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The New International, Winter 1958

A. Giacometti

The Decline of French Socialism

Balance Sheet of the French Socialist Party


From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 9–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The material presented by our contributor, A. Giacometti, is of highly informative interest to everyone concerned with the development of the socialist movement in France. However, we cannot share the final conclusion he reaches from the description of the political and ideological decay of the French Socialist party. The profound discontentment, and even disgust, of many French socialists, left-wing socialists in particular, with the leadership and course of the French Socialist party is perfectly understandable, for both leadership and policy are a disgrace to the name of socialism. The refusal of these socialists to remain in or to enter the French party, while equally understandable, is in our view an error by which they have involuntarily contributed to the disastrous state of socialism in France.

For at least twenty years, principled socialists of all kinds have turned their backs upon the S.F.I.O., basically because of the same conditions as those described by our contributor, and have sought to set up organizations independent of and hostile to not only the Communist party but also to the S.F.I.O. In no country have so many such attempts been made as in France. All of them failed to establish or maintain a significant socialist movement. We are anything but convinced that current attempts will fare better. On the contrary, it appears to us that the indispensable work of reshaping and reconstructing French socialism can only be retarded by sincere socialists continuing this abstention from living and working in the S.F.I.O., with all the known difficulties – an abstention which has helped, not hindered, the consequent overwhelming predominance in it of the present leadership and the present course. It is most important to draw up the kind of balance-sheet that comrade Giacometti draws up of the S.F.I.O. But it is not less important to cast up a balance sheet of the numerous efforts so vainly made in the past two decades to build a socialist movement outside the S.F.I.O. and in irreconcilable conflict with it. – The Editor

* * *

To describe and analyze the French Left today is a difficult task. Where to begin? The concept itself has become elusive and ambiguous. It is not, as many have said, that the terms of “Left” and “Right” have become meaningless. For us who continue to view the working class as a sociological fact, as a community of action with specific interests, tasks, historical aims and perspectives, the terms have never lost their clarity. To us, the “Left” is the broad, historical movement of the working class, the movement which represents its interests, seeks to fulfill its tasks and purposes. To spell it out: the “Left” is the movement which seeks to establish a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of production. In all countries there are organizations which, each in their own way, represent this historical movement: socialist parties, labor parties, revolutionary nationalist movements, trade-unions.

But if we turn to France today, we are faced with the fact that no such movement exists, at least not in organized form. There are, to be sure, the traditional institutions of the working class: two large parties, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party (S.F.I.O.); three important trade-unions: C.G.T., C.F.T.C. and F.O. What these institutions have in common is their lack of real content. Of the parties, it can be said today that they do not even represent the historical movement of the working class implicitly and in spite of themselves. The trade-unions only represent a minority of the working class, and not necessarily its most active and conscious part. The bulk of the workers is unorganized, and the real life of the working class takes place outside of their scope.

The two major mass movements in recent years – the strikes of 1953 and 1955 – were initiated spontaneously, outside the trade-unions, and they were carried forward to a large extent by the unorganized. Figures of actual union membership are difficult to obtain, but it seems doubtful that the number of paid-up members for the three major federations exceeds 1.8 millions (1 million for the C.G.T., 500,000 for the C.F.T.C. and 300,000 for F.O.) [1*] According to a well-informed union official, the total number of union members at the Renault auto works does not exceed 2,000 – out of a total labor force of 40,000.

Union elections also give an indication: in the union elections at Renault of May 1947, abstentions ran up to 41.5%; at Citroen, the average percentage of abstentions is 50%. [1]

In the political elections, the disaffection of the working class is even more evident. According to an analysis of the 1951 elections by the French Institute for Public Opinion Research (I.F.O.P.) 1.9 million workers voted for the C.P. (38% of the total C.P. vote), 576,000 voted for the S.F.I.O. (21% of the total S.F.I.O. vote) and 450,000 voted for the christian-democratic M.R.P. (19% of the M.R.P. vote) while approximately 5 million did not vote at all. [2]

This withdrawal of the French working class from its organizations often astonishes the foreign observer. It is easily forgotten that in each country the working class movement of necessity shares many features of the society and culture as a whole. The institutions of the French labor movement are no exception: they have their own share of the unreality of all official French institutions.

If it were necessary to characterize the French economy in a sentence, one would have to refer to the contradictions between its modern industrial equipment and a completely antiquated system of distribution, leading to the artificial restriction of demand and to general stagnation. On the political level, the same conflict exists between all elements that seek a modern solution (of whatever type) to the problems of production and the fossilized institutions of a State that seems to exist for the exclusive protection of the most backward and narrow local privileges. Since 1944, successive waves of social revolution, European integration, Mendesist reform have spent themselves against this rock of “Malthusian” conservative institutions. The devices by which contradictions of this nature are smoothed over or solved in well-functioning bourgeois democracies (parties, elections, votes in Parliament) have proved completely inadequate. The country is ruled by an omnipotent and irresponsible bureaucratic apparatus, while the people elects an irresponsible Parliament, which spawns one impotent government after another. The mechanism of official political life has not broken down but functions in a void; the mass of the people has withdrawn its interest from it and seeks to express itself by other means.

