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Michael Harrington

The SFIO and the Fifth Republic

The Burning Need for an Effective Socialist Movement

(Spring 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 2–3, Spring–Summer 1958, pp. 116–120.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The rise of De Gaulle is a clear indication that time has run out on the Fourth Republic. For years now, the constant coming and going of cabinets has produced commotion but not change, the facade of politics and the reality of immobilisme. The dramatic focus has been, of course, the question of French colonialism: the expenditure of blood and money in defense of the remnants of empire. But France’s malaise goes deeper than this one problem. North Africa is symptomatic of a bourgeoisie that is paralyzed, unable to control its own colonial wing; while the working class is split, a section of it committed to a Communist Party whose policies are determined by the needs of Russia, another section led by “socialists” who have betrayed their most fundamental principles.

Thus, for all of the talk about a strong executive and action, De Gaulle is the creature of a political vacuum and his policy has been tentative, not decisive. As a result, his regime has exhibited all kinds of contradictions – the announcement of a vaguely liberal Algerian solution on one day, a promotion for an insurrectionary General and a cabinet post for Soustelle on the next. As Giles Martinet noted in his report to the National Council of the Union de la Gauche Socialiste (UGS):

“... De Gaulle is not the ultra’s man, nor the Army’s, nor that of the technocratic bourgeoisie – he is the man who attempts to harmonize the partly contradictory interests of these three social groups upon which his government depends.”

But, then, how long can the situation be compromised in this way? The French colonists in Algeria are committed to a policy of “integration,” that is, of the continuing denial of the rights of the Algerian majority. On the other hand, a section of the bourgeoisie is willing to accept a “federalist” policy which will guarantee the rule of French capital in Algeria. Indeed, a section of the Algerian revolutionary movement itself, the National Liberation Front (FLN), has indicated some hope that De Gaulle might turn in their direction. Ferhat Abbas told a correspondent of France-Observateur that his organization “continues to hope that De Gaulle will make a new beginning ... We are always ready ... to negotiate with him.”

HOW DOES THIS RELATE to the threat of fascism in France? As has been pointed out by almost every observer, there is no mass fascist movement in that country. For one thing, the intensification of the Algerian struggle and the consequent crisis of the regime occurred within the context of a growing prosperity. There are some reports which even go so far as to predict that France is the country which will be least effected by the current European economic downturn. At any rate, the extreme social dislocation which has been historically associated with the rise of fascism – a desperate petty-bourgeoisie, a fundamental breakdown of the society as a whole, the polarization of political life – were not present.

On the other hand, some French writers have gone so far as to argue that fascism has “already arrived” in Algeria. But even in Algeria the “classic” features of fascism are not present. At the same time, it is clear that the insurrectionary colonists and their military accomplices are bent upon a reactionary dictatorship, war against the liberation movement to the bitter end, and an assault upon all democratic institutions in the metropolitan center.

While there is no immediate fascist threat in France, it is nevertheless clear that the problem of defending democracy is complicated by the apparent apathy of considerable sections of French society. Far from there being a threat of working class revolution in France, the socialist movement has never been so divided, misled and demoralized. A recent article in the British journal Universities and Left Review, vividly portrayed the indifference of workers at the Renault plant toward the events of May and June, an attitude based on their understanding that no real alternative was being offered to them. Indeed, the only union in France which adopted a militant and effective position toward DeGaulle was that of the teachers. The rest issued the proper manifestoes, often without much political content (as in the case of those sections of the CGT controlled by the Communists), and were unable to rally any sustained enthusiasm on the part of those they claim to lead.

The weight of all this leads toward the conclusion that even now, some months after the events, we must describe the situation as fluid, the crisis as unresolved. De Gaulle has moved in opposite directions, making some extravagant offers to the natives of the French colonies, but trying to keep his ties with the insurrectionary right wing at the same time. For that matter, one could record the strange course of this drama by contrasting the frenzied enthusiasm which Lacoste called forth in Algiers when he first proposed power for DeGaulle, the somewhat restrained reception De Gaulle himself received there a little later, and the open hostility which developed around his most recent visit.

The one thing that we can say is that the crisis is not over, and that a further assault from the right is almost inevitable. Either that, or De Gaulle will be completely captured by the right. And such a prognosis is hardly an optimistic one, for there seems to be little chance of the left coming forth with a dynamic alternative. In this context, the “classic” marks of fascism are certainly lacking in France today, and even in Algeria, but fascism cannot be ruled out as a real possibility in the future.

THUS IF DE GAULLE IS an element in the continuing crisis of French bourgeois democracy, his rise to power was also a dramatic demonstration of the crisis of the French working class movement.

During the crisis, the French Socialist Party’s leadership, and Guy Mollet in particular, were directly accessory to De Gaulle’s rise to power. This action was rightly characterized by Marceau Pivert just before his death as “treason” to the principles of socialism. Because of it, the anti-Mollet tendencies within the SFIO have been strengthened. But though Mollet was forced to postpone a Party meeting for fear of defeat he now seems to be regaining control. Andre Philip accurately stated the situation when he said that the outcome of this fight within the SFIO is of great moment for the future of socialism in France. A victory for the anti-Mollet forces could be a point of departure for a revitalization of French socialism. Their defeat threatens the Party with ineffectiveness at best and to neo-Gaullism at worst (Mollet, of course, is in De Gaulle’s cabinet).

