Can France’s Left Thinkers Escape the Ivory Tower?

The unified fight against pension reform in France last autumn ? with streets full of people, slogans, chants and raised fists, and union rank and file outpacing their leaders ? mobilized more people than the events of the winter of 1995, when two million people demonstrated against the “reform” of social security and pensions planned by the prime minister, Alain Jupp?. Those strikes had a strange climate, familiar and unknown. Workers were suddenly back in fashion, although philosophers, journalists and politicians thought they had dissolved with the industrial restructuring of the 1980s. Government critics from inside academia were back too, determined to fight a war of ideas on economic and social issues.

One of the 1995 speakers was the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, addressing railway workers in Paris at the crowded Gare de Lyon. Famous French intellectuals didn’t do that much after the 1970s. “I am here to express support for all those who have been fighting for the past three weeks against the destruction of a civilization linked to the existence of public services,” he said. There was a great split in French intellectual circles over the plans, and this was shown in completely opposed petitions. The first welcomed the Jupp? plan, “which [would] lead to social justice”; its signatories were recruited from the journal Esprit, the Saint-Simon Foundation, the French Democratic Trade Union (CFDT) and sections of the left won over by the market. The “intellectuals’ appeal in favor of the strikers” grouped previously unconnected researchers, academics and activists from trade unions and associations into a loose rebel alliance.

Last autumn’s fight was so much less divided and divisive. Fifteen years after Bourdieu’s speech, it’s worth asking how the relationship has evolved in France between those who produce anti-Establishment ideas, the institutions to which they belong, and industrial action. Two contradictory movements seem to coexist, seen in bookshop displays, among the ranks at meetings, and in social-science seminars. There is more critical thought and it has increased; it has also become more specialized and aligned itself with academic norms.

The 1995 mobilizations helped renew independent publishing, and some 30 publishing houses now popularize critical works. All their catalogues feature translations; without the persistence of often unpaid teams of translators, works that were disdained by mainstream publishing would not have been published in French, including the historian Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Now these are widely available. The translations include the cultural, historical and sociological analyses by the British “New Left” in the 1960s and 1970s (Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Perry Anderson); the neo-Marxist books of the economist Giovanni Arrighi and geographer David Harvey; studies on gender, sexuality and dominated identities; and the now well-known names of Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Toni Negri, Slavoj Zizek. Several critical journals introduced and discussed these texts, ensuring their transposition into the French context. One important detail: almost all the authors and commentators were involved in higher education or research.

A rejuvenated Marxism for intellectuals

The historian Perry Anderson noted that “the ‘crisis of Marxism’ was a quintessentially Latin phenomenon. In Britain and the United States, West Germany and Scandinavian countries, there had never been mass Communist parties to attract the same projections or hopes in the postwar period”. While many French Marxists recanted in the mid-1970s, some academics, mostly British and American, built the foundations, notably around the New Left Review, of a rejuvenated Marxism confined to academia.

Translating their work was not always easy. In 1997 the director of a Gallimard history series refused to publish The Age of Extremes by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm because Hobsbawm still showed “an attachment, even though remote, to the revolutionary cause”. But with the convulsions of capitalism and the international growth of the global justice movement, the ideological pendulum, which had swung to the right during the 1980s, swung back. Once the directors of big publishing houses had been alerted to the commercial success of critical and demanding titles published by independent houses, they thought again of anti-Establishmentarianism as a profitable market niche, and produced series to attract the activist’s eye and money. Le Monde des livres, which cleverly had kept quiet about the success of the first books in the activist series Raisons d’Agir, launched by Bourdieu, devoted its front page on November 26, 2010 to “rebel literature” and feted insurrectionary style. It was a sign of the times ? critiques of the media, of finance and the western world order, previously confined to the margins, have become a fought-over commercial genre.

