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New International, February 1949



The RDR – An Interpretation

A View of France’s New Socialist Movement


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 2, February 1949, pp.&nbso;42–44.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Without finding it necessary to express our opinion on all the points raised in the two articles which follow, the Editorial Board wishes to make clear its disagreement with the approach and views of Jacques, – that is, his completely negative attitude toward the RDR – and its agreement with Comrade Judd that the RDR “merits the friendliest and most welcoming response from American socialists.” The reply by Judd was written at our request. We are also making plans for further discussion of this important new socialist movement in France in subsequent issues. – THE EDITORS.


Every new current of thought in the present period is scanned eagerly for the possible light it may throw on coming events. Particularly is this true in those countries which show every sign of social instability since the end of the war. The sudden prominence of the RDR (Rally of Revolutionary Democrats), involving some of the foremost French intellectuals, deserves more than passing analysis for the significance it may have as a portent.

The leaders of this movement have held some surprisingly well-attended meetings in Paris, notably one in the Salle Pleyel reported at length in their press, La Gauche, of December 20, 1948. Here we find the speeches of leftist writers from a number of countries: Jean-Paul Sartre, David Rousset, Breton of France; Theodor Plivier of Germany; Carlo Levi of Italy; Richard Wright of the United States. All these writers have certain traits in common, revealed clearly in their speeches.

They voice, all of them without exception, a deep mistrust of political parties, not excluding vanguard workers’ parties. This is the fruit of complete disillusion with the aftermath of the October Revolution, to which most of these intellectuals felt drawn. Anti-Stalinism, the antipathy to the totalitarian regime in Russia based on the police power of the GPU and its concentration camps, has driven them to turn their backs on all politics.

Against Party Affiliations

Yet they know well the hollow fraud of bourgeois democracy and so, unlike many American, writers, they do not yield before the pressure of the Western democracies and place no reliance on the democratic imperialists to overcome Stalinism, They speak openly for a revolutionary change in the economic bases of capitalist society. Since, however, this grouping concludes from experience that there must be an inevitable bureaucratization of state power under the control of a political party, their main concern and their raison d’être, as a movement, is to defend liberty and democracy.

André Breton tells us how he and Albert Camus vowed, after the French liberation, never to affiliate to any political party. Georges Altman, whose break with the Stalinists on the Franc Tireur was an important occurrence, calls for an Internationalism of the Spirit to bring about the total emancipation of man, to combat all dictators and dictatorships, to fight all police states. Rousset, former Trotskyist, tells briefly of his experiences in Spain where he saw an entire. people rise up “outside of the rigidity of parties” to overcome oppression. As soon as the parties stepped in, the inevitable bureaucratization was followed shortly by reaction.

It is Sartre who expresses best of all the spirit of the RDR An article of his in the left socialist press, La Pensée Socialiste, sums up his “platform.”

He wishes to unite the immediate demands of the workers with larger revolutionary aims and above all with the idea of liberty. A political party cannot do this, since it must be a centralized organization with a top apparatus which can only issue commands. Only the people themselves can really take care of the needs of democracy from day to day. The masses must organize as both producers and consumers in local committees, village committees, shop committees. It is necessary that the toilers take power “one day,” but if we do not want them to be replaced immediately in power by a bureaucracy which pretends to represent them, then it is necessary to realize, outside of parties, in an extra-parliamentary domain, the bases of the democracy of the masses, something never before attempted.

Sartre’s Semi-Syndicalism

Sartre proposes his movement for the purpose of realizing this in practice, as an experience, somewhat along the lines of the unions. “C’était dans le syndicat que l’on pouvait le mieux être un homme.” (It was in the unions that one could best be a man!)

If this is not the orator’s phrase used to flatter the organized workers, it shows a singular illusion concerning the unions. The all too recent miners’ strike, in which the miners were forced to sacrifice their own interests for those of the Stalinist hierarchy, causes Sartre to hark back to the past. But his nostalgia for the period of syndicalist control is hardly in keeping with the facts. One has to be incredibly naive to speak against bureaucracy and then to praise the unions in the same breath.

