Friday, 5 November 2010


For the Left there are two 1960’s.  The haute couture of Paris 1968, and the prêt-á-porter of America, Brazil and the rest. The Parisian revolt has to a large extent become lost to mythology; now a part of the institutional memory of French intellectual life (or that fraction of the intelligentsia which appears in the mainstream media; and on its fringes – the celebrities of the academic world: Deleuze, Foucault, Guattari…).  This significantly distorts the decade; for by turning the political dissent into high class pop music it forgets the hard graft of the anti-war activists in the States; and the desperate struggles in other countries; the student deaths in Mexico, another rebellion in that famous year.  It also prejudices us against the present: witness the Anglo-American media on the current French strikes; where the strikers have been treated with irony and disdain

These differences are reflected in the intellectuals of that generation; nicely captured by two recent articles.  In an introduction to a Nick Turse piece Tom Engelhardt writes of the impact on him of Noam Chomsky’s After Pinkville; with its call for the resistance to do more to stop the war in Vietnam War.  This exemplifies the purpose of all Chomsky’s political work, which is to change the political facts, by supporting radical groups and providing them with information and analysis.  He encourages his audience to think and act; not to admire his virtuoso technical skills.  His is not the gold tinsel of grand intellectual theory; the sort of Selfridges window display we often see in academic journals and in books from university presses.  The other piece is about the Maoist turn of a section of the fashionable Left in France…

Engelhardt shows the effects of detailed, hard-hitting criticism; that along with dedicated activism help create new recruits to the resistance; spreading the anti-war mentality more widely, to right inside the armed forces.   A phenomenon that the article contrasts with today, comparing the gun-ho or technical literature with the anti-war books the army was reading forty years ago.   Most of this was unseen and unreported at the time; though it helped sap the nerve of the United States military.[i]

The other article (by Frederic Raphael in the TLS, 15/10/2010) is about the all too familiar story of French intellectual celebrities in their fur coats and Che Guevara silk knickers.  In his demolition of The Wind from the East, a book about Maoist influence on Parisian thought in the 1960’s and 70’s, Raphael quotes some quite extraordinary statements.  We learn, for example, that the students of Louis Althusser

Began to identify profoundly with Mao’s China, which they came to perceive as a panacea for metropolitan France’s political ills.

That Maoism had a

Strangely beneficial effect on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism… [teaching them] to follow as well as to lead.

And reminding us of Magdoff and Sweezy;

To much of the outside world, the Cultural Revolution [was] a noble attempt to reignite Communism’s fading revolutionary ardour [as against] the bureaucratic sclerosis of the Soviet Union…  The Great Helmsman feared that the party was in danger of producing a new elite of self-satisfied technocrats.

As Raphael notes these views can only exist in the realms of theory; they disintegrate completely once outside in the world of historical fact and fiction.   Although it is useful to try to understand these somewhat bizarre ideas; for which we have to grasp the mindset, uncovering the assumptions on which they rest.  There are at least four:

  • Revolution is good
  • Bureaucracy is bad
  • The idea of the Soviet Union as an ideal
  • Mao an example of youthful vigour.
Revolution is good for its own sake.  This is particularly striking: the Soviet Union is criticised because it has lost its revolutionary spirit; it has become old and tired.  For most people a revolution has a purpose, its goal the improvement of life through the creation of a new kind of society.  This is not the impression given here.  Instead, the new society becomes less important than the manufacture of revolutionary feelings, and the intoxication of revolt; it is the excitement of revolution itself; those few days and weeks where one lives on one’s nerves, smashing up the past and dreaming of new paradises; pristine and vigorous, and perfect, straight from one’s own head. That moment when life becomes a university, where ideas become passionately real, and plans and committees are formed to create the New! Now!  While destruction is a drug that tempts and tempts…. 

