Bin Laden, Dostoevsky and the Reality Principle: an interview with André Glucksmann

  André Glucksmann,

Europe is trapped by complacency and an all too human desire for oblivious contentment, says a leading French philosopher. This helps ensure the success of the nihilistic terror and extremist ideology exemplified by al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Nobody wants war – but genocide is worse than war.


31 - 03 - 2003



Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Why do you return to the work of Dostoevsky to explain the terrorism of the 20th and 21st centuries?

André Glucksmann: In Dostoïevski à Manhattan I pose a philosophical question: what is the ‘idea’, the characteristic form of modern terrorism? And my answer is: nihilism.

Socrates asked: what do a beautiful woman, a beautiful vase and a beautiful bed have in common? His answer: the idea of beauty. My question is: what do extremist ideologies like the communism or Nazism of yesteryear and the Islamism of today have in common? After all, they support ostensibly very different ideals – the superior race, mankind united in socialism, the community of Muslim believers (the Umma). Tomorrow, it could be altogether different ideals: some theological, some scientific, others racist. But the common characteristic is nihilism.

The root element is the attitude that anything goes, particularly when with regard to ordinary people: I can do whatever I want, without scruples. Goehring put it like this: my consciousness is Adolf Hitler. Bolsheviks said: man is made of iron. And the Islamists whom I visited in Algeria said that you have the right to kill little Muslim children, in order to save them.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: And this took you back to Dostoevsky?




André Glucksmann: It is the highest achievement of Russian literature in particular that it has revealed this kernel of human experience in which ‘everything is allowed’. In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed there are atheists and believers (a figure like Shatov for example) who have very different outlooks on the future. But they share one thing in common: the right to kill, to burn, to overturn, in order to achieve tabula rasa.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: When Dostoevsky talks about the devils, or the possessed, he still seems to be guided by the idea that evil is something which captures man from outside. The main protagonist Stavrogin, for example, even talks about the devil’s appearances.

André Glucksmann: Actually, the beautiful thing about Stavrogin is that you don’t really know him. You don’t know if he believes in God or not. In the end, what surprised me was to find that he is a little like bin Laden; he might be very cynical, or fanatical, nobody really knows.

The inner nature of this nihilistic terrorism is that everything is permissible, whether because God exists and I am his representative, or because God does not exist and I take his place. That is what I find so impressive about Dostoevsky: he is a secret, a riddle.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: The group of conspirators at the centre of The Possessed seems, from the outside, to have both a coherent programme and a great deal of charisma. From the inside, on the other hand, all that remains is a fascination with destruction. And this fascination develops its own dynamic, pulling everyone under its spell. Destruction takes over as the group’s raison d’etre, while some of those involved still believe it is about the content and messages it offers.

André Glucksmann: Yes, there are several different layers of nihilists. There are the ‘outer’ nihilists who follow and believe, and then there are the nihilists at the centre of the action, the activists who pursue the logic of destruction. Dostoevsky has shown this very well indeed, as has Turgenev, in the persona of Bazarov. Or take Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse figure. These destructive personalities have coherence precisely because they are not idealists. Their coherence derives from the logic of destruction. In a linguistic sense it is performative, and therefore self-endorsing.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Surely Dostoevsky contradicts nihilism to the extent that he is still arguing for a religious solution, a renewal of belief – a point that would be a bit difficult to make today?

André Glucksmann: This is very arguable indeed, and would require a much longer examination of Dostoevsky’s work. I think you are right from the ideological point of view. Dostoevsky was conservative, he believed in Greater Russia, and he was also an anti-Semite. But in his literary work as opposed to his essays, he is much more subtle and complicated. Dostoevsky completely submerged himself in his writing. His literary work is more difficult, but less dogmatic.

Religion as such is surely not the ‘solution’ in this part of his oeuvre. Take the Grand Inquisitor who is a religious man but a catastrophe at the same time. And someone very much influenced by Dostoevsky, the great theologian Vladimir Soloviev, concludes in his Dialogue of 1900 that there is a strong connection between Orthodoxy, eastern theosophy and Catholicism, one that has been very irritating for all sides.

‘Long live death!’: religious shell, nihilist kernel

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Let’s go back to nihilism as you have characterised it. If you include Islamic terrorism in nihilism as you have done in Dostoevsky in Manhattan then you must accept the objection that Islamism is peculiar in presenting itself in the cloth of religion, a spiritual mission.

