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New Left Review 110, March-April 2018


mike davis

TAKING THE TEMPERATURE OF HISTORY

Le Roy Ladurie’s Adventures in the Little Ice Age

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has long been a contrarian—or as he prefers to call himself, a free electron—in a culture whose mandarins sheathe themselves in seamless ideological armour. Many of them, of course, enter public life from the left but exit from the right, in which case their conversion obligates a comprehensive reversal of previous convictions in order to become the mirror opposite. This was well illustrated in the case of Le Roy Ladurie’s friend François Furet, a former Communist, who after rejecting the political left, declared war against ‘Stalino-Marxist historicism’ in all of its guises, including even the Annales school, which he denounced as ‘merely a Gallic substitute for Marxism’. [1] Lynn Hunt, ‘French History in the Last Twenty Years: The Rise and Fall of the Annales Paradigm’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 21, no. 2, April 1986, p. 215. Le Roy Ladurie, in contrast, is a chimera: quasi-reactionary in politics and semi-Marxist in methodology. He describes himself as a ‘not very progressive Catholic’, contributes to Le Figaro and calls May 1968 a ‘disaster’, yet stubbornly espouses the most unfashionable paradigm on the Seine, historical materialism. [2] Referring to the collapse of student interest in quantitative history: ‘I think 1968 was a disaster, from my point of view’—‘young people are no longer interested in all those statistics’. ‘Immobile History: An Interview with Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’, in Alexander von Lunen and Charles Travis, eds, History and gis: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections, Dordrecht 2013, p. 18. He lionizes Tocqueville, whom he calls the John Wayne of French liberalism, but claims that Marxism, as a theory of the economic infrastructure, is ‘totally complementary’ to la pensée Tocquevillienne as a theory of the political superstructure. [3] Guy Lemarchand, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Karine Rance, ‘Regards croisés’, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 351, 2008. Le Roy Ladurie has always distinguished between anti-communism (of which he is a militant advocate) and anti-Marxism (which he rejects). In his memoir Paris–Montpellier: pc–psu, 1945–1963, Paris 1982, which recounted his passage through the postwar French left, he defended Marxism as an indispensable ‘analytic and descriptive tool’, not least in its capacity ‘to demystify regimes which proclaim themselves officially Marxist’: p. 34. He also happily conceded that the Annales school shared ‘old Karl’s belief in a socio-economic infrastructure to history’, but without the ‘dogmatic preoccupations of his disciples’: p. 224.

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