In this factually and conceptually rich biography of French political thinker Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987), Daniel J. Mahoney has at least begun the task that he sets for himself in the Preface: performing an “act of intellectual recovery” to “rectify the unwarranted neglect of one of the most thoughtful and most humane political thinkers of the previous century.”  Perhaps it seems strange to describe a figure who long graced the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences at the University of Paris; lectured at Yale, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Oxford; wrote regularly in the French press; and produced such widely praised tomes as On Power, Sovereignty: An Inquiry Into the Political Good, The Pure Theory of Politics, and Marx et Engels: La longue marche as someone who is now “largely unknown in fashionable intellectual circles.”

Mahoney is right on this point, however.  Although an astute critic of the managerial state and a once-known critic of economic redistribution, Jouvenel, as Mahoney observes, finds less and less recognition among French neoliberals, outside of the maverick editorial boards of Commentaire and Futuribles.  Although France’s most systematic and prolific 20th-century liberal (in the classical sense) commentator—one, moreover, equipped with an accessible and even elegant prose style—Jouvenel has to all appearances lost his popularity.  Sovereignty impressed me deeply the first time through.  On rereading the book, I realized more clearly how far into the medieval past Jouvenel reaches in search of “makeweights” against centralized power.  If he is a bourgeois (as opposed to an egalitarian) liberal, much of the anchoring for his critical position looks distinctly premodern, even aristocratic.  Jouvenel has no problem holding up grizzled feudal warriors as once-useful checks on early-modern political bureaucracy.  But Mahoney may exaggerate his luminous Catholic faith, which rarely shines through his discussions of power and the means of counterbalancing it.  There is no cause to follow Mahoney’s lead by ascribing Jouvenel’s comments on willfulness in the sovereign (in Sovereignty, Part Three) to “the Catholic critique of the sovereign will,” as the same critique would have been available to Jouvenel from multiple other sources.  (Though baptized a Catholic, he had, besides a Jewish mother, a Dreyfusard aristocratic French father, from whose politics one must infer that Jouvenel père was an ardent anticlerical.)

Jouvenel stands in the tradition of other French thinkers who, while not ecclesiastically oriented or much influenced by Catholic doctrines, were concerned nevertheless with checks on power (e.g., Montesquieu and Benjamin Constant); nonetheless, he is clearly distinguishable from anti-Catholic liberals (though not from Tocqueville, as Mahoney reminds us, insofar as he looks to ecclesiastical institutions to place limits on the “democratic” state).

Although Jouvenel wrote much that is admirable, at least one aspect of his legacy is objectionable.  Mahoney addresses this aspect, while leaving other questions unanswered.  Jouvenel, to put it mildly, was a loose cannon politically.  After a diatribe (in Sovereignty) against the modern bureaucratic state (which I happily endorse), Jouvenel opines that he finds it odd that American judges, citing an 18th-century document, were allowed to retard the New Deal.  Mahoney reminds us that Jouvenel, admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt “profoundly,” considered that FDR’s “social experiments” actually had not gone far enough.  Yet, in 1936, Jouvenel had thrown support behind political adventurer Jacques Doriot and Doriot’s Parti populaire français.  Although Mahoney may go too far in describing Doriot as having been, at the time, a “rightist demagogue” and the head of an “extremist” party, he was, in any case, an impetuous traveler en route from the Communist Party to what eventually became a Nazi front organization.  And, what is weirder than weird, Jouvenel became an enthusiastic backer of the soixante-huitards would-be revolutionaries who tried to bring down the French state in 1968, publishing his sentiments in French newspapers (usually in the context of blasting De Gaulle).  Although it is not ordinarily the case that les extrêmes se touchent, or that rightists and leftists are interchangeable, Jouvenel, in his public life—though not in the bulk of his scholarship—may have been an exception.

Mahoney, who never hides these embarrassments, explicitly notes that the “sympathetic student of Jouvenel is torn between profound admiration for the wise and humane political philosopher and unavoidable discomfort with the poor practical judgment that he regularly displayed in the opening and closing periods of his intellectual career.”  Mahoney tries to deal with the problem either by making Jouvenel into some kind of Catholic democrat or by offering a meticulous refutation of Jouvenel’s fiercest critics, who have accomplished their worst by dishonestly taking liberties with certain of his statements.  Mahoney follows this second strategy to brilliant effect—for example, when he goes after Jean-François Revel for misrepresenting Jouvenel’s alleged Marxist sympathies, supposedly discernible in his book Marx et Engels.  Mahoney finds little evidence to support the charge in Jouvenel’s generally critical treatment of Marxism and observes (in a footnote) the “surprise” registered by Jouvenel’s friends at his identification of himself with the left.

An explanation that Mahoney does not consider sufficiently is that Jouvenel, like many other intellectuals, began to mimic the left for purposes of self-protection, as Western societies veered sharply leftward in the middle and late 60’s.  Generally, this was a measure employed by people with far-right histories (e.g., Heidegger, who attempted to cover up his collaboration with the Nazis partly by becoming a forerunner of the Greens and an opponent of the Cold War) or by those seeking leftist respectability while adhering to reactionary ideas.  (Thus, the anti-Enlightenment communitarian Alasdair MacIntyre pays unsettling homage to feminism in presenting his recognizably neomedieval social and moral conceptions.)  Jouvenel might well have followed this pattern of concealment, given the fact of his early sojourn on the right and his later reputation as an antileftist political theorist.  Although equally wise thinkers have expressed more foolish political views, what distinguishes Jouvenel is the glaring disconnect between his political theory and his eventual support for radical redistribution and revolutionary egalitarianism.  In each case, he was operating from radically different premises and concerns.  Circumstances lead me to suspect that the closing, if not the opening, phase of Jouvenel’s political life may have been driven by a search to get out of harm’s way.


[Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity, by Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute) 216 pp., $25.00]