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The New International, November 1941


Eugene Wolft

France After the Defeat


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 10, November 1941, pp. 269–74.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(NOTE: The following article sent from France was in transit for a number of weeks. The author, as is evident from the contents, is a revolutionary socialist. He is not, we understand, at present a member of any organization. We print his article because we believe it to be a thoughtful and interesting contribution to an understanding of the current situation in France, and though we may not agree with every sentence written, we feel certain that it will enhance the reader’s knowledge of the present French labor movement. – Ed.)


DURING the months which followed the defeat, French society presented a picture of dissolution and collapse. This was reflected within the working class by the complete absence of any desire to resist. The workers were apathetic, beyond despair, and entirely without initiative. The French workers were glad, on the one hand, to come back alive from the front and, on the other, completely disillusioned with every form of political activity, which had only led it from defeat to defeat. To a small degree, this hatred of “politics” led to a revival of anarchist tendencies, but for the most part the result was a “reprivatization” of the worker.

Whatever political thinking existed was completely without direction.

The thousands of channels through which the opinions of the workers could ordinarily be influenced and by means of which they had been able, in the past, to form some comprehensive world picture, were suddenly destroyed. No more meetings, no workers’ press, no leaflets. The Socialist Party had completely disappeared from the scene. Here and there a local group attempted some loose form of organization and contact with its members. The CP, too, showed little activity during the first few months after the defeat. It required some time before it could reassemble its active cadres (which it had never lost) and reorganize its activities on the basis of the new situation. The fundamental characteristic of this new situation was that the responsiveness of the working class to any kind of slogan had almost entirely disappeared. The trade unions, which during the war, with the help of the SFIO, had been transformed into loyal servants of the regime and whose independent existence had virtually been destroyed, showed few signs of life.

The magnificent quality, particularly of the French working class, to react spontaneously to events, a quality which made possible a June 1936, which made it possible for the French workers, in spite of the tremendous influence that the two great working class parties had exerted upon them for years, to break through from time to time and exert their own will against their leaders, this quality the French workers seemed to have lost completely in the months following the defeat.

They had not only lost confidence in their leaders, but, what was much worse, confidence in themselves. During the course of the war, the French working class had already been reduced to a mere pawn of history, had not been able to play a constructive role. This fundamental weakness determined the whole character of the early post-war period. Like the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, the French working class adopted goals and directions which were not based upon its own interests, but were taken over from outside. One was instinctively for the victory of Britain, or for Moscow, or (a small minority) for an understanding with Berlin, but practically nowhere did it occur to anyone that the independent action of the working class could in any way alter events. The feeling of impotence, born and nourished by the many defeats and disillusionments of the last few years was too strongly rooted. Everyone hoped for and expected a saviour. No one thought that victory could come from within.

In addition to this there was another and even more decisive factor which must be added. There were more than one million unemployed in the Paris area alone. The majority of the workers were outside the industries. Production was practically at a standstill. It is a fundamental error to assume that misery, as such, is a revolutionizing element. On the contrary. In the factory the worker feels the firms ground of solidarity under his feet. He can draw strength and initiative from it. Once he has been pushed out of production he is helplessly alone and loses all his feeling of strength. He no longer thinks of helping himself by class means as a part of a class, but as an individual in struggle against all other individuals.

The Effects of the Fall of France

Thus the reaction to the first few months of unemployment and misery was not fighting spirit but apathy. And those primitive bonds of solidarity, which mark the first step in the development of class consciousness, were threatening to dissolve and to transform the working class into a mass of isolated individuals.

It would be a mistake to suppose that terror played a rôle worth mentioning in this entire development. On the contrary, police pressure, which had been terrific during the war, was greatly relaxed. The Nazis had released many political prisoners who had declared themselves against the war and the French police was much too weak to make itself felt. The causes for the terrific demoralization of the workers during this period are to be found only within the working class itself, not outside it.

This feeling of impotence held sway from September until the end of the year. But then, in May–June 1941, there was a general strike of French miners in northern France involving about 40,000 workers. The strike lasted three weeks. This event, and not the Nazi campaign against Russia, seems to me to mark the beginning of a new period in the development of the situation of the working class. Here for the first time is a revival of the spontaneity of the workers, activity which indicates that the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness is giving way to a feeling of renewed strength. This new period is the one which I propose to discuss in the following sections.

