Reading the French Right: a dual book review

The French Right:  from de Maistre to Maurras, edited and introduced by J.S. McClelland

Critics of the Enlightenment:  readings in the French counter-revolutionary tradition, edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum

These are two good anthologies of writings by leaders of the French counter-revolutionary movement.  They compliment each other very well; the editors of each volume had very different ideas about the significance of the French Right.  Critics of the Enlightenment (hereafter CotE) has a forward by Philippe Beneton, who takes the standard line that the French Right were immoderate and inferior copies of Burke.  He misrepresents the French reactionaries’ beliefs, saying they rejected reason and based themselves solely on French tradition, and then proceeds to critique those beliefs.  I seriously wonder if he even read the book he was forwarding, because none of the authors therein make such an argument, and Le Play at least claimed to derive his conclusions from systematic observation.  Blum in his introduction makes it clear that he sees the French Right’s critique of individualism as culminating in Catholic social teaching, and it is a fact that Pope Leo XIII was strongly influenced by them.  The writers Blum chose are all Catholics (although Le Play spend much of his adult like outside of the Church before returning to the faith) and they are very focused on economic issues, culminating in la Tour du Pin’s vision of a Catholic Corporate State.

McClelland is uninterested in Catholicism, and he seems to regard conservatism as a defunct ideology, interesting only because it was one of the currents of thought that coalesced into fascism.  The entire importance of the French Right, for him, as a cause of Vichy France.  Thus, his introduction to every speaker seems to end with “…which had strong echos in Vichy”.  (Incidentally, if the French Right is only interesting as a cause of Vichy, then it must be much less interesting than the German army.)  Like Beneton, he thinks the French Right rejected universal reason, and again this can be disproved by the very writings he’s collected.  Maurras says quite clearly that he rejects the philosophes not just because they used abstract principles and ignored French particularities, but that the abstract principles they used are wrong even on the abstract level.  The French Right (hereafter TFR) and CotE only overlap with one writer:  de Maistre.  Characteristically, Blum includes passages from On the Pope, and McClelland takes his musings on war from the Saint Petersburg Dialogues.  The writers in TFR are overwhelmingly nonCatholic.  It would seem that these books show two distinct counter-revolutionary traditions; let us call them the “Catholic” wing and the “positivist” wing of the counterrevolution, and let us recall that, before the Vatican’s foolish condemnation of Action Francaise, they were allied.

Several reoccuring themes in CotE deserver note.  First, there is much effort on the Catholic side to construct a useable past, a good core of the Ancien Regime underneath the abuses that deserves to be preserved or resurrected.  I don’t mean that they falsify history, any more than the imposition of a single narrative on a nation’s history must be a falsification; I mean that they felt a need to counter the Enlightenment narrative of a past of nothing but ignorance and oppression brought to an end by the glorious rule of revolutionaries.  Authors identify what they see as key aspects of the ancient French constitution.  For Maistre, it is theocracy, and was even before the French became Christian.  For Bonald, it is familism:  the state regards families rather than individuals.  A familiy itself holds a title of nobility, and such titles are (or rather should have been) tied to duties.  Le Play also points to the family, but to its independence.  The norm is that each family has a separate house.  (He congratulates the West on not falling into the shame of rental apartment buildings.)  He also credits the West with hitting the sweet spot in family inheritance with the so-called “stem family”, in which family patrimonies are preserved by inheritance going to one brother, while other brothers make their own way, giving them a spur to innovation while leaving a family support mechanism they can come back to.  For Keller and la Tour du Pin, it is the medieval corporate structure, in which every way of life had a publicly and ecclesiastically sanctioned organization to give it voice and order, that should inspire us.

