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Machiavelli and Modern Thought


Books in Review

A Work of Major Significance

(August 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 8, August 1944, p. 272.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

War Diary
by Jean Malaquais
Doubleday-Doran. 246 pages, $2.50.

This diary of a young Polish-French novelist was written during the months immediately before the fall of France. It contains his personal record in an army labor battalion, random literary reflections, personal reactions to army life and occasional statements of a political attitude toward the war. Its author has already written a novel of considerable power, Men from Nowhere, and is of general leftist, anti-Stalinist political persuasion. After recording the above data, there is only one more important thing to say: War Diary is the first work to come out of this war which is of major significance, which is true to the very core and which should under no conditions be neglected by any intelligent person who is sensitive to the atomizing, concrete effects of the war. It goes without saying that for a socialist it is indispensable.

The reception which War Diary met in the “leftist” and “liberal” press could be considered scandalous were it not expected. The pious heroes of the liberal book sections have pretended to be shocked at the fact that when Malaquais met up with French peasants he found them filthy, vulgar and debased by the barracks routine. They accused Malaquais of not “loving humanity,” of being a snob. Even Victor Serge, who, as with so many other matters, should know better but apparently doesn’t, dished out the same spoonfuls of twaddle in his review in Politics.

The liberals, of course, see no political or moral discrepancy between their overflowing love for humanity and their support of British, American and Stalinist imperialism in the war. But they point righteous fingers, sticky with the goo of complacent humanitarianism, at Malaquais and innocently ask: How can he reconcile his revolutionary socialist opinions with his revulsion against the peasants with whom he had to live in the army? It is only with a feeling of impatience – and a bit of shame, too, that our “leading critics” should smear this true, fine and beautiful book with such preposterous shysterism – that one points out that most elementary fact: only those who understand how contemporary civilization debases humanity, only those who see that capitalism drags people down into the gutters of vulgarity and baseness, of filth and the stupor of routine, fruitless existence; only those can truly understand and passionately struggle for a new and better society.

On the other hand, it is the liberals who, despite the rubbery protestations about their belief in the “ultimate” need for a new society, always manage to find a modus vivendi within the present one; it is these liberals who find it convenient to cloak their political supineness with Populist chatter about the glories of man and his spiritual beauty. But if man as he is today – we do not speak of those occasional flashes of potentiality which are the promise of the morrow but are ground down by the pestle of today – this man who is molded by the mores and conventions of capitalist society, is truly such a glorious creature, then why is there any need for a new society? Yes, yes, the issue is as simple as all that: either capitalist society debases mankind, and that is the main reason for desiring socialism; or it does not, and in that case socialists would be better off listening to chamber music, or playing handball ... or something.

Malaquais is a talented observer, but that really isn’t so important, because there are other talented observers. But Malaquais is an honest and courageous man, and that is something for which to be profoundly grateful. When I mention, in addition, that he has – one glimpses from his few occasional remarks on politics; especially from a wonderful sentence in which he remarks that “Only a few creators, a few artists, a few revolutionaries, will discover within themselves enough reserve strength to survive the avalanche” – a deep, passionate hatred for all that is rotten in our society; that he is a true, complete, unregenerate rebel and that he sees the war for the lie it is, you can understand why the book provokes somersaults.

Malaquais has exposed the consuming boredom, the irretrievable waste of time, of barracks existence to the point where those who have, or are now, undergoing similar experiences will be tempted to shout out loud: “Yes, yes, here is a man who gives the truth, whole, simple, unvarnished truth.” And if anybody thinks I may be a little naive in returning again and again to this simple little fact that an honest book has been written, let him list some other honest books about this war.

There are many jejune passages in the book, immature “reflections” which, were they the product of deliberate, considered composition, might make the author blush. But it is to be remembered that War Diary is ... war diary and was not polished over by loving hands in a peaceful summer home. Anyone who has had to exist in a barracks in the Second World Bore will know that even these passages are true, as true as the fine and the beautiful passages; no sensitive or intelligent man subjected to military routine is immune from occasional spasms of self-pity, of pretentious philosophizing. So when you read the book, take that as it comes also.

This review could be much longer if some of the wonderful passages from War Diary were quoted – and they are very quotable. But I feel that the book is a total experience, and any attempt to break it into bits would be unjust. Well, there we are. If you want to discover how a man feels in an army (which in some ways is more important than and certainly distinct from how a man feels in battle), read this first honest and intelligent book to come out of this war.

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