Trahison des clercs

by Henry Farrell on September 6, 2004

“Brad DeLong”: asks for one of us to explain this rather opaque “Perry Anderson piece”: in the LRB about the reasons for France’s political and cultural decline – I’ll bite. Anderson’s prose is tangled and dense, but there is a thesis lurking there amid the thickets and thorns. His claim is that France is scuppered because the wrong set of intellectuals won. Anderson argues that the prospect of unity between the Socialist and Communist parties in the early 1970s provoked an intellectual backlash – the _Noveaux Philosophes_ and other partisan thinkers did a bang-up job in isolating Communism from the mainstream. This, together with conjunctural choices made by the Communists, meant that the Left had no real ideas left when Mitterand came to power. An “anti-totalitarian” front, in which the centre-left was a distinctly junior partner to the centre-right, came to dominate the intellectual landscape. The French Revolution – primal source of the cleavages in French politics – was rewritten by Furet and others so that its radical implications disappeared. It became a bourgeois liberal revolution that had failed. Thus the mess that France is in – the liberals have triumphed, but in so doing have robbed France of the deeper political arguments that used to drive its politics and intellectual life.

I’m only an amateur of French politics, so I’m not going to comment on the empirical plausibility of this thesis. I will note that it’s a rather _idealistic_ account of the driving forces of French history for a purported Marxist to be coming out with. Anderson seems to be claiming, if I understand him rightly, that the most important conflicts in French politics of the last two decades were fought out in the academy and in the journals of opinion. It’s not an entirely ridiculous argument in itself – intellectuals do play a role in France that they don’t elsewhere – but it’s still very strange coming from the mouth of a historical materialist.



Brad DeLong 09.06.04 at 10:24 pm

Well, the closest that Anderson ever approached to something I would call “Marxism” was in his two big books that I like–PfAtF and LotAS. But those are clearly not Marxist but Weberian: the keys to the riddle of history are not Modes of Production but rather Modes of Domination.

But as somebody anxious to make space for social democracy in a neoliberal age, what would the “ideas” of the nonexistent France that Perry Anderson would have liked to see have been?


dsquared 09.06.04 at 11:43 pm

If I remember it right, the Left had a ton of ideas when Mitterand came to power, but were beaten down by a capital strike.

I also don’t understand why people underestimate how radical Jospin’s 35-hour week was. It’s the only attempt I’ve seen anywhere on earth to recognise the principle that the economy is there to serve people rather than the other way round.


kevin donoghue 09.07.04 at 12:14 am

As to Brad DeLong’s question, maybe the answer is somewhere in this piece but I didn’t find it. It is just a lament for the Jacobins and their heirs. There is no suggestion that their heritage could have been preserved.

As to D-squared’s question, when a man has a nickname like Monsieur Ni-Ni it is hard to see anything he comes up with as radical.


Abiola Lapite 09.07.04 at 12:30 am

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“It’s the only attempt I’ve seen anywhere on earth to recognise the principle that the economy is there to serve people rather than the other way round.”

And look how well it’s served the French unemployed …

Version: GnuPG v1.2.4 (MingW32) – GPGshell v3.10
Comment: My Public Key is at the following URL:



Giles 09.07.04 at 1:11 am

“It’s the only attempt I’ve seen anywhere on earth to recognise the principle that the economy is there to serve people”

What about McDonalds


yabonn 09.07.04 at 1:25 am

Sometimes a french sommenter has to face his duty. No more freeriding.

Baverez looks at first glance like a French version of a Thatcherite, a neo-liberal of more or less strict persuasion, and the whole controversy like a rerun of the long-standing debates on decline in this country. But the appearances are deceptive. The problem is not the same.

Well, maybe not, but maybe so a little bit.

Declinism indeed is fashionable these days. In france, the right is everywhere now, and it begins to percolate in the public discourse (that’s, at least, what i regularly yell to my t.v.). Decline unless belt tightening is one of their pet peeves. Vaseline to my ears.

The irak thing, too, got the murdochian press et alii singularly interested into the traditional wsj/economist/etc “france is doomed” warcry.

I do not doubt that mr anderson flies miles above these fugitive trends, but i’d nevertheless be wary about the doom/gloom thing. It’s simply in the air these days, so maybe after all this is the same old same old.

Viewed comparatively, the striking feature of the human sciences and philosophy that counted in this period was the extent to which they came to be written increasingly as virtuoso exercises of style, drawing on the resources and licences of artistic rather than academic forms.

Maybe, i sometimes ask myself, it’s this view of france as the usual liberal that fogs a little bit that important astpect of the writer of these times : they were writing for and against things and stuff. France waited till 1981 to elect a left wing president. Those people were not happy with the the state of things, and telling it.

Games and fun and brilliance may come along, may be a part of it, and may deserve sometimes a good sokalerie in the butt. But to take these authors by the “free wheeling” end first is a bit off mark, imho (which is not what mr anderson was doing, but i didn’t type all that for nothing, dammit). At worst you can dismiss the pompousity clogging the message, at best see in the style a way to shake the university/institution/whatever : i don’t think they were in these cozy, remote, lands where the “art for art’s sake” types of explanations could stand.

Of course, CT, and my real knowledge of these authors being what they are, i know resignedly await some triumphant one tearing down my beautiful theory. But it does look sensible doesn’t it?

Overall, i’m suprised on the one hand to find there quite a few of my daily rants. Someone despising houellebecq, ferry and b.h.levy can’t be all bad. He even approaches the “is amelie poulain fascist” debate. Feels like home.

on the other hand… -dare i? Could it be that anderson just read during summer baverez’ decliniste opus, along with “la face cachée du monde”, one third about furetology, and got a lasting impression from these? Intellectually disapointing enough to ring true, oder?

No mere inventory of failings could capture the uneven realities of a society in motion

… And adding an historic of the right in general, and of furet in particular doesn’t help much. Voilavoila. Indeed. Cough.

My short story, trying to follow the article’s main theme :

Declinisme is it same usual self (behold, lucky traveller, the endless mating dance of the “de gaulle did look like something, didn’t he?” with the “we’re unable to adapt”)

The “Monde” begins, indeed, to smell funny at times, but there’s no replacement.

And -i’m pretty sure- the left drifted center because lots of things happened in the world that made that happen. Mr furet very effective convincing and all, but as for burying the radical left, but the driving force certainly was the urss’ failures. And mitterrand, but that is another story.

So in short : yes, henry, ihmo.

Damn it’s late. Randomish :

A bright obscurity

… falling from the stars. Corneille. Wether these words are common in english, or mr anderson likes to play.

Internationally, the country’s [england]cultural icon is now a football celebrity.

Thierry Henri? :)

As a conclusion, if that rather bleak portrait of france brings you down, do like the french leftists do : think of scandinavia.


Marc Mulholland 09.07.04 at 12:26 pm

It should perhaps be noted that Anderson’s article is only ‘Part 1’, to be concluded in the next issue of LRB.


dsquared 09.07.04 at 1:27 pm

Abiola: Actually, it has done pretty well for the French unemployed; their income would put them into the third decile of Americans.


versac 09.07.04 at 4:09 pm

I think your theory on Anderson’s position is quite right. He seems to mean that the wrong ones have won at the verge of the 80s, and implemented a social-liberal policy directly inspired by Furet and fondation Saint-Simon.

I think fondation Saint-Simon (sort of a third way think tank, now dead) has had and still has a very strong influence in french ideas and among french intellectuals. But it lacks actual implementation in politics. Jospin has been balancing between his left and his right, and has missed all reform movements the fondation was praising for. Therefore I don’t think these ideas have already won in France, as there is stille much to do.


zizka 09.07.04 at 4:15 pm

What d^2 said is almost never mentioned in discussions of European unemployment. America has less employment, but American unemployment is far worse than European unemployment, and a considerable proportion of American jobs are far worse than any European job (regarding benefits, pay, security, pension, etc.)


Leo Casey 09.08.04 at 5:42 pm

Brad DeLong writes:
Well, the closest that Anderson ever approached to something I would call “Marxism” was in his two big books that I like—PfAtF and LotAS. But those are clearly not Marxist but Weberian: the keys to the riddle of history are not Modes of Production but rather Modes of Domination.

That is a rather tendentious reading of the two texts, but it is not still half as problematic as the claim that a self-avowed Marxist Perry Anderson completely misunderstood himself. The problem seems to be Brad’s rather narrow view of what constitutes Marxism [some variant of the earlier Gerry Cohen’s reductionism?], such that in the world of Marxism and Weberianism, never the two shall meet. Mr. DeLong meet Mr. Lukacs…


Brad DeLong 09.09.04 at 1:19 am

Leo can read Karl Marx in his way, and I will continue to read Karl Marx in Karl Marx’s way.

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