The political program of
Cahiers du cinéma, 1969-1977

by William Guynn

from Jump Cut, no. 17, April 1978, pp. 32-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

The French journal, Cahiers du cinéma, has had an enormous impact in Marxist film criticism. Film scholars and cultural militants on the American left have followed, with considerable awe, the development of the Cahiers group's conception of the Marxist theory of culture and have applied its critical methodology. Curiously, these same scholars and militants have thus far not attempted to come to terms with Cahiers du cinéma in a specifically political fashion, that is, to question the underlying political assumptions on which its theory is based and which guide its work in practice. In France, discussion of Cahiers du cinéma's political program by the intellectual left has been vociferous, but often marred by political or professional rivalry. [1] Many of the central questions concerning the political nature of Cahiers du cinéma remain to be raised: What has been the political history of the journal? What is its program for culture? What are the political roots which have determined the development of its cultural theory? What kind of Marxism does Cahiers du cinéma in fact represent?

The political history of the Cahiers group describes the long march it made from the elitist intellectualism of the New Wave to the crude ideology and class-determinism of Socialist Realism. In its Marxist period Cahiers du cinéma has been torn between two contradictory forces. (1) It received as its heritage the formalist tendencies of New Wave intellectualism, which became a "politics” of form, grounded in the avant-gardist theory of the early Soviet filmmakers. (2) It looked for political leadership to the French Communist Party, then to Maoism, and ultimately had to embrace Socialist Realism and contend with the hostility of that doctrine to formal concerns in art, for Socialist Realism is the cultural doctrine common to both Maoism and old line Stalinist parties.

The political transformation of Cahiers du cinéma was an extended process during which the Cahiers group struggled to maintain a contradictory fusion between its formalist impulses and the cultural policies prescribed by the "party." At no point in its history has Cahiers du cinéma been able to resolve definitively its contradictions. What appears on the surface as political movement is in fact vacillation, and, if one compares the review's "Marxist” period in the late Sixties with its most recent issues, one would be tempted to say that Cahiers du cinéma has come full circle. It is nonetheless of great interest to Marxists to follow Cahiers du cinéma's political development through its two major phases: first, the period of its orientation toward the French Communist Party (late 1969-late 1971); second, the period of its consolidation as a Maoist grouping (late 1971-present). [2] In the following paragraphs I will attempt to characterize the major features of these two phases and discuss the political theories which sustain them.

The critics of Cahiers du cinéma, like most left-leaning French intellectuals, were taken unawares by the massive revolutionary upsurge of May-June 1968. The revolutionary fervor of the French working class infused filmmakers, actors, technicians and students of cinema with rebellious enthusiasm. The Cahiers group gives an excellent account in its August 1968 issue (No. 203), "Estates General of Cinema." With the dissolution of the May-June movement, which had been effected by July, Cahiers du cinéma turned for political leadership to the French Communist Party (PCF). From this point forward, the Cahiers group's Marxism was characterized by its uncritical — albeit passive — acceptance of the political line of the party. Despite the fresh betrayals carried out by the PCF during the events of May-June 1968 — it called in fact for the striking French working class to return to work — Cahiers du cinéma remained oblivious to the lessons of history. It is difficult to believe that these critics, who, as activists during the May-June events, were themselves betrayed by the PCF, could acknowledge in retrospect:

"…the PCF appeared to us, at that point, after the decomposition of the May 68 movement, as the only force which had a coherent strategy in opposition to the bourgeoisie." (No. 234-235, December 1971-January/February 1972)

Such a statement reflects the political consciousness of Cahiers du cinéma in this period: the overriding concerns of these critics were extraordinarily parochial. Their interest in Marxism was largely limited to its application as a critical methodology to literature and art. There is doubtless some truth to the allegation made by Cinéthique that it was the appearance of Cinéthique in January 1969 as a "Marxist-Leninist" journal that forced Cahiers du cinéma into what Cinéthique called the "red turn." (Cinéthique 6, January-February 1970) Whether it was motivated by rivalry with Cinéthique or by the "need for a clear theoretical base to which to relate [its] practice," Cahiers du cinéma, in October and November 1969 (CduC 216 and 217) put forward for the first time the general lines of its political program. Significantly, in the famous articles entitled "Cinema! Ideology/Criticism," [3] the Cahiers group takes no political position at all with regard to the French left — its political program is limited to the sphere of "ideological" struggle as applied to film theory. As it admitted in retrospect, Cahiers du cinéma quite simply endorsed the French Communist Party's political line in order to be done with the question of political struggle:

“The intervention of Marxism-Leninism in the journal … implied not only the adoption of historical and dialectical materialism in the specific work of Cahiers (elaboration of a materialist theory of cinema, ideological struggle in the field of cinema) but, posing the question of the articulation of this work with the political struggles in progress, demanded an analysis of these struggles. This analysis was not produced. Or rather, it was put off, in the name of an erroneous conception of the priority given to ideological struggle in its relative autonomy in relation to political struggle… ["Politics and ideological class struggle," CduC 234-234, December 1971-January/February 1972].

In brief, the political program of Cahiers du cinéma during its early "Marxist" phase (late 1969-late 197l) has two aspects. (1) In order to liquidate the question of political struggle, it embraced uncritically the political line of the French Communist Party. (2) It concentrated its energies on "ideological struggle," that is, it put forward a theory of "politicized" formalism, which was grafted onto the PCF's political line.

The Cahiers group's critical methodology in this period can best be understood by examining one of its major political documents. The classic expression of Cahiers du cinéma's cultural politics is to be found in its collective analysis of Jean Renoir's film, LA VIE EST À NOUS (CduC 218, March 1970). LA VIE EST À NOUS was made at the behest of the French Communist Party for the electoral campaign of May 1936. In the period of rising fascism, the PCF espoused the strategy of the Popular Front. Abandoning the communist stand of class against class, it advocated political "unity" between the parties of the working class and the "liberal" wing of the French bourgeoisie for a frontal attack against fascism. LA VIE EST À NOUS is a piece of Popular Front propaganda in which Renoir exploits several cinematic genres: a documentary sequence describing the riches of France; fictionalized scenes of the conversion of workers, petty bourgeois and small farmers to the PCF program; the in-studio filming of a PCF politician's speech. It was the intention of the Cahiers group to rehabilitate this neglected film and propose it to militant filmmakers as a landmark in revolutionary filmaking. More important, it was a significant political gesture: the Cahiers group asserted its political endorsement of the PCF by embracing that party's political history.

The article, "LA VIE EST À NOUS, Militant Film," follows the format developed by the Cahiers group,a format which reflects the two aspects — political dogmatism and formalist analysis — which characterize its critical methodology.

(1) The first part of the article purports to describe the film’s "situation," i.e., its historical-social-political-economic context. In point of fact, the Cahiers group gives us no concrete analysis of the political situation in France in 1936, but simply reiterates Bulgarian party leader Georgi Dimitrov's position — the position held by all Communist Parties under Stalin:

"At the present hour the working masses may no longer choose between bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat but only between democracy and fascism."

This bow to Dimitrov constitutes the Cahiers group's endorsement of the strategy of the Popular Front. In their collective political analysis, the Cahiers critics thus forego a discussion of the still crucial questions posed by Renoir's film: What is the class nature of the Popular Front? Whose class interest does such a front represent? Instead, the Cahiers group dogmatically affirm that LA VIE EST À NOUS is the cultural reflection of a correct political line.

