17 November 2015
From Shakespeare and Stendhal to Stalin and Sarkozy: André Glucksmann (1937-2015)
When the French philosopher André Glucksmann died on 10th November 2015, the news perhaps received less attention in the United Kingdom than elsewhere in Europe. Glucksmann was indeed a European in the widest sense of the word, both in terms of his origins and his range of influence. Born in 1937 in Boulogne-Billancourt, he was the son of an Ashkenazi Jewish couple from the heart of Europe; his father originally came from Bukovina (now Romania) and his mother from Prague. His education, too, followed the classic French model; after graduating from the Ecole normale supérieure de Saint-Cloud, he published his first book, Le Discours de la Guerre (Paris, 1967; British Library X.700/21738), which fittingly appeared in 1968, the year of the Paris student uprisings.
André Glucksmann in 2012 (©Stephan Röhl. Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Although his allegiances were initially Marxist, Glucksmann gradually developed a critical outlook which led him in 1975 to publish La Cuisinière et le Mangeur d’hommes (Paris, 1975; X.708/17739), an essay on the relationship between the State, Marxism and concentration camps which drew comparisons between the rise of Nazism and Communism and the atrocities committed in the name of both. It appeared in a Russian translation by Nina Staviskaya (Kukharka i liudoed; London, 1980; X.908/43770). He went on to explore the subject of totalitarianism and its origins in the thought of Fichte, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche in Les maîtres penseurs (Paris, 1977; X.510/10207).
A close associate of Jean-Paul Sartre, Glucksmann traced the Existentialist strands in the writings of Dostoevsky in the wake of the 2001 New York bombings in Dostoïevski à Manhattan (Paris, 2002; YF.2006.a.28133). He declared that his interest in philosophy and the moral basis of human rights stemmed from his experiences as a member of a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied France and the conviction which he developed in consequence of the vital importance of intervention. With notable impartiality, he spoke up for the Muslim victims of Islamic terrorism, the Nicaraguan Contras, the independence of Chechnya and the Vietnamese boat people, but also advocated the use of nuclear power.
Together with Bernard-Henri Lévy, another former Marxist thinker, he was a member of the Nouveaux Philosophes; his Czech heritage and his rejection of Communism naturally drew him to Václav Havel, resulting in the publication of a volume (YA.1990.a.14197) in 1989 pairing a translation of one of Havel’s texts (Quelques mots sur la parole) with Glucksmann’s Sortir du communisme, c’est rentrer dans l’histoire. Glucksmann joined Havel, Desmond Tutu and Wei Jingsheng in signing an appeal in August 2008 urging the Chinese authorities to respect human rights at the time of the Beijing Olympics, and was also a signatory of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism.
The complex power structures within the former Soviet Union also attracted Glucksmann’s attention, and won him a particularly strong reputation in Ukraine, where Galina Akkerman published Na zakhysti svobody (Kyïv, 2013; YF.2014.a.14241), a collection of Elena Bonner's conversations with him. He recognized the importance of Georgia’s oil and gas reserves in maintaining the European Union’s independence from Gazprom, and thus opposed attempts by Abkhazia and South Ossetia to achieve autonomy.
Glucksmann supported Nicolas Sarkozy in the April-May 2007 French presidential elections, and together with his son Raphaël Glucksmann (b.1979) he published Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy (Paris, 2008; YF.2009.a.20084), examining the philosophical revolutions and counter-revolutions behind the events of that year and concluding with ‘praise of permanent subversion’ to counter the violent diatribe launched on 29 April 2007 by Sarkozy against the Sorbonne uprising. The breadth of Glucksmann’s intellectual compass, from Montaigne and Shakespeare to Stendhal and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, is typical of the daring and expansive approach and the skilled and incisive arguments of a philosopher who was prepared to apply them in the service of humanity in its fullest sense.
Susan Halstead, Content Specialist, Humanities & Social Sciences, Research Engagement