Mayer, Arno J. The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War. Pantheon Books. 1981.
The Persistence of the Old Regime is an interpretive historical essay that at its heart is an explanation for the disjunction between the promise of ‘advanced’ European civilization in the 19th century, and the 30 year war of 1914-1945 that essentially ended this civilization. Mayer’s argument, constantly reiterated, is that the aristocrats never went away. Nobilitarian structures of sociability and authority, the weight of agrarian economic power, the ‘human material’ of the aristocracy, all retained enormous importance through the 19th century. The old elite elements of the ruling classes reasserted their authority in the face of challenges in the years after 1900. In short, “the Great War was an expression of the decline and fall of the old order fighting to prolong its life rather than of the explosive rise of industrial capitalism bent on imposing its primacy” (4). Historians have been wrong to see the 19th century as that of the rising bourgeoisie, “the economically radical bourgeoisie was as obsequious in cultural life as it was in social relations and political behavior” (192). This argument relies on the mobilization of a very broad range of secondary material, but a few important names are Joseph Schumpeter, Norbert Elias, and, in a more oblique manner, Carl Schorske. The argument is something like a European-wide application of the version of the German sonderweg thesis that blames Germany’s peculiar history on incomplete modernization.
I’ve run across referenced to this book in a few places, but most often in Frederic Jameson. Mayer is clearly putting forward a radical revision of the standard Marxist interpretation of the 19th century and the causes of the First World War. The question is, to my mind, then not so much what is the contemporary historiographical importance of this book—it might well have been a provocation to the ‘new social history’ of the 1980s, but the very historical categories with which it works, such as ‘bourgeoisie’ have been by now more or less run out of the field—as it is what place it has in contemporary Marxism. Probably I have already the answer to this question: it is as a foundational work for the kind of Marxist literary analysis for which Jameson is best known. The imagine Mayer gives us of the 1890s and on provides an excellent frame in which to discuss cultural modernism. It is not, I therefore think, a coincidence that France is both a problematic case for Mayer, and for ‘modernism’ as an analytic category in the history of literature.
Since I am most interested in France, I’ll talk about it, although I don’t exactly mean to criticize Mayer here, since his scope is much larger. France is problematic in obvious ways. It was the only republic among the European great powers. The monarchy and the aristocracy had been officially dissolved with great violence during the Revolution, and were then reconstituted and once again dissolved several times. In the 1870s, one of the conditions for the possibility of the Republic was that the monarchists were divided among themselves and relatively weak. The Second Empire certainly had an aristocracy, but it was much debased. The two places Mayer can with confidence say the old aristocracy retained some power were the social world—le tout Paris—and in military and foreign affairs. For Mayer, then, Proust’s novel would be read not so much for its evidence of social change and arrivisme, but rather as a portrait of the enormous influence still wielded by the aristocracy, and the desperate attempts of the upper bourgeoisie to imitate its social betters. The empire was the provenance of the nobles and therefore at the disposal of the Catholic Church. I am willing to entertain this thesis, although I think it’s hard to deny the republicanism of the empire in the 1890s and after.
Mayer also places a classical education, literary classicism, and nationalism, in the camp of the old regime. This I don’t think can really be sustained for the case of France. Certainly, all of these were claimed by the ‘conservative bloc,’ but the école normale was simply not an institution of the old regime. It was republican through and through, which is not to say that it was not conservative—in a sense it was—but this is a bourgeois institution if there ever was one. The elites it reproduced were radically separate to anything that might with plausibility be called the nobility. They were nationalist, certainly, but the Republic survived because it was able to convince so many people that it was coextensive with the nation. Literary classicism, similarly, may have been claimed by the Maurras and his fellow travelers, but it was certainly not equal to them. The literary institutions of the Third Republic were, again, in a sense conservative, but I would call this a conservatism fundamental to any institutional structure, not at all one that points back to the aristocracy. Proust is an exception here, not a rule—and of course if he was hypnotized by the aristocrats, it is just because he wasn’t one. Mayer in general is eager to read the cultural elitism of assimilated Jews all over Europe as an attempt to get as close to the aristocrats as possible, given their basic exclusion, rather than as an investment in a genuinely alternative elite. I am inclined, in France but also Germany and Austria, to take the latter perspective. Not to be picky, but my trust in Mayer (which is to say, in the secondary accounts on which he relies) is undermined by odd miss-evaluations, such as putting Alfred Fouillée into the box of academics expounding “somewhat more orderly versions of the baleful creed of permanent struggle, elitism, and unreason” (295). Fouillée is not like Renan, de Lapouge, Haeckel, or Gumplowitz. Rather than being a grand-uncle to fascism, he is the grand-father of the welfare state. The fact that he coined the phrase, used several times by Mayer, ‘idée-force,’ with its superficially Nietzschean overtones, does not stop him from being, in fact, the 19th century philosopher of conciliation and compromise.
Although I’m less knowledgeable about this than I should be, I also found that Mayer’s account of the French economy did not exactly support his thesis. In the French context, he often slides into the use of the word ‘notable,’ rather than ‘noble,’ and indeed the two are not the same. Mayer marshals the evidence that the French economy did not have a massive heavy industry sector, was not dynamic in the way Germany or Britain’s industry was. Agriculture remained important, but also undercapitalized. Evidence of the political power of the well-to-do peasant does not, it seems to me, constitute evidence that the nobles were in control. Again, it was precisely because the Third Republic was able to convince this sector of the population to support it that it was able to survive. No doubt, I should read Herman Lebovic’s The Alliance of Iron and Wheat.
I am, in general, sympathetic to Mayer’s basic point that in order to understand historical change, we must think also about what failed to change. I am also, in the end, sympathetic to the claim that the best explanatory framework for Europe’s descent into what was manifestly an insane war is the increasingly desperate series of attempts made by the old elites to retain political power. Mayer’s argument makes the least sense to me in the realm at which I think it is in the end aimed, that is, culture. He constantly explains away instances of avant-gardism by saying that they were ‘over-perceived’ at the time. I again agree with the basic criticism that art and literary histories tend to exaggerate the contemporary importance of certain innovators (generally in the service of a teleology of one sort or another), and ignore the weight of ‘academic’ work. Still, I can’t really get past Mayer’s dismissal of the radicalism of, say, The Rite of Spring. His framework, perhaps because it is Marxist, is too ready to evacuate of revolutionary content the very real formal innovations taking place at this moment. The implication that modernism, as a style, is a sort of sublimated obeisance to the ancient aristocracy simply doesn’t convince. In the end, the question I'm left with is how much explanatory power remains in the Marxist--as opposed to that derived from Weber or Elias--part of Mayer's analysis?