What Russia Got Wrong
Can Moscow Learn From Its Failures in Ukraine?
THERE is a clash between two French generations, the prewar and the postwar. The first is made up of those who were thirty years old or more at the outbreak of the war, and whose ideals, consequently, had already been formulated; the second is made up of those who were twenty or less, and who therefore set up their system of values after the catastrophe.
I will at once be asked: "Does a conflict really exist between these two groups? It seems doubtful when we note how many of those whom the young generation has made its gods -- Barrès, Maurras, Claudel, Péguy, Bergson, Nietzsche, Marx -- belong to what you call the old generation, sometimes to one older still." Of course. Yet when the old generation itself was young (if I may generalize about it), those were not the men whom it considered masters; it favored, rather, men with precisely contrary philosophical leanings. Of these, Ernest Renan and Anatole France were the two outstanding. We may say that the old generation, from a philosophical point of view, was that of the Dreyfus affair, and that in many regards (though not in all) Romain Rolland might be considered a typical representative. I will be told that some young people still admire Renan and France. But they are rare, and their generation on the whole inclines to reject them. Anatole France's unpopularity with most young Frenchmen today is well known. Furthermore, no one who knows anything about French life would deny that these young people have been continually reproaching the old generation with having made such a fetish of the critical spirit that it failed to "arm them for the struggle." Taking each generation as a whole, although we recognize that any mass characterization is necessarily arbitrary, we nevertheless must conclude that the conflict between them is not a figment of the imagination but is a reality which some day will occupy a prominent place in the history of ideas in France.[i]
I am told that a third generation exists, distinguished from that which I have called the postwar generation by its complete indifference in matters ideological and by a sole concern with day-by-day existence. This generation would not interest the historian of ideals in any way for the very good reason that it has no ideals. Groups of this sort have always existed.
II. HOW THE FUNDAMENTAL CAUSE OF THIS CONFLICT IS THAT THE OLD GENERATION WAS HAPPY, WHEREAS THE YOUNG GENERATION IS NOT
It seems to me that this conflict is adequately explained by the fact that the two generations in question have lived under such different economic conditions. The old generation was a happy one -- unusually happy, I venture to say; the young generation is unhappy, hard pressed by circumstances.
I should here like to make some incidental observations on a statement we have often heard of late, namely that civilization never was more menaced than it is today. The truth is that it has been threatened, time and time again, infinitely more so than at the present time. In Christopher Dawson's "The Making of Europe" (a work which I recommend highly to those interested in the trials of humanity), we see that after the fall of Rome and also at the dissolution of Charlemagne's Empire, the world witnessed the breakdown of every juridical system, the destruction of all social order, and the disappearance of security for the individual to a degree scarcely suggested in even the worst moments of our present age. Stendhal has said somewhere, with his gift for striking phrases, "A man of the Middle Ages had but two desires: first, to avoid being killed; second, to own a good warm coat." Though that second desire is still very strong, the assurance of not being killed has become quite general. Our time is by no means the worst that history has known. These are matters which I can confide to my readers, that is, to people who reflect; they cannot be told to everyone. It seems that average humanity, in order to bolster up its courage in times of adversity, needs to believe that it is living in the most tragic epoch that mankind ever endured. In addition, the young generation knows nothing and cares nothing about the situation of the men of the tenth century or of those who witnessed the fall of Rome; youth compares its lot only with those relatively recent periods which it as heard discussed by its elders and parents. By this comparison youth deems itself unhappy. In this it is unquestionably right.
The old generation was happy because of two circumstances, the disappearance of which left what may be defined as the modern world.
In the first place, the old generation was not brought up in constant fear of impending war. By 1880 the feeling of revenge had almost entirely died out in France. Even more to the point is the fact that for fifteen years, from 1890 to 1905, date of the dismissal of Delcassé demanded by Germany, the old generation was in a position to believe -- naïvely but sincerely -- that the day of wars was in general past. Many contemporaries of mine remember how great was our stupefaction upon hearing in 1899 of England's declaration of war on the Transvaal. We also remember how at the same time we felt sure that the opponents of Dreyfus kept alive the specter of war with Germany merely to further their own cause. From such a state of affairs we derived a peace of mind which, I need hardly emphasize, the present generation lacks.
