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Fourth International, January-February 1948


World in Review

The “Cold War” and the Strike Struggles in France


From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.1, January-February 1948, pp.3-5.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


World Instability and Uncertainty

Although the cold war between Wall Street and the Kremlin continues to wax hotter constantly, uncertainty and uneasiness mark the prevailing sentiment in both camps. “Decisions, firm policies, big plans of statesmen keep coming undone,” complains the influential United States News. “Wherever you look – Europe, Asia, the Americas – there is instability, uncertainty. Nothing stays hitched. Decisions are hammered out, then crumble at the edges, fall apart the day after they’re made. Nothing really gets settled.”

Washington launches the Marshall Plan. Moscow counters with the Cominform. American imperialism puts its stakes on the rising tide of reactionary, neo-Fascist movements in Europe. The Soviet bureaucracy counts upon the mass Stalinist parties to hold its own. But the plans of the former as well as the machinations of the latter collide with an incalculable obstacle, the millioned masses in every country. These masses have interests of their own to defend, different from and inimical to those of both great powers. Particularly since the end of World War II, these masses have been on the move to have their own say in the matter. Almost three years of postwar conniving by world capitalism and betrayal by the labor leaders have not yet succeeded in liquidating this mass upsurge. Far from it. That is what these last few months in Europe prove.

France, generally regarded as the key to the European situation because it is the most important independent country on the continent in which the world powers and the social forces are most evenly matched at present, offers an instructive example.

The conclusion of the war in 1945 saw this country in the throes of a nation-wide uprising. The people were armed, the industries occupied, the capitalist class, thoroughly discredited by its collaboration with the Nazis, undergoing a mass purge, the old bourgeois politicians chased from public life, the fate of the nation in the hands of the Communist Party which the toilers had flocked to support in millions.

How Stalin Upheld French Capitalism

A mere telephone call from the Stalinist leader Maurice Thorez, press dispatches from Paris liked to stress during those days, could suffice to end capitalism and install a workers’ government. But those were still the days of the Kremlin-Wall Street honeymoon. In return for a free hand in plundering Eastern Europe, Stalin guaranteed the Allies that Western Europe would be kept safe for capitalism. Thorez accordingly persuaded the people to lay down arms, to turn the plants back to the owners or – where this was impossible – to accept “nationalizations” which richly compensated the owners. The masses were urged to stop the purges, to “produce first” and forget about their own miserable living conditions and the profits of their masters. The Stalinists rehabilitated the old bourgeois politicians and joined a coalition government headed by General de Gaulle. They participated in creating the legend of national savior about this sinister figure. They betrayed the trust of the masses who had turned to them for a revolutionary solution and gave bankrupt and prostrate French capitalism a new breathing spell. In Italy, in Belgium, in all of Western Europe the story was the same.

Wall Street got what it needed out of its alliance with the Kremlin. The threatening European revolution had been averted. The time for a crackdown on Moscow was at hand. The services of Stalinist lackeys in Western Europe could be dispensed with. Washington and the Kremlin settled down to their “cold war” in France. American imperialism deliberately fostered the authoritarian, anti-parliamentary movement of de Gaulle, who had quit as President in the beginning of 1946. Wall Street was banking on the disillusionment among the masses with the deadlocked parliamentary system which the Stalinists were in the main responsible for resuscitating; and on propping up French capitalism with conditioned loans. The Soviet bureaucracy began to play with mass pressure, applied by the Stalinist parties with the main objective of keeping their government posts so as to influence French foreign policy most directly.

Masses Move into Arena

Right at this point the French masses entered into action and upset the plans both of their masters, tied to Wall Street, and of their betrayers, tied to the Kremlin. There had been no mass revolt against the Stalinist policy of treachery after 1945. The masses generously extended the broadest credit to the Communist Party – it still meant to them the party of the Russian Revolution of 1917. That’s what they wanted, and if that party’s leaders were “delaying” the day of decisive action, perhaps there were some good “strategic” grounds for it which had not been made public. But grumblings against the “no strike” policy of the Stalinists began to grow. Towards the very end of 1945, there was the first big strike, of the Paris printers, which the Stalinists either in the ministries or in the unions could not stop. In the summer of 1946 there was a more important country-wide strike of post-office workers, again in rebellion against the Stalinists. Another big printers’ strike followed in February 1947 and sporadic small strikes in various industries began to appear. These were the first signs of mass restlessness with Stalinist policy.

But in April 1947 the great Renault Automotive Plant in Paris came out on strike, not only defying the CP trade union leaders but choosing Trotskyists to head their strike committee. The penetration of rebellion into the heart of industrial Paris, into the key metal industry, and the presence of Trotskyists in the leadership of this strike of 30,000 workers among whom the Stalinists have always had one their traditional bastions, was more than a serious sign. It was a turning point. It struck fear into the hearts of the Stalinist misleaders. The Ramadier government demanded of Thorez and Co., that they join in suppressing this strike and in holding the line on the wage-freeze. In a heated Cabinet meeting, Thorez declined. He was not going to permit the Trotskyists, he explained, to “outflank the Communist Party on the left.” At first denouncing the Renault strike as “cooked up by the trusts, by de Gaulle and the Hitlero-Trotskyists,” the Stalinist press soon had to change its tune and to come out, even if reluctantly, and with all sorts of contortions, in favor of the strike. The “Socialist” Ramadier, prompted by the American diplomats, took advantage of this situation and kicked the Stalinists out of the Cabinet. Following Belgium and Italy, France for the first time since the end of the war had a government without Communist Party participation.

By taking in hand the leadership of the Renault strike and negotiating some indecisive and unimportant wage raises for the strikers, the CP leaders averted a head-on collision with the working class, among whom sentiment was growing for the more decisive solutions popularized by the Trotskyists – a new minimum wage in line with high cost of living, a sliding scale of wages to meet the inflation, workers’ control of industry and rounding these out, a general strike to set up a government of the workers’ parties and the unions (SP-CP-CGT), based on strike and factory committees. Although out of the Cabinet, the Stalinists continued to proclaim themselves as a “pro-government” party. Only idiots could be for a general strike, declared their parliamentary leader Jacques Duclos.

The First Strike Wave

But the Renault strike had broken the logjam caused by the “no strike” policy. After a summer lull, a first wave of strikes followed in the early fall among the miners, the railroad men and the Paris subway workers – all started without CP initiative and in the last case, against direct strike-breaking actions on its part. To hold its own, the Stalinist leadership had to repeat the tactic adopted during the Renault strike.

In parliament, the bourgeoisie pushed its advantage on all fronts, making the “pro-government” position of the Stalinists constantly more untenable. It not only fought every move for wage raises at home, but launched an aggressive policy in the colonies, speeding up and intensifying its war on the Indo-Chinese (Viet Nam) people and on the rebellious Negro island of Madagascar. In the latter case, it violated its own agreements and even its own constitution, by lifting the parlia-entary immunity of the island’s representatives in both houses of the French Union (the euphemistic postwar title given to the French Empire).

The parliamentary vacillation of the Communist Party on these decisive questions of French imperialist policy revealed it as an unreliable government ally and cast doubt among its petty bourgeois following about its hotly-proclaimed patriotism. De Gaulle saw his chance to raise the banner of authoritarian anti-parliamentary rule, calling for the elimination of the Stalinist party from public life as “Russian separatists.”

In the October municipal elections, the General entered for the first time a slate of his Rally of the People of France (RPF); and came out with a resounding victory, which placed his RPF ahead of the Communist Party as the biggest parliamentary organization in France. Subsequently deals were made between the RPF and the Socialist Party for the second-round election of mayors and municipal officials, with the reformists for the first time since the end of the war breaking their electoral united front with the CP. This practically decimated the Stalinist job-trust in the municipalities, the backbone of the party bureaucracy. Stalinist power in France was threatened from all sides.

With these developments (touched off by the Renault strike in April) as a background, the Marshall Plan drive on the one hand, and the proclamation of the Cominform policy on the other can be seen in their true light. Both followed the emergence of independent working class action in France, and elsewhere in Western Europe, which they are now attempting to exploit for their own ends.

Stalinists Swing “Left”

The French Stalinists, following Cominform directives, took an inventory of the new situation at the Central Committee of the CPF towards the end of October. In line with Cominform directives, this meeting formally lifted the lid on labor militancy, held down tight by the CP since the end of the war. It proclaimed an all-out struggle against the “American party” in which it included everybody from de Gaulle to the Socialists. It denounced the Socialists as traitors and called for the “united front from below.” But the objective was naturally left vague. The Stalinists are calling “for a young and vigorous government” in which “the Communists will finally play the decisive role,” etc. That is, the class collaboration line is left basically the same, but cloaked in the more militant tactics which were made imperative by the rebellion of the workers and the rise of de Gaulle.

Indicative of the powerful influence of the workers’ pressure and the resulting deep ferment within the Stalinist ranks themselves, was the orgy of “self-criticism” indulged in by Thorez who made the main report. The Stalinist chieftain flayed the whole policy of “agreements from the top” and “rehabilitation of discredited politicians and parties” running back for a period of 12 years to the original “People’s Front” days. That’s what had paralyzed the party’s action all those years, he “confessed.” This confession of bankruptcy was intended as a safety valve for the growing internal discontent. That it meant no serious basic change was clear to anyone familiar with the character of Stalinism. Thorez’s conclusions underlined this. The wave of strikes that ensued in November and December proved it. But they also proved that this kind of “self-criticism” comes close to playing with fire.

The November-December strike wave began in Marseilles, when the new de Gaullist mayor raised street car fares and took a number of other unpopular measures. It soon swept the whole port city with the demand for a new minimum wage and a sliding scale of wages. Factories were occupied and the Red Flag hoisted on their roofs. Street battles took place between the workers and the authorities not only for possession of the occupied factories, but for public buildings as well. Ten companies of the postwar city police refused to carry out orders to battle the workers and were immediately dismissed by the government. The city was virtually in a state of civil war. Thus, from the first, the workers indicated that they wanted a showdown struggle, a revolutionary fight for power.

