Wednesday, September 24, 2008

French and American Pacifism

The last time I read Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect, French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, I got to about page 71. Perhaps this time I’ll get a bit further.

I am interested here in what Judt has to say about the pacifism that so pervaded France prior to World War II that they weren’t able to defend themselves. On page 20, Judt writes,

“The end of the thirties was marked . . . by the growing significance of pacifism. From the early twenties, the desire for a secure peace had marked the whole of the French community, exhausted and drained by its ‘victory’ in the war and collectively sensitive to Paul Valery’s famous rumination on the fragility of civilizations. The intellectual community of the 1920s expressed its war-weariness most forcibly in a collective retreat from political affiliation, but even those on the Right or Left who remained politically involved shared a universal longing for an end to military involvement. The Right sought to achieve this through the illusory strength of the French armed forces, the Left through the hunt for collective security. Indeed, writing in the late twenties, Albert Thibaudet remarked, ‘Today one could say that ‘socialism equals the search for peace.’ One is a Socialist by virtue of the priority given to this problem over all others.’ But by the thirties, lines that had once been clear were again blurred. The Communists, until 1935 adamantly opposed to any form of national defense, were from then until August 1939 the most ardent and consistent proponents of antifascism (before joining the integral pacifists once again in their opposition to any ‘capitalist’ war). The Right, while remaining in principle as Germanophobic as ever, was confused in its allegiance by a sympathy for Hitler’s Italian ally and by a virulent hatred of the post-1936 Republic, led by outsiders with interests of their own that risked embroiling France in a war she did not need.”

The French “Right” doesn’t readily translate into any American position. Judt, above, if I understand him correctly, says that the Right sought “an end to military involvement . . . through the illusory strength of the French armed forces.” I suspect Judt means that the Right overestimated the strength of the French military – that they thought the Germans would be afraid to attack them because the French military was too strong. That is also interesting, but I am more interested in the French pacifism. If Pacifism weren’t so pervasive in France, perhaps the French military would have become as strong as the deluded French Right believed it to be.

On page 23 Judt writes “Those on the left who had come of age at the time of the Dreyfus Affair retained a loyalty to republicanism in its classic shape, whatever their growing criticism of their practice of politics in Republican France. The younger generation, the one for whom it was war, not the defense of the rights of man, that had been the formative moment in the collective experience, was much more likely to prove sensitive to the appeal of pacifism and/or fascism. This is a point of some significance, not so much for the thirties themselves as for what would follow. For not only was Vichy initially appealing to many in this younger generation, but it was this same cohort that emerged after 1944 as the dominant group within the intellectual community. Born between the turn of the century and 1913, they lacked any collective experience of successful democratic politics. They had also never had the occasion to unite, in good faith and with clear conscience, in defense of democracy and rights. All their political experience consisted of opposition and disaffection.”

COMMENT: I have argued with many Leftists over the years and was struck by Judt’s assessment of the French pacifists: “All their political experience consisted of opposition [his italics] and disaffection.” Can we not say something similar about the American Leftists who came of age during the 60s anti-war movement? I believe we can. I have argued that if their anti-war, pacifistic, beliefs ever became the predominate view in America, that we would not survive as a nation. I can recall one Leftist who followed their logic to its conclusion. She said that she would rather we ceased to exist as a nation than that we resorted to war in self-defense. Most Leftists I debated, stopped short of that. Some were inconsistent pacifists. Some said they believed in self-defense but only under certain conditions, conditions which sounded improbable to me.

I’ll mention Charles Jones’ dictum at this point: we are not going to change their minds through argument. I believe that and yet it is a depressing thought. A large segment of our society isn’t willing to come to our defense. What can the rest of us do? A little (see below).

We are rich enough to afford a certain number of non-productive (in terms of self-defense) individuals. Let them exist in backwaters. Let them tear up their draft cards and live in communes or in Canada. We can afford that as long as we have enough young people willing to fight for their country. As long as we have enough who glory in our martial spirit, we shall survive. But immediately the obverse of the what the Leftist lady said comes to mind. I would say that if ever our Leftist, pacifistic segment gains such intellectual control in this nation that the predominate view becomes theirs, then we don’t deserve to exist as a nation. The historical evidence is before us. Pacifistic nations are conquered. Pacifism is diplomatic suicide. There is no rational reason for this view to predominate.

What can we non-pacifists do. We can debate, argue and make the dangers of pacifism known. Granted we aren’t going to change the minds of the pacifists, but others will be watching and listening. Others will be reading our arguments. Others will grow up to wonder what Pacifism is and perhaps look about them and see one of our arguments, an argument in which we did not change our pacifistic adversary’s mind, but one in which our arguments were clearly presented. Perhaps this unknown future onlooker will read our arguments and come to believe the pacifistic view is as absurd, unrealistic, and counterproductive as we believe it to be.

Unless we are secret pacifists ourselves, it is not permitted that we give up and pessimistically await the end.

Lawrence Helm

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