« Marx est le Dieu, Marcuse son prophète et Mao le glaive »

The Cultural Revolution began fifty years and six months ago, in May 1966. Paul Berman writes of Mao’s admirers in France and America:

The flower of French intellectual life—Sartre, Foucault, and many others—aligned themselves with the Maoist cause in the various ways…

…the Maoists established a political base at the École Normale Supérieure, which is the elite college where Louis Althusser provided philosophical guidance (beginning with Lenin’s mad slogan: “Marxist theory is all-powerful because it is true”).

Maddening rather than mad, as any piece of circular logic. A greater affront to public sanity was the Maoist takeover of a great university. Mao remained en vogue among Parisian students and their learned mentors even as he was crushing the Red Guards, the thuggish youngsters who had outlived their usefulness as professor-beaters, in 1967-68.

Soviet propagandists, Europe-watchers and Sinologists were not taken in by that Occidental Maophilia. Starting from the Damansky island incident in 1969, Moscow feared a Chinese invasion more than war with NATO and had little sympathy for Mao’s Western adepts.

A Soviet journalist reported from Paris that student protesters had the slogan “Marx is God, Marcuse his prophet, Mao his sword.” It may have been invented in Italy, but the Marx-Marcuse-Mao triad was in currency among the new left in France and Germany. No doubt it incensed the Soviets, whose only trinity was Marx-Engels-Lenin.


  1. I’m trying to give up reading books about disgusting human beings – and they don’t get any more disgusting than Mao – but I’m tempted to read Frank Dikotter’s books on the chairman once they come down in price.

    There was absolutely no excuse for supporting Mao in the West because no one could claim they hadn’t had a warning from history. Mao was basically Stalin II. Like Stalin, there was a Great Famine (the Great Leap Forward) followed by a Great Purge. In Mao’s case, though, he had to use more cunning to get rid of his comrades as he was on the back foot after the utter disaster of the Great Leap Forward (I think Dikotter estimates 45 million dead; most starved, but 2.5 million were tortured to death). Hence the Cultural Revolution.

    It’s amazing how our wonderful French proponents of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” turned out to be such credulous fools, unable to spot history’s biggest mass murderer. The Belgian Simon Leys had tremendous trouble getting his exposé of what was really going on in China published in France at the time. He had his revenge years later by writing a delicious skewering of Roland Barthes and his inane account of his trip to China in 1974, where the biggest atrocity he could detect is the quality of the food served by Air France. Unfortunately, it’s too long to post here.

    • Thanks for bringing up Leys – I’ve found his response to Barthes and the original article. My first guess would be, the French philosophes didn’t give a damn about the actual victims either in the USSR or in the PRC. Their Maoism probably gave them a competitive advantage on the home turf.

      With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the Great Leap Forward was guaranteed both to fail as an attempt at industrialization and to cause widespread famine. It should have been obvious from the start that peasant-operated furnaces could not produce industrial-grade steel and that the crop yield was at risk of falling below famine levels because the annual surplus of food production above that level had always been relatively thin.

      In contrast, the Soviet industrialization plan did not seem a priori insane (well, not to everybody, except the absurd pace of growth), and the 1932 crop was about average. That’s perhaps the most striking fact about the Soviet great famine, since all the previous instances, such as 1891-2 and 1922-3, were caused by crop failure due to drought. However, in 1932-33 the amount of grain the state was able to confiscate or “buy” from the peasants, mostly collectivized by then, dropped by more than 20% to the previous year (and by more than 45% in Ukraine and the Russian North Caucasus: Rostov, Krasnodar, Stavropol). Stalin insisted that peasants were hiding grain from the state, but the likely reason was the crop was under-harvested – mostly because of the collectivization. In the aggregate, the state still collected more than enough grain to avoid famine, if only it had started distributing it back to the hungry. Stalin, however, did exactly the opposite: he ordered that all grain be confiscated from peasants in the “underperforming” regions, that is Ukraine and the North Caucasus, and parts of the Black Earth and Volga regions, as punishment for not filling their quotas. After the peak of the famine, before the start of the 1933 harvest, the state’s remaining grain inventory – then at its lowest seasonal point – could feed four million people for a year.

  2. Thanks for that and also for the info about the Baltic emancipation of the serfs earlier. Unfortunately, I’m too busy in real life at the moment to reply as fully as I’d like.

    My first guess would be, the French philosophes didn’t give a damn about the actual victims either in the USSR or in the PRC. Their Maoism probably gave them a competitive advantage on the home turf.

    Yes, pure careerism. Funnily enough, it reminds me of the passage in Balzac’s Le père Goriot where Rastignac asks his friend Bianchon whether he would agree to the killing of a mandarin in far-off China if this would make Bianchon a rich man. The French Maoist academics’ answer to this thought experiment was a resounding yes.

    I also think it was the mass bloodshed itself which attracted many of them. They abandoned the USSR after Stalin for Mao’s China then turned to Pol Pot’s Cambodia to get their thrills. Foucault, a gay man, was even desperate enough to support Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution at the end of his life (of course, he took his holidays in evil capitalist San Francisco rather than Tehran).

    • Yes, Foucault’s writings on the Islamic revolution were disappointing, to put it mildly. He was famous and influential, in his early 50s, so his support of the Ayatollah cannot be written off as attention-seeking. Very sad.

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