The Neocons and Charles Maurras

October 07, 2007

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The Neocons and Charles Maurras

Having already finished most of a 600-page biography about French man of letters and political thinker Charles Maurras (1868-1953) by Stéphane Giocanti, Maurras: Le chaos et l’ordre (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), I’d like to address a question that the managing editor of this site posed about Giocanti’s subject. Is there a useful comparison to be drawn between Maurras, a monarchist and religious skeptic who enlisted French Catholicism for political purposes, and the Straussian boosters of American global democracy? Are the Straussians, who appeal to a certain notion of transcendence in order to teach “democratic” virtue and to fuel foreign military incursions, replicating the exploitation of piety that French nationalists had committed a century earlier? Maurras and his movement (and newspaper) Action Française had clothed their nationalist agenda by appearing to be plus catholique que le Pape, e.g., by denouncing the French Christian Democrats of the early twentieth century who had sought an accommodation with the anti-clerical French Third Republic, and even by disputing whether Protestants could be real Frenchmen.


  

But in the end it became apparent that Maurras, who might have been the most revered literary figure in France of his generation, and his almost equally brilliant collaborators Léon Daudet and Jacques Bainville were demonstrable neopagans and philosophical skeptics. The ax fell on them on December 20, 1926, when Pope Pius XI issued an admonition to French Catholics “to keep their distance from Action Française. It is not permitted to Catholics to sustain, encourage, or read published newspapers by men whose writings depart from our dogmas and morals.” Three days later, the Congregation for the Holy Office condemned by decree literary works that had been published by Maurras going back into the 1890s; these were writings that showed an explicitly anti-Christian or materialist bias. Curiously, the second condemnation had been prepared in 1914 but because of political events and the Papacy’s attempt to hold on to Catholic royalists in France, the dissemination of the document had been delayed twice. When it was finally promulgated at the end of 1926, the Pope and his advisors may have decided to throw in their lot with French Catholic seeking a rapprochement with secular republicanism. At the same time, in Italy early Christian Democrats, led by the anti-fascist priest Luigi Sturzo, were pointing the way toward a new political possibility for the Church, the building of a Catholic, pro-welfare state parliamentary party. Maurras and his followers by the end of 1926 seemed to belong to the past and therefore the anti-Christian or neo-pagan baggage that they brought with them was no longer an acceptable price to be paid by Rome for an alliance with French royalist religious skeptics.


  

Without delving further into this break, the question remains whether the appeal to religious faith among the Straussians and, more broadly, among the neoconservatives into whose camp they fall, offers an historical parallel to the French royalist Right of the 1920s. My answer would be for the most part no, although certain overlaps are too obvious to be ignored. Both groups have appealed to traditional religious sentiments in their societies, Maurras to catholiques confits, devout Catholics with a strong dislike for the Third Republic, and the Straussians and neocons to Zionist Jews and Evangelical Christians. Neither group of manipulators has been particularly God-fearing but each has been willing to manipulate a particular religious sensibility for political ends.


  

Another similarity to be noted is the Teutonophobia that has animated both groups. The neocons and the Straussians continue to associate the Germans, whenever the opportunity is presented, with the Holocaust and anti-Semitic fascism. Because of his passionate identification as a Provencal and as a classicist with Latinity and because of his repugnance for the Germans as the upstart enemy of the ancient French nation, Maurras was equally obsessive about Teutonic evils. Because of this shared antipathy, certain similarities seem undeniable. Allan Bloom’s invectives against the “German connection” in The Closing of the American Mind look as if they had been drawn from Maurras’s editorials in Action Française against the snares of German thought. Maurras’s essay Devant l’Allemagne éternelle, chronique d’une résistance (1937) might indeed have come from a neoconservative or Straussian, if such a hypothetical author could have mastered the appropriate French forms of expression. Teutonophobic passions often take the same expressions, no matter what the source.


