THE BLOG
11/13/2014 02:14 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

France's Prime Minister Knows What's in a Name

ASSOCIATED PRESS

This is not the first time that Manuel Valls has proposed changing the name of the French Socialist Party.

Truth be told, he is doing it today a bit less clearly than he did the day after the defeat of Mrs Royal in France's 2007 presidential election. Less clearly, too, than in October of that same year, when, in a review of my book, Left in Dark Times, he urged his fellow party members to dig "deep into their history and into their name." And less clearly than in May 2009, when he earned a scolding from those who were then the party's pundits.

But that he has returned to the subject from the vantage point of his present position -- which is, like it or not, the head of the majority -- obviously gives his suggestion new weight. And this explains why the affair has provoked such an outcry from the guardians of the house of the dead, including, this past weekend, former prime minister Michel Rocard, the inventor of the "second Left," who appears now to have found common cause with communist Pierre Laurent, the leader of what remains of the "first Left," in attempting to bring the young and courageous prime minister to heel.

Valls is right, of course.

And for an essential reason handed down to us from the great nominalist tradition in philosophy.

Names are never just names.

The shadow of everyone who invented, bore, and defined a name stalks that name and sticks to its skin.

Every name has a history: the history of the battles waged in that name or to gain control of it, and of those fought in the arena it defined.

That being so, you have a choice.

Either you consider the outcome of the battle: You reason -- as is fitting on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall -- that "good" socialism won out over bad socialism, the democratic strain over frozen authoritarianism, but in that case it does seem as if, stripped of its old adversary and freed from the great dilemmas that it had been called upon to arbitrate, the name has become hollow, a signifier that has lost its use and purpose, a word without meaning, an acronym, an ideogram spinning in a vacuum as if demagnetized.

Or you consider the history of the battle: This is how it is, you think, with the cells in a living body that still harbor the memory of a disease long after the disease has passed, memory that settles in the cells like sediment. In which case it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the name is haunted by too many evil spirits, weighed down or even overladen with too much foul, fossilized memory. You reason that, in this story of glory and infamy in which the worst and the best (in proportions not quite clear) came face to face, the worst simply looms too large to allow you to discern today the political form of the good, the vibrant, the unspoiled.

I recall Albert Camus' remark that, whatever happens, the very word "socialism" will abide like a burn in the mind of half of humanity.

I remember those Czech students at the University of Prague who, when Jean-Paul Sartre came to lend them his support in 1963, could not understand why he would cling to a doctrine that in their eyes had been fatally compromised on the granite tongues of tyrants.

I think back to those rebels whom we called dissidents, whose message was that a word that could be used to refer both to Sakharov and Brezhnev, to the heirs of Alexandra Kollontaï as well as to those of Joseph Stalin, a word that could represent (as if they were two branches of the same family) both the "solidarity of the shaken," in the phrase of Jan Patocka, and the suppression of a society under a shroud of state terror, a word that was never able to decide, so to speak, whether it was on the side of the yearning for freedom or of the will to despotism (and even of the desire for servitude) -- that word is forever lost to humanity.

Manuel Valls falls within that tradition.

He is a direct descendant of antitotalitarism, which, along with anticolonialism, is a pillar without which the European Left collapses and loses its bearings.

In rejecting a name that cannot cast off that criminal past (a past that, in the French case, encompasses both Jean Jaurès and the anti-Semitic Jules Guesde, both the strict ethics of Pierre Mendès France and the cynical opportunism of Guy Mollet) -- in jettisoning a signifier that has become a concentrate of the catastrophic equivocations of Mitterrandism, the costs of which have yet to be reckoned, Valls is attempting to cut the Gordian knot that has forced his fellow party members to choose between demagoguery when in the opposition and betrayal when in power.

The French Left can choose not to hear him.

The diehards can continue to pedal along idly like Alfred Jarry's bicyclist, who failed to realize that he was dead.

They can wave their wooden swords until the day the world discovers that, like Italo Calvino's knight, their armor is empty.

Or they can bet on the ideological New Deal that is being offered to them.

They can listen to the little bird telling them that what remains of the "republican spirit" and of the "ideal of emancipation" (the demand for which is clear in Valls's words, despite what his detractors say) can be saved only by bidding a very firm goodbye to the reactionary idea of socialism.

Once that is done much will become possible, beginning with the construction of a new political group that will allow the French Left to catch up with other European leftist parties, to leave behind, finally and forever, its interminable, sickening nineteenth century, and to reform, repair, and -- yes -- change the world.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy