Jacques Ellul is a deeply respected lay theologian in the (Protestant) Reformed Church of France, and also professor of law and history at the University of Bordeaux. He was born in Bordeaux in 1912, attended first the University there, then the University of Paris where he took his doctorate in law. During World War II, he was, along with Camus, Malraux, and Sartre, a leader in the French Resistance. No contemplative, he has served as Deputy Mayor of Bordeaux and is today active in a score of religious and civic enterprises in France. Along the way, beginning in 1946, he has published some of the finest books to come out of Europe in the sphere of politics and sociology during the last half century.1 His reputation in this country, which in some circles is substantial, is based, as far as I can make out, on a crucial misunderstanding of his essential position. This is a subject to which I shall wish to return.
In order to begin to understand Ellul’s work one must recognize from the outset that his is a profoundly religious mind. It was, indeed, in theology that his writings of the last quarter of a century began. His latest volume, Violence, is, like his first two, primarily devoted to the relation of religion to the social order. In between are studies preeminently concerned with the nature of the political process, and above all with what Ellul calls, in the title of one of his best books, the political illusion.
Ellul’s theology of politics falls in the direct line begun in the early 19th century by the great Felicité Robert de Lamennais, who, prior to his rupture with the Roman Catholic Church, was the most respected Catholic theologian in Europe. It was Lamennais’s tragedy to have allowed the position he took in defense of the corporate character of the Church to widen to the point where the Church no longer found it politically acceptable, where it became indeed the object of encyclical denunciation,2 But whatever his personal difficulties with the Church, Lamennais succeeded in setting forth, in a series of brilliant works, and particularly in Paroles d’un croyant and Le Livre de Peuple, ideas that were to bear fruit in works far better known today than any written by Lamennais himself. Among these are not merely the liberal social encyclicals of the Holy See, including those of the late Pope John, but the writings of many modern thinkers, including Tocqueville, Taine, and, in our day, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Emmanuel Mounier, and Ellul himself. I am referring to a body of ideas that has from the beginning seen the essence of modernity to lie, not in technology or industry, but in the special character of the omnicompetent, centralized, rationalized state, whether democratic or totalitarian. (Whether one finds the perspective a useful or correct one is not the point here. The point is simply that the perspective itself is one of the most luminous in modern European, and especially French, history, one of the legacies of the immense impact of the French Revolution on European intellectuals.)
Not all those in whose writings this body of ideas is important are affiliated with the Church or religion. But it remains true that the perspective which sees political centralization, collectivism, and rationalization as forces surmounting the increasingly atomized, functionless, and alienated masses, with the fate of everything in between made precarious, was put forth in the first instance in a predominantly religious context. And to a very large extent this particular perspective has been sustained and nourished by those—Ellul among them—whose concern with religion and the place of the Church in society is uppermost. Ellul’s own interest in the political order began with his effort to deal with divine, and then, Church law in contemporary society. What is largely intimation in his first book (The Theological Foundation of Law, 1946) becomes the subject of straightforward assertion in his second book, The Presence of the Kingdom, published in 1948. Here Ellul deals directly with the circumstances of ecclesiastical degradation in modern society: that is, the lowered, noncorporate position of the Church in the social order. And he finds these circumstances in what he calls the triumph of means, of techniques, and of action-for-the-sake-of-action in political society. “. . . It is not difficult to see that the world is wholly given up to means. That which a hundred years ago was an ‘end’ has now become a ‘means’ in its turn, and even the ‘means of the means.’”
Ellul uses politics—and particularly leftist, militant politics—as a prime example of the triumph of means and mere action over ends. For any end ever to be actually achieved would, as he notes, spell the doom of the militant action seeking that end. He quotes Lenin to the effect that a dedicated Communist must never promise the coming of the higher stage of Communism, which must remain, Sorelian fashion, as the myth that keeps the masses in constant political dedication. “Thus,” Ellul writes, “we have an admirable political machine which carries on in the form of means (for the dictatorship of the proletariat is also a means), in order to achieve illusory and hypothetical ends.” In the present world, Ellul concludes the argument of The Presence of the Kingdom, everything has to be a means, a function that quickly becomes defined as technique, “and everything that is ‘useless’ has to give way to the necessity for ‘utility.’”
La Technique, the third of Jacques Ellul’s books, which was published in France in 1954, follows directly from these reflections. Convinced that the prime reality of the secular world is the triumph of means or technique, he devoted himself to a full volume on the subject. This book, whose title has been mistranslated into English as The Technological Society, was the first of Ellul’s works to be brought out in this country. Ellul begins with a few pages about the machine and the origin of technique as such in the workings of machines from earliest times. The vastly greater part of La Technique, however, is given over to a treatment of technique, means, and action in contexts that have nothing to do with machines or with technology. It is interesting to observe that in the course of the book Ellul’s concern with the political process, with state, law, and politicization, becomes more and more comprehensive. That is, he locates the origin of the perceived supremacy of technique in the machine but then, as his book proceeds, he all but abandons the machine, and finds the locus of technique in all areas of society. He writes:
In view of what has been said, it may be affirmed with confidence that, in the decades to come, technique will become stronger and its pace will be accelerated through the agency of the state. The state and technique—increasingly interrelated—are becoming the most important forces in the modern world; they buttress and reinforce each other in their aim to produce an apparently indestructible, total civilization.
It is, in other words, political technique with which Ellul is most concerned. And indeed the four books which have followed La Technique have been overwhelmingly political, in title as well as in content: Propaganda; The Political Illusion; A Critique of the New Commonplaces (almost without exception political commonplaces); and Violence. But all four of these books, it seems to me, have less to do with the content of La Technique (admittedly a splendid book, possibly even Ellul’s best) than they do with themes going directly back to The Presence of the Kingdom, and in particular to the theme of political action:
Our world is entirely directed toward action. Everything is interpreted in terms of action, nothing is more beautiful than action, and people are always looking for slogans, programs, ways of action; indeed our world is so obsessed by activity that it is in danger of losing its life. We know that the great slogan of all dictatorships is this—action for the sake of action. . . .
At the same time our world tends to eliminate, almost wholly, the life of the individual. By the formation of masses, by the artificial creation of myths, by standardizing our living, and so on, there is a general movement toward uniformity, which leads man more and more to forget himself as he is caught up in the general tendency of our mechanical civilization. A man who spends all his time in action by that very fact ceases to live.
Not technology, then, in Ellul’s view, not even industrialism or capitalism, but political action is the ambience within which man is most likely to have his individuality eroded or possibly even destroyed.
Both as title and as organizing concept, The Political Illusion is the phrase that best epitomizes the direction of Ellul’s exploration of the secular order. For Ellul there is a kind of violence involved in the seizure of the religious mind by politics in the contemporary world. In his most recent book, Violence, where he addresses himself solely to Christians, and particularly to the younger and militant clergy who believe that there is such a thing as Christian violence, Ellul is chiefly concerned with emancipating the Christian mind from what he sees as the invading tyranny of politics: of converting all questions of good and evil into political questions. In The Political Illusion, however, as in Propaganda, and in A Critique of the New Commonplaces, Ellul addresses himself to all in our age, not merely to Christians. It is important for all to become emancipated from the political illusion, the illusion that moral, social, aesthetic, and other values must be conceived and dealt with in the language of politics, chiefly the language of Plato and of Rousseau. “In the 17th century we could have written of the comic illusion. In our day the illusion has become tragic. It is political.”
The two foremost realities of the contemporary age, Ellul writes, are, first, the triumph of the political state as sovereign structure in all areas of our life and, second, the degree of politicization that has occurred, in the name of democracy and freedom, whereby the political relationship among men has become the dominant relationship, and political values have become the supreme values. We talk endlessly of politics, Ellul suggests, in an unconscious effort to hide the void in our actual situation. “The word is compensation for an absence, evocation of a fleeting presence, a magic incantation, an illusory presence of what man thinks he can capture with the help of his language.”
Ellul’s objective in The Political Illusion is not so much to describe the sheer power of the nation state in human life in the modern West as to show the degree to which politics has infused man’s morality, culture, imagination.
To think of everything as political, to conceal everything by using this word (with intellectuals taking the cue from Plato and several others), to place everything in the hands of the state, to appeal to the state in all circumstances, to subordinate the problems of the individual to those of the group, to believe that political affairs are on everybody’s level and that everybody is qualified to deal with them—these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth. The myth then reveals itself in beliefs and, as a result, easily elicits almost religious fervor.
Now, the point of this passage, and of the book containing it, is in no sense to call to arms all good libertarians and anarchists. Nor is there anything in Ellul to suggest belief that in our world human beings could long fend for themselves without a fairly substantial degree of political organization. This is elementary enough, and it would be a disservice to imply that Ellul is unaware of it. It is not reform, much less any kind of anarchist revolution, that Ellul seeks. It is, if I interpret him correctly, a withholding of some vital part of one’s self from the presently consuming logic and rhetoric of politics. It is the achievement of a state of mind among the religious, the intellectual, the philosophical—eventually among all or most persons—that does not feel compelled to start or end every question with the rhetoric of Plato or Rousseau.
