Thursday, 17 November 2011

Leon Blum Before His Judges

Léon Blum Before His Judges 
at the Supreme Court of Riom
March 11th and 12th, 1942

I came across this book in a job lot of (largely) history books I bought at auction.  It and some others intrigued me because they were published during the Second World War and told a story of a battleground without guns. It showed how people were politically engaged with the shape their future would take while war was still ongoing.

This is a transcript of the 'trial' for treason of Léon Blum, who was twice head of the French government in the years running up to the outbreak of the war. Ironically, the Vichy government, at the behest of their Nazi masters, were trying him for treason in undermining the production of arms in the run up to the war and contributing to the French defeat. Blum was a lifelong advocate of pacifism and socialism and had overseen the introduction of new labour laws enshrining the idea of the 40 hour week and holiday pay in legislation he had passed as well as nationalising some of the armaments industry.

The foreword is by Clement Attlee who was to lead the UK's Labour government after the war who were to introduce the NHS and nationalise certain industries. He says that Blum symbolized everything the Vichy Government and "their German masters were seeking to destroy - democratic faith, intellectual and moral integrity, democracy, and the claims of the workers for a full life." It is clear that Blum was to be a key inspiration in Attlee's post war government.  This book formed part of a battle that was being fought parallel to the war itself. A battle for hearts and minds.

It is clear from reading this that Blum was an extraordinary thinker and his thoughts on the responsibilities of government and the social contract which must exist between a state and it's citizens are still as relevant today as they ever were. In fact, given the sense today that that social contract has been broken, these thoughts may be a lot more relevant now than at any time in recent history.

The prosecution's claims include the following treasonous activities - introduction of the 40 hour week, paid holidays, refusing to send in the police to break strikes but negotiating an agreed settlement instead. Blum answers all these accusations with ease, quoting statistics and dates with ease but it becomes more interesting for the modern reader when he discusses the need for these changes and his underpinning beliefs.

Blum took over a country in some distress, with high unemployment and much social unrest. As a result of German aggression and the increasing likelihood of war he also had to concentrate resources into upgrading the countries defence capacity, which meant spending huge sums of money on arms.

He questions the basis of the Great Depression, and these questions ask some very basic questions of the economic system that we still subscribe to. "We were emerging from a universal crisis of over-production. Over-production? Producing too much? Too much in relation to what? Certainly not in relation to the needs of humanity, but too much in relation to the possibility of consumption, i.e. in relation to purchasing power." What is a society and an economy built to do? Is it to create wealth or to meet the needs of humanity? Wealth of course is largely abstract but the needs of humanity are far from abstract.

And those needs aren't all to do with food, heat and clothing. Blum government enshrines the right to paid holidays and, through the 40 hour week to leisure time each week. He highlights the 'spiritual' dimension to this. "It was realised that leisure is not laziness, that leisure is rest after labour and is a sort of reconciliation with the natural life from which it is so often separated and of which it is so often defrauded." And although we might feel that these rights are enshrined today we must remember that an increasing amount of our produce is made in countries where these rights do not exist. This shows that the idea of a rights based social contract has still to be fully accepted by employers.

Blum also laid out what he saw as reasons for nationalising certain economic activities. Interestingly, the final area he mentions here is credit, which has been partly or fully nationalised in many countries recently. "Nationalisation is resorted to when the State is faced with a factual monopoly, as, for instance, in the case of sugar-refining or petrol-refining, or with a key industry on which others depend, as, for instance, credit."

The idea that companies operating in monopoly or cartel areas and milking as much profit as possible out of it was something that was/ and is largely accepted by people who don't feel that they are suffering as a result. However, when they make this connection, they can question the system which ahs made this possible. "An irresistable public revulsion against private profits, against the idea of private gain, arose during the (First World) War. This idea of private profits, sometimes excessive, in the midst of universal misery, and when all nations, even the victorious nations, were ruined, aroused universal reprobation and indignation." Could the collapse of financial institutions and the need for governments (and through them taxpayers) to bail them out in such a way as to threaten the sovereignty and solvency of countries be serving to create a similar revulsion. Well the peaceful occupation of key symbolic spaces around the world against the 1% would seem to parallel the occupations of French factories in the thirties.

Blum was blamed for not sending in the armed police, but he retorts that there was no real demand for this at the time and that there was a real threat of Civil War should he have done so. One thinks of the Arab spring. One thinks of Occupy. He outlines the mindset of those who see government and force as the same thing, people who believed in the 'divine right' of employers to set their own conditions and that property rights supersede human rights. "As if there were two kinds of blood in France: the blood of the middle-class, which if, by misfortune, one sheds it, one becomes a criminal, a "killer", a "bloody scoundrel"; and the blood of the workers, which if one spares it, one becomes a feeble, miserable politician who perverts the country by his weakness and fails in his duty."

Lastly I will quote him on pacifism. his engagement with the League of Nations, and their attempts to secure world security and peace through disarmament. Blum pointed out that this did not stop him arming for the threat from Germany but didn't allow that he should give up the search for peace because of this. He speaks convincingly of the need to pose the big moral questions and show clearly before the world that the aggressors had refused to engage in this process. He believed that even totalitarian regimes needed to convince their populations that they serve a moral purpose and it has often been noted that public relations/propaganda is one of the areas in which such regimes spend freely. "For nobody, after all, dares to say, in addressing world opinion, or his own people, that he does not desire peace on earth."

The trial was called off after two days when it became clear that it was becoming a propaganda nightmare and Blum was handed over to the Nazis. (He was Jewish as well as a socialist) He spent the rest of the war in Concentration Camps where his execution was ordered as the war drew to an end but wasn't carried out. He was briefly French Prime Minister again after the war. I will be looking out for more writings by and information about, this extraordinary man. Google tells me wrote his most famous essay For All Mankind while a prisoner and there has been a documentary of this title made recently.

*One flaw which a modern reader will find is the patronising statements that 'even women' could be trained up into skilled workers in time of war. (Although this could be a transcription or translation issue. Blum was noted as a champion of women's rights)

1 comment:

  1. There is a lovely Place Leon Blum in the 11th arrondissement in Paris near the Bastille, the traditional "leftist" section of Paris. In that quarter he is regarded as a hero for standing up for the common worker despite the threat of death. I only found this Place (it is hard to miss it) as it was near the site of the guillotine's storage hanger which I was tracking down at the time. I am still waiting for a statue to Mitterrand (the pyramaid at the Louvre doesn't count)