Is man too wicked to be free?

In France, an intellectual has caused a furore by denouncing his fellow leftists for covertly reacti

On 22 August, Le Monde led its front page with a story about the publication of a book of fewer than 100 pages. The book, The Call to Order: an inquiry into the new reactionaries, by the left-wing political philosopher Daniel Lindenberg, was a denunciation of the author's contemporaries on the left who were covertly endorsing a range of right-wing, indeed dangerously reactionary, positions.

It was not a particularly quiet news day on 22 August. The Nato summit had opened in Prague, and President George Bush had issued a call to order to his European allies, whom he was seeking to mobilise into supporting the campaign against Saddam Hussein. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - which is headquartered in Paris - had just revised sharply downwards its forecasts for economic growth in the advanced economies. In France, truck drivers were about to go on strike, and 30 new prisons had been ordered.

But the big story was the book.

I asked the Czech-born political scientist Jacques Rupnik, the head of research at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales attached to Sciences Po, what he made of it. "It's a leftover of Bolshevism," he said with scorn. "Denouncing each other in that way is what they've always done, and Le Monde thinks it's still important. More important than a Nato meeting which is discussing the invasion of Iraq and the entry of new members."

It is true that the choice of front-page splash seems, to anyone outside France, perverse. But the story may be of greater significance than Rupnik allows. For the situation described in The Call to Order is a story of our political times - and a pointer to a political future.

The book's success is based in part on the old journalists' maxim that everyone likes to see others torn apart. In a series of denunciations, Lindenberg argues that many of his colleagues, with their attacks on the spirit of 1968, on Islam, on "rights of man-ism" and on feminism, have gone beyond the limits of the democratic horizon and have sunk, as Le Monde puts it, "into a reactionary drift". Lindenberg thinks that, although there are still real liberals on the French intellectual scene, there are also many false liberals. These false ones use the (relatively meagre) French liberal tradition of late 18th- and early 19th-century figures such as Benjamin Constant and, above all, Alexis de Tocqueville as "a tool to rub out Marxism" - Marxism being a tradition Lindenberg wishes to preserve, albeit in a non-totalitarian form.

Lindenberg does not attack some of the most obvious figures on the far left who have turned to the right - such as the philosopher Blandine Kriegel, who has gone so far as to become an adviser to President Jacques Chirac. She recently produced a report on "violence on television", the result of the deliberations of a commission that she chaired. Kriegel's career shows the dangers of leaving the left-intellectual corral: she was savaged by the media and by opinion-formers when the report came out last month, and at one point walked out of a TV discussion when she judged the presentation of her report, and the questioning, to be biased. She hit back, however, at a recent conference - accusing Marxist intellectuals such as Antonio Negri and Etienne Balibar of being under the influence of the German philosopher Carl Schmitt, who passed from being a bitter critic of the Weimar Republic to being head of the association of Nazi judges.

Lindenberg's targets are those whom he accuses of carrying on a "double talk" - concealing their truly reactionary nature beneath a liberal gloss. They represent views that would be considered "left-liberal"or, in Anglo-American circles, "new Democrat" or "new Labour". One such figure, flayed in The Call to Order, is Pierre Manent, a political philosopher specialising in liberal thought. Speaking at the same conference as Kriegel - organised by a group of Catholic students - Manent attacked the Catholic Church for its ambiguity over liberal politics: ". . . the Church has abandoned its preference for the authoritarian nation without coming to a preference for a free nation. The Church has difficulty in recognising what's good for the city (civic society) because a happy city has less need of it than a miserable one."

The comment reveals something of the nature of the division. The "double talking" liberals are those who believe that present society - capitalist-liberal-democratic - is capable of producing happiness, and is worth protecting against illiberal attacks. Lindenberg is seeking to reclaim the ground on which the French intellectual has always stood: that present society can create only misery, and offers nothing that can be held as being better for human life than an authoritarian alternative.

This is where the battles over Islam come in: a significant part of the left in France, as elsewhere, protects radical Islam against attacks from western liberals, on the grounds that the latter are no better, and can be worse. One of Manent's crimes, according to Lindenberg, was to vilify Islam: the example was a (brief) reference Manent made, in an interview with the daily newspaper Figaro, to French society feeling a "triple dispossession . . . from Europe, from globalisation and from Muslim immigration".

