The political program of Cahiers du cinéma, 1969-1977
(continued from page one)

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

Mao justifies his policy on culture through a distorted reading of Lenin's 1905 article, "Party Organization and Party Literature, in which Lenin argues that all literature printed by the party must reflect the party line. As Vyacheslav Polonsky, founder and editor of Bolshevik journal Press and Revolution, indicates in his analysis of the period, Lenin wrote this article at the point at which the Bolshevik Party had just emerged from the underground. [18] Until 1905, all legal communist activity had been non-party, and it was Lenin's task to struggle against non-partyism in this new period and to forge the literary instruments of legal struggle. Lenin is not discussing, as Mao would have it, literature as a general cultural phenomenon — this was not an arena in which the Leninist party intervened, either before or after the revolution. He refers rather to the specifically ideological writing within the revolutionary party, organized according to the principles of democratic centralism:

"…we are discussing party literature and its subordination to party control. Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without restriction. But every voluntary association (including the party) is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views." [19]

Mao therefore asserts, on the supposed authority of Lenin, that art and literature must become "cogs and wheels" in the revolutionary machine or perish in the quagmire of bourgeois ideology. All "revolutionary" artists and writers are to create under party scrutiny, and all that they produce must reflect the party line.

The Socialist-Realist dogma of subordination of the arts to party control, propounded by Stalin and adopted by Mao, is in direct opposition to the Bolshevik policy, explicit in Lenin's work before the revolution and adopted by the Soviet state after October. Artists and writers were to enjoy complete freedom of expression, provided their work was not specifically counterrevolutionary. As Sheila Fitzpatrick points out in The Commissariat of Enlightenment, Anatol V. Lunacharsky, as head of Narkompros (The Commissariat of Education) in the first twelve years of the Soviet state, carried out the policy of free creative development in science and art. There was no official "socialist" art, no preference indicated by the state for any artistic grouping, despite the attempts of the Proletkult avant-gardists to achieve artistic monopoly and be recognized as the cultural arm of the revolution. In his preface to the futurist Rzhanoe slovo (1918), published by the state, Lunacharsky asserted:

"And of course the state must make it a rule to give the mass reader access to all that is new and fresh. It is better to make a mistake and offer the people something which is not now capable of arousing their sympathy than to leave a work which is rich with future possibilities hidden, because it is not to — somebody's taste. Let the worker hear and evaluate everything, the old and the new. We will not impose anything on him; we will show him everything." [20]

What is "original" in Mao's conception of "cultural work," although implicit in Socialist Realist doctrine, is his theory of the "mass line." The "cultural workers," like their political counterparts, must "go among the people." According to the "mass line," knowledge, be it political or cultural, is not derived from the Marxist study of the dialectics of history, or from the application of scientific socialism to concrete reality, or from the political work of the revolutionary, as Lenin described it in What Is To Be Done?

For Mao, knowledge is "knowledge of the people," in the narrowest sense. "Cultural workers" must remold and proletarianize themselves, but not in the Leninist sense of revolutionaries steeled in proletarian ideology; rather, Mao admonishes party members to "merge" with the masses. At Yenan Mao asserts what is undeniably true — that intellectuals have been contaminated by their bourgeois education and by their petty bourgeois class origins. But in this historical context, as in others, Mao used the charge of "class deviation" to bludgeon his political opposition: impulses to criticize party policy can be traced to party members' failure to remold themselves. Mao incites writers and artists to relearn language, because they do not know the "rich, lively language" of what Mao calls the "clean people." They must study peasant songs and folk-tales, read wall-newspapers, as models of "proletarian" art.

And they must reject as 'poisonous" the content of bourgeois art, art from the past, "foreign" art, which has value only in its technique. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, extremely repressive measures were taken against any manifestation of culture which might be hostile to Maoist thought: Beethoven and Bach were banned as "bourgeois revisionists," and Goethe and Shakespeare as "royalists." Under the guise of struggle against petty-bourgeois class deviations, Mao's dicta on art and literature, from Yenan to the Cultural Revolution, sought to suppress freedom of expression in all areas of cultural work and thereby suppress the ideological basis for any currents in opposition to the ruling bureaucracy.

