French Dialogue (1935)
The young man spoke to the receptionist and was admitted after a telephone call. He wandered down enormous corridors and finally knocked at room 775. A feminine voice told him to come in; it was the voice of a secretary, who ushered him into room 774.
The young man stood before the mature man. The mature man seemed young, and there was even something childish in the expression of his face. The young man was surprised, but I am not surprised at all, for I have often seen this trace of childishness on the faces of post-war men. One often mistakes it for irresponsibility.
The young man was charmed by his first impression, and he said to himself, ‘Yes, indeed, this man is near to me. I was right to trust him, and we shall surely come to understand each other.
When he had sat down, the young man rested his left hand, which was wrapped in a white bandage, on his left thing. The mature man shuddered, and his anxious glance turned to the young man’s eyes as they had when the young man entered the room.
‘You are wounded? You have been wounded?’ There was something sharp in his tone.
Suddenly the young man ceased to be all love and confidence. From one second to the next he felt that there might be an abyss between this mature man and himself. In any case he wanted to appear roguish. ‘What day do you think I was wounded?’
The mature man was deeply embarrassed, but he smiled ironically, for he was not afraid of trickery. On the contrary, he like shrewd people, for then he could also be shrewd, and he could do that better than anyone else. He shrugged his shoulders severely.
‘Well,’ said the young man, who was not shrewd at all but merely childish at times, ‘I was wounded on February seventh in the most confused free-for-all the world has ever seen.’
The mature man seemed relatively at ease. He smoked feverishly, and a huge pile of stubs billed the crystal ashtray in front of him. This worried the young man. What would become of his athletic training in such clouds of smoke?
‘You wrote to me in your letter, which had a trustful tone that moved me deeply, that there was something special you wanted to discuss with me.’ He no longer looked at the young man but at the empty space on the table before him. He has pushed his papers to the left. Nothing lay on the table between him and the right corner where the young man sat except a large open box of American cigarettes. Having taken his time, the mature man suddenly focused his glance on the young man and let it remain there.
‘Yes,’ the young man said, ‘thank you for having found time to see me. But what I am going to say to you many others have thought. It is therefore important. You see, I am a bourgeois. My parents have given me a certain breeding. At the lycee they taught me a few things. I know that I don’t know how to think. And yet I have thought about my body, and I am master of it, for I have experimented with it and trained it. I have read a few things-Nietzsche and Marx. My parents have no more money, or practically none and I can find no work. I am unemployed.
‘Yes, I have seen many like you,’ the mature man sighed wearily.
‘I am a bourgeois, but I hate capitalism, which does not feed me and which has ruined my parents. I hat the big newspapers, the big banks, big business, everything in a country that has power without responsibility.
‘Of course,’ the mature man said, raising his head somewhat.
We should mention that the mature man was a deputy and a ‘Left-wing Independent.’
‘I also hate democracy,’ the young man continued more slowly, ‘I hate parliament. The patriotic nobles and businessmen. The deputy lawyers, the Radical Party, with its committees of Freemasons and its senate full of sadistic old men; the Socialist Party and its secret admiration for the very things that its wise rhetoricians denounce. All these people shield capitalism, and capitalism draws these people about itself.’
The Left-wing Independent deputy also served as lawyer for the oil trust, but he never thought about it. ‘Yes,’ he said in a gentler voice, ‘what next?’
The mature man frowned. He did not like to be questioned. He preferred to do the questioning himself-to interpellate other people at a time and place suitable to himself: in Parliament. He cast a severe glance at the young man. He seemed to be saying to him, ‘Did you come here as the intellectuals do, to make me talk extremism and logic? Are you the kind of fool who gets up in a public gathering and shouts, “All this is lies,” or are simply an enemy?’ Yet he thought the whole thing could be smoothed over once more. The young man was an intellectual, and an exchange of reciprocal flatteries would do the trick.
‘You know, there’s a great deal of truth in what you say, and yet…’ He got up and walked around the large brass bed with long, regular steps.
The young man suddenly took on a furious and bewildered look. The words, ‘and yet…,’ had been uttered with too artificial an energy.
