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New International, March 1947

 

Saul Berg

The Role of Centrism in France – II

The Record of the Socialist Party “Left”

 

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 3, March 1947, pp.&#nbsp;83–85.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

In the first article in this study we traced the evolution of those groups in France before the war that we designate as centrist, that is, standing between the ideas of reformism and those of revolutionary Marxism. This tendency, which arose with the leftward swing of many Social-Democratic workers after the first victories of fascism, reached its apex with the great struggles of June 1936, declined during the gradual demoralization of the French workers under the People’s Front, and finally disappeared as an organized force, when its leaders capitulated and dissolved their organization at the beginning of World War II in September 1939.

Since the ousting of the Nazis, France has had only two years of legal working class activity, yet already the political trends within the working class show all too ominously a repetition of the same disastrous pattern as in the Thirties. This repetition occurs despite many surface differences, and it will therefore be necessary to describe in some detail what changes have taken place, organizationally and in the consciousness of the workers.

The first and most obvious contrast between the post-war and pre-war periods is in the strength of the Stalinists. During the heyday of the People’s Front, 1936–37, the Socialist Party received more votes than the Stalinists, had approximately the same size membership, and, in collaboration with the reformist syndicalist leaders, like Jouhaux, Belin and Dumoulin, enjoyed a two-to-one majority over the Stalinists in the CGT (General Confederation of Labor). In view of the fact that a substantial section of this Socialist Party was more or less “left,” by comparison with both the Stalinists and right-wing socialists, it is easily understandable that the left wing could constitute a considerable pole of attraction to workers looking for revolutionary action.

Today and ever since the Liberation in August, 1944, the situation has changed radically in this respect. The Communist Party has three times the membership of the Socialists. It received 5,000,000 votes to the Socialists’ 3,000,000 in the last election. And, most important of all, at the recent CGT congress, it received over 8,000 mandates to the reformists’ 2,000 – a crushing four-to-one majority. In every basic industry, the Stalinists control the national union federation.

This change began during the underground days. The Stalinists, with their rigorous discipline, built up an effective and all-sided resistance movement of their own, which constituted the only serious resistance grouping in the proletarian centers. The Socialists, on the other hand, loose and undisciplined to begin with, were split down the middle, since a big section of the leadership, led by Spinasse, supported the Petain Vichy regime. Only gradually, and in a more or less uncoordinated fashion, did Socialists enter effectively into the underground struggle – and in most cases through participation in all-inclusive non-party resistance groups.

The next noteworthy fact is the great increase registered in total strength of the working, class movement as against pre-war days. The CGT counts today 6,000,000 adherents. In January, 1936, it had a million, and while in June, 1936, it soared to 5,000,000, decline almost immediately set in, and the membership was down to 2,000,000 at the end of 1938. Furthermore, the combined Socialist-Communist vote in every election since the Liberation has been substantially larger than the working class itself, which remains a minority of the population in France today! Unlike England, Germany, the United States, Belgium, etc., the peasants and urban petty bourgeois are the majority in France.

When we digest these facts we begin to understand where the SP got its 3,000,000 votes, since it approached the Stalinists much more closely in voting strength than in the CGT. The answer is that today the Socialist Party of France has gained petty bourgeois support while losing proletarian support. This fact is basic in attempting to understand what possibilities there are of any leftward development inside it. It is a fact that can be easily overlooked by those who proceed from the generalization that the working class is the traditional social base of the reformists.

Professional men, civil service employees, shopkeepers, peasants – these, not industrial workers – constitute today the majority of Socialist Party supporters. To what extent this shift is reflected among the party activists and members generally cannot be ascertained exactly. We can say unhesitatingly that any centrist “left” tendency that arises in the French Socialist Party today has far more limited possibilities of development than it had in the Thirties. This difference in the relationship of forces within the working class has had considerable effect on the orientation of the Trotskyist movement in France. While our own programmatic position on the nature of Stalinism is sharply different from that of our French comrades, we can still only consider it natural in the present situation in France that the bulk of the new adherents to their party – nine out of every ten, in fact – come from the French Communist Party. Our party represents in the minds of a substantial section of advanced French workers, the Internationalist Communists as against the Russified “Communists.”
 

Ferment in Socialist Party

All the more interesting, then, as a measure of the depth of French social unrest, is the recent rebellion in the French Socialist Party. Disillusioned with the fruits of the three-party coalition – Catholic, Socialist, Communist – some middle class supporters of the Socialists have already reverted to the bourgeois parties – the MRP or the Radicals – or to apathy. On the other hand, pressure has come from the worker elements in the party for a more leftist course. Faced with the fact that the party’s losses in the past years have been greatest among the workers, many of the parliamentary and secondary leaders of the party have sought recently a policy which would be at least superficially more attractive to revolutionary workers, without actually endangering the comfortable government jobs of the party wheelhorses. These elements are interested primarily in taking advantage of the rank and file revolt within the Socialist Party for the purpose of furthering their own ambitions for leadership, and in order to put through policies which they think will be more successful in wooing votes in the elections.