Modern writing is filled with political disillusionment: disillusionment with the consequences of this or that piece of bureaucracy created to meet a problem; disillusionment with the consequences of this or that overall political system—socialism, communism, fascism, managerialism in its many forms; disillusionment, in short, with the multifold consequences of politics. But hope defined politically springs eternal in modern man’s breast. Politics, as we have seen, is for Ellul the very essence of modernity. And almost always disillusionment with the consequences of politics, of the political habit of mind, is the source of some new form of political illusion. That new illusion may be something called essential democracy, concerned democracy, juridical democracy, or a similar variant on the common theme. But almost always the answer that is put forward to the repugnant consequences of politicization—intolerable bureaucracy; administrative centralization; loss of participation in decision-making; interest-domination of departments, bureaus, and agencies, known today as “liberalism” or “pluralism”—is some rhetorically fresh variation or intensification of politicization.
This is the real subject of Ellul’s book, as I understand it: not the state or politics as such but, rather, the whole political frame of mind that has become, since the end of the 18th century, the dominant state of mind of the Western social and moral philosophers, of intellectuals, indeed of the overwhelming majority of us. At one time religion, specifically institutional Christianity, held much the same dominant position in human life. Matters that were, at least by our view, basically economic or political were cast in the mind and language of religion. Needs that we today might define as psychological, perhaps sexual, certainly social, were then held to be religious needs, their solutions religious solutions. Gradually, with the passing of time, and as a degree of religiosity was reached in human behavior beyond which nothing more was likely, a reaction began to set in. A demythicization, a disillusionment, took place in ever widening spheres of society. In our history texts we call this process secularization. And we do well to call it this, for although today the word has overtones only of the non-sacred, once it referred first and foremost to the political state. Secularization as a process was not more than the taking over by the political state of responsibilities that previously belonged to the Church.
I do not see how one can do other than regard the political state—to a far greater degree than either industry or technology—as the primary source and also the reinforcing context of the set of values we refer to as “secular” and as “modern.” This, as I have indicated, is the clear conviction of Ellul, as is the thesis that the problem of privacy in our world is to be traced not to technology, or to any other feature of the physical world around us, but to the political state itself, and above all to the political illusion that penetrates most decisively the innermost parts of our minds. Here Ellul is at one with Tocqueville, Taine, and Jouvenel. It is politicization that robs man of his ordinary identity.
One may, I think, trace the history of the politicization of the Western mind through three major stages, each given polemical structure by a transcending mystique of opposition among intellectuals. The first was the mystique of opposition to feudalism, whereby all that was in any significant degree local, partial, functional, or personal in the way of authority was declared iniquitous. Thus began the relentless work of forming the modern political mind. The philosophes in the 18th century, with Rousseau their spiritual eminence, must be regarded as the culminating architects of this stage. The second stage comes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this stage the mystique of opposition to capitalism succeeds that of feudalism. All that is in any way connected with private property and profit, or with the independent entrepreneur, is deemed iniquitous. And the work of maximizing the political mind, and with it political power, under whatever name, is taken over by the Marxists, with Lenin eventually becoming their spiritual eminence, and with the German Social Democrats, those just before and during Weimar, however they may have chosen to romanticize their faith, the Unitarians, so to speak, of the second stage. Now, in our day, we see the third great stage of the politicization process before us. Technology is the mystique. The machine is the evil that has succeeded private property and feudalism. All earlier iniquities are somehow fused with it in more or less cumulative fashion. If this stage does not yet have its Rousseau, or its Lenin, give it time. All indications are that it shortly will have; Jacques Ellul, however, is not in the running.
At the beginning of this essay I referred to a widespread misunderstanding of Ellul’s basic position among those in this country who claim him as one of their own. The misunderstanding is based on a wanton identification of his mind and writing with the technophobia that has occupied so many intellectual quarters in this country during recent years. As the above exposition of his thought should have made clear, Ellul is anything but a technophobe. Nor is he, for that matter, in any substantial sense a technologue: one who sees technology, whether for good or ill, as a master influence in the shaping of the modern West. Despite the wide reputation Ellul has somehow acquired in this respect, he is not really interested in technology—not even in the broadest sense of that often inflated word.
But how, despite the testimony of his preponderantly political writings, has he come to be placed with those who see technology as the dominant process in Western history? It is a useful question to ask and to explore briefly, not only for Ellul himself but for the wider problem of what might be called the sociology of reputations, of the types and genres into which writers and thinkers fall in the public mind.
The answer is not far to seek in Ellul’s case. As I noted, the first of his books to be brought out in this country, though not the first that he wrote and published in France, bears the arresting title, The Technological Society. Although written in the period following World War II and published in France in 1954, under the title La Technique ou I’enjeu de siècle, it was virtually unknown in this country, as was Ellul’s name, until about 1964, the year of its publication here by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. under the title that it continues to bear.
