‘There is a new climate of intellectual opinion in France’, a cia analyst reported in 1985, ‘a spirit of anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism that will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to us policies.’ The French intelligentsia, since 1945 a bellwether of revolutionary agitation, could henceforth be relied on as a bulwark against it. Two interpretations of this remarkable capsizal dispute the historiography of the period. For the first, dominant today on both sides of the Atlantic, the last quarter of the twentieth century brought an end to hoary certitudes and ideological myopia, ushering in an era of openness, pluralism and diversity. A dissenting current instead points up the calcification of the alternative dogma of liberal counter-revolution and conformism. Paris, Perry Anderson commented at the turn of the 80s, had devolved in less than a generation from global mecca of left-wing thought into ‘the capital of European intellectual reaction.’
Jacob Collins, a historian at the City University of New York Staten Island who studied with Anderson at ucla, makes no mystery of his sympathies on this score. The Anthropological Turn: French Political Thought after 1968, a quadripartite biographical panorama based on his PhD thesis, is pitched against the backcloth of a sweeping ‘neoliberal transformation’ that began in the late 70s and congealed into orthodoxy over the following decades. Yet the gravamen of Collins’s study lies elsewhere. Its originality owes in part to his choice of protagonists. Active participants in public debate, all four found themselves by variable geometries at odds with the spirit of the age: Alain de Benoist, would-be Gramsci of the French far-right, wrong-footed by the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front; Marcel Gauchet, herald of a liberal revival but repulsed by its disintegrative social consequences; Emmanuel Todd, prophet of the Soviet Union’s collapse and opponent of American empire; and Régis Debray, theorist of Guevara’s revolution in the revolution, consigned by Mitterrand to writing speeches in defence of an Atlanticist drift he deplored. From different vantages, each embarked at around the same time on a systematic attempt to grasp the most fundamental principles of political order and social life.
‘Political anthropology’, in Collins’s usage, is not to be confused with anthropology in the narrow, academic sense. Rather, it refers more generally to the ambition of understanding the present via a detour into the very distant past, in the form of grand historical narratives unembarrassed by inquiry into human nature. Drawing upon a wide range of disciplines—history, sociology, anthropology, geography, philosophy—the genre belongs to a venerable French tradition, preoccupied with national identity and the role of collective belief in forming the body politic. From Rousseau to Legendre, this tendency has emphasized the non-rational or pre-rational, as opposed to the rationalist, maximizing models of human behaviour common to liberalism and Marxism alike. ‘Historically’, Collins notes, ‘the articulation of different forms of political community in France has occurred in and through competing anthropologies.’ These flower in moments of crisis, when received notions of society are thrown into doubt. Durkheimian solidarism, forged amidst the turbulence of the Belle Époque, is one example; in the autumn of the Third Republic, the programme of Bataille’s Collège de sociologie would be another.
The shock of the 70s appears to fit the pattern. After the upheaval of the previous decade, existing institutions looked fragile whilst replacements tarried to surface. Uncertainty, disorientation and fracture clouded the horizon. Such motifs, unreflexively adopted in many scholarly accounts, crowd contemporary reflections on the ‘end of grands récits’, ‘micro-expériences’, the triumph of the local and the particular. The Anthropological Turn paints a starkly different picture. Far from renouncing metanarratives and teleologies, Collins’s subjects turned to the philosophy of history in grandiose efforts to rethink politics, root and branch. Nor did they forsake an ossified structuralism in favour of postmodernist conceits of play and discourse. Not only did these political anthropologists share a debt to Lévi-Strauss, they prized in structuralist system-building the very hubris and nomological pretension that its critics denounced. Like the original structuralists, and by contrast to what Collins vaguely terms ‘elite thinkers’ (seemingly defined by celebrity in America), this group took inspiration from autochthonous social science rather than Teutonic phenomenology. Divergent in formation and allegiance, their interests coalesced around religion and the sacred, citizenship and belonging, the nation and state power.
A focus on method, as opposed to specific controversies or partis pris, affords Collins a more capacious view than other works in the field. Thematic predilections aside, political anthropology—likened to a Kuhnian paradigm—is amenable to a wide range of outlooks, from the counterrevolutionary right to the socialist left. The Anthropological Turn proceeds accordingly across the spectrum, in Collins’s preferred metaphor, starting with de Benoist. Born to conservative parents in the Loire Valley, de Benoist gravitated in his teenage years to the post-Vichy activist right, sworn at the time to the defence of French colonialism in Algeria. Early on he made the acquaintance of Dominique Venner, member of the terrorist oas and key figure in the reorientation of the French hard right after Algerian independence. Unenthused by the remnants of Pétainism and outflanked by de Gaulle’s modernizing conservatism, Venner and his co-thinkers despaired of old-fashioned nationalism, culpable of cynical self-interest in the abandonment of France’s North African départements. In its place, they confected a bellicose, pan-European white supremacy that touted ironic rapport with anti-colonial insurgencies in Africa and Asia. When Venner’s outfit dissolved, de Benoist took up the torch, launching the Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (grece) in May 1968, a week before the general strike that paralysed the country.
With the debut of grece de Benoist traded street militancy, never really his cup of tea, for a more cerebral programme, authorized by a distinctive historico-philosophical scheme. Like de Maistre, he despised the universalist metaphysics bequeathed by the Enlightenment. Unlike the Catholic reactionary, however, de Benoist was equally hostile to ‘Judeo-Christian monotheism’, ‘the Bolshevism of antiquity’, surging out of the Middle East to envelop Europe. Happily, the tyranny of both was transitory. Per de Benoist’s cyclical, ‘pagan’ theodicy, and in keeping with Weimar-era divinations anatomized by his friend Armin Mohler, the present was merely an ‘interregnum’. As he explained in Comment peut-on être paÏen? (1981), translated as On Being a Pagan, the hold of Christianity had weakened, but not yet ceded to primordial values of a mythified ‘Indo-European’ civilization, which left de Benoist ‘nostalgic for the future’. Meanwhile, the order of the day was ‘metapolitics’, geared at the conquest of cultural hegemony. To this end, an alternative had to be developed to the identity-based egalitarian claims of the left. Under the dual influence of de Maistrean anti-universalism and Arnold Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology, de Benoist operated a canny shift away from the scientistic, biological racism visible in Venner’s organ Europe Action towards a subtler theory of cultural diversity. From Lévi-Strauss, de Benoist derived a distinction between overt racial discrimination and similarly pernicious assertions of a false equality, both intolerant of diversity. Instead, grece insisted on the ‘right to difference’. ‘Scholars’, Collins writes,
have rightly attacked the double-handedness of this catchphrase. But has any challenged it on philosophical grounds? On what basis can this thinker who is hostile to the natural-law tradition proclaim difference to be a ‘right’? What guarantees it? Who enforces it?