Written: August 17, 1968
Source: Spark, winter 1968
Transcription: Francesco 2008
Markup: Manuel 2008
The general strike in France earlier this year has shattered the complacent attitude of the representatives of the capitalists in Western Europe, and of the reformists and those in the Labour Movement who believed that the so-called “affluent society” had rendered Marxism obsolete. In the Western world, as a result of the economic upswing since the war, they had claimed, classes and class concepts as understood in the past were no longer relevant to a society which had solved the problems of capitalism. Slumps and class struggle were a thing of the past. With the pressures of capitalism, their bureaucratic structure, and their history, the Stalinist parties became even more bureaucratically degenerated than the parties of the Second International. All these factors, together with their isolation from the masses, in their turn led to a mood of pessimism and despair by the “Marxist” sects claiming to represent the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. They developed a sceptical attitude towards the revolutionary potential of the working class of the Western capitalist countries. They viewed the possibility of socialist revolution in the West as ruled out for decades. They sought salvation in the upsurge of the colonial world, finding in the peasants of the under-developed world the new revolutionary class which would solve the problems of the revolution.
In other articles and pamphlets we have made an analysis of this perspective pointing out its falsity and inadequate understanding of the processes taking place in the capitalist world. Analysing the process taking place in the main capitalist countries we forecast the inevitability of sudden and abrupt changes which would alter the relationship of forces between the classes and end the foetid and poisonous atmosphere in which Marxists have been forced to work for almost a generation.
Such a change is the “May revolution”, as bourgeois commentators have named it, in France. France is the “classical country” of the class struggle. It is rich in movements of the workers and of the French people beginning with the bourgeois revolution in 1789, and the following revolutions, culminating in the Paris Commune. It is the country which first established bourgeois bonapartism or the military-police capitalist state. It has seen a succession of regimes, revolution being followed by counter-revolution, and again being followed by revolution.
After the experiences of the Commune, the cowardly French bourgeoisie preferred to invest their capital in the colonies or abroad, and keep the working class, with its great traditions, as a minority of the population. They continued this policy between the wars, relying heavily on their Empire and “usurers capital”. The world slump of 1929-33 affected them later and hit them harder. This prepared the way for the forerunner of the May upsurge, the stay-in strike of 1936, which was betrayed by the “strike-breaking conspiracy” of the Peoples’ Front. Again, as in previous movements of the French people, analysed by Marx in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the cowardice and treachery of the “petit bourgeois democrats” prepared the way for reaction, the demoralisation of the French people, the victories of Hitler and the occupation of France in the Second World War.
Rather than face the danger of a second Commune, the French ruling class preferred to surrender to the Nazis. The events of the Second World War regenerated the movement of resistance among the French working class and the French people generally. The members of the Communist Party were in the front rank. The mass of the population had a mood of violent revulsion at the collaboration between the ruling class and the occupying Nazis. Once again the leaders of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party collaborated in a “National” or “coalition” or Popular Front Government in the post-war period. Lenin all his life had fought against such a concept. He stood for the independence of the working class from all capitalist parties. The winning of the working class and the other strata of the middle class by fighting for their interests and drawing them away from their capitalist exploiters was central to his whole approach.
The powerful post-war upsurge was crushed by the policy and tactics of the Communist Party leadership. They used their regained prestige, due to the heroic efforts of the rank and file, to save French capitalism from destruction. Their argument at that time was the “danger of a Third World War” if capitalism in France was overthrown. They remained in the Government of De Gaulle which massacred their Vietnamese comrades in Saigon and Hanoi, which conducted the war of intervention and which broke strikes and the movement of the peasants in France. When they had done their dirty work, together with their comrades in the rest of Europe, American Imperialism and its satellites fell out with the Moscow bureaucracy and the “cold war” began. On the instructions of Stalin they posed as “irreconcilable revolutionaries”. Also at that stage they were haunted by the fear of being outflanked from the “Left”. They began a movement of “opposition”. They were thrown out of the Government and then indulged in all sorts of wild adventures. But the working class is not a tap which can be turned on or off at the whims of bureaucrats. Their policies had demoralised the workers, and whereas in 1944-47 they could call demonstrations in Paris alone of a million people, they were fortunate to get hundreds at their anti-American demonstrations.