The Pétain regime has not succeeded in organizing any kind of mass base. It relies almost completely upon the police, the army and a section of the Catholic Church. And not even the police is a really firm support. A policeman who arrested a friend of mine at a demonstration at Marseille said to him: “I am sorry to do this, but if I do not arrest somebody once in a while I shall lose my job.” Every attempt, and there have been many, to gain support among the workers has had lamentable results. The socialist and reformist trade union renegades have lost all contact with the masses. Lacking cadres of any sort, it has been impossible for Pétain to reorganize the trade unions along the lines of the Labor Front in Germany. Although the central organizations of the trade unions were dissolved by the government, the industrial and regional units were left intact. Only during the short period after the expulsion of Laval can there be said to have existed a vague feeling of sympathy among the middle classes and even partly among the working class. Then a post office employee told me: “We have to give him a chance. Perhaps he can make something out of this mess. After all, he’s in a tight spot.” But this feeling was only temporary and can be said to have completely disappeared in the last few months.

French Fascism Organized with the “Tops”

Nor has a fascistic movement been able to develop. For such a movement a mass base is necessary. But no movement today can find mass support on the basis of collaboration with the Nazis. For this reason the Doriot-Deat movement in the occupied territory cannot be considered as anything but a “German” organization, which has been unable to take root in any stratum of the French population. Only in certain sections of the bourgeoisie (and by no means the entire bourgeoisie, as a simplified propaganda would have it) have the advances of the Nazis met with a response. Specifically involved here are the industrialists who work for the Germans, or who expect to sell their factories to Germany at a handsome profit and continue their comfortable existence as coupon clippers. To this group must be added certain trade union and working class “leaders,” of whom more will be said later. All these movements stand and fall with the German occupation. They can have no direct influence on events in France. They can only attempt to influence them from outside. They are more or less German auxiliary troops.

Unemployment has dropped considerably since the beginning of the year in Paris, to about one-fourth of the level of October–December. The largest section of French industry is working for Germany. This is especially true of the metal industry. Apparently the Nazis, faced with the necessity of immediately exploiting to the full France’s industrial capacity, have decided to postpone their plans for the re-agrarianization of that country until after the war. Although it looked at first as if they would try to transfer the most important factories to Germany and import French skilled workers, they seem, for the present, to have abandoned this scheme. They are themselves creating, by this means, a powerful potential danger.

The German occupation authorities tried for months to carry out a policy of leniency. In factories which were working for Germany, higher wages were obtained, working conditions improved somewhat, hygienic improvements were made. The French workers were wooed in every possible manner. A group of former working class leaders were bought directly by the Germans and another group, composed mainly of former pacifist elements in the SP and the trade unions, voluntarily placed themselves at the services of the Nazis, partly for the sake of bread and partly in order to hold on to their little “jobs” and graft possibilities, and partly for “ideological” reasons. Typical of the state of mind of the “pacifists,” who are now employed in German offices or write for German newspapers, is what a former high official of the Teachers Union said in a conversation.”

Now it is possible for us to be real representatives of this point of view ... State capitalism is the form of economic organization which will rule the world in the next period ... Why fight against it? Let’s accept the fact and adjust ourselves accordingly ... Germany is stronger than we are. There is no getting away from that ... We, as pacifists, are for a speedy ending of the war ... therefore for a German victory and a unified Europe ... The working class movement has failed ... it is dead ... we must look for new forces ... why fight for a lost cause? ... let’s try to help carry out the state capitalism as humanely as possible ... etc.

But all the attempts of the Germans and their collaborators to win over the working class did not bring any real results. The French worker sees his material circumstances daily worsened by the Nazi plunder. Food becomes scarcer every day, and the winter threatens to bring actual starvation. All this is not helped by lengthy discourses on the new “united” Europe of the future, which, under German leadership, will presumably blossom and thrive.

