Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunil Khilnani, "Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France"

(Yale, 1993)

Those of you in North America who study or dabble in so-called "French Theory" - roughly, French philosophy, sociology, feminism, anthropology, etc dating from approximately the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss to the ongoing interventions of Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and others - may have noticed that the secondary literature on the subject is usually somewhat slanted and/or polemical. From opposite ends of the political spectrum, authors usually have an axe to grind (Cf. Cusset, French Theory from the Left, and Ferry/Renaut, La pensée 68 from the liberal centre/Right). When examining the subject, they also tend by turns to reduce the arguments and concepts in question to the particular French context that produced them, or by contrast, to focus mainly on the internal dynamics of the arguments themselves. The effect is either to lose French Theory in factual description, or to speak as though its arguments and concepts can be airlifted into North American intellectual space without losing anything important in the process.

The virtue of Khilnani's relatively even-handed book is to provide context for understanding the major arguments, concepts and enjeux of the French intellectual Left while also taking apart and examining some of the major arguments themselves. He provides a concise breakdown of the postwar political climate within which the arguments emerged, highlighting the particularly French and historically-rooted meanings of "Left" and "intellectual", before examining in detail the attempts of Sartre and Althusser to give a satisfactory account of the role of the intellectual in the revolutionary movement. He goes on to describe the "exorcism" of revolutionary discourse and practice in the years 1968-1981 during which, paradoxically, the intellectual Left was all but evacuated by the time the Socialist Party rose to power. Finally, he examines the revisionist history of Francois Furet as regards the French Revolution - specifically, the argument that the legacy of the Revolution for France and the world is not one of iron Bolshevik-style discipline and terror, but rather of liberal pluralism and democracy.

One of the main themes of the book is the definition of political community, and with respect to which, the tension between the universal and the particular - specifically, the Revolutionary idea of France's own national heritage, serving as a bastion and beacon of freedom and civilization to the rest of the world. Khilnani doesn't shy away from producing an image of a France awash in paradox, by turns high-mindedly cosmopolitan and narrowly provincial. The overall picture he draws is in some ways bleak for the Left, but he holds out hope that French intellectuals will have a continuing role to play in defining their political community - certainly an urgent task felt across the globe, as witnessed by the popularity of e.g. Hardt and Negri's otherwise disappointing Empire and Multitude.

For those who are interested in post-structuralism and "postmodernism" in particular, Arguing Revolution should be required reading. For those still on the Left, moreover, I suspect it's a doubly good idea to engage in this text. It is highly artificial, if not downright idealistic to treat the arguments and concepts of e.g. a Derrida or a Lyotard as if they have no history; perhaps it is even highly damaging in some ways, since the emptying of ideas and arguments of their historical content and context is to succumb to an ecclecticism that cuts one off from the truly important events and historical currents of the day. Add Khilnani's Arguing Revolution to your reading list.


Devin Z. Shaw said...

Matt, it seemed to me that Cusset's axe to grind was directed at American appropriations of French theory rather than the French theorists. I thought the main problem with that book is that it got a bit too sociological.

Matthew R. McLennan said...

Notice however that Cusset is saying that after the 68 generation a long period of philosophical stagnation set in! I think he's actually quite sympathetic to some of them.