Frederic Raphael considers 'Le passé d'une illusion'-François Furet's meditation on the bewitching influence Soviet Marxism had on so many French intellectuals. The British and others may have been less susceptible, but can the millennarian impulse ever be finally extinguished?by Frederic Raphael / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Why should François Furet’s magnificent new book appear unimportant to English eyes? Le passé d’une illusion (Laffont, Calmann-Levy, 1995) made a great impact in France when it was published earlier this year, at roughly the same time as David Pryce-Jones’s The War That Never Was, a diligent and well-researched account of the implosion of the Soviet Union. By contrast, Furet’s 570-page essay deals not at all with recent politics or politicians. It is a rueful meditation on the claims of Marxism-and its supposed objective correlative, the Soviet Union-on the consciousness of those in the west, especially French intellectuals, who were for so long bewitched and stultified by its myth.
In an inversion of the Platonic case, those inside the communist cave were soon alert to the truth to which they were chained; only those in broad daylight gave credence to the flamboyant fabrications they swore they could see projected on its walls. Perjury was the art-form which united Paul Eluard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Roger Vailland, and countless others. Since Furet himself was in the Party from 1944 to 1956, his indictment of western Marxists’ ostentatious bad faith marries confessional rage to unblinkered assessment. His earlier desentimentalisations of the French Revolution make him particularly alert to the quasi-paternal pride-one of our boys!-which French intellectuals, especially admirers of Robespierre, could take in the incorruptible rigour of Stalin (our own AJP Taylor had the ferocious flippancy to call the murdering despot “endearing”).
Furet traces the dutiful docility of the French Communist Party (PCF) with regard to the Soviet leadership down the decades from the Congress at Tours, in 1920, when the French socialist “family” first divided into fr?es ennemis and the PCF was officially founded. The Communists aped Moscow from then until their last secretary-general, Georges Marchais, concluded-on the eve of the eclipse of the Soviet empire-that the achievement of the People’s Republics had been “globalement positif.”
Between 1920 and 1990, the influence of the PCF permeated French intellectual life; the vocabulary of Marxism was so inescapable that, for egregious instance, Sartre imagined it literally impossible not to “think Marx,” as Isaac Deutscher also maintained. Only Raymond Aron, once Sartre’s “petit camarade” at the Ecole Normale Superieure, disdained what he called “the opiate of the intellectuals,” but he was proved right at the price of being regarded as a reactionary renegade. Even today, Paul Veyne, once his prot?, offers an interestingly disillusioned portrait of Aron in his Le Quotidien et L’Int?ssant, where he attacks the great man for being so wedded to law and order. Veyne (a professor of ancient history) is also the author of an essay, Les Grecs, ont-ils cru ?leurs mythes?, which is germane to an understanding of how intelligent men both do and do not believe in ideas which later seem manifestly incredible.
Furet is most revealing when he tells how he read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon without being disillusioned at the systematic humiliation of Rubashov, the doomed old Bolshevik. On the contrary, he thought how wonderful it was to serve a transcendental cause. What could be more liberating than to believe that there was something more important than one’s own innocence or guilt? From such a view, it was a short step to believing other people’s innocence or guilt was a matter of mere bourgeois concern. The PCF was full of demanding and sinister apparatchiks, from Laurent Casanova, the intellectuals’ drill-sergeant, to the literary paladin Louis Aragon who, with his cloying passion for his wife Elsa, supplied a paradigm of the loyal Party marriage. The tutelage of the PCF offered both a rigid guide to the perplexed and the prospect of an applauded career to many artists, from Picasso all the way down to those who depended on it for good notices. Its displeasure was brutal; eviction could drive men to despair and suicide. Sadists and masochists could all be served.
The Party’s reputation derived from being “le parti des fusill?quot;: it lived on the capital of its dead, the Resistance men and hostages who were the chosen targets of the Gestapo and the Milice. Many of them, in fact, had been foreigners, Jews and Spaniards, but they supplied posthumously naturalised evidence that the Moscow-driven PCF-wantonly deferential to the Germans in 1940-was always more patriotic than French politicians of the right, many of whom were compromised by Vichy or could be accused-de Gaulle en t?e-of fascism (the providential Other). The PCF peddled a morality which was both Manichaean and perverse; the working class was flattered into obsequiousness to its leaders, while the intellectuals savoured the sweet pain of a conformity which dignified malice and certified self-importance. The Soviet Union became the City of God and the perversity of speaking well of it was a spiritual exercise that built proletarian muscle.