Both Communist and Socialist parties have become deeply involved in this shadow life of official politics: they are indeed among its main supports, and share many of its features. They are included, with reason, in the disaffection and mistrust the people, and particularly the working class, feels towards “politics” in general.

Some will object that these parties, after all, exist. It is true: there are party organizations, a party opinion, a party press. Voters continue to cast their ballots for the party tickets. But if one looks at the role these organizations play, at their real function in society, it becomes clear that they are important only by virtue of their inert bulk, in a purely negative way. From the point of view of the historical working-class movement, they are nothing more than obstacles. Since this has not always been the case, and since large numbers of workers and socialists still do not see it that way, it is necessary to explain. In what way are they obstacles? How and when did this come about? Who do these parties represent and what do they want? When these questions are answered, the perspectives of the real labor movement in France will become clearer too.

SINCE THE END OF THE WAR, the history of the French Socialist Party (S.F.I.O.) has been one of steady and rapid decline. In this respect, French social-democracy represents an almost unique instance in Europe. From the organizational point of view, all social-democratic parties have progressed or held their own; from the political point of view, they have shown, for the most part, a greater vitality than was generally expected at the close of the war. In France, the contrary has taken place.

This decline of the S.F.I.O. is equally striking on all levels: in terms of numerical strength of organized structure, of social composition, of age composition, of political, cultural and theoretical vitality The statistical facts of the decline have been assembled by scholars such as Raymond Fusilier, Pierre Rimbert, Maurice Duverger and others, who have devoted well known studies to this problem. It is useful to summarize these data here, as they save a lot of explaining. First of all the decline in membership is perhaps the most striking fact [3]:

































A glance at these figures shows that since 1945 the S.F.I.O. has lost over two thirds of its membership. After having been the strongest ever in its history in 1945, it is now at the lowest ebb since 1927. Moreover, the departure of the old members is coupled with a failure to recruit new ones. In his essay on the S.F.I.O., Maurice Duverger remarked [4]:

... in the years 1925–1928, when the party’s strength was about equal to its strength today, many new members joined it every year (between 20,000 and 50,000 each year). People left, but others came to take their place. When the total number dropped, as in 1932–34, it meant that the number of the former was greater than that of the latter, but the recruitment remained significant: about 19,000 new members joined in 1933, almost 15,000 in 1934. Today this turnover no longer exists. The sources of recruitment have practically dried up. Old members leave, nobody takes their place: only 708 new members in 1948, for a total number of approximately 285,000! In 1950, the party claimed 5,000 new members, but the rounded and vague figure leaves room for every kind of doubt. Since 1951 the party leadership no longer dares to publish figures, which is symptomatic.

The nature of this decline is different from that of previous crises. Since the founding of the unified party in 1905, four significant drops in membership occurred. All these drops are short in time (none lasts longer than three years) and can be attributed to specific causes: World War I and its consequences, the split which gave birth to the Communist Party, the departure of the “neo-socialist” right wing in 1933, the expulsion of the left wing – the future P.S.O.P. – in 1938.

The present drop in membership is a continuous process of almost ten years, if one excepts the short-lived recovery of 1954–56. It is not the result of one or several splits, as before the war, but of a general decline, although small groups have left the party in 1948 and in late 1956. Very few of the former members left to join or to form other organizations: there is no amputation, only a wasting-away. Splits assume political vitality, energy, fighting; a wasting-away may mean many things, but excludes all of the above.

It could be pointed out that the drop in membership is not a phenomenon confined to the S.F.I.O., but one which has affected all French parties since 1945. The Communist Party, for instance, has dropped from 1 million members at the end of the war to 430,000 members today, while the circulation of L’Humanité has shrunk from 601,000 copies in 1945–46 to 173,000 copies in 1954. The general process of de-politicalization does not account, however, for the extent of the drop. Moreover, the popular vote of the S.F.I.O. has also shrunk considerably during the same period [5]:

table cellpadding="1" cellspacing="1" align="center">



of votes






1946 (June)



1946 (Nov.)






In 1932 and 1936 the S.F.I.O. represented approximately 20 per cent of the voters; thus, even if one discounts the effects of the general turn to the Left at the end of the war, the decline remains substantial.

The party’s Paris daily, Le Populaire, dropped from a circulation of 278,000 copies in 1945–46 to the level of a miserable one-sheet bulletin today, with a circulation of 27,000 copies in 1954 of which only 35 per cent were actually sold. It has declined further since.

Why this unprecedented drop in membership and influence? There are general political reasons which we mentioned above: the withdrawal of the French people from political life. But the specific reasons weigh more heavily in the balance. In the immediate post-war years, where the French working-class and, for that matter, most other people, were looking for radical solutions, a party that took the main responsibility for prosecuting the war in Indo-China, repressing the nationalist movements in Algeria and Madagascar, freezing the wages, stabilizing the political regime and turning the country into a pawn of U.S. foreign policy could not help but disappoint its working-class and left wing supporters. In fact, the consequences of a conservative policy at that particular time turned out to be more serious than a passing disappointment: it was during these years that the party shifted its social base and changed its political nature. It was not until the government of Guy Mollet that the full impact of these changes were revealed.

It is true that between 1954 and 1956 the downward trend was slightly reversed. For one thing, the party was getting close to rock-bottom and those oppositionists that remained in spite of their disagreement with the leadership represented a selection of case- hardened people, determined to stay in the party even under very difficult circumstances. On the other hand, the party had undergone a long “opposition cure.” Its role in the Indo-Chinese war and Jules Moch’s activities as a Minister of the Interior were far enough removed in time to be forgotten by many. The statements of the party leaders seemed to show a genuine desire for reform, and their strong support of “Mendesism” led many people to view the S.F.I.O. once again as a party of reform with potentialities for growth and, perhaps, radical developments. Although the party did not grow nearly as much as the “Mendesist” wing of the Radical Party, it also benefited from the general trend towards liberalism and reform.

In the elections of January 1956, which brought the “Republican Front” coalition into power, the S.F.I.O. polled 3,171,985 votes, an increase of roughly 500,000, representing 15 per cent of the total vote. It is interesting to note that in these elections the number of abstentionists also decreased from 19.8 per cent to 17.2 per cent. [6]

Within three months, however, the party plunged once more downward, this time to hitherto unfathomed depths. By its policy in Algeria and in the Middle East, and by its brutal suppression of the opposition within the party, the party leadership created a situation where, for the first time since 1947, compact groups were leaving the party, the “Action Socialiste” group, led by Andrée Viénot of the Ardennes Federation, being the most important. The loss of party members resumed and increased with every new sanction against militants of the opposition: the expulsion of Weitz, the sanctions against Pivert, Philip and others, the dissolution of the student organization, etc. In July 1957, Maurice Duverger estimated the party membership at 96,000; it has doubtlessly gone down since. [7]

In terms of popular vote, on the other hand, the party has held its own since 1951: this is shown by the various local elections which have taken place since 1956, and it has remained so even after Suez. An analysis of these votes shows the reason: the party of Mollet and Lacoste has won the support of right-wing voters, who have come to view it as a solid bastion for their ideas and interests.

This brings us to the center of the problem: more important than the numerical decline itself, is the change that has occurred in the party during this decline. Its recent political evolution cannot be understood without reference to the changes in social composition, geographical distribution, age composition and organizational set-up within the S.F.I.O. The partial recovery of 1954–56 then appears as the result of a misunderstanding that was rapidly and decisively cleared up during the government of Guy Mollet.

The most recent data on the party’s social composition go back to 1955. They concern the party membership as a whole (based on a sample of 15,000 members), the cadres (i.e., the members of the Executive Committees of the Departmental Federations, the members of the parliamentary groups and the members of the Directing Committee) and the voters. In the following table, the figures concerning the election candidates refer to the 1951 elections. “No profession” means mostly housewives. [8]

Social group










pop. %

Workers (industrial)






Workers (agricultural)






Civil servants





Office workers





Pensioned and ret.











Shopkeepers, artis












No profession





Prop. of women




*Included under “farmers”

Among the party membership, 58 per cent are wage-earners, and 30–35 per cent are probably workers: the figures for “civil-servants” includes probably one third or more workers in the public services (railways, city transport, electric power and gas), who have a special statute, and the figure for “farmers” includes a small number of agricultural workers. Nevertheless, the specific weight of the working class in the party is small. If one combines the results of political elections and of union elections, it appears that the S.F.I.O. has no working class following in any of the basic industries nor, as we shall see, in the main industrial concentrations: very little in mining, next to nothing in the metal industries, in steel, in maritime transport, in the building trades. The workers of the S.F.I.O. are mostly scattered in small enterprises, and work for the most part in secondary industries: leather, ceramics, textile.

On the other hand, the “new middle class” (civil servants and office workers) represents about 25 per cent of the membership; the “old middle class” (shopkeepers, artisans, professional) about 20 per cent. These categories are relevant because under the present circumstances the political behavior of most civil servants and office workers is determined not so much by the fact that they live by selling their labor power as by their bourgeois aspirations. There are notable exceptions: the bank clerks in Paris, for instance, and the post-office workers, but in general the “white collar” groups have remained conservative.

The change in the social composition of the S.F.I.O. parallels a geographical shift of the basis of its support from North-East to South-West and from the industrial to rural regions. This is the phenomenon that Duverger called the “radicalization” of the S.F.I.O., that is, the tendency of the party to adopt the features of the Radical Party and to replace the latter on the political spectrum.

Before 1919, the S.F.I.O. was mostly a northern party, based on the industrial regions of Paris and of North Eastern France (steel and mining). After the split leading to the founding of the Communist Party, the movement towards the South begins. By 1928 and 1932 the S.F.I.O. began to replace the increasingly conservative Radical Party in its traditional strongholds in the South-West and in the West. In 1946, the S.F.I.O. weakens in the North, East and Center regions, and again gains in the South. Duverger concludes: “... except for the mining departments of the North, the S.F.I.O. has become more a southern than a northern party: it occupies the position of the old “republican left” of pre-1900 days, which had no specific socialist characteristic. It thus inherits the Radical traditions.” [9]

Today, the two “industrial” departments of the North and Pas-de-Calais represent about a quarter of the party’s membership. The second largest group is the Paris region (Seine and Seine-et-Oise) representing about a tenth. The Marseille region (Bouches-du-Rhone) represents another tenth. The rest of the membership (over half) is distributed in the provincial federations, most of which are Southern.

The shift from North-East to South-West also involves a shift from the industrial to the rural regions: in the elections of 1951, the votes of the S.F.I.O. were composed as follows:

From communities under 2,000 inhabitants



From communities between 2,000 and 5,000


From communities between 5,000 and 20,000


From communities between 20,000 and 100,000


From communities over 100,000 inhabit


This does not mean, however, that the party has succeeded in gaining significant support among the farmers, like the C.P. has been able to do: as we have seen, only 8% of the S.F.I.O. voters are farmers. The S.F.I.O. tends to become less a rural party than a party of the small provincial towns. [10]

The political consequences of this shift have not been either immediate or direct. The two large federations of the North, with a working class majority, have been so far among the most steady supporters of the Mollet apparatus, while several southern federations have voted for minority resolutions. The geographical shift has reflected more directly on the psychological climate within the party, and on its organizational habits. Like all parties in the Marxist tradition, the S.F.I.O. was originally organized as a centralized and disciplined mass party, based on an active membership of hundreds of thousands, welded together by a system of sections and federations. This structure is now being increasingly replaced by another type of organization, characteristic of bourgeois parties: the party comes alive only at election time, and is held together between elections by a committee or bureau of party functionaries. The membership hardly participates in the life of the party, nor is the party relevant to the lives of the members. Often the local committees claim a membership that exists on paper only and whose dues are paid by generous donators. These paper members then become some of the most reliable supporters of administrative majorities at party congresses.

In other places, the local party section becomes a club where old-timers meet to cultivate memories of the Popular Front or Liberation period. It is easy to see how difficult it would be to spoil the atmosphere of the club by suggesting action on the issues of the day.

These organizational habits and practices bring the S.F.I.O. close to Saragat’s Italian Social-Democratic Party, which is in every respect more backward than its French counterpart and perhaps represents the image of the latter’s future.

The evolution from mass party to electoral machine is also shown in the “membership ratio,” i.e. the proportion of party members to voters. In left wing mass parties, the ratio ought to be high: the higher the ratio, the more intense the participation of the ranks in the party’s life, the stronger the roots of the party in the population. For the social-democratic labor parties of Britain and Austria the ratio is about 40%; in Sweden and Denmark it is about 35%; in Norway 25% and in Switzerland over 20%. In France, the “membership ratio” of the S.F.I.O. exceeded 10% only once, in 1936, but hardly ever dropped below 7%. In 1946, it was 9%. In 1955, however, it had dropped to 4%. [11] Today it is even lower, since the party membership has decreased much faster than the popular vote.

Finally, the party has grown old. The sampling of 1955 indicated the following proportions for each age group: (in percent) [12]:

Under 25 years



From 25–30 years


From 30–40 years


From 40–50 years


Over 50 years


Another sampling of 1952, by the French Institute for Public Opinion Research, among the party’s electorate, confirmed these results [13]:







in tot. pop.

