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.
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.