In Past Imperfect (1992), Tony Judt studied the infatuation of twentieth-century French intellectuals with Communism and denounced their consequent failure to be politically, morally, or intellectually responsible. Blinded by their determination to be on the “good side” at any cost, figures like Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and Domenach repeatedly ignored evidence of cruelty or contradiction and repeatedly justified the unjustifiable. In The Burden of Responsibility, Judt discusses three men—Léon Blum, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron—who often were at odds with their contemporaries, showed political courage, moral integrity, intellectual lucidity, and represent much of what was best in the France of their time.
Judt’s protagonists (politician and statesman; writer, academic; optimist, moralist, realist) were very different men. Léon Blum (1872–1950) was the leader of the French Socialist party between the two world wars and became France’s first Socialist (and Jewish) prime minister. In 1936 and 1938, he headed Popular Front governments that introduced fundamental social reforms, including the right to paid vacations and the forty-hour working week. Before going into politics, Blum had been a prominent critic and intellectual as well as an influential jurist. In July 1940, he opposed Philippe Pétain. Imprisoned in September and put on trial in Riom for having contributed to the fall of France, he spent two years in concentration camps. He would once again become prime minister in 1946 and, until his death, he would remain a major figure in his party. Albert Camus (1913–1960) was, of course, the author of The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague. Along with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he came to personify existentialism. He had played a significant role in the Resistance as a clandestine journalist, proved an important [End Page 428] editorialist in the postwar daily Combat, and famously critiqued revolutionary illusions in The Rebel. Though he received the Nobel prize in 1957 and is now very much admired again, his reputation as an intellectual had seriously declined by the time of his death because of his anti-Communist positions and especially because of his silence over the question of Algerian independence. As for Raymond Aron (1905–1983), he was the finest social theorist and political philosopher of his age. After ranking first at the 1928 agrégation in philosophy and earning a doctorate in 1938 with a ground-breaking thesis on the nature of historical knowledge (Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire), Aron spend World War II with the Free French in London and, in 1946, briefly served as chef de cabinet in André Malraux’s Ministry of Information. He was named to a Sorbonne chair in 1954, became a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1963, and joined the Collège de France in 1971. The author of thousands of editorial pieces for conservative newspapers and of many books, including L’Opium des intellectuels, Histoire et dialectique de la violence, and Penser la guerre: Clausewitz, he was often close to political elites in the Western world. When he died, he had become almost universally respected; but he had often been denounced for incarnating the French mandarin and favoring the Western alliance against the Soviet bloc.
In spite of the differences in their careers, their temperaments, their views and pronouncements, Judt’s protagonists had many things in common. Master stylists all, they were cultural insiders but, in important respects, they were also outsiders, frequently at odds not only with their times but with the very side they were supposed to represent. Aware of limits and suspicious of extremes, opposed to catastrophic solutions and totalitarian systems, all three showed fortitude, independence, and honesty in the face of hatred and contempt. All three were anti-Communist (Blum politically, Camus morally, Aron intellectually) and did not abandon individual judgment in the name of some collective cause. “All three stood in the end only for themselves and what they believed” (p. viii). All three deserve to be called responsible public intellectuals.