Illuminer les ombres – An interview with Dick Howard

17 July 2019

Danielle Charette and Matthew Jackson interviewed Dick Howard about his career on the New Left and his latest book, Les Ombres de l’Amérique: De Kennedy à Trump (Éditions François Bourin, 2018). Howard taught philosophy and political theory at Stony Brook University for many years and is the author of fifteen books, four originally written in French. He has also published political commentaries for American, French, and German publications.



Danielle Charette: Your most recent work, Les Ombres de l’Amérique, takes its departure from your own sense of despair over Donald Trump’s remarks on the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. The book begins as an effort to explain Charlottesville to a French audience, but it’s more than that. It’s also a short intellectual history of American life since the sixties. Can you tell us how these two threads come together — Charlottesville, plus this longer intellectual and political history?


Dick Howard: The unifying theme was “shame.” I compared my reaction to Charlottesville to what I had felt as a young grad student in Paris in 1966. My interest in politics began when I was at Rice University and got involved in the civil rights movement. In a sense, my own personal story aligns with the fifty or so years that seemed to culminate in the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Obama used to paraphrase Martin Luther King’s insistence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Of course, his election was a marker, not a guarantee. I had long-since given up the Hegelian Marxism that I’d worked to acquire back then in Paris, even though I remained firmly on the Left. Still, I’ll never forget the night of Obama’s election. I was in an improvised studio high above Times Square, commenting on the elections for France Culture and France Inter. The experience of watching people pouring into Times Square was just extraordinary, a dream come true. Its emotional power twice made me choke up while on air.


Then came 2016, and I was once again commenting on American politics for a French public, this time in Paris, live in the Grand Auditorium of Radio France. I had been doing these kinds of political commentaries for various French media since the 1980s; they always posed an interesting challenge for the political thinker. In 2016, it seemed to me that despite their apparent differences, the two candidates shared a political attitude that I have described elsewhere as “anti-political.” Trump’s vulgar populism explicitly denied the autonomy of the political, while Clinton’s kind-hearted neo-liberalism also built from a series of solutions independent of the political process. My fear was that if the polls were right and Trump lost, his faithful followers might take that as an indication that he had been right: the system was rigged!  What would happen in that case? Violence of the kind that we would later witness in Charlottesville?


After a last set of comments just after midnight in Paris, I returned home, checked for any fresh news, and set the alarm clock for 6 a.m., when I had to leave for another set of commentaries in the morning. When I woke up and learned the results, my first reactions were defensive: I fell back on the argument that America’s system of checks and balances would hold; the separation of powers would allow us to go on extending the “arc of justice.” And that remained my hope and my mantra over the next period… until Charlottesville. That event brought back not only the shame at belonging to a nation that could award its highest office to that man and what he stood for, but also the need to rethink my understanding of the US. I immediately wrote a piece for Esprit to try to grasp what was going on, and the piece became the basis of the book.


DC: Your career has made you something of a Tocqueville in reverse, since you’re an American political theorist who offers regular commentary on American politics for the French media. Is there a specific reason you chose to write Les Ombres in French?


DH: Well, the first reason is simply that a French editor asked me for it, and I needed to do it for my own clarification. But why, more generally, do I so often write political commentary in French? Having learned to write in English at the university, my style is, well, constipated. Whereas I began writing in French for the journal Esprit, so my writing is more fluid. Esprit is a revue généraliste that aims at a broad public, as opposed to a strictly academic journal. In specialist journals, it’s easy to become preoccupied with situating yourself among other academics and worrying about your footnotes and footnotes of footnotes, rather than addressing a public of concerned citizens.


My attitude is perhaps also affected by my rather strange university education. I went to graduate school because I wanted to continue to protest against the Vietnam War, rather than fight in it.  After a year in the University of Texas, I received a Fulbright scholarship to work with Paul Ricœur in Paris. There, I continued anti-war activities, while studying largely on my own, in a dorm room at Nanterre overlooking the bidonville. In order to stay a second year, the university insisted that I take four days of preliminary exams, which happened to fall during first week of Mai ’68. The spirit of the moment was on my side; when the postal services began to work again, I received the news that I’d passed! Not needing to take more course work, I returned to Austin and wrote a dissertation on the reasons that led the young Marx from philosophy to politics to political economy.


