In the first part of this essay on liberal conservative thought in France, I laid out the broad parameters of democratic conservatism as understood by some of the best thinkers in France today. These thinkers represent a “counter-revolutionary” current, not against democracy or modernity per se, but against the endless radicalisation of democracy and enlightenment premises that was inaugurated by the movement of thought associated with May 1968 (above). That movement was both indulgent towards communist totalitarianism in faraway places like Cuba and China, and thoughtlessly and recklessly opposed to those moral principles and authoritative institutions that underlie any free and decent society. Contemporary French liberal conservative thought is thus equally opposed to the grave evil that is totalitarianism and to the seductive corruption of democracy that is the “pleasure principle”, or unfettered human autonomy, divorced from civilised norms.
As we saw in Part I of this reflection, the forerunner of that noble defence of liberty under law was Raymond Aron (1905–83) who stood firmly and unequivocally against the totalitarian temptation in both its Red and Brown manifestations. In the final phase of his storied career, Aron also stood up eloquently and courageously to the moral anarchy and frenzied rejection of legitimate authority that marked the “revolutionary psychodrama” of May 1968. As the American cultural critic John Leonard once remarked, when professors lauded students who resorted to violence and refused to learn, Aron was the only adult in the room. The great French political thinker could not comprehend how any thoughtful and mature human being refused to respond to slogans like “It is forbidden to forbid” with the derision they so richly deserved.
The celebration of the “May events” still plays an essential role in the progressive vulgate in France and elsewhere. The “pensée de soixante-huit” still dominates the humanities departments of the universities of the Western world, such that their products instruct senior secondary school students to spout off about “deconstruction” and “intersectionality”. Michel Foucault’s juvenile confusion of authority with insidious “domination” is simply taken for granted by the dominant elite opinion today.
It is easy to think that the blindness of Left-antinomian thinkers towards totalitarianism of the Left is simply a thing of the past. How many Maoists are left in Paris? But that judgment would be both premature and false. To be sure, communism is largely forgotten, its evils relativised or explained away. But the progressive-minded among the young see it as an unqualified force for good, and fashionable intellectuals like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou sing its praises.
Communism’s record of lives and souls destroyed by “utopia in power” is a massive moral fact that has barely been passed on to subsequent generations. The great French Russianist and philosophical historian Alain Besançon has provocatively, if accurately, spoken of the “hyper-memory” of Nazism and the contrasting “hyper-amnesia” that has greeted the crimes of communism. What accounts for this glaring blindness, and this striking and insidious civic and moral abdication?
Coming to terms with communism
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago had a dramatic impact on French public opinion, and intellectual life, when the first of its three volumes was published in France in early 1974. The scales of ideology, and ideological justification for criminality and tyranny that posed itself as progressive and emancipatory, seemed to fall massively from individual and collective eyes. But that positive reception to the greatest anti-totalitarian work of the twentieth century was, in retrospect, rather misleading. Many French intellectuals turned almost immediately to an ideology of “human rights” as the alleged alternative to the totalitarianism that had deformed so much of the twentieth century. They thus received Solzhenitsyn through the lenses of a modified version of the “thought of ’68”—opposition to domination, to “heteronomous” institutions, to power in all its forms, was the effectual truth of anti-totalitarianism as they understood it.
As Raymond Aron and the political theorist Marcel Gauchet both wrote almost simultaneously in 1980, such an anti-political understanding of human rights does not make for an effective or viable politics. It is another form of utopianism that tends to confuse authority as such with “totalitarian domination”. In this new understanding, rights have no ultimate ground and no recognisable limits, and thus become a form of self-assertion that limits true political deliberation and a reasonable articulation of a civic common good. This has also been a major theme of the recent political and philosophical reflection of Pierre Manent, most recently in Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, just published in English translation. When human rights are affirmed in contradistinction to the goods of our nature, they eat away at those authoritative institutions (the nation, the churches, the army, the family, the university) that once exercised salutary authority in free and decent societies. True anti-totalitarianism thus demands an affirmation of the moral law and legitimate authority and institutions. Moral anarchy is an invitation to lawless tyranny, and not its opposite or antidote.
