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Richard Wolin provides a fascinating account of the intellectual confusion that followed May '68, but takes an ambivalent attitude towards the revolutionary potential it generated, argues Feyzi Ismail.

Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East (Princeton University Press 2010), xiv, 391pp.

The Wind from the East is a thought-provoking contribution to debates about the 1960s and their influence on what Wolin describes as the ‘regeneration of French associational life’ (p.360). But it also contains serious weaknesses. One of Wolin's central arguments is that the ‘new humanitarian consciousness’ (p.363), which emerged following May ’68 in the form of new social movements beginning in the 1970s, was shaped by what he sees as a crucial legacy of the 1960s: the proximity of culture and politics and ultimately the dominance of cultural politics over class politics. To the extent that this was true, it was neither inevitable nor the result of the irrelevance of class politics, as Wolin suggests.

Wolin argues that understanding the 1960s is indispensable for understanding the politics of the present. ‘The 1960s and their after-effects influenced – and left permanently transformed – the realms of politics, society, fashion, art and music’ (p.ix). Half a century later, the 1960s are still an intellectual reference point for resistance, whether against dictatorships in the Middle East or against austerity.

It was students who began the revolt, but the most explosive aspect of May ’68 was that within two weeks, over nine million workers had gone on strike in solidarity (p.98), setting off a period of social unrest France had not seen since the 1930s. Of course, the right on both sides of the Atlantic portrayed 1968 as a social catastrophe: a manifestation of declining respect for authority, cultural demise, and anarchy (p.5). There are parallels with recent forms of resistance in Britain, from the student protests of 2010 to the Occupy movement and the riots of 2011; the government and media attempt to depict a young, angry generation as having no discernable political goals, out only to create violence and disorder.

French Maoism played a central role on the left in the aftermath of the revolutionary upheaval of May ’68. At times, it seemed the Maoists were the only dynamic force on the French left, making real political gains in the post-May period. Ultimately, however, Maoism helped facilitate the shift away from revolutionary politics to a cultural politics that marginalised questions of class, and weakened the left.

Maoism’s popularity in France effectively spanned the years 1966, from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, to 1974, shortly before Mao’s death in 1976. The widespread infatuation with China’s Cultural Revolution in late 1960s France began with a small group of gauchistes around Althusser – students at the prestigious École normale supérieure – who positioned themselves to the left of the French Communist Party, PCF. The PCF belittled the Maoists and referred to their organisation, the Gauche prolétarienne (GP) as a groupuscule or little group. Nonetheless, the Maoists later became a cause célèbre when the Pompidou government banned their paper La Cause du Peuple and arrested Maoist leaders. They then began to attract a following. For a start, Sartre became the paper’s editor.

Social and cultural change in post-war France revealed a basic paradox that gave rise to instability: while material well-being was on the rise, political and cultural choices were becoming increasingly limited. For example, while the number of students in higher education increased by 300 percent (p.51), universities were becoming knowledge factories merely servicing the bureaucracy. One of the consequences of the disillusionment with capitalism on the one hand, and the failures of ‘really existing socialism’ on the other, was that young people were looking for answers. The reality of Chinese ‘socialism’ did not matter; they were more interested in the idea of China and its imagined successes, projecting dreams for a better world onto events unfolding in China, events which they knew little about. ‘One senses that if the Cultural Revolution didn’t exist they would have had to invent it’ (p.3). For an increasingly frustrated young population, the Stalinist PCF offered little, mired as it was in abstract and irrelevant debates of the past.

Imagining the Cultural Revolution in China was an antidote to this frustration, and to political instability at home. Everyone got on the bandwagon. Films like Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise boosted the political-chic content of the Cultural Revolution as it was understood in France. However, when May ’68 finally erupted, the Maoists were nowhere to be found. While students were fighting the police in the streets, the Maoists clung to the idea that only the working class could ignite a revolution; they dismissed the student revolt ‘due to its deficient class character’ (p.95). The PCF itself had earlier dismissed the student revolt, but not wanting to be outdone by the various groupuscules, it called a general strike. Wildcat strikes involving millions of workers followed what was probably the largest general strike in world history.

It was only then that the Maoists understood the potential of the May events and for politics actually to transform reality. The alliance between students and workers, with the students forcing open the possibility of resistance on a mass scale, put an end to the idea that revolution was impossible in a major industrialised economy. But if the Maoists influenced the events of the post-May period, the emancipatory spirit of May also influenced the Maoists: they split into two groups, and the GP reaffirmed the need for militants ‘to merge with the urban and rural masses, who embodied humanity’s glorious revolutionary future’ (p.137). The GP began to use the tactic of the enquête or investigation to document the reality of the prisons and factories, and encouraged forms of direct action.

In 1970, the Maoists split once again, and a section of the GP founded the bi-weekly paper Tout!, whose central focus was a critique of the revolutionary vanguard party and a celebration of a range of ‘alternative’ politics that they felt reflected the real spirit of May. They supported feminist and gay liberation campaigns in particular, but also seized upon and highlighted the specific issues of immigrants, the unemployed and other marginalised groups in society. ‘Why, the breakaway Maoists reasoned, should the critique of authoritarian policies stop at the doorstep of the political Left?’ (p.141). It was the most radical forces on the left that supported these new struggles, and rightly put their weight behind them.