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The apparent irrelevance of Le passé d’une illusion to England depends on the plausible assumption that the French left was more thoroughly infatuated with Communism-after all, the PCF won a quarter of French votes in the 1950s-than the intelligentsia or workers of the UK. In London, even in the 1930s, it required conspicuous credulity seriously to imagine that the future was to be forged and reaped by the hammer and sickle. There had been no British “popular front,” nor had the left ever threatened the overwhelming conservative majority in 1930s parliaments. In France, on the other hand, the pre-war bourgeoisie was so thoroughly rattled that the slogan “plut? Hitler que Blum” put the Jew and the Red under the same bed. So far as the English working class was concerned, did Marx and Engels not concede, very early, that it was probably lost to the International cause? The British worker had been irremediably corrupted by his eager, if meagre, participation in the profits and vanities of global domination. England remained apparently immune to the Marxist bacillus, except in the cleverest circles, well into the imperial sunset. Or did it? The degree to which the 1945 Labour government foundered on the attempt to extend democracy at home, while sustaining empire abroad, has given Corelli Barnett many opportunities for irony, but its ideological contradictions have been less gloatingly examined. Here too, the Soviet example had its mimetic effect, whatever the Labour party’s insular moderation.
In 1945 the Attlee government’s vegetarian version of Stalin’s bloody recipe for “socialism in one country” was to offer the welfare state to electors at home, while limiting itself to the provision of British “justice,” and markets, to the empire. If the 1945 government was embarrassed by Britain’s colonial possessions and pretensions, when did it ever suggest to the electorate that it was time to renounce their dividends? Answer: not until there were none. The Labour party never trumpeted its allegiance to British hegemonic illusions, but it always shared them (the fatuous world-governing prescriptions of HG Wells and GB Shaw were underwritten by the imperial reach they affected to deplore). Aneurin Bevan was converted, in opposition, to the nuclear deterrent because it kept Britain at the top table; his very British socialism was a sentiment without a doctrine.
Is it a coincidence that Labour found the nerve, and the votes, to abandon Clause Four only in the wake of Gorbachev’s liquidation of the Soviet Union? The hard and soft left had always been in uneasy balance, and had different agendas; as the present Tory party proves, broad churches are full of narrow sects biding their time. If some of Attlee’s legates gloried in the global conceits of empire and Britain’s fraying status as a world power, the Other Labour remained attached to the myth of revolution, of which Clause Four was the ineradicable promise. While Ernie Bevin was the plain man’s plain man and the best British bulldog Labour could breed, Sir Stafford Cripps was the socialists’ serious ascetic, principled enough to be blind to the horrors of Stalinism and eager for everyone in England to have an equal share of joylessness. (The British capacity for thinking lawyers fair and wise is the tribute the wigless pay to horse-hair.)
The existence of the Soviet Union weighed importantly in the counsels of the Labour party. It fostered the notion that the mixed economy was a temporary compromise which would be succeeded by something like the perfection the Webbs had “observed” in the Soviet Union. The class system against which the Labour left affected to preach was so crucial to its ideological line that it had an interest in maintaining class antagonisms, not least in the work place. The restrictive practices of the unions were the best guarantee that capitalism would never work, or work efficiently, in Britain. The left’s resistance to In Place of Strife indicates the degree to which the Marxist model retained its millenniary charm: the immediate future of the United Kingdom was of small importance to those who wished to keep its ruinous “contradictions” in place ahead of “the revolution.” Whatever the manifestos said, harmony of the classes-and the attendant withering away of union power and class divisions-was an appalling, heretical prospect; Harold Wilson had to fail in order for Marxism to succeed.
In short, if the British left rarely spoke about ideology, it was never exempt from the sentimental callousness of which Furet writes so well. The trades unionist Alan Sapper (at the time general secretary of my union, the ACTT) once told me, long after the exposé of the Gulag, that the Soviet Union was still the working man’s best and brightest hope. As for “intellectuals,” when I asked a famously evangelical English playwright of the 1960s to sign a petition for the release of political prisoners, he declined because, though not a member of the Party, he felt he must honour his “loyalty to the Soviet Union.”