The Drop in the Living Standards

The food situation has become critical since the beginning of this year. According to a statistical survey carried on by the trade unions, the standard of living of the workers in April was 50 per lower than before the war. Since then conditions have become even worse. Even the meager rations which one is entitled to obtain in return for food cards are not obtainable for the most part. In the large cities in the last few months only about half the meat and cheese rations were actually available. The “black market” has become one of the most important institutions in France. Whoever today is unable to provide for himself through the black market, at prices four times higher than the official price, finds himself close to starvation. French society today is graft ridden as never before. One needs only to open a newspaper to find announcements of from ten to twenty trials and police actions daily on account of crimes with regard to the black market. As far as the bourgeoisie is concerned, it is not much worse off today than in normal times, but the condition of the petty bourgeoisie and the working class is catastrophic. During the first few months everyone tried with more or less success to obtain provisions for himself. One went to the country and bought food from the peasants, used up the reserves which one had stored up, tried to get forged food cards, in which there was a wide traffic, etc. When you came unexpectedly to see somebody you found him very often just hiding something in a secret drawer. And it was precisely the fact that it was possible to pull through somehow, on this individual basis, which led to the “reprivatization” of the French worker mentioned above. But, by now most of these sources of supply are about dried up. The reserves have been used up and whatever food finds its way illegally from the farms to the city usually goes by way of the black market, that is to say, it can be obtained only at the most fantastic price. With great display the Germans announced that they would send potatoes and other food supplies, but the few measly trainloads which they sent did not even make a dent in the food situation. All this will tend to force the workers into the realization that there is no individual solution to these problems and will serve to repoliticalize them.

Once the general feeling of apathy and abandonment has been overcome, a tremendous wave of nationalism set in among the middle classes and the working class, especially in the occupied zone. At first this reaction to the German occupation was entirely spontaneous. The German was hated as the symbol of misery and oppression.

The French did what damage they could to the Germans in France. Girls who were seen on the street with German soldiers were spat upon; anyone who was co-operative or even spoke about contact with the Germans was shunned. In the face of the tremendous and violent experience of foreign oppression, the “normal” native capitalist exploitation seemed to be completely secondary. “They are also ‘des salauds’ but they are French at least,” said a taxi driver to me then. Thus the pro-English sentiment which was widespread in this period was an instinctive reaction to the German occupation. During this period one could hear many workers argue: “Of course, the English are just another imperialist power, and besides, they left us in a hole – but anyway, they’re fighting the Germans, and the most important thing is to get rid of the latter first.”

The Dangers of the de Gaulle Movement

This feeling was slowly organized, at least in part, by the de Gaulle movement. This movement at first relied almost entirely on the intellectuals for support, and still finds its most active supporters in this circle but it also succeeded in winning over a number of former socialist officials. Their attitude is also: First get rid of the Germans and then we’ll see.

The de Gaullistes concern themselves primarily with enlisting recruits for de Gaulle’s army, and only secondarily with a political program. During the entire time I was in France I could not succeed in getting a single de Gaulle paper, whereas it was a simple matter to get regular literature from the CP. The only de Gaulle leaflets I ever saw contained some feeble verses and jokes about the Germans. How far the de Gaulle movement was responsible for organizing the recent sabotage activities is hard to say, but in my opinion, they rather represent (in so far as they were not organized by the CP, of which more will be said later) unorganized actions which were undertaken by individuals, entirely on their own, influenced though they may have been by de Gaullist propaganda.

Within the de Gaulle movement itself, the most varied tendencies are to be found, from young Catholic groups to former revolutionary workers. They have only one common basis – hatred of the Germans. But this is enough to assure them of deep sympathy and response from the general population. They certainly do not have any clear conception of what will happen should Hitler be defeated, but probably most of them think that things will continue where they left off in June 1940. Their influence on the working class movement is not negligible, but one feels that it will not lead to anything progressive but will, in the last analysis, hinder the working class from developing the will to take independent action. Of course, in the meantime this movement is helping to free the workers somewhat from the isolation which they have been thrown into and politicalizing them to a certain degree. But its main emphasis is not on political initiative but on aid from “outside.”

