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Maoism: Reflections on Les maoïstes. La folle histoire des gardes rouges français. Christophe Bourseiller.

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Reflections on Les maoïstes. La folle histoire des gardes rouges français. Christophe Bourseiller. 2nd Edition. Plon. 2008

(Originally published in 2011, now with some additions and corrections).

“Soutien à contre-courant des Khmers Rouges contre l’invasion vietnamienne.” Support, against the trend, for the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese invasion. 10 ans de Maoïsme. UCFML . 1981.

“As for us, the UCFML, I’d say that we were a centre-left organisation, in the sense always advocated by Mao, who described himself as a centrist.” Alain Badiou. 2008.

“Contradiction is present in the development of all things; it permeates the process of development of each thing from beginning to end. Mao Tse-Tung. On Contradiction. (1)

Maoists, or as admirers of the Chinese Communist Party leader called themselves, Marxist-Leninists (M-L), were an important political current on the European far-left during the late sixties and ‘seventies. So tangibly present then, and so absent today Christophe Bourseiller begins by asking if they were images in a dream. For some the end point of the movement in Britain was not a reverie but a nightmare when in 2013 ‘Comrade Bala”, Aravindan Balakrishnan, was discovered to have kept female members of his ultra-Maoisr cult, the Brixton based Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought to have kept women in sexual slavery, enforced by physical assault.

This is one aspect. It’s hard to recall that groups like the Parti du Travail de Belgique/Partij van de Arbeid van België, PTB/PVDA or the Socialistische Partij (SP) in Holland, both of which have MPs in their national Parliaments, or that some of the most conservative individuals in the German Greens, had M-L origins, and intensely admired Chinese Communism. Most of them are not keen to talk about this past. By contrast Alexis Sayle has given an instantly memorable highly amusing, if also disturbing, account which touches on his time in the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), people. In Thatcher Stole My Trousers the stand up comedian portrays Reg Birch’s efforts to put “Guerrilla Struggle and the Working Class” into practice from their Tufnell Park red base.

As a public movement Maoism, even its less personalised M-L form, is, apart from some small associations and traces in the obscurity of Alain Badiou’s metaphysics, is often said to be effectively dead or pushed to the furthest margins. Or is it? Outside of Europe historically Maoist ‘Naxallite’ groups wage real warfare in parts of India, and the Shining Path cultists of (deceased) President Gonzalo (Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán) have followers in the US and even a few individuals in Europe. Marxism-Leninism has been officially adopted in the last few weeks by the Welsh Underground Network, a more borders groupuscule calling for a Welsh republic. We should equally not forget the cadres of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)  who staff George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain.

The most famous disappearing act of all was French Maoism.

Those who were engaged in the meteoric rise and fall of Gallic Marxist-Leninism have also not been silent about their experiences.

But their accounts, marked by the precious gift of hindsight, are very partial. How can one write about Maoism when one has not been a Maoist? shouted one woman to Bourseiller after a debate on France Culture after the first edition of his study in 1996. Extremely lucidly, is the reply.

Les Maoists presents their history from the standpoint of the “réalité multiple” of the period and the different groups following the Great Helmsman’s line. That is more than needed. The Maoists, and their opponents, were split into more rival ideological city-fortresses than China Miéville’s Besźel and Ul Qoma (The City and the City. 2009). Bourseiller is not afraid to open breaches in the narrative former Maoists have constructed, and to observe what many have ‘unseen’. He sheds light on what remains, for the non-Maoist left, a political enigma to this day.

French Maoism originated in the crosshatched world of French orthodox Communism, as supporters of an orthodox pro-Chinese current that broke with the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). In 1963 the 25 point letter from the Chinese Communist Party attacking the ‘revisionist’ USSR’s leaders gave heart to those, with counterparts across the world Communist movement, who hankered for a purer ‘Marxism-Leninism’ than post-Stalinist Russia offered. Non-party M-L circles began to appear.

Some stayed for a long time in parallel lines within the PCF. The process of forming new M-L parties so far resembles that in many other countries, that is, of ‘first wave’ Marxist-Leninism, such as the ancestors of the Communist Party of Britain (M-L) nostalgic for the certainties of the Comintern and the Soviet fatherland, who found an anchor in Beijing.

But Reg Birch never ran up against the PCF.  The French  Party tried with exceptional violence (that is physical attacks) to suppress any public manifestation of pro-Chinese communism. In 1967 a “véritable armée” of PCF thugs attacked a meeting at the Mutualité of the newly formed Mouvement Communiste Français (M-L). The MCFML did not crumble but remained

But the new political current’s cultural impact had been growing, helped by a degree of sympathy from less politicised Sinophiles. In the mid-6os, younger intellectuals like Robert Linhart, close to the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, developed M-L ideology in the Cahiers Marxiste-Leniniste. The Chinese Cultural Revolution profoundly impressed this ‘second wave’.

Their Marxism mixed Mao and Althusser, the Little Red Book and Lire le Capital. But efforts to wage factional battles inside the student Communist organisation, the UEC, ran into a brick wall. Red Guards were not welcome. The UEC excluded them. They set up new organisations, such as the Union de Jeuenesses Communistes (M-L), UJC (M-L) – 1967, that soon aimed to expand beyond the student milieu. Theoretical practice (unlike the British journal of that name) would never to be purely academic, but an arm of political struggle.

As the decade wore on the Maoists had begun to acquire a reputation as street fighters against far-right squads and as activists in the solidarity campaigns with the Vietnamese people. In 1967 the UJC (ML), decided to send its members in higher education, though not its important leading cadres, into factories, as “établis” – ‘the established’ – to serve the people. It has been remarked that this had strong overtones of Simone Weil’s 1930s effort to become a saint through immersion in factory life. Though the libertarian Weil selfless dedication was not compulsory one wonders what she would have thought of the exemptions the UJC (M-L) allowed itself

May 68 as You Had Forgotten or Never Known.

May 68 gave Maoism a qualitatively different dynamic. The UJC (ML), the 300 strong Latin Quarter parent of the most vibrant Maoist organisations that bloomed in its aftermath, at first judged the student movement “petty bourgeois”. In the following months, as their leader, Robert Linhart, underwent a sleeping cure for his nervous breakdown, this was soon forgotten. The Maoists sprang into frenzied action. They recruited (though never more than a few thousand, all groups included) and participated in the conflicts that swept across France. Post-May the Maos made their mark.

To traditional activism inside trade unions and the Party a new front, the ideological struggle, led by French Red Guards, came to the fore. They would operate autonomously, and against, the revisionist Communist Party. Total dedication to this revolt was, we read, the norm.

As the May events continued to reverberate, the MLers threw themselves into the ‘battle of Flins’ – scene of a bitter dispute at Renault. On the 7th of June hundreds of students, and MLers, joined seven thousand workers to picket. Rioting went on for 48 hours, “une véritable guéreilla urbaine”.

On the 10th of June a UJC (M-L) steward, Gilles Tautin, a secondary school student, trying to escape from the police, drowned in the Seine. The People’s War loomed on the immediate horizon. But then, as at so many times in French Maoist history, the leadership drew back. They refused the offer by enraged roughs to pillage an arms store and begin the revolution on the spot.

Worker-led violence, truly spontaneous, seemed to threaten to take hold across the country. The Maoists, with other leftists, were determined to turn their hands in the wounds of French society. They intended to turn social hurt into a people’s movement. After Flins, the Marxist-Leninist organisations, considered prime trouble-makers, were immediately banned – on the 12th of June. In the autumn some went on a “long march”, agreeably investigating the social conditions that could encourage revolt in provincial France. But they soon returned to agitate, multiplying like amoebae, or rather breeding through what Bourseiller describes as violent debates and acrimonious splits.

Faced with repression the Maoists launched what they considered to be the Resistance. Those around Beny Lévy (now using the pseudonym Victor Pierre) created the Gauche Prolétarianne of which more below. Vive le Communisme (VLC) which became in 1969, Vive La Révolution (VLR), was formed by those repelled by his authoritarian violence, and opened up to the international, principally American, New Left. Others joined the more conventional Parti Communiste Français (Marxiste-Leniniste), PCFML (the descendent of the MCFML) which continued as a clandestine group, publishing a legal façade, Humanité Rouge, with official Chinese backing. There remain some other splinters to list, but it’s better, rather than risk tiring the reader, to consult Les Maoïstes itself.

At one point – roughly from 1969 to 1973 – revolt seemed, we have heard, everywhere on the political scene. Many had a particular Maoist flavour – often underplayed by English language accounts of the time. Bands of Marxist-Leninists intervened in countless strikes, fought with Communist trade unionists, tried to storm Police Stations, supported immigrant rights, and flamboyantly initiated and defended a host of struggles of the oppressed.

The cultural conflicts that contributed to May 68, portrayed in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) were, in journals like the Cahiers du Cinéma (such as its efforts to create a ‘Revolutionary Cultural Front, 1972-3), and the sinuous Tel Quel, now refracted through the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ and ‘dialectical materialist’ lens.

Close to the Telqueliens, Italian Communist, and lecturer in France, Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, in agreement with her friend Louis Althusser, found somewhere in Mao’s writings and practice a “critique du stalinisme de gauche.” Her eulogy, De la Chine (1971) went with the current, and provoked a rupture with the PCF – to the delight of the avant-garde circle (though not to the philosopher). This “cultural revolution” on the Seine, she has said, to the incomprehension of the Chinese themselves, seized all “les idoles intellectuals – Malraux, Sartre, Sollers, Lacan, Foucault, Godard, Matta, Deleuze, Guattari”. (2)

The influence of these ‘intellectual idols’ continues. It is one of the merits of Les Maoïstes to remind us that these writers, artists and French Theorists did not spontaneously sympathise with Maoism as part of their wish to grapple with May’s youthful uprising (Malraux standing somewhat apart…). Organisations consciously attempted to draw them into their orbit. The Gauche Prolétarienne (GP), which emerged from the ruins of the UJC (ML), and was itself dissolved in June 1970, continued to operate as the ‘ex-GP’ (more below).

They played the card that the ‘youth’ had a new message, and that these figures could and should be authentic friends of the struggle. Once entrapped the Maoists treated these ‘democrats’, Bourseiller indicates, with less deference than the Stalinists did their fellow-travellers. The new compagnons de route were expected to support political campaigns directly aligned to their groups’ daily agitation – not to simply admire a new paradise from afar.

The most sordid episode in French Maoist history, the 1972 Bruay-en-Artois affair, drew in these intellectuals. Convinced that a Notary, Pierre Leroy, had murdered the 16 year old Miner’s daughter Brigitte Dewere, the ex-GP began a campaign (led by future Libération editor, Serge July) for ‘popular justice’. It verged on incitement to a lynching.

They would shout, “Il faut le faire souffrir petit à petit!” (He has to suffer slowly, little by little). Sartre and Foucault supported their Comité vérité et justice. But the former soon denounced lynching as an “idéologie réactionnaire”; the latter in a famous exchange, questioned the nature of formalised Popular Justice. Inside this Maoist movement, the ex-GP, a group rose up, including André Glucksman and Christian Jambert, to their credit, to protest at this turn. They were dismissed as “vipers”. Nobody is sure to this day who was responsible for the atrocious crime. But the nausea felt by many at the ex-GP’s campaign (even recounted second-hand) is felt again every time there is an anti-paedophile panic. (3)

The Disappearance.

Why and how, Christophe Bourseiller asks, did this all disappear with such a “brièvité de méteorite”? Maoism demanded, he noted, “une dévotion mystique, presque religieuse, et un engagement total, existential.” Ex-Maoists Guy Lardreau and Christian Jambert’s L’Ange 1976 would come to describe this as an illusion, and submission to Power (“le Lin Piao dans nos têtes”).

Many people would recognise the reality behind this mythic movement in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). It showed the personal awkwardness, shyness, and bursts of hectoring, deep feelings, and love that mark political life for young leftists. Maoism exaggerated these sentiments and took them on a political adventure. Which is where Bourseiller leads us, with Godardian accuracy, from the “pluralité des étincelles” (a shower of sparks) that it threw out, to the less than scintillating world of the politics and personalities of French Maoism.

It was here that the strategy of the French Communist party, outlined by Louis Althusser took full effect, ““Il lui suffi de se renfermer dans sa ‘forteresse ouvrière’, la CGT at le Parti, pour laisser se décomposer tout seul, malgré ses imprecations, le gauchisme étudiant, maoïst ou non.” “It was enough to withdraw to its ‘workers’ fortress’, the CGT and the Party, to let, despite its curses, student leftism, Maoist or not, decompose all by itself.

Althusser’s claim that only a traditional far-left, based on the workers’ movement, would endure, has been only been proved if one recognises that the ‘movement’ was itself transformed by the 1960s and 1970s. Formerly “extreme” campaigns on gender and sexual equality and a renovation of other Marxist currents, from Trotskyism onwards, has taken place. Althusser’s observation might also be expanded if he had admitted his own responsibility for the birth of dead-end student – academically inspired – ultra-leftism. (4)

Of the French Maos the “Mao-spontex” Gauche Prolétarienne (GP) – who considered that a new communist party would arise from spontaneous struggles, stands out. It attracted names that resonate today. Beny Lévy (who became closely involved with Sartre) André Glucksmann, (Stratégie et révolution en France 1968. which got a fawning introduction to its translation in New Left Review 1/52), Bernard Henri-Lévi, the novelist Olivier Rolin, the full list is very, very, long. The orthodox pro-Chinese in the PCMLF (Parti Communiste Marxiste-Léniniste Français) and its offshoots, with less media impact, paraded its few thousands troops up and down.

Vive la Révolution (VLR) involved the yet to-be-celebrated Mitterrandiste architect Roland Castro, and the gay rights pioneer Guy Hocquenghem (a transfer with ‘Tendency 3’ of Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire). They, Bourseiller remarks, were the only Maoists to practice internal democracy.

VLF crossed over to the counter-culture. They were also involved with less than savoury young marginals. The group was one of the first in France to confront gender inequality and sexual issues. They practised free love even polygamy. The female members eventually left declaring “Votre libération sexuelle n’est pas la nôtre”. The wealthy Sylvina Boisonna, VLF’s financier, joined the hermetic group around Antoinette Fouque which became the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF). Bourseiller generously gives VLF credit for raising social movement issues. The impossibly smart bookshop that the MLF set up in the Quartier Latin, decked out with original art, was a legacy of a slightly different kind.

Alain Badiou’s claims his group, the UCFML (estimated at 80 strong) stood in the middle, between the Stalinists of the PCFML and the “ultra left” “almost anarchist” actions of the GP. It is described by Bourseiller as “secte?” – we might remove the question mark. While its founders, like Badiou, came in 1969, from the scrupulously democratic Parti Socialiste Unifié, it formed ‘comités de base’ welded to a structure without internal democracy. Badiou was the only real Boss. Yet it was close to “actual political processes”, remarks the Metaphysician.

In this vein they held a meeting of the ‘international proletariat’ for immigrant workers at the luxurious Hôtel Lutetia. UCFML member Natacha Michel ‘Groupe de Foudre’ that disrupted cultural events, including Maccciocchi’s lectures (to cries of “la révisionniste à la porte!”) they didn’t approve of. One of their leading cadres, Bernard Sichère described them as torn between a “paranoïaque, intolérante” tendency and a “démocratique, anti autoritaire” one. The UCFML generally supported violence only by proxy. I have already cited their backing for Pol Pot. The UCFML also aided the Portuguese MRPP – which engaged in military attacks, supported by the extreme-right, against Portuguese democrats and Communists during the Carnation Revolution. (5)

The UCFML’s main activity was apparently organising the “international proletariat”, their term for immigrant workers.  It was largely unnoticed. Badiou’s L’Organisation Politique, a ghostly survivor from those days, continues its work, as Middlemarch’s Dorothea, humbly and patiently, if not exactly unsung by its leader or unnoted by the academic world, which has even produced a journal called Badiou Studies. Cambodians and José Manuel Barroso, the ex-Portuguese Maoist who spent time as a hard-line free-marketer of the European Commission, recall no doubt the UCFML’s other international solidarity activity as fidelity to the Event.

By contrast, from 1969 onwards, the GP and its underground branch, occupied a more visible stage. The Nouvelle Résistance Populaire (NRP) against the Bosses, the Police and the “Kollabos” of the PCF, headed by Rolin, saw the light of day. The GP was officially dissolved in May 1970.

In November 1970 the NPA botched an “arrest” of the Gaullist MP, Michel de Grailly. In 1971 they succeeded in kidnapping a Renault manager, Robert Norgette and held him in a People’s Prison before releasing him unharmed. In 1972 a Security Guard at Renault’s Boulogne plant shot the GP Pierre Overney. Everything seemed set for a prolonged ‘people’s war’. Yet in 1973, on the All Hallows Day, the ex-GP disbanded itself – definitively.

The NPA followed suit. Later its members would (endlessly) congratulate themselves on having prevented a French terrorist wave that swept Germany and Italy. They had never actually murdered anybody. Bourseiller notes that they whatever other motives they may have had for not going the whole-hog (fear, lack of conviction, a wish to save their own skins), that the armed-wing of the GP had publicly advocated killing (in 1971) and a Maoist Law of the Talion (1972).

They left texts that, today, are savoured by those who support armed struggle. That, “depuis 1974 la plupart des mouvances ‘terroristes’ d’extrême gauche revendiquent d’elles mêmes une filiation avec la GP..” If, he underlines, Action Directe, had no direct affiliation to organised Maoism, at least one of its branches was in the M-L tradition.

Meanwhile in 1976 one earthly Master died. As Les Maoïstes observes, Maoism without Mao made no sense. What was left? Only “un communisme aux contours mal defines, teinté de populisme, de tiers mondisme, de tiers-mondisme, tirallé entre des aspirations libertaires et autoritaires…” remained. A poorly defined communism with a populist, even patriotic, element indeed rumbled on for a while, under Albanian protection.

The PCFML had already shown strong nationalist inclinations, even collaborating with the Royalists of the Nouvelle Action Française (NAF) in 1975 to defend French nuclear independence and national service. Parties such as the Belgium PTB and the Dutch SP have succeed in tapping into a workerist populism, and have had some electoral impact (particularly the SP) long after the Little Red Book had become a curio.

In France the PCML was directly affected by the death of the great Helmsman: it lost is Chinese subsidy. It fared extremely badly in its campaign for the Legislative elections of 1978 (between 0, 8 and 2,0%). A last gasp of callous doctrinal anti-imperialism led it to support the Khmer Rouge – even visiting Phnom Penh in 1978, and issuing a declaration that the present line of the Cambodian Communist Party “exclut le recours à la violence”. In 1981, lacking support, it couldn’t get on the Presidential election ballot.

The PCML ended up as the miniscule Parti pour une alternative Communiste (PAC) that worked with the Fédération pour une Gauche Alternative (FGA) in the early 1980s. The Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire (PCR-ML) whose trajectory Bourseiller covers in detail, followed the same route. In 1978 they published Que Faire Aujourd’hui, which by the 1980s was interested in ‘alternative ‘(self-management) politics. The remaining activists from these parties were charming, anxious to integrate with their new autogestionnaire allies, but at least some were severely damaged.

Whys and Wherefores.

There is an abundant literature on the ‘why’ this dream ended. The effects that changing Chinese domestic and foreign policy had on French Maoism, already cited, were of obvious weight (The Great Leap Backwards, as Charles Bettelheim put it in 1978). The Balzacian thirst for power and influence on the part of those who turned from Maoism to respectability and wealth “Mao-Mai pour arriver au Rotary et aux Rolls” (Guy Hocquenghem) is another explanation. The best known ex-GP member active politically, Serge July, editor in the 1980s of Libération turned the daily paper to social democracy, not further rightwards. There was a slow-burning conflict when Maoists of a Jewish background found just how far “anti-Zionism” could do. Finally, and to give some people the honour, one should not discount a genuine revulsion at the tyranny of purified Marxism-Leninism as factual accounts of life in China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution emerged, and, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge genocide, in 1977 the first widely read exposure of their horrors appeared, Cambodge année zéro, by François Ponchaud.

But the defence of democracy against totalitarianism, in the writings of Bernard Henri-Lévy (BHL), André Glucksmann and their later-day admirers in Le Meillieur des Mondes was flawed. These anti-Communists, as François Aubral and Xabier Delcourt polemicised, did not only criticise Stalinism: they traced the Gulag to Marx and Engels, who were rooted in the wider left and workers’ movement, ignored history, and pushed the idea that the ordinary people, the “plèbe” were ultimately oppressed by an Idea of Scientific, Marxist, Mastery. Their abstract writings, finely written in the terms of classical rhetoric, do not rival the denunciations of totalitarian tyranny made by 1930s writers of the left such as Boris Souvarine, or the left liberal inflected critiques of Claude Lefort, with his Socialisme ou Barbarie background, in Un Homme en trop. Essai sur l’archipel du goulag de Soljénitsyne (1974). Breaking with the left the new philosophers backed anti-democratic movements, from the Nicaraguan Contras to the Islamist (though not Taliban) Afghanistan Moudjahidin. André Glucksmann voted for Nicholas Sarkozy, BHL, who considers himself on the left, was recently distinguished for his crass defence of Dominique Strauss Kahn. (6)

Perhaps then it was not just “fragilité doctrinale”, which broke up the coherent voice of Maoism. Anyone who rallied to the defence of Pol Pot, however qualified, has severe cognitive problems, with truth to begin with. But over and above this, the French organisational form of the doctrine that was incapable of democratically resolving the crises that swept over it.

Marxism-Leninism was lived in complete contradiction: between the hardness of the struggle against individualism and liberalism, and the uncontrollable choices that people in revolt make. The Nouvelle Philosophie’s rhetoric should not obscure the fact that French Maoism never had a Maître who dominated anyone for more than fragmentary moments. The political current’s central difficulty was its complete inability to sustain anything long-term and enduring. This is, one suspects was the result not only, as Bourseiller suggests, because of a reliance on media, spectacular, coups. It lay inside the structures they were wrapped up in.

China has spent years coming to accounts of the Cultural Revolution, a process which most would consider unfinished – whether one considers with Simon Leys that it was a weapon in factional battles or not. French Maoism, without the Chinese guiding thread, stood not only politically disorientated. It was faced with the fact that its call for universal stasis (in the sense of complete rebellion and subversion), was kept in line only by the worst aspects of political messianism: a fanaticism that channelled a lust for the sublime.

This characteristic, dramatic as it sounds, is by no means confined to ‘extreme’ or ‘revolutionary’ politics. Politics itself is often motivated by a search for great images of fearful strength, beyond the horizon, and an absolute willingness to take sides. Yet democracy is grounded on the acceptance of the need to dissent, not to smash opposition, or allow it only within set boundaries as “contradictions amongst the people”.

Maoists never reconciled themselves to democracy, except by abandoning Maoism, and, in most cases, Marxism. Were those that switched from Marxism Leninism to a violent anti-Communism infected by the corroded reason they brought to their new side? Are not those who continue to proclaimed fidelity to the radical impulse of Maoism, but who continue to seek an exalted future, not equally at fault? We note that Badiou remains a critic of democracy, even he did not hold back from criticising the Gilets Jaunes.

Bourseiller says that the GP was torn apart by its own paradoxes. It “se définit dès l’origine non comme un parti hiérarchisé mais comme une simple fédération de luttes autonomes, un rassemblement souple de comités théoriquement independent. Chacun s’accorde pourtant qu’il s’agit en réalité d’un group  extrêmement autoritaire, au sein duquel tous les pouvoirs sont concentrés dans les mains d’un petit groupe occulte qui n’a jamais été élu par aucun college.” (The GP defined itself, right from the beginning, not a hierarchical party, but as a simple federation of autonomous struggles, a supple grouping of theoretically independent committees. However, everyone agrees that in reality it was an extremely authoritarian group, in which all the power was concentrated in the hands of a small, hidden, group that had never been elected by any constituency.).

