Exit Sartre

Fredric Jameson

  • Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 by Tony Judt
    California, 348 pp, £11.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 520 08650 3
  • Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Post-War France by Sunil Khilnani
    Yale, 264 pp, £19.95, December 1993, ISBN 0 300 05745 8

These two books take an essentially British perspective on the history of fellow-travelling in France since World War Two. Armed with the magic cap of François Furet’s ‘demystification’ of the Revolutionary ethos, they advance prudently into the thicket, gazing with chaste perplexity (and occasional exasperation) on the peculiar mores and customs of the denizens of outre-Manche, and in particular dwelling at some length on the Gallic overestimation of intellectuals as well as of the only too familiar (but evidently now extinct) ‘desire called revolution’. There is in this something of the wide-eyed fascination of children confronting an incomprehensible adult sexuality, but also a mild breath of the pastoral vocation. More modestly than those American economists who undertook to bring the good news of free enterprise to the post-Soviet dark ages in Eastern Europe, these writers both take satisfaction in their commitment to an ancient tradition of Anglo-American liberalism, whose moral and intellectual benefits they are prepared discreetly to administer to the Continent at the appropriate hour of need.

I have used the word ‘history’: but it is not altogether clear that these books are histories in any conventional sense, although in the case of Judt it is only fair to inform the reader that his equivalent of Khilnani’s project is not this volume – which is something like an extended pamphlet, on the order, as he says himself, of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Idéologie française – but rather his more comprehensive Marxism and the French Left (1986), which sets out to tell this story from the 19th century to the present, and not merely, as Khilnani frames it in his book, from the Liberation of Paris to that other ‘liberation’ incarnated by Furet. Past Imperfect restricts its inquiry to the period between 1944 and 1956; since, with the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, ‘began not so much a change of mood as a transfer of allegiances’, the cause of the Third World now being substituted for that of the discredited Soviet Union, while later still, Chinese enthusiasms take the place of the commitment to ‘wars of national liberation’ and conjugate unexpectedly with internal French student issues. Each of these phases is marked by a diminution in the prestige and influence of the French Communist Party (and a new burgeoning of extreme-left or gauchiste extra-parliamentary groups), which touches something of a nadir with its opposition to the student rebellion of May 1968.

As these writers see it, then, the Seventies are characterised by a rapid decomposition of the Left. I think Khilnani is quite right to identify the signing of the Common Programme of the Left, in 1972, as the crucial moment at which a whole range of self-identified leftists, from older progressistes to anti-Soviet gauchistes, suddenly begin to wonder, at the prospect of an electoral victory finally bringing the Communist Party to power, whether that was really what they had in mind after all. I also take the point that the French publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1974 gave disgruntled intellectuals (the so-called New Philosophers) a prime media occasion – although the existence of the camps was well-known to the older generation, as witness Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel, The Mandarins.

At any rate, after a near-miss in 1978, suspiciously punctuated by Aldo Moro’s kidnapping, the union of the Communist and new Socialist Parties, when it came to power in 1981, confronted a thoroughly de-Marxified France from which left intellectual culture as these books describe it had utterly disappeared. Judt needs to end his story in 1956 because his target is an intelligentsia single-mindedly intent on defending the Soviet Union: the subsequent commitment to the anti-imperialist struggle does not quite suit his purposes, for it could not easily be condemned in the same way, while ‘fellow-travelling’scarcely seems the right word for the delirium of the Maoist years. Neither book has much to say about the most traumatic experiences of those years – namely, the wars of national liberation in Vietnam and Algeria. These were decisive events and experiences for the French Left, and their absence from these books is astonishing; but of course, Vietnam and Algeria do not fit the anti-Communist arguments offered here.

Some new thinking does indeed seem to be required about the history of political generations in this process, thoughts different from the standard alternatives of fashion or cyclical alternations of Left and Right. But of what are these two books in fact the history? Judt assures us that his ‘is not a history of French intellectuals’, let alone of the French Left in general (however that may be defined). Khilnani goes further in his methodological clarifications and tells us that he does not wish to write a sociology of those same intellectuals, nor to write a history of ideas (in which the form demands that you ‘stalk imaginary beasts like “Existential Marxism” ’). Richard Rorty (in Judt’s book, an embodiment of relativism and nihilism second only to Sartre himself) is appealed to by Khilnani for a more principled repudiation of the history of philosophy itself: a fictive narrative in which ad hoc positions are transformed into coherent pseudo-systems that somehow ‘evolve’ over time. Khilnani’s title is thus meant to convey a rather different approach, in which seemingly abstract philosophical positions are rewritten as ‘political arguments’ in concrete and immediate situations. This certainly demystifies ‘philosophy’ (the contempt for philosophy in general is not the most attractive feature of these books), but it also tends to reorganise the narrative around the immediate upshot of such punctual situations – that is to say, to stage the outcome of the ‘arguments’ in terms of simple success or failure. More than that: since the point of such arguments is presumably to secure the adherence of this or that political public, the zero-sum game becomes reduced to sheer fad and fashion. Does Sartre win ‘his bid to wrest revolutionary politics away from the Party’? Does Althusser win his to wrest the same legitimacy away from Sartre? This is the first of several features I will wish to identify as ‘Post-Modern’ in these otherwise deliberately regressive works; for here they both clearly participate in that pornography of success into which consumerism has been refined in recent years – a voyeuristic aesthetic, where the camera obsessively multiplies playbacks and freeze-frames of the faces of the Olympic victors and their families until even the attractive expressions of joy and relief become obscene. Meanwhile, the kinds of celebrity that the new electronic public sphere feeds on (everything in television today being self-referential, and allegorical of ‘making it’) have themselves been simplified into a never-ending stream of successes (and failures). As a new mind-set this is presumably related to the new forms of paper-money speculation that dominate late-capitalist finance; but also in some more general way, to the gradual shrinkage of older metaphysical frameworks.

This is an ominous touchstone for the historian: Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason may well be profitably reread or rewritten as a ‘political argument’ in Khilnani’s sense, as a topical intervention in an essentially political situation in the present, rather than some elaborate conceptual system designed to realise the body of the mythical entity called Existential Marxism on earth. Its argument, whether political or philosophical, may well have ‘failed internally’, although it scarcely seems fair play to turn Sartre’s abandonment of the project into testimony of its failure – it remains a very interesting project indeed. The fact is that Khilnani is not really interested in this extraordinary text at all (or at any rate not ‘internally’): ‘I do not intend,’ he tells us, in the course of what are very intelligent pages on the work, ‘to foist a systematic pattern on all his political writings, as if they revealed a coherent intellectual project.’ In that case, popular success or failure is the only surviving criterion.

Judt is most succinct on the matter in Marxism and the French Left: ‘at some point between 1958 and 1963 ... a vital transition occurred. Despite his publication of a philosophical magnum opus designed to absorb and recast the thinking of the previous fifteen years, Sartre somehow ceased to matter very much any more.’ Exit Sartre in disgrace, enter Althusser. Needless to say, Althusser also ‘fails’, and by his own admission: ‘he too seemed to have given up hope that there might be an attainable position from which the intellectual could be both independent and politically effective.’ Surely what is meant in both judgments is that the Revolution failed to take place: but if that is what is presupposed, one begins to wonder whether these ‘critiques’ of the Revolutionary imaginaire have not internalised the myth of the Revolution as fully as the enemies they use it against. Both books betray the influence of Pierre Bourdieu’s auto-referential analysis of the intellectual career as a struggle of every instant for self-promotion; only they lack the richness of Bourdieu’s analyses, which (very much indebted to Sartre, be it added) are able to use the punctual success or failure of the intellectual in question to interrogate the concrete possibilities of the situation itself, the state of the discipline or the raw material. Bourdieu’s great book on Heidegger, in particular, shows how to do justice to a remarkable figure and a remarkable achievement for which one has ideological loathing.

Meanwhile, it is also worth mentioning Khilnani’s rather different way of framing the situation Marxism had to face in France: as a tension between the universal and the particular, between the ideal of a truly classless society and the claim of the French Communist Party to represent the purely national essence of the French Republic. But this reading – inexplicably credited to Todorov – comes from Sartre and is used here to suggest that this is a specifically French problem – and thus that the Anglo-American political tradition triumphantly evades it and positions itself once and for all in an eternal human nature. But however dramatically the revolutionary legacy and the Republic inflect this tension – or contradiction – in France, a rather less complacent philosophy of the political might well wish to argue that all socio-political situations permanently confront an unresolvable tug-of-war between universal and particular.