Under 35 years




From 50–60 years




Over 65 years




These proportions grow worse as one gets closer to the top leadership. Although the S.F.I.O. is not strictly speaking a party of old people (the average age of the members and voters is higher in the right-wing parties, and the proportion of pensioned and retired voters is highest in the Radical Party) it is a party on the older side of middle age, with an insignificant proportion of youth and, more important, with an inability to recruit among the youth. Among its top leaders and parliamentarians, it has its generous share of the ancient French politicians “who never resign and rarely die.”

The high proportion of older people in the age-structure of the party has had a double effect: first it determines the psychological atmosphere: slow reactions to new situations, a world made up of pious recollections, of small, rigidly observed routine habits. Secondly, it reinforces the conservative tendencies of apparatus rule: advancement is slow and based on seniority alone. Creative intelligence, drive, outstanding abilities are not an asset but a handicap in this kind of organization.

From another point of view, the social composition has also contributed to strengthening these tendencies: the high proportion of civil servants has undoubtedly favored the bureaucratization of the party and the rule of the General Secretariat. The habits of discipline, of obedience to authority, the acceptance of administrative hierarchy and dependence are always present in a large group of civil servants and office workers, and assert themselves with particular force in a conservative social climate.

[Line of text missing] favored by the heterogeneity of the party’s class composition: in the absence of a dynamic policy, the apparatus is the principal force which keeps together the contradictory interests that have sought shelter in the party.

One of the most important consequences of this situation has been the disappearance of the party ideology: the apparatus shuns theory, as it necessarily involves critical thinking. For ten years now, any interest for theory has been confined to the isolated minorities on the Left, mostly composed of individuals who have learnt to think in other organizations before joining the party. In actual practice, the ideology has been replaced at best with liberal empiricism (as in the case of the “center” faction led by Defferre) or with a vague feeling of solidarity with the “little man,” at worst with the kind of party patriotism in which the organization has become an end in itself. The effect achieved is not unlike that of Stalinism in the C.P.: the party can do no wrong, the leaders of the party must not be criticized lest the criticism be used against the party by its enemies, etc. This is what Andre Philip refers to when he says that the party “seems to have lost the very notion of truth” and that an action “is held to be good or evil not on its own merits but according to the party affiliation of the men responsible for it.” [14]

The reaction of Mollet to the capture of the Moroccan plane carrying the leaders of the F.L.N. is typical in this respect: anger when he received the news, then acceptance and endorsement in order to cover up for Lacoste. The responsibility of the left minority in this situation should not be hidden: during the electoral campaign in Paris in January 1957, the left-winger Mireille Osmin defended the official party policy in spite of her well-known opposition to the party leadership, contributing only to the discredit of the opposition and to the confusion of party members and sympathizers.

One may summarize the preceding points by quoting Duverger’s description of the present state of the party [15]:

Without doctrine or program, the party confines itself to the defense of immediate interests, supporting in a day-by-day fashion the demands of the interest groups under its protection [2*] without relating them to each other or to the general situation, without even analyzing their chances of success. It agrees to wage-raises, but without undertaking the fiscal and social reforms that would enable it to limit profits; it agrees to lower the prices of food-stuffs but without ceasing to support useless agricultural products; it is all in favor of economic expansion, but without touching marginal enterprises: all these are themes which the S.F.I.O. holds in common with all other French parties, each stressing one or the other aspect, according to the weight of the different interest groups within the party. The Radicalized S.F.I.O. is becoming increasingly assimilated to French conservatism: a conservatism of little people, nicer than the other kind from a sentimental point of view, actually much worse since it involves the acceptance by the victims of their condition as victims. The verbal reference to socialism only exists for the sake of a good conscience: in this country of ours, the conservatives insist on seeming revolutionary to others and, most of all, to themselves.

We have seen in the preceding sections of this survey the ways in which the sociological degeneration of the S.F.I.O. has determined the shift towards an inferior kind of bourgeois politics. It is necessary at this point to turn to the other aspect of this process, and to assess the part that policy has played in the degeneration of the party. This, in turn, raises other questions: to what extent can a change in policy by the party leadership or by sections of the party modify or reverse the present process of decline? What are the forces that make policy in the S.F.I.O. of today, and what forces could be expected to change it?

It should be clear that as complex a process as the complete sociological and political transformation of a mass party cannot simply be explained by a “mistaken” policy of its leadership, nor can it be said that the adoption of a “correct” policy by this leadership would annul that process. One could also express the wish that the left wing of the party should adopt a militant yet realistic policy which might, even under the present circumstances, neutralize the right wing and change the party all over again. But such wishes remain empty speculations when the forces don’t exist that could create such a policy and act upon it.

