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Not so Lost Causes

The Catholic Avant-Garde: French Catholicism Since World War II

edited by Jean-Marie Domenach, edited by Robert de Montvalon
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 245 pp., $5.95

The French Communist Party and the Crisis of International Communism

by François Fejtö
MIT, 225 pp., $10.00

Strategy For Labor: A Radical Proposal

by André Gorz
Beacon, 199 pp., $5.95

One of the surprises awaiting the perfidious Anglo-Saxon who crosses the Channel into Gaul (not to mention the Anglo-American who traverses the Atlantic) is that few people in France can be bothered to discuss political issues in economic terms. Whether it be East-West relations, European union, or the future of their own country, the French display an obstinate tendency to put politics first, and politics in France includes what elsewhere is known as “ideology.” Even in relation to communism—allegedly a doctrine related to Marxian economics—this hereditary predisposition can be seen at work. The disputants do not trouble themselves too much about economic foundations; what engages their attention is the political and ideological superstructure.

It is arguable that this unbalance is the fault of the educational system, a system now greatly modernized in comparison to what it was in 1945, but still a trifle over weighted on the philosophical side. Behind it, however, there lies the weight of a tradition which allots to the state a commanding role in relation to society, not least in the economic sphere. For a variety of reasons, liberalism as a doctrine never conquered France as thoroughly as it did England and America, which is another way of saying that capitalism as an economic system was never accorded that complete acceptance which elsewhere has enabled public men to identify the operation of the market economy with something called “our way of life.”

Even during the best years of the Third Republic, when the liberals had pretty much won control of state and society, an undercurrent of opposition was kept alive by Catholic conservatives and Marxist socialists alike. The debacle of 1940, among other things, also wrote finis to the uncontrolled rule of the bourgeoisie. When in 1945 some of its more eminent representatives called upon General de Gaulle as head of the Provisional Government, to protest against various proposed nationalization measures, they were given the cold shoulder. And when a decade later the General, then in retirement, settled down to write his memoirs, he referred to the subject in terms suggesting that both “the communist system” and “integral liberalism” were doctrinaire extremes to be avoided, and that if communism was to be headed off, the social order would somehow have to be recast (cf. Memoires de Guerre, vol. 3, pp. 92 ff).

AGAINST THIS BACKGROUND, the formation of a radical current within French Catholicism must be seen as a phenomenon sharply set off from the older conservative anti-capitalism which in the minds of old-fashioned rural Catholics, had usually gone together with simple dislike of the modern world. The two attitudes can easily be confused, naively or not, which is why Catholic professions of concern for the welfare of the working class (or “the poor”) were for long treated with skepticism by a Left trained to regard the Church as the principal enemy of the Revolution. It was altogether too easy to rail against the bourgeois Republic, and under cover of such slogans subvert the hard-won democratic liberties France owed to the Jacobins and their successors. The more this temptation was exploited by clerical demagogues of the Right, the less the chances of a genuinely democratic Catholicism, to say nothing of an authentic Christian socialism. Such movements could spring into existence only when the Church had somehow come to terms with the modern world of democracy and industrialism, reconciled itself to the Republic, and shifted its center of gravity from the countryside to the towns. The inordinate time it took French Catholicism to effect this transition is an accurate gauge of the strength of traditional rural conservatism: not to mention the memories of 1793, 1830, 1848, and 1871—the last in effect a massacre of urban workers by peasant boys in uniform. (There are other ways of describing the Paris Commune, but this was the aspect that stuck in the minds of French Socialists for another generation.)

CATHOLIC ANTI-CAPITALISM thus had two distinct faces. In its origins it went with the profound pessimism of an other-worldly Christianity, interpreted to the world by clerical dignitaries who themselves had never lacked for anything. Not surprisingly, this kind of social conservatism made no appeal to the industrial working class, and it infuriated the middle-class Radicals who ran the Third Republic. This was the third element in the equation, for down to 1914 Jacobinism was still alive, and moreover it had a following among the workers: more of them voted for the Radicals than for the Socialists, who were suspected of being unpatriotic. The change came in 1914-1918, when Republican patriotism cost France one and a half million dead. Thereafter bourgeois Radicalism gradually went into eclipse, but so long as Clemenceau was alive it conserved some of its prestige, and even in the 1930s the Socialists had no other ally.

Certainly they could not link themselves to the tiny left-wing Catholic movement, forerunner of the Christian-Democratic mass party of 1945. It took the Second World War to complete the ruin of Radicalism and to turn Christian Democracy into a real political force. In 1945, the Church hierarchy, having compromised itself hopelessly with Pétain and the Vichy regime, was powerless to prevent the emergence of a democratic Catholicism which had gone through the Resistance movement and there, for the first time, made contact with socialist and communist unbelievers. At the intellectual level, the upshot was the formation of a “Catholic avantgarde” now presented to the reader in the collection of documents assembled by Jean-Marie Domenach and Robert de Montvalon, editors of Esprit and Témoignage Chrétien—the two periodicals around which the Catholic intelligentsia has assembled in recent years.

