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The best books on France in the 1960s

recommended by Richard Wolin

The author and historian Richard Wolin explains that French people in the late 1960s were desperate for a utopian political alternative.

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Richard Wolin

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of several books on subjects such as Martin Heidegger, Heidegger’s influential Jewish students (Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse), Walter Benjamin, the history of 20th-century ideas, and modern cultural criticism.

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Let’s start with your first choice, The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre.

I think that when we look back on Sartre’s magnificent work, his status as a writer stands out much more than his political activities to which he was devoted during the last three decades of his life and which, it is safe to say, ended in failure and disappointment.

It was shortly after writing this book in 1964 that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature which he declined. The Words, of course, is his autobiography and is a wonderful example of Sartre’s excellence as a prose writer. It brims with self-knowledge and self-criticism too.

What kind of impact has it had on you?

I think it helps balance out our sense of Sartre’s achievements and shows what an outstanding figure he was. You really get a sense of how he was as a person, which can sometimes be lost if you just concentrate on some of his more extreme political pronouncements in the 1960s. It’s an outstanding exemplar of what he represented as a literary figure. He was obsessed with the idea of self-knowledge. He wrote biographies of other great French writers, the most important being the one about Gustave Flaubert which went to three volumes. All these undertakings were an indirect attempt at self-knowledge, what makes a person who he is, how does this talent develop from humble origins, what are the genetic pre-dispositions? What he sought to explain in The Words was how he became Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a paragon of self-knowledge and an outstanding accomplishment.

Your next book looks at another towering figure in 1960s France. This is The Lives of Michel Foucault by David Macey.

Yes, I placed this on my list because when Macey published this book in the early 1990s there were a lot of competing biographies on Foucault by people like James Miller and Didier Eribon in France. Foucault led a bold life in many regards, which one can’t say of all philosophers and thinkers. They are often much more monastically inclined. And the other biographies are very good but I think Macey captured something very important. This was mainly Foucault’s selflessness as an activist. He looked at how Foucault made this transition in the late 60s and early 70s from the doyen of French structuralist theorists to someone who inherited Sartre’s mantle of the engaged intellectual. It takes inordinate dedication and selflessness to accomplish this.

Foucault opened up his apartment in Paris in the early 1970s to fellow activists. He was very much involved as of 1971 with the Prison Information Group with his partner Daniel Defert. I have infinite admiration for his dedication to helping young people who were trapped in the French judicial system and immigrants who had similar problems. This is really another side to Foucault which enables other things about him to ‘come out’ – an ironic phrase to use here, considering that Foucault never wanted to be known as a gay thinker. He thought this would make him become typecast.

The theory in my book is that the Foucaultian ideas that have been so influential in Britain and North America about power and sexuality come out in his work as an activist. He developed the thought out of his engagement, which is very important because it helps us to understand its genesis and development.

Your next book is Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy by Colin MacCabe.

When one looks back over the history of French Nouvelle Vague or New Wave there are so many outstanding figures: Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol. They have had a formidable impact but Godard was really the wunderkind and representative of the group. This year is the 50th anniversary of Breathless and there is a major reconsideration of his work.

Godard was not French but Swiss. But he did work in Paris. He made a controversial decision shortly after 1968 basically to stop making narrative films which one might say were pleasing to an audience. Instead he engaged in a kind of guerrilla film-making which he named after the Russian film director Dziga Vertov and formed with a friend, Jean Pierre Gorin, who was a Maoist activist.

So we have this rather divided legacy of Godard. We have the early wonderful seductive lyrical films such as Breathless which has become iconographic in the history of French Nouvelle Vague and then there are other films like the ones he made with his wife, the actress Anna Karina. And then he transitions to these political films which have influenced my work. For example, one of them is called The Wind from the East which is the title of my book. In 1967 he made a very influential film on Maoist thought and politics called La Chinoise.

The Left Bank is a small geographical quadrant and when an outstanding director like Godard explores the ins and outs of Maoism, it has a tremendous ripple effect.

What was it about Maoism that fascinated him?

I have spent a lot of time probing what it was because it didn’t happen everywhere in the West. By 1967 de Gaulle had been in office for nine years and the zeitgeist was blowing left. Maoism fitted right in with the attitudes against what the Americans were doing in Vietnam. At the time the French left felt that all the traditional political options they had explored didn’t work. French socialism had collapsed and the true nature of Russian Communism had been exposed in 1956 with the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising and again in 1968, in case anyone had any doubts, with the crushing of the Prague Spring. And people were desperate for a Utopian political alternative.

There was discontent with western civilisation and a depletion of energy all around. In 1966 Mao launched this youth-inspired Cultural Revolution with young students as Red Guards leading the charge. It was very hard for people in the west to get accurate information about what was going on there so they used it as a projection screen to entertain their own revolutionary fantasies about the last left-wing Utopia on the planet. That is the spirit in which Godard undertakes his investigations. He admires the revolutionary energy coming out China that was nowhere else to be found.

But there was a backlash later on which leads us to The Black Book of Communism, edited by Stéphane Courtois.

Yes, this is really the leitmotif of my study too which has to do with the disillusionment with Utopianism and the way the hard realities about real existing Communism hit home in the late 60s and early 70s and the transition of the generation of student radicals from ultra left attitudes to becoming advocates of social movements, civil society and human rights activists.

The Black Book was published in 1993 and actually it was controversial. This is because the editor Stéphane Courtois, unbeknownst to his fellow contributors who were specialists in different types of Communism around the world, decided to use the introduction as a hobbyhorse to put forward his own view, which is that the misdeeds of Communism are actually worse than what the Nazis did with things like the Holocaust. This is, of course, highly subjective and made people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. The point here is that Courtois was an ex-Maoist.

Nevertheless, I think that it is interesting that you can trace this generation’s disillusionment with the ideal of revolution. This is the nation that invented the modern notion of revolution and the romantic investment that the west has had with revolution comes from the scenes of the storming of the Bastille, etc. And if you cut to the present the French have also played a significant role in divesting us of these illusions about how revolutionary political change is an admirable and acceptable approach to progressive political change. So I think it is an important story of the generation that comes of age in the 60s and the 70s and how they are vigorously anti-totalitarian and they are vehemently seeking to atone for the misdeeds of their youth and for the revolutionary pre-dispositions of their own national and political traditions.

Let’s finish with a different look at prejudice in France. This is Julian Jackson’s Living in Arcadia: Homosexuality, Politics, and Morality in France from the Liberation to Aids.

This book is by an English historian and it is an important story about the prologue to sexual liberation in France. It has to do with a small and elite homosexual social club called Arcadie. Foucault was invited to speak there in the 1970s and generously donated his fee to charity. This is a very well-written book which is wonderfully researched. The protagonist, who is now in his late 80s, is a man called André Baudry who founded Arcadie in 1954 and it’s really a significant achievement despite countless efforts on the part of the very homophobic and over-anxious French government to suppress any manifestation of gay cultural autonomy.

Baudry persisted for over 20 years to keep this small entity afloat. The irony and the tragedy, one could say, is that despite its success it was outstripped by the more assertive gay movement that came later. Having said that, you could argue Arcadie paves the way for that to happen through its pioneering efforts to educate the European public about homosexuality in an era of renewed repression.

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Richard Wolin

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of several books on subjects such as Martin Heidegger, Heidegger’s influential Jewish students (Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas and Herbert Marcuse), Walter Benjamin, the history of 20th-century ideas, and modern cultural criticism.