Aunique combination of developments laid the groundwork for a new intellectual configuration in the France of the 1970s. The ebbing of the leftist surge of the 1960s; the advance of a liberalized consumer economy amid an international capitalist recession; the prospect of a ps–pc Union of the Left, and possibility of Communists in government; signs of a renewed Cold War against a backdrop of revolutionary advances in Africa and Asia: these were components of a new social and political order. The advent of post-structuralism and deconstructionism has generated a vast literature, with ramifications still felt—for better or worse—to this day. In what follows, I will argue that another, less noticed outcome of this conjuncture was a marked turn toward the anthropological in French thought, which involved a systematic rethinking of politics and social relations from a kind of point zero.
By engaging in anthropological speculation, a number of thinkers in France raised questions that had been either ignored or underdeveloped by earlier intellectual movements. Their considerations of the sacred, the religious and the political—here considered from an anthropological vantage point—enabled these thinkers to comprehend anew the role of politics and history in contemporary life. Intellectually, the ‘anthropological turn’ often overlapped with adjacent movements—its ancestors, existentialism and structuralism, but also its siblings, post-modernism, post-structuralism and neo-humanism. Nevertheless, it had its own set of parameters, themes and logics. As evidence for its character and breadth, I offer a systematic exploration of the work of four thinkers: Alain de Benoist, Marcel Gauchet, Emmanuel Todd and Régis Debray, who span the ideological spectrum from right to left. Treated separately, each thinker can be seen to work through a set of problems delivered up by the multiple crises of the 1970s, producing in response a novel political-anthropological system by the early 80s. Considered together, this unlikely quartet of figures reveals a remarkable uniformity of trajectory. Their visions of a new political order were not always coherent or attractive, but they indicate new ways of thinking through impasses whose logic has been imperfectly understood.
Alain de Benoist, born in 1943, came from a conservative, petty-bourgeois family in the Loire Valley. His father moved the household to Paris in 1950, and later took a summer house in Dreux, future epicentre of Le Pen’s Front National. There, Benoist made contact with veteran figures of the interwar extreme right, and was invited to contribute small articles, as a teenager, to its assorted journals. This brought him into the milieu of young militant counter-revolutionaries fighting to keep Algeria French. Benoist quit his studies in law and philosophy at the Sorbonne to become a full-time journalist and militant. After spending most of the 60s writing for the far-right press—Cahiers universitaires and Europe-Action, both proudly ultra-nationalist and racist—Benoist decided at the end of 1967 to abandon his nationalist-militant agenda for an intellectualized politics—‘a Gramscianism of the Right’, he would later call it. Pulling together friends and sympathizers, Benoist founded the New Right and launched the first issue of its maiden journal, Nouvelle école, in 1968. The movement has been committed to a philosophy of cultural essentialism, pitched as an anti-racist ethno-pluralism. Its politics are typically anti-interventionist—Benoist opposing all the recent wars—and anti-statist—Benoist preferring ‘federalist’ solutions to problems created by a Jacobinist state. A collection of his journalistic writings, Vu de droite, appeared in 1977 and showed an impressive range of interests, from Norse mythology to modern physics, winning the Académie Française’s book prize. Benoist’s next book, Les idées à l’endroit (1979), assembled in the wake of a media frenzy around the ‘fascist temptations’ of the New Right, provided the most cogent statement of his views.
Like Benoist, Marcel Gauchet’s origins are provincial and conservative. Born in 1946, he grew up in a small coastal town in Normandy. His parents were labourers, and Gauchet was a choirboy in the local parish. He had initially intended to train as a teacher, but after being radicalized by university protests against the Algerian War, decided to enroll at the University of Caen. There he studied sociology, history and philosophy, but also began a long intellectual collaboration with his teacher Claude Lefort. Lefort brought him into a circle of non- and ex-Marxist leftists, who theorized the ‘self-management’ movement of the early 1970s, and celebrated the democratic ethos of May 68. Gauchet later broke ranks and turned to the right in the 1980s, backing liberalism and the Atlantic Alliance. His writings from the 70s—mostly essays from obscure journals—were republished in 2005 as La condition politique. Gauchet became known for his thesis on secularization, The Disenchantment of the World (1985), which many, like Charles Taylor, have taken to be a definitive re-theorization of the concept. He has since concentrated on developing a philosophical history of democracy from the sixteenth century to the present, the four-volume L’avènement de la démocratie.
