The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s

By Richard Wolin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Jean-Paul Sartre's Perfect
Maoist Moment

During the 1960s the structuralists had declared Sartre, as well as the paradigm of existential phenomenology he represented, obsolete, or “passé.” However, May 1968 signified a resounding vindication of Sartre's doctrine of human freedom, for May demonstrated that “events” happened, that history was more than the opaque, frozen landscape the structuralists had made it out to be. Thereafter, Sartre's concerted involvement with the Maoists—at one point, he served as the titular editor of no fewer than three Maoist publications (La Cause du Peuple, J'Accuse, and Tout!)—catapulted him to the center stage of French political life. Since the May revolt, gauchisme had captured the political imagination of contemporary France. Youth was the wave of the future. Sartre's alliance with the Gauche prolétarienne made it clear that French youth had embraced Sartre.

By the same token, Sartre's collaboration with the Maoists was more than an alliance of political convenience. As with other French intellectuals, Sartre's Maoist episode was a way station and rite of passage that allowed him to escape the political strictures of orthodox Marxism. But even more important, his association with the Maoists allowed him to think through problems concerning the role of the intellectual that had preoccupied him for years. Although Sartre was the consummate twentieth-century French intellectual, he always felt extremely ill at ease in this role. On the one hand, the intellectual claimed to be the exponent of universal values. On the other hand, he or she remained powerless to realize these values in real life. This chasm or breach afflicted the core of the intellectual's being. It accounted for her endemic “bad faith” (mauvaise foi). Sartre's Maoist commitment impelled him to view the intellectual's role in an entirely new light. From now on, the

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