:: Article

Radical Response or Republican Nostalgia?

By Karl Whitney.


Stéphane Hessel, Time for Outrage!, trans. Damion Searls with Alba Arrikha, Charles Glass/Quartet Books, 2011.

In spite of this book’s supposed advocacy of a return to engagement with radical political action, does it in fact signal yet another example of the eclipse of the message by the medium? Without background about the author, this book could seem nothing but a weak, well-intentioned addition to the piles of political pamphlets that turn up in the corners of French bookshops. After all, this book is very thin – in terms of word-count, but also in terms of tangible ideas – while its author’s life has been lived in the fullest way. Luckily, we are told this twice, in case we missed it the first time: initially by the American journalist Charles Glass, who devotes several pages of his introduction to recounting Stéphane Hessel’s dramatic life: his involvement in the Resistance during the war (he joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French in London), his escape from certain death in German concentration camps, and then his subsequent career in diplomacy, including his involvement in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And then we hear it again: Hessel himself grounds his critique of global capitalism in his own experience, which is most frequently rehearsed for the reader in place of any specific analysis. However, he does utilise the National Council of the Resistance’s Programme from 15 March 1944 as a riposte to contemporary neoliberal reforms of the state: in terms of education, public service, control of the State’s natural resources. This programme provided a framework that was followed in the post-war era in France with great success: the result was the Trente Glorieuses – the thirty years of economic triumph that France enjoyed between 1945 and 1975. Yet, on the other hand, it is difficult to believe that such economic expansion would have been possible without the financial shot in the arm provided by the Marshall Plan, or without the political ground cleared for the Left by the Right’s catastrophic association with Nazism. Without a deeper engagement with the undoubtedly numerous problems of contemporary France, we get the impression from Hessel’s book that any difficulties the country currently faces were inevitable outgrowths caused by a divergence from the Council of Resistance’s Programme.

The most interesting thing about the book is, undoubtedly, its success in France. There is no doubt that it captured the mood that grew throughout France during President Sarkozy’s attempts at pension and retirement-age reform in autumn and winter of last year. Its central message – that outrage is the first step towards changing the world through radical action – cannot really be argued with. In spite of this, one is left with the feeling that the success of Hessel’s book signifies some sort of nostalgia for the postwar era. Although Hessel intends his audience to be future-oriented, yet willing to take something tangible and useful from the past, it is difficult to tell if this is what’s actually happening amongst readers. Are the readers simply a well-protected middle class engaging in yet another layering of Republican mythology, where 15 March 1944 is just another date to be genuflected to unthinkingly? Is this simply heritage posing as radicalism? Does Hessel’s pamphlet really provide a means to address the contemporary mess, or does it just tell comforting bedtime stories to an audience that wishes to sleep soundly, its conscience barely stirred?


Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 6th, 2011.