An eye-witness caught sight of him, and was struck by his hysterical air, and his appearance of playing a part in a melodrama, or a vaudeville.  He suddenly saw him at the corner of the Rue de Buci, in the middle of a crowd of vociferating and gesticulating students.  Buisson, the eye-witness, called to him, since he was the only person he knew in the crowd by sight, and Baudelaire came running to him, brandishing a bright new rifle and cartridge case, and shouting with excitement, ‘I’ve just fired my first shot!’    Buisson could not restrain a smile as he beheld the rifle which was obviously new and had been looted from a store.  Baudelaire, however, was far too excited to notice his incredulity, and kept shouting almost hysterically: ‘We must go and shoot General Aupick!  Down with General Aupick!’  His stepfather was, at this time, head of the École Polytechnique.  (Enid Starkie’s Baudelaire.  She is describing a scene from the 1848 revolution)

The nature of most political revolutions is that they are short-lived and involve much death and destruction – notice how the ideals of revolution can gift wrap the most petty dislikes and prejudices, even in someone as intellectually refined as Baudelaire.  Do most people really want this?  More to the point, can we live on our nerves, almost endlessly?  This doesn’t seem feasible, although one of the big ideas to come out of Paris 68 suggests just this as a “political” programme: Deleuze and Guattari’s Nomadology.

Where does this need for revolution come from?  For it is not just students and French intellectuals who make holy shrines of the Parisian barricades: in the Nineties IBM was advertising itself as the revolutionary avant-garde, while today our government boasts of being the most radical since the Second World War.   Everybody loves revolt!   It is embroidered into our very culture, into our ideas and our perceptions of the world; it has become an essential part of modern society itself.  For revolution is built into the very nature of modernization, in all its forms: scientific, industrial, cultural and political.  All are different aspects of an essential unity. 

  • Cognitive growth, particularly in the sciences, depends on continuous development that periodically transforms its subject: thus Darwin in biology; Chomsky in linguistics. 
  • Industry needs scientific advances to both increase efficiency and to produce new products.  Technology has become the agriculture of state capitalism.
  • Symbiotically connected to the above are the cultural changes in the arts, popular culture, public behaviour and fashion; though these appear to have slowed down over the last 30 years.  A suggestion perhaps that the major revolution, the great transformation, between the pre-modern and modern society, vestiges of which were entrenched even until the 1980s, has now taken place; and thus reduced the “revolutionary” material on which the senses work to create radically new art. 
  • In politics there has been the overthrow of ancient regimes that were not flexible enough to cope with the new demands of industry, science and capitalism.  And there is nationalism, modernization’s most vicious son, and the greatest killer of the last two hundred years; which has transformed both the distribution of populations and their governance.

The idea of revolutionary change is built into our cultural conditioning, the very fabric of our lives.  We expect change, and are encouraged to worship it – our society depends on its dynamism.

People who are estranged from society, or humanist intellectuals who are unable to transform the world in the way of their scientific colleagues, see, perhaps inevitably, political revolution as the means to fulfil their wishes.  Though rather than changing their society they are merely replicating it in another form.  Think of all those Christian sects Gibbon describes in his Decline and Fall: their similarities are greater than their differences; it little mattered which eventually came to dominate; because the underlying worldview was the same.  Thus it is with all modern revolutionaries; they all belong to the one religion – Change it now!

Intellectuals in France have a quite specific relation to this phenomenon, for the French Revolution is one of the foundation myths of the republic.  Witness Mitterrand’s 200th anniversary spectacle: a celebration of the revolution, with the rights of man tacked on.  And behind this worship is a whole cluster of ideas about the influence and role of intellectuals – the power of the Enlightenment, and its attack on the Catholic Church, the bulwark of the absolutist state.  It is not surprising, therefore, when French intellectuals become excited about new revolutions; even when they are overseas.  They touch the mythological nerve-ends of the nation; with each foreign uprising a replay of 1789 – Paris alive in Peking.  Every new revolution becomes a nationalist revival; and this, together with the need to replace the Catholic faith, may explain the love affair between so many French intellectuals and the Communist Party.  Its importance, perhaps, in its idealisation of revolt; bottling the spirit of October 1917.  The reality was prosaically more desk bound and clerkly.

Only parts of our society are in constant flux.  All political revolutions must end; and even new industries become institutionalised into large bureaucracies.  The Soviet Union thus becomes a double myth: the rise of the revolution and its decline into state decrepitude.  With its intellectual correlative: the previous century’s bohemia institutionalized inside the present day Sorbonne.   Nearly all of us chafe against the constraints of the bureaucrat, on whom our life depends (and indeed most of us are willing members of that bureaucracy, however much we shout and squeal against it).  It was, therefore, almost inevitable that another communist regime espousing a revolution against the party apparatus would appeal to French intellectuals, living in a more rigid state than other western democracies; a staid conservatism reflected in the largest organised opposition, the French Communist Party.

Because the new is good; and we are told, and maybe even believe, that next week will be better than last week, the young have become far more prominent in our society.  The freshness of young innocence; where the future is up for grabs – always.   While with more spending power, and that vigour of adolescent curiosity, they are prime consumers of our industrial products; and so serve as a model for the rest of us: Buy! Buy! Buy!   The Chinese Cultural Revolution offered the apotheosis of this belief: the kids in charge.

It is curious phenomenon, the Left intellectual.  Where does the designation come from?  To some degree it is a self-description; which in turn depends on one’s intellectual influences.  It must also be accepted by the wider community; who often know little of the content of a thinker or writer; or their activities.  But who are these terms important for?  Intellectuals, of course; and cultural commentators, who have an easy shorthand to describe political positions and a simple means to generate verbal conflict – nothing gets one going like us against them.  But the wider public?  It is taken for granted that they share these views.  I wonder.  It is more likely that intellectual debate is seen in class terms, with the Left associated with the middle or upper classes; as rather odd people who put liberal ideas before the needs and prejudices of the common man and woman.  Inevitable if the image of the Left is one of university professors in black turtleneck shirts. 

The intellectualisation of the Left has helped this process, for it has transformed the nature of its politics; ideas have become its core content.  Thus in America we see two radical groups that are opposed to the corporate state, and both share some concerns – the overly mighty federal government, its endless wars, and the slow decline of the economy.  But one is called Left and the other Right, separated by the trenches of corporate sponsorship and indoctrination; which has filled the latter with an anti-socialist and anti-liberal ideology.  Curiously this radical populism often speaks the language of the corporate state; its ideas the very ones the well funded think tanks and academics sell and publicise.  In the past many of these radical populists would have been seen, and seen themselves, as part of the Left; a category that would have included a large constellation of opinion – from state communism to anarchist libertarianism, with the odd conspiracist thrown in. It was the class attitude that mattered, then.  Through propaganda and the natural workings of modern corporate capitalism American populism has been transformed; cast off from its origins in the Left, it has become part the radical Right, the battering ram, and cat’s-paw, for the rich and powerful.  Thus its attack on the Liberal establishment; a designation that includes the “eggheads” and the “Left” intellectuals.[ii]

In the academic and cultural worlds it is ideas that separate the political alignments, not values, nor real interests.  And these ideas come in package deals; with a cluster of concepts – such as justice, equality, worker control – and opinions – on Venezuela, Chile, Al Gore - together with a small country of thinkers and political leaders – Marx, Gramsci, Lenin - that merge to form an ideological and political pattern; recognisable to friends and foes alike.  And they cannot be separated out, with each part treated on its own merits; for their purpose is too engender strong emotional bonds; they crystallise our feelings.  They are complete entities, little totalities their participants inhabit, without too much connection to other groups or even reality itself.  In themselves the ideas are not that important; for it is the emotional connection to them that really counts.  Although this is old news: how often to do people talk about the hypocrisy of Christians?  As if the teachings of Christ had more force than the social bonds of the Christian Church.[iii]  And as with all cults there is a tendency to exaggerate, to intensify one’s effects to get noticed and talked about; very noticeable in the French intellectual community, where the few strive for media and academic attention.

The Left has become respectable; because it is not based so much what they do, as what they say.  It has become an intellectual game, and thus safe for society.  This may explain someone like Foucault who advocates the most extreme positions, Raphael quotes him as advocating mob justice, yet is a widely cited and respected member of the intellectual community, a prominent figure in the contemporary pantheon.  Compare with Chomsky, recently barred from the West Bank; his political writings much abused and often completely ignored – after all these years still an outsider to the political establishment; of which the mainstream media forms a significant part.  One reason for this ostracism is that Chomsky deals in facts, and has little interest in theoretical speculations and large abstract narratives; his analysis is of the here and now, often exposing hypocrisy and contradiction, and the (Liberal) intellectuals love of power and conformity.  He exposes the class nature of this intelligentsia, the very thing that alienates them from the public they think they represent.

Chomsky offers an alternative view of the Left: less of ideas, much more about values… Unlike ideas, which can live a self-contained life, isolated from the world around them, values are linked to feelings and emotions, and actions; thus the discomfort Chomsky causes.  So rather than talk about the historical foundations of Marx, he will quote Adam Smith and suggest, on a recent visit, that France honours its debt to Haiti, the consequences of which it continues to ignore.[iv] To suggest practical ways to redistribute wealth or encourage resistance to stop the occupation of the West Bank is a real threat; for it attacks one’s interests and position; while exposing the tension between one’s “Left wing” ideas and often conservative actions.  

A ten-week course on Engels and Eduard Bernstein is something very different; indeed, by paying the bills and socializing the young it helps sustains the existing society.  And these characters were getting old and tired, Engels and Marx were well over pension age by 1961.   Mao was a new injection of energy into a somewhat stale theology; and would thus be very attractive to Althusser and the other Marxisant intellectuals.  To keep fresh theories have to be regularly overhauled by new facts; which can often undermine them; which had been the case with Marx; and had led the turn towards metaphysics and subjective intuitions, to keep the ideology going.[v]   However, manipulation of pre-existing ideas into new configurations, with little reference to the actual world, is apt to reduce not only their relevance but their vitality; as old ideas become clichés, and new theories based on them become merely vapid forms of the same old tired material… And will be seen to be so in a society that is regularly transformed; each new decade perceived to be significantly different from the last.  Conservative theology finds it difficult to keep up with a revolutionary reality.

There is strong urge to have new ideas, that are radical and eye-catching; a hard thing to achieve if one has to stick to the facts; often dull and somewhat repetitive.   The answer, of course, is ignore that little problem – reality is merely a simulacrum we can create at will!  But once turned into pure theory ideas become irrelevant, for the wildest speculations have as much effect on our lives as the study of Ancient Greece or Indian cosmology in the 13th century…  Just academic discourses; for students to sleep through and their teachers to write books about.

How much do these people care about their theories?  It is a curious truth that many academics are not interested in the ideas themselves; only their ability to propel them through the university system, with honours, promotion and international recognition.  Thus it is often the newest, most fashionable, theories that are most prized – they are the most noticed, and talked about; providing they stay within the conventional wisdom.  In the celebrity field this mindset is exaggerated, where to stay news one must either tow the mainstream line or espouse the most extreme rhetoric – Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place.   Ideas and theories thus become a kind of hair extension or face job; regular makeovers to keep one in the public eye.  Thus the lack of curiosity about what was happening in China  - did they not want content to their ideas?  Had they forgotten that all leaders lie, and that propaganda is the language of the state?  Before advocating revolution on Maoist lines wouldn’t you investigate, to see the effects, both out of intellectual curiosity, and to ensure the ideas worked; that they did not suffocate and oppress the population?  But they were not interested in the Chinese; the ideas were merely a springboard from which dive into the heated pool of revolutionary zeal.  This tells us so much: these intellectuals are part of the ruling class, and they share its mentality: people are sacrificed for grand policy; which can be revolution or reaction.  In a review of some recent books on the Holocaust Mark Mazower writes:

… ideologically driven young Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) officials believed in a new conception of state power – the elite “fighting administration” – and defined themselves equally against the inert German bureaucrats of the ministries and the moronic party “old fighters”.  The key point about these men, trained in the humanities, law and social science, was to win the state for a new kind of revolutionary institution, one they had been preparing for since their days as student radicals…

…In Eastern Europe, this bureaucratic struggle went their way…  Heydrich’s men were unconstrained by the legal objections and bureaucratic obstacles placed in their way by the Interior Ministry inside the old Reich and by the Army in some military occupation zones…  What we call the Final Solution was primarily a series of operations spearheaded by the SS against Polish and Russian Jews.  ( a summary of Michael Wildt’s An Uncompromising Generation in TLS 17/09/2010).

