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Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944–56
by tony judt
university of california press, 348 pages, $30

The political attitudes of French intellectuals with respect to war, repression, and especially Russian Communism in the decade immediately following the war is an amazing story. In Tony Judt, Professor of European Studies at New York University, it has found an intelligent and highly articulate narrator. His work is based on articles and editorials in the innumerable monthlies, weeklies, and dailies that, like mushrooms after the rain, sprouted up in postwar Paris. The author concentrates on the major thinkers of the period: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Mauriac, Aron, and Mounier. But he also deals with editors and commentators whose names the American reader may less easily recognize, yet who were no less influential at the time. Historians, to be sure, might ask just how influential the progressive writers whose work forms the subject of this book really were. Might the book’s subtitle not be too comprehensive? Judt readily concedes that there was more to intellectual life in postwar France than merely the leftist intellectuals, but, as he says, “theirs was the dominant voice, theirs the terms of reference and debate.” 

Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus were indeed thinkers of stature such as France had not witnessed in decades. They had completed much of their creative theoretical work before 1945, but it was in the period covered by Judt that their writings emerged from the silence of the war and began to circulate among intellectual communities all over the world. Simultaneously with the theoretical works, then, the later political essays reached the general public. The political essays thus appeared to many to be practical conclusions drawn from the fundamental philosophical premises. If existentialism was truly a philosophy of engagement, it seemed, the politics that followed from it constituted the proof of the pudding. In fact they did nothing of the sort. 

Viewed at a forty-year distance, the Parisian intellectual scene assumes an almost surrealistic quality, hardly exceeded by the brutal logic displayed in Stalin’s show trials of the thirties and in those of the Soviet-dominated countries after the war. In fact, the theoretical scenario of the French left was written and constantly rewritten in Moscow; Parisian intellectuals merely provided the justifications which the Stalinists had not bothered to offer. 

How did it happen that Europe’s intellectual elite came to be capable of flouting all rules of reason in the name of reason and of condoning the total contempt of morality in the name of a higher morality? Even Judt does not fully dispel the mystery. At one point he himself throws up his hands in frustration: “Intellectuals are no better or worse than other people. They are not even very different. They live in communities; they seek the respect and fear the disapproval of others; they pursue careers, they desire to impress, and they revere power.” Yes, indeed; but they also possess a more developed capacity to resist common sense. In their attitude toward Russian Communism, French intellectuals displayed an astonishing stubbornness for maintaining positions that flew in the face of all possible evidence. 

To be sure, they had “reasons”—and one of the merits of Judt’s study is to have sorted out the most influential ones and weighed them carefully. He points to the rudderless governments and dispirited atmosphere of prewar France; the humiliating defeat in 1940 and the subsequent search for scapegoats; the collaboration of the Vichy government and its considerable support among the French population; the bad conscience of intellectuals who had remained passive during most of the war and then attempted to establish resistance credentials by turning the full force of their self-ascribed moral authority upon their enemies. The story in fact begins with a particularly vindictive repression in which, but for a few solitary voices of dissent (Mauriac’s being the most respected), French intellectuals howled with the wolves, the more loudly as their war record proved more ambiguous. 

Once again—as at all critical points in the last two centuries of French history—the magic word “revolution” was trotted out from the oratorical arsenal and revolution became a “categorical imperative.” The rhetorical paradoxes of Mirabeau, Saint-Just, even Robespierre returned to exhort the French people to throw all acquired moral wisdom to the wind. Thus Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the influential journal Esprit who had himself initially supported Pétain, now invoked against the collaborators the authority of Saint-Just’s “objective” justification for the trial and execution of King Louis XVI: “We are here less to judge him than to fight him. One cannot reign in innocence: it is an evident absurdity.” 

Indeed, it is the moralizing tone of this political rhetoric that grinds most on our ears today. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir emerge as intractable Jacobins, who from a high moral cathedra, dispense pontifical judgments on each and every event, as Victor Hugo had done, and Mirabeau, and Saint-Just. Public life in France has always had an oratorical quality in which what one said was less important than how one said it. Judt quotes the Swiss (not French) Béat-Louis de Muralt’s pronouncement in 1728: “Style, whatever it expresses, is an important thing in France. Elsewhere expressions are born of thoughts, here it is the reverse; often it is the expressions that give birth to thoughts.” As Judt puts it, “This genius for abstracting, reifying, and generalizing is what made it possible for perfectly peaceable and gentle men to advocate violence . . . and for clear-headed and gifted thinkers to ignore (or ‘overcome’) simple rules of coherence and logic.”

Still, we must resist the common error of “explaining” the unprecedented by the past. The postwar episode is not reducible to any other; it has a rich historical background, but no “causes.” The attitude of French intellectuals was a unique phenomenon in France, but it was also distinct from the attitude of intellectuals elsewhere in Europe. Because of their imposing philosophical work, along with the silencing of the German voice after the war, Parisian thought enjoyed a moral authority that far exceeded that of others. 

