David A Bell, reviewing Pierre Birnbaum’s new study of Léon Blum, Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist, in the London Review of Books (November 5th), recalls an incident when Blum, being driven away from the National Assembly in Paris, was cornered by a group of hostile political demonstrators who, spotting him in the back of the car, began to shout “Kill him! Shoot Blum!”, surrounded and trapped his car and began to rock it back and forth. Things got worse. One demonstrator – they were from the thuggish youth wing of the right-wing monarchist Action française – ripped the bumper off the car and smashed the back window with it and then set about beating Blum about the head. Only the belated arrival of two policemen saved his life.
Blum aroused particular hostility among the far right as leader of the socialist party (then known as the SFIO, or Société française de l’Internationale Ouvrière) but also because he was a Jew. There was, as Bell points out, a vigorous tradition of anti-Semitism in France, often allied with reactionary Catholicism and nationalism, from at least the late nineteenth century onwards, but one can overestimate its popular ‑ or electoral – appeal. Within a few months of the violent incident described above, Blum was France’s prime minister, one of three Jewish prime ministers the country was to have in the twentieth century (Pierre Mendès France and Laurent Fabius, who is currently foreign minister, being the others).
Bell, in his review, notes that Blum provoked the constant hostility of the far right. After their military defeat in 1940, the French military caste was keen to find a scapegoat (they might have looked in the mirror) and found one ‑ or more ‑ in the Jews, socialists and freemasons, who they alleged had “weakened French resolve” in the 1930s. Blum was imprisoned by the Vichy French after the German invasion – their attempts to put him on trial rebounded when he very ably accused his accusers of the crimes he had been indicted of. He was eventually deported into German custody but survived the war and became prime minister again, briefly, afterwards.
What Bell does not note is that Blum was almost as hated by the far left, that is by the communists. He and his supporters had saved the socialist party (“the old house”, he called it) from takeover by Lenin and the Leninists in the 1920s and the competition between the two groups for the allegiance of the left electorate was thereafter fierce (and indeed remained a significant factor in French politics until François Mitterrand finished off the communists – by clasping them to his bosom ‑ in the 1970s). The hatred that Blum inspired among his rivals on the left, who had supported his popular front government and its reforms, though from the outside, deserves to be remembered, if only for the colourful language which socialist “art” once had its disposal. Here is “The Red Front” by Louis Aragon, the leading French communist poet of the twentieth century, though to be fair, increasingly anti-Stalinist from 1956 onwards:
Fire on Léon Blum
Fire on Boncour Frossard Déat
Fire on the performing bears of social democracy …
I suppose there may be worse things than being a performing bear (of social democracy), though mind you this kind of thing wasn’t really a joke and quite a few sad performing bears of moderate or democratic socialism were to find themselves in jail or shot or dancing on the end of communist ropes in the late 1940s in what were then splendidly called “the people’s democracies”. They are not greatly remembered today.