May 1968’s Black Sheep

André Glucksmann died last month. Why did he and so many other French intellectuals turn to the right after May 1968?

Interview by
Daniel Zamora

The recent death of André Glucksmann caused a stir in the French intellectual world. An emblematic figure of the post-1968 Maoism of the Gauche Prolétarienne — an organization whose political and cultural impact was considerable — and then, along with Bernard-Henri Lévy, of the anticommunist “New Philosophers” of the 1970s and 1980s, Glucksmann symbolized the transformations of an entire era.

Moving from the far left to pro-American Atlanticism, his path is in many ways crucial for understanding a strand of the Left that little by little abandoned any ambition to transform the world. Michael Scott Christofferson’s work on post-1968 France, as well as his current work on the anticommunist historian François Furet, offer a new understanding of both Glucksmann and his impact on the Left.

Christofferson was interviewed for Jacobin by Daniel Zamora, the recent author of Foucault and Neoliberalism.

Daniel Zamora

André Glucksmann is not well-known in the United States, unlike an intellectual like Bernard-Henri Lévy. Yet his role in the aftermath of May 1968, especially in the anti-totalitarian movement that developed in the mid-1970s, was central.

His works of this period, notably La cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes (The Cook and the Cannibal), and Les maîtres penseurs (The Master Thinkers) sold very well at the time. You present him as a key figure for understanding this period in your book French Intellectuals Against the Left. Tell us more about who he was, and why he was so important in the 1970s.

Michael Scott Christofferson

Glucksmann was one of the key figures in the demobilization of the French revolutionary left in the decade after 1968. He owed his influence to both his writings and his key position at the intersection of the worlds of intellectuals and of leftist revolutionary politics.

In many respects, Glucksmann bridged two generations of French intellectuals: that which grappled with the enormous attraction of communism in the aftermath of World War II and that of decolonization and 1968. Born in France in 1937 to refugee Jewish communist parents, Glucksmann was a communist from youth who left the party in the latter half of the 1950s over differences with its positions on the Hungarian Revolution and the Algerian War.

Thus, although he had been quite young at the time, Glucksmann was in some respects a contemporary of older intellectuals like the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Claude Lefort (1924–2010) and the historian François Furet (1927–1997) for whom the question of Cold War communism was central.

Indeed, Glucksmann, like others from these earlier generations, seems to have partially disengaged politically in the years before 1968. Although he continued to participate in anti-colonial demonstrations and protests against the Vietnam War, he moved from revolutionary militancy to academia. After completing a doctoral thesis critical of the American war in Vietnam under the direction of the prominent anticommunist liberal intellectual Raymond Aron (1905–83), he became Aron’s teaching assistant.

In 1968 Glucksmann broke with Aron — who took a position frankly hostile to the upheaval — and returned to revolutionary activism. Glucksmann wrote a book on revolutionary strategy and soon joined the Maoist Gauche prolétarienne (Revolutionary Left) where he was involved in the launching of its newspaper, J’accuse, which was created to rally a larger democratic front in support of the Maoists.

It is through his work at J’accuse that Glucksmann got to know prominent intellectuals sympathetic to the Gauche prolétarienne, notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. These connections between generations and between intellectual and militant worlds put Glucksmann at the center of era’s dramatic transformation of French intellectual and political life.

But above all else, Glucksmann had something to say that, if not entirely original, spoke to the impasse of the post-’68 revolutionary project and was communicated with a brutal intensity. Glucksmann’s politics in the aftermath of 1968 had been representative of the anti-Stalinist and anti-Leninist thrust of most pro-revolutionary intellectuals.

Although he spoke at the time of the need for a vanguard to lead workers to revolutionary consciousness, he believed that the role of revolutionary organization was limited to sparking grassroots mobilization and coordinating the autonomous centers of revolutionary activism that developed. Revolution would not result in the seizure of power by a revolutionary party, but rather the institution of direct democracy. The politics of the French Communist Party and the USSR were reactionary. If there was a model to be followed, it was not the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but rather the Paris Commune of 1871.

In the early 1970s, it became increasingly apparent that the revolutionary militants were failing to spark proletarian revolution. Although some were tempted to return to Leninist vanguardism, this was mostly rejected. Instead, militants increasingly focused on other, more marginal social groups such as prisoners and immigrants. Others invested their energies in electoral politics, notably the rapidly progressing Union of the Left alliance of the French Socialist and Communist parties. Glucksmann’s The Cook and the Cannibal came out in 1975 in these circumstances.

A commentary on the significance of the work of the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Cook and the Cannibal was also a prescription for Left. Glucksmann argued that Solzhenitsyn revealed the importance of popular resistance against the state and Marxism, which Glucksmann now condemned as a language used by the elite to control the people by justifying their oppression. Only the camp prisoners and more generally the plebeians of the East and the West see things as they are. The struggles of the gulag inmate and the marginal in France are essentially the same; indeed, the gulag is a modern version of the earlier “great confinement” studied by Foucault in his Madness and Civilization. In both East and West, resistance against normalization is the only viable politics.