The English are fortunate that most of their sins have been of omission, but-as Anthony Blunt slyly proved-their temptations were not always so different from those which took fellow-travellers to the Potemkin villages where bien-pensant tourists, often writers, saw only what suited them (and their hosts). The Soviet lure was particularly seductive to those who, lacking what they took to be their due of success or influence, fancied a secret new aristocracy in whose ermine they could hope one day to emerge, coped with power. Here we verge on unfashionable topics, most obviously the conscious perversity of Blunt and others like him (Guy Burgess being the camp version) in their two-faced enthusiasm for both the circles in which they operated. Alan Bennett made a convenient comedy of this vice in An Englishman Abroad.
Just as accounts of anti-Semitism tend to ignore the pleasure of persecuting others, so attempts to understand communists flinch from acknowledging the joys of conspiracy, deceit and seduction. When Blunt spoke of his conscience, he was having the last laugh. What is attractive about spying, as about all duplicities, is that it loads the rift with ore: every action becomes succulent and significant. For Philby, treachery was the sweetest kind of adultery; for Blunt and Burgess, the queerest of perversities. Humourlessness blinds theorists, left and right, to the ubiquity of the pleasure principle even in the grimmest solemnities. In his account of the purges within the Russian armed forces, John Erickson alludes to the “grinning judges” who officiated, in full knowledge of their iniquity, over the condemnation of quotas of innocent “spies” and wreckers. The lead came from the top, where-as Pryce-Jones recalls-Bertrand Russell’s blood ran cold when he heard Lenin “guffaw” at the thought of executing hostages from the “obstructive” kulaks. True believers, on the other hand, are seduced by dictatorial ruthlessness; godfathers always attract a following.?
Furet’s title reflects, and throws back at us, Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, in which Vladimir Nabokov’s “Viennese witch-doctor” analysed religious creeds in terms of the fears and hopes engendered in infant minds by the coercive benevolence of fathers. Freud’s 1927 reading of religion as “infantile fear, awe, and passivity carried over into adult life” (Peter Gay’s phrase) affected to be “tendenzlos,” un-tendentious. However, he was clearly disdainful of the theological “illusion” which, for him, supplied mankind with a rationale for prejudice and, in the most principled cases, for massacre. (Hitler was the most sincere modern politician, a positive idealist by comparison with Stalin.) When the Nazis burned Freud’s books, he observed, unpresciently, that things had improved: a few hundred years earlier they would have burned him. There is an interesting coincidence between Freud and Marx with regard to religion. It is signalled, as so often in Marxist “logic,” by the fact that The Future of an Illusion was banned in the Soviet Union, although (unless it was because) Freud’s reading of religion as superstition seemed consistent with Marx’s. Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” operates here as well, perhaps, as a warranted Russian apprehension that Freud was reading communism as the godless religion which Hannah Arendt later declared it to be.
Another tactfully neglected topic comes up here: the importance-not to say centrality-of “the Jews,” i.e. some Jews, in the 19th-20th century assault on antique pieties and distinctions. The spectre of Jewish particularity and the urge to be done with its limitations converged in the common desire of both Marx and Freud to disarm God as totem or ideal; modern French history-and anti-Semitism-dates from Napoleon’s conditional emancipation of the Jews, who were to trade their communal identity for the individuality of citizens. The lure, and propriety, of assimilation began at that point. Subsequently, Jews of greater or smaller genius-starting, say, with Heinrich Heine-sought to efface their supposed, or feared, particularity. Some of the greatest of them proposed universalising logics by which humanity might (and should) live according to a single, “scientific” truth. Truth must be true for everyone, Karl Popper maintained: how can science endure parochial truths? The positivist moralisation of reality-whereby “is” entails “should”-was implicit in the programme to eliminate “metaphysics”: philosophers proposed making science the impersonal and law-giving arbiter of correct conduct. To be on the side of inevitabilities was a guarantee of rectitude; conformity to “a certain kind of necessity” was a panacea for alienations of all kinds. Jewish intellectuals were not alone in this kind of argument, but it is unduly reticent not to remark the frequent urgency of their part in promoting universally valid (and thus unarguable) solutions to present discontents.
