Or, the Return of the Political
While I remain disinclined to engage with the contention of some Troppo commenters that anyone who identifies with the Left or admires Eric Hobsbawm must immediately don sackcloth and walk towards the scaffold on the Place de Greve with a lighted taper in hand, I did remark on an earlier thread that some measured discussion of the reasons why Stalinism was attractive to intellectuals might be valuable. There’s a huge literature on intellectuals and politics (and Michel Foucault is a contributor to it) but I want to focus on French intellectuals, since it’s the French philosophical and literary milieux that gave birth to postmodernism.
NOTE: Image of Maurice Merleau-Ponty courtesy of the Merleau-Ponty circle.
A longer post on this would be desirable, but I don’t have time at the moment so I’ll confine myself to two observations. The first is that the problem of historical responsibility is a very complex one, not amenable to inquisitorial style proceedings. The second is that any answer to the question (if indeed an answer is what one is genuinely interested in) must be sociological. If we ignore the context in which thinkers lived and worked, and proceed in a sort of ahistorical history of ideas fashion, we are never going to understand why.
This is the problem for me with Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. Lilla is also a poor reader and interpreter at times, and his thesis is somewhat occluded by his Straussianism. But the question he asks – “why are intellectuals attracted to authoritarian political movements” is a valid one and deserves an answer. The beginnings of one can be found in the NYU historian Tony Judt’s book Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956.
It’s not my intention to review Judt here, or even to offer a comprehensive review of his arguments. I’d then probably feel compelled to defend two of my favourite political philosophers – Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir – against what I see as unwarranted inferences from their political thought. However, Judt makes a persuasive case that situational factors, and the internal logic of the French intellectual scene (which is radically different from anything anywhere else), can account for this strange attraction. These include but are not limited to the Europe wide climate of hostility to parliamentary democracy in the 30s, the lack of political thought in the neo-Kantian French philosophy in the early part of the 20th century, the disasters of Vichy and the discrediting of the intellectual right, the participation of the Communist Party in the Resistance, and the feeling that the battle of Stalingrad was history’s verdict, and the desire to remain independent of American hegemony and to carve out a third European way in the late 40s. The collective dimension to history and political action was crucial, as was a feeling of urgency related to commitment, and is nicely summed up in Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The War Has Taken Place”.
Interestingly, one of the key themes of postwar French thought was responsibility and engagement. Certainly, as Judt demonstrates, the horrors of the Gulag were well known in France, and the show trials in Central Europe in the late 40s drove home the message. While few intellectuals joined the Communist Party, many were prepared to stake their chips on the working class as the motor of history, with the highly Stalinist PCF in its vanguard. The question for us today, particularly in light of signs of a resurgence of authoritarianism, is do we seek to understand or do we just condemn?
PS – One of the most intriguing suggestions Judt makes is that the trajectory of exiles from one school of German social and ethical theory – such as Popper – to Anglo-Saxon philosophy left French thought, always heavily dependent on German precedent, in the Nietzschean-Heideggerian-Kojevian frame.