Eugene Genovese credited American Southern conservatives with giving due consideration to the kind of economic base they would need to support the traditional society they wanted.  In this, he says they were unlike modern conservatives.  The French Right certainly also deserves credit for its attention to such basic issues.  For Bonald and Le Play, the attention was on preserving France’s agrarian way of life, and primogeniture as part of that life.  By the time of Keller and la Tour du Pin, this was apparently a lost cause, and they decided that the pressing task was to rescue the urban prolitariate.  Their proposed associations/corporations would be more like medieval guilds than modern labor unions in that they would be mandatory across a trade, they would set quality and training standards, they would have social and mutual-help functions, and they would have a part in the government.

Most of the space in TFR is given over to Barres and Maurras.  Of all the writers included, Barres comes closest, in his writings on the Dreyfus Affair, to the anti-universalism that supposedly drives the French Right.  He does think that the intellectuals’ commitment to Kantian universalism leads them to ignore the need to protect the French nation’s interests and character.  I expect he was right that very few Dreyfusards gave a fig whether Dreyfus was innocent or guilty; they just saw in the case an opportunity to humiliate the nation, eviscerate the army, and persecute the Church.  Barres makes it clear that he himself doesn’t care.  He would rather Dreyfus had never been tried, or that the case had never been revisited; either would be better than letting the nation tear itself up about it.

The exerpts from Maurras in TFR are worth whatever you pay for the book in itself.  Especially good is “Dictator and King”, his royalist manifesto.  A healthy constitution, Maurras says, should have authority at the top and freedom at the bottom, but the Third Republic had reversed this, with a centralized bureaucratic despotism controling every aspect of a citizen’s life, while at the highest level of government is a parliamentary anarchy where no one thinks past the next election.  In his ideal order, citizens would govern most of their own affairs through local associations, while a strong king would revitalize the army, suppress usury, and look to the common good.

The selections are not of uniformly high quality.  In CotE, Chateaubriand’s contribution and half of Bonalds’, are rather forgettable.  In TFR, we have Drumont’s rant against the Jews, which combines some reasonable criticisms that Rightest still make against this people with bizarre claims, such as that Jew’s have a particular stink.  Georges Sorel is included, even though he was a far-Left wacko, presumably because his writings on violence and the social myth sounded fascist to the editor.

The counter-revolutionaries made some solid points, but they seem to have overstated their case.  Nearly to a man, they predicted that liberal rule would bring the French nation, and the other nations of the West, to total ruin.  France would be prey to foreign powers.  The middle class would disappear and the working class be immiserated to the point of destitution.  This obviously hasn’t happened (although Keller’s prediction that low-paid Chinese would become the world’s workforce has come disturbingly close).  Liberalism is obviously not as suicidal as the counter-revolution imagined.  It did prove able to counter foreign threats–indeed, rival Leftist powers, the USA and USSR, were able to divide the world between them in 1945–and it proved able to check capitalism’s worst excesses, partly by adopting some of the measures recommended in CotE.  Today, many reactionaries are still predicting liberalism’s imminant self-destruction.  We should learn a lesson from past generations and avoid predictions that will someday make us look foolish.

Every conservative should read these books.  It is important for us to reclaim our past, a past that the mainstream has forgotten and the Burkeans have deliberately sidelined.  Conservatives should know that it is not true that we have failed to critique liberal economic systems or to pose our alternatives.  We perhaps cannot adopt corporatism wholesale–economic policy must be reevaluated each generation because of changing circumstances–but we do have examples of how conservatives have reasoned about these issues in the past.  Conservatives should know how untrue is the picture painted by hostile historians (including Catholic ones) of Charles Maurras, who was neither an irrationalist, nor a lunatic, nor an aspiring tyrant.  One will not find here a complete exposition of the conservative philosophy, for the reason that no one (including Burke) has yet produced such a thing.  As I’ve said before, the Right has yet to produce its equivalent to John Rawls.  That can’t happen, though, until all the materials that must go into such a system have been gathered up, and the input of the French Right will be indispensible.

21 Responses

  1. You didn’t mention Taine or Le Bon, whose work I think has weathered better than most 19th century Rightists and whose insights remain pertinent and very difficult for Leftists to counter, such as Le Bon’s critique of rational decision making given the inherent irrationality of crowds. Their prophecies also had a greater degree of accuracy than most of their contemporaries from either side.

    Taine’s history of the French Revolution is likewise the best from a conservative perspective, particularly because it was written almost a century later and isn’t muddied by the Christian theological ramblings that hinders other counter-revolutionaries. As I pointed out elsewhere, the Left feared it so much they hired another historian to falsify claims against Taine in order to discredit his work.

    Sorel’s politics were also more ambiguous than the Marxist label would have you believe. He allied with the Maurrasians for a spell, had a nationalist and anti-semitic streak, and his work did indeed influence many fascists at the time, particularly in France. It was the “radical Tory” T.E. Hulme who introduced Reflexions sur la violence into the Anglophone world. Some have pointed out that he empties Marxism of so much of its, well, Marxism — namely its materialism and humanism and at least the rhetoric of democracy — that he goes into an entirely different direction. I wouldn’t dismiss him as a “far Left wacko.”

    Did you pick up the Italian Fascisms book as well?

  2. Whatever the connections between the Right and Vichy, the fact is that, as the former Communist, Eric Hazan observed, “After the Liberation, the leaders of the right were either in prison, in a few cases shot, or had fled abroad. I well remember how under the Fourth Republic there was only one party and leader that explicitly acknowledged being on the right. After the return of de Gaulle, his followers defended themselves against this very charge, in the face of all evidence, and there was even a sad little group of left Gaullists. It was only in the late 1970s, with the generation of Edouard Balladur and Raymond Barre, that the word ‘right’ could be uttered again without a blush, and ‘right-wing values’ publicly evoked.”

    De Gaulle himself was a curious case. Under the Fourth Republic, Michel Debré at first supported the Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance, but defected to the Radical-Socialist Party on the advice of the General, who reportedly told him and several other politicians, including Jacques Chaban-Delmas, “Allez au parti radical. C’est là que vous trouverez les derniers vestiges du sens de l’Etat” – “Go to the radical party. It is there that you will find the last vestiges of the meaning of the state.”

    The French Right view American Conservatives as Liberal or Radical. In France, “Liberal” means a supporter of the free market (and no party would dream of adopting that label; it would have the same popular cachet as “The Usury Party”) and the idea of “small government” is unthinkable to any party, except the Anarcho-Sydicalists, in their many embodiments. In fact, the French Left is far more the heir of Proudhon and Bakunin than it is of Marx.

  3. The Counter-Revolutionary Right needed to ground authority somewhere and the Divine Right of Kings seemed to them discredited. Not surprisingly, therefore, many turned to a form of political Ultramontanism

    “Of sin and its inexorable penalties,” says Fairbairne, “the new Apologetic had much to say; sin explained the revolt, the revolution illustrated the penalty. To end the revolt the Church must triumph; and its victory would be the creation, not of religion only, but of order, of a stable, contented, happy society.”

    “If authority was to rule at all, it must rule everywhere, in both Church and State; if freedom reigned in either, it would reign in both. So De Maistre saw and victoriously argued: both authorities are of God, but the spiritual is the higher; the king’s does not qualify the Pope’s, but the Pope’s limits the king’s. Power may be limited from above, but not from below; the subjects may not judge the sovereign, or impose conditions on him, but the Pope may, and his judge is God. Authority, thus absolute, political, personified in the king, confronted revolution; spiritual, personified in the Pope, confronted reason; and by its strength religion was to be saved, society re-constituted, order created, and humanity made obedient to God. Joseph de Maistre formulated his hierocratic doctrine, making the Papal at once guarantee and condition the royal power. De Bonald wove the political into the religious revelation, ascribing sole sovereignty to God, but building upon it the Pope’s, and upon his the king’s. Chateaubriand described Christian Rome as being for the modern what Pagan Rome had been for the ancient world—the universal bond of nations, instructing in duty, defending from oppression. Lamennais argued that without authority there could be no religion, that it was the foundation of all society and morality, and that it alone enfranchised man by making him obedient, so harmonizing all intelligences and wills. And thus the Church, as the supreme authority, became the principle of order, the centre of political as well as religious stability; the only divine rights were those she sanctioned, in her strength kings reigned, and through obedience to her man was happy and God honoured.”

