Georges Politzer 1941

After the Death of M. Bergson

Henri Bergson 1927

Source: Originally in La Pensée Libre, no. 1 February 1941. In Ecrits 1; La Philosophie et les Mythes, edited by Jacques Debouzy. Éditions Sociales, Paris 1969;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor.

M. Bergson has just died in Paris at the age of 82. In him dies the typical representative of an entire era of French philosophy. On this occasion — especially in the current circumstances — it’s important to clarify what can be learned from the content and influence of Bergsonism. We will do this in a special study. We would here like to restrict ourselves to a few remarks.

In the German press (both in French and German) the death of Bergson served as an occasion for some instructive commentary. A first note, published in the translated newspapers published in Paris, didn’t mention the “non-Aryan” character of Bergson and indicated in soothing tones that Bergsonian philosophy had worked for “the preparation of the new world.” Another note, published in the Pariser Zeitung, and consequently aimed at the German public, was a bit less complacent. It stressed the fact that Bergson wasn’t “Aryan” and praised his “critique of materialism,” while affirming that the result of its conclusions was nothingness. Bergsonism was qualified as a philosophy of “transition” which, in the demagogic vocabulary of racism, means that Bergson prepared the terrain for the obscurantism of the twentieth century.

The tone of the Nazi press thus permitted the appearance, at the same time as respect, of an amusing embarrassment. Italian fascism, like German Hitlerism, borrowed many things from this Bergson, who was subject to the anti-Jewish laws and who would have been fired had he still taught at the Collège de France. The “static’ and the “dynamic” have become words of common usage in the vocabulary of M. Mussolini who, in a completely Bergsonian manner, had classified capitalist states as “static” or “dynamic” according to whether or not they were beneficiaries of the partition carried out at Versailles, or, on the contrary, hoped like the Axis powers for a new partition to their benefit.

In the same way when, in a Paris speech, M. Rosenberg qualified Germany as a “profoundly creative vital force,” and a “true life value” he was using a slogan that Bergson had invented to describe France in 1914-18. Finally, the “trial of intelligence,” as well as the elegy for instinct and “intuition,” were widely used throughout the world by all forms of reaction.

The Pariser Zeitung noted that with Bergson French philosophy had once again found a world public.

In truth, Bergson’s philosophy is something entirely other than French philosophy. It is even something entirely other than philosophy.

French philosophy goes from Descartes to Diderot, and reaches its goal in the materialism of the 18th century. The philosophical work of the Encyclopedists ceases being developed in the course of the 19th century. This development will be carried-out by the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, who renew philosophical materialism in bringing together the materialist conception, an outgrowth of science, with the dialectical method, stripped of the idealistic mysticism of Hegel, and handled in a materialist fashion.

During this development official philosophy set itself to liquidate the heritage of the Encyclopedia, and after the fall of the “philosophy of divine right” it was Kantian idealism that ended up becoming, in various forms, the official philosophy of the Third Republic.

The evolution that led to its enthronement was notably marked by the success of the Positivism of Auguste Comte during the Second Empire.

This Positivism was not a materialism. The identification of Positivism with materialism is a disorder set off by the Church and the idealistic philosophers, who sought to discredit materialism through Positivism and Positivism through materialism.

Contrary to materialism, Positivism is an agnostic doctrine. It denies the possibility of knowing the real as it is. In addition, the Positivism of Auguste Comte claims that the simple affirmation of the existence of matter is already beyond the competence of valid knowledge and is a matter of “metaphysics.” This doctrine thus becomes a “shame-faced idealism.”

Since Positivism affirms that the existence of God is equally outside the possibilities of “positive” knowledge it was, for many scholars, a “shame-faced materialism,” according to the formula applied by Engels to the agnosticism of Huxley. For this reason it was fought by theology and idealism.

The Positivism of Auguste Comte was a retreat in relation to the French materialism of the 18th century, in the same way that the social and political ideas of the founder of the “religion of humanity” constituted a retreat in relation to the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon, of whom he began as a disciple and from whom he took — while deforming and vulgarizing them in the form of a regression — several fundamental ideas.

