The Wind from the East examines the effect on the Chinese Cultural Revolution on French political and philosophical discourse, writes Scott McLemee The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s Richard Wolin Princeton University Press Dh129 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 signifiers?"
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.
Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka's Civil War Mark Stephen Meadows Soft Skull Press Dh64 When Mark Stephen Meadows sets out to meet real terrorists in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he heads for Sri Lanka, on the trail of the Tamil Tigers - an organisation he regards as being the purest of the breed. "They invented suicide bombing," he writes. So begins Meadows' ripping yarn, his romp through an island nation torn apart by near-constant conflict. His style is pacy, blokey, well intentioned but largely superficial - this is Top Gear does terrorism, the next payoff line or witty one-liner never far from reach. His analysis of US government statistics reveals "you are seven times more likely to be killed by your own mother than by a terrorist", while he compares Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, to a woman in her late fifties, "a haggard, mean, worldly and foulmouthed" city. When the author finally gets to meet members of the Tigers, he seems to fluff his lines, distracted by how many lumps of sugar his subjects take in their tea, or how podgy they are. While Meadows' delivery is entertaining enough, this is hardly a definitive read. What the Great Ate: A Curious History of Food and Fame Matthew Jacob and Mark Jacob Three Rivers Press Dh52 Ever wonder what Kurt Cobain's favourite food was? Did you know that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's wife sends him to work every morning with a packed lunch? This amusing compendium is a tapas bar of food anecdotes and facts about historical and contemporary figures from every walk of life. Mahatma Gandhi never ate more than five food items a day while the famously slimmed down fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admits to craving bavaroise chocolate cake and German whipped cream. However, "I can hypnotise myself into only liking what I am allowed to eat," he has said. In some cases the authors dispel popular myths (Marie Antoinette did not say "let them eat cake") or provide intriguing insights into how the rich and powerful rose to the top. Rupert Murdoch built his media empire by lunching on Diet Coke, grilled chicken and vegetables but Sophia Loren relied on heartier fare for her beauty. "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti," she once declared. This is a book best savoured in occasional morsels. Cobain's favourite food, by the way, was Kraft macaroni and cheese.