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Hallward, Peter (2006) Mystifications of Paris. New Left Review : 1-9.

In the wake of liberation from Nazi occupation, the arena of French political philosophy was divided between the two approaches that could most plausibly claim a direct affiliation with the resistance to that occupation: Gaullist nationalism or republicanism on the one hand, and versions of Marxist internationalism on the other. For all their differences, these two approaches shared a sense of the political community as engaged in an active project, as grounded in a tradition of collective struggle whose historical roots could be traced back, in a more or less continuous genealogy, to the contested principles of 1789. Participation in such a project precluded any conventionally liberal notion of politics as the law-bound negotiation of competing interests, while an equally conventional conservatism, based on a more passive veneration of the state and the integrity of its traditions, was for the time being discredited by its collaboration with fascism.

This division of the field endured, just, for around 25 years. The republican Right narrowly survived the crises of decolonization in Vietnam and Algeria. The militant Left managed, at least for a while, to cope with the fragmentation provoked by Stalinism and its aftermath. Mediocracy is a response to what happened when, after the confusing turmoil of 1968, these competing projects then collapsed in the 1970s. A photograph described in the middle of Lecourt’s book sums up the general story nicely: on the steps of the Elysée palace in 1978, André Glucksmann stands holding the arms of Raymond Aron on his right and Jean-Paul Sartre on his left, on the occasion of a presidential appeal to support ‘A Boat for Vietnam’. The great ideological antagonists of the fourth republic are brought together here in a gesture orchestrated for the media by a repentant former Maoist, one of the first French thinkers to anticipate what would soon come to be known as la pensée unique or, in the anglophone world, the Third Way. One of the most combative episodes in the history of decolonization thus comes to an end in a shallow image of public reconciliation for the sake of a purely humanitarian project: distant gestures of ‘aid for the victims’ are now to replace the risks of divisive political analysis and collective action. And so begins our age of neoliberal reaction, characterized above all by the apparently definitive consolidation of corporate power and the simultaneous liquidation of popular movements for fundamental social change. It is a reaction legitimated, of course, through the affirmation of what has become a virtually automatic moral and political consensus: the primacy of individual human rights—in particular, the rights of consumers and property-owners; the recognition of personal or cultural ‘differences’; the universal validity of Western models of parliamentary democracy; the consequent condemnation of all ‘totalitarian’ oppression, and so on.

Lecourt’s concern is with the peculiar ideological contribution made by Glucksmann and other ‘New Philosophers’ to this all too familiar political development. A pupil of Althusser at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in the late 1960s, and one of his former teacher’s closest confidants in the following decade, Dominique Lecourt is unusually well qualified for the task. The author of several trenchantly materialist analyses of scientific methodology (Marxism and Epistemology, Proletarian Science?), he has never wavered in his conviction that epistemological questions, like other aspects of what Althusser called ‘theoretical practice’, are to be primarily answered in terms of class struggle. Readers familiar with Lecourt’s earlier books will find few surprises here, either in the occasional reference to the ‘problematizing’ effect of innovative work in the natural and human sciences, or in his savagely scornful dismissal of the New Philosophy as a feckless and insubstantial alibi for the intensification of capitalist exploitation and neo-imperialist domination. Indeed it is this philosophy’s ignorance of science which, from an Althusserian perspective, most flagrantly indicates its ideological orientation. The story of French philosophy in the 1960s was in large part driven, against Sartre’s existential humanism, by the unsettling and explicitly anti-humanist implications of the new human sciences formulated by Lévi-Strauss, Lacan and Foucault. The story of the New Philosophy, by contrast, might be told as a return of sorts to ‘pure philosophy’—but one purified of precisely that militant urgency and conviction that had informed Sartre’s own writings. Against Sartre, Lévi-Strauss famously argued that the goal of critical thinking should be ‘not to constitute but to dissolve man’; what the New Philosophers have to offer is little more than the reconstitution of humanism under the cover of that most insidious form of mauvaise foi: the smug moral complacency of those whom Sartre himself used to call les salauds.

Chronologically, the role played by what came to be known very loosely and sometimes inconsistently as the ‘New Philosophy’ can be divided into two parts. There was first a period of critical or combative engagement with the allegedly totalitarian implications of philosophies inspired by Hegel, Marx or Nietzsche (Glucksmann: ‘to conceive is to dominate’, ‘to theorize is to terrorize’). This was followed by a period of more reflective or complacent consolidation, amounting to little more than celebrations of private enrichment combined with a benevolent tolerance towards the varied ways of its pursuit and charitable compassion for those ‘excluded’ from its rewards. Highlights of the first phase include Bernard-Henri Lévy’s La barbarie à visage humain, Glucksmann’s Les maîtres penseurs (which provides the foil for the punning French title of the volume under review: Les piètres penseurs—paltry or mediocre thinkers) and Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut’s La pensée soixante-huit (1985); the second phase is exemplified by Ferry and André Comte-Sponville’s recent collaborative effort, La sagesse des modernes (1998). What is common to both is a virulent suspicion of politics, as conceived by Lecourt—that is, as decisive collective action undertaken in ‘a highly complex system of relations of force in a way that is conducive, or otherwise, to popular emancipation’. With Glucksmann, Ferry and Comte-Sponville, the revolutionary thinkers of the 1960s have duly found—with no small amount of that farcical quality such repetition seems to require—their Thermidorian antagonists. As Lecourt demonstrates with stinging disdain, in the guise of refusing to instruct or ‘terrorize’ the masses the New Philosophers in fact adhere to the most insistently patronizing principle of all—the principle, which runs throughout the whole counter-revolutionary tradition beginning with Burke and de Maistre, of a respect for order and stability; the stifling insistence that all political action must be reverently aligned with the essential institutions of the status quo.

In its critical aspect, the New Philosophy is essentially a renewal—spurred on by Solzhenitsyn and in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia—of the long Cold War campaign to equate communism with the Gulag (and the Gulag with Auschwitz), and thereby to rouse public opinion in outrage against any recourse to organized political violence as a means towards social justice. In its reflexive moment, the New Philosophers extend their ethics of compassion and generalized horror of ‘suffering’ as the basis for an elaborate justification of a liberal discourse of ‘order, consensus and consolation’. The components of this discourse include: (a) explicit approval of a broadly Anglo-American understanding of politics, conceived as the competitive negotiation of interests (Comte-Sponville: ‘the regulation of egotisms is politics itself’); (b) the reduction of critical thinking to technocratic forms of ‘expertise’ and pragmatic savoir faire; (c) the concomitant reduction of citizens to the role of passive, alternately horrified or indifferent consumers of a made-for-media ‘politics of the ambulance’, a politics mediated above all by the televisual reporting of stark images of misery or unrest; (d) the isolation of these images from any sustained investigation of their political circumstances or causes, and thus their naturalization as so many variants—‘famines, floods, epidemics, pogroms or ethnic cleansing’—of one and the same category of self-evident ‘disaster’, itself to be understood as the simple result of an absence of, if not hostility towards, Western liberalism, rationality, technology, tolerance and so on. Anybody familiar with the news reporting techniques of CNN will understand how the general system works. The reduction of a murderous political initiative by the Hutu Power rulers of Rwanda to the extraordinarily imprecise status of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ is only the most outrageous example of what was to become a standard trend in the 1990s.

The actual dose of philosophical innovation in this loose package of ideas is obviously very slight. Apart from the occasionally hysterical enthusiasm with which Lévy and Glucksmann renounce their own previously extravagant endorsement of violence as the true medium of political action (a hysteria which distinguishes their conversion from, for example, André Malraux’s earlier and more measured renunciation of communism), much New Philosophical work amounts to little more than the reaffirmation of what had long been the standard ideological topos of liberal philosophy—the defence of individual freedoms against every form of tyranny. The Cold Warriors had never been short of philosophical ammunition in their war against what Reagan was eventually to name the Evil Empire. As Lecourt points out, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) is a more substantial critique of the ‘master thinkers’ than Glucksmann’s book. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) provides a more coherent basis for the comparison of Nazism and Stalinism than the inflated gestures of Lévy. In France itself, Raymond Aron had sought to characterize his Marxist rivals as totalitarian from the 1950s on and, a full generation before the New Philosophy, Albert Camus’s L’Homme révolté (1951) had already argued against every subordination of political means to historical ends, already sought to preserve individual freedom and a dissident solidarity from the terror-dependent ‘absolutisms’ he found at work in Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx.