The actual implementation of the Maoist program was bound to create crises in the Cahiers organization. In all fairness to the Cahiers group, its movement toward Maoism was, on a subjective level, a leftward movement. Many of the criticisms it raised concerning the French Communist Party were correct, if late in coming, and were grounded in the conviction that the party had "lost" all revolutionary potential. However, the major problem created by the Cahiers group's new-found leftism was not political in character. The French Communist Party, in response to the traditionally intellectual French "left" milieu, has at times been rather tolerant of intellectual formalism, as long as theorizing remained formal and never put into question the political program of the Party. [21] In the case of Cahiers du Cinéma, it would doubtless have preferred to cajole that group into remaining within the party orbit, and, in fact, made attempts in that direction.

For its part, Cahiers du cinéma was heavily laden with intellectualism. It had emerged from the self-consciously intellectual New Wave and had assumed the banner of the Soviet cinematic avant-garde. On the one hand, conversion to Maoism resulted in the Cahiers group's blind adherence to the fluctuations of the Chinese Communist political line — this constituted a simple transference of loyalty from one bureaucracy to another and was easily accomplished. Cahiers du cinéma immediately assimilated China's position on the "social imperialist" USSR revisionism" and "capitalist restoration" — and used it as a political arm in its attacks against the PCF cultural organ, La Nouvelle Critique. On the other hand, on the "cultural front," the Cahiers group was confronted with Mao's "mass line" policy and its concomitant hostility to intellectual formalism.

Cahiers du cinéma continued for some months to balance between formalism and the crude determinism of the "mass line" — producing in the process a number of issues of review filled with incongruity. In issue 236-237 (March-April 1972) for example, Cahiers du cinéma reprints an article from Chinese Literature, an official Chinese publication, describing THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN as "a striking victory of the revolutionary proletarian line of Chairman Mao in literary and artistic matters." (p. 81) The analysis presented clearly falls into the most simplistic tradition of Socialist Realism: all aspects of culture are "class determined." Hence, THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN is judged solely on its merits as an embodiment of Mao's "proletarian" line. In the same issue, we find Cahiers criticism of a highly sophisticated character: Pascal Bonitzer's and Serge Daney's analysis of "continuity" and "transparence" in Bazin's conception of cinema; and a study of Bresson's FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER, revealing the "fictional and historic contradictions of the New Wave."

Resolution of this conflict came with an agonizing criticism/self-criticism, in which the Cahiers critics acknowledged their intellectual elitism, their individualistic aspirations and their self-serving leanings — in short, their "revisionism." They confessed their divorce from reality, their lack of knowledge of the people. They were, as Mao says, like fish out of water — and admitted the

"unreadability of Cahiers, not only for the masses, but for the cadre militants as well. Thenceforth their goal was to liquidate definitively the former objective which was to cultivate the art of film criticism for the profit of the French, and even international, intellectual tribe." (CduC 242-243, November/December 1972-January 1973, p. 6)

Although the Cahiers critics capitulation to Maoist-style cultural action was in certain respects regrettable, many of the criticisms they leveled against their own functioning in the past were entirely correct. They took to task their former aestheticism and their neglect of political content:

"Placing the equal sign between aesthetic criterium and political criticism. Saying: every lack on the formal level necessarily refers to a lack on the political level and, under the pretext of recalling to those who forget too easily the non-neutrality of forms, neglecting to carry out a closer examination of the context with which these forms were laden, forgetting to specify this content in political terms, leaving this task to others." (CduC 248, undated, p. 39)

Further, the Cahiers critics abjured the entire theoretical basis for their formalist approach, and decried the excesses in which they had indulged in their efforts to describe how" bourgeois art imposes its vision of the world:

"…we have long had the tendency to look for this how where no one, except a mystical ultraleftist, would look for it: in the appareil de base [the camera and attendant technical processes], or in the structure of all fiction, or in the configuration of the movie theatre and the seating it determines." (CduC 248, p. 40)

Having made the leap to full-blown Maoism, the Cahiers group was confronted with the practical and theoretical problems of implementing the mass line. The essential dilemma was this — how to carry out the mass line" and merge with the masses as a small group of intellectuals isolated from the proletariat. They couldn't "go home to the masses," that is, undertake mass work, without abandoning "theory," in the form of the journal , and the masses were obviously not coming to them. Thus, the Cahiers critics developed a strategy for cultural work which would allow them to maintain close contact with the masses without abandoning their theoretical tasks.