The subtitle seems to refer to the “stake” or “bet” that modern man in the West has put up in support of the vast assemblage of laws, rules, regulations, and techniques by which he has surrounded himself and through which, according to Ellul, he seeks to stave off a final accounting in history. But what of the main title, La Technique? Certainly one can render this as “technology,” but certainly one needn’t. Granted that Ellul has a good deal to say in his book about the machine and the techniques associated with the machine, his subject is not technology as this word is generally, and deservedly, understood. His subject, quite simply, is technique. And the referent of the word is overwhelmingly to spheres of life that have little if anything directly to do with the machine. Ellul himself writes: “The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end.” The word refers, Ellul tells us, to “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past.” (Italics in original.)
The common identification of Ellul with technophobes is made all the more preposterous by the fact that his works show him to be the sworn enemy of that form of political romanticism, drawn largely from the old-fashioned German Social Democratic mind, that so generally goes with technophobia and that has made really sophisticated political thought in this country a near impossibility.3 As I noted above, technology in this country has succeeded capitalism and feudalism as the sport of intellectuals and become the prime object of attack by the political Left. Clean, unspoiled Nature (though with full industrial employment, and even heavier taxes for welfare and education) has, in a sense, succeeded the old socialist dream of a classless socitey and the Rousseauian vision of the General Will. It is a pity that Ellul, who is innocent of any taint of this kind of mind, should have become identified with its politics.
The esteem which Ellul enjoys today in circles of the New Left becomes still more inexplicable when one considers, finally, that his overall philosophy is so totally alien to what emerges in print—poster, leaflet, tract—from this sector of American society. Everything that culminates in Woodstock festivals, in street demonstrations, in violence, and in the incessant din created by the political search for identity, is as far from Ellul’s thought as anything I can possibly imagine. Again we are forced to go back, I suppose, to the harm done by the title given to the translation of La Technique in this country. Eyes fasten on the wonderful words, “The Technological Society,” the mind grasps quickly that Ellul is far from happy about the state of things in the West. Ergo: he must hate technology and, with it, the middle class and all it stands for, and be “one of us,” consecrated to the politics of love, of obscenity, of sincerity, of identity, of politics itself (for it is the politics of politics, not politics itself, in the sense of measured, finite political means to non-political ends, that chiefly characterizes the more visible and clamant behavior of the youthful Left today).
So far is this inference from the truth about Ellul’s mind and published work that one can only marvel anew at the way reputations are made, and unmade, in a climate of extreme politicization such as the one with which we are now afflicted in this country. For the sake of Ellul’s reputation, then, one is tempted to hope that those who acclaim him will never bother to read his work. For once found out to be what he is, one who does not find technology or industry the root of evil, with salvation lying in Platonic politics, he will have no further interest, I predict, for the overwhelming majority of intellectuals in our time. In the Kingdom of the Blind, as Wells made clear enough, the one-eyed man is never king. And in the kingdom of politics, which is where all intellectuals live today, the one-eyed man will simply be ignored.
1 It is worthwhile listing them immediately (the bracketed date refers to the original publication in France): The Theological Foundation of Law (1946), The Presence of the Kingdom (1948), The Technological Society (1954), Propaganda (1962), The Political Illusion (1965), A Critique of the New Commonplaces (1966), and Violence (1969). The first two and the last are published in this country by the Seabury Press; the others by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. I do not offer this as a necessarily complete list of Ellul’s books.
2 I have written about this extraordinary figure, the true founder of social or liberal Catholicism, in an essay first published in 1948 and reprinted in my Tradition and Revolt. Several books on Lamennais have recently appeared; I predict more.
3 What I mean here may best be illustrated by the almost reverential treatment accorded Theodore J. Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, published a year ago. Following 296 pages of all too familiar indictment of the consequences of “new feudalism,” capitalism, urbanism, technology—and also, be it noted well, of governmental efforts to deal with these—we are given exactly seventeen pages of brief in behalf of something called Juridical Democracy (Professor Lowi’s capitals). Juridical Democracy succeeds the General Will and Lenin’s revolutionary democracy as the liberative hope of the masses presently oppressed not by feudalism or by capitalism but by what Professor Lowi calls “Interest-Group Liberalism.” One can only look, half in wonder, half in despair, at the concept of Juridical Democracy, at least as elaborated in seventeen out of 314 pages. As presented, it bears about as much relation to any known actualities of modern political government as Kant’s ding an sich does to a pregnant skunk. Such, however, is the utter bankruptcy of political theory in this country that the book has been reviewed in terms that might have been reserved for the real successor of Rousseau and Lenin.