J. G. Weightman

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

The Communist ideal, or myth, or temptation has undoubtedly played an exceptional part in French intellectual life, and it was inevitable that sooner or later a full-scale attempt should be made to chart the phenomenon. It was not so obvious that the task would be undertaken by a post-graduate student well under the age of thirty and that he would make such a remarkably good job of it. [In Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960] David Caute has assimilated a vast amount of material and reduced it to an intelligible pattern. (p. 96)

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[Caute] says that his approach is "historical," not psychological, i.e. he is assembling verifiable data, and he does so very well. But he touches on the problem of psychological causes in his Introduction and again in his Conclusion, and he allows himself certain expressions of opinion in the body of his book. Sometimes he defends the Communists when one might expect him to be against them; at other times, he is as scathing about their behavior as a strong anti-Communist would be. His book might have been better, I think, if he had woven his own political philosophy coherently into the text. One guesses him to be a non-Communist socialist with a strong attraction to Communism. This may be why he hasn't assembled in any one section all the anti-Communist arguments put forward by French intellectuals. He refers to them incidentally, but in such a way that an intelligent anti-Communist like Raymond Aron hardly seems to get fair treatment.

As it stands, Mr. Caute's book is not likely to make the average English-speaking reader feel that the long association with the Communist party is a very creditable episode in French intellectual life. At times, indeed, it reads almost like a sottisier, a compilation of absurdities. Again and again, we see apparently gifted men leaning over backward to deny evidence that is staring them in the face. We even find Sartre writing Les Mains Sales, which can surely only be understood as a Social-Democratic, anti-Communist play, and then preventing its performance where he thinks it might harm the Communist cause. Mr. Caute implies … that bewilderment about this sort of thing shows a naïve misunderstanding of the Continental climate and that, in France especially, the tradition of revolutionary violence, the rationalist outlook, the Marxist origins of French socialism, the numerical strength and the intransigence of the French Communist party are sufficient to account for it. They are, no doubt, among the basic reasons, but they need to be amplified and given flesh and blood if the behavior of French intellectuals is to be made understandable. (pp. 97-8)

J. G. Weightman, "The Mandarin Left" (reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author; all rights reserved), in Commentary, Vol. 39, No. 3, March, 1965, pp. 96-8.

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