The socialist revolution in France cannot be a repetition of the May events, any more than the 1917 Revolution (February and October) was a repetition of 1905. The May events were a tremendous explosion, in which (through tracts, meetings, newspapers and even sometimes through the distorted accounts in the bourgeois press) forgotten revolutionary traditions and intellectual weapons were rediscovered by hundreds of thousands of workers and students. But it must not be thought that a confident and coherent vanguard with properly formulated objectives has arisen out of it. Only a beginning was made—a start which both reflects the unfinished, interrupted character of the revolutionary process and the embryonic, incomplete and contradictory nature of the political leadership which tried to confront the crisis. The abortive revolution of May was profound in its implications for the collective unconscious of the masses, in the energy released in numerous strata of society, in its shock to new and old hierarchical structures; but it was also marked by a kind of political debility both at the base and at the summit. This is not to deny its exemplary character or its importance as a point of reference for future revolutionary activity, but care must be taken not to idealize all its aspects or to believe that it is a model that can be faithfully reproduced. A political advance, or more exactly a break with the political practice of the various organizations, is necessary if the conditions of victory are to be assured. In particular, the more or less ‘instinctive’ receptivity of students, technicians and young workers to oppositional Marxist tendencies must be transformed into a creative assimilation of Marxism—which presupposes a fairly rapid ideological clarification of the May movement. In this respect, it is of crucial importance that the theoretical and political positions of the revolutionary current which is now emerging in France should not remain at the level of an abstract and general critique of the pcf (revisionism, social-democratization) but should be such that they erode day by day the conservatism of the pcf’s apparatus and its influence on the masses.

This is why it is important, indeed essential, to grasp all the dimensions of the problems posed by French Communism, in its specificity. It is not enough to content oneself with defining the party as Stalinist; the modalities of the party’s formation and insertion into the French political and social context must be taken into account. Unlike the German and Italian Communist parties, the pcf did not have to confront revolutionary or counter-revolutionary situations during its first years of existtence. Although it formed a majority of the working-class movement when the latter split at the Congress of Tours (December 1920), it gradually lost its dominant position during the years which followed the First World War because of its inability to take any initiative. Up to 1923 its leadership represented a slightly rejuvenated version of the ideological and organizational methods of the pre-war Socialist Party. Even when accompanied by inflammatory speeches about the October Revolution and extreme denunciations of the social order represented by the Third Republic, it pursued an essentially parliamentary and electoral strategy. The left wing of the party, which was more proletarian in composition and effectively closer to authentic revolutionary positions, lacked sufficient weight to impose its views. Hence it had constantly to appeal to the Communist International to defend its position at the head of the party. The party thus became more completely dependent on the Soviet leadership of the Communist International than either the German or Italian parties, and this as early as 1924. In fact the Left became the faithful interpreter of policies laid down by the dominant fractions of the cpsu. Lacking the originality and political traditions of the leading tendencies of the German cp (from Brandler to Ruth Fischer) or of the Italian cp (from Bordiga to Gramsci), and with memories of anarcho-syndicalism as its only theoretical equipment, the French party offered only very limited resistance to the conceptions of Zinoviev, and later of Stalin—conceptions heavily influenced by events in Russia. The class struggle in France was now seen only through Moscow’s optic. Between 1927 and 1930, for example, the pcf’s policy was largely polarized on the hypothetical danger of war between the major capitalist countries and the Soviet Union. Severe repression accentuated still further the isolation produced by the abstraction and divorce from social reality of its slogans, and thereby reinforced its dependence on the political aid of the International—on the revolutionary prestige and reputation of the ussr. In these conditions it was virtually impossible for the party to resolve the fundamental problems of the time: how to build a united front to win over large masses to communist positions, and how to define a strategy for taking power. The most it could do was to try and make the best of the Comintern’s policies. In 1930 the most absurd and ruinous tactics—arbitrary strike decisions and demonstrations, etc—were abandoned, and with the agreement of the executive committee of the International the Barbé-Celor group was condemned; the pcf now regained, under Thorez, a certain equilibrium. The new line had a dual emphasis: on the one hand great attention to working-class and popular economic demands (wages, unemployment benefits, soldiers’ pay) which in particular allowed the cgtu to maintain a minimum link with the masses; on the other a ritual and incantatory denunciation of the sfio’s social-fascism, presented as the main, if not the only obstacle blocking a proletarian revolution—this thesis provided party militants with an explanation for the pcf’s relative immobility despite its abundant activism.footnote1 This mixture of economism and political fantasy obviously did not encourage theoretical work, analysis in depth of French capitalist society or any challenge to the intellectual and political hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Its result was rather to block the incipient politicization of party members at their initial decision to join the party, offering them instead an impoverished and dichotomous vision of the tasks ahead: on one side, a small cohort of the faithful, belonging to the organization and predestined to represent the masses; on the other, a vast category of ‘obstacles’ to be exorcised. The militants’ revolutionary fervour, their undeniable devotion to the Communist cause, was thus transformed into a sort of messianic expectancy, a spirit of unconditional discipline. The path of the future was obscure; the essential was that leaders confirmed by the entire Comintern should be followed without second thoughts.

