One Cheer for The Aftermath of French Intellectual Mao Worship


Jeremy Jennings at the Brit Standpoint mag reviews a new book by Richard Wolin on the usual sordid expressions of love for murderous totalitarianism on the part of intellectuals in the freer, richer West, particularly France. (The book is The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s.)

Jennings notes that something not-so-bad came from the phenomenon of untoward Mao-love:

Coming in the wake of May '68 student protests, Maoism in France was a harbinger of the collapse of orthodox Marxism. To Sartre's evident dismay and frustration, the anti-Bolshevik Daniel Cohn-Bendit simply denied that the students had any programme or long-term objectives. The organisational mentality of the once-mighty French Communist Party was dead. 

What replaced it, Wolin contends, was a new form of politics focusing on personal identity and the transformation of everyday life. Repentant Maoists — including the so-called "New Philosophers" André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy — not only set out a defence of human rights and of humanitarian intervention but also began the process leading to calls for a regeneration of civil society. Breaking with the centuries-long tradition of State centralisation, the new politics focused on direct democracy and the expansion of associational life. Utopian hopes, Wolin concludes, were brought down to earth in the form of the ideal of democratic citizenship.

This doesn't mean French intellectuals are now nuanced, intelligent lovers of freely chosen community and/or free choice in general:

Statistics indicate that the number of associations in France continues to grow significantly every year. Yet France today is hardly a country that would have Alexis de Tocqueville jumping for joy and I doubt that David Cameron would see it as a model for the Big Society. Opinion polls indicate that the desired profession of the majority of young people is that of State functionary. Attempts at reform are met by a moral posture of resistance and a populist anti-establishment rhetoric. Anti-modernism — in the shape of hostility to what is taken to be an American-led process of globalisation, for example — is much in evidence. Liberalism — and, even worse, neo-liberalism — remains a dirty word.

Matt Welch wrote about a libertarianish French youth leader Sabine Herold in the October 2003 issue of Reason magazine.