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International Socialism, February/March 1970


Lutte Ouvrière

Divide and Rule?


From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.42, February-March 1970, pp.6-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following is a shortened version of speech made by a representative of Lutte Ouvrière at a public meeting organised by LO on the subject, The peasant revolt and the working class.

Since the end of the summer holidays the Government has been confronted with the discontent of workers, small traders, students and peasants. Faced with this general hostility it has so far largely suceeded in standing up to all of it. But what it is concerned to do at all costs is to turn the working class away from other social groups in struggle. Even more, it is trying, within the ranks of the working class itself, to split the workers into two hostile groups.

This tactic can be summed up in a phrase which has now become classic: divide and rule. In concrete terms that means: present every striker as a ‘subversive’ element or a ‘red’ in the hope of turning him into a bogey-man that will frighten the middle classes – peasants and small traders. That also means giving credence in the working class to the idea that the CP manipulates every strike movement, thus dividing the workers into supporters and opponents of the CGT. There is no shortage of examples to illustrate this tactic.

On several occasions in recent weeks members of the government have launched violent attacks against the CP and the CGT, who are presented as the instigators of the recent strikes and are accused of using the workers’ trade union demands to carry through their so-called ‘subversive’ plans. In this respect the government seems to have changed its tactic towards the CP, and thus to have broken with the policy followed by de Gaulle between 1958 and 1968. For, in face of the Communist Party, with its influence in the labour movement and its importance in the political life of the country, the bourgeoisie has several possible strategies.

The first consists in making full use of the CP as an ally, that is, as the Maoist comrades put it, using it as a fire-brigade with the job of putting out the flames of social conflict as soon as they appear. This is the line de Gaulle followed for 10 years. Moreover, this tactic was not confined to merely abstaining from attacks on the CP and the CGT. De Gaulle admitted the latter to all negotiations as a full participant. For, far from wanting to smash the political and trade union organisations of the working class, as some comrades asserted, de Gaulle was rather able to make use of them for his policies, in order to muzzle, or at least to contain in very strict limits, every social movement.

But from this point of view, many things have changed today. In May and June 1968, the bourgeoisie did not forgive the CP and the CGT for failing in their role as warders. For not only were the CP and the CGT unable to oppose the strike wave but, even worse, while trying to stop it they spread to the whole country a movement which was to become the longest strike that the French working class had ever known.

What the ruling class blames the CP for is being too touchy on its left, too sensitive to pressure from the rank-and-file, in short, for not behaving like a responsible major political party.

The CP, in order not to have enemies on the left, took it upon itself to launch a general strike, a result which the leftists on their own could never have achieved. And the bourgeoisie won’t swallow that. The situation is aggravated by the fact that since the fall of de Gaulle the CP has found itself in a position where it is particularly sensitive to criticism from the left. For it is clear that today the political perspectives that the party can offer its militants are, in the short term, almost non-existent.

The next elections are three years away, and much-discussed ‘left unity’ has come to seem very dubious to many militants in face of the complete disintegration of the ‘Federation of the Left’. In these circumstances the Party leadership can scarcely find any good reasons to offer its troops for holding back on the struggle, or at least these ‘good reasons’ are in danger at last of seeming very questionable. For years the CP militants have been told that a wide-ranging struggle was impossible because there was a strong government. But this no longer exists. They have been told that a general strike was scarcely, possible because the lads weren’t ready for it. But May-June 1968 has taken place, and the memory of it is far from being erased. As for the argument that militant struggles will frighten the petty-bourgeoisie, it has lost much of its force since the small traders and peasants also adopted direct action methods.

In these conditions thousands of good Communist militants can no longer be given adequate reasons for doing nothing in face of the deep discontent of the working class. The leadership of the CGT wants to avoid at any price seeming soft in the eyes of these militants. Hence its attitude in a number of actions that have taken place during the autumn. For example, remember the railway strike. So as not to appear to be lagging behind an independent union which was in a small minority, the CGT spread throughout the industry a strike which without its intervention would doubtless have been confined to a few sectors. And the minority union which called the strike was in no way leftist. Once again, in the eyes of our rulers, the CGT has shown itself to be irresponsible. The members of the government, moreover, took advantage of Séguy’s speech at the Mutualité on September 13 to create a great scandal by crying out against subversion, but above all to make the CGT understand that they were in no way prepared to tolerate its leftist outbursts, even if they were purely verbal.

It is all these factors which seem to have made the government determined to carry out a completely different policy with regard to the CP, with the support of broad layers of the bourgeoisie who found de Gaulle’s attitude in this matter hard to put up with.

The bourgeoisie has already tried this policy of isolation of the CP, with a certain degree of success, between 1949 and 1953. Certainly the context of the period was somewhat different, and the general atmosphere of cold war ihen prevalent in Europe and the USA greatly contributed to the isolation of the CP.

We must remember that from 1945 to 1947 the CP had been a government party which allowed the bourgeoisie to get on its feet again by making the working class roll up its sleeves. The CP was only able to do this by playing the role of a prison warder in the factories and using all its strength to prevent an expression of the discontent building up within the working class. The breaking point was reached in April 1947 when the Renault strike broke out against the CGT, a strike which rapidly spread to other factories. The CP was then confronted with a choice: either to be loyal to the government by condemning the strikes, that is, by directly opposing the workers and its own militants, or to proclaim its solidarity with the workers, that is, to disown the government, while at the same time encouraging a return to work. And the CP, always sensitive to pressure from the left, chose the second solution in order not to cut itself off from its most combat militants. The bourgeoisie didn’t forgive it this choice, all the more because the departure of the CP from the government in a sense opened the floodgates. During the second half of 1947 and throughout 1948 strike followed strike, hunger march followed consumers’ demonstration. Although the CP and the CGT took part in all these movements, they took good care not to orient them towards a general strategy capable of endangering the regime.

From the end of 1948, with the subsidence of the strike movement, successive governments tried to carry out a systematic repression against the militants of the CP and the CGT. The CGT was excluded from the administrative councils of French railways and from all the parity commissions. The bourgeoisie found it all the easier to isolate the CGT because the other unions, the CFTC and the FO, were playing the government’s cards all down the line.

From March 1952 to June 1954 there was a succession of three governments, under Antoine Pinay, René Mayer and Joseph Laniel, in which the socialists did not participate, and which were based on the most reactionary section of the right. Unable to respond to the actions against it by mobilising the working class, the CP reacted by means of adventurist actions which cut it off a bit more from the mass of workers, but which allowed it to keep its militants in hand. A notable example of an adventurist action was the demonstration against the American general Ridgway on May 28, 1952, where for a whole day the CP militants stood up to the police. The failure of the strike called at Renault led to the sacking of all the CGT stewards.

Two months after Laniel came to power the discontent of the working class exploded. On August 4, 1953 anarcho-syndicalist militants in the FO post office federation at Bordeaux called a strike which spread first of all through their own profession, then to electricity workers, miners, to the airlines, banks, insurance companies, shipbuilding, etc. Soon there were four million strikers throughout the country. The government’s requisition orders against the railway and post office workers was a failure. Finally the government scrapped the decrees it had proposed. A period had come to an end.

It is easy to understand why Chaban-Delmas and his friends would like to return to the same policy. But if it is probable that they would like to return to a situation like that of 1949 it is by no means certain that they can do so. For today isolating the CP and the CGT is dependent on at least two conditions:

  1. on the one hand, a certain demoralisation of the working class, which means that it would not react against the attacks made by the government on the CP and the CGT;
  2. on the other hand, open or tacit complicity of the other unions, notably the CFDT and Force Ouvrière, who would be willing to play the government’s game.

Are these two conditions fulfilled at the present time? Yes and no. It is true that, for the moment, even if the working class is not demoralised, it is nonetheless, thanks to the policies of the unions, in a state of mobilisation which cannot fail to favour the government’s plans.

It is this situation which has encouraged the government to move its pawns forward and try out the ground for its anti-working-class policy, notably in the electricity supply industry. For if the strategy of isolating the CP was decided on some months ago it could only be applied tactically on the condition of not provoking a direct confrontation with the working class and thus producing a response on the part of the workers that might turn directly against the government and put a stop to its plans. That is doubtless the explanation of the great prudence shown by the government in September. For at the end of the summer holidays the chief fear of the bourgeoisie and its politicians was a working class reaction to the devaluation and the austerity measures introduced by the government.

But, with three months’ hindsight, we can see that such a reaction did not take place. Not that there wasn’t great discontent within the working class. Since September numerous industries have been involved in struggle. The railway strike was followed by strikes in Paris transport, electricity supply, post office, dockers, airlines, etc. In the engineering industry, whether at Peugeot, at Manufrance, at CARL, or Renault-Le Mans, the workers usually embarked on struggle with great militancy. But if the unions didn’t openly oppose such movements, they did all they could to limit them to a particular sector and prevent any expansion.

In face of this attitude, the bosses used a flexible tactic. It is still difficult to say whether the tactic was successful. But what is certain is that the bosses and the government have regained confidence in themselves, and that their fears at the beginning of September have given way to a much more aggressive attitude to the workers. They can only be encouraged in this attitude by the total absence of reaction to the very real provocation of the use of CRS, bulldozers, etc, against the gas and electricity workers.

The other precondition for the success of the government’s plan is that Force Ouvrière and the CFDT should be willing to act as its accomplices. That Force Ouvrière is ready for a whole-hearted collaboration with the regime is scarcely surprising. But for the CFDT the problem is quite different. Not that this union is, in any way, ‘leftist’, as some comrades seem determined to believe. From its support of Poher in the presidential elections to its agreement to sign deals which threaten the right to strike, as in the case of civil servants and electricity workers, the CFDT has returned to its old ways, and is back in the bosom of the government.

The problem is essentially different for the CFDT because of its rank and file. Over the years it has won a significant influence in the working class (above all among technicians). Because of the fact that it often appeared more dynamic than the CGT, it succeeded in attracting a number of good militants, and even of leftists, who are not prepared to see their union following the FO line, whatever opposition the government may put up.

And so, here too, the bourgeoisie’s game is not won in advance.

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