‘Ah, I know you’re going to tell me that Parliament and democracy are two different things. You want to save democracy. Well, it is absolutely certain that, if we kick over Parliament, democracy will go, too. Moreover, while you defend democracy, you secretly hope to leave the door to parliament open. Leon Blum is more frank and logical than you are. He defends the whole set-up – Parliament and democracy – just as thought nothing were amiss. Well, you know the political platitude of the twentieth century – the idea of pairing off finance capital and democracy, two fellows who pretend to quarrel but really get along beautifully in secret. The minute one understands that clearly, on has begun to act.’
‘Yes, but excuse me, are you a Communist?’
All at once, the deputy had a mad desire to know that the young man was a Communist. That was one way of classifying him and getting rid of him.
‘No, there’s the rub,’ the young man murmured with a false modesty, his eyes shining with joy.
‘I wonder why you aren’t.’
‘I don’t expect anything from Moscow any more than I do from the Vatican. Then those people are…oh, I don’t know, but I’m not at my ease with them. When I go to a Communist mass meeting, I feel as though I were in some little chapel. They speak a jargon that’s at least half a century old, their Marxist materialist jargon, and they all repeat the same thing. A true thin, mind you, that becomes false from being always the same, always dry and without nuance. They are content to be right in words and not in action.’
‘You are speaking of the intellectuals, not the people, ‘the Left deputy remarked in an emotional voice.
‘Yes, there are two sorts of Communists, the bourgeois and the workers. The workers, well, they are workers – people who want to eat and, having eaten, want to be men. But they no sooner enter a Communist gathering than they start imitating the bourgeois.’
The deputy shook his head sadly. ‘But if you are not a Communist, what are you? Are you by any chance…?’
The young man burst forth. ‘Well, yes, I am probably a Fascist. Even certainly – I am a Fascist. Since the 6th of February, I know perfectly well that I am one. In addition, I know perfectly well, what it means. It means a desire to build socialism without yelling about it but doing it. Without a program but accomplishing something every day. To be a Fascist means to know that one cannot build anything but socialism, that one must oust the present economic leaders, who have no political responsibility, and the political leaders, who have no economic responsibility, and replace them with responsible leaders who will have both. To be a Fascist also means to believe that in reaching these ends the French can count only on themselves.’
‘And to overthrow the banks you will borrow money from the bankers?’
The young man paused. He knew perfectly well, what he wanted to say, but any allusion to money made him feel ill at ease. His interlocutor, however, shared his embarrassment. With a certain vulgarity, the young man looked around and examined the hotel room. It was a good room in a hood hotel, ugly but comfortable. The young man shrugged his shoulders, irritated by his own reflex action. He recalled the mature man’s sarcasm, ‘to overthrow the banks, borrow money from the bankers.’ He smiled bitterly. It was obvious that the other man knew how one got ones’ self-involved. He replied with an affected calm, ‘Well, we haven’t’ thought of any other method yet. It’s an old trick. The Socialists knew it. But they weren’t successful at it.’
‘Neither will you be successful.’
‘I beg your pardon, there is a difference. The Socialists were people who exulted provokingly under the very noses of the capitalists, “look out for us, we’re the fellows who are going to cut your throats.”
‘The capitalists were frightened, but the Radicals, their men of straw, replied by giving the Socialists a share in the honors and all the money that goes with them. The Radicals hold the ministries. However, behind them the Socialists are deputies, officials, chairmen, and so on. They go on calmly saying that they’re going to cut the capitalists’ throats. But, even when they pay on more attention to their own words, a few capitalist are still left who take them seriously.’
‘Well, how about you?
‘We are the new team that wants to replace the Radical and Socialist teams to advantage. To replace them we must fight them, and to fight them… well, here is the funny situation. –
‘In the firs place the Radicals and the parliamentary Socialists don’t fight for themselves. They have the police. The police have to fight us and the Communist-Socialist unite front at the same time. Witness February 6th and 9th.
‘In the third place, finance capital, because of its terror in the face of Communism, gives us money and newspapers.
‘In the fourth place, our revolvers and the machine guns of militant patriots, of the petty bourgeois who are afraid of the advancing proletarians, and of the workers who want to become petty bourgeois will destroy the Radical-Socialist police and the Communists. We shall destroy the police because it is commanded by men who are corrupted to the marrow of their bones by democratic capitalism – pitiful men. We shall conquer the Socialists and Communists because the workers are led by spineless intellectuals or by other workers who have no hereditary sense of leadership. (There has to be a t least one generation above the level of pure innocence, an uncle who was a saloonkeeper of a father who was teacher, to develop a sense of leadership. We saw it in Italy and Germany; we saw it in France in 1848 and during the Commune.) We shall conquer these people, and especially we shall absorb them.