André Glucksmann: Yes, but you can also find a missionary zeal driving those Russian nihilists who wanted Greater Russia, or at another time the Great Revolution. There are many missions; what is much more difficult to pin down is the actual practice, the approach. For it is in their approach as activists that religious nihilism, dialectical materialist nihilism or Nazi nihilism are the same.

Religion is only the cloth, the excuse and the justification. What is essential is the practice. For there is a direct connection between the Islamic suicide bomber and the general serving under Franco who shouted out in front of the University of Salamanca: “Long live death!” This is the connection that I was trying to grasp.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: “Long live death!”?

André Glucksmann: At the opening of the University of Salamanca, one General Millán Astray shouted Viva la Morte. Miguel de Unamuno, who was in charge of the occasion, was a conservative, the protégé of Franco’s wife, a philosopher of the right. He reproved the general for this impermissible, unacceptable statement, and added: “You, my general who has lost an eye in the war, are a handicapped man not because you have lost an eye but because you have shouted ‘Long live death’’’.

It is precisely this slogan which you hear from Islamic suicide bombers.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Perhaps then, you think that during the course of the 20th and now the beginning of the 21st century, this destructive nihilism has manifested itself in different guises, but remains something like an anthropological constant throughout. Is that your belief – that man carries this trait in his very nature; that he is bound to recurrently submit to it?

André Glucksmann: I would put it the opposite way round. Man is human: therefore, he can be civilised, even if he can’t read or write, because he can master this hubris. Wherever you go, this belligerent hubris is considered lethal. In the huts of the Amazon, young men are taught to conquer this capacity for excessive violence. You can fight together, but you cannot fight in any way that comes to hand, and you don’t set out to fight just anyone. The same idea occurs in the teachings of the Greeks, the paidera. All European education is based on the same principle.

Indeed, all civilisations have two essential taboos in common: the taboo on ‘total sexuality’, the incest taboo, different in individual cases, but ubiquitous, and the taboo on violence. You are not allowed to succumb to ‘absolute violence’. You have to master that hubris in one way or another. In every civilisation you can find the mastering of these two absolute, destructive impulses. And the nature of modernity means that these fundamental taboos are vanishing.

The sleep of reason

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Let’s go back to your opening statement on the essential values of Europe that have always been established in resistance to evil. The current threat from militant Islamism is not coming from Europe, and Europeans seem to have a problem in perceiving this threat as a threat to their own interests. Is that why it seems so difficult to summon up the necessary resistance?

André Glucksmann: It is not only Islamism: it is nihilism, in its practical manifestation of laying waste to the civilian population. The same approach was to be found in the case of the Russian army when it flattened Grozny, a city of 400,000, and the first capital to be razed to the ground since Hitler’s destruction of Warsaw in 1944. This destructive impulse is not in the nature of Islam; this impulse is integral to the nature of civilisation and it can destroy any civilisation.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: But these events are not perceived as being played out in central Europe, but in far away and strange locations.

André Glucksmann: It has happened in central Europe too – with Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing, which is also a nihilist activity.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Nevertheless, for a long time now, Germany and France have shied away from taking on any responsibility in such situations. They have delayed it as long as possible. And even now, it seems that Europe only wants to safeguard the relative stability that we have achieved in the last fifty years. Everything which falls outside these boundaries, like Chechnya or the Middle East, really shouldn’t bother us.

André Glucksmann: Yes, exactly: but this is wrong. This is exactly the complacency, the crime of complacency, which once made Hitler possible. This complacency has cost us about 50 million lives. It also worked well for Stalin. ‘Better red than dead!’ Pacifism is a kind of complacency. And this complacency continues with Milosevic, with terrorism, with Saddam Hussein; people just want to sleep.

This is nowhere more beautifully invoked than in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, where the protagonists all live together on an old estate, and nobody cares at all about what might happen, even when they already hear the trees falling. (I had just read the play when they showed the twin towers in Manhattan collapsing on television). The equivalent today is the silence that greeted the odd intellectual who drew attention to Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Kosovo. Nobody wanted to listen; people turn away as from the bearers of ill tidings.

But in the end, the reality principle will catch up with us. We believe that we can live in a world where there are only little wars in the peripheries, the suburbs, ‘low-intensity conflicts’, as the political strategists like to call them. When Ahmed Shah Massoud, Afghan leader of the Northern Alliance and enemy of the Taliban, came to Paris four months before his assassination on 9 September 2001, only a small circle of perhaps five or six intellectuals met him. None of our ministers could find the time; only Nicole Fontaine, the president of the European Parliament, came.

