Commentary Magazine

France's “New Philosophers&rdquo

Much has been written in the press on both sides of the Atlantic in the past twelve months about a group of young French writers who have turned against the Marxist inheritance which for the past twenty or thirty years has been the birthright of French intellectuals. Although the group is fairly large, the two names mentioned most prominently are those of André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy, and a good deal of the furor has concerned three of their books, none of which has yet appeared in English: Barbarism with a Human Face by Lévy and The Cook and the Man-Eater and The Master Thinkers by Glucksmann.

The information that has circulated about these men and their ideas has been for the most part repetitive and shallow, even in France, where much of the commentary has been by journalists who have not read their subjects’ books very carefully, if at all. To some extent, the nouveaux philosophes (as the journalists dubbed them with some malicious irony, until they took up the sobriquet themselves) have encouraged this. On the one hand, their books are difficult and sometimes tiresome, but on the other hand they have spent a great amount of time on television and in interviews, popularizing their ideas. But there is more than a media blitz behind the phenomenon—intellectuals do not become best-sellers every day—and what is involved is more than this year’s fashion. The “new philosophers” are worth taking a look at, both for what they say about French culture now and for what they have to say to us.




As with most things French, the young philosophers who have been treated like movie stars in the past months are political animals. Most of them participated in France’s last historical melodrama, the student and workers’ revolt of May 1968, and served in the ranks of the “Marxist-Leninist” student organizations which were then proclaiming Mao Tse-tung as the great helmsman of humanity and which were actively supporting the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. Many of them were students of Louis Althusser, the Communist theoretician at the Ecole Normale, France’s most prestigious school. Indeed, almost all of them are normaliens (graduates of the Ecole Normale), and thus officially certified as their country’s best thinkers.

In July 1968, as a matter of fact, André Glucksmann, whose parents were refugees from Nazi Germany, published a short Maoist book, Stratégic de la Révolution: Introduction. Studded with quotations from Marx and Lenin, this tract purported to show that the May events were the decisive crack in a crumbling bourgeois façade, and that once the political situation became clearer, the working class and its allies would take over France. Glucksmann, who had been a member of the Moscow-oriented Communist party, reserved some of his fiercest scorn for the meliorative and anti-revolutionary role played by the Communists in the May events, and suggested that de Gaulle had made a deal with the party (with Soviet approval) in order to save the French state. According to Glucksmann in 1968, the Communist party, by blocking the road to revolution, was as great an enemy of “socialism” as was the bourgeoisie.

The obvious failures of the May revolt—it was followed by the biggest Gaullist landslide in French history—coupled with the degeneration into fanaticism of the Maoist movement, paved the way for some reassessments, the first of which appeared in 1970. In Marx est mort, Jean-Marie Benoist (born in 1942) argued that French thought had become stultified by Marxism. It was a valid point, though Raymond Aron (who virtually alone had had the courage to criticize the May 1968 events) had made the same point more than fifteen years earlier in The Opium of the Intellectuals. Following this, Jean-Paul Dollé (born in 1939) argued in Le Désir de Révolution (1972) that revolution was a perfectly good impulse, but that the Marxists had castrated Marx and some fundamental rethinking was therefore in order.

Of this, André Glucksmann himself was well aware. But what was moving him most in those years was not his friends’ efforts to salvage Marx from the Marxists or revolution from the revolutionaries but his reading of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The impact of the great Soviet dissident upon Glucksmann was such that his next book, La cuisinière et le mangeur-d’ hommes (The Cook and the Man-Eater), written in 1974 and published the following year, can be read as a commentary on The Gulag Archipelago. Subtitled an “essay on the relations between the state, Marxism, and the concentration camps,” The Cook is a painstakingly detailed survey of the disastrous economic and political history of the USSR, as seen against the high-minded declarations of its leaders in their effort to mask by theory the monstrosity which they had created.

Among intellectuals long in the habit of ignoring or excusing the facts of Soviet history, the impact of Glucksmann’s book was electrifying To be sure, Raymond Aron and Boris Souvarine had said much the same things about the Soviet Union, as had Jean-François Revel,1 but Glucksmann’s was a voice from the radical Left itself, from inside the family. A great burden of hypocrisy was lifted, and others began to speak out too. In 1976, Christian Jambet (born in 1949) and Guy Lardreau (born in 1947), ex-Maoists both, published an attack on totalitarian organizations. Then, in early 1977, when the Socialist-Communist alliance was making clear gains in the French polls, the “new philosophers” exploded their biggest bombs. Bernard-Henri Lévy (born in 1949), an editor at Grasset who had published several of the controversial works, came out with La Barbarie à visage humain (Barbarism with a Human Face), and the same firm published the work which is by far the most thoroughgoing to date, André Glucksmann’s Les Maîtres Penseurs (The Master Thinkers).




