French Intellectuals against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970'S

By Michael Scott Christofferson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
French Antitotalitarianism in Comparative Perspective

In the latter half of the 1970s a critique of left-wing totalitarianism took French intellectual life by storm. In books and pamphlets, in the press and on television, antitotalitarian intellectuals loudly and dramatically denounced Marxist and revolutionary politics as fatally affiliated with totalitarianism. Originating within the intellectual Left and facing minimal opposition from it, antitotalitarianism rapidly marginalized Marxist thought and undermined the legitimacy of the French revolutionary tradition, paving the way for the postmodern, liberal, and moderate republican political alternatives of the 1980s and 1990s. Antitotalitarianism also radically altered the political judgments and engagements of intellectuals of the noncommunist Left, inaugurating a crusade against communism abroad and worsening the already difficult relations at home between them and the parties of the French Left. In the eyes of the British Marxist Perry Anderson, Paris, the capital of the European (and, in many regards, the world) Left after World War II, had become “the capital of European reaction.”1

Antitotalitarian intellectuals have represented their own critique of totalitarianism as an abrupt rupture in French intellectual politics induced by revelations about the nature of communism. Intellectuals, the antitotalitarians argue, had moved uncritically from one revolutionary enthusiasm to another during the thirty years preceding the critique of totalitarianism. According to antitotalitarian historians such as François Furet, Pierre Rosanvallon, and Jacques Julliard, the remarkably long-lasting blindness of French intellectuals to the repressiveness of communist régimes and the shortcomings of revolutionary politics was due to the longstanding hegemony of the Jacobin revolutionary tradition within French political culture.2 Intellectuals would only be awakened from the long slumber of their critical faculties by the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1974. The Gulag Archipelago’s revelations regarding commu-

Notes for this section begin on page 22.

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