Léon Blum

An Atlantic portrait
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III

But this mistake was not altogether useless. It helped me to understand why so many people in France, even among those who are close to him, find it so difficult to reconcile the various aspects of M. Blum's diversified personality. Today it is naturally the political figure that stands out, and it is from the political angle that he is judged and spoken of. But M. Blum as a political leader cannot be detached from the successive phases of his own life.

That fate should have chosen, in times like these, a man who has so many of the characteristics and also the allure of a dilettante to be the leader of a popular movement is evidently a paradox. The clenched fist which is the salute of the Popular Front seems an odd gesture when it is the fist of M. Blum that is raised. But the paradox is within the personality of Léon Blum himself. This personality is not, made up of any of the elements which serve to compose that of the usual leader of the masses, for the simple reason that Blum was neither chosen nor placed in power by the masses. He became premier through the arithmetics of an election which gave his own party the majority in a coalition of several parties. No personal magnetism, no spellbinding, no self-propaganda campaign, was necessary for that, and as a matter of fact practically no one even among his partisans thought that M. Blum would turn out to be a leader at all in June 1936. But if he showed these qualities of leadership at that precise moment it is because he is the conscious result of a personal evolution of fifty years  an evolution which in many ways has been that of a certain section of French opinion in its outlook on life during the same period. M. Blum could not have been a popular leader one year before, because the French were not ready for such leadership - and probably neither was he.

A proof of this is that M. . Blum who is the apostle of collectivism to day, was an anarchist in his youth which does not mean that he went about throwing bombs to blow up kings and presidents, but that he was convinced that any communion with other individuals is a fruitless labor and that it is for oneself that the individual must spend all his activity.' In other words, Men Blum started in life as a thorough individualist, and for that reason he prophesied that the future in France belonged not to socialism but to anarchy. This meant that to preoccupy oneself with politics would have been a sheer waste of time. Thus Léon Blum devoted all his youthful talent and energy to cultivating his ego, in very much the manner that was customary in those days.

He wrote poems and essays. I le had a passion for the theatre and made a name for himself among the critics. He contributed actively to the avant-garde publications of the time, such as the Revue Blanche and La Conque, in which his name can be found in nearly every issue next to those of Mallarmé, Verlaine, André Gide, Pierre Louys, Verhaeren. This was a very exclusive group, whose scorn for the multitude know no limit.

He was a fervent disciple of Maurice Barrhs, who expounded le Culte du Moi, a Nietzschean doctrine streamlined for French taste. He fell under the spell of Stendhal, one of the most intoxicating egotists that can be found in any literature of any time.

The style of Léon Blum was always easy and clear, Even in those days he sacrificed eloquence to precision, and except in his poetic attempts, which are mediocre, his literary achievements stand by themselves. He wrote enormously, all his life, either in the periodicals or in the newspapers. Later on in life he was to direct the Populaire, the Socialist daily, in which his editorials are those of a first rate journalist. He wrote on all subjects, including sports. His book on marriage, which has shocked many people and been used against him recently as a political weapon, is an interesting milestone in the long series of psychological studies which occupy a definite place its the tradition of French literature.

He also wrote a curious book called Nouvelles Conversations de Goelhe avec Eckermann, in which he uses the subterfuge of expressing his own opinions through the voice of Goethe. Next to his remarkable study of Stendhal this book stands as his best work, and contains among other themes  the interesting idea that the statesmen of the future will not be the politicians or the specialists, but the critics, because they atone will be able to encompass the complexity of a world increasingly diversified. This book was written during the great moral crisis which was to produce such far reaching effects not only in Lion Blum's soul but in the whole soul of France.

IV

Born in Paris, the second son of an Alsatian Jew who had been successful in the silk and ribbon business, Léon Blum, from his earliest childhood, had been subject to the dual influence of Jewish home life and of French surroundings. The result was that he acquired all the critical matter-of-factness which French schools in those days gave to a young bourgeois, but also a certain Biblical sense of transcendental Justice which was kept alive, like a fire on the altar, in the moral teachings of his parents.

His grandmother, who kept a bookshop near the Palais de Justice, had witnessed with hopeful fervor the tragic episodes of the Commune in 1871, in which she saw an insurrection of the true republicans against their oppressors. Her more sedate sisters nicknamed her the 'Communarde,' and for her grandson she stood as the heroic figure of revolutionary romantic righteousness. M. Blum's mother was inspired by a passion for equity which was no less ardent, but more practical, and she applied it at home in the smallest things. For their daily goûter, Lion and his brother wore given an apple each, but before giving them the fruit Mme. Blum cut each apple in two and gave two different halves to each of her boys.

During his school days and later, Léon Blum came into contact with a world where this scrupulous distribution of justice was not always applied, indeed was frequently tempered by a good deal of Parisian skepticism. But the fire had not died in him (it never has), and the Dreyfus Affair fanned it into a flame.

