Anniversary of the ‘Cultural Revolution’: French Maoism, Olivier Rolin’s, Tigre en papier.
This is perhaps the moment to reflect on the European admirers, and active supporters of the Cultural Revolution.
One of the best known was the Gauche prolétarienne (GP) which existed from 1968 to 1974. As Christophe Bourseiller has put it, “Of all the Maoist organizations after May 1968, the most important numerically as well as in cultural influence was without question the Gauche prolétarienne”.
The GP was formed in October 1968. After a split in the Union des jeunesses communists marxistes-léninistes (UJC(ml)), several members – including Olivier Rolin, Jean-Pierre Le Dantec, Jean-Claude Vernier, the brothers Tony and Benny Lévy, Jean Schiavo, Maurice Brover and Jean-Claude Zancarini – formed the new party. In 1969 the former student union leaders Alain Geismar and Serge July joined the group.
One of these figures, Olivier Rolin, was not only in the leadership but directed the military wing (branche militaire) of the group, la Nouvelle résistance populaire. The history of the NRP remains highly controversial.
After blowing hot for armed action, they blew cold and abandoned the path of force. A botched – or futile it depends on one’s viewpoint – kidnapping of Renault manager Robert Nogrette in response to the killing of Pierre Overney in 1972 ended in his release. They abandoned other plans for ‘military’ vengeance, which included a plan to murder a former Collaborator. Rolin is amongst those who lay claim to the belief that this was responsible for the absence in France of left-wing terrorism – until the 1980s Action Directe that it is.
The Gauche Prolétarienne dissolved in 1973.
Rolin subsequently became a novelist. His works include the well-received, Invention du Monde (1993), Port-Soudan (1994), described a “brilliantly crafted”, that is, a finely written but slight tale of an expatriate functionary and his return home with hard memories, the picaresque Un chasseur de lions (2008) which has been compared unfavourably to a Tintin album – meaning, I enjoyed it.
Tigre en papier (2oo2) is the most political of his books. It is a thinly veiled account of life in the GP written, as critics has described it, with the marks of a thriller and lubricious descriptions of women. One of the said critics, F. Frommer (À propos de Tigre en papier d’Olivier Rolin), observes that it is hard to classify – if not to follow. Is it a novel, a tale, fiction about one’s self, autobiography, souvenir, memoir (Roman/récit, autofiction/autobiographie, souvenir/mémoire. To say that the ‘Aristotelian unities’ are not followed would not count of a point against Tigre en Paper, if it were not, as indicated, presented at points in the form of an airport spine-chiller, decked out in the grandiose language, Rolin employs to describe the ideological loadstars of of dedicated ‘Maoist’ activists: « La théâtralité de la Révolution », « La haine de la beauté », « La sacralisation du malheur ». La Cause is the object of masochistic self-sacrifice. The pages are also studded, as Frommer remarks, with old brand names, old songs, old films, and, if you haven’t got the message, other period details, which struck me, such as a explanation of the importance of duplicators for 1970s leftists.
The principal value of the book is as an account of the GP, the ‘military wing’ chief, Martin (that is, Rolin…), his comrade, the ‘sublime’ Marie , and, above all, of its leader, Benny Lévy, known at the time as Pierre Victor. In Tigre he is Gédéon, who is known from its abbreviation, DG, as the Grand Dirigeant. This identity is at any rate the view of, amongst others, Philippe Lardinois, who uses the portrait as a hook in De Pierre Victor à Benny Levy, de Mao à Moïse ? (2008). He incarnated the ‘L’Organisation’ of the novel – though it remains to this day a mystery why. Or indeed exactly what happened in mind’s of the participants in the escapades of the ‘military wing’ in the narrative to make them turn from playing at being revolutionaries to other games. Tigre en papier’s title suggest that they were made of flimsy substance. No doubt, but they certainly tried to look terrifying….
To call the Victor character a sour-faced arrogant shit would be perhaps enough, except that he managed to wreck the lives of (fictionalised but clearly real) characters as well. The GP, like all Maoist groupuscules, and some Trotskyist organisations, sent their members, particularly intellectuals (outside their Leading Cadres, naturally) into factories to become ordinary workers, or, rather, to turn into militant leaders of the proletariat. These “établis” were expected to follow the commands of the Organisation. A tragic story of one such ruined life is probably the best passage in the book. It is the affecting story of a stunning (how could it be otherwise?) young woman, Cosette, svelte, almost an elfin (see previous observation on Rolin’s sexist language) separated by Party decision from her partner, who is himself placed under the guidance of a ‘prolo’. Workers figures in the novel, if at all, as lugubrious figurants, if not, in the case of a police informer, a sexually unpleasant rough. No doubt anxious to indict the puritanism of the GP there is an episode in which Martin rebuffs a male cadre’s advances, and finds unable to talk about it.
Tigre en papier outlines one striking feature of the whole Gauche Prolétarienne experience: despite a brief reference to the anti-totalitarian Victor Serge, the total absence of any critical balance-sheet of the Cultural Revolution that inspired the movement.
This is how the leader of the GP washed up after years of Talmudic studies,
Benny Lévy embraced Jewish Orthodoxy, and began to study in a yeshiva in Strasbourg. He finally immigrated to Israel in 1997, where he established the Institut d’études lévinassiennes in Jerusalem along with Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, and learned with Rabbi Moshe Shapira. He died suddenly during the holiday of Sukkot in 2003.
(1) See also: Les Maoïstes. Christophe Bourseiller, Review and Reflections. Andrew Coates.
The book has been translated and received this notice (New York Times 2007):
PAPER TIGER. By Olivier Rolin. Translated by William Cloonan. (University of Nebraska, cloth, $40; paper, $17.95.) Martin, an aging French radical from the 60s, wonders where it all went and why. One night in 2000, when this rushing stream of a book is set, he broods out loud while driving around (and around and around) Paris with Marie, the 24-year-old daughter of his best friend from “the Cause.” Marie’s father died in an unexplained fall from a church tower 20 years earlier, and the excuse for Martin’s regurgitation of the past is to introduce Marie to her lost parent. At the same time, he is trying to understand his own father, a “colonialist soldier” killed carrying out “France’s civilizing mission” in Indochina. Through these histories, Rolin philosophizes about Big Ideas like aging, lost idealism and the weight of past wars on future generations. It sounds like heavy going, and it is. Rolin’s use of the second-person and the recurring shifts back and forth in time can be disorienting; but there are also treats that make the car ride worth taking, some serious (like Rolin’s observations — often pessimistic — about the human condition) and others delightfully comic (like the young revolutionaries’ many botched missions). When the journey to the end of the night is over, the impression left behind (at once comforting and disturbing) is that history will make a paper tiger of every high hope and feared foe alike, no matter how seemingly imperishable.