The French Right

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 ofAction 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.

2 Responses

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

  2. […] of the Bonald-Le Play–Zimmerman school of the importance of family structure will be interested in this review of […]

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