Review of "The Conspiracy"

Paul Nizan’s The Conspiracy could be seen as a retelling of Dostoyevsky’s Demons in a situation that is no longer conducive to revolution by people whose allegiances are best served with the hegemonic order despite their views that it will soon totter over. In contradistinction to the verbose style showcasing the intricacies of the characters through long exchanges and monologues found in the latter book, The Conspiracy packs a number of dense statements into a tightly compact narrative. What it at times misses it nuance, breadth and complexity, it makes up for in it’s economy of language and referentiality.

Rosenthal, the leader of the conspiracy, his comrades and even those that disagree with him speak in the type of clipped language that those familiar with the various discourses use. In this it is much more realistic than Dostoyevsky. For instance, in the scene where Carre and Regnier are arguing about the difference between the French socialists and communists he says: “You see every participation as a limitation. You immediately want to revoke your decision, in order to show yourself you’re free to reject what you just embraced. And proud to boot, and Goethean: “I am the Spirit that negates all…”” While the first point is relatively clear, the latter part is a shorthand. It is this type of intellectual shorthand, I would argue, that is in large part the reason why their plan and their attempt to realize it barely takes off.

Rosenthal’s academics lean towards France’s revolutionary tradition and the writings of Spinoza, Hegel and Marx. All three personages are repeatedly quoted as authorities of the present situation. The reader, however soon discovers such sentiments are likely to assuage Rosenthal’s own feelings of guilt for the privilege he was born into and to showcase his concern with the “world”. He does not know it, so much as a manner of interpreting the world and a set of values that emerged from another age. In this he is not alone. As the action unfolds, we learn that the student revolutionaries are motivated not but any great humanitarian desire to negate the unnecessary deprivations that could be banished in a post-scarcity world but are instead driven by their insecurities about the future, illusions of grandness, their desire to rebel against their parents or gain social recognition for their “specialness”, their adulation to others they hold to be intellectually superior and their adherence to classical Roman notions of republican virtue that while inspiring are outdates in an age of mass society. The only person which throws his fate in with the Socialist Party is Pluvinage, who we later learn is an informant for the police.

The plot itself deals with this in the mundane manner that one would expect student revolutionaries separated from mass politics would work. They conceive of an attendant that will spark the public into action and just as poorly as they thought it through they then execute it. When Simon, one of the plotters is discovered, the intent is quickly brushed aside due to his class and the explanation that he wanted certain information to write on a novel – a hobby considered understandable based on his social standing to the members of the military that are considering how to judge what next will happen to him based upon his infraction. The pleasant distractions of women, the desire for others to see one as great and family dynamics play a significant factor in keeping the conspiracy largely stillborn. In fact the task that Rosenthal devotes most of his time to besides that of a “revolutionary” journal with a minuscule circulation is in attempting to seduce the wife of his older brother so that she will leave him.

I concur with the sentiments found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s afterword on finding some of the most compelling of Nizan’s writing within this book to be about recognizing the transition into adulthood by these students to be a difficult time and one filled with adjustments without clear end goals. Their desire for something specific, something they can see is understandable especially given the crisis-ridden world in which they are beginning to take a part. However there are other parts that I find particularly worthwhile, though I find at times the plot drags. The scene between Pluvinage and the policeman Massart, for instance, while lacking the sustained tension, humor and gravity as that between Porfiry and Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is also quite compelling. One of the more intelligent lines that Massart utters in this vein is: “Pascal was the first author who face the outline of a police conception of the world… Little accidents and little men manufacture great events. The masses and the professors never see the true connections, because there’s no visible relation between cause and effect and all tracks are muddied. Everybody’s unaware of chance working away behind the scenes, and of the secret of little men…” and demonstrates Nizan’s capacity to incarnate a number of characters based upon certain philosophical presuppositions.