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The ‘New Philosophers’ and the End of Leftism

THI ‘NIW PHILOSOPHIRS’

AND THI IND or
LlrTISM
Peter Dews

Introduction
Fashion moves fast in Parisian salons, and the taste
for intellectual scandal demands the constant breaking of fresh taboos. Three years ago, in the spring
of 1977, a group of young authors styling themselves
the ‘New Philosophers’ moved rapidly to the centre
of attention, making headlines not only in France but
around the globe. The shocking novelty of the New
Philosophers consisted in the fact that here was a
group of young thinkers who were no longer prepared
to dialogue with or work within the framework of
marxism, but who openly denounced marxist thought
as a philosophy of domination. After decades in
which the vast majority of French intellectuals had
instinctively placed themselves on the left, this
attitude marked an important departure. Indeed, the
‘New Philosophy’ opened the floodgates – from then
on no theoretical or political position was too absurd
or reactionary to merit attention. In dreadful confirmation of this, two years later the cultural pages
of a weekly magazine with a circulation of 85,000,
the Sunday supplement of Le Figaro, were taken
over by a ‘New Right’ whose racist and elitist doctrines throw the anti -authoritarian and humanist
character of the New Philosophers’ critique of marx·
ism into sharp relief. In this respect the New
Philosophers already represent a fading page in the
history of recent intellectual and political debate in
France, their pamphleteering too flimsy – despite
its original impact – to merit sustained attention as
a theoretical contribution. Yet to affirm the ephemeral nature of the New Philosophers’ work is not to
deny the importance of the attitudes it expresses,
Or the significance of the moment of its emergence.

For this emergence marked definitively what one
recent chronicler of French philosophy can describe
as marxism’s ‘disappearance, perhaps temporary,
from the field of discussion’ in France (Descombes,
1979, p155). In a country where marxism, in one
form or another, has provided a dominant frame of
reference for work in philosophy and the ‘human
sciences’ ever since the end of the Second World
War, such an event clearly represents a major
turning -point, and one which cannot fail to have
repercussions in Britain. The following pages will
hopefully make the reasons for these developments
clearer.

2

The New Renegades
At the time of its first appearance the New Philosophy was surrounded by a good deal of confusion.

Did its emergence signify, as the sympathetic respanse of Le Nouvel Observateur, France’s leading
left-wing weekly, seemed to suggest, the first
serious attempt by thinkers on the left to deal
squarely and without double -think with abuses of
power by socialist states and the question of human
rights? Or were the New Philosophers, as the
approving reaction of certain commentators, and
some of the company they kept, might lead to
believe, the heralds of a swing to the right among
intellectuals in the advanced capitalist countries?

In part this uncertainty was due to -the way in which
the Nouvelle Philosophie was reported in a press
always eager to relay the opinions of intellectuals
‘disillusioned’ with marxism. The Time cover-story
which immediately assimilated the ideas of the New
Philosophers to those of such stalwarts as Arthur
Koestler and Daniel Bell was a good example of this
process, drawing some sarcastic feedback from Le
Nouvel Observateur, which had originally given the
new thinkers space to air their opinions. (At the
other end of the political spectrum, an article in
Pravda quoted opportunistically from a condemnation
of the New Philosophers by Gilles Deleuze, a thinker
with whom orthodox dialectical materialists could
have little sympathy. ) But the ill-defined image of
the Nouvelle Philosophie cannot be attributed entire1y to partisan reporting. The work of the New
Philosophers is in fact an ill-considered mEHange of
theories, attitudes and responses, in which positions inherited from the post-’68 far-left mingle
with themes which, under their veneer of novelty,
can be seen to belong to the traditional repertoire of
the Right.

This confusion and laying of false trails appeared
clearly in the debate which occupied the literary
magazines and weekly press in the year of the runup to the legislative elections, and in which the
established standard-bearers of the Left – Poulantzas
Debray, Castoriadis, Ranciere – were aligned

against the disruptive and voluble newcomers_ In
reply to those critics who suggested that a great
deal of patient theoretical work would be required to
back up the kind of generalisations which the New
Philosophers were willing to make, Bernard -Henri

Levy, the publisher and de facto spokesman of the
group, asserted that ‘urgency today is a genre in
itself’, thereby justifying any intellectual shoddiness
in the name of political ‘relevance’. With the fervour
of apostasy and revelation the New Philosophers
denounced Reason itself, particularly in its marxist
and historicist form, as a kind of insidious balm,
an ironing -out of the bloody irrationalities of history.

Thus it was easy to reply to accusations of theoretical incoherence with the suggestion that the critic
was attempting to impose a ‘totalitarian’ rationality
on the spontaneity and truth (for the New Philosophers the two terms are practically synonymous) of
their protest, thereby betraying the implicit
authoritarian designs of the Left in general. In
portraying even social democracy as the thin end of
a totalitarian wedge, the New Philosophy made its
own a favourite delirium of the Right.

An alternative ploy was to suggest that the Nouvelle
Philosophie was merely the construct of dogmatic
imaginations: that there was only a disparate group
of writers ‘with nothing in common except the hazar~s of biography’. Here disiny;enuousness shaded
into dishonesty. For it was Levy who invented the
name ‘New Philosophers’ as the title of a dossier
which he edited for Les Nouvelles Litteraires in the
summer of 1976, and in which he undertook to ‘introduce a few friends’. Furthermore, while Levy was
publishing articles whose titles proclaimed that:

‘La Nouvelle Philosophie n’existe pas’ (Levy, 1978),
Grasset, the publishing house for which he works as
an editor, continued to print an advertisement in
which it was boldly announced that: ‘The ”New
Philosophers” publish in the collections Figures and
Theoriciens edited by B. -H. Levy’. Admittedly there.

is a certain diversity in the output of the New
Philosophers – but no more so than with any other
group of thinkers who share certain common as sump
tions and emerge from a common context. On a
cynical view, such as that of Gilles Deleuze, the
‘varieties’ of the Nouvelle Philosophie – Christian,
leftist, liberal, Nietzschean – were simply different
ways of dressing up the same reactionary message
so as to appeal to as many tastes as possible (see
Deleuze, 1977). But even if the whole phenomenon
had not been manipulated by the pUblicity-conscious
Levy in order to produce maximum impact, there
would still be sufficient themes common to the New
Philosophers, and these themes would be sufficiently
rooted in a more general shift in the climate of
opinion, to justify collective treatment.