The other fortunate condition which obtained when the men of my age were young was the feeling of real security, of genuine stability, at least as far as practical matters were concerned. In the political realm, the nation had just passed through two great ordeals -- the Sixteenth of May and the Boulanger affair. It had emerged victorious, and it seemed no longer to have anything very serious to fear. If we found the young Republic tolerable, all we had to do was to let it live. In the economic realm, an average middle-class family like mine thought that its easy circumstances, the result of its own work and of that of its ancestors, would never be called into question and that the threats of people like Guesde and Marx against the capitalistic system were mere literary exercises. The only thing that stirred my generation deeply in its youth was the Dreyfus affair, a purely intellectual sham-battle. I need not explain that such a state of security, political and economic, is the exact opposite of the situation of young Frenchmen today.
The contrast might be further described in the following way. We of the old generation grew up in a fully developed society, which we thought we had only to let continue on its way while we devoted ourselves, if we were fortunate enough to belong to the privileged classes, to æsthetic pursuits, to art, literature and philosophy. Whereas the youth of today is growing up in a world which it believes (I do not say that it is right in believing this; but believe it it does) is crumbling to pieces and must be rebuilt in every particular. I should compare this young man to Rodin's man of the Bronze Age, bewildered, hand on brow, awed by the immensity of the task which he thinks is before him.
Such a difference of situation seems to me enough to explain the whole moral attitude of the young generation, its whole system of values, as opposed to those of its elders.
III. THE POLITICAL CREED OF THE YOUNG GENERATION
First, let us notice youth's intolerance toward the skepticism which marked the political thinking of my generation. We who grew up before the war scorned politics, not only the politics of our own time, but of all times: we disdained political activity in general. Having been disciples of Renan and France, my contemporaries believed that politics could be only quackery and empirical patchwork, essentially incapable of real intellectual discipline. Politics therefore were unworthy the attention of a serious man, who reserved his respect and regard for private activities. The attitude of the young of today has none of that detachment. They are hostile toward democracy in direct proportion as it seems to them the symbol of political skepticism. They are dominated by profound faith in the organisms which they propose to create, whether Fascism or Communism. And appropriately enough, their creative will hates in proportion those who, never having been subjected to the same exigencies, honored other values in earlier days.
This hostility of youth toward democracy is based especially upon the fact that the Third Republic has so often been the scene of great financial scandals (e.g. the Panama affair, the Humbert and Stavisky affairs). It cannot be denied that Fascist régimes -- or Communist -- owe part of their prestige with the young to the fact that these consider them comparatively free from the domination of money. I shall of course be reminded that democratic governments on both sides of the Atlantic have likewise sought to curtail the money power, specifically that in France an endeavor was made to check the "deux cents families." Yes, but these efforts have met formidable resistance, and in France, at least, they have finally collapsed. The result is that youth sometimes wonders whether the continuance in power of the financial interests and the failure of attempts to check them are not inherent traits of democracy; they wonder, in short, if democracy is not by definition a synonym of plutocracy. I do not say that this opinion is either right or wrong. I simply make note of it.
We may remark in passing that for a whole group of young men, followers of Maurras, the condemnation of democracy on the above grounds is nothing but a ruse to discredit a régime which they detest for entirely different reasons. Plenty of financial scandals (the Fouquet and Collier affairs, for example) existed under the ancien régime which the followers of Maurras cherish so dearly--a régime, incidentally, which differed from democracy chiefly in that it stifled small groups like theirs.
IV. ATTITUDES OF THE TWO GENERATIONS TO TRUTH
On one point the clash between the two generations is particularly striking: on the question of truth. The old generation respected, and still respects, objective truth -- truth, the only concern of which is to be true and which does not occupy itself with practical consequences. Renan, Fustel de Coulanges and Gaston Paris made declarations on this subject which have become famous. In his first lecture at the Collège de France in December 1870 (a time when it was considered meritorious for a Frenchman to pay homage to truth, regardless of any nationalistic consideration), Gaston Paris declared: "I maintain absolutely and unreservedly that science has no other goal than truth for its own sake, without concern for the consequences, good or bad, happy or deplorable, which might ensue from the practical application of this truth." He added that a man who for any reason at all -- patriotic, social or moral -- allows himself to make the least alteration of truth, should have no place in the temple of the mind.
