His Concepts : L’Idéologie française and the French Ideology

COUVERTURE IDEOLOGIE FRANCAISEJean-François Revel believed that Bernard-Henri Lévy’s L’Idéologie française—both the work and the idea behind it—returned “to liquid form mnemonic matter that had been chilled and solidified” (1). The work became its author’s original sin, his unforgiveable flaw. Born bad, it arrived in the maelstrom of a polemic that erupts no more than once in a decade. But it was also a book whose unmasking power constituted a pregnant pause for France’s collective mind.

Actually, one such pause occurred before L’Idéologie française and one after. In taut and emphatic prose that Philippe Sollers described as “the best critical French” (2), the philosopher did far more than clean the Augean stables of the country’s collective memory. His persuasive and alarmed eloquence expressed an original vision, unsettling for his “strange country” (3), humming with murmured secrets, and encircled by a “dark cloak of night”(4).

With this work Lévy became the first intellectual in postwar France to provide a transcendental treatment of Pétainism. He approached the so-called National Revolution as the apotheosis of cowardice and humiliation, treating Pétainism less as a phase of history than as a system of thought and seeing it not only through the lens of political and institutional history but also in its place in the intellectual landscape in which ideas appear, circulate, and are reconfigured. In light of Lévy’s seminal approach, “the age of Mr. Pétain,” as historian Alain-Gérard Slama was to call it, could no longer be confined to the few years of the National Revolution.

The aim of BHL’s book, at once simple and prodigiously ambitious, was to dig into the depths of our literary tradition and the unconcious stratum of our language to uncover the predispositions toward a form of Pétainism that was all the more fearsome for being a cultural phenomenon before it was a political one—a phenomenon that was structured like a language.

The boldness of this critical rereading of Pétainism lay in reminding us that the chain of meaning within which it is expressed was formed well in advance of the “sinister and chilling nightmare of Vichy” (5). Of that Pétainism Lévy retraced the diabolically patient germination [(cf. notice « VOLONTE de PURETE »),] in 330 pages that revisit the “textual icepack” in which his collection of obsessions are frozen. The graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, steeped in the teaching of Louis Althusser, converted for the occasion to Gramsciism, certain that the overturning of “historic blocs” would pave the way for the victories—or, it depends—the disasters of tomorrow. That is exactly what happened, well before the National Revolution, to French ideology. Authors of very different stripes—Vacher de Lapouge, Georges Sorel, Proudhon, Edouard Drumont, and even Paul Valéry—who embraced ethical and political positions that were often at odds, paved the path to ruin. From the last decades of the nineteenth century, even before the moment of truth that was the Dreyfus Affair, and consistent with the position of Julien Benda in Trahison des clercs, these shepherds of sense began to betray their role, having begun to flatter the demons of belonging, to favor the organic and corporatist society over the open society, and, in so doing, sketching the outlines of a “discreet and sometimes brutally explosive infamy” (6).

L’Idéologie française traces their corruption, documenting the patient genesis of an “infinitely cunning racism” (7) very different from the racism then rampant in Germany. The native variety allowed a defeated France to welcome as a “divine surprise” the hazy dream of “organic consolidation” by the National Revolution of a “devitalized” society. In other words, Lévy decoded, with a tip of the hat to Lacan, the unconscious matrix in which Pétainism grew.

January 1, 1981. At the time, the young philosopher had published some journalistic accounts and a book about the war in Bangladesh (Les Indes rouges) (cf. notice « GUERRES »); an essay about the modernity of the Bible and the spirit of monotheism, Le Testament de Dieu ; and a critique of the reactionary essence of communism, La Barbarie à visage humain (published in English as Barbarism with a Human Face) (cf. notice « ANTIPROGRESSISME »). As he explained later, he believed firmly in the “combined virtues of philosophy, style, and political struggle” (8). A disciple of Althusser, then—but with the party discipline of Malraux. Four years after the battle of the “new philosophers,” he no longer doubted the need tto “open a new front in the just fight against the French lie” (9). So what was important to him? To defeat the strategies of denial that were then vigorously asserting themselves against the background of denial-based “revival,” the provocations of La Vieille Taupe, and the doctrinal rearmament of extreme-right neopaganism.

Alarmed by what he called the “discordant refrain” of a France “miraculously immunized against the barbarous deliriums that had bloodied the century” (10), the philosopher set out to oppose the stifling of investigations into the ideological origins of “fascism in French colors.” In his scope, of course, were the right—the French right couched in their pious amnesia; but also the left, or, at any rate, that antiliberal wing of the left indifferent to human rights, the wing deplored in their own time by Simone Veil and Walter Benjamin, which had not been able to stand up to fascism because fascism appeared to such leftists to be just a variant of capitalism, indistinct from the rest.