This case was for Blum, as for most of his contemporaries, the event which was to determine forever the course of his spiritual and political life. Through the fantastic episodes of this historic drama men revealed themselves in their true nature, and they found out that in France (and probably everywhere else) there are only two types of men: those who put truth and justice above everything else, and those who place a kind of sublime prejudice above everything else. It was through those years of intense struggle which rocked Francs and nearly brought about a revolution that Blum, and many others with him, realized that what was at stake was not merely the fate of an innocent man wrongfully condemned, but the whole philosophical and political structure of French society. The Dreyfus Affair was understood by them as a sequence of the French Revolution, in the sense that once more established privileges  and of the most sacred kind had to be attacked in the name of Justice. And for the same reason it can be regarded now as a preface to the bloodless victory of the Popular Front in 1936. The three episodes repeat the same pattern; the periodical storming of the Bastille, which, although it was materially raced in 1789, still stands as the symbol of an eternal conflict between the struggle for more power, in the name of more equality, and the defense of acquired power, in the name of prudence and the sacredness of tradition.

M. Blum, of course, did not believe and does not believe now that the Bastille is indestructible  quite the contrary; end it was through the Dreyfus Affair that he became a militant reformer of Society. Placed in intimate contact with such men as Lucien Herr, the apostle of Socialism, Jaurès, the leader of the Party, Zola (who was condemned for his exposure of the crooked methods used by the high officials who themselves had condemned Dreyfus), Clemenceau, Anatole France, - all men who risked their career and their safety in the interest of Justice, - it is easy to see how M. Blum became their convert, He realized that poetry, literature, abstract philosophy, and other individualistic pursuits were not fields in which he could find full expression for his personality. He made up his mind that the Bastille of injustice had to be destroyed, and that this could only be done through direct contact with other men and by a 'revolution' which would be at ones moral and social.

Thus Blum, the individualist and the dilettante, was converted to Socialism, in which he found, as he said himself, an outlet for his intense yearning for justice. But for this reason, and from the very start, the Socialism of M. Blum was of a very particular kind. It was akin to a religion  a personal religion which satisfied both his Cartesian logic and his Jewish aspirations towards a batter humanity.

When Léon Blum became the head of the Socialist Party, for reasons of party discipline he accepted the doctrine of Karl Marx, which is the official doctrine. But that does not alter the feet that there is a profound difference between his conception of Socialism, in which he sees a force that will bring about the moral regeneration of mankind, and that of the orthodox Marxists who base their belief purely on materialistic premises and on the determinism of economic forces.

This difference is even more marked when one compares the temperament of the Socialists, the majority of whom in France are influenced by M. Blum, and that of the Communists. Both want to replace the existing order by another, but while the Communists think that this must be achieved by force and immediately, because the masses are unconscious, the Socialists believe that Collectivism can come to pass only when the people are prepared to accept it. The Communists want to impose collective happiness through military discipline, from the top down. The Socialists hope that the people will be educated, or educate themselves, into appreciating the advantages of a collectivist society, as M. Blum did for himself to satisfy both this yearnings of his conscience and the demands of his reason.

In spite of this important distinction, the fact remains that M. Blum is a Socialist, and during one year, for the first time in the history of the Third Republic, France was governed by a 'Revolutionary' hacked by such a majority that it can rightly be said that Léon Blum's power, during twelve, months, was as firmly established and as great as President Roosevelt's during the first year of the Now Deal. The analogies between the French and the American situation have been pointed out many times, and although such parallels cannot be pushed too far, they are indicative of certain fundamental trends common to both democracies.

The New Deal in America and the Popular Front movement in France were both the result of the incomprehension of the conservative or moderate governments which preceded them. These governments had tried to meet the depression by applying orthodox methods approved by the oligarchies which supported them, because the methods were theoretically sound and appeared to be less harmful to their own interests. But these methods implied, as unavoidable consequences, a reduction of wages and unemployment without adequate relief. The mass of the people refused to accept these consequences, and the conflict brought home to them the fact that the so-called democratic principles which are supposed to flourish in the United States and in France do not moan in practice that the effective power belongs to the majority, but rather to well-organized minorities, the domination of which is both economic and moral. Hence the revolt in the United States against those whom Mr. Roosevelt has called the 'economic royalists,' and the revolt in France of the Popular Front leaders against the 'Two hundred Families,' and against all the conservative elements which condone them. Hence also the interesting phenomenon that in times of serious economic crisis there is a violent increase of the democratic sentiment (in the etymological sense of the word) and a corresponding weakening of the power, and especially the prestige, of the minority groups and of everything they stand for.

At such a time also there is a strong impulse on the part of the mass of the people to put the whole of their faith in a personal leader who is willing to give priority to the urgency of their demands, and to suspect all the regular institutions of government as being more tools in the hands of reaction. The leader chosen must understand (to use M. Blum's words) that if financial troubles are important in themselves and in their repercussions, they are less grave than war and peace, less grave then unemployment and poverty. However serious, they do not affect the deeper life of the people,'

And what is meant, then, by the 'deeper life of the people,' or 'the more abundant life,' must be expressed in the application of social reforms which had been delayed too long.

This process has been very striking in France, because the French New Deal was infinitely more rapid and more methodical than the American. The Popular Front had published a detailed programme before the elections, and six months after these elections the greater part of that programme had been translated into law. Most of these laws were voted by overwhelming parliamentary majorities which included even vast sections of the opposition who were by now willing to admit that most of the reforms were long overdue.

Thus it would appear that in a democracy social progress can only be achieved at the most inopportune moment - that is, when there is no money to pay for it.

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