On the face of it things should have changed after the unity pact with the sfio in 1934, an alliance which became inevitable after the 1933 catastrophe in Germany and the rise of fascism in France. The pcf did, in fact, abandon many of its most sectarian positions (the theory of social-fascism, the refusal of a united front at the summit) and even made enormous political concessions—under pressure from Stalin—on the positions it had held up to the beginning of 1934. In 1935 it accepted the national defence of the capitalist homeland, and was successful in a bid to ally itself with the Radicals and Socialists in a popular grouping in which it played a very moderate role in comparison with certain Socialists who wanted radical reforms. Going indeed far beyond the wildest hopes of those observers who claimed that it had rallied to a ‘responsible’ policy, the party did its utmost to limit the effects of the mass movement in June 1936 and to end the strikes and factory occupations. When Marceau Pivert, one of the Socialist Party leaders, asserted that the strength shown by the working class proved that ‘everything was possible’, Maurice Thorez replied: ‘If the aim is now to satisfy economic demands while progressively raising the level of consciousness and organization of the mass movement, then we must be ready to finish as soon as satisfaction has been obtained. We must be ready to compromise even if all the claims have not been met but if victory has been won for the most essential and important of these . . . We must not risk dislocating the unity of the masses, the unity of the Popular Front. We must not allow the working class to be isolated.’footnote2 The fact that the pcf refused to participate in the Leon Blum government should not be attributed to its systematic desire to criticize its partners in order to profit from their difficulties. In a report to the Party’s Central Committee at Ivry on May 25th 1936, Thorez made it quite clear that he had no intention of pursuing aims he considered too advanced: ‘When we said a united front at any price we knew that this was the condition for changing the relation of forces in France to the benefit of the working-class and democratic forces. The presence of Communists in the government under present conditions would only be a pretext for panic, for a campaign of panic.’ In August and September 1936, when the difficulties of the Popular Front were growing and divisions were increasing within the coalition, the pcf through Thorez proposed the transformation of the Popular Front into a wider coalition, the French Front. ‘Considering in particular the horror of events in Spain, the fact is that we reject the perspective of two irreconcilable blocs that confront each other as one that would lead to civil war, which in our country would be even more fearful than in Spain, if only because of Hitlet’s threats. The fact is that we believe that one still can and must win over men to the cause of liberty and peace—for how many votes did the Popular Front parties win at the last elections? A few more than five million. And how many votes did those hostile to the popular front receive? Just under five million. As a Communist, do you want me to say that these five million are all fascists, all traitors to their country? Do you want us—faced with these five million, of whom the majority are peasants and workers—to abandon the policy of unity which does honour to our Communist Party? We who have fought for unity between Socialists and Communists, who have fought for the union of radicals, republicans, democrats, do you want us now to say ‘The path of unity goes no further’?’footnote3

It would have been difficult for the pcf to put into effect a policy more directly aimed at pandering to the French bourgeoisie and limiting working-class action. While there were politicians both on the extreme left and on the right who appreciated this accurately enough, it was not seen as such (i.e. as a bid for an opportunistic arrangement with the western democracies) by the immense majority of Communist militants and cadres, and obviously even less so by Communist voters. While accepting a policy that was hard to distinguish from traditional political reformism, the party leadership neither presented nor conceived it in terms of traditional reformism. Apart from popularizing the defence of economic demands (in opposition to structural reforms) as the only realistic policy compared with any illusory search for a way to deal with the economic and social organization of France at the time, the party leadership took care to reassure its militants that the Popular Front confrontation was not a conflict for the seizure of power by the working class—while stressing that the idea of revolutionary struggle was not abandoned. It was simply that an unforeseen phase—the phase of the struggle against fascism and for the consolidation of bourgeois democracy—had intervened before the phase of the struggle for socialism. Opportunism was thus reconciled with a revolutionary dogmatism designed to preserve the internal cohesion of the organization and the continuity of the party leadership. The anti-fascist ‘prior condition’ now came in a sense to replace the social-democratic ‘obstacle’ as justification of the fact that the pcf did not seek the objective of taking power, while at the same time still claiming to monopolize the revolutionary spirit.

The same explicative schema is again to be found during the Resistance: the pcf is a revolutionary party, but before dreaming about socialism, national independence must be regained, collaborators swept out and political democracy organized. At first sight, the Three-Party Coalition after the Liberation appears to contradict this schema because the Communists participated in the government and, with their Socialist and mrp partners, were responsible for a certain number of reforms such as nationalizations; at the same time on the theoretical plane they heralded this governmental collaboration with a fraction of the dominant class as the dawn of a ‘new democracy’ which would supersede bourgeois democracy and the capitalist State. On closer observation, however, it is apparent that not only was the difference between ‘new democracy’ and democracy very imprecise, and the frontiers between these two forms of society barely traced out, but that the Communist leaders relegated the struggle for Socialist democracy to a time well beyond the immediate present. In consequence they could allege the tasks not yet accomplished to justify the need for a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ party and thereby maintain distinction from social-democratic (Blumist) ideology. The Communist departure from the government in 1947 rapidly sealed the fate of these elucubrations on ‘new democracy’ without, however, leading to a revision by the principal party leaders of their concepts of political struggle. During the entire period of the Cold War, their fixed objective was the reconquest of national independence from American imperialism and its French lackeys. To this end they had to seek an alliance with the ‘national’ bourgeoisie and with all strata of society opposed to the domination of American capital. It hardly needs to be emphasized that such an orientation could not be revolutionary, even if on occasion it led to serious confrontations with the State (as in 1952) and to other more or less adventurist undertakings.