In one of the reports that Jane Kramer used to send to the New Yorker from Paris in the 1980’s, there is a brief account of the way the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre in the Montparnasse cemetery had become an object of piety for a new generation of French students:
Thousands of students marched in his funeral cortège through Montparnasse, and got to know the place, and a lot of them come back now to visit. They come when the weather is good, to read and walk around with a pain au chocolat and enter into a kind of custodial communion with their hero. There is always a flower on Sartre’s grave; Simone de Beauvoir left a rose on the day of the funeral, and afterward the students took over.
Because Miss Kramer no doubt shared this reverence for the man who had presided for so long as the leader of French intellectual life, there was no speculation in her piece, which was written in 1985, as to exactly what the students might have wished to commune with their “hero” about. Was their communion an expression of solidarity with his beliefs, or was it only an act of hommage to the kind of intellectual imperium over which Sartre and his circle had once ruled with an iron hand? It would be interesting to know what was in the minds of those students as they made their pilgrimage to lay flowers on Sartre’s grave, for elsewhere in Europe history had already inflicted some devastating blows upon the immense edifice of ideological falsehood which Sartre and his contemporaries on the French intellectual Left had devoted decades to creating, and even in Paris their political legacy was in ruins.
In the heyday of Sartre’s dominion over French intellectual life, it clearly lay beyond the power of American criticism to modify the malevolent influence of that dominion in even the smallest degree. America, after all, was the principal target of Sartre’s wrath. Being the sole military power capable of resisting the victory of Soviet socialism, which in Sartre’s mind was never clearly differentiated from the triumph of Stalinism, the United States was demonized as the enemy of mankind. That it was also the stronghold of capitalism and a bastion of bourgeois democracy only added to the crimes for which it was held accountable. It hardly mattered that in the real world, the monumental crimes of the era were committed by Stalin and then Mao against their own populations and those that fell under their control. Through the special alchemy of the Sartrean dialectic, crimes committed in the name of socialism were forgiven as contingent derelictions when they were not simply denied, and all attempts to hold their perpetrators to moral account were dismissed as an example of the “bad faith” to be expected from the bourgeois enemy.
There was a time, in the early 1950’s, when this travesty of political morality met with some spirited resistance from American intellectuals, but for the most part that resistance proved to be ineffectual. In 1952, in his contribution to the symposium on “Our Country and Our Culture” in Partisan Review, Lionel Trilling wrote:
The political situation, the commanding position of Stalinism in French cultural life, does not prevent our having the old affinity with certain elements of that life, but it makes the artistic and intellectual leadership of France unthinkable.
Yet even Trilling, when he came to reprint his essay in A Gathering of Fugitives in 1956, deleted this important passage. Others, like Sidney Hook, remained more stalwart in their criticism of Sartre and his cohorts, but however much their efforts were to be welcomed, they were without influence in Paris, where the Sartrean politics of fantasy and denial reigned supreme. So supreme, indeed, that even Charles de Gaulle at the height of his power refused to call Sartre to account when he was clearly in violation of the law. “You do not imprison Voltaire,” the President of France famously observed—but then, of course, de Gaulle had an anti-American agenda of his own.
When American intellectual life was itself overtaken by a radical movement in the 1960’s, this demonization of the United States in particular and of bourgeois democracy in general was swiftly established here, too, as the hallmark of political wisdom, and there was no more talk about the intellectual leadership of France being “unthinkable.” In fact, a new wave of French radical influence was already taking possession of American intellectual life, and the Sartrean brand of anti-Americanism, now greatly augmented by homemade simulacra cut from the same ideological materials, became the dominant outlook of our own intellectual class.
It has remained so, moreover, down to the present day, and is now deeply embedded in public policy and pedagogy. Pronouncements that even in the 1960’s could still stir a minor scandal—Susan Sontag’s assertion in 1966, for example, that “The white race is the cancer of history”—have now been integrated into the school curriculum, and a racist fanatic like Frantz Fanon, whose influence is another of Sartre’s lethal contributions to our political culture, is mandatory reading at our most prestigious universities. There is thus now a sense in which our students, too, have been pressed into the service of laying flowers on Sartre’s grave. Only here it is a classroom exercise, not a sentimental ramble through the Montparnasse cemetery.
