Magazine | July 18, 2011, Issue

Mad as Hell

Stéphane Hessel (Baltel/SIPA/Newscom)
A little pamphlet, a lot of rage

The vicissitudes of the marketplace are, as everyone knows, not easily calculable. Who, for example, would have foreseen that a pamphlet written by a 93-year-old man, and published by a hitherto obscure publisher (of anarcho-vegetarian-noble-savage tendencies) in Montpellier in the south of France, would not only have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its home country, but similar numbers in Spain, and then inspired demonstrators against government austerity measures in both Madrid and Athens?

The pamphlet was called “Indignez-vous!” (“Work yourself up into a rage!”), and the demonstrators called themselves les indignés, or los indignados, the indignant. Its author is Stéphane Hessel, and his pamphlet has been the European publishing sensation of the decade.

Certain qualities assisted the progress of the pamphlet, no doubt. First, at 13 pages of text, it is very short, a great advantage in these times of reduced attention span and alternative sources of entertainment. Second, the author’s biography makes it rather difficult for the critic to avoid appearing nasty. After all, to write anything at the age of 93 is remarkable enough in itself, and therefore to criticize the pamphlet for its mere content seems almost unfair, like challenging a cripple to a boxing match.

More difficult still for anyone who would criticize the pamphlet, Hessel, who is Jewish, has experienced depths to which few people have plunged. He was born in Germany to a family who emigrated to France in 1924; he fought in the French army, joined General de Gaulle in London, and was infiltrated into Paris in 1944, where he was arrested by the Gestapo, was tortured, and was sent to Buchenwald, where he managed on the eve of his execution to exchange his identity with that of a Frenchman who had just died of typhus, escaped, was recaptured, was sent to another camp, and escaped again, this time for good. His personal courage cannot be impugned, therefore; and it seems almost heartless, or at the least callow, for someone like me, whose discomforts have been entirely self-inflicted, to suggest that his pamphlet is stupid and even sinister, and that its success is a sign that universal education has not much improved the critical faculties of much of mankind.

Heartless or callow as it might seem, I feel impelled to criticize M. Hessel’s little essay, even if, to quote Bishop Butler, “I express myself with caution, lest I should be mistaken to vilify reason, which is indeed the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.” And the plain fact is that while a man who has been tortured remains tortured, he is not thereby transmuted into an oracle, whose every utterance must be treated with reverence, as a revelation from a realm that is free from error. A man who writes must, finally, be judged by what he writes rather than by his biography.

#page#Hessel tells us that the whole foundation and compass of his political life has always been the Resistance and the political program that the National Council of the Resistance drew up 67 years ago, “of whose principles and values we now have need more than ever.” This political program was recognized by all the movements, parties, and unions adhering to the Resistance, of which there was only one leader, General de Gaulle.

Reasonable as this might have been in the particular circumstances of the war, it does not occur to Hessel that it might not be appropriate to peacetime: Indeed, its caesaro-corporatism has a distinctly Pétainiste ring. So do other of his pronouncements: “The general interest must prevail over the private,” for example. As the Marshal himself said, any citizen who seeks private wealth outside the public good goes against reason. What Pétainiste would disagree with Hessel’s demand that the press should be free from foreign and moneyed interests? Where Hessel says that one of the principles of the Resistance was that there should be a complete system of social security, assuring all citizens the means of existence at all stages in life, Pétain said that all workers should be secure from the hazards of unemployment, illness, and poverty in old age.

Hessel is obviously a socialist, believing that “all sources of energy, banks, insurance companies, mines, giant corporations, and private monopolies” — in short, our old friends, the commanding heights of the economy — should be “returned to the nation.” But Pierre Laval, speaking in the name of Pétain, was also a socialist: “Socialism will be installed everywhere in Europe, and the form it will find in France will be designed by our national character.”

Not surprisingly, Hessel is somewhat indulgent to the old Soviet Union. He attributes the French defeat of 1940 to the fear of Bolshevism by the propertied classes, rather forgetting that at the time the Soviet Union was Nazi Germany’s ally, supplying it with a lot of war matériel, and that the French Communist party (heavily dependent financially upon the Soviet Union) was hardly supportive of the French war effort.

His summary of French intellectual history with regard to the Soviet Union could hardly be more mendacious, as well as sinister:

As for Stalin, we all applauded the victory of the Red Army over the Nazis in 1943. But we already knew about the great Stalinist  trials of 1935, and even if it was necessary to keep an ear open towards communism to counterbalance American capitalism, the necessity to be opposed to this insupportable form of totalitarianism was obvious.

This is a rewriting of history of which Stalin himself would have been proud; the idea that the French Left understood the necessity of opposing Communism from the date of the show trials is preposterous, as the reception of Gide’s book Retour de l’U.R.S.S. (1936), and of Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom (1946), demonstrates. That Stalinism was an insupportable form of totalitarianism suggests that there is a supportable form; and equating the manifest deficiencies of American capitalism with the deliberate killing of tens of millions is surely a symptom of severe moral deficiency.

#page#But Hessel’s pamphlet is principally an appeal to the young, who, after many years of free and compulsory education, may be expected not to know any of these things. Hessel also relies on their inability to think, for his logic is truly astonishing: The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation, he says, therefore it is good for everyone to be indignant, and indignation is resistance. “I want all of you,” he writes, “and each and every one of you, to have a motive for indignation.” Hessel is thus the Descartes of indignation: I’m indignant, therefore I’m right. This rather overlooks the fact that Hitler and the Nazis were the great entrepreneurs or impresarios of indignation. He wants the young of Europe to be indignant at, among other things, the gap between the rich and poor countries, which, he says (precisely at the time when economic growth in most of the rich countries is far exceeded by that of much of Africa), has never been greater. Hessel virtually suggests indignation as a career, and claims never to have been short of it himself. “To the young, I say: Look around you, you will find reasons to justify your indignation. . . . Seek and ye will find.” If Pirandello were writing it, he would call it “Six Indignations in Search of a Reason.”

Indignation is for Hessel the motor of the correct, that is to say Hegelian, view of history, which sees history not as one damned thing after another (the incorrect and, in his opinion, the only other possible view), but as “the freedom of man progressing step by step”: “The history of societies progresses, and in the end, Man having attained his complete freedom, we have the democratic state in its ideal form.”

That this astonishing drivel — complete freedom and ideal democratic states, indeed! — could have captured the imagination of millions of young people is . . . well, disheartening. But I do not really think that it is what drove them onto the streets of Madrid and Athens. You cannot, after all, corrupt the incorruptible. No, what drove them onto the streets was the realization that the whole system of subsidized employment was coming to an end just as they were joining the labor market. They were demonstrating for a continuation of the subsidies that would allow them to rob their children as they themselves had been robbed by their parents and grandparents. (In France, most young people want to be fonctionnaires, public-service employees, and a recent survey showed that two-thirds of their parents endorse these ambitions.) Alas, pyramid schemes collapse sooner or later, and those who have not gotten out in time lose a great deal.

Perhaps, then, Stéphane Hessel is right after all, and the young of Europe have reason to be indignant. But as usual with indignation, it attaches to all the wrong things. Indignez-vous, by all means, but do, please, make sure that you aim at the right target. It is not true that (as both Hessel and Pétain maintained) indifference is the worst of attitudes. Wrongful indignation is worse.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels is a long-time contributor to National Review.

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