Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Intellectual History and Democracy: An Interview with Pierre Rosanvallon1

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Intellectual History and Democracy: An Interview with Pierre Rosanvallon1

Article excerpt

1. J. F. S.: Over the course of nearly three decades, you have developed an impressive body of political and intellectual history, substantially contributing to the conceptualization of liberalism and democracy in France.

You began analyzing some of the key concepts of political modernity as far back as 1977 with the publication of your book Pour une nouvelle culture politique [For a New Political Culture, a collaboration with Patrick Viveret, published by Editions du Seuil, Paris], focusing particularly on French political life of the past two centuries. More recently, Le modèle politique français [The French Political Model, Paris, Seuil, 2004, translated as The Demands of Liberty, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2007] along with the just-published La contre-démocratie [CounterDemocracy, Paris, Seuil, 2006] have continued to dissect topics such as the state, liberalism, the people, citizenship, representation, sovereignty, and so on. We would like to know whether your intellectual work has developed following a preconceived plan, or whether you selected your principal themes out of the need to clarify one or another point as the problems of day to day politics unfolded, which might well have led you to privilege analysis of certain concepts or aspects over others. For instance, has it ever happened that you modified your research agenda in order to clarify a question that you perceived as pressing? And in that sense, to what specific problematic does your new book respond, and how does it fit in the overall ensemble of your oeuvre?

P. R.: Let me begin by recalling how my intellectual career was launched. My first book, which I published in 1976, was titled L'âge de l'autogestion [The Age of Self-Management] . At that point, I was still part of the national leadership of a union, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), where I was in charge of economic analysis, and where I was also editor-in-chief of the union's journal of critical reflection. So it was as a social and political participant that I wrote this book reflecting on one of the central themes of the period, the idea of self-management, which was then being used to organize alternative ideas about the necessary transformations of representative democracy. Yet my considerations did not, for all that, veer in the direction of a completely utopia-like vision of democracy. In fact, the first stage of my intellectual work consisted in recognizing that it is precisely on the basis of its difficulties and material problems that life in democracy ought to be contemplated. While many people were content simply to oppose direct to representative democracy, I wanted to understand what I called the question of democratic entropy and hence the degradation of "democratic energy." To do so, I started to draw up, at about the same time that I was publishing L'âge de l'autogestion, a book that was more of a political manifesto, Pour une nouvelle culture politique [For a New Political Culture]. From that moment on, I undertook a program of work to come to a sociological and historical understanding of democracy's difficulties. To that end, I continued to revitalize all of the realist sociologists of democracy of the late nineteenth century. I contributed to having Roberto Michels' famous book on political parties republished in France, and I also directed an annotated edition of [Moisei] Ostrogorski's major book Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, published by Editions du Seuil in 1979. It's also in that same framework that I affiliated intellectually with Claude Lefort, who had just published Le travail de l'oeuvre Machiavel, a work written by a political philosopher with a very realistic and relevant optic on the difficulties of democracy in a society of dissensus.

So that was what had in some way reoriented my thinking and pointed me from an idealistic to a realistic analysis of politics. And from a certain point of view, I would say that in 1976-1977, my political engagement on behalf of a Michel Rocard was not separate from this intellectual aim-Rocard seemed to be the politician who hoped to unite social critique and a concern for governability with a realistic vision of politics. …

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