Three Decent Frenchmen

June 1, 1999 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: Academia

Three Decent Frenchmen

Mini Teaser: Three European intellectuals who were also honorable men.

by Author(s): Daniel J. Mahoney

Tony Judt, The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 196 pp., $17.50.

The intellectual is a distinctive product of the modern Enlightenment and his virtue is assuredly not "responsibility." As traced by the principal commentators on this new social type, he is marked first and foremost by an ungrounded confidence in "progress", in the forward march of history, and by a desire to eliminate all obstacles to its realization. He dreams of a "symmetrical" or uniform world where the messiness and contingency of ordinary political life is overcome. He is prone to a "literary" view of politics that ignores the constraints facing the acting citizen and statesman.

Benjamin Constant famously emphasized that the modern intellectual is tempted to identify with arbitrary power, as long as it is carried out in the name of the sovereignty of the people. The modern landscape is strewn with examples of intellectuals justifying "popular" or revolutionary despotism. Edmund Burke provided the first full-fledged sociology of modern revolution, locating some of the fanaticism of the French Revolution in the liberation from traditional restraints characteristic of both the littŽrateurs and their allies, the new, ascendant monied interests in France.

Tocqueville, too, saw the literary spirit as a contributing cause of the Revolution as well as a continuing hallmark of French and modern intellectual culture. In Recollections, his remarkable memoir of the revolution of 1848, Tocqueville provides his most lucid discussion of the literary spirit in politics. He was deeply disturbed by the enthusiasm that the French intellectuals displayed for the overthrow of the corrupt and plutocratic, yet tolerably decent, liberal Orlanist monarchy in 1848. Tocqueville was dismayed by the blind faith that many intellectuals placed in the efficacy of revolutionary action. In a memorable passage in Recollections, he describes an encounter with his friend Ampre who, to his surprise, did not share Tocqueville's own "grief" over the outbreak of an unnecessary revolution that would further undermine the prospects for ordered liberty in France. Tocqueville commented that the "good nature[d]" Ampre "was too much inclined to carry the spirit of a salon over into literature and that of literature into politics. What I call the literary spirit in politics consists in looking for what is ingenious and new rather than for what is true, being fonder of what makes an interesting picture than what serves a purpose, being very appreciative of good acting and fine speaking without reference to the play's results, and finally, judging by impressions rather than reasons."

But the literary spirit is not, Tocqueville suggests, "confined to Academicians. To tell the truth, the whole nation shares it a little, and the French public as a whole often takes a literary man's view of politics." What an imposing image: an entire nation addicted to literary politics and political irresponsibility! At some level, this has always been the lament of the "English party" (the constitutionalists who oppose both revolutionary excesses and reactionary nostalgia) in French politics. It is a complaint renewed in the scholarship of Tony Judt.

In his controversial Past Imperfect (1992), Judt levied a thoroughgoing indictment against the illiberalism and "fellow-traveling" of the pro-Stalinist French intelligentsia in the period between 1944 and 1956. His book stressed the rare moral courage of those figures such as Franois Mauriac, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus who refused to succumb to the totalitarian temptation. Judt's indictment sometimes lacked nuance, underestimated the pro-communist or progressivist sentiments of intellectuals outside France, and to some French readers read like a scolding apology for the superiority of Anglo-American civic culture over a hopelessly misguided French one. But the book remains one of the best accounts of the terrible irresponsibility inherent in historicism as such--the suspension of ordinary political judgment and of common sense standards of good and evil inevitably leads to servile apologies for inhuman dictatorships as long as they call themselves "progressive." Whatever its rhetorical excesses, Past Imperfect is at its best an intelligent renewal of the Tocquevillian critique of literary politics. One reviewer, John Sturrock, in the New York Times Book Review no less, went so far as to question the idea that responsibility is something that should be demanded of intellectuals. Sartre, he suggested, had the right to all of his opinions and "to have been as irresponsible as he liked."

