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 own rules, resorting to forms of sociological explanation in the particular instance of the ‘New Philosophers’ or, more generally, in linking the political ‘normalization’ of France, and the ‘liberalization’ of its intelligentsia, to Gaullist socio-economic ‘modernization’.footnote2 For all its methodological cavils, the distinctiveness of this book among comparable discussions resides, not in its eminently sensible analytical injunction to focus on the political conjunctures of theoretical productions, but in its ultra-critical assessment of them—in short, in its own politics.

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, whose programme (taking its cue from Marx’s view of the global development of capitalism in The German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto) had initially stipulated Weltklasse, Weltpartei, Weltrevolution. Prior to Stalin’s expedient abolition of the Comintern in 1943, the pcf was merely the ‘Section Française de l’Internationale Communiste’—the French wing of the ‘World Communist Party’.

Founded at the Tours Congress in 1920, when by a three-to-one majority delegates voted to leave the Second International, the pcf had dwindled a decade later to a rump, consuming its energies in the sectarianism of the ‘third period’. Only with its adoption of the anti-fascist strategy of Popular Frontism in 1934, sanctioned and generalized by the Seventh (and last) Congress of the Comintern, did French Communism become a mass political phenomenon, its membership swelling to 330,000 and its vote expanding to 15 per cent in 1936.

For the duration of the Popular Front (1934–38), and again during the Resistance (1941–44), the task of soldering the national and the international was accomplished through a rhetoric, fusing Gallic populism and the Stalinist vulgate, which telescoped 1789 and 1917, Paris and Petrograd, the Bastille and the Winter Palace, exalting French nation and Soviet Union alike. This revolutionary culture was underpinned by a narrative which plotted the French and Russian revolutions as concatenated phases—’bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’, respectively—of a world-historical teleology still in progress. Adherence to the grande nation entailed a mutually-inclusive commitment to France’s revolutionary identity and the ussr’s reincarnation—and extension—of it. Thus conjoining patriotism and universalism, Marseillaise and Internationale, French Communists were the declared ‘heirs of the Jacobins’. The party represented the class that embodied the nation. Those, repelled by the Third Republic of ‘Jews and freemasons’, who had rallied to the francisque—the Frankish battle-axe which symbolized Vichy France—were silenced; the ‘integral nationalism’ of Maurras and Action Française was discredited; and patriotism migrated for the political season to the Left. ‘My Party,’ Aragon wrote, ‘has restored to me the colours of France.’