Raymond Aron was a worthy heir to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Writing with a force and lucidity which no other Frenchman of his generation could equal, he stood for democracy in the dangerous decades of the Nazi and Communist threats to the West and its civilization. It is a reflection of the times that the Columbia Encyclopedia, which lays claim to authority, has space for assorted Nazi and Communist dupes and sympathizers, but not for him.

Twenty years ago, Aron founded Commentaire, a journal to promote democratic values through debate at the highest intellectual level. To celebrate this anniversary, today’s editors (Aron died in 1983) have invited contributors to comment on two principal themes: the present situation in France and whether it is valid to equate Communism with Nazism.[1] Regarding the former, they ask specifically, “Do you feel sorrow, resignation, anger, satisfaction or joy? Or again, shame or pride?”

The contributors, between seventy and eighty of them, include Jean-François Revel, Marc Fumaroli, Alain Besançon, and others with established international reputations. Taken together, they are a formidable body of professors and opinion-makers, maestros of the think-tank, and almost without exception products of the celebrated colleges of specialized education which have hardly any parallels in other countries. One of them, Antoine Jeancourt-Galignani, is a banker as well as an economic advisor to the mayor of Shanghai: a portent of the world to come. The discipline of their training does them justice. Their responses are prodigies of information, analysis, and rhetoric.

Invited to surrender at Waterloo, the commander of Napoleon’s elite troops is supposed to have replied, “La Vieille Garde meurt, mais ne se rend jamais,” that is, the Old Guard dies but never surrenders. These contributors are also something of an Old Guard, patriots and conservatives, holding the idea that there was an “exception française,” a French particularity too self-evident and valuable to need justifying. This particularity seems on the verge of extinction.

Events will soon prove them right or wrong about this, but it is a matter of urgency and importance that so many first-rate intellectuals express dismay and even alarm about the France currently taking shape. As so often with elegy and lament, there is an accompanying sense of fatality. Fine as far as it goes, this issue of Commentaire reveals an Old Guard more disposed to surrender than to make a last stand for the values which have sustained France and the French for so long.

Diagnosis is not the difficulty. The French monarchy of old set in place a centrally controlled order, with no concern for public opinion. The revolutionary universalism of 1789 also necessitated central control, but the concept itself was incompatible with the nation-state which emerged side by side from the same events, unbridgeably dividing the believers in the one from the believers in the other—Left from Right— for two long centuries. Out of injured pride, the costs of victory in the First World War and the costs of defeat in the Second World War have never been properly reckoned. During the subsequent Fourth and Fifth Republics, the French empire ended with violence in Vietnam and Algeria, and there was the potential for violence and disintegration at home, notably in 1958 and 1968.

To cultivate one’s garden seemed sound advice in the circumstances, and successive postwar governments accordingly built one of the most comprehensive and expensive welfare states in the world. Centrally ordered, universalist in aspiration but nationalist in practice, and immune to costs whether real or psychological, this welfare state and its appetites has had the unexpected outcome of replicating and magnifying every contradiction and flaw of the past.

The resulting crisis comes in various forms: social, cultural, economic, and political. Unaffordable spending on social services combines with intensive regulation to impede the creation of wealth and to solidify the very poverty which welfare is designed to eliminate. Unemployment persists at almost 13 percent. Farmers, truckers, railwaymen— any group threatened with loss of privilege and public funding immediately take to the streets in selfish defiance of the general interest. There are at least four million immigrants from North Africa, and many of them remain lifelong dependents on welfare. In reaction, the National Front, under Jean-Marie Le Pen, a demagogue in the purest Thirties mold, receives a vote of 20 and even 30 percent in municipal and regional elections.

