Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics
by Joel Colton
Knopf, 512 pp., $10.00
There are certain statesmen whose reputation is based more on their personal qualities and on the ideas they are held to symbolize than on their actual political achievements. While Lincoln and Gladstone and Lenin can be judged by their accomplishments, others—Rosa Luxemburg and Adlai Stevenson, for example—depend for their fame on what they were or on what they were believed to represent. Léon Blum was one of these: for, although the reforms which he introduced in France during the twelve months of his Premiership from June 1936 to June 1937, mark a real effort to introduce long overdue changes, the esteem in which Blum was held by many, and the hatred—comparable in some quarters to that felt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt—in which he was held by others, rested on more than his brief period of power or even on his long term as leader of the French Socialist party.
Blum’s high reputation is all the harder to understand, indeed, when one reflects that almost all the causes with which he was associated as a political leader were failures. The Front Populaire government, caught in the tangle of the Spanish Civil War and hampered in its economic policies by the hostility of big business and the inertia of preceding administrations, did not fulfill the high hopes aroused in the spring of 1936. The French Socialist Party, to which Blum devoted his political life, was declining steadily at the time of his death in 1950, and shows little sign of recovery. The Fourth Republic, to the defense of which Blum devoted his last oratorical and journalistic efforts, collapsed within a few years and gave place to a presidential regime of a type explicitly attacked by Blum on a number of occasions. How was it that Blum’s reputation rose steadily as the causes which he supported declined?
PROFESSOR COLTON’s biography suggests at least some of the answers. He gives a clear, balanced, and sensitive account of Blum’s political life, based on a careful study of the published material, and supplemented, for the last phases of Blum’s career, by a few unpublished letters. Indeed, it is doubtful that any more sources are likely to become available. The French government archives for the 1930s are destroyed or closed; many of the Socialist Party’s records were lost in the Second World War; such personal papers as Blum himself preserved—and he kept very few, believing that the only politicians who needed private archives were those with private feuds to pursue—were lost in the exodus from Paris in 1940, or pillaged by the Germans in Blum’s apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis. Blum’s life, therefore, has to be written on the basis of his writings and speeches, on the reports of debates in the Chamber of Deputies, and the discussions at party congresses. Inevitably, therefore, it is as a public figure that Blum appears in these pages. We learn little of his personal relations …