David Caute Gordon Wright - Essay

Gordon Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Remarkably few serious books have been written about communism in France. Yet the subject is both interesting and important, for the French party is one of the largest and most influential in the non-Communist world. Scholars will therefore welcome Mr. Caute's careful analysis [Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960] of one peculiar aspect of French communism: its persistent appeal to intellectuals, and its use of those intellectuals who have rallied to its banner….

[The] complex structure ensures that nothing really important is overlooked, but it also results in a certain amount of overlapping and repetition. Caute has obviously read almost everything of importance that has been written by French party intellectuals since 1920, and he has maintained an admirably dispassionate stance toward his subject. The effect is a massive rather than a sparkling book, frequently enlivened by a happy phrase, but too detailed and sober to make for easy absorption.

Caute's central purpose is not to explain why communism attracted so many French intellectuals, but he offers some shrewd comments on certain commonly-propagated theories about that appeal. The "aberrational" explanation, he believes, has been too easily accepted—perhaps because ex-Communists have written most of the books about western European communism. He doubts that communism's French adherents have come to it as a substitute for religion. Rather, he sees the impulse as fundamentally rational, "albeit a rationalism of an almost religious fervor." He challenges the thesis that these intellectual converts were thirsty for martyrdom, or that they were misfits, over-socializing their desire to belong…. As for the effect of Communist dedication, he concludes that "the tragedy of French communism was not the intellectuals it seduced or those it lost, but rather those it maimed."

Gordon Wright, in a review of "Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960" (© 1965, by The American Academy of Political and Social Science; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 358, March, 1965, p. 209.