The New Philosophers Rock France
…young, radical, ex-Maoist—they have seized the intellectual initiative.
God is dead;
Marx is Dead;
And I don't feel very well.
Socialism: born, Paris, France, 1848; died, Paris, France, 1968.
Ten years ago Paris was an occupied city. Squads of police and soldiers stood on every street corner. Busloads more lined up on the fringes of the Latin Quarter ready to rush in at the first sign of disorder. Public order was fragile on the Left Bank during the summer of 1968, and the government took great pains to preserve it.
Just a couple of months before—in May—a loose coalition of students, radical unionists, anarchists, and Maoists had openly and violently rebelled against the Gaullist government. Cobblestones of the boulevards St. Michel and St. Germain were pried up and piled into barricades. Trees were cut down. And for a short time, the government lost control.
But not for long, of course. Soldiers led by bulldozers soon destroyed the leftist ramparts and retook the Place St. Germain des Pres, thus crushing the uprising. The government lost no time in covering Paris streets with asphalt to prevent a resurrection of the barricades, and special holidays were declared to get people out of the city over those warm spring and summer weekends. Even the sale of gasoline was manipulated in order to encourage Parisians to leave when the government wanted.
After the brief rebellion was over, the only violence consisted of periodic skirmishes between small groups of leftists and the groups of police who regularly patrolled the Left Bank. These confrontations were more like sporting events than like actual attempts to overthrow the government. Rocks and bottles would be thrown at a group of police. (Empty bottles of a soda called Pschit, with a taste to match, were a favorite). The police, careful not to get separated from one another, would take up the Roman battle formation known as the "turtle," using their clear plastic shields as a shell. Smashing rocks and bottles against the police shields was such entertainment that soon a large crowd would gather—most to watch, but many to join in. At about this time, another larger group of helmeted police would come charging down the street to the rescue, beating the hell out of anyone who was too slow or too stupid to get away.
Another tactic of the frustrated revolutionaries was to throw objects and insults from a moving car. This was not without its hazards, however. Traffic flow in Paris is uncertain even in the best of times. More than one person got stuck in a traffic jam after attacking a group of police in this manner. The "flics" would run up to the car, yank out the poor bastards, and beat them to a pulp in the middle of the street.
To most people, even those sympathetic to the revolutionaries, the rebellion of 1968 seemed a hopeless project from the very start. There were few genuine grievances against the government, and the insurrection could not be expected to have much popular support. But the fact that even the Communist Party refused to join the rebellion was a source of great bitterness and disappointment.
The Communist Party in France was (and still is) large and well organized. On the local level, it had won many key positions. The CP was not about to jeopardize itself by taking part in a "spontaneous" uprising that it could not control. Most leftists knew this and couldn't have expected anything different. Yet to many, the failure of the CP to join the revolution was lasting proof that it had become a bourgeois party.
That was ten years ago. At that time, most of the "new philosophers" were in their late teens or early twenties. Many of them took part in the revolution. Others did not. But none escaped its effects.
Christian Jambet and Guy Lardreau helped to found a Marxist-Leninist youth organization in the caves of the Rue d'Ulm in 1967. They called it the Proletarian Left. And along with Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levy they published a newspaper, The People's Cause. They all believed in Marxism—both in its moral superiority and its historical inevitability. As Philippe Nemo, another of the group, put it, "Marxist philosophy appeared to us as a conception of the world. It was the Truth. Of course, we had heard about what was going on in Moscow, Koestler and all the rest, but we didn't believe it. For us it was just talk."
The break with Marxism was not immediate, but it did come. By 1968 it had been more than a hundred years since Das Kapital, and still the workers had not thrown off their chains. The inevitability of Marxism had become something of a joke. The revolt had just failed in France. The Communist Party had sided with the government! And in July of 1968, the Gaullist government won the election by a landslide. What's more, in August, Russian tanks entered Prague. They were met by a courageous resistance that made the Paris uprising seem foolish and childlike by comparison. Not long after, Solzhenitsyn became known to the Western world. His accounts of the treatment given to Russian dissenters and hapless minorities gave the coup de grace to the notion of the moral superiority of communism. It was no longer possible to dismiss Stalinism as a perversion of Marxism. "Socialism is totalitarianism," says Bernard-Henri Levy. "As long as you are a Marxist, you will justify no matter what horror and no matter what evil in the name of historical providence."
In 1970 Jean-Marie Benoist wrote Marx Is Dead. Benoist was an assistant to Levi-Strauss at the College de France and a professor at a French lycee in London. He was in London during May of 1968, and it was there that he decided to commit his heresy. Benoist was an iconoclast and a bit ahead of his time. It took most of the new philosophers several more years to lay to rest the "bourgeois German."