It will forever remain one of the ironic lessons of history that the moral force which finally shattered the influence of Sartre and the French Left on their own home ground came not from any effective dissent in the intellectual capitals of the West but from a heroic survivor of the very system whose evils they had long denied. It was the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the early 1970’s that finally reduced this whole tradition of political falsehood to ideological rubble. Fifteen years ago, Robert Conquest described the “immense shock” that Solzhenitsyn’s epic work administered to the French intellectual elite:
We have seen, for the first time, the crumbling of the old delusions of the intellectuals. The incredible deceptions and self-deceptions by which Sartre and all the others indoctrinated the intelligentsia had been impervious to the presentation of facts, and to the advancing of logical arguments by a handful of distinguished analysts like Raymond Aron or polemical attacks on their whole way of thinking by independent men like Jean-François Revel. It remained true that a climate of conformity pervaded the intellectual classes, that every bien-pensant professor, student, journalist, writer held, in a way too automatic to be called a belief, that even if the USSR or similar systems had their faults, they were nonetheless imbued with a central virtue which made them superior to the wicked West.
Publication of The Gulag Archipelago was the turning point that finally made it possible for the truth about the French Left’s mythification of the Soviet system to be openly discussed as a historical scandal of huge proportions. “The sudden disintegration of this new Age of Faith, the swift dissipation of the tenacious miasmas which had hung over the French mind,” Conquest wrote, “have been truly astonishing.”
No less astonishing was what may be called Sartre’s existential response to this long-deferred moment of truth, for with a symbolism almost too perfect to be believed, the momentous shift in the Zeitgeist found Sartre himself afflicted with physical blindness, the perfect correlative of the purblind political vision that had long characterized his analysis of every public issue. When he suffered the loss of his eyesight in 1973, the year of The Gulag Archipelago’s original publication, Sartre announced that “My occupation as a writer is completely destroyed.” But, as was often the case with this writer, the statement turned out to have a larger meaning that the man himself was hardly capable of comprehending.
Now, a generation after Robert Conquest wrote about the effect of The Gulag Archipelago upon the “climate of conformity [that] pervaded the intellectual classes” in France in the days of Sartre’s ascendancy, comes a detailed analysis of the first dozen years of this shameful post-World War II history. Solzhenitsyn’s book is barely mentioned in Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956,1 for the appearance of The Gulag Archipelago postdates the period under examination, yet the consequences of its publication in France in the 1970’s obviously prepared the way for this new study.
One of the central perspectives that Judt (who teaches at New York University) brings to his examination of the ideological gyrations of the French Left in the early days of the cold war is that of political developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe. “[I]t was precisely in this decade,” he writes,
that Soviet society expanded from its earlier containment within the frontiers of a distant and alien Russia and established itself in the territory formerly known as Central Europe. . . . The postwar establishment of totalitarian government in Budapest, Warsaw, Berlin, and Prague, with its attendant repression, persecution, and social upheaval, placed the moral dilemma of Marxist practice at the center of the Western intellectual agenda.
The story of how the French intellectual Left responded to this expansion of Stalinism, and specifically to the Stalinist show trials of 1947-53, occupies the moral center of Judt’s book.
Thus, while Past Imperfect is first of all what Judt calls “an essay on intellectual responsibility, [and] a study of the moral condition of the intelligentsia in postwar France,” it is several other things as well. It is an important contribution to the intellectual history of the cold war as that war was conducted in the cultural capital of Western Europe. It is also, in part, an analysis of French anti-Americanism and the role it played in the Left’s falsification of Soviet tyranny. And finally, it offers us an illuminating theory of French political thought that traces the origin of this tendency to falsify the facts of history to what Judt describes as “France’s own revolutionary heritage and its ambivalent ethical message.”
In particular Judt is interested “in an aspect of the modern philosophical tradition in France that has until very recently aroused little comment in France itself, the marked absence of a concern with public ethics or political morality.” With this book we have certainly come a long way from, say, a work like David Caute’s Communism and the French Intellectuals (1964), in which Sartre is described as “without doubt the most perceptive and morally responsible of the French philosopher-writers to have wrestled with the problem of Communism.”
Sartre is not the only prominent figure in post-World War II French intellectual life to come under scathing scrutiny in Judt’s study. Much attention is also lavished upon Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and sundry camp-followers of Sartre’s magazine Les Temps modernes as well as Emmanuel Mounier and his radical circle at the journal Esprit. It is, in fact, Sartre, Mounier, and their satellites who are at the center of this critical survey, for it was they who “controlled the cultural terrain, they [who] set the terms of public discourse, they [who] shaped the prejudices and language of their audience.” As Judt says: “Their way of being intellectuals echoed and reinforced the self-image of the intellectual community at large, even those of its members who disagreed with them.”
