The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century

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9780226414188: The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century
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Using the lives of the three outstanding French intellectuals of the twentieth century, renowned historian Tony Judt offers a unique look at how intellectuals can ignore political pressures and demonstrate a heroic commitment to personal integrity and moral responsibility unfettered by the difficult political exigencies of their time.

Through the prism of the lives of Leon Blum, Albert Camus, and Raymond Aron, Judt examines pivotal issues in the history of contemporary French society—antisemitism and the dilemma of Jewish identity, political and moral idealism in public life, the Marxist moment in French thought, the traumas of decolonization, the disaffection of the intelligentsia, and the insidious quarrels rending Right and Left. Judt focuses particularly on Blum's leadership of the Popular Front and his stern defiance of the Vichy governments, on Camus's part in the Resistance and Algerian War, and on Aron's cultural commentary and opposition to the facile acceptance by many French intellectuals of communism's utopian promise. Severely maligned by powerful critics and rivals, each of these exemplary figures stood fast in their principles and eventually won some measure of personal and public redemption.

Judt constructs a compelling portrait of modern French intellectual life and politics. He challenges the conventional account of the role of intellectuals precisely because they mattered in France, because they could shape public opinion and influence policy. In Blum, Camus, and Aron, Judt finds three very different men who did not simply play the role, but evinced a courage and a responsibility in public life that far outshone their contemporaries.

"An eloquent and instructive study of intellectual courage in the face of what the author persuasively describes as intellectual irresponsibility."—Richard Bernstein, New York Times

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Review:

Intellectuals, virtually by definition, are expected to think for themselves. But the spectacle of intellectuals subordinating their independence of mind to dogmatic ideologies, whether left or right, is dismayingly common in the 20th century. The French call it la trahison des clercs. In The Burden of Responsibility, Tony Judt discusses three inspiring French intellectuals--Leon Blum, Albert Camus, and Raymond Aron--who courageously lived up to their political, moral, and intellectual responsibilities. Their courage, Judt notes, is all the more impressive since they were all outsiders: Blum and Aron were Jews, while Camus was reared and educated in Algeria, far from the training grounds of the French intelligentsia.

The longest, and arguably most exciting, chapter is devoted to Blum, whose efforts against extremists on the Left and the Right are truly remarkable. As the moral center of the Socialist Party, Blum was instrumental in keeping it independent of Moscow. When France fell in 1940, the Vichy government put him on trial, but he defended himself so adroitly that the German authorities, fearing embarrassment, ended the proceedings abruptly; subsequently, Blum survived two years in Buchenwald and Dachau, serving briefly as prime minister after the war. The chapter on Camus is, understandably, less dramatic, even despite his work in the Resistance; the chapter on Aron, best known for his work on the philosophy of history, is positively anticlimactic. Nevertheless, Judt's juxtaposition of these three intellectuals provides enlightenment not only about modern French history but also about the role of the responsible intellectual in society. --Glenn Branch

About the Author:

Tony Judt is the University Professor of European History at New York University and the author of several books, most recently, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

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