Les intellectuels de la gauche Francaise

mp.jpg

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.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
This entry was posted in History, Philosophy, Politics - international, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
21 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

I think there might be a verb (or maybe more) missing from your postscript. It’s also rather cryptic, at least for this armadillo.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Can’t find the spot where the missing verb would go, Ken.

I’m having a dig at Rafe with the Popper reference :) But the idea Judt has is that if some of the Austrian School were working in France instead of America, Britain or indeed Australia, postwar French philosophy might have been more Kantian than Hegelian.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

A small quibble Mark, if I may, re the use of the term “marxisant”, as in

“While few intellectuals joined the Communist Party, many were marxisants prepared to stake their chips on the working class as the motor of history, with the highly Stalinist PCF in its vanguard.”

The context actually suggests you mean Marxists, although it’s not clear. The distinction might seem pendantry, but is important to my mind. If we cannot use ‘marxisant’ to identify those who employ or recognise ideas with some Marxist heritage, but don’t necessarily buy the ideology or the politics, we need to think up another word for them.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, Chris, Sartrean existentialism was certainly a very odd species of Marxism (as Merleau-Ponty recognised when he attacked Sartre at lenght in “Adventures of the Dialectic”) and Merleau-Ponty himself kept his distance from the PCF and later turned against Marxism altogether, suggesting that Marx be read as a philosopher (something Derrida attacks because he’d like Marx to continue to have his political legacy). So I’d have thought they’d be marxisant? But perhaps I’m still using the term incorrectly?

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, the verb you’re looking for, I think, is ‘left’.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, if someone wants to suggest rewording the ps, I’ll happily accept the correction…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Chris, to clarify further, both M-P (much more reluctantly and for a shorter period of time) and Sartre argued that the PCF was the embodiment of the working class and ought to be supported – M-P’s falling out with Sartre and de Beauvoir revolved around this and other related issues. So it’s a hard one. They were certainly not PCF intellectuals – many of whom were very boring as scholars, and not orthodox Marxists, but sympathetic to the PCF.

One of the best ways to get a grip on what things were like back then is to read Simone de Beauvoir’s excellent novel The Mandarins.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s hard to classify Althusser (in a later period) as well – while he was a member of the PCF, he was no orthodox Marxist, and Derrida argues a lot of his thought was nevertheless shaped by his desire to shift the PCF in certain directions.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I don’t know enough about these guys Mark. The important point is that Marx has had a lot of his ideas internalised within the academy, much as Freud has, and I think the preferred convention is to recognise this heritage as marxisant, regardless of whether the practitioner is, say, a supporter of the right-wing of the Liberal party. No political conclusions follow, as you seem to imply.

The relationship of Marx to scholarship is complex, since much of his influence is of the vulgar-Marxist type, i.e. he has been associated with some basic ideas or models that Marxist scholars proper would quibble over as to whether they actually are derived from Marx (who said he wasn’t a Marxist). There is also, of course, a rich Marxist scholarship in its own right, however varied its streams.

But beyond this, we have the marxian influence. The famous economist John Hicks, for example, used marxian categories in his economic history. In another example, once upon a time only a Marxist might have suggested that the theological concept of purgatory emerged in the Middle Ages because of a shift in the economic base of the church from relying on the gifts of nobility to needing broader popular support. This marxisant theory was however advanced by Oxford medievalist Sir Richard Southern.

But, as with other terms, no doubt there is some mixed usuage. The distinction is important to me, but who can claim to authorise text in this po-mo world?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Chris, I think it’s the term Judt himself uses. I agree about precision and I’d happily use another one (I was trying to avoid “fellow travellers” for obvious reasons) if we can think of one!

“In another example, once upon a time only a Marxist might have suggested that the theological concept of purgatory emerged in the Middle Ages because of a shift in the economic base of the church from relying on the gifts of nobility to needing broader popular support. This marxisant theory was however advanced by Oxford medievalist Sir Richard Southern.”

Weber had a similar explanation, but then he was certainly influenced by Marx (though I think the way of reading him as engaged in a “debate” with Marx is unhelpful).

cs
cs
2022 years ago

My guess is that they would be most accurately described as Marxist-influenced, which allows your political conclusions to implicitly follow. If John Howard or tim blair use the term ‘working class’, we might say that they are, in some senses, being marxisant, but I doubt that we could conclude that this would lead them to “stake their chips on the working class as the motor of history, with the highly Stalinist PCF in its vanguard”, if you know what I mean.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yep.

