by Gaither Stewart
Nov 30, 2008
(Paris) It is counterproductive to attempt to debunk Parisian cafés and café culture. Whether revisionists and debunkers approve or not, the Café de Flore on Paris’ Boulevard Saint Germain is a living institution. Since its founding in 1870 it has existed as a café and second home for writers, artists and intellectuals of the likes of Apollinaire, Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and frequented by Hemingway and even Truman Capote. In the 1920s and 30s, the Flore was the meeting place of the Right, after World War II of the Left. Forming a triangle with the famous but touristy Deux Magots (today “out” and taboo for the Parisian intelligentsia) and the Brasserie Lipp just across the street, the history of the Flore has always been linked with Paris, culture and political ideas.
For purposeful and inflexible urban walkers like Henry Miller and myself certain cityscapes palpitate with the violent ideas that have made great cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, Berlin, Munich and Budapest. It is impossible to pass the Café de Flore without pausing a moment to imagine Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre ensconced at a back table in that left-bank citadel of thought on a rainy November day, discussing the rage and the alienation and the revolt and the urge for revolution of their age.
In their works those existentialist intellectuals wrote the biography of European rebellion born with the French Revolution. Much of their thought was born in the Flore.
Now we too might pause to wonder who is going to write where the history of the great modern American Revolution in the making. When will it begin, we wonder now? Or has it already begun somewhere in the guts of America? We can’t help but wonder.
There is the Café de Flore those two bold intellectuals re-hashed again and again the idea of the metaphysical rebellion born in the western world after 1789. I like to imagine they evaluated also the year of 1848 a century earlier, the year Michael Bakunin and Friedrich Engels witnessed in a delirium of hope the second wave of revolution sweep across Europe, from Paris to Berlin and Vienna. Wave after wave of rebellion and revolution!
Sitting on the terrasse of the Flore today you can easily evoke images of Paris 1968 here on this boulevard where many of the scenes passed, an explosion only vaguely imagined by Sartre and Camus. The year that briefly changed the world began here—until the tide of reaction rebounded, sweeping the eternal bourgeoisie back into place.
But I also recall Camus’ conditioning in his books and notes every Sartrean provocation with his own conviction of the Greek idea of limits. And I wonder!
The social masks are the threat. Yesterday, as today. In peace or war. In Fascism or in the revolution of workingmen. The bourgeoisie’s support for liberals has always been and always will be a great mystification to confuse the revolutionary. That is the reason for our mistrust of bien-pensant liberals, yesterday as today. The more liberals turn to the Right, the happier the bourgeoisie and the greater its support for “liberal” causes. And therefore the marriage of (bourgeois) liberal democracy and market capitalism.
The gap between the people and what we call bourgeois capitalism is by definition unbridgeable. Meek protest does not count a whit. Though the ultimate tremendous effect on the American people of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is unimaginable, popular protest goes unheeded. It is really quite simple: Superpowers should never be confused with democracies.
Rebellion is a story of saying ‘no!’ But it is not revolution. Today more than ever before rebellion against this state of affairs and the transformation of rebellion into revolution is the task of the socially aware person.
Revolution is not only the explosion. We should be clear on this point. Revolution is a long period of drastic social change. Of the reversal of everything that once was and its transformation into the new. Revolution is the new. Reaction to it represents the old.
REBELLION OR REVOLUTION? WHICH WILL IT BE?
Therefore I wanted to write about the difference between rebellion and revolution. A kind of either/or. Yet, in fact, they form a chain. In ascendance. For there is no revolution without rebellion, without saying “no!” to what was before. On the other hand rebellion does not automatically produce revolution.
So where are we today? Where are we in America? In Europe? The basic, the fundamental point, the point of departure, must always be consciousness. The consciousness, the awareness of one’s situation and one’s consequent rejection of it. Refusal to continue along the same old paths, refusal to accept it any longer. Awareness can lead first to rebellion, and from there it might lead to revolution. Might, because the three steps are not automatic and consequential. One does not necessarily lead to the next.
And America? Unfortunately social awareness is yet to be born in a concrete form. But it is in gestation. It is the threat to power. One can imagine its bursting forth. To be followed then by contagious rebellion. Then, and only then, can the revolution begin. Not a spontaneous revolt. But a planned overturn of everything that was and is today. Change, one can believe in.
Meanwhile we have to deal with the first step. With awareness. Without awareness of our real condition every act of rebellion is gratuitous and infantile. Stamping one’s foot and saying “no” just to be ornery. Essential is the awareness of the reasons for rebellion.
That is where, I fear, 99% of Americans and Europeans stand today: dissatisfied but enmeshed in a cloud of unawareness of our real situation. Afraid to look into a mirror and see ourselves and where we are.
I try to imagine them today, the post-World War II intellectuals, in the Café de Flore, arguing, discussing, plotting, distinguishing. But these we know are other times. These are new times. More complex times. They are not discussing revolution in the Parisian cafés today. Perhaps a petit peu of rebellion. Un petit peu of protest. Sneers and accusations against reactionary President Nicolas Sarkozy, today also at the helm of the European Union. Some lament the disillusionment and the evaporation of the French Left. Staring into the Café de Flore from the street I imagine the disappointment of the French Left—Socialists, liberals and rebels—in both the program and the showing of the Socialist Party.
