BOOK REVIEW Richard Wolin’s The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution and the Legacy of the 1960s


Generational Identities and Cultural Politics: A Historiography of Vietnamese 1920’s and 1930’s Student Movements

I led a discussion of Richard Wolin’s Wind from the East in Professor Alexander Cook’s history of Chinese Socialism class spring 2015. Below is my discussion plan for the class including an author biography, argument summary, discussion questions, and a list of the events and figures discussed in the book.


Richard Wolin is Professor of History, Comparative Literature, and Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center of European Intellectual history. His most famous books include Heidegger’s Children and The Seduction of Unreason. Wolin also writes about the Frankfurt school and Walter Benjamin and is also a public intellectual and contributes to the New Republic, Dissent, and the LA Times. From his interview, Wolin speaks about his intellectual lineage, influence by Frankfurt school, and  study under Habermas. Wolin experienced the 1960s as an adolescent and narrowly avoided service in the Vietnam War.


“French Maoism operated at a dangerous remove from the reality principle. Mao’s China became a projection—a Rohrschach test—for the students’ overheated revolutionary fantasies. With Soviet communism substantially discredited, revolutionary China, along with other third-world experiments in state socialism (North Vietnam, Cuba, and so on), seemed to embody the last best hope for a left-wing alternative to the dislocations of Western modernity: overcrowded cities, urban blight, ghetto uprisings (in the United States, at least), industrially scarred landscapes, and massive pollution.” (Rediscovering Marxism with Althusser)

This work examines the Maoist moment in French politics and its legacy upon French intellectual thinking, the broadening of politics into culture, and subsequent social movements regarding identity politics and the individual. The first half of the book sets the historical scene for the May 1968 uprisings while the second half considers the ways in which intellectuals, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and editors of Tel Quel engaged with Maoist ideas. As Wolin argues, the level of engagement with Mao Tse-tung Thought was not only an abstraction, but at times superficial, imaginary, and reinvented, transformed into a “China in our heads” that was removed from the realities of the Cultural Revolution in China. As discussed in prior weeks, ‘Mao Tse-tung Thought’ and the ‘China example’ becomes wholly reappropriated and divergent to a different social political context, (much in the theme of China’s own split from the Soviet Union).

There are many ways to read this text—as a historical interpretation of the dizzying individuals, factors, and parties towards the shaping of an event, as a piece of generational nostalgia, anomie, and a search for the meaning, or as a historicized examination of circulations of ideas. Yet how should we read this as a class on Chinese socialism? One of Wolin’s fundamental questions: What about Maoism was appealing to French intellectuals at that moment in time? What was the ‘China’ that existed in the heads of intellectuals?


Important to discuss when considering appeal of Maoism: Prior to this, we have discussed the circulation of Maoism in the Third World, but this week we consider how Maoism was received and took on new meaning in a first world country, France. This week weaves together key discussions we’ve had so far, particularly earlier ones on Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong thought as well as generational conflicts and the May Fourth Movement. In this context, it is important to revisit core aspects of Mao Zedong Thought in relation to Marxism and to see how and what aspects were latched onto by French Maoists. (human perfectibility and self-criticism, the potential for personal transformation; dialectical and inherent contradictions-revised relationship of base and superstructure that emphasized a certain level of autonomy, of course , militancy)

Violence as core to the understanding of Maoism—Yet for the French Maoists, the step towards violence was a roadblock in the full appropriation of a ‘revolution’ of violence and terror. Why was this? Fears to relive the history of French revolutions? The absence of a real foreign threat (such as Japan to China) in a way that involved geopolitical decisions of life and death?


àBut on the flip side, how do we examine the May 68 revolts and its intellectual aftermath as a legitimate socio-political movement? Is it possible for a movement regarding the complete revolution of ‘culture’ a political movement?


