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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.

This has meant renouncing not just the more eccentric notions of “proletarian revolution,” but the (secret and confidential) doctrine that France (like other West European countries) would one day have to be “liberated” by the Soviet Army. For this and nothing else was the long-term strategy to which the leadership had committed the party. By now these expectations have been quietly buried, and the party of Waldeck Rochet is busy acquiring a social-democratic image. Its most recent pronouncements, if still hostile to the Europe of the Common Market, are couched in the authentic language of patriotism (“We regard the nation as an enduring reality”), and display a positively Jacobin indignation at the idea of signing away France’s sovereignty to the “technocrats” in Brussels. For the rest, Waldeck Rochet, at his first press conference after the March elections, informed his audience that he was against inflation. At this rate, the PCF looks as if it is becoming the conservative wing of whatever left-wing coalition may take over when De Gaulle (who is reputed to be mortal, though this is uncertain) departs the scene one day. As Serge Mallet, of the rival Parti Socialiste Unifié, wrote in the weekly Nouvel Observateur last spring with a trace of irony: “ça sera un excellent parti de governement.”

MENTION OF MALLET (who deserves to be better known outside France, and who should on no account be confused with Guy Mollet, the indestructible secretary-general of the major Socialist party, the SFIO) leads one to consider the agreeable irony which has carried this former Communist of working-class origin into a party of which that grand bourgeois and respectable Keynesian liberal, M. Mendès-France, is the nominal leader. In France more than elsewhere, things are never quite what they seem. It would take pages to explain how and why the Parti Socialiste Unifié (originally a breakaway from the SFIO, once Mollet had committed his own party to the Algerian war which ruined the parliamentary Republic) came to lose the services of a distinguished Socialist economist and ex-Minister like André Philip (still a Socialist, but also a supporter of De Gauile), while acquiring (a) Mendès-France, who had been a liberal until his sudden conversion to socialism ten years ago (b) a membership largely made up of Trotskyists and Syndicalists (c) a weekly such as the Nouvel Observteur which is not the official organ of the party, but rather its link with the intelligentsia (d) a propagandist such as André Gorz, who also writes a column for the Observateur under a pseudonym, and who clearly abominates most of the things this lively weekly stands for. Instead of going into further details, let me say that the PSU should not be judged by M. Gorz’s lively but amateurish and rather doctrinaire effusions. He represents only one of its numerous conflicting factions (originally eight, but by the latest count down to five)—the one closest in spirit to the pro-Maoist group of French Communists recently expelled from the PCF. I am sorry to be so complicated, but French politics are like that.

What is pretty clear, on the evidence of his book, is that if and when Mendès-France ever forms a government sometime in the 1970s, André Gorz is going to be among his sternest critics; especially if, as seems increasingly certain, the PSU formally commits itself to the Europe of the Common Market, with or without Britain. For M. Gorz, like his friends of the breakaway Italian Socialist group of Lelio Basso, and like the larger half (not the whole) of the British New Left, is profoundly suspicious of the Brussels technocracy and the Europe it has created. His final chapter is headed “Europe for the Workers,” and deals in a rather tortuous manner with what may happen if there is “a catastrophic crisis in part or all of the European Economic Community or the capitalist world”: a somewhat question-begging phrase from which no one would guess that the three principal officials of the Brussels Commission, and quite a number of their staff, are members of their countries’ respective Socialist parties. Doubtless this kind of socialism is suspect to M. Gorz, but then so must the socialism of Mendès-France be, since that statesman is a good deal closer to men like Robert Marjolin, the French Socialist Vice-Chairman of the EEC, than to the Maoist-Syndicalist-Trotskyist faction of his own party. It is, I think, fair to say that whereas M. Mendès-France is skeptical of the Europe created by the Rome Treaty, M. Gorz is dead against it.

I don’t want to give the impression that Strategy for Labor is not worth reading, but to be candid it is not so good a book as its French original, Stratégie Ouvrière et Néocapitalisme, whose appearance in 1964 antedated the conversion of the PSU from a lively arena of conflicting factions into a more or less responsible parliamentary party with a “reformist” perspective. In 1964 it was still possible to believe that M. Gorz’s kind of neo-Syndicalism might become the doctrine of all left-wing Socialists in France. In 1967 it is pretty evident that the PSU has a political future only if it comes to terms with the “technical intelligentsia”: the stratum behind all forms of socialist planning (and incidentally the one group in French society which always had a soft spot for Mendès-France). M. Gorz is just enough of a Marxist to understand all this, and just enough of a romantic to go on writing as though he still lived in an age when it was possible to think that one day “the workers” would run up the red flag and take over from the managers. He does not really believe this, just as he does not really believe that “pauperization” is an issue in a country like France, or that the East European countries have anything like a socialist democracy. He merely contrives to give the impression that while all such statements are not, strictly speaking, true, they may nonetheless have a certain limited plausibility, provided they are taken with a helping of salt. This sort of thing has its uses for propagandist purposes, but it makes the reading of M. Gorz’s book needlessly irritating. It is perhaps significant that Serge Mallet, in his writings, does not indulge in such stratagems, but then M. Mallet knows both industry and the working class, whereas M. Gorz, while knowledgeable enough, is in economic matters something of an amateur.

