‘Why has democracy so often been given a bad name by French intellectuals?’ philosopher and historian Luuk van Middelaar asks in 'Politicide'. Sartre’s heritage is tainted by his support for totalitarian regimes, but even such philosophers as Foucault and Deleuze felt at best lukewarm about parliamentary democracy, with its compromises and sluggishness.

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Luuk van Middelaar

In his erudite historical survey, Van Middelaar shows that this radical approach is rooted in the French Revolution; and that it was bolstered in the thirties by the lectures on Hegel by the Franco-Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève who called politics a life-and-death struggle between ‘masters and slaves’. Hence small advances and compromise became suspect from the outset, and French philosophy was caught between terrorism and impotence.

To escape, the ‘new philosophers’ replaced politics with a human-rights ethic in the seventies, but they, too, failed to define genuinely democratic politics. That definition was given by Claude Lefort, who provided democracy with new foundations. With a detailed discussion of Lefort’s ideas, Van Middelaar concludes a book that not only casts an intriguing light on one of the most eventful episodes of twentieth-century intellectual history, but also takes a penetrating look at the central problems of politics.

In particular, Van Middelaar convincingly demonstrates that politics is far from dead and that, precisely because of our uncertainty about the future of society, it has a crucial role to play. Steering a course between pragmatism and the temptations of dogmatic certainty, his book is a brilliant defence of the viability of political democracy.

Luuk van Middelaar has given us a virtuoso account of the fraught relationship between twentieth-century French philosophers and democracy.

NRC Handelsblad

Briskly written; the author’s grasp of the material is phenomenal; the anecdotes are illuminating, and the well-chosen one-liners sum up the philosophical positions felicitously.

de Volkskrant
Luuk van Middelaar
Luuk van Middelaar (b. 1973) is a philosopher and historian who studied at Groningen University and at the Sorbonne and the EHESS in Paris. Since his debut with 'Politicide' (1999), which won him the prestigious Prix de Paris, he has become an influential voice in public debates.
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