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Past Imperfect

Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 348
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  • Book Info
    Past Imperfect
    Book Description:

    Past Imperfect is a forthright and uncommonly damning study of those intellectually volatile years [1944-1956]. Mr. Judtdoes more than simply describe the ideological acrobats of his subjects; he is a sharp, even a vindictive moralist who indicts these intellectuals for their inhumanity in failing to test their political thought against political reality.-John Sturrock, New York Times Book Review

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4392-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    For a period of about twelve years following the liberation of France in 1944, a generation of French intellectuals, writers, and artists was swept into the vortex of communism. By this I do not mean that they became Communists; most did not. Indeed, then as now, many prominent intellectuals in France had no formal political affiliation, and some of the most important among them were decidedly non-Marxist (Raymond Aron is only the best-known example among many). But the issue of communism—its practice, its meaning, its claims upon the future—dominated political and philosophical conversation in postwar France. The terms...


    • CHAPTER ONE Decline and Fall The French Intellectual Community at the End of the Third Republic
      (pp. 15-25)

      The Third Republic, it is said, died unloved. Few sought seriously to defend it in July 1940, and it passed away unmourned. Recent scholarship suggests this judgment may need more nuance as it applies to the general population, but so far as the intelligentsia were concerned, it remains a fair comment upon their disengagement from the Republic and its values.¹ Those who had sympathized with the Communists were disillusioned by the compromises of the Popular Front, the refusal to intervene in Spain and, finally, by the party’s about-face in August 1939, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Socialists, so hopeful in 1936,...

    • CHAPTER TWO In the Light of Experience The “Lessons” of Defeat and Occupation
      (pp. 26-44)

      The experience of occupation and resistance in the years 1940–44 transformed the French intellectual community and accelerated the transfer of status and authority within it. An older generation, already thinned out by the first war, saw its ranks further diminished as a result of collaboration, deportation, and death. There were, to be sure, certain notable exceptions. François Mauriac and Jean Paulhan, central figures in the French literary community well before the thirties, would be prominent in the postwar intellectual and political world for a decade at least. Georges Bernanos, although he would never recover either his style or his...

    • CHAPTER THREE Resistance and Revenge The Semantics of Commitment in the Aftermath of Liberation
      (pp. 45-74)

      We have become familiar with the “Vichy syndrome.”¹ We should not, however, neglect itsdoppelgänger, the syndrome of Resistance. After the war, it suited almost everyone to believe that all but a tiny minority of the French people were in the Resistance or sympathized with it. Communists, Gaullists, and Vichyists alike had an interest in forwarding this claim. By the end of the forties, amidst growing disenchantment with the Fourth Republic, there emerged a new sensibility critical ofrésistantialismeand cynical about the whole wartime experience. Promoted by a younger generation of “alienated” apolitical writers, this rejection of the myths...

    • CHAPTER FOUR What Is Political Justice? Philosophical Anticipations of the Cold War
      (pp. 75-98)

      The absence, in postwar France, of any consensus about justice—its meaning, its forms, its application—contributed to the confused and inadequate response of French intellectuals to the evidence ofinjustice elsewhere, in Communist systems especially. With no common agreement as to the criteria, if any, to be applied in the critique of arbitrary political authority, progressive thinkers were ill equipped to recognize, much less defend, individual victims of ideological realpolitik. To understand why this was so, we must turn our attention to the contemporary philosophical context, and existentialism in particular. By no means was every one an “existentialist”; as...


    • CHAPTER FIVE Show Trials Political Terror in the East European Mirror, 1947–1953
      (pp. 101-116)

      By the late 1940s, information about life under Stalin and his system was readily available to anyone. Indeed, ever since the mid-1930s there had been a steady flow of news and revelations from the Soviet Union, followed after the war by an even fuller body of information about repression in the new European satellites. Personal memoirs, reportages, and semiofficial acknowledgments had provided considerable detail concerning labor camps, mass deportations, and the reality behind the political trials.¹ As early as 1935, talking to pro-Soviet writers in Paris, Denis de Rougemont had been struck by their readiness to admit the presence of...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Blind Force of History The Philosophical Case for Terror
      (pp. 117-138)

      In the period 1944–56, there were four possible responses to Stalinism. The first was simple rejection. This was the position of Raymond Aron and a few others. It entailed denying that there was any credibility to the claims of communism, whether as the embodiment and protector of the interests of the working people or as the vehicle of progress and human perfection in history. Within such rigorous terms it was possible to be both intellectually consistent and morally coherent; but in the political and cultural context of these years, it also placed one outside of the mainstream of intellectual...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Today Things Are Clear Doubts, Dissent, and Awakenings
      (pp. 139-150)

      No one who reads the innumerable books, essays, articles, and polemical exchanges that studded French public life in the postwar years can fail to be impressed, in the midst of all that noise, by a certain silence. In the welter of verbal presences, there was, so to speak, one “great absence.” This was a generation whose attention was incessantly directed at the responsibility of each person for his or her acts and their outcome, where humanism and the destinies of humanity were on every lip and where the untold suffering brought about by dictatorship and war was the measure of...


