This is an intellectual’s book about intellectuals.footnote1 Caute is a historian of concepts and he finds it difficult to accept that political leaders may at times act in response to motivations that are not entirely the result of intellectual choice. In reading his account of the Parti Communiste Français in its relations with a narrow group of French intellectuals, and of chosen intellectuals with the Party, one is at times reminded of such historians as Talmon and Franco Venturi. Just as Talmon would insist that Robespierre, in his every act—and there were some thousands of them—as a member of a wartime emergency coalition, was consciously translating into the field of political realizations the general principles of the Contrat Social, so the present author establishes, for our understanding of the day-to-day policies of a large Parliamentary party, five ‘principles of utility’ to which he refers, with repetitious insistence, throughout his book. These are defined on page 35, though Caute constantly refuses to make them all-embracing: ‘there is no suggestion’, he comments, ‘that the Party has ever formulated its policies in this way, or acted consciously on the basis of such a scheme. . .’ The principles do, in fact, come out of Caute’s head, and not from any central brain-machine situated in the rue de Châteaudun.
Yet, despite this initial qualification, the author clings with unrelenting rigour to this conceptual framework throughout the remaining 380 pages of his book. The resulting style is often Germanic in its humourless ponderousness; there are constant echoes of Strangelove, more rarely of Alice. Thus, on p. 79, there are references to ‘eulogies of the Soviet Union (fourth principle of utility)’ taking precedence over ‘agitation through front organizations and professional bodies (third principle)’, and, on p. 115, we are told: ‘Indeed, this, the third principle of utility, deserves to be named the Vaillant-Couturier principle, in honour of its greatest exponent’. On p. 132, Communist intellectuals who, ‘acting on the fourth principle of utility, rose to combat Koestler, put up a poor performance . . .’ We hear of the first principle on p. 149,
This too is perhaps the most serious weakness in an historian who avowedly sets out to describe—and to explain—why various individuals become politically committed, when confronted, often brutally, with specific political situations. Caute is the first to admit that on the road to engagement, theoretical Marxism has played only a minimal part, in France at least. French Communist and progressive intellectuals have seldom been very strong on their doctrine—perhaps this is why they are such easy people to communicate with—and have indeed often been criticized, by dialecticians of a more rigorous discipline. Though Caute makes little enough allowance for human frailties such as pride or envy, or even for enthusiasm and generosity, he is generally prepared to admit that the choc électrique that has driven each successive generation of French intellectuals into the fold of cell and colloque has nearly always been the result of a political event and of the personal awareness that it aroused: the horror of the 1914–18 War, the massacres in Morocco following the Riff, the awareness of the realities of French colonialism in Algeria or the Antilles, the Spanish Civil War, the activities of the Fascist leagues, the Front Populaire, the experience of the dangers and the hopes of the Resistance period, gratitude to the Red Army for having saved France from Hitlerism, German rearmament, the subservience of successive Fourth Republic Governments to their American masters, the introduction into France of American standards and fashions, the formation of nato, the presence in France of former Nazi generals. Indeed, what emerges most clearly from this rather bodiless Debrett of intellectuals is that those who were most concerned with theoretical perfection and who argued the most fiercely about the revealed purity of doctrine were the future schismatics—those who, later, making a virtue of their doctrinal
His insensitiveness to the human incentives to commitment spring from a vision that almost totally excludes all phenomena not directly connected with the highly particular world of cell and cne. It is rather as if one were to write a history of the French Revolution without ever mentioning the fact—the ever-present and dangerous fact—of Counter-Revolution. At times one has the impression, when reading Caute, that anti-Fascism was something that the Party manipulators invented in order to bamboozle unwary intellectuals into commitment and into enrolment in a Front organization; he implies as much when he insists on the organizing abilities of Willi Muenzenberg. It is the same later when he deals with political and intellectual anti-Americanism. Anti-Fascism grew out of a real and visible threat; anti-Americanism, as well as tapping the hidden depths of anti-Anglo-Saxon prejudice in the dark corners of the French petit-bourgeois, arose from the increasing conviction that the United States were preparing to embark Europe in a war of aggression against the Soviet Union. Neither sentiment was the exclusive invention of the pcf. But, if one is to omit the Camelots du Roi and the Jeunesses Patriotes, and if one does not constantly have in mind Raymond Cartier, Paris-Match and America’s tame Frenchmen (there are not many intellectuals among them, it is true), it is impossible to understand the strength of what might so often be described as a ‘protest vote’, which has been one of the principal sources of strength of the pcf, particularly among the teaching profession, since the Liberation. This is one danger that arises from too exclusive a concern with the love-hate relationship between Party and intellectuals. Both were subjected to pressures from without.
A more serious limitation is Caute’s lack of experience of French life. The author was born in 1936, so he has never experienced the Front Populaire and the ambience of intellectual and moral civil war that reigned from the mid-thirties to the War; he seems unaware of the wider emotions of commitment. In this austere and rather elitist account of intellectual attitudes there is little place for fraternity. The lendemains qui chantent merely give out a hollow sound, the revolutionary poems of Aragon and Eluard (there is no mention of Blaise Cendrars, possibly because he was Swiss) are made to appear faintly ridiculous—perhaps this is deliberate, as many of them are presented, very oddly, in English translation (‘Bring down the cops, comrades, bring down the cops . . .’)—Caute is evidently incapable of appreciating the depth of hatred that a Frenchman may feel for the police, while Party attitudes always—or nearly always—appear as coldly calculated and uniquely inspired by one of the famous Principles of Utility, as immutable as the Code Civil. The author has not walked arm-in-arm with fraternity, in the great 14 juillets of the mid- and late-thirties and mid-forties; and, having read of the period from the seclusion of