The moral tone of that French rhetoric draws all the more attention to the moral vacuum that underlay it. The lack of firm moral principles in their legitimation of the death penalty on purely political grounds, for example, or their justification of Soviet crimes is truly baffling in such respected thinkers as Mounier, Merleau-Ponty, and the early Camus, though all of them eventually had their awakenings. Sartre and de Beauvoir never changed their position, except to harden it (in 1968 Sartre would sever his own more radical leftism from the Party). In 1961, after the trail of blood the Soviet empire had left all over Eastern Europe, Sartre still felt capable of writing, “An anti-Communist is a dog; I don’t change my views on this, I never shall!” 

In his case the absence of norms followed directly from the existentialist idea of freedom that excluded universal moral principles. In politics, Sartre had written, the possibility of doing “wrong” (however defined) could neither be foreseen nor avoided. Moreover, an act cannot be judged by criteria extrinsic to the situation in which it occurs. Whence, then, the moral imperatives, more absolute than Kant’s, to fight on the leftist front? Whence the apodictic distinction between right and wrong? “Everything,” Judt tells us, “was classified in Manichaean terms: Communists/capitalists, Soviet Union/United States, right/wrong, good/evil, them/us. Tertium non datur.” 

The term Manichaean is particularly appropriate for defining a moral disjunctivism that originated in a typically French search for that absolute “purity” of which Robespierre and Saint-Just had set the standards. The inconsistency between Sartre’s absolute demands and the exclusion of moral absolutes presupposed by his philosophy was blatant. It became the main reason why Merleau-Ponty later broke with him. Even if one granted the political ideal of Marxism as an absolute that required no foundation, the double standard in applying the norm of purity introduced a second problem of ethical consistency. To claim that capitalism is wrong in principle and in fact, and that Soviet Communism is right in principle while its fact cannot be judged by the tainted conscience of the West, is a priori to condone all Communist crimes and give the Soviet Union free range on the basis of a very dubious promissory note.

Despite its high visibility, Marxism may not have been the only, or even the principal, issue in the political debate. Judt implies that for most of the participants, Soviet ideology was primarily the positive face they put on their essentially negative feelings about America. “The overwhelming majority of writers, artists, teachers, and journalists were not for Stalin; they were against Truman.” I doubt that this was true in the case of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but at least one factor argues in support of the general thesis: Leftist intellectuals possessed a very limited knowledge of Marx’s theory and even less of Lenin’s, nor did they evidence interest in acquiring any. As for their anti-Americanism, it remained a complex and highly ambivalent feeling. All Frenchmen knew that the Americans and no one else had liberated them from German oppression. But they resented the fact that others, particularly the culturally inferior Americans, had to bail them out and, that, in the foreseeable future, they would depend heavily on U.S. military assistance. Moreover, the actual liberation had been preceded by air strikes on French targets. (I remember how, long before the 1944 landing, the terror of nightly allied raids eventually turned much of the population as strongly against their liberators as against their oppressors.) 

Yet what galled Parisian intellectuals more than anything else was the powerful influence of a lifestyle that they saw as a threat to the intellectual refinements of French culture. They viewed the American as a dangerous innocent, confidently imposing his simplistic political and moral norms as well as his disrespect for intellectual subtlety upon their own millennial civilization. Americans had arrived in Europe, so they thought, as apostles of a new doctrine and a new way of life, no less than as rescuers. They were bent on eradicating the evils endemic in the old world and replacing them by the healthier habits of the new one. They immediately attacked French colonialism and defended the independence of colonies that were causing France so many problems. Even the usually moderate François Mauriac was brought to exclaim: Who are the Americans, who exterminated an entire people, to lecture us? 

In a more subtle way, French intellectuals found it hard to swallow the lack of cultural sophistication in the public life of those who were now dominating their own. American films and pocket books began to flood the Continent and, whatever their quality, proved to be highly popular. Says Judt, “For a multitude of reasons, the intellectual in America has no purchase upon the public mind, not to mention public policy. Thus there was (and remains) about the United States something profoundly inimical and alien to the European and French conception of the intellectual and his or her role.” (This perception changed considerably when President Kennedy brought his Harvard professors to power and when Jackie addressed the Parisians in French.) 

In an incisive chapter entitled “Liberalism, There Is the Enemy,” the author analyzes one factor that played a major role in the rise of postwar radicalism, namely, the absence of a genuine political liberalism in France. Another—which came with the Third Republic but had precedents in the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, i.e., France’s radical secularism—the author does not develop, though it is implied in his references to intellectual leftism as “a faith.” The history of the term liberalism in France is hard for the American mind to grasp. How could an idea that originated in Britain come to assume a meaning exactly opposite of its native one? Was the French Revolution not inspired by Rousseau and Voltaire, both of whom drank deeply from British wells? Indeed, the idea that individuals have rights assumed an even more radical expression in 1789 France than it had in 1688 England. 