Aron, who had always been reasonably but adamantly anti-totalitarian and anti-communist, drew exactly the right lessons from his reading of The Gulag Archipelago. It might even be said that his engagement with Solzhenitsyn deepened his understanding of, and opposition to, communism. He came to see that the “idealism” undergirding communism was in fact as criminal and monstrous as the open brutality and cruelty heralded by Nazism. A humanism, such as Marx’s, without any acknowledgment of unchanging moral principles above the human will, could not support ordered liberty or liberty under law. Far from it. As Aron wrote in 1976, in a lucid and passionate reflection on Solzhenitsyn and Sartre, Solzhenitsyn taught all of us committed to authentic liberty and human dignity that there is no other defence “against the raging of fanaticism” and “no other hope for the future than in respect for moral laws and the rejection of ideological knavery”. Liberty without an acknowledgment of the sempiternal distinction between good and evil was a dead end, one that provided no ground for opposition to modern tyranny and no support for a principled recognition of the inherent dignity of the human person.
In an interview with the radio network France Culture in 1975, Aron declared himself, like Solzhenitsyn, “essentially anti-revolutionary”, since revolutions of an ideological stamp “cost very dearly and finally cause more evil than good”. Aron added that since personally witnessing the barbarism of Nazi totalitarianism unfold in Germany in the winter and spring of 1933, he had always tied together opposition to totalitarianism with the firmest rejection of the allure or illusion of revolution. Ideological revolution was both inherently nihilistic and an invitation to the most inhuman tyrannies in history. These lessons, affirmed in distinctive but complementary ways by Solzhenitsyn and Aron, are among what the distinguished French political theorist Chantal Delsol calls “the unlearned lessons of the twentieth century”. Too many intellectuals and activists associate hope in history with the revolutionary transformation of human nature and society. But as Aron often pointed out, the rejection of messianic illusions was a precondition for true politics, and in no way a reason for despair. Authentic politics has a dignity all its own.
The publication of The Black Book of Communism in France in 1998 was a revelatory moment. Some of its contributors rejected any affirmation of moral symmetry between Nazism and communist totalitarianism, but all of them saw communism as a grave threat to the lives, liberties and inherent dignity of human beings. But as Alain Besançon has pointed out, far too many intellectuals, journalists and politicians, in France and abroad, insisted in response to this great work, that 85 million to 100 million deaths at the hands of communist regimes (and this estimate is a conservative one), and political and intellectual tyranny on an unprecedented scale, “did not in any way tarnish the communist ideal”.
One could not be a Nazi in good conscience after Auschwitz, and surely that is a very good thing. But one could be a communist in good faith despite the gulag, murderous collectivisation, the Cultural Revolution in China, and the killing fields in Cambodia. Emancipatory ideals justified every crime, every murder, as well as endless, soul-destroying mendacity. Like the decorated historian Eric Hobsbawm in the United Kingdom, these apologists for the unjustifiable would do it all over again if given the chance. And for the twenty-two years since the publication of the Black Book, esteemed intellectuals such as Badiou and Žižek have continued to applaud the “communist idea” as the only real hope for humanity. That ideal, it appears, is never capable of being falsified or rejected. It is immune to moral and political judgment. It has the right to what Pierre Manent has called “human extraterritoriality”.
As Alain Besançon has told me on many occasions, the semi-educated fail to see the “moral destruction” at the heart of communist ideology and every known communist regime past or present. As Besançon has argued in several books of unusual insight and penetration, the communists used homonyms (peace, freedom, equality, social justice, fraternity) to spread evil through the world. They gave murderous and mendacious meaning to old and venerable words. In some respects, Besançon argued, communism was even more perverse than Nazism, precisely because it engaged in a massive “falsification of the good” (the term is Vladimir Soloviev’s) that has misled so many people of good will.
The Catholic Church, for example, once led the way in exposing the monstrous lies and illusions undergirding communist theory and practice. But since the Second Vatican Council, important elements in the Church have succumbed to a para-Marxist political or liberation theology, and have even justified leftist tyrannies that persecute, imprison and kill their coreligionists. These Christian progressivists confuse solicitude for the poor with “proletarian” regimes that promote systematic lawlessness and murderous class struggle. The Church has all the resources in the world to criticise unjust oligarchies or oppressive military regimes in places like Latin America, without resorting to the moral and political destruction inherent in communism. Yet when confronting the ideological illusions of the age, even the once firmly anti-totalitarian Catholic Church has largely lost its way. The moral destruction promoted by communism is thus insidious and shows no evidence of abating. These are largely unlearned lessons of the twentieth century, indeed.
