Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
9: The strike at the Renault Plant, AprilMay 1947
Translated from La Verité, No 589, December 1979
Trotsky wrote, in the Manifesto of the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International in May 1940, about the world war which was then beginning: “The shifts in the battle-lines at the front, the destruction of national capitals, the occupation of territories, the downfall of individual states, represent from this standpoint only tragic episodes on the road to the reconstruction of modern society.”
The axis which Trotsky proposed to the militants of the Fourth International was simple: it was to transform the imperialist war into civil war and the general settlement of labour with capital, which is indispensible for the reconstruction of modern society.
This perspective has been confirmed in an extraordinary way. After years of terrible defeats, the world revolution raised its head in 1943 and the following years in an unequal but combined way. The end of the war was to witness revolutionary situations created in most of the countries of Europe, in the bourgeois states which had been thrown into dislocation when the Nazi regime collapsed.
In the most varied ways the masses broke through to the scene where their destinies were to be decided. They began to set up their own organisations. In France, Germany and Italy the embryo of workers’ councils arose. Nothing could enable these movements to be blocked and the bourgeois states to be reconstructed, but that lofty agreement which was sealed at Teheran, and later at Yalta and at Potsdam, between the imperialist powers anal the Kremlin bureaucracy. The Red Army was to try to maintain order in Eastern Europe, while the Communist parties had the task of ensuring that the bourgeois states were reconstructed in the West. In France and Italy the Communist parties took their places in governments of national unity. Accordingly, the French Communist Party organised the disarming of the patriotic militias; it acted on the instructions of Maurice Thorez, who came back from Moscow to say: “We must have one single army, one single state and one single police force.” The CRS were to be created by amalgamating the FTP, the FFI and what was left of the Vichy police, the GMR. The priority task became “the reconstruction of the national economy”, in other words, the reconstruction of the profits of the capitalist trusts. Following the very special logic of the Stalinists, strikes were proclaimed to be “the weapon of the trusts”.
Charles Tillon, the Communist Party member who was Minister of Armaments, who had already made himself notorious by organising the massacre of many thousands of Algerians at Setif on 8 May 1945, spoke as follows at a National Conference on Arms Production, on 1 February 1945:
Anyone would think that they were reading a speech by the leading economist of France! Amid the ruins of Europe, this policy struck the working class like the lash of a whip; rationing and a wage freeze were the inevitable conditions for the capitalist economy to toe reestablished.
Nothing but the complete, entire commitment of the Stalinist ‘Communist’ Party, with its ‘worker-ministers’ on the one hand, and its control over the CGT on the other, could make this policy effective, could make the masses accept these sacrifices.
The journal of the CGT, Le Peuple, gave significant indications on 1 March 1947:
A commission on earnings had proposed that “abnormally low” earnings be raised: Le Peuple remarked: “Raising abnormally low earnings would raise the workers’ share by only 0.35 per cent.”
This was the situation which the ‘Communist’ ministers undertook to make the workers accept. The CGT, for its part, combined some platonic expressions of regret with prohibiting strike movements in practice. Front Ouvrier, the trade union journal produced by the Trotskyists of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste, made this appreciation of the situation:
At the time, when Nazi domination and the regime of Petain in France collapsed, the policy of national unity was a powerful restraint to curb any independent activity by the working class. The French Communist Party enjoyed the prestige of the October Revolution and of the victories of the Red Army, in addition to what its members had won in the Resistance. It threw everything it had into the struggle against the movement of the working class. But “the laws of history are more powerful than the bureaucratic apparatuses”, as our programme says.
A series of strike movements in 1945 bore witness to the will which was maturing within the working class to break the grip of the strait-jacket of national unity. In January 1946 the machine operators in the printing industry in Paris went on strike, against the advice of the CGT leadership. L’Humanité came out with blank pages; the strikers refused to print a speech by Ambroise Croizat, a ‘Communist’ minister and leader of the CGT.
