Blumsday

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

Jean Lacouture’s study of Léon Blum is entertaining and has been very well translated by George Holoch. The book’s frequent references to French names unknown across the Channel could put English readers off: but curiosity may prevail with a British public which finds itself abruptly transported into the unfamiliar territory of French political life under the Third and Fourth Republics. The book was written during the 1970s, in the climate created by the Union of the Left, and all that that implies. It shows Blum as a fascinating, attractive and appealing personality, less easily classifiable than Jaurès.

Léon Blum stands at the meeting place of greatness and guilt in French politics. A Jew, he was one of the very few members of his community to rise to the highest offices of state in a Western nation (but we should not forget Disraeli, whom he admired). At the same time, the French reader cannot look without shame at Lacouture’s account of debates in the Chambre des Députés between 1920 and 1930, when every speech Blum made was interrupted by cries from the extreme Right, all of them coming down more or less to the two words: sale Juif. For the moment, we can pass over this distasteful episode in our history: anti-semitism is now taboo in France, at least in intellectual and political circles, and such incidents would be inconceivable today. Blum was born in 1872, to a Parisian family which originated in an intellectual and spiritual élite, the Jewish community of Alsace. After 1870, a minority of this minority emigrated to France, among them the parents of the Socialist leader, and it was to give the country some outstanding intellectual figures. Blum’s parents went into business in Paris and surviving photographs show the sons and the mother in iconographical terms remarkably close to those prevailing in Catholic or lay families of the period. France may have been superficially divided, but it was, without knowing it, an anthropological whole united at the level of its middle classes by the shared outlook of its bourgeois families. Young Léon attended the Ecole Normale, studied law, and married a girl from a Jewish background who had converted to Catholicism: thus confirming the impulse towards integration and the affirmation of ‘Frenchness’ which would typify his career, though it was quite lost on the nationalists of the far Right. Who could have been more genuinely French than Blum?

The heyday of Lacouture’s hero was la Belle Epoque, nostalgically recalled as a heyday for the country as a whole. In the years around 1900, he would spend his day as a conseiller d’Etat, leafing through legal papers. In the evening, he would go off to the theatre, to a light comedy or to a play written by one of his friends, before reviewing it for some literary magazine: this is not the summit of his literary achievement. He was part of fashionable society, the Tout-Paris, fought the odd duel with an author he had offended or wounded by an excessively unkind review, made friends and fell out with writers, including Barrès whose talent he admired while resenting his ultra right-wing opinions. He appears to have been a good husband and a model father, though he wrote an ironical book on the institution of marriage for which, though it anticipated later social attitudes, conventional minds were never to forgive him. Anti-Judaism was ingrained in France during the 1900s, despite the enlightened efforts of part of the Left and of some liberal Catholics, as well as Protestants, of course. Did he suffer from it? The artistic, musical and literary circles he frequented were generally quite ready to welcome Jews, and while racism was not entirely absent even there, it was less aggressive than elsewhere.

For a long time he was unenthusiastic about the Left, though circumstances made this the socio-political milieu towards which he would naturally gravitate. However, the Dreyfus affair had already made him a ‘militant’. He was acquainted with Lucien Herr, the Socialist librarian at the Ecole Normale in the Rue d’Ulm, who became the mentor of a whole generation. In defending Zola and the Dreyfusards, he got to know the Socialist orator Jaurès and expressed both admiration and affection for him. He took an interest in Karl Marx, whose work excited in him an admiration inversely proportional to the amount of it he had actually read. It was not difficult for the two circles, Socialist and Jewish, to meet, since both were on the fringes of French life up to 1914: the same is true of French Protestants who have always found a natural home in Republican movements. But it was the 1914-18 war which, more even than the Dreyfus affair, brought Léon Blum belatedly into politics – he was already over forty. The Union Sacrée, uniting Left and Right in a wartime coalition against Germany, put him at the head of a department in collaboration with Marcel Sembat, Minister of Public Works. As a Frenchman from Alsace, Blum’s sympathies were fully behind the struggle. He felt the assassination of Jaurès on 31 July 1914 as a personal tragedy, and, ironically, the event was to create a vacuum which would be filled over the next thirty years by a new Socialist leader, who would be Léon Blum. Still young enough to take over Jaurès’s mantle when the time came, Blum was too old to be called up and after the Great War, when so many young people had perished, he stepped into an empty seat. His generation was to find its opportunity in the inter-war years, in what is sometimes called ‘the country of old men’.