Enthusiasm for Hitler and Nazism split prewar French conservatives into irreconcilable blocs, so preparing the catastrophe of 1940. Rising racism is repeating this suicidal process, this time shrinking and even delegitimizing the remaining Gaullists or conservatives. Further destroying social cohesion are other more technical factors, chief among them the constitution, which was designed by General de Gaulle to suit himself. This provides the president with a seven-year term, no less, and renewable at that. Weighted so heavily in favor of the executive, the de Gaulle constitution has blurred the separation of powers, weakening the National Assembly, which in any case was a feeble legislative body, and further subduing the already highly politicized judiciary. In a strange anomaly, the president may belong to one party, the prime minister and the government to another. The ensuing stand-off, known as cohabitation, places all concerned at the mercy of unaccountable power-brokers and bureaucrats behind the scenes.

During the fourteen years of François Mitterand’s presidency, corruption and cronyism flourished at unprecedented levels. The scandals were unrelieved. Mysterious sudden deaths occurred in high places. Ministers and industrialists were exposed as freelance mafiosi, but even when arrested for fraud they usually did not end behind bars. No bank ever was so bankrupt as the Credit Lyonnais, no airline ever so massively subsidized as Air France. Deregulation, privatization, and the market were widely held to be mere ruses whereby an imperialist America and a malicious Britain—otherwise that conspiratorial entity les Anglo-Saxons—were out to wreck France. Anti-Americanism flared like marsh-gas (and even some of the contributors here release whiffs of it). Policy narrowed to two single objectives: the yet wider establishment of the welfare state, and the construction of European unity.

Today a nominally Gaullist president and a Socialist prime minister stagnate in cohabitation. The welfare state appears untouchable. The electorate is invited to think that European unity is set in marble. If the gathering premonitions are warranted, then the French are losing command of their destiny.

Whatever is the remedy? According to the more pessimistic contributors, the case is hopeless. Several of them speak of France as irredeemably decadent, the sick man of Europe. In one of the most thoughtful and eloquent of these essays, Alain Besançon accepts that there are “no more solutions.” For him, the country is blocked in an attenuated version of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. The Right has been fragmented beyond recovery by the National Front, the Left is ineducable. Besançon alone has the courage to ask whether the Muslim immigrants can be assimilated, and, if so, on what terms. The historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie also suggests that the professionalization of unemployment, as he calls it, allows France rightly to be compared to the Soviet Union.

In Alain-Gérard Slama’s view, French society has decomposed into tribes with selfish claims, amounting to free-for-all extortion. In a startling image, Marin de Viry likens the country to a blind man feeling for an electric switch in a splendid but darkened library. Didier Maillard and Christian Saint-Etienne are convinced that the determining factors are in place for a major and violent explosion in the near future, which they date to 2005 or thereabouts.

A common assumption is that the culture as a whole is exhausted. The Catholic church, the education system, and the concepts of the family and citizen in the welfare state are perceived as so many sell-outs, instrumental in subverting the moral values inherent in French particularity. “The less we speak to other people about our literature,” in the words of Besançon, “the better we are for it.” The few who are talented remind him of Soviet dissidents. In this entire issue of over three hundred pages set in small print in double columns, no contemporary poet, novelist, painter, sculptor, or architect earns a mention in any context. Karol Beffa, however, claims that there are young composers who may heal the breach between melody and atonal music. “Mé- moire du français” (“The Memory of French”) is the title of Michel Zink’s obituary of the language itself, which he fears will leave only its literary beauty to resonate in the minds of a chosen few. Should this be so, one of the world’s high artistic mediums will have come to a standstill.

A number of contributors say that courage and intelligence should be enough to deal with these obvious and manifold ills. To them, a good dose of politics is the first prerequisite of revival. Institutions are man-made. The constitution can be rewritten, to limit the power of the presidency and exclude cohabitation. It is possible to strengthen the National Assembly and the judiciary, to overcome prejudice against the market and les Anglo-Saxons, and to reform the welfare state.