In his new book, The Burden of Responsibility, Judt questions the presumption that lies behind that reviewer's defense of Sartre, namely, the assertion of the value of commitment as an end in itself. Modern intellectuals too often speak a "decisionist" language defending a course of action based upon an actor's (or thinker's) "good intentions" or "sincerity" or simply his histrionic "commitment" to a cause. They transform irresponsibility into a virtue, into what Max Weber called in his 1919 essay on "Politics as Vocation" the "ethics of conviction", with its preoccupation with "ultimate ends." Weber famously put forward an alternative "ethics of responsibility", in which the political thinker or actor takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions. What most defenders of Weber's famous distinction ignore is that for Weber the choice for responsibility itself is the result of an arbitrary decision. In his new book, Judt surely defends a more responsible version of responsibility, one closer to Tocqueville's guiding purpose of "seeing not differently but further than the parties."

Judt chooses three admirable representatives of his virtue: the French socialist leader LŽon Blum (1872-1950), the famous French writer and moralist Albert Camus (1913-60), and the greatest French political thinker of the post-World War II period, Raymond Aron (1905-83). Judt shows that these three French public figures were outsiders as well as insiders, marginalized to some extent by the illiberal currents within French political culture. They were all subject to "the misunderstanding of Paris."

Blum was a man of remarkable decency who tried, in his own way, to modernize French socialism as well as French political life. A genuine intellectual within a workers' party, a non-believing Jew in a country laden with often vicious anti-Semitism, a proud adherent of France's revolutionary tradition who deplored the totalitarian character of Leninist socialism, Blum was a man of contradictions in an age of contradictions. However, while he was a man of eminent integrity, an anti-totalitarian socialist and patriot, he was hardly a model of political responsibility. He had the good sense to discern the illiberal propensities inherent in the Bolshevik Revolution from the very beginning but he refused a full break with the communists because it would give them a monopoly of France's revolutionary heritage. He was against communist totalitarianism but with the communists against "capitalism."

Judt chronicles the extent to which Blum remained a partisan of the revolutionary tradition and therefore quintessentially a man of the Left. At times, he exaggerates Blum's clairvoyance about communism and hence the extent of his political responsibility. Judt establishes Blum's willingness to reconsider old prejudices, particularly his willingness to recognize the democratic and patriotic credentials of General de Gaulle during World War II, as well as his reconsideration late in his political career of the socialist mania for regulation and state management of the economy. But Judt also shows that Blum's personal and political decency coexisted with fundamentally utopian political impulses. He admits, somewhat grudgingly, that the Popular Front government headed by Blum in 1936-37 pursued economically disastrous policies. While eloquently criticizing Blum for his propensity to agonize publicly over his political and doctrinal dilemmas, calling it a form of "angŽlisme" wholly "inappropriate in a statesman", he persists in affirming Blum as a model of responsibility.

The evidence that Judt provides suggests an alternative interpretation. Blum was certainly the noblest figure within twentieth-century French socialism. He went a long way in freeing himself from its ideological blinders and his commitment to French democracy was certainly beyond reproach. He was sometimes willing to consider reforms, such as a Gaullist-style move toward presidential government, that were anathema to less thoughtful and more ideological men of the Left. In the public life of interwar France, marked by "incompetence, . . . insouciance and the culpable negligence of the men who governed the country and represented its citizens", Blum stands out as a great man of sorts, as the non-socialist Aron always insisted. Yet he remained a prisoner of the debilitating Left-Right dichotomy that had dominated French intellectual and political life since the Revolution, and, as Judt concedes, his leftist partisanship often reinforced the divisions that would do so much to contribute to the calamity of 1940. Blum is an eminently admirable figure, but he remained too ideological in his thought and action to embody the true greatness of political responsibility.

If Blum and Aron remained "outsiders" in a France in which they played publicly prominent roles, they at least lived long enough to receive recognition, even acclamation, from the French public. This was not the case with Albert Camus. By the time of his death in a car accident on January 4, 1960, and less than three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus was an increasingly marginalized figure, ignored by Parisian elites who dismissed him as a vulgar thinker, a mere popularizer of philosophical ideas who held heterodox and increasingly perverse political views. It is only in the last decade and a half that his critical reputation has been rehabilitated in France.

The writer who helped glamorize "existentialist" philosophy after World War II had moved far from the world of existentialist commitment, spending the last fifteen years of his life searching for a principled ground for political moderation and articulating a firm sense of human and natural limits. In a conversation with Sartre, Malraux, Koestler and Mans Sperber as early as October of 1946, he had already radically questioned the core presuppositions behind existentialist commitment: "What if we, who all came out of Nietzscheanism, nihilism and historical realism, what if we announced publicly that we were wrong; that there are moral values and that henceforth we shall do what has to be done to establish and illustrate them."

