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History at the barricades?

Past Imperfect
by Tony Judt - University of California Press, 1992 - x + 348 pp. - £29 (hb). £12 (pb)

The May 1968 Events in France
by Keith A. Reader with Khursheed Wadia - St Martin's Press, 1993 - ix + 210 pp. - £40

In a France where leaders of the right and Left now regularly share institutional power and apparently agree on the parameters of domestic and foreign policy, it is important to remember that not so long ago the term most often used to describe the country’s political condition was civil war.

Students of French politics might recognise the reality, at certain moments, of a union sacree and acknowledge that the chronic instability of governments could coincide with great continuities in policy and the political class. But the overriding impression was one of conflict about the ends of government and the form of regime.

For outsiders, part of the attraction of studying France was precisely the existence of this guerre franco-francaise and of the ideological claims and counter-claims which supported it. To the dissident Left in particular, the absolutes of French Marxism marked an exciting contrast to the boring consensualisms of an Anglo-Saxon world where J.K. Galbraith and Antony Crosland, or even Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, were presented as radicals.

Judt and Reader deal confidently with the ideas, and the communities, of the French Left. Their books focus on two periods, the Cold War and 1968, when the institutional status quo was under intense attack from the radical Left. Judt's book analyses the response of French intellectuals to the post-war world and, in particular, to the new order imposed on Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union. Reader studies the way in which the Events of May 1968 were explained and justified by those who took part in them.

Unsurprisingly, the Communist Party casts a heavy shadow over both accounts, less for what it did – or did not do – in the periods under discussions than for its ability to influence the attitudes of the groups and individuals of the non-communist left.

Thus Judt aims to explain why those who saw themselves as the defenders of the flame of France's humanist mission refused to regard Communism as the enemy of all that they believed in. He concentrates on the response to such manifestations of Communist 'civilisation' as the show trials in Prague and Bucharest of prominent members of France's Moral Establishment like Emmanuel Mounier (of I'Esprit) and Julien Benda (of La Trahison des Intellectuels).

For Judt, as for the Stalinists he detests, to examine is to condemn and he is ruthless in his judgements of the moral double standards of his subjects. Yet what makes the book much more than a Voice of America equivalent to Garaudy’s ‘Literature of the Graveyard’ is the author’s outstanding ability to explain why non-Communists refused to be anti-Communists. The traditional Republican myth of ‘no enemies on the left’ helped; so did the no less traditional distaste of French intellectuals for the materialism of the Coca-Cola Empire, and so did the belief that neutrality would somehow enable France to preserve its special status among the nations. Humanity, in other words, must still take its lead from France. There is a curious sense in which this is the French equivalent of Britain's belief that it could be Athens to America's Rome.

Twenty years later, in 1968, the global message of France was still attractive to dissidents in other lands. Keith Reader limits his study of the interpretations of 1968 to France and gives space not only to a wide gallery of the prominenten of the day from Malle and Godard to Touraine and Mitterrand but also to curiosities like the Paris Maoist who locked himself away throughout the Events out of disgust at their insufficiently rigorous theoretical base.

Reader's view of what constitutes political virtue could hardly be more different from Judt's and his book makes less effort to locate his subjects in an intellectual, and rhetorical, tradition. It is, however, well documented and high spirited, virtues which make it an enjoyable complement to Judt’s impressive study.

Peter Morris is the co-author of The Age of Consensus: British Politics from Attlee to Thatcher (Blackwell, 1994).

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