Two politicians participate in this symposium. Raymond Barre and Laurent Fabius—both former prime ministers—are believers in tightening some administrative nuts and bolts, while loosening others and greasing the whole machinery with clichés. Later in the magazine, former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing contributes a paper he wrote for a colloquium elsewhere on Edmund Burke, a thinker wholly alien to the French tradition, from whom he concludes rather comfortably that it is possible to introduce change which will not really affect continuity.

To be personal for a moment, I can hardly bear to accept that the pessimists might be right, and French particularity is foundering. Very few people who consider themselves civilized could even imagine a France which no longer had inspiration to give the world. By temperament, by force of will, surely the optimists will carry the day, and reason must prevail?

Hesitation and doubt arise because of a persistent failure of intellect, best described as le trahison des clercs, in Julien Benda’s long-famous phrase. Treason lay in the abandonment by intellectuals of the democratic values which so privileged them and their society. This has been a dark feature of French particularity since 1789, when the revolution defined the concept of good as a universal that all must accept, if not of their own free will, then under compulsion. As the rival claims of universalism and the nation-state fought for supremacy, the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity were betrayed time and again.

The period between the World Wars saw the highwater mark of betrayal by intellectuals, in all the democracies to be sure, but in France more furiously than elsewhere. There were conservatives who warned where Hitler and Nazism were leading. For one, Raymond Aron, who was a specialist in German philosophy, made it a duty to visit Germany to gather the evidence at first-hand. But the slogan popular on the Right, “Rather Hitler than Blum,” laid the intellectual justifications for Vichy and collaboration with the Nazis. In no other country under German occupation was the climate of informed opinion so openly and willingly pro-Nazi.

In the name of its version of universalism, the French Communist Party simultaneously attacked the French state and all it stood for. Its leaders, its members, and the fashionable troop of fellow travelers were unmatched in their polemical skills, as well as in their subservience to Stalin. Once more, serious credentials and talents were placed freely at the service of tyranny. With rare exceptions, the loyalty of Communists and fellow travelers survived even the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, and they became anti-Nazi only when Hitler himself rounded on the Soviet Union in 1941.

After the war, a National Committee of Writers, self-appointed and for the most part Communists, drew up lists of their colleagues, semblables et frères, to be shot for collaboration. As Soviet armies occupied central and eastern Europe, and the rather marginal democracy there was uprooted and potential democrats were deported or murdered, French intellectual opinion hardened in support of Stalin. Paris became the leading foreign propaganda station for Moscow. Sartre, Eluard, and Aragon were only the most prominent personalities to lie knowingly about Soviet reality. A judge in a French court came to the verdict that the Gulag did not exist. The slogan to leave its mark was “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.” It was not immoral or inhuman, then, to describe mass-murder as progress.

This betrayal persisted through the Cold War, until the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago forced Soviet reality into the light of day. Even so, Soviet sympathizers have preferred to turn the page rather than apologize and make amends. François Furet is one exception, but his book Le Passé d’une Illusion tends to argue that though Communists like him were wrong and wicked, they could have done no other.

No satisfactory analysis exists of this Janus-headed betrayal of democracy by so many supposedly independent-minded intellectuals. Were they played-out people, as Hitler, cruel as usual, said of the French? Did the hope of reward drive so many toward what looked like the winning side, first the Nazis and then the Communists? Perhaps these were early incarnations of radical chic.

A further question follows. Since democrats everywhere have taken such pains to bring Nazis and their sympathizers to account, why are efforts to treat Communists and their sympathizers by the same standards so half-hearted? Last year, for instance, Le Livre noir du Communisme, edited by Stéphane Courtois and others, itemized the crime sheet of Communism. One way or another, they estimated that eighty-five million people had been killed, some five or six times as many as the victims of Nazism. The figure was reached by scholarly methods, but the surrounding furor was so intense that several of the editors and contributors repudiated their own work, in an echo of Stalinist self-criticism.

