Should the French Socialist Party Die?

09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following is an exchange between Jean Daniel, the founder and editor of the Nouvel Observateur, the premier intellectual and political magazine of the left in France, and me on the state of the French Socialist Party. First is Jean Daniel's editorial, titled "Socialist Party, Get Up and March" followed by my response.

Socialist Party, Get Up and March!

1. I would have preferred to interrupt my vacation only to share my fifth or sixth reading of Stefan Zweig's masterpiece The World of Yesterday. I wanted to undertake the task of adapting his book for our time and to attempt a reconstitution of a former world that we are nostalgic for. But I am not completely renouncing my project in affirming that many of the French are nostalgic for a time where we thought we knew what was the left and what was the right.

The proof of this became obvious to me in reading Bernard-Henri Lévy's most recent declarations on the "death" of the Socialist Party. It isn't that this remarkable essayist, whose impassioned career I greatly admire, is feeling a kind of nostalgia. On the contrary, he wants to finish with the left, or at least with the Socialist Party. Not because the party is what it is today, but because it seems to him it is no longer relevant. It is over for socialism. We must erase everything, even the very name of the party and, in order to create another, BHL, paradoxically, relies on some of its currents (Ségolène Royal, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Manuel Valls).

I couldn't remain indifferent to this seemingly solemn opinion about the death of the party. Whatever you think of the authority that BHL has been able to attain, while more often in the context of the media than in the realm of politics, fate has had it that his declarations are seldom to be ignored. And yet I find it is rather unpleasant to tell a sick person that he's going to die, or to tell the parents of a dying person that death has already accomplished its work. This impatience to trample on the cadaver, however, doesn't seem to unduly shock the proclaimed protagonists.

2. Bernard-Henri Lévy is far from the only one participating in this funereal dance. In other circumstances, such declarations would have provoked a manifesto by all of the leaders of the various currents of the Socialist Party, for once united in order to ensure their survival. Laurent Fabius could have taken the lead because of his recent demonstration of pugnacity in the denunciation of a "permanent coup d'état," but also because he could finally confess that he feels partly responsible for the warring factions in a political institution to which he owes everything. This war has indeed started, actually, with the secession of the "no to Europe" partisans.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is right when he reminds us that it is in the Nouvel Observateur that he started to sound the alarm, thanks to his book Left in Dark Times. What he said about the causes of the decline of the Socialist Party wasn't entirely new, but he said it in his own way -- that of the trembling prophetic imprecator. I didn't agree on many of the points -- notably on the way to defend Israel and to love the United States -- and I even said so in these pages, but I couldn't remain unaffected by the moving variations he embroidered on the Camusian theme: "Yes, I will die on the left, in spite of it, in spite of myself." It was an affirmation of belonging. It revealed to me that there is no generational conflict on that point. The nostalgia was the same for BHL and for me. The world of yesteryear was indeed where the left was a homeland for us. But, as again today, I had the feeling that what I believe to be the heart of things had escaped him, like many others.

3. This "heart of things," in my opinion, is that a large part of the problem resides in the fact that the right itself has changed. And in fact, this change is more important than the contradictions of the left. Since the right is no longer tethered to a nostalgia for the Old Regime; since the Catholic Church in France renounced all authority over conservatives, who in the meantime have become liberal; since the agenda of the Resistance, with General De Gaulle at its head, put into practice a true revolution with social security and women's suffrage; since the integration into the European community has softened the chauvinistic nationalism so integral to the mentality of the right -- yes, since all of that, the right has lost its identity.

As for the left, it lost as a result all of the arms forged over the course of more than a century against its quasi-hereditary enemy. Even more: in renouncing all heritages of Engels and Guesde by converting, even laboriously, to a Keynesian form of social democracy, the left also lost a part of its own identity. And since these two big changes, there is an existential dialectic between the left and the right, and all of the turbulence experienced by one is inevitably felt by the other.

That's why, for my part, I saw the left live and survive in the words and the principles that Sarkozyism stole from it. In this strategy of creating an umbrella patrimony, there is a place for Jaurès and Blum, and a place for a concern for social protection, all the more so as memories are inscribed with a crushing force in the collective consciousness. It was De Gaulle who put an end to the war in Algeria. It was Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Simone Veil who promulgated the law on abortion and reproductive rights.

4. This analysis leads me to think that the life of the Socialist Party, if it depends on the evolution of ideas, is not at all threatened. Because all the ideas that the right finds useful are taken from the left, the right does not know how to apply them, and cannot apply them, at least to what has become essential, because of its structural incapability of mastering the derivatives of financial capitalism. Therefore, it isn't true that the left has no ideas -- it's because others steal them. But it is true, on the other hand, that if the socialists so desire, many of the texts of all the different currents prove that they can remain loyal to the inherited mission of the great worker parties. And that they can keep the title of "socialist."

Some British observers, who are suddenly extending to the left the very new indulgence they have for French politics, observe that there are strong, realistic, common ideas in the work of the economic counselors of every current of the Socialist Party. On questions of health, of education, and of justice, as well as on the analysis of the international crisis, they say that those who hate the Socialist Party take vicious pleasure in decreeing that there is not a thought of opposition. In fact, it's all about defining a strategy to demonstrate this opposition to the powers that be. The characteristics of social democracy are difficult to come to terms with. They consist, after shedding the romanticism of revolution and radicalism, of accepting the idea that because of the globalization of problems like the new aggressions of modernity, we can no longer continue seeing the political adversary only as an enemy to slaughter.

I have rehearsed the changes in the left and the right and underscored certain ideas common to both. These ideas reemerge in the form of constraints and obligations. There are subjects like ecology, immigration, and Europe on which a bipartisan approach to politics is obviously called for. But careful! Even if we have shown ourselves to be understanding about behavior like Bernard Kouchner's yesterday, or like Michel Rocard's today, everyone must understand that a bipartisan approach is exactly the opposite of a strategy bent on weakening the opposition party.

In conclusion: it is very true that the Socialist Party as an organization is gravely threatened. But its ideas are so alive that its loyalists can, by a miracle of unity, assure their survival.

My Response to Jean Daniel

Like you, dear Jean Daniel, I am nostalgic for the "world of yesterday."

Like you, I think that politics is made of memory as much as of platforms.

And, as one of your diligent readers, I don't believe I am mistaken in saying that the two of us have rather similar memories: the Popular Front, the Resistance, Dreyfusardism, May 1968, the struggles for the liberation of the Third World, the battles for social justice in France, just to name a few.

Simply put -- and it is here that we diverge -- I believe that there are moments in the history of a political family where a Party that has had its moment of glory becomes set in its ways, rigidifies, and becomes a kind of bad obstacle to this outpouring of memory in which good politics are steeped.

This is what has happened to the Radical Party, which was at one time a great party at the origin of, among other things, the authentic revolution of the invention of secularism, but which is now only an empty form, a springboard for the adventurous, a withered tree.

This is what happened to the Communist Party which, when it allowed its dead memory (which in effect consented to the gulag) to suppress its living memory (which also existed: antifascist combats, International Brigades, anti-colonial fights), entered the age of decline that nothing thereafter could curb.

And my belief is this: political names being what they are, their death being inscribed in their destiny no less necessarily than in their birth, this name, the Socialist name, being the seat, moreover, of a war just as fierce between two concurrent memories (Jaurès, Blum, Mendesism, on one side -- and, on the other, the anti- Dreyfusardism of the followers of Jules Guesde, the National Assembly under the Popular Front granting full power to Pétain, Guy Mollet pacifying Algeria with flamethrowers) it was inevitable that it also, one day or another, would suffer the common fate and waste away.

Has this day arrived?

And am I right to say of today's Socialist Party that it is the "large corpse falling backward" that Jean-Paul Sartre--the most prestigious of your collaborators--had already diagnosed?

The proof that no, this is not the case, you say, is that its adversaries are taking what remains of its ideas: sure, but since when does the eagerness of the grave robbers plead the case against the evidence of the corpse's decomposition?

The proof that it doesn't have to die, you add, is that the right is too dependent on "large financial groups" to be able to give these stolen ideas the depth that they would deserve: the argument is tenuous to say the least -- especially in a publication that was, thanks to you, that of the aforementioned Sartre, of Foucault, as well as others who, after them, wrung the neck of this kind of cliché -- which is, in fact, very yesteryear -- of the right-stymied-because-imprisoned-by-big-capital.

The source of the malaise, you say moreover, is not on the left but on the right -- this right having become insane, deprived of a clear course, and which would have precipitated its adversary into the same identity vertigo by contagion: the reasoning is seductive; but it cannot stand up to scrutiny because it does not square with the reality of a Sarkozyism sure of itself, at ease with itself, ideologically rearmed, pugnacious.


I propose, dear Jean Daniel, that we reverse the terms of the question.

What does the left need in order to confront the right as an equal -- a right that has been able to throw down the gauntlet and modernize?

What is it missing to conceive of, and to reform, a capitalism that is no longer -- and hasn't been for a long time now -- a capitalism of national financial groups?

What is it waiting for to launch an assault against these speculative instruments -- hedge funds, short selling stocks, leveraging -- which could be easily exposed as destroying more value than they create and as generating a resurgence of social misery?

Why is it that, in a word, it is so strangely paralyzed in the face of a precariousness born of a globalized capitalism that was not foreseen by German, French, or any other kind of socialism? Why is it that it is incapable of saying that the earned income supplement (RSA: revenue de solidarité active), for example, is without a doubt a sign of progress, but not enough, because it doesn't break enough with the old moralizing idea that the excluded person has a vested interest in his exclusion and just needs to be convinced that he has everything to gain by working?

And so, dear Jean Daniel, the left must, to follow these paths and others, start by forgetting Engels -- since you mention him.

It must forget -- it is you, again, who mention him -- Guesde, whose national socialism was, already in his time, not up to the task of the challenges.

It must forget -- I am still quoting you -- the very idea of a "worker party" whose death certificate was signed by your collaborator André Gorz in these very pages a long time ago.

It must forget this "socialist" name which another of your friends, Albert Camus, used to say was a blight for the majority of humanity, and whose concepts have become ineffectual for conceiving new forms of the social question and, even more importantly, for providing a remedy for them.

We have to start all over again.

Dissolve to better begin again.

We must, without regard either for this turf war (My party! My party!) or for this individual and collective narcissism (our small quarrels, the salt of the earth!), dare to make the iconoclastic gesture which alone will give the left the means of its rebirth and a quickly rediscovered momentum.

This idea is not "morbid," but joyous.

This is not "trampling on a cadaver," but nourishing the same dreams, remaining loyal to the best of the same memory -- except this time on a new foundation from which we can finally counter the new forms of injustice.

Proposing that, finally, I do not make myself the echo of a single murmur of a certain "current" in the Socialist Party -- I write out loud what millions of voters (as in the Cohn-Bendit phenomenon) despair to have to think privately.

It is an immense challenge, I know. But who better than this magazine, yours, which has always wanted to be that of all the lefts and of the debate between these lefts, to dare to do it -- and, without further delay, to begin the building?

Translated from French by Sara Phenix.