To guard against misunderstanding: not all the contributors to this volume belong to the left wing of French Catholicism. Some conservatives have been included, notably Henri de Lubac, the theologian, and François Mauriac, the veteran Gaullist. Of the clerical contributors (who include the late Cardinal Suhard) it is fair to say that, whatever their share in the abortive “worker-priest” experiment wound up (under Vatican pressure) in 1953, their ultimate aims were impeccably orthodox. Still, the discovery that communism had suddenly become the new opium of the people acted as a shock and led to a great outpouring of Christian-socialist literature designed to show that the Church was not simply to be identified with bourgeois conservatism. The majority of the contributors reflect this orientation, usually associated with the late Emmanuel Mounier and his successors, Jean Lacroix and Jean Marie Domenach. Others—e.g., André Mandouze, M.I. Montuclard, and the Abbé Boulier—represent a more radical current, having played a major role in the near-communist Chrétiens progressistes movement launched in 1947: not accidentally, for this was the time when the Communists withdrew from the postwar coalition government they had formed with the Socialists and Christian Democrats.

If the book has a weakness, it is that the reader is offered no guidance to the variety of political and theological viewpoints here represented. The editors have put together a miscellany of extracts from writings published over a quarter of a century and dealing in a cursory manner with topics ranging from Teilhardian metaphysics to the Algerian conflict. As an introduction to the world of French Catholicism, the volume has its uses, but students unfamiliar with the language or the background may find the editing somewhat bewildering.

LACK OF METHOD or comprehensiveness is not a fault likely to be charged against François Fejtö’s study of the French Communist Party’s painfully slow adaptation to postwar reality. Although published by the MIT press and edited by Professor William E. Griffith, this is not, praised be the Lord, one of those ghastly “political science” studies which seem to have been invented for the express purpose of bringing the learned world into disrepute. M. Fejtö was already an active Socialist in his native Hungary during the Thirties, and for the past three decades has lived in France, a country he knows (as this reviewer can testify) like the back of his hand. A political publicist by profession, he is also the author of what Professor Griffiths calls “the only serious work in French on the Sino-Soviet dispute.” (A great deal of non-serious writing on this topic, alas, appears in otherwise reputable French journals read by the intelligentsia.) He is in fact what better-known writers merely purport to be: a connoisseur of the world of Communism, and thus able to place the internal affairs of the PCF (Parti Communiste Francais) in the context of the conflicts dividing the Sino-Soviet orbit. Even quite minor disputes within, say, the Italian party have a way of catching his attention, so that in analyzing the strained relations between Thorez and Togliatti (since 1964 succeeded by the pedestrian Waldeck Rochet and the scarcely more colorful Luigi Longo) he puts the reader on the track of those obscure but important tactical and ideological shifts which are the stuff of Communist politics. In short, M. Fejtö is what is known as an authority. Needless to say, he does not address himself to consumers of political romances.

This is not to say that he is uniformly dry and factual, let alone that his work makes dull reading. No one relating, however briefly, the story of the PCF’s tortuous, and still far from complete, emancipation from its Stalinist past can help dragging up some pretty bloodcurdling stuff (not to mention the quite unmetaphorical blood spilled by the party’s terror squads in 1944-45, when a number of left-wing opponents were bumped off on spurious charges of collaboration with the Germans). Here, culled from a vast and varied sottisier, are some choice utterances by Thorez and other worthies at the height of the Stalinist purge mania in Eastern Europe:

The trials of the traitors Rajk and Kostov have revealed the monstrous crimes committed by these spies and the chief of their gang, Tito…. Some people still call that traitor Tito a “Communist,” a “revolutionary,” who built socialism in his country! With American dollars! As though Mussolini had not been a “socialist”…[Maurice Thorez, Cahiers du Communisme, January, 1950]

Is Titoism a deviation, a trend? There is no Titoist deviation, any more than there is a Titoist trend; any more than there is a Hitlerite or Trotskyite deviation or trend…[Léon Mauvais, Cahiers du Communisme, May, 1950]

Honest doctors will not forget that at present one does not merely try to camouflage the monstrous crimes of Nazi doctors with the white coat of their profession, but also the crimes of their murderous colleagues who have just been arrested in the Soviet Union…. The attempts on the part of the warmongers to camouflage their crimes with the rabbinical vestment, the doctor’s coat or the priest’s cassock, are classic maneuvers that may still fool some timid bourgeois, but are much too worn out to move the working class. [Auguste Lecoeur, Cahiers du Communisme, February, 1953]

Perhaps the only thing to be said in extenuation of the raving nonsense with which the Communist press filled its columns during those years is that the leaders of the French CP seem to have believed very nearly all, if not quite all, of what they said and wrote. All the greater was their discomfiture when the truth began to come out. Some of them quit, including Lecoeur (a Politburo member), Pierre Hervé, their leading publicist (now a Gaullist), and six of the ten prominent medical men who in January 1953 published a declaration in I’Humanité demanding “exemplary punishment” for the Jewish doctors arrested in Moscow on charges of having planned to poison various leading figures in the Soviet government. As for Thorez, it took him several years to edge away from his Stalinist orthodoxy, and on issues more basic to France than the “Doctors’ Plot” he never really abandoned the essentials of his creed. It is only since his death in 1964 that the PCF has partially come to terms with the real world.

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