In another seminal article published elsewhere (and in translation in Commentary, Commentaire’s New York namesake, in January 1998), Alain Besançon has come to grips with this phenomenon. Communist distortion of reality was so deep that it remains embedded in historical consciousness. It is a human reflex to avoid rethinking difficult and painful things. But the chief obstacle to moral clarity, he concludes, is that the conscience of the West has become “fixated on finding the seat of absolute evil in the heart of the West itself.” He allows himself the hope, the prayer, that in time the truth about Communism will be as evident as the truth about Nazism.

Apologia, a last gasp of fellow traveling, surfaces at this point. Those who still prefer to have been wrong with Sartre than right with Aron claim that Nazism and Communism are alike only superficially. The one totalitarian movement murdered in the name of race, and this was retrograde; the other murdered in the name of class, and this was progressive. Jean Daniel, a veteran leftist, does what he can in his essay to separate out the tyrannies in form and substance.

A section of Commentaire sweeps aside such specious distinction. Margarete Buber-Neumann, German-born, had the fate of experiencing Nazi and Soviet camps. An admirable memoir of hers, first published in 1950, has been reprinted under its self-explanatory title: “Which is worse? Satan or Beelzebub?” In another essay, Pierre Chaunu clarifies the parallels between the evil twins, as he calls them: belief in revolutionary activism, a single party-state, absence of law, secret police, and falsification of events. He, too, believes that some internalized but misplaced sense of Western guilt is behind the reluctance to bring Communism to account. In passing, he observes that Communism killed more people than smallpox and the plague combined.

Chantal Delsol has a profound argument to put forward. Communists have neither asked for pardon nor admitted culpability, but their victims have apparently forgiven them nonetheless. Yet without confession, repentance must remain uncertain. Seemingly, responsibility for Communist crime is held to be collective, not the fault of the individual. So people come to relativize politically motivated crime at a time when in other respects they are setting up universal moral standards. The paradox contains a threat to all notions of human advancement.

Decaying slowly as it did, Communism mutated into the doctrines variously pro- posed by Lacan, Althusser, Baudrillard, Barthes, Robbe-Grillet with the nouveau roman, Derrida, Foucault, and the deconstructionists and postmodernists--intellectual betrayers, not to say quacks, one and all. With an uncritical fidelity reminiscent of Soviet fellow travelers, they and their innumerable imitators have sustained a campaign against reason and rationality by relativizing knowledge and morality, reversing cause and effect, abstracting the human being, and asserting a reality without reference to the real world.

Here is a deep wound, self-inflicted and suppurating, first upon the body of France, but then far beyond. A journal with the aims and standing of Commentaire surely could have found someone to spell this out, to purify and heal through a critique of this intellectual betrayal. These bogus reputations have done so much to make the present situation what it is, yet not one of them is even mentioned, never mind refuted.

It is further disconcerting that contributors like these pick to shreds the malignancies of Mitterand’s presidency and the Socialist welfare state, but then do not bring the same elegant rigor to bear over the other crucial aspect of national policy, the insistence on the construction of Europe. Originally Europe was to mark perpetual peace between Germany and France; and after that to be a free-trade area; and finally and theoretically, after great and even painful adaptations, a free market on the lines of the Anglo-Saxon model. Out of fear of a Germany unexpectedly reunited in 1989 and a lack of confidence in his own people, Mitterand changed the objective. European union now had to advance, according to a strict timetable, toward a federation, though its final form remains to be agreed upon.

Everything political, social, and economic has had to be harmonized and standardized throughout Europe: one-size-fits-all, never mind history or geography, culture or language. Monetary policy, interest rates, and unemployment levels are no longer conceived as national issues, but settled instead abroad by committees of other nationals. European law is decreed by a European Court of Justice, which in an expanding number of areas has established its supremacy in any conflict with national law. The French governing elite presents all this as a French victory, while the German governing elite simultaneously presents it as a German victory. Both can be wrong, both cannot be right.

