As Sunil Khilnani observes, in a characteristic turn of phrase, the marxisant intellectual culture of France after the Liberation ‘came to play a fundamental role in the entire afflatus of Western progressive thought’.footnote＊ Nettled by the Anglophone fashion for French modes in the 1960s and 70s, which invariably uprooted them from their national ecosystem, Khilnani’s commendable aim in Arguing the Revolution is to restore particular philosophical texts to their specific political contexts. In so doing, he hopes to aid both a more adequate understanding of what have been called the trentes glorieuses of the Left intelligentsia, from 1945 to 1975, and to illuminate the abrupt transfer of philosophico-political allegiances in French intellectual life thereafter.
Khilnani might be thought to be ploughing well-furrowed ground.footnote1 At the outset, however, he disclaims two types of inquiry, predominant (so it is maintained) in the accounts to hand: ‘social history’—the historical sociology of Régis Debray’s Le Pouvoir intellectuel en France (1979), for example; and ‘conventional history of ideas’—Mark Poster’s Existential Marxism in Postwar France (1975), say, or Michael Kelly’s Modern French Marxism (1982), accused of ‘elaborately stalk[ing] [the] imaginary beasts’ of their titles. In order to grasp the particularity of the oeuvre of a Sartre or an Althusser, they must be received ‘as they were intended. . .: as arguments. . .contributions to a specifically French political debate’ (p. 6); they should neither be abstracted from the terms of that debate, nor reduced (with it) to manifestations of underlying social processes.
In the event, Arguing the Revolution is heavily reliant upon secondary sources pertaining to the genres of intellectual history with whose services it curtly dispenses—eloquent enough testimony to the fact that Khilnani’s is not the first such survey to propose to treat the arguments of postwar French thinkers as ‘responses to questions raised by the politics of the time’ (p. viii). Moreover, when it suits his purposes, he breaks his
Distinctiveness, not originality. For the afflatus, so to speak, behind Khilnani’s thoughts is two-fold: François Furet’s ‘revisionist’ reinterpretation of modern French history and Tony Judt’s anti-Marxist intellectual historiography.footnote3 Judt’s Past Imperfect, covering a narrower time-span than Khilnani, occupies the outer band of a common spectrum. Wrapping himself in his virtues, Judt renounces ‘neutrality’ and describes his work as ‘an essay on intellectual irresponsibility’—to wit, the abdication of Sartre and co., ‘fiddling with their existential dilemmas while Budapest burned’.footnote4 Judt bemoans ‘the marked absence [in the French philosophical tradition] of a concern with public ethics or political morality’.footnote5 Yet this is for all the world as if a whole—unmistakably ethical—discourse of intellectual self-examination had not existed in twentieth-century France—a tradition radiating from Benda and Nizan in the 1920s and 30s, via Sartre and Aron in the 40s and 50s, to Foucault and Glucksmann in the 70s.footnote6 A professedly historical judgement turns out to be a tacit definitional fiat: by ‘political morality’ is meant Anglo-American liberalism (one, moreover, of Cold War vintage). Sartre and Merleau-Ponty are thereby revealed not to have been Popper or Talmon.
Khilnani’s partisanship, whilst less virulently anti-Marxist and anti-Communist, is no less adamantly so. His central thesis, however, is unexceptional—and unexceptionable: namely, that ‘the logic of the collapse [in the intellectual credit of revolutionary politics in France] lay within France’s own political and intellectual history’ (p. 4). Drastically abbreviating and paraphrasing the argument, the peculiarities of the French within the pan-continental crisis—then collapse—of Marxism and socialism are resumed as follows. Infused with the founding myths of 1789–99, a revolutionary and statist Left emerged from Occupation and Vichy having, in the manner of Louis XVIII’s courtiers, forgotten nothing and learnt nothing from the débâcle of June 1940. In the case of its foremost organization, the Communist Party, patriotic observance—the claim to represent la patrie—had to be reconciled with external allegiance—to the ussr and the international Communist movement,