It would be easy to sweep aside the views of these intellectuals as ineffectual abstractions which fail to deal with concrete reality. Democracy is treated not as a method for attaining certain worthwhile goals but as an end in itself, as a “way of life.” The class struggle becomes emptied of content in the hands of these non-Marxists.

Sartre thinks he has found a new solution in the form of a watered-down syndicalism. In their day the really revolutionary syndicalists had no doubt that their minority vanguard would finally succeed in leading the workers to power in the factories, mines and mills, the state being left to wither away. These were not timid syndicalists who rejected the very thought of taking power because it must lead to corruption and would thus besmirch them spiritually.

Sartre wishes a division of labor that is utterly utopian. He takes it for granted that only a vanguard party can lead the workers and peasants to victory in the taking of power; but he cannot see that such a party must be molded from within by an alert and conscious membership and leadership that knows how to preserve democracy. Sartre sees the need for a mass force outside the party or parties which must preserve democracy and liberty despite the party leaders. This task he assigns to the new movement, the RDR, which he denies is a political movement since it has no desire to take power. To foster this aim, Sartre seeks the help of organizations, even parties, as well as individuals.

Politics All-Important

The attempt at this late day, after the October and post-October experiences, to organize the masses outside of political parties so as to exert some measure of control over the state, can be looked upon only as a variety of neo-syndicalism. It shows a singular lack of insight into the history of this petty-bourgeois movement. The syndicalists, on every critical occasion, have invariably been forced to discard their previous tenets. They have split into two groups, one entering the ranks of the proletarian vanguard, the other allying itself with the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Syndicalism is the historic expression of the inability of the petty bourgeoisie to make up its mind in the class struggle until forced to do so by events.

The RDR betrays this same trait. It stops before a major decision unable to solve its problems. France is today extremely unstable, ruled by a government which stands between the main contending forces in society, representing neither one. The all-important question is the political one and no other; which class shall rule the state, for whose benefit shall it be used ? The intellectuals of the RDR will stand aside from this question in vain. They wish to shun the political path because they refuse to see that political parties are like other human institutions which can and do outgrow their usefulness and sink into decay. What is necessary when a party of the working class degenerates is not to turn one’s back on politics but to build a new party imbued with fresh revolutionary spirit.

Sartre remarks: “We cannot do great things, except to denounce oppression every time under whatever its forms.” It is necessary, he adds, to conduct this common struggle together. We will not enter into any Socratic dialogue with Sartre concerning how decisions are to be taken for the “struggle” in an organization such as the RDR. One may go all-out for discussion for democracy, yet it must be said that never have decisions been taken, in a loose organization such as the RDR, except at the top among the intellectual leaders.

What Sartre and the others say they intend is to create an “atmosphere,” one in which liberty and democracy will thrive. We are more interested in the realities underlying this social phenomenon. The movement is itself not born in a vacuum but in a certain social atmosphere already existing. Why does it come into being precisely now? Intellectuals are frequently the first harbingers of a distinct change of sentiment in the environment. The RDR is both the product and the vocal expression of such a change. It seeks and has found a responsive chord.

What RDR Reflects

The sudden growth of the RDR reveals that Stalinism has passed its apogee in France and is now in decline. The masses extended a considerable credit to the Stalinist party after the liberation for several reasons.

There was the success of Russia in the war which helped bring French liberation. There was the role of Stalinism in the resistance movement, a good part of which was a self-created myth fostered by the typical propaganda of the Communist Party. Finally there was no other working-class force in being to which the masses could turn for leadership, so that the Stalinists filled a virtual vacuum. It is the cynical treachery of the Communist Party that has brought about a positive working-class reaction against it. Disgust has mounted against a party whose highhanded methods so clearly sacrificed the interests of the proletariat for those of the remote Kremlin. The callousness with which the mines were destroyed with not the faintest regard for the livelihood of the miners, the assault on French economy with no visible benefit for the French masses – that has brought a change in the atmosphere. The Stalinists are forced to recognize the new mood and to try a new tack.

The RDR is also an expression of alarm over the menace of fascism in the deliberately toned-down De Gaulle movement of the Rally of the French People (RPF). De Gaulle pretends that his Rally is not a political party, that it is above political parties. The leftist writers have imitated De Gaulle in this mysticism, perhaps hoping to divert to the left the growing sentiment of mistrust of the present political parties and away from the De Gaulle form of fascism. This is an error for which so many paid in the past. The masses can defeat fascism only on the road of proletarian revolution.

The RDR reflects accurately the rejection by French workers of the sharp posing of but two alternatives before them – either Western capitalism or Eastern Stalinism. Not only does neither of these alternatives embody their real needs and hopes, but they are profoundly anti-war and they see nothing but war in this dichotomy. The French masses have lost sympathy with Russian Stalinism as its totalitarianism and brutality have been increasingly revealed to them. But that has not meant any growth of sympathy for American imperialism with its Marshall Plan aid meant to stave off not only Stalinist penetration but the authentic, proletarian revolution as well.

The mistake, made by socialists and by the RDR as well, is in thinking that use could be made of the present mood to build a “third force,” opposed to both axes, east and west. The very term “third force” makes no appeal to workers, especially to the advanced layer. That section feels the need for a powerful movement of its own which shall become the first force, not the third. Many workers turned to Stalinism because they felt it represented a great power which could be used to further their aims. They have turned away from it when experience taught them that this power was being exerted in utter indifference to their interests.

Prospects for the Movement

It is the natural fate of all half-way, indefinite movements without any real historic program to decline rapidly. The RDR is a phenomenon that cannot live in its present form for very long, There is a distinct feeling that already it has begun to suffer a relapse, An “atmosphere” devoid of all tangible organization cannot maintain itself in being. The RDR cannot build the type of committees of which Sartre speaks. These would approximate soviets and could appear only in the throes of a revolutionary situation in which power would be immediately at stake. Nor can the RDR build anything in the nature of a syndicalist movement, That too requires organizing abilities beyond those of the present leaders of this intellectual movement.

What then? The Sartre movement is the contradiction that epitomizes France today. It reveals with the clarity of an etching the unmistakable feeling of the masses that they need a new revolutionary party to defeat fascism and to usher in socialism. The “atmosphere” is there but the party fails to spring up and nourish for lack of leadership.

Had such leadership been already in existence, there can be little doubt that these French intellectuals would have found politics not so hopeless and they might well have moved forward from the untenable position they now occupy. Sartre and his fellow writers modestly recognize that they are not after all Lenins and Trotskys. They can participate in the intellectual struggle and help to reveal and to create an atmosphere; but far, far more than that is necessary. When Breton, in his speech in the Salle Pleyel, mentioned Trotsky’s name in connection with the Manifesto to the Intellectuals which Breton and Diego Rivera signed with Trotsky in 1938, there was immediate spontaneous applause. That was no accident. Breton mentioned it precisely because he knew where the sympathies of the audience lay. Of course he mentions a Manifesto which he did absolutely nothing to further after he signed it. But the incident is symbolic in that the need for such a man as Trotsky is felt, to act as the polarizing force to really rally the masses.

How It Harms Socialism

It is possible that a section of the RDR may crystallize out to form one nucleus for the formation of a real mass vanguard party. There is no sign of this at the moment and it becomes therefore increasingly less probable. Insofar as the RDR tends to create syndicalist moods among workers – that is, tends to turn away from politics and the building of a strong party of their own – it does harm to the movement. Its movement forward depends on forces other than itself, with far greater understanding of social motion.

But its complete disappearance would mean that a time and a mood has been allowed to pass when the active vanguard could have been gathered into a revolutionary grouping. The time tests the leaders. This is the sense in which the total frustration of a movement which in and of itself could only prove abortive, would nevertheless represent a working class defeat, since the possibilities were present for the building of a vanguard movement which yet failed to be achieved.


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