Leon Blum
Leon Blum; drawing by David Levine

There are certain statesmen whose reputation is based more on their personal qualities and on the ideas they are held to symbolize than on their actual political achievements. While Lincoln and Gladstone and Lenin can be judged by their accomplishments, others—Rosa Luxemburg and Adlai Stevenson, for example—depend for their fame on what they were or on what they were believed to represent. Léon Blum was one of these: for, although the reforms which he introduced in France during the twelve months of his Premiership from June 1936 to June 1937, mark a real effort to introduce long overdue changes, the esteem in which Blum was held by many, and the hatred—comparable in some quarters to that felt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt—in which he was held by others, rested on more than his brief period of power or even on his long term as leader of the French Socialist party.

Blum’s high reputation is all the harder to understand, indeed, when one reflects that almost all the causes with which he was associated as a political leader were failures. The Front Populaire government, caught in the tangle of the Spanish Civil War and hampered in its economic policies by the hostility of big business and the inertia of preceding administrations, did not fulfill the high hopes aroused in the spring of 1936. The French Socialist Party, to which Blum devoted his political life, was declining steadily at the time of his death in 1950, and shows little sign of recovery. The Fourth Republic, to the defense of which Blum devoted his last oratorical and journalistic efforts, collapsed within a few years and gave place to a presidential regime of a type explicitly attacked by Blum on a number of occasions. How was it that Blum’s reputation rose steadily as the causes which he supported declined?

PROFESSOR COLTON’s biography suggests at least some of the answers. He gives a clear, balanced, and sensitive account of Blum’s political life, based on a careful study of the published material, and supplemented, for the last phases of Blum’s career, by a few unpublished letters. Indeed, it is doubtful that any more sources are likely to become available. The French government archives for the 1930s are destroyed or closed; many of the Socialist Party’s records were lost in the Second World War; such personal papers as Blum himself preserved—and he kept very few, believing that the only politicians who needed private archives were those with private feuds to pursue—were lost in the exodus from Paris in 1940, or pillaged by the Germans in Blum’s apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis. Blum’s life, therefore, has to be written on the basis of his writings and speeches, on the reports of debates in the Chamber of Deputies, and the discussions at party congresses. Inevitably, therefore, it is as a public figure that Blum appears in these pages. We learn little of his personal relations with his colleagues, and many of the other key figures in the story, notably Paul Faure, the Secretary-General of the Socialist Party and Blum’s colleague and critic over many years, remain shadowy, their motives often unexplained.

On the other hand, so far as Blum himself is concerned, the picture that emerges from the public, printed sources is doubtless a fair and full one. Blum valued clarity of thought and expression very highly; he also believed that a political leader had the duty to make clear to his followers the working of his mind and the grounds for his decisions. Blum was, throughout his public life, writing articles and making speeches which, to a far greater extent than with most statesmen, really do reveal what he was thinking and what considerations were influencing his policies. It is possible, though not necessarily profitable, as Professor Gilbert Ziebura has shown in the first volume of his voluminous German biography, to write the history of Blum’s political thought and action in even more detail than Professor Colton has done. The effect, however, is bound to be a little cold and over-intellectual, and one is left wondering just how Blum managed to keep his hold over working-class audiences and to win the devotion of the miners and peasants who were his electors in the Narbonne district of South-West France from 1929 to 1940.

It is only in 1940 that the circumstances of Blum’s life provide his biographer with material out of which to write a more lively and personal account. This is in part because Blum, imprisoned by the Vichy government, sat down to write his own recollections of the last days of the Third Republic and scrutinize his political actions and beliefs; and partly because his confrontation of the special court before which he and other leaders of the Third Republic had been arraigned provides the stuff of a first-rate courtroom drama, with virtue triumphant, in so far as Blum’s eloquence, logic, and legal skill forced the embarrassed Vichy authorities to adjourn the trial indefinitely.


