Enda O’Doherty writes: When people choose to comment on the affairs of another country it can often be that, as they speak, they are thinking more of their own. And this may be particularly true of French comment on England. Montesquieu and Voltaire were so taken by English liberty that they appear not to have noticed that Catholics there ‑ and in Ireland of course ‑ had no political rights whatsoever. Or perhaps they did notice but thought that the exclusion was, in the context of papal obscurantism and the tendency of the ignorant flock to follow its shepherd in all things, a wise and proper one. The main reason for the French Enlightenment’s soft spot for England, however, was that the Hanoverians, Georges I, II and II, were not the Bourbons, Louiss XIV, XV and XVI, that is that they were not absolute monarchs but were to a significant degree bound by parliament and the countervailing power of landowning, and later commercial, interests.
Arguably a current of admiration for England and what were perceived to be English values persisted in France into the twentieth century, though there were certainly very strong currents of hostility as well, particularly on the political right. What seems to have been particularly admired was English practicality and empiricism and resistance to big ideas ‑ unless of course Empire can be construed as a big idea.
In a radio talk broadcast by the BBC’s Third Programme (forerunner of Radio 3) in November 1951 as part of a series called “Letter from Paris”, Albert Camus gave English viewers the benefit of his views on the recent British general election, in which the Conservatives, led by Winston Churchill, had returned to power (in spite of Labour having won more of the popular vote).
Though he was, he said, “not really a socialist” – his sympathies lying more with “libertarian forms of syndicalism” – Camus freely admitted that he would have preferred if Labour had retained power in Britain. In adducing reasons for this, he turned to France and the continent:
Those of my English listeners who know the revolting disproportion on display in the towns of the continent, between the destitution of the suburbs and the overwhelming luxury of the few, will understand that simple decency dictates the wish for a set of measures to raise the living standards of workers, through a proportionate reduction of ostentatious fortunes, some of which make no pretence of not having been built on fraud. I am well aware that the English have paid for the relative social justice in which they live with a great deal of austerity, and I have no personal bias in favour of austerity. When all is said and done, however, we can observe about us daily that austerity is a far lesser evil than injustice.
We might mention here in passing that “austerity” did not mean to Camus or his contemporaries what it has come to mean to most people over the last fifteen years – the biting effect of cutbacks in social spending following a major economic crisis. Austerity in Britain in the postwar period was understood as levelling down – the limits imposed, through higher tax rates and rationing, on the ability of the comfortably well-off and the wealthy to continue to enjoy “the good life” that they had been used to – in the interests of the levelling up of the working class through the provision of decent housing, free health and hospital care and access to education at all levels. Austerity could to some degree practically impact on poorer people as well as richer, but most of the complaining seems to have come from the latter.
Camus was also interested in the British Labour party, he said, as an “example of a socialism devoid of philosophy, or almost so”. Surprisingly perhaps, he thought this was far from a bad thing, for “[w]hen it enters history, philosophy can take us very far. In Europe, at any rate, it has produced liars and executioners” rather than the “city of free and generous men” that socialism had dreamed of creating. British Labourism, like Scandinavian socialism, though sometimes “tainted by opportunism”, had managed to achieve a minimum of justice with a maximum of political freedom. Which was not nothing.
Social justice and peace were both matters which greatly interested Camus in the tense atmosphere of the early years of the Cold War, but he was disinclined to regard them as separate concerns, social justice as a purely domestic question and peace an international one.
… we are told that your prime minister wishes to complete his great life as a statesman by consolidating peace … I am convinced, however, that Mr Churchill will not be able to confine himself to meeting Stalin … it seems to me that … Labour has not emerged from your recent elections utterly defeated, since Mr Churchill to a considerable extent will be obliged by his very desire for peace to become a Labourite.
What Camus meant by this somewhat puzzling assertion was that the Tories would be constrained to retain a good proportion of the egalitarian measures of the Attlee government if it wished to preserve social peace, for uprooting the post-1945 Labour reforms would be a sure way to provoke widespread conflict – the kind of conflict which was still endemic on the continent and which led to very significant support, in France and Italy for example and initially in Belgium, for communist parties which Camus regarded as being largely Russian fifth columns.
