Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

L’avenir de l’intelligence et autres textes
by charles maurras
edited by martin motte
bouquins, 1,280 pages, €32,00

Every year, France’s Ministry of Culture publishes an official volume to commemorate major anniversaries in French history, covering past events as well as the lives of prominent personalities. Assembled by a team of historians and approved by the Ministry, the list mixes victories and failures, the honored and the notorious—judging events and personalities strictly on the basis of their historical significance. In 2018, the judges placed Charles Maurras on the list, noting the 150th anniversary of his birth. Protests ensued. The judges insisted that commemoration is not the same as celebration, to no avail. Bowing to pressure, the Minister of Culture recalled and reedited the volume. Maurras’s name was effaced from the official history.

The same year saw the release of a new anthology of Maurras, the first edition of his works to be arranged and published since 2002. It, too, caused a scandal. Reviewers deplored “the return of a fascist icon.”

Publishing an anthology of ­Maurras is an offense against the postwar consensus and the “official history” of the twentieth century. Yet the case for studying Maurras is hard to deny. He was historically significant. As a political journalist, essayist, and poet, writing for more than six decades, he reached a wide audience and maintained enormous influence. Charles Péguy, Marcel Proust, and André Malraux all praised his talent. Those who acknowledged their intellectual debt to Maurras include philosophers Louis Althusser, Pierre Boutang, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Maritain, and Gustave Thibon, and novelists Georges Bernanos, Michel Déon, Jacques Laurent, and Roger Nimier. French president Georges Pompidou, the pragmatic conservative of the 1970s, praised Maurras as a prophet of the modern world. T. S. Eliot, who read Maurras for years, said that Maurras had helped him toward Christianity. Maurras was, for Eliot, “a sort of Virgil who led us to the gates of the temple.”

The “official history” of the twentieth century is highly selective in its designations of the thinkers who count as scandalous. It does not hesitate to highlight Marx’s insights or to praise the political movements he spawned, and it quietly ignores the unsavory aspects of the thinker and his followers. The resulting distortion of our understanding of the twentieth century is a serious problem because—as the preface of the new anthology ­contends—readers today are likely to find “a troubling familiarity” in the situation Maurras addressed.

The editor of L’avenir de l’intelligence et autres textes, military historian Martin Motte, demonstrates that Maurras was not a fascist. Like many interwar intellectuals, Maurras had a fondness for Mussolini. Yet he rejected the fascist theory that Mussolini advocated, of the state’s controlling the totality of the social realm. In the 1930s, Maurras denounced Hitler’s “bizarre philosophy of Blood and Race.” Opposing Nazism, Maurras taught that racial conflict was “neither the nerve nor the key of history.” He repeatedly advocated French rearmament in the face of the German threat. Fascists opposed him. They mocked Action française, the movement Maurras led, for its refusal of revolutionary violence—calling it “l’Inaction française.” Maurras was an icon and influence for many political movements, but fascism was not one of them.

Deaf from an early age and cut off from most social life, Maurras turned his energies to reading and writing. He reached adulthood when France seemed to have reached the “end of history”; republicanism had triumphed over all its opponents. The Third Republic, which had consolidated in the 1870s following the Prussian invasion and the collapse of the Second Empire, claimed to obviate all the ideological battles of the past and to unite the French in a common consensus. It dominated the political, juridical, and cultural institutions of France. ­Maurras devoted his life to showing that this “end of history” mentality was a false republican conceit. The republican victory was extensive, making it “legal France.” But it was not “real France.” On behalf of “real France,” Maurras argued that the republican ideology and regime were weakening the nation and dividing the French against one another. Moreover, the Republic was steadily surrendering national independence to the control of foreign powers. Maurras argued that there was an alternative to republicanism, which would guarantee France’s independence: integral nationalism. Articulating its postulates would become the project of Action française.

The volume’s selections, the detailed preface by Jean-­Christophe Buisson, and ­Martin Motte’s superb editorial essays make no attempt to ­idealize the political thought of Maurras. His most egregious failures are openly discussed. Anti-Semitism became a formidable political force in the nineteenth century, appearing in the writings of many prominent ­intellectuals. “We discern in Judaism . . . a universal anti-social element. . . . What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money. . . . As soon as society succeeds in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism—huckstering and its conditions—the Jew becomes impossible.” These quotations are from Marx, not Maurras, but Maurras wrote in a similar vein. Like nationalism, political anti-Semitism was born on the left but became bipartisan in time. Whereas left-wing anti-­Semitism imagined the Jew as the truest capitalist, right-wing anti-­Semitism imagined the Jew as unpatriotic, exercising undue ­political influence at the service of foreign powers.