Back in the 1930s, Paul Nizan depicted academia as conservative and filled with “watchdogs”. Then in the radical 1960s and 1970s, human sciences, social critiques and revolution seemed to go together. Their connection has enlivened an institution riven with tensions, designed to back the bourgeois regime but also capable of nurturing revolutionaries. This contradiction may explain why critical publishing is both fascinated and repulsed by academia and lecturers or researchers. The stereotype of the independent publisher suggests a 30-40 year-old who has begun, or even finished, a doctorate in human sciences but hasn’t found a research or higher education post that allows him or her to combine academic work with anti-Establishment action. Though this picture fails to take account of the diversity of the new “militant” publishers, it captures their conflicted environment, falling somewhere between the scholarly and the political.

Publishers look to academia for a robust scientific method and prestigious names, but are unhappy with the ever-smaller focus of academics’ objects of study, their taste for hermeneutics and the demands of mandarins eager to sue over a misplaced comma. For safety and self-preservation, publishers put a lecturer-researcher or at least someone who straddles science and politics (production and consumption), in charge of their social critique series. With similar logic, directors of critical journals fill their reading panels with senior lecturers, doctoral students and established authors, sometimes to the detriment of intellectuals who belong to the industrial movement, being attached to trade unions, political groups or associations. Since the editorial boards of committed journals, which are responsible for selecting anti-Establishment texts for a mainstream audience, use the same names as the scientific committees of scholarly journals, we might ask if all types of critical thought have an equal chance being selected.

A doctoral degree ensures a solid analytical method, a corpus of knowledge and even, sometimes, critical sense. But it also teaches propriety and precedence, encourages a willingness to surrender strong opinions, highly values give and take, and (because of over-specialization within disciplines) promotes the view that things are “always more complicated” than they may actually be. It authorizes criticism but rejects politics, and blurs the line between seriousness and pomposity. Homo academicus, when asked to decide the editorial fate of an article that challenges the established order, is not neutral; he uses both the knowledge and bias that go with his position.

Enter the student activists

Something similar happens with writers. In the 1960s, German, American, French, Italian and British universities were centers of political socialization for young radicals. With the conservative backlash and the dissolution of small groups, many revolutionary activists withdrew into higher education and research in social sciences, which were recruiting heavily at the time. As their careers waned in the 1990s, a new generation of students radicalized by the 1995 strikes took their academic posts. They are a minority in academia. But “today more than ever, critical thinkers are academics… which cannot fail to have an impact on the theories they produce,” wrote Razmig Keucheyan in his overview of contemporary critical theories. “They are fully integrated into the university system and do not in any sense constitute an ‘intellectual counter-society’, unlike the German school for Social Democrat cadres at the beginning of the 20th century, or the later equivalent for the French Communist Party” . These institutions established a permanent link between political leaders, makers of ideas and social movements. At the end of the 19th century the anarcho-syndicalist movement tried to fuse these factors of change into a single force.

The influence of the French Communist Party spread via higher education after the second world war. Those communist philosophers, historians and economists who managed to obtain academic positions brought with them Marxist concepts and terminology; in return they channelled new recruits towards a party that had powerful intellectual attraction. The weakening of political education within leftwing organizations and the decline of internal trade-union training centers meant that the homegrown intellectuals of the workers’ movement had nowhere to go.

Foundations, permanent committees, round-table talks and think tanks were set up to maintain the link between intellectuals, politicians and activists, not just in moments of social upheaval but in ordinary daily life. They made no impact. And meanwhile, the force of attraction was reversed. The authority of scholars dazzles even cultured autodidacts (central to French political history), so much so that a libertarian journal has to use the knowledge of a senior lecturer to give its dossier on police repression credibility. Status legitimates content.

The intellectual mobilizations post-1995 rehabilitated the idea of a direct link between critical theory and industrial action. These supplied anyone who was interested with rigorous and accessible analytical tools and a way of seeing the world as it is, rather than as it ought to be. This, added to the success of the global justice movement, generated many books straddling activism and scholarship, whose authors, “committed” academics, explored the new anti-Establishmentarianisms. Such works projected a grand vision of the social struggles and legitimated them for journalists, who could then ask experts to comment on them.