… what constitutes the strength of the communist party in continental Europe is not that party’s absurd propaganda, nor of course the example of the Russian concentration camps; it is the permanent scandal all round us with respect to social justice.
That denial of justice, he felt, tended to “create communists just as humidity helps propagate plants”. For Camus, Britain had been able to “enjoy the luxury of maintaining [social] peace after securing victory” only because it was prepared to renounce, or deprive a part of its population of, a certain luxury. Social injustice, he went on to argue, “is an extravagant luxury, to be enjoyed only by nations which have a lot of money to compensate for its ravages or a lot of policemen to silence the revolts against it”. England, through the reforms begun during the wartime coalition government, and continued by Labour, had, at least provisionally, won its cold war; continental Europe was in the process of losing its, “thanks to the greed and imprudence of its elites”.
These ideas may seem to engage only with events that are now quite remote, but they have had their echoes in more recent history. Perhaps somewhat naively, I expected, at the end of the 1980s, that all of my friends and most of the people I knew would like me be rejoicing in the collapse of the people’s democracies, which had never seemed to me to represent anything that came close to my own idea of what democratic socialism should be. But in fact the reaction was a little more nuanced. Yes of course these regimes – those of Russia or Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Poland – were not really socialist. But still, the very fact of their existence, in spite of what were quite often termed their “flaws” or “mistakes”, testified to the fact that it was actually possible to build societies which were not capitalist. And as such, they functioned as an encouragement to democratic socialists in Western European societies to go about the task of conceiving non-capitalist societies that would avoid those mistakes and be without those disfiguring flaws. (I could just about see what was meant by this but this prefigurative role seemed to me to be imposing rather a heavy burden on the poor Poles, Russians and Czechs who meanwhile had to live every day with the consequences of all these “flaws”.)
A number of years later a friend whom I thought of as fairly politically astute made the point to me that the 1980s and 90s were the time when the countervailing power of left-wing political parties and trade unions – and hence the purchasing power and general living conditions of millions of workers – began to decline and the fortunes of very large sections of the population started to dwindle after experiencing a considerable period of improvement during the postwar recovery. This was also the time when, in Britain, the rich began to see the prospect of becoming richer and Mrs Thatcher gave them every assistance in grabbing it with both hands. The process of enrichment (of the few) has of course only accelerated in recent years. A particular morbid symptom, if you like, is the title of the Financial Times‘s Saturday consumer supplement, “How To Spend It”.
Camus argued that only social justice and a decent living standard for all would guarantee that the working class did not have an interest in bringing about the ultimate victory of a Russian form of communism in Europe. Later on, others argued that it had only been the presence of “actually existing socialism” that had kept an ambitious idea of socialism alive in the West and put some manners on the owners of capital, who after the disappearance of communism in 1989 no longer had to care very much about how happy or unhappy their workers were.
There does not seem to be any sign of a return of communism in Western Europe in spite of the thoroughly justified dissatisfaction of many underpaid workers living in precarious economic conditions. Indeed left-wing (or “radical”) socialism, which seemed a few years back to be reviving (with Syriza, Podemos, France Insoumise, Bloco Esquerdo) now looks to be electorally on the retreat again. The chief forces that are being buoyed up by the current malaise seem almost everywhere to be those of the populist, racist, xenophobic, misogynist and homophobic right, whose latest breakthrough, in Portugal, has been won through scapegoating of the Roma population, attacks on reproductive rights, the targeting of so-called “spongers” and calls to bring back the death penalty. Perhaps things will have to get politically uglier and more disruptive still before European governments and employers realise that having a living income and being assured of a decent place to live are not matters of indifference for the state but essential elements of life if we are to preserve a civilised society.
The text “Albert Camus Talks About the General Election in Britain” is included in Albert Camus: Speaking Out, Lectures and Speeches, 1937-58, published by Penguin.