In our Spring 2019 issue, Michael C. Behrent examined writer Jean-Claude Michéa’s body of thought and his “subterranean influence on a new generation of anti-capitalist radicals in France.” Here, Behrent interviews a member of that generation: Kévin Boucaud-Victoire, co-founder of the magazine Le Comptoir and the author of a recent book on Michéa, Mystère Michéa: Portrait d’un anarchiste conservateur, published in France by L’Escargot. (Read Behrent’s interview with Michéa here.)
Michael C. Behrent: Kévin Boucaud-Victoire, you’re thirty years old. You’re a reporter. You have written for L’Humanité, the French Community Party’s newspaper. You’ve been closely involved with several leftist journals (notably Le Comptoir). You’ve published two books (La Guerre des gauches, or The War of the Lefts, and a short essay on Orwell). You’re an admirer of Jean-Claude Michéa. How would you explain your background and political trajectory?
Kévin Boucaud-Victoire: It’s kind of a long story, so I’ll try to summarize it. I had the good fortune to be born into a Trotskyist family. Both of my parents were activists in Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle, or LO). Disgust toward all forms of injustice, inequality, and racism made me turn toward the Trostkyism of Olivier Besancenot’s Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (the Communist Revolutionary League, or LCR). Ultimately, France’s 2012 presidential election pushed me toward the Front de Gauche (the Left Front, or FdG), whose candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ran a good campaign. I took my card with the PCF (the Communist Party), for local reasons: I live in a town where the communists are historically strong.
It was not until I was twenty-one that I started becoming truly interested in ideas. At the time, I was doing a master’s degree in economics, after an undergraduate degree in math. Reading political, sociological, or philosophical essays was not at all natural for me. I started with Marx and Engels, along with Lenin and Trotsky. I quickly devoured the books of a large number of authors: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre Bourdieu, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 2012, the reading of another contemporary French author, whom I discovered almost by accident, revolutionized my way of thinking. It was Jean-Claude Michéa. I owe him, in the first place, an enormous intellectual debt: in one essay, L’Empire du moindre mal (The Reign of Lesser Evil), he introduced me to George Orwell, Christopher Lasch, Guy Debord, Cornelius Castoriadis, Michel Clouscard, Philippe Muray, and Marcel Mauss—thinkers that I would subsequently explore more deeply. Next, he made me conscious of the fact that capitalism is a “total social fact,” based as much on economic liberalism as on political and cultural liberalism—the idea that everyone should live “as they see fit,” with the caveat that they “not harm others”—and on the cult of progress. In this way, capitalism boils down to a system that is regulated exclusively by law and the market.
Finally, to conclude, I would point out that nothing predestined me to become a journalist, as I studied math and quantitative economics. At first, I even worked as an economist at a bank. My passion for writing began in 2012. With a friend, I created an online music magazine, of which I am the editor. In late 2012, I joined Ragemag, an online political and cultural magazine that is close to Michéa’s ideas, where everyone worked as a volunteer. I became a journalist in 2014 when I joined L’Humanité. The same year, I created with some friends, most of whom had been with Ragemag, which had ceased to exist, the online journal Le Comptoir (which now also has a print edition), which sees itself as socialist and pro-degrowth. Finally, I recently became editor of the site Le Média presse, the written branch of Média, an online TV show founded by Mélenchon’s supporters.
Behrent: In your book The War of the Lefts (Editions du Cerf, 2017), you argue that the left in France and other western democracies is hopelessly divided, particularly between a liberal left and a radical, anti-capitalist left. In your opinion, why is a union of the left no longer possible?
Boucaud-Victoire: In my book, I attempt to explain why one should no longer speak of “the left,” but of the lefts, since there exist three political families that for a century belonged to the same camp but have now become difficult to unite. The left-right divide was born here, in France, during the revolution, specifically on August 28, 1789. The “left” referred to those who opposed monarchical power. This is when the first two families constituting it were born: the liberal left and the Jacobin left. The former defended political liberalism. It was entirely individualistic and based on the separation of powers and a “value-neutral state”—that is, a public authority that refused any conception of the good or morality. The second and very French family believes, rather, in the republic one and indivisible, embodied by the power of the state, coupled with the idea of progress and individuals emancipated from all determinisms. Several decades later, a third family, socialism, the fruit of social conditions engendered by nascent industrial society and working-class struggles, was born. This anti-capitalist doctrine was defined by Pierre Leroux in 1834 as “the doctrine that will sacrifice none of the terms of the slogan liberty, fraternity, equality, unity, but will reconcile them all.”