(2) The second part of the article is an analysis of the formal structure of the film in the context of the identified "situation." Through their analysis, the Cahiers critics seek to establish Renoir in the lineage of revolutionary filmmakers (Eisenstein, Vertov, Godard, Straub) who attack bourgeois ideology by criticizing and subverting the "codes" by which it is communicated. According to the Cahiers group's reading of the text, in LA VIE EST À NOUS Renoir "deconstructs" the bourgeois documentary through an original interplay between "acted" and "non-acted" sequences. A strategic "gliding" between documentary and fictional elements disrupts the normal ideological discourse associated with bourgeois documentary, and the viewers undergoing these "displacements" are thereby incited to question the entire bourgeois outlook on the world. The assumption on the part of the Cahiers critics is that the working class and petty bourgeois audiences to which the film is addressed are to be educated, not so much by the "revolutionary" content of the film, as by its revolutionary technique.

"LA VIE EST À NOUS, Militant Film" is what Cahiers du cinéma counterposes to fragmented bourgeois criticism. It sees this article as an example of a historically specific, dialectical understanding of the functioning of art in political life. Unfortunately, whatever cohesiveness there is in this reading of Renoir's film is due to the Cahiers group's dogmatism rather than to its understanding of events in the world. The only political analysis these critics offer is that LA VIE EST À NOUS, commissioned by the French Communist Party, reflects a political line of that party and that the films’ structure resembles, point for point, PCF Secretary-General Maurice Thorez’s speech at the 8th Party Congress (January 1936). This is hardly surprising. What is striking, and characteristic, about this article is that the formal considerations — despite the attempt to politicize them — obscure and circumvent the central political questions posed by the film itself. Ironically, the Cahiers group was to repudiate this article and the Popular Front strategy, demolishing its own intellectual house of cards, in the criticism/self-criticism that inaugurated its transformation into a Maoist collective. In a peculiar telegraphic style, the Cahiers critics assail their past:

"Therefore, rapprochement with the PCF, the culmination of which is marked by a collective analysis of LA VIE EST À NOUS (CduC 218), repeating word for word in non-critical fashion, the thesis of the film (the theses of the PCF on the period of the Popular Front and, today, on the Popular Front)" (CduC 234-235, December 1971-January/February 1972, p. 6)

The irony is double, for the Cahiers group is apparently oblivious to the fact that Maoism embraces and defends the history of the Popular Front. [4]

By its own admission, the Cahiers group was only able to maintain its orientation toward the French Communist Party by embracing that party politically while rejecting its policies on culture. By effecting such a separation between political line and cultural line, the Cahiers critics were able to continue to pursue their formalist theory in a relatively independent fashion. What they had developed since the experiences of May 1968 was a thoroughly undialectical and unmarxist conception of form in art, which asserted that technique in and of itself is political. According to their theory, the signifying practices, in this case the historically developed technique of filmmaking, largely determine the ideology embodied in a given work of art. Bourgeois form necessarily refers to bourgeois class content. Therefore, as a first priority, a revolutionary film must expose the workings of its own technique, since this technique is ideological by its very nature. If we accept this argument, it follows that the study of form is not a way of avoiding discussion of political content, but, on the contrary, plunges to the heart of it.

The Cahiers groups formalism culminated in a series of articles by Jean Louis Comolli, entitled "Technique and Ideology, (CduC 229, 230, 231, 233, 234-235, May 1971-February 1972), which sought to lay the theoretical and historical basis for the politics" of form. At bottom, these articles asserted that the photographic apparatus and associated cinematographic processes, seen in their totality as technique, are simple ideological products of the development of bourgeois art since the early Italian Renaissance:

“It is to the reciprocal redoubling of the ideological demand (to see life as it is) and the economic demand (to make profits from it) that cinema owes its existence." (CduC 229, May-June 1971, p. 15)

This reductionist view of cultural history leads logically to its conclusion: Brought into being by the ideological and economic demands of the bourgeoisie, film technique, in the very process by which it reproduces an image of the world, inescapably reproduces the bourgeois world outlook. It is clear that, conceived in this fashion, a Marxist understanding of art demands formal analysis above all else, for technique is at the very root of ideology. This is not, as I will attempt to demonstrate, a Marxist conception.

