The fortieth anniversary of May 68 in France was the occasion for much public-minded commemoration, from the open-air exhibition on the Place de la Sorbonne of Marc Riboud’s enormous photographs of scenes from barricades, to special editions of Télérama and Le Magazine Littéraire, to several hundred titles on the revolt packing the shelves of bookshops across the country. Among these was Serge Audier’s La Pensée anti-68, released by the publishing house which was once that of François Maspero. In 1985, the establishment philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut had produced a polemical essay, La Pensée 68, denouncing the spell of so many sinister maîtres à penser, each an enemy of humanism, on the rebels of that year—from Deleuze and Lacan, whose desiring machines and psycho-linguistic structures left the human subject helpless and alone, to Foucault and Derrida, epigones of the calamitous Nietzsche and Heidegger. La Pensée anti-68 could seem billed as a riposte. In fact, although it contains a section repeating well-known demonstrations that such influence is a myth, the book is nothing of the kind. It is conceived rather as an exercise in a much more contemporary cause.

The book opens with Sarkozy’s speech attacking the baleful legacy of 1968 in his victorious electoral campaign for the presidency in the spring of 2007. Routed at the polls, the Socialist Party has since been the scene of much internal bickering and jockeying for position. Three main pretenders are locked in a fierce battle for its leadership—failed presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, current general secretary Martine Aubry and Parisian mayor Bertrand Delanoë. But in casting about for new slogans, they have been at one. The great task is to explain to the French that liberalism and socialism are not antipodes but twins—that is, political liberalism and democratic socialism. Ostensibly, in this discourse economic liberalism has nothing to do with political liberalism. It is noticeable, however, that statements to this effect in Delanoë’s De l’audace! or Aubry’s Et si on se retrouvait . . . are generally accompanied by a robust defence of the market as the guarantor of social harmony and material progress. Royal and the sociologist Alain Touraine, in their colloquy Si la gauche veut des idées, are still more explicit, pointing with pride to the tough reforms essential for economic growth—privatization, deregulation, pension ‘reforms’—enacted by the ps under Mitterrand. The Socialist elite’s current interest in liberalism as a political doctrine, remarks Sylvain Pattieu in Contretemps, ‘functions as something other than a simple clarification in the history of ideas’. It answers to a pressing conjunctural need.

This is the context in which Audier’s book finds a welcome niche. An ambitious normalien now in his late thirties, Audier belongs to a levy of French academics for whom idealized references to thinkers in the United States are as important as homages to the best minds of the Third Republic. Now at the Sorbonne, his profile has risen as his stock-in-trade—resurrecting and assimilating radical worthies like Léon Bourgeois and Célestin Bouglé to the cause of social liberalism—becomes useful to the institutional centre left in its search for new ways to stay the same. Tocqueville, Aron and, most recently, Walter Lippmann are other objects of admiring excavation. At a time when the ps is trying to refurbish itself with a new image of caring liberalism—one that has not turned its back on the humanist aspirations of 68, which brought us anti-racism, feminism, participation and so many other commendable causes—Audier’s prior specialty matched the moment perfectly. With La Pensée anti-68 he has seized the market opportunity before him.

At the outset, Audier says he will distinguish three main scenes of intellectual engagement with 1968, all of them hostile: the present vulgate, reactions to 68 at the time, and transformations in philosophy and the social sciences which, presumably (this is never spelt out), acted as a bridge between then and now. But this classification proves to have little or no bearing on what follows, the successive parts of the book neither referring to, nor reflecting it. Logically, Audier’s three types should correspond to products of the years 1968–70 (say); some indeterminate period thereafter; and 2000–08. But the book lacks any chronological order whatever, shifting carelessly back and forth across the years—from 2007 to 1998 to 1968 to 1982 to 1978 to 2003, etc.—scarcely even registering just when a given book or opuscule was produced. The result is an arbitrary jumble of comments on and criticisms of different kinds of writing, from different periods, united only by Audier’s own pet likes and dislikes. The effect is of a shooting gallery churning with targets: chaos everywhere, but the game itself is at all times carefully rigged.

One of its most apparently bizarre features is that Audier never really alludes to what happened, or failed to, in 1968. Yet this is consistent with his underlying aim, which is not to rescue the May revolt but rather a certain idea of liberalism which various reactions to it have regrettably muddied. The real organizing trio of La Pensée anti-68 is not the typology announced at the beginning, which is soon forgotten, but the targets of Audier’s political animus. The first purpose of the book is to liquidate any recall of a revolutionary past, by scarcely talking about the uprising itself (here it at least avoids the usual pitfall of works on 68—instead of concentrating on the student revolt at the expense of the general strike, it barely acknowledges either) and dismissing the ‘ultra-left’ faithful to it. In this case the objects of his dislike are Kristin Ross, for her scandalously radical May 68 and its Afterlives, Guy Hocquenghem, for pillorying the celebrity renegades of May, and Serge Halimi of Le Monde diplomatique for supporting him. Audier’s second aim is to safeguard true—social—liberalism from both unduly conservative and unduly individualist distortions of it in France. Among others, Pierre Manent, Alain Finkielkraut and Luc Ferry represent the former danger; the sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky the latter. Lastly, and no less crucially, La Pensée anti-68 seeks to fend off republican critiques of liberalism, guilty of an anti-democratic failure to respect the values of human rights and the moral progress of Western societies since the sixties. Régis Debray, Marcel Gauchet and Blandine Kriegel fall into this group.

Counterposed to this gallery of distorters and slanderers, where is the truest defender of 1968 to be found? Why, of course: in the eminent thinker to whom Audier has not only devoted a reverent little breviary (Raymond Aron: La démocratie conflictuelle, 2004), but whose eponymous prize Audier has been awarded for elucidating his thoughts on another great mind (Tocqueville retrouvé, 2001). Still, with this move some kind of record in acrobatics has been broken. For a book about la pensée anti-68 to make the good name of Raymond Aron central to its argument is either daring beyond belief or in equal measure dishonest. From his chair in sociology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and as a columnist at the Figaro, an alarmed Aron published, and was heard, by a wide audience. Between May and June he denounced the occupation of universities as a ‘conspiracy of cowardice and terrorism’, and compared student demonstrators—when not dismissing them as fils à papa railing against a consumer society from which they richly benefited—to the sorcerer’s apprentices who had paved the way for Hitler in Germany. On May 30 he marched proudly down the Champs-Elysées with the massed ranks of the French bourgeoisie in support of the established order, to show the world that ‘De Gaulle was not alone’. If there was any intellectual whose daily impact really merited the title of the penseur anti-68, it was Aron.

La Révolution introuvable, which Aron rushed out in August after the popular uprising of May–June had been defeated, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of his counter-revolutionary intervention, justly compared by his biographer Nicolas Baverez to Tocqueville’s role in 1848. Audier cannot abide such plain speaking, complaining bitterly that Baverez could write that ‘Aron’s crime consisted in daring to pulverize the foundational myths of the generation of May 1968, which dressed up a carnival as the Tennis Court Oath, just as he had opened the eyes thirteen years earlier of those progressives seduced by the Opium of the Intellectuals’. On the ‘extreme left’ Kristin Ross is taken to task for dwelling unduly on what—at first glance—might seem shocking (Audier is careful not to allow any hint of a quotation) in Aron’s claims about 1968, casting his solidarity with De Gaulle in an unnecessarily lurid light. After all, Aron marched with his close friend Kostas Papaïoannou, ‘a specialist in Marxism, who was also a friend of the situationist René Viénet’! Defences as footling as this set the tone.