It is for this reason that I feel that the miners’ strike in the north, previously mentioned, is a thousand times more heartening than all the sabotage action and de Gaullist activities put together. The latter are, after all, only signs of individual desperation and do not show any possibility of leading to collective action, whereas a strike is an action of workers who are seeking to deal a blow as a class. The nationalistic agitation of the de Gaulle followers must remain blurred and unclear, for that is the only way the many elements which compose this group and which are all straining in different directions, can be held together.

How the Stalinists Carry On

We come now to the most decisive influence within the French working class: the Stalinist Party. All the predictions that this tune, following the 100 per cent turnabout from the line formulated after the Hitler-Stalin pact, the workers would desert the party en masse, have turned out to be false. The Stalinist Party has today by far the largest working class following in France. It is the only party which maintains an organized net of contacts in the factories, and it is the party with which the masses of workers sympathize. The party brings its paper out regularly, usually printed on tissue paper. In addition, it publishes district papers and even in some cases factory papers. It has thousands of active members in the factories. It has such large and extensive cadres that even the wave of raids and arrests recently hardly made a dent in its organization. All in all, one can say that after the last great turn a part of the petty bourgeois following left the party, but that the best section of the workers remained faithful throughout the war, the invasion and up to the present.

I think the decisive factor in explanation of why the workers stick to the CP is the following: The average worker belongs to the CP not because it has this or that political line, but because it is THE Party. For the French worker it is still the party of the October Revolution and an expression of everything which is against reformism. Furthermore, it is the only opposition party whose present is felt, the only active force, the only organization which, in words at least, in spite of all its changes, constantly seems to give expression to the interests of the worker in his daily struggles. The belief in the authority of the party has in no way been shaken. This belief will only be shattered when the workers regain confidence in their ability to act as a class, on their own initiative and in their own interests. The support which the Stalinists obtain from the French workers is a sign of the weakness of the French working class, still looking for salvation from the outside, and consoling themselves for the present with a faith which is based on a quasi-religious fanaticism.

The Stalinists were active enough before the German-Russian war, but since then their activities have multiplied. They can now rely on the sympathy of the entire population who, even if not at all Stalinist, hopes that Stalin with “lick Hitler.” The two days when I saw the highest temper and best spirits among people in the streets were the day of the German declaration of war on Russia and the day when Laval and Deat were shot. The members of the CP work with unbelievable courage and sacrifice, undeterred by terror or the death penalty. It is necessary to emphasize this, and to make plain that even in its subordinate cadres there is no demoralization to be noticed. Since the Russian war they have carried out a series of railroad sabotage acts, obviously on orders from above, and in the factories working for Germany have had considerable success with the propaganda for slow-downs. Their material gets wide circulation, their slogans are chalked on many house fronts. In spite of the terror of the last few months, there have been large demonstrations with red banners in several sections of Paris. One can imagine the extent of then- influence when one considers what it must take to bring masses into the street in a Nazi-occupied city, where the death penalty has been decreed for demonstrations of any kind.

But in spite of all this heroism it must be said that this agitation cannot lead to the reactivization of the working class in a positive manner. Here again the workers are shaken out of their apathy, but their new-found militancy is made use of in the service of forces which are diametrically opposed to their own interests. It must also be said that the new wave of activity which has been organized by the Communist Party and has brought such response from the masses has followed largely as a result of Russian resistance and may be expected to collapse as soon as this resistance breaks down. If there were nothing but this to point to, then the situation of the French working class would appear hopeless, indeed. For what is needed today is rebirth of revolutionary initiative, based on new revolutionary-democratic concepts of socialism, whose principles will have to be crystallized in the course of the struggle in the next period.

Is the French Working Class Reawakening?