  

Despite Maurras’s attachment to what he called “political anti-Semitism,” his writings on Germany throughout the 1930s attack the Germans as a whole, and not only Hitler, for anti-Jewish prejudice. Maurras looked into the distant German past for the origins of the “antisémitisme de peau” (anti-Semitism of the flesh) that was characteristic of the Nazis; and like the later Straussians and neocons, he never ceased to blame the Germans for World War One. In his defense, however, it might be noted that German armies did devastate about a quarter of France’s territory after they overran it in 1914.


  

One might also note the shared political modernism of the groups being compared. Despite their talk about antiquity, the Straussians, as a neoconservative subspecies, are riveted on a presentist ideology, their own version of liberal democracy, which they would like to impose globally. What Straussians call “the modern enterprise” is their parochial political experience, from which they generalize about the Good, and it is this Straussian-neoconservative ideal, supposedly personified by contemporary America, which defines the missionary politics of, say, the Wall Street Journal or Weekly Standard. Maurras was equally focused on the present moment, and most of his defenses of monarchy have nothing to do with traditional notions of royalty as being divinely ordained or in sync with a natural order. His monarchism was based on his view about what was necessary for the France of his time to function as a political entity. Having a king, and indeed a descendant of the bourgeois king, Louis Philippe of the House of Orléans, was seen as beneficial for a modern French state, and particularly in view of its troublesome neighbor to the east. The Third Republic, under which France labored in the 1930s with revolving door governments, would never provide, according to the French royalists, an adequate sense of French political unity.


  

Although critical of both Jews and Protestants, Maurras attacked neither for theological reasons. Protestants were seen as an extension of the specifically German Reformation, and as people who were spreading a doctrine of religious individualism. They were therefore dangerous to French national cohesion. Although not every Jew were seen by Maurras as a threat to France, to whatever extent this group placed their own ethnic interest before that of the French patrie, they were unsuited to be French citizens or subjects. Maurras assumed that most Jews fell into the second category, and this was certainly his position during the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s when he insisted on the presumed guilt of Captain Dreyfus, a French officer of German Jewish lineage. But there were some Jews whom Maurras held up as model Frenchmen (bien pétris), and one such presumed patriot Daniel Halévy was his longtime friend and collaborator. While Maurras certainly had his quirks, he usually defended them for what he imagined to be “empirical” reasons. His favorite social thinker was the nineteenth-century father of positivism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and Maurras never abandoned the belief that he too was applying a “science of society.”


  

Having pointed out the similarities between Maurras and his movement and the bête noire of this website, it might be a good idea to underline their even more obvious discrepancies. The first difference concerns the disparity in analytic intelligence and cultural erudition between the groups under consideration. Maurras was a major European humanistic figure who even if he had never addressed European politics would still be remembered as a prolific and influential poet (in Provençal as well as French), a literary critic of the first water and a commentator on ancient and medieval thought. Maurras is still regarded as a gifted French stylist, and the range of his knowledge in comparative literature and in ancient and modern history was truly phenomenal.


  

Aside from his partisan journalism and his essays written to flatter the Orléanist pretenders to the French throne, with whom he remained on intimate personal terms until the late 1930s, Maurras’s political tracts L’Avenir de l’intelligence, his five-volume Dictionnaire politique et critique and Enquête sur la monarchie are full of unsurpassed insight. Even French Jewish readers with political opinions that have differed sharply from his, such as Raymond Aron and Elisabéth Lévy, have nonetheless considered Maurras’s investigations of intellectuals in contemporary politics to be ground-breaking, indispensable reading. Maurras’s royalist, decentralist politics and admonitions against the German threat were passions that he indulged on the side, when he was not becoming the French role model for T.S. Eliot (a figure about whom Giocanti has already written a massive biography) and for other literary giants.