The movements in telecommunications during summer 1946 were on a much larger scale. They were significant for more than one reason. Maurice Thorez, who was De Gaulle’s Minister of State, had worked out the conditions of service for state employees. This withheld from postal workers certain concessions which were enjoyed by other state employees. The demand that the workers in telecommunications be upgraded was to be the axis of the struggle of the postal workers against the government of national unity. Pressure was rising; resolutions from union branches were pouring into the offices of the leaders of the postal workers’ federation. The leaders of the federation mounted on 11 July 1946 an operation of the same kind as has later come to be called ‘a day of action’, in order to break up the mobilisation of the postal workers. At Bordeaux the workers disobeyed the instructions of their union; they stopped work. This stirred the bureaucrats, who decided to call a ten-hours strike for 30 July. But then Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand and Lille came out for an indefinite strike. By 31 July the whole country was involved. The CGT leadership decisively opposed the movement:
The postal workers replied by forming a national strike committee on 2 August. The questions which their demands raised were taking; on a general political content. The workers were confronted by the fact that their union had been taken over by an apparatus acting in the service of the capitalist state. They were obliged to organise independently and to try to solve their problems by themselves. Quite naturally they followed the classical roads of revolutionary mobilisation by workers. They elected workers’ deputies responsible to the mass. However, at no time did the postal workers try to construct a ‘substitute union’. The method which enabled them to fight to take back control of their trade union and to impose their own control in opposition to that of the apparatus was their independent organisation in strike committees. The Congress of the National Strike Committee, which met in Montrouge on 16 and 17 August, announced that the leaders of the postal federation had been dismissed. It adopted a resolution which:
Front Ouvrier (Workers’ Front) emphasised the political content of the struggle in the following terms:
The Trotskyists were not in any way confused. The strike committee is not an ‘anti-trade union’ organ. It is the means by which the workers organise themselves and bring about the united front of their organisations and struggle to break with the bourgeoisie. This experience demonstrates, moreoever, that the renewal of the unions cannot be the result of long, patient efforts of ‘parliamentary opposition’ in the union structures. On the contrary, the renewal of the unions and the renovation of their composition and their leading bodies can come only as one element in the struggle against the bourgeoisie as a class, a struggle which demands that the workers be mobilised independently, that they shall break the opposition of their apparatuses and shall themselves realise the united front from the base to the top.
The leadership of the postal federation resolutely refused to yield to the pressure of the postal workers. It refused to allow the union leaders to be elected by ballot. This was no accident: the leadership had at all costs to hold on to its control of the union, in order to enable the anti-working class policy of the government to be effective, the government in which ‘Communist’ ministers were sitting. This posed urgently the need for the vanguard to be organised on the basis of a clear political programme, which included an understanding that the leaders of the French Communist Party and the CGT, like those of the SFIO and of the Force Ouvriere tendency, had “definitely gone over to the side of the bourgeois order”.
The weakness of the Trotskyists and their inability to lay down a line to construct the revolutionary party in the course of intervention in the class struggle did not permit this vanguard to be organised. The militants of the national strike committee found themselves in a blind alley. About 15,000 militants refused to submit to the Stalinist policy and were to leave the CGT and, on 8 December 1946, founded the Committee for Trade Union Action, which was to transform itself in July 1947 into the Syndicalist Federation of Telecommunications Workers and go back into the CGT and FO after the split.
The Trotskyist militants explained the needs of their class in a campaign for a general rise in wages and a sliding scale. Front Ouvrier advanced the ‘general slogan’: “Ten Francs an Hour Now!” The struggle was closely linked to the struggle for the five-day week of 40 hours, thereby opposing the development of piece-work and the prolongation of the working day which the employers and the government were imposing.
In February 1947 the workers stated a demand for 10 francs an hour in Department 6 of the Renault complex – where the militants of the Union Communiste, the ancestor of Lutte Ouvrière, were working – and in Department 18. The management rejected the demands. The leaders of the CGT, faithful to the principle ‘Production First’, opposed the ten francs. In its place they proposed a production bonus! They continued to be the warmest supporters of increasing the profits of the capitalists.
The bulletin, The Voice of the Renault Workers, traced back the origin of the movement:
The whole class movement, which was to explode a few days later, was expressing itself in this multitude of partial movements. The workers were testing the resistance of the enemy; they were running into the sabotage of the trade union representatives; they were sometimes able to force the management to retreat and thus to get points of support for going forward. On 17 April the workers in Department 6 decided unanimously by the votes of all present, except eight, “to regard strike action as the means by which to win our demand for the 10 francs. To this end, they have mandated comrades to carry out the activities necessary. These comrades have been to see the management who, through the voice of Mr Bohin, has rejected our legitimate demands, on the pretext that the government did not authorise any pay increases.” (From the leaflet issued by Department 6)
But on Tuesday 28 April the strikers marched through the factory and called on those at work to stop the machines. Four thousand workers met at 12.30 in the Place Nationale. The strike leaders spoke one after another in favour of “Stop the Machines! General Strike through all Renault! These are the only means to use to get the 10 Francs!”
