The Maoist Temptation and the 60s French Intellectuals

e13-719Despite several reservations—especially, my lack of blind faith in Mao’s China—I sympathize with the Maoists. They present themselves as revolutionary socialists, in opposition to the Soviet Union’s revisionism and the new bureaucracy created by the Trotskyists; I share their rejection of these approaches.  I am not so naive as to believe that they will bring about the revolution in the near future, and I find the “triumphalism” displayed by some of them puerile. But whereas  the entirety of  the  traditional Left accept s the system, defining themselves as a force for renewal or the respectful opposition,  the Maoists embody a genuinely  radical  form of  contestation.

Simone de Beavoir,
All Said and Done

Maoism is not as cool in the West nowadays as it was when Mao Zedong was still alive. The People’s Republic of China has turned capitalist with Mao’s death and lost much of its thunder as a friend of the oppressed and exploited. Today, Maoism seems to be alive and kicking as a real threat to the powers that be only in the weakest links of the imperialist chain, like in India, Nepal, and the Philippines.

Back in the 1960s, French intellectuals fell in love with Mao.[i] Thinkers as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and even Julia Kristeva were swept in a global wave of upheavals by youth, students, workers, peasants, and other Wretched of the Earth sparked by the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and pledged their allegiance to Maoism in various ways.

This is the story of Richard Wolin’s The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s.

Although Wolin is thoroughly against Marx, Lenin, and Mao, the book nonetheless gives a comprehensive account of the strengths and  problems of the French Maoists. The book also attempts to show the various forms of involvement and engagement by important French thinkers with Maoism.

Wolin’s narrative is clearly one of sin and redemption. It is about how these intellectual’s overcame their infatuation with Mao. Marxism, party politics, and the dictatorship of the proletariat are after all, for him, the embodiment of pure evil. But setting aside such a questionable agenda, the book also offers glimpses, tidbits, and anecdotes about this brief Maoist chapter in French intellectual history.

Sartre’s Maoist Commitment

Jean-Paul Sartre is popular as an existentialist philosopher and writer. His novels and polemical tracts are known to tackle the dilemmas of individual choice, freedom, and existence amidst the perceived absurdity of life and all its sufferings and predicaments.

But Sartre is also known as an advocate of social engagement among writers, as he wrote in the rambling prose of What is Literature. In this respect, he is renowned as an active supporter of varied causes such as the Algerian, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions.

Sartre even wrote the Introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, where he endorsed revolutionary violence as liberating in the face of the objective violence of the ruling system. All this as Sartre avoids any deeper commitment to organizations or parties that espouse these ideas.

What is not very well-known is Sartre’s dabbling with French Maoist militants. Sartre joined them in their protest actions, assumed the titular editorship of several of their newspapers, and publicly gave away copies of these banned Maoist papers on busy Paris boulevards.

With this dalliance with the youthful Maoist radicals, Sartre stood against the idea of the progressive intellectual as existing apart and above the masses and instead asserted that s/he should live among them, learn from them, and fight alongside them in their struggles.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir defying a government ban by illegally distributing La Cause du Peupl e in the spring of 1970. Photo: Gilles Peress. Source: Magnum Photo.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir defying a government ban by illegally distributing La Cause du Peupl e in the spring of 1970. Photo: Gilles Peress. Source: Magnum Photo.

Foucault’s Revolutionary Zeal

Still another French thinker whose Maoist entanglement is not as renowned as his other achievements is Michel Foucault – more popular for making postmodernist micropolitics of everyday life fashionable as opposed to the supposedly “dogmatic” Marxist revolutionary orthodoxy.

For a time, Foucault joined the prisoner advocacy network GIP or the Groupe d’Information surles Prisons. The GIP functioned as a support group for detained Maoists, many of whom were leading hunger strikes in prisons all over France.

Foucault became deeply involved with Maoists who provided guidance for the direction, the meeting places, and the mimeograph machines for the pamphlets of the GIP. It was in the GIP that he adopted the Maoist method of work of social investigation to gather information on French prison conditions.

In this framework, it is not enough to conduct academic book-study, to confine oneself with “textuality.” More important is the act of actually immersing oneself among the masses and learning directly from them through social practice.

It was during this time that Foucault developed a powerful critique of the justice and prison system. In a celebrated debate with Noam Chomsky, Foucault argued that it is “an idea invented and put into practice in different societies as an instrument of a particular political or economic power.”

It is clear that we live under a dictatorial class regime, under a class power that imposes itself with violence, even when the instruments of this violence are institutional and constitutional… [When the proletariat triumphs] it will exert a power that is violent, dictatorial, and even bloody over the class it has supplanted.

But Foucault’s petty bourgeois class origins also brought with him impetuous anarchist tendencies. While agreeing with the fact that the existing court system manifests the interests of the ruling classes, Foucault also opposed the creation of people’s courts on the basis of proletarian class interests.

Thus, even as Foucault called for the destruction of the bourgeois judicio-legal system for its bourgeois class biases, he also contested the idea of establishing a new proletarian legality that for him would only exercise formal restrictions on spontaneous popular will.

Foucault’s celebration of violent excess did have a good insurrectionist edge to it as this absorbed him in a series of pitched battles with the riot police in student barricades at the Vincennes: “Daily protests and riots regularly interrupted classes and the administrative functions of the university.”

Sartre and Foucault protesting the treatment of Arab immigrants at the Goutte d’Or quarter in Paris, November 1971. Photo: Gérard Ai mé. Source: Magnum Photo.
Sartre and Foucault protesting the treatment of Arab immigrants at the Goutte d’Or quarter in Paris, November 1971. Photo: Gérard Ai mé. Source: Magnum Photo.