As I have suggested, Cahiers du cinéma represents an anomaly, insofar as its preoccupation with aesthetic theory and formal analysis coexisted — if not peacefully — with the political dogmatism and cultural class-determinism which characterize Socialist Realism. If the relationship that the Cahiers critics discerned between revolutionary form and revolutionary content is not Socialist Realist, neither is it authentic Marxism. Rather, it represents a third current, which emerged most forcefully in the avant-gardist movement in the Soviet Union after the revolution. This tendency found its main organizational form in the Proletkult and its principal theoretician in A.A. Bogdanov, long-time political adversary of Lenin. [5] Although the Proletkult itself dissolved in the early '20s, the essential tenets, largely all the iconoclast tendencies, continued to exert considerable influence over the Soviet avant-gardes, and, in certain aspects, had an impact on the formulation of the doctrine of Socialist Realism.

The avant-gardists in Russian art had maintained, even prior to the revolution, an extreme hostility to tradition. From their petty-bourgeois, bohemian and anarchistic perspective, these avant-gardists declared war on Western culture and, at their most extreme, advocated the indiscriminate destruction of the consecrated arts, which gave, they asserted, a passive, mausoleum-like reflection of the bourgeois world. To a limited extent, the avant-gardists incorporated elements of a social program for culture into their own perspective and greeted the revolution as an attack against the illegitimate hegemony of the ruling classes in artistic matters. Primarily, however, these artists and intellectuals proclaimed solidarity with the October Revolution for other reasons. The antagonism they felt toward landowners and the bourgeoisie was based not on larger social grounds, but on the persecution of their artistic movement. They had not yet obtained — as avant-gardists in the past and their counterparts in Europe would in the future — admission to the sanctity of bourgeois culture.

It was, more or less, an historic accident that artistic revolt and social revolution coincided. Unaware of the dialectical movement which characterizes both social and cultural change, the avant-gardists saw the Russian Revolution as the total destruction of the past, in its social and cultural dimensions. The left theorists, Bukharin among them, asserted that bourgeois culture, like the bourgeois state, had to be smashed. The historical coincidence, which seemed to unite art and revolution, became the theoretical basis for the Proletkult’s conception that revolution in artistic technique is part and parcel of social revolution. Constructivist artist Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin, with overwhelming pride, stated:

“The events of 1917 in the social field were already brought about in our art in 1914….” [6]

What asserts itself in the Proletkult conception and reemerges once again in the early 1970s in the cultural theory of Cahiers du cinéma is the impulse on the part of artists and intellectuals who have been won to Marxism to designate their own sphere of activity as a primary arena for class struggle. This necessarily involves a distortion of Marxist theory, and resulted, in the case of the Proletkult, in a new theory of ideological struggle — the notion of the “cultural front." In his preface to The Peasant War in Germany, Engels, describing the German situation in 1874, clearly points out the importance of ideological struggle:

“For the first time since a workers’ movement has existed, the struggle is being waged pursuant to its three sides — the theoretical, the political and the economical-practical (resistance to the capitalists) — in harmony and in its interconnections, and in a systematic way. It is precisely in this, as it were concentric, attack that the strength and invincibility of the German movement lies.”[7]

Lenin later used Engels’ formulation concerning the central importance of ideological struggle to attack economism in What Is To Be Done? [8] He asserted that without revolutionary theory there can be no revolution, i.e., that the working class could not attain socialist consciousness and undertake its revolutionary tasks without the intervention of the vanguard party, armed with proletarian ideology. To Marxists, ideological struggle is the struggle to develop the revolutionary tool of scientific socialism. Much to Lenin's dismay, the Proletkult redefined ideological struggle to mean the "struggle" to develop proletarian class culture. Hence art became an arm in the class struggle, and the Proletkult was able to proclaim in one of its manifestoes:

“Art is a social product, conditioned by the social environment. It is also a means of organizing labour … The Proletariat must have its own class art in order to organize its forces in the struggle for socialism…” [9]

