Catching Up With History

The Obstructed Path. French Social Thought in the Years of Desperation 1930-1960

by H. Stuart Hughes
Harper & Row, 304 pp., $6.95

Some months ago, in taking note rather too briefly of Mr. Roy Pierce’s valuable study, Contemporary French Political Thought (Oxford, 1966), the present reviewer felt constrained to remark that American and British writers rarely perceive what is most striking about France: the commitment of so many Frenchmen of all political hues to a kind of doctrinal rigidity foreign to the Anglo-American mentality. There is not, in this respect, much of a choice between General de Gaulle and his critics, with the possible exception of a few determinedly “Atlantic” and pro-American liberals such as M. Raymond Aron or M. Jean-François Revel; and even they tend to sound more doctrinaire than their British or American colleagues.

The roots of this situation can be traced back all the way to the failure of the Reformation (but wasn’t Calvin a great deal more doctrinaire than Luther, if it comes to that?) or even to the impact of the Latin tradition. Whatever the remote causes, France has always been a battleground of conflicting parties locked in mortal combat, while the task of “synthesizing” their incompatible aims in some sort of illogical but workable makeshift arrangement usually fell to others: notably the British. Fundamentally, compromise is anathema to the French mind: an affront to the intellectual and ethical rigorism on which the great French moralists have always prided themselves. This state of affairs antedated the Revolution and has survived it. George Sand, writing at the peak of the Romantic era in the 1840s, was in the national tradition when she proclaimed that the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat was a life-and-death matter for the antagonists: “Le combat ou la mort; la lutte sanguinaire ou le néant. C’est ainsi que la question est invinciblement posée.” It is no accident (as they say in Moscow) that Marx composed the Manifesto after he had been through this kind of schooling in Paris.

Anyone familiar with contemporary French history knows that this state of mind is not a party matter. It runs through the entire spectrum from Left to Right, and even the democratic Center pays reluctant lip service to it. Not long ago, during a parliamentary debate on the force de frappe, when a Socialist spokesman cast doubt on the readiness of any putative Head of State to “press the nuclear button,” the Minister of Defense replied, “We must hope he will,” while a prominent Gaullist deputy famed as a war hero in 1939-45 shouted furiously: “La patrie ou la mort!” Clemenceau would have approved.

IT IS the great merit of Professor Hughes’s new book that he has caught something of the spirit which informs French public life, as distinct from the scholasticism that infuses the endless theorizing about it. The Tragic Muse, traditionally the presiding deity of French history, must be at the back of an author’s mind if he is to do justice to what representative Frenchmen and Frenchwomen have said and done in this century. One of the troubles with …

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