Emmanuel Todd, born in 1951, is the youngest of the group, and the only non-Catholic. He is the son of the journalist and biographer Olivier Todd—himself of Austro-Hungarian Jewish and Anglo ancestry—and the grandson (maternally) of the French Communist writer Paul Nizan. Drawn toward Communism in the Red 60s, Todd joined the Jeunesses communistes at 16, and then the Party itself. A visit to Hungary in 1968 changed his mind, and he became ‘a spectacular anti-Communist’.footnote1 At roughly the same moment he decided to pursue his advanced studies, like his father and grandfather, at Cambridge. There, under the tutelage of Peter Laslett and Alan Macfarlane, his interest in the family deepened, and he wrote a dissertation on pre-industrial peasant families in Europe. He returned to France in the mid-70s, and immediately made a name for himself with La chute finale, which predicted the end of Communism in the Soviet Union, and found an easy reception in the anti-totalitarian atmosphere of the time. His next work, Le fou et le prolétaire, explored the psycho-social bases of class relations in France, concluding that the working class had finally become psychologically reconciled to bourgeois society. In the early 80s Todd’s work changed focus, resulting in a planetary atlas of kinship patterns, and a complementary analysis of literacy and its political-cultural consequences. These texts, La troisième planète and L’enfance du monde, respectively, formed the theoretical basis for all Todd’s subsequent work, even as late as his critique of American imperialism, Après l’empire (2002).
Born in 1940, Debray’s upbringing was thoroughly Parisian, though probably more conservative than Todd’s. He nevertheless broke away and joined the same Communist youth league. He became a brilliant normalien in the 1960s before shipping off to Cuba to work for Castro. From 1965 to 1973 he was in Latin America, serving the Cuban Revolution as teacher, theorist and impromptu ambassador (to Che, later to Allende); he was imprisoned by the Bolivian dictatorship from 1967 to 1970. He returned to France in the mid-70s, finding it unrecognizable. His interest in anthropology may have been primed by seminars he had taken in the 60s with Georges Balandier, the doyen of ‘political anthropology’, as well as his extensive contact with the native peoples of South America. These affinities were expressed through an impressive variety of formats—novels, plays, autobiographies, memoirs—from the mid 70s, but received more systematic treatment in the Critique de la raison politique (1981). Debray’s conclusions about the constitution of human society provided a working set of concepts that continue to inform his social and political thought.
The anthropological turn made by these four very different thinkers involved an approach that treated contemporary human society as the expression or outgrowth of an ancient and invariable social dynamic. ‘Anthropology’ is here used in its loosest sense, meaning both an inventory of human nature in all its forms, and the comparative study of primitive societies.footnote2 What I am calling the anthropological turn had a stock of methodological procedures, one being a refusal to accept rational-choice paradigms in the human sciences. Each thinker of this foursome, for example, excoriated classical liberalism’s philosophy of homo æconomicus, the idea that humans are rational actors with transparent motives and interests. This critical motif featured most prominently in the work of New Rightist Benoist: liberalism’s hollow promise of liberty and ‘false idea of equality’ lead to ‘stripping man of his attachments, of all the inclusive tendencies that make him share in a collective identity.’footnote3 Marxism was equally culpable in the eyes of Benoist, as it too partook of this shallow, egalitarian anthropology. At the other end of the spectrum, Debray attempted an ambitious rewriting of Marxism’s philosophy of man, one that could at last account for the affective, sub-rational foundations of social cohesion. Symbols, myths, rites—historically the greatest stimuli to mass mobilization—had too long been overlooked in Marxism’s preoccupation with the relations of production. Louis Althusser, the greatest French Marxist of his generation and Debray’s friend and teacher, once wrote, ‘This rupture with every philosophical anthropology or humanism is no secondary detail; it is Marx’s scientific discovery.’footnote4 Debray ultimately agreed with this formulation, but regarded it as a misfortune of Marxism, not as a triumph. We might see Debray’s work from the 1970s and beyond as an attempt to fill in this missing picture.