A Celebration of Conservative Politics in France
Alain de Benoist, the main exponent of the French New Right, published this major work in 2004 and 2005, during a crucial moment of what in America has been known as the “culture wars.” Since September 11, more than a few in France sense that we are close to a crisis unprecedented in scale, and that the very existence of the Western civilization is in great danger. This has lead in some French circles the beginning of a reconsideration of the French intellectual past; in particular, the nature of the present situation has been widely accepted within conservatives circles. Benoist’s Bibliography may well play a key role in helping to reappropriate the French Conservative Heritage.
A bibliography is often considered as a minor genre, if considered a genre at all, despite the rigor and effort required from the author. They are not read for pleasure, generally, and are (incorrectly) thought of as simply an assemblage of unconnected entries. Perhaps to really understand what a bibliography is, one needs to love dictionaries, encyclopedias, references books, endnotes, and pursue this labyrinthine borgesian dream of “a book which contains all books,” as Alain de Benoist describes it. It is certainly an act of humility and persistence that few will ever notice: one has to be careful “to the point of being perfectionist” to write a bibliography.
What makes this bibliography invaluable for French, as well as American, readers, is its impressive scale and content: it is the bibliography of thirty-five French authors, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These authors, some immensely influential in their day, such as Ernst Renan (more than 1,000 entries for this author alone), Barrès or Gustave le Bon, have been generally classified as Right Wing authors. That they are monarchists, republicans, nationalists, europeans, or even Christians or anti-Christians, as Benoist reminds us in the preface, demonstrates that the concept of the “Right” is at best extremely varied. Most of them would be considered conservative in the broad sense of the word, and therefore the entries provide a deep resource for exploring the range of conservative thought.
However, it was never Alain de Benoist’s intention to put together a typology of Right wing movements in France. Rather, this immense bibliography is a celebration of conservative politics, which, although usually forgotten, had a huge following in the adoptive land of Rousseau. Their exponents took to heart the keeping of France on the right/Right political, cultural, and religious track in times of civil unrest, until World War II. (What happened after the war is a different story altogether.)
The Nazi occupation of France injured not only the endless number of its victims of war, but France’s (sometimes sensitive) national pride. Further, its cultural foundations which were badly shaken, even severed, as a result of this experience. Indeed, the Nazi rule of most of Europe was beyond what France and the West in general had ever witnessed before, and a number of French policy makers made terrible decisions, hoping to accommodate a foreign regime, essentially criminal, which by definition could not be accommodated. Most men in charge of the reins of the State, during the occupation, were conservatives, as the people of France remember it, rightly or wrongly. At the top, was Marshall Pétain, not only the Hero of Verdun but also the embodiment of all the virtues of Conservative politics before the War. After the war, however, at the age of 89, he was to become the despised symbol of collaboration with Nazi Germany.
After the liberation of France, the Communist Party, soon to be the most important political party in the country, played a decisive role in French culture, to fill the vacuum left by the conservatives. Consequently, the French conservative Heritage was to be pilloried: anyone with connections to it was going to be “ostracized,” as Benoist reminds us, and considered “guilty by association.” Conservatism’s reputation in France still has not recovered; in fact if anything it is worse today, as this bibliography shows beyond any doubt. “Mainstream publishers show no interest in taking on the Conservative classics,” Benoist notes in his preface.
The semi-official denial of France’s conservative heritage is perhaps why France isn’t generally remembered as being one of the most vigorous Conservative countries up until the 1940s. Indeed, it is a fact that only a minority acted at key moments in French history in order to change the course and the natural inclination of a nation, notoriously deeply conservative.
Thus, after 1945, Catholic France became inexorably the main secular state in Europe. One could say this had already been set in motion with two particular events: First, the repudiation of its glorious past with a blood bath at the time of the French Revolution, something Joseph de Maistre regarded as an absolute horror since he held the view that hereditary monarchy was divinely sanctioned. Second, on becoming a Republic officially secular in 1905, which excluded the Catholic Church from any form of influence in the public sphere under the instigation of Anti-Catholic Politicians such as the Socialist Aristide Briand. The French establishment even began to systematically oppose Conservative politics, at home and abroad, advocating a “French social model” perceived to be vastly superior to the “ultra-liberal Anglo-American” one. Vocal left-wing writers became well known throughout the West for their violent anti-conservative, anti-religious and relativist outlook. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault and the like became major exponents of what one could rightly call a counter-culture: an anti-western philosophy, suspicious of everything which had anything to do with national traditions and customs, established authority and so on.
Among the authors de Benoist has included we will focus on the main ones belonging to the French equivalent of the Burkean tradition. The reader will find the main exponents of a Burkean tradition in France in separate volumes: Charles Maurras, born in 1868, in the second, Louis de Bonald, born in 1774 in volume 3, and Joseph de Maistre, born in 1753, in the last one.
Maistre and Bonald both advocated the return to a monarchy regime, and shared other views. Maistre is perhaps best remembered for holding the firm belief that the Pope has supreme authority on both spiritual and political matters; Bonald for adhering to a Declaration of Duties in preference to the Declaration of Human Rights inherited from the French Revolution. They both stressed that only tradition and authority could be the supports for any viable form of good governance.
More importantly perhaps, the reader will meet Charles Maurras, arguably the most important conservative, and controversial, thinker in France. Like Maistre and Bonald he was a monarchist and like them he considered the family to be the basis of a healthy society, the monarch to be its head. What distinguishes Maurras, however, are the scientific principles that are the foundation of his theory. The Catholics poet Charles Péguy (born in 1873) and novelist Georges Bernanos (born in 1888), the latter of whom broke with Maurras, deserve our particular attention, in part because they became strong influences on British and American Catholic conservative thinkers. Finally, it is also worth mentioning Henri Massis who wrote in 1927 a somewhat visionary essay “Defense of the West.” One might say this book anticipated the literature which was going to be published after World War II in the States warning us of the dangers our civilization was facing if we were to reject our spiritual heritage.
Many American conservatives would disagree with Benoist on a few issues, such as religion. Nevertheless, he remains likely the best theoretician and historian of the Right in France today. And thanks to the Bibliographie générale conservatives everywhere will be made aware of a number of major writers and thinkers who might have continued to be scandalously neglected otherwise. It is an imposing landmark and, like any landmark it serves one main purpose: to help us find our way in these times of “Great Disruption,” as Francis Fukuyama put it. For Burkean readers this is good news.
Thierry Giaccardi is a French researcher and writer living in Northern Ireland.
Posted: March 19, 2007