Ellul and Personalism

Ellul and Personalism: A Brief Introduction to Ellul’s Early Political Engagement

by Jacob Rollison (University of Aberdeen)  September 2017


“When Ellul calls for a ‘personalist’ revolution, he is calling for active resistance
to a process of massification which characterizes contemporary society —
he is calling us to rediscover human proportions in our politics and in our societies.”


Around the time he was finishing his doctorate in law, publishing his first articles, and receiving his first teaching posts, a young Jacques Ellul was engaged in several political movements which called themselves ‘personalist.’

There were several “personalist movements of the 1930s (which,) faced with what they perceived as a global crisis of modern society, attempted to find in ‘personalist’ references the solution to this crisis.” 1  This ‘crisis’ of society included the fallout of the First World War, an economic depression, and the rise of the authoritarian regimes of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, alongside waves of anti-semitism, anti-parliamentary protests, political scandals and protests, and radical nationalism, among other things.2  Each with its own emphases, these movements sought a personal interpretation and response to these crises.

Among these movements, there were two major currents, each publishing their own journals. These include the review L’Ordre Nouveau (‘The New Order’) organized by Alexandre Marc and involving the Swiss Protestant thinker Denis de Rougemont.3  This movement developed personalism as a humanist and Nietzschean philosophy by 1931. Then, the more popular review Esprit (meaning ‘spirit,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘intellect’) centred around the Catholic thinker Emmanuel Mounier  in 1934, adapted it to Mounier’s own Catholic thought, calling it “communitarian personalism.”4  With different emphases, all of these groups shared the following characteristics:

  1. A critical attitude towards liberal society, including against ‘Americanization.’
  2. A moral or spiritual perspective.
  3. Opposition towards communism and fascism.
  4. A revolutionary attitude.
  5. This ‘revolution’ should include everything—it should be a ‘spiritual revolution’ as much as a societal one, changing us as much as society.
  6. This ‘spiritual’ aspect was rooted in their differing conceptions of the person.
  7. Political decentralization, returning to local, human-scale politics.
  8. A personal revolution, implying personal commitment and incarnating these values in one’s lifestyle.5

But there was also a third movement. Jacques Ellul and his close friend Bernard Charbonneau were “at the origin of the most individualist, most anti-authoritarian, most…regionalist faction of the personalist movement, but also the one with the most ecological tendencies.”6  Christian Roy describes this third group as the ‘Bordeaux School,’ a type of ‘Gascon personalism.’ The Bordeaux School was rooted in Charbonneau and Ellul’s shared discussions, and mixed the emphases of both Esprit and Ordre Nouveau. For example, this School was centred around Charbonneau and Ellul’s chief concern of human freedom in dialogue with the natural world (for Charbonneau) and God (for Ellul); it shared Ordre Nouveau’s focus on decentralizing politics and Esprit’s focus on community, but was less Nietzschean than Ordre Nouveau, and came from Protestant roots (contrary to Esprit’s Catholicism).8

We might say that Ellul and Charbonneau were searching for the personal scale of human life in relation to the natural world, right when this scale was disappearing. In their article “Directives for a Personalist Manifesto,” Ellul and Charbonneau note that “When man resigns himself to no longer being the measure of his world, he divests himself of all measure.”9  Wars of attrition, centralized approaches to government, the increasing use of abstract statistics, economic expansion which endangered their ways of life, the speed of technologies surpassing anything the world had seen to this point—all of this made it harder and harder to be a simple ‘person.’ Because of increasing economic growth, finding this personal scale demanded an ascetic practice, a refusal of either too much or too little. They note that “In the capitalist State, man is less oppressed by financial powers…than by a bourgeois ideal of security, of comfort, of guarantee.”10 Furthermore, the Bordeaux School emphasized common human knowledge over specialized expertise.11 Roy writes, “The Bordeaux School of personalism has been the first critical theory to challenge this assumption of the neutrality of Technique, and to stress its systematic character, structuring every aspect of life around its own aimless expansion.”12

It is also important to note that when Ellul says ‘person,’ he means the opposite of a member of a ‘mass.’ In 1935, Ellul attended a Nazi rally in Germany out of curiosity. This experience showed him the powerful emotional manipulation made possible by new techniques of modern propaganda, and scared him profoundly. In his 1937 article “Fascism, Son of Liberalism,” Ellul describes a shift taking place in western society from a society based on law to a society based on propaganda and technique. He is talking specifically about the dictatorships of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, but notably, before the outbreak of World War II. In this article and others, he describes how the mass was the opposite of a human community. In such a community, individuals are separate from the group while still linked to it, and their participation is wilful and thought out; while in the mass, the reactions of all individuals are the same, and this separation is forcefully destroyed—their participation in this action bypasses their own thinking. We might go as far as to say that under fascist propaganda, society is thus constituted by a type of psychological warfare on its own citizens. So when Ellul calls for a ‘personalist’ revolution, he is calling for active resistance to a process of massification which characterizes contemporary society—he is calling us to rediscover human proportions in our politics and in our societies.

Concretely, the Bordeaux School often took the form of camping trips organised by Charbonneau and Ellul. They invited intellectuals and sometimes students, and would discuss the challenges of this society in crisis, looking for a political response. The concrete practice of camping together meant that they were incarnating their aspirations for a changed society in their very lifestyle.

At first, like the other groups, the Bordeaux school produced and published their own writings. Around 1934, Ellul wrote an article called Personalism, Immediate Revolution, and he and Charbonneau even published a ‘Personalist Manifesto’ before Mounier published his own. To make this happen they bought a printing press around 1934.13  For a time, Ellul and Charbonneau affiliated their small group with Esprit. Attracted by the Mounier’s political nonconformity, the rigorous thought behind Esprit, and Mounier’s openness to dialogue, the two friends went to meet him in Paris in 1933. Ellul describes Mounier as having an exact and lucid view of things, saying that the political movements of the era owed him a great debt. Ellul and Charbonneau decided to start a regional group originally called “The Bordeaux Group of friends of Esprit.14

But by 1937, the differences between our two friends and Mounier led them to end this affiliation. In an article published after Mounier’s death, Ellul explained multiple reasons for this. First, Mounier focused too much on thinking and publishing, while Ellul certainly wanted an equal focus on action. Second, Ellul and Charbonneau thought of their affiliation as a democratic link between two different-but-equal movements with united causes; Mounier, with his Paris-centred viewpoint, treated them as less important. Third, after 1934, Esprit begins to drift from being an apolitical movement towards a leftist affiliation.15  Lastly, differing spiritual positions caused a serious rift: Mounier’s Catholic theology led him to a more optimistic view of human possibilities, while Ellul’s protestant view led to a view of the person as more fragile and in need of God to be freed from itself. In short, if personalism is about the person, Ellul’s and Mounier’s ‘persons’ were so essentially different that working together became impossible.16

So, having broken with Mounier and Esprit in 1937-8,17  Ellul and Charbonneau briefly drew nearer to L’Ordre Nouveau and Denis de Rougemont, before the journal disappeared in 1938.18  But Ellul’s involvement here did not last very long, because his acceptance of a teaching post at Montpelier in 1937 and then Strasbourg in 1938, and then WWII, separated him from Charbonneau and from organized personalist political engagement.19  After Ellul’s participation in the Resistance during the war, his short administrative stint in Bordeaux left him largely without political hopes. Other than his working with de Rougemont and Charbonneau on an ecological movement in the late 60’s and 70’s,20 this was, more or less, the end of Ellul’s constructive involvement in concrete institutional politics.

Because Ellul’s engagement in personalism ended before his writing career began in earnest, one might think that it marked just a short phase in his life, one that did not have a large impact on his later work. However, most of the themes which Ellul addresses throughout his later sociological writings are already present in his few personalist articles. These include:

We can thus see that most of Ellul’s lifelong political and sociological concerns and ambitions find themselves deeply rooted and well-watered in the soil of personalism.



[1] Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle, “Aux origines de la pensée de Jacques Ellul ? Technique et Société dans la réflexion des mouvements personnalistes des années 30,” in Cahiers Jacques Ellul no. 1 : Les années personnalistes (Bordeaux: Pixagram, 2004, henceforth Cahiers), pp. 33-43, 34. Henceforth Aux origines.

[2] Patrick Chastenet, Jacques Ellul : Une jeunesse personnaliste, in Cahiers 45-62, 52. Henceforth Jeunesse. Some of the information in this article is in Chastenet’s translated article “The Political Thought of Jacques Ellul: A 20th Century Man”, in The Ellul Forum no. 38, fall 2006, pp. 3-12.

