Letter: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (nlr 28)

Dear Sir,

It is not easy in 500 words to disperse the fog of misrepresentation, emotive bias and blind error woven round my book by Richard Cobb in several thousand words. So curtailed a reply obviously has no room for the vituperation, sneers, and the cultivation of a personal image which this representative of non-Marxist, arrière-garde British Stalinism allows himself.

Facts (or misrepresentations) first, then. I quote: ‘Caute is the first to admit that on the road to engagement, theoretical Marxism has played only a minimal part, in France at least.’ Why then, in a chapter devoted to the subject, did I conclude: ‘In this case, as in many others . . . the decision to join the Party was preceded by a long period of intellectual reflection within a Marxist framework?’ He writes that I imply that Party manipulators like Muenzenberg invented anti-fascism in order to bamboozle unwary intellectuals. Before discussing Muenzenberg, I commented, of the 1927–34 period: ‘. . . the dangers of fascism and war were beginning to foster a dominant anxiety among French intellectuals of the Left’. Nor do I suggest, as Cobb claims, that the Party invented anti-Americanism. Building up his ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’ case against me, he complains that I present ‘many’ of the poems of Aragon and Eluard in English translations. Does one poem out of 13 quoted amount to ‘many’?

It simply is not true that my book is slanted towards disenchantment. The long-term fidelities of Barbusse, Rolland, Aragon et al are recounted in detail. Nor necessarily in a hostile light. Cobb now comes to the most slovenly (if not deliberate) slander of all. He says that I ‘suggest’ that the publication of Albert Soboul’s thesis on the sans-culottes in 1958 bore some unspecified relationship to destalinization, and that I thereby imply that if it had been published earlier it would have been more favourable to Robespierre. In reality, my point was that many of Soboul’s erstwhile critics found the ground cut away from under their feet by destalinization when his great work appeared, and hence were forced to praise him. Elsewhere, your reviewer complains that I fail to understand that Sartre’s attitude is conditioned by his sense of priorities. Yet my chapter on Sartre is devoted entirely to his changing priorities; only at one juncture (the Rosenbergs) do I seriously criticize him.

The inconsistencies in Cobb’s account of my work are amazing. On the first page he likens me to Talmon, who regards Robespierre’s actions as having been consciously based on the principles of the Contrat Social; but a few lines later he happily quotes my opinion that the Communist Party has not consciously based its actions on the principles of utility which I defined.

Cobb denies me the right to draw general conclusions about the Party’s attitude to intellectuals and mocks my principles of utility. Yet we find him cheerfully speaking of the Party’s ‘systematic effort to abase excellence and independence’, and its attempt to ‘dragoon young agregatifs . . . into political activities remote from their specialized interests’. All these mistakes are merely symptoms of a blind subjectivism of the crudest character which I have no space to analyse here.David Caute