Foremost among the “prejudices” of this intellectual community was its devotion to the idea of revolution and its corollary rejection of liberalism and parliamentary democracy. This prejudice had a history that predated the war and the Occupation. It had already made itself felt in the squalid political battles of the 30’s that prepared the way for the complaisant ethos of the Occupation. On the Left, as Judt writes of the 30’s, “fascism might be the immediate threat, but liberalism was the true enemy”; and on the Right, represented by Charles Maurras and Action française, “an aggressive distaste for the compromises of democratic politics” was also “commonplace.”
Judt is particularly good at tracing the intellectual genealogy of this prewar “intersection at the extremes of radical sentiment from Left to Right.” “Like the Communist party of the postwar years,” he writes, “Maurras and his movement constituted a sort of revolving door through which passed a surprising number of writers afterward associated with quite different political positions.” (In other words, radical positions on the Left.) He cites the example of Jean-Marie Domenach, later the successor to Emmanuel Mounier as editor of Esprit, who in 1953 expressed his faith in the Communists’ “sincere love of justice,” but who in the 30’s had been, by his own admission, a “childish” follower of French fascism. What remained consistent in this shift from the radical Right to the radical Left was a hatred of bourgeois democracy.
For all but the most die-hard acolytes of French fascism, however, the Nazi conquest of France in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy regime effectively eradicated the appeal of the extreme Right. Yet, contrary to popular belief, the Resistance did not prompt any wholesale alignment with the extreme Left. Memories of the Hitler-Stalin pact, though soon to evaporate, were still fresh. As Judt observes, “The political ideas and programs of the Resistance itself were not notably revolutionary.” True, there was “the sense of being part of something larger than oneself—a circle of dissenting writers, a resistance group, a clandestine political organization, or History itself.” But in the beginning, at least, History was not yet wholly identified with the idea of revolution. That would come with the Liberation and a return to party politics. “If there was a general sentiment” in the Resistance, he writes, “it was probably something along the lines of Camus’s desire for ‘the simultaneous instauration of a collective economy and a liberal polity.’ ”
Yet after the war, when faced with the political choices of the Liberation, “intellectuals directed criticism at the parliamentarians for betraying the ideals of a united national renaissance.” It was in this situation of recoil from the politics of bourgeois democracy that “the Communists . . . mattered the most for the intellectual community.” As Judt puts it:
This is not because the Communist party could count on a significant membership among the haute intelligentsia—quite the contrary: the impermeable, deathless commitment of an Aragon . . . was only ever a minority taste. But for many younger intellectuals, not only had the party redeemed itself in action since 1941, but it represented in France, both symbolically and in the flesh, the transcendent power and glory of Stalin’s Soviet Union, victorious in its titanic struggle with Nazi Germany, the unchallenged land power on the European continent and heir apparent to a prostrate Europe.
“It helped,” Judt adds in a telling insight, “that Communism asked of its sympathizers not that
they think for themselves, merely that they accept the authority of others.” Moreover, what was “most important” about Communism’s appeal for the intellectuals was that it was “about revolution”—not revolution here and now, to be sure, and certainly not in a way that would vitiate either their freedom or their status, but in some distant “future [that] could always justify passivity in the present.”
What the idea of revolution signified for these intellectuals remained remarkably abstract, however. The keen identification with History engendered by the Occupation and the Resistance never entailed a close examination of actual historical events—especially the kind of historical events that might cast some light on the way revolution really worked. What the idea of revolution seemed to mean, first of all, was “the natural and necessary outcome . . . of the hopes and allegiances of the wartime years.” In this respect, the idea of revolution seemed to embody a kind of historical inevitability beyond the reach of individual volition.
Then, too, notes Judt, “revolution meant order”—an alternative to “the unregulated mediocrity of the Third Republic” that derived “its political coordinates from the lessons of history and its moral imperatives from the recent experience of political struggle and engagement.” The irony—or was it only the hypocrisy?—of the situation was that for most of these intellectuals, there had been no real “political struggle and engagement” during the war:
Only a few of the men and women who are the subject of this book were ever exposed to real risks during this period; indeed, those who went to the most trouble to theorize this situation tended to be the ones whose position was least exposed and whose careers were least affected.
But what was finally most important for the intellectuals was a belief in revolution as a “categorical imperative.” This was “Sartre’s special contribution.” For Sartre, Judt explains, revolution
was not a matter of social analysis or political preference, nor was the moment of revolution something one could select on the basis of experience or information. It was an a-priori existential requirement. . . . In short, action (of a revolutionary nature) is what sustains the authenticity of the individual.
