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Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity

Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity

by Daniel J. Mahoney

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In his effort to detach the indispensable notion of the common good from its historical identification with the more closed, homogeneous, and static societies of the premodern past, the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-87) pointed the way towards a viable conservative liberalism. So argues Daniel J. Mahoney in this compelling introduction to


In his effort to detach the indispensable notion of the common good from its historical identification with the more closed, homogeneous, and static societies of the premodern past, the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-87) pointed the way towards a viable conservative liberalism. So argues Daniel J. Mahoney in this compelling introduction to the life and work of Jouvenel, one of twentieth-century France's most profound philosophers and political essayists. Although he vigorously defended the historical achievement of liberal society against its totalitarian critics, Jouvenel also challenged the modern conceit that man is an autonomous being beholden neither to the moral law nor to the humanizing inheritance of the past. Mahoney's study focuses on Jouvenel's three masterworks On Power (1945), Sovereignty (1955), and The Pure Theory of Politics (1963) and on his broader effort to defend civility and social friendship against rationalist individualism and its logical fruit, collectivist politics. Mahoney explores Jouvenel's affinities with and debts to Aristotle, Burke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, and he contrasts Jouvenel's signal theoretical achievements with the twists and turns manifested in his (sometimes questionable) practical political engagements from the 1930s until his death. Mahoney's characteristically engaging appraisal of this important political philosopher, the fifth entry in ISI Books' Library of Modern Thinkers series, is the first book on Jouvenel to appear in the English language.

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ISI Books
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Library of Modern Thinkers
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)

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Bertrand de Jouvenel

The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity
By Daniel J. Mahoney

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 Daniel J. Mahoney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932236-41-5

Chapter One


Great necessities, angers, and enthusiasms have made us impatient toward everything that stops the will and slows action.... [But] wills must acknowledge limits. We have dearly learned old truths that periodically are erased from the social memory: rights exist that it is not just to offend, rules that it isn't prudent to violate. Respect for these rights and these rules imposes itself even when transgressing them appears to provide an opportunity to remedy a great evil or procure a great good. For there is no more profound or durable evil than their discredit, there is no more salutary and fecund good than their being placed outside of assault and attack. - Bertrand de Jouvenel

Why a book on the French political thinker Bertrand de Jouvenel, the overwhelmed contemporary reader may be tempted to ask. He was, after all, in the judgment of Dennis Hale and Marc Landy, "the least famous of the great political thinkers of the twentieth century." But his relative lack of fame in no way qualifies the genuine greatness of his thought. There are many reasons to recommend the rediscovery of this unduly neglected thinker. To begin with, Jouvenel's voluminous oeuvre managed to combine profound theoretical reflection with remarkable attentiveness to the issues of the age. His work scrupulously addressed the present age without ever losing sight of those permanent verities that inform responsible thought and action. Furthermore, as Pierre Manent has pointed out, Jouvenel had the additional merit of writing with eloquence and charm in an era that too often succumbed to the spirit of abstraction and the allure of "scientificity." He was a civic-minded moralist as much as a political philosopher and social scientist. In the spirit of his two great nineteenth-century inspirations, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville, he renewed an older wisdom that recognized that "there are things too heavy for human hands." Like these forebears, he set out to rescue liberalism from that revolutionary inebriation that refused to bow before any sacred limits or restraints. Jouvenel never succumbed to the temptation of confusing the Good with an unfolding historical process or with the unfettered will of the one, the few, or the many, even as he accepted the inevitability and desirability of the open or dynamic society. He was the conservative liberal par excellence, a principled critic of progressive illusions who fully appreciated the folly of attempting to stand athwart the historical adventure that is modernity.

In the years before World War II Bertrand de Jouvenel made a living from journalism. He wrote for such prominent newspapers as Le Petit Journal and Paris Soir. During those years he became a practitioner of political celebrity journalism and had occasion to interview a host of famous statesmen-and tyrants-such as David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Mussolini, and Hitler (as we shall see, his controversial interview with Hitler would haunt him for the rest of his life, even though it was considered to be something of a coup at the time of its publication). In the years after 1945 he was simultaneously a journalist, professor (he taught or lectured at various times at Oxford, Cambridge, Cal-Berkeley, Yale, and at the Institut d'études politiques and the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences of the University of Paris), political philosopher, political commentator, and pioneer author of sober, economically literate, and philosophically informed excursions into ecology and "future studies." He thus brought to his writings the powers of description typical of a journalist, the philosopher's appreciation of enduring and universal truths, and an admirable openness to the contribution that social science could make toward understanding the transformations characteristic of modern life. In addition, his writings go a long way toward recovering the classical understanding of political science as the architectonic science whose ultimate subject matter is nothing less than the comprehensive good for human beings. In important respects, then, Jouvenel's work bridges classicism and modernism, political philosophy and social science, the traditionalist's preoccupation with "the good life" and the enlightenment Left's preference for the open or dynamic society.

