Fault Lines on the Left: French Intellectuals and the Socialist Party

Fault Lines on the Left: French Intellectuals and the Socialist Party

In the fall of 2001 a slight book with a stern title, Call to Order: Investigation Concerning the New Reactionaries, sent minor shock waves throughout Parisian intellectual circles. The book’s author was Daniel Lindenberg, a historian and frequent contributor to the left-liberal monthly Esprit.

The key to understanding this tempest is in the book’s subtitle. Who are the “New Reactionaries”? Do they share a common ideology? And, if so, is it worth much time and energy to expose their alleged misdeeds?

Among Lindenberg’s antagonists are

  • literary enfant terrible Michel Houllebecq. This novelist is the author of The Elementary Particles, a merciless indictment of the narcissistic excesses and unbridled hedonism supposedly practiced by the ex-68ers who have dominated French cultural and intellectual life for the past three decades. In a recent outburst, he has also referred to Islam as “the stupidest religion of all” (“La religion la plus con“), an offense for which he was sued for religious defamation by two of France’s leading Islamic organizations;
  • novelists Philippe Muray and Michel Dantec. Although they are less known in the Anglo-Saxon world, Muray and Dantec, like Houllebecq, have expressed a similar revulsion against left-wing “political correctness,” in various forms such as antiracism and cultural populism. They also attack what they see as left-wing libidinal licentiousness bordering on social irresponsibility;
  • Luc Ferry, a philosopher and now minister of education under the current Chirac-Raffarin regime. In French Philosophy of the 1960s (co-written with Alain Renaut) and other works, Ferry pointedly criticized hedonistic individualism as an unintended outcome of the May ’68 student revolt. More recently, Ferry has been a noted champion of “republicanism,” a political ethos that privileges the well-being of the nation over individual rights and liberties;
  • Marcel Gauchet, co-editor of the influential quarterly Le Débat and the author of Democracy Against Itself, a collection of essays criticizing the corrosive effects of democratic individualism; and
  • Pierre Manent, a noted political philosopher and disciple of Leo Strauss, who has written a number of books that criticize the insufficiencies of political liberalism.

Lindenberg thinks these figures are united in an unholy alliance against France’s reigning democratic political consensus. They are, he believes, neo-Spenglerian prophets of decline, who reprise the lamentations of counterrevolutionary Kulturkritik, denouncing the failings of mass society in the mandarin idiom of the German 1920s.

Lindenberg complains that this antiliberal idiom has flourished not only among the anti-’68 literati, but also...

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