Alive and Kicking

Marxism in Modern France

by George Lichtheim
Columbia, 212 pp., $6.75

Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

In the days when ex-Radicals in the US and elsewhere hailed the “end of ideology” (by which they meant the end of socialist ideology) there always remained one difficult case to explain: France. That country insisted on maintaining not merely the oldest and strongest Communist Party in Europe, but also an almost unparalleled, indeed in many ways a growing, passion for Marxism among its intellectuals. It is hardly an exaggeration to claim that, with the exception of a few wartime collaborators, every living French intellectual who is reasonably well-known abroad has at one time or another acknowledged the profound influence of Marxism, or at least voted for the Communist Party; and no exaggeration at all to claim that the intellectual life of Paris since the war is incomprehensible to anyone who is ignorant of the internal controversies of continental Marxists. In a sense France has long been unique, for while Italian Marxism is in many ways a more impressive phenomenon, until 1943 it had no continuous history as an organized proletarian mass movement. It is easier to account for Marxism in Italy, which was, after all, an unusually poor and, in some parts, a typically underdeveloped country. Twenty years of fascism had created and prolonged a united front of the Marxist Left, and the political domination of the Roman Catholic Church produced a virtual two-party system in which the Communists (as the senior partner of this united front) benefited because they were the obvious center of anticlerical opposition. In many parts of Italy anyone who was against the priests, that is to say virtually all intellectuals, was in practice forced to support the only effective counter-weight to the Vatican. Moreover, the resistance movement against Germany, always favorable to the Communists, was a much more impressive and widespread phenomenon in Italy than in France.

In France such explanations would not serve. There was no region corresponding to the Italian South. The standard of life, never so low as in Italy, was improving with great rapidity. (At present there are more automobile owners in France than even in Great Britain.) France was politically pluralist to a ridiculous degree, and the Communist Party was, except for a few relatively brief periods, isolated either by its own choice or by the boycott of the other parties. Moreover, neither Marxism nor its bolshevik form of political organization had any very old or strong traditions. It was not until the middle 1930s that the Party established itself as the dominant force on the French Left. Nevertheless, since then its dominance has been unshakeable. While the old Socialist Party has declined into a congeries of local political machines and potential ministers, and the various dissident Socialist and Communist groups have never got far beyond the café-tables of the 5th arrondissement, the Communist Party continues to collect the votes of one in every four or five Frenchmen. The result of…

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