At the height of the war against the Algerian people, the Communist Party offered only passive opposition. The failure of the Communist Party leadership to give an internationalist lead led in its turn to the Algerian struggle taking a purely nationalist form. This drove the white settlers into the arms of fascist reaction. Thus the opportunity was created 10 years ago for the rise of a new Bonapartism in the form of General De Gaulle. For this the Communist Party leadership and that of the Socialist Party had a great responsibility (See: Ted Grant, “France in Crisis”, May 1958).
The last decade, under the regime of “personal power” witnessed the fast industrialisation of formerly backward France. The privilege of backwardness was ended with the Second World War, the revolt of the colonial peoples, and the further development of competition on world markets. The French bourgeoisie was compelled to try and modernise the economy for French imperialism to maintain even a secondary role in the world. The ruined peasants streamed into the towns, foreign workers were employed by hundreds of thousands on the worst and most unskilled jobs, and French industry leaped forward. But the benefits of this increased production were very unevenly shared. While the standard of living, especially of the more skilled workers, rose absolutely, their share of the increased production dropped.
It was in this atmosphere that the student revolt developed. This was a symptom of the malaise in society. The sons and daughters of the middle class, upper middle class, and even of the bourgeoisie were in revolt against the rotten values of the ruling class. This movement is a symptom of the crisis in the capitalist world. The demonstrations of the students were viciously attacked by the picked riot police of the C.R.S., notorious for their thuggery and brutality. The beating up of demonstrators only inflamed the students even more and led to the outbreak of fighting on the barricades in the Latin Quarter, the seizure of the universities in Paris and then throughout France. This in its turn led to a movement among the secondary school children.
The leadership of the Communist Party, haughty and solid bureaucrats through and through, denounced the students in hysterical terms, as “adventurists”, “provocateurs” and “ultra-lefts”. While undoubtedly there were many effervescent and confused elements, the students marching under the red flag of Socialism and the black flag of the anarchists, were instinctively striving to find the road to a new society and to the working masses. The population of France and especially the working class was stirred to a revulsion against the regime by the sadism of the police in their attacks on the students.
The Communist Party, the Trade Union leaders of the C.G.T., C.F.D.T. and Force Ouvriere, the United Socialist Party, and the so-called Socialist Democratic Federation of the Left which comprised the Socialist Party and remnants of some bourgeois republican parties called a general strike. They felt the wind of anger blowing within the masses and called for demonstrations. Ten million workers answered the strike call and 800,000 to 1 million marched in the demonstration in Paris on May 13th.
At each time of crisis this trick of a 24-hour general strike has been used by the Communist Party leadership in the post-war period. “Let the masses let off steam” seemed to be their philosophy, “Everyone will be satisfied, and we can then return to the old game of declamations and parliamentary speeches and show our r-r-r-r-revolutionary spirit of opposition now against Gaullist personal rule. In time the way will be prepared for a new version of the Popular Front, the workers will have done their duty, and then everything would return to ‘normal’.”
This time it was not to be. The atmosphere had been too charged with the electricity of discontent. The accumulated resentments of a generation of capitalist reaction were coming to a head. Beginning with the aviation workers, in one Sud Aviation factory, then the car workers at Renault, the workers in one industry after the other began the seizure of the factories. Workers on the railways, metro, buses, in engineering, coal, chemicals, steel, marine, shipyards and ships, and in other industries occupied their factories. Within days the movement had spread to the white collar workers, the teachers and professors, the big offices, the banks and post offices, sorting offices, the labour exchanges, even the Observatories, the department stores and insurance offices. Ten million industrial and white collar workers were on strike. In the last stages the agricultural workers and peasants and the clerical staff of the prefectures came out on strike or joined the movement. If the electricity, gas and water workers did not come out it was because while they were refusing to supply industry they did not want to cut off electricity, gas and water from the homes of ordinary people, under the demagogic appeals of their “leaders”.
In contrast with the general strike of 1926 in Britain, this was a spontaneous movement of revolt from the bottom. It was the young generation of workers in the factories, not burdened with the cynicism engendered by the betrayals of the past who initiated the movement. It was in the spirit of the great traditions of the French working class and of the French people. Symbolic of the mood of the workers were the red flags flying over the factories, labour exchanges, department stores, ships and offices. It was the greatest strike movement in the history of the working class. All the more significant is that one wave after another of the industrial and white collar workers joined in without any lead from above. Factories which had been unorganised, or as with Citroën had “company unions” and armed guards to keep out “agitators” or union organisers, joined the rest of the working class. The white collar-workers demonstrated the same militancy as their industrial brothers. The “State” was paralysed! At the height of the struggle even the police showed that they were unreliable! This included even the reactionary C.R.S., who had been used with great brutality against the student demonstrations and were then made the scapegoat. The Police Federation went further and issued a declaration that they were in sympathy with the demands of the workers and had similar grievances of their own.
