GEORGES POLITZER, it was often said, was the embodiment of laughter. Defiant laughter — not the laughter of carefree rebelliousness but of the revolutionary; not the anarchist’s, but the Marxist’s; laughter that holds up to scorn the old world’s contorted efforts to escape history’s condemnation. Laughter that triumphs despite chains, despite Pucheu1 and Gestapo torturers; laughter triumphant even before the firing squad…
Georges Politzer was born in 1903. His first days were spent in Navyvarod, a small town in northern Hungary; but the government of his native land fell into reactionary hands and his father was persecuted. So, at the age of 17, Politzer was forced to flee. He chose to go to France, and through intellectual and emotional commitment, he became French to his core. No one spoke better than he of the glories of the French spirit. In his father’s house, he had learned the language by reading Voltaire and Diderot; and, once in the Latin Quarter, it took him only five years to obtain all of his degrees, including the certification for professorship in philosophy.
Georges Politzer had in him the stuff of philosophical genius, and like his friend and companion in the torture chamber, Jacques Solomon, was an extraordinary specialist in theoretical physics.
The certain path of Politzer’s evolvement began in 1926 when he was still struggling to escape from certain idealistic influences. But he fought, he progressed, straining against every barrier. And the culmination of his journey was his encounter with Marxism.
In the early thirties, when the Worker’s University of Paris was founded in the old neighborhood of Mathurin-Moreau Avenue, it numbered on its staff many remarkable and even famous professors. But the course which generated the most enthusiasm among the students, whether blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, or intellectuals, was Georges Politzer’s course on dialectical materialism. Thanks to his efforts, the most difficult problems were made clear and simple, without ever losing their philosophical stature or theoretical dignity. Politzer’s pitiless irony exposed every inconsistency in his adversaries’ views. A follower of Marx and Lenin, Politzer was a devastating polemicist and a thinker of unimpeachable competence and culture.
Today Marxism has won the right of citizenship at the university, and Marx and Lenin are part of the curriculum. Extensive scholastic works are written on Soviet philosophy. But forty years ago, everything was different: Auguste Cornu appeared as a pioneer, or perhaps a lost child, when he presented his thesis on the formation of the young Marx’s ideas to the Sorbonne. Georges Politzer’s philosophical investigations and writings, along with Auguste Cornu’s, represented the first important French attempts to clarify the central questions of philosophy in the light of dialectical materialism.
It is difficult now to grasp the full effect of the cleansing wind that rushed through the stagnant fumes of the academic swamp when, in 1929, the young red-headed philosopher, with the air of a young god wreathed by a purifying fire, launched his offensive against the official idealistic school of thought with his publication, The End of a Philosophical Mummery–Bergsonism. Until the coming of war, Politzer continued his victorious polemic against all the adversaries of Marxism, which he saw as indistin-guishable from modern rationalism. At the same time, he boldly and brilliantly defended the progressive traditions in French philosophical history, starting with the great tradition of Descartes.
Politzer was engrossed by the study of psychology. He attempted to create a new psychology, which he called “concrete” in opposition to traditional idealist psychology. At first he was influenced by Freud’s psychoanalytic school, which was alluring because of its tendency to study the living person as a whole, without isolating narrow psychological functions. But within a short time, starting in 1928, he discerned questionable points in Freudian teaching and separated himself from it with his work Critique of the Foundations of Psychology. Politzer’s attempt to underline the personality’s social value guarantees the survival of his work as a psychologist.
He taught at the Cherbourg High School, and at Evreux, and finally at Saint-Maur. At the same time, he created and directed the Center of Documentation of the French Communist Party—his passion for this work often kept him at the Center through the night. He became an economist, and his column in l’Humanité won an ever larger public.
Journalism attracted him. This writer can attest to it. I can remember how joyously Politzer would rush to the office when necessary to fill in for me as editor in chief of the Communist daily in the years 1937-1939. Maurice Thorez2 became most fond of this exceptional militant.
Then came the “phony war.” Called into service at the Military School in Paris, Politzer retained close contact with the clandestine leadership of the Communist Party. On June 6, 1940, it was Politzer who transmitted to Anatole de Monzie, representative of the French government, the historic proposals of the Communist Party for the defense of Paris by a general mobilization of the people.
In combination with his admirable companion, Maie Politzer, who perished in the horror of the Nazi camps, Politzer was the soul of the university’s resistance from 1940 to 1942. There is no need to repeat that his courage was equal to every test, but his disarming fearlessness and superb daring must be recorded.