In a recent correspondence with me, Pierre Manent lamented that “communism has been largely forgotten—washed out”. At best, the intellectual and political establishment acknowledges, somewhat reluctantly, that “communism doesn’t work, that is all”. Manent points out that one can remain a member of the intellectual elite in good standing even if one says amiable words about Stalin, Mao, or even Pol Pot. For progressive elites, “all the evil of humanity is condensed in Nazism”. But even more ominously, it has become fashionable to see Nazism as the effectual truth of national self-affirmation, no matter how humane, moderate or civilised the nation might be. Nazism was in truth a murderous pagan barbarism, “a revolution in nihilism” that was at war with liberal and Christian civilisation. Great patriots and democratic conservatives such as Churchill and de Gaulle understood that Nazism was at war with everything that was choice-worthy in Western civilisation. They fought Hitler to save national independence and honour, to prevent the rise of an unprecedented form of tyranny, and to preserve Christian ethics against pagan barbarism. Only a mixture of pathological self-hatred with utopian illusions can account for the degeneration of Western self-criticism into a juvenile but perverse reductio ad Hitlerum.
In an atmosphere where the moral and intellectual resources of Western civilisation are said to culminate in Nazism, or racial, class and “gender” oppression more broadly, there is no room to confront the truth about communism. Manent suggests a deeper reason for this shocking moral and intellectual blindness and abdication: there are obvious affinities between hard and soft despotism, between communist ideology and humanist-humanitarian ideology.
As Aron came to appreciate fully under the impact of Solzhenitsyn’s moral witness, both communist ideology and the new antinomianism reject the moral law in the name of an unbounded freedom that gives rise to limitless despotism, where it does not merely excuse it. The French liberal conservatives stand out by their recognition that totalitarianism and moral nihilism are two sides of the same ideological coin. As Philippe Bénéton and Chantal Delsol have often noted, late modernity shares with the communism of the past a Manichean impulse to divide humanity into those who are on “the right side of history”, and those who are ontologically guilty because they stand, unbeknownst to themselves, for heteronomous domination in all its forms.
In opposition to this dual mutilation of the moral law, the French liberal conservatives affirm with Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel and others that “the line between good and evil” can be found in every human heart. Every class, group, party and individual is capable of succumbing to moral blindness and excessive self-assertion. The most meaningful distinction for human life is the permanent distinction between good and evil in every human heart or soul. The ideological distinction between “progress” and “reaction” in contrast is a chimera that leads to new forms of tyranny and oppression. It is incompatible with political moderation and serene and balanced human self-knowledge and self-limitation.
Islam: Beyond illusions
The contemporary French conservative liberals whom I have highlighted also have no illusions about Islam and Islamism. They are not “Islamophobes”, a cheap, ideological category which has little or no meaning, and serves to cut off meaningful conversation and intellectual inquiry. Rather, students of Islam such as Rémi Brague and Alain Besançon refuse to succumb to intellectual self-deception.
Many pious Muslims are indeed decent souls who appeal in the few prayers they know to a compassionate and merciful judge, as Rémi Brague, an Arabist as well as a Catholic philosopher-theologian, pointed out to me. Some Muslims even convert to Christianity when they actually read the Koran and discover its toleration for oppression and violence against those who do not belong to the “House of Islam”, or those at home who challenge its harsher premises.
Besançon has even spoken about naive indulgence towards Islam as a fundamental temptation for the Catholic Church today, with too many bishops, theologians, and even recent popes, uncritically proclaiming Islam to be both an Abrahamic religion and a “religion of peace”. Besançon has also argued that Islam, like communism, makes its way in the world by using and abusing certain “homonyms”. The Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Mary of the Koran have little or nothing to do with those great souls who come to light in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The Koran viciously mocks the Trinity, denies that Jesus was crucified, and forbids Muslims from even reading the Old and New Testaments. We are not people of the same “Book”, however much that falsehood is proclaimed in the name of false ecumenism and easygoing religious political correctness.
Besançon and Brague do not wish to encourage endless enmity between Christianity and Islam. Rather, they aim to promote an engagement and scholarship rooted in facts, moral realism and true theology. In a recent dialogue with the Islamic scholar Souleymane Bachir about the nature of Islam, La controverse: Dialogue sur l’Islam, Brague spoke bluntly but with no animosity towards decent Muslims. Among other things, he highlighted all the problems associated with treating the Koran as “the uncreated Word of Allah”, and thus incapable of real interpretation. The Bible is not the “word of God” for Christians in anything like the same sense. The biblical writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the letter and spirit of the two great testaments is always open to thoughtful reading and interpretation by believers. Furthermore, Brague points out that basic moral norms, not to mention the laws of civil society, are, for Christians, found in human nature, the moral law, and in the exercise of prudent judgment.