The European Union structure of administration happens to be in Brussels, concentrated in a tight core of some twenty-five thousand permanent officials. Other countries in the European Union are perforce handing more and more policy-making over to Brussels, but the French do so with a tenacity all their own. In a number of respects, Brussels is Paris writ large. The system operating there, that is to say, is monarchical, displaying a central control which Louis XIV would envy. The elementary features of democracy are missing. There is no separation of powers, no accountability, no appeal. The legislative body meets in secret and does not publish its proceedings.

An accelerating juggernaut has been constructed by harnessing the fact of central control to the old revolutionary ideal that for their own good men are to be made over in the image that their master has for them. Brussels operates a continental-scale welfare state through a complex network of subsidies, transfer payments, grants, and aid. Regulations by the tens of thousands bind everywhere all aspects of industrial, commercial, and social intercourse, down to trivia in what had hitherto been considered spheres with which the state had no business. So much for the free market. So much for freedom itself. Billions more dollars vanish into the pockets of the power- brokers and invisible officials who in practice now dispose of Europe. This is a command-bureaucracy, absurdly like Brezhnev’s Russia, the second time round, as tragical farce.

Every country in this enterprise is obliged to bear immense costs of adaptation, in real terms, and no less expensively in the national psyche, in its view of itself. The French have their special dilemma. Whether through the hazard of events or by conscious design, they find themselves caught in the contradictions and flaws of the past, replicated and magnified yet again. Universalism as practiced in Brussels is in conflict with the particularity embodied in France and the nation-state so absolutely that in the end one of these concepts must kill the other off outright.

Almost unanimously, the contributors to this symposium are ready to accept Brussels-driven universalism at face value. Not a single one of them makes a principled objection to the command-bureaucracy and its anti-democratic nature. They seem to believe that the emerging federation will resolve the social, political, cultural, and economic ills they have dissected as specific. So at the center of this general discussion about the current situation of France is a huge gap in logic: since final decision-making lies with every passing week more and more in the hands of others, whatever is the point of the French bothering their own heads about how to reform themselves? In essentials, and in accumulating details, too, they have already committed their future to Brussels, and can now recover it only through an upheaval whose fallout cannot be predicted.

Two writers alone defend French particularity. In the view of Pierre Manent, France has to expect only “humiliation, dispossession, and mutilation” from the construction of Europe. In the light of history, Max Gallo questions German intentions: is this European Union really the lion lying down with the lamb? Or will the command-bureaucracy be powered by the Germans, a kind of latterday Wehrmacht occupying Europe again, in civilian disguise? In any case, Gallo would rather not owe anyone anything, even if he were to be poor and deprived. For him, it is a matter of pride and self-respect.

The speed and ease with which so many thoughtful men, unquestionably democrats and patriots, have abandoned French particularity is as baffling as the collapse of France in 1940. What is the origin of their pervasive and almost fatalistic acceptance that France must transform into something else? As then, one possible reason seems to carry further than others. In the manner of pro-Nazi precursors in the Thirties, the National Front has compromised the ideal of the nation-state to the point where those who would normally defend it are afraid that patriotism and democracy will be mistaken for nationalism and impotence respectively. Sabotaged, they are unsure where to turn, how to regroup. In Germany, too, neo-Nazis are eroding the right-wing vote. In the absence of articulate expression of mainstream opinion, the deceptive universalism of the European Union goes unchallenged. This makes for a political vacuum, and in the event of extremists in France or Germany actually filling it, of course, a national and a European catastrophe will be at hand.

Another slogan forms: “Rather Brussels than Le Pen.” That is almost certain to translate in practice as “First Brussels, then the general backlash against it.” The thugs sign up for nationalism and racism; voters retreat into apathy; intelligence has been betrayed again; and the country hangs in the balance between self-renunciation and violence.


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  1. Commentaire: revue trimestrielle, vol. 21, no. 81 (Spring 1998), edited by Jean-Claude Casanova; Plon, 317 pages, 150 FF. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 1, on page 17
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