His first step up the ladder came with a successful speech on 21 April 1919, at a party meeting where he was seen for the first time, at 47, as both a potential leader and a conciliator. In December 1920, at the Congress of Tours, he headed the small minority clearsighted enough to reject the Bolshevik option adopted by the vast majority within the Socialist Party. Intelligent opposition to the Communists was to be one of the guiding principles in the life of this social-democratic leader, even across the working-class unity which was achieved for a few years under the Popular Front. The Congress of Tours was to launch (though outside the old confines of his party) a man who bravely denounced what was in effect a totalitarian takeover of French Socialism. He was one of the first to understand the extraordinary consistency of the Soviet system which gave the French ‘comrades’ no alternative but to submit or to break apart. In fact, as a Socialist, he remained loyal to the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and this was for a long time to remain central to his concept of French Socialism: but he refused to identify this dictatorship, which he saw as strong and working-class, with the militaristic tyranny of a few men in the Central Committee. Read in our own time of nomenklatura and Soviet despotism, Blum’s speeches of the 1920s have not aged. On his return from Tours, we find him at the Gare d’Austerlitz, holding his suitcase, and quixotically attempting, with a few other leaders of the social-democratic minority, to start putting together the pieces of what was, in fact, to become a great Socialist party.

The 1920s found him leading and rebuilding this new party – travelling across France, helping to re-establish its local organisations throughout the country. In 1924, he supported the Left Cartel: with the aid of the Socialists and against bitter opposition from the Communists, the Radicals formed a government to take over from the Republican Right of the bloc national. Unfortunately, the inability of the French Left to manage any monetary policy worthy of the name was to become evident for the first time in 1924 – it was to re-emerge in 1936 (and in 1981). In the 1920s, financial and fiscal incompetence thwarted the first victories of the progressive forces and, as usual, the incompetents themselves blamed the ‘200 families’, who were to enjoy the same role as scapegoats in France as the ‘gnomes of Zurich’ did for so long in Britain.

During this period, Blum achieved a major theoretical advance, distinguishing between the conquest of power (embodying true Socialism) and the mere exercise of power through which the party of the working class would faithfully manage capitalist society, while nonetheless attempting to bring in a few reforms. He also took part in some European Socialist activities with the founding of the Second International and worked as a journalist on the Socialist paper Le Populaire, investing his fortune in it, though it was never to achieve a large circulation. He was hated both by the anti-semitic Right and by the Communists: by the first because he was a Jew, by the second because he was an upper middle-class reformist intellectual. In a sense, the two streams met. It was during the 1920s that the first slanderous allegations were made about Blum’s gold plate, his country houses and princely style of life. Coming from Alsace, he was described as an eastern Asiatic – in other words, a Jew (though admittedly there are some French petty-bourgeois who think that the East begins with the Vosges or the Jura, at Saint-Dié or Bourg-en-Bresse). Things got to such a point that the Communist Jacques Duclos was able to beat him in an election in Paris, whereupon the Socialist leader found himself a seat at Narbonne, where he was returned by the ‘red’ (in more than one sense) wine-growers of the Aude and the Bas-Languedoc.

The 1930s saw the rise of the neo-Socialists, starting with Marcel Déat. Blum had been clear-sighted enough to reject Bolshevism: he now condemned the neo-Socialism of Déat and Marquet, some elements of which were to end up in Vichy. After the war, he regained the support of former neo-Socialists who had rejected Vichy and who once more became close friends.

Hitler’s access to power and the switch in Communist tactics allowed the two working-class parties to unite in a Popular Front, with Blum as its natural leader. His name is thus linked to the events of those years, beginning with the resistance which followed 6 February 1934 – a day of riots which have wrongly been described as ‘fascist’ and permanently relegated, not without exaggeration, to the chamber of horrors of the French Right – and followed by the union of Socialists and Communists. Then there were the 1936 elections, the unexpected strikes in June and the passing of welfare legislation, the Matignon agreements, wage rises, paid holidays, the nationalisation of the Bank of France and the aircraft factories: a new working class and its legend were to emerge from that fabulous summer of ’36.

Then decline and the outbreak of war. Intelligent as ever, Blum protested against the ridiculous banning of the Communist Party by Daladier, which pointlessly gave it the prestige of martyrdom. In July 1940 he was one of those courageous enough to vote against Pétain, although, having become an object of universal hatred, he preferred not to speak out on that occasion: it is all too easy to criticise him now. He was arrested in September 1940 and remained behind bars for five years, until May 1945 – first in various prisons in France, then in Buchenwald, admittedly in rather more acceptable conditions than the other deportees, and accompanied by his third wife (he was twice widowed). At the time of the Riom trial, during his years as a prisoner of Vichy, Blum was so successful in turning Pétainist arguments against his accusers that the trial had to be abandoned. In May 1945 he was liberated first by the Wehrmacht, then by the Americans.

The post-war period found him at the apogee of his prestige both in France and abroad. The anti-Jewish insults which had clouded his career from 1920 to 1945 were now definitely out of order and Maurras, their chief source, was under lock and key. Between the Communists, whom he roundly attacked in A l’Echelle Humaine and with whom he maintained a relationship of mutual detestation, the Gaullists, whom he liked but identified with an increasing tendency towards one-man rule, and the Americans, whose excessive influence he mistrusted, he tried to define the hard road of a humanist socialism. He also attempted (something which is greatly to his credit) to save the life of Pierre Laval, about whose execution de Gaulle was to show fewer scruples. In 1947 he served a final term as leader of the provisional government. Visiting the United States, he confirmed his deep-seated affection for Britain and America. He died in 1950 and received the final tribute of a slating from L’Humanité, like the other bêtes noires of the French Communist Party, among them André Gide, whom the PCF never forgave for his Retour d’URSS, any more than it forgave Blum’s L’Echelle Humaine. It is worth noting that throughout this career – the most stylish touch – ambition never reared its head (which does not mean that it was never there!).

Lacouture’s book is not without the occasional anachronism: can one really refer, even with poetic licence, to permanents (‘salaried officials’) and cellules (‘cells’) when speaking of Lucien Herr in 1890, given that these two words are meaningless except in relation to Communist jargon of the period 1930-60? Is it relevant to point to the absence of Socialist ideas from Blum’s youthful reviews and theatre criticism before 1914, when the synthesis between Socialism and culture – which in any case failed – would take on meaning only with Surrealism in the Twenties, with the review Commune in the Thirties, but chiefly, alas, from 1948 to 1955 with Zhdanovism? It is no less unreasonable to contradict Blum on his own (not improbable) assertion that Jaurès would have gone over to the side of patriotism, nationalism and even belligerence had he been alive during the 1914-18 war. The same applies to Blum’s collaboration with Sembat during his period as a minister in World War One: the categorical statement that this association taught Blum the destructive nature of participation in government for a revolutionary party indicates the presence of dogmatic preconception. Is it really so shocking that in 1918 Blum should have published a pamphlet full of common sense proposing a reinforcement of the executive? Can one speak of shared responsibility for the 1914-18 war, without mentioning the work of the German historians who (despite all the affirmations to the contrary in Socialist propaganda) emphasise the overwhelming responsibility of their own side for the outbreak of war? And why the ironical comment on the fact that Blum could appear at times as a timid forerunner of the Christian Democrats?

In the same way, phrases like ‘the bourgeois press’ are cliché’d and inadequate when speaking of right-wing papers if they are meant to suggest that the left-wing Populaire, for all its talent, is to be seen in contrast as a particularly working-class newspaper. And is it really valid to consider as equal the two dangers of radical parliamentary government and dogmatic Communism, given that the former – even when wrongly decried as vapidly populist – derives from the great traditions of French and English democracy, while the latter, during the Thirties, is connected with the development of one of the main varieties of 20th-century totalitarianism and represented in international terms by Stalin or by his disciples in the Comintern, including those of the PCF who were tightly controlled by Moscow (see Philippe Robrieux’s books on the subject)?

