The ‘New Philosophers’ and the End of Leftism

Fashion move s  fast in Parisian salons, and the taste for intellectual scandal demands the constant breaking of fresh taboos. Three years ago, in the spring of 1977, a group of young authors styling themselves the ‘New Philosophers’ moved rapidly to the centre of attention, making headlines not only in France but around the globe. The  shocking novelty of the New Philosophers consisted in the fact that here was a group of young thinkers who were no longer prepared to dialogue with or work within the framework of marxism, but who openly denounced marxist thought as a philosophy of domination. After decades in which the vast majority of French intellectuals had instinctively placed themselves on the left, this attitude marked an important departure. Indeed, the ‘New Philosophy’ opened the floodgates – from then on no theoretical or political position was too absurd or reactionary to merit attention. In dreadful confirmation of this, two years later the cultural pages of a weekly magazine with a circulation of 85,000, the Sunday supplement of Le Figaro, were taken over by a ‘New Right’ whose racist and elitist doctrines throw the anti-authoritarian and humanist character of the New Philosophers’ critique of marxism into sharp relief. In this respect the New Philosophers already represent a fading page in the history of recent intellectual and political debate in France, their pamphleteering too flimsy – despite its original impact – to merit sustained attention as a theoretical contribution.  Yet to affirm the ephemeral nature of the  New Philosophers’ work is not to deny the importance of the attitudes it expresses, or the significance of the moment of its emergence. For this emergence marked definitively what one recent chronicler of French philosophy can describe as marxism’s ‘disappearance, perhaps temporary, from the field of discussion’ in France (Descombes, 1979, p155). In a country where marxism, in one form or another, has provided a dominant frame of reference for work in philosophy and the ‘human sciences’ ever since the end of the Second World War, such an event clearly represents a major turning -point, and one which cannot fail to have repercussions in Britain. The following pages will hopefully make the reasons for these developments clearer.



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