For a picture of how this operated the lightly fictionalised account in Olivier Rolin’s Tigre en papier (2002), which casts the GP leader as Benny Lévy  as Gédéon, is another angle to take. His style? Meeting something a comrade said that he disliked, “Tu parlais, il caressait sa barbiche, le buste légèrement penché en avant, l’air degoute, et tu pensait ton discours s’empêtrer, se tarir, se figer de peur, littéralement.” You speak, he strokes his little beard with his chest slightly pushed out, and you feel your words getting snarled up, dry up, paralysed by fear. This ‘charismatic’ leadership, with followers hanging on  every word from the young ‘Pierre Victor’ – Benny Lévy’s pseudonym, was followed by years (1974 – 1980) as Jean Paul Sartre’s Secretary – bitterly resented by, amongst others, Simone de Beauvoir and those who believe he practically wrote the public intellectual’s later anti-Communism. The GP guru ended up studying the Talmud in Israel, respecting every word of the Commandments, Sabat, Kosher kitchen, and wearing a Kippah (De Pierre Victor à Benny Lévy : une trajectoire saisissante. Philippe Lardinois. 2008)

Many Maoist groups had a strict chain of command to the point of being quasi-militaristic in shape, such as the PCFML. Yet the VLR was internally democratic. In all instances the Maoists were unable to operate except through relentless fighting over the line. Differences could not be resolved except by split or by dissolutions. Amongst this furore the Maoists raised issues that continue to haunt French politics, about its inability to deal with excluded groups, the marginalised working class, immigrants, and ethnic minorities. But hostile to the Republican universalism of the rest of the mainstream left, and the Trotskyist effort to change the workers’ movement, that is, as marginals themselves, they never took hold.

Les Maoïstes is a sparkling, that is often entertaining, history of a very hard subject. It has the effect of bringing together the pieces of a long-disassembled jigsaw puzzle. Bourseiller’s more recent writings, on other currents of the French left-of-the-left, may perhaps serve to balance a picture that focuses on the French Maoism. The intensity of small group left-wing politics was and is not unique to the Maoists, although one has to add that being apologists for regimes that practice mass murder is today also the preserve of ‘red brown’ web sites, individuals and parties, or anti-imperialist ‘campists’ of all stripes.

One would wish for at least some recognition that gender and sexual issues were taken up by other political forces, in the Trotskyist Ligue, and by liberal-minded Communists and Socialists. But that said, Les Maoïstes deserves a place not just on every Leftist Trainspotter’s shelf, but should be read by anybody interested in modern left politics.

What then can one conclude? Behind the culture of serving the people, of self-sacrifice, of fanaticism, was a dead end. Chairman Mao’s Line left it to the Party to impose a decision about what the masses should think; the people were expected to follow. When democracy became more than a matter of ‘listening to the masses’ but of taking their contradictions inside the organisation, the groups shattered. Hence VLR, the most genuinely engaged on this path, was the first to abandon its Maoism. Those, like Beny Lévy himself, and more recently, Bernard Sichère, to cite but two out of many ex-Maos, that found a safer harbour in religious certainty, have, perhaps a point: politics is not a good place to find absolute, and eternal, truth. (7)

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  1. Available at UCML Documents. Roads to Renegacy. Alain Badiou. New Left Review, Second series. No 53. 2008. Page 35. On Contradiction. Mao Tse-Tung. Four Essays on Philosophy. Foreign Languages Press. Peking. 1968.
  2. May 68 and Film Culture. Sylvia Harvey. BFI. 1978. Deux Mille Ans de Bonheur. Maria Antonietta Macciocchi. Grasset. 1983.
  3. A full account is also given in The lives of Michel Foucault. David Macey. Vintage 1995. Notably pages 301 – 3. See also: Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary. Guy Hocquenghem Albin Michel. 1986.
  4. Page 348. L’avenir dure longtemps. Louis Althusser Stock/IMEC. 1992.
  5. The European revolutionary left looked to the Portuguese Revolution as an unfolding socialist upheaval based on workers’ self-management – something the MRPP fought against tooth and claw.
  6. Contra la nouvelle philosophe. François Aubral & Xavier Delcourt. Gallimard. 1977.
  7. On the abusive use by Mao to employ authority to decide the Marxist line see: Pages 62 – 3. Ralph Miliband. Marxism and Politics. Oxford 1977. Needless to say this in complete opposition to Alain Badiou’s English Translator, argument on fanaticism in Fanaticism. On the uses of the idea. Alberto Toscano. Verso. 2010. Bernard Sichère Le Monde des Livres. 27.5.11

 An excellent framework for these events (and more details about the personalities in the student wing of French ‘Maoism’) is given in Patrick Rotman et Hervé Hamon, Génération, T.1 Les années de rêve, Paris, Le Seuil, 1987. Patrick Rotman et Hervé Hamon, Génération, T.2 Les années de poudre, Paris, Le Seuil, 198

Documents from the Gauche Prolétarienne – here.

 Documents from other French Maoist History – here.

 See Bourseiller Wikipedia (French).

Written by Andrew Coates

August 8, 2022 at 5:26 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Modern day Neo-Maoism is fun. I call them “Bamboo Tankies”. At least the old style Chinese Communists of the 1950s and 1960s paid some lip service to Marxism and Internationism (although the Three Worlds theory of the 1970s saw Chinese military advisors in South Africa backing Unita and working with the South African army). Today, they are just back a “Communist” Party which is based upon power projection, state capitalism and economic cronyism, and (most importantly) Han racial nationalism. The latter point especially is barely understood in the West.

