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International Socialist Review, Summer 1958



The Meaning of De Gaulle


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, pp.67-72.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ON June 1, the same infamous day that the deputies of the National Assembly abdicated as the democratically elected representatives of the people and made Gen. Charles de Gaulle dictator of France, the New York Times described the authoritarian figure “who now bestrides the French scene” as “aloof, inscrutable, mystical ...” No one could tell what he might portend.

By the following Sunday, June 8, the same influential paper had decided that de Gaulle was no longer a mystery. “What happened can and should be looked upon as proof of the profoundly democratic basis and structure of France, which has triumphed in one of the gravest crises of French history.” In the opinion of the Times “a moderate, democratic solution has been found, holding good promise for the future.”

Yet, to draw a rough American analogy to what happened, we should have to imagine an armed insurrection in the South, an insurrection headed by top generals and backed by racist Bourbons who demand that a General MacArthur, who is in on the plot, be called out of “retirement” and made dictator; moreover, that if their ultimatum is not met forthwith they will start civil war. To show that they mean what they say about using force and violence to overthrow the government, their paratroopers begin seizing cities on the road to Washington, while high naval officials in charge of American battleships openly join the subversive generals.

We should have to imagine further a Congress that agrees to the ultimatums of the fascist-minded insurrectionists and their “aloof” hero, including an ultimatum that he be empowered to scrap the Constitution and write a “new one” in accordance with his “mystical” feeling that “It was I who personified legitimacy.” Finally, we should have to imagine Senators and Representatives agreeing to take a “vacation” from Washington until the dictator has had time to reconstitute the government and the armed forces so that they fit in with his “inscrutable” political views. Prominent Democrats and Republicans and even labor leaders offer to help the General by serving as dummies in a Cabinet while he puts together a “strong” anti-labor government. All this would then be sympathetically described by the most authoritative propagandists of American capitalism as “a moderate, democratic solution ... holding good promise for the future ...”

If de Gaulle’s accession to power is the “moderate” beginning of totalitarian rule in France, it does not take great perspicacity to forecast what extremes the next stages can bring – should the working class fail to reverse the process. Fearful examples have already been provided in various countries touching the frontiers of France.

It would be a gross error, of course, to think that all is lost, that the working-class political parties and labor -organizations have already been decisively defeated and that fascism is entrenched in France. However, the danger of making the opposite error seems at present to be greater. This is to conclude that nothing fundamental or far-reaching has occurred. American partisans of de Gaulle, for instance, argue that all that is involved is the “reform” of an “unworkable” French-type democracy. The General’s real aim, they aver, is nothing more sinister than to equip France’s “weak” government with a “strong executive” along “American lines.” And we can trust a patriot like de Gaulle, who – at the age of 67 – has said that he has no ambition to be a dictator.

This reasonable-sounding propaganda serves a most reactionary political purpose.

The subversive conspiracy that brought de Gaulle to power ended the Fourth Republic. It threatened France with civil war. It brought jubilant fascists into the streets. Every French worker mindful of the fate of the Italian, German and Spanish labor movements could not but feel the deepest alarm. Shouldn’t labor mobilize at once to save democracy and crush the totalitarian threat in the egg? On May 28, an estimated 500,000 workers demonstrated in Paris.

De Gaulle’s first acts in office aimed at allaying the thoroughly justified alarm of the workers. Before his accession he had praised the “patriotism” of the fascist-minded generals and used their subversive armed insurrection to frighten the Assembly into handing him dictatorial powers; these powers won, he demonstratively shifted stance. To the hearty applause of his well-wishers, he appointed a fifteen-man “advisory” Cabinet, magisterially naming spokesmen from the various political parties except the outright fascists and the Communist party; he similarly designated a “top” advisory four-man Ministerial Council that included Social Democratic chieftain Guy Mollet; and he made a triumphal three-day circuit of Algeria during which he put the brake on the subversive generals who had brought down the Fourth Republic and lifted de Gaulle to power. In the face of “towering” gestures like that how can anyone retain the unbecoming suspicion that the General has designs on the labor movement? Let everyone relax, especially the working class. As Robert C. Doty observed in a June 7 dispatch from Paris to the New York Times, de Gaulle the first week in office displayed “surprising and hitherto unsuspected political skill ...”

