Upheaval in 1968, Richard Wolin on French Intellectuals and the Cultural Revolution

Richard Wolin's textured look at French intellectuals and the Cultural Revolution is worthwhile reading.

By any standard, 1968 was a tumultuous year around the globe.

Here in the United States, two of the decade’s leading lights, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, were murdered within two short months of each other.  In Czechoslovakia, the arrival of Soviet tanks marked the brutal end to that nation’s experiment with “Socialism with a human face.”   In Mexico, students challenged the government, which responded by massacring hundreds of protestors.

France also saw its share of revolutionary ferment and action, especially in May.

Many of the leading activists were students and left-wingers drawing inspiration from the recently launched Cultural Revolution in China. Enthralled by Mao Zedung, whose commitment to philosophy and poetry they admired, these intellectuals were blind to the revolution’s abuses.

Yet, far from being a one-dimensional story of privileged students and intellectuals ignoring the blemishes of an exotic other, the French tale is more complicated, according to Richard Wolin.  In his fascinating book, The Wind from the East, Wolin argues that the actions the French people took while acting in accordance with their limited understanding of the cultural revolution permanently and positively changed French society for the better.

The Wind from the East is more than a straightforward analysis of intellectuals’ enchantment with the revolution.  In this enormously rich work, Wolin evokes an age, takes the measure of towering philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, among others, supplies a subtle and textured analysis of French, and to a lesser degree, Chinese society, and raises important questions about the legacy of social movements and appropriate criteria by which to evaluate them.

Wolin will be speaking about the work today at 2:00 p.m. at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.

Yet again, uber-connector Danny Postel has supplied me with a stimulating book and demonstrated his commitment to the dissemination and discussion of ideas by convening and publicizing the conversation.

The wind from the east has a telescopic quality, focusing in the first four chapters on the broader strokes of the May upheavals, the role the agitators assigned to the cultural revolution, and an initial exploration of who the Maoists were.   Pictures showing the influence of the cultural revolution, including shots by legendary Magnum photographer Gilles Perress, divide the two parts of the book.

The second four chapters hone in on individual characters like the philosophers mentioned above, the literary/political magazine Telquel, and an assessment of the transition Wolin asserts happened in France from cultural revolution to associational democracy.

Both sections have riveting vignettes.

To give just one example, Wolin uses his extensive knowledge of French society to give us accounts not only of Charles de Gaulle’s actions, for example, but his changing sense of himself and the French people’s response to him and the political movement he headed.  Despite emphasizing in the book’s introduction that it is a political work, Wolin drops heavy doses of philosophy, literary and film analysis, and psychology, among other disciplines, into the body of this work.

Wolin’s attitude toward his subjects is hardly uncritical.  For instance, he takes Sartre to task at a number of different points in the book for his advocacy of the doctrine that violence by oppressed peoples against their oppressors is an act of self-affirmation. The chapter on Sartre also has a poignant recounting of a blind, feeble and dependent Sartre discussing, and largely conceding, philosophical points he previously held dear during a conversation with Benny Levy, who he considered an adoptive son.  These section not only add interest for the reader by showing the trajectory of Sartre’s life, they also add to Wolin’s credibility.    He adopts a similar stance toward the TelQuelians, who continue to hold rigidly to their support of the Chinese government, even as evidence of that regime’s horrific abuses continued to surface.

In addition to having a wide array of characters, the wind from the east covers a near dizzying range of topics, from the role of women and gay and lesbian people in French society, to a polyphonic understanding of  literature, to the PLO murder of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics, to the relative merits of structuralism, Marxism  and existentialism, to the very nature of social change. To his credit, Wolin manages both to explore these topics while retaining the general and specific direction of his overall argument.

While I did like the sections on the increased attention to, and concern for, the issues of women and gay people, I did find his assertion of permanent and transformative change a bit overstated.  In addition, the book, while largely highly accessible, does at times lapse into academic speak that render the meaning of the words far less so.

All in all, though, these are very minor faults in what was an enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking read.  Wolin’s thoughtful and insightful analysis of  the cultural revolution’s influence in 1968 France gives us food for thought for our own history and others.

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