Through a glass darkly – 20

Summer seems to be over here in Edinburgh. But I walked from Musselburgh to North Berwick yesterday; 19.5 miles according to the John Muir Way website. So today I am feeling a bit pleased with myself. And rather less like walking ! Optimistically I was sustained for part of the walk by the thought of lunch out at North Berwick. But it was 5 o’clock by the time I got there.

Regular readers will know that my knowledge of history is very patchy. Although I am very fond of France, my knowledge of French history was largely limited to the coronation of Charlemagne, on Christmas Day 800, the accession of Hugh Capet in 987, and on more familiar ground the story from 1940 onwards. Which leaves a very big gap. So with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension I started to read Theodore Zeldin’s  France, 1848-1945: Ambition, Love, and Politics. Anticipation because I have owned the book for years without opening it. Apprehension because it is 790 pages. Which is a lot of reading, even with an orange marker pencil.

In spite of its length, there are several things the book doesn’t do. It doesn’t offer any coherent story of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870, nor of the siege of Paris by the Prussian armies. Nor of the Commune that followed, and its bloody suppression. Nor of the horrors of Verdun in 1916. Nor of the extraordinarily rapid fall of France in 1940. [All of which are dealt with in three excellent, very readable, books by Alistair Horne.]

Zeldin makes it clear at the outset that he is not writing a chronological history of events, of which there are already many. [The book was published in 1973.] Instead he sets out to study the  role of different groups of French society; the bourgeoisie, industrialists, bankers, bureaucrats, workers, and peasants. A second section looks at marriage and morals, and the roles of children and of women. And the  lengthy third section looks at a whole host of different political grouping; kings and aristocrats, republicans, bonapartists, ‘solidarists’, radicals, and socialists. .Zeldin cautions against the traditional view that French history is the unfolding of a struggle between revolution and reaction. Equally he is cautious about the notion that power and health are concentrated in the so-called ‘two hundred families’, who were the real beneficiaries of the Revolution; and that all subsequent history is largely about their struggle to hold onto and consolidate their power. In fact he is cautious about all generalisation, preferring to stress the wide regional variations which complicated and sometimes transformed every movement and every change. It is not always clear, Zeldin writes,  that Brittany, Alsace, Provence, and Paris were parts of the same country.

Summarising the book would be even duller than most of these blogs. But here are a couple of things, a couple of sections, that caught my attention. The first is about the role of family life, and notions of childcare. The second, very differently, about the role of intellectuals in politics.

Children and family life

Zeldin notes that a very large proportion of French children did not have a full family life. Only 54% of marriages lasted longer than 15 years; 45% of children were orphans in their teens. Things were made significantly worse  by the First World War: in 1931 there were 646, 000 families who had lost their fathers in the war; and a further 1,322, 000 with fathers who were mutilated or injured. When I first visited France in 1961, there were signs in the Paris metro indicating priority seating for femmes enceintes et mutilés de guerre. When did they disappear, I wonder ?

There was widespread disagreement about how to rear children. [According to a book by David Hunt, adults played publicly with Louis XIII’s penis when he was a baby; but it was six months before his mother embraced him, and his relations with her remained cold until his father died.] Broadly conservatives believed that values should be transmitted through exercising authority; and that the father exercised power as God’s representative. Moralists were worried about excessive familiarity. Holidays were especially dangerous. Among the bourgeoisie, there was fear of children’s friends; so it was always better to invite one’s cousins and one’s own family. Holidays in the mountains with nature study were morally safer than holidays by the sea.

Writing in 1861, Paul Janet thought that parents spoiled their children more now. But that they also looked after them better. Both Jules Michelet and Paul Janet saw children as instruments for the gratification of parental aspirations, producing either higher social status or the promise of affection. A comparative study of American and French children suggested that French children were better able to accept the formal requirements of their elders because they were more skilled at entering into their private world where they remained free.

In the 1950s a poll of French people were asked which was the most important commandment. ‘Honour your parents’ won easily. Zeldin notes that 70% of respondents thought that  discipline was extremely important, and more than  50% wanted greater severity towards children. According to the same poll, 52% of parents were opposed to sex education at school.

The genius in politics

One of the more interesting [to me] sections is called ‘The genius in politics’. Zeldin insists that in the 19th century the emergence of the genius [the utopians] influenced French politics; and challenged the traditional centralised authority. “The genius was a prophet, but a prophet in the wilderness.” The utopians [such as Fourier and Proudhon]  became popular because they tried to give expression to the people’s widely felt aspirations. One characteristic of the utopians was the desire to unite mankind; they represented a longing for order and peace after the Revolution.

Saint-Simon [1760-1825] was an unhinged genius. He preached fraternity: “love one another and help one another”. He was not interested in party politics. Progress was about building roads and massive investment in public works. He wanted to abolish inheritance; his slogan was “To each according to his capacities, and to each capacity according to his works”. The disciples of Saint-Simon, of whom Enfantin was the most influential, laid stress on religion, financial investment, and the emancipation of both the proletariat and of women.

Charles Fourier [1772-1837] also preached a complete transformation of the social order. Harmony and co-operation were to replace vicious competition. The world was to be re-organised into phalanstères, mixed communities of about 1600 people; living on a farm with a communal kitchen; work being done by small teams of people working together; dirty jobs done by the children, as they like getting dirty,  who would be educated in comprehensive schools to eliminate class prejudices. Leadership in the communes would be by election. And armies would undertake great public works; such as the digging of the Panama and Suez canals, and the irrigation of the Sahara Desert. Fourier’s followers proposed the nationalisation of industry, of railways and canals.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon [1809-65] was the most plebeian of the early socialists, the son of a rural artisan. He was an  autodidact compositor, becoming a polemicist and a journalist. Proudhon cared most for social equality; he wanted the masses to achieve independence, self-respect, and a sense of their own dignity. What was needed was justice, equality, and liberty. His best-known slogan is ‘Property is Theft’, but he had no wish to abolish property. He favoured replacing money by a system of exchange. He wanted a loose federation of communes to replace the centralised state. He had no talent as an active politician. But his ideas were influential after his death.

The effect of the utopians on public life”, Zeldin concludes, “was … … to uproot tradition, to sow confusion, to stimulate hope, and to construct dream-worlds which alienated Frenchmen from the present and consoled them for its shortcomings.”

Intellectuals and Society

As I reflect on this section of the book, I wonder whether the public role of intellectuals in France is more prominent than it is in Britain. Offhand I can’t think of many examples of British politics being influenced by writers and intellectuals, who might roughly correspond to Zeldin’s use of genius. Are intellectuals merely the servants of special interests or do they have a wider responsibility to society ? I think that Edward Said addressed some of these questions in his Reith Lectures in the early 1990s. In his lectures Said insisted that the intellectual is an exile and an amateur whose role it is “to speak truth to power”.  The lectures were published in 1996 as Representations of the Intellectual. I’ve never seen the book, but I’ll look out for it.

Meanwhile I wonder if I could interest the local LibDems in some of the ideas of Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. They [the LibDems] are certainly short of ideas. But I won’t be holding my breath.

August 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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