It is really not so surprising. The new regime requires time to consolidate its position, time to prepare the repressive apparatus, time to whittle away at those working-class organizations capable of offering resistance.

WRITING from Paris May 31, New York Times correspondent Henry Giniger observed:

“The Presidential democracy taken for granted in the United States has only one precedent in France – that instituted by Louis Napoleon – but it is a precedent associated with the death of a republic and of democracy itself.”

Another journalist in Paris, David Schoenbrun, noted similarly in the June 8 New York Times Magazine that

“The manner in which Louis Napoleon came to power is in some ways reminiscent of General de Gaulle’s return. General de Gaulle himself has many of the characteristics of Prince Louis Napoleon ...”

These are accurate observations. Anyone who cares to check them need only read Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Although written in 1852, the book has startling application to the current French events. The top conspirators who worked out de Gaulle’s tactics evidently studied the rise to power of the nineteenth-century dictator with some profit even in details. We note, for instance, that Louis Bonaparte on seizing power published a false document, “according to which a number of influential parliamentarians had grouped themselves around him as advisers.” The de Gaullists were able to improve somewhat on this fraud, finding parliamentarians actually willing to group themselves around the dictator in a dummy Cabinet of advisers.

More important than such parallels, instructive as they are, is the indication the historic analogy gives about the character of the new regime. The rule of Louis Bonaparte from his coup d’état December 2, 1851, until his fall September 4, 1870, after he brought France to ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, has become recognized as the prototype of an increasingly common kind of capitalist governmental system. Its main features are the substitution of government by personal decree for government through democratic forms, the balancing of the government between antagonistic class forces, the maintenance of capitalist domination through suppression of the labor movement, the utilization of reactionary, declassed petty-bourgeois elements as an instrument of repression in addition to the police and regular army. This type of rule has become known as Bonapartism.

The most significant contributions to the study of Bonapartism were made by Leon Trotsky in the last decades of his life as he observed different forms of it in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and the exceptionally complex variant in the Soviet Union. Trotsky called attention to a general trend in its evolution. In the time of the first Napoleon, it played a relatively progressive role as the armies of revolutionary France, under command of the military genius, swept the worst remnants of feudalism from the European continent. By the time of Louis Bonaparte it was already decidedly reactionary. Emperor Napoleon III, as he dubbed himself, was regarded much the way Mussolini and Hitler were three-quarters of a century later. In our epoch, Bonapartism is an outstanding symptom of the death agony of the capitalist system, one of the mortal threats to civilization.

Bonapartism tends to develop through definite stages, moving in our day toward its most malignant form, fascism. Fascism organizes the petty bourgeoisie into counter-revolutionary legions and turns them against the working class to pulverize its organizations. Indeed, as we saw in Germany, the tendency is to exterminate whole sections of the population. A Bonaparte, such as de Gaulle, can attempt to smash the working class by use of military force; but even if this succeeds, the proletarian defeat is not so definitive as at the hands of fascism. The middle-class battering ram has neither been used nor shaped; the middle class therefore still remains relatively open to working-class leadership at the first signs of recovery from the military blow. Moreover, in our day the military-police solution is quite hazardous, relying as it does on the traditional peasant composition of the armed forces and the consequent traditional peasant conservatism and antipathy to the city proletariat. Modern armies have a higher proletarian composition than formerly and the peasant is no longer the same – the era of radio and TV has helped to end his former isolation, and the consequences of modern war have broken his once-powerful parochialism. These facts are known by the political strategists of monopoly capital. They are therefore hesitant about plunging the country into civil war prematurely; i.e., before the fascist horde has been recruited, organized and tested. The Bonaparte of today, consequently, tries to keep the polarizing class forces in some kind of balance, no matter how precarious, while the fascist recruiting and drilling goes on.

With these considerations in mind, we are better able to interpret de Gaulle’s rise to power. His accession marks a qualitative turning point – the end of capitalist democracy in France, the beginning of totalitarianism. This holds true no matter what delays may occur in liquidating the more important conquests of democracy and no matter how moderate may be the opening period of decree rule. Unless the French workers call a halt to the Bonapartist development by vigorously pressing for the alternative of socialism, fascism will sweep France.

HOW could the danger of fascism arise in France after the nightmare experiences in Italy, Germany and Spain? Didn’t the Allies fight World War II to make the world safe for democracy? Isn’t France one of the freedom-loving countries? Don’t the French people enjoy one of the oldest traditions of democracy?

Research into de Gaulle’s ego, while undoubtedly of psychiatric interest, can scarcely provide us with satisfying answers to such questions, for whatever we might uncover would say little or nothing about the economic, social and political forces behind his rise to power. These forces in 1958 are obviously different from those that sent the same megalomaniac into retirement on January 21, 1946.

The most general condition for the rise of totalitarianism, of course, is the crumbling of the French empire as one of the consequences of World War II. Syria and Lebanon went. Also, Tunisia and Morocco. A ghastly seven-year war to drag Indochina back from freedom and independence ended in a withering defeat. The Algerian people have successfully stood off the world’s fourth-largest army for four years. A joint conspiracy with Great Britain and Israel to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt by military force ended in a miserable debacle. Bled by thirteen years of exhausting colonial wars following the devastation of World War II, imperialist France is obviously declining to the level of Italy and Spain as a world power. The shrinking of the empire offers us a partial explanation for the attractiveness of de Gaulle’s expansive ego to the militarists, colons, fascists and other components of the Bonapartist rabble who find in Napoleonic dreams a convenient escape from reality.

The postwar upsurge of the colonial peoples thus had direct repercussions of enormous proportions on the economic structure and international position of France. These are now beginning to become manifest in full force in the political arena.

The colonial revolution is not the only external force that has affected France’s economy and power. Increasing American domination of the world market has hit French capitalism from a different direction. This began with the emergence of the United States from World War I as the earth’s dominant power, a process that reached its culmination in World War II.

America’s influence on the domestic politics of France has been most pernicious. While smothering French capitalism as a world power, American monopoly capital has assiduously prevented its decent burial. At the close of World War II, the road out for France clearly pointed to a planned economy which would have made possible fruitful economic collaboration between industrialized France and the former colonies. The French workers felt this, and in a series of mighty upsurges sought to put a socialist government in power that would take this road.

Two forces came to the rescue of French capitalism. One was the leadership of the workers themselves; the other was American imperialism.

The Marshal Plan pumped billions of dollars into the prostrate economy while the bellicose Truman “Doctrine” revived political reaction. The Communist party leaders, who had taken posts in the capitalist government to help it through the difficult days at the close of the war, were bounced out as soon as the revolutionary tide receded. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a part of the greatest interlocking military alliance our globe has seen, then brought France into the armaments structure being forged for World War III.

A few illustrative facts will indicate America’s role in these years. The US Treasury has been tapped in the past 13 years for a total of $11 billion in loans and gifts to France. A good part was used to help finance the colonial wars – $1,619,000,000 going down the rat hole in Indochina alone. Approximately 50 American-manned military bases have been set up in France, including six air bases from which planes loaded with H-Bombs can take off for the Soviet Union. Oil pipelines for military purposes link Bordeaux and St. Nazaire to Metz and the German border. The bases and other military installations cost something like $1½ billion. Somewhere around 40,000 to 50,000 US troops are stationed in France, as is the NATO “supreme command.” Allied military specialists consider France to be the “keystone in the complex structure of command and support that has been evolved since 1949” in Europe. France, in short, has been converted into one of the spearheads pointed at the Soviet bloc.