Bertrand de Jouvenel was a Frenchman intimately familiar with and sympathetic toward the United States; his English (spoken with an American accent) was impeccable. He regularly acknowledged the indispensable contribution that Britain, the cradle of parliamentary liberty, had made to the cause of freedom in the modern world, and he wrote respectfully, even admiringly, about the American constitutional order (the gravitas that still marked the United States Senate in the 1950s particularly impressed him). It is not surprising, therefore, that he was the first French political thinker of any note to rediscover the political wisdom of what might be called the "English school" of French political philosophers, those nineteenth-century French liberals such as Constant, Guizot, and Tocqueville who were horrified by revolutionary despotism and who admired the civility and moderation characteristic of Anglo-American political life. Yet for reasons that will be fully explored in the final chapter of this work, Jouvenel has yet to receive his rightful measure of recognition in his native land. In France his reputation has been marred by the lingering impression that he was a collaborator of sorts during the Second World War (he was not) and by the fact that he committed two major faux pas in the period leading up to the war, the first being his aforementioned interview with Adolph Hitler in February 1936 (we will explore this issue at greater length in chapter 7 of this book), and the second his ill-advised membership in Jacques Doriot's Parti populair français (PPF) from 1936 until 1938.

Thus, though there is no shortage of self-proclaimed "liberal" political thinkers in France today, few explicitly acknowledge indebtedness to the political philosophizing of Bertrand de Jouvenel (the intellectual circles around the journals Commentaire and Futuribles are something of an exception in this regard). In France he remains a rather marginal figure best remembered for his 1945 classic On Power and for his forays into political ecology and future studies. Indeed, Jouvenel's intellectual achievement has never been fully acknowledged by either the French general public or intellectual establishment, not even by those who share his core philosophical principles. As a result, some of Jouvenel's most important theoretical works are not even in print in France today (this is the case with both Sovereignty and The Pure Theory of Politics), while many more of his major works are available once again in the United States (thanks especially to the good offices of Liberty Fund and Transaction Publishers). In the English-speaking world, in fact, Jouvenel is now considered to be a political philosopher of some importance, one of the most penetrating conservative-minded thinkers of the twentieth century.

In the years between 1945 and 1968, Jouvenel produced an impressive body of work belonging to the tradition known as conservative liberalism. These writings explored the inexorable growth of state power in modern times, the difficult but necessary task of articulating a conception of the common good appropriate to a dynamic, "progressive" society, and the challenge of formulating a political science that could reconcile tradition and change while preserving the freedom and dignity of the individual.

Jouvenel was far from doctrinaire in his approach to political matters. A critic of the centralizing propensities of the state, he nonetheless appreciated that political authority was indispensable for maintaining social trust as well as economic equilibrium. A charter member of the classical liberal Mont Pélerin Society (whose leading light was the distinguished economist and social theorist F. A. Hayek), he rejected the individualist premises underlying modern economics and reminded his contemporaries that the good life entailed something more fundamental than the maximization of individual preferences. In his mature writings, Jouvenel vigorously challenged the "progressivist" conceit at the heart of modern thought, the illusion that social and economic development necessarily entail moral progress. But he never rejected modernity per se. The coherence and insight that characterize Jouvenel's synthesis is perhaps the foremost reason for studying him today.

Beyond Facile Progressivism: How Jouvenel Became Jouvenel

In decisive respects, Jouvenel was a child of his time. But he can properly be called a political philosopher precisely because he ultimately succeeded in transcending the progressivism that was the dominant prejudice of his age. This was no easy feat. Jouvenel was born in 1903 in to a milieu that more or less took the inevitability of progress for granted. His father, Henri de Jouvenel, was an influential politician and respected journalist, a sometime Dreyfusard, a member of the Senate of the Third French Republic, and the French representative to the League of Nations in Geneva. He was, as Pierre Hassner has put it, "a constant fighter for liberal causes." His mother, Sarah Boas, came from a thoroughly assimilated Jewish family. She was a cultivated, caring woman who ran a famous Parisian salon and played a not insignificant role in the creation of the modern Czechoslovakian state. Jouvenel's stepmother was the redoubtable novelist Colette, with whom he even had a youthful affair. "The entire Jouvenel family," writes Hassner, "was aristocratic, political, and literary." Jouvenel's urbane parents embodied the best of the antebellum spirit, of a civilized progressivism that seemed to be the inevitable future of a Europe that had finally mastered its social passions. But the Great War would change everything. As Jouvenel wrote with hindsight, in those years Europe had "marched toward an apocalypse" as if "demons breathed their strength to ferocious agents and blinded the well-intentioned." But it took Jouvenel three decades to fully liberate himself from facile progressivism, to genuinely appreciate that there was "no natural" and upward "course of history," that war and tyranny remain ever-present human possibilities.

Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote about the first forty-two years of his life with grace, eloquence, and no small note of pathos in his 1979 memoir Un Voyageur dans le siècle. This work provides a fascinating account of Jouvenel's youthful intellectual and political itinerary and is indispensable for understanding the sinuous path by which he arrived at his mature intellectual orientation. Nor is it of merely biographical interest. Jouvenel's "spectator's narrative" quickly becomes "the lament of a generation" (the one born between 1899 and 1907) that had been too young to serve in the war, had repudiated bellicose passions, and had committed itself to noble ideals of social reform and Franco-German reconciliation. Jouvenel's generation, thoroughly decent but blinded by excessive hopes, was destined to recover a sense of historical tragedy only at the terrible price of experiencing the consequences of the decomposition of and assaults on the European bourgeois order. Jouvenel and his coevals experienced forms of war and tyranny that had been literally unthinkable to those who had been accustomed to take the achievements of liberal civilization for granted.

Jouvenel's reconsideration of painful events and memories was, he writes in the preface to his memoir, nothing less than a "sort of descent into Hell." Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Jouvenel's professional life had been focused on exploring "possible futures" (in light of enduring political and philosophical questions, to be sure), and neither introspection nor self-evaluation came naturally to him. He freely admits that he was less than eager to confront his own "faux pas" or to relive the terrible drama by which Europe was "carried away by the Furies and [lost] its civilized countenance." Nonetheless, he mustered the courage to do so with impressive penetration and honesty.

Most of Jouvenel's American readers know little about Jouvenel's intellectual itinerary and are not usually aware that he was not always the sober conservative liberal political thinker of his major writings of the postwar period. The young Jouvenel dreamed of a "new order"-not the militarized state and society trumpeted by totalitarians of the Left and Right, but a pacified, cosmopolitan liberal order where an energetic state would limit the "anarchy" of the market without in any way threatening fundamental human liberties. Still, because of his deep-seated commitment to liberal freedoms, Jouvenel from the beginning rejected a command-and-control approach to the management and regulation of the economic order. Even as a moderately leftist critic of the established social order, he affirmed the broad principles of what would later come to be called a "social market" economy. He later regretted calling his first book L'économie dirigée (The Directed Economy), since it created the impression that he supported efforts to substitute the heavy-handedness of the state for the free initiatives that naturally emanate from civil society. Even in this youthful work, published in 1928, Jouvenel adamantly rejected the fashionable idea that "the hour of initiatives" was somehow a thing of the past. He favored a modest version of "indicative planning": in his view, the state should limit itself to establishing conditions that are truly conducive to balanced economic and social development. But the individual as owner, producer, and consumer must remain free to act. The state should neither own the "means of production" nor dictate the forms of particular economic enterprises. At the age of twenty-three, Jouvenel perceptively warned about the danger of a "shackled" economy that aimed to replace the market with the cumbersome intrusions of an allegedly omni-competent state. Even as a youthful socialist, Jouvenel appreciated that such pretensions would lead to social petrification or worse and did nothing to advance the prospects for a humane economy.

Nevertheless, Jouvenel maintained that a bold strategy of political and economic reform was required to overcome the European social crisis that was tearing apart the moral and physical fabric of the liberal order throughout the 1930s. He came to believe that laissez-faire economic policies had failed miserably and that the state must take a much more proactive role in addressing the "scandal" of unemployment and overcoming the social crisis of the age. This preoccupation with the evils of mass unemployment and the failure of established economic models is particularly evident in his 1933 book La crise du capitalisme américain. Jouvenel had no fundamental illusions about either Communist or Nazi totalitarianism, even if he didn't take the full measure of either until he composed On Power during his Swiss exile in 1943 and 1944. But he remained clearly focused on the crisis of the Western democratic world and welcomed efforts at bold experimentation to overcome unemployment and to set the social order aright again. He despised fascist tyranny but at the same time showed some indulgence for the mobilization of society that was a central feature of revolutionary despotism. In the 1930s, Jouvenel seemed to lose sight of the dangers that necessarily accompany the unleashing of state power even at the service of necessary reforms. In the face of a truly unprecedented social crisis, Jouvenel for a time succumbed to the impatience that is one of the hallmarks of the modern intellectual.

Bertrand de Jouvenel's mature political philosophy arose from his experience of modern tyranny and from reflection on his own intellectual and political misjudgments in the period leading up to World War II. This experience and reflection convinced him of the indispensability of liberal constitutionalism and of the need to rethink its moral foundations. Earlier, in the prewar period, he had lost faith in the powers of renewal of the French Third Republic if not of liberal democracy itself. Looking for means to revitalize France, he had joined the Parti populaire français, a right-wing populist party headed by an ex-Communist by the name of Jacques Doriot. He left the party in late 1938 in no small part because of the PPF's support of the Munich Pact and the political dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (Jouvenel had served as personal secretary to that country's foreign minister-later to be president-Edward Benes in the spring of 1924 and had long-standing personal and political ties to the Czechoslovakian democracy).


Excerpted from Bertrand de Jouvenel by Daniel J. Mahoney Copyright © 2007 by Daniel J. Mahoney. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Daniel J. Mahoney is Professor of Politics at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. A renowned expert on French political philosophy, his books include the critically acclaimed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

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