Régis Debray, author of Revolution in the Revolution? and now, at forty, one of President Mitterand’s official advisers, shares with most of his coevals a quality that can no longer be taken for granted in younger generations: he knows, more or less, how to handle numbers, how to handle dates, facts, characters, and footnotes. These four or five skills give him an advantage over some of the French literary and intellectual figures whom he attacks in the book under review. “New philosophers” especially, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, seem to have parted company with what a Soviet colleague calls “vulgar factologism,” the modest but indispensable groundwork on which even the loftiest intellectual constructions must be built.
Debray’s style is certainly paradoxical and, I should imagine, a real problem for the translator (and this makes David Macey’s achievement all the more commendable). Debray’s manner harks back to the elite institutions at the top of the French educational system—the Khâgne (the preparatory class for the competitive entry examination to the top schools), the Ecole normale supérieure in the rue d’Ulm, and the most highpowered competitive examination of them all, the agrégation in philosophy as it was in the 1960s. But that is a mere quibble. The main point is that this style and manner provide the necessary link between word and idea which some of my compatriots trample in the mud—either because they have foresworn Cartesian clarté, or because they belong to that age group which only just made it through the baccalauréat even in the lax circumstances of June 1968. So, under all these headings, we must say: Well done, Debray. Let us now follow our author into the galley to see how the slaves of the Low Intelligentsia pull their oars, under the lofty supervision of the officers of the HI (High Intelligentsia)—or rather how Debray described them during the regime of Giscard, when he wrote this book.
These maritime metaphors are not really right, however. Debray is more like an ideological Baedeker or Fodor of the Parisian intellectual world—a deeply disapproving guide, it must be said, for Debray ultimately wants to show that the various “media” of the French intellectual world, and the people who he thinks control them, make up an oppressive network of power in support of “bourgeois” values. He gives us first a geography of publishing. There are two poles: rue Sébastien Bottin, with the great publishing house of Gallimard; and rue Jacob, supplemented by the adjacent rues Guénégaud and de Seine, where we find the headquarters of the intellectually prominent house of Le Seuil. Both poles are on the Left Bank.
At Gallimard, a perceptive and widely informed editor, Pierre Nora, managed to show the long-established firm which had come to regard the novel as the very summit of literary production that the “human sciences” existed, and that history was one of them. (The “sciences humaines” of course are not simply the Anglo-American “social sciences” but include more broadly conceived investigations into human nature and history.) During the 1920s and 1930s, the French intelligentsia coalesced around the figures of Gide, Montherlant, Mauriac, Proust…. In the period from 1950 to 1970 new horizons opened up, and the central names were those of Georges Duby, Michel Foucault, Raymond Aron, Georges Dumézil, Pierre Chaunu, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss; for a long time the first four of these were published by Gallimard.
The dozen or so members on this (by no means exclusive) list held three aces in their hands. First, they had knowledge, they possessed a culture both classical and modern, knew Latin and Greek but also German, English, etc. (Dumézil is supposed to read forty languages.) Raymond Aron, one of Debray’s bêtes noires, can move effortlessly from Thucydides to Galbraith via Clausewitz and Weber.
Secondly, these men had a literary style forged by the more demanding disciplines of the French lycée in its High Period. And finally they had political awareness: through the intricate details of the biography of a peasant or a sixteenth-century monk, they could conjure up without seeming to mention them the concerns that became ours in a period that gave birth to Stalin, Hitler, and the new tyrannies of the nuclear age. Knowledge, style, and modernity—three elements (but not the only three) that go to make up talent, a theme to which Debray gives scant attention as he concentrates on his “media” thesis.
Gallimard was founded by members of the Auvergnat upper bourgeoisie. Le Seuil owes its existence to the left-wing Catholics: led by Flamand-the-founder, they started out on bicycles, pedaling around the bookshops on both banks of the Seine, their luggage racks loaded with the lighter as well as the heavier works of the Catholic writers—Giovanni Guareschi as well as Teilhard de Chardin—who gave the firm its first successes. Nowadays, with the genuine literary strength of Roland Barthes to support their list, and thanks to the Catholic socialist intellectual Jacques Julliard and a few others, Le Seuil has a double claim to authority in journalism and in the university. Enough authority, in any case, to allow this publisher to reach a very wide audience indeed for subjects as austere as the History of Rural France or the History of Urban France, which sell on a par with cookery books and gardening manuals in Britain.