‘In the fifth place, we shall destroy capitalism because the preceding struggle will have made us energetic and proud, because we shall be worthy people, to whose wishes the bourgeois must accede, and because we are patriotic Frenchmen who other Frenchmen cannot reproach with having built a socialist society that cannot serve nationalism.
‘For each day we realize more and more that nationalism and socialism are two fingers on the same hand. Our socialism will succeed better than that of the Socialists or Communists, because no one can reproach it with wanting to serve foreigners or cut the throats of middle-class people. And here is another important point: we shall leave the bourgeois intact. We shall let them keep their places in the economic set-up, and we shall let them keep their money. We shall ask them only to give us their small, individual souls. And by that very act, we shall take the soul out of their system, which will slowly begin moving along the path toward socialism. And nothing will be able to stop us from collaborating abroad with other national socialisms once we have go on our feet. Later, there will be a Fascist Geneva.’ The young man stopped. His tongue was dry. He looked at the mature man with sparkling revolutionary eyes.
The mature man pouted. Finally, he said in the most scornful one he could muster, ‘All this is a lovely dream. But when you speak as you do you are either out to fool others or you are fooled yourself.’
‘It’s not a dream. And now you will see that I’m really a Fascist, for I believe that what I have described to you is now taking place in Italy and Germany.’
‘Very well. If you think that, I don’t see why you came to call on me.’
The mature man said this as drily as possible, crushing a cigarette in the tray, because he could read the very words he had said on the young man’s lips. Then he sat down. He seemed furious, but his rage was allayed by prudence and politeness. At heart, he was deeply troubled.
The young man continued, ‘I came to see you because I think you believe the things I believe and because, taking into account your intellectual and physical courage, you are destined to become the leader of Fascism – of French socialism.’
The young man laughed in his heart to hear himself recite the sentences he had so carefully prepared. The mature man took what must have been the hundredth cigarette from the large box, examined the hotel room, rose from his chair, and began to walk, his hands in his pockets.
The young man surveyed the room and followed the glance of the Left-wing Independent deputy, who was also the oil trust’s lawyer. He was not at all shocked by the luxury of the hotel room, for; after all, this comfort was luxury. He said to himself, ‘I do not reproach him with needing money, a certain amount of quiet, a refined cleanliness, space to move in. What I reproach him with is…’
Meanwhile the mature man, who had the shoulders of an athlete but who also had qualities of mind and heart, the mature man who was lawyer for the oil trust and who make socialist speeches every day, the man who had been wavering for the last ten years between petroleum and socialism, coughed and said to the young man, who was poor and unemployed, ‘I, sir, am a true socialist.’
The young man did not scoff any longer. ‘Meaning what?’
‘I do not think that one can compromise with capitalism.’
‘Then you are a Communist?’
‘Then you are nothing. You aren’t going to tell me that you are for the defense of the Republic?’
‘Well, that is…’
‘All right, I’m going home.’ Without getting up the young man laughed a long slow laugh and looked at the mature man, who was furious – politely, prudently furious – but who was afraid that the young man might get up and go. This would have broken his heart, for his heart had matured during a period when cajoling was much more the order of the day than commanding.
The mature man stepped up to the young man with a bilious smile. ‘Well, now, let’s understand each other.’
It’s very simple, ‘the young man said. ‘If you want to build socialism at one fell swoop by relying solely on the mass of workers and the scattered groups of poor peasants, you are a Communist.
‘But you are also too shrewd not to understand that this is impossible. The proletariat cannot succeed as long as the bourgeoisie and the majority of the peasants oppose it. Moreover, the proletariat has never done anything on its own initiative. Revolutions are made by one section of the bourgeoisie or another, who find their support in the proletariat. But, when the working class strands alone, it is crushed by the bourgeoisie and the peasantry – witness 1848, 1871, and 1918 in Germany, 1934 in Austria and Spain. On the other hand, 1789 and 1917 succeeded because for a brief moment the proletariat found itself working in harmony with the bourgeoisie and the peasantry, which had been tricked by the old regime. However, in Russia, a bureaucracy is already raising itself on the backs of the workers, and the peasantry will have its revenge in the next war. Thus, you are not a Communist. Therefore, you are a Fascist.’
Fascism is the last hope of capitalism,’ the mature man intoned.
‘You speak like a Communist. Why aren’t you a Communist?’
‘For the very reason that I stated a while back. Yes, I know. Then be a Fascist.’
‘Not that either? You are afraid to be a Communist, you are afraid to be a Fascist, so you are nothing. You are nothing but a ghost in spite of your comparative youth. Years ago, when you entered Parliament, your soul, which was the soul of a young man, a sportsman, a war veteran, and a disciple of Nietzsche, entered the body of a very old gentleman who might have flourished peacefully about 1890. And now your soul cannot escape, and it will die there. You will die in exile or in a concentration camp or in some tranquil spot like the parliamentarians of Russia, Italy, and Germany.’
‘No, I want to build a new socialist party that will not be a vassal to Moscow nor remain imbedded in parliamentarianism.’
“But that is Fascism that is precisely Fascism. But you are quite incapable of doing this. One cannot build wat one doesn’t even dare name.’
There was a long silence. Finally, the young man moved toward the door. He looked at the mature man with amazement and said to himself, ‘It’s queer. In entered this comfortable room, this room in a big hotel to tell this man my trust and faith. And no sooner had I arrive than this man fell to pieces before my eyes. He doesn’t exist. He is a deputy, a postwar man. But I exist.’
Going downstairs his heart suddenly leaped, and he dashed back, opening the door of room 775 in a tempest of excitement. The stenographer was kissing the mature man’s hand with adoration. Not seeing it, the young man cried, ‘And you know it: I am a socialist.’
‘We all are, decidedly,’ murmured the Left Independent with bitterness.
‘But I have an enormous advantage over you in that I am also a nationalist. It is marvelous how nationalism obliges people to create socialism. Good evening.’
The mature man remained alone with the stenographer. It was April. A light, transparent, gay night was falling and did not lend itself in any way to disastrous thoughts. The mature man with the face of a worried child was to dine with a Soviet delegate, a French general, and an American oilman, but not until nine. Meanwhile, he looked at his life on the empty table while his stenographer, lurking in the shadows, stared at his renowned face.
At the end of the War, in which he had distinguished himself as a gay adventurer and a soldier, he became a Nietzschean – elegant, sport loving, and ambitious. He loved luxury, glory, women, money, all at the same time. He had entered Parliament because he had wanted to go into politics. He thought that Parliament embraced the entire filed of political activity. Only today did he see his mistake. But it was too late. Ten years had passed and left their mark upon him. He had been an Undersecretary of State. It was difficult to become a Communist or a Fascist, and this difficulty made him grit his teeth. How did it happen that he who was so free and so lucid had made such a mistake? And, while he made love to his secretary in the thick darkness of the room in order to defend himself against that fateful visit, - for it is always fateful when a young man of twenty comes to call on a man of forty, - he consoled himself with the thought: ‘I shall die among the men I have always known, repeating the words I have always said. I shall be faithful.’
Such was this famous cynic. But cynics do not exist. That is a name given to men who are mediocre in action and cleverly classify their meaningless deeds. Even after they have been transferred from one party to the other, they pretend that they made the change of their own free will. Men of any value, on the other hand, if they do not march toward victory, slide slowly but surely toward defeat, for value of any kind is a weight that prevents a man from climbing the hill again. This explains the sad look for conquerors, who do not forget the slope that might have defeated them.
This mature man, in spite of his connections with oil, was sincere socialist. He could not conceive of himself being a socialist in any other way. As the lawyer for the American oil companies, he also received a hundred and fifty thousand francs a year. All this went into the hotel room, his only luxury. Apart from that he thought only of socialism.
And now a chance to build socialism presented itself. An imperious, amusing chance. For history with its detours is so amusing. Well, he saw this chance with his mind’s eye, in the darkened room where the secretary cried quietly. However, he could not lay is hands on it. His fingers stretched out into the darkness. He looked back into his childhood for an explanation, and he thought he found it. ‘Because at the Ferrer demonstrations I saw a policeman give a worker such a kick.
And he was content with this picture, which was misleading as all pictures. For whom did the policemen kick, today as well as yesterday? The enemies of the Left-wing Independent, the enemies of petroleum and parliament, whether they are on the Right or Left. In reality, he had merely seen one man kick another man, which shocks a modern spectator for a second but which is something of an enigma to the thoughtful man.
He had been a Left-wing Independent deputy for ten years. And he was paying the price.