Max Shachtman


A Reply To Comrade Giacometti

The Counsel of Despair

Defends ISL’s Opposition to Splitting Technique

(Spring 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 2–3, Spring–Summer 1958, pp. 125–128.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are publishing the article by André Giacometti on the situation and problems of socialism in France today not because it represents our point of view but as a personal contribution to the discussion by a comrade who is actually on the scene of the tragic events in that country.

The right which the article should and does enjoy in a discussion is reason enough for its publication. In my opinion, however, there is an even better reason for it. That does not lie in the picture it paints of the state of the labor and socialist movements in France, for the lines and colors of that picture are not unfamiliar to our readers. It lies, rather, in the less familiar analysis and outlook of that variegated minority of French socialists who are outside the French Socialist party (S.F.I.O.), who are, and have long been, critical and hostile toward it. Comrade Giacometti’s article is, on the whole, a fair reflection of the standpoint of these socialists or at least of significant numbers among them.

This standpoint I reject emphatically. I believe I understand the reasons for it. But to understand is not to agree and I disagree with it as sterile, primitive, a danger to the possibilities for socialist reconstruction in France, and as the counsel of despair. If there is nothing in Comrade Giacometti’s article to modify this harsh opinion, he writes more than enough there to confirm it.

The process of degeneration and decay of the S.F.I.O., he says,

“is not primarily the result of the mistakes and betrayals of the leadership: it is an irreversible sociological trend produced by the existence of the Communist Party, which has deprived the reformist party of the most active and devoted elements at the rank-and-file level and of any leeway for political maneuvering at the top level.”

I will decline this open invitation to irony. But these observations are indicated:

This viewpoint has very little in common with a Marxian analysis, even though it may excite the imagination and console the bruised hearts of Cannonites and other primitive pseudo-Marxists. It is disconcerting, however, to find it suffusing the viewpoint of Comrade Giacometti.

I must emphasize, to preclude misunderstanding, that it is not possible to claim that it is merely the S.F.I.O., as S.F.I.O., that is in question. It is the S.F.I.O. only in so far as it is the French social-reformist political movement that is involved – not just the “Mollet gang,” and not a “passing aberration,” but “an evolution within a specific social and political situation over which independent socialists [or, for that matter, most other people] have no control,” an evolution out of the “social and political situation in France and in the world” which it would be mere “wish” to expect to reverse.

This being so, we have the good tidings that the field of the socialist-minded workers of France is now cleared of all political contestants for their leadership but two: the Stalinists, who have a large portion of the working class, and revolutionary leftwing socialists, who have, to put it delicately, no more influence with the working class than the S.F.I.O. with its absolutely vouched-for 0.4 per cent; the Stalinists who have a movement, and the left-wingers and independents who have none; the Stalinists who have, everyone must concede, some prospects, and the left-wingers who, it is clear from Giacometti’s article, have no prospect but despair.

Despair? Yes, only despair, if we are to follow the analysis and conclusions of Giacometti.

“The central fact of the present situation,” he writes, “is that there is no longer such a thing as a French labor movement.” If that is the central fact, and he says what he says and means what he means, I am forced to say, this is fantasy, and fantasy is not a good guide in politics. This commonplace needs no additional proof, but Giacometti provides it nonetheless in the “tasks and perspectives” he sets forth with the notation that they “are not abstract.”

In the labor movement? Since none exists – which is already less than encouraging – “what is involved is rebuilding the labor movement in France from the bottom up: create factory organizations that work, connect them in a united, decentralized trade-union movement solidly based on its local units, democratically controlled on all levels, including many different tendencies on equal terms.” That takes care of the problem of the labor movement. We recommend it to the attention of all socialists of good will in France. We need not commend it to the sectarians, of whom there are surely no fewer in France than we have here, for they have been energetically engaged in this task for some time.

In the political movement? “... reconstitute a united socialist labor party, including the majority of the communist workers, such social-democratic workers as there are, the Catholic workers, the revolutionary minorities.” A new movement is “in gestation, of which we know nothing except that it will not be centered around any of the existing parties, even though it will include elements from all.” Who? Well, the SP is “practically split already”; the CP “could easily split”; the P.U.G.S. “could split”; the M.R.P. evidently no longer needs to be split; and there must be others, surely.

I will not say that this architectural wonder cannot possibly be constructed, for God has proved the possibility of even greater miracles. We will not even ask about who is to put it together, or how, or when, or even why. We will simply say it has been done. We will even assume that it will be a larger, more influential version of the P.U.G.S., with more attractive power among the French workers – and it would not be easy to have less. What conceivable assurance is there that this remarkable combination could adopt a program superior to that of the, alas, ineffectual and, let us say, unoriented P.U.G.S.? Or that it would be able to meet the present crisis in France any more effectively than did the S.F.I.O. – except from the standpoint of socialist honor, which was so shamelessly violated by Mollet, but which the independent groups maintained separately no less well than they could unitedly? A socialist is not worthy of the name if he does not preserve at all times the honor of socialism. But political people ought to have learned that this essential is by itself not enough, and that it acquires socialist effectiveness only if it is linked with a political movement or a movement that has real political possibilities.

“... there is no other solution” than the one indicated above, writes G. “If no progress is made in this direction within the next few months,” he is writing in June, “fascism is virtually certain.”

I consider the ominous prediction more absurd than the hope of “progress ... in this direction within the next few months.” I can understand the absurdity that fascism stands at the gate in France as the justification, by some people, for the monstrosity of Guy Mollet sitting in the same cabinet with de Gaulle and the political gunman Soustelle in order to “save the Republic.” I cannot understand such an analysis of French fascism by a Marxist. I cannot share the counsel of despair implicit in G.’s analysis as a whole for those deeply concerned with the disgrace and collapse of French socialism and intensely concerned with its rehabilitation and reconstruction. That task is a long one, a hard and complicated one, to perform; and the capitulation of the S.F.I.O. has not made it easier. It is not easy, either, to give advice to comrades in other countries, far more often than it is impertinent, and worse, it ignores unfamiliar conditions. But comradely internationalism and what I consider tested and retested convictions impel me to say this, at least: the independent socialists, the left-wing socialists, the unattached socialists and Marxists in France, are not on the right road toward a revitalized socialist movement. They once again appear to be, and G.’s article confirms it so dismayingly, following the course of improvising a movement from an unreal blueprint drawn from a false social and political analysis. To try it again in the present critical situation, on the basis of the conceptions indicated by G.’s article, which require progress – we assume, serious progress – within a few months in the rebuilding of both a labor and a socialist movement “from the bottom up” that will stave off an impending fascism, is to guarantee that the counsel of despair will lead for sure to the real despair which it bears within it. French socialists can only suffer from it. We American socialists, likewise. That alone, I hope, justifies me in writing as bluntly as I have.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 January 2020