Paul Nizan 1929

The End of a Philosophic Parry: Bergsonism

Source: Paul Nizan, Intellectuel Communiste Maspero, Paris, 1967;
First published: Les Revues 1929;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2008.

The F. Arouet whose 1929 book “La fin d’une parade philosophique” is discussed here was actually the Marxist philosopher and Resistance martyr Georges Politzer.

Here is perhaps the first attack on a philosophy that inspired enthusiasm, respect, and consideration. M. Bergson was attacked by M. Benda; this was a business quarrel that concerns the clientele. F. Arouet attempts to establish the balance sheet of this false wisdom that finally shows itself for what it is: a philosophy for dividend holders.

Bergsonism appears, from the time of “Données immédiates de la conscience” to “l’Evolution Creatrice” as a series of commitments that aren’t kept. M. Bergson promises that he is going to show an interest in nature, in the “concrete,” in “life,” that he’s going to air out the spirit. He announces that he is going to rout his predecessors, openly devoted to the abstract. “You’ll see what I’m going to do; I’m going to reveal life to you. With care, with delicacy for it is a fleeting bird. I’m going to give you reasons to love life.” But he contents himself with putting new abstractions in the place of immobile abstractions, which he then says are life, since they move. He gives the appearance of life to mythical objects simply by affirming that these statues of Dedalus are in movement. In place of a truly concrete philosophy he places a rhetoric where a vocabulary of movement replaces one of rest. A rhetoric that is summed up in formulas, in rituals that want us to take simple magical incantations for realities: mobile duration, dynamic schema, liberty, life force. Spiritism is knocking at the door.

In passing from Bergsonian psychology to Bergsonian metaphysics we pursue the repetition of a method that consists in describing life in general, the concrete in general. Here is what must be said: “Bergsonian emotion in the face of life is emotion as an abstract philosopher would feel it.” But we can only interest ourselves in the singular lives of men, in real segments of these human dramas. For men live human lives, and not lives in general.

Bergsonism, a protest with no effect, an intention without act, hides a meaning beneath its coquettish ways; it appears as an incident in the return to the offensive of threatened idealism. With Marx, in fact, dialectical materialism, heir of classical materialism, claims the actual man as object, tears the illusory veils that idealism threw over the realities of human life. From the moment they are posed to living men and not to the idea of MAN, the questions that this idealism attempted to resolve by purely logical operations appear only to be solvable through acts. Suddenly the revolution rises up as the end point of philosophy. But M. Bergson wants to be the artisan of a renaissance capable of giving “man’s renunciation of himself” (Marx) new garb. He repeats the out of date ritual of illusion, renews the old blackmail in order to again turn men away from reflecting on their real existence, their real chains. The seductive myths of Bergsonism are precisely destined to turn them from the redoubtable contemplation of their vale of tears. We can see how this propaganda could serve the designs of the bourgeoisie at the same time that it utilized the morality of the Kantian imperative.

At the first opportunity the concrete meaning of this abstract philosophy made itself known through Bergson’s wartime activities: the speeches, the missions where this wise man used all the themes of his philosophy to the ends prescribed by his class. Capitalist France became the champion of life, of the life force, of liberty against a Germany devoted to space, the mechanical, to matter. France-Spirit had to bring down Germany-Matter. This philosophy for all occasions gave falsehoods the sharpness of consciousness, of truth.

We feel in Arouet’s book something that its author certainly felt, which is that Bergson is a dead man – (doubtless too perfectly dead for so vigorous an attack). His masters retired him. He has been buried: the Nobel Prize was a beautiful funeral. He now only serves to nourish the courses of lazy professors. The church gathers up his disciples: he was Christianity’s recruiting officer, where all the traitors go to seek refuge. Thus Maritain falls in alongside Saint Thomas. But the very graces of the church shall pass, for the pre-war idylls have passed. The bourgeoisie, engaged in the realities of the class struggle, seeks more solid arms against a proletariat that is growing in strength and consciousness. “The demands of treason are no longer the same... The bourgeoisie now needs poets and thinkers who will directly organize their marching orders...The language of intellectuals must directly lick the rifles, the machineguns, the cannons...what can be done with the worn out bait of M. Bergson? His philosophy... was nothing but a twenty-year episode in the tactics of the bourgeoisie.’ (Chap. IV

This book is doubtless useful, for it formulates a few of the demands that must be met by a truly concrete philosophy of man-as-he-is. This philosophy is not the one practiced by the philosophers of the XVIth arrondissement, those wise thinkers of Passy, from whom the men they want to fool will demand an accounting. But everything in the book doesn’t satisfy: the best parts are the technical ones on psychology and metaphysics. But when it’s a matter of defining the social meaning of Bergsonism Arouet fails to get to the heart of things. We feel ourselves to be in the presence of a Marxist essay in interpretation stopped half-way along the route. It was a question of showing an ideology through its causes and its function; he thus had to be radical. Being radical, Marx said, means taking things by their roots: Bergsonism’s roots aren’t laid bare. There are labors in which one must not be summary. And so Arouet seems to pass over this important problem of Bergsonism: what is the social meaning, the concrete function of the myth of interior life in Bergson? This retreat into the self, for which the technique of intuition provides the method, a method whose very abstraction makes it valid for everyone, is a trait of the bourgeois spirit of this time. It testifies to an irremediable impotence, to a refusal of the human world. Arouet doesn’t explain the causes and roles of this retreat. We also don’t see how Bergsonian liberty evades any real quest for liberty.

The very example of Bergson was clear and provided the subject for a concrete study of an abstract man. “The End of a Philosophical Parry” doesn’t exhaust all the questions of Bergsonism. Finally, we fear that its readers will simply be seduced by Arouet’s formal gifts, for a pamphleteer who truly gets to the heart of the pamphlet form doesn’t seduce. He doesn’t inspire interest in his person, in the agility of his art: he is indifferent. He is only interested in the object of his denunciation: what inspires passion in “Herr Vogt” is Vogt. It is the same with Fourier: we never think of his savoir-faire. Arouet should be careful of being too skillful.