Tony Cliff

Background to the French Crisis

(June 1958)

From Socialist Review, June 1958.
Reprinted in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp.312-6.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

The last couple of weeks have witnessed a deepening political and social crisis in France and Algeria. French militarists, together with fanatical colonists in Algeria, who look upon themselves as the “Herrernvolk” are trying to impose on France a right-wing dictatorship under de Gaulle.

This is a new chapter in the dreary history of the Fourth Republic, which cannot be understood without reference to the continued weakening of the French labour movement since the war. This weakening has been caused by the betrayal of the French labour movement by their official leaders.

Revolution Betrayed

In August, 1944, the armed resistance movement, consisting mainly of workers, used the fall of German power to take control of Pads. They seized the main factories, and, arms in hand, patrolled the town, disarming the collaborating police. The “200 families” – the financial magnates of France – had no popular support at all, as they had willingly collaborated with Hitler and done good business under Nazi rule. Indeed, one can unquestionably say that the knell of French capitalism had sounded. How, then, did it survive? The answer is to be found mainly in the conduct of the French Communist and Socialist parties.

After de Gaulle signed the 20-year Franco-Soviet alliance in December 1944, Thorez, the General Secretary of the French Communist Party, declared him a “great friend and ally of the Soviet Union.” The Party acted in the spirit of this “friendship” and immediately after his return from Moscow agreed to the disarming of the popular militia, a measure which they had opposed earlier in the year by General Koenig. Thorez then raised the slogan “One Government, one army, one police force;” and the Stalinist Cabinet ministers, Tillon and Billoux, voted for the decree dissolving the people’s militia.

Keeping the Workers Quiet

The “one police force” which was to remain was the very same as served the strike-breaking government of Daladier, and late that of Vichy and the Gestapo, the same force which persecuted the Resistance for four years and which had not since been purged. Thorez could shamelessly declare: “We do not put forward any socialist demands.” And another leader of the party. Dittos, could say on 19th November, 1945: “Since the Liberation we have contributed to the re-establishment of order in the country. We have led a campaign for the disarmament of the armed groups and for production.”

At that time the Communist Party, together with the Socialist Party, collaborated with the bourgeoisie in opposing every strike. The Stalinist Ministers were given all the ministries of production: Tillon – the Ministry of Armaments, Paul – the Ministry of Industry, Billoux – the Ministry of National Economy, and Choizat – the Ministry of Labour. The bourgeoisie was happy to give the Stalinists the job of keeping the workers quiet. During this revolutionary period, the superpatriotic Stalinists openly supported French imperialism. Thus, for instance, at the tenth congress of the French Communist Party (June 1945), Caballero, General Secretary of the Algerian Communist Party “concluded by emphasizing that the Algerian people had the same enemies as the French people, and do not want to be separated from France. Those who claim independence for Algeria, are the conscious or unconscious agents of another imperialism.” (L’Humanité, 30th June 1945.)

Support to Imperialism

Again, on 4th April 1946, the Stalinist Deputies in the French parliament voted for the following message of congratulations to the French troops fighting in Indo-China against Vietminh: “The National Constituent Assembly sends to the troops of the Expeditionary Force in the Far East and to their leaders the expression of the country’s gratitude and confidence on the morrow of the day in which their entry into Hanoi sets the seal on the success of the government of the Republic’s policy of peaceful liberation of all the peoples of the Union of Indo-China.” Again, “On the occasion of Christmas, the Commission of National Defence sends to the French soldiers in Indo-China the expression of its affectionate sympathy and salutes their efforts to maintain in the Far East the civilizing and peaceful presence of France.” (10th December 1946.)

Fascism Threatens

The same years, 1944-47, in which the working class was hamstrung by the Stalinist and “Socialist” leadership, saw the return of confidence to the discredited bourgeoisie. It took the offensive: it accepted the Marshall Plan, thus openly declaring its orientation towards the United States, and on May 3rd 1947, it threw Thorez and the other Communist Party members out of the government. Nor did it stop at this. De Gaulle, who prior to the war had been a member of the Fascist organization, Croix de Feu, and during the war had been comrade-in-arms to Thorez, now declared the need for an authoritarian, totalitarian fascist dictatorship and organized the Rally of the French People (RPF). In October, 1947, he put his strength to the test, coming out with flying colours in the municipal elections.