At the time, Lévy could not guess that his “descent into the depths” would encounter an obstacle: crossfire from revisionists hell-bent on defending the credo of the innocence of France. In a few days, their concerted denial pushed L’Idéologie française into the eye of a storm that, three decades later, has not wholly subsided.

A stormy publication and a record scandal. The central thesis, everyone understood, was the unspoken, underground, and, nearly indiscernible existence of a distinct, specific, and very basic form of fascism, of a telluric and regressive temptation that slowly took shape in the inner sanctum of our our culture, a fascism fed by the murky sediments of a long “conservative revolution” unleashed by apparently unlikely authors such as Péguy and Mounier. A fascism whose delirium Lévy was attempting, with exposition as his only weapon, to lash to the discipline of logical discourse.

Was his project an intolerable one? It was, to be sure, an iconoclastic thesis for a France in the twilight of Giscardism, because it instantly dried up the bubbling spring of exoneration for the Vichy episode, both on the right and on the left, which had been a steady flow of mental gymnastics bent on reclassifying the four years of the National Revolution as an accidental and regrettable exception that, in the final analysis, could in no way comprise the essence of France. The strength and the crime of L’Idéologie française was that it insisted on the banality of a humiliating period, that of Pétainism.

In 1995, in the preface to the Bosnian translation of L’Idéologie française, the philospher confessed that “the real problem, the challenge posed by the book, was to identify a French strain of fascism in which I intended to include, quite literally, protestations of patriotism, shrill nationalism (even if sincere at bottom), hate for Germany, and attachment to occupied territory, that were unaccompanied by any will to resist Hitler’s pressure or his model, the subtext being to substitute for it a distinctively French version, which was, until the occupation of the south in November 1942, the whole idea behind the notorious Uriage school, for example” (11).

With aims like that, Bernard-Henri Lévy was almost certain to inspire a very wide assortment of enemies, from left-leaning Christians to communists, supported, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, by the still-influential if low-lying disciples of Charles Maurras. Four months before the presidential election of 1981, he was the man through whom the long-delayed scandal arrived. You be the judge. Except for Raymond Aron, who was terrified by the idea of a rift in the national compact, most of the critics of L’Idéologie française were not bent on intellectual refutation but rather on refusal, more or less dilatory, of critical discussion (12). Sociologist Daniel Lindenberg, a member of the editorial committee of Esprit and the author of a recently published (and excellent) essay on the weakness of the Marxist tradition in France, faulted Lévy for trying to “exonerate Germany” (14). Former communist Alain Besançon spoke for the conservative camp, declaring scornfully that “his work does not rise to the level required for criticism, strictly speaking, to operate” (15). Center-left intellectual Jacques Julliard took it upon himself to write a harsh critique of the book, threatening to resign from the Nouvel Observateur if the fortnightly’s editorial committee refused to publish it.

Could so much turmoil and panic have had anything to do with the fact that the buccaneering interpretations of the philosopher, offered at the risk of being taken out of context and, as Aron lamented, “without the the slightest understanding of the crises of conscience faced by countless good French citizens,” had stood the procedures of academic historiography on their head? Or that the work, in blurring the hallowed distinction between Pétainists and collaborators, had disturbed long-settled memories? Aron’s critique (entitled simply “Provocation”) seems to support the second hypothesis: “He delivers the truth so that the French nation may understand and overcome its past,” Aron wrote, “throwing salt in badly stitched wounds. Through his hysteria, he will feed the hysteria of a segment of the Jewish community already prone to delusional words and acts.”

The jury is still out, but nothing illustrates more dramatically the furor that Lévy caused than the reception given to the pages he devoted to Uriage, the famous school for civil servants founded by a young, demobilized offier, Pierre Dunoyer de Ségonzac, that set up shop at the dawn of the National Revolution in a château in the Isère department for the purpose of training senior civil servants for the new regime. Lévy wrote that, even though Uriage defected to the Resistance at the end of 1942, well in advance of most of those who ultimately joined the Resistance, and though some of the school’s alumni demonstrated remarkable bravery in the Vercors underground, the school was, from 1940 through the end of 1942, the laboratory of “the most fundamental values” of Pétainism.