Influence is also an interesting term – but I’m not sure it expresses enough of what I want to say. Judt’s point is that almost all of the intellectual debate at the time was mediated through the lens of Marxism. It was a background assumption or a condition of possibility for a particular way of thinking as well as just an influence, if I’m making any sense…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

On reflection, having taken your point, Chris, the word appears unnecessary in that sentence. It’s gone. I agree that much scholarship has incorporated Marxist ideas without being ideologically Marxist, and it’s important to make that distinction both for the sake of accuracy and precision and also lest the inquisitors of right wing PC seize upon the provenance of such ideas in their crusades.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“Themroc”.

’nuff said.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Good morning Mark, nice of you to mention Popper in the postscript, in the same breath you might have mentioned Raymond Aron as an alternative French influence.
Popper is actually the key to unlocking your problem which can be traced to the incredible influence of Plato. Recall the old saw that western philosophy is essentially footnotes to Plato.
The good news is that I am preparing a kind of on line adult education course in The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1 (Plato). It is not all that big, 200 pp plus 120 pp of notes in small print but the key ideas can be extracted in a briefer form for people with short concentration spans and little motivation to read a person who is generally dismissed as an out of date philosopher of positivism or an old (and now deceased) reactionary. For a taste, with a critique of verbalism thrown in for good measure, check out “Essentialism and the Organic State”.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/popessent.html
or click the signature.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rafe, yes, Judt doesn’t discuss Aron because (with a few others) he was one of the few intellectuals to support de Gaulle.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

The postsript rewriting challenge is impossible to resist. I don’t know much about the topic, but as an excercise in hermeneutics, or at least in editing, it seems like fun. How about:

‘French Philosophy draws inspiration from schools of of philosophy that are identifiably German. When Popper (and perhaps some unspecified others) ceased to meet this criterion he, and the tradition he represented, ceased to influence French philosophy. The French, therefore, continued to draw inspiration from the Nietzschean-Heideggerian-Kojevian tradition.’

Short version: if Popper had not crossed the chanel, French Philosophy might have been very different because they would have paid attention to him.

Even if it has no other merits, this interpretation should appeal to Rafe.

Paul Norton
Paul Norton
2022 years ago

“many were marxisants prepared to stake their chips on the working class as the motor of history, with the highly Stalinist PCF in its vanguard”.

It’s worth remembering that marxists of various kinds bitterly opposed the notion that Stalinist CPs were fit and proper bodies to be vanguards of the working class, and some opposed the notion of vanguards per se. People as wondrously varied as the Mensheviks, the German Social Democrats from Bernstein through Kautsky to Luxemburg, the Swedish Social Democrats, the Trots, the Frankfurt School, and more recent New Left intellectuals such as Ralph Miliband who were highly critical of “actually existing socialism” and CPS, were all Marxists.

On the other hand some of the most notable intellectual barrackers for CPs and communism never have much of a handle on marxism – Manning Clark could be an Australian case.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Thanks James, it is likely that if Popper had not crossed the channel, he might have died in the Holocaust like fourteen of his relatives. That is probably an over-serious response to a playful comment, but it is really difficult to imagine how his influence would have impacted in Paris if he remained working in a (sort of) positivist tradition in Austria. It seems that Aron had little influence and he was on the spot, unless his influence was blown by his association with deGaulle.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Did I kill this thread? Sorry, but it was probably a mistake to mention Popper. Actually I have a serious question about the French intellectual scene: There was a French translation of Popper’s Logic of Scientific Investigation and Jac Monod wrote the Preface. He gave a talk about this in London (1972) and afterwards I chased him down the corridor and arranged to visit him in Paris, where he gave me a copy of the Preface. The question: is there a French translation of anything else by Popper, especially The Open Society and its Enemies which was supposed to be popular in samizdat form in Eastern Europe?

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Mark,

You should have known what would happen when you wrote the “P” word. You would have been safer mentioning Ftumch’s contribution to the Poncy-Merlot circle.