The history of Communism in the developed economies of the west has been the history of revolutionary parties in countries without insurrectionary prospects. Such countries may be, and at various times in our century have been, involved in revolutionary activities arising out of the international contradictions of capitalism (e.g. Nazi occupation), or reflecting the glow of fires elsewhere (e.g. in Eastern Europe), but their own political roads have not led, or ever looked like leading for more than a fleeting moment, towards the barricades. Neither the two World Wars nor the intervening great slump, seriously shook the social basis of any régime between the Pyrenees, the southern border of the Alps, and the North Cape; and it is not easy to imagine more massive blows hitting such a region in the relatively short period of half a century. In Eastern Europe—to take the nearest example—the situation has been very different. Here we have in the same period at least four and perhaps five cases of endogenous social revolutions (Russia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece,footnote1 perhaps Bulgaria), not counting temporary but serious upheavals.

Spontaneously or deliberately, the Labour movements of the west have had to adapt themselves to this situation, and in doing so they have always run the grave risk of adapting themselves to a permanent and subordinate existence within capitalism. In the period up to 1914 this predicament was to some extent obscured by the refusal of bourgeois régimes to admit them formally or completely into their system of political and economic relations, by the miserable conditions of existence in which most workers lived and the self-contained social universe of an outlaw proletariat, and by the strength of the revolutionary traditions—mainly marxist, but also anarchist—which had formed most Labour movements and still powerfully imbued them. In the generation after 1917 it was also partially obscured by the collapse of capitalism into mutual massacre, slump and barbarism, and more specifically by the Bolshevik Revolution, which was (correctly) seen as the herald of world revolution. In our generation it has emerged with much greater clarity, because of a combination of three factors: the remarkable and unprecedented economic prosperity of the ‘West’ (including the bulk of its working classes), the disintegration of the Third International—whether in its formal or its informal versions—and the remoteness—both geographical, social and political—of the post-1945 phase of the world revolution from the problems of the developed western countries.footnote2

The period before 1914 has passed into history. The Second International collapsed totally, and beyond any chance of revival, and so did the part-rival, part-complementary movement of anarchizing revolutionary trade unionism (‘syndicalism’). If we study that period at all for any reason other than academic curiosity, it is simply to help to explain what happened later, and perhaps to seek some clues about the operation of what was then usual, but is now rare, namely single national socialist movements organizationally united but ideologically pluralist. The period of the Third International is still with us, at least in the form of the permanent schism between communist and social-democratic parties, neither of whose patterns of behaviour or traditions can be understood without constant reference to the October Revolution. Hence the importance of studies like Annie Kriegel’s massive Origins of French Communism 1914–20.footnote3

The French Communist Party is in many respects unique. It is one of the few mass communist parties in the ‘advanced’ economies of the West, and, with the exception of the Italian cp (which operates in a country that came late and incompletely into the ‘advanced’ sector of the world economy), the only one to have become the majority party within its Labour movement. At first sight this poses no great problem. France is the classical country of west-European revolution, and if the traditions of 1789–94, 1830, 1848 and 1871 will not attract a nation to revolutionary parties, nothing will. Yet on second thoughts the rise of the cp is rather more puzzling. The classical traditions of French revolutionism—even that of the working-class—were not Marxist and even less Leninist, but Jacobin, Blanquist and Proudhonist. The Socialist movement of before 1914 was already a German graft on the French tree, and one which took only incompletely in politics and even less in the trade unions. Guesdism, the nearest thing to social-democratic orthodoxy, though still some way from it, remained a regional or minority phenomenon. The French cp marked a much more radical ‘Bolshevization’ or Russification of the native movement, and one for which there was little foundation in it. Yet this time the graft took. The French Communist Party became and has remained not merely the mass party of most French workers, the main force on the French left, but also a classically ‘Bolshevik’ party. This poses the major problem of its history. Miss Kriegel does not set out to answer it directly—her two volumes end with the Congress of Tours which founded the Party—but she does answer it indirectly, as it were, by a process of eliminating alternative possibilities. The history of the years she has taken as her subject did not complete this elimination. Indeed, one of the main points of her argument is, that the subsequent development of the cp was by no means readily predictable in 1920. Nevertheless, war and post-war cleared a very large area of historically accumulated, but obsolete or impracticable politics.

