If there is an important difference between French and Anglo-American sociological thought, it lies mainly in the greater prestige of social philosophy, as distinct from sociology properly so called. For example, the leading figure in post-war French sociology has been Professor George Gurvitch whose work remains curiously neglected in the United States. No one can dispute his claim to be regarded as an empiricist, but he is also the author of philosophical studies on Hegel, Marx, and Sartre, and his recently republished treatise on sociological method (La Vocation Actuelle de la Sociologie) carries the authority of a scholar who has mastered the corpus of modern philosophic thought, yet can be as rigidly empirical as any “Anglo-Saxon”: no follower of Talcott Parsons would find his methods strange, although the vocabulary is that of Durkheim and his school. Much the same could be said of M. Georges Friedmann’s study of the social consequences of mechanization in such books as The Anatomy of Work, Industrial Society (paperback editions have just been issued by the Free Press of Glencoe) or the well-known publications of Raymond Aron.
Against these and other sociologists with philosophical inclinations, there are the French philosophers themselves. The distinction may seem tenuous, but will hold if one resolves to describe as a philosopher any writer for whom the findings of the empirical sciences serve merely as an occasion for the display of critical or interpretative thought. M. Henri Lefebvre and M. Kostas Axelos are certainly important writers in this sense. Both employ dialectic for the purpose of giving a critical estimate of modern society, where the term “criticism” stands not for partisan polemics, but for complete detachment from all party standpoints, including the socialist or communist one: in fact the decomposition of the revolutionary movement is one of their favorite themes. Their neo-Marxism has affinities with non-socialist forms of Kulturkritik, including the writings of the left-wing Catholic group around Esprit. It accommodates Freud, Pascal, Nietzsche, the Romantics and—in the case of M. Axelos—even Heidegger. Thoroughly eclectic, it is at the same time very French in its attachment to a discursive style which deliberately eschews systematization and methodical rigor. There is a return to the national tradition founded by the great essayists of the seventeenth century.
One does not quite know where, in this context, M. Jacques Ellul’s Technological Society is to be placed. Indisputably French, he is at the same time strongly influenced by Anglo-American examples. Philosophical, and indeed essayistic, in tone, this study of modern technology (originally published in French in 1954, and now translated into English) nonetheless aims at the kind of critical comprehension of the machine and its effects which in post-war France was pioneered by Professor Friedmann. A comparison with the latter’s work seems to impose itself, but there is the awkward fact that M. Ellul himself is as much a Christian philosopher—and as such a critic of modern society—as a sociologist in the strict sense of the term. Does he then—political and philosophical preferences aside—challenge comparison with Lefebvre? One hesitates to answer this question affirmatively, for a study of technology must after all be judged by professional standards. When someone like Lefebvre publishes a volume of essays, on topics ranging from the crisis of Marxism to the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, his French readers know what to expect. When a professional economist like M. Jean Fourastié describes changes in social habits and work conditions since the eighteenth century, even the general reader feels on familiar ground. And this reader certainly has no trouble with Professor Friedmann who, for all his commitment to Marxian socialism, writes in a manner familiar to empirical sociologists all over the world. But what is he to make of M. Ellul who (a) provides no references, and no factual information, (b) takes it for granted that his readers have absorbed the numerous subjects he mentions in passing, and the few authors to whom he casually refers, and (c) develops his arguments by simple assertions? This last admittedly is an old habit among literary men in France, but then M. Ellul is not just a literary man: he holds a chair of History and Contemporary Sociology, and his declared aim is to synthesize these two fields of knowledge.
To an extent he does so—but only by eking out his general argument with bits of potted history. His translator defends this procedure, on the grounds that it was anticipated by Hegel. This seems rather hard on Hegel, who knew a great deal about history and had a remarkably firm hold on the factual side of things. I don’t think he would have approved of M. Ellul’s cavalier treatment of the subject, as when he remarks that “the Middle Ages created only one new, complete technique, an intellectual technique, a mode of reasoning: scholasticism” (p. 35). Is this going to become the new orthodoxy? I had always understood that quite a number of useful technical inventions go back to those dim days.