De Gaulle had announced a plebiscite on the radio and television. But the printers refused to print the forms! Attempts to get the forms printed in Belgium failed. The Belgian printers, demonstrating international solidarity, refused to blackleg against their French brothers. The mighty Bonapartist state—the “Strong State” which had been depicted by some revolutionaries—was impotent.
Had the “Communist Party” been a revolutionary movement the power of the capitalist class would have been broken. The main task was the linking of the factory committees, locally, regionally and nationally. This would have given the latent power of the workers structure and form. To the workers’ committees could have been joined those of the students, peasants, housewives, small businessmen, the army, and in their mood then, even the police. This was the situation which called for “audacity, audacity and again audacity”. In Italy, in America, in Britain, in West Germany, in fact the entire Western World, the capitalists viewed with horror and dismay the beginning of the Socialist Revolution in France. An irony of history: the bourgeoisie of the entire Western World saw as their only consolation the fact that the Communist Party leadership was a force of conservatism and had become a party of order. The Russian bureaucracy and its satellites were busily denouncing as a slander conjured up by the world bourgeoisie the idea that France was in a revolutionary crisis.
In the words of Trotsky, the Stalinists in France “put the thermometer under the tongue of old lady history and decided that the situation was not revolutionary”.
It is necessary under these conditions to use the ideas of Marx and Lenin in order to expose this cant. To these gentlemen we say, “What is a revolutionary situation?” Answering the same cowardly attitude by Plekhanov, who said in 1905 that the workers should not have taken up arms “when the situation was not revolutionary”, Lenin, echoing Marx, analysed carefully, the conditions for revolution. The first condition is the vacillation and split in the ruling class. Who can deny that during the height of the May events there was panic in the ranks of bourgeoisie reaching up even to the pinnacle of power, with the demoralisation of the Bonaparte De Gaulle? The second condition is the wavering of the petit bourgeoisie looking for a way out either from the workers or the capitalists. As Lenin explained, with a firm policy from the working class, under these conditions, they would win the support of the middle class. The third condition is the readiness to struggle on the part of the working class. Who can deny the readiness to fight of the French workers as shown by the spontaneous movement after the token strike called by the Left parties and all the Trade Union Federations? In the past this harmless manoeuvre had succeeded in preventing the workers from moving into action. But not this time. As sketched above, layer after layer of the proletariat and white collar workers and even the peasantry moved into action. The truth is that it was the fourth condition outlined by Lenin which was absent. This was a mass revolutionary organisation with a far-sighted revolutionary leadership which was democratically controlled by the workers and ready to take the boldest steps to achieve the victory of the working class.
How degenerate these gentlemen have become over the decades of Stalinist crimes! In France and the other countries of Western Europe the leadership of the so-called Communist Parties had become integrated into the structure of the old society. On a higher level we have a repetition of the crime of the social democratic leaders which saved capitalism after the First World War. The bureaucrats in Moscow, who have now developed arteriosclerosis living their nice comfortable existence, were even more terrified than the capitalists in the West at the spectre that they thought they had laid of a new and higher version of the October Revolution, this time in industrial France.