But revolution? Non, merci! Though the French voted against the European Draft Constitution in protest, there are precious few signs of revolt against multinational Europe governed by its great banks and presided over by Sarkozy today. We are more mature than that, they claim.
DISTINCTION BETWEEN REBELLION AND REVOLUTION
In his book The Rebel (which I highly recommend!), Camus deals with the Greek emphasis on “limits.” Even revolt (rebellion) has limits. In Camus’ vision “bad revolution” knows no set limits. Au contraire, so as not to degenerate into terror, the “good” revolution relies on the true sources of rebellion. Though I resist this thought, I accept that the “good revolution” must draw its inspiration from a system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes limits in the first place.
Marx and Engels and Lenin spoke at length about this tricky topic. But you can refresh some of your insights with the sacred sources, so to speak. The classical distinction is that made between a non-Marxian, spontaneous “insurrection” or “rebellion” or “uprising” and a formal revolution according to communist precepts.
Of former spontaneous insurrections, the classical case is the Spartacist revolt in Germany, whose program was ill-conceived and soon met with defeat. The justicialist peasant revolts throughout the middle ages, which Luther denounced, shared that semi-anarchic aspect, even though at times they were led by charismatic figures (Spartacus himself being one).
One might say as I do: My heart is with spontaneous revolution, my reason is for eternal rebellion morphing into revolution.
This however is a false contraposition. Eternal rebellion is bound to morph into revolution, which perforce becomes “permanent revolution” or “constant revolution”. Lenin, Mao and even Fidel suggested “constant revolution” or, more precisely, “constant cultural-political revolution,” as the cure for the gradual corruption of each revolutionary project. Under conditions of “eternal revolution” (which the bourgeois caricature as constant chaos) the masses do not withdraw from the direct exercise of power as easily happens. They don’t sit back and become spectators of history, leaving all power in the hands of representatives who, with the passing of time, become a new privileged stratum, not a CLASS, as many claim!. (Milovan Djilas, The New Class)
Rebelliousness without a real cause is a juvenile or neurotic disorder. (Patrice Greanville) A waste of human potential.
In sum, you can make your heart as happy as all outdoors, because a TRUE revolution fits both requirements.
The European Union appears more and more as the bourgeois restoration following the rebellion that spread across the world after 1968. On the eve of the G20 in Washington last November 15 President Sarkozy in his role as rotating President of the EU assured his political model George Bush that the situation in Europe was under control. Aggresivity and rigidity were things of the past. The 27 European nations now had a common position. No more divisions. Europe now spoke with one voice. But a reactionary voice. For reaction is sweeping across Europe from Paris to Budapest, from Berlin to Rome. The concept of a new unity in Europe, a unity based on reaction, was then confirmed in Washington by the President of the European Comission, arch-consrvative José Manuel Barroso.
Sarkozy and Barroso were pronouncing their nuanced message loud and clear: the era of only one currency and one direction ended with the failure of Lehman Brothers on September 11, a piloted crash without even consulting Europe. Those who paid the consequences of the crisis have the right to be heard, Europe cried … and quickly.
This reactionary Europe is in revolt against its brothers in the United States. This capitalist, reactionary Europe, though wounded by American hegemony of the past, now wants to be heard. It is not in disagreement with American capitalism. It wants more of it … and it wants a bigger piece of the cake.
Nicolas Sarkozy is the symbol of this “revolt of Europe to the Right.” Photos today depict Sarkozy and his new wife, the Italian fashion model and now French chanteuse, Carla Bruni, jogging on New York’s East Side, along the Fifth Avenue wall of Central Park. The French President loves American style. He loves more the power of the US President, which has had a boomerang effect among the people in France: the more he visits Texas ranches and takes off his tie to seem more American, the farther he drifts from formal French style, and the more his popularity slips.
Yet Sarkozy himself is realizing his own dream: the French Presidency. He built his entire previous existence around that goal. Now he has it, and the great power that comes with it. A leftwing exile from Montreal morphed into a Parisien rebel down on his house boat parked near the Concorde Bridge across from the Chamber of Deputies says Sarkozy has the “boulevard” (he means the avenue of power) open before him. He can do anything he desires. My Paris neighbor, Jean-Michel, who places himself in the political center, echoes him, and labels Sarkozy “totalitarian.” But a gracious bourgois lady at a dinner party a few nights ago instead just “loves Sarkozy” and defines herself proudly a “Gauliist.”
Meanwhile, to wind up this essay, I went back to the fashionable Café de Flore. Certainly the typical customers are no longer the intellectuals. Tourists out on the heated veranda are looking for celebrities. Also on the terrasse or at the window tables inside are the TV celebrities and the chic graduates of Paris’ elite schools like the ENA (Ecole National d’Administration) or the ESSEC business school, all dressed in their uniform body-hugging black clothes and short black topcoats and fashionable stiletto pointed shoes. (For some innate and phobic reason I cannot trust a man in shoes with pointed toes!) These elite school graduates in our crisis situation today actually demand more lenient laws on firing and hiring. They evoke the American and British systems. Their motto is that of elite capitalism: “Fired today, a new job tomorrow.”
Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, now on a three-month stay in Paris. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).