The right saw the Dreyfus affair as the realization of its worst fear. Here was a Jewish officer of the French army, convicted of spying for the Germans. The left used Dreyfus’s case not to clear his name but to humiliate the army. It was on that basis that Maurras wrote: “If Dreyfus is innocent, he should be made a Marshal of France, and his top ten defenders should be shot.” Of course, as later events showed, Dreyfus was innocent. The question of his innocence or guilt was the only question that should have mattered. Yet instead of prioritizing that question, Maurras used Dreyfus’s case to launch opportunistic attacks against the Republic and its Jewish supporters. Maurras’s anti-Semitic aim was to limit Jewish political influence. This was the typical French anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century. It was very far from the anti-Semitism of racial warfare and purification that Hitler embodied. Yet after the Shoah, these demarcations are of little consequence. Maurras cannot be excused.

Nor should Maurras be excused for his support of Vichy. Maurras never wavered from arguing that the Third Republic was a flawed regime, doomed to collapse in the face of German menace. His prophecy came true in 1940, when he was an elderly man. After France’s surrender, he and most of the French people, including the political class of the left and right, trusted the hero of Verdun, Marshal Pétain, to lead a new regime. ­Maurras was one of many to imagine that Pétain would rebuild the country and avenge the defeat of 1940. But Maurras, deafer than ever, was living in his imagination. In supporting Vichy, he condemned himself by his own standard: He supported a regime that surrendered national independence to a foreign power. In rejecting Vichy, General de Gaulle was more Maurrassian than Maurras.

Maurras was an agnostic for most of his life. This fact had ­consequences. He was fascinated by Auguste Comte’s positivist political project, which envisioned a central place for le culte, albeit in the form of a new religion of humanity. Maurras saw no reason for a new cult; the old, properly guided, would do. Thus, he did not adopt the anti-Christian prejudices common to secularist movements. He was not directly anti-clerical or anti-religious in the manner of the left. Yet his movement lacked, as Bernanos observed, an “interior life.” At his worst he did something more insidious, instrumentalizing Catholicism to political ends. This trend in Maurras’s thought, combined with the influence he exerted over French youth, prompted Pope Pius XI to denounce him and Action française in 1926. In an extraordinary and controversial use of papal disciplinary powers, Maurras’s major writings and the journal Action française were forbidden to Catholics under pain of excommunication. As an agnostic, Maurras appeared ­untroubled by excomm­unication. Yet his Catholic supporters could not be indifferent. Prominent Catholics drifted away, Bernanos and ­Maritain among them. By the time the ban was lifted in July 1939, Catholics had moved on.

Maurras’s thought revolved around a series of binaries. The first was for counter-revolution, and against revolution. Maurras was sympathetic enough to the Orléaniste tradition to appreciate civic equality and the end of special privileges for the aristocracy. Yet the real essence of the French Revolution was the sacralization of social and political change, based on the ideal of individualism. Individualism had produced the great nineteenth-­century ideologies that emerged from the Revolution: socialism and liberalism. Both were individualist, in that they challenged the organic conception of society favored by the right of the nineteenth century. In its socialist form, Maurras argued, individualism attacks all social hierarchies. In its liberal form, it excuses the elite from acknowledging their social obligations toward the people. Both ideologies look to transform social relations and institutions in order to achieve freedom; but in seeking to free the individual from social roles, individualism mutilates freedom.

For Maurras, genuine counterrevolution did not require violent social and political change. It required a way of thinking that would dissipate revolutionary passion. Thus, Maurras arrived at another binary: for classicism, and against romanticism. In his time, the right admired the romantics of the nineteenth century, who were often conservatives yearning for the lost unity of the old regime. But Maurras thought that the right had set up the wrong ­champions. Romanticism was a movement of individualism and historical determinism, which believed that the post-revolutionary present doomed France to mediocrity. Only a few noble souls could look beyond the present catastrophe. By regarding the past nostalgically, romanticism could not assess what from the past was transmissible, fertile, and eternal. It delighted in despair. To counter romanticism, Maurras proposed a rediscovery of classicism. Classicism sought to discover the rational order existing in nature and reality, including in politics. As a way of thinking, classicism disciplined the mind; classicism in politics disciplined the statesman to achieve right order and abandon hubristic, unrealizable dreams. As its name suggests, classicism sought to apply the best of Greece and Rome into the modern context. Classicism’s greatest achievement was the Grand Siècle of the seventeenth century, because the Grand Siècle synthesized the best of Greece and Rome into modern France. That achievement could be repeated in the twentieth century; it remained possible to grasp and achieve the right order for France. Maurras concluded that “in politics, all despair is absolute silliness.”