By 1975 the transition was all but complete. Each of the seven or eight "new philosophers" had seen his burning bush by then, and each was ready to be labeled and marketed by a skillful PR man. And it is to such a man—Bernard-Henri Levy, one of the new philosophers himself—that the group owes its reclaim. Levy is shrewd, talented, and enterprising. Moreover, he is romantically handsome. In 1973, after graduating from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieur, helping Bangladesh in its war against Pakistan, and working as an independent journalist, Levy took a job as philosophy editor for the Parisian publishing house Grasset. First he tried to launch a new literary journal, which lasted only 11 days—just long enough for the bills to come from the printers. Then he published and promoted a collection of authors that he called the "new writers." That project had mixed results, but Levy learned his lesson. New is one of the magic words in France, just as it is in America.
Levy's next move was to call in his old friends from the Ecole Normale Superieur and the Proletarian Left and put them under contract to his publishing firm. He called them the "new philosophers." In addition to his job at Grasset, Levy was also responsible for book reviews in a Paris daily paper. This he used to promote the concept of a new philosophy and to praise the books published by his own company. He also masterminded a series of interviews, articles, and TV appearances for the group.
Within less than a year, the new philosophers were superstars. It is as if they had discovered the philosophers' stone. The press file that Grasset maintains on the group is so voluminous one can scarcely carry it. And their books have been breaking sales records—a fact that is particularly galling to other publishing companies. Levy's own book, Barbarism with a Human Face, has been on the bestseller list for months, as has André Glucksmann's The Master Thinkers, a ponderous work that won the essay prize from the Academie Francaise.
Philosophy is connected to politics, the saying goes, as lips to teeth. That alone may account for some of the new philosophers' success. Many communists actually welcome them. Since 1968 the CP has been as welcome in leftist circles as a case of herpes simplex in Plato's Retreat. The commies are pleased to see their fellow socialists taking heat. Francois Mitterand, head of the Socialist Party, refused to comment on the "new philosophy" during a TV interview. He said the subject was "too important" for offhand comment. Rightists and centrists, meanwhile, are pleased as punch to see former Maoists attack Marx. By doing so, the new philosophers are making anticommunists acceptable to Parisian intelligentsia. Even the anarchist journal, Le Canard Enchainé, which normally reduces everything trendy to quivering foolishness, has taken the new philosophers seriously. "These people trouble me," wrote Yvan Andouard, "and I'm not the only one."
Still, there have been a lot of new waves in French culture—new cinema, new novels, new realism—and it is puzzling how this one can attract such attention when, in fact, few people seem to know what it is, and those who do know, know that there's nothing new about it. The new philosophers themselves readily admit as much. Jean-Paul Dollé, author of Desire for Revolution, explains it this way:
Philosophy is never new. There are always the same questions. What is new is that there is a need for philosophy. It seems to me that, not only in France, but in the entire Western world, political discussion is insufficient. All the great themes by which people live have been shown to be flawed. What we are doing is simply asking once again the age-old questions—the questions which have been posed by philosophers since the time of the Greeks. We are in a time of crisis. So we must ask again the fundamental question—the question of being. That's how I interpret it. This brouhaha has completely surprised me. I don't think any of us expected it.
Perhaps Dollé is right. Perhaps the new philosophers do fill a need. Many people are clearly disillusioned with the political formulas of the past. It is not surprising that they would turn to a "new philosophy," however vague it may be. In this sense, the new philosophers are to philosophy what Jerry Brown may be to politics: the incomprehensible is better than the reprehensible.
And the parallels with Jerry Brown don't stop there. A major part of the new philosophy is the Small Is Beautiful/Ivan Illich syndrome. Glucksmann, Levy, Dollé, and Benoist argue that adherence to grand schemes for the salvation of mankind—secular or religious—is an impediment to human progress and happiness. Instead, they claim that people should concentrate on small, manageable issues, handled one at a time. Problem solving should be done on a low level, with small groups of people coming together to tackle problems that directly affect them. Large institutions, they charge, are usually inefficient, corrupt, and dehumanizing. In this connection, the new philosophy is seen as a reassertion of humanist values over technological ones, and is compared to the new realism that tries to do much the same thing in art. The Union of Communist Students in France has referred to this trend as a "restoration of existential good health."
The new philosophy also has strong religious overtones. Heavy use is made of religious metaphors and symbols, despite the fact that most of the new philosophers are atheists. Evidently, one does not need to actually believe in God to appreciate religion. In fact, Nietzsche—who is revered by the new philosophers—is credited by them with reinforcing religion. Not bad for someone who once pronounced God dead!
In an interview conducted by France's Catholic newspaper, Bernard-Henri Levy explained that there are three ways of looking at the world—religious, political, or aesthetic. One need not be a Catholic to appreciate a religious interpretation any more than one needs to be an artist to appreciate an aesthetic interpretation. The important thing is to get away from the political conception of the world. Jean-Paul Dollé elaborates:
Modern states, such as that which has existed in France since the Revolution, and all Western countries, have taken the place of God. Nietzsche said God is dead. I agree completely. That is to say that the transcendent no longer exists. That being the case, the state has tried to take its place. I am radically opposed to it. I will not admit that the state can take the place of God.
Dollé himself, like Heidegger, looks to poetry. "I believe," he says, "that at this time the only thing to do is to have an immense mass philosophical movement, a mass poetical movement."
