Whether revisionists and debunkers agree or not, the Café de Flore on Paris’ Boulevard Saint Germain is a living institution. Since its founding in 1870 it has existed as a café and a second home for French-speaking writers, artists and intellectuals of the likes of Apollinaire, Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and frequented by Hemingway and Truman Capote. In the 1920s and 30s, the Flore was the meeting place of the Right, after World War II of the Left. Forming a triangle with the famous but touristy Deux Magots (today taboo for the Parisian intelligentsia) and the Brasserie Lipp just across the street, the history of the Flore has always been linked with Paris, culture and political ideas. A remarkable vocation!
For purposeful urban walkers like Henry Miller certain cityscapes like Parisian coffee houses palpitate with the violent ideas that have made great cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, Berlin, Munich and Budapest. It is impossible to pass the Café de Flore without pausing a moment to imagine Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre ensconced at a back table in that left-bank citadel of thought on a rainy November day, in fervent discussion of the rage and the alienation and the revolt and the urge for revolution of their age.
In their works those existentialist intellectuals wrote the biography of European rebellion born with the French Revolution. Much of their thought was discussed or born in the Flore. Now, out on the boulevard just looking in, you might pause to wonder who is going to write the history of the great modern American Revolution, perhaps im gestation. When will it begin, some now wonder? Or has it already begun somewhere in the guts of America? The Flore stirs such thoughts in some minds.
There in the Café de Flore the two bold intellectuals, Camus and Sartre re-hashing again and again the idea of the metaphysical rebellion born in the western world after 1789, certainly evaluating also the year of 1848, the year Michael Bakunin and Friedrich Engels witnessed in a delirium of hope the second wave of revolution sweep across Europe, from Paris to Berlin and Vienna. Wave after wave of rebellion and revolution.
Sitting on the terrasse of the Flore today you can still evoke images of Paris 1968 here, right in front of you on this boulevard where many of the mobile scenes passed, an explosion only vaguely imagined by Sartre and Camus. The year that briefly, so very briefly, changed the world began here—until the tide of reaction rebounded, sweeping the eternal liberal bourgeoisie back into place in the world.
But readers of Camus will recall his conditioning in his books every Sartrean provocation with his own conviction of the Greek idea of limits. And you wonder who was right.
Social masks are a threat. Yesterday, as today. In peace or war. In Fascism or in the revolution of workingmen. The bourgeoisie’s support for liberals has always been and always will be a great mystification to confuse the revolutionary. That is the reason for our mistrust of bien-pensant liberals, yesterday as today. The more liberals turn to the Right, the happier the bourgeoisie and the greater its support for “liberal” causes. And therefore the marriage of liberal democracy and market capitalism.
As it stands the gap between the people and what we call bourgeois capitalism is unbridgeable. Protest does not count a whit. Though the ultimate tremendous effect on the people of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria is unimaginable, popular protest meanwhile still goes unheeded. Actually, the conclusion is simple: superpowers should never be confused with democracies.
Rebellion is a story of saying ‘no!’ But rebellion is not revolution. Today more than ever before rebellion against the current state of affairs and the transformation of rebellion into revolution is the task of the socially aware. With your back to the wall, in an over-loaded era, when the necessary decisions quiver and vacillate and become elusive, you nonetheless must choose.
Revolution is not only the explosion. Revolution is a long up and down period of drastic social change. Of the final reversal of everything that once was and its breath-robbing transformation into the new. Revolution is the new. Reaction to it represents the old.
REBELLION OR REVOLUTION?
Therefore the difference between rebellion and revolution is fundamental. Protest, peace marches and sit-ins are rebellious, not revolutionary. It’s a kind of either/or. However, rebellions do form a chain. In explosive ascendance. For there is no revolution without goal-conscious rebellion at the start, without saying “no!” to what was before. On the other hand, we see over and over that rebellion does not automatically produce revolution. As a rule it subsides and disappears until the next time.
So where do we stand today? Where are we in America? In Europe? “An armed uprising anywhere is an absurd proposition”, an important person in my life recently wrote me. Those words underline the fundamental condition, the point of departure: consciousness. The consciousness, the awareness of one’s desperate situation makes rejection of that situation possible. Refusal to continue along the same old dead-end paths, refusal to accept them any longer. That awareness can lead first to rebellion, and from there it might mushroom into revolution. Might, because the three steps are not automatic and consequential. One does not necessarily lead to the next.
Unfortunately, social awareness is yet to be born in a concrete form in America. But that first basic step is in active gestation in today’s pandemic crisis. Some people are thinking. Why no public health care? Why no employment? Why the wars? You can imagine its bursting forth. To be followed then by contagious rebellion. And then, revolution can be made. Revolution is not a spontaneous affair; it is a result.
The events of 1968 on Boulevard St. Germain parading before Camus and Sartre were spontaneous and in time sputtered and extinguished amidst waves of predictable reaction. Spontaneity however helped plant the seeds of rebellion which each time splinter into a little streams and die out if minor objectives are achieved. But an overturn of everything that was and still is has to be nourished and managed.
