Sunday, June 21, 2009

Godard's La Chinoise and the fate of '68

Among Godard's films, La Chinoise is considered one of the less known and understood. The portrayal of kleinbürgerisch Marxist student revolutionaries slowly being seduced by "revolutionary" violence appeared in 1967 and seemed to predict the revolutionary Zeitgeist that would explode a mere year later across the west and worldwide.

The protrayal of an isolated group of students breaking with the mainstream left and turning to violence is also an excellent protrayal of the groupthink and quasi-brainwashing that spawned groups like the Weather Underground and symbionese liberation army in the U.S. and the extreme violence of West Germany's Rote Armee Fraktion, a brainwashing documented in former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers's memoir Fugitive Days and the excellent comparative history Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. One of the last lines of the film, as the student cell falls apart, is a member saying "Okay, it's fiction, but it brought me closer to reality," referring, perhaps, to disconnect created from abstract texts and self-imposed social alienation.

The last several scenes of the film seem especially critical of the students and their political motives; as one female student travels on train and engages in dialogue with a seasoned leftist professor. The most obvious criticism against the students that the professor makes is his refusal to see how the "struggle" of a few petit-bourgeois can be compared with the Algerian struggle against French colonialism that he supported only a few years prior, but other criticisms appear in the discussion: the student's support of self-betterment through physical labor was, as Orlando Figes documents in his excellent book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, the ideological basis for the massive labor camps constructed under Stalin where political dissidents were sent to slave away at public works projects.

Yet the main criticism that the professor states is one that is much more applicable to communism in general: the student wishes to close the universities through violence and "start from scratch." The student claims to be thinking for the "others" who have not come to the realization of a need for revolution, and the professor asks her bluntly: "What is the point of killing people if you don't know what to do next?...You only know that the present system is awful and that you are patient to end it." The student responds: "What we do after is not my work...I don't care....I'm only a worker producing revolution." The professor warns that her revolution will be "mass murder," fitting considering the outcome of the Cultural Revolution that was taking place that the students were idolizing. This problem of the Marxist revolutionary as a "midwife" free from post-revolution responsibility is addressed in Professor Steven Lukes' excellent essay "On the Moral Blindness of Communism":

Both Malia and Courtois refer to Marx's picture of the communist future as
latent in the womb of the capitalist present, a picture tellingly expressed in the metaphor of the revolutionary as midwife. It was a disastrous picture, absolving both the theorists and practitioners of revolution from both moral deliberation and institutional planning, since, as Thomas Nagel has well put it, "midwives do not have to design the babies they deliver. "

Indeed, the students attempt to remove herself from the responsibility of the post-revolution recalls another quote from Lenin:

" ...he told me once as he was stroking some children,"their fives will be better than ours: they'll be spared many of the things we have been forced to live through. Their lives will be less cruel."He stared off into the distance, and added dreamily,
"Mind you, I don't envy them. Our generation will have carried out a task of tremendous historical importance. The cruelty of our lives, imposed by circumstances, will be understood and pardoned. Everything will be understood, everything. "~ Vladimir Lenin, as spoken to Maxim Gorky, quoted in The Black Book of Communism

The later assasination of a Soviet minister demonstrates how unaffected the students are by murder in the name of higher ideals: after assasinating the wrong individual, the students don't even flinch, but simply return to the university and find their correct target. But what is one life lost when future generations will understand and pardon everything?

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