Tony Judt
Past Imperfect

All faith entails denial as well as affirmation. The true believer, faced with empirical or logical evidence in apparent contradiction with the demands of faith, has no reasonable choice but to deny what he or she sees, or hears, or thinks. How far this causes a problem will depend upon the strength of the individual's commitment—and the demands of his or her own intelligence. For Communist and non-Communist intellectuals alike, denial in this sense took two forms. In its simpler version, it meant refusing to believe that certain things had been done, that intellectuals who had thrown in their lot with the Communists and identified with them without reservation, this was obviously easier since the authority for such denial came from above. Autonomous intellectuals, however progressive and philo-Commurnst, could not look to the party as the source for their own opinions and were thus compelled to construct such denials for themselves. But in other respects the process was fundamentally similar. In its most acute form, it would find Sartre announcing in the early fifties, 'I have looked, but I just cannot find any evidence of an aggressive impulse on the part of the Russians in the last three decades.' A decade later his companion could still find nothing of truth or interest in the writings of Kravchenko (or Koestler)—'They are just telling stories.'

But by the sixties Sartre and de Bcauvoir were no longer a reliable guide to general opinion. More typical, perhaps, was the earlier reaction of some to the Lysenko affair. Here the issues were prima facie clear-cut, in that even the most sympathetic of Western scientists were unwilling to give unconditional credence to the claims of a Soviet breakthrough to a new science of genetics. Esprit, like many other contemporary reviews, devoted considerable space to Lysenko in 1948. In the December issue, a number of its regular columnists each contributed a commentary on the affair. For modern readers, the curious aspect of these articles is their extraordinary willingness to give Lysenko's theory (or 'Mitchourinisme,' as it was sometimes called) the benefit of the doubt. Philippe Sabant, for example, asserted not only that it was a serious science from which Soviet agriculture was already benefiting (he offered instances of unprecedented increases in milk production, weather-resistant wheat, and so on) but that it was unthinkable thai so august a body as the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party would adopt it, were its scientific qualities not fully established. The whole economy was already benefiting:
Would Stalin have given doctrinal considerations precedence over the interests of the economy? And who believes that the Central Committee would have put at risk all existing agricultural institutions without serious evidence?
Mounier, warier than his fellow contributor, confined himself to agreeing that Lysenko's views seemed perverse and unscientific but with this proviso: at some point in the future, they might be proved right. Who were we to say? And meanwhile, why should we unhesitatingly reject them, in the face of the claims now made on their behalf? 'It could be that, in the face of precise discoveries in the USSR, Morgan's theories and classical genetics are now playing a dogmatic and delaying role.'

The desire to give Stalin the benefit of all possible doubts, even (especially) in the face of the evidence, rested on complex abstract premises. In Communist hands, these took the collective form of 'dialectical' reasoning. If Kostov admitted his guilt, he was guilty. If he denied it (as he attempted to do), this was proof that the trial was not rigged and that he was therefore guilty. Similarly, food rationing in France was a restriction, in Poland it was popular. If communism ruled, then the people ruled. If the people ruled, they must perforce be happy—thus Paul Eluard, upon his return from a voyage to Hungary in 1949: 'If the people are master in their own country this alone will ensure that in a few years happiness will be the supreme law, and joy the daily horizon.' Non-Communists could not usually aspire to the lyricism of an Eluard or the sheer cheek of a Desanti, but they argued outward from similar starting points. Merleau-Ponty and Sartre avoided the implications of the revelations about Soviet labor camps by turning the evidence against itself: the very fact that Communists have illusions about these camps is proof that they wish to believe well of humanity; they are therefore fundamentally different from Fascists (who also had camps), and we can continue to support them, albeit from afar. Jean Beaufret (according to Claude Roy) refused to 'pronounce' upon the USSR, partly for 'lack of evidence,' but mostly because 'we still lack a phenomenology of the Soviet Union.'

Beaufret is here somewhat unjust to his contemporaries. By the early fifties Sartre was well on his way to establishing just such a 'phenomenology.' The Soviet citizen, he asserted in 1954, enjoys complete freedom to criticize the system. Just because he doesn't seem to do it in ways we understand, it would be wrong to suppose that he is forced into silence. 'This is not so. He criticizes more frequently and more effectively than us.' In his desire to speak well of the Soviet Union, following his first visit there in 1954 (and to avoid the precedent of Gide), Sartre not only adopted the Communist claims for his own but gave them an exaggerated twist. The Soviet Union was peopled with individuals of a 'new kind'; even the few failings Sartre was willing to acknowledge (such as the execrable public architecture) were turned to advantage: the superfluous abundance of the Komsomol Metro station was understandable, he announced, because every passenger is the owner and seeks to show off and share his possession to the full. 'It seemed to him,' as Simone de Beauvoir put it approvingly, 'that Soviet society had overcome in large measure the loneliness that eats at our own.' Like Jacques Armel, writing three years earlier in L'Observateur, he found the very absence of freedom of speech 'as we understand it' evidence of the rise of the proletariat and of a true cultural liberation.

Beaufret was thus wrong. He and his contemporaries had indeed constructed a 'phenomenology of the Soviet Revolution,' but it rested on an unusual premise: that of the self-annihilation of the observer. Before one could construct a case for the Communists, one had first to undermine one's own intellectual authority. The evidence, of camps, deportations, trials, and the like, had to be set aside, or placed in a sort of ethical parenthesis. As Mounier expressed it, 'I want these stories to be untrue.' This is humiliating for an intellectual, and it explains the palpable sense of relief that overcame such people when they finally abandoned the effort. In retrospect we may find the condition of the French Communist party's own intellectuals more servile and pitiable, but it is not clear that this was the case at the time. The Communist intellectual might perform ridiculous rituals and say or write the most hilariously implausible things, but he or she was comforted by membership in a community. A formally unattached writer like Julien Benda, trailing a long reputation as a free-thinker, was forced into similar excesses without any of the comforts of camaraderie. Thus, when Benda sat on a platform in 1949 with Jacques Duclos while the Communist leader worked a crowd at the Mutualite into a frenzy of hatred for Rajk and his fellow criminals, he presented a sorry figure. Reduced to declaring, 'A Republic must defend itself' (Dreyfus again), he was an 'intellectuel de service.' But so were Sartre, Vercors, Mounier, Bourdet, and many others, however assiduously they proclaimed their autonomy.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.