Thus, in examining the growth of a new “left” wing in the French Socialist Party, we will first find rumblings of deep discontent in the ranks, then the adoption of “left” resolutions on policy in a number of provincial party federations, then the climbing on to the rebel bandwagon of all sorts of hopelessly careerist leaders, and finally the victory of the rebels at the party convention on the basis of a compromise program, a considerably watered-down version of the resolutions adopted in many local federations led by left wingers. Let us add, as a post-convention dénouément, there will take place a touching reconciliation between the new leaders and the old – the unshakable unity of the great Socialist Party has been preserved.

Let us examine in detail the political position of the left wing Socialists, starting with the most advanced resolutions before the recent convention. In these resolutions, adopted by several departmental federations, plus a number of local sections In other departments, the central demand put forward is for an end to tripartism, i.e., the collaboration of the Socialists and Stalinists with the Catholic MRP of Bidault. Supplementing this demand for Socialist independence in the Assembly is the demand for extension of the powers of factory councils, so that they will share in production management, inspection of company accounts by workers, and finally, opposition to the wage freeze and a demand for the application of the sliding scale of wages and prices. The resolutions emphasize the need for reliance on direct action by the workers for the achievement of their demands, and demand that the party orient itself in the future according to the needs of the class struggle, and not the needs of parliamentary maneuvering. All these demands indicate that a healthy proletarian strata remains in the SP or that at least sections of the party are sensitive to the needs of the workers.

Break the coalition with the bourgeois MRP, mass action for the sliding scale, open the books to the factory councils – what is all this but the program of action advanced week in and week out in the paper of the French Trotskyists? True, it is not accompanied in the case of these left Socialists by resolutions demonstrating a revolutionary internationalist position on war and foreign policy, or by recognition of the need and role of a revolutionary party and International. Nevertheless, these slogans, raised for the first time in many years, by a substantial section of the Socialist Party, represent what these advanced workers have learned from two years of disillusionment with the class collaborationist policies of the party leadership.
 

Record of Left Wing at Congress

Now left us see how the “left” parliamentarians proceeded to emasculate this program. They began, on the first day of the Socialist Party Congress (August 1946) by taking a superficially radical step; this consisted of voting against the rapport moral. This report is a general political-organizational report on the state of the party and the stewardship of its leaders in the preceding period. Generally, factions with political disagreements on specific points only, vote for the rapport moral. In fact, in twenty-five years the report has never been voted down. Superfically viewed, opposition to the report would indicate irreconcilability, and when the report was voted down by two-to-one, journalists hastened to report that a great revolt had taken place in the organization and that the Socialist Party was on the verge of a split.

If the rank-and-file left wingers thought so also, they were rudely awakened the next day, when political discussion began in earnest. One by one, the leaders of the left wing, Jean Rous, Leon Boutbien, Yves Dechezelles, took the floor – not to emphasize differences with the Blum leadership – but to minimize them! The policy of coalitionism was endorsed by each, together with vague phrases about the necessity for a certain militant approach on the part of the Socialist ministers, since they were not for tripartism at all costs. We will see later how untrue even these statements were.

Finally, Guy Mollet, leader of the left wing, took the floor. His speech was characterized by brave calls to action outside the halls of the Chamber of Deputies, by emphasizing, for example, that “it is more valuable to gain a post of secretary of a local union or departmental federation of the CGT than to elect another mayor or deputy.” Should the party, therefore, call the masses to struggle against the government to gain their demands? God forbid! Mollet came out for tripartism 100 per cent. Here is a typical selection from his speech:

Speaking to us of participation in power in a capitalist regime, Blum told us that our men in the government must be the honest and loyal directors of the affairs of capitalism.

It is not a question here of discussing the individual honesty and loyalty of our men in the government. We know that everywhere and always they have sought to be the best.

No doubt Mollet is referring here to people like Moutet, Socialist Minister of Colonies, who has energetically undertaken the bloody oppression of colonial peoples in Indo-China, North Africa and Madagascar. Mollet then proceeded to distinguish between efficiency and honesty in office on the one hand, and the necessity of using office to defend the interests of the workers, on the other. Finally he arrived at the truly astounding conclusion that “participation in the government is a form of class struggle.” In reality, all Mollet and the other “leftists” are doing is aping the Stalinist leaders, who have been more skillful in combining governmental sell-outs with radical demagogy. They want to compete with the Stalinists, not realizing that since the Stalinists have the tradition of the Russian Revolution and of Communism behind them, the only successful competition by the Socialists can be on the basis of a truly revolutionary program that exposes the Stalinists, and not by revolutionary verbiage combined with reactionary practice.