Lacouture describes France in the Thirties as a sick country of old men, suffering from alcoholism, proletarianisation and militarism. Militarism? It is a pity it was not more militaristic, given what happened in 1939 and 1940! After his pejorative assessment, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that in the Thirties this punch-drunk country achieved some remarkable feats in its cultural life, its politics, and even in its economic performance. Admittedly, the idea of this excessively sombre portrait is to highlight our enthusiasm for the wondrous advent of the 1936 Popular Front: but I still feel that these images d’Epinal have no place in historical writing. Even the outstanding name of Pierre Monatte is inadequate justification for a schematic overview that reduces the Twenties – a brilliant period in France from the economic, cultural and social point of view – to the mere defeat of the working class in 1919-20 under the oppressive weight of rationalisation: a defeat eventually crowned by the economic crisis of 1929-30. And there is further caricature in the implied belief that any significant growth in labour militancy (even if we accept that it occurred) inevitably serves as an example to the working class of Europe as a whole. Incredibly, the rescue of Poland by France in 1920 is described by the pejorative phrase ‘Holy Alliance’, which will surely cause an outcry among the many Poles who recall that 1920 was the last time the West managed to protect their country from domination by its two mighty neighbours, Germany and – on this occasion – Soviet Russia.

Apart from a few privileged départements like the Haute-Vienne, the Drôme and the Ain, is it really possible to describe the French peasantry, pre-1914, as being under the thumb of a semi-feudal and clerical conservatism? What this boils down to is a fundamental contempt for the peasantry. And what about the statement that the Soviet regime is not only the product of the violent genius of Lenin and the corruption of absolute power, but also of the passivity of the Russian people? Good God, if ever there was a people which was encouraged to be passive, not least by the exercise of sheer terror, from 1817 to 1920 ... An author who uses the phrase ‘passivity of the Russian masses’, says more about his own prejudices towards a great Slavonic people than about the facts as they really are.

I also wonder if the comparison between Albert Thomas, a worthy Socialist of the period from 1914 to 1918, and the Communist ministers of 1946-47, is either valid or relevant, given that the latter, though doubtless nice enough men, were in the last resort pure Stalinists. And it is hardly reasonable to equate anti-Communism with such disgraceful impulses as anti-semitism and anti-parliamentarism. The whole of Léon Blum’s career, from the Congress of Tours to his death (with the exception of the five years 1934-1938, in a political life of more than forty years), was fundamentally anti-Communist – though this does not imply that his attitudes were of the Right. So it is unreasonable to use this term, as here, in a pejorative sense, and to make it in any way comparable with anti-semitism. Lacouture similarly equates those responsible for the ‘white terror’ of 1815, the Chouans (despite the fact that they were rehabilitated many years ago by historians), the Restoration (which, as it should be unnecessary to point out, coincided with the definitive consolidation of the parliamentary regime by Louis XVIII), the men of 2 December 1851 – surely Napoleon III is a villain only for simple-minded readers of Victor Hugo? – and finally the Versaillais (can one really class Thiers with the Vendéens?). This kind of jumble may be excused as the result of hasty writing, but is untenable from the historical point of view.

In the same way, explaining popular unity between 1934 and 1936 by the Amsterdam-Pleyel movement, and only incidentally by the ideas of Jacques Doriot, is putting the cart before the horse. The Amsterdam-Pleyel movement was a booby-trap set up by the Comintern in 1932, at a time when there was no actual threat to peace, the trap on this occasion being called Barbusse and the booby Romain Rolland. Lacouture excuses Blum’s mistaken view of Hitler, by citing what was in 1937 still Roosevelt’s view: the latter’s authority and realism in strategic matters being, Lacouture says, much more widely recognised than those of Blum. Nothing could be less true. Whatever Roosevelt’s other qualities, it is generally recognised that he lacked any degree of lucidity, strategic realism or intellectual authority in European affairs.