One final thing: remember that Marx and Marxism were only then becoming known or translated in the US at the time. Like all early adapters, I benefitted (getting a job and being published early). But I suffered later (not having a conventional background and having no specialization to fall back on when harder times came). I’ve always been on the fringe of academia (once in the avant-garde, then as a generalist without a portfolio, so to speak). That does not mean that Les Ombres, or my other books, are not based on lots of reading and research—only that there’s a large experience motivating the projects.


Matthew Jackson: Speaking of the limits of academia—a world that’s often criticized for being overly ethereal—your book stresses that theory might be meaningless unless it’s put into action. You mention Rosa Luxemburg as an exemplar of someone who theorized and who had clear ideals, while also being an activist. In the current American political climate, what role does theory have?


DH: Let me start with your reference to Rosa Luxemburg. In the late 60s, Luxemburg’s name served to legitimate an international, non-Leninist, New Left. German New Leftists (Sozialistische deutscher Studentenbund) belonged to an organization whose initials were the same as the Students for a Democratic Society: SDS. But unlike their American counterparts, the German SDS could claim to be heir to a long socialist-Marxist tradition. They could trace their activism directly to Luxemburg. When I returned to Texas in 1969, I decided to edit a volume of Luxemburg’s writing for English readers. On that basis, I was invited to an international conference on Luxemburg in 1973, in Italy, at the peak of her popularity.  Portentously, the first day of the conference coincided with the coup d’état that overthrew the socialist government in Chile!


For my part, rereading Luxemburg, I had encountered a paradox: on the one hand, she was the most open of all the Marxists at the time; she recognized, for example, the role of autonomous action in the Russian Revolution of 1905, and she saw more broadly the radical possibilities of democracy. On the other hand, when the orthodox leaders of the party were criticizing her flexibility as an appeal to “spontaneism,” she sealed each of her arguments with a quotation from Marx. How could this be? Why was this spontaneous thinker also so caught up in dogmatism? That led then led me to a series of critical reflections on Marx and on Marxism that culminated in the first edition of The Marxian Legacy.*


DC: And you were very influenced by thinkers such as Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis, correct? How did being one of the only Americans connected with the circle around Esprit shape your outlook on theory and practice?


DH: The two questions are intertwined. When I was first in Paris to work on Marx and figure out “left-wing” politics had already heard about Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis when by chance, I discovered some volumes of their journal Socialisme ou Barbarie at an anarchist bookstore on the rue Cujas — which, by the way, still exists.  They were radical Marxists, and their journal appealed to a different public than Esprit.


The attraction of France for a young American, particularly an American from the South, was that it was the place where Marxism was licit. I went to France looking for revolutionary theory. Like Luxemburg, I was torn between spontaneity (the New Left) and historical necessity (Leninism). I was coediting a book on the way this polarity appeared in the radical Marxist tradition, and I wanted a concluding chapter on Socialisme ou Barbarie. I asked the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, whom I knew through my anti-Vietnam organizing, to put me in touch with Claude Lefort. We met, but, at the time, he was finishing his monumental Machiavelli book. Lefort clearly liked the project; he asked me to return the next week to meet another potential author, and there was Castoriadis waiting in Lefort’s study. The three of us became fast friends (despite various splits between Castoriadis and Lefort—but that’s another story).


Now comes the connection to Esprit. Castoriadis once told me that Marx bet on history and lost. Both Castoriadis and Lefort eventually came to reject historical determinism and economic reductionism. So much for grand theory; make way for democratic politics…and particularly for the development of a radical democratic critique of totalitarianism.  In its own way, Esprit was moving toward a similar politics. When Paul Thibaud became director of the journal in 1977, the two currents came together.


As for my own relations to Esprit, that was a curious surprise. It was left wing and Catholic, but not clerically Catholic. Ricœur, an active Protestant, was an early and faithful contributor; indeed, after Olivier Mongin became chief editor in 1988, Ricoeur has become the spiritus rector of the journal.


Esprit did not shy away from theory, but it always had a practical element. In the 60s, there was a meeting of what they called the journal à plusieurs voix every Monday evening. I was invited to joinWhat was a reform Jewish leftist from Texas doing there?  I didn’t know, but I thought it would probably help both my French and my knowledge of France. The discussions were of course not restricted to France; and if someone had something interesting to say, they’d ask for a short article. My first piece in Esprit, about the organizing of agricultural workers in Texas, appeared in January 1967. During the next few years, I wrote essays like, “I died in Vietnam and didn’t know it” (« J’ai été tue au Vietnam et je ne le savais pas ») about the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, but also— anticipating in a sense what I’d write after Charlottesville— some sad reflections on the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. I was beginning to deal with my shame…. in a new language.


DC: Speaking of different French and American audiences, was the Marxian Legacy primarily intended for Americans—for whom Marxism was illicit and foreign?


DH: Yes, but it’s a long story. Briefly, there was a group of graduate students connected with the journal Telos in the late ’60s and ’70s (before its political orientation shifted rightward and I left). We educated ourselves in public, so to speak. If you look at some of the early issues, we began with phenomenologists, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Enzo Paci. Then we discovered György Lukács, then Karl Korsch. And this process of discovery went on and on, since so little of these thinkers’ work was available in English. Even many of the editions of the Frankfurt School that I owned at the time were pirated editions—because Horkheimer considered them too radical. These became the materials of The Marxian Legacy, whose concluding two chapters—I should add— fulfilled my earlier goal by treating Lefort and then Castoriadis.


MJ: There’s a distinction you make in the book between la politique and le politique, and you even mention that it’s a distinction that’s not intuitively understood by Americans. So, as an American who doesn’t intuitively understand the difference, I was hoping you might explain it a little more.


DH: The general distinction draws specifically on both Lefort and Castoriadis and draws the implications of the critique of totalitarianism. You could say le politique is the framework within which la politique takes place. When the French translate the Greeks, they sometimes talk about a political regime, whereas Americans are more inclined to talk in terms of the Trump administration or the Macron government. But a regime cannot be defined objectively by political science, any more than it can be reduced by socio-economic analysis. In the last resort, a regime defines that which is sayable and unsayable, visible or invisible, thinkable or unthinkable. Or in a different key, suggested by Castoriadis’ reading of Freud, the regime defines what is licit and illicit. In Weber’s terms, it defines what counts as legitimate authority. To give but one example, it’s licit to doubt the veracity of some of the “news” we hear these days; but at least in some countries, it’s illicit to deny the Holocaust. The point is not whether what gets said is “democratic.” But, rather, a constitutional republic defines the framework of legitimacy within which democratic political debate can occur.


This theoretical distinction meets a complicated historical reality—a history which reappears at different points in Les Ombres. For example, the book takes up the temporary influence of American groups like the “consensus historians,” “the Rawlsians,” or the “neo-conservatives” at distinct moments during that post-Kennedy half-century. One wonders if Trump will deconstruct the political framework that built the way we talk about the competing political groups of that half-century.


DC: Your emphasis on an overall framework seems key. As I understand it, le politique is more totalizing and perhaps therefore more philosophically consistent. But does that also make it more potentially dangerous? Was that Lefort’s point about totalitarianism?


DH:I want to say yes, but it’s more complicated and philosophically richer. To bring in Kant, le politique is akin to what Kant calls the “conditions of the possibility.” For Kant, this is the “transcendental.” When Marx tried to reap the heritage of German Idealism, he treated these transcendental conditions as if they were real. But the totalitarianism that emerged from the Russian revolution conflated le and la politique. It claimed that conditions of possibility and material relations are the same thing. The totalitarian temptation is that theory can justify force insofar as the end justifies the means. But the other option is also dangerous; the idea that, somehow, praxis can lead to theory. This reduces the political to la politique, absolutizing the imperatives of the day, while forgetting the utopian goal of a new Left. In short, there’s a double-danger of absolutizing the political and absolutizing politics. Some of these issues came together for me in the 1980s, in the essay volumes, The Politics of Critique (1988) and Defining the Political (1989).


MJ: And you see this dynamic in U.S history as well? How does this relate to your work on American political thought and to Les Ombres de l’Amérique?


DH: After the Vietnam War, the rising tide of the New Left had ebbed. In the late 70s, I went back and started studying the American Revolution. As a good American leftist—especially a Marxist-influenced leftist—I had always thought the American Revolution was a bourgeois revolution; it was individualistic, Lockean, etc. But, by accident, I found Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic in a used book store. Here was the so-called “republican” interpretation of American revolutionary history. At the prompting of a French editor, I wrote the La naissance de la pensée politique américaine (1987) to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the US Constitution. Why did I write it in French? Probably for very practical reasons. I’m not a certified American historian: I have no special academic niche to defend, and I didn’t want to write a book that would add just another footnote to all the other footnotes.


What I found in American history, at least up until Trump, were a series of conflicts between what I’ve tried to describe as le and la politique. Each time it looks as if one party or theme will become dominant, an inversion takes place. The set of presuppositions switches. Claude Lefort has a splendid essay in Democracy and Political Theory that rereads Tocqueville in this spirit. Lefort deciphers what he calls the “reversibility” between moments when equality or liberty dominate. This is particularly true in volume two of Democracy in America. Tocqueville presents an extraordinary set of inversions — a movement between le and la politique, if you will, or an oscillation between a democratic republic and a republican democracy.


Perhaps I can explain this better with a concrete experience. Shortly after I’d written La naissance de la pensée politique américaine and issued a new edition of the Marxian Legacy, the Berlin Wall came down. In 1991, I was invited to give a talk on the American Revolution in Greifswald in the former GDR, where I spoke about the Revolution creating a “democratic republic.” I was speaking informally in German, and stressed the historical facts without paying closer attention to conceptual nuances. But I noticed the audience didn’t seem very enchanted by this notion of a democratic republic — most of the listeners had just been freed from the German Democratic Republic. That led me to think about the distinction between a republican democracy and a democratic republic.


Essentially, the model of a democratic republic would be the French Revolution (which orthodox Marxists interpret as the prelude to the 1917 Russian revolution). The goal that revolution was to overcome the gaps between the social and the political and between freedom and equality as well as that of the individual and the community; in a (Marxist) word, it would level class distinctions. The American revolution, on the other hand, began as an anticolonial revolt to free a specific society from foreign domination. It then remained for that liberated society to give itself an institutional form. The failed Articles of Confederation had to be overcome by the new constitution of 1787, which sought popular ratification among a democratic people meeting in local conventions. Americans know this story, but we don’t usually think of the underlying debates of the time. One is particularly significant for my purposes.


No. 63 of the Federalist Papers asks why the Constitution proposes a senate if the US is truly a democracy. Aren’t senates for aristocrats? The practical answer to this question appeared in the Supreme Court’s famous judgement, Marbury vs. Madison (1803): the people are sovereign in a republic. As sovereign, they are present in all institutions: the localities, the states, the national government. In effect, this is what Lefort summarized in a simple phrase: the people are everywhere and nowhere. In a republican democracy, the victors in a presidential race still have to face the two houses of Congress, the judiciary, the governments of the states. The popular will can’t be fixated once-and-for-all. A republican democracy is a place where the republic (i.e., le politique) guarantees that the space of democracy (i.e., la politique) is constantly preserved.


That brings us back to democracy today. When I began to write the book, after Charlottesville, I thought that I would perhaps discover some of the previously hidden roots of an American kind of racism. I did find some interesting paths; but I had to recognize that it was the phenomenon of resentment that first manifested itself clearly in the wake of the period of stagflation that led in turn to the Reagan revolution. As the book advanced, a second tendency began to appear: the rules of the political game in which adversaries faced off against one another were transformed; political parties became enemies unable to admit the legitimacy of the others. These are our dilemmas going into the 2020 election cycle.


One of the things that struck me in discussing Les Ombres in interviews in France in the months leading up to the midterm elections of 2018 is the challenge of translating “the separation of powers.” The best French translation is freins et contrepoids — brakes and counterweights. Les Ombres describes concretely the way that these functioned — for instance, it examines the Republican revolution that brought Newt Gingrich’s brand of politics to power in 1994 and why the active life of that “revolution” was so limited. What’s at issue in our present politics is that we’re missing our counterweights. The advent of Trump has challenged what was legitimately weighted under the old conditions (i.e., what was licit, legitimate, audible to the political public). The 2020 election represents a search for new counterweights that will enable a renewed adversarial politics. It will be interesting to see whether the candidates in the democratic primaries can invent a politics that is audible to those who desperately want to preserve the republic, and thereby preserve an active democracy.






* The first edition of Marxian Legacy (1977) reflected a sense that the rising New Left faced a nearly limitless horizon, even as the possibility of a real existing socialism seemed increasingly distant. A second edition (1988) was enlarged to express some of the élan of the anti-totalitarian movements rising in Eastern Europe. The third edition (2019) grapples with both the apparent triumph of liberal capitalism and the new status of “socialism” in the Anglo-American world.


Photo Credit: Tom Coe, Statue of Liberty, via Unsplash.


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