To grasp the historical modifications of this dilemma, let alone to be in a position to glimpse some vision of its supersession or neutralisation, one has to look at what Hegel calls the content of the situation. In this instance, the situation has been constructed according to a kind of ‘reader-response’ format: Sartre has a following, then he loses it to Althusser; finally they both lose it to the other side. But what determines the success or failure of the cultural and philosophical offerings of these writers in the eyes of their public? The answer presupposed (and sometimes given) here is framed in terms of ‘the French intellectual’: what succeeds is whatever flatters the self-esteem of that particular social stratum and construes the role of the intellectual as a ‘revolutionary’ one without making too many practical demands. Such explanations always send us back to prior questions, in this case how ‘the French intellectual’ got to be this way (and/or how the ‘British intellectual’ avoided doing so). It is a question one cannot sidestep, although if the path of historical investigation is to be avoided, then other, less reputable forms of explanation offer themselves.

The Post-Modern vulgarity of this particular view of intellectual success or failure may be an argument in its own right, in the specific sense in which Khilnani uses that term; perhaps, indeed, it is meant to reflect, not so much on these two authors, as on the intellectuals, who are thus given over to plays of fashion. In that case, it would be their vulgarity, and not Khilnani’s, that is at issue, and that can serve just as much as anything else to undermine the prestige of the French political intellectual.

Judt’s earlier book shared this particular perspective; paradoxically, given his more recent renunciation of ‘the curious urge, in the Liberation and thereafter, to be on the cutting edge of events, to pass up no occasion to be on history’s front line.’ But his subjects, these same French post-war intellectuals, had at the very least the excuse of having their mentalités formed during the Occupation (and even before that, by the famous ‘myth of the Revolution’ itself). Judt and his colleagues presumably cannot appeal in the same way to the alleged universal triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy (or the new ‘myth’ of the ‘revolutionary year’ 1989). Yet it is sometimes difficult to know whether the wisdom of Raymond Aron is celebrated here simply because it is ideologically compatible, or on the contrary because Aron finally won, by sheer dint of living on into a period in which his old enemies were either dead or discomfited. The argument from changes in fashion is dangerous: you may yourself be their next victim.

The argument from sheer success, however, is indecent enough to cast a different and somewhat more doubtful light on the high moral tone taken by Judt’s current offering. We have already heard him reject the more obvious possible characterisations of this book as a piece of historiography: it is not even in Khilnani’s sense a history of differences or ‘arguments within French Marxism’, since, ‘despite the fact that the major texts are spread over a decade of French history’ – 1946-56 – ‘they not only address essentially unchanged issues but are in direct communication with one another.’ Such paralysis of the public sphere might seem to offer an interesting field of inquiry; but this is not the focus either. In fact, Judt proposes to use history for what some might feel was a non-historical purpose: to write ‘an essay on intellectual responsibility.’ ‘I am interested,’ he tells us, ‘in an aspect of the modern philosophical tradition in France that has until very recently aroused little comment in France itself, the marked absence of a concern with public ethics or political morality.’

Historians have not often confessed to such interests, at least not since the 19th century and not publicly; but it would be wrong to take this taste for moralising as a mere personal eccentricity or hobby on Judt’s part. It is in fact not ethical at all, but political and ideological through and through, as becomes apparent when we look more closely at the specific issues and occasions on which the ‘absence of concern’ is adduced. ‘What was said and done in France,’ he tells us more openly in his other book, ‘served directly to bolster and justify the practices of the regimes newly in place’ in Eastern Europe. ‘In the name of the proletariat and the class struggle, Sartre and his contemporaries (in and out of the Party) made a daily contribution to the legitimation of the enslavement of the satellite states.’ Despite an attack in the earlier work on those (dialectical and post-structural) historians who ‘deconstruct the historical text by shifting the emphasis to “silences” – or the unvoiced expression of a silent majority’, the method for arraignment turns here very much on the matter of guilty silence: Judt makes himself into a belated one-man truth squad, sifting among the dead or the superannuated like a Nazi-hunter and challenging them all to appear at the bar of judgment.

Those who think that the constructions of socialism in Eastern Europe and the resistances to it involve class and geopolitical struggles far more complex than mere ‘enslavement’ will clearly find it difficult to participate in this exercise, which involves starting from the basic Cold War premise and then cross-examining each defendant accordingly: why did he not speak out against the various Eastern European show-trials, or against the gulag? Why did he not simply denounce the Soviet Union, as did Koestler or Aron? Nor do the turncoats – Edgar Morin, Claude Roy – fare much better, since their self-serving autobiographical accounts are insufficiently self-critical. It is public self-denunciation and self-abasement Judt is after, nothing short of that will do; so it is perhaps unsurprising, although interesting, that his most passionate targets are not incorrigible leftists like the impossible Sartre (whose readers will be astonished to learn that his interminable discussions of ‘responsibility’ had nothing to do with ethics), but rather figures such as the radical Catholic Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the journal Esprit, who is more fundamentally unpardonable because he ought to have known better.

I cannot think that such belated settling of Cold War scores will really interest Judt’s co-religionaries these days, when they are too busy making money to have much interest in the past; but then it is precisely the status of the past that is at issue here, and its uses, historiographic or not. On the surface, the luxury of passing moralising judgments on the past would seem something of a self-indulgence for the historian, predicating as it does a kind of reunified Germany of the mind, with ‘West German’ carpetbaggers passing sentence on the humiliated ‘East Germans’ (while the property is being redistributed by the victors). ‘Not even history will be safe from them if they win,’ warned Walter Benjamin presciently, on a different occasion.

On the other hand, this arbitrary freedom to judge the past would also seem to betray some more fundamental uncertainty in our own time about History itself. Despite the facile and dismissive remarks these historians have to make about the (admittedly Germanic) Kojève-Fukuyama ‘end of history’, their own outlooks posit a not dissimilarly radical break with the past and its way of doing politics. If one is convinced that the market and liberal democracy are in nature itself, then their universal dominion cuts us off from the past and its peculiar and incomprehensible struggles in ways even more basic than the conviction of ‘modernity’ in its heyday, which consigned the ensemble of pre-capitalist lifeways to the superstitious, the traditional and the merely folkloric. In this sense, too, both these books are profoundly Post-Modern, profoundly ahistorical.

This is also the sense in which the return of the ethical and of moralising must be seen: not exactly as anything residual or reactionary in the traditional sense, but as Post-Modern. The break with the modern, with heavy industry (and the reality as well as the concept of production), along with all the varied modern visions of the utopian transformation of society – this break is the condition for the setting in place of the structures and institutions of late capitalism, or in other words, the third, cybernetic and multinational stage of this mode of production. Judt’s call for ‘a full and final departure from the utopian perspective’ – very characteristic of a range of forms of Post-Modern anti-revolutionary and anti-systemic or anti-totalising politics – ushers in a situation in which the conceptualities of Modernism are no longer of any use, and in which, paradoxically, the new Post-Modern thing requires the revival of depressingly old-fashioned values and practices. No one who did not live through the Fifties, for example, will have any idea how dreary and tedious it is to have to listen to a repeat of its anti-Communist rhetoric and its now hoary modes of ‘arguing counter-revolution’. But I want to suggest that, as with fundamentalism in religion, we have to do less here with a tradition as such, with a mere continuation of these ideas (leaving Raymond Aron out of it!) than with their reconstruction as simulacra: these are lifeless pastiches of once current doxa, fractal models called up by the machine, not even clones, they are to the real but now extinct forms of earlier liberalism and conservatism what a Lincoln android might be to the dead President. While they are flawless imitations, constructed by experts, their imitation pasts are utterly unreal, they were invented complete with those pasts in the instant immediately preceding this one.

Still, for the intelligence of our current situation and of the present age, it is important to keep track of these symptomatic mirages, which give themselves out as revivals. I note at least four of them, whose originals we thought we had done with long since: philosophical aesthetics (and the theory of beauty), something modern art finally polished off, but which had been systematically undermined since the Romantic movement; free-market economics, which Ricardo problematised virtually before Adam Smith had grown cold, but which the Great Depression (and the welfare state) surely placed in ultimate perspective; classical political philosophy, or bourgeois political theory from the eras of the English and French Revolutions (if we are still permitted to call them that) – in other words, universalising reflections on civil society, constitutions and the social contract; and finally, ahistorical and universalising philosophical ethics, whose demolition was even more effectively secured by Nietzsche and Freud, one would think, than by Marx and Hegel. I hasten to say that it is no mean feat to revive any of these things in a Post-Modern – i.e. an even more advanced and sophisticated – era, though talented ideologues have expended a good deal of intellectual effort and ingenuity in doing so. But in that case, perhaps the end of history simply means the end of historiography and its replacement by something else.

