Exit Sartre

Fredric Jameson

  • Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 by Tony Judt
    California, 348 pp, £11.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 520 08650 3
  • Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Post-War France by Sunil Khilnani
    Yale, 264 pp, £19.95, December 1993, ISBN 0 300 05745 8

These two books take an essentially British perspective on the history of fellow-travelling in France since World War Two. Armed with the magic cap of François Furet’s ‘demystification’ of the Revolutionary ethos, they advance prudently into the thicket, gazing with chaste perplexity (and occasional exasperation) on the peculiar mores and customs of the denizens of outre-Manche, and in particular dwelling at some length on the Gallic overestimation of intellectuals as well as of the only too familiar (but evidently now extinct) ‘desire called revolution’. There is in this something of the wide-eyed fascination of children confronting an incomprehensible adult sexuality, but also a mild breath of the pastoral vocation. More modestly than those American economists who undertook to bring the good news of free enterprise to the post-Soviet dark ages in Eastern Europe, these writers both take satisfaction in their commitment to an ancient tradition of Anglo-American liberalism, whose moral and intellectual benefits they are prepared discreetly to administer to the Continent at the appropriate hour of need.

I have used the word ‘history’: but it is not altogether clear that these books are histories in any conventional sense, although in the case of Judt it is only fair to inform the reader that his equivalent of Khilnani’s project is not this volume – which is something like an extended pamphlet, on the order, as he says himself, of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Idéologie française – but rather his more comprehensive Marxism and the French Left (1986), which sets out to tell this story from the 19th century to the present, and not merely, as Khilnani frames it in his book, from the Liberation of Paris to that other ‘liberation’ incarnated by Furet. Past Imperfect restricts its inquiry to the period between 1944 and 1956; since, with the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, ‘began not so much a change of mood as a transfer of allegiances’, the cause of the Third World now being substituted for that of the discredited Soviet Union, while later still, Chinese enthusiasms take the place of the commitment to ‘wars of national liberation’ and conjugate unexpectedly with internal French student issues. Each of these phases is marked by a diminution in the prestige and influence of the French Communist Party (and a new burgeoning of extreme-left or gauchiste extra-parliamentary groups), which touches something of a nadir with its opposition to the student rebellion of May 1968.

As these writers see it, then, the Seventies are characterised by a rapid decomposition of the Left. I think Khilnani is quite right to identify the signing of the Common Programme of the Left, in 1972, as the crucial moment at which a whole range of self-identified leftists, from older progressistes to anti-Soviet gauchistes, suddenly begin to wonder, at the prospect of an electoral victory finally bringing the Communist Party to power, whether that was really what they had in mind after all. I also take the point that the French publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1974 gave disgruntled intellectuals (the so-called New Philosophers) a prime media occasion – although the existence of the camps was well-known to the older generation, as witness Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel, The Mandarins.

At any rate, after a near-miss in 1978, suspiciously punctuated by Aldo Moro’s kidnapping, the union of the Communist and new Socialist Parties, when it came to power in 1981, confronted a thoroughly de-Marxified France from which left intellectual culture as these books describe it had utterly disappeared. Judt needs to end his story in 1956 because his target is an intelligentsia single-mindedly intent on defending the Soviet Union: the subsequent commitment to the anti-imperialist struggle does not quite suit his purposes, for it could not easily be condemned in the same way, while ‘fellow-travelling’scarcely seems the right word for the delirium of the Maoist years. Neither book has much to say about the most traumatic experiences of those years – namely, the wars of national liberation in Vietnam and Algeria. These were decisive events and experiences for the French Left, and their absence from these books is astonishing; but of course, Vietnam and Algeria do not fit the anti-Communist arguments offered here.

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