Léon Blum

An Atlantic portrait
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I

Léon Blum a man of the past, of the present, of the future. Last June he resigned as Premier of the Popular Front Government, but his personal prestige as the most influential political figure that France has known since Briand remains unimpaired.

He now occupies the position of Vice President in the Chautemps Popular Front Cabinet, exerting the same active influence as he did when he first came to power over a year ago. He must be reckoned with as one of the few statesmen who direct the course of world affairs to day

M. Blum's year in power has been morally healthy for France. It has restored the mental balance of a great many people who were beginning to believe that, because a few nations had gone mad, there was no other solution than to follow their example.

Léon Blum is an idealist and a logician, a poet and a critic, a diplomat and a revolutionary, a politician and a gentleman. He is a Frenchman and a Jew. Complex, subtle, eclectic, he presents a problem which baffles his admirers as much as it irritates his enemies, It is difficult to place him in any category of men. He\ is an intellectual, but he is also a man of action. He is exceedingly sensitive, and so sincere that some of his speeches sound like public confessions; yet he is not a blind fanatic. Ho is thoroughly faithful to the doctrine which he defends, but remains critical of himself as of others. He is a discreet messiah.

His qualities sometimes complement his defects and sometimes lead him into apparent or real contradictions which he tries to mitigate by a constant effort of rationalization. As a reformer he thinks in terms of the future, but as a scholar and an erudite he is more than an equal match for any practical realist. He has no false humility; neither does he seem personally ambitious. I le knows how to retreat and how to compromise. When he sidestepped last June to save the Popular Frost, experts agreed that as a piece of political manoeuvring his fall was a graceful one.

Compared with other modern leaders, especially those of the dictator type, he is unbearably civilized. Judged by the standards of the Nazi or Fascist creeds, or by those of many Frenchmen who are neither Fascists nor Nazis, he is a superb example of liberal democratic decadence. The sanguine typo usually dislikes him violently, not so much for his political ideas as for the refinements of his logic and his repugnance for any form of grossness, either in speech or otherwise.

A friend of mine, who is sanguine, said tome that he granted every quality of the statesman to M. Blum, including energy and prudence, but that it was impossible to call him a statesman because he lacked the necessary weight for his size  both physically and intellectually.

Yet Léon Blum is solid and this solidity lies in his intelligence, in the precision of his dialectics, which are over-powering, Whether he speaks in the Chambre for three hours on the most complicated subject without consulting any notes, or addresses thirty thousand people on the state of the nation, his method never varies. It is not to the emotions that he appeals, but to the power of logic. This, more than anything else, is what distinguishes him from other national leaders at the moment.

I recall the speech he made last September before a huge crowd at Luna Park in Paris to justify his nonintervention policy in the Spanish civil war. The crowd was hostile; it was profoundly anti Fascist end could not understand why France had refused help to a friendly government. Blum was greeted by the slogan of 'Planes for Spain!' he spoke for an hour, handicapped as usual by the fact that his voice does not carry well, and at the beginning of his speech he had difficulty in obtaining enough silence to be heard. The arguments he used were purely rational. He demonstrated that French intervention, however justifiable from the point of view of international law, would inevitably encourage the Germans and the Italians to give assistance openly to tile other side, an act that might lead to war. The crowd went on shouting, 'Planes for Spain!' But gradually, as his demonstration of ideas progressed, the shouts subsided. Finally applause broke out. The excited audience had been won over to peace when it wanted war  and that through the sheer force of persuasion of a man who apparently still believes in reason and says so.

Whether Lion Blum is sound in his philosophy and in his political conceptions is a matter of personal judgment. But it is probable that few men in these clays have tried with such earnestness to explain what they were driving at. If his 'experience' is considered a failure - as it is by many - he has nevertheless demonstrated a fact which in the present state of the world seems to me important; that the huge popular audiences which react elsewhere so blindly to the demagogic appeals made to their collective stupidity are able to listen to a leader who addresses them, not at if they were a dumb horde, but as intelligent human beings.

II

Before M. Blum became the head of the government, over a year ago, my ideas about him were rather hazy. I had lunched with him several years before at the house of friends. He was then the head of the Socialist Party, and my very definite impression after this luncheon was that if this party was ever to accede to power in France it would not be under the leadership of this affable but apparently undynamic gentleman.

