In Political Culture

The Lost World of 1916. Charles Peguy: Mystique & Politique



Am I alone in my disappointment at how the centenary of 1916 is going? Certainly there is much to admire. The story of 1916 is being recounted in fresh ways, new areas of inquiry have been opened up. We know more about the role of women, more of the innocent bystanders, especially the children who were killed. The O’Brien Press’s impressive “16 Lives” series reminds us that sixteen individuals were executed after the rising. Where the focus had once been on the seven signatories of the Proclamation, now we have accounts of other leaders; their backgrounds and motivations. What is disappointing is the level of reflection. An opportunity to learn more of our present problems and predicaments is being lost. I do not suppose that the lessons of history are easily read or that it is the historians’ job to teach them. I do suppose that comparison is the best, if not the only way, to study society, culture, politics. Comparing the past with the present gives us a perspective not otherwise available. The material out of which to fashion the comparison is there. It just not being used.

In this post I adumbrate some of what we might expect to learn. My first point is the ‘otherness’ of 1916. The ideas that motivated the insurgents and shaped the judgments, positive and negative, passed on them are not alive today. The distinction between “mystique” and “politique”, between a politics of vision and a politics of power, made by the French thinker and poet, Charles Peguy [1873-1915] , is apposite as we gaze across the chasm that separates us from the lost world of 1916.  I discuss that distinction and why Peguy supposed modernity eclipsed mystique.

1916 –Who Cares?

I have clear memories of both my parents. Though they are both long dead, they still matter. Their histories remain part of mine. I also remember my grand-parents. I knew them directly and indirectly through my parents. The events of their time and how they interacted with them resonate with me. As for my great-grand-parents apart from the odd outburst of curiosity, I can take a detached view of them and their times. Their doings do not matter to me as much as those of my parents and grand-parents. I guess this is the same for most people.

This is relevant when we consider the commemoration of 1916. My parents, born in 1908, were not out in 1916. One grandfather was dead, the other was out in Rouen with British Army, Royal Engineers, [whence he returned a fervent nationalist]. Nonetheless, 1916 was important in my parents’ lives and so to an extent that grows less and less, in mine. I must be in a minority in this regard. For the majority, 1916 belongs to the era of their great-grandparents. We should expect, therefore, that the dominant tone of the commemoration would be detached curiosity. This does not appear to be the case. Letter writers to the newspapers and opinion pieces put the leaders on pedestals – for our freedom, or arraign them in the dock – for murder and mayhem. Book reviewers frame their discussions with the question “was 1916 a good or a bad thing?”

It could be argued that though the event is distant, the legacy is alive. The Centenary entices us to address that legacy. Where is the evidence of that legacy? Catholicism, socialism and nationalism came together to give us 1916. They provided motives for the activists and shaped the responses to their fate. The Catholic Church has departed the public sphere, its liturgies no longer feed the popular imagination or bring the transcendent into touch with public life. It no longer contributes to the making of our common world. While the sacramental disappears into private spaces, traces of its moral teaching retain support and agitate the bien-pensants. This moral teaching, of course, owes as much to the Greeks as to the gospels. This circumstance is the reverse of that which prevailed in 1916. Then Catholic moral teaching was pretty much the same as protestant morality and both pretty much conformed with bourgeois norms. The Ascendancy, then as now, was contemptuous of the Church. While they did not take issue with its moral teachings they were appalled by its “hocus-pocus”, its superstitions, and the vulgarity of its popular devotions. They feared the authority of the priests in the common world their religion helped to form.

Socialism also sought a common world. Whatever about its aspirations, socialism is no longer a movement with roots in society’s social divisions. The “ordinary working people” mobilised against a property tax and now water charges are a long way from a self-conscious working class. The Trade Unions that nurtured the roots and shaped class consciousness are in decline. While the membership of public sector unions holds up, they are hardly an archetypal industrial proletariat. Although the Marxian analysis remains compelling, its proponents cannot translate it into vivid images of a shared world or find in it directions to a better future. Resentment at the unfairness of an unequal world remains: sufficient for a populism that says “no”; insufficient for a movement that says yes to a transformed world. Like the Church, socialism has left the public stage.