French “neo-Kantianism” in its turn was, in its various forms, a retreat in relation to Positivism. In fact in its beginnings it pushed agnostic Kantianism into the arms of theology. The “critical effort” became increasingly unilateral. It’s on the plane of knowledge that the “critical” pushes aside science to make room for theology. This is clearly seen in Renouvier, Lachelier, and Boutroux.

It was thus that the terrain was prepared for the spread and success of Bergsonism.

From the time of the Essai sur led donnés immediates de la conscience Bergson situates himself to the “right” of the most idealistic representatives of Kantian idealism. He goes to war against “Kantian relativism” by affirming the validity of metaphysics. At the same time he proclaims that the irrational is the road to true knowledge.

In taking these positions Bergson expresses a triple pretension: He claimed to situate himself beyond the “ancient” opposition of materialism and idealism; he claimed to rely on facts, that is, “psychological” facts; and he claimed to have discovered an original method of knowledge: intuition.

The “critique” of science and reason, as well as that of the philosophical doctrines that rely more or less on them, was done on a level of exaggeration.

Bergson took up the positions surpassed by the philosophical materialism of the 18th century. Nevertheless, he presented his philosophy as a “new” philosophy. He professed idealism and at the same time affirmed that he had gone beyond the opposition between materialism and idealism. He denied the possibility of knowing the real through science and declared that he spoke in the name of a “superior” scientific knowledge.

Bergson thus idealized regression by systematically transposing the negative into positive, retreat into advance, destruction into life, inferior into superior. To this effect, he forged a mythology that was easy to manipulate and that, destined at its origin to disguise the effective position of problems in philosophy, could also be applied to other uses. It is thus that the Bergsonian distinction between the static and the dynamic began its career in the Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience only to end it in the discourse of Mussolini.

Bergsonism carried off its success as an art of disguise. Some, like certain sectors of the church, did what they could to spread it; others were seduced by it; later, the ideologues of fascism took from it images and modes of expression.

Bergsonism’s influence had several consequences in France: It prepared the terrain for a greater spread of the orthodox Thomism of the Catholic church; in a general way, it facilitated the return of philosophy to theology; it greatly facilitated the penetration in France of clearly obscurantist philosophical doctrines, like “phenomenology;” and it led French philosophy to the foot of the “myth of the 20th century.” Given its considerable spread it greatly contributed to the creation of a propitious terrain for ideas that directly served the ideological preparation of fascism. From this flows both the embarrassment of the Hitlerite press on the subject of Bergson, at the same time as the appreciation according to which this philosophy “worked for a new world” without arriving at a “true conclusion.”

This evolution of French philosophy remains inexplicable if we limit ourselves to looking at it in an abstract manner, isolating it from the social conditions that produced it.

Engels drew attention to the rupture of the bourgeoisie of the 19th century with the materialism that was the “theoretical flag” of its revolutionary ancestors. In the 19th century its slogan became “religion must be maintained for the people,” and it once again made peace with the Church.

In France the big bourgeoisie shifted towards ideological reaction, particularly after the Commune, i.e., precisely under that Third Republic that gave it unshared power.

It was the bourgeoisie that represented the social source that fed the great campaign against the Positivism that spread widely among the secular petit-bourgeoisie and Freemasonry. Always encouraged by the needs of the struggle against materialism, the doctrine of Auguste Comte was attacked once the danger of a materialist renewal seemed to be pushed aside. In an unstable equilibrium between idealism and materialism, now “shame-faced idealism” now “shame-faced materialism,” in a state of confusion at all times, on the superior plain of philosophical ideology Positivism reflected the unstable position of the petit bourgeoisie, itself tossed between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Because of its idealistic critique of science and its negation of materialism, it was also maintained within the Socialist Party as an antidote to Marxism. Under the form of Positivism or Kantian idealism, it was either in agnosticism that the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois democrats found their highest philosophical expression.

It was a particularly hesitant agnosticism, making concession after concession to theological mysticism. In their turn, these concessions reflected those that, from fear of the proletarian movement, these democrats were ready to make in practice to the negation of democracy. This is why neo-Kantianism also received the favors of the Radical Party and the Socialist Party.

The philosophy of Bergson translates the purification of the official ideology of the third Republic of the materialist heritage, and expresses a “new” orientation. It is not without profound reason that the “ideologues” of fascism can use Bergsonism. It’s a philosophy that moves within the sphere of influence of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Its theme of “life” taken up by those writers, notably in Germany, who occupied a similar position, is not a part of biology, but of economy and sociology. Its “élan vital” presented as a fact of nature is, in the final analysis, the “élan vital,” that is, the expansionist will of imperialism.

The Bergonian negation of science, its trial of intelligence and the irrationalist orientation of its philosophy express not only the influence of the Church, nor solely that of the bourgeoisie in general that take refuge in spiritualism. It already bears the marks of a hostility to science and reason that don’t require an ancient negation, like that of the Church, but a new and frenetic negation. It doesn’t only translate a return to the ancient status quo, but also a will to destruction. It denotes a “new’ spirit, more deeply and totally reactionary: that of the imperialist bourgeoisie. This is why Bergsonism was able to assist in the return of St Thomas, all the while looking on this side of St Thomas. This is why it placed on the first level of its philosophy “dynamic” themes like life, instinct, etc, in leading philosophy to the borders of Rosenbergian myths.

M. Bergson himself remained in an unstable equilibrium. Through Bergsonism his disciple Le Roy sought to combine the Thomism and idealism of Berkeley. His other disciple, Chevalier, is charged under the Vichy government with the Aryanization of French education.

The celebrated Begsonian refutations, as well as M. Bergson’s “discoveries,” including his “discoveries” in psychology, are myths. This philosophy is made up of nothing but procedures, recipes and artifices.

We are not talking here of the personal psychology of Bergson. An “ideologue” who transposes is not necessarily conscious of it. But the question of the “sincerity” of the individual is related to the problem of his morality, and not to the content and meaning of his ideas, at least as long as the lack of sincerity doesn’t become a factor acting directly on his work, and revealed by the analysis of it that can be made.

In this regard the case of the contemporary representatives of idealism is complex. When in their works we meet the repeated affirmation according to which there is no other form of materialism than vulgar mechanistic materialism, it’s hard to know if this outrageous omission of dialectical materialism should be attributed to ignorance, lack of sincerity or a combination of the two.

In any case, an analysis of the works of Bergson reveals that it isn’t made up of new knowledge, but of new artifices.

In philosophy the new knowledge can be found in the development of French philosophy, i.e., in that materialism that, from the mechanistic form that it had in the Encyclopedia, has become — thanks to Marx and Engels — dialectical, renewing itself in the light of the new scientific discoveries of the 19th century.

On the eve of the war French thought’s invasion by obscurantism was nothing but a threat. Today, after the defeat, it has become a present danger.

The fight against obscurantism that is being prepared against the forces of the occupier and the state apparatus cannot be simply theoretical. But it cannot only be practical, either. The practical struggle must be supported by a struggle in the field of ideas.

“The trial of intelligence,” the “critique of science” etc., are receiving their concrete interpretation from the events which we are experiencing, in the conditions of occupation and the anti-national reaction of Vichy. It is thus that their true content is shown, and here that their philosophical existence terminate.

And it is thus that the conditions for a renaissance of French philosophy are realized, at one and the same time by their return to the grand tradition of the Encyclopedia, and through the assimilation of its later development in dialectical materialism. This renaissance will surely be accomplished in this combat that will again give to the word “philosopher” the meaning given to it by the 18th century, for it will find at the side of the Nation fighting for freedom and independence, French philosophers fighting for the Enlightenment.