That was too much, and the intellectuals of the “Uriage lobby,” in Revel’s droll phrase, launched a counter-offensive. Their motto was to save, at all costs, Emmanuel Mounier. To dispel the suspicions surrounding the father of personalism, the philosophical pillar of Uriage, Lévy’s detractors were biting and condescending: “The difference between our slanderers and ourselves,” thundered Jean-Marie Domenach in Le Matin on January 15, 1981, “is that for them, fascism is no more than an idea (…) They have never had the opportunity to meet a real fascist, not a mild writer like A. de Benoist, but a real one, with a submachine gun and skull and crossbones. When the country is run by people like that, ‘literary ethics’ is not of much use. You have to fight. With guns, if you have them. And that is what we did at Uriage when we joined the armed Resistance in early 1943. That was our fascism—to allow Lévy to be free today to publish his ravings.”

One witness to this backpeddling was not surprised. Philosopher Jean-Toussaint Desanti, writing also in Le Matin, explained that Bernard-Henri Lévy’s work was “hard to accept” for the two complementary and complicit poles of the nebulous ideology that, in the France of 1981, was the target of the book. “A party with fluid but extensive borders” (16) was joining ranks because, under the “suffocating shroud” (17) of a country that believed that it had survived the century unscathed, the unveiling of a contrary truth was unwelcome. And yet Lévy held fast: At the moment of the “abandonment” evoked by Emmanuel Lévinas (18), what contributed the most to turning the country of the rights of man into its opposite were not the crackpot career paths of the pilgrims of Sigmaringen or the embarrassing offers of service to Nazi Germany of small collaborationist groups—no, it was the accommodation to the unacceptable of men and women whom the French ideology had inoculated against evil.

Another lid was lifted by the book, a lid under which “festered the most poisoned watters of the national past and present” (19): the taboo concerning the meaning of Pétainism. In his critical review (20), Desanti evoked the diffuse ideological “sediment” that was the matrix of Lévy’s study: “A muddy sort of sediment full of malignant nutrients that one might refer to by the symbolic name of ‘fascism.” That sediment is what lay at the bottom of the hearts of so many Frenchmen who, on the surface, appeared so different: Pétain and Thorez, Péguy and Drumont, Proudhon and Jules Guesde, Sorel and Bergson, Marchais and the new right.” Lévy added, “The faces and stances are different, but they all look the same in the gut.” It was a terse phrase, inevitably unjust, given the immense differences in the personal ethical paths of Drumont and Bergson, for example, with one popularizing the macabre proposition of an antisemitism that was “neither of the right nor the left,” and the other, a learned and scholarly Jew caught up at the end of his life in the Vichy nightmare, petitioning the complaisant authorities to exempt him from the obligation of wearing the yellow star. But Desanti was not far off. For the disparate figures that Lévy named contributed to various degrees, and sometimes without knowing it, to the viral spread of the French ideology. The thought of all of them could be traced back to “that matrix, both philosophical and literary, most of whose elements survive to this day.” He continued, “One has only to recreate [that matrix] to bring into being, if not its worst emanations, then at least the site of the infection: the cult of roots and the disdain for the cosmopolitan spirit, a hate for ideas and intellectuals, primal anti-Americanism, a rejection of ‘artificial nations,’ and a nostalgia for ‘lost purity’ and ‘authentic community’” (21).

In France more than elsewhere, ideas have consequences. Anti-individualism, antiliberalism, and, if one dare to say it, anti-idealism (that is, extreme naturalism) (22), make up the doctrinal tripod of Pétainism. Contrary to appearances, the French ideology does not put the longing for the past in the driver’s seat. As Drumont suspected, the revolutionary boldness of the doctrinal precipitate that came together in the last decades of the nineteenth century consisted instead of fetishizing the “spontaneous substantialism of societies” (23). It was a hasty synthesis in which good blood and good sense supported and consoled each other against Reason, against the spirit of inquiry, and against “verbose” abstractions. By subordinating human obligations to and through the exaltation of the gods of iron and wood, a chthonic and telluric “secular religion” was formed that consigned individuals to dark shores on which their individuality is lost.

Lévy did not always refrain from a grandiloquence of which maturity has now cured him. The fact remains that the breathless pages that he devotes to the eruption of the irrational—to that first defeat of thinking consecrated, even before the Dreyfus Affair, by the pregnant celebration of the Land and of the Dead—offer an approximate idea of the disaster that, much later, a philosopher such as Levinas, impressed by the premonition and the memory of the Nazi horror, would describe as “enslavement by the root.” Pétainism, as LIdéologie française proposed to define and combat it, was not one reaction among others, the umpteenth avatar of “the rhetoric of reaction” (in Albert O. Hirschman’s phrase); it was, instead, an implicit ideology of organicism that proposed to repair the social bond by substituting for the conscious acts of citizens a set of ascribed allegiances, submerging the community of citizens in a “community of communities” (24), and, finally, elevating custom to primacy over law.