But they soon hit the limit of academic criticism: the issue of strategy. If Rosa Luxemburg had had to submit her texts to a reading panel for approval, she would probably not have targeted the same audience or pursued the same goals. The problems of organizing, building a cross-class alliance, overthrowing the social order and taking power here and now are shared by 20th century revolutionaries and the Bolivarian socialists of the 21st century; and none of them can be solved by academic research, if they ever feature in it. They need intellectuals armed with the most advanced state of knowledge but independent of the norms of academic success and disciplinary straitjackets.

Enter the media-conscious essayists

The divisions of criticism reflect the divisions of academic work: economists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, demographers, political scientists. Anti-Establishmentarianism is not short of experts who are capable of rebutting technocratic authority with their own specialized knowledge. But this logic of expertise and counter-expertise has gradually pushed from the public stage intellectuals who, like Chomsky or Edward Said, founded their political action on the universal categories of rationality, equality and emancipation. Their near-disappearance, combined with the deaths of several great names in French thought (Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant), has left the field open for media-conscious essayists and intellectual marketers.

At first sight, the hold of higher education and research on critical thought seems to correspond to the aspirations of politicized students. But it is a challenge to reconcile scholarship and political commitment in an enduring way.

Student activists postpone having to chose by putting their commitment not so much on hold as between inverted commas: they analyse mobilizations, march while studying other marchers. When they write up their dissertations, they distance themselves from their convictions, now subjects of study. They have to show that they are less committed so as to appear more objective, and more moderate so as to seem more subtle, because in academia radicalism means over-simplification. Imperceptibly, they cross a line.

The novelist Annie Ernaux, who went from a working-class background to the world of letters, wrote: “I slipped into that half of the world for whom the other half is only a backdrop”. Others have joined her without necessarily being aware of it. They convince themselves they are helping to emancipate humanity by promoting a book on the sociology of social movements among fellow attenders of lectures. They join the editorial boards of critical journals beside well-known names who will one day examine their dissertations. At the end of this, activists turned theoreticians of activism are more inclined to write than demonstrate, and to elevate their research methods to the status of political causes that threaten the order of words, not things.

The idea that political combat and an academic career can be combined may not survive the transformations in a system split into a minority of elite institutions and a mass of establishments weakened by reforms. In the latter, the deterioration of teaching conditions adds to the marginalization of students. The social sciences, which peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, have been brutally devalued. Newly graduated PhDs know that they learned a lot to get their doctorates, but they lost out too.

Many who did not get benefits were unemployed or had only part-time jobs; they paid their own travel expenses for conferences; did unpaid work for their laboratory or supervisor; inserted desperate footnotes into their dissertation typescript to hail the “seminal”, “insightful”, “ground-breaking” works of members of the PhD committee. And what awaits them? A decrepit professional world with faded prestige and an email list that foreshadows the future: an internship ad for “a graduate with five years of study in sociology/ethnography… the intern will draw up an overview of the main profiles (diameter, thickness, form, etc), the fundamental differences, the associated practices (gestures, cosmetic routine, etc) and the issues related to hair and skin in this country.” Potential Durkheims find themselves researching shampoo.

The clash between student aspirations and professional opportunities can lead to resignation ? or revolt. In 2006, the student movement against job insecurity and France’s notorious first-employment contract suggested, by its radical, determined nature, that the lines had shifted. Everything seemed to indicate that belief in salvation through higher degrees had evaporated. In a single winter, campuses rediscovered that they could be places of political socialisation. Some general meetings, uninfluenced by media pressure, used social science tools in making general demands together with trade union activists. These could have been the “collective intellectual” Bourdieu had hoped for.

Translated by Tom Genrich

Pierre Rimbert is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique.

This article appears in the May edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.