M. Blum spoke very pleasantly and interestingly of whatever may have been the topics of the day. Like many others at that time, I went by the legend that he was a millionaire collector of works of art, and in seeing him it was much easier indeed to picture him surrounded with rare books and precious china than standing on a platform preaching the Revolution to the proletariat. Quite tall and thin, he gave an impression of frailty. His features were definitely those of a man devoted to the spiritual side of life, he himself has remarked that he does not look like a Jew, which is true. All his attitudes were those of ease and even nonchalance. When he spoke, he placed his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, crossed his long legs, leaned backwards in his chair, His voice was that of a cultured man, but soft and curiously pitched  one of those voices which one may imagine might charm women and not men; no mannerism of speech, but a perfectly precise choice of words and faultless diction, as is used by only a limited number of Frenchmen among the thoroughly learned.

He was very well dressed, but not overdressed. He wore spats, which in Franco is as much a sign of sipper class smugness as carrying a cane in New York. When he went out, however, he put on a wide brimmed black felt hat, which is another kind of symbol; it means either radicalism in politics or artistic leanings, like long hair thirty years ago.

I thought that art rather than politics explained that hat of M. Blum's. Amen whose manners were so obviously aristocratic was hard to identify as the authentic heir of the great Socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, who had a thick neck, a beard, a powerful accent of the Midi, and who spat in his handkerchief.

In fact I associated M. Blum with only one of the groups to which he did indeed belong, at least in his youth; the intelligentsia of the Proust-Gide-Valéry variety. And for this reason I made a serious mistake; I pigeonholed the future leader of the Popular Front as a man of the past of a rich and delightful but forever lost era that came to an end some fifteen years ago in France and during which a number of men of talent wrote a number of great books.

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.

V

For many Frenchmen, of course, the idea of considering M. Blum as a great democratic leader is preposterous. They are as unable to understand why the rest of the world entertains that idea as are many Americans when they learn that Mr. Roosevelt enjoys the same reputation abroad. Apparently the title of Great Democratic Leader can only be applied to the head of a foreign country, preferably a very distant one.

In the case of 1\I. Blum, the fact that he is not only a Socialist but also a Jew constitutes a handicap which the President of the United States has not had to suffer. Nevertheless, M. Blum has succeeded in overcoming this difficulty by explaining his position as a Socialist end as a Jew with consistent sincerity.

Designated to assume power after the victory of the Popular Front coalition at the polls, he explained that although he intended to remain faithful to his Socialist creed he realized perfectly well that France was not a Socialist country. Besides, in the Popular Front itself, the Socialists were merely the most numerous of a triple alliance including the Radical Socialists and the Communists. He made it clear also that, the democratic rule being the rule of the Socialists themselves, he had no intention of departing from it. And he did not

But naturally this was not believed by the opposition. And the alliance with the Communists to whom M. Blum remained loyal in spite of their frequent attempts to make his task impossible could not dissuade many honest citizens from thinking that he was playing into the hands of Moscow, whether he wished it or not.

Many pleas were made to M. Blum to abandon his compromising allies, and there is no doubt that he could have found a new and solid majority with the more moderate elements who were most anxious to win over the only really popular leader that France has had in many years. But M. Blum said that he would never go the way of Ramsay MacDonald and betray the laboring classes.

It maybe argued - and it was - that the laboring classes are not the whole of France, and that to govern in their interest alone is not according to the democratic process. But here we come to defining what is meant by the laboring classes, - a source of more confusion in the world to day than all others pist together, - and the only answer is that, practically speaking, the laboring classes in France are those who voted for the Popular Front. Nevertheless it would appear that the words laboring classes' contain some kind of mystical value, in M, Blum's mind, and he has said and shown that he would willingly sacrifice himself to preserve their 'unity.'

VI

Besides proving that he had great gifts as a popular leader during the twelve months that he was in power, Léon Blum also showed that he had the requirements of a statesman, and that his management of the government a task entirely new to him  may have been open to criticism from the political point of view, but not otherwise.

This unsuspected ability was quite a revelation, even to most of his friends, but it can be explained if one remembers that for seventeen years he belonged to the Conseil d'Etat (this nearest equivalent to the Supreme Court). It is a phase of his career that is usually over-looked by his critics, but in this office he acquired a knowledge of the State and of its laws that few political men in France possess. This side of M. Blum's training, his juridical competence, may be the real reason why he is not a mere intellectual or prophetic reformer. It explains also why he has succeeded in creating an undercurrent of confidence even in the minds of his bitterest political opponents.

