Marcel Gauchet has slowly garnered a reputation as one of France’s premier thinkers, Le Monde suggesting that he might fill the place left vacant by Pierre Bourdieu.footnote1 He is co-founder and day-to-day editor of France’s leading intellectual review, Le Débat, professor of political theory at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the author of several works of philosophy, including an influential theory of secularization with a modest Anglo-American readership, The Disenchantment of the World (1985). In recent years, Gauchet has set to work on an ambitious philosophical history of democracy, L’avènement de la démocratie, which tracks, over five centuries, the West’s ‘terminal path toward metaphysical autonomy’. This is a matter of great urgency for Gauchet, who pegs democracy as the new ‘untranscendable horizon of our time’, but laments that its deepest impulses and implications have escaped our grasp. The third and latest volume of the four projected, À l’épreuve des totalitarismes, 1914–1974, is an epic, if ultimately bland, restaging of the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism in the twentieth century, framed in terms of Gauchet’s larger thesis of Europe’s long secularization.

Born in 1946 to a lower middle-class family in Normandy, Gauchet, a Catholic choir-boy in his youth, dropped out of a teaching academy to study philosophy, history and sociology at the University of Caen, where he became a student of philosopher Claude Lefort. Gauchet was awakened to political consciousness by the ‘intoxication’ of May 68. Though never participating directly, he welcomed the revolts, much in line with Lefort’s left-libertarian programme, as an anti-authoritarian movement that would free society from the dual hegemony of bourgeois Gaullism and the pro-Soviet, totalitarian culture of the pcf. In the 1970s, Gauchet deepened his search for a non-Marxist, anti-statist politics, teaming up with Lefort and his former partner at Socialisme ou Barbarie, Cornelius Castoriadis, to co-found a pair of short-lived journals, Textures and Libre, where Gauchet wrote his first articles.

This early phase of Gauchet’s career was defined principally by two theoretical concerns. The first came in response to the work of Pierre Clastres, an anthropologist close to Lefort and Castoriadis, who had argued that primitive societies were best understood not in terms of their ignorance of the state—the standard view—but of their willed refusal of state power. Clastres had meant this as a provocation to Marxism’s insistence on the primacy of economic relations in history: he could now point to a primitive anarchism, a pure form of democracy that revealed our first instincts to be political rather than economic. In a highly anthropological mode of inquiry, Gauchet expanded on this narrative, adding a religious component and tracking, from a political (and never economic) perspective, the subsequent rise of the state in human history; the eventual result being The Disenchantment of the World.

The second, closely related, concern was a fixation on the concept of totalitarianism, which had become the subject of virtually wall-to-wall consensus in the Parisian press in the mid 1970s, especially around centre-left journals like Esprit and Le Nouvel Observateur. Gauchet has made a big show of his differences with the New Philosophers on the question of totalitarianism, which are real enough, if not so extreme. For the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann, the totalitarian state is an inevitable outcome of modernity, and intellectuals, in the name of revolution, had encouraged its growth throughout the twentieth century. Moral intervention was the only authentic position left to the intellectual: ‘we will never remake the world’, wrote bhl in Barbarism with a Human Face, ‘but at least we can stay on guard to see that it is not unmade’. The more sophisticated variation of Lefort and Gauchet sees totalitarianism as a problem of democratic modernity, whereby the state unwittingly becomes the agent of society’s indivisible unity—a monistic temptation inherited from the absolutism of the Old Regime, but applicable only with the advent of popular sovereignty. For these thinkers, the point, however, is not to retreat to the moral high ground, as with Lévy and Glucksmann, but to reconfigure it such that the totalitarian drive is neutralized. Gauchet nuanced the thesis by linking it specifically to the fate of Christianity in Europe and the secularized forms of unity that developed out of its unmaking. The way to cure this syndrome, however, was still an open question for Gauchet in the late seventies.

Around 1980, Gauchet and Lefort fell out over an editorial matter at Libre, though Lefort had apparently accused him of ‘becoming a thoroughgoing democrat in breaking all ties with the extreme left.’ In a 2003 interview, Gauchet acknowledged the justice of this charge, conceding that ‘the philosophy of democracy and the subversive radicality of the imaginary make a bad couple’. ‘I do not share’, he continued, ‘this faith in the creative effervescence of the margins’, and in breaking with Lefort, ‘I “turned to the right” by rallying à la politique normale’. Soon after, Gauchet moved closer to the historian François Furet, who had evidently been impressed by a paper on totalitarianism that Gauchet had given to the circle around Esprit. It was Furet who recommended him to Pierre Nora as an editor of the forthcoming centrist journal Le Débat—a suggestion enthusiastically accepted—and Furet who later secured his election as professor at the ehess in 1990. The temper of Gauchet’s work would immediately change. In 1980, he produced a pair of commentaries on France’s two greatest liberal thinkers, Constant and Tocqueville, the implicit aim of which was to reconstruct and hence recuperate the history of French liberalism. Whereas Gauchet once viewed the state as an obstacle to an authentic democratic order, he began to see it, looking over Constant’s shoulder, as a solution to democracy’s problems. Severed from any external ordering principle and left to its own devices, liberalism and its fantasy of a stateless, self-governing civil society was equally susceptible to the totalitarian menace. A small dose of statism might safeguard the social from nurturing this much more ominous form.