“The situation was not revolutionary!” Just consider how Lenin castigated the Italian reformists in 1920 at the time of the seizure of the factories by the Italian workers. The Italian socialist leaders too, trembling before the action of the working class, declared that the situation was not revolutionary. How Lenin scorned and reviled these “traitors”. What would he have said about such a magnificent movement as that of the French workers, a hundred times as great in its scope, in its depth, and in its paralysis of the forces of capitalism and their state? And yet in this situation all that the so-called Communist Party leadership does is to plagiarise all the worst features of the reformist leaders. All the leaders of the Communist Parties of the world are dragging out the distorted quotation from Engels, against which Engels himself complained, and of which Lenin wrote in acid terms in his polemic against Kautsky and the “Left reformists” and “heroes of the Second International”. Lenin had so painstakingly refuted this vile trick of pretending that Engels in his old age had become a mild reformist. Alas, alas, Palme Dutt, always ready to eat his words in the interests of the Stalinist apparatus, and echoing the revolutionary romanticism of his youth, had written in May—before the events—in the journal of the so-called international Communist Movement an indignant criticism of denigrators of Engels who used this very quotation, lamenting that Marx’s “far-sighted warning…against the danger of the trend of petit-bourgeois reformism…or the anger of Engels over the falsification of [the] 1895 Preface to the Class Struggles in France” were ignored. (World Marxist Review, May Issue)
Waldeck Rochet and all the epigones of Communism try and argue that it was only a movement for higher wages and better conditions. What was the October Revolution but a struggle for “Peace, Bread, Land”? But the problem for the Communist Party, like the Bolsheviks in Russia, was to link up the demands of the masses with the need for the Socialist Revolution. Our new reformist heroes try to prove too much. If it was “only” a struggle for better conditions and wages why did the Communist Party issue a declaration by Waldeck Rochet in a special edition of their organ, L’Humanité which said:
“Millions of manual workers and intellectuals are on strike, the aspiration of all the people to a real change of regime does not cease to grow…on the political plane the problem of power remains more than ever posed. The Gaullist regime has outworn itself. It must go. To achieve the aspirations of the workers, of the teachers, of the students it is necessary that the State ceases to be a tool of the monopoly capitalist…That is why the French Communist Party considers that it is necessary to take a step towards Socialism, proposes not only the nationalisation of the big banks but of the great monopoly industrial enterprises which dominate the key sectors of the economy.”
The leaflet goes on to say that the Communist Party stands for the “democratic control of the national enterprises and the establishment on all layers of economic life of workers control; to begin by the extension of the role of the factory committees and the free activity of the Trade Unions in the enterprises…it is necessary to end the power of the monopolies and with it the Gaullist power and to promote a popular Government leaning on the support of the people.” What is this all about? If the workers were only interested in wages and conditions at a time when the Gaullist regime was cracking and under the pressure of the working class why did the Communist Party distribute this declaration throughout France? One thing or the other—either the situation was revolutionary, or the Communist Party leadership was guilty of cynical demagogy.
“Ah…” say the faint hearts, as they have always said before every revolution, “What about the Army?” Waldeck Rochet explains profoundly that they did not want to send the workers to be crushed by the tanks of Massu. In the Morning Star the Editor of L’Humanité also wrote on the danger of the armed forces. That new Vicar of Bray, Palme Dutt, wrote in the Labour Monthly the opposite of what he had written a few months before and denounced the “ultra Lefts” for light-mindedly forgetting the “menace of the Army”. As usual he finds a convenient quotation against the frivolity of the anarchists, while forgetting that in the very same material Lenin protected his rear against sophists like Dutt by his implacable criticism of opportunism. But let us examine this question of the army a little closer. De Gaulle visited Massu after the collapse of his attempt at a referendum. The “personal power” against which the Stalinist leaders are always railing rests not only on elections but on the army and police. It was allegedly fear of the army, which would crush the workers, that paralysed the leadership of the Communist Party. One can then ask these parliamentary cretins: if the capitalists could use the army before the elections, why not after a “democratic victory” at the polls? In reality, as the Times clearly explained, to try and use the army would be to break it. In every revolution the attempt of reaction to use the army, which is composed of workers and peasants, will split it from top to bottom. It is true that a revolution can be defeated, but when one has a situation like that in France with a complete paralysis of the State then the issue can be decided by the quality of the leadership of the working class.
How gladly the leadership of the Communist Party seized on the Gaullist trick of the dissolution of the Assembly and elections. Then in order to keep up with their “allies” in the tops of the so-called Left Federation and in order not to frighten away the lawyers and professional politicians, who provide an alternative face for the bourgeoisie, they dropped the very radical demands listed above. In order to show themselves as respectable and not the famous wild man with a knife between his teeth they tried to compete with the Gaullists as a party of “Law and Order”.
When the party of the working class, or more correctly the party claiming to represent the working class, tries to compete with the representatives of tie bourgeoisie on this level they are asking for a defeat. Had the Communist Party fought the elections on the programme as outlined in the Declaration of Waldeck Rochet and at the same time made a determined effort to win over the middle class and peasantry by a programme catering for their needs—had they emphasized that the needs of the workers and the people generally could only be satisfied by the overthrow of capitalism and a change in society—they would not have suffered a defeat at the polls.