The Communists did not fare much better. For once, they were apparently without a clear directive from Moscow. In the absence of it, they committed themselves to a double policy: support of the Pflimlin Government and the call for a Popular Front. On the first count, they were unable to mobilize any significant section of the working class in defense of bourgeois immobilisme (presuming that they had any intention of attempting to bring the masses into play). On the second count, they had to move in level, the slogan of the Popular Front was doomed. This is how Martinet put it at the Union Gauche Socialiste (UGS) National Council meeting:

For the overwhelming majority of workers who reason in terms of actual experience and not in those of hypothetical theories, the Popular Front has two different meanings: their betrayal through a policy of working class support to a section of the bourgeoisie (a support which is payed for by some reforms but which leads to political defeat); or, it is the prelude to a Communist conquest of power and the institution of a totalitarian regime. In short, the Popular Front means to them either France of 1936 or of 1945, or else Czechoslovakia in 1948.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR an American to advocate a detailed policy for the regroupment of French socialism. That would necessitate a familiarity with the internal life of the various parties which distance denies us. At the same time, however, it is clear that we can comment upon the type of party that is required and the forces which must compose it.

To begin with specific and focal problems facing this regroupment should be noted; the two traditional parties of the French left, the CP and the SFIO. It should be obvious to almost anyone that organic unity with the French Communists, or even formal, negotiated cooperation is out of the question. The party of Thorez is one of the most Stalinized in the international Communist movement. In the past, it was willing to vote “special powers” to the Government for another direction. To press a Popular Front, there had to be the danger of fascism. This the Party produced in some of its appeals, and they substituted rhetorical anti-fascism (culminating in the failure of the strike on May 19) for any real action.

But, on an even more important carrying on the repression in Algeria, and this within the last two years. Although it has won the electoral allegiance of a majority of the French workers, and has enrolled a significant section of the working class in its ranks, it is not a Party of the left, but of the East, of Moscow.

However, excluding electoral pacts and formal cooperation does not mean that the French left can simply ignore the Communists. Where there is a strong democratic socialist leadership it may well be extremely important to involve the Communist ranks in joint, limited action. And in the event of a democratic socialist electoral bloc, it may be possible to force Communist support in the Assembly while rejecting completely any proposal for Communist inclusion in the Government. Both of these policies, for that matter, have an element in common: they might make it possible to win hundreds of thousands, even millions, away from the Communists through providing a real and democratic socialist alternative.

The problem of the SFIO is somewhat more complex. The events of the last two decades have proved that it is extremely difficult to create a new political tradition in France – the PSOP of Pivert and the RDR are cases in point. The Mollet leadership of the SFIO has, of course, become intolerable, anti-socialist. But, as Andre Philip wisely pointed out in the New Leader, the struggle within that Party is of extreme importance. If the SFIO could be won back to a program of democratic socialism, it could provide a rallying point for the regroupment of the left. Some socialists, for example those of the UGS, reject this view and feel that the SFIO must be abandoned to its present disgrace. With all of the qualifications imposed upon one speaking from a distance, it seems that Philip has a more constructive position. But if the fight within the SFIO goes against democratic socialism, that is, if Mollet wins, then it means that the French left must look to the arduous task of both regrouping and creating a new tradition. At such a point, no other alternative will remain open.

Given this view, it is most discouraging to note that some reports from France indicate that Mollet will be able to maintain his leadership. The July 10th issue of L’Express, a Mendesiste paper, found that his strength among the Provincial leadership and in Force Ouvrière, the pro-SFIO trade union federation, is considerable. These elements have apparently been won over by the sterile formula, either De Gaulle or a Popular Front. Since they correctly oppose a Popular Front, and wrongly are incapable of conceiving of an independent socialist policy, they have been reconciled to De Gaulle. Indeed, two members of the SFIO, Alduy and Juskiewenski, have helped in the formation of a center of “left” Gaullistes. The conclusion of the L’Express analysis is that “The Socialist Party has entered into hibernation.” This is certainly true if their judgment is an accurate one. At this point, we can only continue to hope for a development from the SFIO minority.

THUS, TIME HAS RUN OUT on the Fourth Republic and the question is, what form will succeed it. In the absence of the emergence of a democratic socialist alternative, the “solution” will move from the center to the right. It might be a continuation of immobilisme in an authoritarian, Gaullist manner; it might be the development of an authoritarian liberalism; it could even mean a more radical change in France and the appearance of a mass fascist movement. Clearly, any of these variants threatens the French people and the Algerians as well.

All this adds up to the fact that the most important task of socialists in France today is the creation of a truly democratic socialist party. The first, hesitant steps have already been taken, and they must be intensified. For it is only when the French people are offered a real chance to vote for Algerian independence and internal French social change that we can hope for a real solution to the crisis of the Fourth Republic. In this sense, after all the betrayals of a decade, socialism remains the one real hope.

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