The details of the new philosophy are difficult to pin down, as evidenced by the various positions with regard to religion. That is largely because its practitioners make such extensive use of images, metaphors, and analogies to prove their points. Each writer seems to have a slightly different view of what these things mean, and by consequence, each dishes up his own dog's breakfast. In general, the new philosophers reject Marx and all those associated with him—Hegel, Engels, and Lenin. Instead, they stuff their philosophical rucksack with the old humanists—Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus—and with later existentialists such as Sartre and Camus.
The philosopher with the strongest influence upon them, however, was Jacques Lacan, under whom several of them studied. Lacan's interpretation of Freud provided them with a key element of their philosophy. According to Lacan, each individual has the characteristics of society within him. These characteristics consist of three principal elements: the master, the slave, and the rebel—all of which are either derived from or reflections of the oedipal complex. That being the case, it is hard to change the world in any major way. True revolution is impossible, say the new philosophers, since the only result of rebellion is merely to exchange an old master for a new one, with no guarantee that the new one will not be worse. (Curiously, while despairing of revolution, the new philosophers tend to glorify resisters and dissenters. It is not clear what route remains open to the resisters, however, if revolution is not possible.)
Human nature is thus loaded down with psychological baggage that cannot be checked. Real change can only come—at least according to Dollé—when the essence of man is transformed by a "general mutation." There may be many mutants walking the streets already, he says.
The new philosophy seems almost painfully pessimistic. For while its proponents are young and chic, they also have an irrepressible gift for overstatement. "Life is a lost cause," writes Levy; "happiness is an idea grown old." Comparing the new philosophy to films such as Night Porter and Clockwork Orange, both of which were phenomenally successful in Europe, critics have charged that it is just "an elegant decadence." Others have accused the new philosophy of being a form of punk or nihilism. Humanité, the Communist Party newspaper, said the "new philosophers" are just poseurs who are "neither new, nor philosophers." And cynics have remarked that the whole thing is nothing more than a tempest in a wine glass. They claim the new philosophers are merely settling accounts with their youth. There's a saying for it: "A man who is not a communist at age 20 has no heart. A man who is still a communist at age 30 has no head."
But a great many people disagree. They see the new philosophy as a welcome alternative to terrorism and punk (which Bernard-Henri Levy has called the "Apologie pour Pourri"—literally, the Apology for Rottenness). These people see the new philosophy as optimistic, a rebirth of classical humanism focused on the individual. "The time has come," says Levy, "to write new declarations of the rights of man, against the barbaric injustices of the nihilistic period in which we live."
For every negative there is a positive. If the new philosophers are viewed as pessimists, it is because they have torn down the idols that have dominated French philosophy and politics for more than 100 years. But by doing so they have cleared the way for new ideas. Here is how Andre Glucksmann put it: "We have had enough of the master thinkers and the little chiefs of philosophy. They make history, but in reality, their labors only break down individual resistance. They are the masters of submission to science, to revolution, and to the state. What is new about the new philosophy is that everyone tries to think for himself."
William Bonner, who is director of the National Taxpayers Union, was educated at the University of New Mexico, the University of Maryland, the Sorbonne, and Georgetown Law School.
"The anti-barbarian intellectual must be a moralist, and when I say moralist I mean it in the classical sense, that of Kant, Camus, or Merleau-Ponty. I am well aware of the secrets and tricks of the categorical imperative: but I prefer this little lie to that of historical superstition. That is, I prefer the spirit of courage and duty to the dismal cowardice of fatalism. I am not forgetting that God has been dead since Nietzsche, but I believe in the virtue of an atheistic spiritualism as opposed to the weakness and resignation of contemporary philosophy. I no longer believe in Man (as separate from society) and I should say that I agree with those from whom I have learned that the concept of Man is fading from the scene of intellectual activity. But I believe that without a certain idea of Man, the State falls too easily to the vertigo of fascism. I don't accord the least theoretical credit to what the Marxists call formal liberties, but practically, here and now, I cannot deny that they provide a barricade against the temptation to barbarity. Stated differently, we find ourselves in the troubling position of having only very uncertain and fragile political tools. Perhaps it is time to write moral treatises."
—Bernard-Henri Levy, La Barbarie a Visage Humain
"If I must one last time go back over the route from which I came, sum up my methods and lessons, and reduce them to a "practical philosophy," I would conclude thus: I have done nothing more than pose, in my own way, the three celebrated questions of the "Chinaman from Konigsberg," the questions which he put before the philosophical trade time and time again. "What can I know?" I answered—clearly, I think—that I can know little except that the world is in bad shape, that its prophets of happiness often bring unhappiness, and that there is no greater danger than the pretender and the impostor. "What can we hope for?" I tried to say that we can expect little—if it is true that the Master is another name for the World, that as soon as one is overthrown another takes his place. The red princes are there now, waiting in the antechambers of power. "What should I do?" I have said in passing, but I say it now emphatically: brandish most highly what Descartes referred to as "a provisional morality" which for us takes the form of this simple commandment: resist that which promotes the barbarian menace."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The New Philosophers Rock France".