However, the elections demonstrated the polarisation in France of class forces; the working class and its parties on the one side and the bourgeois parties clustered round Gaullism on the other. The fact that the P.S.U., Party of Socialist Unity, which stood to the left of the Communist Party gained half a million votes, while the Communist Party itself lost six hundred thousand is significant. However, while there were ten million strikers in the country, the left parties only received nine million votes. Where did the other million go? It is clear that many strikers together with their wives must have voted for the bourgeois parties and even the Gaullists. That was the penalty paid because of the policy of the Communist Party.
The elections marked a victory for reaction in France. While the cretins of the Communist Party were putting their faith in the elections, all the bourgeois observers were pointing out that the election results were secondary as far as the movement of the masses in France were concerned.
However, the immediate effect was undoubtedly a fall in the spirit of the masses. The Communist Party has used the election results as a justification of the idea that there was no revolutionary situation in May.
In fact, they are responsible for electoral defeat and the immediate change in the situation which it has provoked. The Communist Party leadership is silent in Britain and other countries on the results of the immediate psychological defeat for the working class. The “Patronat” have taken revenge for the fright which the events of May had given them.
Tens of thousands of militants in the factories and enterprises, in the technical institutes and white collar trades have been victimised. A real witch-hunt has taken place in the factories on one pretext or another.
Here it is to be noted that the C.G.T. gained a modest four hundred members, while its rival the ex-Catholic federation, C.F.T.D., doubled its membership by gaining one-and-a-half million members during the May events, and it is now bigger than the C.G.T. Together with Force Ouvrière the trade unions must now number over six million, although in the French tradition, tens, even hundreds of thousands of workers will tend to drop out of the unions in disgust when they see their gains in the great May events being whittled away. Already the trickery of the employers, the measures of the state, inflation, and all the other effects of the underlying crisis of the capitalist system in France have partially wiped out the gains. At the same time the small businessmen and the peasants will be also affected. Tens of thousands of small businessmen will become bankrupt. Hundreds of thousands of peasant small holders will no longer be able to make a living and be driven into the cities. The unemployed and the youth will become further disaffected. The students will find that there are not enough jobs in the professions.
The election results mark a temporary set back in the movement of the working class and the people of France, towards the Socialist Revolution. It has given time for the capitalist reaction to consolidate itself. There will be a purge of police and a stiffening-up of the ranks of reaction. Preparations will be made systematically in all of the big towns to “deal” with the workers and students. But not even the Gaullist election victory and the repression of militants in the factories will be able to prevent a new surge forward of the French revolution at a later stage.
The situation is analogous to that of the revolution in Spain of 1931-1936. In Spain, after the fall of the Bonapartist dictator Primo De Rivera and the overthrow of the monarchy, there was a Republican-Socialist coalition which broke strikes and shot down the peasants when they tried to seize the land. This prepared the way for the victory of the right wing Republican and Catholic Fascist reaction in the elections. This in turn prepared the way for the Catholic-Fascist Gil Robles to be taken into the coalition. Meanwhile, under the influence of international events the Social Democracy in Spain had evolved to the left and the reply to the inclusion of Catholic-Fascists into the coalition government was the insurrection in the Asturias Province. This was defeated and prepared the two black years (Bienio Negro) of reaction in Spain. This in its turn prepared the way for the onslaught of the workers ending in the victory in the elections of the Popular Front in February 1936. There began an uninterrupted movement of the workers and peasants against the liberal Popular Front Government. There was one General strike after another in the cities, one protest movement after another, of the peasants in the countryside. To save themselves the capitalist class through the Generals launched the conspiracy of July 1936, which culminated in the counter insurrection on the part of the working class. It resulted in the smashing of the bourgeois state in so-called Republican Spain. It would take us too far from the question under discussion to deal with the reasons for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37, but the main factors were the policies of the mass workers’ organisations.
Of course, events in France will not develop in exactly the same pattern as those of Spain, but Spain provides a useful scheme of the process of the revolution. What has to be noted is the process of swinging between upsurge and reaction, which takes place in every revolution, and sometimes extends over many years. In Spain, it unrolled over five or six years till we had the denouement of civil war.
In France, had the Communist Party retained even a shadow of its revolutionary beginnings the revolution would have assumed a peaceful character. It would have provoked a wave of Socialist revolution throughout Western Europe and a political revolution in Eastern Europe. The betrayal of the Communist Party leaders makes the task of the overthrow of capitalism much more arduous but it cannot prevent the movement of the working class to change society.
