Saturday, October 4, 2008

French Leftism and Communism

When I referred to the Marxist-Leninist influence in France, a Frenchman recently seemed befuddled.

Of course, when we speak of any nation we cannot say “all” of them are anything, because there will be many who are not. That should go without saying. Take present day America as an example. If one reads our media, one would assume that we are “all” Leftists over here, but we who are not Leftists seem to make up about 50% of our population. In fact, it seems common in Europe to speak of us as a nation of cowboys. That assumes that Leftism over here is not in the majority. Our election next month will be close. Will the Leftist Obama win? Or will it be the Cowboy McCain. No one knows.

Now in the case of France we also have a complicated situation. They have a Right Wing over there, but it isn’t like ours. In fact it often strikes me as being more like our Left Wing in its desire for a patrimonial state to care for a citizen’s every need – however, one suspects these French Rightists only go along with that idea so far. In actuality, their Right reveres the nationalist De Gaulle. He antagonized Roosevelt during the Second World War by insisting on the dignity that was (De Gaulle believed “is”) France when France was either occupied by the Germans or in cahoots with them (Vichy). And afterwards, De Gaulle set about attempting to restore the glory that was France by getting back its empire. It tried first in South East Asia and suffered its Dien bien Phu. Later it attempted to restore Algeria which thought it was qualified to be equal in light of its help during World War Two, but De Gaulle wasn’t interested in that, at least not initially. Eventually he presided over its independence, but he still had a vision of France that was passed on to Chirac who sought first to make France equal to the U.S. and the USSR, but that didn’t work out terribly well. Later when the USSR failed, one would think he would have accepted the idea that France was just another European nation, but not so. He spearheaded a plan to make the EU stronger. He envisioned a European empire with France guiding it. But the French people refused to sign away France’s independence.

Which brings me back to the matter of Communist influence in France. If one read French newspapers, one would have thought the French would have been happy to sign away its independence to the EU, but there is obviously a majority in France which is at variance with Gaullism – at least as I see Gaullism.

I have read a number of books about France, but maybe most of them have been written by the French elite. I know that France embraced Communism after the Vichy period, but “which” France did the embracing? Was it a majority or the “elite” only? From the fact that French Communist-admirers spoke so freely, I must conclude that the feeling was shared by the populace in general. Tony Judt speaks of those who didn’t share this admiration, Raymond Aron, for example, but Judt’s book is subtitled, French Intellectuals, 1944-1956; so perhaps the French populace at large was interested in other matters while their intelligentsia agonized over Stalin’s purges and “Show Trials” in Russia and Eastern Europe.

On page 120, Judt writes, “In humanisme et terreur; which was published in 1947 but had already appeared the previous year as a serious of articles in Temps moderns, Maurice Merleau-Ponty placed a bet upon history. Let us suppose, he wrote, that history has a meaning. Let us further suppose that this meaning is vouchsafed to us through change and struggle. Let us also accept that the proletariat is the force for revolution in our era. Finally, let us credit the Communists with their claim to embody the consciousness and interests of the proletariat. If these premises are correct, then the purges and show trials of the thirties in Moscow are shown to have been not only tactically and strategically wise but historically just. Although Merleau-Ponty did try to argue that the Soviet victory over Hitler justified some of Stalin’s previous actions, he recognized that this did not constitute sufficient proof. We remain uncertain as to the outcome of all this, he acknowledged. The verdict of the future is not yet in. But we have no choice but to act as though it will be positive, because to renounce Marxism (i.e., to dismiss the Communists’ claim) would be to dig the grave of Reason in history, after which there would be left only ‘dreams and adventures.’

“This is the classic presentation of the argument from History. Like all influential arguments, it is really very simple. It took the central Marxist fantasy, of a human history simultaneously intelligible and manipulable, and inserted it firmly within Merleau-Ponty’s own version of contemporary French philosophy. Because it was written as a reply to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, it took as its subject the Moscow trials fo the thirties, that of Bukharin in particular; but its application is universal. The question is not whether Bukharin and his associates were guilty, nor even whether or not their trials were rigged and the pretexts employed indefensible. What mattered was the overriding need to give our lives, our history, a meaning. . . .”

COMMENT: I sympathize with Tony Judt here. He loves the French – more specifically, he loves French intellectuals; so how could they have tried to justify the Stalinistic savagery? Surely, no intellectual Westerner, especially no intellectual French Westerner, could be so deluded, so illogical, and yet he had their history before him -- of the French intellectuals doing precisely that. Not all of them to be sure, but most of them. They loved the Communistic ideal – not the actuality as it existed in the USSR, but the ideal as they imagined it. When the actuality intruded by means of such books as Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, or when the purges and show trials moved closer and closer to the French borders, it was more and more difficult for these intellectuals to hang onto their ideal, their fantasy. And they began falling away.

We had something similar in the U.S., but on a much smaller scale. Whitaker Chambers fell away in just this manner and was then ostracized and ridiculed by the American Left. When Elizabeth Bentley fell away she too was ostracized and ridiculed. Then when McCarthy attempted to alert the U.S. government to the USSR’s spying activities, he too was ridiculed and ostracized. But these seem like blue-collar struggles compared to the struggles of the French intellectual elite. Their struggles are much more cerebral. An intellectual can enter into their angst much easier than into McCarthy’s “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the . . . .”

Getting back to the Frenchman who gave the impression that Communism was no longer any sort of influence in France, I submit that it is not so easy to abandon our histories or the experiences and the revered ideals of our past. Just consider a few examples: The Japanese code of Bushido, German Militarism, Russian Imperialism, and American rugged individualism. In each case these revered ideals have been sublimated to a large extent, but they still exist, and they still influence many of the citizens of those nations. In the case of France we could say that during the Gaullist period it, like present day Russia. was anguishing over the loss of its empire. But during this same period, and carrying forward to today the French embraced Communistic ideals.

After the Vichy period, these intellectual Frenchmen embraced everything that was Communistic. They imagined a perfect Communism but they couldn’t separate their fantasy from the actual Communist nation that existed; so when it engaged in excesses, they suffered. They engaged in some “my family right or wrong-type” thinking. And Judt in his book is examining this thinking with considerable sympathy.

But let us look at the present time. It is no longer comfortable for the Left to refer to Communism as something they believe in, but it is their history, their heritage, and they have sublimated it into other forms of society and government. We can see the effects in State-Controlled Socialism, aka Welfare-Statism. We can see the effects in the desire to have the European nations wither away and become absorbed in a Proletarian EU. We can see the effects in their desire to submerge their French nationalism in either the Supranational EU or UN. After all, wasn’t that what the USSR was – a supranational Moscow controlling satellite states along its borders? Why couldn’t that work again? Why couldn’t it work with a kinder gentler EU, or a kinder gentler UN?

Then too there is the Communist ideal, “to each according to his need.” Each election, French leaders try to be more responsible with the national budget, but Frenchmen feel the State owes them security – that it owes them what they “need.” It owes them long vacations and short work-weeks. It owes them early retirement and enough money to live on comfortably. And yet one of these Frenchman recently looked up from his long vacation and challenged me about the Communist influence in France. Surely not. Surely, France has excised all Communist influence, he would say. I think not.

Lawrence Helm

No comments: