Sunil Khilnani
Arguing Revolution

The French Revolution ringingly described itself as the bearer of democratic rights and liberties; the values of rights, political representation, and elections were all affirmed early in France. But the Revolution—and the Left it created—proved to be the best enemy of these values. Democracy in its constitutional representative form—the only form in which inhabitants of the modern political world are ever likely to be durably acquainted with it—remained in quite fundamental respects unpractised, untheorized, and unloved in France. To the intellectual Left, constitutional representative democracy, 'bourgeois' or 'formal' democracy, was a contemptible and mystifying illusion; only beginning in the late 1970s did it gradually come to be accepted as a political form in its own right, and not merely an illicit simulation of 'true', direct, or revolutionary democracy. To properly explain the lag between the affirmation of constitutional and democratic political values and their enshrinement in institutional practices would of course require a fully textured history of post-revolutionary France, but the (at best) insouciance of the intellectual Left towards elections, constitutions, and the forms of political representation itself constitutes a fundamental part of any such explanation.

The language of rights, for instance, figured early and prominently in the French Revolution; but whereas in America and England it was invoked and acted as a check upon political power, in France it served to legitimate the creation of new forms of sovereign political power (forms which, by appropriating this critical language, deprived those who sought to protect themselves against the excesses of this new power of a crudal weapon). The Revolution, and the state it engendered, claimed for itself a representative identity, it incarnated the nation: as the legitimate upholder and enactor of the rights of the nation, 'the people', it claimed sovereign power and authority over its population. Individual rights were subordinated to the state, and any potential for pluralism was dissipated by laws promulgated and acts performed in the name of the people as a whole. The dimension of individual agency seeped away from the concept of rights, as the language came to be wielded in the service of a paternalist and often authoritarian consequentialism. The example of elections and representative democracy tells a similar story. Although ushered in by the revolutionary era, and accepted in principle by the Left, in fact the most significant opposition to elections and the institutions and practices of representative democracy was to be found on the Left (an attitude summed up by Sartre's lapidary dismissal, 'elections, piege a cons'). In conformity with the general tenor of the political culture, those on the Left retained a commitment to political rationalism (embodied most usually for them in the form of a benign revolutionary party; for the Right, in a technocratic state), and both Left and Right came to harbour a deep distrust of representative politics and democratic decision-making procedures.

For the Left, revolution was the instrument whereby the disjunctions between the social and the political, society and the state, would be rationally reconciled and harmonized. The language of revolution became a way of welding together potential diversity into a unitary image of political community, with state or party as its legitimate representative and agency. The Revolution had bequeathed to the French Left a vocabulary that stressed unity and identity, not diversity and pluralism: it claimed to unite the political community, and to act for it against its enemies. It proposed a seamless connection between society and state. But this tight conjunction has become an object of suspicion in France, the result of a dawning sense that the distance between state and society must be structured and represented, not effaced. This shift in the principal political question which inspires intellectual inquiry in late twentieth-century France has been well caught by Pierre Rosanvallon: the central dilemma of modern politics, he writes, is that 'the separation between the political system and civil society is a condition of individual liberty, yet this productive separation is permanently in danger of being transformed into a negative distance'. The fascination with the phantasia of revolution has yielded place to an interest in the forms and practices of political representation.

All unitary images of the political community and its representatives came under attack in the late 1960s, and the evanescence of the value of revolution was an unforeseen effect of this period. Characterizing broadly, two lines of intellectual criticism emerged after 1968, the gauchiste and the 'reformist'. Despite their opposing political colours and uneven styles and strategies, they shared common opponents. Both were deeply critical of the claim, advanced separately by the Gaullist state and its opposing frere semblable the Communist Party, that each exclusively possessed the proper description of the authentic political community and thus could legitimately represent it. The gauchiste criticism brought together two distinct strands: those intellectuals who desired a return to the pristine idea of revolution (the Maoists, the Trotskyists and the Althusserians), and those (such as Henri Lefebvre, Cornelius Castoriadis, Andre Gorz and Guy Debord) who confronted the revolutionary ideal with the consequences of the spectacular growth of the economy in the postwar decades, growth which had produced an apparently pacified and distinctly un-evolutionary consumer society. The reformist criticism, on the other hand, emerged from the liberal and republican political clubs of the 1960s and from the work of 'critical technocrats' like Michel Crozier. Like the gauchistes, these intellectuals and politicians were worried by the political effects of the centralized State's efforts to modernize society which, they held, 'de-politicized' society as it weakened civic meanings and loosened social bonds and cohesion. Both reformists and gauchistes agreed that this was as much the responsibility of swelling consumerism as of the expansion of the bureaucratic welfare state. Both agreed too on the need for change (the gauchiste slogan, subsequently taken up by the Socialist Party, was 'changer la vie'; the reformists, naturally more measured, were content with 'changer la societe') and on the imperative that this be initiated not from above, by state or Party, but by what came to be called 'civil society'. Both converged in their criticism of state-centred. Jacobin, conceptions of value, agency and possibility.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.