Meanwhile, we of today have to deal with the very first step. With awareness. Without awareness of our real condition every act of rebellion is gratuitous and infantile, like. stamping one’s foot and saying “no” just to be ornery. Essential is the awareness of the real reasons for rebellion.
That is where 99% of Americans and Europeans stand today: dissatisfied but enmeshed in a cloud of unawareness of our real situation. Afraid to look into a mirror and see ourselves for what and where we are.
I try to imagine them today, the post-World War II intellectuals, in the Café de Flore, arguing, discussing, plotting, distinguishing. But ours are other times. New times. More complex times. They are not discussing revolution in Parisian cafés today. Maybe un petit peu of rebellion. Un petit peu of protest. Sneers and accusations against the reactionary, austerity-loving, European Union. Some lament the evaporation of the French-German-Italian Left. Staring into the Café de Flore from the street I imagine Sartre and Camus’ disappointment in the European Left, steadily losing ground to the nationalist, fascistic right everywhere.
But revolution? Non, merci! The only visible signs of even revolt against multinational Europe governed by its great banks subsidized by the taxes of the working classes are disgruntled Italy’s complaints against the European Union for its failure to help in the time of need when Italy was the only EU country infected by the coronavirus.
The French philosopher, Alain Badiou, once said in an interview with Rome’s La Repubblica that “often revolt remains entrapped in the modern world, reduced to a mere symptom of the illness. In the West, revolts are for the most nostalgic persons who aim at conserving the golden epoch of welfare in the name of an already superseded past.” The Occupy Wall Street movement, though with praiseworthy intentions, represented a handful of the endangered middle class. It was a petit bourgeois protest, in the absence of a link with the real disinherited of the planet. Few even remember it today.
DISTINCTION BETWEEN REBELLION AND REVOLUTION
In his book The Rebel, Camus deals with the Greek emphasis on “limits”. Even revolt (rebellion) has limits. In Camus’ vision “bad revolution” knows no set limits. On the contrary, so as not to degenerate into terror, the “good” revolution relies on the true sources of rebellion. Therefore, the “good revolution” must draw its inspiration from a system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes limits in the first place. Camus was not Robespierre.
Marx and Engels and Lenin spoke at length about this tricky topic. It’s good to refresh one’s thoughts at the source. The classical distinction is that made between a non-Marxian, spontaneous “insurrection” or “rebellion” or “uprising” and a formal revolution according to communist precepts. Of historical spontaneous insurrections, the classical case is the Spartacist revolt in post-World War I Germany, whose ill-conceived program soon met with defeat. The justicialist peasant revolts throughout the Middle Ages, which Luther denounced, shared that semi-anarchic aspect, even though at times they were led by charismatic figures, Spartacus himself being one.
One might say: My heart is with spontaneous insurrection, my reason is for eternal rebellion morphing into revolution.
This however is a false contraposition. For eternal rebellion is bound to morph into revolution, which perforce becomes “permanent revolution” or “constant revolution”. Rebelliousness without a real cause is a juvenile or neurotic disorder, a waste of human potential.
Lenin, Mao and Fidel suggested “constant revolution” or, “constant cultural-political revolution,” as the cure for the gradual corruption of a revolutionary project. Under conditions of “eternal revolution” (which the bourgeoisie caricatures as constant chaos) the masses do not retreat from the direct exercise of power as can easily happen. They do not sit back and become spectators of history, leaving all power in the hands of representatives who, with the passing of time, become a new privileged stratum, not a CLASS, as many claim!” (Milovan Djilas, The New Class)
The European Union (EU) appears today as the bourgeois restoration following the signs of rebellion that spread across the world after 1968. Some years ago the then French President Sarkozy in his role as rotating President of the EU assured his political model, George Bush, that the situation in Europe was under control. Aggressivity and rigidity were things of the past. The twenty-seven European nations had a common position. No more divisions. No more sass. Europe now spoke with one voice. Albeit a reactionary voice. And today reaction continues to sweep across Europe from Paris to Budapest, from Berlin to Rome.
This reactionary Europe is in a quiet, still subtle revolt against its brothers in the United States. This capitalist, reactionary Europe, though wounded by American hegemonic measures, wants to be heard, not however in disagreement with American capitalism. I fear it just wants more of it … a bigger piece of the cake.
The typical customers at the fashionable Café de Flore are no longer the intellectuals. Before the virus epoch began, tourists camped out on the heated veranda were looking for celebrities. Also on the terrasse and at the window tables inside the old café were the TV celebrities and the chic graduates of Paris’ elite schools like the ENA (Ecole National d’Administration) or the ESSEC business school, all dressed in their uniform, body-hugging black clothes and short black topcoats and fashionable stiletto pointed shoes. These elite school graduates—many of whom are the heirs of 1968—in our crisis situation today demand more and more lenient laws on firing and hiring. They evoke the American and British systems. Their motto is that of elite capitalism: “Fired today, a new job tomorrow.”
Gaither Stewart is a veteran journalist, his dispatches on politics, literature, and culture, have been published (and translated) on many leading online and print venues.