Freud, like Marx, was obsessed with proving that his ideas were neither transitory nor parochial: by his keenness to have Jung second his theories, he tried to detach the tag of purely Jewish manufacture from psychoanalysis. Both he and Marx were “Jews” for whom the stereotype-clannish, cringing and compromising-served as a point of urgent departure on the way to a common prospect, and a common character, for all humanity. It required only (only!) renunciation of the implausible and divisive pieties of “religion” to procure an undifferentiated world in which, by pure coincidence, they themselves would be as indistinguishable as everyone else. The Holocaust was Hitler’s refutation of their argument; the “doctors’ plot” (and his “anti-Zionism”) was Stalin’s.
The final, paradoxical form taken by the illusion that Jewish identity was a matter of choice was the assertion by Parisian students, in May 1968, “nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands”: Jewishness was thus “inherited,” in safe circumstances, by “revolutionaries” who used it to bait the right and blessed themselves with the halo of victimisation. Such impertinence has its locus classicus in the tag-line of one of those (American) Jewish stories which are not for Gentile ears: the rabbi is telling his congregation that, whatever their riches or achievements, they are nothing in the eyes of God. The old black janitor happens to be clearing up at the back and is so affected by the rabbi’s sermon that he calls out, “You’re right, rabbi, we’re nothin’!” The rabbi looks up and says, “So now look who wants to be nothing!” In The Imaginary Jew, Alain Finkielkraut has written well, if belatedly, on the succession of impostures on which the soixante-huitard generation preened itself; the art form of our time is parody, of which Marxist jargon-oh peace, oh democracy!-was the wildest and most widely practised version.
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What is left of the red millennium in the light of the collapse of the Russian prototype? The idea of revolution has had one substantial meaning behind all the variant readings: it implies a turning-around of, above all, debts. Their revocation was a constant theme of ancient “revolutions.” Indebtedness is implicit in conservative societies; as Jacques Derrida points out, in The Specter of Marx, inheritance is only its purportedly happy instance. Literally or metaphorically, the past makes demands on any society which cannot rouse itself to be quit of the dead. The greatness of their past weighs so irksomely on modern Greeks they are diminished by the inability to match it. It could be said that Britain’s recent celebration of 1945 was a covert way of seeking to be done with the fathers and grandfathers whose courage and stoicism are so admirable that we cannot wait to bury them.
Marxism’s “scientific” claims have been blown away, but what about “science” itself? One of the “self-evident” ideas which determined the programme of the Enlightenment was that of human consciousness as a tabula rasa. However naive it now seems, Locke’s argument for universal suffrage derives in great part from it. In the light of Crick and Watson’s uncorked genius, it could be claimed that democratic theory is based on a fallacy (for Freud, Chartres cathedral is too). Who can say what role “science” might once again take in warranting another totalitarian theory? The internet culture promises that the confusion of information into new, supposedly universalising theories, is more likely to accelerate than abate in the near future. How soon will some nascent rightism maintain that universal education, health care and, finally, suffrage, waste economic resources and distort human prospects?
In The State We’re In, Will Hutton urges, genially and concernedly, that we should (must?) be more like the German and the Japanese, who are shamelessly practical in grading their young, almost from birth, in terms of the economic imperative of fostering their talents, provided they can be proved already to have them. The “necessity” to conform to the future’s scientifically pre-determined standards for survival makes democracy a mutable concept. All kinds of corporatism, and corporationism, may soon be declared more truly democratic-or at least more utilitarian-than mere individualism. One kind of “scientific” blueprint peut en cacher en autre; indeed one ideology not only can, but almost certainly will, hide-and presently give birth to-another. The merit of Derrida’s insufferably indispensable The Specter of Marx lies in its tortuously maieutic necromancy in declaring, as Furet’s lucidity does not, that we are never fully done with the dead. The Party may be over, but can we be quit of the mess? Rough beasts need not slouch as far as Bethlehem to be born. If events in the Balkans suggest anything, apart from the abiding shittiness of man, it is that when the masses are denied a chance to look forward to the future, they will look forward to the past.