A paradox of the events lies in the fact that the very defeat caused by the Communist Party will temporarily succeed in holding it together, as far as the mass of the working class is concerned. The working class as a mass, though conscious of its power in the May days, will be bewildered by the turn of events. The propaganda of the Communist Party will have some effect. The workers and particularly peasants and middle class will see that they have been fooled and panicked by the propaganda of the Gaullists into voting for reaction. They will say it would have been better if the Communist Party and the Left Federation had won the elections. There will inevitably be a big swing of the masses in the direction of Popular Frontism.
Of course it is true that the most advanced layers in the factories, the militants of the C.G.T., and many of the militants who remain members of the Communist Party, will have had their eyes opened as to the counter-revolutionary role which is played by the Communist Party leadership. Apparently, there are still many action committees in existence in the factories, enterprises and districts. These militants, especially the layer of young worker militants who led the struggle, will later coalesce into some form of organisation. But at the moment, they must understand that the vital need is that of patiently explaining to the organised workers in the Communist Party, the P.S.U., the Trade Union Federations and the other workers’ organisations in these events, otherwise they will tend to become demoralised and despairing themselves. This layer can only play a role in so far as they integrate themselves with the masses and understand that the “May Days” were only the beginning of the process of Socialist Revolution. Just as Lenin explained after the February Revolution of 1917 that it was only the lack of consciousness on the part of the Bolsheviks and the working class which prevented them from seizing power, owing to the cringing of the reformists before the bourgeoisie, so the Communist Party in France played an even more perfidious role. But only future events and the inevitable new upsurge on the part of the workers will make clear the role of the leadership of the Communist party to the broad masses. Alas, it is only through yet another experience of Popular Frontism and the victory of the Communist Party and Left Federation in the elections that this will become clear.
At the moment, where the revolutionary forces are very weak, the place where the revolutionary militants should conduct their work is within the Communist Party, the P.S.U. and the Trade Union Federations. But it is no use being in the Communist Party and the other arenas of work if one conducts this work with one’s mouth firmly shut. Even worse is the case where the work is conducted by people hiding their ideas and making themselves as inconspicuous as possible by assuming the colouration of the dominant trends within these organisations. To pretend to be something for a long period, chameleon-like, is to become virtually that thing itself. Only by boldly quoting the ideas of Lenin and even the ideas advocated by the French Communist Party in the past, not by merging with but by distinguishing the militants from the grey Stalinist and centrist currents, can gains be made now and later.
It is not excluded that if the economy in France should continue on a higher level the upswing of the past period Gaullism might temporarily succeed in stabilising itself. This would be especially so if a big part of the gains of the workers should still remain.
At a later stage with the discrediting of Gaullism the masses of the industrial workers, white collar workers and even a big section of the small shopkeepers and middle class will turn to the Popular Front as a way out. The coming to power of a Popular Front will take place under entirely different conditions and with the militants already aware of the role of the Communist Party leadership. The classes will become more polarised even than they are at the present time. Under the cloak of the Popular Front the capitalist class will seriously prepare to settle accounts with the working class. Fascist organisations will appear on the Right, armed and financed by big business. Under the blows of reaction there will be a crisis in the Communist Party. Unable to “deliver the goods” “on the parliamentary road” there will develop the long-postponed crisis in the Communist Party. It will split from top to bottom. That is the music of the future, however, at a further stage of the Revolution.
The main problem of Marxism in France today is that of convincing the layers of action committees of the C.P. and P.S.U. and trade union militants, which at the moment largely represent a small minority of workers, of the need for preparation for the struggles to come. The fact that they have come to understand the real role of the Communist Party in and of itself is not enough. They have to understand that to convince the workers will require not only their heroic and self-sacrificing work in the factories and Unions but their education in the basic ideas of Marxism. Then they will be enabled to explain, with the help of events, at each stage how and why the “Communist” Party is no longer a Communist Party.
It is interesting to compare the role of the students in France to that of the students in Germany. Because the situation in Germany has not yet reached the stage of social tension which it reached in France the students did not make the same impact on the working class. In France the movement of the students is in a sense the reflection, sometime in advance, of the discontent of the social layers from which they spring: the upper and lower middle class. Only 12 percent are of working class origins. The movement of the students acted as a “detonator” of the movement amongst the masses. The May events were not consciously prepared for by any tendency among the workers and especially not among the students. There was no conscious preparation for the magnificent movement that unfolded. But even without the movement of students big strikes were already beginning to take place and could only have culminated as in May or in 1936. The workers’ movement was inevitable. It is to be noted that in 1936 it was the movement of the working class which had certain echoes amongst the students and not vice versa.