When he comes to matters closer to our own times, his judgments can also be puzzling, and his style is not always distinguished by that clarity for which his countrymen are famous. Some of the gloss may have gone in translation. Certainly a translator who believes that the Girondists were hostile to federalism (p. 51), when in fact they were guillotined for defending it, may be suspected of having misinterpreted some other, more material, points. But Mr. Wilkinson cannot be responsible for the extremely odd account of the industrial revolution (pp. 25 seq.), or for statements such as “Technical progress is a function of bourgeois money” (p. 54). Indeed a reader of the chapter dealing with the period from 1750 to 1850 must, I think, form the conclusion that M. Ellul is not really interested in the subject. In a philosopher this may be excusable. After all, people who want to know about the industrial revolution can look up the classic account given by M. Ellul’s countryman Paul Mantoux. Or, if they are not concerned with detail and only want an overall sketch, they can dip into the brief but brilliant chapter which Mr. E. J. Hobsbawm devotes to the topic in his recently published Age of Revolution. This, however, raises another puzzle, for if Mr. Hobsbawm, who is a historian by profession, can deal competently with economics, why cannot M. Ellul, who is not only a historian but a sociologist as well? It may not be necessary to give facts and figures, but does one really have to write as though economic history had nothing whatever to teach anyone?
The explanation seems to be that M. Ellul is basically interested in what he calls the “characterology of technique,” by which he means its essence. I only wish I had more confidence in his ability to get to the bottom of this, or any other matter. In a way it ought to be easy for him, since he is no lonely pioneer. In 1950, four years before his work appeared (under the title La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle), Professor Friedmann, in Où va le travail humain?, had already struck the keynote of all subsequent literature on this topic by writing: “Notre monde est technique, c’est à dire scientifique” (see p. 344 of the current edition). With the best will I am unable to discover wherein M. Ellul’s innovation is supposed to lie. It is true that he has a distinctive philosophy: he is hostile to the modern universe created by scientific technology. But the claim that his work advances our understanding of this universe seems difficult to substantiate. Much of his writing is mere rhetoric. “…technique has taken over the whole of civilization.” One might equally well say: “Commerce has taken over the whole of civilization.” Indeed, not so long ago (a century to be exact), M. Ellul’s predecessors filled entire volumes with this kind of stuff.
What happens when such a writer comes up against simple economic facts—such as the fact that people in advanced countries no longer die of starvation—can be seen from Ellul’s embarrassed (and embarrassing) treatment of the work of Jean Fourastié. In recent years the French public has at long last got over its near-total illiteracy in economic matters, and for this much of the credit goes to the brilliant popularizations published by Fourastié: notably his Grande Métamorphose du XX siècle (1961) and his earlier Machinisme et Bien-Etre (1951 and 1962, translated as The Causes of Wealth, Free Press, 1960). How does Ellul cope with Fourastié’s demonstration (backed by elaborate statistics) that industrialization has lifted the weight of intolerable misery from the backs of the poorest classes of society? By altering the terms of the argument! Fourastié had shown that the life expectancy of the average Frenchman around 1700 was around twenty-five years (elsewhere conditions were even worse), and that down to the early years of the eighteenth century famines were frequent, sweeping away millions of people and reducing the others to a condition resembling that of present-day India. Ellul cannot of course dispute this, and therefore prefers not to mention it. Instead he says:
The case is indeed simple if 1950 is compared with 1815. But it is no longer quite so simple if 1950 is compared with 1250…there is no common denominator between the seven-hour day of 1950 and the fifteen-hour day of the medieval artisan. We know that the peasant interrupts his workday with innumerable pauses. He chooses his own tempo and rhythm…
In short, the medieval peasant, that beast of burden, was better off than we are!
