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When Mao Tse-Tung launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, one of the principal targets of attack were intellectuals. Thousands were silenced, beaten to death, imprisoned, tortured or sent out to the countryside to be re-educated and purified through manual labour. Many of their persecutors were university students and schoolchildren. But theirs was also a death warrant signed by fellow-travelling intellectuals in the West.

Richard Wolin advances no one theory to explain this act of betrayal. The Maoist temptation was part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism. It drew upon a deep-seated discontent with the corruption of Western society as well as the illusion of a radiant utopian future. It was also heavily infused with bourgeois self-hatred. By placing the emphasis on culture  — the Great Helmsman was after all a poet as well as a revolutionary — Maoism offered intellectuals in Paris (if not Beijing) the opportunity to act out the role of revolutionary vanguard. So, too, it appealed to those enamoured of the invigorating and moralising qualities of popular violence. Robespierre's ghost was much in evidence.

In all of this what was happening in the real China did not matter. Indeed, as Wolin makes clear, the less that was known the better. Not even a visit to communist China could be allowed to dim the enthusiasm for the heroic struggles of the Red Guards and of the Chinese people. That the Great Proletarian Revolution might degenerate into tyranny was not something to be contemplated. 

Wolin is merciless in his exposure of the willing naivety this involved. If the Maoists exploited Jean-Paul Sartre for their own ends, he tells us, by the same token the latter used Maoism to revivify his career. For France's most famous philosopher, the excesses of revolutionary violence amounted to justifiable homicide. Worse still was the shameless behaviour of Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva. In their craving for the intellectual limelight, the editor of Tel Quel and his wife took Sinophilia to new heights, Sollers sporting Maoist dress and Kristeva announcing that the feudal practice of foot- binding testified to the secret power of Chinese women. That Kristeva had been brought up in Stalinist Bulgaria makes this even more difficult to pardon. As for Sollers, he was just a rich kid from Bordeaux living out his immature fantasies. One person who emerges relatively unscathed from Wolin's account, however, is Michel Foucault. Apart from the occasional lapse of judgment, he trod a far more cautious and circumspect path than many of his contemporaries. It is hard not to be impressed by Foucault's detailed investigations into the French prison system and by his desire to reform it.

Philippe Sollers: Mesmerised by Mao 

Yet, as Wolin acknowledges, if this were only a tale of political folly it would not be worth retelling. The stupidities proclaimed by Parisian intellectuals about Mao's China were no more dangerous and self-serving than those they had previously proclaimed about Stalin's Russia. Rather, the tale is intriguing because it is one of unintended consequences. 

Coming in the wake of May '68 student protests, Maoism in France was a harbinger of the collapse of orthodox Marxism. To Sartre's evident dismay and frustration, the anti-Bolshevik Daniel Cohn-Bendit simply denied that the students had any programme or long-term objectives. The organisational mentality of the once-mighty French Communist Party was dead. 

What replaced it, Wolin contends, was a new form of politics focusing on personal identity and the transformation of everyday life. Repentant Maoists — including the so-called "New Philosophers" André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy — not only set out a defence of human rights and of humanitarian intervention but also began the process leading to calls for a regeneration of civil society. Breaking with the centuries-long tradition of State centralisation, the new politics focused on direct democracy and the expansion of associational life. Utopian hopes, Wolin concludes, were brought down to earth in the form of the ideal of democratic citizenship.

There is much that is convincing in this analysis. The French Communist Party has all but disappeared. What remains of the radical Left in France has largely redirected its activities towards a series of single-issue campaigns and protest groups (concerned with the homeless, illegal immigrants and so on). Statistics indicate that the number of associations in France continues to grow significantly every year. Yet France today is hardly a country that would have Alexis de Tocqueville jumping for joy and I doubt that David Cameron would see it as a model for the Big Society. Opinion polls indicate that the desired profession of the majority of young people is that of State functionary. Attempts at reform are met by a moral posture of resistance and a populist anti-establishment rhetoric. Anti-modernism — in the shape of hostility to what is taken to be an American-led process of globalisation, for example — is much in evidence. Liberalism — and, even worse, neo-liberalism — remains a dirty word.

As Wolin's chapter on the unrepentant (and now very fashionable) Maoist Alain Badiou illustrates, the mistake has been to believe that the collapse of communism would lead to a disappearance of anti-capitalism. For his part, Richard Wolin has provided a fascinating and dispassionate account of one of the more curious follies of recent times. Just as importantly, he avoids seeing May '68 as either the source of our modern ills or as a cause for wide-eyed romantic nostalgia. As Hegel might have said, it is just another example of the cunning of history.