In terms of electing a majority on the National Committee, the “left” won at the Socialist Congress, but not until it had thrown overboard all revolutionary pretensions by reaching an agreement with the right wing on a common political resolution. The extent to which the left wing disintegrated can be judged by comparing the action on the rapport moral with the acceptance of the following touching motion:

The Congress addresses to our comrade-ministers the expression of its gratitude for the energetic action that they carry on in the government and assures them of its affectionate confidence.

The next week Leon Blum was reappointed political director of the party organ by the new National Committee. All was peaceful once more. The party had a new left wing general secretary, Guy Mollet; a new assistant secretary, Yves Dechezelles; but its political line was changed by not so much as a hair!

A brief summary of the party’s role since the August congress demonstrates the emptiness of the left’s promises about vigorous action. The party, under its new leadership, continued the coalition with the MRP, not on the basis of its programmatic demands, but on the basis of yielding to the MRP’s demands for changes in the Constitution. The document finally submitted to the voters in October was a long step backward from the proposed constitution of April. Is it any wonder that in the November elections a million of its voters, unimpressed by the total lack of initiative from the Socialists, moved in the direction of the Stalinists or the bourgeois center?

Perhaps the shabbiest performance of the Malletist “left wing” came with the outbreak of full scale war in Indo-China in December. When Marius Montet, Socialist Colonial Minister, went to Indo-China, he was accompanied by Léon Boutbien, left wing member of the party executive. Boutbien’s reputation was better than that of most of the Malletists. Indeed, a year ago, when there was no Mallet faction, Boutbien, in a speech at the Socialist Congress, sharply demarcated himself from the rest of the party, declaring that there could be no choice between Anglo-American and Russian imperialism, that socialism could not be national, but must strike out on an internationalist path. Even the Trotskyists had illusions about him, referring to him early in December as the “anti-colonialist Socialist, Boutbien.”

What our comrades failed to keep in mind was that centrist leaders take seriously only their responsibilities to their reformist colleagues. A year ago our sterling Léon was a private citizen in his party. But now he was the party’s official representative and his “comrades” were officially in charge of the Colonial Ministry. Boutbien returned from his mission with the message that the hostilities in Indo-China were due to the extremists on both sidesl I will not duplicate here the wealth of material we have published in our press on the French war against the Viet Namese people. But no condemnation can properly characterize the treachery toward the colonial masses contained in this statement of Boutbien. Suffice it to say that no appeal from the Trotskyism for united action against the war has met with response from the leaders of the Socialist “left.” The “left” has not come out for independence for the Viet Namese. Again what a shameful contrast with even the centrists of ten years ago (for example, during the years that Daniel Guerin was a leader of the centrist Pivert faction of the Socialist Party he earned an enviable reputation among French colonial revolutionists because of his consistent public championing of total, unconditional independence for the colonies). Once again, what was almost taken for granted in circles outside those of the hardened reformists, is now advocated only by the Trotskyism.

Here we begin to see the repetition of the pattern of the Thirties, when the workers first rushed into “their” parties, only to be betrayed and to pass finally into demoralization and apathy. The fact that Stalinism is so much stronger today then ten years ago does not fundamentally change the situation. The Stalinists are not exempt from the operation of the same social and political trends. Today the Stalinists continue to hold posts in the French cabinet that are concerned with production. They have publicly opposed all strikes that have broken out thus far and in general repudiate the strike as “the arm of the trusts in the present period.” More and more frequently does the rank and file in the unions get “out of control.” In certain districts it becomes increasingly difficult to prevent fraternization with the Trotskyists.

The danger inherent in the present situation is the fact that the gap between the objective requirements of the situation and the subjective state of organization and political leadership of the workers is greater than ever before. In this sense, the absence of any large centrist tendency has a positive and a negative side. Its negative side consists of the fact that it is not only a sign of the extreme corruption and senility of the Socialist Party, but also evidence of the generally lowered political level of the French working class. Its positive side is the fact that the way is clear for the Trotskyists to raise their banner as the only revolutionary party in France, to attract into their ranks the thousands of advanced workers disillusioned with Social-Democracy and Stalinism, so that they can assemble in time a solid vanguard party, rooted among the masses, capable of leading the struggle for socialism when the period of lull gives way to a revolutionary crisis.

 
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