The French Left
Contains Bibliography, Index
Phillip J. Wood is an associate professor of political studies at
The victory of the left in the French presidential and legislative elections of May and June 1981 clearly vindicated (at least in electoral terms) the strategy followed by the Parti Socialiste since the beginning of the 1970s. This strategy was based on a number of convictions: first that the “events” of May 1968 demonstrated the existence of a large political constituency sympathetic to a variety of left-wing critiques of modern capitalism; second, that this potential constituency could not be mobilised by either the moribund SF10 or the stalinist PCF, both of which had been left behind by May 1968; and third, that it was possible to create a new socialist alternative in France which was neither stalinist nor centrist, but which was sufficiently flexible to be able to incorporate the various political tendencies to which May 1968 gave expression.
Arthur Hirsh’s The French Left is an important contribution to the study of this process of political renewal, providing a clear yet sophisticated analysis of the development of its theoretical and ideological roots. For Hirsh, there are three important and relatively distinct sources of these ideas: the existential marxism of Sartre and de Beauvoir; the marxist revisionism of Lefebvre; and the gauchisme of Castoriadis and Lefort. Despite the differences between them, all three groups have at least two things in common. First, their ideas have all developed within a process of intellectual struggle, not only with capitalism, but also with orthodox stalinism, imposed on part of the French left since 1920 by the PCF. Second, they all point to human action as the means of liberation from these orthodoxies. Together, they give rise to the three central themes of the French left since the late 1960s: the critiques of alienation and bureaucracy, and the emphasis on autogestion as the initial and most important means of liberation from material and ideological constraints.
One of the most serious obstacles confronting students of the French left is the theoretical complexity of many of its political debates. Hirsh’s reconstruction of these debates is therefore difficult at times (“Alienation in seriality rooted in the practico-inert is the domain of the anti-dialectic”), yet it rewards patience. Overall, he manages to reconstruct and elucidate this large body of ideas in a way that is both clear and insightful. Best of all, he takes great pains to let his subjects do the talking, without unnecessarily imposing his own interpretations on their thoughts.
It should be noted, finally, that this is a book with two titles. At times (e.g., in the cataloguing data and table of contents) The French 14 becomes The French New Left. Although the latter is more nearly correct, both titles are to some extent misleading in the sense that the book does not really provide a history and overview of the left or the new left in general. The programmes, organisations, and electoral strategies and performance of the left are not Hirsh’s concern. What he is concerned with is the intellectual development of the French new left, and his reconstruction of this development is admirable.