When the twin towers fell the day after Massoud’s murder, I told myself, “Maybe now men will learn that what happens to women in distant Afghanistan should also be of interest to the people in New York. If Massoud and his troops had gone into Kabul earlier, the twin towers might not have been destroyed”.

But I misjudged mankind’s need to sleep. And now we are saying that this only happens to the Americans, not to Europe. But the first time it nearly happened was in Europe. In 1994, a plane was hijacked in North Africa and landed in Marseille. The hijackers had wanted to crash the plane above Paris. But these GIA hijackers (Groupe Islamiste Algérien), who were also in some kind of contact with bin Laden, did not know how to fly a plane. That is how the pilots managed to bring the plane to Marseille. For their part, the hijackers clearly learnt from this that they have to be able to fly planes themselves. They have learnt their lesson. But we, we have learnt nothing at all.

The reality principle

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: But there is a lot of resistance out there to combining anticipation with the use of force, even where it is necessary.

André Glucksmann: Yes, of course. This is simple enough to understand. If someone is ill then you are afraid of this illness: you feel sorry for the sick person but you tell yourself at the same time that this could only happen to him, not to yourself.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: What was your response to the French government’s thinking on the Gulf conflict and their strict ‘no’ to a forceful removal of Saddam Hussein?

André Glucksmann: I am in a minority on this, and not for the first time. When I spoke up in leftist circles about Solzhenitsyn I was regarded as some kind of devil. When I supported the boat people, it was scandalous. And when it came to Milosevic in 1991, just four of us in France said we have to finish with Milosevic; and if this is possible by peaceful means, good, if not, then by force. But they waited for another eight years before taking action and that cost 200,000 lives. In the beginning you are in the minority, but in the end there is the reality principle.

I have discussed these problems a lot with Joschka Fischer whom I have known since 1968. We became friends because when I supported Solzhenitsyn, he and Daniel Cohn-Bendit agreed with that position, and criticised Russia. Even though they didn’t endorse my criticism of Marxism, at least they understood it.

In these pacifist times, we have had long debates in Die Zeit. Joschka Fischer did not agree with me for a long time. In the end he conceded that after Srebrenica there is something worse than war, and that is Auschwitz. What I cannot now understand is how he has turned into a pacifist once again in the face of Saddam Hussein – who is much worse, bloodier and more dangerous than Milosevic, and who has gassed people, partly with German gas.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Maybe Germany and France are so opposed to war because of the war-torn history they have shared. Can’t you accept that this is also part of the common inheritance of European humanism? The loathing of war is understandable after all, isn’t it?

André Glucksmann: Of course everything can be understood. Nobody wants war, me included. The question is, is there something worse than war?

I have been answering ‘yes’ for years. One thing that is worse than war is genocide – that is, the extinction of a whole people. Many people said this before Auschwitz. In Greek tragedy, it is revealed in the destruction of Troy. This is indeed the horizon of western history.

That is why I don’t believe that the refusal to take part in a war against Saddam should be seen as an expression of humanism, but of a blindness that exists not only in Europe, but in all civilisations. We all want to live peacefully, oblivious and happy. That wish already existed in ancient Athens, and there is nothing wrong with it as such, except that it is not very realistic.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Do you think France will stick to its opposition against the US?

André Glucksmann: Longer than in Germany. Here in our country, the rivalry with America is more prominent. But at the moment, the people in the street are only asking themselves, how can we stand up against Bush? Saddam Hussein doesn’t come into the equation, and that is where my whole objection lies. Because the issue here is actually Saddam.

Bush is a challenge for American democracy; Aznar, the challenge for Spanish democracy. Why are there fewer protestors in France than in Spain, England or Italy? Because in Italy they fight Berlusconi, in Britain they fight Blair – and in France they fight nobody.

But the overriding question remains: what about Saddam Hussein? If I may be a little moralistic here: I could not look at myself in the mirror if Saddam Hussein were still in power because I have been to a demonstration against Bush, and as a result, the people in Iraq had to live in this totalitarian regime for another twenty years.


This interview by Liss Gehlen and Jens Heisterkamp originally appeared on Info 3 (http://www.info3.de/English/engl.html). It was translated by Michael Rebehn.


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