With the idea of revolution thus transformed into an “a-priori existential requirement” and its goal firmly tethered to the “authenticity of the individual,” politics in the ordinary sense of the term tended to disappear in favor of a fantasy world in which actions and events were judged according to some purely subjective standard of ideological gratification. In Judt’s words:
The abstract and protean quality of revolution thus described meant not only that almost any circumstance could be judged propitious to it and any action favorable to its ends; it also meant that anything that qualified under the heading “revolutionary” was necessarily to be supported and defended.
In this realm of looking-glass politics, revolution was, in effect, whatever you wanted it to be, and it neither entailed sacrifice nor brought any malign consequences in its wake. The threat of real revolution was always elsewhere. “Thus it cost little to be for the revolution,” Judt writes, “and was hardly worth the effort to be against it, in this abstract form.”
Still, despite the best efforts of Sartre, Mounier, and other fantasists of the Left to reduce the politics of revolution to the rhetoric of existential posturing, historical reality persisted in producing actual events that required an immediate and unequivocal response to brute assertions of totalitarian power. It was in the face of such events that what Judt calls “the moral price that was exacted” by this commitment to revolution was made most explicit.
One of the first tests came with the Prague coup in February 1948, which Judt describes as “the last Communist takeover in Central Europe, [which] made little pretense of representing the desires of the majority or of responding to some real or imaginary national crisis.” Even for readers inured to the obscene apologetics with which the radical Left in France championed Soviet tyranny in this period, it is still shocking to be reminded of what Mounier, for example, wrote in defending the Communist coup in Prague:
In Czechoslovakia the coup masks a retreat of capitalism, the increase of workers’ control, the beginnings of a division of landed property. There is nothing astonishing in the fact that it was not undertaken with all the ceremonial of a diplomatic move, nor that it is the work of a minority. None of this is unique to Communism: there is no regime in the world today or in history that did not begin with force, no progress that was not initiated by an audacious minority in the face of the instinctive laziness of the vast majority.
“As to the victims of the Prague coup, the Czech socialists and their social-democratic allies,” Judt observes, “Mounier had no regrets. The social democrats in particular he described as ‘saboteurs of the European Liberations.’ Their cause is lost, their fate richly deserved—‘they belong to a dead Europe.’ ” And this was a sentiment widely shared on the Left. Judt cites “the disdain felt by Simone de Beauvoir, for example, at all mention of ‘reformism,’ her desire to see social change brought about in a single convulsive moment or else not at all.”
The sum of Soviet horrors that had somehow to be explained—and explained away—by the French intellectual Left in these years was truly formidable, yet in every case, no matter what the extremes of violence and terror, what Judt characterizes as the “moral anesthesia” of the Left proved equal to the sordid task. In 1949 came the appeal of David Rousset in Le Figaro littéraire for an inquiry into the Soviet labor camps. “Rousset was a left-wing activist, a survivor of the German camps, a friend of Sartre, and a Frenchman,” Judt points out, but what finally counted against him for Sartre was that his position on the Soviet concentration-camp system placed him on the wrong side of the Communist issue: “Les Temps modernes broke with Rousset at the end of 1949, over what it saw as his anti-Communism, or more precisely his willingness to work with anti-Communists in pursuit of his revelations about the USSR.” This was, in effect, a dress rehearsal for Sartre’s more famous break with Camus, in 1952, over essentially the same issue.
Beginning in 1949, too, came the purges and show trials in the Soviet-controlled states of Central and Eastern Europe that culminated in what Judt calls “a final, sanguinary convulsion” when “the Czech Communist leadership and its Soviet advisers staged the trial of Rudolf Slánsky and thirteen others in November 1952.” Slánsky had until recently been the secretary-general of the Communist party in Prague, and, like others among the accused, he was a Jew. The trial that was staged for Slánsky and his colleagues, with what Judt describes as its “unambiguously anti-Semitic character,” thus added still another dimension to the horror that the French intellectual Left was obliged to assimilate into its defense of the Soviet Union.
And then, in 1956, came the Hungarian uprising and the Soviet invasion. “It might be thought,” says Judt, “that the Soviet invasion of Hungary constituted sufficient evidence of history’s verdict upon the Communist illusion,” but of course with Sartre and his circle mere “evidence” was never any match for dialectical prowess. For Sartre,
Soviet actions had no bearing on the legitimacy of the Communist project. . . . On the contrary, Sartre insisted, [the Soviet Union] is privileged by its goal (liberty and justice for all) and by the fact that it differs from all other systems and regimes in this respect.