On the question of political allegiance the New
Philosophers betrayed further evidence of their
evasiveness and bad faith. Most of them insisted
that they were writers of the Left, addressing their
appeals to the Left. Yet their denunciations of
‘totalitarianism’ were focussed almost exclusively
on states where marxism is the official ideology,
predominantly the Soviet Union seen through the
prism of the work of Solzhenitsyn. They equally
exploited every opportunity of publicising their views
in the only-too-willing capitalist press and media,
while depicting themselves as dissidents persecuted
and censored by the rising ‘red bourgeoisie’. If they
were attacked by the Left as reactionaries, this
could only be because they represented the true Left,
despite the fact that they perceived little more than
the shadow of the Gulag in Marx, and casually

suggested the need for the abandonment of the ‘entire
socialist tradition’. In fact their self -location on the
left was chiefly made possible by an insistence on
the continuity between their writings and the spirit
of the uprising of May ’68: for the media the New
Philosophers belonged to a ‘lost generation’, disillusioned by the fading of the dreams and expectatiOTlS of that time, yet continuing to bear witness to
the ‘inner truth’ of the movement. In the similar
terms of the ‘minor’ New Philosopher Michel le
Bris: in May ’68 a new experience of freedom had
been born, but it had taken nearly a decade for’ consciousness to return into itself’ and for the thought
of that freedom to emerge (Le Bris, 1977). However
one interprets these claims, it cannot be maintained
that the reference to May ’68 is simply a publicity
gimmick. On the biographical level, most of the
New Philosophers were active in the May events,
and subsequently became militants in far-left organisations, the majority in the ‘maoist’ Gauche
Proletarienne. Michelle Bris, for example, was
jailed in 1970 for editing the GP’s paper, La Cause
du Peuple, as a result of which Sartre was invited
– and accepted – to take over the position. Himself
from a Breton peasant background, Le Bris was
subsequently active in the Occitanian autonomist
movement.

In repudiating marxism, writers like Le Bris do not
repudiate this past militancy. What has happened is
that May ’68 and its aftermath are now interpreted
from a new post-gauchiste perspective which
assumes the redundancy of the marxist categories
which classified ’68 as a prelude to revolution,
failing to recognise in the events a so~io~political
convulsion of a new kind. The libertarian aspect of
May is prolonged in a critique of all official doctrines of revolution. (Le Bris’ particular concern,
for example, is with the positive values of the peasant way of life, condemned by marxism, with its
obsession with industrialisation and the role of the
proletariat.) It would therefore be naive to portray
the New Philosophers, as the Right attempted to do,
as simply having ‘woken up’ to the totalitarian
dangers of marxism. As E. H. Carr has recently
pointed out, the volume of criticism of the Soviet
Union in the West has never risen and fallen with
the actual level of repression in that country – it
has always rather been an index of changes of
political climate in the country where it was voiced
(Ca rr, 1978). Accordingly, an unde rstanding of the
Nouvelle Philosophie must be genetic and contextual:

it cannot be treated as a collection of statements to
be assessed in abstraction as to their truth or
falsity.

So there you have it. Bernard-Henri Levy
has become a best-selling author, a true
media star, an adored and loathed spokesman
simply by writing a book in which he says,
in effect:

• Marxism is evil-inherently so.

• Capitalism leads to great evil; that too
is inevitable.

• Both ideologies are dangerous.

• Individual rebellion is important and desirable … but ultimately a lost cause, providing only temporary benefits.

The French who could listen to this sort
of thing for hours. have in fact done so. At
this moment there are about eight similarlyminded new authors runnning around Paris.

And they call themselves “the new philosophers.”

3

The Vision that Failed
How does one deal with an experience of exaltation,
in which a radical transformation of human relations
abruptly be comes a concrete possibility, when the
moment of vision has faded and existence appears to
have lapsed into a dreary normality? A useful way
of· looking at the diverse forms of the New Philosophy – and one which helps to explain the religious
dimension of some of its productions – is to see
them as different attempts to come to terms with
this same fundamental problem. One immediate and
evident response would be to strive to prolong or
revive that experience, and this is precisely what
most of the intellectuals now become New Philosophers did. After May ’68 most of them became
militants in the Gauche Proletarienne, a group
which was fOrmed from a fusion between the antiauthoritarian student movement, the Mouvement du
22 Mars and the maoist current of Althusserianism,
the Uniori de la Jeunesse Communiste (M. -L. ).

Along with a number of other groups such as Vive
la Revolution, which went even further in its rejection of Leninism, the GP attempted to keep alive the
flame of the May revolt in anticipation of an eventual
‘people’s war’ (the lack of a sense of reality is not
something new in the New Philosophers). Although
still organised on strict democratic -centralist
lines its message was populist and spontaneist.

Mao had affirmed that ‘the masses are always right”
that all knowledge stems from and returns to the
suffering people, and accordingly the traditional
roles of intellectual leadership and pedagogy had to
be abandoned. The role of the party was no longer
to form the vanguard and revolutionary elite, but to
facilitate the expression of the desires of the masses,
and to encourage their impulse towards rebellion by
means of exemplary action. Yet no matter how far
the GP went in this direction, it continued to work
within a marxist framework to the extent that May
’68 was read as a prelude to some greater insurrection, a sign that the proletariat was no longer willing
to accept bourgeois rule unquestioningly, and that
hegemony was being increasingly transformed into
naked domination. With the rapid decay of French
maoism in the early 70s, and the reoccupation of the
political terrain by the traditional parties of the
Left, this confidence in the anticipatory meaning of
May ’68 for the class struggle began to fade. The
new tendency was to accept May ’68 ‘on its own
terms’, as a form of rebellion which could not be
slotted into the marxist schemas. A characteristic
example of this interpretation can be found in
Foucault’s preface to the English translation of
Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: ‘Had the
utopian project of the thirties been resumed, this
time on the scale of historical practice? Or was
there, on the contrary, a movement toward political
struggles that no longer conformed to the model that
Marxist tradition had prescribed? Towards an experience and technology of desire that were no
longer Freudian. It is true that the old banners were
raised, but the combat shifted and spread into new
zones.’ (Foucault, 1977, pXXI). Despite the theoretical justifications of this reorientation, one should
not overlook such ‘banal’ factors as the PCF’s role
in May ’68. If the embodiment of the worker’s movement could act as simply one more apparatus of
repression, then the real struggle seemed to be no
longer between worker and capitalist, but between
institutionalised power and resistance. Progressive4

ly the idea of a ‘critique-of institutions’ associated
with the Events began to be detached from any
reference to relations of production or the conflict
of social classes.

The Nouvelle Philosophie ‘transcendentialisation’ of
this re-reading is perhaps most fully represented by
Maurice Clavel, a novelist and philosophy teacher in
whom Christian belief and sympathetic collaboration
with the post -’68 maoists combined to produce an
avuncular entuusiasm for the new thinkers. In
Clavel’s interpretation May ’68 was not a prelude to
revolution in the political sense, but rather to a
transformation of consciousness. It signified the
opening of a ‘cultural fracture’ (a coinage intended
to avoid the menacingly cyclic connotations of the
term ‘revolution’), a crumbling of the ‘historicocultural foundation which can be summarily termed
“capitalo-communist”.’ (Clavel, 1977, p59). Clavel
is inevitably rather vague about what he understands
by this, throwing off references to Berdiaeff (‘we
are living the last days of the Renaissance’) or lapsing into the Christian vocabulary of the ‘liberation
of the spirit’. But he is convinced that what happened
after May ’68 was an ‘Indian summer’ of marxism in
its anti-Communist Party forms. Because the radical novelty of the’ cultural revolution’ would inevitably at first be misrecognised, its immediate
participants were destined to continue trying to fit
their experience into the outworn framework of
marxism. Yet the repercussions of the ‘fracture’ of
May were bound eventually to result in a break with
marxist modes of thought (1). Clavel claims to have
foreseen that, after the debacle of maoism, and
after having passed through a period of despair, the
true critics of Marx and harbingers of the coming
spiritual/ cultural transformation would emerge
from the ranks of the former militants. Lardreau
and Jambet, friends of Clavel and authors of L’Ange,
one of the earliest successes of the Nouvelle Philosophie, take up some of the same ideas. During
their time as activists in the GP they were both
adamant marxists and not marxists at all, undergoing an experience which was at once political and
spiritual, calling for the rehabilitation of Stalin and
preaching a radical spontaneism. Like Clavel they
now interpret their experience of ‘the absolute
certainty that the revolution was not only possible,
but that we were in the process of making it’

(Lardreau and Jambet, 1976, p57) in quasi-religious
terms, in which the liberating break of revolution is
opposed to the tyrannical continuity implied by the
marxist dialectic of historical progress.

Not all the writings of the New Philosophers have
this overtly religiOUS dimension, but in all some
kind of celebration of the experience of rupture and
rebellion is to be found. In Andre Glucksmann, for
example, this experience is expressed in the secular
form of a frantic anti -statism which has become an
established part of the radical doxa in France, and
1 This interpretation is not the unique property of groups like the New
Philosophers, but has more or less become the ‘authorised version’ of
recent intellectual history in France. Vincent Descombes, in his history of
French philosophy, gives the following account: ‘In this month of May 1968
the French lettered class got the biggest surprise of its life: the revolution
which had been talked about for so long broke out without bothering to notify
anyone; but this revolution, after all, was perhaps not a revolution … For
more than twenty years the intellectuals had made enormous efforts to
become adepts of historical materialism, in the hope of breaking away from
the “petty-bourgeois ideology” inherited from their origins: only to discover
in this theory of history, in this mode of political thought, an obstacle which
cut them cif from history, when history came knocking at the door. ‘

(Descombes, 1979, p196)

whose potential for exploitation by the Right is all
too evident. There are -several features, however,
which distinguish this anti -statism from the traditional doctrines of anarchism. Rather than being
based on a faith in the innate goodness of human
nature, its backdrop is a kind of despair which, at
its limit, depicts human society as permanently and
inherently oppressive. Its inevitable outcome is the
search for a ‘provisional morality’ and a ‘politics of
the least evil’, the desire to be – in Camus’ phrase ‘neither victims, nor torturers’. The Nouvelle
Philosophie has no conception of historical advance
or permanent transformation, but can only imagine
brief fulgurations of rebellion which will inevitably
fade back into the long night of oppression. In a
further contrast with traditional anarchism, the
Nouvelle Philosophie’s denunciations of totalitarianism, as has already been mentioned, are directed
almost exclusive ly against left -wing regimes. 1’he
rationalising, modernising apparatus of state socialism appears as the dismal terminus of an increasing
centralisation of power. Typically Lardreau and
Jambet can claim that: ‘today, to think against the
state is, to a large extent, to think against marxism’

(~ardreau and Jambet, 1978, p36).

trades unions, the intellectuals have returned from
‘politics’ to theorise this isolation in anti-marxist
terms, and to exchange the quest for an alliance
with the best traditions of the workers’ movement
for an adoption of the better political and cultural
traditions of the bourgeoisie (human rights, Albert
Camus, the Centre Beaubourg). Only in France
could the North-American commonplace. of ‘no
necessary correspondence’ between economic liberalism and social conservatism be experienced as a
revelation. Whether one sees a genuine reflux from
marxism taking place, or whether, like Alain
Touraine, one sees a confusion between libertarianism and Bolshevism which dates back to Sartre
finally being cleared up, and an essentially liberal
critique of state -power emerging from its illadapted marxist-Ieninist shell (see Touraine, 1977),
the fact is that the positions of the Nouvelle Philosophie (the state is the ultimate evil, ‘to think is to
dominate’, the individual is sovereign) could merge
almost imperceptibly into the doctrines of neoliberalism, with its aggressive belief in private
enaeavour and the minimal state.

What remains of 68 in 78, at the bottom of the
retorts of social experimentation, and after the
sieve of ten years of apprenticeships by trial and
error, is the lowest common denominator: life
can be changed without changing the State. (And
if one cannot change other people’s lives, at least
one can improve one’s own.) … The aberrant
politicisation of the private sphere (68) has been
reversed into the aberrant privatisation of the
political sphere (78). (Debray, 1978, p56)
Debray clinches his argument with a reference to
the recent proliferation of pirate radio stations in
France. The nationalist and jacobin fr.action of the
bourgeoisie, Chirac’s RPR, forced through a strict
law against the ‘free radios’ in 1972, while other
countries (Britain, Italy) were opening the way for
a big expansion of private broadcasting. Thus in
France it is left to the dissidents and autonomists
of the airwaves to struggle against the now -outmoded
idea of centralised state control of all broadcasting.

Yet, despite appearances, they are merely blasting
a trail towards the moment when advertising-overload will force French legislation into conformity
with the requirements of consumer capitalism.

‘Anarchists’ and ‘capitalists’ advance by opposed
and yet converging paths (2).

Of course, other, very different, accounts of the
political trajectory of the New Philosophers are
possible, perhaps the most incisive of which was
produced by Regis Debray in a pamphlet published
as a counterblast to the wave of sentimental celebration which marked the tenth anniversary of May ’68.

Debray begins by debunking the idea that the Events
marked a major revolutionary upsurge, a fundamental challenge to the structures of capitalism. He does
not deny that in certain respects there was a violent
confrontation with bourgeois order, but suggests
that this was less because of the revolutionary temper of the proletariat than because the French bourgeoisie found itself ‘politically and ideologically well
behind the logic of its own economic development’

(Debray, 1978, trans. p48). Debray sees the central
factor in the aetiology of the May movement in the
far greater diSjunction in France than elsewhere
between the requirements of advanced capitalist
te chnology and industry and cultural forms dominated
by an extremely traditionalist, catholic and ruralbased bourgeois ideology. Whereas in other countries
the transition to advanced consumer capitalism, and
the corresponding transformation of attitudes to the
family, sexuality, the forms and content of educati0ll:

took place comparatively smoothly, in France it
required an abrupt convulsion to begin the process
of bringing base and superstructure back into line.