The similarities with the passage cited by Raphael are striking. The difference is that the latter is for real, and given the opportunities of societal collapse and war it became murderously radical – the logic of its ideas taken to their inhuman extreme.  For Phillipe Sollers and Julia Kristeva and their friends it remained a theoretical game; though it may have had some later influence. The Wall Street Journal in a positive review(!) seems in broad agreement with the author of the book…

The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were not a secret in the West. But newly minted French Maoists in the late 1960s regarded criticism of China as imperialist slander. Mr. Wolin argues that the French Maoists' invincible ignorance about real Maoism is what allowed them to develop a genuinely libertarian philosophy. "Ultimately, what began as an exercise in revolutionary dogmatism was transformed into a Dionysian celebration of cultural pluralism and the right to difference."

One wonders.   What is described here was happening in other countries, without the imprimatur of Marx or Mao – were they responsible for the Summer of Love in San Francisco and London?  Was Love Love Me Do written by Sartre and Beauvoir?   Were Althusser and Foucault really more important than the change to flexible manufacturing, the rise of youth culture, the Feminist and Gay movements?[vi]   Intellectuals often inflate not only their reputations, but also their influence; forgetting the wider social forces that operate independently of them.  Has this happened here?  Could ideas so far out and repressive really create their opposite?  It is possible.  Hume makes a similar argument about the unexpected tolerance that followed the Puritan interregnum.  But he is talking about a wider social force; not just ideas in themselves.

They worship the Chairman and his China, but know nothing about them.  They hear a few adverts from its state television and off they go on a rock and roll fantasy; a sociological love-in or Amsterdam Happening.  What strikes is both the arrogance and the ignorance; they are like aristocrats who believe they know the peasant’s soul; without actually going anywhere near it.  Aristocrats?  This may suggest an answer.  Everyone today is controlled by bureaucracies; even the lord in his manor; on the telephone to the National Trust:

“What! I can’t sleep in the Queen’s bed this weekend.  What, some wedding function!  From Dagenham! Cavorting in between my sheets?”  “No sir, you have got it wrong, but we do need you to move out of the state rooms.”

Yet all rulers would like to be free to think and act as the impulses dictate; isn’t that one of the perks of privilege?  It is getting harder…  Is it any wonder then that radical ideas should come from the top, attacking the very bureaucrats that in protecting the people constrain their own actions?  Thus we have that strange phenomena; a radical populism propagated from the top down: Thatcher, Reagan, Bush and Blair, and now Cameron, to name just a few who would don their designer shell suits.

And so it is the French intellectuals of 1968 that are remembered, and reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, while Chomsky, who still irritates, is largely absent from American mainstream media and is even censored over here.  Not to speak of France, where until recently he was persona non grata; too radical and individual for its revolutionary establishment.

[i]   Though the article may have too narrow a focus: the war in Vietnam required a draft army, affecting a far greater range of people that is the case today, in the purely professional armies in Afghanistan and Iraq.  What we need is a sociology of the latter; looking in particular at the effects of the US government’s efforts separate its military forces from the rest of the society.
[ii]   See Thomas Frank’s What Happened to America? for the history and the political transformation.
[iii]  In a completely different context, he is discussing the psychology of Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson makes essentially the same point.  For him Tolstoy’s later life shows the impossibility of living by the Gospels.
[iv] Is Toussaint L’ouverture the greatest French revolutionary?  Thus inevitably under-represented in the historiography?
[v]  Marxism very quickly became a theology, where the original propositions were treated as commandments.  Too much of the interest in Marx was emotional and political; his theory proof of the necessity of the future revolution.  Any change to the fundamental concepts risked losing those feelings, the emotional driving force that goes with that certainty. Thus there was an enormous pressure, an evangelical faith, to maintain the theory.  J.G. Merquior in Western Marxism gives an excellent analysis of how intellectuals dealt with this tension between a transformed political and economic reality and the need to sustain the basic tenets of the religion.
[vi] Flexible manufacturing allows for smaller batches of commercial goods, thus creating greater diversity and a quicker turnover of products.  For a scintillating look at the cultural changes of the Sixties, and how these relate to advertising and industry see Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool.

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