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. 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.

Gauchet’s tournant produced a striking parallel with another neo-liberal convert, Pierre Rosanvallon. He was a protégé of Furet and, later, at the ehess, of Lefort as well—following the same course as Gauchet in reverse. Once active in the ‘self-management’ movement, though quite distant from Gauchet as an organizer for the Christian-based trade union, the cfdt, Rosanvallon likewise dropped his previous political commitments in the early 80s to pursue a recovery of France’s lost liberal tradition. His first salvo in this direction, Le Moment Guizot (1985), would be a pendant to Gauchet’s rehabilitation of Constant and Tocqueville. At the end of the decade, both thinkers, in line with Furet’s revolutionary revisionism, would campaign vigorously for the end of French exceptionalism and the extirpation of Jacobinism from the political repertoire. Gauchet’s two texts on the subject, La Révolution des droits de l’homme (1989) and La Révolution des pouvoirs (1995) surpassed both his peers in revisionist enthusiasm: ‘the richest, most poignant moment of the Revolution’, he would later insist, ‘is its most neglected: Thermidor’. Now cleared of its republican obstacles, the road was open to a complete reconceptualization of democracy, which Gauchet and Rosanvallon would formulate in astonishingly similar terms: multi-volume ‘philosophical histories’, periodized in roughly the same fashion, profoundly anxious of totalitarianism and culminating ideally in a ‘mixed regime’. While their narratives are always more philosophical than historical, Rosanvallon’s is far more attentive to institutional innovations and mechanisms of state power. Gauchet’s privileging of the theologico-political dynamic, by contrast, keeps the discourse on a much loftier philosophical (and even less historical) plane. Where his narrative engages with economic or social questions, it tends to be erratic.

On the strikes of 1995, Gauchet and Rosanvallon were united in condescension: useless whingeing, aftershocks of a bygone revolutionary passion, they would concur in Le Débat. They co-authored a book on democracy—Situations de la démocratie (1993)—and worked as colleagues for many years at the influential neo-liberal think-tank, Fondation Saint-Simon. Nevertheless, by the turn of the millennium one could detect a slight divergence in their larger intellectual agendas. Gauchet’s tone had turned shrill and pessimistic, his hopes for a functional democratic order dissipating, in his telling, under a regime of human rights, callow individualism and tepid multi-culturalism—adding up to, in short, the loss of ‘the political’. A falling out between the two thinkers came with Daniel Lindenberg’s squib against France’s ‘new reactionaries’, Le Rappel à l’ordre (2002). Published in Rosanvallon’s ‘République des idées’ series, it named Gauchet as a leading figure of neo-conservative reaction, lumping him in with those thinkers who opposed France’s historical commitment to a pluralist, ‘open society’. Gauchet would adamantly contest the accusation, referring to himself, mystifyingly, as a socialist: ‘I continue to believe in a certain power of humanity to succeed in attaining a lucid collective organization and to master its own history.’ In 2004, the Fondation pour l’innovation politique (Fondapol), a self-professed ‘liberal-progressive’ think-tank linked with the ump—it was founded by Chirac’s counsellor Jérôme Monod—published its list of advisors, and Gauchet’s name was included. But he again protested his innocence, claiming he would have preferred to work for the Socialists.