Saturday, March 4, 2017

Action Francaise

The Action Francaise was one of the more influential far right political groups to emerge in France in the first half of the twentieth century, beginning as anti-Dreyfusards, growing during and after the First World War, then declining after a papal condemnation and virtually disappearing after the fall of the Vichy regime.  Anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, and anti-semitic, its combination of monarchism, clericalism, and nationalism attracted a wide following, including French intellectuals such as Jacques Maritain, Francois Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos.  Edward Tannenbaum's history of the movement concentrates on its internal struggles and often contentious relationships with other factions on the left and the right, from its overtures to syndicalists to its battles with the Church and the Orleanist pretenders to the French throne, whose causes the Action Francaise was founded to advance.  Throughout, Tannenbaum portrays the leaders of the group as reactionary cafe philosophers rather than committed revolutionaries.

Tannenbaum admits a personal bias against the Action Francaise in his introduction, but maintains that "a historian can understand people he dislikes" - a statement less remarkable when the book was published fifty years ago than it is today.  Despite this, his consistent lack of sympathy with his subjects badly skews his history.  His summary of the French Revolution, for example, briefly states that it attempted to establish "a society in which all men were free from arbitrary rule and equal before the law", without mentioning its use of mass murder to further that goal, which is akin to describing Hitler as attempting to restore Germany to its preeminent role in European affairs and then speaking of his opponents as if they objected to that and nothing else.  Adding to the difficulty is Tannenbaum's insistence that economic factors are the primary, if not the sole, determinants of political attitudes.  This narrowness not only blinds him to elements of the movement's appeal, it results in a neglect of the actual ideas that animated the Action Francaise except where they relate to class struggles.  Ultimately, Tannenbaum's analysis reveals him to possess an outlook as narrowly defined by his own confident assumptions as that of his subjects.

Near the end of his book, Tannenbaum cites a father with four grown sons who wrote to the Action Francaise newspaper complaining that the votes of each of his sons were held to be of equal value with his own.  Tannenbaum sees this as an irrational claim - in a just system all citizens are equal before the law, and the father's claim is a residue of the unjust traditional role of the paterfamilias.  But that was not the ground on which the father lodged his complaint, even according to the excerpt Tannenbaum provides, rather the father saw the egalitarianism of the voting system as irrational - in a just system greater experience and wisdom ought naturally to be given greater weight.  Tannenbaum has every right to disagree with the father, of course, and that judgement could be suspended in the interest of an objective history, but his own modernist self-righteousness causes him to misrepresent the father's argument, casting it as mere prejudice rather than a competing standard of justice, and that is a much more serious problem.

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