The impact of the war and the Russian Revolution must be traced by parallel enquiries into the evolution of the working-class and the loosely organized and sometimes unrepresentative minority which made up the French Labour movement. The distinction is important, because the very fragility, instability or narrowness of the French movement may, as she argues, have made the appeal of revolutionary parties after the war greater than in countries in which the Labour movement was more representative of the masses. Mrs Kriegel’s book tells us comparatively little about this evolution, though it clearly passed through four major phases: a solid reversion to nationalism in 1914, a rapidly growing war-weariness from the end of 1916, culminating in the abortive strikes and army mutinies of the spring of 1917, a relapse into inactivity after their failure (but one combined with an increasing influx of workers into labour organizations), and after the end of the war, a rapid and cumulative radicalization, which almost certainly ran ahead of the formal labour organizations. Its chief carriers were the demobilized soldiers—the rhythm of gradual demobilization maintained the momentum of radicalization—and the industries (metals and railways) which combined a record of wartime importance with the return of ex-servicemen to their old occupations. Nevertheless, until the end of the war the deep-seated nationalism which is the oldest and strongest tradition of the French left, kept the masses remote from a revolution (including the Russian Revolution) which seemed to imply a German victory. Compared with Britain, for instance, the movement of sympathy for the soviets in 1917, was strikingly weak. Only after the armistice had eliminated the choice between patriotism and revolution, could the political radicalization of the French workers proceed unhampered. And when it did, it was dissipated by the failure of their Labour movement.

For the Labour movement the years from 1914 to 1920 were a succession of defeats, and of historically decisive defeats. 1914 meant the total failure of all sections and all formulae of the earlier movement—both socialist and syndicalist. From early 1915 a modest pacifist-internationalist (but not revolutionary) opposition emerged, though—significantly enough—not on the foundation of the pre-war radical left. It failed in 1917, and slowly a revolutionary pro-Bolshevik left emerged after the armistice, though—again significantly—it was only very partly based on the pacifist-internationalist ‘Zimmerwald’ current of 1915–17, many of whose leaders refused to join it. There was at this stage no split in the French Labour movement, or at any rate no more divergence than there had always been in it, since the formula of loose unity had been devised in the early 1900’s; nor was there a serious prospect of a permanent split. On the contrary, in 1918–19 both the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour appeared once again to have found a basis for unity in a shift to the left—but not the Bolshevik left—which criticized but did not disavow the nationalist and class-collaborationist excesses of 1914. Unlike Germany, the war had not split the party. Unlike Britain, the leaders of class-collaboration in 1914 (such as Arthur Henderson) did not carry a united party with them into opposition to the war and a moderate socialism. But like Austria, the former pacifist minority became a majority, without dividing the party.

Of course in the heady atmosphere of world revolution all sections of the movement except the tiny and discredited extreme nationalist right, looked forward to ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’, though it is a moot point whether the battles fought in 1919–20 actually had it as their object. Whatever their object, they all failed. The small ultra-left who dreamed of a western-style proletarian revolution based on ‘councils’ and equally hostile to parliament, parties and trade unions, failed in the strikes of the spring of 1919, for it never reached the masses.footnote4 The solution of libertarian or decentralized communism was eliminated. The political socialists had always put their money on elected socialist governments, and drafted an ambitious programme of what such a government would do. They failed in the autumn of 1919, because the political shift of the electorate to the Socialists was disappointingly small; only about 14 per cent, much smaller than in other countries. But for the half-heartedness of the reformist leadership, it would, as Miss Kriegel proves convincingly, have been considerably more, but even so, an electoral majority was never in sight and thus saved the leadership of the party the probable demonstration that they would have done nothing with it. At all events the reformist road was temporarily barred.