May ’68 was therefore not a crisis of the capitalist
system, but a crisis in the system, which – in contrast to a genuine revolutionary crisis – led, after
the reimposition of order, to the installation of a
regime very similar to that which had gone before,
but now committed to the political and legislative
assimilation of the innovations of the uprising. In
the vagueness and self-proclaimed aimlessness of
May ‘the imaginary anticipated the .real, and the law
of the heart coincided with the law of efficiency’

(ibid, trans. p48).

In a perceptive article (Ranciere, 1978) Danielle
and Jacques Ranci~re – who, like the New Philosophers, took the road from Althusser through
maoism, but who have gone on to uncover an import·
ant vein of historical enquiry – have Similarly
traced the itinerary of the intellectuals after May
’68, this time with regard to their changing status,
and to changing conceptions of their own role. In the
period immediately after ’68 the attack on the hierarchies of the faculty became a kind of populism, in
which the trickery and untruth of the discourse of
the intellectuals was opposed to the authentic knowledge of the tOiling and slffering masses. This was
the time of etablissement, the movement in which
many militants abandoned courses and potential

Given this analysis, Debray can make clear, ina
different way to the New Philosophers themselves,
the connection between their present activity and
their militant past. Cut off from the workers movement by the action of the Communist Party and the

2 However, in New Left Review 115 Henri Weber has offered a cogent critique
of Debray’s account, pointing out that the May uprising cannot be reduced to
a simple functionalist ‘ruse’ of the mode of production, and that the genuine·
ly anti-capitalist potential of May could only be deflected through a process
of ideological class struggle. Unfortunately Weber’s own account is vitiated
by its return to the tired Trotskyist thesis of workers betrayed by a reform·
ist leadership.

5

academic careers to work on the docks or in the big
car factories (3), and of Sartre’s pronouncements on
the coming end of the old-style intellectual cut off
from the life of the people. The Rancieres suggest
that around 1972 disillusionment began to set in, due
to the failure of the masses to manifest the kind of
combativity which had been hoped for (the lack of
any significant working -class response after the
shooting of Pierre Overney, a young maoist worker,
by a factory guard at Renault was a particularly
bitter blow). Consequently the intellectual began to
reassume an autonomous function. This time, however, the idea was not that he or she take on the
role of leader, representative, or universalising
spokesman, but that the task was to remove the
institutional blocks which prevented the masses
themselves from being heard. Thus Sartre described
the scandalous nature for the bourgeoisie of La
Cause du Peuple, the paper of the Gauche Proletarienne, as conSisting in the fact that – in
contrast to papers which speak on behalf of the
working class – it allowed the voice of the masses
themselves to be heard. In this context a role for
the intellectual appears, in which it is his or her
prestige (as in the case of Sartre’s editorship of
La Cause du Peuple) which is put to use, rather than
a capacity to provide a universalising counterpoint
to the concrete activity of the masses. But once this
step has been taken the way is open for the intellectual to reassume her Ihis traditional status, while
masking this reassumption with a rhetoric in which
universalising discourse is denounced in the name of
the masses. The Nouvelle Philosophie consists of a
series of simplifications which betray the desire to
‘have it both ways’: the intellectual is restored to
full rights as bearer of the banner of freedom
against all forms of oppression and domination, but
such domination is no longer conceived of in class
terms. Rather it is theorised with convenient vagueness in a vocabulary of ‘power’, or in terms of a
multiplicity of powers. At the same time the source
of her I his authority is a past of militant activity and
an appeal – in a reminiscnece of maoist populism direct to the masses, to what is now termed the
‘pleb’. Thus the inevitably complex and contradict0ry relation between the intellectual and popular
movements, which Jacques Ranci’ere and his te.am
have recently been analysing in its historical detail,
is transformed into a harmonious unity, in which the
post-gauchiste intellectual employs the image of the
pleb, of the suffering and downtrodden people, as
the moral blackmail at the heart of an attack on the
power-affiliations
of learned discourse. The

Rancieres see the attack on marxism as playing a
central role in the elaboration of this elitist populism. By attacking the abuse of power by marxist
governments and parties, and attributing these
abuses to the nature of marxist theory itself, the
New Philosophers can all the more efficiently avoid
disconcerting questions about their own former role
as militants. Furthermore, the attack on marxism
betrays a despair of the capacity of popular rebellion to Significantly transform society, born out of
the disappointments of their own experience. A
blanket condemnation of marxism spares one the
trouble of analYSing the nature and content of popular movements, since the Socialist Revolution can
be explained away as an idea stuffed into the heads
of the workers by the Master Thinkers in order to
ensure their own universal domination. The rejec3 For a first -person account of this movement see Linhart (1978).

6

tion of marxism, enthroned by their former master
Althusser as the Theory of theories, becomes the
only way for the New Philosophers to continue to
affirm the plurality and gaiety of the revolts of May.

Reason and Desire
The New Philosophy, however, is not simply the
terminus of a political itinerary which began in May
’68; ii: is net just a collection of political attitudes,
but also has a more specifically theoretical lineage,
which can be deciphered in the debased forms of the
theoretical ‘underpinning’ of its arguments. Since
the mid-60s, with the crumbling of the orthodoxy of
‘scientistic’ structuralism, the avant -garde of
French theory has placed an ever -increasing positive investment in the disruptive effects which plurality and Singularity oppose to the efforts of
theoretical system -builders. Whether this opposition
is set up in terms of metaphysical closure and
differance, as in Derrida, or of linguistic system
and enunciating subject, as in Tel Quel, what has
been valorised is the breaking -down and evasion of
order. Given the close interaction between philosophical and political ideas in France, without
parallel in the sealed world of analytical philosophy,
it would have been naive not to expe ct, sooner or
later, a political pay-off from this theoretical
emphasis. Certain thinkers sought to delay this
nemesis, in the case of Derrida by denying any
ultimate incompatibility between his ideas and marxism, and in the case of Tel Quel by projecting their
theories into the imaginary real of maoist China.

But with the Nouvelle Philosophie it finally took the
stage in an eclectic and virulent form (and the modish litterateurs at Tel Quel were among- the first to
follow the new trend). However, the New Philosophers were not the first to attempt a marriage of the
themes of difference and singularity with the more
specific concerns of post-’68 gauchisme. The
invasion by leftism of the theoretical terrain had
begun to take place several years earlier, perhaps
most deciSively marked by the publication in 1972
of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.

Anti-Oedipus is not, and does not claim to be, a
work of coherent theory. It is a celebration of the
liberating force of what Deleuze and Guattari call
‘desire’, conceived of as free-flowing by nature,
unrestricted in its choice of objects, and existing
prior to any systematisation. If only one could reach
the level of this desire then all would be well, for
‘desire is revolutionary in itself, and as if involuntarily, in wanting what it wants’. The universality of
free affirmation would lead automatically not towards
socialism (Deleuze and Guattari are convinced ~hat
socialisation of the means of production can only increase the despotism of the state), but towards a
vaguely-imagined utopia. The true revolutionaries
are authors such as Nietzsche, Artaud, Henry
Miller, the constant reference :”points of the book,
and not, in the words of fellow desirant JeanFrancois Lyotard, those ‘paranoiacs who call themselves marxist politicians’. Yet Deleuze and
Guattari are also acutely aware that what they call
‘true desire’ is extremely difficult to discover. True
desire exists at the unconscious and pre -individual
level, whilst all we are aware of is structures and
social institutions which determine relations between
‘whole persons’. These structures are the result of
an ordering, which Deleuze and Guattari refer to as

a ‘territorialisation’ of desire, in which (since
‘social production and desiring production are one
and the same’) desire turns against itself and begins
to solidify into its own prison. Thus what begins as
a celebration of untrammelled desire ends by being
confronted with precisely the same problems as
classical Freudianism, the difference -being that
Deleuze and Guattari see the Oedipus complex not
as the original ‘tragedy’ of desire, but as one
further codification (the hermeneutic reduction of all
libidinal relations to the sad, repetitive triangle of
Daddy-Mommy-Me) imposed in the interests of preserving an increasingly unstable social order.

Three aspects of Anti-Oedipus are of primary significance for the form of the Nouvelle Philosophie will
take. The first is a radically undialectical view of
the relation between individual and social formation:

both are seen as constructed, in a way which remains unelucidated, by the activity of apersonal
‘desiring machines’. All forms of order or codification are seen as oppressive, including the order of
theory: ‘It is not the sleep of reason which engenders
monsters’, write Deleuze and Guattari, ‘but a vigilan! and insomniac rationality’ (Deleuze and Guattari,
1977, p112). By distinguishing between investments
of desire at the unconscious level and pre -conscious
investments of interest, Anti -Oedipus can suggest
that apparently subversive organisations, and in
first place the revolutionary party, can in fact be
reactionary and repressive from the point of view of
desire. But by this time the concept of desire has
become so extended as to have lost all meaning. It
is no longer clear what Deleuze and Guattari are
affirming. In a book devoted to its celebration, it is
all but impossible to discover examples of liberated,
non-oedipanised desire. Schizophrenic delirium
seems to offer the closest approximation, but again
Deleuze and Guattari claim that clinical schizophrenia represents a truncated and codified version
of the true liberating experience. One is tempted to
agree with Rene Girard when, in his perceptive critique of Anti-Oedipus, he writes: ‘Do (Deleuze and
Guattari) not limit themselves to placing beneath the
Freudian edifice, shaken but intact, a new layer of
the unconscious, far below or far above if you prefer, whose repercussions on our humble activities
are about as concrete as would be the discovery of a
new layer of gas in the atmosphere of Venus?’

(Girard, 1972, p961). Anti-Oedipus, and this is a
prophetic trait, pays for the’ radicality’ of its
challenge to social institutions with an almost total
vacuousness.

The second Significant aspect of Anti-Oedipus is the
way in which it takes up and elaborates a central
theme of Wilhelm Reich’s analysis of fascism. The
libertarian impulse of May had encouraged the undertaking of analyses of the interplay between power
(the institution) and desire (liberation), but AntiOedipus was perhaps the first work to emerge from
this milieu to suggest that this interplay was more
than a simple opposition. Just as in Reich’s analysis
of fascism a role is given to the pleasure derived
from submission to power, so Deleuze and Guattari
depict desire as capable of satisfaction through investment in authoritarian structures. Yet as good
libidinal revolutionaries they feel obliged to disentangle this bad ‘paranoiac’ desire from liberating
s.ch.izoid desire,. a t~sk which becomes increasingly
dIffIcult, and WhICh In the end is tacitly abandoned.

Even the much -maligned Oedipus complex returns to
haunt Deleuze and Guattari, who are unable completely to conjure away the idea that Oedipus is
based on something more than a psychoanalytical
imposture: ‘The oedipal practices of synthesis,
oedipanisation, triangulation, castration, all that
refers back to forces which are a little more powerful, a little more subterranean than psychoanalysis,
the fault, ideology, even taken together’ (cited in
Girard, 1972, p961). Thus it is easy to see how the
frantically affirmative Lebensphilosophie of AntiOedipus could rapidly flip over into a radical pessimism, since there seems to be no way of assuring
th e independence and priority of ‘good’ desire over
‘bad’ deSire, the schizophrenic over the paranoiac,
and the revolutionary over the fascist. Deleuze and
Guattari lose themselves in a maze in their effort to
deny the ultimate identity of these proliferating
doubles. Th-eir book is closest to schizophrenic
delirium .not in what it advocates, but in its own
self -misrecognition and in its desperate attempts to
escape conclusions ever more opposed to those
which were intended.

Thirdly, Ann-Oedipus is important in the pre -history
of the Nouvelle Philosophie as much for its tone and
style as for its content. There is an element of
random and peremptory affirmation in the book
which neglects the patient work of argument in
favour of the bludgeoning of repetition, and which
even employs its own advocation of delirium as a
counter to rational critique. In addition AntiOedipus represented one of the first appearances of
a kind of throw-away philosophy. Neologisms and
theoretical innovations abound; yet shortly after its
publication Deleuze and Guattari announced that they
had now abandoned the concept of ‘desiring machines’,
the central organising concept of the book, and one
or two years later even initial enthusiasts had lost
all interest in the new ‘schizoanalysis’. Unargued
affirmation and the built -in obsolescence of the
affirmed seemed to go hand in hand (4). This kind of
‘theoretical practice’ undoubtedly played an important role in the setting of the stage for the New Philosophy. This is not to say, however, that the New
Philosophers are sympathetic to Deleuze’s positions.

Lardreau and Jambet express admiration for his
scholarship (Deleuze published several widelyrespected studies of classical philosophers before
beginning the elaboration of his own ideas), but are
severely critical of his affirmative conception of
desire. Levy goes even further. He suggests that
the practical extension of Deleuze and Guattari’ s
doctrines, in our imperfect world, would be an
amoral individualism in which the pursuit of gratification would be set above any personal or social
cost: Anti -Oedipus contains the seeds of a new
fascism. Along with a number of other philosophers
of his generation, Deleuze has replied in kind,
denouncing the Nouvelle Philosophie for its flimsiness and commercialism. This antagonism is not
universal however. The New Philosophers do have
their heroes and mentors among the previous generation of thinkers, but these are not the hard -nosed
structuralists or philosophers of desire, rather the
far more ambiguous Lacan and Foucault. The question of Foucault’s influence on the Nouvelle Philosophie has been covered in detail elsewhere (Dews,
1979), but the way in which the New Philosophers
have taken up the ideas of Lacan deserves some
consideration here.

