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The New International, February 1947


Saul Berg

The Role of Centrism in France – I

The Fiasco of the Socialist ‘Left’ in 1934–39


From The New International, Vol. 13 No. 2, February 1947, pp. 50–53.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


One of the most illuminating and significant differences between the political situation of the French proletariat as it emerged from underground and before the Second World War was the complete absence after the war of any substantial organized centrist tendencies among the political movements of the working class. By centrism we refer here, of course, not to the Catholic parties of the “center” throughout Europe, but to any working class movement which vacillates between social reformism and the policies of revolutionary Marxism.

Are there then, today, no French workers with such a general political tendency? No; on the contrary there must be tens of thousands of them, since it is this group of workers that is most receptive to the small Trotskyist (Parti Communiste lnternationaliste) organization’s propaganda and activity and furnishes it with new adherents as it is won over by revolutionary ideas. In fact, the most striking aspect of the PCl’s activity in recent months has been its ability to hold meetings in city after city with an attendance that is gigantic in relation to the size of the party. This has undoubtedly been due not only to the ceaseless activities of the PCl, but to the fact that there was no other organization that even seemed to these workers to stand for the socialist revolution. There was no organized halfway house to block the path to the revolutionary party. Instead there were only the giant class collaborationist, patriotic Socialist and Stalinist movements on the one hand, and the revolutionary party of the Fourth International on the other, with a tremendous abyss between.

Let us compare this situation with that of pre-war times, trace the development of the centrist tendencies that existed, and see what finally became of them. To do this, we must first, however briefly, paint in the general background of French capitalism.

French capitalism until the 1930’s was far more stable than that of the rest of Europe. The great French Revolution had created a numerous class of small independent peasant proprietors, who, together with the rentiers and shopkeepers of the cities, actually constituted the majority of the population. Thus the social composition of France’s population was markedly different from countries like England and Germany, where the workers were in the majority and where the land was largely in the hands of big landowners.

The epoch of capitalist decline, setting in with the First World War, saw no revolutionary struggles in France comparable to those which took place in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy in the first years after the Russian Revolution. Nor did any actions fraught with possible revolutionary significance, such as the British General Strike of 1926, take place in France. The working class, while by no means prosperous, was not confronted with any crisis as desperate as that of the inflation in Germany in 1922–23, and was not plagued by unemployment to the extent of the German workers after 1929 or the “distressed areas” of Great Britain.

Nevertheless, the war and the Russian Revolution did have their effect on France by producing a mass Communist movement. This movement emerged from two sources – the left wing of the social democracy and the revolutionary syndicalists in the CGT. Together with the revolutionary syndicalists, the Communists set up the CGTU (the “Unitary” CGT). Communist strength quickly receded from the peak it reached in the original groundswell of 1920–21, as many Communists of recent persuasion reverted to their previous reformist and syndicalist ideas, but the party was relatively stabilized by the middle twenties and found itself a little over half the size of the Socialist movement in membership and electoral support. In 1930, the Communists received 750,000 votes to a Socialist vote of 1,750,000.

It must be remembered that this Communist movement was not the wretched Stalinist movement of today, but a movement of revolutionists, regardless of the incompetence of its successive leaderships. Many of the leaders of the French Communists were hopeless opportunists who had spent their whole political lives up to 1920 as reformist leaders. Their outlook was perfectly suited to fall in with the process of Stalinization. At the same time, this party was committed to a revolutionary program, had been built up in large part by real revolutionists, and was composed, in the main, of revolutionary workers. For this reason, it constituted a real pole of attraction to workers moving in the direction of a revolutionary policy, and as long as it remained such there was no substantial centrist tendency built up. The field was fully occupied, so to speak, by the classical Social Democracy, on the one hand (with minor opposition groups in it, of course) and the revolutionary movement, the Communists, on the other.

Effect of the Crisis

This situation of relative political stability ended when the world depression, starting in the United States in 1929, finally reached France three years later. The world market for the products of the famous French luxury industries disappeared and for the first time in over a generation substantial unemployment appeared. As the government sought to solve the economic crisis at the expense of the workers, resistance grew and there was a slow, steady rise of labor struggles in the years before the great working class struggles of May–June 1936.

The same period was marked by the victory of fascism in Germany in 1933 and in Austria in February 1934, and by a whole series of struggles in Spain, from the bloodless Republican Revolution of 1931 to the bloody suppression of the working class uprising of October 1934. These defeats of the workers’ movement brought sharply home to a large section of the Social Democracy in France and other countries the inadequacy of their traditional ideas, and strong currents moving in the direction of revolutionary Marxism began to manifest themselves.

However, the same period saw a speeding up in the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist movement. Between 1927 and 1934 one group after another was expelled, almost the entire leadership was affected by the turnover, and the party emerged thoroughly housebroken and ready to execute rapidly whatever turn was required by the Kremlin’s foreign policy. The turn required in 1934–36 was a sharp turn to the right to help Stalin woo the “democracies.”

Thus it happened that precisely when historical experiences were giving rise to substantial leftward movements in the Social Democracy, these movements met a Stalinist movement going headlong to the right. The result was of course terrible disorientation of the nascent left wing movements. Since at the same time the Trotskyists had finally abandoned any hope of reforming the Communist International, they reoriented themselves to these left-wing socialist tendencies as constituting the forces from which basic revolutionary cadres in the mass movement could be built up.

We now have a picture that makes evident the basis for a large centrist tendency, namely, the hopeless reformism of the Social Democrats, the degeneration of the Stalinists and the smallness of the Trotskyists at a time when large-scale historical events are pushing substantial elements of the socialist working class to the left. Having no place else to go, the centrists mobilized as large opposition groups within the Socialist Party.

The first great success of the rebellious rank and file in the Socialist Party was evidenced by the steps taken to appease it. At the party congress in 1933, the Leon Blum-Paul Faure leadership had to expel the extreme right wing in the party, led by Frossard, Deat and Marquet. At the same time a formally organized opposition group, called the Bataille Socialiste, led by Jean Zyromski and Marceau Pivert, was organized. This group held meetings of its own and published its own weekly paper. Almost immediately it gained the majority in the Paris region, always the most left section in the French Socialist Party.

Let us now see what political positions characterized this group, and the Blum-Faure leadership that it criticized. First, it must be made clear that so great has been the degeneration of the socialist movement since 1934 that the Leon Blum of that year sounds almost like a revolutionist when compared to the Socialist Party leader of the present day. The Blum of 1934 came out at the Socialist congress for the dictatorship of the proletariat, reaffirmed his party’s opposition to the extension of compulsory military training to two years, and was opposed to participating in any coalition government with bourgeois parties. Indeed, this had been the party’s traditional stand, and French politics was studded with the names of famous bourgeois politicians whose political efforts for the bourgeoisie began with their expulsion from the Socialist Party for accepting cabinet posts.

Nevertheless, in spite of verbal radicalism, the Blum leadership was, by all real standards, reformist. It proposed no activity for the party other than normal electoral activity, it was opposed to any organized activity by party members in the CGT, it was opposed to united front action with the Communists. The vague statements about “dictatorship of the proletariat” were unaccompanied by any concept of the revolutionary role of workers’ committees or the necessity for a vanguard revolutionary party organized democratically but with discipline in action. The majority of local party organizations were machines of local jobholders in the municipal councils or of deputies in the French Chamber.

The Pivertist Tendency

Against this leadership, the Bataille Socialiste group emerged first and foremost as the advocates of united front action. In this policy they were opposing not only the reformists but also the Stalinists, who at the beginning of 1934 were still in their ultraleft “third” period and were opposed to the united front. The tremendous appeal of united action in the face of the threat posed by the French fascist organizations brought the emerging left wing wide support.

On the question of the road to power, the Bataille Socialiste repudiated the traditional non-violent attitude of the reformists, but was extremely hazy as to the role of the Soviets. It shared with Blum the idea of an undisciplined, all-inclusive party. But most of all, confusion reigned on its analysis of Russia and the Comintern. Stalinist stooges, stooges of the Brandlerite Communist Right Opposition, people who said that what happened in Russia was not their business, pro-Bolsheviks, anti Bolsheviks – every conceivable outlook on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath could be found. Since so many different conclusions were drawn from the treasure trove of historical experience represented by the Russian Revolution and its degeneration, it was inevitable that the Bataille Socialiste would break up when the development of the French political situation removed these differences from the realm of theory and produced different policies and programs in the actual class struggle.

The headlong rush of the Stalinist policy to the right from 1934–6 sufficed to do this. Each new adoption of a social patriotic position by the Stalinists led to a new political crisis in the ranks of the centrist faction, until finally by the fall of 1935 the group had crystallized out into a clearly pro-Sta linist group on the one hand, led by Jean Zyromski, and a left centrist grouping, whose ranks were strongly influenced by the Trotskyists; and who were led by Marceau Pivert. This latter group, splitting away from Bataille Socialiste, formed the Gauche Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Left) faction.