    This is the more remarkable, given the Gallicanism of the Ancien Régime.

  4. This was very helpful… I’ve been struggling with the “economic issue” for some time – what alternatives the Right has, what systems and policies are conducive to our societal goals, etc.

    The misrepresentation is hardly surprising. Evil comprehends only evil.

    Legitimacy is always a product of agreement between people in a society. A Catholic legitimacy, which you discuss, is possible in a society friendly to Catholicism. What legitimacy can exist across the Atlantic?

  5. Did you pick up the Italian Fascisms book as well?

    It’s in the mail.

  6. Hi Michael,

    Thank you for this quote. What book was it taken from? (I’m always looking out for writers on the counter-revolution who seem to know what they’re talking about.)

  7. Bonald:

    The quote is from an essay of the Bl. Crd. Newman’s, which can be read in full via the link below.

  8. Wait… never mind what I just said. The essay was by one A. M. Fairbairn, about whom see below. Whoops.

  9. Domini Canes

    The essay is by Fairbairn, who, as a Protestant, was critical of the Counter-Revolution. It is quoted in Newman’s works to give context to the exchange

  10. “As I’ve said before, the Right has yet to produce its equivalent to John Rawls.”

    I really don’t think Rawl synthesized the currents of the Left as you claim. He merely gave philosophical backing to a particular strain of bourgeois welfare liberalism that was triumphant in the post-WW2 era. He does not, however, speak for the Communists or Anarchists and many of the other factions of the Left, and his admission that inequality of ends could never be abolished was a major blow to the utopian aspirations that had dominated the Left throughout the nineteenth century.

    While Rawls might agree with the Communists and Anarchists etc. on certain superficial ideals, such as the need to mitigate unfairness to the greatest extent possible, he starts from different assumptions and comes to different conclusions. Rawls does, after all, opt for a market economy with a strong welfare state.

    The Left has never been united (even during the Spanish Civil War, there was far more in-fighting on the Republican side than on the Nationalist side) and its various schools of thought are ultimately irreconcilable with each other. I think the same can be said for the Right. The factions of the Right are probably linked by common enemies and certain assumptions, but their goals and certain other assumptions conflict with each other in unavoidable ways.

    I don’t really think this is a bad thing since, as I stated above, it applies to the Left as well.

  11. History did some of Rawls’ work for him, by marginalizing the unassimilable branches of liberalism, so that what was left standing could be wrapped together in a single package.

    I agree that there’s no way to synthesize your philosophy and mine; what we’ve got is a strategic alliance, which is nothing to turn one’s nose up at. I do think that the branches in my taxonomy can be synthesized; they represent basic agreement coming at things from different angles. Our conclusion in that discussion was that what I called anti-liberalism and what you called the Right is bigger than my list (and not by accident, since my list was chosen to describe something coherent, rather than just everyone who opposes some other set of beliefs).

  12. In Europe, a broad distinction is often drawn between the conservative and the radical Right.

    The conservative Right tends to be monarchist, clericalist, supportive of personal and provincial privileges and, depending on historical circumstances, imperialist rather than nationalist (“the indivisible Habsburg dominions”)

    The radical Right, by contrast, tends to be nationalist, secular and centrist. They tend to reject parliamentary government in favour of the Independent Executive.

    On the Left, the division tends to be between Socialists, subdivided between revolutionary and democratic Socialists on the one hand and Anarchists on the other.

    Of course, actual movements do not always fit easily into this analysis. Franco’s Spain was a coalition of the conservative Right (including Franco himself ) and the radical Right (the Falangists), producing a government that was both centrist and clericalist. Similarly, the Radical Republican tradition in France has both a socialist and a liberal (free trade) wing, the latter including those Orléanists who embraced the Party of Order.

