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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 Mr. Pierce’s otherwise very scholarly study was a tendency to underplay this aspect of the situation. Mr. Hughes is properly aware of it, as may be seen from his opening chapter. There he briefly reviews the consequences of the 1914-18 blood-bath, the false euphoria of the 1920s, and the collapse into despair during the decade following. He might perhaps have started off with Verdun, where the pre-1914 generation went to its grave (or, like Captain de Gaulle, discovered the twentieth century in the act of standing up to the German artillery barrage at Fort Douaumont). His treatment of this crucial episode is located—somewhat idiosyncratically—at the close of Chapter Four (“The Quest for Heroism”) and preceded by a lengthy discussion of the work of four writers who do not, to my mind, have a great deal in common: Roger Martin du Gard, Georges Bernanos, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and (inevitably) André Malraux.

The latter’s Antimémoires having recently become available, any historian who meanwhile has incorporated a chapter on Malraux in a study of modern France is naturally “caught short,” but Mr. Hughes escapes substantially undamaged. I doubt if in future editions he will find it necessary to revise much of his present text, although in the light of Malraux’s memoirs (or the fraction currently available) he may feel inclined to say less about their author’s rather spurious Marxism and more about his very genuine Romanticism. For the record, I hereby align myself with M. Jean-François Revel, who in a review of the Antimémoires quite accurately described their author as “fundamentally a disciple of Nietzsche and Spengler.” It is indeed difficult to see how Malraux could ever have imagined himself a Marxist. What happened to him in the 1920s was that he found Communism more attractive than Fascism because his stay in Indo-China had inspired in him a loathing for the colonial administration. Since the Communists in China and Indo-China were the only effective nationalists (they still are, which is why the US is getting nowhere in Vietnam), he adopted Communism in order to be on the side of the only authentic revolutionaries he could find in those parts. The same, more or less, applies to his role as an active combatant during the Spanish Civil War. Then in 1939 Stalin made his pact with Hitler, and Malraux decided he had had enough. As he puts it in his autobiographical sketch, his commitment has been to the anti-Fascist cause, not to Russia. This was also the attitude of the majority of his Resistance comrades, who in 1945 followed his lead in refusing to back the Party’s bid for dictatorial power.

The Antimémoires have come too late for Mr. Hughes, which is a pity, since they clarify some of the topics he has selected for discussion. In other respects he has been well served by his sense of timing: notably in regard to the Vatican Council and the modernization of Catholic doctrine. His chapter on this subject will doubtless be read with approval by liberal Catholics. It should give particular satisfaction to French readers, since he duly emphasizes the pioneering role the French laity and clergy played after 1945 in preparing the ground for the reforms of the past few years. It is no great exaggeration to say that the Conciliar movement would have been stillborn but for the tenacity of the French in pressing for a purification of doctrine and practice: another aspect of that peculiar French moral rigorism which the Vatican—a very Italian institution—has always found so tiresome. More could perhaps have been said about the Gallican element in this situation. It was, after all, not the first time that French Catholics had cause to feel concern about the sort of moral and intellectual guidance they were getting from Rome. (French Communists are now in some-what the same dilemma vis-à-vis the seat of their Church.) What does one do if one’s spiritual mentors turn out to be inadequate? Mr. Hughes is perhaps a trifle too anxious not to cause hurt. He duly notes that the Second World War had a regenerative effect upon the French Church, but omits to stress that it was only the lower clergy who entered the Resistance: their superiors, to a man, backed the Vichy regime. It is certainly a noteworthy fact (though not one to which Mr. Hughes gives much prominence) that Gaullism and Gallicanism went together around the time, in 1945, when the Papal Nuncio in Paris felt obliged to resist the General’s demand for a wholesale purge of the French Episcopate—most of them last-ditch Pétainists and far from sharing the democratic sentiments of the intellectuals. As for the Vatican’s role, it did not need subsequent revelations to disabuse the more intelligent French Catholics of any illusions they might have entertained on this perennially painful topic.

