- Idealism Beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954—1988 by Eleanor Davey
Any study of the French Left is an intimidating enterprise, and the history of post-war humanitarianism and its fissiparous politics at least co-equal in terms of the scale of challenge. Eleanor Davey, in her first monograph, has prepared a superb study that traces the arc of French humanitarian idealism—which was, at key moments, not so ideal, and still less humane—but always revolutionary. Charting and characterizing the relationship between support for third-world revolution (tiers-mondisme) and revolutionary humanitarianism (sans-frontierisme), Idealism Beyond Borders takes, as its prime inquiry, "the way in which the ideas of tiers-mondisme and sans-frontierisme rose, fell, and interacted."1 It is this final term that affords it great novelty—presupposing at least some degree of overlap and simultaneity to the movements. While some of the episodes are addressed in the book, the most emphatic is the relief campaign in Biafra, which has been studied extensively, often by those who participated in it. The principal difficulty in this history is in finding and mapping the sinews, intellectual, political, and personal, across four decades.2
Spanning Algeria in the 1950s to Asmara in the 1980s, Idealism Beyond Borders finds its greatest contribution to knowledge in stitching this piecemeal, associational narrative into one of coherence and doing so outside the pejorative frame that has typically attended investigations of tiers-mondisme. Electing to privilege "conceptual relevance over fidelity to an individual trajectory," Davey renders this history in a dimension that foregrounds ideas, as opposed to the collage of events and roughly sorted basket of personalities through which French post-war humanitarian thought was [End Page 750] previously, and opaquely, understood.3 Mythology is parsed and interleaved with history, an approach which finds its finest showcase in the author's treatment of the Biafran Secession, which witnessed the birth of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the ascent of its icon, Bernard Kouchner, and the genesis of temoignage.4 Davey takes myth as an entity worthy of historical study in its own right, a decision which yields much for this hyper-mythologized moment in the canonical sans-frontiers origin story.
For a history which holds such sweep and explicitly disavows any sustained pursuit of individuals, Davey does exceptionally well to retain a meaningful sense of individuation, of agents navigating the world amidst the global drama of Algeria, Biafra, Munich, and Tehran. Their intellectual worlds are pinned to real places with shopfront addresses, notably La Joie de Lire, the commercially catastrophic but intellectually profitable book shop which served as a nucleus for early discussions. Its proprietor, Francois Maspero, was the literal and literary gateway to a revolutionary world—that of the FLN and Fanon, Che and Debray, Marcuse and Mao. Maspero was a vector for the ideas that coalesced around national liberation outside Europe, broadly encompassed under the canopy of tiers-mondisme, which would animate more than a generation of intellectuals. While the birth of tiers-mondisme had been a migration from one exhausted revolutionary cause to another, the terminal moment of that cause produced instead the dramatic reconfiguration of revolutionary aspirations.
Its part sibling and partial successor, sans-frontierisme, was a refurbished and innovative extension of the humanitarian project, but as Davey argues, "it did not provide an answer to failed revolutionary hopes so much as another model for engagement with the third world."5 The character of this transformation and the profound rupture in the positions and orientation of so many of the key figures is a rich target for uncharitable analysis—and, as Davey notes, overly reductionist maritime metaphor. To her great credit, the author seeks to understand, and not to moralize, the political evolution undertaken by her subjects. Such restraint furnishes the reader with ample basis for developing their own appraisals of the morality, or otherwise, of the gallery of tiers-mondiste luminaries. Michel Foucault's extraordinarily problematic reporting on the...