From the time of his discharge in July of 1940, Politzer, along with Jacques Solomon and Daniel Decourdemanche, put out a clandestine paper for high school and college teachers. The first issue of I’Université libre (The Free University) appeared immediately after the arrest of Paul Langevin by the Gestapo in October. The paper described the imprisonment of the famous physicist and also covered the other outrages committed by the fascist invader. It added:
In the face of these events, the University has taken hold of itself; it has attained a unanimity of thought and of will surpassing anything in its glorious history. It has asserted with unanimity its intention to continue, through all, despite all, the great tradition of culture in freedom which has been and remains the tradition of the French University.
From then on I’Universite libre struggled against the institutions of the enemy in university affairs, against the arrests of Jewish professors and students, against retrograde changes in the curriculum, against the so- called national revolution which was really a reactionary undertaking in the service of Nazi imperialism. The newspaper undauntedly sparked resistance in high schools and colleges. The pages of I’Universite libre from the years 1940-1941 constitute the most striking evidence of Com-munist involvement in the struggle for liberation from the very beginning of the occupation. Eight issues were published before January 1941, and twenty issues before June 1941.
When the Hitlerian offensive against the Soviet Union was unleashed, the twenty-second issue l’Université libre, dated July 1, 1941, declared, under the headline “Hitler’s Tomb,” that victory was certain for “the united army of a united people,” for “the new army of a new society.”
In March 1941, an anti-Nazi pamphlet with exceptional vigor and bite began circulating in the patriotic camp. The work was unsigned, but the style was universally recognized. Everyone knew that Revolution and Counterrevolution in the 20th Century was Politzer’s work. The pamphlet printed in January and February, was 45 pages long. It was a stunning reply to Reichsleiter Rosenberg’s speech to the French Chamber of Deputies in late November 1940, which called for a “settling of accounts with the ideas of 1789” and which bore the title “Blood and Gold, or Gold Conquered by Blood.”
Politzer showed in his pamphlet that democracy was not dead, that it had not been buried by Hitler’s victories. He demonstrated that the inadequacy and the corruption of bourgeois democracy were attributable to capitalism, while the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of socialism would permit true democracy:
When the Central Committee of the French Communist Party issued its May 15, 1941 manifesto calling for the formation of a great National Front for the liberty and independence of France, Politzer, Solomon and Decourdemanche redoubled their efforts to gain support of non-Communist patriots among the intellectuals.
In February 1942, Politzer was arrested in the huge dragnet that threw about 140 Communists into prisons between the months of January and March.
Politzer uttered not one word under torture. In a letter, his wife described his behavior:
It was not one of the lesser infamies of the Fourth Republic that its successive Ministers of Veteran Affairs in 1954-1955 obstinately refused the demand that Georges Politzer be posthumously recognized as an “imprisoned Resistance member.” The first of these ministers, now forgotten, was André Mutter, a reactionary member of the Laniel government; the second was a minor Gaullist, Raymond Triboulet; and he was backed by the Council President—one Edgar Faure. It was not until 1956 that an administrative tribune, after hearing the legal pleas of Bruguier and Moro-Giafferi, overruled the miserable conduct of these nothings.
Petty jabs can do little to hurt the memory of Georges Politzer. His example has already inspired and will continue to inspire generations of intellectuals.
Politzer possessed solid academic standing which was leading to brilliance; his work was highly acclaimed by the specialists in his field. And at the same time, he was an intellectual of a new type, committed body and soul to the working class and its struggles, responsible to his Party not only for the daily practical tasks of every militant but also for assignments of the highest intellectual nature.
Politzer and Solomon showed how to carry Marxism to the intelligentsia, scholars and students, through their many efforts: in the Houses of Culture, in the Materialist Study Groups of Paul Langevin, in the Workers’ University, in writing, and in speaking. During their 1938 vacation at the Bossons glacier in the Alps, they undertook to translate Dialectics of Nature in their chalet between outings. Great philosophical questions never disappeared from their horizons. They were convinced that the fate of their Party was intrinsically linked to the fate of truth itself.
In practice, this conviction expressed itself in their dedication to the idea of living with the Party and with the Party members. Our two friends behaved in a manner diametrically opposed to the pretentious attitude of those intellectuals who set themselves up as mentors of the masses, as great lesson-givers, while in reality they obey bourgeois influences. Politzer said:
This maxim we believe, stands as a good summation of all of his teaching. May young intellectuals, ever growing in numbers, accomplish ever more effectively the mission of this hero who fell in May 1942!