  

Having read neocon and Straussian tracts, it does not seem to me that these printed opinions show the depth of thought or elegance of Maurras’s political writing. (Even Maurras’s worst ravings are far better crafted than the denunciations of Islamofascism or European anti-Semitism that regularly appear in the neocon press.) Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind reads like a civics textbook designed for New Deal Democrats. It might appeal especially to those who dislike Germans, pop culture, and ill-mannered hippies and who are trying to relate all three to each other. Moreover, Bloom’s onetime bestseller is composed in a style that is fully worthy of its movement conservative readers. It shares in the mediocrity of other Straussian writers on contemporary politics. The global democratic preaching that one hears coming from the Straussian Harry Jaffa and his acolytes at the Claremont Institute differs from Bloom’s bromides to the extent that it claims to be rooted in Judeo-Christianity. But all of this boils down to the preaching of a democratic creed that we are told it would be good for Americans to embrace. Jaffaite Straussians wish us to believe that Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, Aquinas, etc., were all precursors of Abraham Lincoln, as read through the lenses of Harry Jaffa.


  

The Church may well have been justified in fearing Maurras, an author who combined argumentative brilliance and Thomistic scholarship with pseudo-Catholic convictions. But I’m not sure who in the neocon or Straussian fold resembles Maurras as a seducer of once faithful Christians? The only one here who might approach his intelligence would be the father of the Straussian persuasion, Leo Strauss. And even here the fit doesn’t quite work. Unlike Maurras, Strauss is a ponderous, tedious writer in either English or German, and unlike his students, he does not explicitly manipulate religion for ideological purposes.


  

Strauss’s channeling of religious energies for Jewish national ends does not mean from a Jewish perspective what it did for Pius X when he responded to French nationalist Catholics. The Jewish kingdom is precisely of this world, and it centers on the land of Israel. All Jewish groups, save for a small sectarian fragment of the Hasidim, the Satmar sect from Eastern Hungary, and the totally marginalized Reform Jews in the American Council for Judaism, would implicitly agree with the above statement. The former Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger, made no secret of his Jewish nationalism—which he claimed was natural for someone who, like himself, belonged to the “Jewish people,” even if was a Catholic convert and an otherwise traditional Catholic clergyman. Strauss was forthright about his Jewish national commitment, and he was notorious for his intolerance toward those who did not share his position. But there was nothing dishonest when Strauss appealed to other Jews as a Zionist; although by no means an unequivocal theist, he did perform the Jewish commandment of ohavas yisrael, loving his ethnic nation.


  

Where his disciples have been dishonest is in denying Western Christian nations the ethnic solidarity that they have claimed for Jews. Why are Jews, it might be asked, allowed to be an ethnic people—but according to the Zionists and Straussians, American Christians must see themselves as belonging to a propositional “universal nation”? Or so the Straussian and Orthodox Jew Douglas Feith asserted in a speech at the Hebrew University in 2002. But even if one must balk at this double standard, it does reflect a certain underlying truth. There is an unbridgeable theological difference between Christian universalism and a Jewish national community, as the foundation for Jewish ritual practice and a Jewish relation to the Divine. Christianity and Judaism do not have equivalent views on the connection of religion to ethnic identity. And while it is possible to fault Strauss’s disciples for hiding their ethnic loyalty, they are not being irreligious in a Jewish sense by expressing such a sentiment. Note that even those Hasidic Jews who reject the present Jewish state of Israel are not opposed to Jewish nationalism. They simply insist that the Jewish Messiah must first come and take over the Jewish homeland before Jews will be allowed to become a political nation. These ultra-Orthodox Jews question the time table but not the concept of Jewish national rebirth and political dominion. Dispensationalists Christians and their leftward drifting Evangelical counterparts both seem to share the same Zionist focus of most religious and secular Jews, and so from a theological perspective, they are not being “unchristian” when they advance Jewish nationalist ends.


  

Far from constituting a value judgment, this is an attempt to show why neoconservative or Evangelical Zionism does not constitute the same theological error as a religion of French nationalism would for the Catholic Church or French Calvinists. Arguably most neoconservatives disguise their Jewish nationalism by identifying it with global, nonsectarian democracy. While this pretense may look odd, it does not justify the hasty conclusion that neoconservatives or more specifically Straussians are bad Jews or defective Evangelicals because they are zealous Jewish nationalists.


