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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Richard Wolin and "The Wind from the East"

      Richard Wolin, intellectual historian at CUNY and noted contributor to such national publications as The New Republic and The Nation, delivered the Orr Center’s opening address for the fall semester. Wolin’s new book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s examines the impact of Maoist thought on French academia and political life and the long-term reverberations of the events of May 1968. Galvanized by revolutionary upheavals far from home, French students (supported by such academic luminaries as Sartre, Foucault, and Kristeva) took the streets, engaging in widespread popular demonstrations and strikes aimed at radically transforming their own society along leftist contours. Though they took their cues from Mao’s ideas – and from the ‘Cultural Revolution’ he initiated in 1966 – these scholars and activists were largely unaware of the horrors then raging in the China that they envisioned as a proletarian utopia. The ultimate failure of the protests, along with disillusionment at the bloody realities of Chinese authoritarian communism, led many of those who associated with the May events to a more moderate politics, which in turn gave way to human rights discourses and the establishment of Médecins Sans Frontières. The significance of this period in French history remains a topic of contentious debate in today’s France, evidenced by some less than complimentary remarks President Sarkozy directed toward the student radicals of his youth during his 2007 electoral bid.
     Dr. Wolin’s talk was given under the aegis of the University of Memphis Department of Philosophy’s annual Nancy Simco Lecture Series.  It was well attended, with both students and the larger community responding enthusiastically.

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