Lenin polemicized consistently and hotly against the Proletkult’s political deviations. Although he had no personal taste for the work of the left artists, Lenin did not question the Proletkult members’ or any left artists’ right to freedom of expression within the cultural field. He attacked the Proletkult ideologically because it had elaborated a theory of ideological struggle which supported its bid for autonomy as an organizational force separate from the Soviet state's Commissariat of Education. The Proletkult sought to dictate in cultural matters for the Soviet state, to be recognized as an autonomous political organization and to implement a proletarianization of the Soviet arts. All of its aims were in direct contradiction with the policies of the Soviet state. Lenin held that there was no cultural road to socialism and that all artists, including the traditionalist fellow-travelers, were to receive equal treatment. He intervened consistently on the behalf of the old institutions of bourgeois culture — the Bolshoi, the Moscow Art Theatre — in order to protect them against the assaults of the “left" artists. [10] There was to be no cultural dictatorship under Lenin.

It is difficult to assess in specific terms the influence the Soviet avant-garde exerted on the Cahiers' political formalism. The Cahiers group undertook a lengthy study of avant-garde theory, particularly in numbers 220-221 (June 1970), devoted to Russia in the '20s, and numbers 226-227 (January-February 1971), devoted to Eisenstein. Faced with the incredible heterogeneity of the avant-garde camps in the Soviet Union in the ‘20s, Cahiers prefers not to take sides, nor does it analyze the decisive impact that Stalin's bureaucratic regime had on Soviet filmmakers and avant-garde theory in the subsequent period.

What the Cahiers group does assert is that the early Soviet texts are "our immediate past" and also “our present," (220-221: “Editorial”) that is, that the Soviet avant-garde theory is the point of departure for the Cahiers' own conception of the cultural vanguard. The texts drawn from the ‘20s — the most important being Eisenstein's “On the Question of a Materialist Approach to Form” — reflect the ideas of the “left” avant-garde and center on the question of revolutionary ideology and revolutionary form. In his essay, Eisenstein designates STRIKE as an “ideological victory in the area of form." (CduC 220-221, p. 33, italics in original) In the same issue Bernard Eisenschitz, in an article entitled "The Proletkult, Eisenstein," attempts to dissociate Eisenstein from the Proletkult camp, where he in fact did his early work. What Eisenschitz ignores is that the organizational death of the Proletkult in the early ‘20s did not bring about the demise of the Proletkult theory of "ideological' struggle in the arts. Early Soviet film theory is infused with this conception. And, clearly, it is to the Soviet avant-garde that the Cahiers group looks for political direction. In their programmatic statement, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" (CduC 216), the Cahiers critics assert:

“To us the only possible line of advance seems to be to use the theoretical writing of the Russian filmmakers of the twenties (Eisenstein above all) to elaborate and apply a critical theory of cinema, a specific method of apprehending rigorously defined objects, in direct reference to the method of dialectical materialism.” [11]

In essence, the Cahiers theoreticians embrace the Proletkult corruption of the Marxist conception of ideological struggle. Like the Proletkultists, they believe that they can participate in the revolutionary transformation of society in their capacity as cultural critics. They subscribe to the idealist notion that they can awaken revolutionary consciousness in the working class and arm it ideologically by exposing the treachery of bourgeois form and by proposing new formal models which constitute the basis of proletarian culture. Through this critical exposure of certain facets of the capitalist superstructure, the Cahiers group believes it can undermine the whole foundation of bourgeois society.

It is, in fact, the purest idealism to suggest that the proletariat is capable, under the conditions of capitalist rule, of creating its own autonomous culture. Such a conception denies the historical conditions in which the proletariat has developed as a class. The bourgeoisie emerged as a class within feudal society, consolidated its economic power and developed a class culture of extraordinary richness before it actually seized state power. In contrast, the proletariat, possessing nothing, exploited and oppressed, systematically denied education and access to cultural life in general, must seize state power as a precondition to its cultural development. If one analyzes the experience of the early Soviet state, it is clear that the revolutionary programs of education and cultural development for the working masses, conceived, even as they were, under conditions of crisis and poverty, are unthinkable under capitalism.

During the period of its orientation toward the PCF, the Cahiers group, whose interest in Marxism was primarily academic, avoided facing political realities — this would have jeopardized the Cahiers theoretical enterprise and exposed the emptiness of its formal games. In its Maoist phase, as I will indicate, Cahiers du cinéma came to reject much of its aestheticism and severed, if too hastily, its ties with intellectual avant-gardism. It did so in order to conform to cultural Maoism, i.e., to the doctrines of Socialist Realism. The Cahiers critics did not, however, abandon the avant-garde's "cultural front" conception. For the Proletkult's "cultural front" with its notion of "proletarian culture," survived the onslaught of Stalinism, and, in fact, as Camilla Gray points out, became one of the fundamental tenets of Socialist Realism. [12] But, whereas the Proletkult demanded organizational autonomy for the "cultural road to socialism,” the Socialist Realists demanded that all cultural work be done at the dictates of the Party and reflect the Party line.

If the Cahiers group's early Marxism is complex and contradictory, its Maoist theory is consistent in all its aspects. The whole of Cahiers du Cinéma's Maoist program for culture can be found in Mao's "Talks at Yenan Forum on Literature and Art," 1942, the key text to which Cahiers articles continually refer. [13] Significantly, Mao's formulations were a response to criticisms of elitism and sexism which had been raised by party members, most notably woman writer Ting Ling, against the party bureaucracy at Yenan. In a piece entitled "Thoughts on March 8," Ting Ling expressed her profound disillusionment at the fate of women at Yenan, who were, presumably, emancipated. [14] In his "Talks at Yenan Forum,” Mao intended to "rectify" critical party elements by stifling freedom of criticism and laying down the theoretical basis for his policy of artistic repression in the tradition of Socialist Realism. It is this program that Cahiers du cinéma adopts beginning with issue 234-235 (December 1971—January/February 1972). I will discuss the elements of this program to show how it deviates from Marxism.

The basic tenet of the Maoist conception of culture is that a work of art is the exclusive possession of one class or another. To quote Mao:

"In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines" (Mao, p. 25).

That is, art is either "proletarian" or it is "bourgeois." Mao's assumption is that art is, and is nothing more than, class ideology, defined in its narrowest sense, and that ideology is always directly determined by its relation to the material base of society. Certainly Marx is clear in his assertion that art and intellectual life in general are part of the superstructure of society and constitute one of the arenas in which the ideologies of the contending classes are elaborated and in which class contradictions are clarified and fought out. Marxists hold that art does not function independently of the material base of society but is decisively affected by it. It is, in fact, the task of the Marxist critic to explain the historic demands which call works of art into being and which provoke revolution in artistic form. However, Marx and Engels defined the relationship between material base and superstructure in the following way:

"Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc. development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else is only passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which asserts itself [emphasis in the original]." [15]

Marx not only insists on the historical complexity which generates culture but also asserts that there is a dimension to art which cannot be fully explained by reference to historical development and existing relations of production:

"It is well known that certain periods of highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and the skeleton structure of its organization." [16]

The determination of the class stand of individual artists and writers, or the class values embodied in their works, poses very complex problems. As Engels points out, in the work of Goethe there is considerable ambivalence. And in Balzac there is absolute contradiction between the avowed class stand of the artist — royalist and Catholic — and the image he actually gives us of that dying class:

"Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work as a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society; his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply — the nobles. [17]

The rest of the Maoist program flows from its mechanical conception of art as simple ideology. Art is conceived as only utilitarian and class-serving, in the most immediate sense, and becomes irretrievably confused with propaganda:

"A thing is good only when it brings real benefit to the masses of the people" (Mao, p. 24).

The political task of the artist is to "serve the people, give them fuel in snowy weather," through the propagation of utopian cheerfulness — not exposing the dark, but "extolling" the "light." Above all, art must be produced under the dictate of the party and "geared" to the party line.

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