    In practice, a simpler division is between the friends of corruption and the friends of sedition: those who benefit from abuses directly and those who benefit from the disaffection those abuses naturally produce.

  13. I really don’t think Rawl synthesized the currents of the Left as you claim. He merely gave philosophical backing to a particular strain of bourgeois welfare liberalism that was triumphant in the post-WW2 era.

    Exactly. He is the Locke of modern liberalism.

  14. Hi Michael,

    These are helpful distinctions. Thanks. I suppose one might say that the difference between the two books I was reviewing was that one was about the conservative Right and the other about the radical Right.

    Your last distinction reminds me of something an Argentine friend once told me: “In Argentina, we have two parties. One is corrupt, and the other is incompetent.”

  15. But you and Bill below seem to be committing the American error of conflating “liberalism” with “the Left” when that’s really not the case at all. No self-respecting communist or anarchist would ever call himself a liberal! They tend to have vastly different perceptions of institutions, the good life, etc. So much that, whatever common ground they may have, the differences between the them and liberals are as stark as those between the religious and the irreligious on the Right. Sure, communism and anarchism and most genuine forms of socialism might not be mainstream in the West anymore (in America, they never were, while in the Third World they retain some prominence), but I think we’d both have to admit the same about our own views!

    Neither did Rawls even speak for all currents of liberalism (properly understood and not used as a synonym for “the Left”). People like Robert Nozick, who was a classical liberal of a sort and came to radically different conclusions than those of Rawls, would take exception to that!

    As I said, Rawls only spoke for a certain brand of bourgeois welfare liberalism, not the Left as a whole. Furthermore, he had nothing to do with the race/gender obsession that characterizes so much of the post-1960s Left. That came from other sources. I don’t understand why you portray Rawls as some kind of synthesizer that he wasn’t and never intended to be. He’s good if you want to understand the philosophical motivation behind wealth redistribution programs, as well as the general direction of analytic political philosophy over the past few decades, but not much more than that.

    FWIW, many scholars agree with my designation that, in the simplest terms, Left = equality, Right = inequality, so it’s not really my own invention or insight. And with that a “right-wing liberal” wouldn’t necessarily be a contradiction either (Nozick would probably be an example, as would people like Nock and Mencken). And the Left is NOT as monolithic or coherent as you seem to think it is, neither now nor then. Both Left and Right have always been a diverse bunch, which was my point.

  16. To illustrate the conflict that can and still does arise between liberalism, properly understood, and leftism, I direct you to this essay by Herbert Marcuse entitled “Repressive Tolerance”:

    Marcuse was guru to the 60s generation and although his works are not as widely read today, his way of thinking continues to exert an influence on the modern Left. While Marcuse disingenuously attempts to marshal John Stuart Mill in favor of his position, it should be obvious that Marcuse’s advocacy of censorship of “oppressive” or “intolerant” ideas is antithetical to Mill’s liberal commitment to tolerance of opposing viewpoints. Marcuse is far from the first or only leftist to approve the suppression of liberalism in the name of “equality” and “social justice.”

  17. In France, the picture is complicated by the frequent alliance between Liberals and parties of the Right. The Liberal middle classes have often been willing to sacrifice their political power and even their political freedom, as the price of preserving their economic power; the freedom the Liberal has chiefly valued has been the freedom to exploit the labour of others for profit.

    This is the key to the rôle of the bourgeoisie in the June Days of 1848, the Second Empire and, to some extent, the Commune of 1871, not to mention the whole vexed question of Vichy.

    It has even been suggested that it was the oppressive consciousness of this contradiction that gave birth to the literature of Baudelaire, Heine, and Flaubert and their successors, with its spleen, ambivalence, fetishism of form, and morbid detachment: the literature of an uneasy conscience.

  18. Your Argentinian friend makes a very important point; political theory has to encounter the facts of political life, of which ideology is only one element.

  19. Thank you for reading the book I recommend. Cheers.

  20. recommend

    Sorry I meant recommended.

  21. Thank you for reminding me about it.

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