As for the question of his race, he has himself said that the dual conscience of his French nationality and of his Jewish origin created no conflict. in him, but that he recognized both. A minority of his enemies, who suffer from a prejudice which the Nazi propagandists sire doing their utmost to encourage in France and everywhere else, have taken great pains to show that Léon Blum may be a great figure but that he could not be a true Frenchman. They have denounced certain traits of his character as being distinctly Jewish, and therefore un French, but strangely enough these traits which are picked on are among those which the French usually claim as their own such as his passion for justice, his ideal of universal tolerance (clearly manifest in the incredibly generous offers of cooperation which he made to Hitler, for instance), the power of his logic, and his unshakable attachment to the cause of peace.

The basic reason for these self defeating objections, leaving out prejudice, may be that there is indeed something in Blum's personality which is  I will not say un French  but unusual in a political leader; and that is a capacity for intellectual sincerity blended with a quasi feminine sensitiveness, an idealism the doors of which are always left open to enable him to seek an escape from the harsh contradictions of reality and soar above them, a general attitude of optimism and faith in the future of humanity which clashes very often with the common sense of a people whom a long history and many adventures have taught that skepticism is not a bad philosophy of life. It may be that Lion Blum is too far removed from the spirit of Montaigne or Voltaire.

VII

Since last June, M. Blum has ceased to be the head of the government. He resigned after the Senate refused to grant him plenary powers to remedy a financial situation which had become alarming. The Sonata revolted against the idea of letting a Socialist, however great his popular prestige, take upon himself this kind of responsibility. Naturally the opposition blamed M. Blum for having brought the Treasury to the threshold of bankruptcy, and he in turn accused the capitalists of having practiced a sit down strike to get him out of office. In fact both were right, but some of M. Blum's partisans thought that he should resist the verdict of the 'reactionary' Senate in order to save the Popular Front. M. Blues refused to resort to such a coup d'état. Instead he accepted the post of Vice President in a Cabinet the head of which is M. Chautemps, a Radical-Socialist in whom the Senate has confidence. The Cabinet is still a Popular Front Government, in which M. Blues remains as a sort of guardian of the spirit of the movement.

There are other reasons why M. Blum cannot be dispensed with at the moment, and the most important is certainly the prestige he enjoys in other countries, In the international field, at least, even his enemies are obliged to recognize that be has improved the moral position of France, who has demonstrated her ability, under his management, to operate some fundamental social readjustments without betraying any of the principles which she herself has spread throughout the world. In so doing Léon Blum has been a tremendous factor in strengthening the forces of freedom and liberalism which are so violently attacked by Fascist and Communist ideologies.

An unsolved question is whether Léon Blues, during the year that he was in power, advanced permanently the socialization of France, or whether he merely profited by the periodical swing of the pendulum which, having gone left, has now a tendency to swing back towards the right. In other words, is M. Blues to be judged as a great Socialist or as a greet national figure, or both?

This question cannot be answered now, but it is interesting to read to day a passage of the New Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann in which, some forty years ago, Lion Blum seems to have had a prophetic vision of what would happen when a Socialist leader came into power. In this curious passage, Léon Blum has imagined that Goethe has conceived a Second Faust and that this Second Faust is a Socialist leader living in the modern world:

To this Faust [says Goethe-Blum] I have given eloquence, prestige, and this magnetic power which compels everyone to believe immediately and in spite of himself in his strength, in his sincerity, in his kindness. I have made him energetic end candid. He is an optimist… He believes that man is just and that only poverty end a faulty civilization have corrupted him… He holds, against Mephistopheles (who is also n Socialist, huts mischievous demagogue), that it is possible to convert those who are happy in this world to the sentiment of their injustice and that they can he made to renounce their privileges through persuasion. Bemuse this Faust is tender, he hates blood. He wants the Revolution to be peaceful and fraternal.

Several scenes are described. In one of them an engineer proposes to Dr. Faust an invention by which cotton mills could dispense with two thirds of their workers. Socialist Faust hesitates. He sees that in the present state of our society science creates unemployment. Mephistopheles the agitator, encourages the workers to destroy the now machines. Faust is horrified, but he cannot stop this criminal destruction.

In another scene Faust, who has become n Deputy, is trying to put some order into the methods of work of Parliament. In vain. He tries to do everything alone he is harassed with responsibilities, while Mephistopheles who is also an M.P., mocks him and says: 'Now you have become a bourgeois business man!'

And how does this all end? asks Eckermann.

What you want to know, I presume, answers Goethe, is whether enterprises analogous to that of my Faust have a chance to succeed, Personally, I am thoroughly convinced that they can. But personal convictions have nothing to do with this mutter. All that we can do today is to ask some questions clearly and accurately. Time alone will give us the answers.

Thus, forty years ago Léon Blum know that the better world of his dreams would be slow to come. But there is no reason to believe that, with ago, he has lost patience.

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