Monday, April 04, 2011

The origins of 'humanitarian intervention' in intellectual reaction

Given the role of the comical and sinister BHL in coordinating with Sarkozy to push for intervention in Libya, I thought it was worth recounting to you the story of how intellectual reaction in Paris, combined with the reassertion of Eurocentrism, (and, I should have added, of French imperial interests in Africa with Operation Manta), produced the doctrine of 'humanitarian intervention'. This is a slightly more politicised narrative than the one which Adam Curtis entertainingly, if somewhat glibly at times, recently provided with the use of invaluable archive materials. After all, I don't think the worse thing that can be said about this tendency is that it divides the world into good guys and bad guys. I also don't find BHL's hair cut as interesting as Curtis does, and there was a time when such snickering would have been considered rather tired. Nevertheless, I'm with him in his attempt to excavate hidden origins, to anatomise intellectual lineages and antecedents, and to mock and point fun. Here's one I prepared earlier:

The critique of Stalinism was by no means new, and The Gulag Archipelago contained no revelations. The New Left had almost unanimously held the Soviet Union to be a part of the problem, either because it was depraved, or because it was decrepit, or both. Solzhenitsyn’s text rapidly became a much-hyped reference point for socialists moving to the right; but, as Michael Scott Christofferson writes, ‘the vast majority of French intellectuals of the non-communist Left were already acutely aware of the failures of Soviet socialism’. Although much of the French Left, fearing a fascist reflux, defended the communists during the period in which they were increasingly ostracized, the Algerian war of independence and the Hungarian Revolution produced a more critical engagement. There had been at any rate a revival of libertarian and democratic ideals during Liberation’s hangover, and a sustained effort was made to reconcile these with revolutionary principles.

In February 1948, left-wing intellectuals had founded the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (RDR) as a coalition of the non-communist left, but it had collapsed by late 1949 on account of divisions over American power. Further efforts at developing a new Left committed to neutrality in the Cold War, anti-colonialism, and political and economic democracy, also floundered for the time being. The testimony of Victor Kravchenko – a former Soviet official who had defected and was associated with the CIA – confirmed the existence of concentration camps in the Soviet Union in 1947, and produced a debate among French progressives. Although the episode was marred by Kravchenko’s stridency and his association with American propaganda efforts, even fellow-travelling intellectuals such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre accepted that the concentration camps did exist and were not, as the PCF tried to claim, merely re-educational work camps. So, as early as 1950, and certainly by 1956, most of the noncommunist Left was apprised of the internal repression in the USSR – and certainly the Trotskyist Left had been arguing that the revolution had been betrayed since the 1930s.

Still, The Gulag Archipelago provided the occasion for confession and conversion, and a host of former Maoist revolutionaries would later end up adopting hard-line anti-communist positions, and rejecting in particular the Third Worldism that had characterized much of the French Left. These included such luminaries as Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, Bernard Kouchner, Alain Finkielkraut and Pascal Bruckner. Bernard-Henri Lévy was never a Maoist militant, but he had been close to Louis Althusser, one of the chief theoreticians of a particular strand of normalien Maoism before May 1968. BHL had not been closely involved in the May 1968 uprising (although he claims it as a key moment for him, he was actually engaged in an affair at the time); but his first book, a journalistic account of the Bangladesh War, was written from a Marxist perspective. However, Lévy was so mortified by Solzhenitsyn’s exposé that he was moved to disparage his former Marxist commitments.

Or was he? While some have cast doubt on Lévy’s seriousness as a Marxist, as late as 1975 Lévy was still defending the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc against dissidents, and against Solzhenitsyn in particular. As the French Communist Party (PCF) went on the offensive against the Soviet novelist and his defenders, Lévy assured readers that Solzhenitsyn was ‘not a great writer’ but rather a ‘mythomaniac’, a ‘showbizman’ and a ‘gaffeur’ (meaning ‘blundering idiot’). He dismissed ‘the few clowns who arrive with us periodically, nineteenth- century novelists mislaid in the twentieth century, the Solzhenitsyn type…’ Regarding the dissidents, he maintained that they were hardly models of progressive thought themselves, and were ‘even sometimes of perfectly reactionary cloth’. All their testimony showed was that the USSR was ‘a country like any other’, ‘neither completely rosy nor completely black’. His preferred authority on the Soviet Union was Francis Cohen, whose chief distinction was that he had been the Moscow correspondent for the PCF’s newspaper L’Humanité. It is possibly that Lévy’s defence of the Soviet Union at this time was partly due to the influence of Louis Althusser who, while a critic of Stalinism, did not share the nostalgia for Tsarism that Solzhenitsyn exhibited. Another reason was the strength of the PCF and its weight in the organized Left.

