What is it that drives someone to escape the poverty of their childhood? Social and material necessity perhaps, or the urge for reinvention. But for Didier Eribon, it also involved a degree of shame and disgust.
Eribon was born in 1953 and grew up in a housing estate on the outskirts of the French city of Reims. He was the first in his family to complete secondary education. He moved to Paris aged twenty to study philosophy, eventually becoming a journalist, academic, and biographer of Foucault. Appalled by his family’s homophobia and parochialism, he barely kept in touch with them and didn’t attend his father’s funeral.
His father’s death, however, did profoundly affect him. The day after the burial, Eribon visited his mother for the afternoon. Together, they looked at old photographs that starkly depicted the abject poverty of his childhood. This moment drove him to write his deeply analytical memoir. In it, he reflects that it was not just his homosexuality that drove him towards a middle-class intellectual milieu, but a strong desire to escape from his family’s class background.
Eribon’s Returning to Reims is a fiercely political and admirably self-reflective exploration of the reasons for this so-called “class shame.”
A World Apart
Eribon offers a moving account of the social imprisonment of working-class life. His father was a factory worker who left school at fourteen; his mother worked in precarious cleaning jobs, later taking on factory work in order to enable him to finish school. Both worked until their mid-fifties, when they were granted “early retirement,” “spit out by the system that had exploited them so shamelessly.”
But Eribon confesses he showed little interest in the realities of their oppression. While he did intellectually embrace Marxism as a young man, he terms this “perhaps little more than a way of idealizing the working class, of transforming it into a mythical entity.” He read thinkers like Marx and Sartre to escape from his parents’ experience, rather than understand it.
“My youthful Marxism was thus a vector for a form of social disidentification: I glorified the ‘working class’ in order to put more distance between myself and actual workers.” Many who read Marx and Trotsky during their teenage rebellion years will relate (with melancholy) to the ease with which one can ignore social realities whilst being enthused by abstract philosophical ideas.
Eribon evocatively portrays the physical savagery of manual labor. He describes his mother’s “body stiffened and painful as a result of the hard tasks she performed for nearly fifteen years.” Angered by the brutality of her work, he writes “I can’t help but be struck by what social inequality means concretely, physically. Even the very word ‘inequality’ seems to me to be a euphemism that papers over the reality of the situation, the naked violence of exploitation.”
Yet the young Marxist Eribon’s parents, trapped in such low-paid, alienating work, had aspirations very different to his own. They were eager to obtain the consumer goods that his grandparents had been denied — a leather sofa from a catalogue or a used car. As a teenager, Eribon found this kind of materialism “deplorable,” and criticized his parents for being too “bourgeois” — something he now attributes to “the expression of my desire to be nothing like them.”
He notes that working-class aspirations change with time, and a narrative that ignores complexities and contradictions for the sake of political expedience is bound to be a false one. “What is the point of a political story that doesn’t take into account what people are really like as it interprets their lives, a story whose result is that one ends up blaming the individuals in question for not conforming to the fiction one has constructed?”
The End of the Party
The central concern of Eribon’s memoir is not so much his own political trajectory, as that of his parents and their community: a traditional Communist heartland that later turned to the far right. From the 1950s to 1970s his entire family were Communists, not just in the sense that they voted for the Communist candidate at each election, but that the Party was “the organizing principle and the uncontested horizon of our relationship to politics.” At what point, and for what reasons, did this give way to voting for the National Front and increasingly (if not always) embracing far-right discourse?
Liberal commentators, when confronted with working-class people turning to the far right, often react with horror. But Eribon’s is a thoughtful and fundamentally humanist narrative that seeks to contextualize these tendencies in the fragmentation of working-class communities. Centrist journalists often frame generation gaps as the result of conflicting personality traits (for instance, EU-supporting millennials in Britain versus their Brexit-voting grandparents). But Eribon shows that most often, the gap exists because of disparities in political experience.
Examining the break between the working class and the Left, Eribon argues that the election of the Socialist candidate François Mitterrand as president in 1981 “soon produced a strong sense of disillusionment in working-class circles, and a loss of interest in the politicians in whom they had previously trusted and for whom they had voted.” This particularly owed to the hopes built up by the Communist Party (PCF) involvement in the new administration. The five-hundred-thousand-strong PCF, strongly rooted in the working class, had been crucial to Mitterrand’s election. He included four of its leaders in his cabinet as he promised to lead the country down the “French road to socialism.”
