Intellectuals of the French Left are, often on their own admission, beginning to look as silly as the postmodernist clique who preferred arcane formulae to clarity of thought and exposition, and with whom they share a revolving door. In any system of rational thought, a proposition is true if it is supported by repeatable observations or rigorous deduction. In the postmodernist system of thought, a proposition is true if at least one poor wretch can be found to believe it. There has of late been a sharp decline in the supply of poor wretches. The Left has been exhausted as much by systematic lying as by hope long overstaying its welcome. What is this exhausted and enervating lie, essentially? It is the doctrinaire liberal lie of the end of history and the irrelevance of geography, both joyfully ceding the stage to the great Integrated Supply Chain that, given total freedom of action, will bless our race with indefinite economic growth, and the general felicity that must go with it…
In this recent piece for Le Figaro, Eugénie Bastié documents the baffled indignation of the French Left-intelligentsia, as they mourn the loss of their most piquant pleasure: moral blackmail. There is a litany of references to writers, political henchmen, and organizations, most of which will be lost on English readers: but they are not essential to the theme. In the age of Google, the reader can follow any of them up if he or she so wishes. A few of the more obscure are explained in the text…
The Left Desperately Seeking Intellectuals
INVESTIGATION : The long-time “party of the intellectuals”, the Left, has lost its monopoly of thought, and for the first time since May 1968 recognizes its defeat. Disconnected from the people and resisting an aggiornamento, it is struggling to reinvent itself.
Manuel Valls might well say he’ll read Bernard-Henri Lévy and Caroline Fourest during the recess, Vincent Peillon pose as heir to Ferdinand Buisson, Arnaud Montebourg call Thomas Piketty to the rescue, and Benoît Hamon evoke Chantal Mouffe: the governing Left is no longer the natural habitat of the life of the mind. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem might well intone before the scattered benches of the Belle Alliance Populaire: “The Right is all about indoctrination; the Left, that’s the development of the critical mind”, but she’s only playing in a low-budget sequel to Jack Lang leading France out of the shadows and into the light. More from the Pantheon, more sentimental crowds, artists and roses in hand. The intellectuals and the Left, it was better in those days…
Since the Dreyfus affair, the Left has always been seen as the party of the intellectuals. That of the intelligentsia guiding the people towards the Light of Reason. With May ’68, the domination had become absolute. ‘Intellectual of the Left’ was a pleonasm: at the Café de Flore it was an obvious fact. The new philosophers were received by Giscard at the Élysée. Foucault demonstrated with the sans-papiers, and Bourdieu with the railway-workers of Lyon. O tempora, o mores… For a Raphaël Glucksmann, who toggles between indignation and compassion 2.0 on his Twitter account, it’s the “réacs” who today monopolize the front pages of the weeklies! In libraries, the conservatives triumph. Criticism of Europe, the need for frontiers, the return of identity, the demand for security, the rejection of mass-immigration: themes antithetical to the progressive Left dictate the media’s agenda. One no longer wishes to change the world, but to save the furniture. It is now more trendy to be right with Alain Finkielkraut than wrong with Jean-Michel Aphatie.
“The ideas, the slogans, the parties that we have raised, launched, supported, have become inaudible” — Raphaël Glucksmann.
“The ideas, the slogans, the parties that we have raised, launched, supported, have become inaudible. We — who still believe in the European project, in republican cosmopolitanism, in the open society — are rattled”, admits Raphaël Glucksmann in a bitter article entitled, “The social-liberal Left is dead”. What is unprecedented is that this intellectual defeat is acknowledged. “The Left is no longer in a position of cultural hegemony”, confessed the first secretary of the Parti socialiste during the Congress of Poitiers in June 2015. “Yes, the Left has lost the battle of ideas”, confirmed Michel Rocard in his final interview in June 2016. François Fillon himself supplied an echo after having triumphed in the primary of the Right: “I have won the ideological battle.”
“The Left’s ideological crisis reveals something structural: faced with a reality that gives it the lie, the Left refuses to engage, and with a doctrinaire obstinacy that is beyond belief”, observes the political scientist Dominique Reynié. A refusal to adapt, of which Alain Badiou gives the most brazen illustration. A Maoist philosopher reigning at the academy, Badiou continues to minimize the crimes committed in the name of Communism. “The Left has not driven its critique of socialism to the bitter end, as it has that of fascism: this is the key to the present powerlessness of its intellectuals”, according to the analysis of the essayist, Jacques Julliard — a refusal to update its software that one discerns also in the obstinate complacency towards islamism, despite the evidence. In the United States, they define a neocon as a democrat knocked sideways by reality. The historian of the Left, Pierre Nora, made reference to this during Alain Finkielkraut’s acceptance speech at the Académie française, confessing: “Perhaps the events of this last year are making a liar of me.”
“The Left has not given battle. It has abandoned in no-man’s land all the ideas on which its alliance with the people rested: secularism, republican education, security, nationhood” — Jacques Julliard.
“The Left has not given battle. It has abandoned in no-man’s land all the ideas on which its alliance with the people rested: secularism, republican education, security, nationhood”, adds Jacques Julliard. Like Flaubert — who in an earlier century excited the bohemians (“I’m in favour of all minorities”, he wrote to George Sand) and wished for the crushing of the Commune (“How stupid the people are”, he wrote to Louis Ménard) — a section of the Left-intelligentsia has turned away from the people and hallowed the cult of minority. The muslims, the migrants, the Roma and the trans-sexuals have become the new damned of the earth. And it prefers the ‘Jungle’ of Calais to the disused blast-furnaces of Florange.