The key to the functioning of their strategy was what the Cahiers group called the "elements relais," which can best be rendered in English as "relay runners." (CduC 242-243) These relay runners, who would be "cultural militants," were to "go to the masses," work among them, gather raw material, and run back to the Cahiers. The Cahiers group would take this raw material from the masses, raise it to a higher level (as Mao would say), and the relay runners, armed with this new theoretical distillation, would return to the masses in the schools and cinéclubs and use Cahiers theory to carry out correct cultural work. This conception of the revolutionary as dismembered — the Cahiers group functioning as the head separated from the body, the militants — was not destined to cull favor with potential militant conscripts. Moreover, the Cahiers group's attempted "mass" intervention in the class struggle reveals the weakness of the "cultural front" strategy: "Cultural militants" could intersect the proletariat only in peripheral ways — in high schools, film clubs, and foyers — and not at the strategic heart of the organized working class, the trade union movement, where the question of revolutionary leadership is posed in the most urgent fashion. [22]

The second dilemma posed by the Cahiers group's adoption of the Maoist program was its obligatory subservience to the political direction of the vanguard party. As the Cahiers group affirms in its program:

"…there is no cultural line outside of a political line; the cultural line is the application, on a specific front, of the general political line." (CduC 242243, November/December 1972-January 1973, p. 8)

And yet no vanguard Marxist party could be singled out from among the myriad of Maoist groupings in France. The dilemma — how do you serve the party when there is no party? — called for further theorizing. The resolution was found in the following formulation:

"Aware of the problem, but considering that no organization has emerged on the national level in the service of which we can place ourselves, we have adopted the attitude which we think most correct: it consists in defining ourselves as an embryo of the general political line capable of guiding our practice." (CduC 242-243, p. 8)

Thus, armed with Mao's mass line and containing the embryo of the vanguard party, the Cahiers group was ready to do ideological battle. The battle lines are those drawn by Mao: there is bourgeois culture on one side and proletarian culture on the other. The task of Cahiers du cinéma is twofold: (1) expose and destroy bourgeois culture, (2) uncover and nurture the culture of the proletariat. Unfortunately for the proletariat, the culture which can be identified as "proletarian," or even "progressive," is limited to a few "vanguard" elements (most notably, Godard and Straub), "progressive" films from national liberation struggles, and the work of a few militant propagandists. The only vestiges of mass culture the Cahiers group discerns are those of the oppressed nationals of Britanny, Corsica, Pays Basque and Occitanie, who give us the "most living forms of peoples' culture." In vain, the Cahiers critics search for the roots of mass culture in the working class in order to "encourage, arouse these initiatives and offer them political and technical support." (CduC 248, p. 9) On these extraordinarily meager foundations, the Cahiers group would like to construct "proletarian" culture.

In espousing such a program for culture, the Cahiers group ignores what is for Marxists a material fact: that the working class, even in the most developed Western "democracies," has been deliberately deprived of education and the leisure to create, and that only the socialist revolution can ultimately release that creativity. As part of a revolutionary program, Marxists call for the defense and preservation of oppressed national cultures and decry the victimization by capitalism of revolutionary artists. But these cultures and artists do not constitute a political arm of the revolutionary party, nor are they seen as the exclusive constituent elements of an evolving proletarian culture. It was clear to Lenin after the October Revolution that the ersatz "workers' culture," first elaborated by the iconoclast Proletkult, sprang from the utopian idealism of enthusiastic intellectuals and that it had no material basis in reality. In his "On Proletarian Culture," Lenin defends the Marxist view of cultural history and describes the function of culture under the dictatorship of the proletariat:

"Marxism has won its historic significance as the ideology of the proletariat because, far from rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch, it has, on the contrary, assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture. Only further work on this basis and in this direction, inspired by the practical experience of the proletarian dictatorship as the final stage in the struggle against every form of exploitation, can b recognized as the development of a genuine proletarian cu1ture." [23]

Lenin's conception of the democratization of culture was not that culture should be brought to the level of ignorance imposed on the masses by the ruling class, but that the masses should be given access, through a revolutionary program of education, to the heritage of the past and to the Marxist assessment of human history. Such is the material basis that Marx saw for the evolution of a new culture.

