68.” It is a defense against attacks from conservatives, who see the movement as having weakened the institutions of French civilization and morality, and from some on the Left, who view May ’68 as an exercise in pseudo-politics that substituted an Oedipal theater of rebellion—“playful and masturbatory,” in the words of one Marxist critic—for the hard work of party-building and political organizing. Both sets of critics, then and now, scorn the ’68ers as, essentially, privileged and ineffectual narcissists.

Wolin posits, mostly persuasively, that this criticism rests on a stubborn misunderstanding of the kind of politics—a new kind of politics—that May ’68 represented. The 1960s, he writes, “was quite simply the era that rediscovered the virtues of participatory politics. . . .[It was] the moment when the valence of the political itself underwent a significant transformation . . . . Politics began to include acts of self-transformation and the search for personal authenticity. . . . The lesson we have learned is that the cultural is the political.” (I say “mostly” because in our current age of globalized, increasingly ruthless forms of capitalism, the failures of the ’68ers, especially their “rejection of organization tout court,” should be seriously analyzed.) And Wolin argues that these changes have stuck: May ’68’s “enduring” legacy, he writes, is “the regeneration of French associational life . . . . The Ma...

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