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The Rise of the Nouveaux Liberals | The Nation

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The Rise of the Nouveaux Liberals

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Nothing is louder than the silence of intellectuals. This summer the French government's chief press spokesman, Max Gallo, accused left-wing intellectuals of not speaking out in support of President François Mitterrand. Gallo's charges, which were made in a front-page article in Le Monde, unleashed a flood of polemic, for months filling the columns of that paper and overflowing into others. Much ado about nothing? To some extent the affair was an example of literary politics at their most comic, but it also had its serious side.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Since at least 1898, when French intellectuals issued a manifesto petitioning for the reopening of the Dreyfus case, the word "intelligentsia" has usually been associated with the left. Its silence today, therefore, is eloquent. In the capital of commitment, of engagement, there has been a shift to the right. The political "mistakes" of Jean-Paul Sartre are being discussed and contrasted to the "wisdom" of his former school friend, the liberal conservative Raymond Aron. The rightward shift is not limited to France, of course, and it raises a series of questions. The French case might help us understand the changed climate throughout the world.

Let us begin on the lighter side, in Paris. Every literary circus has its clowns. Among the mourners and critics of the French left is, inevitably, Jean-Edern Hallier, former editor of the Idiot International, who for the sake of a headline could bury his grandmother and not just socialism. Or take a writer who is perhaps better known in the United States: Philippe Sollers, former editor of Tel Quel, who is living proof, in political terms, of the proposition that weather vanes never change, only the wind. During the revolt of May 1968 he cursed the rebellious students because they did not toe the line of the great party of the working class. Next he condemned the French Communist Party and almost everyone else on the left in the name of Chairman Mao and his "little red book." Now he is a convert to Reaganism and religion. If there is something peculiarly French in all this jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon, it is the speed and arrogance with which the act is performed. Yesterday's errors justify today's wisdom: you are considered wise because you were stupid, a voyanl ("seer") because you were blind.

Which brings us to more eminent figures, like historian Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie, who preaches that "totalitarian communism" is the root of all evil and the Soviet Union the greatest threat confronting humankind. He was, and presumably still is, a serious scholar. He became a television personality in 1975, when his book Montaillou: The Occitan Village became a surprise best seller. Since then he has been a familiar name in the media, lecturing on communism and the Soviet bloc. Apparently, if one is an authority on medieval peasants in the Languedoc, one is considered an expert on collective farmers in the Crimea. Ladurie has another reason for sermonizing: like many people of the generation that grew up during World War II, he joined the Communist Party after the war and left it when he became disillusioned with Stalinism.

Stalin having died thirty years ago, however, the number of former Communists who are still trying to atone publicly for their Stalinist sins is dwindling. Hence, to understand the changed mood in France one must look at another acrobatics act, the somersault of the so-called nouveaux philosophes. In Britain and America, where the Communist Party was weak, the public recantation coincided with the advent of the cold war in the late 1940s. Its essence was captured in the title of the 1949 book The God That Failed, which contained the apologies of prominent ex-Communists like Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender and Richard Wright. In France the public soul-searching came a quarter of a century later and at a much lower level. The "children of Marx and Coca-Cola," the Maoist offspring of the revolts of 1968, "discovered" the existence of Russian concentration camps in Solzhenitsyn's books and concluded that Marx was the great begetter of barbed wire. Some of these nouveaux philosophes were duly celebrated in a Time cover story.

The new philosophers no longer make the headlines. The most clever among them, André Glucksmann, now criticizes Mitterrand for being too soft on Qaddafi in Chad. The career of the prettiest and the best self-promoter, Bernard-Henri Levy, belies the truth of the French saying "Ridicule kills." In a devastating review of his Barbarism With a Human Face, historian P. Vidal-Naquet demonstrated that Levy had got his facts all wrong, but the intellectual dandy survived that execution and is still a power in publishing. If the nouveaux philosophes are no longer as prominent as they were in the 1970s, it is because they have fulfilled their function--by which I don't mean the minor role they played in the 1978 elections, when they were allowed on television to warn viewers that if they voted for the Socialists they would end up in the gulags.