It is probably true that the presence in the party of a strong and homogenous Left in 1944–45 would have determined an entirely different evolution. The sociological base for an independent and militant labor party does exist in France: the social-democratic workers of the Northern and Eastern departments, a large part of the Communist workers, the Catholic workers of the West. As late as January 1956 the leader of the C.F.T.U. in Nantes pointed out to the S.F.I.O. that its electoral victory in that region was due to the votes of the Catholic workers, and urged the party – ironically – to follow a more militant course in order to cement this alliance. [16] By that time, however, the S.F.I.O. was no longer in a position to turn itself into the basis for a political regroupment of the working class. In 1945, when hundreds of thousands of young men and women from the Resistance movement felt attracted to socialist solutions, the operation could have been successful had it been carried out by the Left – the only section of the party capable of implementing such a perspective. But in 1945 the Left was neither strong nor homogenous, not even to the extent of keeping itself together. The historical reasons for this cannot be discussed within the framework of this article [3*]; suffice it to say that a conquest of the party by the Left had become a pious wish by 1948. [4*]

Above all other things, the recent history of the S.F.I.O. teaches the lesson that good intentions, and even policies that are good in themselves, are inevitably defeated when working at cross-purposes with the fundamental trends of an institution. The failure to face this fact accounts for the quiet and thorough defeat of the S.F.I.O.’s left wing.

Institutions have their own logic; the political history of the S.F.I.O. since the end of the war has been the history of men who, by the logic of that particular institution, have been compelled to transgress every principle of socialism, or have been forced out of positions of influence. It is important to remember that the present leadership of the party came to power in 1947 as a left-wing caucus (with Mollet as General Secretary and Dechezelles as Assistant Secretary) and that it came to power by defeating a right-wing led by Daniel Mayer, who today opposes Mollet’s policy – from the left! Within one year, the party had returned to the bourgeois politics which the left wing had fought: war in Indo-China, “Third Force” coalitions, support of U.S. foreign policy and opposition to the economic demands of the working class. Then, as today, the party has acted as a machine to produce conservative politicians.

As in the case of Stalinism, the institution has not only transformed the men, but also the meaning of words and ideas: “party discipline” now means blind obedience to the Secretariat, “anti-clericalism” is a pretext for fighting the Catholic Left, “internationalism” has become a pretext for opposing the right of the Algerian people to self-determination.

What, then, is the relation of “policy” to “circumstance,” and who is responsible for the decay of the S.F.I.O.? The leaders of French social-democracy are neither more inept nor more dishonest than those of other social-democratic parties ... What differs is their situation: the reformist, social-democratic policy of the classical type inevitably leads to the complete denial of socialism, whenever the minority position, with the majority of the working class following a more radical course.

In a way, one understands the bitterness of Lejeune and Lacoste against Bevan and the British Labor Party. What bad luck to be a social-democratic leader in France! Had Lacoste lived in Britain, he might have been able to keep his self-respect, and nobody can tell what Bevan might have done as a Governor General of Algeria.

Let us follow this process through the internal political history of the S.F.I.O., the history of its tendencies.

We have seen that the history of the rise of the Mollet apparatus begins with the victory of the left wing caucus in 1947. The caucus included, besides a “pseudo-left” majority, a real Left, the “Action Socialiste Révolutionnaire” (A.S.R.), which split in 1948, while other genuine left tendencies, led by Marceau Pivert and Lucien Weitz, remained within the party. A Stalinoid minority also split in 1948 to form the P.S.U., a small satellite of the C.P. Outside of these relatively well-defined groups, the picture of the tendencies in the party has been rather confused since 1948. Distinctions have sometimes been made between the “Guesdist” or orthodox-Marxist tradition, based on the federations of the North, and the “Jauresist” tradition of the South and the South-West. These distinctions are relevant only in so far as they help to explain the rise of the Mollet machine, based on the administratively-minded and disciplined “Guesdist” federations.

All other attempts to differentiate between tendencies and traditions within the right wing have failed, since every issue has cut across these traditions in different ways. It is true, as Duverger remarks, that the fight on the issue of E.D.C. brought out, among the supporters of E.D.C., the federalist and internationalist (“Proudhonist”) aspects of the S.F.I.O. (one thinks of André Philip), while the opposition relied on the party’s anti-militarist and anti-clerical traditions. On the other hand, it is also true that the main support of the pro-E.D.C. faction, the Mollet apparatus, is precisely the least “Proudhonist” element in the whole party, while some of the opponents of E.D.C., the Pivert tendency, for example, would be much more entitled to claim this tradition. Other opponents of E.D.C., such as Lejeune, were motivated by purely conservative, chauvinist reasons. Then, on the Algerian question, the factional line-up changed completely: all present factions in the party include roughly equal proportions of former supporters and opponents of E.D.C.

In fact, on this issue as on most others, the composition of the tendencies was determined by very different and often contradictory reasons. Often reasons of clique solidarity and of personal allegiance weighed more than political considerations. The only consistent trend, which asserts itself more and more throughout the different inner-party struggles, is a strengthening of the Right.

At the Toulouse Congress, in July 1957, the party was divided in three currents: the official current, representing a majority of 65.1% with 2,547 votes out of 3,912; a center current, led by Defferre, with 779 votes representing 19.9%; a left-wing minority with 498 votes and 12.7%. These groups were defined according to their position on the Algerian question: the majority endorsed the government’s policy of repression, the center advocated a limited autonomy for Algeria within the framework of a “French federation,” and the Left advocated negotiations on the basis of the “recognition of the national calling of Algeria.”

At first sight, the strength of the Left seems appreciable, especially when it is pointed out that it mustered only 9.7% of the vote at the Lille Congress, in 1956. A closer look at its political composition and platform reveal that, in fact, it is the product of a continuous retreat.

The representative organization of the minority is the “Comité Socialiste d’Etude et d’Action pour la Paix en Algérie.” Among its members and supporters, it includes representatives of former minorities that have shrunken into insignificance and of new minorities which have peeled off, layer by layer, from the center of the S.F.I.O: first of all, sympathizers of the New Left who have remained in the S.F.I.O. – such as Maurice Laval, managing editor of France-Observateur; secondly, the left socialists around Marceau Pivert; thirdly, the left social-democrats such as Oreste Rosenfeld, who wish to return to a militant reformist party of the pre-1934 Austrian or “Kautskyist” type; fourthly, former revolutionary Marxists, such as Pierre Rimbert, Jean Rous, André Ferrat, etc., who occupy more or less the same position; fifthly, the “honest reformist” types, who have only recently begun to differentiate themselves from the party leadership under the impact of the Algerian war and of the general fiasco of the Mollet government: Daniel Mayer, André Philip, Edouard Depreux, Camile Titeux, Robert Verdier, etc.

In 1945, a coalition of this type would have represented a huge majority in the party; today, it represents not quite 13%. This is one important fact.

The other is the political retreat involved in this weakening. All the tendencies that have united in this new left wing caucus have been compelled to bury their differences after having been beaten back by almost purely administrative means. After ten years of struggle, they are now joining in a common platform based on the defense of socialism in a most general way – against the party leadership itself. Yet none of the former right-wingers, like Philip, Depreux or Mayer have moved to the Left: they are now the Left because they have stayed where they were while the party has moved to the Right.

In the course of this process, the real left wing – the independent, revolutionary socialists – has all but disappeared as an independent, tendency. At the end of the war, divided and confused as they were, the revolutionary socialists still represented a certain force, especially in the Paris region. Even after the departure of the A.S.R., the left-wingers of the Pivert and Weitz tendencies remained in control of the Federation of the Seine. As late as 1954 their following was estimated at 6,000 members in the party as a whole. [18] Today this tendency has all melted down to about 500 members. As to the Federation of the Seine, it has been taken over by the Mollet apparatus, largely because of the pressure it was able to exert on the government officials and party functionaries which make up a high proportion of the Federation’s membership.

The real political content of the tendencies of the Toulouse Congress could therefore be defined as follows: 65.1% for petty-bourgeois conservatism; 19.9% for empirical liberalism and 12.7% for social-democratic reformism.

But the shift of the party to the Right has not only reduced the socialist wing of the party to a minority, it has also created a new kind of right wing. At the Toulouse Congress there appeared, for the first time since 1933, an anti-socialist tendency, represented by Lacoste and Lejeune, but supported by Mollet and his machine. Lejeune’s speech, in particular “was outstanding for its crude vulgarity, and touched upon the favorite themes of fascism.” [19] – to such an extent that it has struck the imagination of all political writers and became a symbol of the new course of the S.F.I.O.

In Le Monde, Duverger wondered if we are not witnessing here the birth of a new political type: poujado-socialisme. He was answered by the fascist Pierre Dominique:

In two words, just as Tito broke with an international communism which denied the national values of small countries, Mussolini broke with an international socialism which denied Italy. What is defeated here is the spirit of Blum, the spirit without a fatherland ... M. Robert Lacoste and M. Max Lejeune are exactly in the same ideological position as Deat, Marquet and Montagnon in 1933 and as Mussolini in 1915. The only difference is that since then things have progressed and they are now in a majority instead of representing a minority about to be expelled ... [20]

Who can say that he is wrong?

This measuring-rod enables us to gauge the extent to which the S.F.I.O. has become a party of the middle-class, prostrate before bourgeois politics and bourgeois ideology. In the present conditions of crisis, and in the absence of any progressive alternative either within the party or outside of it, this middle-class has turned even more conservative than certain sections of the bourgeoisie itself, and has thrown up leaders in its own image: colorless mediocrities, second-hand bourgeois, time-servers who could never hope to make a career in the world of business, finance or government as they are now making at the expense of the labor movement.

