My generation of French writers has a powerful image, dated June 1979, etched forever in our memories: that of an exhausted Jean-Paul Sartre climbing the steps of the Élysée Palace alongside Raymond Aron, his former friend and longtime intellectual opponent, both escorted by a tall, long-haired young philosopher named André Glucksmann. French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing waited for them at the top. He had heard their demands and was ready to open the French borders to more than 100,000 refugees fleeing the Communist regime in Vietnam in makeshift rafts, much like the Syrians of today.
This essential moment in French intellectual history, and in European public life—inspired by Glucksmann—came to represent the end of extreme ideological conflicts and recognition of their absurdity when immediate and real evils confronted the conscience. Symbolically, it marked the end of Marxism, a worldview that had helped forge the young Glucksmann, and which Sartre had supported his entire life. Glucksmann was a leading voice of an emerging generation of thinkers, the New Philosophers. His writings not only renounced Marxism but also accused it of providing a theoretical foundation for some of the large-scale massacres of the twentieth century. Aron had always made this charge, though less forcefully. French classical liberals, alongside Aron, tended to be pessimistic, worried about the likelihood of the USSR’s eventual victory over democracy. But Glucksmann—similar to neoconservative Americans in this regard—believed Communism could be beaten with human rights, pitting morals against suffering.
From then on, across a range of essays (including for City Journal, to which he regularly contributed) and books (including The Master Thinkers, on the roots of totalitarianism in German thought, and his autobiography, Une rage d’enfant), Glucksmann became the voice of all victims of every totalitarian ideology, up to and including Islamism, which he identified as a form of fascism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York. But another opponent of human rights also reared its head, one that Glucksmann had not predicted: cultural relativism. The West chose not to intervene in support of the Chechens while the Russians were crushing them because, well, the Russians aren’t like us, you see. We could never impose our humanist ideals upon them. Glucksmann found himself at a loss before this hypocrisy, which, more often than not, served as a mask for realpolitik. He refused ever to accept realpolitik or moral evasions. The West, he lamented, tended to rally to the cause of human rights when faced with weak regimes but stood idly by when confronted with powerful governments, such as those of the Russians or the Chinese.
Glucksmann was a historical exemplar of public morality—and also of the relative inefficiency of this morality. A quote from French poet Charles Péguy comes to mind: Moralists, he said, “have clean hands but, in a manner of speaking, actually no hands.” Glucksmann kept his hands clean until the end, yet without indulging in self-deception. He was a righteous, pure man—a rare man.