IT WAS, IN FACT, in the war years that Blum’s public reputation changed from that of a politician respected, it is true, even by some of his opponents, but also a politician criticized for his political record both by Right and Left, to that of a noble, humane European figure true to the values which the Nazi conquests were threatening or destroying. Blum’s courage had never been in doubt; he had shown it many times in facing hostile audiences; he had been badly beaten up by Royalist toughs in 1936. But in 1940 and the years after he showed qualities of dignity, loyalty, and magnanimity which revealed a moral toughness and a humane idealism of the highest kind. In prison he took up some of the ideas of his youth when he had thought first about problems of political power and social justice, and had given them literary form in New Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann; now in old age he repeated his conclusions in For all Mankind, a moving if not very profound restatement of his political beliefs, a blend of liberal humanism, utopian socialism, and a dash of Marxism, to which few, even of his critics, could take exception.

Professor Colton’s sub-title “Humanist in Politics” provides perhaps one key to the interest which Léon Blum’s character and career continue to arouse. He was impressive because of the consistency of his thought and actions and the sincerity and integrity with which he pursued his policies. Even when Blum did the wrong thing, he did it for the right reasons. “I have probably committed many errors,” he once said, “but I do not think I have ever committed an act of betrayal.” It is this attitude which has led Blum’s critics on the Left, such as Mme. Colette Audry and M. Daniel Guérin, to accuse him of being more interested in the purity of his own motives than in making the revolution to which in theory he was dedicated. Professor Colton, however, suggests another and more subtle reason for Blum’s failures. He was, he says, a “prisoner of republican duty,” a man too deeply committed to the Third Republic to be able to break with its constitutional habits. In a famous phrase of 1918, Blum said, “Between Wilson and Lenin, between democracy and bolshevik fanaticism, I choose neither Wilson nor Lenin, I choose Jaurès.” The loyalty to the memory of the great French socialist leader, murdered in 1914, dominated Blum’s thought and action, and it was the gap in the party leadership caused by Jaurès’s death, which brought Blum to the forefront of the party and determined his change of career from being a minor literary figure in a great literary generation to being an important international statesman. But the choice of Jaurès, of a middle way between liberal capitalism and Communism, had its own dangers. As Professor Colton rightly says, the French Socialist Party was “neither a reformist nor a revolutionary party.”

THE RESPONSIBILITY for this lay in part with Blum. Up to 1936, his steadfast refusal to join any government in which the socialists would not be the strongest party could be defended on the grounds that, although it cost the party some able men, nevertheless enabled it to compete with the Communists as a party of the revolutionary left; and, indeed, during this period the Socialist Party recovered much of the mass support it had lost to the Communists after 1920. But, even if not participating in governments, the socialists were active in parliament and fully committed to the Third Republic’s constitutional procedures. As a result, when they did come to power in 1936 in coalition with the Radicals, they had in many ways to behave like any other government of the Third Republic, and it is psychologically inconceivable that Blum and the other parliamentary socialist leaders could, when the Senate brought about the government’s resignation in June 1937, have suddenly turned themselves into a revolutionary committee, based on the “workers” and peasants’ militias,” which, according to one of Blum’s left-wing critics “would have sprung up even in the smallest village.”

Blum himself once said “the exercise of power within capitalist institutions is and will always be a particularly painful and difficult experience for Socialist parties.” Reading Professor Colton’s admirable book, one cannot avoid the comparison between Blum’s Popular Front government in 1936 and the British Labour government today. Both inherited from their predecessors almost insuperable economic problems, both incurred the hostility of the financial Establishment, while both, in order to retain their solidarity with their principal ally, found themselves committed (with regard to Spain and Vietnam respectively) to a foreign policy which deeply shocked many of their own supporters. Even without pressing the parallel too far, it is clear that Blum’s subtle distinctions between the “conquest” and the “exercise” of power are not as irrelevant to contemporary politics as they might at first seem, and so Professor Colton’s biography is not just a sympathetic account of a noble and intelligent man embodying the values of a vanishing era of liberal humanism and social democracy, but also raises questions about political behavior and social reform which are of concern to any political party which still thinks of itself as being on the Left.


This Issue

June 9, 1966