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The New International, Spring 1957

Frances Wright

Books in Review

A Search for Essentials


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 102–104.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


France Against Herself
by Herbert Leuthy
Praeger, $6.50.

It might be established from the start that there is no intention, in this review, of breaking the almost uniform pattern of praise that has been heaped on Leuthy’s book. Undeniably, France Against Herself is a good book, well worth anyone’s time.

It is not that Leuthy’s analysis of France is markedly original: that the “classic country of revolution is, in reality, the most conservative country in the world” will hardly be a revelation to those who have followed the miserable career of the Fourth Republic. Certainly, his imperative for France, the overhaul of her economy within the framework of European union, is a clear and much discussed necessity. And Leuthy’s own proposed solutions – if they can be so called – that France might find a last hope in “liberal capitalism,” sparked by a “fresh air of competition” from her European partners, are so vaguely formed that even he seems aware of their unreality.

Leuthy’s real service is in presenting an amazingly thorough and perceptive background of the French nation, in explaining and illuminating problems in France that have baffled and frustrated even her best friends. Why is it that this nation, so rich in resources and skilled manpower, cannot achieve any sort of a satisfying level of production? What happened to the high hopes of the post-war era, and why were the governments that emerged only pitiful caricatures of those of the 1930s? And why do the French hang on to a disintegrating colonial empire, desperately pursuing policies that can end only in complete catastrophe? In handling questions such as these, France Against Herself is, indeed, “the best book on France in ten years.”

According to Leuthy, France has perhaps a “more compact and self- contained personality” than any other nation, yet she presents herself as a confused, and confusing, jumble of contradictions. She possesses both a messianic spirit and a narrow provincialism, a highly developed national consciousness and a complete disregard for the state; she combines an absolute structure with democratic ideals, centralism with individualism, order with anarchy; and the rationalism she exalts is reconciled with an utter contempt for all reason. The obvious necessity is to find in this mass of inconsistencies some essential principles of the real France, the France that endures.

In this search for the essentials of France, Leuthy turns to her past, to the roots of traditions and institutions that exist today. As the French monarchy slowly absorbed and unified the nation, working through patient, legalistic methods to strengthen the principle of a single sovereignty, its most useful assistance came from the bureaucracy, the routinized, professional civil service. After the Revolution, the bureaucracy provided a refuge for Rightist or monarchial elements, and thus it has continued through the years, the institutional backbone of conservatism in France. Through political crises, rebellion, and revolution, the bureaucracy has survived, its foundations unscathed by disaster, providing national continuity, sabotaging all reforms, an absolute structure leftover from the monarchial state.

FRANCE, THEN, IS NOT GOVERNED, but administered. The political fireworks that enliven the Western press never touch the real life of the state – they are, in fact, a relatively harmless facade. The surface struggles among ideologies are actually the heritage of the Revolution, which, while it gave to the French a set of sanctified Jacobin ideals, and a sense of being the revolutionary elite of Western civilization, never established a permanent political system. France has had, since the Revolution, absolute monarchy, limited monarchy, dictatorship, two empires, and three republics, all of which still have their passionate adherents. Thus the political battle goes on, for nothing has ever been decided; and, in the background, the persistent bureaucracy exercises the real power.

The Revolution, then, increased the power of the bureaucracy, as well as the engrained principle of centralization. The civil service, holding economic power, handed out privileges to the bourgeoisie, as the king had distributed favors to the landed aristocracy. The French economy was atomized, fragmented into small holdings, most of them under the protection of the state. Thus were the foundations laid for the modern French economy, that is even today dominated by thousands of peasants, shopkeepers, and owners of tiny factories – scattered productive agencies that are still largely protected by the central administration. The “real, conservative” French work ceaselessly to preserve their favored positions, resisting social planning, or any attempts at modem organization, with paralyzing weapons. The fragmented economy is almost able to exist without market outlets, and when threatened, it withdraws into its own ancient pattern, into a kind of “organized anarchy.” And all of this is reflected in the immobilisme of the national Parliament, that results from the weird maneuvering of the 600 representatives of these petty, selfish interests.

This creaking system – the rigid bureaucratic stability, the top-heavy centralization, the archaic economy – is buttressed by the national myths, which insist that change or modern efficiency would threaten the greatness of France, would destroy the “painfully acquired human values,” and the absolute individual freedom achieved by la civilisation supreme. This is the spirit behind French rejection of mass organizational techniques, her contempt for the “neo-barbarians” of highly industrialized nations. France, in this myth, is complete, her culture a model of finished perfection, that she could enjoy in idyllic leisure if the world would but leave her alone.

FRENCH COLONIALISM FITS INTO this picture of conservatism – and into the national myth. The acquisition of the Empire is a story of the “machinations of high finance, the Church, and the military caste, which tirelessly re-erected overseas the Bastilles which had been overthrown in France.” But the colonial picture is complicated by the ubiquitous French myth, which emerges as the mission civilisatrice, the profound belief in the French destiny to carry light and rationalism to the remote corners of the earth. Thus the French ideologists have found it inconceivable that Arabs or Asians could reject an invitation to become part of an unequaled culture; thus they have never been able to admit that their dark-skinned brothers might prefer their own groping national autonomy. Through this combination of reactionary colonial interests and stubborn, blind idealism, French imperialism continues its sordid – and futile – repression.

The French problem, then, throughout this century, has been the progressive deterioration, the stagnation of her cherished way of life. A declining population, an agriculture and industry which lives on low turnover and high profits, a government anchored to a bureaucratic deadweight, an explosive and unmanageable colonialism – all these things point to the dead end of the existing system. France had one chance, in the hope and enthusiasm that came with the end of the war, and in the blueprint for dynamic change that was formulated by the members of the war-time Resistance. All this has been lost; the multitude of small interests rallied to halt any economic change, demanding to be left alone to go back to “the good old days,” while the Communist Party added its inimitable assistance, paralyzing the government and betraying the hopes of the workers.

Thus France has, since 1946, drifted farther toward national self-destruction. Industrial workers, who should be a dynamic force in the social body, are isolated and mute; the joint actions of employers, terrified of the most reasonable demands, and the Communist Party, which serves only itself, have scaled the workers off into powerless pockets of discontent, five million voiceless citizens who have, in effect, been alienated from the rest of the nation. Groups with piecemeal reforms – left wing governments, Socialists, “technocrats” – have been wholly ineffectual. All efforts to build a future for France, through technical progress, through greater production, through any modification of her ancient traditions, have failed to crack the hard nut of French conservatism.

It is on such firm ground as this that Leuthy performs ably, sometimes brilliantly, as a diagnostician of the new “sick man of Europe.” But as to where France is going, and how she can solve her insoluble mess, he doesn’t say. He does suggest that France might try liberal capitalism – the “humanistic” variety – that would, somehow, work in conjunction with the technocrats. It is left to the reader to wonder how this peculiar arrangement would work, or – more importantly – why the French bourgeoisie, which has brought the nation to collapse, should be trusted to reform and regenerate itself.

A LONG TIME AGO, LENIN noted the indestructibility of the French bureaucracy; later, Trotsky observed that French capitalism could only go from crisis to crisis, from bad to worse; in the 1940’s, even Leon Blum wrote of the total corruption of the bourgeoisie, its unfitness and its incapability for leadership. All of these analysts saw the same situation that Leuthy has described; while he stops short, casting forlornly about for some solution within the existing system, Lenin and Trotsky, at least, carried their analysis to its only logical conclusion. The necessity that they saw, then, has an even more urgent validity today. If France has a future, it lies in revolutionary socialism.

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