The young men of today, on the contrary, abhor objective truth. They intend that truth shall serve their plans of action, or rather, they call truth that which serves such plans.
Some disciples of Charles Maurras will protest that I am misrepresenting their way of looking at the matter, that they respect intelligence only in its search for truth, that this is the entire doctrine of their master as expressed in "L'Avenir de l'Intelligence." They neglect to add that, for them, truth represents precisely that type of society which they desire, and that their originality lies in proclaiming true, on the same basis as physical laws of weight or optics, political principles which in reality are nothing other than personal preferences. Although the young generation will not always admit it, we may say that all young people, Fascists and Communists alike, are "pragmatical".[ii] An explanation for this is not far to seek: a generation living in an ordered society, which it believes will so remain for years to come, can permit itself the luxury of loving truth for its own sake without caring about the outcome; whereas a generation which has to create its own moral climate -- or at least which thinks that it must -- cannot do so, and must therefore take up arms against those who extol a spirit which is not solely practical.
V. OF THE POSITION OF YOUTH IN RESPECT TO INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY
The old generation, in honoring the Rights of Man, honored dictates of the human conscience, things which ought to be rather than things which are or which have been. It was idealistic.
The young generation scorns this attitude. It wishes to know only "facts" based on "experience." It is "realistic." Hence, one of its accusations against democracy. Rightist youth declares that democracy, with its worship of an ideal, obeys the "clouds" (that is the way the Action Française puts it); while Leftist youth insist that democracy fails to recognize the most important realities: economic facts. Let us note that the policies vigorously advocated by these two groups of youth are not at all based on a strict examination of the facts, but on an ideal imposed upon the facts: for one group it is "order," for the other it is "social justice," objectives which they themselves admit still remain to be achieved (at least as they conceive them) and of a kind that has not yet existed.[iii] And because both wish "to know only facts," both make the mistake of not taking into account desires, aspirations and feelings -- as though in history feelings were not facts, perhaps the most powerful facts of all!
In fine, the young generation of today is by no means exclusively realistic. But it pretends to be, and such a violent pretension is one of its distinguishing traits in relation to its predecessors.
The attachment of the old generation to the Rights of Man -- of Man in general, independent of his political position -- indicates its willingness to admit that there were principles which were above parties and which, theoretically at least, might entail inconvenience to its own party. They subscribed to Aristotle's famous proposition: "The state should never be an organized faction." The State advocated by the young generation -- whether Rightists or Leftists -- is indeed precisely that. Fascism and Hitlerism are openly government by party; Stalin is officially the party secretary. To be sure, youth asserts that party interests are identical with the interests of civilization.
A capital point on which the two generations differ widely is individual liberty. For the old generation, again because of its devotion to the Rights of Man, individual liberty is almost sacred. Nothing of the sort for the young generation. Liberalism is one of those "outmoded" values and its devotees seem rather ridiculous to youth. In France today the young liberal is an almost extinct species. The systems which youth likes, Fascism or Communism, not only deny individual liberty but make a boast of denying it. "The belief that the individual human being has a right to liberty and dignity has wreaked enough havoc; it will not weigh a straw the day when it will be imperative to take the necessary steps for the preservation of the race and of racial purity," writes the author of "Mein Kampf." And in the article on "Fascismo" in the "Enciclopedia Italiana," written by Mussolini himself, we read that man is only free in the whole, and this whole can only be an authoritarian state, which tolerates no arguments, no criticism. In other words, the soldier is free within the army -- which allows him not a single free gesture! Let him who can understand.