In analysing the Maoist experiment of the early 1970s, Wolin identifies an important phenomenon: the evolution from revolutionary politics to cultural politics to lifestyle politics (p.151), and the process by which much of the GP leadership and many of its supporters went from being revolutionaries to ardent human rights activists. Wolin appears to suggest that this rightward evolution was the result of violence, inherent in the revolutionary project: ‘they had experienced the excesses of leftism firsthand and recoiled in horror at what they had seen’ (p.36). Wolin equates revolution with violence and Marxism with authoritarianism; and the spirit of May, he argues, was resolutely anti-authoritarian. Moreover, he claims, structural transformations in the workplace, and the move to a ‘post-industrialist’ society meant the irrelevance of class struggle (p.47). The post-May era had given rise to ‘cultural-revolutionary pluralism’ (p.141) where democracy and inclusion became central, and demands for higher wages and improved working conditions had become old-fashioned.

Yet to the extent that new struggles became dominant, it was not due to the irrelevance of the working class or the class struggle, as Wolin argues, but rather to the defeat of the revolution. Wolin’s charting of the degeneration of revolutionary politics is important, but his explanation of the reasons for this degeneration is misleading because it implicitly accepts many of the same caricatures of ’68 for which he criticises the intellectuals.

Wolin devotes the second half of the book to the politics of the most popular intellectuals at the time: Sartre, Foucault and those most associated with the journal Tel Quel, Philippe Sollers and his partner Julia Kristeva. In their own ways, they gave legitimacy to the move away from organised revolutionary politics. Sartre admired the Maoists’ revolutionary ardour and their insurrectionary élan (p.204), which the PCF was completely lacking. He appreciated the fact that the student revolt could be a catalyst for more sweeping change, and that the Maoists were attempting to take the gains of the May events forward. While he took gauchiste ideas seriously, he also held that ‘the Leninist vanguard political model had been wholly discredited’ (p.214), ultimately rejecting political organisation in favour of revolutionary spontaneity.[1] 

Foucault’s analysis of the import of the May events (he was actually teaching in Tunisia at the time), was that the boundaries of ‘the political’ had expanded beyond class struggle or civil liberties. The new political stakes involved the transformation of knowledge into specific institutional practices related to prisons, population control and supposedly scientific methods that make judgements on what is considered normal or abnormal. If power permeates every aspect of life, then, as Wolin describes it, ‘political contestation was no longer the prerogative of the proletariat alone’ (p.318). Drawing inspiration from the Italian Lotta Continua and the Black Panthers in the US, for two years Foucault threw his life into the Prison Information Group (GIP), which sought to conduct investigations about the reality of prison conditions, thus calling into question the very foundations of the penal system. Such investigations could be conducted for other bourgeois institutions: the universities, the media and the courts.

Lotta Continua had developed a theory closely aligned with Maoism and Third Worldism, that members of the underclass, petty criminals and unemployed youth could be a supplemental revolutionary force (p.317). Third Worldism was gaining considerable support on the left; national liberation movements in developing countries, led by the peasantry and the intelligentsia, appeared to be creating more potential for revolution than the working classes in the developed world. The problem was that these movements became bourgeois-nationalist, neglecting the kind of internationalism, based on working class solidarity, needed for socialist revolution. Helping to reinforce the move away from the centrality of the working class, Foucault placed his hopes in the ‘wretched of the earth’ bringing about the downfall of capitalism. If the French working class was defeated it was because, Foucault believed, they ‘readily imbibed bourgeois mentality’ (p.326). Bourgeois mores and values would therefore need to be confronted directly. Foucault had dismissed the fact that the insurrection, led by students and workers, had challenged state power in France. It was not long before he became an advocate for humanitarian intervention and praised French humanitarian NGOs.

The containment of May ’68 meant that much of the left moved rightwards following the re-election of de Gaulle, and Wolin’s analysis of how this defeat played out intellectually is full of insight. But 1968 was not an imagined political crisis for the regime, as Wolin seems to suggest; it had real revolutionary potential. Groups on the left that understood this dynamic due to their theoretical clarity and experience, such as the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), resisted the rightward shift. It was precisely people like Régis Debray, explaining 1968 as a kind of cultural renewal for capitalism, who led the move to the right. In different ways, the post-structuralist intellectuals took similar paths. Maoism’s theoretical shortcomings could not provide a coherent alternative to challenge the descent into liberal humanitarianism. Maoism was developed in the context of a large rural peasantry in China and for Chinese conditions, and where the working class was not the central subject of history. Importing it mechanically to suit conditions in France meant there was always a tendency to shift attention away from the working class, particularly if it suffered a defeat. Other social forces could then be foregrounded. The Maoists’ insistence on ‘going to the people’ meant that all sectional struggles carried equal weight.

Traditional forms of struggle were certainly challenged, and Wolin writes that ‘the post-May period witnessed the proliferation of a wide variety of self-help societies, human rights organisations, and citizen initiatives’ (p.361). Nevertheless, the turn from the political to the cultural, from revolutionary politics to liberalism and the politics of everyday life, was not mainly the result of ‘utopian political expectations’ on the part of the left (p.365) or that Lenin inevitably leads to Stalin. The main political problem on the left in ’68 was the conservative role played by the PCF; the left’s post-68 loss of nerve and its move away from Marxist ideas flowed from the fact that the movement was contained. Understanding this is crucial if ’68 is to be salvaged as a moment that had the potential for fundamental social transformation.


[1] For a useful account of Sartre’s sympathies with the gauchistes, see Birchall, I., (1989). Sartre and Gauchisme. Journal of European Studies, 19 (21), pp.21-59.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU


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