The French Disease

Lenin used to say that there were four major bulwarks against revolutionary change in Europe: the English House of Lords, the Prussian General Staff, the Roman Catholic Church, and the French Academy. But at the time of his death in 1924, Lenin had already glimpsed under his nose what proved to be the most obdurate and elusive counterrevolutionary bastion of them all: bureaucracy, in particular the monolithic bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. No other institution of the twentieth-century state, capitalist or socialist, has displayed such capacities for blocking change, adapting to all circumstances, and absorbing, disguising, and wielding political power.

For decades, statesmen, politicians, and scholars alike have been complaining about the bureaucratic menace, but very few have systematically analyzed or plausibly explained its political effect, or even how it functions. To be sure there is a field (some would say a barren, wind-swept tundra) of political science known as “public administration” which compiles neat descriptions of the structures and functions of various governmental agencies. But these studies are intentionally isolated from the historical, political, and social worlds, so that the result is rather like a collection of mounted butterflies: pretty, but essentially useless if you want to know how the creature lives.

Thus it is refreshing to find a political scientist who opens his book on bureaucracy with the words: “This is not a study in what is traditionally known as public administration…” and then proceeds to live up to them. Suleiman chose to study the bureaucracy of France. A good, but audacious choice, for French bureaucracy’s control of and interference in all aspects of society can be compared with those in no other country outside the Soviet bloc. There is virtually no sphere, save the religious (and even here not entirely, because in Alsace the government still pays the salaries of clergymen), which escapes its embrace. In education, the arts, radio and television, public works, taxation, scientific and scholarly research, diplomacy, transportation, the military, technology, development, finance, social welfare, the judiciary, energy, and of course the entire police force from traffic cops to riot troops, the French civil service holds partial or complete monopolies. A French citizen deals with his national government through an administrative machinery that affects his life, from cradle to tomb, in everything from his gas, electricity, and (unitemized) telephone bills to parimutual off-track betting and state lotteries.

By comparison, the United States, with its networks of state and local governments and its extensive private sector, all of which compete and tangle with the federal bureaucracy, appears to be a veritable anarchy of decentralized authority. Indeed the case of the French Minister of Public Instruction who could boast to a visitor, “At any given moment of the academic day, I know precisely what page of the civics textbook the eighth-graders of France are studying,” is without precedent, if not inconceivable, in the US, where a Secretary of HEW doesn’t know what’s going on down the hall, let alone in a public high …

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