The Revolution and its heirs in 20th century France,
This review is from: The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Paperback)
Burden of Responsibility is a good book on French intellectuals who have impressed Tony Judt in post-war France. His main grievance is against the large body of French intellectuals who got on the band-wagon of flirting with Communism, when it was plainly irresponsible.In France the tradition of l'homme intellectual gives a higher place to engagement in politics.This is an inheritance of La Revolution of 1789. Having been a lapsed Marxist himself,he shows the relationship of a Marxist critique of society in forms of socialism and social democracy.Based upon lectures he gave at the University of Chicago,The 3 intellectuals (2 Jews and an Algerian) Judt highlights here due to their integrity,courage and moral purpose,in standing firmly outside of the main currents, and in doing so showed where France was going, courting unpopularity and isolation and castigation.Julian Benda wrote of la trahison des clercs,whichmeans the subordination of the intellectual to ideology.The intellectual should be responsible. These were 3 outsiders whose ideas and works have stood the test of time.These 3 intellectuals' juxtaposition provides the role of the responsible intellectual in 20th century French history.Debunkers of myths,plain-speaking seers,moralistes.
The reason I went to the book primarily was the essay on Albert Camus whose works of fiction I love.Camus was no philosopher,his naivete was severely exposed by Sartre,permanently damaging his reputation publicly. Remembered more as the author of L'Etranger and La Peste,he carried the burden of moral responsibility, famous for his work in the Resistance,and for his experience of Algeria.But he later said he spoke only for himself..He also never claimed to be a philosopher when lumped with Sartre's existentialists.For Camus the `absurd' was invested with many of his personal experiences-poverty,his relationship with his mother,Algiers-the feelings of place and physical sensations.He abhorred the left's addiction to violent revolution and utopian myths,their softness on Communism and the Soviet Union.Camus was derided by Les Temps modernes leftists for L'Homme Revolte, for its defence of absolute values in an age of relativism,its advocacy of ethical responsibility over Historical Necessity.Camus opposed the independence of his homeland, advancing instead an idea of an integrated Arab-Europeancommunity. His claim he preferred his mother to justice, his retreat into silence on Algeria,his disengagement from politics incurred scorn.Moral authority rather than a political program,a nostalgia for the place previously given to literature and men of letters of a former era.Responsibility in preference to reason. This, one of the best accounts, balanced,critical that I have read on Camus`s work and life.
The first chapter devoted to Leon Blum is in someway the best,he was a French Jew holding the socialist movement together,preferring unity to power,helping it avoid extremists of right and left,the leader of the FrenchSocialist party.He utilised pure reason and argued from logical premises to persuade, rather than emotion.He was true to the Revolution of 1789,a true Republican socialist,pursuing political,civil and social justice,the result of a purely rationalist conception of society.To this secularised Jew(who acknowledged his Jewishness)socialism was a religion.Blum kept socialism apart from Communism and class consciousness,distinguishing it as having the radical high ground.When France fell in 1940,the Vichy government put him on trial, he defended himself so adroitly that the German authorities,fearing embarrassment,ended the proceedings abruptly;subsequently he survived 2 years in concentration camps,serving briefly as PM after the war.He survived attacks as a Jew in anti-Semitic France, he was for the `true France' that lay in his heart.He was for a Zionist homeland for Jews.Blum was a superior Frenchman because he was an assimilated outsider.He was not an avowed Marxist,although he has an affinity with Marxism,due to his liking for parliamentary democracy and participation.He dominated through sheer intelligence and political analysis.A lover of England and French literature.
Finally,Raymond Aron,an existential philosopher,journalist, and member of the academic elite,echoed Blum and Camus in his polemic against the French intelligentsia's Marxist leaning and in his firm opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. Most were ignorant of the theories they purported to defend.While Aron did not recognize any moral debt owed by the French to Arabs, he promoted Algerian independence for the sake of order and stability in France itself. A realist above all, Aron angered many Europeans by suggesting that a stable, democratic Germany reconstituted on equal footing within the European community was the best guarantee of security on the continent. For intellectual firepower and intellectual brilliance, he used reason in opposition to Sartre's radicalism and bad faith.He was the insider's insider,the intellectual's intellectual.responsible in public debates,by knowing what he was talking about.He argued there are limits to historical objectivity,there is no Archimedian point of objective knowledge about the past due to our own place in the process.History is something we construct as we live.The choices we make,the actions we take have real outcomes,for which we must take responsibility.The intellectual needs to know how to act in a given situation.The first task of the observer was to understand the world as it was.He warned France of the dangers of Nazism,thecoming war with Germany in 1933.In the postwaryears he avoided the taste for catastrophic solutions.He abhorred nihilism especially of the 1968 variety,having nothing to replace it with.The barbarians at the gates. There was an importance to order and authority under law,to protect freedoms.He concealed his passions beneath the rigors of his reasoning.A lifelong admirer of Sartre'swork, he yet saw the failure of the philosophy and his forays into politics.He admitted his limited involvement in public affairs before the war was due to being a Jew.He suppressed Jewishness( due to assimilation) but surfaced after the 6 Days War in Palestine.He felt unable(without knowing why)to break his links with Judaism and Israel.He addressed glaring deficiencies in French economy and politics and culture.