There is, on the other hand, a very topical attack on Blum’s shortsightedness over disarmament: in this respect, he showed infinitely less lucidity than the ‘rightist’ Henri de Kérilis, which raises the whole question of the Left’s responsibility with respect to the outbreak of war in 1939, before the Right took on the admittedly far greater burden of guilt under the Vichy regime. Even here, however, the author does not entirely escape from his Manichean sense of good and evil: on page 240 the ‘Right’ in general (including Paul Raynaud?) is described as ridiculous and as stricken with panic, which in turn allows him to imagine the Left (even its Stalinist element) in the brightest colours, exhibiting every virtue. The fact that Lacouture as a teenager in Bordeaux during the Thirties was brought up, so he tells us, in Jesuit piety, does not justify him, forty years later, in reacting against this pious adolescence with simplifications at the other extreme. Bordeaux was the birthplace, after all, of Montaigne, Montesquieu and Mauriac – all three (and the first two in particular) outstanding examples of intellectual clear-sightedness.

The mistake here seems to lie in a rudimentary Marxism which confuses the ‘Right’ – that is to say, a very large minority of the French people, nearly 50 per cent of whom voted against the Popular Front – with the ‘bourgeoisie’. When political science is replaced by crude pseudo-sociology in this way, it falls into the error long ago denounced by Pierre Birnbaum in his book Le Peuple et les Gros. Indeed, the author himself recognises by implication that his sociology is at fault when he contrasts the terrified faces of conservative shopkeepers with the left-wing delight of the Malraux in 1936. If it is essential to pursue this sociological metaphor, surely what we have is a contrast between a right-wing lower class and representatives, however exceptional, of a left-wing intellectual bourgeoisie – the Malraux.

A similar exaggeration occurs on page 253 with the assessment that Blum’s reformist populism (certainly well-inspired) could alone save France from economic disaster: in reality, Blum’s economic policies were a failure and France was not in any case on the brink of economic collapse. This same Blumist populism, Lacouture goes on, could alone save France from a bloody revolution: who would claim that this decidedly petty-bourgeois country was close to a violent revolution?

And so on and so forth. Was the clenched fist of the ‘reds’, condemned by the five French cardinals, as shrewd as Lacouture pretends (page 273)? Did he have to join the general offensive against Guy Mollet, who was not the worst general secretary of the Socialist Party, despite his subsequent failure in Algeria for reasons which were due not only to his incompetence but also to opposition from the Right and the Gaullists? Inevitably the concept of the Right serves to condemn both certain individual Socialists (e.g. Guy Mollet) whom the author dislikes, and also the entire MRP (despite that party’s quite positive liberal and European record) and, naturally, de Gaulle’s RPF.

The powerful anti-Communist message of Blum’s book A l’Echelle Humaine is dismissed in two lines on page 427 which refer to the destructive nature of the alliance with the Communists at one particular time. And Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, a pleasant man, a courageous member of the Resistance, the PCF’s dandy (or ‘talon rouge’), was certainly not, as Lacouture would have us believe, one of the two most brilliant intellectuals of his generation. And can one speak of Pierre Cot and merely mention (with no deeper analysis) the pro-Soviet and pro-Communist leanings which were such an integral part of the man?

Turning now to the Church: Monseigneur Dupanloup was not at all a reactionary Christian in the way that the two fools Polignac and Mac-Mahon were ‘one a Royalist, the other a soldier’. Despite an obscene song which will unfortunately condemn Dupanloup’s name to eternal ridicule, he was an open-minded, liberal Catholic and a credit to his Church.

Finally, Lacouture discusses the problems of ‘gaining power’ and ‘building Socialism’ in 1936. He very sensibly remarks that these were not possible. But another question deserved to be asked which is barely touched on in the book: namely, whether this building of Socialism was politically and morally desirable. The fact that, ‘as the Communist historian Pierre Vilar says’, the bourgeoisie at this time was running very scared does not automatically mean that the hard Socialist option which put the wind up them would therefore have been a good thing for France. What is good for General Motors is good for America, they say, but what is bad for the French bourgeoisie and good for the ‘building of Socialism’ is not necessarily good for the French.

The book is, however, correct in observing certain fundamental distinctions, such as that made by Blum between class struggle and class action: this distinction is highly topical. It is a lively work, and the criticisms I have made are concerned chiefly with points of detail.