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.