I do not suppose that nationalism is reducible to either religion or class-consciousness. Nonetheless, Irish nationalism did draw strength from both Catholicism and socialism. As these fade away we should expect nationalism to lose some of its force. Other factors play their part. A global economy, driven by a capitalism released from national fetters, weakens the national narrative. The imperatives to build a European Union challenge the nation-state. It is hardly surprising that nationalism too has departed the public stage. Some sense of a “we” remains sustained by sport and sufficient to mobilise us against a threatening “them” but incapable of sustaining projects for national development.

Western Europe was transformed in the 1960s. While the pace and routes to change varied from state to state, we have all ended up at the same destination: grand-narratives faded, nation-states transformed to market-states, neo-liberalism entrenched, even if much despised, and human rights the discourse of critique and complaint. What remains of 1916 in all that? We view 1916 across a wide chasm.

My purpose is to gauge the distance that separates us from the world of 1916. I am not suggesting that we should view the distance as tracing a decline, still less an ascent. The past had its problems, we have ours. While their problems can give us a perspective on ours, their solutions cannot be ours.  I do think that we have something to learn from 1916. To work out what those lessons might be, I first briefly discuss what is involved in accounting for 1916.

Accounting for 1916 – Catholicism, Socialism and Nationalism

The coming together of catholicism, socialism and nationalism was not automatic. While affinities can be found in thought and interests, antipathies and conflicts are just as evident. The parties could not advance their aims without attending to their interests in acquiring resources and sustaining support: organization was essential. We must think of the interactions both at the level of ideas propounded and the institutions that protected, developed and brought these ideas into practice. So we have Catholicism and the Catholic Church, socialism and the socialist parties and trade unions, nationalism and nationalist parties. The ideas propounded by one party could compliment, contradict, or be indifferent to the ideas of another. The parties had to decide how far it was in their interest to emphasis a contradiction or promote a complementarity. The Catholic Church, for example, was inclined to play down its critique of capitalism while denouncing “state-worshipping atheistic socialists”. Nationalists might likewise find it prudent to conceal their religious indifference. We should also remember that the parties were not homogenous. Their members argued about the interpretation of doctrine and its implementation: what was ideal confronted what was feasible. This is most obviously the case with the “broad church” that was nationalism whose believers ranged from cultural nationalists with no strong political commitments to home rulers and on to republicans and militant separatists. They all shared a sense of a “we” different from and superior to the British “them”. Complexity builds on complexity. It is beyond the scope of this post to trace the patterns of interaction. A few observations indicate the issues that we expect historians, or commentators, to untangle.

Some nationalists and socialists supposed that they had good reason for armed revolt. While their aims were different, they were not contradictory. The socialists could reason that an independent Ireland – the only item on the nationalist agenda – was the first step to the victory of the working class and a classless society. Besides, nationalist fervour may have been as strong an appeal to their supporters as class antagonism. The nationalists feared that if the Citizen Army went on the attack alone, its plans would be wrecked. The parties had good reason to collaborate and they could do so without bending their ideologies to breaking point. Both had to deal with the Catholic Church.

Whether they liked it or not, Catholicism was an important component of nationalist sentiment just as Protestantism was of British identity. Both played important roles as the aristocratic order gave a way to democracy throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. They helped answer the question – how could democracy succeed in societies marked by inequalities of power and wealth? They contributed to a shared horizon that replaced to-the-death conflicts with political competition. A Protestant identity rooted in anti-Catholicism and committed to an imperial project that secured democracy in the rest of the United Kingdom could hardly do the same job in Ireland.

While the Catholic Church was the religion of the majority in Ireland, it was a minority religion in the United Kingdom. Scorned, mistrusted, and lacking the power of numbers, it had a struggle to defend its interests and advance its cause. The church in Ireland was drawn to Irish nationalism against the pull of its universalistic creed and its ultramontane proclivities. While the risk of alienating the powers that be had to be recognised, the lure of a political space where its power would be enhanced was considerable.  `

While some [party members and their leaders] had overriding commitments to their party’s cause, most had commitments across a range of positions. While the former knew what 1916 meant and where they stood, the latter had to come to terms with the event and find a position in the new landscape. Think of strong catholic with a bourgeois’ particular fear of socialism and general fear of upheaval. How far could he discount the socialist contribution? Think of a protestant worker whose commitment to socialism was far stronger than to nationalism. How far should he fear nationalism and the catholic influence? Think of a catholic unionist, educated in England where friends and relatives lived and who had believed the Union unbreakable. Now the impossible had become, at least, the improbable, did her religious loyalty support a conversion to nationalism and the move from a protestant state to a catholic state? If the parties elaborated their aims and purposes in the context of their interests, so too did individuals. The presence, or absence, of economic well-being, and what was understood to protect or secure it figured in the deliberations. Large farmers, small famers, traders in small towns, business people in cities, urban employers, urban workers, would all figure it differently. The academic historians’ task is as enviable as it is complicated. We can expect them – can we not? – to trace how complementarities were found, contradictions suppressed, and the interests of parties and individuals identified and advanced. The resultant tapestry is no longer relevant but the dynamics of its construction surely are. To understand them is to find a vantage point from which the dynamics shaping our problems, opportunities, and solutions come into clearer view.

The interest of, and the instruction from, such an accounting is obvious. There is a danger, nonetheless, that something important may be missed. Such analysis demands a dispassionate view in which we treat all ideas as equal as we unravel them from their political, social, economic contexts. And from this view we, by definition, lose sight of how ideas shape passions; they mobilise, they unite, they divide, they demand sacrifice. The ideas of 1916 are so far distant from us that to bring them alive into the present requires an imaginative empathy that I have neither the skill, nor scholarship, to invoke.

Once we recognise, however, that ideas do have this power we can make the power itself a subject for discussion. Summing up the motivating power of the interplay of ideas with that unsatisfactory term ‘vision’ we can ask how vision and politics mix. Charles Peguy provides the most compelling account that I know. His discussions of ‘mystique’ and ‘politique’ add a valuable perspective on 1916.

Mystiques and Politique

A committed socialist, fervent nationalist and eventual convert to Catholicism, Charles Peguy’s life combines all three elements that belong to any accounting of 1916. The interest, however, does not lie in his commitments and their combinations but in the quality, and intensity, of the reflection that he brings to bear on them. This continues to instruct us as the three fade out of public life.

Peguy was born in Orleans in 1873. His father died shortly after his birth. His widowed mother earned a living making, and repairing, straw seats for chairs. Neither she, nor his illiterate, grandmother who lived with them, attended church. Exceptionally intelligent and hardworking, thanks to the encouragement of his teachers and the opportunities provided by the educational system installed by the republican regime, he won a scholarship to a Paris lycée and qualified for the École Normale. Neither his left-wing republicanism nor his nationalism was surprising. What was exceptional was his independence of mind, the intensity of his commitments and the intellectual strength that accompanied them. Introduced to the facts of the case by Michel Henri, socialist and librarian at the Ecole, he was an early, and ardent, Dreyfusard. The affair brought into focus the right-wing forces that threatened the Republic whose honour was at stake. The issue was crystal clear, and Peguy put aside his academic work to fight for Dreyfus. He failed to complete his course. Admired by Jaurès and other senior socialists, he was set up as publisher/editor of a socialist press. He soon fought with his sponsors over principle and practice and departed to find a precarious living with his own publishing venture. The Cahiers de Quinzaine that emerged from his tiny bookshop never made much money but they did have an influence.

Politically engaged writing can be divided into theory and practice – “theology” and “preaching”. While preaching instructs the faithful, theology understands and justifies. Theology explicates, preaching motivates. For instance Pearse was a nationalist preacher. No one with an interest in the justification for nationalism has reason to study his work. Those with an interest in why nationalism inspired have every reason to study his rhetoric and the skill with which he weaves cultural, social and political strands into a compelling nationalism. Sometimes they combine; the finest example remains Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Peguy too combines “preaching” and ‘”theology”. But not to good effect. His preaching is combative: he names sinners, exposes their heresies and condemns their hypocrisies. The sinners have long since left the stage and it can be difficult to disentangle the “theology” from the polemics in battles long ago.

Peguy had his supporters; certainly he was respected by many, but he found himself increasingly isolated with the income from his writing and publishing, never large, diminishing. Two terms mystique and politique played a central role in his reflections. They can help us understand his isolation. Mystique accounts for the ideas of the good and the right that motivate us, that bring us out of ourselves and into the company of others in the pursuit of noble aims. It invites sacrifice. Sometimes we recognise the good in the pain of its absence; our aim is its restoration. This was the case in the Dreyfus affair. The injustice inflicted on an innocent man demanded justice and a politics that would deliver it. The aim was clear: the vindication of Dreyfus by a Republic that was true to its aspirations.

Politique draws us back, brings interests to the fore, and invites us to compromise. Ideals are shelved or watered down in the making of coalitions that seduce with the promise of some limited progress. The articulation of aims degenerates into bullshit, the waving of flags that conceal the pursuit of power whose rewards have displaced the satisfaction of achieving aims. Peguy excoriated his socialist comrades for betraying the Dreyfus cause with their politicking.

Now, I lack the knowledge of long-ago French political battles to assess the merits of Peguy’s critique. Was he unfair to his erstwhile comrades who engaged in the only political space available to them?  Did he deny politique the place that it must be allowed in this imperfect world? I suspect that the answer to both questions is yes. He was unreasonably intransigent. Nonetheless, there is value in the distinction that he so starkly draws between mystique and politique. Peguy provides us with more than that distinction. He reflected on the origins of the mystique that mattered most to him, the French nation and its republic and on why it was fading. These reflections add further depth to our appraisal of 1916.

The 1916 Mystique Today

I have attended book launches, lectures, commemorative dos of one sort or another. The heroism, the bravery, the sacrifice are acknowledged and celebrated in confident tones. The confidence falters when efforts are made to link the past with the present. However strongly asserted, the link lacks conviction.

At a meeting to capture the commemoration for the people, an idealistic young historian spoke of the continuing relevance of the republican ideal and its capacity to reinvigorate our politics, repair our democracy and return power to the citizens.  Republicanism was the message of 1916. It had unfortunately been obscured by nationalism. This, of course, is bad history. Nationalism was a more important component of the 1916 mystique than republicanism. Besides it is not quite so easy to separate them as it might seem. If we can find examples of anti-republican nationalism, where can we find examples of a republicanism detached from a nation? Republicanism is predicated on an ‘us’. It is to be valued for what it allows us to do together, freely and without domination. Without an ‘us’ there is no republic. Now while it might be worthwhile to reformulate the republican ideal as a set of procedures worthy of respect in and for themselves, replacing the nation with the constitution as the source of our unity, the possibility of realising it is moot. It is certainly not what was in the young historian’s mind as he disassembled the 1916 mystique to find a portion that would transport its magic into the present.

At a book launch, the speaker, one of our new populist leaders, spoke with eloquence and passion of his admiration of the insurgents. Celebrating 1916 was important. We should not allow the powers-that-be to hijack the celebrations for their own political purposes. They belong to the people. What exactly was to be admired and celebrated? Visionary politics. No reference was made to the content of that vision. The important thing was the fact of the vision and its power to mobilise, its promise of transformation. The Centenary provides an impetus to recover a politics of vision. Again, no mention of the content of that vision. The advocacy of vision as a good in and of itself is absurd. Hitler had a vision, Mao Zedong had a vision, does that make them worthy of praise? The audience who applauded our speaker were not commending the absurdity, they were expressing “vision nostalgia”. Expect to hear a lot of that as the year proceeds and people gaze across the chasm.

If there are those who peer across the chasm at a political idyll, there are those who see only folly. The rebels were deluded, their leaders irresponsible; the jihadists of their day. Politique was well on the way to delivering an independent Ireland. This is not the time to engage with this case. What interests me is how tone deaf its proponents are to the mystique’s call to arms: it is not that they dislike the tune, they do not hear its music. Indeed, they fear the music and the violence it engenders. Their dispute is not with the content of the mystique but with the fact, and danger, of it. Peguy criticises politique for betraying mystique, here we encounter those who dismiss mystique for confounding politique.