At the outset, these three families had little in common. All three came out of the Enlightenment, believed in progress, and opposed the old regime. They had a common enemy: the conservative and reactionary forces that wanted to reestablish old hierarchies. A very distinct context made an alliance between them possible (anticlericalism, anti-monarchism, and later anti-fascism).
Since then, the context has changed. The specter of a return of the old regime has receded. Hardcore fascism is only embraced by small groups, even if a new, identitarian extreme right is growing in France and throughout the west. Neoliberalism, for its part, has completely devastated society, transforming it daily and continuously into aggregates of individuals regulated by nothing more than law and markets. At the same time, the left, in general, has lost its rootedness in the working classes, due to its compromises with the system. This is why our former prime minister, Manuel Valls, spoke of “two irreconcilable lefts”: one liberal, one anti-liberal. I speak of three irreconcilable lefts, adding the Jacobin left, which is currently very concerned with secularism. At present, these families disagree about almost everything, and the lack of a common enemy prevents them from forming a common front.
Behrent: You have spoken approvingly of what Michéa calls “Orwell’s theorem”: when the far right wins among ordinary people, the left needs to examine itself. Does this insight help us understand what’s happened in France and elsewhere in recent years?
Boucaud-Victoire: Over the past twenty years, the National Front has become, after non-voters, the largest workers’ party in France. In 2017, 41 percent of workers went with Marine Le Pen, as did 31 percent of white-collar workers [employés]. Mélenchon managed to limit the damage (with 24 percent of workers and 19 percent of white-collar workers), but these voters should logically belong to the left. We must understand how we got here. I think three factors, one structural and two contingent, explain how we wound up in this situation.
First, as I said before, the left is on the side of progress and thus of permanent upheaval. This corresponds most to the values of the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie. While technological progress has had beneficial effects for liberal and high-income professions, it has, since the nineteenth century, proved alienating for more economically modest groups—I refer you to David Nobles’s book, Progress Without People. On this note, George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, observed that “the unfortunate thing is that at present the word ‘progress’ and the word ‘Socialism’ are linked inseparably in almost everyone’s mind. . . . [T]he Socialist is always in favor of mechanization, rationalization, modernization—or at least thinks that he ought to be in favor of them.” One must nevertheless note that until the 1980s, the left managed to be working-class, particularly the Communists, which were the proletarian party.
But the arrival to power in 1981 of François Mitterrand, the first “socialist” president, was a major and negative event. In 1983, the Socialist Party, whose leadership is mostly bourgeois, broke with its initial program. This was the so-called “turn to austerity” (tournant de la rigueur). The socialists opened an (economically) liberal parenthesis that they never closed and abandoned the working classes. For this left and its newspapers, the latter were now seen as hicks, racists, and xenophobes. Seeking a new “progressive” fight, Mitterrand turned to the cooptation of antiracism, with the creation of the organization SOS Racisme in 1984, and to antifascism, with the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in 1983. Capitalism ceased to be an issue.
The Socialist Party gradually became the party of the cultural urban petty bourgeoise (the “bobos”), while also attempting to rely on the support of “minorities” (ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, etc.). The ultimate achievement of this left was the report issued by the socialist think-tank Terra Nova entitled “The Left: What Majority for 2012?” The authors call for a focus on “the France of tomorrow,” which is “younger, more diverse, more feminized,” “a culturally progressive electorate.” The corollary is the need to abandon “the declining working class,” which in any case votes for the far right! Unfortunately, the liberal left has drawn to it the “radical” left (though the latter does not realize it), which has gradually abandoned the class struggle as its primary operating system.