So what is new about the New Philosophy? How was so incongruous a name adopted as a label for this most reactionary of all strands in current French thought? Though substantially a repetition of Cold War themes, Lecourt suggests that what is indeed original in this cluster of ideas is the way it sets out to seduce that particular slice of society which the Trilateral Commission notoriously identified as central to what it called, in 1975, the ‘crisis of democracy’—the group of mainly professional or intellectual non-conformists from within the political and media establishment who came to resist the imperialist interventions in Algeria and Vietnam and to support popular movements for racial and sexual equality. The New Philosophy, in short, is the name of the ideological campaign that succeeded in preparing traditionally sceptical French intellectuals to accept the eventual Americanization of their political and philosophical life.

The key to this surprisingly effective operation, according to Lecourt, lay precisely in its adaptation of the slogans ‘dissidence’, ‘refusal’ and ‘revolt’. A philosophical public nourished by existential or avant-garde versions of these themes proved highly susceptible to their repositioning within the mix of anarchic exuberance and chastened self-abnegation that was typical of the first New Philosophical texts. The crux of the New Philosophical argument is the identification of Marxism as a ‘science of the state’: the subsequent definition of a dissident freedom in terms of a radical refusal of the state, a determination to ‘say no to the state’, follows automatically. Whether this refusal then leads to a sober emphasis on reasonable ‘moderation’ (Ferry) or culminates in an apparently subversive ‘jubilation’ (Michel Onfray) makes little essential difference.

The genius of this move is that it enables a certain superficial resemblance to other philosophical positions whose own militant integrity is not in doubt—positions ranging from Chomsky’s anarcho-libertarian dissidence to the principled ‘political distance’ from the state championed by Alain Badiou and his allies in the post-Maoist Organisation Politique. Moreover, when Lecourt traces the New Philosophical conception of the state as the murderous suppressor of individuality back, through Aron and Camus, to Stirner—who condemned the consolidation of state power as an organized exclusion of whatever is considered ‘un-man’ or ‘inhuman’—he exposes a line of thinking that evokes certain aspects of the work of Lyotard and Agamben as much as that of Glucksmann or Lévy. To be sure, Lecourt has no trouble showing that what the New Philosophers actually preach, under the cover of this rhetorical investment in ‘refusal’ and resistance, amounts to little more than a justification of the refusal to engage in collective political action tout court. More problematic is his treatment of the more general issues that surround its alternative.

Lecourt’s polemic involves two sorts of argument, one easy and the other difficult. The easier argument is engaged with convincing vigour in the pamphlet ‘Dissidence or Revolution’, written by Lecourt in 1978 and wisely included here as a substantial (and in many ways more compelling) appendix to the main text; the more difficult arguments, however, are largely evaded in the smoothly translated but somewhat erratic pages of Mediocracy itself.

The easy argument involves refuting the New Philosophical claim that Marx’s thought is or ever was a ‘theoretical “apologia” for the state’ and, more specifically, for a state reduced to its most brutal function: the conversion of its citizens into abjectly servile subjects. Readers of the present journal will not need to be convinced that Stalinism was a perversion, rather than the logical culmination, of Marxism; the latter interpretation amounts, in any case, to little more than a willingness to accept Stalin’s own characterization of his regime.