[3] Loubet del Bayle also mentions Jeune Droite, made up of young intellectual dissidents associated with Action Française, a right-wing nationalist movement, but these last two qualifications seem to separate it so significantly from the others that it may be better not to group them together, at least after 1934. Loubet del Bayle, Aux origines, 34.

[4] Christian Roy, “Ecological Personalism: The Bordeaux School of Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul,” in Ethical Perspectives no. 6 (1999) 1, pp. 33-44, 33. Henceforth Ecological.

[5] These characteristics come from Jean Louis Loubet del Bayle, “Bernard Charbonneau and the Personalist Context in the 1930’s and Beyond,” in The Ellul Forum no. 26, January 2001, pp. 6-10. Henceforth Beyond.

[6] Chastenet, Jeunesse, 52.

[7] Roy writes that at a September 1936 meeting near Paris, Ellul, Charbonneau and co. were called the ‘group of Gascons,’ a reference to inhabitants of the southwest region of Gascogne. Roy, Entre pensée et nature: le personnalisme gascon, in Jacques Prades, dir., Bernard Charbonneau: une vie entière à dénoncer la grande imposture (Ramonville Saint-Agne, Erès, 1997), pp.35-49. Henceforth Gascon. The page numbers which I will cite, however, come from an earlier, presented version of this paper, available at http://www.academia.edu/attachments/52574173/download_file?s=portfolio, accessed Sept. 22, 2017.

[8] Roy, Ecological, 34, 40-41. Charbonneau, while perhaps culturally protestant, remained a long-time agnostic.

[9] Jacques Ellul and Bernard Charbonneau, Directives pour un manifeste personnaliste, dating from 1935, published in Cahiers, 63-79.

[10] Ibid., 68.

[11] Ibid, 37.

[12] Ibid, 41.

[13] Roy, Gascon, 7-8.

[14] Most of the information in this paragraph is given by Ellul in his 1950 article “Le Personnalisme et Mounier: Pourquoi je me suis séparé de Mounier” (Réforme no. 265, 15 April 1950, pp. 6-7). Henceforth Pourquoi. The name of the group comes from Chastenet, Jeunesse, 54.

[15] See Loubet del Bayle, Beyond, 7.

[16] Ellul, Pourquoi.

[17] Frédéric Rognon gives 1937 as the year for the split, in his Jacques Ellul: Une pensée en dialogue (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2013), 25, while Roy gives 1938 in Christian Roy, Gascon. Ellul himself is unsure; see Jacques Ellul, In Season and Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 37. Henceforth Season.

[18] Loubet del Bayle, Beyond, 7.

[19] On their participation in L’Ordre Nouveau (as well as Ellul’s descriptions of this era in his life), see Ellul, Season, 33-43.

[20] On this later reappearance of personalism, see Jean Jacob, Le Retour de L’Ordre Nouveau : Les métamorphoses d’un fédéralisme européen (Geneva : Libraire Droz S.A., 2000).


book-charbonneau-nous-sommes-des-revolutionnaires-malgre-nous2014: Nous sommes des révolutionnaires malgré nous. Textes pionniers de l’écologie politique

(We Are Revolutionaries in Spite of Ourselves. Pioneering Texts of Political Ecology), with Jacques Ellul. Paris: Le Seuil, “Anthropocène” series, introduction by Quentin Hardy, 2014.
This is a collection of four early texts from the time of the close collaboration of Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul as leaders of a regional branch of the Personalist movement in Southwestern France, to which they gave their unique technocritical stamp, likely making it the world’s first recognizable example of political ecology as a revolutionary movement in its own right beyond Right and Left, as shown in a fine historical introduction. It starts with the only known overtly text co-authored by Charbonneau and Ellul, “Guidelines for a Personalist Manifesto” (1935, already published as Directives pour un manifeste personnaliste in Cahiers Jacques-Ellul no 1, “Les années personnalistes”, 2004, pp. 63-79), and continues with three dazzlingly prophetic Charbonneau texts: the public lectures “Progress against Man” (1936) and “The Year 2000” (1945, on the implications of the A-bomb), as well as the programmatic essay “Feeling for Nature as a revolutionary force” (1937).

(Book summary by Christian Roy)