Admirably judicious and fair-minded though he shows himself to be in dealing with these contentious matters, Mr. Hughes would not claim to be uncommitted. He has his preferences like the rest of us, and makes no secret of them. The democratic current within French Catholicism happens to suit him—though clearly for political rather than for philosophical reasons. His sympathies in consequence go out to Jacques Maritain and Gabriel Marcel alike. Yet he is constrained to note that Maritain’s neo-Thomism and Marcel’s Existentialism represent incompatible positions. Moreover, the two men have always entertained a healthy dislike for each other qua philosophers even when they were following more or less the same line politically. This presents Mr. Hughes with something of a problem, since he happens to admire both of them. He gets out of it as best he can by stressing their common “distaste for both idealism and positivism in their familiar late-nineteenth-century forms. Both were equally opposed to the tradition of Descartes.” Moreover, both were, as he puts it, “philosophers who were Catholics” rather than “Catholic philosophers.” This makes them look reassuring to a liberal, which Mr. Hughes happens to be. I am not certain that all or most Catholics would regard it as a recommendation. Be that as it may, we can all agree that France is one of the three European countries (Germany and Holland being the two others) where the Catholic Church has conserved its hold upon a section of the intellectual elite. Mr. Hughes notes in passing that in Italy this elite was wholly outside the Church, but does not suggest an explanation for this curious circumstance. Could the role of the Vatican have something to do with it?

Since France is the sort of country it is, the existence of a Communist mass movement—side by side with a rejuvenated popular Catholicism—was bound to encourage an unending intellectual tournament between the adherents of these rival orthodoxies. An eminent French sociologist (who for obvious reasons must remain nameless) once said to this reviewer: “There are only two parties in France—the Catholics and the Communists. What is called liberalism is represented by a couple of Jews—Mendès-France and myself.” He was joking, of course. There are plenty of liberals in France, some of them in key positions, e.g., the present Prime Minister, M. Pompidou, and his chief parliamentary gadfly, M. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The Parti Socialiste Unifié—nominally a Marxist formation, with even a few Castroites in its ranks—is led by another liberal (M. Mendès-France, even if he does call himself a socialist these days). Le Monde is now basically a liberal journal, though still with a tinge of Christian Socialism, and M. Servan-Schreiber’s weekly L’Express is not only liberal but positively Atlanticist, for all its editor’s occasional alarums about American corporations taking over the European economy.

So the battle (from a liberal stand-point) is far from lost. It is, however, a remarkable fact that liberalism has since 1945 been on the defensive intellectually. Mr. Hughes does what he can with Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals, but it is somehow significant that all the intellectual heavy-weights in his survey turn out to be either Catholics, or Gaullists, or Marxists of some kind. Try as he may, he cannot unearth a liberal philosopher, for the simple reason that there are none. Instead, he devotes an entire chapter to those two distinguished historians, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. But Febvre was an old-fashioned romantic patriot in the tradition of Michelet, while Bloch was a positivist whose work as a historian clearly reflected the influence of Marx. Both men were republicans and democrats in the French tradition, which is to say the Jacobin tradition, and Bloch was duly murdered by the Nazis. But somehow neither of them quite fits the “liberal” label.

French Marxism is fairly idiosyncratic too, though getting less so now that the French have assimilated German philosophy, and at the same time have emancipated themselves from their semi-literate Russian tutors. Mr. Hughes has a section on “The Marriage of Phenomenology and Marxism” where justice is rendered to Husserl, if not to Hegel. He brings out the importance of Merleau-Ponty. It was one of the oddities of Mr. Pierce’s book that he barely mentioned him, while devoting a whole chapter to Camus. Yet Merleau-Ponty’s Humanisme et terreur (1947) represents the only consistent defense of Stalinist terrorism ever undertaken by a Westerner. It had a profound effect on Sartre (unlike Merleau-Ponty’s subsequent rejection of Russian Communism, following the revelations about Stalinism as a system of economics resting upon forced labor). Merleau-Ponty, far more than Sartre, was the key figure in these debates during the late Forties and early Fifties, just as he, more than anyone else, was instrumental in awakening the French intelligentsia to the importance of German philosophy for the understanding of Marxism as a system of thought. In addition to righting this imbalance Mr. Hughes deals at some length with Sartre. Having had a shot at this target myself, I admire the patience with which he pursues his elusive quarry. Sartre is difficult to pin down—just when you think you have finally done it, he turns around and confronts you with a new and unsuspected aspect of his many-sided personality: as in Les Mots (1964) where he suddenly allowed his Cartesianism to peep through the borrowed Marxist clothes. Still, he remains a major intellectual figure. This cannot, I am afraid, be asserted of Camus, although Mr. Hughes does his best. Nor am I convinced that Teilhard de Chardin is as significant as Mr. Hughes would like us to believe. As to Lévi-Strauss I freely confess my incompetence.

It should by now be clear that Mr. Hughes has provided the student with an admirably lucid and well-balanced introduction to the French intellectual scene, and there we must leave it. If a general conclusion emerges, it is that the France of the 1960s, unlike the confused and distrait country of the 1930s, has at last caught up with history and with itself.

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