The “new philosophers” have a certain number of biographical connections, but with the exception of their political enemies they have little in common and certainly do not constitute a school. What is most important about them is that they wish to recover the skepticism—or, as one might say, the freedom—of philosophy, and for this reason the best approach to them is through their books.

The Cook and the Man-Eater, to begin with, is an impassioned work, which one puts down with difficulty and which leaves a chill in the spine. It is comprised of three strands: an analysis of Soviet totalitarianism; a commentary on Russian dissidence; and a review of the reasons for French blindness to the obvious. Glucksmann recounts how, in the 1950’s, the French fellow-travelers, Jean-Paul Sartre foremost among them, went to great lengths to “save” the USSR for the Left, and could not bring themselves to condemn publicly the Soviet camps, let alone to compare them with the Nazi ones. Glucksmann’s somber comment is that Marxism is responsible for this, for the masterwork of Marxism is the

edification and the consolidation of the Soviet Union and the Gulag Archipelago. The secret is in the and. . . . Binding the two is a Marxist discourse. To question Russia is to question ourselves, it is to question the Russia in ourselves.

The Russian Marxists defended the “workers’ state,” however pathetically, during the Purges, and the French Marxists defended it too. To Glucksmann, the whole point of bringing Marxist theory into Russia was to facilitate the building of a vast prison, and the whole point of Western Marxism was to defend that prison, to present it as a “progressive” alternative to liberal democracy. Only the non-Marxist dissidents, Glucksmann argues, could speak truly about the system in which they lived. His constant references to Solzhenitsyn, to Nadezhda Mandelstam, to Andrei Amalrik serve the purpose not only of getting to the facts (for which he also relies heavily on the historian Robert Conquest), but of showing how the veil of official lies can be, and has been, rent.

The Cook and the Man-Eater calls into question the political assumptions that have dominated much of the French intellectual elite for almost three decades. The next job for Glucksmann and Lévy was to question the entire intellectual background of the 20th-century Left; this they accomplish in Barbarism with a Human Face and The Master Thinkers.

Lévy’s Barbarism with a Human Face is probably the most accessible of the “new-philosophical” works, partly because the precious and inbred style which all the “new philosophers” share is kept within reasonable bounds by his cold and lucid elegance. In this book, Lévy goes back to what is for him, as indeed it is for so many intellectuals, the beginning: the optimism of the 18th-century Enlightenment. He finds there a solitary and misunderstood Rousseau, alone against his times (“Emile says only this: the idea of a good society is an absurd dream”). From here, Lévy takes on every leftist dogma and finds it false, in particular the notions that history is progressive and that the state (when in the right hands) can be an agent of progress. Socialism, the central leftist myth, with its philosophical premises, with its cultural connotations, with its eschatological project, is nothing but an “encyclopedia of lies.” As optimism is the surest opiate which despotism can invent, socialism, perennially optimistic, over and against all its failures, is the best trap despotism can devise.

Indeed, the notion of progress is really a deeply reactionary idea, says Levy, because it always leads to a strengthening of the state. Nor is there such a thing as a “proletarian” state; the whole concept of the proletariat as an elected class is the most stupendous myth of our times:

The proletariat in power becomes very quickly and necessarily the sinister hoax of tanks in Budapest and Prague, new oppression for the benefit of a new prince born on the pyre of disappointed popular hopes.

Lévy believes it is high time for intellectuals to proclaim themselves anti-progressive, opposing the state’s invariable tendency toward absolute power. They must give up the search for the good society and return to the older quest for the good life, becoming “moralistic, in the classic sense of Kant, Camus, or Merleau-Ponty.”

Although Lévy’s book assails the mentality of the French Left as mendacious and tendentious, its attack is more sweeping than deep. Brilliantly suggestive, it is novel somewhat in the manner of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, saying out loud what was rapidly becoming a widespread rumor. With Glucksmann’s major work to date, The Master Thinkers, however, the French intellectual climate is changed perhaps irrevocably. For with this book it is not merely the traditions of the Left which are attacked, it is not only jaded fashions that are repudiated; philosophy itself seems to acquire a fresh significance.