France needed to be put into order, Maurras reasoned, with a system of thought that countered the ideas of “cosmopolitan anarchy.” The socialist idea of perpetual class struggle turned class against class. The republican idea of parliamentary politics turned political party against political party, intensifying the partisanship that had fractured national unity since the Revolution. The liberal idea turned the economic interests of the bourgeois against everything else, causing “more woes than the bombs of the libertines.” These ideas handed over to others the government of France, surrendering national independence. Against cosmopolitan anarchy, Maurras offered its opposite: integral nationalism.

For Maurras, the nationalism-cosmopolitanism binary, and the choice for nationalism, followed as a deductive, almost mathematical argument. Individualism was false. Man has no more pressing need than to live in society. There are a variety of social forms, but the nation is the most complete, most solid, and most extended. Without nations, “We must fear the retreat of civilization.” Nationalism is, therefore, a rational obligation. Maurras understood nationalism as applying the highest moments of a nation’s past to its present, in order to secure the nation’s survival. Maurras held that the Church supports nations and encourages charity among nations, rather than seeking to destroy nations, as socialism does. He quipped that the Church was the only real “International.”

In the French case, Maurras argued that the nation was formed out of its history. “Ten centuries of gradual collaboration” had drawn the French closer together, forming a bond of friendship. This friendship, in turn, created an inheritance that was passed down from generation to generation. Emphasizing a shared inheritance that looked to past successes for guidance, Maurras denied that the nation was “a phenomenon of race.” The French nation, he argued, was a federation of many races and peoples, each with a cultural and linguistic heritage that had to be preserved and respected (the young Maurras wrote in Provençal). In a sense, Maurras held that diversity was France’s strength.

In realizing the vast nation-­building exercise dreamt up by the Jacobins during the Revolution, the Third Republic sought to destroy France’s diversity. Republicans feared the provinces as sources of reactionary political temperament and sought to transform them in order to promote ideological conformity. Through national education, the Republic waged war on local traditions and religious schools. Through bureaucratic indoctrination, it purged local governments of figures skeptical of republicanism. Through centralization, it crippled the capacity of the provinces to govern themselves.

Despite these domineering tactics, the republican state was feeble. Its parliamentary politics produced temporary coalitions and a revolving door of ministers that made it impossible to maintain a consistent grand strategy. Weak government turned France’s diversity into a source of division, unloosing the centrifugal forces within France and threatening civic strife.

Maurras offered a fundamental challenge to republicanism’s account of the power of the state and its purpose. The Republic’s institutions failed to accomplish what they purported to do. Because the Republic is the regime that divides the most, and because it organizes the exploitation of the country it has divided, ­Maurras wrote, “Action française calls all good citizens against the Republic.”

Maurras opposed republicanism with an audaciously different ideal: monarchy. “Without a King, no national strength and no guarantee for national independence.” This was not a vision of absolute monarchy. (Absolute monarchy was, to a large extent, a republican fiction; the last of the Bourbon monarchs flailed against the powers of the local parliaments.) Instead, Maurras’s theory of the state was federalist. The national government would be the strong executive of a hereditary monarchy. Yet the state’s powers would be limited in kind and reach, not touching upon the rights and liberties of the regions. Unlike in the Republic, the towns, provinces, and corporate bodies would be “completely free.” This regime would show regard for France’s diversity while holding its centrifugal forces in check.

Maurras’s most important argument for resolving the republic-­monarchy binary in favor of monarchy was his contention that the monarchy would solve France’s geopolitical problem. Maurras’s reading of French political history saw a close connection between foreign policy and domestic stability. Foreign policy was the crucible in which the French either rose to greatness or fell into confusion. A strong foreign policy united the nation’s people and increased their self-respect. A weak foreign policy pulled the nation apart, threatening national survival and hastening civil war. Here, another of Maurras’s binaries played out: for nationalist particularism, and against imperialist universalism. Maurras saw modern geopolitics as inherently unstable, fluctuating between the imperialism of the superpowers and the increasingly nationalist tendencies of smaller peoples. France was vulnerable to foreign domination, whether through invasion or through foreign powers capturing factions in the French government. It was misguided to imagine that France could be an imperial power; it had to understand itself as a nation.

In Kiel et Tanger, the text that ­Pompidou praised as prophetic, Maurras detailed the history of the Third Republic’s failures in foreign affairs. The Third Republic had got the binary wrong; it favored imperialism against nationalism. Infatuated by imperialist expansion in Africa and the Far East, the Republic allowed other powers to control French foreign policy, so that ultimately the it failed to unify the nation against the German threat. The Republic’s reckoning was postponed in World War I, because in 1914 and 1918 France had in practice abandoned republicanism for the dictatorship of emergency powers. The Republic met its fate in 1940.

Maurras contrasted the tumultuous history of modern France with the long stability of monarchical rule. Enemies had invaded French soil in modern history—in 1792, 1793, 1814, 1815, 1870, 1914, and 1940—only during non-monarchical regimes. To assure France’s national independence and save France from foreign domination and invasion, Maurras argued for a recovery of the eternal statecraft of the kings of France.

Embodying the spirit of classicism in the regime, monarchy recognized nations as persistent components of the world’s natural order. In bearing the title “King of France,” the sovereign was limited to a particular territory and charged with the exclusive task of caring for the nation within that territory. Other nations were subject to other rulers. Monarchy, Maurras argued, fostered restraint and respect for nations at home and abroad. By leading coalitions of smaller nations, the kings of France checked the emergence of universalist superpowers. It sought the balance of power among nations to preserve the freedom of nations, not to conquer and eliminate nations.

Under the monarchy, the major purpose of the French state was foreign policy. In turn, the purpose of French foreign policy was to serve the French people. Foreign policy was not a means for the French army to serve as “the soldier of the ideal,” as the republicans thought. It was a means to increase the self-respect of the French, fostering national unity. Maurras argued that “Royalism” corresponded to all the diverse postulates of nationalism. Monarchy was the best way of arranging the powers of the state to protect France from its enemies, resist the superpowers, and unify the nation. It had done so for centuries and could do so again. In a word, integral nationalism meant royalism.

Maurras’s ideas can seem fantastical to anyone formed by the “official history” of the twentieth century. It’s useful, therefore, to contrast Maurrassisme with three more familiar positions across the political spectrum: left, liberal, and conservative. Like the left, ­Maurras provided anti-bourgeois critiques of the Republic and French society that revolved around questions of political economy. But Maurras disputed where economic power actually lay. The left portrayed a struggle between the owners of capital and the workers. Maurras argued that the left relied on and encouraged its own revolutionary capital to advance its ends. For Maurras, “class struggle” was a misnomer. In fact, there was a struggle between two kinds of capital: between a conservative capital and what we might now call “woke” capital. Rather than aim for the abolition of capital, Maurras sought to lend economic support and political representation to the exchanges of capital that promoted traditional ends and practices. For example, one could strengthen the powers of the ­provinces and the traditional guilds therein. And one could weaken the powers of the transnational ­enterprises that either were indifferent to the French nation or could switch their allegiance from one regime to another.

Both integral nationalism and liberalism make the theory of international relations critical to their apologias. (Notice the ease with which defenses of “liberalism” move to defenses of the “liberal world order.”) But they ask different questions. Liberal international relations theory assumes a rigorous demarcation between foreign policy and domestic affairs. Even neo-realism, which shares some of Maurras’s observations about the instability of international relations, refuses to connect foreign policy and domestic affairs. Formed on such a theory, America’s elite is accustomed to suppress questions such as this: What consequences have the foreign policy decisions of the last two decades had on the American regime and on the self-respect of Americans? By contrast, integral nationalism makes this a key question for international relations.

Conservatives increasingly deplore imperialism and champion nationalism, but this binary can be obscure. Nationalism itself can become imperialistic. Maurras clarifies the binary by combining the discussion of nationalism with the discussion of the powers of the state and the regime. Maurras contends that monarchy bound nationalism in principle to the sovereignty of France, therein holding off the temptation to drift toward the imperialist side of the binary. Other regimes failed to do so. For example, democracy is a universalist ideology. It must expand. Because they were committed to this ideology, the regimes of Napoleon I and III were expansionist. But the ideology turned against France. Napoleon I and III helped organize the regimes that would invade France in 1814 and 1870. To avoid imperial adventures that end in disaster, nationalism is not enough. Nations should look to their past to discover the regimes in their histories that foster particularism rather than universalism, preventing self-destructive imperialism.

