The Mandarin Left
Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914-1960.
by David Caute.
Macmillan. 412 pp. $10.00.
It is well known that the French are among the most intellectual nations of the world—perhaps, even, the most intellectual—and that France is the Western country where Communism has been strongest and most vocal during the last half-century. Even today, the most famous living French intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, is still struggling, after years of effort, to reach a modus vivendi both with Marxist theory on the abstract, philosophical level, and with the Communist party of France on the level of day-to-day politics. In this respect, he has no parallel in England or America, where the question: “Shall I be a Communist or not?” long ago ceased to be of paramount importance to intellectuals. The Communist ideal, or myth, or temptation has undoubtedly played an exceptional part in French intellectual life, and it was inevitable that sooner or later a full-scale attempt should be made to chart the phenomenon. It was not so obvious that the task would be undertaken by a post-graduate student well under the age of thirty and that he would make such a remarkably good job of it. David Caute has assimilated a vast amount of material and reduced it to an intelligible pattern. Henceforth, anyone wishing to check a point in the chronological sequence of the tempestuous, tragi-comic love-affair between French intellectuals and the Communist party will be able to refer with confidence to him.
The plan of his thesis is comparatively simple. In his initial section, “The Party and the Intellectuals,” he traces the attitude of the French Communist hierarchy to intellectuals, a section of the community it has at times seemed particularly anxious to win over, in view of the prestige enjoyed by writers and artists in France. Mr. Caute distinguishes five “principles of utility” the party has spontaneously exploited in coaxing intellectuals to serve its ends: (1) pure prestige; (2) professional excellence, if possible within the framework of a Marxist-Communist philosophy; (3) political agitation for short-term objectives; (4) political journalism; (5) guiding and advancing, as creative Marxists, the political and cultural attitudes of the masses.
Next, in a section entitled “The Intellectuals and the Party” which occupies the bulk of the volume, he shows the ebb and flow of support for the party, according to general political events such as war or colonial crises, or as a result of specifically Communist happenings such as the consolidation of Stalinist orthodoxy or the process of de-Stalinization. Here, Mr. Caute distinguishes seven different phases between 1914 and 1960, and he gives special treatment to four themes that have been much debated at one time or another: nationalism, anti-Semitism, colonialism, and the defense of French culture. It is not absolutely clear why, if he is going to pick out these four themes, he does not isolate some others, such as the argument about Soviet concentration camps, that he mentions frequently in the body of his text. But differences of opinion are no doubt possible about the relative importance of such issues.
Part three, which is devoted to André Gide, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, is meant to highlight the problem by more detailed treatment of three outstanding cases. It is good as far as it goes, but would have been more revealing if Mr. Caute had established these three figures as personalities, instead of restricting himself to a factual account of their relations with Communism. Their different temperaments embrace a great range of French characteristics and their emotions as representative intellectuals are just as important as their intellects. Part Four, “Intellectuals and the Intellect,” again assembles data on various particular points: intellectuals and Marxist theory, Communist influence in education, etc.
With regard to questions of fact, there is only one point on which I would venture to disagree with Mr. Caute. In emphasizing the place of Communism in French intellectual life, he says that its prevalence cannot be explained, as in Communist states, by “majority conformism, physical fear, the desire for security or the prospect of immediate financial advancement.” I was working in France in the postwar years when the party reached the peak of its strength, and it seemed to me that the first three factors were beginning to play a part. One could see even non-political intellectuals finding good reasons to be understanding toward Communism, because anything might happen and they had already had experience of living under coercion. This phase did not last long, but it was sufficiently marked to give one some idea of what the atmosphere might be like in a country changing to a one-party system. However, it remains true that, during most of the period, these considerations were non-existent and so the attraction of Communism for French intellectuals has to be explained in other ways.
