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Pierre Naville

Marxism in France Today

(January 1967)

Source: Survey, No. 62, January 1967.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

George Lichtheim
Marxism in Modern France
Columbia University Press, 1966, pp. 198

Marxism in Modern France is an interesting attempt to interpret the crisis of Marxism in France or, better, the new system of social problems deriving from the revision of Marxism since 1950. (Unfortunately the author never uses the word ‘problem’, commonly employed by French writers and more characteristic than words such as ‘crisis’ or ‘revision’.) According to Mr Lichtheim the main cause of this crisis is the recent industrial metamorphosis in France: state intervention in all sectors of social life, state planning, the diminished hostility between theoretical classes (wage-earning proletariat and private capitalists) in favour of the ill-balanced hierarchies of functions over which technocracy now dominates. It is in this context that he places the philosophical and even literary arguments, political debate, the attempt to work out theory and to re-examine history. On the whole Mr Lichtheim is well informed and his book is a useful introduction to the evolution of social thought in France. But there are some mistakes that make us uneasy. On page 158 he says:

When Lenin in 1920 defined communism as ‘electrification plus soviets’ he was unconsciously reverting to Saint-Simon ... The Stalinist dictatorship, with its exaltation of the engineer, was Saint-Simonian to the hilt, and quite properly gained the applause of numerous polytechniciens, some of whom in their enthusiasm even joined the communist party.

Lenin put it in reverse order: the soviets, plus electrification ... the soviets coming first! And could Mr Lichtheim name a single polytechnicien who praised the Stalinist dictatorship and joined the French Communist Party? On page 197 he writes that Marx did not share Engels’s ‘illusions’ on the dialectics of nature and that he would not ‘have wasted his time on an attempt to construct an all-embracing system to take the place of Hegel’s’. Of course he had no ambition to build a philosophical system on Hegel’s model. But neither had Engels. Moreover, their correspondence bears witness to the fact that Marx and Engels (in 1858, 1860, 1870, 1873 ...) often discussed the elaboration of a natural, experimental and synthetic dialectics of nature. I clearly brought out these discussions in my preface to Dialectique de la Nature (Paris, 1950).

These remarks, to which I could add many others of the same sort, show the difficulties of the method chosen by Mr Lichtheim for expounding his ideas. In the first part of his book he defines the tendencies of French socialism and syndicalism in terms of their principal theoreticians, before going on to define the big rift between communists (Soviet style) and socialists (bourgeois-democratic style) in the years 1918 to 1939. In the second part he presents a picture of the transformation of Marxist theory (philosophical debates), and of the relations between the state and society (industrial and political mutation) on the basis of books and articles that interpret these in a conservative or innovating sense. This method has a number of disadvantages. First, it leads to overestimating literary publications that have left hardly any trace, and this gives rise to a certain lack of balance in the importance attached to the subjects under review. Secondly, events and the real labour and socialist movement take second place and it is no longer easy to understand why certain problems arose at the moment they did. By taking a series of publications as his guiding thread the author gives the impression of not always understanding the exact sort of determinism that lies beneath the reclassification of the political and social (and even philosophical) ideas he is studying. The French reader will supplement them by instinct, but the foreign reader runs the risk of being misled. It would have been preferable to describe the wide historical framework of the new system of French social problems since 1940–45, then to examine how the socialist, Marxist and syndicalist traditions created an obstacle to it and how it has brought with it new tendencies which in fact today allow us to single out the early symptoms of a neo-Marxism, or of a renovated socialism.