As for the West, tainted as it was by capitalism and bourgeois democracy, it had, according to Sartre, “nothing to offer in place of Communism.” “It seems, then,” writes Judt, “that for Sartre there was no conceivable circumstance under which we would abandon our faith in the Communist future, given our need to believe in something.”
From such statements about “faith” and “belief” in Communism, Judt draws the obvious conclusion:
In order to appreciate the belief system of postwar intellectuals, we need to grasp that what is at issue here is not understanding, the cognitive activity usually associated with intellectuals, but faith. To react as people did to the impact of Communism in the years following 1945, they had first to accept unquestioningly a certain number of the fundamental tenets of what amounted to a civic religion.
He then offers us a summary of “the fundamental tenets” of this “civic religion”:
[A]t the center lay the will and the desire to believe in Communism. Around this article of faith were wrapped various layers of argument deriving from specific Communist achievements in the recent past. In the next orbit was to be found a certain style of reasoning, a sort of epistemological double vision, which made it possible to explain Soviet behavior in terms not invoked for any other system or persons; this discourse, although especially applicable to the Communist case, did not derive from it and had older historical and philosophical origins and objectives. The same is true of the next layer, a longstanding habit of mind, hostile to various manifestations of modernity and individualism, which is sometimes referred to, in misleading shorthand, as “anti-Americanism.” At a further remove, but still within the galaxy of established cultural practices, there was the peculiar combination of preeminence and self-hatred that has marked the intellectual as a public figure in modern France and contributed to ambivalence in the face of a proletarian politics. Finally, and providing all the above with their political and ideological anchor, there was the indigenous anti-liberalism of the French republican intelligentsia.
One notable feature of this “civic religion” was its indifference to the increasingly blatant anti-Semitic features of Soviet power in the 50’s. In this matter, the French themselves had a good deal of blood on their hands. They had, after all, collaborated with the Nazis in rounding up French Jews for the extermination camps. But this, for the moment, could be—and was—attributed to the “reaction and fascism” that had overtaken France with the Nazi conquest. After the war, it was believed—in yet another act of faith—that, as Judt writes, “Nations that had undergone . . . a revolution—the Soviet Union and now the countries of Eastern Europe—were by definition freed forever from the scourge of racial hatred and persecution.” In other words, “With Stalin’s defeat of Hitler, anti-Semitism had ceased to be an issue.” As a consequence, Judt observes, “the intellectual community in France was ill-prepared for the onslaught of anti-Semitic prejudice that surfaced in the international Communist movement at the beginning of the 1950’s.”
On this issue, too, Sartre remained consistent in his refusal to criticize the Communists even when openly challenged to deal with the Jewish question by no less an eminence than François Mauriac:
[M]aking direct reference to [Sartre’s] Réflexions sur la question Juive, [Mauriac] demanded of Sartre a statement on the condition of the Jews in the Soviet bloc, the persecution of Jewish Communists, the deportation and murder of Yiddish writers, and the growing rumors of an impending pogrom in Moscow itself.
But Sartre, Judt goes on, had other priorities:
. . . this demand for a moral commitment, for a significant intervention by Sartre, came just at the time of his enthusiastic adoption of the Communist cause and the publication of his strongest statement in defense of the open-ended legitimacy of Communist practice; the first part of “Les Communistes et la paix” was published in Temps modernes in July 1952, the second in November 1952. Not only did Sartre not comment on the Slánsky trial, he attended the Communists’ “World Congress of Peace” in Vienna in the days immediately following the mass execution of eleven of those convicted. His only reply to Mauriac was to issue the following characteristic warning: “The problem of the condition of Jews in the Peoples’ Democracies must not become a pretext for propaganda or polemic.”
Once again, it was far more important for Sartre to remain anti-anti-Communist than to address the truth. “An anti-Communist is a dog, I don’t change my views on this, I never shall,” he later declared; and he never did.
There are many more such episodes described in Past Imperfect, and many more statements of a similar kind quoted, analyzed, and annotated. This is a book dense with detail and documentation, and it goes further than anything else I have read in answering the question as to why, as Judt puts it in his introduction, “in the circumstances of modern French political culture, anti-Communism appeared to be excluded from the lexicon of nonconservative beliefs.”