Camus spent the rest of his life attempting to do precisely that. He insisted that "violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable", even when committed in the name of socialism or the liberation of the people. In a manner reminiscent of George Orwell, Camus distinguished between the nihilistic desire to destroy the existing world tout court and the decent man's rebellion against unacceptable injustice. His 1951 essay on revolution and rebellion, L'Homme rŽvoltŽ (translated into English as The Rebel) earned the scorn of the leftist intellectuals who confused a critique of political prometheanism with a failure to commit oneself. The publication of The Rebel led to his famous break with Sartre, ratified by a thundering excommunication by the "master thinker" of the existentialist Left in the pages of Les Temps modernes.

Long acutely aware of his status as an outsider (he was very much an Algerian and, to make matters worse, did not have the credentials that came from attending one of the distinguished grandes Žcoles), Camus suffered from severe doubts about the philosophical seriousness of his work. But like Raymond Aron, he refused to accept the regnant "authority of History" and applications of separate criteria of judgment to liberal regimes in the West and communist regimes in the East. His rejection of "Nietzscheanism" meant a rejection of all forms of historical and moral relativism. The existential novelist became the very embodiment of public moral responsibility, defending the age-old distinction between good and evil in an age enamoured of the distinction between the progressive and reactionary. His was less a distinctively political responsibility than a moral refusal to succumb to Machiavellianism dressed up in fashionable historicist garb. Not surprisingly, he was best appreciated by those who had first-hand knowledge of totalitarianism and the ideological lie: Hannah Arendt and Czeslaw Milosz, in particular, admired his honesty, his almost religious commitment to truth and decency.

Judt rightly insists that Camus was, in last resort, "an unpolitical man" who examined political life almost completely through the lenses of moral criteria. In the case of the Algerian war, this led to a tragic paralysis of sorts. Camus was torn between his hatred of revolutionary violence and his belief that European Algerians had a right to keep Algeria as a home, on the one hand, and his acute sense of the injustices that marked the French treatment of native Algerians, on the other. Raymond Aron, too, had no illusions about the revolutionary FLN in Algeria and was not committed to "anti-colonialism" as an ideology or moral imperative. Yet he was certain that demographic realities (the Arab population in Algeria had much higher growth rates than the population in metropolitan France) made integration of Algeria in a French "union" impossible. He also recognized that while Algerians were likely to be more poorly governed by their fellow nationals, the desire for self-government was natural, and in the long run probably irresistible. Camus certainly demonstrated that political judgment cannot abstract from moral criteria but his example also reveals that it is not reducible to it. Raymond Aron understood this truth as well as anyone in "the French twentieth century."

Judt provides a concise and largely accurate account of Raymond Aron's life and thought. Far more than Blum or Camus, Aron approached political choice from the perspective of the engaged citizen and statesman. After witnessing the rise of Nazi tyranny up close as a student in Germany between 1931 and 1933, he cured himself of youthful pacifist and socialist illusions. All of his scholarly and journalistic writings were a conscious and deliberate response to "literary politics." He wrote in his Memoirs that "for a half-century I have restricted my own criticisms by posing this question--what would I do in their [the statesmen's] place?" While his political and journalistic writings were largely ignored by the left-wing Parisian elites, at least until the late 1970s, they gained a ready audience among policymakers, government technocrats and the citizenry at large. His conservative choice of the statesman's perspective was rooted in a philosophy of history that emphasized both the legitimate plurality of interpretations of the past and the crucial role that human choice and deliberation play in effecting the course of history. Aron rejected any faith in a global historical determinism as a superstition or "secular religion" that undermined human and political responsibility. In order to contribute a bit of reason to public life, Aron believed that the philosopher must become a political scientist or sociologist who studies the realities of modern societies and thus familiarizes himself with the concrete choices facing political actors.

As Judt rightly emphasizes, Aron believed that a commitment to "total revolution" led to a false and ultimately debilitating disjunction between revolutionary action in theory and inertia in practice. This was the false dichotomy put forward by Sartre and the other partisans of "commitment." Instead, Aron emphasized a sober ethic rooted in the truth of "probabilistic determinism", the fact that human choice always operates within certain contours or restraints such as the inheritance of the past; the major trends or forces characteristic of modern society, such as globalization, urbanization and industrialization; and, finally, the enduring limits set by the nature of man and society. Such an understanding allows the statesman and theorist to avoid the Scylla of voluntarism and the Charybdis of determinism. It provided the theoretical ground of Aron's defense of political moderation.