The other target is, by contrast, those who criticise modern societies for being too liberal. Here Lindenberg's most distinguished victim is Marcel Gauchet, the co-editor with Pierre Nora of Le Debat, a journal founded in 1980 to overcome "narrow militancy". Gauchet's work focuses on the dangers of individualism: in his latest book, Democracy Against Itself, he writes that, while the age of totalitarianism is now past, the age of excessive individualism is upon us. The danger, he said in a recent interview, "doesn't come from the affirmation of all against the individual, but from a limitless affirmation of the individual. Our societies have more and more difficulty in acting on themselves from a collective point of view."

The argument takes its force from the shock to the left of 21 April - the day on which the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came second to Jacques Chirac in the first round of the presidential election, beating the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin into third place.

Lindenberg's call to arms chimes in with those, inside the Socialist Party and outside, who would go back to a purer form of socialism than that presented by the Socialists in government and during the election - a form now being hotly debated on the French left. One much-discussed example is contained in a book published last month by the philosopher Jean-Claude Michea, The Adam Smith Impasse, which calls for socialism to be uncoupled from liberalism, and to draw its strength from "the altruism of ordinary people", or what Orwell called "common decency".

Nearly all of the contributors to the debate oppose, sometimes violently, the forces of globalisation. The shock of 21 April was, above all, the realisation that very large numbers of working-class, former Socialist Party and communist voters had gone for the extreme right. The common conclusion of the left is that socialism has ceased to exercise any kind of hegemony over the working class, which has become a collection of atomised, bewildered individuals.

The imbroglio is also an index of the continued vitality of French social criticism - and a sign that a closer battle is being joined between liberals of all kinds and leftists who still cleave, consciously or unconsciously, to a non-liberal vision of society. It is a sign of a closer questioning of the new social-liberal politics to which the Third Way sought, and still seeks, to give substance: and which can only benefit the latter.

Lindenberg, who places himself on the democratic left, suffers still from a kind of far-left demonising urge. But he has opened up a can of half-formed positions, which he may help to define themselves. One of these - it may indeed be the most important - is a reactionary platform constructed of a disappointment with, or a rejection of, previously held far-left views. It is both an old and new phenomenon, stretching well beyond France: indeed, the leading intellectuals of the right in Italy are, almost to a professor, former far leftists.

This position often consists of a transmutation of a leftist rejection of liberal democracy into a rightist rejection of liberal democracy - the common element being a deep pessimism over whether human society can continue without an authoritarian hand grasping it. In a recent book, 2001: politics and the future, the former communist and ex-mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, wrote: "I am wholly convinced that man is too wicked to be free."

But this "reactionary" position is still hardly to be distinguished from the confusing melange of views that now swim about in opposition to those of the liberal globalisers. The melange is confusing, because these positions march under the banner of the left, as epitomised by many NGOs; of the far left, as seen in the "no-global" movements; of the right, as represented by some in the US Republican Party; and of the far right, as in the European populist parties, especially the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen or the Freedom Party of Jorg Haider. Then add to this mix intellectuals, the more interesting of whom - such as the New Statesman contributor John Gray - are difficult to categorise by left-right labels.

Lindenberg thus does a service, even if it seems to be a confused one. In pointing out that liberalism can disguise reaction, he makes us look at what modern liberalism is trying to do. In the main, it is trying to preserve a liberal polity in democracies that are experiencing - as Manent put it - multiple "losses", or movements perceived as losses. In doing so, it is forced to produce accounts of and reactions to a range of illiberal challenges - radical Islam; popular reaction to immigration; the elite and distant nature of Europe.

Lindenberg has indeed reacted to these new challenges to liberal polity by retreating to an intellectual-terrorist bunker, and sniping at those who venture out into the no man's land of the new terrain - "as if", as Marcel Gauchet said while commenting on The Call to Order, "democracy didn't draw its strength from being the only regime in power to enrich itself with an internal questioning of its own functioning".

Not for the first time, the sparks flying from a French intellectual quarrel illuminate the murk through which we are currently groping.