Yet this doctrinaire tract is not without interest. It shows which way the wind is blowing. When M. Gorz says (p. 133): “It is not possible to wait until a ready-made model is furnished by the socialist societies which are barely emerging from decades of forced accumulation” (this is his tactful way of referring to the Stalinist experience), he is telling his readers that they had better come to terms with the real world: that of supra-national integration, economic planning (however half-hearted), and the kind of industrial technology that is making an end of small-scale farming and commodity production. His concern is that the labor movement shall not be made subservient to the new social order, and there we can all applaud. The residual utopianism he projects will probably be shed (by others if not by himself) as the French Left discovers the realities of political power in this age.

M. GORZ and his friends are already halfway to their ultimate destination: that of supplying a critical chorus for a moderately socialist government headed by Mendès-France or someone like him. For this to happen, of course, the French Communist party, which still controls more than 20 percent of the vote and most of the workers in heavy industry, will have to become “reformist.” The last-ditch resistance to this transformation is now represented by the Maoists outside the PCF and the neo-Stalinists inside it. Each of these two groups has its chosen literary and theoretical spokesman: the Maoists Gilbert Mury, whom with the best will one cannot take seriously; the neo-Stalinists, Louis Althusser, who really deserves an essay to himself. Here I will merely say that as between Roger Garaudy—currently the official philosopher of the CP—and M. Althusser, my private sympathies tend to be divided. M. Garaudy clearly represents what used to be known as the “wave of the future.” At the moment he is engaged in assuring the Catholics that the PCF will never harm them and that all Marxists have the deepest respect for John XXIII and Teilhard de Chardin. This sort of thing appeals to one’s sense of humor and is anyhow a welcome change from old-line Zhdanovist abuse. On the other hand, there is no denying that, regarded strictly as a Marxist-Leninist theorist, M. Althusser has the better mind and is more consistent that M. Garaudy (as well as being rather more remote from what ordinary people would call reality). Both men are teachers of philosophy, M. Garaudy a simple university professor, M. Althusser a professor at the Ecole Normale, which puts him in the upper class so far as intellectual prestige goes. Both are members of the party’s Central Committee, M. Garaudy also of the Politburo, which shows that the intellect is still respected in France (to my knowledge no one in authority has suggested that they should be dismissed from their posts in the State educational system). It is my private guess that their well-publicized dissensions will continue to furnish a topic of lively debate in Paris; that most Communist students will side with M. Althusser; and that the Party leaders, while ostensibly staying neutral, will quietly follow the line traced out for them by M. Garaudy and try to become respectable; which, when you come to think of it, is the only sensible thing for them to do, since as professional politicians they must inevitably want to get a share of power, whatever M. Althusser may want.

I recommend M. Althusser’s writings, especially his Pour Marx (Maspero, 1966), to anyone curious to know how a learned and talented scholastic in this decade combines Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy with an intelligent interest in Freud and Lévi-Strauss. For M. Althusser is highly sophisticated—far too much so for the taste of any surviving Russian Stalinists. He simply happens not to believe that the PCF with its present strategy of compromise can establish anything worth being called communism; and in this he is undoubtedly right. His mistake, if so acute a thinker can be supposed to have made one, lies in supposing that the party to which he belongs is willing to forgo power for the sake of the millennium. Plainly it is not, which is among the major reasons why communist doctrine and communist practice no longer have much to do with each other. In the French context this means, among other things, that the PCF must profess something like benevolent neutrality on the subject of religion, since it can hope to gain a share of power only by way of a coalition with the non-communist Left, which latter (a point often overlooked abroad) now includes a substantial number of democratic Catholics. Even the PSU, not to mention organizations further toward the center, has its share of believing Christians (some of them regular contributors to the Nouvel Observateur, even employees of that journal). In short, if the PCF is to get into the government après de Gaulle, it must make peace with the Catholic Left. Hence no doubt M. Garaudy’s recent attendance at those Prague colloquies between Marxists and Christian theologians (mostly Dominicans).

Hence also the measured scorn which his ideological outpourings evoked from M. Althusser at a recent widely publicized Central Committee meeting. For those who follow the Althusser line, communism is still a total view of the world, not a doctrine to be bartered for a mess of pottage. If one likes, one may say that just as French Catholicism has its diehards, the “integrists” whose hearts lie buried beyond the Pyrenees, in the Spain of Franco and the Portugal of Salazar, so French Communism too has its old guard for whom Stalin (with all his faults, which they are far from denying) represents the guardianship of Leninist orthodoxy. By now the fires once lit in the souls of Catholics and Communists by the Spanish Civil War have very nearly burned themselves out all over Europe—except in Paris, home of lost causes.


State of Mind September 14, 1967

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