4 This account of the connections between Anti-Oedipus and the New
Philosophy is indebted to Kambouchner (1978).

7

The Subiect of Structuralism
It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of

Lacan on recent French thought, not only through
his writings, which were not published in collected
form until 1966, but through his celebrated and longrunning seminars. His work has been important for
several generations of French intellectuals, its
richness and ambiguity making it possible for diverse theoretical and political currents to discover a
reflection of their own preoccupations: MerleauPonty, Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser are
among those who have learned from Lacan’s teaching. It was not until the late 60s, however, with the
publication of the Ecrits, that Lacan became a truly
central figure; his work played an increasingly
important role in the critique of structuralism
which was then gaining momentum. This may at
first appear surprising, since Lacan is often depicted
as the originator of ‘structuralist’ psychoanalysis,
but in fact right from the early 50s Lacan’s use of
ideas borrowed from Saussure or Levi -Strauss
entailed a simultaneous ‘displacement’ and critique.

Throughout the period of high structuralism, with
. its asseverations of the theoretical redundancy of
the subject (‘the spoiled brat of philosophy’, in LeviStrauss’s phrase), Lacan perSisted in theorising the
place of the subject in psychoanalysis. Thus it was
predictable that, when the structuralist orthodoxy
began to break down, Lacan would be at the centre
of attempts to pose the question of the subject in a
new way which would avoid the assimilation of the
concept of ‘subject’ to that of ‘consciousness’, since
his work is marked by a profound ambiguity, in
which a structuralist emphasis on the determining
effect of symbolic systems is in interplay with the
suggestion that there is always something which
eludes and displaces such systems – the movement
of desire. In terms of recent French philosophy,
Lacan can be seen as playing Hegel to Deleuze’s
Schelling and Levi-Strauss’s Kant, attempting to
integrate the insights of romantic philosophy into
the value of individuality and the subjective moment
into a theoretical form which assumes the ultimate
supremacy of the concept. The tensions of this position’ midway between the seekers of immutable
structures and the celebrants of delire, are given
characteristically enigmatic formulation at the end
of an interview dating from 1966: ‘Psychoanalysis as
a science will be structuralist, to the point of recognising in science a refusal of the subject’ (Lacan,
1966, pI3).

In a sense this ambiguity has been infused directly
into the Nouvelle Philosophie, with its combination
of an idealisation of rebellion, and an ultimate
passive pessimism or acquiescence in the status quo,
The Nouvelle Philosophie may be seen as a rash
politicisation of the Lacanian thesis of an irrecuperable disjunction between the subject of enunciation
and the ‘grammatical’ subject of the sentence. For
Lacan the subject may be ‘alienated in the signifier’

– the entry into language entails the loss of a primary experience of unity – but at the same time the
subject is irreducible to the signifier, so that its
desire to articulate that lost unity continually destabilises the pre-given system of meanings. Lacan
opposes the ‘truth’ of this desire – which, like
Heidegger’s truth, is revealed only in the traces of
its own concealment – to the truth of constantive
discourse. In this perspective what we refer to as
8

science is seen as an attempt to ‘suture’ the faultlines continually opened up in representational discourse by the moment of enunciation. Even in the
discourse of science it is ultimately desire which
speaks, although such discourse is constructed upon
a systematic misrecognition of this fact. This location of science by Lacan as an ‘ideology of the
suppression of the subject’, which is not incompatible in his work with the capacity of science to
reveal ‘asymptotically’ something of the real, has
been inflated by the New Philosophers into an attack
on the ‘totalitarianism’ implicit in the rigour of
scientific method, complemented by a turn towards
subjectivist and ‘irrational’ forms of expression.

The tone of their own writings, poetic, oracular and
avowedly ‘metaphysical’, confirms this order of
priorities, in which madness or – in some cases religious belief liberates, while rational discourse
constructs a prison. Solzhenitsyn, the lone dissident
and Christian believer pitted against the forces of a
state ruled by ‘marxist science’ becomes the central
hero of this vision.

There is another aspect of Lacan’s work, however,
which is of equal importance for the New Philosophers. If the subject is irreducible !Q.the signifier, it
is at the same time dependent on the signifier, for
there can be no subject beyond or outside language.

The most that can be hoped for is that, through analysis, the subject can be brought to a tragic acceptance of its own alienation, and of the ultimate inaccessibility of truth. In contrast to Deleuze and
Guattari, Lacan denies that the desire of the subject
is a positive force restrained by the Law (the symbolic conventions of a society, particularly with
regard to sexuality). His reinte.rpr-etation of psychoanalytic doctrine in terms of the primacy of the signifier entails an erosion of the original Freudian
energetics of libidO, so that ‘primary repression’

is no longer the restraint of a pre -existing polymorphous sexuality, but the process whereby desire
comes into being. Lacanian desire desires first of
all the unnamable Other which is the place of the
signifier, that is to say, in a certain sense, its own
subjection to the Law. For without the Law it would
cease to exist as desire. The possibility of an extension of this doctrine into a conservative politics
is all too obvious, especially since Lacan has never
attempted to conceal his own cultural pessimism
(one of the authentically Freudian aspects of his
work): ‘In what way can one transcend the alienation
of work? It is as if you should wish to transcend
the alienation of discourse.’ (Lacan, 1966, p9).

Since the early 70s, with Lacan’s equation in his
seminars of science with the ‘discourse of the
Master’, in which a subject produces knowledge,
legislates for the real, while simultaneously erasing itself as subject, these implications have become more explicit. Even before the Nouvelle
Philosophie spelled them out, Elisabeth Roudinesco,
a marxist member of the E cole Freudienne, had
noted that: ‘with the adoption /by Lacall] of LeviStrauss’s myth/ science division there is a strong
risk of postulating, under the aegis of the discourse
of the Master, a concept of history which conforms
to the ideals of the eternal return: the slaves
merely change their master, and the master is in
charge of the Revolution’ (Roudinesco, 1974, p67).

More recently Stephen Heath has indicated how the
anchoring by Lacanian psychoanalysis of the symbolic of sexual difference in the – in its own terms –

‘imaginary’ vision of the phallus results in the
evacuation from its domain of social formation and
history (see Heath, 1978). These criticisms appear
to be conformed by the work of Pierre Legendre,
an historian of institutions and Lacanian psychoanalyst who has produced a detailed study of mediaeval canon law. In his book Legendre attempts to
show an essential continuity in the juridical science
of western bureaucracies, which has centred on the
devising of symbolic strategies which oblige subje cts to desire their own submission to authority.

Legendre’s book, whose title – L’Amour du Censeur
– Speaks for itself, has been criticised for neglecting the moment of force in all domination. But it
has been hailed by several of the New Philosophers
as the first break-through to a ‘Lacanian politics’.

