Graebner on Bell (2019)


Bell, Dorian. Globalizing Race: Antisemitism and Empire in French and European Culture. Northwestern UP, 2019, pp. vii + 368, ISBN 978-0-810136-89-2

Seth Graebner, Washington University in St. Louis

The antisemitic paroxysm in France that culminated in the Dreyfus Affair has attracted considerable scholarship, but not often with sustained attention to the context of the concurrent French imperial expansion, the most rapid phase of which coincided roughly with the years between Édouard Drumont’s La France juive (1886) and Alfred Dreyfus’s rehabilitation (1906). Dorian Bell’s excellent Globalizing Race: Antisemitism and Empire in French and European Culture argues that many of the developments taken by modern European antisemitism owed their forms to the context of ideological needs and opportunities arising from empire. Bell recognizes some predecessors in this line of argument. Several scholars have responded to Hannah Arendt’s “boomerang thesis” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, according to which justifications for racializing and then grievously mistreating a group seen as radically different, and the techniques for carrying this out, were exported from Europe to the colonies before returning with a vengeance for implementation at home in the Fascist states. Bell points out briefly the many reasons why the boomerang thesis does not entirely convince, but uses Arendt’s work nonetheless as a theoretical starting point in his demonstration of the multiple ways imperialist and antisemitic discourses shaped one another in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The book offers readings of a few well-chosen literary texts (Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, Maurice Barrès’s “La Terre et les morts,” Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé’s Les Morts qui parlent, and Émile Zola’s Vérité, L’Argent, and Fécondité), pairing each with extended consideration of Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno. Considering the chapter devoted mostly to Arendt and Karl Marx, this book gives nearly as much attention to Frankfurt-School and other German philosophers’ attempts to exorcise antisemitism as it does to French literature.

Bell’s introduction declares his commitment to David Theo Goldberg’s notion of “racial relationality,” defined as the way “racializing and racist discourses and practices everywhere draw on, reinforce, and otherwise interact with each other across space and time” (7). The vast bulk of Bell's argument, however, advances a very particular role for antisemitism and the caricatural Jews it alleged, quite distinct from any other form of racism and its stereotyped objects. The book does not give much treatment, for example, to the contemporaneously developing French ideas about sub-Saharan Africans, to say nothing of the southeast Asians with whom the French were then coming into contact, and Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. Du Bois make only brief appearances; Bell does however address in several places French race-talk related to Muslims. This unique role for Jews, Bell argues, was to offer the far right in France a “scalar solution” to the intellectual problems arising in their thought about the relations between France and the world, the economic and political spheres, and tradition and modernity. Jews, as constructed by the “modern” French antisemites, provided a means for moving a problem from one “scale” at which it seemed insoluble, to another where it became less so: especially, between the nation-state scale and the global-imperial scale. Antisemitism proved protean in both forms and effects. While it provided scapegoats for unpopular colonial entanglements (the occupation of Tunisia could be blamed, with plausible-seeming but false evidence, on a conspiracy of Jewish financiers); it also later helped rally the traditionalist right to the imperial cause (in and through the colonies, the antisemites believed that the French could counter the “degeneration” of their race, of which Jews were supposedly a prime vector).

Globalizing Race presents an extremely capable scholar’s response to a historiographic frustration. While “racial relationality” makes intuitive sense, and while we can see certain episodes of imperial history as preludes to horrific events within Europe (e.g., the Herero and Nama genocide of 1904–08 that seemingly prefigures the Nazi concentration camps), it remains difficult to specify precisely by what institutional conduits the concrete practices of racist oppression in the service of empire “returned” to Europe for use against Jews or others characterized as undesirables. Bell’s response to this problem is to look closely instead at the thinking of the French far right, in order to understand how they moved from exclusive fixation on Alsace and Lorraine to support of the imperial project. Through this examination, Bell is able to elaborate a more subtle theoretical apparatus than the boomerang thesis by itself permits.

The last chapter of Globalizing Race examines the opposition to antisemitism that started with Zola and that would become central to the post-war self-definition of Europe. Bell outlines the arguments of contemporary writers like Pierre-André Taguieff and Alain Finkielkraut, and of their several opponents who have noted the high cost of this anti-antisemitic criteria for European belonging, for Muslims defined as nonmodern, less-than-universal, or unenlightened because of a putative antisemitism attributed to them by French antisemites following the De̓cret Crémieux of 1870. It could have been equally compelling to consider the consequences for Jews of anti-antisemitic discourse in France in the present day. Books like Bell’s, tracing the imperialist origins of major trends in French political thought today, may provide elements for undermining the monopoly they sometimes seem to enjoy in the public sphere.