As we contemplate 1916, one thing is clear. Mystique is a problem. It is a problem for those who seek to revive it and those who fear that they will succeed. Peguy has more to tell us about mystique and its eclipse.

Peguy and the Eclipse of Mystique

Dismayed at how easily the French national mystique had been betrayed, Peguy sought to rearticulate and reinvigorate it. The story of Jeanne d’Arc was pivotal. Her revolt against British rulers in France, saved the spirit of France. All the elements that made France great were present in the story. The “idea” of France, the courage and bravery of the “little” people, and, of course, Catholicism. To read Jeanne d’Arc as the embodiment of French nationalism was to concede that Catholicism was woven into the history of France.

Mystique invokes the transcendent. And the transcendent invites, tempts, expression in abstract terms. Peguy resisted this temptation. He did not seek the transcendent in some superior zone where eternal truths abide. He sought in the temporal, in the flow of history, where against all the odds a divinely inspired young girl rallied the French nation. He found it in Catholicism where, with the incarnation, the divine enters human history. In 1908, he reported to a friend that he had become a catholic again.

Now that he had put his literary prowess to the service of his faith, Peguy might have expected new readers and increased financial resources. This was not to be. As he turned towards the church he found other instances of the betrayal of mystiques by politique. As he once excoriated his fellow socialists, now he condemned the clergy. They preached an abstract transcendence that uncoupled religion from its home within the temporal. They detached Christianity from the world to serve their congregations’ wish for a church allied to a reactionary state.

Throughout the nineteenth century France was virtually at civil war. The Dreyfus affair exemplifies the antagonisms that divided French society. On the one side, the right wing, the rentiers and landlords, who even if most had reluctantly abandoned the hope of a restored monarchy, still aspired to an authoritarian, hierarchical regimes ruling in alliance with the church; on the other side, the bourgeoisie, the republicans – liberals and socialists – who sought to secure the victory of the revolution over the reactionaries, and especially over the church. The former marched against Dreyfus, the latter combined in his defence. In converting to Catholicism, Peguy lost neither his socialism nor his Dreyfusard convictions. In joining loyalty to the Republic with a deeply felt catholic faith, he was marching down the “middle of the road”: a venture both dangerous and lonely.

In 1914, the differences were put aside and a united nation mobilised, once again, to fight the Hun. Peguy answered the call to arms. In one of the first engagements of the war, Lieutenant Peguy was shot and killed leading an attack against the invading Germans.

I am inclined to believe that Peguy’s nationalist mystique has a quality of thought and expression not found in any Irish nationalist. This not to say that it is any more compelling to the modern ear. While the bringing of the transcendent down to earth is appealing, his nationalism that draws a divinely sanctioned boundary between a good [Catholic] France and an evil Germany is not. If that was all there was to Peguy, there would be little reason to bring his thought into the present. There is more.

Peguy reflected not only on the political concerns of his day – social justice, nationalism, religion – he reflected on his reflections. He recognised that for many of his contemporaries they offered little or no purchase on their reality. This could not be explained by the dominance of mean-minded politicking. Or, rather it was this dominance that required explanation. This was to be found in the culture that was coming to prevail. It is one thing to lose an argument within a shared frame of reference, quite another to find that you cannot voice your argument within the dominant frame. When conversation is impossible, we have to move back a step and interrogate the presumptions that make it so. As Wittgenstein remarked, we are captured by our picture of the world and a considerable effort is required to escape its enthrallment.