It appears to confirm their vision in which conflict
is no longer a political conflict between social
classes, but an ethical struggle within the individual between the ‘desire for submission’ and the
‘love of freedom’: in some sense we are all
oppressors and we are all oppressed.

Bernard-Henri Levy
Perhaps the best way to explore the amalgam which
these theoretical antecedents produce in the
Nouvelle Philosophie itself is to look at the work of
a particular representative author. Levy is the
obvious chOice, since he has acted as the publisher
and figurehead of the group. In addition his own
book, which was probably the biggest success of all
the Nouvelle Philosophie’s publications, is constructed to a large extent with ideas borrowed from his
associates, so that it represents, for all its callowness and inconsistency, a useful compendium of
Nouvelle Philosophie attitudes. A survey of La
Barbarie a Visage Humain should give a good idea
of the tone and content of the movement as a whole.

Levy begins by presenting his biographical credentials’ and this in itself is characteristic: the Nouvelle Philosophie has been marked not simply by the
overshadowing of the work by its author, elevated to
the status of a media ‘personality’, but by the irruption of the subject of enunciation into the text itself,
an assertion of subjectivity against the blank uniformity of theory. The trick is once again due to
Lacan, with his ex cathedra ‘je dis que … ” but
with the New Philosophers it takes on fresh significance. For the New Philosopher is equally, if not
more, important for who he / she is and what he / she
has been, than for what he/she actually says. It is
a past of militancy and disillusionment which confers
authority on current utterances. Levy cannot himself claim a specifically ‘maoist’ past, so a more
general historical location has to suffice. His book
opens with the following piece of self-d-ramatisation:

‘I am the bastard child of a diabolical couple, .

fascism and stalinism’ (Levy, 1977, p9).

Levy’s first attack is against the theory of power
of marxism and of the Left, in general, in which
power is seen as maintained by varying combination:::

of ideological mystification and naked repression.

In these theories Levy perceives two apparently contrary but related mistakes. The first is a substantialisation of power: power is seen as exercised
through a specific range of mechanisms, as the
possession of a dominant class. The second is the

I

illusion that – since power is a delimited entity – it
can be defeated or overthrown and that a ‘liberation’

from power can take place. Against this model Levy
deploys a vulgarised fusion of ideas drawn from
Foucault and Lacan, in which power becomes both
‘everything’ and ‘nothing’. It is nothing, since it
cannot be located in specific mechanisms of institutions; rather than being imposed from above, it
filters up from below, permeating every social
relation; we are victims of ‘the cop in our heads’,
of our own ‘exteriorisation of the law’. Against the
marxists, Levy finds the most suitable metaphor for
power in the Freudian concept of the phantasm. Like
the phantasm, power is in some sense ‘unreal’, and
yet it is inescapable in its effects, it is everywhere
and ‘everything’. With a little help from Legendre,
Levy attacks Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of an autonomous and rebellious deSire, or any concept of a
‘freedom’ anterior and counterposed to power: the
final step is taken – and this is characteristic of the
New Philosophy – towards the restoration of a concept of closure which the whole tendency of poststructuralist philosophy had been to undermine.

Although condemned to a lOSing battle, in Foucault
there are at least ‘resistances’ counterposed to
power, and in Lacan ‘la subversion du sujet’ is a
subversion by the subject, and not merely the subject being subverted. But with the Nouvelle Philosophie the idea of a difference or otherness opposed
to the closure of the system (whether political or
theoretical) becomes so aetherialised as to lose all
effectivity. Since power and the real are now coextensive, and since – in a flattening -out of Lacan ‘to speak is (in all the senses of the term) to become
subject’ (Levy, 1977, p5I), ‘otherness’ can now only
take the ultimate form of transcendence· (as in the
religious thinkers among the New Philosophers Clavel, Nemo, Lardreau and Jambet) or disappear
altogether as in the case of Levy, for whom – at
least during his blacker moments – ‘desire is
nothing but, and is entirely homogeneous with power’

(ibid, p47). On this basis we can draw the conclusion
that ‘the Prince is the other name of the World’, that
the social bond is inherently oppressIve (although
some societies, i. e. liberal bourgeois ones, may be
preferable to others), and that ‘the idea of a good
society is an absurd dream’ (ibid, p38).

Having demonstrated a priori the impossibility of
liberation, Levy can go on to the next stage of his
task, which is to show, following the Nouvelle
Philosophie tradition of deducing the historical real
from ideas, that socialism is merely an aggravated
combination of capitalism and metaphYSics. After
all, the post -structuralists – Foucault, Derrida have shown that teleological views of history are
simply the last refuge of a doomed humanism, and
the bourgeoisie at least seems to have learned the
lesson. It no longer believes in an appointed misSion,
or pretends to the legitimacy of historical destiny.

Capital’s desacralisation of all traditional beliefs
and social practices has rebounded upon its owners,
who are content opportunistically to manage an arbitrary system (there is a hint in Levy’s book of the
switchover already noted by Regis Debray, in which
the kaleidoscopic, thrillingly aimless world of consumer capitalism begins to be seen as offering a
kind of liberation which the struggle for political
ideals can~ot match). The socialists, on the other
hand, still believe in the rationality of history which,
throughout all its reversals and detours, is s’lowly
9

He mingles fluidly at Marty Per·
etz’s luncheon for him at 11 Giardino,
a dark, exquisite woman named Sylvie
by his side. Over the asparagus, the
guests murmur among themselves.

Aren’t they beautiful together? Just
like movie actors.

It is as if he revels gloriously in all
the contradictions he has assignrrl to
himself. He is anti·Marxist, but his is
not the comfortable anti·Marxism of
Nixonor the CIA. He is aD intellec·

moving towards ,the realisation of the Universal.

Interestingly, Levy does not suggest that such a
realisati~n is impossible, merely that it could only
serve to Increase our present misfortlJnes. The
planned and ordered society of socialism is indeed
being b:ought to maturity in the womb of capitalism,
but not In the way that marxists believe. Socialism
is. merely the capitalist ideal of technological rationalIty pushed to its ultimate conclusion. The ‘transparent’. society of the future is the society in which
all socIal relations are visible and controllable from
the central watchtower of the social scientists and
the police. In fact Levy begins to restore – one of
many incoherences in the book – the teleology which
he has just abolished. Capitalism is the destiny of
the West, the ultimate stage of Platonism and the
inevitable corollary of Descartes’ mathematisation
of nature. The Russian Revolution did no more than
speed up the tempo of this transformation of nature
and human society into a system of calculable relations. Thus marxism is merely the 20th-century
form of this occidental destiny: ‘the most formidable
doctrine of order that the West has ever invented’

(ibid, p202), allowing the discontent of the masses
!o be marshalled by politicians and parties, insistIng on the demolition of traditional bastions of
cul.ture and belief, and paving the way for the installation of a socialism which can only be the ‘barbarous modality of capitalism’.

It i.s not difficult to see this ill-considered jumble of

attitudes as the reductio ad absurdum of a decade of
French thought in which the concepts of reason
theory, and history have been subjected to an i~ces­
sant critique by theorists for whom Nietzsche and
Freud have replaced Marx as the definitive maitresa-penser. The critique of dialectics elaborated by
such thInkers as Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze has
exacted a serious toll in the form of an inability to
think in terms other than those of an all-or-nothing
showdown, in which both the ‘power’ of the system
and the .’dissidence’ of its other become hypostatised
contrarIes, while the rejection of the ‘white terror
of theory’ (the phrase is again due to Jean-Francois
Lyotard) has led to paradoxical attacks on science
and in particular on the human Sciences, not beca~se
of the falsity of its discourse but precisely because
‘”
of I·t s ‘ truth’. In Levy’s
attack’ on marxism for example – and this applies to the Nouvelle Philosophie
as a whole – his ultimate argument is not that marxis~ is a false theory of society and of political
action, but rather that it is an all-too-accurate
a~count of the coming fate of the West. In Levy’s
VIew we are enclosed within marxism as ptolomaic
astronomers were enclosed within their cosmology
so that to reply to marxist theory with a counter – ‘

theory would only result in a lapsing back into the
‘disc~urse of the Master’. Thus the protest against
marXlsm can only take a moral form and in this
Solzhenitsyn, ‘the Dante of our time’ ,’has shown the
way.

lO

Roots of Pluralism
Thus the Nouvelle Philosophie possesses a cover for
it s own extravagance and theoretical incoherence in
the form of the assumption that the only reliable
defences against the linked totalitarianisms of
science and politics are asethetic and ethical. The
idea, of course, is not new. It can be found on the
political Right in Heidegger and in the long tradition
of romanticising reaction, and the New Philosophers
have taken up something of this tradition, in their
exaltation of inherited beliefs and practices against
‘planning’, in Clavel or Nemo’s nostalgia for the
‘personal’ bond between master and man in feudalism contrasted with the anonymity of commodity
relations under capitalism (see, for example, Nemo,
1975, p141), and in a generalised hostility to the
inheritance of the Enlightenment. (For Levy the
Gulag is simply ‘the Enlightenment minus tolerance’.

As Jean-Pi~rre Faye has pointed out (Faye, 1977),
the New PhIlosophers, with their incapacity for
historical dialectic, fail to appreciate that the concept of ‘human rights’ to which they are so attached
is precisely one of the central acquisitions of the
Enlightenment. ) But it can also be found on the left
in thinkers such as Adorno and Marcuse, and the
New Philosophers have something of their sense of
an all-pervading one -dimensionality which has
become so internalised as to be almost invisible.

What may at first appear surprising is that such a
combination of ideas should emerge again in Paris
in the late 197 Os.

There are a number of explanations of this phenomenon which di not simply remain at the level of the
‘history of ideas’. First of all, the ‘New Philosophy

is not just the aberration of a handful of the high
intelligentsia, but must be seen as mirroring a wide·
spread mood of disorientation among the ‘generation
of ’68’ which ranges from – at its worst – a corrosive disillusionment and cynicism, to – at its best a belief that smallscale cultural innovation and
institutional reform are preferable to chasing the
mirage of revolution. At another level, as JeanClaude Guillebaud has suggested in his lively – if
frequently facile – book Les Annees Orphelines,
the New Philosophy can be seen as a reaction to an
increasing sense of ideological incoherence in a
world in which Cuban columns march against marxist partisans, while socialist states invade each
other in South-East Asia. Guillebaud also rehearses
the more cynical theory according to which, with the
prospect of the Left coming to power through the
ballot box in March ’78, the obvious way for the
intelligentsia to maintain the reassuring integrity of
an oppositional stance was to make an anticipatory
shift to the right. At the same time, however,
recent developments in French theory cannot be
viewed as simply a reflection of political developments: important texts by Derrida, Deleuze and
Lacan which valorised alterity over identity and
system had been published well before May ’68, so
that the turn against marxism is more than a generational phenomenon. The intellectual autobiography
recounted by Francois Chatelet, France’s leading
historian of philosophy, in his Chronique des Idees
Perdues, is instructive in this regard. Beginning
from an ‘existential marxist’ position in the early
60s, Chatelet has shed more and more of what he
sees as the Hegelian and historicist baggage of
marxism, welcoming the Althusserian intervention
on the way, to arrive at a position which rejects the
idea of sitting at ‘the tribunal of Reason and History’

in favour of a pluralist ‘tracking -down of divinities
of all kinds’. Similarly, Sartre has re cently stated
that he would prefer the label ‘existentialist’ to that
of ‘marxist’ (Sartre, 1976, p192), and is said to be
working on a new philosophy of freedom.

This revival of emphasis on the Singular and the
subjective (recent editions of French periodicals
have been devoted to the ‘New Individualism’ and the
‘New Romanticism’) is n9t entirely to be regretted,
and can be seen as inevitable, given the ‘antihumanist’ severity of structuralism and Althusser.

It is arguable that there are elements of human experience which marxism ignores at its peril, and
which, if neglected, will sooner or later return to
haunt its theoretical edifices in ambiguous forms.

On the other Side, however, the New Philosophers
have at least rendered the service of making clear
that the theorisation of plurality and difference,
already well established in France and beginning to
appear in Britain in writings which reject a priori
the idea of the social formation as an analysable
totality, can only lead into a political cul-de-sac if
taken as an ultimate. The emergence of regional,
ecological and feminist struggles has taught the
valuable lesson that not all sites of social conflict
can be reduced to a unitary class contradiction, yet
these struggles seem condemned to hopelessness in
remaining localised, since what they contest is
specific effects of the process of capitalist development. In order to resolve this dilemma a ‘principle
of articulation’ seems to be required which will not
alienate these movements by reducing them to an
a priori .class determination, but is capable of

hegemonising and directing them towards common
goals of democratisation and social control. In the
current theoretical confusion and loss of bearings on
the left – marked ViVidly by the New Philosophy and
its aftermath in France, but starting to make itself
felt no less here – this conception seems to offer a
possible direction for advance. We need to know
how the unity of struggles, no longer pre-given by
an ontology of class, can itself become a purpose of
struggle (5).

5 These concluding remarks are based on discussions taking place in the
Hegemony Research Group.

References
Carr, E. H. (1978) ‘The Russian Revolution and the
West’, New Left Review No.111
Chatelet, F. (1977) Chronique des Idees Perdues,
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Girard, R. (1972) ‘Systeme du Delire’, Critique
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Cahiers pour l’Analyse No. 3
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Sartre, J.-P. (1976) Situations X, Paris, Gallimard
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Weber, H. (1979) ‘Reply to Debray’, New Left
Review No.115

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