These books seem also to want to make a contribution, albeit unconsciously, to another field altogether: something closer to anthropology, and in particular to the cultural study of the peculiar species called the French Left (or French intellectuals). Judt dutifully rehearses the gradual discrediting of the old Republican ethos, as history moved steadily to the left with each generation that followed the Dreyfus case. He posits three fundamental principles in this development: a deep suspicion of parliamentary democracy, a principled anti-anti-Communism, and an anti-Americanism that rapidly crystallises after the war. These are, indeed, the fundamental pillars of the political ideology in question and on my view as valid today as they were in that bygone era.

I am, however, troubled by another tendency of both these volumes, which leads them to lapse into a rather different ‘culturalist’ language when it comes to ferreting out what is genuinely French and weird about these people. At this point a ‘typically Anglo-Saxon’ glee shows through the measured commiseration of our historians for a country which (despite Tocqueville) has never experienced the blessings of a liberal state. The ironic catalogue of Gallic peculiarities is, to be sure, of a piece with the revival of cultural stereotypes in a now supposedly reunited Europe. It can be combined with your professional commitment to things French (shades of Bourdieu again) by invoking external contamination and in particular, as Judt does, the noxious influence of German thought, to which these French intellectuals were inexplicably addicted.

As an explanatory principle, culturalism of this sort is only a few notches above racism and betrays an embarrassing ethnocentric smugness. But it can also be taken as a mark of the originality of globalisation today, that we are somehow forced to think thoughts about other countries and their societies in the absence of any existential categories for doing so except these xenophobic ones. Indeed, Khilnani has a timely warning for the new French Right, intoxicated as it is with parliamentary values in the very moment at which the national form of them has entered into crisis. Here, with a vengeance, we find that very tension between universal and particular that his book deploys as analytic category for another age, suddenly restaged in new ways in our own difficulties of thinking and acting in the new world system of late capitalism. It occurs to me that the deeper mysteries of fellow-travelling also turned on just such geopolitical dilemmas. There, too, a national politics sought its way within an international force-field, in which that particular national politics counted for little. A more fruitful meditation on fellow-travelling might interrogate it for lessons for our own even more globalised period, menaced by a universal Americanisation in which even American politics are shorn of their autonomy.

One bids farewell to these two works with mixed feelings of a very specific sort. On the one hand, it ill-behoves these particular intellectuals, whose books aim at making an essentially political intervention in contemporary intellectual life, to urge the conclusion that late-capitalist intellectuals should abandon the political vocation embraced by their predecessors. On the other, the embarrassing near unanimity of the turn to the right among French intellectuals today would seem to go a long way towards confirming the diagnosis of intellectual conformism these historians pronounce on the French intellectuals of yesteryear, whose doxa lay to the other end of the ideological spectrum.

One may, however, be permitted a certain scepticism about the celebration of Furet, with which both books reach their climax. In fact, they themselves provide enough material to suggest that, far from having ‘disproved’ revolution in general and the French Revolution in particular, Furet’s operation consisted simply in reversing the valences on a left-wing projection of contemporary politics into the past (Robespierre as the forerunner of the Parti Communiste Français). What one ought rather to admire in Furet is the political skill with which he waged his particular ‘discursive struggle’ against the Left, and saw that a fundamental strategic intervention was available in undermining the role played by the Great Revolution in the French political imaginaire. It was as astute an ideological gambit as the invention of ‘political correctness’ by the right wing in the US. The present volumes undertake to advance this project even further, by discrediting the very concept of the critical intellectual the rest of us have derived from France and from these same French politics. Technocracy has, to be sure, done much of their work for them; but it is still to be hoped that the concept of the political intellectual will live on, even in the unpropitious circumstances of late-capitalist corporate life. We may need it again some day.