We have examined the reasons which led, in the first place, to a depoliticalization of the workers, and the factors which are present today in activating them anew. But these factors alone do not point to a development of class struggle and revolutionary political initiative. Where, then, are the forces which have led us to assert that a new stage has been reached in France today in the struggle against fascism, that a turning point has been reached in the situation of the French working class? In the first months after the defeat the French working class was leaderless, and if one discounts the leadership of the Stalinists as a positive factor, it is still leaderless today. In spite of this, it was possible to conduct a strike in a key industry in the occupied section which could last for weeks, and this in the section most strictly policed and controlled by the Nazi authorities. Obviously an important change took place in the attitude of the workers which can only be explained on the basis of a re-awakening of the feeling of class solidarity and confidence. How was this strike organized, and by whom? We do not know exactly, except that it was not by the Stalinists. But in France we had the general impression that in the factories something is taking place which is similar to what happened in Germany in the first few years, that is, slowly, a small layer of class conscious workers is forming in the factories which enjoys the confidence of the rest of the workers, which is looked up to and followed. Sometimes this layer consists of former trade union functionaries or active trade unionists, sometimes ordinary workers who never played any active part in the movement before. They are well known in their factories and their personal lives are such that they inspire confidence and trust. They do not represent any clear political concepts, but they are like many little threads which hold the class together; they nurture the bonds of solidarity by helping comrades who have been arrested or are in danger and do a thousand other things which reawaken a feeling that all is not lost. Of course these workers do not represent the new movement, nor even the foundations of the new movement, but they are perhaps the first seeds out of which it may grow and develop. It is this small layer of workers, no doubt, who played a large rôle in organizing the mine strike in the North.

The situation in the trade unions is extremely varied. There are trade unions like the Union of Railway Workers, which still has a membership of around 50,000, and there are others like the Union of the Metal Workers, which once had a membership of 100,000, and has gone down to only about 8,000 members. Those which try to carry on some form of opposition, be it ever so small and concealed, have retained their members. On the other hand, those which openly capitulated exist today only as skeletons, with an apparatus and no members. Will the trade unions play any decisive r61e in events in the future? I believe that, by and large, they will not. Factory counsels, organized by the rank and file on the spot, will be much more important than such bureaucratic organizations. Of great importance, it appears to me, is the indication that in the last few months there has been a considerable shake-up among the various political groups and individuals. More and more it is apparent that a new generation of young workers is replacing the old generation which has dragged with it all the traditions, defeats and disillusionment of the last ten years.

What the Trotskyists Are Doing

One has only to examine the lists of prisoners who have been condemned for political activity to see that the majority are young workers between the ages of 19 and 25. It is true that most of them are members of the CP, but these young Stalinists do not have the same snobbishly dogmatic attitude which characterizes the older workers who have gone through the Stalinist school. It is in their ranks that one finds the most heroic and self-sacrificing individuals, but at the same time those upon whom the instructors of the CP have relatively the least influence. These young Stalinists, upon whom the whole burden of the illegal struggle falls, are slowly developing a morality and general attitude which is bound to come in conflict with the morality of the GPU.

The revolutionary minority in the French working class movement is very weak and can in no way compare its influence with that of the CP. In spite of this it has been possible for at least one of the groups to build up an organization and maintain its contacts throughout France. This is the Trotskyist organization. In Paris this organization has about 300 members and in the provinces about half as many. There is regular communication between the various groups, a mimeographed newspaper and theoretical organ appear regularly and from time to time mimeographed leaflets are distributed.

Recently this group even succeeded in bringing out several printed leaflets on tissue paper in very small type. This is a considerable achievement for such a small group working under illegal conditions. The group is very active and is composed mainly of young working class and intellectual elements. From the point of view of theory this group is also very much alive. There are regular discussions in which the problems arising out of this new situation and general theoretical problems of socialism are discussed. It is especially to be remarked that this group is characterized by an absence of “orthodoxy,” and is attempting to arrive at evaluation of modern problems which will not be hampered by outworn cliches. This group seems to me to form a concentration center for a certain young revolutionary elite, where ideas will be fought out and organization may be built which will perhaps be a bridge from the old movement to the new. The greatest shortcoming of this group is unfortunately that its main influence is felt among teachers, students, government employees, draftsmen, etc., rather than in the factories, where its influence is relatively unimportant. Nevertheless the material put out by this group reaches about a thousand readers in Paris regularly.

