Socialist sentimentality

Pierre Birnbaum offers a fawning – but partly justified – treatment of Léon Blum in his new biography

The Leon Blum memorial in Kibbutz Kfar Blum (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Leon Blum memorial in Kibbutz Kfar Blum
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Léon Blum, France’s first Jewish prime minister, was right about nearly all the major issues of his time.
He recognized the evils of totalitarianism when many fellow travelers were apologists for Soviet communism and courageously faced down xenophobic racists on the Right.
He was a feminist who, as prime minister, appointed a number of women to senior political positions at a time when women still did not have the right to vote.
As a Jew, he saw the parallels between the persecution of his own people by the Nazi regime and French colonialist oppression of “the Vietnamese or the Negroes of the Congo.”
Though he was universalistic in his outlook and rejected any sort of discrimination based on class, race or religion, he recognized the importance of national identity as a cohesive force and the nation-state as a vehicle for self-determination of peoples, which led him to support Zionism.
Blum was tremendously courageous, never once attempting to hide or apologize for his Jewishness, though he faced levels of Jew hatred within France’s mainstream political institutions that are difficult to imagine in post-Holocaust Europe. Heads of the Consistory (the central governing body of Jewish congregations) and the chief rabbi of Paris attempted to persuade him not to accept the position of prime minister in 1936 for fear it would arouse anti-Semitism, which it did. He displayed remarkable pluck while under custody of the Vichy authorities, utilizing his vast legal knowledge to defend himself in a public trial designed to discredit him.
History judges Blum favorably. Blum, not unlike George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, managed in real time to locate the major evils of his era and fight them unabashedly. This partly justifies Pierre Birnbaum’s fawning treatment of the man in Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist, another in Yale University’s ongoing “Jewish Lives” series. After all, Blum did come out on the moral side at a difficult time in history when many of his peers lacked his courage and sensitivity.
Yet, Blum had his faults as well, most prominent of which was his socialism.
Blum was a protegé of Jean Jaurès, one of the founders of the French Socialist Party. Like the man Blum considered an illustrious leader and with whom Blum felt a close personal tie, Blum called for a state-run economy with nationalized production, strong labor unions and high taxation against the rich, among other misguided notions. Blum believed – like many intellectuals attracted to socialism – that a highly educated technocracy, of which he was a prominent member, knows better than the market.
Blum’s was a moderate version of socialism that rejected violent revolution and called for reform, reconciliation and influencing institutions from within. He believed the state was a vehicle of emancipation.
The trajectory of his own career as an Alsatian Jew who progressed from the École Normale Supérieure to the Conseil d’État (Council of State) and eventually to leadership of the nation, was proof that France’s republican universalism could be an emancipating force. The Dreyfus affair was proof that there was need for reform, not revolution. After all, Dreyfus was ultimately vindicated.
At the same time, Blum was a product of that same system, which instilled in him the belief that enlightened bureaucrats like himself could “intervene in all the nerve centers of the economy in order to revitalize it, to infuse it with the energy a convalescent feels when he ventures outdoors for the first time and feels the blood once again flowing in his veins.”
Blum’s program for action as described by Birnbaum certainly sounds righteous and noble. Unfortunately, experience and history have taught us that such well-intended plans don’t work out quite as well as they are supposed to.
Needless to say, Blum’s socialist policies had disastrous consequences for France’s economy, though Birnbaum all but ignores this fact. Upon being elected in May 1936, Blum’s government, led by the Popular Front, enacted a suite of supply-side policies that taken together were a sort of New Deal on steroids. The Matignon Agreements raised private sector wages by 7 percent to 15 percent; workers were granted an annual two-week vacation without loss of pay; and, most importantly, the work week was cut from 48 to 40 hours while salaries were held constant.
At the same time, Blum’s government fought against devaluation of the franc, because doing so would have brought down the real value of wages. In any event, France’s economy quickly spiraled out of control. While other countries that left the gold standard in the 1930s experienced a rise an improvement in economic activity, France was racked by stagflation – prices rose while production fell. All this is well documented, most recently in a paper by Jeremie Cohen-Setton of the University of California, Berkeley, Joshua K.
Hausman of the University of Michigan and Johannes F. Wieland of University of California, San Diego, titled “Stagflation in the 1930s: Why did the French New Deal Fail?” Birnbaum hardly notes the connection between Blum’s socialist policies and the economic failures of the Popular Front government. Instead, he focuses on the joy experienced by the French at receiving hiked salaries for working less. Particular attention is given to the first paid vacation in France’s history.
“For many a dream had at last come true,” writes Birnbaum. “Workers discovered the joys of camping, the sea, and the countryside. Some took up bicycling, gymnastics, and other sports, while others enjoyed the pleasures of doing nothing.
Liberated from the factory for the first time, the working class discovered nature and invented a new culture of leisure.”
This sort of ecstatic description of the workers’ mood goes on for a number of pages, including an account of the many postcards Blum received from workers on vacation. But when Birnbaum turns to deal with the causes of the economic failure he is remarkably terse, stating only that “…commentators argued that measures intended to increase the standard of living had decreased production, already hindered by an overly rigid application of the forty-hour week.” In Birnbaum’s telling, “numerous strikes, a deepening economic crisis, and continued capital” were caused not so much by Blum’s failed economic policies as by his decision to increase the military budget, which was later reversed. Had the French listened to Birnbaum, had they poured more resources into rebuilding the French military after the World War I – Birnbaum seems to be hinting – perhaps France would not have fallen so quickly to the Nazis a few years later. Birnbaum does not entertain the possibility that had Blum’s economic policies been more successful, perhaps the French would have been less predisposed to the humility of the Vichy regime.
Birnbaum’s sympathetic account of Blum’s time in office as prime minister is part of a larger phenomenon: the tendency to look upon socialism with sentimentality despite the massive and irrefutable evidence that has accrued over the years to discredit it. It is this distorted view of the history of economic ideas – which Birnbaum perpetuates in his book – that has helped bring to power the Socialist government of François Hollande. The same sort of nostalgia for a pristine socialism, a road purportedly not taken, might also explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders, who has been drawing large crowds to his campaign events.
Why do men like Birnbaum persist in this sentimentality? Perhaps it is a desire to believe that we can, somehow, save ourselves from the hard realities of life, that we can redeem this world.
For Jews of Blum’s era there was also the added factor that socialism seemed to provide the best promise for Jewish integration.
And socialism was also a reaction to anti-Semitism. Capitalism was associated with base desires, crude materialism, greed – all the character traits attributed to the Jews. The critique of capitalism by Jewish socialists was entangled with their internalization of essentially anti-Semitic claims about Jewish nature, most dramatically represented in Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question.” Embracing socialism, therefore, was a way for Jews to distance themselves from what was a horrible distortion of Judaism.
All these factors explaining what was otherwise an irrational attraction to a failed economic system are not, or should not be, relevant anymore. Blum had many merits. He took an admirable, often courageous, stand against all the major evils of his day. But he was colossally wrong about socialism. Historians like Birnbaum have an obligation to help us understand why men like Blum with otherwise healthy moral senses failed so miserably to recognize socialism’s faults.
Birnbaum did not do this. What he did do was write another apologetic study of an economic theory that has long ago been discredited.