The RPF got 40 per cent of the total vote, as against 29.3 per cent for the Communist Party. In Paris the RPF got 55 per cent of the votes. It controlled the municipalities of Paris, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lille and many other important cities and towns. It seemed that after the revolutionary situation immediately following the war had died down, a counter-revolutionary situation arose. Fascism was an immediate threat.

Balancing Act

But on his side, too, de Gaulle could not consummate his victory. In November, one month after his electoral victory, mass strikes broke out all over the country. In a number of places the workers took to arms spontaneously, and in a whole series of enterprises – power stations, mines, etc. – the police were disarmed, and the workers were in power in actual fact. But again these strikes petered out to nothing, as the Stalinist leadership was too frightened of any serious, independent activity of the working class. Instead of a general strike that would have brought the capitalists to their knees, the Stalinist leaders adopted the method of a strike wave, shifting from one industry to another. As workers in one industry got a wage increase, prices immediately rose, and workers in another industry came into the fray. Thus wages ran after prices, without ever catching up. The net result was that the workers lost their self-confidence, and became apathetic. Nothing symbolises this better than the change between the strikes of November-December 1947, in which four million workers participated, and the Stalinist organised demonstration against General Ridgway on May 28 1952, in which not more than 20,000 people took part. The apathy of the working class is expressed in the decline in the number of members of the CGT – the Stalinist controlled trade unions – from 6 million to barely one million, the decline in the membership of the Communist Party, from one million at the end of the war to 430,000 today, and the decline in the circulation of L’Humanité from 601,000 copies in 1945/6 to 173,000 copies in 1954.


Even sharper was the decline of the Socialist Party. As the party of “social order,” defending capitalism at home and imperialism in Indo-China and North Africa, it lost practically all working-class support. The membership of the Party declined from 353,742 in 1946, to 96,000 in 1957. In the trade union federation controlled by the Socialist Party – Force Ouvriére – there are not more than 300,000 members. The Socialist Party paper Il Populaire, dropped from a circulation of 278,000 in 1945/6 to a bare 10,000 (paid) circulation today of a poor-looking one-sheet newspaper.

Fourteen years of damping the spirits and misleading of the working class led to such a weakening of the labour movement that the capitalist right wing dares to take the offensive.

The right wing of the bourgeoisie, however, is not free of serious crisis. After de Gaulle’s October 1947 election victory, his hopes for the establishment of a fascist dictatorship were high. But the mass strikes of November-December made it clear to him that the forces of the working class were not yet exhausted, and a French Hitler would not find his path to power smooth. The result was that the de Gaullists themselves did not dare to cast aside the traditional parliamentary system, and establish a fascist dictatorship. The RPF began to ebb – disappointments and disagreements were reflected in splits. In the end, de Gaulle found that the other de Gaullist leaders were ready to take part in all the parliamentary horse-deals – enter governments without having control, etc. De Gaulle resigned from the organization, and the RPF as a united Party is no more.

Thus it is clear that after 14 years of the Fourth Republic of France everybody is sick of it. The workers are disgusted with a regime that lets speculators and people who collaborated with Hitler rule supreme, in which wages lag far behind prices, in which corruption eats into every fibre of the state. The “200 families” are sick of a regime that cannot crush the workers successfully, does not smash their organizations, does not establish firmly “the rule of order. The workers are sick of a regime that sacrifices the lives of thousands of people and millions of francs on an imperialist war in the French colonies. The bourgeoisie is sick of a regime that is unsuccessful in its attempt to wage an imperialist war. Everyone hates the present regime. No political regime was more isolated from mass support that the present one in France.

In the teeth of the right-wing offensive, the working class parties in France limit themselves to verbal statements of support for the Pflimlin Government: the Socialist Party takes part in the Government: and the Communist Party voted to give it emergency powers in Algeria. At the same time this Government declares solidarity with the militarists in Algeria.

What Next?

The workers cannot, must not, rely on the police or army to prevent a right-wing dictatorship. It is up to the working class movement, by mass strikes, demonstrations and other means of direct action to prevent this menace.

The present capitalist parliamentary regime, corrupt, indecisive, and in permanent crisis, will, sooner or later, be swept away, either by a right-wing dictatorship, or by the self-mobilised, fighting working class. To quote the great French revolutionary leader. Danton, only by “audacity, more audacity and yet more audacity,” can the workers of France avert the threat of a right-wing dictatorship.


Last updated on 26.5.2003