The political history of Cahiers du cinéma sheds light on the problems facing contemporary Marxist criticism. It reveals the major distortions of the Marxist approach to culture — formalism and Socialist Realism — which characterize much critical theory being written today. As Marxists, we must reject the attempts on the part of contemporary critics to recast formalism in "political" molds. Such attempts are political charlatanism and have little to do with a Marxist attitude toward culture. We must also reject Socialist Realism with its distorted conception of the relations between art and politics and its insistence on the subservience of art to the dictates of a party. In their work, revolutionary artists, under decadent capitalism, reflect the insoluble contradictions of class society and give expression to the need to liberate intellectual creation from capitalist servitude. However, Marxists do not hold that artists and critics are charged with intervening in the class struggle in a programmatic way. Intervention in the working class with a political program is, as Lenin insisted, properly the task of a disciplined revolutionary party.

It is significant that Cahiers du cinéma in the most recent period is in silent retreat from the consequences of a full-blown Socialist Realist program. In historical terms, this "new" period corresponds to a lull in working class militancy and is widely echoed in the French intellectual "left" milieu. There is an apparent de-escalation of "ideological" struggle and a new emphasis placed on other methodologies, most notably psychoanalysis. The Cahiers retreat from its hardline position is characterized by the relative absence of cultural activism, a new turn toward formal analysis (much of which is only obscurely political), and a perceptible softening of its crude class-determinist perspective on culture. This new vacillation is a clear, if unacknowledged, admission that Socialist Realism is a dead end, both intellectually and politically. The lesson to be drawn from the political history of Cahiers du cinéma is that the entire body of current "Marxist" theory must be reexamined in the light of the original Marxist texts and the experience of the early Soviet state. Only on this basis can Marxist criticism contribute to a materialist understanding of culture.


1. For a perspective on these polemics, see: "Du bon usage de la valeur d'echange (Les Cahiers du cinéma et le Marxisme Leninisme)," editors, Cinéthique #6, January-February 1970. Marcelin Pleynet, "Le point aveugle," Cinéthique #6. Jean-Patrick Lebel, "Cinéma et Idéologie I," La Nouvelle Critique #34, April 1970. Michel Ciment and Louis Seguin, "Sur une petite bataille d'Othon," Positif #122, December 1970.

2. The political evolution of Cahiers du cinéma has been a process, and these dates are of course approximate. However, the two political periods, as I will indicate, are clearly marked off by major political statements by the Cahiers group and constitute abrupt shifts in the orientation of the journal's work.

3. Translations appear in Screen, 12:1 and 12:2, Summer and Fall 1971.

4. For documentation on the Chinese Communist Party's participation in the formulation of the Popular Front, see: Seventh Congress of the Communist International: Abridged Stenographic Report of the Proceedings. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1939.

5. Cf. Lenin, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, 1908.

6. Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1970, p. 219.

7. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, volume 2. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969, p. 170.

8. Political opportunism characterized by the limitation of revolutionary activity to simple trade-unionism.

9. Camilla Gray, p. 245.

10. For an excellent account of Lenin's interventions in cultural matters, see: Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Commissariat of Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

11. Translation in Screen, 12:1, p. 35.

12. Camilla Gray, p. 245.

13. Mao Tse-Tung, Mao Tse-tung on Literature and Art. Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967.

14. For an account of the events, see bourgeois scholar Merle Goldman's Literary Dissent in Communist China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 18-50.

15. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, volume 3, p. 502.

16. From Marx's Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski, eds., Marx and Engels on Literature and Art. St. Louis/Milwaukee: Telos Press, 1973, p. 134.

17. Baxandall and Morawski, p. 115.

18. Vyacheslav Polonsky, "Lenin's Views of Art and Culture," in Max Eastman, Artists in Uniform. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1972, pp. 217-252.

19. Lenin, Collected Works, volume 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966, p. 47.

20. Sheila Fitzpatrick, p. 134.

21. See bourgeois historian David Caute's Communism and the French Intellectual, 1914-1960. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1964.

22. The crucial questions to be answered are the following: Where does workers' power in fact lie? Where do communists choose to intervene, particularly in a period of crisis of leadership? Revolutionaries do not shun foyers and cineclubs, but foyers and cineclubs do not constitute one of the three fronts of class struggle, as Engels defined them.

23. Lenin, Collected Works, volume 31, pp. 316-317.