Before becoming the president of the Belgian Francophone Socialist Party, Paul Magnette was a renowned scholar in the fields of EU studies and political theory. In addition to analysing the political regime of the European Union, the growing power of the European Parliament, and the issue of citizen participation in EU politics, he wrote a book on the thought of Judith Shklar and another on the history of the idea of citizenship. We met in September 2021 at the headquarters of the Socialist Party to discuss the influence of his academic training on his political activity, the challenges of shifting from theory to political practice, and the practical relevance of political theory. A new interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series.
Your involvement within the Socialist Party began when you were studying at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Between an academic career and a political one, which came to your mind first?
In fact, neither initially. I wanted to be a journalist. That was really my dream! I was already passionate about politics, but more from an analytical point of view. I started studying political science for that, and then I was drawn into research. It was Mario Telò who suggested doing a Ph.D. It was a relatively late vocation in my student life. And I wasn’t thinking about politics at all. Political journalism, political theory, and political science, yes, but initially I wasn’t envisioning a political career.
What led you to take this leap? Was it related to a deficit of social commitment in your work as a researcher?
It was a bit of atavism, because I come from a very politically committed family, even though my mother never belonged to any political party. My father, on the other hand, was involved in the Communist Party, which was no longer a very promising path in the 1990s, when I started to take an interest in politics. But I still moved around a lot on the left, between libertarian circles, what was left of the Communist Party, the ecologists – and not really the Socialist Party, to tell the truth. And then I met people. I realized that there were genuine leftist people in the Socialist Party. Also, it’s quite a story, socialism! What a tremendous mobilisation, for universal suffrage, for social security, etc! Who else can claim to have transformed society so much? So, it’s the combination of an interpersonal matter and a theoretical, or even theoretical-strategic reasoning.
And what were these theoretical reflections that led to your involvement in the Socialist Party?
I have always attached great importance to the question “How do we get there?” The question of agency, of social conditions. And it’s social democracy that has made the most of this question. It’s fascinating to read the debates during these Internationals, which lasted four days, where there were delegates from all over the world who wondered whether to make a revolution and if so how. I would have dreamed of taking part in one of those very first debates of the First or Second International!
Is this question – “How do we get there?” – not somewhat neglected by political theory? One could see the latter as divided into two dominant strands of thought. First, a utopian one, that imagines a completely different society without guiding us much in present conditions. And then a very crudely realistic one, which reduces everything to power relationships that one wonders whether they can be overcome. Isn’t there a lack of non-ideal normative thinking?
Yes, and I think that strategy is not a dirty word. Yet unfortunately, indeed, it has pretty much disappeared from the horizon of political theory. I’m finishing the writing of a book on eco-socialism. And so, I went back to the first theoretical books on political ecology – Gorz, Dobson, Goodin. And whereas socialism was born of sociology in a way, part of ecology was born of psychology, with a very strong weight of spirituality. And there is a form of spontaneity in that strand of thought: it will happen. From Hans Jonas’ catastrophism to Inglehart’s theory of post-material values. And as a result, there is no reflection on the social groups that can carry out this climate transition.
For me, the debate on eco-socialism is mainly interesting on a strategic level. Everyone knows what we need to do: get rid of fossil fuels, stop deforestation. We know how to build sustainable cities, how to produce renewable energy and how to store it (even if the latter is a bit more complicated). Technologically, the answers exist. The question is why we are not switching to this transition? One part of the explanation is the one given by Naomi Klein: the oil companies that have flooded climate-skeptic think tanks with money, like Philip Morris for tobacco. The other part of the story is, I think, a failure to put this issue into strategic perspective.
The classical realist approach in political theory, indeed, sees above all the confrontation of interest groups, in which the strongest win, according to what the rules allow them to use as money and other means. This is not false. But then we must ask ourselves: what rules should we change?
This unease of political theory – maybe Francophone in particular – with the logic of the second-best, of compromise, finds perhaps another illustration, suggested to me by Bernard Manin, in the difficulty or refusal of political theorists to take social democracy seriously as an object of study. While political scientists have examined it from every angle, there has been no real philosophy of social democracy, at least not recently.
Bernard Manin himself had started to do this, in Le régime social-démocrate. And there were a few attempts in the 70s and 80s, but it’s true that it wasn’t theorised at its true value, particularly from this angle of strategy. As Franck Fischbach or Axel Honneth say, socialism always incorporates the question of its own possibility. And for me, this is what makes it unique, and it’s one of the reasons why I became a socialist. Ecology doesn’t do that. It asserts the moral injunction of transition, which I totally share, but it does not ask the question of how it is going to be done. There are power relations, institutions, decision-making mechanisms, public opinion: all of this must be taken into account from an analytical point of view.
Those who think the most about strategy, actually, are those who are in the heritage of a form of Leninism. For example, Andreas Malm, a Swedish thinker who claims to be an “eco-Leninist”. Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement really incorporated strategic thinking. In Luther King, there is a very strong strategic reflection, but it has been somewhat forgotten since then.
One can imagine how your more empirical work in political science, on the EU for example, can be useful to you today. But are there things from your work in political theory that inspire or guide you? Frank Vandenbroucke [Belgian Minister of Health and Social Affairs, who did a Ph.D. at Oxford under the supervision of G. A. Cohen], for example, recently spoke of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice as an eye-opener. Is there a comparable reference for you?
I don’t have one author of reference, but I’m influenced by the second generation of socialism. Jean Jaurès has always been a major author to me. Both because he is someone who is extremely skilled in his rhetoric and in the enunciation of principles, and because he managed to integrate socialism into the continuity of the republican tradition, giving it all the more strength. For me, this was an epiphany. His Socialist History of the French Revolution, which I discovered in Jean-Marc Ferry’s classes, is a completely unreadable book, but the great principles that emerge from it are fabulous. With always this reflection on the articulation of the short and the long term, of parliamentary work and work in civil society, of the way to ally the North and the South, the peasantry and the working class.
And then, Gramsci. I think that there are very strong continuities and parallels between Gramsci and Jaurès. Not the least because he also raises this southern question – which is actually the question of how to build a majority movement capable of overthrowing the established hegemony.
Do you still find time to read?
Yes, I think it’s important. I still try to read about one essay a week. I don’t claim to be up to date with the scientific literature, which would take far too much time, but to keep reading and thinking is quite fundamental, otherwise you dry up, which is terrible.
Do you perceive some gaps in the scientific literature with regard to the issues at stake in the field?
It’s amazing how little research there is into the financing of political life [he means outside the USA]. Yet, for me, this remains a fundamental problem. We had more or less settled it in our previous model, but now, with social networks, we are recreating a money bias.
Are there things you miss from your former life as an academic?
I’m lucky enough to still be teaching a course, to keep that contact that I enjoy with the students. But what I miss the most are the research seminars.
And what about intellectual honesty? I don’t want to suggest that it is reigning in the academic world, but it is prima facie more favourable to it than the political world, isn’t it?
It is possible in politics. Much more than people think!
Then, what is the main challenge in moving from the academic world to the political one?
How do we translate our intellectual convictions into the language of political and media debate? It is a bit like learning a language. When you move from one language to another, you don’t usually translate literally. You try to say the same thing – the message doesn’t change – but you try to find semantic or functional equivalents. And I think that going from theoretical reflection to more practical political reflection implies something like a translation. I don’t want to change the contents, but you must pay attention to the audience, to its reception. In this respect, I was influenced quite a bit by Chaïm Perelman, on the question of rhetoric (in the noble sense of the term): how do you translate an idea into a form of language that is likely to be adequate for a given audience?
Seeking to address both an academic audience – with whom he intends to keep discussing – and the general public, which is always a potential electorate, Paul Magnette will publish a book on eco-socialism in the coming months.
Interview ran and translated from French to English by Pierre-Etienne Vandamme
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