Fear of a “great replacement” lurks in the consciousness of the growing far right and fascist movements of the West. It was there motivating Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack in Norway in 2011, and again at the 2017 Charlottesville neo-Nazi demonstrations in the infamous slogan “Jews will not replace us.” And it was there in the Pittsburgh massacre, the Christchurch massacre, the El Paso massacre. In the wake of these events, the slogan keeps popping up in the U.S. and international news and with it the name of its author, Renaud Camus.
Camus has no relation to that earlier French writer, Albert, the great humanist with whom he shares a surname. Renaud Camus is the originator of the infamous phrase “great replacement”—grand remplacement—in the original, that has become the motto of international white supremacists and mass murderers who fret over white populations being replaced by an invasion of immigrants.
Renaud Camus is not Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, or Richard Spencer. He is a French intellectual; a man of letters not a demagogue, a refined mind, and to dismiss him as a mere ideologue would be a mistake. That’s the problem with French fascism, it’s elitist and literary and classy and it attracts very smart people. The use of the concept of great replacement by vulgar white supremacists is analogous to Nazi use of Wagner or Nietzsche. It had to be simplified to the absurd in order to reach the masses. Camus’ audience has never been the masses and Camus has nothing but contempt for those semi-illiterate murderers who kill in the name of his theory. This does not mean, however, that Camus bears no responsibility for the crimes that his theory has inspired. His ideas are perfectly clear and he deserves the burden of their legacy. But the trajectory that led Camus to the so-called great replacement, and then led that theory to become an international slogan of the far right, is tortuous and worth exploring in all its meanders and sophisms.
In 2000 Renaud Camus, previously best known as a poet and novelist, became notorious for a couple of pages of his diary. A major French publisher had been putting out installments of the diary for many years at that point, at the pace of one volume a year. Then, in 2000 Camus wrote that Jews, with few exceptions, cannot enjoy an organic relation with the French language, culture, and literature. In order to really have an authentic connection with French culture, Camus wrote, one must have been French for several centuries at least. Those few sentences provoked an outrage in the French center-left press. This is the time when, as a Jew and literary scholar, I became interested in Camus, met him, lectured and wrote about him. And so I owe the reader this disclaimer: I was young, relatively, and spellbound by Camus’ erudition, love of art and music, and old France manners. It was before he founded his political party, gave up literature, and became a full-fledged ideologue and propagandist.
Renaud Camus’ diary proposed a contract of zero censorship with his readers. I say it all the way I think and then I confront my darkest thoughts and nuance them and even berate myself for daring to think such bad thoughts. Granted that the contract was sincere, let us say that the diarist could legitimately be defended, in the name of free speech, of literary license, in the name of that very French belief that literature has the right to say everything, and even in the name of a certain ethic of self-examination and soul searching. After all, we are prey to bad thoughts, and we keep them to ourselves—why not publish those dark thoughts and run the risk of ostracism? Such was the defensive strategy employed by Camus and his defenders including, for a time, me.
A couple of years later, in 2002, however, Camus confirmed that the statements made in 2000 were not merely soul-searching and that his belief in an organic connection between ethnic origin and literary sensitivity was in fact rooted in a naturalistic conception of culture with clear implications for ideological dogmas. Indeed in the aftermath of the national outrage, Camus, feeling cornered, wrote a voluminous book titled Of Meaning, and in that book he laid out a bizarre theory loosely based on a dialogue by Plato titled Cratylus.
Plato’s Cratylus dialogue, if you remember your classics, bears on the nature of language. The question asked by Plato through his two interlocutors, Cratylus and Hermogenes, is the following: Is language connected organically to the essence of the things it describes, or is it the product of custom and social convention? Cratylus’ view that language is natural rather than a form of convention is adopted by Camus who uses it as the conceptual basis for his own belief that culture is the product of a physical connection with the land and with ethnic origins. The analogy was far-fetched but it provided the foundation for an ideological claim: namely, that people (immigrants) who claim to be French just because they have a French passport are fakes even if they were born in France and even if their parents were born in France. They are paper French. Phony French. And so, that was how Renaud Camus started to elaborate his theory of the great replacement, a theory that has far outgrown its origins to attain the level of international influence that we are now witnessing.
If there is a natural connection between culture, place, and ethnicity, then mass migrations threaten that natural connection. The immigrants from the Maghreb and Africa, like the Jews who inhabited France before them, will never be genuinely French, no matter how deeply they imbibe French literature and culture. There is something essentialist, and certainly romantic, in that conception. Ironically enough, Camus began as a disciple of Roland Barthes, the literary theorist who in fact wrote the foreword to a very early book by Camus, thus helping to launch his literary career. Camus is not only a reactionary, he is also an adept of postmodern theory and in his early career was very fond of experimental and avant-garde writing.
Camus’ evolving conception of meaning was once derived from Barthes’ theory of degrees of discourse, or spiral of meaning. Barthes’ idea was that an utterance has a meaning that can be entirely reversed, or understood totally differently in a different context. This spiral conception of meaning obviously undermines the essentialist belief in absolute truth. From a postmodern, relativistic conception of truth (one that is dynamic and nonfoundational), which Camus had held along with his left-wing politics through the 1970s and ’80s, the author turned in the later part of the ’90s toward an essentialist, quasi-romantic conception of culture and identity (one that is static and grounded in a soil). From the spiral of meaning, the Barthes playfulness with language, Camus had turned away, preferring something more “serious” and rigid as a basis of belief.
This straightening out of the spiral was notable for another reason: It reflected not only the political evolution of the former French progressive now giving intellectual ammunition to the far right, but on his personal identity as well, as Camus was openly gay. He is not the first European ideologue or politician to argue that Islam’s homophobia justifies Islamophobia. Think of Pim Fortuyn, one of Camus’ heroes. To be sure, Camus did not have to make too much effort to capitalize on a major ambiguity of left-wing identity politics—the sacrifice of gay and women rights on the altar of anti-racism. Journalist and essayist Caroline Fourest has written eloquently on this ambiguity from a secularist feminist perspective—without falling into the trap of racism.
Camus’ essentialist conception of identity is reminiscent of the early 20th-century French literary right wing—the idea that Jews will never be able to relish Racine’s poetry in the same way as a “real” Frenchman. This notion was based on the belief held by French monarchist and Catholic Charles Maurras that there is a real country and a legal one. Whereas the legal one is pure convention (Hermogenian), the real one is Cratylian. The legal one is institutional, the real one is a natural fact. Nation is not narration, it is nature.
Replacement theory appeared as a logical extension of Camus’ belief in an “organic” French culture, threatened by the presence of impostors. Camus has observed, first with anxiety then with despair, the mass migration to France and Europe from Africa that had started with the family reunion policy in the late 1970s. Nor was he wrong to observe that the face of France and Europe were changing with the arrival of these newcomers in successive waves of immigration. It would be absurd to deny that Europe and France are facing cultural clashes and new legal challenges like the ban on the burqa, wearing of hijab at school, holidays, prayers in public spaces, and others. As well, there were the violent attacks on Jews and non-Jews carried out since the early millennium in the name of Islam—attacks that were minimized by the left and exploited by the far right. Sober journalists and demographers argue that the face of Europe is changing. No serious scholar would claim that the great changes are merely a conspiracy, and neither does Camus himself rely on conspiratorial explanations. For him the great replacement reflects a structural problem, an emanation of a culture of superficiality tied to late capitalism, petty bourgeois democracy, and to the devaluation of human life.
The most recent argument that Camus and his followers have been concocting in order to render acceptable the concept of great replacement is cleverly built on themes from the left wing—and largely Jewish—Frankfurt School theorists, and their critique of instrumental rationality. Such is the line of argument in a pamphlet titled Disposable Man (literally Replaceable Man) meant to justify the concept of great replacement by embedding it in a general critique of modernity. Everything in a culture of consumerism has become kitsch and junk and disposable; nothing endures. As a result, humans are now considered as disposable material. This is why some social engineers in Brussels are organizing a dystopia by bringing people from around the world without any consideration for the cultural differences—because all that matters is matter and quantity and growth. Clashes ensue, but, more importantly, for Camus, this politics, espoused and enforced by French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, is one of “white genocide,” or European genocide. This racial component is Camus’ innovation, or perhaps perversion, of the Frankfurt School, which, while harshly critical of the devaluation of life in late capitalism, did not use the critique as a pretext for xenophobic ranting.
Following in a long tradition of reactionary thought dating back to the opponents of the French Revolution, Camus sees democracy as a degradation of high culture and embraces an elitist vision of society where only the elect are the shepherds of culture. There are overlaps with the Marxist left’s vociferations against the petty bourgeoisie, such as in the work of the filmmaker and poet Pasolini, but Camus’ rejection of liberal democracy is closer to Heidegger’s than to the revolutionary left. It is a celebration of roots and dwelling and the integrity and authenticity of the homeland. In this essentialism clothed as humanism, a new style of racism was born based on a rejection of multiculturalism in the name of preserving the diversity of cultures.
Let me examine the great replacement theory in its own right, as if it were a serious theory, and play the devil’s advocate for a moment. What if, horresco referens, Camus and his followers were right? What if the immigration policy and opening of borders could only result in clashes and violence? What if it betrayed a purely instrumental conception of the human, a system that dehumanizes people by uprooting them as if they were spare parts or cogs in a machine? What if immigration was a ploy of global capitalism to obtain cheap labor and liquidate culture in order to turn nations into playgrounds and Disneyland resorts for decerebrated consumers–people who would be uniform and one-dimensional? This critique of a human experience turned artificial seems legitimate and even alluring.
The problem is that Camus wants it both ways. If on the one hand he denounces the instrumentalization of man through capitalism, mass migration, exploitation, on the other hand, the very concept of replacement subscribes to an artificial conception of life in general, and of human life in particular. It is impossible to talk about human population replacing another human population without subscribing to an instrumental conception of human life, without considering human life as an Ikea piece of furniture.
Despite the allure of Camus’ theory of replaceable man, despite his denunciation of the reign of quantity, the claim that human beings can be replaced because the place of dwelling is something static and defined once and for all is inherently counterfactual and artificial. The great replacement is an ideology based on a static, artificial conception of the human. It contradicts the legitimate denunciation of the cynical conception of the human as disposable material. European settlers have not replaced native Americans, the Jews have not replaced the Palestinians, the Hispanics will not replace the white Americans, and the Muslims and Africans will not replace the white Europeans. And so while denying that the world is confronted with mass migrations and a global migration crisis would be absurd and counterproductive, one should not talk about a great replacement but about a great displacement. Displacement is indeed genuinely human.
The great replacement theory is based on an anti-humanistic and nihilistic conception of the human. It is not by chance that Nazi racial theory and eugenics were meant to manufacture a new man—they were the exact opposite of life, the mechanisms of an artificial conception of human life; life that can be manufactured in a laboratory. The great replacement theory, despite its author’s sophistry and refinement, is a eugenic vision of humankind and every bit as artificial.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Bruno Chaouat is Professor of French and Jewish Studies, at the University of Minnesota and author of Is Theory Good for the Jews?: French Thought and the Challenge of the New Antisemitism.