The students could play an important role as a leaven if they adopted a modest attitude, tried to understand Marxism and the need to integrate themselves with the working class. The danger at the moment in France consists in the fact that the students through the mistaken ideas and perspectives of some of the leaders of the left organisations may regard themselves as a substitute for the masses and engage in adventurism which can only play into the hands of the leadership of the Communist Party.
It must be understood that the bourgeoisie in France, like the workers’ organisations, was caught by surprise by the May events. It came out of an apparently cloudless sky. The movement of the students had the sympathy in the beginning of most of the population. The repression of the C.R.S. which received wide publicity aroused disgust and revulsion amongst the people. The stirring of the masses, in its turn, prepared the movement of the workers. One young worker told a Times reporter: “The students came first. They acted as a spark. They caused the government to yield…They gave us the feeling that we could go ahead.”
Thus as in every Revolution where there is not a Marxist mass organisation, muddled, confused and temporarily inflated elements come to the surface. Thus it is that having rejected the stagnant conservatism of the so-called Communist party the students’ revolt has unfortunately been coloured by the clouded ideas of Marcuse, Castro, Guevara and Mao. Without the discipline of Marxist ideas the students can inflict tremendous damage on themselves and on the movement as a whole. The Gaullist regime is burning for an opportunity of revenge against the students, whom they see as the instigators of their humiliation in May. The police have made systematic preparations to brutally crush any attempts at the setting up of barricades in the Latin Quarter and other university areas in France. From anarchists, Maoists and Guevarists one could not expect that they would understand that the problem in a highly industrialised country like France cannot be solved by methods of guerrilla war, particularly in urban areas. The main task in France as in other countries in the West and the industrialised countries of the East is that of winning over the vast majority of the working class and behind them of the people to understand that the mass organisations no longer stand for the solution to the problems of modern society. There is no substitute for this. The very process of winning and making conscious the unconscious process in the minds of the workers is really the sum and substance of Marxism. In the past Marxism has fought a bitter battle against all varieties of anarchism, and “direct actionism” as well as against opportunism. It was thus that Lenin and Trotsky explained to the Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia, as Marx had explained to the anarchists in a previous epoch, that the attempt to replace the movement of the masses by irresponsible adventurism is suicidal for the participants concerned and actually blocks the path to the winning of the masses. In France there is the tradition of Blanqui who was a martyr and fighter for socialism but who imagined that a courageous minority could replace the masses. In a somewhat modified form there is the revival of these ideas of Blanqui in France at the present time. No doubt the agent-provocateurs will be active among the students to try and provoke a new barricade movement which could be forcibly repressed by the police. Far from acting as a fuse, this time it could have the opposite effect among the workers, and help the Communist Party to regain some of its lost influence by a renewed attack on “irresponsibles”.
Not versed in the theory of Marxism, with the discrediting of the Communist Party in advanced student circles, it could be expected that in this milieu all sorts of weird and fanciful theories should find an echo. But what is tragic in the situation in France is that some alleged Marxists should have so distorted the rich heritage of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that they should take the line of least resistance and swim with this mudded current of ideas. In the last few years in France, big gains amongst the students have been made. However, it is a thousand times necessary to hold high the banner of Marxism. Marxist ideas since the time of Marx himself have a thread of continuity. Though the situation has changed in fundamental respects, the basic ideas of Marxism still remain the guide to action which they were intended to be. To replace them with the confused ideas of Guevarism and Castroism is to miseducate the youth and to build a further obstacle in the path of the workers. To abandon the ideas of Marxism like the Maoists for hare-brained anarchist schemes of armed uprisings and bloody encounters with the police in isolation from the movement of the mass of the workers, is the very opposite of what Marx and his continuers have taught on the theory of insurrection.
During the course of the May events, by and large, the organisations claiming to represent the ideas of Trotskyism put forward many correct ideas such as the linking of the committees of action in the factories locally and nationally. They correctly criticised the role of the Communist Party and the other mass workers’ organisations in these events.
At the same time they also made many errors by imagining that the first beginnings of the Revolution in and of themselves could replace the need for a mass Marxist organisation. They failed to understand that for the tiny Marxist wing of the working class, comprising a few thousand at most, the subjective factor of the Communist Party, of the P.S.U. and S.F.I.O. are for them objective factors standing as gigantic obstacles in the way of the Socialist Revolution. One cannot wish away the mass organisation, but only by correct policies and methods in first winning the militants referred to above, and then capturing through them the masses, can the way be cleared for the victory of the Socialist Revolution in France. To try and substitute for real events and actions on the part of the working class activity by students separate and apart from the workers is a new theory of revolutionary romanticism but has nothing in common with the method and ideas of Marxism.
