In one spring almost a decade ago, I was having coffee with two French intellectuals at a Parisian café when we were distracted by a commotion.
Several patrons of the café started moving from their tables as if hit by an invisible hand as an elderly man approached, trying to sit at one of the tables. One of the patrons was shouting: Oh, how it smells ill!
The cause of the commotion was the elderly newcomer who turned out to be Roger Garaudy, the bete-noire of French intellectuals and the subject of this voluminous exercise in character demolition. The intellectual patrons of the café did not wish to be anywhere close to Garaudy, the pariah par excellence.
Shunned in his own homeland, Garaudy was, nevertheless, a hero in other places.
A few weeks after the café incident, Garaudy was in Tehran as a guest of President Muhammad Khatami, receiving honours reserved for visiting heads of state. In June 1999, Jordanian intellectuals named Garaudy “the most important international cultural personality of the 20th century.” Former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam has called Garaudy “the greatest contemporary Western philosopher.” Libyan leader Muammar Kaddhafi has gone even further by designating Garaudy as “Europe’s greater philosopher since Plato and Aristotle.”
There are other places where Garaudy is a star.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the 84 years old Frenchman is a household name among Khomeinist officials and militants. The state-owned television often broadcasts lengthy interviews with the old man who has maintains a private correspondence with former President Khatami. Last December when the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motakki hosted an international conference to prove that the Holocaust did not happen, Garaudy, unable to attend for health reasons, sent a videotape message supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map.
How did Garaudy end up where he is today?
This biography traces a complicated itinerary that, in a sense, is not very different from that of his generation. Born at the start of the First World War, Garaudy was one of those European intellectuals who witnessed such cataclysmic events as the Communist Revolution in Russia, the Popular Front experiment in France, the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the Second World War. In an ear of dramatic and often violent change, Garaudy and his contemporaries were constantly looking for certainties that could help them avoid falling into the chasm of despair. Many Western European intellectuals were seduced by Communism, and ignored the atrocities committed by Stalin in the Soviet Union and by Mao in China.
Communism was appealing because, basing itself on a misunderstanding of Marxism, it claimed that there was such a thing as History with a capital H and that it evolves in accordance with pre-determined laws.
All that one needs do is to discover those laws and accelerate their operation towards a Utopian future.
Seduced by Marxism, young Garaudy joined the French Communist Party and quickly became an aide to Maurice Thorez, the party’s secretary general and a long-time agent of the Komintern. Garaudy was the author of the French Communist Party’s notorious dictum: ” In every just thought, Stalin is there; in every just action, Stalin is there!”
As the authors of this biography show, Garaudy was the PCF’s hatchet man when it came to attacking authors such as Arthur Koestler who exposed Stalin’s crimes.
Then came 1956 and Nikita Khrushchev’s exposure of those crimes. The PCF , visibly shocked by the revelations, refused to undertake a serious de-Stalinisation programme. Garaudy , along with several other Communist militants such as Louis Althuser and Michel Foucault started looking for ways out of the Stalinist maze. Althuser, who later killed his wife and went mad, produced what he termed ” a reinterpretation of Marxism”. Foucault developed an anti-humanist discourse backed by a seductive vocabulary that appealed to many American academics. Foucault also became fascinated by the Khomeinist revolution in Iran and in his typical hyperbolic mode wrote of ” the spiritual explosion” he had witnessed during his visits to a Tehran set on fire and pillaged by revolutionary mobs.
Garaudy , too, had started to look to religion for solace. However, unlike Foucault who admired Khomeinism, Garaudy thought he would find what he was looking for in Christianity. Rebaptised as a Protestant, Garaudy also forged a friendship with Abbe Pierre, the Catholic priest who founded the charity movement known as “Brothers of the Poor”.
However, having broken with Marxism, Garaudy was unable to accept any new bondage for a long time. Soon, he distanced himself from Christianity and started looking to environmentalism, liberation theology (as developed by guerrillas in Latin America), and oriental philosophy as a new intellectual home.
Not satisfied by any of those experiences, Garaudy became fascinated by Ludmilla Tcherina, a French ballet dancer of Russian origin and produced a study of what he called ” the mystic aspects of her body.” A beauty in her early prime, Tcherina had briefly forged a liaison with one of the nephews of the Shah of Iran and been invited to the gala that marked the 25h centenary of the Persian Empire in Persepolis in 1971.
By 1980, however, Tcherina, having reconverted herself as an amateur sculptor, was too old to be worshipped as “a goddess of beauty”, and Garaudy was, once again, without a spiritual home.
It was then that he read Muammar Kaddafi’s “Green Book”, and became fascinated with Libya and Islam. After a couple of visits to Tripoli and several meetings with the Libyan “Supreme Guide” in the desert, Garaudy decided to convert to Islam.
Garaudy wanted his conversion to be formalised and publicised. This is why he chose the Islamic centre in Geneva, an organ controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, for the purpose. He also changed his name from Roger to Raja, the Arabic word for “hope”.
The current biography is partly based on interviews with Garaudy, assisted by his lawyer, and conducted by the two authors. Garaudy asserts that the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington were organized by the Bu administration. He also reasserts his belief that the genocide of Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War never happened and was “invented as a myth by Churchill, Eisenhower an De Gaulle” to justify the destruction and occupation of Germany.
This is a fascinating book not because Garaudy is anyone of any real importance. As philosopher, politician, and agitator, Garaudy’s utter mediocrity is instantly apparent to anyone whop reads a few pages of his oeuvres. The book is worth reading because, by narrating one man’s story, it shows how irrelevant political religious and moral issues have become to a certain intelligentsia that treats politics, religion and ethics as consumer goods.
In a sense, Garaudy, a tragic-comic figure, is typical of a certain breed of Western intellectuals who play with ideas and concepts just as play golf or poker on a weekend. Garaudy could be Communist one day, Christian another, Tcherniaist on a third say, and Muslim on a fourth, without his real life being affected in any important way. Stalinism may murder tens of millions of people while Garaudy was praising Stalin. Tchernia may be costing the Persian prince a bob or two, without Garaudy losing his admiration for that “divine shape.” Religion could foment revolution, civil war and massacre, without any of that disturbing Garaudy’s sleep in his posh Parisian apartment.
There was a time when Europe lived, and died, for and by its ideas. At such times, an intellectual’s commitment to an idea had a real cost which could mean his very life. Today, others live for and die by ideas while Europe watches from its safe distance. Foucault could admire Khomeini because he knew that, as a Frenchman, he had a return ticket for Paris. He would not have to live under the ayatollah and did not risk being sent to the Evin prison or the firing squad by the Khomeinists.
Garaudy could admire Kaddafi because he did jot have to live under the colonel’s rule in Libya. He could have dinner with Khatami and discuss philosophy because he knew that he would leave Tehran a few days later loaded with gifts of carpets and caviar. Garaudy could mourn the demise of Saddam Hussein because he is sure he would never experience what the people of Iraq suffered at Halabcheh or during the Anfal campaign.
As a latter day Proteus, Garaudy could change opinion, ideology and religion as frequently as he changes his shirts because he happens to live in Europe at a happy tie of peace and security. Others in other parts of the world, however, do not enjoy such luxuries. They could be exiled, imprisoned or killed for “the crime” of changing their mind and offending the established order.