In part because it was written with an insolent combination of irony and vulgarity — a rhetoric of 1968’s disillusionment, one might say — Glucksmann’s book was enormously influential. It helped launch the critique of Marxism and revolutionary politics as totalitarian and served as a model for the anti-Marxist “New Philosophy” that followed in 1977.

Indeed, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who orchestrated “New Philosophy,” said in an interview upon Glucksmann’s death that it is “difficult to imagine the earthquake” caused by the book, which he compared to Albert Camus’s The Rebel and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Daniel Zamora

The attention Glucksmann gave to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (published at the end of 1973 in France), contributed greatly to the book’s great success in 1970s France.

It is often said that the publication of The Gulag Archipelago opened the eyes of the Left, which had been blind to the crimes of Communism — as if the French Left had avoided discussing the crimes of Communism in order to save its political project. In your book you show that this is not only incorrect, but hides the relationship between the French “gulag effect” and the French domestic politics. Can you explain?

Michael Scott Christofferson

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was a huge success in France. It became a bestseller and was widely discussed. When the critique of totalitarianism came to dominate the French intellectual scene around 1977, the argument emerged that the book had been a revelation to intellectuals previously blind to the crimes of Communism.

But if you look at the book’s immediate reception after publication, you find nothing of the sort. Even Glucksmann, whose The Cook and the Cannibal had done much to make Solzhenitsyn relevant to the French, said that he was already well versed in Communism’s crimes before reading Solzhenitsyn. Rather, Solzhenitsyn was important to him for what it taught him about resistance to the Soviet system. But, at the same time, Glucksmann argued that others refused to acknowledge the oppressiveness of Soviet Communism because of their attachment to Marxism or to the Union of the Left.

It is these supposedly willfully blind people who were urged to listen to Solzhenitsyn, for whom The Gulag Archipelago should be a revelation. In other words, the revelatory impact was always attributed to other unnamed intellectuals, who can’t be found in the historical record.

The “gulag effect” in France was in actuality not a result of Solzhenitsyn’s supposed revelations, but rather the growing discomfort of intellectuals like Glucksmann, who had long ago abandoned Soviet Communism, with the prospect of a still “Stalinist” French Communist Party coming to power in alliance with the Socialists.

Thus, the critique of totalitarianism was born in not in 1974 when French intellectuals first read The Gulag Archipelago. Rather, it emerged in 1975 when the politics of the Union of the Left became more contentious and peaked in 1977–78 when it appeared that the Left would win the spring 1978 legislative elections and return the Communists to the government for the first time since 1947.

The claim that The Gulag Archipelago was a revelation did important work within this debate on the future of the French left. By highlighting the supposed blindness of French intellectuals to the gulag, it forewarned of further blindness to the dangers of the Union of the Left. Further, by casting their hero Solzhenitsyn in the role of the universal truth-telling intellectual, intellectuals identified their anti-totalitarian mobilization with the universal and thereby discredited in advance analysis that downplayed the danger of totalitarianism in France.

To put it bluntly, Solzhenitysn was instrumentalized in a domestic political debate.

Daniel Zamora

Glucksmann also played an important role in the 1979 campaign in support of the Vietnamese Boat People, which represents a real symbolic turning point in French intellectual history.

Not only did Glucksmann unite behind the cause, the Cold War adversaries Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, but also helped inaugurate with Bernard Kouchner what will later become the politics of human rights and of the right to intervene, in the name of which numerous Western military interventions would later be justified. For example, in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and more recently in Iraq and Libya. What do you make of this?

Michael Scott Christofferson

If Glucksmann occupied center stage again in 1979 it was no doubt due to his somewhat unusual trajectory that brought him close to Sartre, Aron, and Foucault: three intellectual giants of the period. As for Glucksmann’s approach to these matters, I think that a closer look reveals how one-sided he was. Until the end of the Cold War, Glucksmann’s human rights activism was a Cold War anticommunist one.

For example, Glucksmann wanted to give the mobilization in support of the Vietnamese Boat People an explicitly anticommunist orientation, but was out-maneuvered by Kouchner, who used it to launch Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World). In the early 1980s, Glucksmann supported the arming of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet invasion and campaigned in favor of the European deployment of American “Euro-Missiles” to meet what he saw as a mounting Soviet threat.

For all of his rhetorical support for human rights and embrace of anti-statist plebian resistance, Glucksmann was a cold warrior. In light of this, his later embrace of neoconservative causes like the 2003 invasion of Iraq is unsurprising. As Glucksmann saw it, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. State violence was needed to defeat the bad guys, and Glucksmann had little doubt about who the bad guys were.

Daniel Zamora

You underline in your book the strange episode of Michel Foucault’s review of Glucksmann’s The Master Thinkers. This gushing review does not correspond with the idea that one has of Foucault today. The book was violently anticommunist and anti-revolutionary — even anti-Keynesian one could say. It seems astonishing that Foucault, that one classifies as on the Left, could support such a book. Foucault apparently said that Glucksmann’s earlier The Cook and the Cannibal was a “very important” book. How do you explain this?

Michael Scott Christofferson

First, I think it is important to understand that the 1970s was a decade in which the very definition of the “Left” was in debate. Foucault was no less hostile than Glucksmann to the traditional Left of the French Communist Party and the Union of the Left.

Foucault had concluded that the old idea of revolution as a seizure of state power was misguided because it did not address the disciplining micro-powers that constituted the subject and were at the origins of abhorrent institutions like the prison system. Fundamental change had to begin at this level of reality, Foucault believed.

These were ideas embraced by Glucksmann in the mid-1970s. More than that, they were ideas developed by Foucault during his association with the Maoist Gauche prolétarienne and the Prison Information Group that began as a Maoist initiative. Some of Foucault’s notions from this period, like the value he placed on plebian resistance, may indeed have been borrowed from Glucksmann and the Maoists.

In short, Foucault was no ivory tower theorist; rather he was in the midst of “the movement” alongside the Maoists and participated in many of the era’s preoccupations and illusions. Among the latter is his dismissal of the state, an institution that he saw as doing no good.

But, Foucault was a subtle thinker, and Glucksmann’s polemical The Master Thinkers was not. The Master Thinkers denounced the coercive state and, like The Cook and the Cannibal, argued that plebian resistance was the only viable politics.

The book went beyond his earlier condemnation of Marxism to argue that Western philosophy was essentially a philosophy of the state that justifies its power and thereby squashes plebian protest at its inception by making it inconceivable. Intellectuals, science, and reason are all complicit in the project of state domination. Against it, revolution is not an option because it only reinforces state power. The French Union of the Left was little more than a ruse of the state to increase its domination. The only defensible politics was the unreflective, self-interested action of plebian resistance.

Why would Foucault endorse this? One reason, most certainly, is his own dismissal of state-based politics and of the Union of the Left. Foucault, like Glucksmann, believed that the state was the enemy, and that the Union of the Left failed to understand that a progressive (a term the Foucault, the Nietzschean, did not use) politics could not be based on state power. Also, like Glucksmann, Foucault believed that the masses, acting on their own, would challenge disciplinary institutions and thereby bring about real, consequential change that would never come from the state, no matter who controlled it.

So, there were important convergences between Foucault and Glucksmann that reflected the period’s presuppositions and, in my view at least, point to important weaknesses in Foucault’s thought. If Glucksmann was rather more simplistic than Foucault, Foucault probably felt that The Master Thinkers, which praised him to the skies, was still useful as a vulgarization of his ideas in the intense ideological battle of 1977.

Daniel Zamora

How do you explain Glucksmann’s trajectory from the extreme Maoist left to the apology of neoliberalism, which is shared by so many other former ’68ers? Many describe it as a form of “treason” and leave it at that. But your work has led me to ask if their profound hatred for postwar socialism or for the state did not naturally predispose them to go from one to the other.

In the end, they say they have always been “libertaire” (anarcho-libertarian), and believe that they have not betrayed their ideals. In his work he wrote on Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy (May ’68 explained to Nicolas Sarkozy), Glucksmann indeed defends the idea that May ’68 was not “left-wing” but rather “anti-totalitarian.”

Michael Scott Christofferson

This is an important question, perhaps the most important question about the politics of the 1970s because of its continued relevance today. There is undoubtedly an important libertarian element to the events of May ’68 in France. One find it in the famous graffiti on the walls of Paris in that month: “Il est interdit d’interdire” (“It is forbidden to forbid”), for example, or more the hedonistic “Vivre sans temps mort, jouir sans entraves” (“Live without dead time, enjoy without hindrances”).

But it would be a distortion to encapsulate May ’68 in these slogans. May ’68 only became a national crisis because of a massive strike wave that brought France to a standstill. And, as Kristen Ross has pointed out in her book May ’68 and its Afterlives, one of the more remarkable developments in May ’68 was the cross-class social solidarity that emerged during the events. Old social barriers crumbled, at least momentarily, in the events.

If May ’68 echoed the revolutions of the past, it was not because it was libertarian. Rather, it was because of this upwelling of equality and fraternity that echoed the famous night of August 4, 1789 in which the National Assembly renounced privilege in France’s first revolution.

If Glucksmann went from being Raymond Aron’s apprentice to revolutionary strategist and Maoist militant, it was because he believed that the events inaugurated a revolutionary cycle that would end in direct democratic socialism. Yes, he was already anti-Stalinist, even anti-Leninist in many respects, but that is not the same thing as his later anti-totalitarianism.

It is important for us to make these distinctions because today there are so many hucksters of liberation that want us to believe that the only revolutionary project is that of individual self-realization — that with the death of the twentieth-century communism, all that remains of the revolutionary agenda is liberty. It is a convenient illusion for Silicon Valley billionaires for whom equality can be consigned to the good works of the Gates Foundation and social media is the limit of fraternity. No doubt there are exceptions, but any effort to reinvigorate the socialist movement has to recognize and challenge these limited conceptions of liberation.