The Curious Case of Tel Quel

A more curious case of sinophilia involved the cultural journal, Tel Quel. Representing itself as the avante garde of the French intellectual scene, Tel Quel is prominent for championing first the Noveau Roman of Alain Robe-Grillet and subsequently the Formal Structuralism of Roland Barthes as well as the obtuse Deconstructionism of Derrida.

However, it was also this aspiration to be always at the forefront of the latest intellectual chic that led it to a more political direction when its editors sensed the militant wind blowing towards the direction of the May 1968 uprising. To capitalize in the rising political consciousness and indications of an approaching upheaval, Tel Quel ironically aligned itself with the PCF.

This would prove a big blunder as the bourgeoisified PCF would be at the tail of the rising youth and peoples movements of the 1960s rather than at its head. It was thus that Tel Quel finally settled into its bizarre “Chinese” mode.

This curiousity can be discerned, for instance, in the way Tel Quel contributor and eventual Post-Structuralist Superstar Julia Kristeva claimed that the foot binding of Chinese women was a manifestation of their power rather than of extreme feudal oppression!

Ultimately, this mania for the Cultural Revolution by the Tel Quel editors seemed more superficial rather than touching the essence of socialist revolution and construction in Mao’s China.

Althusser and Badiou

Another strange case is Louis Althusser’s having been inspired by Maoism. While he is an avowed Marxist, his formal membership in the Soviet-backed French Communist Party or the PCF prevented him from expressing this influence openly.

This is true especially after the Sino-Soviet split wherein the Chinese Maoists rebuked the “modern revisionism”[ii] of the former Soviet Union.

Althusser was able to get around this bind by contributing an anonymous essay to an ENS student publication special issue on the Cultural Revolution. His 1962 essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination” meanwhile set out to tackle Mao’s treatise “On Contradiction” without Mao’s name ever appearing anywhere in the article.

This way, Althusser engaged with Mao without running afoul PCF officials. Nevertheless, this still represented a compromise with the blatant opportunism of the PCF and its Soviet masters. It is this conciliatory attitude that led many of Althusser’s students, who unable to clearly demarcate between modern revisionism and revolutionary thought, to break away from the Marxism altogether.

But one of Althusser’s students, unlike his erstwhile colleagues, unequivocally took up Maoism. Alain Badiou was one of the founders of the Union des Communistes Francais Marx-Leninistes or the UCF-ML, which criticized the other Maoist groups’ loss of ideological anchor and slide into micropolitics.

End of the Maoist Episode

WolinMany of the intellectuals who became infatuated with the Maoist fad in the 1960s would eventually fall out of love as new fads became the sensation.

The youthful French Maoists suffered from weaknesses, thus the debacle of their almost missing the May 1968 uprising (because of the initially incorrect sectarian line that it cannot be supported because of its student rather than working class leadership). [iii]

Meanwhile the death of Mao in 1976 and the subsequent capitalist restoration in the People’s Republic of China as well as the continued degeneration of the Eastern European Soviet revisionists led many petty bourgeois intellectuals astray from the path of revolutionary change.

A defeatist outlook thus clouded the abundant optimism of the 1960s. Postmodernism became the new “IN” as many of these very same intellectuals who embraced Mao now castigated class analysis, the party, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and Marxism as oppressive, totalitarian, and evil.

Ironically, many of those who took up the banner of Maoism misrepresented the Cultural Revolution as a revolt against the party, taking it as a cue to discard collective endeavors challenging the entire rotten ruling order in exchange for a politics of identity and everyday life.

The call to replace the system with socialism leading into communism is devalued to a mere championing of alternative lifestyles. Issues of homosexual and women oppression are isolated from the larger context of their emergence in a class society.

This one-sided relegation of politics to the microscopic level at the expense of a larger view – as particularly apparent in Foucault and his ilk – soon enough fell into the pessimistic conclusion on the absence of any real alternative to the world capitalist system.

But the promise of the May 68 uprising is still there waiting to be unlocked. Its failure to culminate into a full blown social revolution, rather than a manifestation of the impregnability the dominant social order, is simply a function of the absence of a genuine revolutionary vanguard.

What is to be done, as Badiou’s UCF-ML would postulate but subsequently failed to put into practice, is “to form a party for the sake of making the revolution, in order that it is not only the weather that is stormy, but us.”

As global capitalism drowns in ever-worsening crisis, this conclusion is as true today as it was in the 1960s.


[i] Maoism is the third stage of development of Marxism-Leninism, the revolutionary theory of the proletariat class that serves as a summing up of its historical experience in the class struggle and as guide to revolutionary action.

Mao correctly analyzed semicolonial and semi-feudal societies shackled by foreign imperialism and saw the need to launch a people’s democratic revolution through a protracted people’s war by surrounding the cities from the countryside to achieve national liberation and genuine democracy.

His greatest achievement is in showing the importance of a continuing revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat and the waging of a cultural revolution for the purpose of contesting revisionism and preventing the restoration of capitalism.

The actual historical Cultural Revolution saw an explosion of militant mass actions against the capitalist roaders and corrupt bureaucrats within the Chinese Communist Party.

[ii] Revisionism is the systematic revision of fundamental revolutionary principles of Marxism. Modern revisionism is the revisionism that emerged in the socialist governments and communist parties in power.

Revisionists present themselves as Marxists who want to “improve” Marxism but in truth only to rob it of its revolutionary essence.

[iii] “The Unfinished Revolution,” a review of Wolin’s book by Douglas Greene in The Kasama Project gives a brief summary of the history of the Maoist movement in France from 1968 to 1973.



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