Christianity leaves much more room for human intelligence, and judgment, and fundamental human liberties, than the Islamic law does. Christianity in its dominant forms esteems human reason while Islam speaks of a “submission” to divine law and will that has little place for human freedom. In the end, Brague suggests, Islam is prone to fatalism while Christianity, with a few exceptions, allows human beings to respond freely to the grace of God our father and friend. Despite theological tensions between free will and predestination, the mainstream of Christianity moves strongly in the direction of rejecting determinism and defending free will as an essential response of the human person to the goodness and greatness of God.
There is nothing in Christianity that is the equivalent to what Leibniz and others have called the fatum mahometanum. Islamic fatalism has troubling religious and political implications. For Christians, grace perfects nature, and the natural virtues serve as the indispensable starting point for the theological virtues. There is no equivalent of nature and grace, or the full range of the virtues, in Islamic thought or practice.
Muslims now live in large numbers in what Pierre Manent has called Western nations of a “Christian mark”. A place must be found for them as citizens in a common national framework, or community of destiny. French and European Muslims must, however, reject sharia as well as guidance and funding from illiberal Islamic regimes and religious currents. They must also accept that they live in free societies marked by the Christian heritage and its deep-seated spiritual ties to the covenant with God announced by the Jewish people. All of that is non-negotiable, a precondition for authentic civic reconciliation, as Pierre Manent has wisely argued. And some decent, patriotic Muslims have responded positively to this challenge. But as Manent pointed out in a recent piece in Commentaire, republished in English in Law and Liberty, an important part of French Islam sees in any criticism, however decent, calibrated or fair, in any request, “however reasonable”, “a sign of Islamophobia”.
Manent judiciously, but firmly, argues that France’s Islamic community must move away from putting all their energy into denouncing Islamophobia. Good will and civic friendship require a rejection of all deeds that violate the moral law and the requirements of civic amity. French Muslims must effectively combat “the excesses or pathologies of Islam that ought to be repulsive to Muslims themselves”. There is nothing immoderate, oppressive, hateful or unreasonable about making that request. It is the sine qua non of any civic project that will allow Christians, Jews, secularists and Muslims to live together as one people, one nation, under the rule of law.
Beyond Western self-hatred
In the first part of this article, I spoke a great deal about the role that a self-hating “culture of repudiation” (the late Roger Scruton’s inimitable phrase) plays in contemporary European intellectual and political culture. Recently, I asked the relatively young Italian-born political theorist Giulio de Ligio (a student of Pierre Manent’s who has written brilliantly on the deepest political and philosophical resonances of Raymond Aron’s thought) how the old nations and the old religion still might speak to the hearts and souls of the younger generation. De Ligio freely acknowledged that the young, even the best of the young, have succumbed to the rejection of large parts of the Western heritage out of a misplaced sense that they are unjust. With rare exceptions, he added, they do not hate the Western inheritance even if they have come to perceive it as resting on an unjust foundation of inequality, ecological devastation and colonial exploitation.
The great task lying before those of us who affirm the goodness of our free and self-critical Western tradition and inheritance, must be to lead the younger generations to a deeper appreciation of the fact that self-criticism, and even penitential impulses, are perfectly compatible with a complete affirmation of a civilisation built on the four great pillars of reason, revelation, self-government and liberty under law. Without that transformation of excessive self-criticism into a reasoned choice for civilisation itself, the West will sink further into a “double sterility”, as the Catholic poet and essayist Charles Péguy diagnosed it over one hundred years ago, one where the “deChristianisation” and the “derepublicanisation” of France and Europe reinforce each other and undermine the vitality of a civilisation that should still inspire the commitment of decent young men and women. Unreasonable demands for perfect justice that jettison moral and civic prudence, and lose a sense of historical proportion, readily give rise to nihilism, passivity and a deep sense of spiritual forlornness. Educators and scholars like de Ligio can point the way forward through a revitalisation of the essential truths of Western philosophy, the Christian religion, and the Western civic tradition of liberty under law. That is one way of recovering, or rather rejuvenating, the full powers of civilisation and the soul.