It is in this respect that Mr. Caute's book leaves something to be desired. He says that his approach is “historical,” not psychological, i.e. he is assembling verifiable data, and he does so very well. But he touches on the problem of psychological causes in his Introduction and again in his Conclusion, and he allows himself certain expressions of opinion in the body of his book. Sometimes he defends the Communists when one might expect him to be against them; at other times, he is as scathing about their behavior as a strong anti-Communist would be. His book might have been better, I think, if he had woven his own political philosophy coherently into the text. One guesses him to be a non-Communist socialist with a strong attraction to Communism. This may be why he hasn't assembled in any one section all the anti-Communist arguments put forward by French intellectuals. He refers to them incidentally, but in such a way that an intelligent anti-Communist like Raymond Aron hardly seems to get fair treatment.
As it stands, Mr. Caute's book is not likely to make the average English-speaking reader feel that the long association with the Communist party is a very creditable episode in French intellectual life. At times, indeed, it reads almost like a sottisier, a compilation of absurdities. Again and again, we see apparently gifted men leaning over backward to deny evidence that is staring them in the face. We even find Sartre writing Les Mains Sales, which can surely only be understood as a Social-Democratic, anti-Communist play, and then preventing its performance where he thinks it might harm the Communist cause. Mr. Caute implies (p. 14) that bewilderment about this sort of thing shows a naive misunderstanding of the Continental climate and that, in France especially, the tradition of revolutionary violence, the rationalist outlook, the Marxist origins of French socialism, the numerical strength and the intransigence of the French Communist party are sufficient to account for it. They are, no doubt, among the basic reasons, but they need to be amplified and given flesh and blood if the behavior of French intellectuals is to be made understandable.
My view is that a great many French intellectuals still have something of the 18th-century philosophe about them. They are critics of society and utopia-builders, but they think less in terms of “democratic” political action than in terms of influencing some source of power—the benevolent despot, the Communist party, the Soviet Union; in fact, the proletariat can become a convenient fiction representing the benevolent despot. Mr. Caute does not mention the authoritarian tradition as being almost as great a temptation as the revolutionary tradition, but it runs right through French life, both secular and religious, and provides the intellectual satisfaction of definite-ness. Then they feel almost a proprietary interest in the Russian Revolution, as if it were an off-shoot of their own; French left-wing patriotism is intellectually expansionist, so that it is easier for a Frenchman, than it is for an Englishman or an American, to think that he is remaining true to an essentially national tradition, even when accepting direction from Moscow. Also, most French intellectuals are middle-class, i.e. belong to the very numerous governing class of their country, and cannot feel that they are struggling against a fully objectified, internal oligarchy or plutocracy of birth or money; they are really struggling against themselves, and this helps to account for their widespread guilt-feeling, their Romantic sentimentality about the proletariat, and the self-confident ease with which they change their ground. Sartre, for instance, constantly varying his attitude to the Communist party, can almost have the illusion that he is arguing with himself, that is, with the representative part of himself in the actual world, as opposed to the self which is operating in the ever-fluctuating, intellectual clouds of the dialectic. Even the stomach-turning emotionalism of much French Communist writing can be explained, if not justified, by a long tradition; it has its roots in 18th-century sensibilité, which received a revolutionary coloring after 1789, continued in a certain type of left-wing writing throughout the 19th century, and has not unnaturally been given a new lease on life by men who often think themselves the heirs of Diderot and Rousseau. Sensibilité was a degenerate tendency even in the 18th century and it reaches an all-time low in the so-called “poetry” of Aragon and Eluard, from whom Mr. Caute quotes liberally and for whom he seems to retain a respect that I cannot share.
In giving these brief hints, I am merely trying to show that French intellectuals have certain reasons for not being hampered by what English-speaking people would tend to consider as obvious common sense, and these reasons can be seen as the source both of their strengths and their weaknesses. The prospective reader of Mr. Caute's book would be well advised to bear this in mind, since so well-documented a study might lead him too easily to a damning conclusion.