Wedged between paleo-marxism and Flaubertian bohemianism, the Left is struggling to reinvent itself. For lack of strategy, it merely draws up lists. For lack of ideas, it stifles [“fait barrage”] those of the Right. It’s the “zombie-Left” in the words of the political scientist Laurent Bouvet, or again the “Left of the political reflex, this dissected frog whose nervous system continues to function but whose brain is dead”. Those on the Left who dare to seize on certain debates deemed “populist”, immediately find themselves labelled “reactionary”: Alain Finkielkraut, Michel Onfray, Jacques Sapir, Jean-Pierre Le Goff, Jacques Julliard, Christophe Guilly, no longer have the right to call themselves “of the Left”. The republican Régis Debray or the anti-euro Emmanuel Todd, are more and more suspect. As for Jean-Claude Michéa, he’s now read more in the camp of the Right than amongst the militants of the Young Socialists Movement [MJS].
“In the universities and in particular in the social sciences, the domination of the Left is increasing in strength” — Dominique Reynié.
Sign of the times: Jean-Christophe Cambadélis [Sec.-Gen., Parti Socialiste] sold only 326 copies of his latest book. Does this mean he should announce the clinical death of “cultural gauchisme“? Some bastions remain. “In the universities and in particular in the social sciences, the domination of the Left is increasing in strength”, Dominique Reynié assures us: what Pierre Nora describes as “a radicalization towards the Left of the core intelligentsia”. Immured in itself, this academic Left no longer wishes to surface in the media. Since Bourdieu refused to appear on television in the presence of a known opponent, a number of his epigones have disdained to descend into the arena to confront the very monsters that they claim to denounce. The writer Édouard Louis refused, with his friend the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, to participate in the Rendez-vous de l’Histoire de Blois, on the news that the academic Marcel Gauchet, “this militant reactionary”, was also invited to appear. Disdaining television forums, these intellectuals take refuge in the citadel of the social sciences. “For a certain portion of the academic Left, intervening in public debate outside their specialisms — that would be to commit themselves”, says Laurent Bouvet. “This gauchisme of the academic Chair has lost contact with society”, maintains Jacques Julliard. “Nothing now remains beyond the paradigm of deconstruction, by which it hopes to dismantle those categories of the real that make a liar of it”, says Dominique Reynié.
“It is a crisis in the imagining of the future” — Marcel Gauchet.
For a brief moment, this radical Left wanted to believe that it would be saved by politics. In 2010, Stéphane Hessel’s best-seller, Indignez-vous! [Get Indignant!], which was based on a reprise of Sartre’s idea of revolutionary engagement, sold more than two million copies. The emergence of Syriza in Greece, of Podemos in Spain, of Bernie Sanders in the United States, of Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s present campaign of “France Unsubdued” [La France insoumise], testify to this metamorphosis of the post-Marxist Left. In À demain Gramsci [See you later, Gramsci], the political scientist Gaël Brustier mused about the importance of this new “populism of the Left”, inspired by the works of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who wanted to propagate in the West the revolutions of Latin America. Advocating a “neo-Gramsci-ism”, he wanted to reconstruct an “alternative Weltanschauung in the manner of the “national-populist” superstructure that is on its way to becoming dominant everywhere in the West”. Alas!, Chavez and Castro are dead, Tsipras has given up, Podemos is on the decline, Nuit debout [Up All Night] has gone back to bed for the holidays, and “radicalism” has returned to its internal contradictions [aporie].
How time passes… In 1985, after le tournant de la rigueur [Mitterrand’s 1983 radical change in economic policy], SOS Racisme’s “pals’ concert” [concert des potes] rallied a million people in the Place de la Concorde around the theme of “multicultural France”. Singers and intellectuals of the Left shared the sacrament of the struggle against the Front national and the rejection of “unfettered liberalism”. Thirty years later, the young vote for Marine le Pen, march in opposition to gay marriage, or dream of a life spent between London, Shanghai and San Francisco…
Powerless to ward off the hegemony of neoliberal globalization, the Left has again found itself caught off guard by the return of religiosity and cultural identity. There, without doubt, lies the key to its loss of popular affection. “It is a crisis in the imagining of the future”, explained Marcel Gauchet on the programme, Répliques. “One of the characteristics of the Left is its mastery of the future, and yet we’re now living under the sign of a subject history”, adds the author of Désenchantement du monde [Disillusionment with the World], concluding: “The Left is showing itself incapable of imagining a different society.” As Jean Birnbaum says, “The Left made a living as the party of equality, and yet it now sees “its” people seized by vigorous anti-egalitarian sentiments. The Left survived as the universal party, and yet it now acknowledges the powerful attraction of jihadist internationalism. It’s a double humiliation.” It no longer has a Sartre to tell it that it is “this big cadaver at the back, where the worms have eaten”. Nor a Bernard-Henri Lévy to echo it. What remains is the acronym of a bank branch: the Belle Alliance Populaire [a grass-roots socialist organization].