As far as I know, the activity of the other groups which existed before the war, such as the PSOP, consists simply of private meetings occasionally of some of the members. Today all these groups together do not have any influence to speak of on the general development of events, even though they sometimes labor under the illusion that they could influence them if they wished. They will only be able to enter actively into the general struggle when the spontaneity of the masses has been reawakened and a new wave of activity sets in.

The Relations to the German Army

An important question in a consideration of the future is the attitude toward the German soldiers. Any revolutionary development in France will be practically impossible unless at least a section of the German occupation troops can be neutralized or brought over to the side of the revolution. This can never be achieved through the pure nationalistic anti-German de Gaulle propaganda. On the contrary, this propaganda only throws the German soldiers back into the hands of fascism. The change in attitude of the French workers toward the occupation troops in recent months is very significant. In the first period there was general hatred and revulsion against the Germans. No distinction was made between soldiers and officers, no one spoke to a German unless he was forced to. Now, however, there has been a thoroughgoing change, not based on any “solution” brought about by anyone, but on the simple fact that French and German workers have gotten to know one another in the factories. In every factory which is working for Germany there is a group of German foremen, sometimes soldiers but also civilians, which is in constant contact with the French workers. There have been many instances where it has been obvious that class solidarity has pushed its way through and cut across national differences.

I know of a garage, for example, not far from Paris, where French mechanics are working under the supervision of German officers who are themselves metal workers from Westphalia. German military cars constantly stop at this garage for repairs. In the beginning there was absolutely no conversation between the French and the Germans. They carried on their work in complete silence. Then, one day when one of the French workers couldn’t get a car into running order, one of the Germans took off his military jacket, crawled under the car and began to play around with it. From that day on the ice was broken. Now there is constant activity at the garage, enthusiastic conversation carried on with the aid of many gestures and few words. A farewell celebration is held when one of the German soldiers is transferred, they drink together, give one another tips on where to get a bargain on the “black market,” etc. Once in a while the wives of the French workers sew a button on or mend a tear in the uniforms of the German soldiers, and so on. A few weeks before I left, when one of the better-liked Germans was transferred to the Russian front, he was warmly embraced by the French workers at his departure. Similar things are happening elsewhere. The contact is getting closer and closer. Slowly even political discussions are beginning to take place. The Nazi officers and party bureaucrats are denounced by French and Germans alike. Of course, the significance of this situation should not be overestimated. The German soldiers are war-weary. They want to go home and have peace and quiet. One of them said to me: “I’m not a soldier, I’m a tailor.” In spite of this it would be a mistake to think that the German soldiers are prepared to take any action against their leaders. In spite of their disappointment that the war is not yet over one can say that the general feeling among most of them is still: “We must win this war, not because we are Nazis, but because we don’t want to go through the misery of another Versailles treaty.”

Signs of New Beginnings

The French working class has recovered somewhat from the deep despair into which it fell in the first few months following the defeat. The French worker is becoming repoliticalized, aware of his own strength; he is coming out of the apathy from which he has been suffering. In spite of this, one should suffer no illusions on the basis of what has been said here. It is still a long way from a new working class movement. Not only are the masses not yet prepared to accept it, the theories which must form the basis of this new movement have not yet been elaborated. In the meantime there is the great danger that the movement into which the workers are being led today is not their movement, that their courage and sacrifices are being used for purposes which are inimical to their own interests. In this respect, one can say that in France today as well as in all of Europe the working class is faced with a task which at least in Europe it had considered solved for many years. This task is to redefine, out of all the failures, betrayals and disappointments, the true goal of the working class and to reconstruct a movement which will be orientated along class lines toward its class aims, for revolutionary objectives.

I have tried to show that in France today the first signs of such a reformation of the movement are beginning to show, or at least the basis for such a reformation is present. I only wish to emphasize that these signs are not to be sought in acts of terror and sabotage. These are symptoms of an awakening of revolutionary spirit. Of course, these actions help to weaken German fascism and as such may be welcomed; but the new working class movement will be constructed out of the anonymous work of thousands of its members, not out of the heroic deeds of a few individuals. The way is still a long and hard one and all those who think that the period of great mass uprisings has come are very much mistaken. But the organization of this new movement is the only hope of conquering fascism and imperialism of every stamp.

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