Max Eastman 1920

The Clarté Movement

Written: by Max Eastman;
Source: The Liberator, Vol. 3, No. 4 [Serial No. 25] April, 1920 pp.40-42
Transcribed: by Brian Bagsen
Marked up and Edited: by Damon Maxwell.

IT has been suggested to me that the “Liberator” might form the center in America for the organization of a section of Clarté, the international group of “intellectuals” which derived its name and initial enthusiasm from a novel by Henri Barbusse. This group is more fully entitled in its statutes “A League of Intellectual Solidarity for the Triumph of the International Cause,” and its purpose is “to exercise in complete independence the activities designated by its title.”

Clarté has upon its International Executive Committee the names, “irrevocable and not removable,” of Henri Barbusse, Georges Brandes, Paul Colin, Victor Cyril, Georges Duhamel, Eckhoud, Anatole France, Noel Gamier, Charles Gide, Thomas Hardy, Henry-Jacques, Vincente Blasco Ibanez, Andreas Latzko, Laurent Tailhade, Raymond Lefebvre, Madeleine Marx, E. D. Morel, Edmond Picard, Charles Richet, Jules Romains, Rene Schickele, Severine, Upton Sinclair, Steinlen, Vaillant-Couturier, H. G. Wells, Israel Zangwill, Stefan Zweig.

I notice also in an English section recently formed the names of Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Robert Williams (the General Secretary of the Transport Workers), Frank Hodges (Secretary of the Miners’ Union), Miles Malleson, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Dell and some others not unfamiliar.

A handsome bi-weekly paper, “Clarté,” described as the “French Bulletin of the International of Thought,” is already in circulation; and a pamphlet written by Boris Souvarine, one of the editors of Longuet’s paper, Le Populaire, has been issued under the imprint of the group. It is significant of the revolutionary leaning of those who stand at the head of the group in Paris that this first pamphlet is an able and instructive plea for working class adherence to the third international. And this leaning is still further emphasized in some unofficial letters I have received – notably one from Henri Barbusse, in which he says:

“The intransigeance of the program which we have defended on different occasions has alienated some of those who found themselves in the moderate opposition, that is to say, in reality conservative. As we have no intention of modifying our ideas, whatever may come, the result has been that Clarté has taken an orientation much more revolutionary than can be inferred from its first manifestoes. In truth, we have not modified the expression of our principles, but we have shown what an absolute and radical meaning we give to them.”

M. Barbusse is the President of the Republican Association of War Veterans, an organization with three hundred sections and comprising an immense mass of the soldiers who are left alive in France. There is no need to describe the width of his influence to those who have read his book, “Under Fire,” and remember how it blew and burned like a living flame of truth all over the world. He tells me that this organization of war veterans is “from the point of view of ideas at the extreme left.” and in a printed message to them he has this vigorous thing to say:

“There are but two nations in the world – that of the exploiters and that of the exploited. The more powerful is the prisoner of the other, and we all belong, proletarians of battles, to the one that is vanquished. Such is the tragic, mad, shameful reality. All the rest is but foul superannuated sophisms which will bring the world’s end by mere force of absurdity if slaves remain slaves.”

In spite of these encouraging signs, and the humble respect that I have for many of the names that are signed upon the roster of Clarté, I feel alien and opposed to it. I think it is bad science to form a group of that particular kind. And I think this bad science – or complete lack of science – reveals itself at almost every point in the official calls and manifestoes around which it has been formed. I quote the following characteristic sentences:

The Duty of the Intellectual.

“To the conflict of material forces has succeeded the conflict of ideas. It is no less ardent. It relinquishes little by little the same bloody forms, but it is more important still, more profound, for it goes back to the causes of all existing institutions. ...

“The war has made appearances crumble. It has brought to light the lies, the old errors, the sophisms sagely entertained, which have made of the past a long martyrdom of justice. The end imposes itself at present to organize the social life according to the laws of reason. Since human affairs are not validly regulated except by human intelligence, it belongs to the intellectuals above all to intervene in preparing the rule of the mind. ...

“A veritable accord between free spirits exists already in the world. In order to be effective, this accord ought to formulate itself. Let them arise then, those whose thoughts fraternize, and let them recognize each other. Let them found without delay across the frontiers their immense family. Their ideals will never realize themselves if they do not decide to realize them together. ...

“We do not intend to form a political party. We intend to form a living entente around a living ideal. Our effort is precise, and the care which inspires us is that of the future. We will work to prepare the Universal Republic outside of which there is no safety for the people. We wish the end of all militarism, the abolition of the factitious barriers which separate men, the integral application of the Wilsonian fourteen points; respect for human life, the free development of the individual, limited only by the living community, the social equality of all men and all women, the obligation to work for every able citizen, the establishment of the right of each to occupy in society the place which he merits by his labor, his ability or his virtues, the suppression of the privileges of birth, whatever they be, a reform from the international point of view, which is the absolute social point of view, of all the laws regulating human activity.

“Our list is not closed, and we wish that it may never be. We call amicably to our side all those who believe in the power of thought. We will add that in order to take part in our group it is not necessary to have a name consecrated by the profession of letters or the scientific mission. The teacher who writes to us from a far-off village, the student who meditates, the young socialist who devotes himself to the cause, all those whose generosity vows itself to the service and the happiness of man, all men and women can contribute effectively to our effort.”

In exposing my reaction to these proposals, I have to confess at the outset a more than temperamental distaste for the assumption by artists and writers, and a few scientists who are alive to something besides their own specialty, of the self-conscious title of “intellectuals.” This word has always been more useful to me as a missile with which to knock over a prig, than as a tribute of praise to a sincere man in humble contact with reality. There may be something peculiarly American in this fact. I know that the progress of life is held back in our country by a popular habit of sneering at real thoughtfulness which is entirely peculiar to us. As Edith Wharton says in her French Ways and Their Meanings – “The very significance – the note of ridicule and slight contempt – which attaches to the word ‘culture’ in America would be quite unintelligible to the French of any class. It is inconceivable to them that any one should consider it superfluous, and even slightly comic, to know a great deal, to know the best in every line, to know, in fact, as much as possible.”

This crude peculiarity of American civilization makes it all too easy for me to attack the “International of Thought.” The very assumption of that magniloquent title seems so foolhardy on this side of the ocean that further argument is superfluous.

“It belongs to the intellectuals to intervene in preparing the rule of the mind,” says the manifesto. And if M. Barbusse will imagine a group of those soulless and hard-headed schoolboys, who by some obscure process of gravitation always arrive at the back seats, deciding that it is now time to assert their superior sophistication by throwing chalk at the teacher, he will have an idea how such an announcement will be received by the average intelligent American. This is not surely a thing to boast of; the French have decidedly the better of us in their attitude toward the life of ideas. But if it enables us to see and say clearly what is the real fault of this European movement, we need not be altogether apologetic about it.

Its real fault is that it still moves in a world of ideologies. It still assumes that a conflict of beliefs and abstract ideals, a dialectic process, is the essence of history. It seems to be entirely ignorant of those deeper-lying and more prevailing motives, those currents of material interest, which Marx so long ago declared and which recent events have so abundantly proven, to be the real motor forces in social evolution. Only in such ignorance could an undiscriminating appeal to the dealers in intellectual wares as natural leaders and light-bringers in a revolutionary age be made.

It is not intellectuality, reason, “the power of thought,” that will fight and win the battle for liberty and international peace. It is the self-protective will of the exploited classes that will do it. And if there really is such a thing as an intellectual – a person whose will attaches with single devotion to abstract and impersonal truth – he will be distinguished by his knowledge of this very fact. He will know too much to imagine that he can assemble an effective revolutionary army on the basis of “moral accord” or a “fraternizing” of their “thoughts.” His intellect will never permit him to utter such a sentence as this: “To the conflict of material forces has succeeded the conflict of ideas.”

It is not true. A conflict of class interests has succeeded to a conflict of national interests. Ideas have been employed as weapons upon both sides in both conflicts, and they will continue to be so employed. And the ideas of artists and writers in general – sad though it be to say it – will be employed upon the side of the capitalist class. We can deduce this from what we know of their natural economic position, or we can arrive at it empirically by remembering their behavior in Russia. “The Sabotage of the Intellectuals” is a phrase that comes back to my mind from one of Lunacharsky’s reports on the effort to create a revolutionary system of education. It sums up the bitter truth about the activities of the professional ideologers in those greatest hours of all human history. We cannot afford to ignore this, or excuse it, or mitigate it.

The task at hand is the overthrow of a master class by the workers of the world. It is just as simple as that. In this operation the humanitarian intellectuals will function up to the critical moment as obscurers of the issue, and when the critical moment comes they will function as apostles of compromise and apologists of the masters.

In the light of this established truth, how pathetic is the vain glory of their raising a banner of leadership! It would be more appropriate after what has happened that they should form a penitential order, retiring into a convent in sack-cloth and ashes, resolved that if they can not help the working class in its struggle, they will at least cease to corrupt and water its vigor with misleading and obscure idealistic emotions.

My friend Andre Tridon tells me that I do not understand the Latin style, and that I must learn to make a certain discount for “language” when I read a manifesto that is written anywhere south of the Rhine or the Rio Grande. But that is not the real difficulty. It is not only that these manifestoes fail of any explicit reference to the class-struggle at a moment when the whole world shudders with it; they evidently avoid this reference for the express purpose of bringing into their membership people of literary and artistic distinction who stand on both sides of that struggle. The obscuring of the issue is deliberate, and can only spring from a failure to perceive how single and unescapable an issue it is. If M. Barbusse will throw all this misty cloak of pious generality to the wind, and publish upon his membership blank only those naked words which I quoted from his message to the soldiers, “There are but two nations,” he will find his distinguished and affluent collaborators, the writers of books and the painters of paintings, flying from him to their own proper haunts in great numbers. And the few remaining, who really care about the destiny of man, and who invite sacrifice, and who know how to think, will have a right to inscribe upon their banner the word “Clarté.”

But if Clarté is not the real purpose, if the real purpose is simply to organize the artistic trades as one of the subordinate and least revolutionary of the groups that can identify themselves in any degree with the labor movement, then let him discard the great motto and lay down the pretense of revolutionary and intellectual leadership. Let him form this union as a new and inexperienced section of the Confederation General du Travail, having the mildest possible declaration in its articles of a common interest with organized labor. No matter how little revolution, how little socialist theory, how little of the world’s future, was contained in these articles, we could subscribe to them then. For the method would be revolutionary, however the words might not. And if the I.W.W. would not trust us, we might affiliate on our side of the ocean with the workers in the American Federation of Labor, and try not to be any more reactionary on account of our “knowledge” than they are on account of their “ignorance.” That would be a step of some potential significance.

As it stands, however, there is only one reflection about the Clarté movement to which I can recur with comfort, and that is that it is impossible. If M. Barbusse and his associates are really revolutionary in their wills, however unwilling their minds may be to enter into the hard science of revolution, they will soon learn from the facts themselves that what they are trying to do can not be done. An organization for the revolutionary transformation of the world, which contains bourgeois liberals like H. G. Wells and Blasco Ibanez on the one side, and proletarian revolutionaries like Steinlen and Anatole France and Raymond Lefebvre on the other, will either split in two at the first active effort it makes, or making no active effort will expire with a long sigh like any pious and impractical intention.