Stéphanie Roza, 43, is a leftist by origins, by family and by conviction. At the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the Paris-born philosopher specializes in the Enlightenment and the history of socialism.
She sits down with EL PAÍS at a table in an air-conditioned café in front of Lyon station in Paris. Outside, it’s a blazing hot afternoon. She speaks about how her grandparents — Eastern European Jews who arrived in France before World War II — joined the Communist Resistance. Her parents, meanwhile, took part in the mass protests in May, 1968.
Roza herself was a member of the Trotskyist extreme left, until around the age of 30. After becoming disappointed in the movement, she distanced herself. However, as a university student, she made the left — particularly its origins in the ideals of the Enlightenment (1685-1815) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) — a subject of study. She recently published a book in French titled The Left Against the Enlightenment.
Question. What bothers you about the left today?
Answer. I think it’s in a deep crisis. The reconstruction of a credible alternative to capitalism won’t be possible if we destroy the foundation of the emancipation project: the universalist, progressive and rationalist heritage of the Enlightenment.
Q. Isn’t it paradoxical to say that the left goes against the Enlightenment? Doesn’t the left precisely come out of the Enlightenment ideals of human rights, reason and revolution?
A. I was surprised to read [the writings of] left-wing militants or intellectuals. who claim that universalism masks the domination of white European males, that human rights are actually the rights of white men, or that progress in general is disastrous for the human race. This was what motivated me to write my book.
Q. You write that there’s an “irrationalist” left. How so?
A. There’s a rejection of science among a part of the left. With the health crisis, [this sector] questioned the scientific consensus regarding vaccines. Deputies from France Insoumise (the far-left political party, “France Unbowed”) went to the Antilles, not to convince the residents of the need for vaccines but, on the contrary, to inflame [fears about vaccines] that, in the Antilles, are the results of the past shortcomings of the French state. Being in favor of scientific progress and thinking that technology should serve to improve the lot of everyone… that’s part of the DNA of the left. There’s a rupture here.
Q. You also mention an “anti-progressive” left.
A. The left — perhaps a little naively — was very productivist in the past: it was thought that all industrial and technical progress would mechanically improve the lot of everyone. Today, with the ecological crisis, it’s clear that we have to be selective [about which industrial activities to pursue]. But even in the face of this, the only thing that can help us is science and technological progress: to reduce pollution, to produce things in a cleaner way, to travel in a cleaner way.
There’s a part of the left that favors degrowth. I agree with degrowth if, for example, it means that clothing consumption in rich countries is reduced. But being in favor of global degrowth — without understanding that there are countries and sectors that still need to grow — is anti-progressive. It represents a break with an entire leftist, socialist, communist and anarchist tradition, which has been in place since the 19th century.
Q. You also maintain that today’s left is “anti-universalist.”
A. Universalism is the principle that emerges from the different declarations of human rights since 1789. It’s the idea that every human being — by the simple fact of being human, regardless of their sex, religion, skin color — is endowed with inalienable rights. It’s a formidable lever for emancipation that has been claimed and used as such since the French Revolution.
Q. Why is this segment of the left anti-universalist?
A. According to certain leftists, the rights of the white man haven’t been proclaimed to emancipate everyone, but proclaimed by white males for themselves. It’s not entirely false: [in 1789], many [French] deputies didn’t want to emancipate the Blacks of the colonies. But, once the [Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen] existed and rights were proclaimed, it fueled an emancipation movement. [In Haiti], the slaves rose up when they learned that the Revolution had taken place in France and that rights had been proclaimed.
Q. How do you explain the current evolution of the left?
A. There are political reasons, such as the disappointments caused by the large traditional parties of the left: the Socialist Party [in France] gave protection to the colonial wars, while the Communist Party was not only committed to Stalinism, but was late to feminism and anti-racism.
Q. And there are intellectual reasons, too.
A. Its origin is found in philosophies of the radical right, such as those of Nietzsche and Heidegger… Nazism in the case of Heidegger. Paradoxically, these philosophies were recovered by thinkers who were on the left. Foucault’s case is important. He exposed oppressions that nobody was paying attention to: in prisons or against sexual minorities. But, starting from this positive criticism, he went so far as to question the primacy of reason in modern society. By assuming a bigger role in social discourse, reason becomes, according to Foucault, a discourse of power. He presents the Enlightenment and rationalist discourse as a discourse of domination. Thus, he discredits reason. And there’s another thing from Foucault that we find in the current left: its fascination with Islamist theological and political processes. [Certain leftists] defend the rights of homosexuals and absolute sexual freedom in the West, but they go to Iran and find nothing to object to, either regarding the situation of women or sexual minorities. It’s a form of orientalism in reverse: what’s good for the West — in terms of freedoms — isn’t good for Eastern societies.
Q. Doesn’t this mean that the liberal center — such as what Macron represents in France — is the heir of the Enlightenment? If the left is also anti-enlightened, like the extreme right...
A. There are two branches in the inheritance of the Enlightenment: the socialist and the liberal. Since the French Revolution, it’s not only socialists who defend human rights — so do liberals. The socialist heritage is more radical, though: we must expand and deepen human rights and integrate more and more people. And [socialists] oppose the liberals on socio-economic issues: the Macronists are destroying the pension system, they’re allowing our public services to be destroyed. The Macronists aren’t the first to do this, but they have accelerated the process. In any case, today’s liberals continue to defend a heritage that is theirs, too. It’s the left that’s facing a crisis and has forgotten its roots.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition