La Fin de l’intellectual français? De Zola à Houellebecq. Shlomo Sand. La Découverte. 2016.
Internationally celebrated for The Invention of the Jewish People (2009) Shlomo Sand is a redoubtable controversialist. That study, which argued that those following the Jewish religion only began to consider themselves a “people” during the Middle Ages, continues to be debated. Sand’s assertion that most Jews owes their origins to religious conversion, and not to ancient Hebrew origins, was intended to strike at the heart of the “National Myth” of the state of Israel. How I stopped Being a Jew (2013) announced a wish to break with “tribal Judocentrism”. Warmth for the secular ideals of Israel, and for the Hebrew language, has not protected him from vigorous criticism from a wide variety of Zionist critics.
La Fin de l’intellectuel français has equally iconoclastic ambitions. Apart from frequent autobiographical notes, during which we learn he was once a Marxist who wished to change the world, it is no less than a charge, an accusation, against Europe, and against France in particular: that the Continent is lifting the drawbridges against the “Muslim foreigners”. A “contagious plague” of Islamophobia, uniting left secularists and traditional nationalists, has infected the Hexagone. For Sand, “media intellectuals” (intellectuels médiatiques) both circulate this “code” and pile up its symbolic property. “A une vitesse suprenante, une puissante intelligentsia médiatique s’est constituée pour qui la stigmatisation de l’autre’”… “La détestation de la religion musulmane” has become “le nouvel opium de l’intellectuel’ ‘antitotalitaire.” (Page 238) At an amazing speed, a powerful media intelligentsia has been built around the stigmatisation of the Other. ” “The loathing of the Muslim religion” has become the “new opium of the anti-totalitarian intellectuals.”
Put simply, to the author the stars of the modern Parisian media salons, those setting the tone, the style and the substance are small in number. They include (putting them in British terms) Éric Zemmour (a ‘declinist’ second cousin to our historians nostalgic for the Empire with specific French gripes against the ‘héritières de mai 68’, ), Alain Finkielkraut (a ‘philosopher’ of the erosion of educational and grammatical standards, and what one might call “Parisianistan’, an even closer co-thinker to Melanie Phillips), Renaud Camus (a professional indignant xenophobe railing at the ‘replacement’ of Europeans by foreigners, and potential Editorialist for the Daily Express), and Michael Houellebecq, who needs no introduction, even, one hopes, to dimwits.
The bulk of La Fin de l’intellectuel français consists of chapters on the historical role of French intellectuals, and considerations of their social functions, from Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu to Régis Debray. There is mention of lesser-known writings, such as Harman and Rotman’s Les Intellocrats (1981) which highlighted the small Parisian world of publishing, and heralded the birth of the new “media intellectuals” that came to the fore in the late seventies with the nouveaux philosophes, André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy and others, long forgotten, defying the totalitarianism they had freshly rejected.
As a pared down version of Michael Scott Christofferson’s Les Intellectuals contre la Gauche (2014 – French, expanded, edition), this history, a grand narrative, charges the French intellectual class with having abandoned Marxism and the left. Amongst many other faults it ignores that the left continued to exist during that decade. Mitterrand’s 1981 victory – initially ruling in coalition with the Parti Communiste français (PCF) – was supported by the mass of the intelligentsia, within which an unbroken critical, if minority, left – never once mentioned in La Fin – has continued its own way, up till the present. This indicates one of the many ways in which the dominance of ‘media intellectuals’, in, unsurprisingly, the media is not the same as the kind of more entrenched intellectual hegemony that Gramsci outlined.
Readers unfamiliar with the history of the term intellectual and the politics of French intellectuals, from the “critical collective intellectual”, Zola and his cohorts, that arose during the Dreyfus Affair, Julien Benda’s defence of disinterested universalism (La Trahison des clercs. 1927), Paul Nizan’s Leninist commitment to the “soldats de la plume” (Les Chiens de Garde. 1932), will find, at least some passages to reflect on.
The Collaboration, the Resistance, post-war ‘engaged’ thinkers, in the mould of Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, receive particular attention. The less reputable aspects of the Existentialist couple’s war record and minimal participation in real resistance were, for Sand a stumbling block for his own hero worship. Those who have not stumbled across writings such as Carole Seymour-Jones, A Dangerous Liaison (2008) that portrays in more depth than La Fin de l’intellectuel français the worst side of the pair’s war-time treatment of their Jewish lover, Bianca Bienenfeld, may even now be shocked.
Sand is, while not widely known outside of specialised circles, is the author of a fine study of Georges Sorel, L’illusion du politique (1984) Based on his PhD thesis this intellectual biography demolished a number of misconceptions, including the idea that Sorel was a proto-fascist, while making the various writings and stages in Sorel’s thought as clear as is possible. He followed this (echoed in the present volume) with a dispute on fascism, with the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell. Apart from demonstrating again that 1920s and 1930s French ‘non-conformist’ admiration for Mussolini, and then (to a lesser extent) Hitler, indicated just how far real fascism did not take root in France, Sand demonstrates analytical fineness. He even admits that the far-right (and most notorious intellectual Collaborator) writer Drieu la Rochelle had talent (Page 158). Indeed the text displays – against Sartre’s belief that no anti-Semitic novel had any merit – a serious acquaintance with the romancier’s (in our opinion) interminable and tedious Gilles. (1939) (Page 215)
None of this delicacy is offered in the concluding chapters of La Fin de l’intellectuel français. It is tale of French Islamophobia, of nationalism and bigotry masquerading as Universalist secularism that would have been lifted from the pages of Socialist Worker or the web site of Counterfire. It is with no surprise that we learn that his first salvo against Charlie Hebdo, appeared in the far from philo-semitic ‘wise-guy’ publication, Counterpunch (,A Fetid Wind of Racism Hovers Over Europe. January 2015) a site which has published articles contesting the pardon of…Dreyfus. (1)
Sand loathes Houellebecq, who is perhaps an acquired taste. This may be why he fails to pick up on one of the few funny jokes in Soumission, the creation of the “Indigenous European a direct response to Indigénes de la République” – one group of racists giving ideas to another. Je Suis Charlie, is not, as it is for many of, the emblem of love and freedom. For the nuanced connoisseur of French pre-War ideologies, it was a publication that produced, week in and week out, a “representation méprisante et irrespectueuse de la croyance d’une minorité religieuse” a picture that shows disrespect for a religious minority. (Page 225). No doubt that explains why Muslims, frustrated, unhinged with only a fragile belief to cling to, decided to react with murderous folly (Page 227). Doubtless it also accounts for why they killed at the Hyper-Cacher….
That the middle class demonstrated on the 11th of January 2015 in solidarity with Charlie we do not doubt. But oddly, Sand does not deeply cite his authority on this point, Emmanuel Todd, for whom they also showed the spirit of Vichy, Catholic Zombies (walking unconsciously in the steps of their religious past), soaked in the ‘culture of narcissism’, objectively xenophobe, like the Parti Socialiste, and …pro-Europeans – the (Sociologie d’une crise religieuse. Qui est Charlie? 2015). So, with every one of his bugbears wrapped together, what next? Todd, we are not astonished to learn, despises this bloc, the MAZ, prefers those who rejected the Maastricht treaty, and….is himself a nationalist, or, as they call it today, a “sovereigntist” who wishes to reassert French Sovereignty over the economy, against the European Union….
In his pursuit of allies in the fight against French laïcité Sand might consider a much deeper problem than hostile reactions to Islam or those who make summary judgements about ‘Islamo-gauchisme’. It lies in this sovereigntism: a nationalists turn with far deeper roots than religious or ethnic hostility: a true xenophobia, embraced not just by the Front National, but by the centre-right, and that section of the left which shares Todd’s loathing of the European Union, if not other European states (not to mention the US). There is a name for this, which we have already used, xenophobia, and the point where nationalism slides into racism.
One can accept that that anti-Muslim feeling is prejudice, that there is a strong dose of racist defence of “la terre et les morts” against all classes of immigrants but particularly Muslims, and Catholic Mayors suddenly discovering that are secular republicans. That one can pretend that specifically French forms of secularism are universal at one’s peril.
One can accept all of this, even some gestures towards the sub-existentialist phrases about fear of the Other …but, are there not some problems about violent forms of Islamism, some difficulties, as indicated in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to halt just there. That amongst contemporary forms of Islamism, the status of the Kufur, the rules governing women, most visibly their ‘modesty’ and punishing the ‘immodest’, bedrock human rights issues, remain…issues.
Sand passes in silence over the ideas of the strongly left-wing and pro-Communist Charlie editor, Charb. Perhaps he should read his posthumous Lettre aux escrocs de l’islamophobie qui font le jeu des racists (2015). If that proves too much for him he has no excuse whatsoever for ignoring the mass of serious literature in French on Islam, and Islamism, from Gilles Kepel, Olivier Roy, François Burgat, Gilbert Achcar in French. The vast majority of these writings, are as nuanced, as profoundly researched as one could wish, with all due consideration for the immense difficulties of marginalised Maghrebian and African populations. I would recommend he begin with a genuine intellectual with knowledge of both the evolution of former Maoists towards ‘anti-totalitarianism’ and Islamism, Jean Birnbaum, and his Un Silence Religieux. La Gauche Face au Djihadisme. 2016. He is certainly not a sign of the ‘end’ of the species.
The secularist Ligue des droits de l’homme has been at the forefront of the fight against the ‘Burkini ban’ (l’Humanité) So much for Sand’s recent claim that “La laïcité, comme autrefois le patriotisme, s’avère, de nos jours, l’ultime refuge de l’infâme ” (Nouvel Obs. 24.8.16.)
(1) THE DREYFUS CASE, REVISITED: Israel Shamir sifts through the Dreyfus case: was he really a victim of anti-semitism?