Maurrassisme was politics for intellectuals. It demanded mastery of vast swathes of French history, politics, and philosophy. Maurras’s success was to shift the window of what the French could discuss and debate. He challenged the triumphalist history of the Third Republic and exposed its most ­serious flaws. Most important, he gave a very modern, sociologically charged defense of the ancien régime. In his writing, these seemingly outdated ideas and institutions suddenly appeared contemporary, even urgent. Yet ­perhaps because of its highbrow appeal, his politics failed to form a unified political movement. As its founder aged in the 1930s, ­Maurrassisme gave birth to four separate political movements.

The first was a faction in the Vichy regime that celebrated the end of the Third Republic. Despite Maurras’s opposition to revolutionary passion, it lent its support to Vichy’s slogan of “National Revolution.” Vichy applied Maurras’s “anti-Semitism of state” in 1940, banning Jews from holding government positions and restricting their public role. Initially, it went no further, yet Vichy’s policy of collaboration inevitably led into greater and greater participation with Nazism’s genocidal aims, staining it for posterity. After the war, the Vichy faction argued that collaboration had shielded France from the fate of Poland. A small but formidable postwar political tradition, it tended to favor de Gaulle in the 1950s, though in the 1960s the Vichy apologists abhorred him for ending the French Empire and French Algeria. Raymond Aron pointed out how the ­pro-imperialist Vichy apologists departed from Maurrassisme: “The Kings of France would never have had the idea of transforming Muslims into subjects of his Most Catholic Majesty!”

The second movement, exemplified by Jacques Maritain, called itself Christian democracy. Maritain affirmed the Vatican’s denunciation of Action française. With ­Maurras, Christian democracy held that France’s political problems had to be addressed through the recovery of the best of the pre-1789 past. With ­Maurras, it held that the ideology of individualism mutilated human freedom. Yet against Maurras, Christian democracy sought to recover the primacy of the spiritual over the political. Spiritual primacy entailed not monarchy but the political moderation embodied in liberal democracy. The best of the pre-1789 past was not the French monarchy, but the texts of the Angelic Doctor of Paris, which (when reinterpreted) supported democratic politics. Rejecting Maurras’s historical interpretations and his political conclusions, Christian democracy represents the purest rebellion against the father. Yet in France, its fate was similar to that of Action française. Christian democracy was an intellectual rather than a political force.

The third political movement was strangely loyal to Maurras. In Catholicism and Democracy, Émile ­Perreau-Saussine observed that Christian Marxism is, “if not the spiritual son, the prodigal son” of Maurras. The worker priests of the 1940s and 1950s learned from the Action française of their youth a critique of liberalism, the bourgeoisie, and democracy. Maurras’s “legal” France versus “real” France returned here as two versions of democracy—the formal (and presumptively false) democracy of the silent majority versus the authentic participatory democracy of radical movements. Maurrassian journals, such as Jeunesse de l’Église, flipped within a decade to declare “Marxism as the immanent philosophy of the worker.” Yet Christian Marxism departed from Maurras in its demand for the future. It embraced the revolutionary passion that ­Maurras condemned.

The fourth political movement was more peculiar still. Against ­Maurras, General de Gaulle accepted republicanism and democracy. But in founding the Fifth Republic, he gave the state the stamp of Maurrassisme. His constitution strengthened the executive so that it was a kingship in all but name, and thus diminished the importance of parliamentary politics. De Gaulle’s own statesmanship was classicist. (He explicitly praised Maurras’s classicism.) He prioritized the political—particularly foreign policy—and exalted national independence in a world where he thought ideologies were less important than competition among nations. Governing for the sake of the “real France,” with the monarchical ethos of noblesse oblige, de Gaulle exhorted the French to transcend their ­divisions for the sake of national unity. If his constitutional reform of 1969 had passed, he would have left France with the more decentralized state ­Maurras espoused. As it was, de Gaulle said in retirement that his greatest regret was not being able to restore the ­monarchy. In a much-discussed article of the mid-1960s, ­Raymond Aron observed that Gaullisme was the revenge of ­Maurrassisme.

All these movements—Vichy apologists, Christian democrats, Christian Marxists, Gaullists—have their flaws. The ­Vichy apologia depends on dubious counterfactuals. Christian democracy eventually abandoned its spiritual basis and turned political moderation into “the fanaticism of the center.” Christian Marxism devoured Christianity. Gaullisme was hijacked after its founder passed on. But understanding the complexity, strengths, and weaknesses of all these political movements, to say nothing of the “troubling familiarity” of their concerns, requires understanding their origins. It requires reading Maurras.

Nathan Pinkoski is a postdoctoral research fellow at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.