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The Latest Outrage from France: The Screed from Stephane Hessel

The new “publishing phenomenon” in France, as Elaine Sciolino calls it in The New York Times, is Stephane Hessel’s manifesto, Indignez-Vous, or as it is called in the new American publication, A Time for Outrage. A scant 14 pages of text, the pamphlet -- a more accurate name for it than a book -- has sold 600,000 copies in France in a three month period that began last October.  One can also read it in a recent issue of The Nation, although the magazine has it behind a firewall. The introduction to the book by Charles Glass, however, is available at their website.

Indeed, the book has become a world-wide phenomenon. It has sold a total of 1.5 million copies by now in France, and has been translated in many countries including Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Korea, Japan and Sweden. Why has it been such a success?  Sciolono answers that it was a popular Christmas gift among “left-leaning intellectuals, [and] parents struggling to inject political activism into their children.” It also resonated in France because Hessel has a bona fide history as one of the remaining heroes of the World War II era -- he is now 93 years old, and was not only an opponent of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during the war, he fled France to work with Charles De Gaulle and his government in exile in London. Then, he parachuted into occupied France in 1944 to help the underground Resistance. Caught by the Gestapo, he was tortured and sent to two different concentration camps, and sentenced to hang. He switched identities with an inmate who had died, and escaped while being sent to yet a third camp.

After the war, Hessel became a diplomat, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and eventually became a writer. Thus, all of his life’s work allows him to write as a legitimate hero of France, passing down his wisdom to the new generations from one of the last survivors of the war years. As he told the Times, he knows that people say “he’s the old man who has been in the Resistance and who has joined General De Gaulle. So obviously that was part of the success.”

Critics have been harsh. One critic wrote that the tract is “repetitive, unoriginal, simplistic and frustratingly short.” Perhaps something that takes ten minutes of one’s time is about on the level of what today’s young people can read; or perhaps its virulent nature and self-indulgent call to action is what appeals to many of those activists who proclaim anarchism as their ideology.

What the pamphlet reminds me of is not Zola’s J ’Accuse, as some have said, but more appropriately, the kind of article attacked so powerfully in the 1920s by Julien Benda, in his now classic La Trahison des Clercs, published in America as The Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda wrote about the pro-fascist arguments of earlier French intellectuals such as Charles Maurras. Despite his insistence that he is modernizing the anti-fascism of his generation to face new threats today, Hessel resembles Maurras more than he does a modern French anti-totalitarian such as Bernard Henri-Levy.

Let me then take up some of his facile arguments. First, Hessel argues for a domestic commitment to social-democracy. After  all, the manifesto of The Resistance in 1944 called for “a rational organization of the economy” in which the individual interest was subordinated to the public interest. That means, he writes, “a social safety net” in which everyone is guaranteed a living if they cannot get a job and full retirement benefits. It also, he argues, includes nationalization of the major industries and the banks. In other words, a rather outdated old fashioned Marxist vision that has long been abandoned by most of Europe’s social-democrats. He does not believe that “the state can no longer cover the cost of these social programs,” and believes that claim is nothing less than propaganda. Hessel suffers then, from an inability to acknowledge the reality of the problems besetting the European welfare states. The claim, he says, is due to one force: “the power of money,” which he and his comrades fought against decades earlier. The Resistance’s motivation was outrage: hence it should be the motivation for today’s young as well. As Hessel writes: “We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry!” These slogans are the substitute for reason in Hessel’s vocabulary.

Hessel believes he is a Hegelian. Of course Hegel in his day believed that man had reached the final stage of history in the dialectically evolved Prussian State and monarchy; Hessel’s variation is that man advanced liberty step by step until at the end, it “may achieve a democratic state in some ideal form”; i.e., the form of social democracy he has previously outlined.

As he turns to the world at large, Hessel claims he wants a world that adheres to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights he helped draft, in which no crimes against humanity are allowed. There is, of course, much to be upset about in today’s world. I could list many such things, particularly singling out regimes that commit crimes against their own peoples. These include regimes like Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya in the current days, scores of  Arab regimes including Saudi Arabia, Gaza under the control of Hamas, or Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea. The list is large. One might hope that today, Hessel would be singing the praises of the Arab revolutions, as does Natan Sharansky. “A historical page has at least begun to turn,” writes Sharansky. The citizens now taking to the streets are opposing their own authoritarian dictators, and not protesting against the supposed enemy of Zionism and Israel. Thus the once imprisoned Soviet dissident now sees “the region’s democratic dissidents as our real partners.”