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  • Performing Politics and the Limits of Language
  • Patrick Lee (bio)
Mark Lilla, ed. New French Thought: Political Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Blandine Kriegel, The State and the Rule of Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

This series focuses on the representatives of the “new, liberal humanistic bent of French intellectual life.” First, how representative are they of recent French intellectual life? (Alan Schrift has raised this question in his Nietzsche’s FrenchLegacy.) Second, Lilla in New French Thought: Political Philosophy points to the work of Francois Furet on the French Revolution as a major stimulus for the authors in the series. (Readers should look at Kaplan’s Farewell, Revolution: The Historians’ Feud for an account of Furet’s assumptions.) The major target is the Hegelian-Marxist tradition of earlier post-war French thought. I will devote most of my limited space to Blandine Kriegel’s volume, although all three of the single-author volumes have much to offer, especially to readings against their grain.

The importance of the ideological background is apparent in a recent review of Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism in the American Political Science Review. That review finds Manent’s volume quite prosaic. In it, the early modern project is to assert the political dominance of the secular over the sacred. The narrative depends on the correspondence of the political and religious in the person of a divinely sanctioned political figure: monarchy is the “process” invented to carry out the initial stages of this project. Neither the pretensions to universality of the church clothed as empire in political terms nor the fractionating traditions of the small, weak city-states possessed the appropriate qualities needed to subordinate the religious to the political.

Machiavelli marks the break with interpreting life in terms of its good or end, which Manent claims makes all of life subject to the Church’s “trump” (p. 114). Later both nature (classical republicanism) and grace (protestantism) fail and lead to Hobbes’s answer: art as making (p. 22). His discussion of Hobbes on intelligence, “the faculty to solve problems,” the faculty of “inventing means,” “producing effects” (p. 25) leads up to taking the individual “seriously” (p. 28). The individual makes it possible to avoid the church-state choice. From this Hobbes to Tocqueville, the final figure in Manent’s tale, is but a short step. Manent’s Tocqueville sees the antidote to inequality in “political freedom,” which lets us see ourselves both as equal and as distinct (p. 112). The state of nature becomes the goal of politics and not the situation for a contract: “the presupposition of a legitimate political order must in fact be sought, created, constructed” (p. 113).

Why stop with Tocqueville, Marx’s contemporary? As the history of the death of liberalism and the birth of democracy, Tocqueville and 1848 make sense as an end point. But perhaps one ought to say that there has not been nearly enough political freedom to allow for the development of the presuppositions of liberalism, much less liberalism itself, and Manent has written an intellectual history of the failure of preliberalism. This book is against Marx and socialism, for which 1968 stands as a silent marker.

Blandine Kriegel’s The State and the Rule of Law explicitly accuses Marx of having initiated a passion for effacing the state/civil society difference. Yet just who is “Marx”? The difficulty becomes evident if one considers the tripartition of the political space developed in Ferry and Renaut’s From the Rights of Man to the Republican Idea: a liberal discourse, a Marx inspired discourse, an anarchist discourse. The entire tripartition enshrines the division established by 19th-century political thought. Kriegel’s target appears to be that discourse and its anti-statist biases. The breadth of her anti-statist target can be seen in these comments: “Without being openly anti-statist, Burke inverted the link between the state and the nation in the interest of the nation” (p. 107). She doesn’t say “society” (the point returns below). Kriegel...

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