By summer 1975, Lévy had concluded that the Soviet Union was not quite like any other state after all. The cause of its tyrannical nature lay in an ‘original sin’, not any corruption, ‘and the sin is Marx’. The Gulag Archipelago was ‘the finally blinding proof that terror in the USSR is everywhere’. Not only did it discredit the USSR, it proved that ‘terror is nothing more than the inside lining of sacrosanct socialism’ – although at this point Lévy did not deny the possibility of socialism outside the USSR.7 By the time he came to write La barbarie à visage humain, in 1977, he was convinced that the problem was not merely with the USSR, and not even only with overt Marxism, but with the whole paradigm of revolutionary thought issuing forth from May 1968 which, whether it knew it or not, was Marxist. Lévy’s method was as straightforward as his prose was convoluted: the Marxist conception of power involves a Master, or oppressor, a ‘lucid and diabolical anticonfessor’ who manipulates through ideology a ‘population of sleepwalkers’. Were this population to be awoken, and apprised of the ruses of capital and the modes of their exploitation, they would rebel. This paradigm was, he maintained, the reigning wisdom even among the anti-Marxists of the New Left. ‘There is a hidden impulse toward power, probably absolute power, whenever someone brandishes the slogan of total “liberation”’. The book affirmed a fundamental historical pessimism: progress was impossible, and every attempt at accomplishing it was a religious gesture, the ‘faith’ of ‘militants’ (Lévy’s book is replete with such metaphors – the litany of the Left, shepherds and flocks, prophets and devils. ‘Totalitarianism is confession without God, the inquisition plus the negation of the individual’ – and so on and on, straining for effect in that fashion, based on nothing more than the insipid anti-communist metaphor of The God That Failed). Far from being one of many responses to profound social iniquity, Marxism was ‘fanaticism’ a ‘ghostly “prophecy”’, and paradoxically a form of ‘counterrevolutionary thought’ dedicated to sustaining a given ‘end of history’. The frustration of the attempt to radically transform social conditions would necessarily lead to repression, and ultimately to the gulag. Written on the eve of the municipal election victory of the Union of the Left, uniting the Socialists and the PCF, Lévy explained that it was intended as a warning shot: the French Left was on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. And so: ‘There remains only the duty to protest against Marxism’ in all of its forms.

André Glucksmann had been, as noted in Chapter 3, both a Stalinist and a Maoist in his radical years. In 1956 he had been opposed both to the French ‘pacification’ of Algeria, and to the Soviet ‘pacification’ of Hungary. He had been a member of the violent Maoist group, Gauche prolétarienne, before that movement collapsed in the mid 1970s. In Le Maître penseurs, Glucksmann laid out the programmatic basis for his eschewal of Marxism: the master thinkers, including Hegel, Fichte, Nietzche and Marx, had systematically legitimized the dominative strategies of the modern state. The gulag was a result not only of ‘the logical application of Marxism’, but also of languages that ‘enable one to master everything’, admitting nothing outside themselves. Glucksmann’s self-congratulatory retelling has it that:

"I began with concrete and timely criticism of the French Communist Party and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Then I proceeded to a more extended critique of totalitarian thinking, in order not to be ensnared in a kind of intra-Marxist opposition – anti-Soviet but pro-Chinese, for example, or anti-Chinese but pro-Castro, and if not some form of sacred socialism, then the dear Third World … The next step was to fit this basic Marxist structure into a more general scheme, which I tracked to German philosophical thinking of the nineteenth century – a totalitarianoriented world view which could be expressed in rightist as well as leftist ideologies."

This is not quite accurate. Glucksmann, at this point, was still an opponent of the concept of ‘totalitarianism’. The standard presentation, he said, had ‘let the “non-totalitarian” regimes off the hook’, ignoring the ‘kinship’ and ‘filiation’ which linked the ‘harsh methods of domination employed in both the West and in the East’. He remembered that the British had developed concentration camps against the Boers before the Boers had thought of using them against black South Africans, and recalled enough of his anti–Vietnam War activity to point out the totalitarian resonances of the campaigns against ‘the Indians’, ‘the Vietnamese, the South Americans … or the inhabitants of Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki’. The ‘critique of totalitarianism shows a tiresome tendency to boil down always to a critique of totalitarianism elsewhere’.