Duverger observes:

The chauvinism and the “realism” of certain socialist leaders responds to the wishes of their following: they dream of utilizing the poujadist aspirations within the party itself ... The peculiar evolution of the S.F.I.O. parallels a general evolution of French public opinion. To a certain extent, the new tendencies of the Socialist Party reflect the profound tendencies of the whole country. This Poujade, this Lejeune, how they look like ourselves, alas! Even a part of the working class of this country is going through a crisis of chauvinism and even of racism ... For seventeen years this country has suffered from a defeat in victory, a humiliation compounded by other humiliations; it reacts like all other peoples have under similar circumstances. [21]

What are the chances for a socialist revival of the S.F.I.O.? All oppositionists – André Philip, Marceau Pivert, Edouard Depreux, Henri Lévy-Bruhl and others – appeal to left socialists and young people to join the party in spite of everything, for the same reasons as in 1947: do not build sects, build a left wing within a large existing organization, turn the S.F.I.O. into the center of a new labor movement! This would hold true if the vast majority of the workers were not outside the party, and if the right wing would show signs of weakness rather than increasing strength. Today, the conditions for the growth of a significant left wing, let alone for the recovery of the party, exist neither politically nor sociologically – not this left wing in this party.

Should the working-class take once more the initiative, as in 1953 and 1955, the leadership of the S.F.I.O. would probably adapt and show signs of a leftward turn. Such a turn, however, would represent nothing more than a small-time maneuver to confuse the inner-party opposition, and would remain without consequence to the labor movement. The working-class will seek other forms to express its action. For a long time now, all significant events in the life of the French working-class have taken place outside of the S.F.I.O.; there is no indication that this is going to change.

* * *


1*. There are about 10 million potential union members in France: 1.2 million agricultural workers, 6.5 industrial workers and 2 million office workers. There are also about 400,000 teachers, but their case is different: almost all belong to unions, most of which are federated in an independent organization, the Féderation de l’Education Nationale. Their unions are outstanding for their militancy, their high degree of internal democracy and their high standards of organization.

2*. André Philip defines this policy as “practical conservatism, thinly disguised by a general ideology of the defense of the “little man” against the “big man.”

3*. They have been explained in two valuable studies by Saul Berg in The New International, February and March 1947.

4*. In March 1949, the former National Secretary of the S.F.I.O. Youth wrote:

“The few attempts of some cadre elements, mostly former left oppositionists, to modify the structure of the party and to give a political education to its members remained without results. The failure of the socialist factory groups illustrate very well the lack of real basis for the efforts of certain militants who intend to organize the working-class with a party that has neither the social composition nor the policy necessary for such work.” [17]

* * *


1. Le Monde, May 9, 1957

2. Jean-Daniel Reynaud and Alain Touraine, La representation politique du monde ouvrier in Partis politiques et classes sociales en France, Colin, Paris 1955.

3. Raymond Fusilier, La situation actuelle du Parti socialiste francais, L’Observateur, June 18, 1953 and Maurice Duverger, S.F.I.O.: mort our transfiguration, Les Temps Modernes, Nr. 112–113, 1955.

4. Duverger, ibid., p. 1865

5. Fusilier, ibid.

6. Le Monde, January 5, 1956.

7. Duverger, Demagogie des bureaucrates, Le Monde, July 12, 1957.

8. Pierre Rimbert, Le Parti socialiste S.F.I.O. in Partis politiques et classes sociales en France; Sondages, review of the I.F.O.P., Nr. 3, 1952; Maurice Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1869.

9. Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1868.

10. Sondages, 1952, Nr. 3.

11. Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1870.

12. Rimbert, op. cit.

13. Sondages, 1952, Nr. 3

14. André Philip, Le Socialisme trahi, Pion, Paris 1957. p. 205–6.

15. Duverger, op. cit., Les Temps Modernes, p. 1873.

16. Gilbert Declerq, Questions poées au Parti socialiste, Témoignage Chrétien, Jan. 20, 1956.

17. Marcel Rousseau, Sur la crise de la S.F.I.O., Confrontation International, March–April 1949.

18. Roger Racier, Quatre tendances au sein du Parti socialiste, L’Observateur, May 1954.

19. Lucien Weitz.

20. Duverger, De Jauràs à Poujade?, Le Monde, July 11, 1957 and Pierre Dominique, De Jaurès à Poujade, ou de Mussolini à Max Lejeune, Rivarol, July 1957.

21. Duverger, Démagogie de bureaucrates, Le Monde, July 12, 1957.

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