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Anonymous
September 25th, 2014
4:09 AM
It is a sad truth that left-wing intellectuals have had a bad history of applauding and supporting dictators, if only they stand against the USA and capitalism (Castro, Che, Chavez) To read that French intellectuals interested in psychoanalysis (Badiou, Miller, Sollers, Kristeva) would endorse, support and applaud Maoism as they did (some still do!)defies rational logic. Do they realize that they themselves, as intellectuals, would be the first to be out of a job under a Maoist state?

Hank
January 8th, 2011
4:01 PM
Wolin's book is amply researched and well argued. He is well aware of the fact that instead of creating "local democracy," the Cultural Revolution merely created more chaotic variations of the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian governance. Wolin's book is no endorsement of conservatism, but it does illustrate how left-leaning intellectuals in France and elsewhere have often idealized dictators in countries about which they understood very little--especially if the dictators seemed to be violently anti-capitalist, anti-intellectual or of some other rebellious bent. Mao Zedong surely fit the bill of an anti-capitalist, anti-intellectual dictator.

Anonymous
November 6th, 2010
2:11 AM
Wolin's book is poorly researched and poorly argued. His hyperbole is stifling. He has little understanding of some of the areas he covers - eg feminism in 1960s France (relevant for his criticism of Julia Kristeva) and he has no awareness of the complexity of the Cultural revolution nor the recent rise in scholarship and memoirs which challenge stereotypical readings of the CR (that it was all bad when in fact some people esp in rural areas used the CR to improve their lives, create more local level democracy and get rid of corrupt officials). I dont see this as an acto fo courage - quite the opposite.

Anonymous
October 29th, 2010
8:10 AM
I enjoyed this article/review and it rings of truth, though I am not well enough informed on maoism and French communism to make a firm judgement. I do question the assumption however, that Maoism (as opposed to Soviet communism) is a such grand departure from Marx. I suggest that it is the recent Soviet communism (aka Revisionism) which has been the grand departure, and which has made many people irrationally frightened of all forms of communism. Referring now to one reader's comment about this article and the French political fashion "... an unthinking knee-jerking anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli stance..." I would agree that it is a shame about French anti-semitism, but I quite enjoy the French "anti-Israeli" and "anti-Americanism" stance. It makes a nice contrast against obsequious British kow-towing to the American-Israeli political pact. Until that conspiratorial pact is broken the Middle East will not know peace and Europe will always tremble. Of course, this very same instability is exactly what the American-Israeli pact wants. So, bravo France! Indeed, the French have often been the champions of democracy and the enemies of fascism, while Britain has an abismal record, preferring monarchs and repressing and conspiring against republics. Only when we (the British) were frightened out of our wits in 1939 did we find the conviction to oppose Hitler. We should have listened to the French in the years preceding 1939 instead of making it easy for fascists to invade Spain.

Anonymous
October 8th, 2010
7:10 PM

Florencio naltagua
October 8th, 2010
10:10 AM
I do not swallow Reader's Digest logic.

Anonymous
October 7th, 2010
10:10 AM
As a leftist intellectual I don't love Islamic terrorism at all! I agree the left had problems with dictators during the 20th Century- the right did too at different moments (wasn't Churchill briefly a Mussolini fan) but that doesn't excuse anyone. Personally my own hero is Orwell- a great socialist who never fell for the totalitarian deceipt! The main point though here is a more interesting one about hte evolution through Maoism to a post-communist French leftwing. I'm glad the author brought that out and I think that's a really interesting piece of analysis.

Anonymous
October 6th, 2010
10:10 PM
And of course Mao's support of intellectuals filtered its way into many fields. The most famous, influential and powerful entertainer in the world in 1968 was John Lennon. He was asked about Mao and endorsed him, and Yoko, at his side, was even more enthusiastic. John: "It sounds like he's doing a good job." Yoko: "He is." John: "He seems to be."

John in NC
October 4th, 2010
7:10 PM
Yes, intellectuals often get it wrong. But we all choose our battles. While Mao's cadres were killing reactionaries, the U.S. was subverting democracies and propping up rightist dictators throughout the rest of the world. The Cold War era spread massive cruelty across the globe, not just China and Russia. If we condemn the "intellectuals" of a half-century ago for supporting Mao, should we not also condemn "anti-intellectuals" for supporting an economic scheme that -- even now -- continues to starve, poison, and kill a large portion of humanity?

marco mauas
October 3rd, 2010
5:10 PM
Alain Badiou is fashionable as it is fashionable his preferred object of hate: Israel and the Jews. Is this issue mentioned in this book?

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