In this way many of the ideas here outlined with a discriminating and perspicacious eye could have been given deeper development. In particular the author would have noted that outside influences have played an essential and possibly central part in today’s crisis in French Marxism. Mr Lichtheim writes that France is still Europe’s political laboratory. This judgement is very flattering for the French but it is rather too traditional. It would be better to say that the French of today are very clever at assimilating and recasting the social and political ideas that have come from abroad. This is all the more true now that, despite all Gaullism’s grandiloquence, France (both bourgeois and working-class) no longer has the place she once held in the world. Mr Lichtheim notes the revival of French interest in the Hegelian tradition, including the Hegelianism of Marx’s young days – not to mention the persistent interest in Nietzsche and the more recent influence of Husserl and Heidegger. But emphasis should have been put on many other influences, possibly less literary and aesthetic, but bound up with the most important social and political upheavals in Europe and the world. From this point of view Mr Lichtheim’s thesis, or at least the impression he has formed of the kernel of Marxism’s new preoccupations in France, seems rather narrow. He sees in the French evolution since 1950 an originality which to me seems debatable, at least up to the present time. Possibly it is the freedom of political arguments in France and the conjunction between literature and politics which is deep-rooted in this country’s tradition that urge the author on to underline this originality. But if we put the crisis and evolution of French Marxism back into the framework of international transformations, we shall soon see that the latter have at least as much definitive influence as the domestic metamorphoses in the political and economic system of metropolitan France.

So it seems to me that the import and significance of Mr Lichtheim’s conclusions, which in themselves are interesting, would be widened if we added – to the subjects he has dealt with in the second part of his book – a study of events which he merely touches on, if he takes them into account at all. These events can be viewed in terms of the French crisis itself. The following points should be examined – I merely provide a list: the end of French traditional colonialist and imperialist power, both overseas and in eastern Europe, after the loss of a number of wars and the success of a number of revolutions; the attempt at integration into a united Europe, at least western Europe; the new relations embarked on with the United States and the formidable impact of that power on French industrial, scientific, economic and even literary life; the crisis in the Soviet system since Stalin’s death and the return of post-Stalinism to a kind of bureaucratic empiricism; the emancipation of Asia and the forms assumed by the Chinese revolution, including the growing antagonism between China and the Soviet Union. Here I am only mentioning the principal changes. The positive side of the crisis in French Marxism, above all since 1960, lies in the sort of enthusiasm and youthful spirit in which it has welcomed these events and used them as elements for its own renewal. From this point of view Mr Lichtheim does not seem to be quite accurate when he ascribes to the evolution of the French Communist Party a sterility, impotence and conformism which merely reflect the present state of the ‘Soviet model’. Similarly the ‘leftist’ tendencies, which go so far as to deny the role of parties if not trade unions, can hardly be put in direct relationship with the ‘Chinese’ tendencies in the workers’ movement. And yet again one cannot help wondering whether the ‘revisionists’ (notably those of the Parti Socialiste Unifié) with whom Mr Lichtheim seems to sympathise, do not derive as large a part of their ideas from the Americanisation (industrialisation) of economic life as from purely French attempts at planning. In this sense it could be said that the crisis of Marxism in France expresses to a large extent the sudden awareness on the part of the labour and socialist movement of its backwardness in relation to world evolution. It is from an awareness of this time-lag that the various sorts of contemporary ‘revisionists’ draw their main strength. In the last few years the subject of ‘autogestion’ has come up and needs to be added to those Mr Lichtheim examines – it has taken the place of the old philosophical discussion on ‘alienation’. But as is all too plain, this subject received a powerful impetus in France from the crises of 1956 in Poland and Hungary, and subsequently from the Yugoslav and Algerian experiences in the same field.

Thanks to his careful documentation on the polemics of recent years, Mr Lichtheim’s book has the merit of allowing us to reflect usefully on these different points. One of the conclusions I draw from it, while bearing in mind the observations above, is that the renewed Marxism whose form is now beginning to appear in France will gain its full strength when it spreads over the French frontiers and joins up with efforts at further political and social discoveries that are being made throughout Europe, not to mention new, world-scale movements. The crisis in Marxism can be called an international phenomenon. It will not be resolved in France by French efforts alone, even though it may take special forms there; and the same can be said of every single other European country.

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