One reason (there are others less honorable) why the young generation takes this attitude is that it is eminently social, much more so than its predecessors, which tended to be political. Now, radical social reforms are not made under a system of liberty. Liberty is a phenomenon of relatively happy societies; and in them whatever changes are made in the social order are not really organic. This is what has happened in France during sixty years of a republican régime, as many young men now allege by way of reproach.[iv]
VI. THE ETHICAL PECULIARITIES OF A LARGE SECTION OF PRESENT-DAY FRENCH YOUTH
Determined to act, the young generation turns to the cult of energy and sacrifice. Renan has asserted somewhere that there is a kind of opposition between a cult based upon values of this sort and the cult of intellectualism, and that, generally speaking, an intellectual period is usually not a very moral one and a moral period is not highly intellectual. As with all parallels, this one is unconvincing, for during the seventeenth century a way was found in France to foster both virtues, mutually exclusive though they were supposed to be. Nevertheless, it may be admitted that the older generation was primarily intellectual and that the younger is, at least in fervor for the values just mentioned, comparatively moral. I have ventured to point out in a recent work, "La jeunesse d'un clerc," that in 1885 we were taught in the lycées to have far less respect for energy than for intellectualism. The young generation criticizes this kind of education sharply.
In speaking of ethics, let us make sure of what we mean. The word implies respect for a whole series of other values besides energy and sacrifice. Many young men of various parties seem set on emancipating themselves from these other moral values. "We must," declares the high priest of one of their groups, "be resolved to practice everything possible: trickery, artifice, illegal methods; we must be ready to silence and to dissimulate the truth; in short, we must derive our moral system from the interests of the class struggle."[v] Others lay down the same code, in almost the same words, for the establishment of a new order which they deem indispensable for the salvation of society. The Action Française expressly boasts of having resorted to trickery when the occasion required, of having lied, of having incited to assassination.[vi] M. Thierry-Maulnier, a young Rightist leader, recently published in the Insurgé (this paper, together with another named Combat, is the organ of a whole section of French youth), an article entitled "France dazed by ethical ideals." Here, the moral system of our young people, like their above-mentioned conception of truth, shows itself clearly pragmatical.
VII. THE SPECIAL CASE OF FREEDOM FOR THE WRITER
Another disputed field, very similar to the one just mentioned, is the question of freedom for the writer. The old generation demanded complete freedom for the writer, his right to remain totally unconcerned about the interest of the state, and even to write against the state. It was outraged because Zola's name was stricken from the roll of the Legion of Honor for having written the letter "J'accuse." One of the old generation, Alain, even maintains in his book, "Elements d'une doctrine radicale," that the chief function of a writer should be to snap constantly at the legs of those in power like an angry dog.
The young people of today have a great aversion for that sort of liberalism. Some of them support vigorously the thesis put forward by Pierre Lasserre in his famous book "Le Romantisme." According to this thesis the free functioning of the intellect, without concern for the interests of the State (the supporters of Dreyfus, they claim, were guilty of that indifference), is the action of a primitive man and is contemptible. Others go further and demand that the writer not only respect the type of society which they wish to establish, but that he work (and work exclusively) for its establishment. Some time ago, I attended a meeting of young men organized by the revolutionary paper Vendredi, at which the following question was the principal topic: "For whom do you write?" The upshot of it all was, according to them, that anyone who did not write expressly in favor of social regeneration was unworthy of the name of thinker. Note that, according to this dogma, Valéry and Giraudoux are not thinkers.
Again there is an explanation: the old generation, brought up in an established society, can afford to let the writer be aloof; the young generation, who think they must build their own society, cannot do without his help. They force him to support them.
VIII. HATRED OF THE "IVORY TOWER"
The old generation likewise permitted the thinker to live in his study, to avoid debate. Those who did so received the greatest homage. But the young generation has nothing but contempt for the ivory tower. They despise the most profound thinker if he keeps above the battle. Their mentor here might be Péguy, who, in his "Note sur la philosophie bergsonienne," declared that a system of philosophy merits respect only in proportion as it awakens active opposition. The other day I read in an article of one of their group: "We laugh at any system of thought, even the purest, which does not draw man into the struggle." It is a natural enough doctrine for a generation which believes that its task is not thinking but doing.
