13 June, 2011Issue 16.4Politics & SocietySocial PolicyTranslation

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Spirit of Resistance

Gavin Jacobson

Time for Outrage!Stéphane Hessel
Time for Outrage!
Quartet, 2011
40 Pages
ISBN 978-0704372221


“Ninety-three years. I’m nearing the last stage. The end cannot be far off.” It is with these sobering words that this celebrated member of the French Resistance opens his short pamphlet of indignation, now available to the English-speaking world. Pitched in a decidedly lyrical key, Stéphane Hessel’s Time for Outrage! is a simple but spirited clarion call for today’s youth to transcend the culture of political lethargy and confront the seemingly immeasurable injustices that overshadow contemporary society.

Initially published in 2010, Indignez-vous!—as it is titled in French—was an instant, if somewhat unforeseen, success in l’Hexagone. It topped the French bestseller list, momentarily eclipsing titles from more famed authors such as Michel Houellebecq, and has sold well over a million copies in France. As such, this short appeal to “peaceful insurrection” duly projected Hessel, and his petite left-wing publisher, into the intellectual and literary stratosphere of French cultural life. Now, with this excellent translation, France’s fêted war veteran has been introduced to an international audience.

It is the literary pinnacle of what has been an extraordinary life. Born to German Jewish parents in 1917, Hessel emigrated to France with his family in 1924. Following his studies at the exalted École Normale Superieure, he served in the French army during the Battle of France in 1940. A year later he fled to London to join the Free French under General de Gaulle, whose own “appel du 18 juin” was a rousing—if largely unheard—address to his fellow countrymen to resist Nazi occupation. Tasked with organising resistance networks in northern France, he was captured by the Gestapo in 1944 and then transported to the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. After the war, Hessel became a diplomat, helping to draft the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has acted as an eloquent and dedicated paladin of progressive causes ever since. It is this remarkable life, lived in the crucible of Europe’s fratricidal past, that has come to furnish Hessel with a finely tuned moral compass that he deploys in Time for Outrage! to confront the wrongs he sees in the world today.

Most importantly, it is Hessel’s time as a résistant that forms the historical and intellectual backdrop to his pamphlet. Stating that “The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage”, he implores us to summon the same spirit to confront the injustices that have despoiled the radical heritage of what he and his fellow dissenters fought and died for. We must, Hessel pleads, voice our indignation about the abominable levels of inequality between rich and poor, the growing inequity between rich and developing nations, the influence of the “power of money” and its adulterating effects within the body politic, the gradual choking of political rights that protect illegal immigrants, and the insouciant destruction of the environment. Moreover, citizens must resist the languid slide into apathy in the face of these issues and avoid the general acceptance of a nihilistic individualism. “The worst possible outlook is indifference”, he writes.

Among all the pressing issues of contemporary life, it is Israel’s calamitous policies toward the Palestinians that constitutes the greatest source of outrage for Hessel himself: “Today, my strongest feeling of indignation is over Palestine, both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.” Revolted by Israel’s three-week war on Gaza in 2009 and dismayed by its continual suppression of Palestinian hopes for statehood, Hessel once again summons the memory of the Resistance. In this specific context, he explicitly draws upon its endorsement of armed insurrection by boldly claiming that “we must recognise that when a country is occupied by an infinitely superior military means, the popular reaction cannot be only non-violent”—a statement that has made him the target of the predictable accusations of anti-Semitism.

Those seeking a methodical and fastidious blueprint as to how we can overcome these predicaments will be left disappointed by Time for Outrage! It is not an intricate study marked by the conceptual labyrinths that define contemporary French political thought. Hessel does not engage in the charade that he bears the theoretical cipher necessary to answer the imposing questions that are informed by our present discontents. While he pays homage to Sartre, Time for Outrage! is not part of that abstract and holistic philosophical tradition in French intellectual history, epitomized by such canonical texts as Being and Nothingness. All the same, there is intellectual substance to this pamphlet. It addresses the current vogue for discussing political and social issues in a language of economics, finance, and productivity. This trend, he contends, has obscured the more important questions of ethics, morality, and justice in our public discourse. “It is high time”, he writes, “that concerns for ethics, justice and sustainability prevail.” We must unshackle ourselves from narrow considerations of profit and loss, and question the moral consequences of our public affairs.

This relates to a broader point residing at the heart of Time for Outrage! Fundamentally, it seeks to animate a tradition of republican citizenship that has slowly been eviscerated by the entrenchment of globalisation since the end of the Second World War. Rather than basing political life on the promotion of the individual, we should define it through a sense of fraternity whereby a citizen is expected not only to receive a set of goods from the state, but also to devote themselves to the public cause. Citizenship is not merely exercised through the ballot box, but is realised by means of active and continual engagement with the political institutions of society. It is this emphasis on public-spiritedness, through the sentiment of outrage against injustice, that Hessel hopes will provide a powerful stimulant for a new, invigorated, and participatory form of political culture.

Such active political engagement must not be moored exclusively in an insular and restricted concern for national affairs. Our indignation must also brave the pressing matters of international injustice. Time for Outrage! is steeped in a palpable sense of internationalism, an ideal that has clearly informed Hessel’s entire life. From his championing of immigrant rights—in the face of considerable challenges posed by the Sarkozy administration—to the defense of Palestinians and their right to statehood, Hessel has always detached his virtues from a nationwide parochialism and elevated them to embrace humanity as a whole. As he states, “The rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 are indeed universal. When you encounter someone who lacks those rights, have sympathy and help him or her to achieve them.”

Hessel’s ambitions have certainly resonated with the French public. The text adds to that tradition of intellectual engagement in the public sphere—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, through Emile Zola, to Régis Debray—that has always proved popular in France. Its success might additionally be attributed to its simplicity; the work should be seen not as an episode of Panglossian reverie, burdened by abstraction that cannot function in practice, but as a refreshingly simple lexicon of discontent around which a broader, inclusive movement of political action can form. More importantly, however, it has tapped into a sense of despair among the French progressive left, currently in a state of fracture (unquestionably aggravated by L’Affaire DSK). But it remains to be seen whether astonishing book sales can be translated into radical political action. It seems that the political success of Hessel’s call to arms is tied to the fortunes of the French Socialist Party and the progressive movement in general; worryingly, at present, the resurgent Front National under Marine Le Pen has been more successful in rousing the French to scorn the sagging and listless politics of Sarkozy.

The effect Time for Outrage! will have on UK readers also remains to be seen. We face similar economic and social problems to those Hessel seeks to confront in France. Even the raw simplicity of the text itself would suit the British predisposition for jargon-free prose, excised of the neologisms characteristic of continental European political thought. Nevertheless, because the sentiment in Time for Outrage! is anchored in such a specific historical context—the occupation of France—it is unlikely that it will be met with the same acclaim, literary or political, as in France. Hessel’s very purpose—to summon the spirit of the Resistance—will surely prove his pamphlet’s greatest obstacle to success here in the UK. While France might easily respond to the mobilization of the Resistance as a defining historical moment from which to draw example (and help expunge the memory of collaboration), this is a leap of imagination too far for UK readers. Here, in the context of the Second World War, the historical vista is dominated by the memory of the blitzkrieg and the Battle of Britain, which has come to shape our oppositional culture. Juxtaposed to a French oppositional culture of insurrection, resistance, subterfuge, and subversion, ours is one defined by categories of endurance, fortitude, pluck, stoicism, tenacity, and tolerance. In short, a more passive culture of resistance.

Nevertheless, the UK progressive left would be wise to embrace the broad political principles that Hessel seeks to foment: indignation, collective action, and sustained mass political participation. The frustratingly anodyne Ed Miliband has certainly given progressives cause to seek out alternative spokespersons of resistance to the Tory-led coalition government. Hessel’s pamphlet, despite its historical particularity, might be one such source.

Gavin Jacobson is reading for a DPhil in International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford.