Pierre-André Taguieff’s proposition, made in his 1990 book, La force du préjugé that a culturally relativist left was responsible for the rise of the Front national laid the ground for the widespread acceptance of this maxim despite both the weakness and the deeply ideological nature of the idea.
Placing the blame for the failures of the centre-left at the door of ‘identity politics’ or, what Taguieff thinks of as ‘culturally relativist antiracism’ is inaccurate because it assumes that there are only two polarities of antiracism – liberal/universalist and ‘communitarian’. However, antiracism is heterogenous and conflictual, containing a multiplicity of more or less revolutionary and more or less conservative currents under its broad umbrella (Lentin 2004). French debates on racism and antiracism in particular are often concerned with the correct and incorrect ways of doing antiracism, the more radical pole of ‘l’antiracisme politique’ – autonomous, anticolonial – in particular coming under fire for being anti-republican, anti-laique and pro-Islamist (Khiari 2011). Despite being mainly discredited on the French left, Taguieff remains instructive, in my opinion, in attempting to understand the intellectual underpinnings of the centre-left, liberal-universalist objections to the antiracism that emerges from the anticolonial movement, led by the descendants of (im)migrants in Europe in particular.
Above all, Taguieff is irritated with antiracism for relativizing European culture – and in particular, French republican, secularist values – and placing it on a par with other world cultures, especially those of immigrants from formerly colonized countries. He argues that drawing attention to ethnic difference in cases of discrimination (for example, police harassment) is antithetical to the aims of antiracism which should always be about colourblind commonality rather than difference. However, Taguieff also completely misrepresents the origins of cultural relativism, failing to consider the question of why European countries after the Holocaust were so committed to finding an alternative language to race.
Although he notes the role of UNESCO in the evolution of cultural relativism, Taguieff places the bulk of the blame at the door of ‘Third Worldist’ anti-imperialists bent on the destruction of Western values. Consequently, antiracism fails in its endeavours to defeat the far-right because, instead of asking what he sees as the pertinent question of why immigrants cannot be integrated, it reinforces the differences between people by drawing unnecessary attention to them. During Taguieff’s 1991 address to the French National Consultative Committee on Human Rights, he claimed that instead of being incredulous that racism still exists, we should rather ask ‘how is it possible notto be racist?’ The reason for this, in his view, is because, ‘the principles of anti-racism are in part the same as those of racism (according to anti-racism).’ Because antiracists also base themselves on a belief in racial differences they – unwittingly, in Taguieff’s view – reproduce the worldview of their opponents.
Taguieff’s arguments are completely recognizable in the current trend of blaming something called ‘identity politics’ for the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right. However, then as now it is deliberately misleading to equate pointing out the enduring power of racialisation to create hierarchy, division and inequality with a belief in racial differences as an objective fact. It is instructive that, despite his books on racism largely being treatises on the ills of antiracism, Taguieff is still understood first and foremost as an antiracist thinker. Even Jean Birnbaum’s critique of him asked how it was possible for someone who had ‘opened the eyes of antiracists by showing them the blindspots of their discourse’ to now essentially be an apologist for the Front national? (Birnbaum 2014). But, it was all there in 1991. At that time, Taguieff was in agreement with other French republicans who saw the mere mention of race as akin to condoning racism; these are the same people who support the ban on the hijab in public schools in the name of universal values (Tévanien 2013). What has changed is that Taguieff not only equates fascism with antifascism, but he lays blame at the door, not only of ‘third worldists’ – code for Black and Brown activists of the early immigrant rights movement – but of the white left antifascists who see themselves in the same universal tradition as him.
For a fuller exposé of the problems in Taguieff, see Chapter 4 of my book Racism and Antiracism in Europe (2004).