The more difficult argument begins with broader questions raised by Glucksmann’s actual account of Marxism. By Lecourt’s own summary, Glucksmann attributes to Marxism: a longing for total or definitive revolution; a determination to establish an indisputable social science which would guide the way towards that revolution; a loyalty to the party that would incarnate the authority and discipline of this science; and an apparent willingness to defend terror as a means of preserving this authority. The circumstances surrounding the historical degradation of Marxism into Stalinism are one thing; the philosophical argument that would ensure the distinction of the former from the latter is quite another. On this precise point, in any case, Glucksmann’s position is less risible and less isolated than Lecourt suggests. Other political philosophers profoundly marked by 1968—for instance Jacques Rancière, Guy Lardreau, Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus—have, without yielding an inch to either the New Philosophical cult of human rights or to what Lecourt derides as postmodern ‘nomadism’ and ‘technophilia’, effectively withdrawn from at least part of this argument. If there is a political programme to be retained from Leninism, in particular, then in the hands of these philosophers at any rate it is to be conceived in terms of a strictly subjective (if not quasi-Stoic) discipline, one that must be maintained at a principled distance from any organized appropriation of state power. All other ideological differences aside, each of these thinkers shares Glucksmann’s condemnation of ‘vulgar Marxism’ as a philosophy of the Party, of Authority and of Terror.

Even those readers sympathetic to Lecourt’s general principles are likely to be disappointed by his failure to engage systematically with these and other familiar but perfectly genuine political–philosophical questions. Take the issue of class struggle. ‘Dissidence and Revolution’ derives both its force and its somewhat anachronistic tone from its regular recourse to the logic and jargon of class struggle, conceived as the essential motor of historical change. In the preface to Mediocracy, Lecourt apologizes for its ‘stereotyped language’, this ‘overdose of “class” terminology’—but without addressing the implications of this rhetorical shift. Is global class polarization to remain the guiding reference point, or not? If yes, why apologize for the language of class struggle? And if not, what is Lecourt’s alternative, and in what sense does it remain Marxist? How might it compare with, for instance, the proposals already advanced some time ago now by post-Marxist critics like Laclau and Mouffe?

There is certainly no lack of evidence to back up the claim that broadly Marxist principles can still inspire an effective critique of global liberalism and the consensual understanding of politics which accompanies it. Lecourt’s book is just one of several interventions—Gilles Châtelet’s Vivre et penser comme des porcs; Daniel Bensaïd’s Résistances; Badiou’s Le Siècle; Rancière’s Mésentente, Žižek’s Ticklish Subject, among others—that vigorously reject the whole conception of Third Way politics. All these books discount the management of consensus in favour of a militant attention to antagonism, struggle or insurgency as the foundation of political action—Rancière and Badiou, for instance, would both found political action in inventive mobilizations or uprisings situated in those unrepresented points of tension or foreclosure upon which the consensual social order rests. All address, in their own way, the question implied by the apparent independence of the two words linked in the old phrase, ‘class struggle’. If all of them might be read as so many attempts to understand (if not dissolve) class essentially in terms of the struggle that gives rise to it, the degree to which these understandings can be aligned with classical Marxist categories remains variable and debatable.

The Mediocracy is no exception to this generalization. Of course it would be unreasonable to require Lecourt, in a book of this kind, to flesh out in any detail a plausible Marxist alternative to the current hegemony of the Third Way. Yet the old questions persist, largely unacknowledged here: can Marxism revive a philosophy guided by the fundamental unity of the proletariat? Can it prepare the way for a genuinely non-capitalist economy? Is any such economy sustainable without recourse to unacceptable levels of state coercion? Such questions have refused to go away in the twenty years since Lecourt published his pamphlet on dissidence, and developments in the recent history of Cuba and China testify to their essential consistency.

It is presumably a tacit ‘yes’ to these and similar questions that justifies the scorn with which Lecourt condemns the readiness of his liberal opponents to work within the current status quo. But it is the lack of any explicit substance to this affirmation that makes Lecourt’s dismissal a somewhat more hollow gesture than either, on the one hand, the dogged re-affirmation of Marxist principles by critics like Bensaïd, Ahmad and Callinicos; or, on the other, the still uncertain, still searching post-Marxist projects variously pursued by Lecourt’s fellow travellers Rancière, Badiou and Lardreau. For instance, when Lecourt seeks to salvage a viable notion of ‘democracy’ from Western propagandists, he describes it simply as ‘the regime that facilitates the optimal balance between the preservation of individuals and the existence of the state, because it prompts a mutual enhancement of the capacity for existence of the individual and of the community to which he or she is joined as a citizen’. Quite so. But are there liberals who would disagree with such a broad declaration of principle? Rather than argue with Rawls’s logic, Lecourt prefers to make fun of Comte-Sponville’s sentimentality. Rather than take up the more divisive political questions he tends to leave them to one side; and, once he aligns himself with Chevènement, once he quotes Tocqueville in order to buttress his critique of a contemporary democracy in which ‘each man is forever thrown back on himself alone’, it is no longer clear just how different his position can be from the middle-of-the-road versions of republicanism endorsed in most of Ferry and Renaut’s writing. Again, although Lecourt does discuss Ferry and Renaut’s diagnosis of the Nietzsche-inspired currents of ‘la pensée 68’, he does not so much weigh up their (extremely debatable) critique of anti-humanism in the works of Lacan, Foucault and their contemporaries as content himself with the retort that May 68 was in fact a perfectly humanist festival of hedonism and desire. He does not assess their case for restoring the category of the subject so much as insist that May was too inconsistent an event, too eclectic a movement, to deserve the definitive article imposed in the title of Ferry and Renaut’s book. Which leaves, once more, the bigger questions to one side.