As Pierre Manent has recently pointed out in Natural Law and Human Rights, this dispiriting double sterility of which Péguy and de Ligio spoke can lead to a warped and dehumanising understanding of death, one with pernicious social and political consequences. Whether one is believer or unbeliever, human beings guided by a sense of the duties and obligations inherent in both the moral and civic spheres do not obsess over death or attempt to “survive at any price”. They are self-conscious mortals who gladly carry out their larger moral and civic responsibilities.
That is a lesson that has been largely forgotten in the present global crisis occasioned by the spread of COVID-19. Individually and collectively, we seem to have put what Aristotle called “mere life” above the “good life” which is the crown of human temporal existence. By all means, we must protect the weak, the vulnerable, those who are at risk of death as the ravages of the pandemic do their work. That is an imperative for all decent people. But shutting down civilised existence hardly reflects the exigencies of Christian charity or Churchillian fortitude. As Pierre Manent recently stated in an interview with Le Figaro, free men and women do not readily accept house arrest, or the indefinite prohibition of all forms of worship. Following Aristotle, Manent reminded his readers that politics is the “queen of the sciences”, one that should not be usurped by “experts” who display no special capacity for moral and political judgment, and sometimes quite the opposite.
The present crisis should give rise to renewed introspection on the part of a Western world in danger of losing its soul, immediately or through a not-so-slow process of moral and civic attrition. In this task of moral, political and philosophical self-interrogation and renewal, there is no better guide than the French liberal conservative thought I have highlighted in this two-part essay and reflection.
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Sources and suggested readings
Raymond Aron’s La revolution introuvable (2018) will remain the unsurpassed discussion and critique of the mix of political utopianism and moral antinomianism that defined the “May events” in Paris in 1968. Aron also stood nearly alone at the time in forthrightly defending the liberal university against what he did not hesitate to call intellectual terrorism.
For Aron’s most moving account of the impact Solzhenitsyn had on his thinking, see his 1976 essay “Alexander Solzhenitsyn and European Leftism”, in Daniel J. Mahoney ed, In Defense of Political Reason: Essays by Raymond Aron (1994), pp. 115–124, especially pp. 123–124. Aron’s comments on the intimate connection between anti-totalitarianism and opposition to ideological revolution can be found in L’abécédaire de Raymond Aron, texts chosen by Dominique Schnapper and Fabrice Gardel (2019), in the entry titled “Antirévolutionnaire”, pp. 17–18.
I have drawn freely on conversations with Alain Besançon over the years as well as on his superb but sobering reflection on the tragedies of the twentieth century titled A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah, translated by Ralph C. Hancock (2007), especially pp. 36–37. I am also indebted to Besancon’s book Trois tentations dans l’Église (1996) which deals with three looming temptations in the life of the Church: reactionary anti-modernism, the religion of humanity or indulgence to democracy in its least wise and sober forms, and a misguided effort to exaggerate the intellectual, moral and theological affinities between Islam and Christianity.
In my discussion of the lamentable consequences of the West’s failure to come to terms with the true meaning and legacy of communism, I have drawn on correspondence with Philippe Bénéton, Chantal Delsol and especially Pierre Manent.
In my discussion of Islam, I am indebted to correspondence with Rémi Brague and to his luminous analyses in La controverse: Dialogue sur l’Islam (2019), pp. 2, 30–31, 37–38, 71–72, 76, 87–89, 159–161. I am also indebted to Alain Besançon’s discussions of Islam in Trois tentations dans l’eglise. For Manent’s striking account of the evasion which is the constant recourse to accusations of Islamophobia, see Pierre Manent, “Islam in France”, translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton, in Law and Liberty, April 1, 2020.
I am grateful to Giulio de Ligio of the Institut Catholique in Paris for his insights on the younger generation’s receptivity to the culture of repudiation, a well as his penetrating remarks on Charles Péguy’s account of the “double sterility” of a Western world turning away at the same time from both authentic religion and authentic republican politics.
For a truly penetrating account of our debilitating fear of death and especially our misguided tendency to treat it as an “extrinsic accident”, see Pierre Manent, Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, translated by Ralph C. Hancock with a foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney (2020), pp. 89–92. On politics as the “queen of the sciences” and the limits of scientific or technical expertise in the moral and political realms, see the interview with Pierre Manent (“Time to Wake Up!”) in First Things, April 28, 2020.
Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Studies at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author, most recently, of The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018). The first part of this article appeared in the April issue.