This conception of a logical progress from anti-Stalinist critique to straightforward anti-communism is not simply a piece of self-serving revisionism by Glucksmann, however. It is a claim repeated by Julian Bourg in his account of the impact of May 1968 on French thought. As he puts it, ‘The Marxist tradition ironically provided the resources for overcoming Marxism … the passage from anti-Stalinism to anti- Marxism completed a logic.’ However, Bourg adds some heavy qualification to this somewhat glib observation. In the context of the death of Mao, the catastrophic rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the crises on the European Left, and the declining fortunes of the French Left, Bourg maintains that Solzhenitsyn’s text provided an orientation for those already prepared to escape Marxism. The idea that anti-Stalinist Marxism is logically already anti-communist is in fact one that supporters of the Soviet Union have always been prepared to brandish. Thus, Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’) argued during the Spanish Civil War that the attacks on the trotskysant POUM were justified because the Trotskyists were counter-revolutionaries. However, while it is true that the Maoists had a critique of the Soviet Union and of the politically timid PCF, they were of course completely uncritical of an equally authoritarian regime in China, which was regarded as the vanguard of anti-imperialist revolt. Indeed, as one internal document of the Maoist group Gauche Prolétarienne argued, ‘All error goes back to an incorrect interpretation of Mao.’ The cultish extolment of Mao as the philosopher and strategist of anti-imperialism did in many cases morph into a victimological approach to the Third World (the widely publicized fate of the Vietnamese Boat People providing a decisive moment for the ‘new philosophers’ and their co-ideologues). Equally, the ‘anti-authoritarian’ dynamic in the May 1968 generation could be re-interpreted as a critique of everything from the gulag to nationalization. It is, however, hard to see this as a strictly logical and coherent progression.

At any rate, Glucksmann’s 1977 thesis bears some resemblances to classical ‘totalitarianism’ theory, and Glucksmann was increasingly content to use the label. It is also, as Alain Badiou (once a Maoist confederate himself) argues, a profoundly pessimistic doctrine. The thrust of Glucksmann’s argument is that every ‘collective will to the Good creates Evil’. There can be no positive politics, nothing too radically transformative, only a liberal–conservative consensus created by an awareness of Evil, and the need to resist it. Glucksmann would go on to warn that the Union of the Left shared a programme with the ‘master thinkers’. Its left-Keynesian reform package, which was typical of the era, was seen as an attempt at maximizing state power. In an even more sinister fashion, the nationalization programme was, Glucksmann claimed, aimed at ‘the Jewish side of the “private sector” … not privilege or exploitation’.

Lévy and Glucksmann, known as the ‘New Philosophers’, became the stars of a new media product, and were followed by a raft of penitent Maoists and ex-Marxists. One of the means by which Lévy exerted his influence was as editor at the prestigious germanopratin publishing house, Grasset, where he could publish his friends among the nouveaux philosophes, notably Glucksmann. This crowd were quick to draw accusations of antisemitism, and critics were treated as germinal totalitarians. ‘You proceed like the police!’, Lévy told a critic. The nouveaux philosophes had been treated to ‘small Moscow trials’, while an ‘unavowed totalitarianism’ was brewing. Glucksmann worked himself up to splenetic issue at a talk by Julia Kristeva, at which Kristeva proclaimed Soviet dissidence as a model for Western intellectuals. When Kristeva declined to say who she would vote for, Glucksmann screamed from the floor: ‘We have finally got there! Control of party cards, of loyalty to the party. Here’s why we already need to be dissenting in France … the gulag has already begun.’ On that shrill note – which confirmed the nouveaux philosophes in their self-aggrandizing identification with the figure of the ‘dissident’, despite the fact that the context provided far more rewards than dangers to those claiming it – Paris entrenched itself, in Perry Anderson’s phrase, as ‘the capital of European intellectual reaction’.

This performance was received with some fanfare in the Anglo- American press. Time magazine, introducing the ‘new philosophers’ to its readership, borrowed the title of Jean-Marie Benoist’s 1970 book, declaring: ‘Marx Is Dead’. The Washington Post enthused about the ‘gorgeous’, ‘olive-toned and prominently boned’ Bernard-Henri Lévy. The Economist hailed ‘Those magnificent Marx-haters’. Ronald Reagan even paid tribute ‘the so-called new philosophers in France’ in his address to the UK parliament on promoting democracy, cherishing their ‘rejection of the arbitrary power of the state, [their] refusal to subordinate the rights of the individual to the superstate, [their] realization that collectivism stifles all the best human impulses.’

As Kristin Ross has argued, there was more in this movement than simply a rejection of any form of emancipatory politics beyond the confines of liberal democracy: it was also a reassertion of Eurocentrism against the Third Worldist sympathies that had helped to stimulate leftist revolt in the West at a time of relative economic stability. The ex-gauchiste, Pascal Bruckner, ridiculed Frantz Fanon’s ‘plea to “go beyond” Europe … It is impossible to “go beyond” democracy. If the peoples of the Third World are to become themselves, they must become more Western.’ Naturally, with this came a plea to abandon Western ‘guilt’, as if anti-imperialist critique was simply a form of self-flagellation. In his 1982 book Tears of the White Man, Bruckner affirmed: ‘Europe is our destiny, our lot. More than ever, we develop as individuals through the respect of its borders, its traditions, and its territorial integrity.’ Bernard-Henri Lévy argued that the ‘turning towards the Third World’ that French intellectuals experienced during the Algerian war involved intense ‘hatred of Europe’, something which could be divined by one’s support for the Black Panthers, for example. Israel, by contrast, had embodied ‘democracy and European values’ from its inception.

Ironies abound here: it could conceivably be argued that destroying a population, driving it from its territory by means of massacres, and engaging in continuous expansionist aggression in the name of creating an ethno-nationalist state is a fundamentally European value (one could call it ‘Herrenvolk democracy’); and there may indeed be something about the Black Panthers that grates against ‘European values’. But this hardly commends the ‘values’ that Lévy exhorts us to treasure. In an age of officially ‘socialist’ states proliferating across the world, following national liberation struggles, anti-communism could shade quite easily into anti–Third Worldism, as in Maurice Clavel’s 1976 evocation of the ‘yellow peril’: ‘with the elimination of the Cultural Revolution figures and the ongoing Sino-Soviet reconciliation, a billion robots are already resting their weight on the Elbe. Those two billion eyes blinking, or rather not blinking …’ Kristin Ross writes that the ‘accession to political subjectivity of “the wretched of the earth”’ had disrupted the master-narrative of the Cold War, in which liberalism was the sole appropriate alternative to the Soviet Union, and thus had to be revised.

One form of revisionism was to behave as if the committed anticolonial and anti-imperialist dimensions of the movement had never existed: thus, Bernard Kouchner, the current foreign minister of France, reduces his Maoist days to a period of ‘navel-gazing’ puerility. Only after his radicalism was aborted did he discover ‘the third world’ (even though he had himself travelled to Cuba in 1960 to interview Che Guevara). Another was to excise the agency of the Third World itself, as during the colonial epoch, subordinating it instead to a rights discourse. Kouchner is after all a pioneer in the business of ‘humanitarian intervention’, as a co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), formed in 1971 from a fusion between the Groupe d’Intervention Médicale et Chirurgicale en Urgence, and the Secours Médical Français. The organization was to extend the ethic of solidarity into the business of humanitarian aid.

However, Kouchner left MSF in 1979 to form a break-away organization called Médecins Du Monde. The occasion for this was a campaign to help rescue the ‘Boat People’ – a flood of refugees fleeing repression in Indochina – called ‘A Boat for Vietnam’. This boat would bring doctors to offer treatment to the sick or wounded, and a number of journalists to bear witness. If some considered this approach excessively media driven, it was only the accentuation of an already existing trend. Médecins Du Monde later developed the doctrine of the ‘right to intervene’, a doctrine which was outlined in 1987 by Kouchner and his associate Mario Betatti in front of the Socialist President Mitterrand and the conservative Prime Minister Chirac, thus gaining bipartisan support for it. To the argument that victims had a right to humanitarian assistance was added the stipulation that the state had an obligation to help provide it. With Kouchner in the cabinet from 1988 to 1993 – first as minister for humanitarian action, then as minister for health and humanitarian action – the consensus was sealed.

- The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso, 2008, pp. 166-72