An intriguing indication of the uncertain political orientation of Lecourt’s own position here is provided by his repeated consideration of Foucault’s ‘problematizing’ approach to intellectual work. Foucault himself is certainly the most problematic figure in the tortuous early history of the New Philosophy. He praised Les maîtres penseurs when it came out, and both Glucksmann and Lévy, sympathetic to his call to ‘multiply the “points of repulsion” in the political fabric’, lace their work with references to his authority. In perhaps the most engaging sections of his book, Lecourt indicates both how Foucault’s resistance to Marxist explanatory models makes this rapprochement possible and how, nevertheless, his fundamental principles are in ‘direct contradiction’ with those of the New Philosophers, at least as regards the allegedly centralizing tendencies of the state and the actually diffuse, ‘microphysical’ operations of power. This leaves the Marxist question partially unanswered. In ‘Dissidence and Revolution’, through compressed recourse to the Althusserian category of dominant ‘ideological state apparatuses’, Lecourt offers a compelling corrective to Foucault’s apparently ‘directionless’ understanding of coercive social specification and control. In Mediocracy itself, however, Lecourt’s own conclusion reads like nothing so much as an endorsement of Foucault’s own (explicitly non-Marxist) agenda, one driven by attention, with only minimal reference to either class struggle or mode of production, to the precise ways in which ‘human beings become individualized,’ and in particular, to the role of the natural and human sciences in shaping the existence of thinking, working and loving subjects. What exactly Lecourt is advocating when he writes that we should strive to problematize every moral norm rather than ‘adhere’ to any particular ethical prescription remains a little unclear.

This impression of political uncertainty is reinforced by the curious rhetorical organization of Mediocracy itself, written as if delivered to a young, disillusioned audience both sympathetic to French academic radicalism (a ‘you’ disgusted by the spineless mediocrity of current French philosophers) and yet ignorant of its basic history (a ‘you’ who will retain ‘no image of Althusser’). It is difficult, in fact, to say who exactly Lecourt is writing for. Students, who might be inspired by nostalgic evocations of an era when ‘politics alone galvanized us’? Old comrades, who will share his often elliptical memories of intellectual encounters and controversies, not to mention the heady atmosphere of the Ecole Normale? Or simply jaded readers of the intellectual press? Indeed, it is at least a little peculiar that an author so outraged by the media-oriented writing of his opponents should have written what is, after all, a somewhat journalistic response, one woven together from autobiographical recollections, personal touches and a generally anecdotal approach to the relevant texts. As for Lecourt’s own abruptly dismissive assessment of current philosophical thinking in France, this too would be more convincing were he to make even nominal reference to any of the several genuinely innovative projects currently being pursued by his compatriots—Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, Henry, Rosset, Laruelle, Jambet, Milner, Cassin, Stiegler, to mention only a few.

On this occasion at least, Lecourt seems quite happy to be preaching mainly to the converted. Those already inclined to scorn the sentimental moralizing of Comte-Sponville and his colleagues are likely to find Mediocracy invigorating and enjoyable but thin; readers looking for more sustained philosophical argument are entitled to hope that Lecourt might return, in a future work, to deal more thoroughly with some of the important questions he touches on here.

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