    IainF

    August 8, 2022 at 6:20 pm

    • Their national chauvinism is not hard to see,


      Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.
      https://www.ft.com/content/7df893b3-f6d8-4ee5-88f6-0ed58660e4d4

      part from military exercises, Beijing has also stepped up a propaganda offensive aimed at eroding the island nation’s confidence in its security while satisfying nationalist sentiment on the mainland.

      After Chinese online map services began displaying Taiwan in greater detail last week, state media and diplomats began publishing posts and articles highlighting signs of Chinese culture in Taiwanese cities, which they said bolstered Beijing’s claim of sovereignty.

      A video posted on the Weibo account of state broadcaster CCTV showed street signs in Taipei carrying the names of Chinese cities and provinces such as Tianjin, Shandong, Guiyang and Chongqing.

      It was accompanied by a sentimental song with the lyrics: “A cloud from the homeland drifts at the edge of the sky and keeps calling out to me. As a slight breeze rises next to me, a voice keeps calling out: ‘Return, return!’”

      “Every road leads home!” a caption under the video read. “Here, every street is filled with the yearning for home!”

      The propaganda campaign has played on Taiwan’s complex national identity, history of Chinese migration and consecutive waves of colonisation.”


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      https://www.ft.com/content/7df893b3-f6d8-4ee5-88f6-0ed58660e4d4

      Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, posted screenshots of maps of the Taiwanese capital on Twitter, noting that they showed “38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei”.

      “Palates don’t cheat. Taiwan has always been a part of China. The long lost child will eventually return home,” she wrote.

      The claim that Chinese restaurants proved that Taiwan had been part of the mainland, which was also spread by other diplomats, quickly backfired, however, when Twitter users responded by asking whether the presence of McDonald’s fast-food outlets in Beijing demonstrated that China was historically part of the US.”

      https://www.ft.com/content/7df893b3-f6d8-4ee5-88f6-0ed58660e4d4

      Andrew Coates

      August 8, 2022 at 8:00 pm

    • Dear Andrew I have not read Bourseiller’s book but read others of the same author. He is not a serious historian at all, not even a serious journalist. From what you say yourself about the book, it seems he misses m 2 major aspects 1) the hundreds of students who became workers for the rest of their life (Mannix Drexel interviewed a good hundred of them and made an excellent book you should read and review) and who have been active in the CFDT and then Sud trade unions for the last 40 years, or just have been local militants in their factories. It’s less glamorous than Badiou or Benny Levy but a serious historian would not ignore this whole layer of workers who have been active in trade unions and social movements. This politicak legacy of Maoism even if these people are no more maoists is important in France? 2) the second aspect which Bourseiller misses (according to your critique) is the existence of dozens of small Maoist groups totally unknown from a guy who, like Bourseiller, has always frequented the Parisian artists and intelligentsia, and succeeded in teaching at the prestigious Institut des Sciences politiques which trains the sons of the French capitalist class. These groups have had a far longer life than the Parisian-based and national ones you quote. And they often coincide with the first category (the former students who became lifelong workers and tradunionists). I am afraid Bourseiller has a Parisian elitist and lazy view of his subject as in his other books. All these hundreds of workers will never become famous…. And this mail is written by someone who always despised Maoists since he was a teenager !
      Also two typing errors : NRP is NOT NPA !!! And Olivier Roman is not Olivier Rolin !

      Yves Coleman

      August 8, 2022 at 8:06 pm

      • I know full well that Boursellier’s books are often hack-jobs and that the Histoire générale de l’ultra-gauche aroused a lot of ire from those described – not sure about his Nouvelle histoire de l’ultra-gauche which I was going to get but have not yet.

        I shall have to check. But while he does not do the kind of Marnix Dressen study (which again I meant to get it, and you underline how good it is) he does go into something about Les établi(e)s. I refer to this briefly noting that Benny Lévy got excused by himself from having to do that.

        It is very good point you make about the book ignoring lots of groups – I obviously know less about that in France than you do, but judging from experience in the UK there are lots of small left groups that get passed over, I remember some Mao ones in London. One that I only knew about because a student at my central London FE had been a member and would talk about them as a cult, and their name, something like Serve the People (I am far from sure) never comes up.

        I also hate Maoists – the book Papier en tigre by the way, is on my shelf, d’Olivier Rolin.

        I met some of the remnants in the Fédération pour une gauche Alternative. For example, those from the Parti communiste révolutionnaire (marxiste-léniniste) (PCR-ML). We sometimes held meeting in the old QG of one M-L group, small but built like a miniature fortress.

        Andrew Coates

        August 8, 2022 at 9:19 pm

  2. Instead of reading lousy and lazy “pisse-copie” Bourseiller you should read Marnix Dressen, De l’amphi à l’établi. Les étudiants maoïstes à l’usine (1967–1989). whose name I mispelled in my previous mail.