Finally, I see a third reason: the question of sovereignty. As the essayist Aurélien Bernier has shown in La gauche et ses tabous (The Left and Its Taboos, 2014), the rise of the National Front brought about “LePeni-zed thinking” (la lepennisation des esprits), but also “anti-LePen-ized thinking. Any idea defended by the National Front’s leader became inherently fascistic and repellent. Among these ideas was the critique of free trade, globalization, and the European Union. Not only are the latter harmful to the working classes, but only by challenging them can the left’s social program be rendered credible, as it requires wiggle room.
Currently, La France Insoumise (Mélenchon’s party) has made steps in the right direction on these last points, with a populist discourse influenced by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, and by bolstering its stance on the EU. But this is not enough. Meanwhile, the left has, often unconsciously, ceded the working classes to the far right.
Behrent: Must the left become populist?
Boucaud-Victoire: If by “populism” we mean a policy that seeks to connect the working classes to democracy, yes. As I see it, populism is a political strategy that links a means—the class struggle, but conceived differently than its Marxist sense—to a very precise end: genuine social democracy. In other words, it seeks to reinstate the people conceived politically (the demos) via the people conceived socially (the plebs, opposed to the elites).
Remember that before becoming a term of abuse synonymous with “xenophobe,” “nationalist,” and “Nazi,” “populist” had a positive meaning—in Russia, the United States, and France. In the 1860s, under the tsars, it referred to revolutionaries who advocated an agrarian and popular socialism—the Narodniks (those who were for “the people”). They even obtained Marx’s support. On the other side of the Atlantic, the People’s Party—also known as the Populist Party—formed in 1891, was, according to Serge Halimi (the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique), “simultaneously progressive, rooted in rural traditions, and structured around an ambitious and precise program of economic transformation.” Less revolutionary than its Russian cousin, this populism denounced the world of finance, the corruption of elites, and the betrayal of the American democratic ideal and became the advocate of farmers, workers, small-time producers, and “the oppressed, whatever their race might be.” Finally, in France, the term appears in the late 1920s and refers to a literary current that attempted to portray working-class people in a realistic manner. There is even a populist literary award that has been around since 1931—won in 1940, notably, by Jean-Paul Sartre for The Wall—to reward novels that “prefer individuals belonging to the people as characters and working-class milieus as settings, as long as they elicit an authentic humanity.”
In short, as Orwell would say, the left must strive to bring together “all those who cringe to the boss and all those who shudder when they think of the rent.”
Behrent: Are there any parties or figures today whom you consider as models for the direction the left should take?
Boucaud-Victoire: I would first mention the Zapatista movement. I appreciate their radical anti-capitalism, their approach to social change, their closeness to the poor, their federalism, their anarchism, and their leaders’ refusal of power and insistence on anonymity. I would add that as patriots and Catholics, in a country where that matters, they have been able to mobilize the working classes. I could also mention the Rojava’s municipalism, though it does have a significant drawback: the Kurds’ relations with other regional ethnic groups. Let’s say that I appreciate the Kurds’ egalitarianism and democratism, but my fear is that they will achieve it by dominating other peoples.
No contemporary figure comes to mind. For me, the last great political model was Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. He was a man who was truly close to the people (“we must prefer to take one step together with the people rather than ten steps without the people”), who was a patriot, a democrat, an ecologist, and a feminist, in addition to being inspired by Marxism-Leninism: a perfect populist cocktail.
Behrent: How would you explain the contemporary appeal of a thinker like Michéa and the way he has revived interest in figures like Christopher Lasch and George Orwell?
Boucaud-Victoire: Neoliberalism has brought us to an impasse. We can no longer ignore this fact. It integrates fewer and fewer people into the social body, it creates new forms of alienation, monstrous inequalities, and proves incapable of giving meaning to our lives. Moreover, it has led us to a major ecological crisis. Yet Marxism-Leninism and “really existing socialism” have proven that they were not an alternative. Michéa, Lasch, and Orwell have traced the contours of a new anti-capitalist, democratic radicalism that is also critical of modern society’s alienating culture (“mass society”).
Michéa is an entry point to many other thinkers I have mentioned. He is also an entry point to unclassifiable thinkers such as Simone Weil, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Gustav Landauer, and Jaime Semprun.