Régis Debray, with the self-righteousness of an overlooked prude, takes offense at the cozy arrangements he sees between publishers, the media, and the scholarly world. But he never once asks the fundamental question: in what country of the world outside France could one sell a four- or five-volume work of high erudition on the history of agrarian England or urban Italy to more than 40,000 readers? In what country of the world does the good money (contrary to Gresham’s law) drive out the bad? For that is what has happened with history written by the followers of the Annales school, in which such historians as Marc Bloch, Braudel, and Duby have been prominent. What they accomplished was not only to push “storybook” history out of the universities, as might be expected, but also out of the magazines and television programs (at least the more distinguished of them) and, very nearly, out of general public consumption. That a strategy was needed to achieve this is obvious. But is it right to think, as Debray does, that all maneuvering for influence is improper, except in Central America and except when it involves submachine guns, terrorism, kidnapping, and holdups?
I have wandered away from Gallimard and Le Seuil and landed among the revolutionary guerrillas. Readers should forgive me…. Let us return to the Left Bank, to Le Seuil and Gallimard. Other publishing houses have either run out of steam or have succeeded in keeping up with these two “locomotives.” Editions de Minuit and Maspero have tried to overtake them by going even further to the left. Fayard and Grasset, with an address in the rue des Saints-Pères, have put their money, not unreasonably, on a younger generation of writers. Unfortunately, the struggle of the “new philosophers” against totalitarian ideas (including those put out on occasion by Debray) has been undermined by the disinformation provided by one of their number.
From the rue des Saints-Pères, Debray holds our hand on the walk to the crossroads at Sèvres-Babylone, where we find the glass-and-steel eggbox of the Maison des sciences de l’homme, home of the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS, formerly the “sixth section” of the Ecole pratique des hautes études), the avant-garde of the human sciences in France. Geographical junctions are inseparable, for Debray, from institutional crossroads where we find a mythical five-legged beast, a powerful intellectual who is part publisher, part journalist, part professor, part author, etc. (This straw man of Debray’s invention is of course a caricature; for the creature to function on all five legs, even a forty-hour day would be too short.) In any case the culprits, if such they be, are men of some stature. The EHESS has brought together a sizable part of all that is really new in the “nonfiction” of the 1960s. The names of Barthes, Braudel, Lévi-Strauss, Raymond Aron, Foucault, Bourdieu, Touraine, Furet, Moscovici, Meuvret, Goubert, and many others have given this institution an extraordinary glamour in France and, in some cases, abroad as well.
The Sorbonne is only one stop on the Métro beyond Sèvres-Babylone, but, like universities generally in France, it had to pay the price for the otherwise productive disruptions of May 1968, and also the price for the tremendous increase in student numbers under the Fifth Republic. Debray is clearly elitist in that he seems to consider the demographic explosion of the universities a disaster: in this respect our “radical” author speaks most curiously like a mandarin. It is true, as he says, that the University of Paris-VIII, founded under the most promising circumstances in 1968 at Vincennes on the Right Bank, hit the rocks and sank despite the presence on board of first-rate teachers and intellectuals. But Vincennes was wrecked less by inflated student numbers than by the presence on campus of various hoodlums who had read too much—or, to be more exact, who imagined they could put into practice the notorious first book by Régis Debray which they had not read, Revolution in the Revolution?
These students covered the campus walls with a thick layer of powerful and tendentious graffiti; they disrupted teaching; at times, they played havoc with the institution itself. For various and mostly disputable reasons, Vincennes was moved from its parkland setting on the eastern outskirts of Paris to Saint-Denis in the unfashionable northern faubourgs. Was the real purpose of the move to discipline the extravaganza of the far left that was sometimes to be found at Vincennes by the rigor mortis of Stalinism, which holds sway in Saint-Denis, a district governed for many years by the French Communist Party? I would not put it past our former rulers under the last presidency to hatch such a Machiavellian plot.
There remains the Collège de France, floating free above the other structures. For Debray this great house is the geometrical locus of an inversion of values. He identifies it as the place where the intelligentsia of the left undergoes a disgraceful change into its opposite, where the HI (High Intelligentsia) switches from the rusty but respectable traditions of the republican Sorbonne to the conservative grandeur of the Académie française. This analysis no doubt has some pertinence for the period 1920-1950; but in 1980 it is an oversimplification. Can Lévi-Strauss, Duby, and Dumézil—all members of the Collège de France and numerous Académies—really be included in the Vichy-like group of hollow frauds which Debray denounces in our most elevated institutions? If one were to take Debray to his logical conclusion, one would end up throwing out with the bath water the contributions made by three of the most significant French scholars of the twentieth century, outside of the Sorbonne and outside of the natural sciences.
Perhaps Debray would have a clearer vision of these matters if he stopped muddling culture and politics except where these two really do intersect.
From publishing and the university world, we move on to journalism, the third apex of Debray’s triangle. He is not much concerned with radio broadcasting (Europe Numéro 1, Radio-Luxembourg, France-Inter), which remains outside the game (with the exception, nonetheless, of the often intelligent programs on the station called France-Culture). Debray homes in on the two extremes of the media rainbow, the major daily and weekly newspapers (Le Monde, L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur) at one end and TV at the other, with a prominent producer of literary programs, Bernard Pivot, at ground zero—“Ce pelé, ce galeux dont nous vient tout le mal,” to misquote La Fontaine. Geographically, this new incursion into the media obliges us to cross the Seine (if we leave the TV building in the rue Cognac-Jay out of account): newspapers, radio, TV, etc., have their bases on the Right Bank, between the rue d’Aboukir, the Etoile, and the avenue du Président Kennedy.
In these various settings Debray points out, quite rightly, the cliquishness and the back-scratching of the publishing world, with its expense-account lunches. Publishers’ lunches certainly do have their own rules, starting with the choice of restaurant as an index of the invited author’s celebrity. Conversation is either merely formal or purely social during the hors d’oeuvre and the main course. Then, at dessert, as the waiter brings on the bombe glacée or the profiterolles au chocolat, the publisher speaks out in thunderous tones to remind the miserable writer of his contract—for which he has already received several hundred thousand or indeed the fantastic sum of a few million old francs (i.e., a couple of thousand dollars) without writing a line. Not to mention auction scenes where three publishers—let’s call them Dugommier, Brottin, and Dagorneau—compete for the manuscript of author Tartempion as if they were trying to buy tulip bulbs at the flower market in Harlem (Holland). Dagorneau wins the day with fourteen million against Dugommier’s eight and the six million old francs generously proferred by Brottin.
Beyond these amusing and often topical barbs, however, Debray is himself the victim (once started on this track there’s no going back) of paranoia and oversimplification. He argues that knowledge leads to intellectual power, and from this type of power to the oppression exercised by the bourgeoisie and by capital. He indicts the current modes of ideological production: they nourish the existing system and offered no resistance to the general trend of Giscardian capitalism.
Well, our author is distorting appearances, just as our Gaulish ancestors used to shrink the skulls of their enemies. In fact, under the editorship of Jean Daniel, the Nouvel Observateur, even if it does carry a lot of the advertising copy that Debray deplores, spoke out against the established power consistently between 1960 and 1980. It carried its opposition to the point that made one apprehensive that with Mitterand in power it would cease to be a critical paper and become instead, in the changed circumstances, the official organ of the Socialist Party in the Elysée Palace. That apprehension has turned out to be largely unwarranted. But that the fear was entertained is highly significant. It would be more appropriate not to reduce judgment of this influential paper to a matter of politics, without respect for the facts, but to say simply what actually happened. During the 1960s, two infantrymen in the editorial army at the Nouvel Observateur, the historians Françcois Furet and Denis Richet, succeeded in introducing serious comment on the human sciences into its literary pages. Later on, Jean Daniel—an open and lively mind, a Mediterranean man of Odyssean subtleties—gave generously to sociologists, historians, and psychoanalysts the help they needed to get out of the not always gilded cages where their academic specialties held them imprisoned.
One must emphasize that it is, or was, indeed a ghetto or cage that we were in. American readers will not find this situation easy to understand and Debray, paradoxically provincial on this point, offers them no help at all. An academic in the US lives in the enormous ghetto of the English-speaking university world, so vast that its walls are not visible from the inside. This self-enclosed space-time stretches over at least three continents (the UK, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand—not to mention India, English-speaking Africa, etc.). Whether he is a sociologist or a historian or a psychoanalyst, our American colleague can pursue his work within this gigantic sphere (decentralized like the city-states of Greece in the time of Sophocles) constituted by the network of Anglo-Saxon universities. Such a man can be wholly unknown to a druggist or to a garage mechanic in Iowa City while having a reputation among hundreds of thousands of academic people; he can publish books in sizable print-runs to be sold in paperback to millions of undergraduates. He can enjoy writing carping reviews of colleagues who live two thousand miles away and whom he will never set eyes on, so he won’t have to go through the unpleasant experience of seeing their sullen, upset, or furious faces the day after they have read the review.
But the French-speaking world, though far from tiny, is less than one-fifth the size (sixty million native speakers of French as against perhaps 300 million Anglophones). In the French hexagon, a university can become—if you take it as your horizon—a closed space where you grow sick of seeing the same faces, of smiling at the same enemies, of being centered on Paris or exiled in the provinces. And so it seems to me right to give due credit to those who have made new doors and opened windows, who have reestablished the minimal conditions of communication by creating an audience. Why not include among them some of the journalists on the Nouvel Observateur, on the literary section of Le Monde, and on the TV stations—those of them who do not deserve the hypocritical, moralizing sermons which Debray heaps upon them? Other journals and publishers have also called upon French academics to give the broad public of middle managers and primary schoolteachers something more than the thin gruel they used to get from their weekly paper (Le Bonhomme normand) and which was also dished out by a broadcasting service addicted to idiotic birthday greetings (La famille Duraton: lots of love for Mom and Dad).
Jean-François Revel, the former director of the news weekly L’Express (which was sometimes critical of the left), arouses Debray’s belligerence. However, Revel was a man whose remarkable independence of mind many “Mediologists” could do well to envy. Confronted with the fabulous dinosaur of French politics, Georges Marchais, leader of the French Communist Party, Revel did not hesitate to attack, face to face; and he helped to some extent, along with others (Solzhenitsyn, François Mitterand, but surely not Debray), to bring about the defeat of the Stalinists and of the CP in the 1981 legislative elections. Revel is one of those (and they are many) who turned a previously justified fear of French communism into a side issue, and who by weakening the Party made it less dangerous. The ending of this fear of communist power has rebounded into one of the reasons for the socialist victory in June 1981.
Whether the victory is a good or a bad thing is another question, but it is far from pointless to recall this paradoxical dialectic of recent history. And there is more: when it was necessary to hold out against unbridled capitalism, not in words but in the dignity of everyday professional life, Revel stood up against James Goldsmith, the press baron of L’Express, resigned, and slammed the door behind him. He is not a man to lick the boots of press stars, that is certain. But Debray, preacher of virtue to his readers, is not entirely free of that little failing: see the extraordinary note 10 on page 181 of the volume under review, where, on the pretext of paying homage to a newspaper which specializes in international news, Le Monde Diplomatique, Debray actually behaves like a subject of a powerful editor, the future overlord of Le Monde (Claude Julien); he makes similar gestures to the current director of the more and more prominent journal, Nouvelles littéraires (Jean-François Kahn). Claude Julien is far too grand a gentleman (as is Kahn) to pay the slightest heed to these base tokens of flattery. But I think these things are worth pointing out in a review of a book by a man who poses as a teacher of morality.
We come now to the inescapable problems of TV and of Bernard Pivot, a good and unpretentious journalist who specializes in literary programs. Debray sees the very success of Pivot’s program Apostrophes, which gets very high national ratings every Friday night, as the symbol of the absurdities of French centralism. Beaming out from Paris, the false beacon of intellectual enlightenment, these absurdities, according to Debray, crush the rest of the country beneath the weight of intellectual power—there’s that word again. This description is not wholly wrong. But Debray cites as a contrast an idyllic portrait of Italy or the United States where, he says (with at least numerical justification), a whole range of regional TV stations allows a better diffusion of culture in places like Wisconsin or North Dakota or Ohio.
Now I have the warmest admiration for the great universities to be found at Madison or Ann Arbor. But as for the precise matter brought up by Debray, I must say that I have spent many a weary autumn evening in the bars of Michigan’s fertile plains, sadly sipping a glass of beer while watching the multicolored football games of American universities on the TV screen. Often have I wished for a literary program of the quality of Pivot’s to interrupt those hours of broadcasting time where the universities exist through their football heroes alone. I suppose the other men in the bar would have had a different opinion.
