Founding Uncle

Léon Blum

by Jean Lacouture, translated by George Holoch
Holmes and Meier, 571 pp., $39.50; $24.50 (paper)

Leon Blum
Leon Blum; drawing by David Levine

Léon Blum, who became in 1936 the first socialist and the first Jew to govern France, aroused feelings whose virulence seems out of all proportion to his scholarly, mild demeanor. For the right, he was a red ideologue who moved nationalist deputies to declare that “only Hitler can save France from the Left,” and “the choice is for Stalin or for Hitler.”1 For communists, he was a bourgeois reformer who, except for a few months in 1936, was treated more as an enemy than as a friend.2 For the rampant anti-Semites of 1930s France, he was the essence of foreignness, the corrupter of all things French, who sprang from some Eastern ghetto and ate from golden plates while setting the French people against their natural leaders.

In fact, the Blums were an Alsatian family settled in Paris since 1848, and it would be difficult to imagine Léon Blum anywhere but in Paris. Born into a prosperous family of silk and velvet wholesalers, the young Léon blossomed in the hot-house intellectuality of the Lycée Charlemagne and began to be noticed in his early twenties as a critic and essayist. He chose to earn his living in the law, however, and from 1896 to 1919 (when he resigned upon election as Socialist deputy for Paris) he was a member of the prestigious Conseil d’Etat, the highest French administrative court; but he did not cease to write literary criticism and to frequent a world that included Gide and Proust. Drawn into political militancy by the Dreyfus affair, Blum became a disciple of the socialist leader Jean Juarès and emerged in 1919 as Juarès’s political heir and leader of the wing of the French Socialist Party that refused to join Lenin’s Third International. Until his death in 1950 he was the leader of French parliamentary socialism.

Blum’s career was remarkable in several respects. While it was not unusual in the French Third Republic for young men of literary aspiration to wind up in politics (one thinks of figures as disparate as Clemenceau and Barrès), it was rare to resign a secure place in a prestigious public service for the parliamentary rough and tumble. Simultaneous distinction in all three spheres was even rarer. Then there was the matter of Blum’s Jewishness. Blum gave up his family’s occasional observances early, and though he expressed pride in his Jewishness when confronted with anti-Semitism, he considered it irrelevant, humanist and socialist that he was, to his universal project. Few of his contemporaries would forget it so easily. Not only had there been no French Disraeli; there had not even been a Victor Adler or a Rosa Luxemburg in French socialism. Before becoming premier, Blum had first to impose himself on a French socialist movement that had its own anti-Semitic roots. A man whose intellectuality was infused with great human warmth, Blum could arouse love as well as hate.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.