Behrent: Your magazine, Le Comptoir, publishes articles that are critical of multiculturalism and certain kinds of feminism. This is difficult for Americans to equate with “being on the left.” How would you explain this position to American progressives?
Boucaud-Victoire: Surely it is the result of our different histories. Our political culture is republican, whereas yours is liberal. Cultural liberalism—from which multiculturalism arises—thus seems natural to you and is more difficult to call into question. This is, however, far less true here. As far back as 1985, Guy Debord observed: “We have made ourselves into Americans. It’s no surprise that we should experience all the miserable problems of the U.S.A., from drugs to the mafia, ‘fast food’ and the proliferation of ethnicities.”
What we criticize are the new forms of activism that arose from “French theory,” that is, from the American extension of the deconstructionist ideas of French thinkers such as Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida. In Le Désert de la critique (The Desert of Critique), the socialist and anarchist philosopher Renaud Garcia shows how these theories discourage “any critical effort that would still seek to orient political and social struggles around such concepts as human dignity, justice, and truth”—and thus the search for comprehensive solutions.
Behrent: How do you explain the fact that intellectuals like you and Michéa are turning, as leftists, to ideas that many see as conservative? Has it become necessary for the left to take a conservative (as opposed to liberal) turn?
Boucaud-Victoire: Since the discovery of the horrors of the Soviet bloc and its collapse, the left has needed to reinvent itself. A new left has, as I explained earlier, attempted to trade in the working class, in decline due to globalization, for “minorities” and deconstruction. But it is running into the wall of reality. What you see as a conservative turn is nothing other than consciousness of the fact that “there exists, in the multi-millennial legacy of human society, a certain number of achievements that must be preserved” (Michéa) and without which no emancipation is possible. The ecological crisis has provided proof of this fact, since to solve it, we will have to learn how to preserve. But other issues require radical change. In “Toast to the Revolution” (1848), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote: “Whoever talks about revolution necessarily talks about progress, but just as necessarily about conservation.” Let us be faithful to the thinking of the father of anarchism.
Behrent: What do you think of the yellow-vest movement?
Boucaud-Victoire: A movement that was at first difficult to identify politically, the yellow vests caught everyone—notably the left—off guard. Admittedly, it began with a slogan that could seem ambiguous or “Poujadist” to whomever is not familiar with the popular classes of “peripheral France”—that is, urban, peri-urban, and rural France insofar as it is not integrated into major metropolises, which are linked to globalization. Behind their hostility to excessive taxation lurks a strong feeling of injustice and social despair. Furthermore, this movement mobilized people who do not usually go to demonstrations. While from the outset the movement pleased me, it did worry the left and the unions, which saw things escape from their control.
When one looks at a map of the roundabout mobilizations—the bastions of the yellow vest movement—one sees not only that peripheral France is overrepresented, but also those parts of the country that voted “no” on the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. One can thus conclude that they consist of the “losers” of globalization and European integration. Very quickly, this non-politicized mass succeeded, through dialogue, in launching several interesting political measures, notably the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (référendum d’initiative citoyenne). It is as if the yellow vests, by rebuilding social bonds, brought forth ordinary people’s common sense. Then, during the Paris mobilizations, they did not hesitate to demonstrate in the western bourgeois neighborhoods, where political and economic power is concentrated. Since ’68, labor demonstrations had always confined themselves to the popular and gentrified neighborhoods of eastern Paris, to the point that doing something different became unimaginable. From this point of view, the yellow vests were more subversive than the left.
What remains to be determined is whether this movement is on the left or the right. In fact, it is neither; it is an almost pure expression of the class struggle. The latter, which until now has been waged mainly by the bourgeoisie—Macron went too far in this respect—is never really left-wing or right-wing. Let’s hope that the yellow vests inaugurate a new era of social struggle.
Kévin Boucaud-Victoire is co-founder of Le Comptoir and the author of The War of the Lefts and a recent book on Jean-Claude Michéa
Michael C. Behrent teaches history at Appalachian State University.
Translation by Michael C. Behrent