Youth demands that the thinker, even in his manner of thinking, should eschew tranquillity and live "dangerously." This reflects youth's hatred of large concepts, of general ideas, of basic forms of intelligence; its strong desire that the mind imitate "life" in its constant uneasiness (Bergson), in its "dynamism"; its worship of Hegelian dialectics. "General ideas," Nietzsche said arrogantly, "are a spar to which those obsessed with longings for security cling during the tempests of life!" Nearly all our young zealots hurl this sort of remark at those who propose to hold the eternal laws of the mind firm against the pressure of passing circumstances and, in the admirable words of Malebranche, "keep steady in the midst of currents."
The divergence is indeed profound. The old generation was not completely lacking in regard for happiness, for one reason that the world in which it grew up had permitted it to be somewhat happy. It had been brought up with what in my book, "Jeunesse d'un clerc," I called a non-tragical conception of life. It was not shocked by "Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse" of Renan, wherein the master, nearing life's end, declared that he would gladly begin over again "this delightful journey towards reality." The young of today disdain what in this case they would call "feebleness." Renan, extolling the peace of his oratory, seems to them a hideous symbol. They all would sign the following manifesto from the "Twilight of the Idols" (incidentally, nearly all of them are Nietzschean, the Rightists as well as the Leftists, from M. Thierry-Maulnier to M. André Malraux, and including M. Guéhenno): "Shame on the ignoble happiness that is the dream of grocery clerks, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and all democrats." Once more I pause to point out that those who believe they must create cannot stop to evaluate happiness; they are obliged to exalt the pathetic conception of life.
There is one more conflict, a very natural one. The old generation respected certain absolute, abstract values, considered apart from reality, such as justice and reason. In a work which some of my readers may perhaps know, "La Trahison des Clercs," I even maintained that the thinker "betrayed" his function when he ceased honoring these values except in the compromised forms which they inevitably assume once they become widely diffused. One of our young writers, M. Ramon Fernandez, in a work which throws much light on our subject -- "L'Homme est-il humain?" -- replies that it is solely these compromised modifications which he respects; for values honored in an absolute state, transcending human reality, he has only a shrug of indifference. This young man, in so far as he wishes to create, is playing his part quite well: for it is by practising the cult of compromise and by scorning eternal values that practical objectives are attained.
One last trait of the youth of today (whatever its party) which distinguishes it from its elders: its extreme self-importance, its supreme intolerance of everything and everybody not its own. M. Robert Brasillach, representative of an important group of his generation, recently attacked my ideas in the Action Française, citing my age as a principal argument against those ideas (he forgot that his master, Maurras, is as old as I; but impassioned polemists are not required to be logical). The young generation differs in this particular from the old: the latter sometimes announced that it was going to renovate everything in literature and art, but it did not imagine that it could make the political order over entirely and at once. The contrast is explained: political modesty is a commonplace when your chief task is to develop your own mind within a tolerable social framework set up by others; but you believe only in your own generation and belabor your elders when you become convinced they bequeathed you a world which is falling to pieces and which must be entirely rebuilt.
IX. IS THE DEMOCRATIC REGIME IN FRANCE MENACED BY THE HOSTILITY OF THE YOUNG GENERATION?
From the foregoing it can be seen that hostility to democracy is characteristic of modern French youth, whether Fascist or Communist. True, there is one section which is distinctly pro-democratic, including the readers of the Christian-Democratic paper Aube, in which often appear articles by Jacques Maritain and André Thérive; the readers of the magazine Esprit; and the "Jeunesses ouvrières chrétiennes," known as the J. O. C. But these groups form a minority in their generation. Besides, by conviction they oppose all violence, and so attract little attention from anyone studying the political battle. I may add that the Communist youth groups defend the democratic régime when it is in danger (e.g. the Sixth of February) and support it when it undertakes social reforms which they consider right and desirable (e.g. the platform of the Blum ministry). But this is strategy. They are convincedly hostile to democracy, believing it to be an essentially bourgeois and capitalistic system.