The Stalin-Laval pact of 1935 was followed in a few months by the Dan-Bauer-Zyromski theses, in which Zyromski presented his excuses as to why the workers would have to sup port the “democracies” in a war against fascism. The extension of the recently formed united front to a Peoples Front that included the bourgeois Radical Party was likewise welcomed by Zyromski. This espousal of bourgeois coalitionism was accompanied by a little window dressing in the form of a demand for a “fighting” Peoples Front. Thus, the rightward turn of the Stalinists had such an effect on this politically unstable grouping that it supported by the end of 1935 policies which even the Blum Socialist leadership had been unable to espouse only a short year before. So ended half of the Socialist “left wing” in a Stalinoid swamp.

Role of Socialist Youth

While Zyromski moved with the Stalinists to the right, the Revolutionary Left developed closer to a revolutionary Marxist position. In the Socialist Youth of the Seine (the Paris region), the Left was entirely in the leadership, and an Entente was set up which included both Pivertists and Trotskyists. Throughout 1935 the Entente of the Socialist Youth of the Seine took the lead in revolutionary agitation. Its militant paper, Revolution, grew immensely in circulation. Revolution denounced the admission of the bourgeois Radicals to the Peoples Front, and called for the spreading of committees of action based on the workers’ organizations, and the formation of a workers’ militia as the only effective way to fight fascism. In the Bastille Day demonstration in 1935, it first be came obvious to the working class public that a great change had taken place when the Stalinist marchers sang the Marseillaise and waved the Tricolor, while the Socialist Youth of Paris carried the red flag, sang the Internationale and shouted revolutionary slogans.

With the spread of revolutionary views among the youth and the rank and file of the Socialist Party, the Blum leadership suddenly demonstrated how little it believed in an all-inclusive party when it came to including revolutionists. The Paris youth leadership, together with the leading Trotskyists in the party, were expelled. The Pivertists, the “Revolutionary Left,” now showed that they had not learned the necessity for implacable resistance to reformIsm. Faced with the choice between staying in Blum’s party on Blum’s terms, or helping to build a mass revolutionary party, they remained with the reformists. Pivert himself voted for the expulsion of the revolutionists.

Although the Trotskyists emerged from their experience in the French Socialist Party considerably increased in strength, they still existed on the scale of a propaganda group. Thus the failure to win over the bulk of the “Revolutionary Left” meant the failure to break a road to the masses. Centrism in the form of a “left” faction in the Socialist Party continued to be the main pole of attraction to revolutionary workers.

With the expulsion of the Trotskyists, the Pivertists slowly but surely capitulated to the political program of Blum. When the Blum cabinet was formed after the Peoples Front election victory of April 1936, Marceau Pivert accepted an Under-Secretaryship. The circle was not complete – that Socialist group which had developed furthest to the left in 1935 was now, one year later, participating in the coalition government with the bourgeoisie.

Nevertheless, the Pivert faction had not exhausted its possibilities. The tremendous strike wave of May–June 1936 brought thousands of workers pouring into the Socialist Party. From 80,000 party members in April the party grew to 200,000 a few months later. In the Paris region especially many of these workers rallied to the Pivert faction as the most radical and revolutionary sounding one that they could find. As the settlement of the strikes was followed by a period of slowly rising prices, th6! disillusionment of these workers led them more and more to the support of the “Revolutionary Left.”

In the Socialist Youth the growth of the left led to a new series of expulsions of the Paris youth leaders in June 1937, the expelled group setting up a new organization, the Jeunesse Socialiste Autonome (Independent Socialist Youth). This organization, with no adult counterpart, floundered hopelessly between the Trotskyist organization and the Pivert faction still in the Socialist Party. It was not to remain alone long. The gradual demoralization of the workers’ movement, because of the failures of the Peoples Front, and the abject capitulation of the Blum leadership before every demand put forward by the bourgeois Radicals, led to the point where even Pivert could not be tolerated by Blum. As a result, m June, 1938, at the height of its strength, the Revolutionary Left was expelled. At the Congress where the expulsion took place, the Pivertists had the political support of no less than 25 per cent of the delegates, representing 50,000 members, and including an absolute majority of the Paris region.

At last the centrists were faced with the task of building their own party. Immediately they showed themselves incapable of grappling with their problems. The differences which had seemed so trivial when they were all “happy” in the Socialist Party, now arose to plague them. Their few members in the Chamber of Deputies, afraid to face the next elections as members of the newly formed party, the PSOP (Socialist Workers and Peasants Party), went back to the Socialist Party. A battle broke out in the new party between the pro-Free Masonry and anti-Masonry factions. The bulk of the party leaders, including Pivert, saw no contradiction between revolutionary politics and membership in a secret society that united bourgeois and Socialist politicians as brothers.

The War Crisis as Test

Then in September 1938 the Munich crisis hit. Since the majority of the rank and file of the new party took a revolutionary stand, those PSOP leaders who were social-patriots or pacifists returned to the Socialist Party. Yet. the remaining leadership did not adopt a clear line to serve as a rallying point for the revolutionary elements in the working class. At this time. in the aftermath of the Munich crisis, the issue of war had become the primary political issue for the nation. Every variety of reformist politician could see a way out of the war crisis only in terms of what foreign policy “their” nation and “their” government should adopt toward Hitler and Stalin; Thus they all chose between appeasement of Hitler and new and better Munichs, or, on the other hand, support of the war preparations of the same Daladier government whose anti-labor policies were demoralizing the workers and weakening the labor organizations. The Socialist Party, disembarrassed of its left wing, now divided not on internal policies but on “pacifism,” espoused by Paul Faure, the party secretary, as against “bellicism,” espoused by Blum and Zyromski.

What could a non-internationalist pacifist policy be but the preparation for collaboration with a conquering Germany? Faure was thus acting politically as the agent for the Nazis as surely as Blum was for the “democracies.” And consistently enough, when the conquest came, it was the Faure half of the Socialist Party, together with the extreme right wing “neo-socialist” party of Deat and Marquet, and a group of CGT leaders associated with them that went into the Vichy government or even into direct collaboration with the Nazis in occupied France.

Their attitude toward this appeasement group was therefore the main political test that the PSOP leaders had to face. They failed miserably. When Belin and Dumoulin, powerful right wing leaders of the CGT, organized the “Workers Center for Anti-War Action” on a program totally devoid of internationalism, the PSOP leaders pushed their shop units into it and propagandized in their press for support of this “Anti-War Center.” The left wing workers knew that these same CGT leaders had been the most conservative force in the labor movement. Indeed, the revolutionary minority of the CGT, organized in a caucus called the “Class Struggle Trade Union Circles,” including in its ranks Trotskyists, Pivertists and revolutionary syndicalists, had had to direct its main fire in the unions against this leadership. The only reaction among the rank and file Pivertists to this policy of cooperation with the appeasers was one of complete bewilderment. These workers, let us remember, were left wing, revolutionary workers. They were international-minded. Their party had been throughout the Spanish Civil War the party that supported and befriended the POUM, the nearest approach to a revolutionary party of the masses in that struggle. The same issues of the PSOP paper (called Juin ’36, after the date of the historic strike movement) that called for the support of the appeasers carried calls for solidarity and financial aid for the thousands of POUM members pouring over the Spanish border into exile in France. The only policy that could reconcile their support of the Spanish anti-fascist struggle with opposition to war was one of revolutionary internationalist opposition. But to what international force could the PSOP point? They were opposed, like all centrist parties, to real internationalism in the form of a world party. Instead they were affiliated to an information bureau in London, made up of centrist parties that had every conceivable position on war and that made no pretense of a common international policy except in the vaguest terms. Thus the PSOP leaders, after adopting revolutionary sounding resolutions for so many years, were indistinguishable from the bourgeois and reformist pacifists when the war really loomed.

Disintegration of PSOP

Their disintegration proceeded apace. Starting out in July 1938 with over 20,000 charter members, Pivert, the great realist, had to report four months later, in November, only 5,000 members left. The membership was to decline gradually to 3,000 in the next few months. Even among these the battle over Free Masonry continued to be fought, and this struggle was accompanied by disputes over every other political question facing the new party. The 1939 party congress saw no less than four distinct resolutions presented on the fight against war, ranging from outright pacifism at one end to revolutionary defeatism at the other. Meanwhile the Pivertist youth had already completed their development to revolutionary Marxism, and Marcel Beaufrère, a Trotskyist, became their national secretary. The left wing of the PSOP, led by Daniel Guérin and Lucien Weitz, approached more and more closely to the Trotskyists.

The dénouement came with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. Pivert’s PSOP, spineless, politically confused, torn by incompatible factions, was incapable of functioning under conditions of illegality. Its left wing, including the Trotskyists, set up the Committees for the Fourth International to function illegally. The right wing ceased completely to function. In a year and one-half a movement of 50,000 members had ceased to exist! What a telling commentary on its political caliber!

(A second article by Berg, analysing developments within the French Socialist Party since the end of the war, will appear in a forthcoming issue. – Editors)

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