None of this perhaps matters a great deal when taken against the background of current French literature, which is overwhelmingly hostile to this kind of obscurantism. What matters is that perfectly sound arguments, e.g., against the mechanization of leisure, are employed by Ellul to discredit the sensible solutions advanced by writers like Friedmann who, quite properly in the circumstances, pin their hopes for the qualitative improvement of civilization to the shortening of working hours. For Friedmann (as for the Marx of Capital) work belong to the “realm of necessity,” while real freedom lies beyond it (Où va le travail humain?, pp. 409 seq). Nonsense, says Ellul, modern man is incapable of doing anything constructive with his leisure hours. He has been wholly corrupted by “technique” and can no longer realize himself even in his spare time. “In fact, modern man himself seeks to give a technical form to his leisure time and rebels against entering the sphere of human creativity” (p.401). “The melancholy fact is that the human personality has been almost wholly disassociated and dissolved through mechanization” (p. 402). Even the unconscious has been upset by “the penetration of technique” (p. 405), and modern art has consequently been unbalanced, in witness whereof we may cite the work of various poets and painters: “The artists of our time are the most impressive witnesses to the fact that a true aesthetics is an impossibility for men whose only alternatives are madness or pure technique” (p. 404). Well, it used to be said of Montesquieu that the proper title of his work should have been De l’Esprit sur les lois. M. Ellul is hardly in the same class, but he displays some of the less attractive features of this particular tradition. The Technological Society has been launched upon the market in a sumptuous edition which does honor to the technical efficiency of publishing and printing. That unfortunately is the highest praise a reviewer can bestow upon it.
I have no wish to suggest that ordinary discursive writing should be banned. Scholarship needs interpreters and links with the outside world—which by the way, raises the interesting question why Georges Gurvitch, the most important French sociologist to appear since World War II is so little known outside France. It has been suggested to the reviewer—rather unkindly, I fear—that Gurvitch is simply too learned and too difficult for “Anglo-Saxons.” But this can hardly be true: not even a Gaullist would maintain that American and British academics are inherently incapable of reading French, or of following a theoretical argument. It must be admitted however, that the neglect of Gurvitch is puzzling, since to put it crudely there is no one remotely like him in the English-speaking world. But then it took the Americans and the British quite a while to discover Max Weber. Perhaps in twenty years’ time the degree mills will be turning out Ph.D. theses on Gurvitch. I am ready to enter a small wager that by then few people will remember M. Ellul’s fantasies about technology.
Meanwhile those of us who enjoy non-technical writing, and are not put off by philosophy, can turn to Lefebvre. His latest essay collection, the Introduction à la modernité, has all the virtues of his earlier Critique de la vie quotidienne, minus its faults, which (at least in the first volume of that work, originally published in 1947) were those of a revolutionary romanticism common to writers who had gone through the Resistance. By now this has worn off, and Marx has been assimilated by Lefebvre into an intensely French mélange of thinking about nature, society, eros, art, utopia, and romanticism: all in an urbanely detached mood which goes well with the importance allotted by him to Stendhal as a forerunner of modernity. There is at first sight little enough to connect Stendhal with the ostensible subject of Lefebvre’s essay collection, namely the culture of present day post-bourgeois industrial society. The link is established by way of Stendhal’s wholehearted commitment to the new age which he felt growing up around him: his optimism, his openness to the Romantic stirrings then already at work in post-revolutionary (and post-classicist) France. Lefebvre’s essay on Stendhal is entitled “Vers un nouveau romantisme?“, and its theme is indicated by his emphatic insistence that Stendhal “after the great wars of the Revolution and the Empire, believed in history. Like Hegel and Balzac, he saw it as the great educator, without therefore abandoning the pleasure principle in his private life…” For the rest, Stendhal’s evident dislike of Louis XIV and the Grand Siècle, with its heavy monotonous stress on the State and the Monarch, suggests to Lefebvre that the time may have come to liberate socialism from its oppressive concern with the political and economic infrastructure of civilization. Behind the “political mask” he sees the eternal philistine who denies the autonomy of art. In Lefebvre’s view, our own age, like that of Stendhal, is post-revolutionary and its proper style is not the solemn neoclassimism of Sartre’s didactic plays, with their implicit worship of Power and Politics, but the romantic irony of the young Marx, who called upon the State to disappear and leave the individual free to enjoy his creative faculties.