This brand of “fascism with French colors” should not be a matter of indifference today. Its essential element—the quest for an unpossessable “origin” that tormented the younger Péguy—was set up well before 1940 by minds that the author describes as “sorcerer’s apprentices.” And because, on that plain of sense already scorched by the fire of local superstition, the machine designed to dismantle the great symbols of universality was running amok.

A trance, the author suggests, from which we may not have completely awoken. If L’Idéologie française retains its relevance 30 years after its publication it is because the pieces of the puzzle are still there, ready to stoke the “French form of the delusion” in a new way, with the elements rearranged. In his Mémoires, Revel is right to describe the idea behind Lévy’s Idéologie française as a “tactical weapon,” a “ram designed to break down the wall of silence” (25). What the author of Without Marx or Jesus could not have anticipated was the extent to which that tactical weapon, beyond its immediate salutary effect in ending France’s amnesia in 1981, also provided a decoding device, a Benjaminian “fire alarm” that can be useful today in other emergencies and against other threats.

Well used, L’Idéologie française, turns out to be a pertinent work of philophy. Not, as is often stupidly said, to bury perfectly legitimate national pride under a mountain of unending repentance, but to be able to identify smoldering sites of obscurantism.

In Ce grand cadavre à la renverse (2007, later published in English under the title Left in Dark Times), the philosopher invokes the notion of French ideology as a sort of sensor or collector that takes in a “swarm of ideas whose leading exponents are not always consciously aware of what they are espousing” and “the ideological dens where the concepts of liberalism, the idea of Europe, the politics of human rights, or the dream of an all-embracing concept of humanity are being methodically crushed.” (26).

So L’Idéologie française? A sentinel that, relieved of its polemic baggage, is capable of alerting us, for example, to the reprogramming of the software of a segment of the left using a lexicon and doctrine borrowed from the opposing political side? A synoptic dashboard capable of detecting the abduction of progressivism by what the philosopher dubs the “droiche” (or, in English, the “rift,” a fusion of right and left) (27). Of this recent abduction, this hijacking, one of the most flagrant symptoms would be, according to Lévy, the retreat of a significant segment of progressivism into anti-Americanism, an impulse amounting to a “pull toward the worst” or another form of “socialism for dummies” (28). Yet another sign would be the enthusiastic reception given by so many adherents of anticapitalist neo-radicalism to the judicial decisions of Carl Schmitt, the judge during the Third Reich.

As Bernard-Henri Lévy reminds us in L’Idéologie française, it was not always so in the progressive camp. For a long time, the left, or at least its avant-garde, was viscerally liberal—it embraced the rule of law—and generally pro-American. It will be remembered, for example, that Bukharin and many French socialists, from Guesde to Jaurès, exhorted the communists to “add Americanism to Marxism,” taking their cue from Marx himself, who admired the United States as a “magnificent” country where political emancipation had been achieved. But this suggests yet another hypothesis: What if the French ideology, which continued to exert its influence after the Liberation, also exerted a strong pull toward intellectual regression?

Let’s ponder that for a moment. Neither Barrès, in claiming to see the origin of American excess in the fact that the country was founded solely on the basis of a contractual promise, nor Maurras, in his portrait of a “neuropathic” federation, could have imagined that one day, thanks to a grotesque inversion made possible by the wiring of the French ideology, this trumped-up bogeyman, “the inner America,” would find its most fanatical promoters on the left!

Paradoxically, that day came with the Liberation. After the communists of the 1930s, exuding their aversion to a fantasized “American left” in the mold of Jules Moch, Léon Blum’s minister of public works, there was Maurice Thorez, who, in the middle of the Cold War, felt compelled to vituperate bombastically against a Hollywood that was supposedly making France’s “young girls the docile slaves of American multimillionaires.” Even after the fall of communism, one cannot be sure that matters are settled on this point. What are we to make of that contingent of neo-radical intellectuals, now almost chic, who are endeavoring to convert the Empire, as they like to call it, into the site of planetary catastrophe? What are we to think of the way these individuals, who claim to be rebuilding the “communist hypothesis” on prestige and reason, are reviving, perhaps without realizing it, the virulence of French (and, frankly, German) strains of fascism on the subject of the “Amerikan” hydra? What can one say about the rapidity with which these anticapitalists, lined up edge to edge with the other extreme, have appropriated all of the mental categories and hateful semantics that racked the prefascists Drieu, Morand, and Maulnier, whose doctrinal history has been catalogued by another philosopher, André Glucksmann (29)?