All this is so, but as Judt points out, French rights were grounded in universal principles the application of which was fixed from the beginning, “virtually impermeable to new claims and new interests.” Because of the long tradition of a centralized sovereign state, the rights were immediately and definitively translated into a political system of which they provided the legitimation. In Britain, and even more so in the U.S., rights were invoked against the possible abuse of state power. The makers of the French constitution had a more ambitious goal in mind than the resistance of political intrusion. “[They] were not only asserting their authority to rule, they were also seeking to govern, and to do this meant that they had somehow to restrict the very rights that they had just invoked.” 

Later attention would increasingly focus on those governmental restrictions. Socialists who began by advancing the socially unfulfilled claim of the revolution—égalité—felt that in fact the theory of individual political rights had become a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to maintain the status quo. They also invoked the theory of rights, not the individual protection clauses engraved in the French constitution, but the right of human nature to form a genuine society of all its members. The often violent polemics initiated by these differences left France with two extremes: the right, which remained powerful and, in the wake of the havoc the Revolution had created, wanted to undo most of the Revolution’s accomplishments, and the left, which repudiated the restrictive theories and institutions that had resulted from the idea of rights. The position between those two extremes remained mostly unfilled in France. The Third Republic had in fact attempted a compromise, but its moral bankruptcy (or what was perceived as such) once again drove the antagonists to the right (Action française and Pétain) and to the left (the Soviet Union). The elements for a much needed liberal vision such as existed in the U.S. and Britain were simply not available. In addition, the right had become hopelessly compromised by collaboration during the war. 

As noted, a second factor not developed in Judt’s study is the aggressive secularism of French public life. The unconditional commitment of French intellectuals to communist ideology gave them a substitute for a lost religious faith. Political and cultural life in France had followed an almost straight secular course, from the anticlericalism of the 1789 revolution to the virulently anti-Catholic laws of the Third Republic under Combes and Waldeck-Rousseau. As leftism had become a political imperative after the collapse of fascism, secularism had been the cultural imperative for a long time. There were exceptions: Mauriac never obeyed either imperative. Most surprising is the position of the Esprit group, leftist Catholics, some of whom had originally followed Pétain. Their leftism was not secular but inspired by a religious commitment. But the great majority of postwar intellectuals were non-Christian, some of them aggressively so (Sartre and his companion being prime examples). 

While the leftist Catholics in the end were able to distinguish between their faith and the political cause it inspired them to embrace, convinced secularists had no basis for relativizing their political engagement, even when the increasing horrors invited them to do so. Eventually the moral integrity of men like Camus and Merleau-Ponty forced them to abandon the Soviet camp, but not without causing a serious personal crisis. Sartre and de Beauvoir remained fervent believers to the end. Their persistent devotion to the Party (of which they never, by the way, became members) is all the more remarkable as it remained mostly unrequited. The communist ideologues attacked them at every occasion. But, as Judt graphically expresses it, “The more the driver sought to throw off these enthusiastic fellow-passengers, as the vehicle lurched and reeled along its dialectical path, the more they clung on and swore that they would never abandon the journey.” Of course in the end the journey itself was called off. 

It is too early to draw general conclusions from this story, and Mr. Judt prudently abstains from doing so. Nevertheless, in his penultimate chapter, “Gesta Dei per Francos,” he alludes to the crisis in the French consciousness which this strange episode in the country’s intellectual history discloses. At the moment of France’s greatest national self-doubt its intellectuals made a desperate effort to reassert its moral and cultural authority. They could no longer present their country as the political model of the world or as the cultural center of the universe—as French writers had tended to do in the past. The political, moral, and even cultural point of gravity had irresistibly shifted westward. French ceased to be the lingua franca of civilized people around the world. Yet France’s intellectuals could still resist that shift by abruptly turning in the opposite direction and providing a clearinghouse for the ideas of a power that had been culturally and politically remote from its traditions. 

For a while they succeeded in their purpose, albeit at a steep price of moral and intellectual integrity. Once again they positioned Paris at the center of the Continent, where the barbaric mixture of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin was made intellectually respectable. That the French intellectuals were able to impose their ideas upon intellectuals all over the world was in large part a tribute to the impressive philosophical and literary achievements that preceded or accompanied the political writings. Those achievements granted them an authority they could invest in any cause worthy of their talents. That they used it for pursuing a political goal that conflicted with the moral and spiritual ideals to which France owed its lofty position showed how deeply the country’s confidence in its own destiny had been shaken. 

Louis Dupre, here making his first appearance in First Things, is T.L. Riggs Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Yale University. His most recent book is Passage to Modernity (Yale University Press).