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International Socialism, January 1977


Notes of the Month

Exporting the Social Contract


From International Socialism (1st series), No.94, January 1977, pp.9-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On the Mediterranean fringes of European capitalism, the role of social-democracy in bailing out capitalism has already become clear. In Portugal, it was Soares’ Socialist Party, rather than a Portuguese Pinochet, who dispelled the revolutionary threat. In Spain, the PSOE is being prepared for a similar role by the CIA and the Socialist International. And in Britain too, we have seen the experience of the ‘social contract’. Now it seems that a similar process is emerging in the very heartlands of Common Market capitalism. The recent governmental changes in France and Italy, and the West German elections, despite sharp differences in the national political situations, all reveal certain common features.

Since the Second World War European Socialist Parties have moved sharply to the right – abandoning their socialist programme (Germany, 1959), entering coalition governments (Italy 1963), supporting imperialist wars in Indochina and Algeria (France) – at the same time they have largely lost their mass base.

Communist Parties were long excluded from effective participation in the parliamentary process. As a result, despite their parliamentarist inclinations, they have had to maintain their industrial base in a way quite foreign to the Socialist Parties.

The trade union bureaucracy, while retaining ideological, or at least rhetorical links with the left, have become more remote from the rank and file and more involved in class collaboration.

As the crisis deepends, a new paradox emerges. On the one hand, the ruling class needs to sell measures which involve a real cut in workers’ living standards, and it can do this only with the consent of the trade union bureaucracy and hence of its associated political parties, on the other hand, because of remoteness of the left parties from their own base, and the long tradition of ideological campaigning against ‘socialism’, these parties, which would objectively be the best able to take the helm during the coming storms, find it difficult to gain or preserve electoral power. Each of the different European countries offers a variant of this paradox.

It is against this background that we have witnessed the reemergence of social-democracy as a political current on a European scale. Intervention in Portugal provided a starting-point for more wide-ranging cooperation between European social-democratic parties. There remain, however, important differences between them; for example, Francois Mitterrand of the French SP has found it useful to help launch a campaign to defend civil liberties in ‘social democratic’ West Germany.


Political life in France is overshadowed by the next parliamentary elections, even though these may not take place until 1978. All the indications are that, for the first time for twenty years, the left may come to power; and this prospect both weakens the legitimacy of the present regime, and conditions the responses of the labour movement. Faced with growing economic problems, President Giscard d’Estaing in August sacked Prime Minister Chirac and replaced him by Raymond Barre. Giscard declared that he had asked Barre to broaden the government, ‘notably towards the centre left’. (Le Monde, 27 August).

But such a broadening could hardly help sell the economic measures which Barre introduced at the end of September. Accompanied by the window-dressing of a phony price-freeze till the end of the year, the proposals were a direct attack on working-class living standards – increases in both direct and indirect taxation, and an increase in social security contributions. There was no statutory incomes policy, but a plea to the ‘social partners’ to limit wage increases to 6.5 per cent during 1977.

M. Barre may well be disappointed. The immediate reaction of the unions was hostile, and expressed by the traditional tactic of a one-day strike on October 7th, called jointly by the Communist CGT and the social-democratic CFDT. With half a million on the streets of Paris, and over two hundred demonstrations in the provinces, this was the most effective day of action since 1968. Nonetheless, it still fits neatly into an electoral strategy; one-day strikes have long been a safety device for the French bureaucracy. A few days later Georges Seguy, leader of the CGT, was speaking of the ‘effectiveness ... in the social and economic life of their countries’ of the British TUC and the German DGB. (Le Monde, 26 October).

The line of the unions reflects the line of the left parties – no cooperation for the moment, but prepare for class collaboration in the future. Thus at the beginning of September, CP leader Georges Marchais refused an invitation to meet the new Prime Minister:

‘We don’t want to bail out a government in difficulty, or a policy so clearly contrary to the interests of the workers and of France.’ (Le Monde, 9 September)

But a clue to the CP’s possible future stance was given by an article in L’Humanité on 14 October, speaking of the Italian crisis:

‘The Italian workers do not deny the necessity to make certain sacrifices; the situation is much too serious.’

As for the Socialist Party, its strategy is to outbid the CP electorally, and at the same time develop its links with the CFDT bureaucracy so as to rival the CP’s use of the CGT. One weapon is a verbal leftism; for example, in last year’s debate about democratic rights in the Army, the SP, just because it did not have to prove its ‘patriotism’, was able to take positions clearly to the left of the CP. The SP has thus managed to coopt many former members of the leftist PSU. One of these, Michel Rocard, produced an interesting formulation of why the left should help capitalism in difficulties:

‘Socialists and communists have every interest in seeing that the economic and social situation is the best possible when they take power.’ (Le Monde, 1 September)


In Italy, the crisis is deeper in both economic and political terms. The minority Andreotti Christian Democrat government exists only on the basis of abstention by other parties, in particular the CP. This fragile government is having to carry through a set of measures designed to weaken workers standards. There have been numerous price increases – postal and railway charges have risen by over ten per cent, and the price of petrol has been increased three times in one month. Wages are frozen other than for already agreed cost of living increases; and for higher paid workers even these are to be deferred.

The Christian Democrats could count on the support of their own union, CISL; but they are also getting considerable support from the biggest union, the CGIL. On October 11 the Communist General Secretary Luciano Lama declared:

‘We must say frankly that the depth and seriousness of the crisis are still too often underestimated. An austerity policy is necessary. That is why we haven’t adopted a position of a priori rejection of the government measures, but we wanted and still want to enter into discussions ... The measures ... to a great degree don’t correspond to the criteria of justice and economic revival that we are pursuing ... It would be a very grave error if our action to modify the austerity measures were interpreted as a refusal of any effort. The union judges severely those who, out of failure to recognise the gravity of the situation or in pursuit of brief popularity set off fireworks, knowing that others will have the responsibility of putting them out.’ (Le Monde, 13 October)

Unfortunately for Signor Lama, some of his members felt the attack on their living standards entitled them to ‘set off fireworks’, and there has been a wave of unofficial strikes. The CGIL has endeavoured to contain them by partial support but trying to head off any generalised action.

This conflict has been reflected inside the Communist Party. General Secretary Berlinguer maintains that

‘We are not supporting the government, as some people maliciously claim. We are simply supporting, loyally and responsibly, those measures which seem to us to be just and necessary.’ (Le Monde, 20 October)

But this contorted position is Berlinguer’s attempt to keep balanced as his party splits three ways, some comrades wanting greater support for the government, and some a more vigorous opposition. The debate is, however, still framed within the perspective of how best to prepare for CP participation in government.

The Italian Communists have been moving towards Social Democracy a lot longer than the French. Perhaps for this reason, the Italian Socialists have much less reason to exist, and in terms of mass struggle they are fairly insignificant; their catastrophic election results have led to chaos and mass resignations among the leadership. Nonetheless, as long as parliamentary combinations is the game being played, they cannot be counted out, and will have some significance as brokers between left and right.


In West Germany, where the Social Democrats (in coalition with the Free Democrats) returned to power by a reduced margin, the crisis is biting much less deep than in France or Italy. The SPD is thus less in need of left demagogy; even the Christian Democrats’ election hysteria found it hard to make the charge of ‘red’ very plausible against an SPD government busy witchhunting leftists out of public sector employment. In fact, it is hard to see any significant differences in policy between the two main parties (though a CDU victory would certainly have been interpreted as a green light for more repression).

Nonetheless, the crisis is very real in West Germany. There have been spending cuts, but the main manifestation is unemployment. At the time of the election there were 900,000 unemployed – as well as another million women, immigrant workers and early retired who don’t appear in the statistics. (Sozialistische Arbeiterzeitung, 6 October)

There are close ideological links between the SPD and the trade union bureaucracy, and there has been little conflict over the question of unemployment. Union leaders have cooperated with the government in controlling wage increases. The one area where there has been some conflict between government and unions is the new proposals for union representation on the supervisory boards of large companies, which the unions feel do not go far enough. The German trade union movements (in whose reconstruction after 1945 Vic Feather played a key role) is highly centralised and bureaucratic, and there are enormous difficulties in the way of the still small group of militants who want to build oppositional groups in the unions.


Despite sharp differences of local conditions, the same picture emerges in each country. It is the official representatives of the labour movement who are playing a key role in making the workers pay for the crisis. The lesson for revolutionary socialists is clear. It is certainly necessary to support the coming to power of left governments. In France and Italy the establishment of a left government would undoubtedly raise the level of struggle and strip the bureaucracy of excuses. But this is only a subordinate theme, not the main emphasis. The primary tasks for revolutionaries is to arm workers for the attacks that come from the left at least as much as from the right. That means the building of rank and file movements independent of the union bureaucracy, and able to fight directly and unambiguously in workers’ interests. The form of such movements will vary enormously according to national union structures and traditions; the principle will not.

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