Such bold talk of radical reforms did not translate into reality. The resulting decline in support for the PCF — in Eribon’s view, exacerbated by its failure to engage with post-68 social movements or distance itself from the declining Soviet Union — left working-class voters with no one to vote for. “Right or left, there’s no difference,” Eribon’s mother would repeat when they spoke, “they are all the same, and the same people always end up footing the bill.”
Foot the bill the working class certainly did, as Mitterrand drifted further and further towards fiscal orthodoxy. His 1983 “tournant de la rigeur” embraced austerity and led to the PCF ditching the government the following year. But Eribon argues that even during its early 1980s period of soft-left reforms, the Socialist Party (PS) underwent a transformation in its ethos, ushering in a “so-called ‘political philosophy’” totally unable to speak to working-class people. A new breed of reactionary intellectuals sought to “eliminate all that was leftist from the left.”
The PS’s abandonment of anything resembling a class-based discourse, in the context of austerity measures and laissez-faire economic policies, led sections of the working class to look elsewhere. And the new rising force in French politics was the far-right National Front (FN). Politically negligible in the 1970s, it won nearly 10 percent of the vote in the 1986 parliamentary elections and over 14 percent in the presidential elections of 1988. Marine Le Pen’s success in the first round of the 2017 presidential election to some extent represents a continuation of this trend.
Undeniably, the FN’s base is not only made up of disillusioned working-class voters. It’s reached many social sectors, many of whom are quite wealthy and could never constitute an audience for left politics. But Eribon also explains how the gradual removal of any rhetoric acknowledging the working class weakened the very social ties that had once welded the class together.
Those who once voted in near-collective unity now instead aligned themselves with a range of other demographic groups — “with shopkeepers and tradespeople, or with well-to-do retirees in the south of France, or even with fascist military types or traditional old Catholic families.” During the 2017 contest this tendency was articulated in the novelist Édouard Louis’s compelling piece “Why My Father Votes for Le Pen.”
Moreover, the very act of voting has fundamentally changed. While voting for the Communist Party was the manifestation of a collective opinion “produced by the mediation of the Party, which both shaped and expressed it,” as Eribon explains, voting for the National Front was a wholly individualist experience, “the sum of […] spontaneous prejudices, latched onto by the party and formulated into a coherent political program.”
For Eribon, this problem goes beyond far-right nationalist parties. He references Sartre’s analysis of electoral systems, which contrasts the meaningful building of collective, rooted political movements with the “serial” act of occasional voting.
Without long-term political mobilization, voting tendencies become more unpredictable, as political affiliations become “partial or oblique” rather than part of a collective endeavor. The writer gives the example of his mother voting for the anti-abortion Jean Marie Le Pen, even though she had herself had an abortion. “But that’s got nothing to do with it. That’s not why I voted for him,” she replies. “Illogical” votes for Brexit or Trump aren’t so illogical in the context of the decades-long absence of a political articulation of class, as left-wing parties and trade unions have struggled against erosion and decline.
If this might seem like nostalgia for a lost past, Eribon is clear-eyed about the bygone left’s pitfalls. He describes the homophobia that existed both in the PCF and in the smaller circles of the post-’68 far left. “Every day I had the feeling of there being no place for me within the Marxist world . . . I was split in two: half Trotskyist, half gay,” he writes. This marginalization divided the Left, as the gay movements of the 1970s distanced themselves from the established left in their struggle for liberation.
The author also criticizes the French left’s stance on racism. He contends that the PCF failed to challenge chauvinism within the working class, not least in response to the influx of immigrants after the Algerian war. This also stemmed from the party’s weak stance on the conflict itself, sapping its unity and idealism: at first it backed the “special powers” the government used to crush Algerians’ civil liberties, before it ultimately turned against the war.
Despite Eribon’s disappointment at such anachronisms, and the shameful homophobia he suffered, his is an optimistic text, which believes in the power of politicization.
It is a commendable task to confront one’s own family tensions. Eribon does so not as a means of atonement but to search for uncomfortable political truths, and to contextualize the suffering of a now disregarded group of people. His investigation of the binds of working-class life and the brutal forces that have overwhelmed them is as sensitive as it is astute.
Faced with the rise of far-right mythology, the Left must find a way to articulate societal problems and solutions in the language of class and oppression. But such resistance against a reactionary common sense also demands a strident opposition to all forms of bigotry.
This is, in short, a work about the redemptive power of class pride. Paraphrasing the novelist Jean Genet, Eribon beautifully concludes that:
there comes a moment, when, being spat upon, you turn the spit into roses; you turn the verbal attacks into a garland of flowers, into rays of light. There is, in short, a moment when shame turns into pride. This pride is political through and through because it defies the deepest powers of normality and of normativity.