Once again, I do not wish to denigrate the US, a country of high culture, and superbly polycentric. But I will not play the national game so dear to many of my countrymen who willfully denigrate, out of masochism directed at their own nation, a literary institution of quality like Apostrophes, which millions of people, quite amazingly, appreciate as much as a good Western or a display of Bjorn Borg’s tennis. The level of discussion on a given issue or book among such people as Pierre Boulez, Jacques Le Goff, and Pierre Nora, to name only a few of the recent panelists, can be impressive. Is there a real equivalent abroad to such a popular literary program?
It is one thing, I repeat, to analyze, describe, or quantify a given intellectual milieu, which Debray often does quite pertinently. It is another thing to connect this milieu to a vast network of social and political power, for which purpose Debray—a color-blind professor of a doctrine by which all holy cows are black—uses simplistic theories, derived without acknowledgment from Marxism-Leninism, in their most rigid and dogmatic forms.
Overall, it seems to me, Debray spreads himself too thin. Since his courageous service as a political prisoner in the 1960s and his liberation in 1970, our author has returned to settle in France, with some interruptions for visits abroad. Since that time he has managed his own symbolic capital with remarkable skill. Even and especially when that capital seemed distinctly overvalued. It is true that the portfolio of stocks and shares that is being questioned here is diversified in a way a stockbroker can only admire: Debray does not have all his eggs in one basket. An admirer of Castro who got in on the ground floor, or almost, and who certainly suffered bravely for his views (that much is not in dispute), Debray has never made the slightest sign of self-criticism for his support of and allegiance to the Cuban dictator who is today the boss of the foreign legions and mobile marines of Soviet imperialism in corners of the globe as far away as Ethiopia.
That allows us to understand why our author cannot tolerate the action of some French intellectuals in CIEL (Committee of Intellectuals for a Europe of Liberties) in favor of Soviet dissidents and human rights. Nor does he hesitate to attack the other side as well, that is to say those ex-communist intellectuals who have at least made the effort, which Debray sneers at, to reflect upon their past errors and to correct the consequences.
Debray goes off to Nicaragua in battle dress, just like Margaret Thatcher in Ulster. In South America a revolutionary, Debray is a reformist in Europe. “I am a bird, look at my wings,” said the bat; “I am a mouse, look at my coat,” said the other bat…. From this point of view one has to point out a striking contrast. Not one of the important intellectuals whom Debray accuses of behaving like lackeys of the ruling powers accepted any public or political office under the presidency of Giscard d’Estaing. They all remained in their libraries with their filing cards and their research, even if their faces did appear occasionally on the TV screen.
Breaking with this tradition, Debray has recently taken his place in the magic circle of advisers in the new president’s entourage in Paris. Now I hasten to stress that there is no necessary crime in that. On the contrary. But it is comforting to know that his satire of a mythic and misty intellectual power carries henceforth the signature of an intellectual in power—and the power he is “in” is the most patently monarchical that France has ever known; it is in fact the power created and molded by Charles de Gaulle for his own use and that of his successors. (Let me make myself clear: as a historian of the eighteenth century, I am not an a priori opponent of monarchy, indeed the opposite would be nearer the truth; and François Mitterand is without doubt an enlightened monarch; but I am amused to see the author of Revolution in the Revolution? sitting respectfully on the steps of the throne like a royal councilor in the old days.
Intellectuals of my generation were familiar with the career of Jean Kanapa, a Communist Party writer who began around 1950 and became the clown of Stalinism and the intellectual pétomane* of the working class (though he lacked both humor and depth). Times have changed a lot since then. What has survived and even flourished is a kind of old-world dogmatism of the far left. Debray, who has assimilated the best of the well-grounded teaching of that excellent scholar Pierre Bourdieu, is one of the most distinguished representatives today of our rejuvenated dogmatics.
But at the age of forty, Debray is at the crossroads of his career. With work and study, he could become a good sociologist of contemporary French culture. But if he yields to what remains in him of youthful facility, if he does no more than express the frustrations of the dissatisfied, he runs the risk of turning into the spokesman of a lumpen-intelligentsia which—thank God—does not yet exist, but which would not wait long to spring into life if Debray continues to sound his horn in the fog.
—translated by David Bellos
January 21, 1982
Translator’s note: The “Pétomane” was a French music-hall artist of the fin de siècle whose unusual powers of muscular control over his sphincter allowed him, quite literally, to sing through his ass. ↩