Here and there Judt goes astray--underestimating Aron's postwar distancing from his own pre-war "existentialism", going too far in assimilating the Aronian notion of responsibility to that of Weber (too indebted to "Nietzschean nihilism" in Aron's view) and on the whole ignoring certain key texts (such as "Science and Consciousness of Society", 1960, and "Fanaticism, Prudence and Faith", 1956) that illuminate the Aronian understanding of political judgment. The latter text in particular is Aron's magisterial response to the efforts by Sartre and other French intellectuals to fuse Marxist historicism and existentialist commitment in a way that jettisons any concern with political moderation and prudence. In that text, which supplements and explains the intention of The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), Aron makes clear that his own conservative-minded liberalism is based not upon radical skepticism about principles per se but rather on legitimate skepticism about "schemes, models and utopias." Progressive intellectuals and fellow-traveling Christians found a "sacred value" in revolution not because they believed too much but because they succumbed to nihilism and thus were led to "invest the historical movement with reason after having divested it of man." They had lost "authentic faith" in solid principles and were thus prone to moral and political fanaticism. Unable to affirm the dignity of non-utopian thought and action, refusing to work for the "safeguarding of personal or intellectual freedom" within modern mass societies, utopian intellectuals were led to take a "pyramid builder" such as Stalin "for its God."

Aron worked to recover the intellectual and moral ground of reasonable action. Judt has many illuminating things to say about his quarrels with the French intellectuals, his refusal of all moralistic posturing, his understanding of the need to embody freedom in sturdy civic institutions under the rule of law, and his distinctive brand of international relations realism. He lucidly shows how Aron's "realistic" understanding of statecraft allowed for the decisive role that ideology and ideas play in the self-understanding of nations. Above all, he articulates the ways in which Aron's realism entails something much more than a polemical rejection of idealism. He writes intelligently about Aron's difficulty in coming to terms with his Judaism and the ways in which his ultimate refusal "to break his links with Judaism and Israel" reveals "the outer limits of Aronian rationalism." But about Aron's political philosophy proper he is much less helpful. He appreciates that there is something of permanent value in Aron's political perspective, but he is more successful in showing how Aron helps us to understand the problems of France and Europe in the twentieth century than he is in establishing how Aron might continue to speak to citizens in a post-Cold War world.

Tony Judt has written an eloquent and engaging account of the moral and political dilemmas that marked "the French twentieth century." He provides fascinating portraits of three decent men who tried to see beyond the limits of a French political culture still largely defined by the conflict between the Left and Right, between the partisans of the French Revolution "as a bloc" and its inveterate critics and opponents. All three saw through the pretenses of Leninist communism and came, in different ways and with varying intensity, to identify unflagging opposition to communism with partisanship for liberty and human dignity. Blum did so as a man of the Left, trying to save its honor from mutilation by apologists for a new Caesarism. Yet despite immense personal and political courage, he was never able to free himself from the great illusion that the division between the Left and Right provided the key to the understanding of modern politics. As Judt shows, Camus was sometimes tempted by a facile attribution of "moral equivalence" between the faults of liberal societies and those of totalitarian ones. But he didn't really believe this and it is best understood as a residue of leftist or ideological thinking. In contrast, Blum never fully left ideology behind but instead forged a remarkably prudent political course within the limits of an ideological understanding of reality. Camus and Aron came to reject completely what Aron called "the myth of the Left" and "the myth of the revolution" while Blum pursued decent political options within the framework of those myths.

Judt might have looked for a third model of responsibility in someone like the Catholic writer and political commentator Franois Mauriac, who identified political responsibility in the French twentieth century with opposition to Left and Right totalitarianism alike and with support for de Gaulle's refounding and revitalization of French institutions and national spirit. (Judt's failure to do so is explained in part by his too ready identification of Gaullism with illiberalism and authoritarianism.) That would have made for a more coherent book, one more clearly centered on the dilemmas of responsibility in the French twentieth century. But all reservations aside, this book contributes to the necessary task of coming to terms with the meaning and perplexities of an all too tragic century.

Essay Types: Book Review