Yves Montand and the left

Submitted by martin on 1 January, 2002 - 10:00 Author: Sean Matgamna

The 70-year life of Yves Montand was inextricably entwined with the history of the left wing of the working-class movement in Europe.

He was born in Italy in 1921, the child of Communist parents. He went with them to France in his infancy when they fled triumphant Italian fascism.

After working on the docks in Marseilles, the young Montand became a singer and then a movie actor. In the mid-150s he played in movies such as The Wages of Fear, a tense account of men driving unstable gelignite in primitive trucks over rough roads.

Montand and his wife and co- thinker Simone Signoret became very prominent French Stalinist celebrities. They were dining with Nikita Khrushchev in the Kremlin on the night 35 years &£o when Khrushchev sent the tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution! In the '60s and '70s Montand played in a series of radical movies, mostly made by Costa-Gavras and written by Jorge Semorun.

The first of them, Z (1963), depicted the murder of the leftist Greek MP Lambrakis, a key event in Greek politics in the turbulent years before the army colonels' coup of 1967 which imposed seven years of military dictatorship on the country.

In The War Is Over (1966: directed by Alain Resnais and written by Jorge Semprun), Montand played an emigre official of the Spanish Communist Party in exile — someone who had, in parallel to Montand himself, grown up and begun to grow old in exile.

He is weary, but he keeps going, making dangerous trips into fascist Spain.

Just as 2 reflected the hopeful mass CND "new left" politics of the early '60s, and The War Is Over reflected the rise of ultra-leftism and Maoism in the later '60s, Stage of Siege (directed and written by Costa-Gavras) reflected the influence of Guevarism and guerrilla warfare in the left-wing politics of the early '70s.

Based on a true story, it dealt with the capture and killing of an American official and torture expert — played by Montand — by the Tupumaro guerrillas of Uruguay.

Then in the early '70s, in another Costa-Gavras film, L'aveu ("The Confession", written by Semprun), Montand played Artur London, a Czech Stalinist who was one of the group around Czech Communist Party general secretary Rudolf Slansky tried in the heavily anti- semitic ("anti-Zionist") purge trial of 1951.

They were tortured into confessing and then hanged (like Slansky) or jailed (like London, on whose memoirs the film was based).

L 'aveu , a fine and true film, depicted a far-gone state of exasperation and hatred of Stalinism. It reflected the evolution of a whole layer of European left* wing intellectuals. The writer, Jorge Semprun, was one of a group of ex- CP intellectuals which included such political writers as Claudin.

They broke, slowly, over years, with Stalinism, not in the direction of real socialism but towards bourgeois democracy.

Montand went with them, after many years as a prominent public face of the French Stalinist movement.

Liberal bourgeois democracy was seemingly stable, and it was expanding. The decrepit and decayed fascism of General Franco, imposed on Spain by a bloody civil war in the '30s, gave way peacefully in the _ mid '70s to a liberal bourgeois democracy, crowned by a restored monarchy. The Stalinist parties were rotting and disintegrating. The working-class movement had been ground down and weakened by Stalinism.

In those conditions the tired and the disillusioned — and the conscience-stricken, as Montand seems to have been — do not move to the left.

Montand's move to the right was far from complete, though. He came out against the Gulf War earlier this year — as he had come out, and at considerable risk, against France's wars in Indochina and Algeria in the '50s and '60s — and at the age of 70 campaigned against France's part in this latest bloody imperialist atrocity.

Radicals of Montand's and Signoret's generation spent their political lives in and around a powerful malignant sect, the Stalinist French Communist Party.

It took their commitment to socialism, their hopes, their youth, and their spirit of revolt, and harnessed them to the interests of the USSR abroad and to the service of a passive, sterile, time-serving and organically right-wing bureaucratic party at home. It gave them nothing back, neither victories, nor the hope of victories, nor even a stable self-respect-inducing sense of honourable struggle.

As the truth about Stalin's rule in the USSR became more widely known, and then in 1968 the Stalinist armies snuffed out Alexander Dubcek's "socialism with a human face' in Czechoslovakia at the same time as the French CP betrayed the great workers' strike movement of 1968, they were left with the sour and bitter taste of disgust and disorientation.

Politically, most of them had neither knowledge of the real history of the socialist movement to fall back on, nor belief fit a new start. They went, when they cut the cable with Stalinism, with the temporarily dominant currents, to the right.

Their state of mind — and the reason why their break with Stalinism, when it came, proved sterile for socialism — is perhaps best portrayed in an interview which Signoret, Montand's wife, gave to an American socialist magazine in the early 1970s.

She told her interviewer about the struggle she had recently had with herself to make her finally read the anti-Stalinist writings of Arthur Koestler, the author of Darkness at Noon, who broke with Stalinism in the late 30s. Yet she was formally well educated, and had then been in and around the French Communist Party for thirty years...

Socialist Organiser, November 1991