Discussion regarding the legacy of 68 as the complete dismantling of the socialist Left as well as the shift in the role of the political intellectual (from universal to specific)


For today’s discussion, I envisioned following a similar format that of Wolin’s boook — the setting of the stage and the hour of the intellectuals. Although he claims this is not a ‘historical book’ Wolin makes sense of the 1960s by crafting a multidimensional understanding of the buildup to May 68 and what he calls the ‘triumph of libidinal politics.’ What did France look like? (demographics, 30 glorious years)




May 68 uprisings

Arrest of proletariat left leaders & Maoism popularity

Feb 1972 Maoist revolutionary Pierre Overney killed at Renault factory (no longer play acting)- attraction and revulsion to revolutionary violence

Solzhenitskyn’s expose of Soviet Gulag published in France in 1974 & revelations about killing field sin Cambodia

Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia

November 1972 PLO- Munich Massacre (as the watershed moment in Europe, similar to that of Lin Biao’s death in China)


“Politics became part and parcel of a new quest for personal identity

“Structures do not take to the streets”- Lucien Goldmann

“One must get down from the horse in order to pluck the flower” Maoists into factors, Foucault and Prison Information Group

“Among students and intellectuals, the identification with Cultural Revolutionary China became an exist strategy to escape from the straitjacket of orthodox Marxism.” What were they responding to? Idea of revolutionary vanguard


Prelude to May 1968 uprisings

  • Trauma of recent history-World War II, decolonization and Algeria, Cold War
  • The triumph of political technocracy, a government by elites, De Gaulle’s reign (10 years)
  • France emerges from the Middle Ages in the Trente glorieuse: industrialization, modernization, urbanization, new affluence
  • Sense of lack of options during this period
  • Maoism as a Rohrschach test or projection screen for revolutionary hopes and fantasies, Chinese revolution as the last hope


Everyday life Revolution

“Revolution no longer meant seizing power or socializing the means of production. It connotated instead a grassroots transformation of interpersonal relations and living conditions.”


Everyday life: for Foucault from universal intellectual to a ‘specific intellectual’ who contests local struggles, not necessarily resistance for the utopic future, but site-specific

Transposing Maoist idea of cultural life on everyday life, social relations, not necessarily primacy of the party, inventing revolution from the ground up, anti-authoritarianism



The build up to 68 (in a similar way that Dirlik built up to May 4th?)



Basic, but essential questions:

  • What was the relationship between the French Communist Party (PCF) & gauchisme? (micropolitical groups, groupuscule left of Communist, micro-uprisings
  • What key events and factors contributed to the rise of French Maoism? (for example, arrests in 1970 of Maoists militants)

Some possible discussion points:

  • Global events in memory and events experienced for generation of May 68 students. (Weight—parents generation of WWII, Germany occupation vichy, fascism and also traces—French Communist Party and Charles de gaulle (served in WWII, founded French 5th Republic, president 1959-1969) v. Cold war and decolonization
  • Quoting Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World: “We are under going a painful and premature revision of our old ‘values’; leisure is no longer a festival, the reward of our labor, and it is not yet a freely chosen activity pursued for itself. It is a generalized display: television, cinema, tourism.” The tedium of life
  • Frustrations—sexual, political, intellectual
  • Normalcy – who is excluded? (1970s shift to consider not justclass issues, but other spaces where individuals marginalized)
    • “At one point during this period (1970s), Foucault is alleged to have remarked to Deleuze: “We have to free ourselves from the errors of Freudian-Marxism” Deleuze responded: “All right: I’ll take care of Freud, you take care of Marx.”’
    • Foucault: “It is not simply theidea of better and more equitable forms of justice that underlies the people’s hatred of the judicial system, of judges, courts, and prisons, but—aside from this and before anything else—the singular perceptioin that power is always exercised at he expense of the people.”
  • Structuralism and Marxism – The death of the event and subject (what constitutes historical subject/paradigm of subject) Students’ view of structuralism (and students’ antipathy, “The students’ antipathy to structuralism was thoroughgoing and deep-seated. Fro them it signified the hermetic discourse of a supercilious intellectual elite—the new “Master Thinkiers.” They perceived structuralism’s claims to “scientificity” as an ideological expression of the managerial mind-set they were desperately seeking to overthrow.”) (Marxist orthodoxy) Althusser engages with Mao’s essay “On Contradiction”, where he acknowledges that the “base” and “superstructure” weren’t necessarily a causal relationship, but stood in contradiction to each other..ultimately heightening the autonomy of the politics and culture rather than purely economic Marxist materialism)
  • Symbols, Icons, Romanticism & Nostalgia (for Revolution, for the Revolution lost, pavement stone, barricades, symbolic occupation of Odeon Theater—‘street theater’) (dialectical relationship of self-hate..romance..shunning identity Sartre bourgeois self-hatred) for Marxism (particularly Stalinism in light of Krushchevs disappointing reformism)
    • Pierre Goldman, (Marxist trained in guerrilla warfare in Venzeula), on May revolt: “The students streamed into the streets and the Sorbonne like a twisted and hysterical torrent. In a playful and masturbatory demeanor, they satisfied their desire for history. I was shocked that they always spoke out with such visible jubilance. In place of action they substituted the verb. I was shocked that they called for the empowerment of imagination. Their seizure of power was only an imaginary one.”
  • Maoism as solution- “The first message we received from China: revolution within the revolution. The second message we received (though fewer of us this time): revolution of civilization. The third message we received: Seven hundred million Chinese people is not a kibbutz; it’s not a phalanstery; it’s not a splinter group. It’s a quarter of the world, an empire in the center of the world, in the center of the world that it was about to implode. We could hear the implosion.” (Roland Castro, Maoist militant) (Maoism broadened scope of revolutionary struggle, rather a qualitative transformation of everyday life—“Changer la vie”)
  • Maoism as an imported/translated/filtered solution and thus plural- many French Maoisms (UJC-ML, Tel Quel,
  • Technocracy and the emptying of society
  • “May sounded the death knell for the prophetic intellectual: the thinker who possesses privileged access to history and thus takes it upon himself to explicate its course to the benighted masses.” What was the role of the intellectual in relation to society and how did May 68 change this? And what of post 68?
  • May 68 as an anarchist movement – origins, sentiments, trajectory, goals, and traces (combat political centralism, anti-statism which was hallmark of Gaulists, Communists, Republicans; rejection of hierarchy; rejection of technocracy and managerial mindsetànew way of looking at politics, culture and everyday experience, social power of individuals)( from adapt your self to express yourself) & Maoist critiques (lack of class struggle)
  • May 68 as a youth movement –parallels with Cultural Revolution and role of Red Guard, broadening idea of political revolution (a revolution against the dominant communist party)
  • Structure of Wolin’s argument: Does Wolin’s approach to understanding the political and cultural buildup to May 68 make this event inevitable? (Dirlik’s approach to understanding how Marxist-inspired Communism prevailed over active anarchist movement)
  • Distance – Cultural distance from specificities of China and Chinese Communist Revolution; information transference; revolutionary tourism (Charles Hayford Chapter)
    • Roland Barthes of Tel Quel after 1974 tour to PRC “Mao’s calligraphy, reproduced at every turn (a factory hall, a park, a bridge), marks Chinese space with a lyrical and elegant jetéok: admirable art, omnipresent, more convincing to us than the hagiography that comes from afar. . . . A people (that in twenty-five years has already constructed an admirable nation) travels, labors, drinks its tea or practices gymnastics alone: without theater, without noise, without posing—in sum, without hysteria.”
    • Information as power (Foucault’s investigations into prisons and judicial system, not a question of reform but question of fundamental existence: official police files as power-knowledge)
  • Reading into the appeal of Maoist thought and orientalism



General Charles de Gaulle (1958-1969)

Parti Communiste Francais (PCF)

Jean Luc-Godard

Daniel Cohn-Bendit

Henri Lefebvre, Edgar Morin, Paul Ricoeur, Alain Touraine – faculty at time of May 68

Nanterre, University of Strasbourg, Antony University, Sorbonne

Louis Althusser


Cahiers marxistes –leninistes – editors Robert Linhart, Jacques-Alain Miller, Jacques Ranciere, Dominique Lecourt

UJC-ML (Union des jeunessess communists Marxistes-leninistes) leadership- Robert Linhart, Jacques Broyelle, Christian Riss, and Jean-Pierre Le Dantec (pilgrimage to China in 1967) (forerunner to GP)

Gauche proletarienne (GP)

Alain Badiou

Jean Paul-Sartre

Simone de Beauvoir

Vive la revolution! (VLR)

La Cause du Peuple  (Sartre)

Tout! (Sartre)

Jean-Pierre Le Dantec

Interior Minister Raymond Marcelin

Prime Minister Pompidou

Mick Jagger

Pierre Victor (Benny Levy)

Tel Quel – Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva (pilgrimage to China in 1974)

Michel Foucault

Daniel Defert

Prison Information Group (GIP)


Mouvement liberation des femmes (MLF)

Front homosexual d’action revolutionnaire (FHAR)

Guy Hocquenghem

Human rights


Theoretical Engagements






French phenomenology (Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger)


Maximilien de Robespierre

Sigmund Freud

Henri Lefebvre

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Lacan

Roland Barthes

Claude Levi-Strauss

Cornelius Castoriadis







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