The Master Thinkers examines the role of 19th-century German philosophy in the forging of the German state. While there is nothing particularly original in such an enterprise, Glucksmann has a way of putting the emphasis in unexpected places, and he also has a way of using his own experience to illuminate a general phenomenon. Thus, Glucksmann comes out of a milieu which has always been extremely intolerant. Sartre’s arrogant method of dismissing opponents—by insult—is not at all uncharacteristic of Parisian intellectuals. It seems to have occurred to Glucksmann (who also does not suffer fools gladly) that this habit, while there is much that is purely Gallic in it, bears an unpleasant resemblance to totalitarian political behavior, behavior which in turn strikes him as having a connection with a certain stream of political thought. Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, in his rereading, are shown to have taught the world, in particular the Germans and the Russians and the Chinese, that thinking—that is, correct thinking—gives one the key—indeed, the right—to dominate others.

In Glucksmann’s analysis, the “master thinkers”—even Marx with his emancipation-of-the-working class-by-itself, even Nietzsche with his fulminations against the Wilhelminian state—turn out to be the mentors of the 20th-century’s worst tyrants. Every master thinker claimed superiority over his predecessors, and in this claim revealed a contempt not only for the skeptical, reflective task of philosophy, but for all those who might stand to “benefit” from the world-shaking changes which despots armed with the right system of thought would bring about. To make matters worse, to the connection between state-building theories and intolerance for the ideas of others, Glucksmann finds that he must add racism. In most of the leading German philosophies of the 19th century can be found the germ of anti-Semitism, certainly in their concepts of the German nation, and the contempt of Marx and Engels for the small peoples of Europe—Basques, Serbs, Polish Jews (“the filthiest race of all,” as Engels put it)—is notorious.

The revolution never served the people, it always enslaved them. It is this thought that torments Glucksmann—this, and the kindred thought that he himself took part, in his small way, in one of the great repressive movements of the 20th century. It is not the philosopher’s task to seek power. Yet the philosophical tradition out of which he comes sought nothing else.

If The Master Thinkers is the “spiritual exercise” of one exceptional man, it is also the confession of a generation. The desire to dominate through thought which Glucksmann discovers in German philosophy was the desire of the generation of 1968. The violence which he finds seething under the dense discours du maître—a violence neither Marx nor Nietzsche bothered to conceal—was adopted by that generation in its Maoist fury, in its rationalizations for murder and mayhem, in its hymns to the “final conflict.” The bitterness with which Glucksmann writes of the “plebs,” over whose bodies and in whose names all this violence is supposed to take place, shows that he is a man who has looked lengthily into the mirror of his mind and not liked what he has seen there.




The French have always had a talent for what they themselves call la vulgarisation, the popularization of ideas. Marxism is a case in point. The French have been speaking Marxese for years without bothering to study it in the original. Today’s long overdue study, led by Glucksmann, Lévy, and the other “new philosophers,” has resulted in some rude reappraisals.

Belatedly but with a vengeance, French intellectuals are discovering the values of a liberal political order. Despite Lévy’s contempt for capitalism and Glucksmann’s rather careless comparisons of the U.S. and the USSR, there is no doubt they are prepared to assert which is the lesser evil. There is no doubt, too, that they will continue to condemn the Soviet Union for its foreign policy and for its internal organization. They are adamantly opposed to all Communist parties, and see no improvements in the Eurocommunists.

In their public statements, Lévy and Glucksmann and most of the others still identify themselves as leftists. They hope to drive the French Communists out of the respectability they have been working assiduously to achieve, but it is not certain what they wish to do with the Socialists under François Mitterrand. Lévy (as has been seen) has no faith in the conventional notions of socialist-led progress, and Glucksmann remains distrustful of all organizations. In the forthcoming elections in France, it is not altogether impossible that some of them will announce for Giscard d’Estaing.

But the critiques of the “new philosophers” are bound to have a more lasting impact than their political choices this year. It would be fitting indeed if the nouveaux philosophes, who ten years ago contributed to driving de Gaulle from office, helped now to demolish the classic Left, with its ideology and its slogans irrelevant to today’s France, just as the anti-democratic Right was destroyed by de Gaulle. For if one thing is certain about France, it is that its political formations make little sense when compared with the wishes of the electorate. The “new philosophers” may contribute to an intelligent realignment of French politics, if such a thing is possible. They have, at any rate, started a debate which will go a long way toward clearing the French air of the vulgar leftism in which its intellectuals have been choking.


1 See the reviews of Revel's The Totalitarian Temptation by Stephen Haseler (in the August 1977 COMMENTARY) and by the present writer (in the American Spectator, November 1977).

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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