Jean Birnbaum's interview with Étienne Balibar about his new book Des Universals was first published in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder.
You recently published a book on the question of the universal (Des Universals, Paris: Galilée, 2016). This notion, which seems so familiar, however often remains rather unclear. If you had to give a definition to a class of 17 year olds, what would you say?
I would say that it is a value that designates the possibility of being equal without necessarily being the same, and thus of being citizens without having to be culturally identical.
Indeed, in our era universalism is often associated with consensus, and first of all with a bien pensant Left, presumed to be weak and naïve… Yet in your view universalism is anything but an idealism.
First of all, my objective is not to uphold a "left-wing position," but to debate universalism as a philosophical question. Of course, I am on the Left, but the Left itself is is traversed by all the conflicts inherent to the question of the universal. The universal does not bring people together, it divides them. Violence is a constant possibility. But I first of all seek to describe internal conflicts.
Jean Birnbaum's profile of Enzo Traverso first appeared in Le Monde. Translated by David Broder.
The leftist ferment of the 1960s–70s is unthinkable except in the context of a certain Communist "bath water." Often the generation becoming alive to politics at that moment had been radicalised in response to their Communist parents — parents that "not everyone was lucky enough" to have. Later, in 1989, the old ‘68ers who had revolted against their "Stalinist" mums and dads would see it all disappear — not only the bath water but its babies and even the babies of its babies… In the moment that they were themselves meant to take over responsibility as parents, they found themselves orphaned twice over. Both their revolt and the world they had railed against were no more.