Intellectuals, virtually by definition, are expected to think for themselves. But the spectacle of intellectuals subordinating their independence of mind to dogmatic ideologies, whether left or right, is dismayingly common in the 20th century. The French call it la trahison des clercs
. In The Burden of Responsibility
, Tony Judt discusses three inspiring French intellectuals--Leon Blum
, Albert Camus
, and Raymond Aron
--who courageously lived up to their political, moral, and intellectual responsibilities. Their courage, Judt notes, is all the more impressive since they were all outsiders: Blum and Aron were Jews, while Camus was reared and educated in Algeria, far from the training grounds of the French intelligentsia.
The longest, and arguably most exciting, chapter is devoted to Blum, whose efforts against extremists on the Left and the Right are truly remarkable. As the moral center of the Socialist Party, Blum was instrumental in keeping it independent of Moscow. When France fell in 1940, the Vichy government put him on trial, but he defended himself so adroitly that the German authorities, fearing embarrassment, ended the proceedings abruptly; subsequently, Blum survived two years in Buchenwald and Dachau, serving briefly as prime minister after the war. The chapter on Camus is, understandably, less dramatic, even despite his work in the Resistance; the chapter on Aron, best known for his work on the philosophy of history, is positively anticlimactic. Nevertheless, Judt's juxtaposition of these three intellectuals provides enlightenment not only about modern French history but also about the role of the responsible intellectual in society. --Glenn Branch
From Publishers Weekly
New York University European studies professor Judt (Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-1956) fashioned this book from three lectures he gave at the University of Chicago that presented an overview of some of the more complex political currents of modern France. He starts with a much vilified figure of the 1930s who is now largely ignored?the first Jewish (and Socialist) French premier, Leon Blum. Judt argues?not entirely convincingly?that Blum was more of a politician and less of an esthete than is generally thought. After Blum, Judt turns to a nemesis of the 1968 generation, the French conservative Raymond Aron. While Judt's discussion of individuals' changing fortunes provides an interesting view of the French intelligentsia, he overstates matters when he claims that Aron was universally accepted in France at the time of his death. In a somewhat less original contribution, Judt discusses the familiar figure of Albert Camus, apparently because he serves as a chronological link between the other two. Naturally, the brushstrokes are very broad in these brief studies, and many of Judt's assertions, particularly those that speculate about motive, are open to argument (Does anyone else think that Camus' journals are "funny"?). Since full-length studies of Blum and Aron are still awaiting translation from the French, these opinionated lectures serve as a useful incentive to read further on their subjects.
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