No, these born-again freedom fighters have played a larger role in French intellectual life. The pillars of the establishment were shaken in the 1960s, when a new generation questioned alienating work, economic and social injustice and the absurdities of the consumer society. In France and in Italy, students and young workers outlined terms of a possible alliance. Women and ecologists added their concerns to the left's agenda. In the 1970s, the world economic crisis could have provided the movement with what it needed most--unity of purpose.

The powers that be realized that such a unification had to be prevented. They had to discredit not just the Russian experiment but the idea of revolution itself. This dirty job had to be carried out by young ex-leftists whose ideological wounds were still bleeding. A Raymond Aron lecturing on the Soviet hell and defending capitalism as a lesser evil wouldn't do in the mid-1970s. He would have drawn yawns. But the political mood does change in seven years. When Aron's memoirs were published a few weeks ago, they were praised to the skies by his critics, and on his death in October, the funeral orations were so unanimously laudatory that it seemed the divide between left and right had vanished.

The collapse of the Soviet model as a radical alternative and the concomitant decline in the influence of Western Communist Parties have certainly contributed to the resurgence of conservatism. As a result it is often argued (even, occasionally, in the pages of The Nation) that it is a mistake for the left to criticize the Soviet Union. With our enemies busy slandering the Soviet bloc, the argument runs, the left should husband its scarce resources and limit its criticism to domestic or capitalist targets. I think that attitude is both wrong and politically shortsighted.

In contrasting Aron's "wisdom" on the Soviet Union to Sartre's "foolishness," conservative manipulators ignore the historical context of the debate. The cold war and the Korean conflict are forgotten. American imperialism did not exist. It is conveniently forgotten that organs of "cultural freedom," like Encounter or Preuves, and the "free" labor unions, like Force Ouvriére, were financed by the C.I.A. The right's distortion of the past is facilitated by the fact that for a number of years not only faithful Stalinists but agnostics like Sartre chose to keep silent on the Soviet Union's crimes so as "not to bring despair to Boulogne Billancourt," the Paris suburb where the Renault auto works is located, regarded as the fortress of the French working class. The cover-up inevitably boomeranged. When the truth came out, the establishment's spokesmen had an easy time lumping together communism and the concentration camp.

But should the left play fair with an opponent who is permanently cheating? The answer is, Yes: our morals and our aims are very different. The right, whose purpose is to preserve the rule of a privileged minority, can do so only by fooling most of the people some of the time. The left can win only through the political education of the majority. If socialism is conceived not as a gift from above but as a gradual acquisition of power by politically conscious working people, then success through deceit is by its very nature self-defeating. This does not mean that the left is disarmed facing its domestic adversary. Quite the contrary. Having clearly specified its own reasons for attacking Andropov or Jaruzelski, the left can expose the hypocrisy of the right.

In particular, it can expose the latest bunch of turncoats as they follow the familiar road from heretic to renegade, to borrow a phrase from the title of one of Isaac Deutscher's books. Their odyssey began during the Algerian war when they accused the French C.P. of not being sufficiently anti-colonialist; now they urge Mitterrand to act as the gendarme of Africa. The same people who in 1968 accused the Communists of betraying the anticapitalist revolution are now the staunchest defenders and panegyrists of capitalist society. The truth of their early charges does not render their present posture any prettier. Far from it.

France's great accusers of Stalinism have borrowed its methods. They use innuendo, libel and guilt by association to discredit opponents. We have no proof that pacifists are in the pay of the K.G.B., they say, but objectively"... Recalling Zhdanov at the height of the cold war, they insist on the idea of the "principal enemy"--in their case the Soviet Union--which allows them to turn a blind eye to crimes perpetrated in Chile and El Salvador. Describing local Communists as "Red fascists," they have even managed to revive, in a new guise, Stalin's blundering characterization of Nazism and social democracy as "twin evils," in the early 1930s.

In Paris this "antitotalitarian" campaign is approaching its second climax. The first came around 1979. The new philosophers had laid the groundwork for the return of what once was called the "respectful left"--respectful of capitalism, that is, though the derisive nickname was inspired by Sartre's play The Respectful Prostitute. At the turn of the decade these "moderates" wanted the Socialist Party to choose a new leader, Michel Rocard, and break off its alliance with the Communists. Mitterrand was regarded as an obstacle to victory and rudely told to get out of the way. He refused to oblige. Not only did he win the battle for the leadership of the party; he won the battle for the presidency as well. On the morning after the election, it was rather enjoyable to see his groveling ex-critics eat their words. But they didn't change their minds. They merely shut up for a year or so, until the postvictory euphoria wore off. Then, as the Socialist government got bogged down and resigned itself to adapting to its capitalist environment, they gradually recovered their voices. This time, they raised them in praise: Mitterrand stands up to the Russians, they cried; hence, his foreign policy is marvelous. He has become more realistic in economics and he recently dropped the very idea of class struggle. Now he need only draw the logical conclusion and kick the Communists out of the government.

The French Communist Party is prone to hand its opponents sticks to beat it with: its attacks on Lech Walesa and Solidarity are only the most recent examples of that proclivity. The party's critics naturally take advantage of those opportunities, though they often use them merely as a pretext for slamming the party--not for its very real faults but because of its past image as a revolutionary force and a defender of the interests of the working class. The present campaign of the renegade intellectuals is aimed at reviving the idea of a "third force"--though not in the international sense of making France, and ultimately Europe, a neutral party between the superpowers. The campaigners are pro-NATO and violently hostile to the pacifist movement. Neutralism has lost a great deal of ground in France. Le Monde used to be painful prose for the U.S. State Department because of its nonaligned positions; now it makes pleasant reading. Whether it rains in Lithuania or shines in Alabama, its editorials continually draw the same conclusion: Europe needs the Pershing 2s and the cruises.

What the French cold warriors have in mind is a domestic third force, an alliance of the center against "both extremes." This would involve no change in foreign policy, but at home it would mean a deal between moderate left and moderate right, between social democrats and liberal conservatives. In other words, the subordination of labor to capital. There is a precedent for such a realignment, though not one that sponsors of the policy care to mention. Nearly thirty years ago a similar coalition was formed under the notorious Guy Mollet. Mollet was the "socialist" Prime Minister who presided over the Algerian war and the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. The principal gravedigger of the Fourth Republic, he was also responsible for the slow death of the S.F.I.O., as the Socialist Party was known before its resurrection under Mitterrand's auspices.

Pressures on the left to move toward the center are not strictly a French phenomenon. In Britain, the Social Democratic Party was founded with a similar goal. Such an idea makes sense from the point of view of the establishment. The economic crisis leads to polarization in politics. The right grasped this fact at once and immediately dropped the mask of consensus. The left's logical counter to that move would be greater radicalization, and the establishment is trying to prevent this by hook or by crook. In Britain, the Social Democratic Party was founded to counteract the leftward shift of the Labor Party. The campaign in France has the same objective. This similarity suggests that the collapse of the Soviet model is not the main cause of the present disarray of the left. It might have played a crucial role in France or Italy, which have large Communist Parties, but not in Germany, Britain or the United States, where the left is also faltering. The left is bewildered because it has no coherent and credible answer to the economic crisis.

In his call for leftist intellectuals to speak in support of the government, Max Gallo was both foolish and wise. Foolish because if they do raise their voices it will be to condemn the government, to contrast yesterday's promises with today's practices, which differ so little from those of previous governments. The traditional gap between dream and reality? No, the traditional betrayal of socialist principles for the sake of subservience to the logic of the capitalist system. On the other hand, Gallo was wise because a left-wing government stands no chance of success without offering solutions that are reached through an open debate. Mitterrand is threatened not only by the silence of the intellectuals but by the mass desertion of his supporters.

The Socialists having rapidly reverted to the management of capitalist society and the Communists being still tied to the Soviet model, a great deal of the blame for the present plight belongs to those who call themselves members of the New Left. While the economy was still booming, they raised the right questions about the reorganization of the workplace, about new patterns of consumption and about attacking state power at its roots in social inequality. Yet when the economic crisis placed those issues on the political agenda, these people vanished from the scene. It will be argued that new ideas and projects can't arise without foment from below, without a social movement demanding them. But there can also be no progressive social movement without ideas, without a project.

Time is running out. Amid increased social tensions, the right is revealing its ugly fascist face. The left, if it wants to avoid total defeat, must begin, however belatedly, to find its own way out instead of accepting borrowed ideas. It should ignore the turncoats who are exploiting conditions in Eastern Europe for their own ends, crying, Gulag, Gulag to conceal vested interests. Our former companions on both sides of the ocean who yesterday claimed they wanted to change society radically and today are, nakedly or in disguise, the stooges of the establishment can be dismissed with the celebrated words of Shelley to Wordsworth:

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty.
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve
Thus, having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

P.S. As a singer and actor, Yves Montand is a great craftsman. He is much less skilled in politics, and therefore openly says things that his colleagues would prefer to utter privately. As such he is a good illustration of how far an honest man who has genuine regrets over his association with Stalinism can travel. One hopes he can still awaken and realize where this journey is taking him.

Born Yvo Livi sixty-two years ago in Tuscany, Montand was brought to France by his communist father. He was launched in his career immediately after World War II by Edith Piaf, and his tall figure onstage came to personify the jolly prole confident of his future. He and his wife, Simone Signoret--the striking Casque d'Or who became a great actress--were a prominent left-wing couple. She occasionally performed in progressve plays; he sometimes sang at the annual jamboree of L'Humanité. Many assumed, wrongly, that they were members of the Communist Party.

Montand was booked to sing in Moscow at the time of the Hungarian insurrection in 1956, and he kept the engagement. In her moving autobiography, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be, Signoret describes his soul-searching at the time. That was the beginning of the end of their affair with the Soviet Union. Yet while trying to make up for past mistakes, the couple retained their leftist- convictions. They both played In The Confession, a Costa-Gavras film about the 1952 Slansky trial in Prague. They gave their signatures, money and time to various causes--relief for the victims of Franco in Spain, the Chartists in Czechoslovakia, the mothers of the "disappeared" in Argentina, imprisoned members of Solidarity in Poland. In recent months, however, one got the impression that the arguments of the nouveaux philosophes had gone to Montand's head. He began talking as if fighting the "Red peril" were his top priority. Then came the municipal election in Dreux.

Dreux is a town some sixty miles west of Paris with a population of about 35,000, one-fifth of whom are immigrants. The racist National Front chose this place to play on the xenophobic instincts of the French voters. The election put Dreux on the political map. Not because the right conquered the town hall; the swing away from the left is at this stage widespread. Not even because the National Front polled nearly 17 percent of the votes cast. It was a historic occasion because the respectable right gave its blessing to the fascists. In France you don't vote directly for a mayor; you vote for a list of municipal councilors who then elect the ballot. If no list wins an absolute majority on the first ballot, there is a second one. In this vote candidates of one party are often merged on lists with those of other parties. That is what happened in Dreux, where the honorable liberal conservatives, followers of Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac, added four racists from the National Front to their list. The right was thus true to its prewar self, when in the hour of crisis it proclaimed, "Plutôt Hitler que le Front Populaire" ("Rather Hitler than the Popular Front").

Now, as then, there are exceptions, the most prominent being Simone Veil, former president of the European Parliament and a former inmate of Nazi concentration camps. Though she is a conservative, Veil said she would abstain from voting in Dreux because of the presence of the National Front candidates on the conservatives' list. Her stand, which revealed by contrast the true nature of the "honorable men" presiding over the French right, created quite a stir. One morning, I was awakened by a man yelling over the radio that he too would abstain in Dreux. Another conservative with a conscience? No. The man was shouting that he could not vote together with the supporters of those who overran Afghanistan and Poland. "But those are the arguments of the right," objected the interviewer. To which the man responded: "They always throw it at you: 'Be careful, you'll play into the hands of Reagan.' Fuck them.... The principal enemy is not there, he is in the gulag...one doesn't say it because Reagan...shit!" It sounded like the yelling and swearing of somebody trying to convince himself. But there were no second thoughts.

Montand was the man I heard shouting that morning, and he spoke in the same vein on TV shortly afterward, adding, among other gems: "Why didn't the intellectuals, the pacifists stage demos when the Russians were deploying their SS-20s?" Apparently, he just couldn't omit any songs from his repertory.

When Simone Veil preached abstention in Dreux, she voted against racism. When Montand preached abstention, he backed the National Front. In doing so, he accepted the premise of the unscrupulous right--that four "nationalist" councilors in Dreux are less harmful than "four Red fascists." If he can swallow that absurd proposition, he should in the future rely on his accompanist for political advice. The difference is so simple, it could be played with one finger on the piano.

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