    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Sacrifices of the Russian People A Phenomenology of Intellectual Russophilia
      (pp. 153-167)

      In order to appreciate the belief system of postwar intellectuals, we need to grasp that what is at issue here is notunderstanding, the cognitive activity usually associated with intellectuals, but faith. To react as people did to the impact of communism in the years following 1945, they had first to accept unquestioningly a certain number of the fundamental tenets of what amounted to a civic religion. But merely to say this is not enough; we have next to ask why a particular community should find one such belief system more plausible, more convincing, than any other. In the chapters...

    • CHAPTER NINE About the East We Can Do Nothing Of Double Standards and Bad Faith
      (pp. 168-186)

      Ever since the early thirties, intellectual life in France (as elsewhere at the time) had been permeated by moral bifocalism, the capacity to apply different criteria of truth and value to different phenomena. This should not be confused with moral relativism. The relativist holds that no absolute evaluations are possible. For the consistent relativist, it is not possible to say of an action or a statement or a political system that it is incontrovertibly good or evil, true or false, correct or in error. This does not preclude contingent judgments of value, nor does it exclude the possibility of simply...

    • CHAPTER TEN America Has Gone Mad Anti-Americanism in Historical Perspective
      (pp. 187-204)

      Ever since the first Spanish missionaries agonized over the status of the “noble savages” they encountered in the New World, European thinkers have had mixed feelings about the Americas.¹ Entranced by its emptiness, its riches, its tabula rasa on which the world could be written anew, they have been simultaneously repelled by its crude simplicity, its newness, its very modernity. And of all the Europeans, the French in particular have exhibited these mixed emotions in their most acute form. From the Marquis de Lafayette to Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, they have found in America an energy, an openness, a protean possibility that...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN We Must Not Disillusion the Workers On the Self-Abnegation and Elective Affinities of the Intellectual
      (pp. 205-226)

      The petite bourgeoisie, it is said, is the class everyone loves to hate. Of the intellectuals it might be said that they are the class that loves to hate itself. Ever since the categoryintellectualcame into common usage, one part of the identity of the intellectual has been the aspiration (like that of the working class, according to Flaubert) to disappear. The sense of being peripheral, of being a commentator on the margins of society, has haunted the European intelligentsia for nearly two centuries. Once the idea took root, beginning with the Saint-Simonians, that society was divided into useful...


    • CHAPTER TWELVE Liberalism, There Is the Enemy On Some Peculiarities of French Political Thought
      (pp. 229-245)

      At the heart of the engagement of the 1940s and 1950s there lay an unwillingness to think seriously about public ethics, an unwillingness amounting to an incapacity. An important source of this shortcoming in the French intelligentsia was the widely held belief that morally binding judgments of a normative sort were undermined by their historical and logical association with the politics and economics of liberalism. It was a widely held view that liberalism, with its political language based on individuals and their rights and liberties, had utterly failed to protect people against fascism and its consequences, in large measure because...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Gesta Dei per Francos The Frenchness of French Intellectual
      (pp. 246-274)

      The circumstances and attitudes described in this book are peculiarly French. The history of Parisian intellectuals in the postwar years, their collective myopia in the face of Stalinism, is distinctively and unmistakably a French history. But to what extent, in what respects, is ituniquelyFrench? In the terms in which I have discussed the intellectual community after 1945, the historical, circumstantial, and personal issues that helped define postwar political engagement were all rooted in the local experience; but some of that experience was common to other countries and other cultures. The impact of World War I on liberal society,...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Europe and the French Intellectuals The Responsibilities of Power
      (pp. 275-292)

      The special status enjoyed by French intellectuals after World War II carried with it peculiar responsibilities. This privilege (or burden) was recognized by French and foreigners alike, although in slightly differing terms. For Parisian writers, it consisted of the duty and the right to speak in the name of humanity, to pronounce upon the human condition and to be understood in this sense even when engaging in apparently local debates. For outsiders, it meant that choices made or refused in Paris would have an impact and receive an echo in far-away places and be read, quoted, and misquoted by an...

  9. Conclusion: Goodbye to All That?
    (pp. 293-320)

    Time is a distorting mirror. The 1940s and 1950s seem a very long way away, part of another world. The intellectuals of those decades came from a different France. For all their sophistication, they grew up in and responded to a provincial, introverted culture shaped by the Great War and its aftermath. The little world of Left Bank Paris was symptomatic in its way of the France of la Madelon and Clochemerle, a France that was about to transform itself almost beyond recognition and at a pace and in directions beyond the comprehension of most of its own educated elite....

  10. Suggestions for Further Reading
    (pp. 321-334)
  11. Index
    (pp. 335-348)