Pocket Pantheon

Problems with Sartre

The thinkers discussed in this neat little book had grand ambitions for philosophy. Sartre, Foucault and Deleuze saw political commitment as part of the job description. Those less directly involved in political activism - such as Lacan and Derrida - nevertheless sought a philosophy that would, to paraphrase Karl Marx, change the world and not simply describe it.

Pocket Pantheon does not really serve as an introduction to these thinkers, because their ideas are always refracted through the lens of Alain Badiou's rather idiosyncratic thought. He is known for drawing on the Anglo-Saxon tradition of analytical philosophy, but this collection confirms him as an heir to the Continental line, despite his differences with its chief protagonists.

Part of the interest of Pocket Pantheon is in the portrait it paints of the institutional context for French philosophy in the 1960s, which revolved around the École Normale Supérieure. It is salutary to note that Georges Canguilhem and Jean Hyppolite, figures from the previous generation who are less well-known in Britain, played a vital role in making possible that great flowering of French thought in this period. The personal relationships of the next generation, of which Badiou is the youngest and last surviving member, also form an intriguing subplot in this collection.

The book was originally to be called Funeral Orations; it mourns the passing of not only an extraordinary group of individuals, but a style of thought. Badiou argues that the uncompromising quest for truth has been replaced in our times by the drear tenets of a "vegetable-based natural medicine", a lifestyle philosophy that advises us to "keep fit and be efficient, but stay cool".

His book is a reminder that intellectual life, at its best, is a rather brutal affair. The most troubling aspect of Badiou's position lies in his political views, which become strikingly evident in the essay on Sartre. He insists that it was only in 1950, when Sartre joined the Parti Communiste Français, that his philosophy came of age.

His explanation of Sartre's difficult passage from a "metaphysics of individual salvation" to a philosophy of political commitment and action is brilliant. Yet its conclusion - that Sartre's cold war posturing constituted "correctness in revolt" - is chilling. Sartre had perceived that intellectuals of the period faced a stark choice: either clench your teeth and bravely throw your weight behind Stalin or Mao, or "side with the forces of social conservatism".

No doubt this seemed to be the case for many, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But Badiou's injunction to "hold to the truth, cast away illusions, and fight rather than surrender, whatever the circumstances" was better served in the period by those intellectuals who followed Orwell and Camus in refusing to make this choice. There is no doubt that it was difficult to articulate a leftist politics without pledging allegiance to the murderous regimes of Moscow or Beijing. Yet neither was it impossible, and it is those thinkers who made the attempt who deserve our congratulations for their bravery.

Matthew Taunton's "Fictions of the City" will be published next month by Palgrave Macmillan

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads