Revolutionary Nostalgia

Revolutionary Nostalgia

Slogans sometimes succeed in conveying the mood of a period.


Slogans sometimes succeed in conveying the mood of a period. In Europe the high hopes of the 1960s were followed in the 1970s by the nostalgia of "Remember Revolution" and the desperate nihilism of "No Future." For some years, however, the establishment has been trying to channel this mood into a message of its own, telling us that there is no future other than a capitalist one, and no horizon beyond the American. These diary notes aim to show how this version of history, while greatly assisted by the current dramatic collapse of the Soviet model, still meets with considerable resistance in Europe.

Money is Moral

Quite early in the recent strike that paralyzed production of Peugeot cars for seven weeks, both at the company’s Sochaux headquarters and its Mulhouse subsidiary, Peugeot president Jacques Calvet appeared on French television. He was asked why, with profits rising to $1.3 billion a year, wages were barely keeping up with the rate of inflation. (The strikers had shown that the bulk of the firm’s employees were getting less than $1,000 a month.) The righteous boss replied that there was nothing he could do for "mes ouvriers"–the capitalist version of the feudal possessive did raise some eyebrows-because of the threat of foreign competition. Calvet’s splendid image of himself as the self-sacrificing industrial knight, leading "his" workers into Europe and resisting Japanese and American invaders, was spoiled at once by the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, which printed Calvet’s income tax returns. These revealed not only that his monthly salary was $30,300 but also that in the previous couple of years, while the wages of workers had risen by 7 percent, the salary of the top manager had climbed by 46 percent.

The establishment press first protested that the paper was invading the privacy of the poor rich man but rapidly realized that it had to come up with a better line. The snag, it proceeded to argue, was not that Calvet earned so much; after all, he is far from the top in the French salary league, and he earns peanuts by U.S. managerial standards. The trouble is that whereas the American tycoon is proud of his pay and flaunts it, his French equivalent conceals it as if he were ashamed. Implicit in the argument was regret that the French have not yet accepted what is said here to be the American gospel, namely that a man’s worth is measured by his income; alas, the French still cannot face the fact that a tycoon is worth umpteen workers, teachers or nurses, nor admit that big money is beautiful.

Judging by the hypermarkets on the outskirts of its medium-sized towns, or by the Reaganite flu that infects a good portion of its intelligentsia, France is in the forefront of the race to Americanize Europe. But in other respects it is the chief resister. It was Paris that took the initiative in the European Community’s current vain attempt to prevent the reign of Dallasty on European TV screens through a recommendation that at least 50 percent of the programs shown in each country should be produced in Europe. Of course, since this cultural battle is waged in commercial terms, it is doomed to end in defeat. The U.S. companies, even when owned by Japanese or Australians, have the expertise In producing slick wares, and the profits from a huge domestic market give them the opportunity to dump their programs on Europe. Yet even if European communities joined forces across frontiers, their relative success would not change much. The shows produced by a Berlusconi or a Bertelsmann, the pulp provided by a Maxwell or a Murdoch, would in no way differ from the American original [see Ben H. Bagdikian, "The Lords of the Global Village," June 12]. To overcome the stifling commercialization of culture in advanced capitalism one would have to invent a different society, whereas the message trumpeted with considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic is that capitalism is our ultimate horizon.

Danton, Dead or Alive

Paradoxically, the bicentennial of the French Revolution was supposed to play an important role in this P.R. campaign for capitalism. Indeed, the Parisian press still regularly echoes the fashionable chorus, la révolution est terminée, concocted by the historian François Furet and his cronies. One wonders, however, whether these gentlemen may not protest too much, and whether, on balance, the resurrected memory of the Revolution may not have a greater impact in the end than the oft-repeated record of its gravediggers.

I was thinking of this as I traveled to the Avenue Pablo Picasso in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to see the revival of Georg Buchner’s celebrated play, Danton’s Death. The theater, incidentally, is one field in which international collaboration is fruitful. In this instance, the cast was French but the director, German; the set designers were a Frenchman and a Spaniard. On the vast, magnificent stage of the state-subsidized Théâtre des Amandiers it all added up to an impressive performance. My only reservation was that the man who played Danton did not quite have the physical stature and stentorian voice of the revolutionary tribune. Buchner was a meteoric prodigy, barely 22 when he wrote the play in 1835; when he died two years later, he had not quite finished Woyzeck. But his text stands the test of time. Dealing with a revolution that is, in Buchner’s words, "like Saturn as it devours its own children," the play is a plea for Danton and Danton’s friend, the journalist Desmoulins, and, therefore, a plea for clemency. But it still manages to treat Robespierre with intellectual respect. Overall, it portrays revolution as a significant drama, and not, as is now too often the case, as a senseless and bloody farce.

The commemoration of the Revolution continues. If you come to Paris before the end of the year, you may still catch the major retrospective devoted to Jacques-Louis David, the great painter of the Revolution and the Empire. You may also visit exhibitions on revolutionary science, architecture and justice. Granted, the latter makes it possible to argue that now, having achieved the rule of law, we can gradually reform society within its framework. The main lesson, however, of this massive accumulation of images and information is different from what some of its planners intended: The Revolution is not just a matter of the guillotine and of a power struggle that ends in bloodshed; it is essentially a radical transformation of society in all its aspects. In that sense, Operation Furet may have backfired. This hit me the other day as I watched the news on television. When a striker was asked whether it worried him that his action was illegal, he snapped back, "So was the storming of the Bastille."

Solitary Salvation?

I am not trying to suggest that a sudden radical revival is under way. The mood is certainly not what it was twenty years ago. Indeed, Paris 1s a particularly good vantage point from which to perceive how the reactionary winds blowing from the East and from the West feed each other. Fifteen years ago the French establishment, still shaken by the 1968 revolt and threatened by economic crisis, was greatly helped by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and the use that the nouveaux philosophes made of it to argue for the suicidal, criminal nature of all revolutions. The spread of this conservative ideological hegemony, combined with the failure of the French Socialists, once in office, to provide any alternative, contributed, in turn, to the pan-European feeling that there really is no alternative to the existing capitalist order. If one fails to bear this in mind, one cannot understand why, for example, Solidarity leaders who were full of talk about workers’ self-management eight years ago are now preaching the blessings of private enterprise in almost Thatcherite terms.

Art often reflects such changes in mood. In the 1970s, on the eve of the spectacular resurrection of the Polish labor movement, the Polish filmmaker most respected in the West was Andrzej Wajda. His Man of Marble, the saga of one worker against the background of a country’s social upheaval, could be described–though the director would not consider this flattering–as one of the few genuine successes of Socialist Realism. Today Wajda, who subsequently produced a Danton of his own that is both deeply hostile to the spirit of the Revolution and disappointing, is a Senator for Solidarity.

The man who is being hailed in the West as Wajda’s potential successor, Krzysztof Kieslowski, is a gloomy painter of, at best, personal solutions to the human condition. The 47-year-old Kieslowski is no newcomer to the cinema, even if his Western reputation 1s recent. He made ten films, one for each of the Commandments, for Polish television. Two of these appeared in expanded form on the big screen. The first, Thou Shalt Not Kill, was the hit of this year’s Venice Film Festival.

The second, A Short Story About Love, has just reached Paris. It is the sober, almost geometrically constructed tale of a Peeping Tom, an adolescent postman named Tommy, who watches the eventful love life of a beautiful older woman from his rear window. The twist in the story is that the voyeur is the moralist who believes in love, while the object of his desire reduces it to the mere act of lovemaking. Some critics think the film should have ended with its climax, when the woman shows Tommy, in humiliating fashion, the carnal side of his passion; what follows, they say–his abortive suicide leading to the hint of her conversion–is Kieslowski’s version of a Hollywood happy ending. Whether or not the filmmaker actually believes in redemption through love, his heroes–the Peeping Tom, his beloved, his lodger–are terribly lonely figures, painted against the gray background of a high-rise block of cheap flats and cut off from any community. It is a long way from Man of Marble, and a gloomy symptom of our despondent times.

Listen, Yankee

Young East Germans have been voting with their feet. Poles did so earlier with ballots, and Hungarians are scheduled to do the same next spring. The dramatic collapse of the remnants of the post-Stalinist system is being adroitly presented as the final fall of socialism and, therefore, as the ultimate proof of capitalist eternity. Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the end of history (if "theory" is not too grandiose a title) has duly crossed the Atlantic. It did not create much of a stir here, however, because it is so obviously old hat. To show how unoriginal it is, I shall, with the reader’s forbearance, merely quote what I said on the subject in Is Socialism Doomed?, which was published eighteen months ago:

The most fashionable word today seems to be the prefix post-. We are living in a "postindustrial" society and admiring "postmodern art." The trendy commentators are bombarding us with futuristic images of nuclear-triggered X-ray lasers, of one-world television beamed from satellites of robots doing our work and computers our thinking. However, if you dare to ask why it is that a world changing so fantastically in so many respects must somehow be tied forever to the same forms of property and exploitation, you are dismissed as a dinosaur. On reflection, the philosophy behind this futuristic mumbo jumbo is rather old-fashioned. Like all ruling classes, the present-day one admits the existence of history up to its own triumph, although not beyond beyond. Post-everything means capitalist forever. There was history but time must now have a stop. Europe may still move up to the American model; the United States is, by some strange malediction, condemned to the same social state forever.

Our problem is not to convince the Eastern Europeans that they can change regimes by Fabian methods; others are preaching this and the Hungarians and Poles have already begun practical exercises of their own. Nor is it, as a recent New Republic cover suggested, to "tell it to Peru." Why belabor the obvious by explaining to the peoples of the Third World that the "capitalist paradise” is not within their grasp? Our duty, rather, is to go to the heart of the matter and to the fortress of advanced capitalism, to persuade Western Europeans that their future is not inevitably American, and to convince the Yanks themselves that they are not doomed by some curse to social stagnation. In other words, our task is to spread the conviction that a radical change of society in all its aspects is on our own historical agenda. In the long run, the collapse of the Stalinist model should help us in this search for a socialist alternative. For the time being, cleverly exploited, it contributes to the state of general confusion.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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