What Peguy saw clearly and opposed vigorously was the narrow, reductionist frame into which the prevailing academic culture pressed human motivations. This constraint was accomplished in the name of science. So, historians were instructed to attend to the written records, the only reliable traces of the past in the present. The archives delivered the facts whose arrangement delivered objective history. The facts were about the doings of people. If they reflected the basic social motives – envy, jealousy, hatred and the pursuit of power, they also reflected the ideas of the good and worthwhile that people sought in making sense of their common world. The historians’ “scientific” perspective reduced all motivations to the same base level. Ideas of the good became “values” and were banished to the realm of the subjective; their status as more or less truthful, or felicitous, representations of reality, if it was not denied, was ignored. They values people held were facts to be taken into the historian’s accounting of the interests that drove individuals in the pursuit of power after power. History disabled itself from contributing to the finding of the good and worthwhile. As the Centenary demonstrates, this does not mean that historians abstain from judgement. Their accounts, and commentaries are replete with judgments, conscious and unconscious. The values informing these judgements are not in any way shaped by their historical inquiries; they enter from the outside.

Peguy was no less critical of the new science of sociology. Durkheim, a founder of modern sociology, was much concerned with mystique, or more precisely, with the problem to which mystique is a solution. As the aristocratic order gave away to the democratic, as industrial capitalism moved to dominance and the population of cities multiplied, where was the glue that would hold the new order together?  Individuals need to feel that they belong to a larger whole. Bereft of a sense of belonging, they suffer anomie. Disengaged from the social sanctions that hold society together, they turn against themselves [suicide] or against society [crime]. Durkheim was interested in how societies generated the cohesion required to avoid, or mitigate, anomie. This was a problem not for the moral or political philosopher, still less for the historian or poet but for the social scientist with his enquiries into social structures and the various ways in which they shaped social consciousness. Values were important but only as dependent variables.  This reductionism, like that of the historian, disallowed mystique.

We have lost the world of 1916 twice over. The social, national and religious ideas that imbued have departed. The cultural frame through which we view it obscures our vision. We live in a world without mystique and incapable of mystique. Should we care? Is it a matter for lament or a cause for celebration? I must enter a caveat. The mystique that evades us is mystique as Peguy understood it. If the modern frame does not allow the transcendence that Peguy thought essential to mystique, it does have its own scientistic versions: the toxic nationalism fed by the pseudo-sciences of race with some assistance from social Darwinism; the more persuasive but hardly less disastrous crossing of romantic yearning with economic science of Marx and, now, the neo-liberalism much disliked but irresistible within the modern frame.

Could it be that we cannot do without mystique? That the transcendence that grounds it is as real as the world represented by science?  If so, I can conclude with good news. The modern frame is cracking, buckling under the strain of the realities that it cannot properly account for and problems it cannot solve. The evidence is everywhere; some of it mentioned or, discussed in earlier posts. For example, the pragmatic sociology of Hans Joas that shows how values are formed in our engagements with reality. Then there is the pragmatic turn in French sociology exemplified in the work of Luc Boltanksi where values do not enter from the outside but are formed as individuals challenge the actions of others and justify their own in their joint endeavours. The philosopher Talbot Brewer reveals the conceptual inadequacy of the modern frame’s account of agency. The list could be extended. I will finish with the most exhilarating example. In We Have Never Been Modern Bruno Latour brings these philosophical and sociological strands together in a scintillating account of the limitations of what I have called the modern frame and he describes as the modern constitution. He does more than that. In his An Inquiry into Modes of Existence he sketches out the shape of a new framework more adequate to the problems of our time. When all this work has been assimilated, we will be able to cross the chasm, return to the lost world of 1916 and learn some of the lessons we need for the formulation a mystique fit for today.

Books Consulted

By Peguy

Peguy, Charles [1944] Men and Saints. Prose and poetry. Rendered into English by Ann and Julian Green New York: Pantheon Books, Inc.

Peguy, Charles [1958] Temporal and Eternal. [Translated by Alexander Dru]. London: The Harvill Press.

Peguy, Charles [1956] The Holy Innocents and other poems. Translated by Pansy Pakenham. London: The Harvill Press

About Peguy

Dru, Alexander [1956] Peguy London: The Harvill Press

Halevy, Daniel [1946] Peguy and Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine [translated by Ruth Bethell] London: Dennis Dobson

On Peguy

Manent, Pierre [1998] ‘Charles Peguy: between political faith and faith’ in Modern Liberty and its Discontents. Maryland/London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Roe, Glen H. [2014] The Passion of Charles Peguy. Literature, Modernity and the Crisis of Historicism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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