The Stalinist strategy, however, was to keep the movement isolated to Marseilles. But through the Marseilles railroad men, the movement began to spread from one city to another until it finally reached Paris. In every case, the Stalinist leaders attempted to curb the movement, to confine it, to reduce its demands, to prevent it from developing into a general strike which would pose point blank the issue of governmental power. The Marseilles battles were repeated in the city of St. Etienne, in Lyons and all over France. But, in each case, the city remained isolated. The same held true in nation-wide industries. One industry at a time, was the Stalinist policy. Everywhere freely elected strike committees sprung up and tended to build up higher and higher into district and regional strike committees. The Stalinists in the leadership of the General Federation of Labor (CGT) sensed the danger and proclaimed a bureaucratically appointed Central Strike Committee, which issued daily warlike communiques, but sent out its agents to counteract and control from above the movement of democratically elected strike committees.

CP Spreads Demoralization

The Stalinist policy thus created confusion and hesitation among the workers. Thousands began to refuse to follow CGT strike calls. Among those out on strike, thousands began to return. The whole previous “no strike” policy of the Stalinists coupled with their conduct of the strike began to arouse the greatest misgivings among widespread layers of workers.

The government at first attempted to meet the strikes head-on, with a “strong” policy. It swiftly passed anti-strike laws and mobilized several classes of reservists into the army for anti-strike action. But this policy soon proved a fiasco. Reservists by the thousands were held up by the strikes from joining their regiments. Where troops went into action, as in St. Etienne, men and weapons soon were engulfed by the masses of strikers. The government just did not have the military force necessary for such a policy.

But the paralyzing tactics of the Stalinists and the timely aid of the reformist leaders around Leon Jouhaux in the CGT and the Socialists in the Cabinet soon gave the capitalist government the wedge it needed. The reformists, aware of the disaffection of the workers in the Stalinist-controlled unions, began to shout for “secret strike ballots.” Wherever the “secret ballot” was called for by the reformists, the government moved in with troops to insure “correct” ballot procedure. Thus, the treacherous conduct of the strike by the Stalinists, and the open strike-breaking aid of the reformists once again saved capitalist rule in France. The movement declined. The CGT Central Strike Committee bureaucratically called off the strikes and capitulated. The government promised a few concessions. The workers returned to their jobs once more without a decisive victory.

Balance Sheet of the Struggle

The general strike movement was defeated in its objectives. But the workers did not return in a spirit of defeat. Many remained out long after the back to work order, refusing to credit its authenticity. Others, particularly the miners, insisted on the complete removal of all troops, before they went back. Nearly 3,000,000 workers had participated in the great movement at its peak. Their militancy showed their revolutionary temper, undampened by three years of betrayals.

But the Stalinists suffered a severe blow. The disaffection during the strikes showed that they no longer had a monopoly control over the trade union, of the working masses. Their stranglehold was broken.

The capitalists and their government revealed their inability to cope with a mass movement of the workers by force. Its military and police proved to be completely inadequate and unreliable.

The extra-parliamentary movement of de Gaulle proved of no use to the French bourgeoisie in this situation, either. During the strike wave, it was nowhere in evidence. De Gaulle himself called off all public appearances at the time. For the time being, the strikes showed, the reactionary petty bourgeois movement of the RPF is strong only as an electoral machine. It is not yet prepared for combat against the workers. For that, the shop keepers and peasants among its following, who have profited from the inflationary black market, must first be pauperized by a further turn of the economic cycle.

In the period ahead, the strikes showed, the French bourgeoisie must rely on internal disintegration of the workers’ organizations, the sapping of their cohesion. For this role it has the service of Leon Blum and his “socialists” and of the trade union reformists under Jouhaux. The latter have set afoot a move to split the CGT, a move facilitated by the entire Stalinist postwar policy.

What the Workers Now Confront

Will this split of the workers’ ranks be successfully engineered? Will the Stalinists recover their influence? That is the immediate question in France today. The militancy displayed by the workers in the strike wave shows that they want a showdown struggle. The rebellion against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the unions shows that they no longer trust in it for leadership, as before. The reformists offer no new alternative, merely more consistent class collaboration with the bourgeoisie than the Stalinists. Thus, the road has been opened for a new leadership that will fight for trade union unity and for the revolutionary solution desired by the workers. That program is the program only of the Trotskyists in France today. Upon the further progress of the French Trotskyist party, already considerably fortified in the course of its participation in the recent mass movements, depends the outcome of the present situation.

The workers have shown their continued will to struggle, to power. They have begun to shake off the pernicious Stalinist leadership. The reformists offer them only a split to weaken their ranks for the benefit of their masters. When the revolutionary will of the French masses merges with the revolutionary program of the Trotskyists, no power on earth will be able to stop France from taking the road to the establishment of the Socialist United States of Europe.

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