Although it was comparatively short-lived, the French Left’s infatuation with Maoism was at its peak a significant cultural phenomenon, which could provoke large-scale mobilisations. The funeral of the Maoist militant Pierre Overney in 1972 was attended by 200,000 sympathisers from all over France. Intellectuals joined the fray, too. In the years that followed the revolt of May 1968, great luminaries such as Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva celebrated Mao’s Cultural Revolution as one of the political landmarks of the century, and carried their Sinophilia to often absurd lengths. Kristeva argued that the traditional Chinese practice of footbinding was evidence of women’s secret power; the writer Philippe Sollers plastered his Parisian office with Chinese wall posters, and even took to wearing Maoist dress; political activists recited aphorisms from the Little Red Book and adopted Chinese pseudonyms such as ‘Jean Tsé-Toung’; and Jean-Luc Godard directed a (characteristically elliptical) film called La Chinoise. The most ardent fellow-traveller in the early 1970s was the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who assumed the co-editorship of the French Maoist newspaper La Cause du Peuple and commended the Great Helmsman for embodying the true spirit of anti-imperialism and revolutionary internationalism. For a while, the French Left seemed to be acting out Mao’s dictum that the East wind was prevailing over the West wind.
Richard Wolin’s book sets out to explain how and why this Maomania came to grip the collective imagination of the French Left, and what it ultimately signified. His central argument is that this fervour was an expression of a much wider ideological phenomenon, originating in the events of