This kind of neo-Marxism—now a flourishing school in France—has left the Russian Revolution behind and is strongly tinged with the traditional French individualism. There is indeed something rather Stendhalian about Lefebvre’s own writing: I suspect he rather enjoys feminine company. At any rate the eschatological grimness one has come to associate with French Marxism is absent from his latest work. For all his qualified skepticism about the future, Lefebvre manages to sound relaxed, and his attitude to the pleasure principle is far from puritanical. I recommend his book as a tonic to people who have fallen into the habit of thinking about the world in terms of inevitable catastrophe.
Michel Crozier, a sociologist who has made an intensive study of bureaucracy in France, knows the United States well, and writes like a professional. He is that rara avis, an authentic French liberal—meaning someone who regards bureaucracy as the greatest hindrance to sound development and would like his country to borrow from the Anglo-American tradition of self-government. But even he ends on a theme of hope about the new society which the technocrats seem about to produce. As befits a Frenchman, he suggests that elements of the older humanistic culture may be salvaged, even though the old bourgeois elites are on the way out. It seems to be easier for Frenchmen of the new generation to strike this note of qualified optimism than it is for their elders.
Still, traditional liberalism, in French as elsewhere, is fighting a rear-guard action. So, oddly enough, is traditional socialism. At any rate, Serge Mallet—perhaps the ablest socialist writer among the younger generation—seems more concerned with industrial organization than with the restoration of parliamentary democracy (probably a lost cause anyway). La nouvelle classe ouvrière, with its exaltation of the technician and its quiet dismissal of old-fashioned rhetoric about the proletariat, is the sort of book that causes the Communists in France more worry than almost anything else, the more so since its author comes out of the working class. No wonder Serge Mallet has recently become their bête noire. One does not quite know how to classify this gifted young man—he may be a new type for whom there exists as yet no convenient label. For the rest, he is clearly in the syndicalist tradition, which in France is not an eccentricity, as it is elsewhere, but the backbone of the labor movement.
What all these writers have in common is an awareness that the great economic gearshift of recent years presents opportunities as well as dangers. The term “alienation” occurs frequently enough, notably in Lefebvre, but unlike the conservative pessimists they don’t ignore the reverse side of the medal: the reduction of toil, the elimination of the grosser kinds of poverty, the new dimensions of leisure, and its subtler concomitants: the new youth culture and the spread of intellectual interests to classes hitherto excluded from the pursuit of mental activities. That all this is currently being paid for by bureaucracy, mechanization, and the cult of narrow specialism, they are quite aware of. Indeed one would have to be blind not to see it, just as one must be blind not to notice the connection between paid holidays and the slaughter on the roads: Every year millions more go on vacation, and thousands more are killed or maimed in car accidents. Does it follow that the millions of people who, for the first time, are discovering the mountains or the seaside, deserve the sneers M. Ellul directs at them? (“Then there is the modern passion for nature. When it is not stockbrokers out after moose, it is a crowd of brainless conformists camping out on order and as they are told. Nowhere is there any initiative or eccentricity.”) Has no one told this philosopher about the classes de neige which now make it possible for French school-children to combine learning with skiing? His tone suggests that he is above such considerations. For my part I suspect that he represents an attitude widespread among the more conservative strata of the French bourgeoisie: a class not notable for its capacity to win the affection of its own people, let alone others. It is easy to make fun of moon trips and artificial insemination (Ellul is against both). It is not so easy to elude the choice between rational and irrational organization of the new energetic sources. Why, should not philosophers, instead of simply damning the present, try to make people aware that they are, within limits, free to shape the future?
November 19, 1964