  

A not so obvious difference between Maurras and his movement and those to whom we are comparing them is the disparity in power and influence. Unlike the neoconservatives who have swarmed all over the Bush presidency and control tens of billions of dollars in propaganda resources, Action Française was a rather modest enterprise. Maurras’s newspaper issues drew about 100,000 readers at the very most, and the corresponding organization managed to enlist about 30,000 members at the supposed height of its influence in the 1930s. In the same decade the right-Republican organization Croix de Feu had almost 300,000 members, and various French fascist organizations reached a comparable size in the same period. This, mind you, was during a time when France was being rocked by economic disaster, a series of government scandals, and the meteoric growth of a Communist Party that numbered more supporters than the entire French nationalist Right together. Giocanti makes clear that Maurras’s followers, including the youth organization Camelots du Roi, which hawked newspapers and occasionally engaged in scuffles, had only marginal impact on the bloody confrontations between Right and Left that erupted in Paris in the mid-1930s. Maurras and his followers had important friends in government only during the presidency of Raymond Poincaré (1913-1920), the right-republican French nationalist who had presided over the French state during World War One. In the 1930s the Maurrassiens were typically harassed by the Paris authorities for outbreaks of violence and political subversion that they were in no position to incite.


  

The trial of Maurras and his longtime associate Maurice Pujo as Nazi collaborators, in Lyons in January 1945 by the triumphant French Resistance, was further proof of Maurras’s powerlessness. Although he had been unwisely associated with the collaborationist government of Marshall Pétain and although he had made indiscreet remarks about Jews during the Occupation, in a less hysterical situation certain facts would have been apparent. No one in France had warned against Nazi Germany as persistently and forcefully as Maurras. He had called for a French attack on Germany when Hitler occupied the Rhineland in 1936, and unlike the French Communists, who stood in judgment of him in 1945, Maurras had been against Hitler, and not allied to him, when the fall of France had occurred in 1940. Among those who should have been held responsible for Nazi crimes, Maurras was less guilty than all of the members of the French Communist Party and all of the leftwing French advocates of disarmament and appeasement in the 1930s.


  

The reason this aged poet was forced to spend five years in prison after having been found guilty of treason is not that he was worse than many of his accusers. He suffered this fate because History had dealt him a weaker hand. He had identified himself with the monarchist Right in a war in which the Communists went from being Nazi allies to the leaders of bloody reprisals taken against “fascist sympathizers.” Maurras had in fact never been a fascist sympathizer, and he had lost droves of supporters in the interwar years, including the revolutionary nationalist Georges Valois, because of his impassioned attacks on fascism. He viewed Mussolini and his imitators as successors to the French Jacobins, and he preached a form of national identity that would be mediated through regional loyalties and the moral influence of a well educated monarch.


  

During the Vichy regime, Maurras was particularly isolated and embittered, as a despiser of the Germans, the French Left, and those French fascists who seemed overly comfortable with the Nazis. The deafness he had had to endure from his youth on may have made this marginalization seem even more severe but in any case it was real enough. Many of his most prominent admirers—Charles de Gaulle and much of de Gaulle’s staff, and leader of the Resistance spy network within occupied France Colonel Gilbert Rémy, and finally Maurras’s own family members—were on the Allied side. In a desperate act of faith, Maurras talked himself into believing that Pétain and another general who had initially supported Vichy, Maxime Weygand, were actually building an army within France to drive the German occupiers out. By 1937 the Orléanist pretender, the Count of Paris, had broken with Maurras and his followers because they were viewed as too powerless to help the monarchist cause. But isolation has not been the fate of the subjects of my latest book. Unlike Maurras, the neoconservatives and their Straussian mentors have been anything but consigned to the historical dustbin. As powerbrokers, they have fared far better than the stormy, deaf Provencal.


  

The last difference between Maurras and those to whom he is being compared is so great that, for me it is almost too obvious to be mentioned. Unlike most of the Straussians and all of the neoconservatives, Maurras was not a leftist but a man of the Right. Nothing more need be said on this matter.

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