The extreme emphasis in foreign policy on the preparations for World War III complemented the growth of reaction inside America, and both trends encouraged the worst tendencies in France, helping to pave the way for de Gaulle’s return in conditions favorable to totalitarianism.

Finally, the current depression in the United States, with its threat of catastrophic consequences to the French economy, has had its impact on the thinking of French Big Business although the full repercussions of the decline in America are yet to be felt in France. The demand for a “strong government” emanating from France’s economic royalists echoes the cries of their forbears in 1850-51. Noting the “bourgeois clamour” at that time, Marx observed:

“It was all the more unpardonable that France should be ‘without an administration,’ seeing that a widespread commercial crisis seemed imminent, and likely to favour the growth of socialism in the towns, just as the ruinously low price of grain did in the country districts.”

That the meaning of de Gaulle is well understood in American ruling circles is succinctly indicated in the June 6 US News & World Report.

“Now, to win the financial support of the Western world for the French franc and for the French economy,” says this reactionary magazine, “the Government born of the revolution [counter-revolution is meant] must use its new-found strength to force Frenchmen to live within their means. Prices and wages must be controlled to check inflation. Strikes, often sparked by Communists [and more often sparked by rising living costs], must be halted. More taxes must be collected from Frenchmen. Imports must be curbed sharply even at the cost of slowing down production.”

In brief, the bankruptcy of French capitalism must be taken out of the hides of the working people.

We can appreciate the enthusiasm of the editors when they exclaim:

“For the US, a strong and anti-Communist French Government is more than welcome. President Eisenhower last week, asked about his past relations with De Gaulle, said that in past associations he had ‘liked him.’”

THE death of the Fourth Republic called attention once more to the cancerous condition of bourgeois democracy in the Western capitalist nations. The decay of democracy in the United States since the end of World War II has been evident in the erosion of Constitutional rights and freedoms, the witch-hunt that developed into the ominous rise of McCarthyism, and the increasing weight in government and politics of the military caste as represented by such figures as MacArthur and Eisenhower. The working people the world over have now been offered another object lesson in how bourgeois democracy in this period helps pave the way for totalitarianism.

When the military caste in Algeria raised the skull and crossbones on May 13, the bourgeois democrats in parliament responded by setting up their own version of a “strong government,” the one headed by Pflimlin. The only force capable of defending France’s democratic institutions against the military attack, already openly launched, was the working people. And the obvious way to answer the generals was to arm the people as in the early days of the bourgeoisie when the right of every citizen to bear arms was universally recognized as the first, and, in some situations, the most important of democratic rights. But the Pflimlin government acted to block such a turn of events.

Instead of calling on the people to rise in defense of democracy, including the defense of the legally elected government; instead of utilizing the powers of government to help organize this nation-wide defense, these latter-day representatives of the capitalist class passed dictatorial “emergency” measures of the kind sought by de Gaulle. They even went further, anticipating a later stage of de Gaulle’s regime, by including a heavy censorship. At the same time, they continued to send money and supplies to the insurrectionists! These measures were designed to placate, if not facilitate, the uprising on the one hand; while on the other keeping the working class with its titanic force and its socialist inclinations from moving into the arena of struggle.

As the generals threatened Paris with an invasion of paratroopers, the parliamentarians rallied behind Pflimlin, giving him a four to one majority vote of confidence. The champion of bourgeois democracy resigned at once in favor of de Gaulle, as if the vote he had received were a mandate to sell out to the enemy. Coty, the President of the Republic, acting like a de Gaullist conspirator, took similar action, threatening to resign if the Assembly did not summarily abdicate the responsibility given it by the voters of defending democracy. In brief, the bourgeois democrats deliberately sabotaged and blocked the defense of democracy, calculatingly turned power over to the totalitarian general, and, after he was installed, either went on “vacation” or joined the dictatorial regime to help stabilize it as rapidly as possible. Bourgeois democracy, to use Hegelian terminology, had turned into its opposite.

One of the main lessons to be drawn from this is the illusory character of the belief that today’s representatives of the capitalist class can be relied upon to defend the great democratic conquests won in the bourgeois revolutions that overthrew feudalism. Genuine defenders of these conquests must now be sought in other sections of the population.

HOW did the Socialist party and the Communist party, the two largest political parties of the French working class, measure up to this task?

On October 21, 1945, when Deputies were elected to a Constituent Assembly, the Communist party won 5,005,000 votes, the Socialists 4,561,000. On the opposite side the Roman Catholics got 4,780,000. The old con-

servative and reactionary parties had virtually disappeared, and along with them the so-called “center” parties. As Schoenbrun, whom we have already quoted, puts it, “... the Fourth Republic was unbalanced: a shrivelled right wing, a shrunken middle, and a swollen left wing.” On top of this, the French people were armed, in a radical mood after their difficult struggle against the Nazi conquerors and the quisling Petain regime; and the people, headed by the working class, exercised public power through committees that had come out of the underground.

However, instead of establishing a Workers and Farmers Government, for which they had received a clear mandate, the Socialist and Communist leaderships sought to reestablish the old capitalist government. The Social Democratic leadership of the Socialist party did this because, like the Social Democracy in general, it had long been corrupted by the capitalist class. The Stalinist leadership of the Communist party did it because it was already applying what Moscow now calls the policy of “peaceful coexistence”; that is, maintenance of the status quo. In the domestic politics of France, as in the US, this signifies maintenance of capitalist rule.

The SP and CP leaders took prominent posts in de Gaulle’s provisional government, the better, as “responsible” statesmen, to put over the “no strike” and speedup policy needed to gain the stepped-up production they called for from the working class. Thus was lost the great opportunity after World War II of establishing socialism in France.

The eventual pay-off was de Gaulle’s return to power. In the current crisis the SP and CP leaders gave a repeat performance of the statesmanship they displayed after the fall of the Petain regime. The Social Democracy reached a new abyss, if that is possible, in the vote that half of its deputies cast in the Assembly for de Gaulle. The Social Democratic chieftain, Guy Mollet, capped his previous conduct of the “dirty war” against the Algerian people by gratefully accepting a post in de Gaulle’s “advisory” Cabinet. (The CP deputies, let it be noted, on March 12, 1956, cast their votes for “full powers” to Guy Mollet to carry on the war against the Algerian people; and when draftees demonstrated against the war throughout France in April-May 1956, the CP leadership did nothing but denounce the “provocateurs” who tried to stop the movement of troops at Grenoble and Rouen. The CP was hoping that the new Mollet government would respond to the Kremlin’s “peaceful coexistence” overtures.)

The role of the CP leadership was even more sig-nicant than that of the SP in bringing the Bonapartist dictatorship to power. Since the end of the war, the majority of the workers, especially the key sectors, have followed, not the Socialist, but the Communist party. In the CGT, France’s most powerful trade-union federation, the Communist candidates for union office regularly get 60% to 70% of the vote. Duclos and the other CP leaders have long had the possibility, if they chose to exercise it, of setting forces into motion that could have decisively defeated the Algerian generals and their candidate for dictator, thus safeguarding French democracy. However, in pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” with French Big Business and its politicians, they trusted the bourgeois democrats to do the job. Still worse, through every means at their disposal they tried to influence the workers to put their trust in the Stevensons and Harrimans of France.

This harsh judgment may not seem credible to people who visualize the Communist party as essentially revolutionary, apart from whatever mistakes it may have made from time to time. The evidence, however, does not fit in with this generous desire to see the best in any organization that claims to speak officially in the interests of the Soviet Union.

On May 13, the day of the uprising in Algeria, the Assembly voted on the installation of Pflimlin as Premier. In view of his statement that he would not “yield” to the generals, the CP deputies declared that while they would not vote for him they had “unanimously decided to voluntarily abstain, thus offering the government the opportunity to establish itself.” The CP leadership counted on the “firmness” of the Assembly and Pflimlin in face of an armed uprising having fascist overtones.

Pflimlin promptly banned a workers rally May 14 at the Cirque d’Hiver. The CP leadership acquiesced in the ban. Not only that. As a token of their desire for all around “peaceful coexistence,” they sent emissaries to help disperse those who might defy the ban.

When de Gaulle encouraged the rebellious generals May 15, L’Humanité put out a special edition calling for protests to – Coty! “Multiply the protests to the President of the Republic by the thousands and tens of thousands to save the Republic,” said these deployers of battalions of postcards.

On May 16 the CP deputies voted for the dictatorial “emergency” powers demanded by Pflimlin – on account for de Gaulle. Fajon, editor of L’Humanité and a member of the CP Political Bureau said May 17:

“... yesterday was a good day. When de Gaulle and his accomplices launched their assault against the Republic four days ago, they thought they would win without resistance. Their assault failed. It was democracy that won the first big victory.”

Commenting on de Gaulle’s well-staged May 19 press interview, which was a calculated step forward in his bid for power, the CP Political Bureau declared: “Victories have been won. After five days, fascism has been put in check.”

On May 20 Pflimlin tried to give a cover of legality to the subversive uprising in Algeria by conferring special powers on General Salan. The CP deputies voted for this. L’Humanité next day carried an editorial signed by Pierre Courtade boasting that through this move the Republic “has not only gained time ... but has strengthened itself.” This theme was repeated in the May 22 issue and Fajon went even further May 23: “Thus the threat has receded.”

Two days later, the Algerian generals staged an armed uprising in Corsica. The CP leadership thereupon ventured a timid criticism of the Pflimlin government as not “energetic” enough in its defense of the Republic, as failing to turn toward the nation.

On May 27, the same day that de Gaulle announced that the Pflimlin government was negotiating with him to take over, L’Humanité published Duclos’ speech of the day before in the Assembly: “The government is slow in recognizing the state of mind of the Republican nation ...” After de Gaulle’s announcement appeared in the press, Duclos rose to bring his speech up to date. He accurately accused Pflimlin of willingness to yield to de Gaulle. His conclusion? The CP deputies will vote for Pflimlin’s proposal to “rewrite” the Constitution.

When Coty openly turned to de Gaulle May 28, the Assembly made a last gesture for democracy, rolling up a new vote of confidence for Pflimlin. The CP Political Bureau estimated the vote as singularly impressive: “Yesterday there were only 165 supporters of de Gaulle in the Assembly, whereas 408 votes were expressed for the defense of the Republic.”

Three days later the parliamentary “defenders” of the Republic voted for its hangman.

* * *

The world working class has suffered a serious defeat in France. Reactionary forces everywhere will draw fresh encouragement from de Gaulle’s victory. The American imperialists will take it as a favorable omen for stepping up the cold war. But the French workers are still far from having suffered a definitive defeat. Their organizations have not been crushed. As in 1936, they can mobilize such power as to reverse the present trend.

De Gaulle’s program offers no viable solution for the profound crisis in which capitalist France finds itself. Capitalist America blocks the road to a wider share of the world market. The colonial people stand in the way of carving out a new empire. The French workers will resist a slash in their living standards. And not even de Gaulle is mad enough to think he could succeed where Hitler failed in an assault upon the Soviet colossus. The continuing crisis in France thus points to class battles ahead that will give the French workers fresh opportunities to retrieve their positions and to move forward.

The crying need is for a new political leadership of the working class, a leadership capable of organizing a revolutionary socialist party in face of the added difficulties and dangers under de Gaulle. Will the French workers prove capable of accomplishing this task in time? They now face the most crucial challenge in the history of their country. Heirs of one of the world’s great revolutionary traditions, they will, we think, show that they are worthy of it. The new regime will depart from the scene in a greater storm than did its Bonapartist predecessor whose dictatorial rule brought on the Paris Commune.

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