Mage Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Shane Mage

A Political Novel

(Winter 1957)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.1, Winter 1957, pp.33-34.
Transcribed &marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Mandarins
by Simone de Beauvoir
World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York. 1956, 610 pp. $6.

Ever since its publication five months ago, the American translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s recent novel The Mandarins has held a high place on the best-seller lists. It is a moot question whether this is due to greater intellectual maturity of the American reading public or to lurid (and inaccurate) reviews of the book’s “sexual sensationalism.” The fact remains that The Mandarins is a rich, absorbing, sensitive novel. Beyond this, it is a novel of particular interest to socialists since its more important characters are all “of the Left” and because it deals with some of the most important political problems of our times.

The action of The Mandarins takes place in the years immediately following the Second World War. Its protagonists are a group of French intellectuals – Robert Dubreuilh, a professor of philosophy; his wife Anne, a psychiatrist; and his friend and co-worker, the novelist Henri Perron. They have all played leading roles in the Resistance movement. Henri is the editor of an important Resistance newspaper, L’Espoir (Hope). A circle of vigorous young men centers around them. The novel presents the break-up of this group, the collapse of the great liberating socialist hopes which sprang up in the Resistance, and the struggle of the individual characters against their individual and collective isolation and helplessness.

The Mandarins is, in large part, a political novel. It must therefore be judged from two standpoints: as a novel and as a political document.

Looked at as a novel, the book is a great success and marks an enormous advance over the author’s previous novels. Le Sang des Autres (The Blood of Others) and L’Invitée (published in the US as She Came to Stay) are extremely interesting, but mainly because of the ideas expressed in them. Their characters never completely come alive – they seem, to a greater or lesser extent, artificially constructed in order to demonstrate the philosophy of existentialism.

In The Mandarins, on the other hand, the characters possess living reality. We can grasp their internal motivation through their natural thought and action processes in their given situations. The “existentialist” viewpoint is by no means absent – and the development of the female characters shows unmistakably that this is a book by the author of The Second Sex; but these ideas are never obtruded. Rather they are fundamentally integrated into the story and characterization. They are an organic part of the final artistic accomplishment.

The form of the book is original. Each chapter is divided into two sections, one written in the first person and told by Anne, the other in the third person, centering mainly on Henri. This structure enables the author either to present two highly independent sub-plots within a unified context (particularly in describing Anne’s long trip to America and her love affair with a Chicago novelist) or to handle the same events from two different viewpoints, thus obtaining almost three-dimensional depth and realism.

Simone de Beauvoir’s presentation of her characters and their situation deserves unstinting praise. Unfortunately, considerable reservations are necessary with regard to her political viewpoint.

The author’s thesis is aptly summarized in her title. Her intellectuals are “Mandarins”: members of a privileged caste, absorbed in their own thoughts and problems, isolated from the decisive progressive force in modern society, the proletariat. The substance of the main iplot is the effort of these “Mandarins” to break out of their isolation, and their failure in this endeavor.

From start to finish they are obsessed by their relations to the Stalinists, whom they consider the only representative party of the French workers. They originally conceive themselves as independent fellow-travelers of the CP, and the Stalinists gladly tolerate them in this role. Relations become strained, however, when Robert and Henri found a political organization of their own. Even though they still will not criticize the CP openly for fear of aiding French reaction and American imperialism, the Stalinists consider them a potential rival for leadership of the workers.

The situation becomes intolerable when Henri and Robert are presented with unavoidable proof of the existence of slave labor in Russia. They break with each other when Henri insists on publishing these farts. The Stalinists respond with slanderous hostility – they damage the paper’s circulation so much that Henri must give up control of it to an opportunistic businessman who can provide the necessary funds to keep it going, and who quickly converts it into a De Gaullist organ. The break between Henri and Robert, of course, destroys their League.

After a period of terrible demoralization, during which Henri and Robert become reconciled, they return to politics in the same role as they began – as Stalinist fellow-travelers. They are convinced they have no other perspective. They have completed their own self-contained circle.

This is undoubtedly a true and perceptive portrayal of a section of the French intelligentsia. But it is more than that: it is a defense and justification for their attitude. That is where its influence can be extremely harmful.

The conclusion that leaps out of The Mandarins is that it is impossible to establish an anti-Stalinist revolutionary party in France. Simone de Beauvoir arrives at this false conclusion because her book comprehends only a tiny facet of French life, because she herself, like her protagonists, is a “Mandarin.” There are no workers and no expression of a proletarian viewpoint in this novel.

The author ignores the most important facts of French politics in the period in which her book is set. Henri and Robert reject Stalinism because of its totalitarianism and dishonesty – but they seem strangely unconscious of the treacherous reformist role played by the CP in 1945-47: there is no protest against the disarming of the Resistance, the strike-breaking, the participation in capitalist governments, the support to French imperialism in North Africa and Indochina, all of which dominated French Stalinist politics at that time.

Revolutionary anti-Stalinist currents within the French proletariat are conspicuously absent. The only reference to the Trotskyists is the statement that they “refused to join the Resistance on the pretext that it served British imperialism.” But despite the sectarian errors of the French Trotskyists in that period, the influence of their ideas far surpassed their small numbers, particularly among left-wing intellectuals.

Last, and perhaps most important, Simone de Beauvoir gives no intimation of the steady decline in proletarian support for the CP, and the emergence of oppositional trends within the CP itself. She pictures the CP as the party of the French workers. But in fact, it retains proletarian support only because of the absence of a strong alternative. The building of such an alternative revolutionary party is the imperative task of the French Left today. Unfortunately, this novel is no help in this endeavor.

Simone de Beauvoir has produced a brilliant and slashing indictment of her own circle of French leftist intellectuals. The reader who keeps that in mind will both enjoy this book and learn from it.

Mage Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 21.9.2008