One can find many faults with L’Idéologie française, in some ways a callow and ardent treatise. But it cannot be denied that the book put its finger on an aberration that has haunted the kingdom of France since Drumont came of age—since, to cite the exact date, the founder of La Libre Parole, in radically reevaluating ideological signs and affiliations, developed the most fearsome political scrambler, one that in 2012 made it possible for racists on the extreme right to intimidate social-democratic and social-liberal universalists by overtaking them on their left.

In this sense, Lévy’s book of modest origins was prophetic. Clavel, consistently, praised it, whereas Aron, timidly, limited himself to suggesting that Lévy review some of Aron’s own cherished works, not admitting the degree to which he secretely shared some of the book’s gloomy insights. Consider these words from the Aron article already cited: “Fascism has never ‘taken’ in France, like a mayonnaise that will not stay emulsified. The communal, anti-individualist ideologies of the 1930s never moved beyond the salons of the Parisian intelligentsia. They came to power as a result of a national catastrophe,” the professor reassures as. Fortified by this historic truth, Aron, in the manner of someone suppressing an unpleasant thought, spares himself from having to get to the essential idea of his junior compatriot’s book, which was the viral nature of the fascist idea, which was and is capable of thriving in a variety of ways other than the assumption of state power (30). Supported by the comforting thought that fascism had never come to power in France, the sociologist not only published numerous articles in L’Express in 1982 and early 1983 (the last months of his life) that betrayed a persistent underestimation of the Le Pen phenomenon—but he also testified against Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell and his concept of the “revolutionary right” in the defamation suit brought against Sternhell by Bertrand de Jouvenel.

It is not insignificant that it was a center-right liberal who objected to the audacity of the center-left liberal that Lévy had already become. In France, as Emile Benvéniste said, ideas have a memory even more tenacious than that of water. When it comes to antitotalitarian vigilance, the critical acuity and lucidity of liberal progressives have been and remain truer and stronger than those of the liberal conservatives.

Translation by Steven Kennedy

(1) Le voleur dans la maison vide, Plon, p. 594.
(2) “Français, vous pouvez savoir,” by Philippe Sollers, Le Matin, January 15, 1981.
(3) L’Idéologie française, Grasset, collection “Figures,” 1981, p. 7
(4) Ibid., p. 9
(5) Ibid., p. 25
(6) Ibid, p. 18
(7) Ibid, p. [X]
(8) Pièces d’identité, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Grasset, 2010, p. 1,237
(9) Ibid.
(10) L’Idéologie française, op. cit., p. 9
(11) Pièces d’identité, op. cit., p. 1,237
(12)La provocation,” Raymond Aron, L’Express, February 7, 1981.
(13) From the personal recollection of Jean-François Revel, Aron’s friend and colleague at L’Express, we know that Aron, even though he blasted the recklessness of L’Idéologie française, did not disapprove of its essential message or approach. He even found, in the charge against “the France of abdication,” particularly in the pages devoted to Mounier and Esprit, a reflection of his deep, if secret, conviction. On this point, see Le voleur dans la maison vide, Jean-François Revel, Plon, 1998, p. 595.
(14) Le Matin, January 15, 1981.
(15) Alain Besançon, Le Point, January 26, 1981.
(16) Pièces d’identité, op. cit.
(17) L’Idéologie française, op. cit., p. [X].
(18) “Sans nom,” in Noms propres, Emmanuel Lévinas, Biblios-essais.
(19) Revel, op. cit.
(20) Le Matin, January 15, 1981.
(21) Pièces d’identité, op. cit., p. [X].
(22) L’Idéologie française, op. cit. , p. [X].
(23) L’Idéologie française, op. cit., p.203. Voir, aussi, La Pureté dangereuse, Grasset, 1994.
(24) L’Idéologie française, op. cit., p. 233.
(25) Revel, op. cit., p. 597.
(26) Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, Grasset, 2007, p. 404.
(27) Bernard-Henri Lévy in Le Matin, quoted in Questions de principe I, Gonthier-Denoël, p. [X].
(28) See American Vertigo, Grasset, 2006, and Ce grand cadavre à la renverse, op. cit., p. 243 and passim.
(29) In Dostoïevski à Manhattan, Robert Laffont, 2002.
(30) See the important edited volume that provides a retrospective on the critiques of the ideas of Zeev Sternhell and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Le mythe de l’allergie française au fascisme, edited by Michel Dobry, Albin Michel, 2003.

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