For anyone with a taste for macabre intellectual comedy, moreover, Judt turns up some very choice items. There is the case of Claude Roy, who, after his disillusionment with the Soviet Union, turned his attention to the achievements of Mao’s China, out of a desire, he said, to escape the “stench” of Stalinism! Roy is also cited as one (there have been others) who, in Judt’s words, “was politically engaged on the Left in the postwar years [but] claims now to have retained an inner identity not wholly aligned with the public one presented to the world and to friends on the Left.” And how does Roy explain this moral discrepancy? Well, by the usual leap into high-flown abstraction: “I voted for Jean-Jacques Rousseau and for Marx in the elections of History. But in the secret ballot of the individual, I opted rather for Schopenhauer and Godot.”
About this whole phenomenon of fatuous self-exculpation, Judt offers some mordant observations:
The apparently insouciant ease with which the French intellectual Left thus put the Communist moment behind it was bought at the cost of its credibility and prestige in the rest of Europe. . . . More than their past errors or the occasional air of overbearing superiority, it was the ineffable solipsism of so many French intellectuals that finally broke their hold on the European imagination. Uniquely, they seemed unable to grasp the course of events. Despite their best intentions, Sartre, Mounier, Merleau-Ponty, and their spiritual heirs did not see themselves projected onto the stage of history but rather saw history reduced to the categories and dimensions of their own intellectual trajectories.
As a result, Judt continues, “What was lost was the special meaning of the term French intellectual in continental Europe itself.”
The sheer scale of the mendacity and bad faith of this “civic religion,” by means of which French intellectuals turned Communism into a sacred cause, is still breathtaking and dispiriting to contemplate even when all the explanations are firmly in place. And it is all the more appalling when one comes to realize how much was owed to the example of Sartre and his French contemporaries by our own intellectuals when, beginning in the 1960’s, they engaged in a similar project to deify totalitarian regimes—only now in Havana and Hanoi instead of Moscow and Prague—at the expense of the West. Who can doubt that Sartre and his circle served as models for Susan Sontag and even Mary McCarthy, despite her earlier attacks on Simone de Beauvoir, in their political pilgrimages to Hanoi?
By that time, of course, Moscow was discredited even in Paris. After 1956, as Judt points out in an interesting analysis, “there began not so much a major shift in mood as a transfer of allegiances. The Communist question was not engaged, much less resolved: it was abandoned.” This entailed an “escape from Europe” by the French intellectual Left, which now turned its attention to the third world. Yet not much had really changed:
To the extent that tiers-mondisme [third world-ism] required of intellectuals that they turn a blind eye to terror or persecution, it hardly differed from the price extracted from fellow-travelers in the 40’s and early 50’s; . . . If there was a difference it was this: in order to live with the turbulent news from Eastern Europe it had been necessary to deny it, to manipulate and launder it. In the case of the third world, however, many French and other European intellectuals positively gloried in the news of violence, persecution, and poverty coming from Latin America, Africa, and Asia; it took altogether less dissimulation and self-delusion to justify the sufferings of non-Europeans.
In this respect, perhaps, the American intellectual Left from the 60’s onward can be said to have at last been brought into perfect alignment with its French counterpart and model.
As A result of the intellectual and moral debacle whose history is so brilliantly traced in Past Imperfect, the audience for French thought, as Judt writes,
shifted quite noticeably from Eastern and Southern Europe to Britain and the United States. . . . The special claims to attention of the French intelligentsia were now channeled through more abstruse media, with [Claude] Lévi-Strauss, [Roland] Barthes, [Jacques] Lacan, [Michel] Foucault, and their heirs replacing the generation of Camus and Sartre.
With this melancholy observation, Judt brings his intellectual history into the present.
We have it on the authority of Foucault’s latest biographer, James Miller, that he, too, “had been inspired by Sartre’s example”:
Throughout the 70’s, the two men had marched side by side countless times: to protest the plight of factory workers, to agitate for better conditions in prisons, to demand that the French government pay more attention to refugees from Vietnam. Whatever their philosophical disagreements, which were many . . . , they were cut from the same cloth.
Which is, alas, undoubtedly true. For what, after all, was Foucault’s project for “a new kind of biopolitics” but Sartre’s notion of revolution in the service of “the authenticity of the individual” transferred to the realm of sexuality? Grateful as we may be that Sartre’s direct influence has now faded and his stature as a political thinker is now permanently discredited, the flowers on his grave continue to poison the intellectual atmosphere. In this sense, at least, the story told in Past Imperfect is one that will continue to haunt us for a long time to come.
1 University of California Press, 348 pp., $30.00.