From the view point of Marxists once De Gaulle had dropped his Bonapartist referendum and turned to elections instead and the Communist Party had gladly taken this as a means of diverting the masses away from extra-parliamentary struggle, then unfortunately, given the weakness of the Marxist tendency, it was necessary to change tactics. Unfortunately, this was imposed on the Left forces by their own weakness. They could not offer a mass alternative of action to put in place of the elections.
It was correct to brand the policy of the Communist Party leadership as a base and even sinister compromise with Gaullism in refusing to take power. But at the same time to label the elections as treason and to divert the students, already confused by petit-bourgeois ideas of anarchism and semi-anarchism, was to play into the hands of the leadership of the Communist Party and to further confuse and disorient the leading militant layers amongst the students. It was necessary to explain to them: while denouncing the “treason” of the Communist Party at the same time a class programme should have been put forward for a Communist-Socialist Government with a worked-out programme of demands also for the middle classes and peasants. Instead of parading with meaningless denunciations of the elections, calling on the people not to vote, they should have taken the declaration of Waldeck Rochet referred to above and systematically campaigned among the militants, the factory workers, the serious elements amongst the students, the Trade Unions, and workers organisations. In this way they could have pointed to the failure of the Communist Party to fight the election on this basis. They could have systematically ridiculed the Communist Party leadership as the new proponent of “Law and Order” with quotations from Marx’s 18th Brumaire.
Among Communist Party militants also Lenin’s merciless criticism of Noske and Scheidemann who also stood as proponents of “law and order” in the German Revolution of 1918, could have been used to try and show them the real role of their leadership.
The slogan of “boycott the elections”, in so far as it had any affect at all, could only have been negative: on the one hand reinforcing the prejudices of the students and on the other hand alienating the workers. The results of the elections laid bare the folly of the call for boycott: 80 percent of the electorate voted, including the overwhelming majority of the workers.
These comrades are sincere and of the best quality, especially the rank and file. At the moment they are under the heavy boot of Gaullist repression with the gleeful and silent complicity of the Communist Party. It is clear that every sincere revolutionary throughout the world will render aid, sympathy and support to these courageous comrades. But we would be doing a great injustice to their sacrifice and to the sacrifice of the advanced layers amongst the students and young workers if we did not at the same time criticise what we conceive to be incorrect policies. The first and most imperative task of Marxists in France, and of those in the rest of the world, who wish to give aid to the French Revolution, is to understand the processes of the revolution itself, to understand the problems of the revolution, to have a due sense of proportion, to understand the forces at one’s disposal and the gap between these forces and the great historic tasks which loom ahead. It is tragic not to understand that, for the reasons analysed above, the Revolution in France will pass through many phases of reaction and advance, of despair and movement forward on the part of the working class.
One thing is clear: the Revolution in France can never be accomplished until the mass of the working class understands the role of the leadership of the Communist Party. In the inevitable new upsurge which lies ahead in the coming years it is from the militants of the Communist Party, of the C.G.T., C.F.D.T. and P.S.U. that a revolutionary party will be constructed. Events themselves will undoubtedly result in a split in the Communist Party from top to bottom, but to aid and fertilise this process is the real task of the Marxists. The process can only be harmed by adventures and attempts at short cuts. The whole essence of the Revolution lies in the change in consciousness in the masses. This can only be assisted if the Marxists adopt correct policies and tactics. Lenin and Trotsky made many mistakes but they never made elementary blunders and they checked and rechecked their ideas and theories on the basis of the masses. Never would they have allowed themselves to abandon any of the fundamental ideas of Marxism. The mass revolutionary party in France will be created by the coming together of the elements mentioned above. The British Marxists hope to assist in this process by producing this material. We are convinced of the invincibility of the Socialist Revolution which has begun in France and of its widespread repercussions East and West, not least in Great Britain. We are also convinced, as the history of the last fifty years has tragically demonstrated, that only the well tested ideas of Marxism and no new-fangled “theories” (in reality moth-eaten resuscitations of the past), can serve to create the necessary instrument for the victory of the workers.
17th August, 1968.