    Yves Coleman

    August 8, 2022 at 8:20 pm

  3. Thankyou, this is a useful summary and your blog’s consistently well-informed coverage of French politics is much appreciated.
    Bourseiller’s book was first published back in 1996, so there are other more recent publications available on French Maoism.
    Some of them focus on Vive la Révolution (VLR – misprinted as VLF above), which I agree was in some ways more interesting than the Gauche Prolétarianne, who grabbed most of the headlines at the time. For example, Manus McGrogan published a book in 2018 on VLR’s counterculture paper Tout! – it’s reviewed here: https://h-france.net/vol19reviews/vol19no71haas.pdf, with a reply by the author here: https://h-france.net/vol19reviews/vol19no72mcgrogan.pdf.
    Eleanor Davey’s Idealism Beyond Borders: the French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954-1988 and Julian Bourg’s From Revolution to Ethics: May 68 and Contemporary French Thought are good on the decline of Maoism.
    Finally, I think The Dreamers is a pretty dire film: a better portrayal of French Maoism, in many of its weird contradictions, with particular reference to VLR, and including references to Simon Leys, is Olivier Assayas’ Après mai, which I reviewed here: https://h-france.net/fffh/maybe-missed/olivier-assayas-apres-mai/

    Daniel Gordon

    August 8, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    • Thank you.

      I did write VLR – something I know about because of Guy Hocquenghem, La Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary (1986).

      I like The Dreamers, but I must say that you are, in my opinion, totally right to prefer Après mai ‘Something in the Air’ by Olivier Assayas which came out after I originally wrote this article..

      This is partly for the reasons you cite (Simon Leys also had an impact on the British left in the late 1970s) but also because there is an older character in it from the PSU, people I knew – I also still have a link with the PSU following the Institut Tribune Socialiste ·and having attended some of their Webinars. And there is the Ligue, which I knew from the mid-70s…

      Andrew Coates

      August 8, 2022 at 10:32 pm

      • Thanks. Yes, I agree the PSU character in Après mai is an important period detail, because the PSU were much less attention-seeking than some of the other left groups of the time, so often get forgotten. And yes, it’s great that the Institut Tribune Socialiste are still active.
        I’ve researched the PSU’s history, interviewed some ex-PSU activists and worked with the ITS – here’s a tribute I wrote about the ITS’ founder Jacques Sauvageot: http://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=1574, which was apparently given out at his funeral.
        I enjoyed your review in 2016 of Bernard Ravenel’s excellent book on the PSU, and would be fascinated to hear sometime more about your time in/around what you described as the ‘warm and open people’ of the PSU; I hope other readers of your blog might too.
        (I did once meet you in ‘real life’ by the way, at the 1968 And All That event in Conway Hall back in 2008.)

        Daniel Gordon

        August 9, 2022 at 9:12 am

        • I met Alain Krivine at that event: went up to him in the Foyer. I asked him (vouvoiement, without thinking) about Maurice Najman’s passing.

          Najman was somebody I knew fairly well (even been to his flat) and had read of his death but did not see the cause, which I guessed was for a reason as I knew he was very unhappy since the passing of his partner (she was amazing in herself). Krivine said he had been using drugs, coke, a lot.

          https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Najman

          Najman was very much into the counter-culture you mention. He memorably appears in Mourir à trente ans about Michel Recanati when the Goupil film comes to the comités d’action lycéens (CAL) in 68.

          Andrew Coates

          August 9, 2022 at 9:59 am

          • Ah yes, I found Mourir à 30 ans a very captivating film, and also a lesson in some of the political and personal perils of vanguard politics. Maurice Najman sounds a fascinating individual, and that is a very sad story about his early death and that of his partner. From his entry in Maitron, would that be the actor Maggy Bohringer?
            So Najman’s interest in counter-culture extended to going underground to Czechoslovakia to help out the Plastic People of the Universe? Yet paradoxically he later did a book of interviews with Markus Wolf, the head of the Stasi?

            Daniel Gordon

            August 9, 2022 at 9:02 pm

            • There is a lot written about Maurice Najman and I am not really the person to speak about him properly – there must be many many people better placed.

              He told me about the death of his partner around 1988-9. I am not sure on the name, but that does not look likely.
              I have only read about the Markus Wolf interviews.

              One thing I did hear in the mid 1990s from leftists in Paris was that Najman had joined Les Verts – unlike others of my comrades who were part of L’alliance rouge et verte, (AREV) which became Les Alternatifs, which forms part of Ensemble these days.

              https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensemble_(parti_fran%C3%A7ais)

              Andrew Coates

              August 9, 2022 at 10:50 pm

  4. Thanks.
    Ah yes I remember Les Alternatifs, a good bunch of activists.
    I heard Ensemble! took legal action earlier this summer against Macron’s latest astroturfed alliance Ensemble! for stealing their name (even more confusingly I think they both sometimes use an exclamation mark).

    Daniel Gordon

    August 10, 2022 at 10:13 pm


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