The question then arises: Is French democracy really in danger because of the hostility of the young generation? To put it another way: What, from the political point of view, is the effective power of youth and of its opinions in France?
My answer is that this power is not great. And here we come to a fundamental difference between democracies and totalitarian states. The latter "play up" youth. The dictators make a particular point of winning over youth, gaining its blind support, dominating its action completely. They profess to hold the judgment of youth in sovereign esteem. "Our doctrine is founded on truth," they say, "since youth favors it." They unhesitatingly proclaim also that their supreme (not to say sole) objective is to insure the happiness of youth and to put an end to the difficulties which strangle it.
The tremendous place given to youth by totalitarian systems is natural enough. The embryo dictators found they needed above everything good fists and strong lungs, the sort of irrationalism which consists in replying to an argument with a blow of a cudgel -- a characteristic procedure for a certain type of youth.
Democracies, to be sure, are concerned with youth, but only in the same degree as they are concerned with all their citizens. They do not accord youth exclusive consideration. Above all, they do not worship the judgment of youth or think of decreeing that a doctrine is right simply because youth is in favor of it. In fact, they tend to pay particular attention to the opinions of mature persons of real or supposed experience, and to the counsel of the "Senates."[vii] Public opinion, being feminine, likes youth, pities its difficulties, desires to see them remedied, is attracted by the intransigeance of its doctrine. Nevertheless, reacting as an adult does to the notions of children, it scarcely thinks of putting these doctrines into practice. This is apparent at elections. The fact would become even more obvious if the electorate were to be consulted now, for very probably the Communist Party would receive still fewer votes than it did two years ago. In a word, the democratic régime in France does not seem to have much to fear from the hostility of youth.
Does this mean that democracy should remain indifferent to the criticisms of the young? That would be a great mistake. The wish of every true democrat should be to see democratic governments cease incurring youth's accusations, for some of these only too often are quite justified. If, in particular, the young generation could oblige democracy really to bring the domination of financial interests under control; if it could inspire it to show more courage in crises, more willingness to take risks on behalf of worthy causes; if it could force it to renounce the cult of well-being, which in some countries it practises to the extent of making one wonder whether it is not sacrificing national dignity and independence to it -- if the young generation were to bring these things to pass, then I should say that by its very excessive severities it would have deserved well of civilization.
[i] It may also be objected that certain of the old generation who were not at all disciples of Maurras or Sorel were repelled by the moral skepticism of Renan and France. But they were a small minority.
[ii] Marx expressed this idea formally: "Communistic humanism has no worse enemy than speculative idealism," i.e. objective activity of the mind. (Quoted with enthusiasm by Jean Guéhenno, one of the leaders of French youth.)
[iii] The Rightists have a great advantage in this particular: they can maintain that under certain régimes of the past their ideal has actually existed. Whereas the Leftists, the Communists at least, must admit that their ideal is to be established despite historical precedent. However that may be, the "order" which the Rightists promise will be different from that which history has seen. In 1797, Louis XVIII, in exile, sent this order to Pichegru: "Explain [to our people] the constitution of the State, which has been calomnied only because it is misunderstood; teach them to distinguish it from the régime which long ago set itself up as an intruder."
[iv] The idea that liberty has a negative, not a constructive value, and that true social reform cannot tolerate it, seems to have been expressed for the first time by the socialistic philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon. A very stimulating commentary on this matter may be found in the exhaustive work of Renouvier: "Philosophie analytique de l'histoire" (vol. IV, book 16).
[v] Lenin, Sur la religion, p. 73.
[vi] "Let us be clever . . . let us practice trickery and violence. . . . We accept willingly, proudly, the reproach of having made a criminal attack upon private life." These statements were put by M. Ernest Renaud as an epigraph to a book on the Action Française, entitled "L'Action Française contre l'Église Catholique et contre la monarchie."
[vii] Thibaudet proposed dividing the European nations into "éphébocraties" and "gérontocraties." I need not say that a systematic desire to turn over the direction of government to old men seems to me perfectly stupid: Foch and Clemenceau saved France at the age of seventy, Bonaparte at thirty. Old age is not an essential of merit.