A young worker tells
At six o’clock in the evening the CGT leaders spoke to 1500 workers, who booed them several times. The leaders were trying to break the movement by playing on the theme: “Do not follow the militant elements; we are going to get you a rise.’ But by the evening, over a third of the plant was on strike.
The workers brushed aside the partitions and the divisions which the employers and the unions raised, and organised themselves at the base, beginning to weave a net of struggle between them.
The report, which we owe to a young worker in the Renault plant, sets out the political significance of the strike very clearly. The workers were in revolt for the 10 francs, against the “political grip on the union”, meaning the subjection of the union to the policies of the bourgeoisie which the Stalinist party had undertaken to force the workers to accept. In other words, the workers, some more consciously and others less, were going into battle to break the links which the workers’ organisations had woven with the bourgeoisie and its state. This lay at the bottom of the affair, which had crystallised in the ‘economic’ demand for the rise of 10 francs an hour. The activity which the vanguard had carried on in Departments 6 and 18 had correctly enabled this will be to expressed, organised and conscious.
Nonetheless, on 29 April, the CGT leadership tried a first manoeuvre in the face of the extent and the spread of the movement which had begun in the Collas sector. It called for a one-hour strike, for the following demands: an all-round hourly increase in the production bonus of three francs, payment of bonuses lost and time lost at the going rate, revision of ‘speeds’ and the organisation of a parity commission to revise speeds. But this manoeuvre failed. By the evening of 29 April there were 29,000 workers on strike. While the plant manager Lefaucheux and the Minister of Labour alike were refusing to meet the strike committee, L’Humanité was warning the workers against ‘the swindlers who are collecting strike support funds without the authority of the CGT’.
Faced with the treachery of the Stalinist leadership, the strike committee decided to address every worker in engineering in the Paris region. The leaflet of the Central Strike Committee of the Renault plants, which was addressed to engineering workers of the whole Paris region (and which the printworkers produced without taking any pay for their work) raised all the political problems, the fundamental problems, with which the whole working class was faced:
`In order to carry on this struggle which was of concern to every worker, the strike committee immediately appealed to all the Renault plants. Despite the opposition by the official trade union leadership, the workers, whether members of unions or not, and irrespective of whatever trade union or political organisation to which they belong, unanimously support our demands.
In other words, the struggle against the policy of class collaboration required that the workers be able to elect their own representatives. Such is the significance of the strike committees, the only purpose of which is not to meet the requirements of abstract democracy but to be the only possible way to break the counterrevolutionary resistance of the apparatuses, if we may take up the formulation which Trotsky used in his article Committees of Action – not Popular Front (in Whither France).
The strike committee leaflet explained the general significance of the demand for the ten francs an hour, and ended as follows:
The Stalinist apparatus was defending the policy of subjecting the working class to the interests of capital, of the government and of bourgeois power. The real problem was that of the policy and activity of the revolutionary militants, especially of those who claimed to be for the Fourth International, who were drawing support from the mass movement and opening before it a road of opposition to the Stalinist apparatus.
Even though the Renault workers received the sympathy of the engineering workers in Paris, even though a certain number of movements actually took place, the general strike of the engineering workers in the Paris region was not to take place.
However, it must be said, at the time the Parti Communiste Internationaliste was under the leadership of the rightist, opportunist current. The entire politics of this current diverted it from the movement of the masses. One of the leaders of this current had made ironic remarks at a meeting of the Central Committee, when the workers at Unic had stopped work some time earlier, about “the unique strike at Unic”.
In March 1947 Parisot wrote an article in which he argued that strike struggles on a large scale were impossible. The whole leadership of the PCI at that time was oriented towards a policy aimed at the apparatuses, or, at best, a kind of privileged militant. Their concern was to have a dialogue with the militants of the French Communist Party in order to influence Stalinist policy and “turn it leftwards”. This is what Parisot, who was editor of La Verité, wrote in that journal on 3 May 1947:
What could be more clear? It was to the apparatus, which was resisting the Renault strike with all its strength, which had had the militants of the Renault strike beaten up during the May Day demonstration, that the leadership of the PCI of that time was addressing itself, to “generalise the workers’ struggles, etc., etc.”, when in reality everything depended on the initiative of the revolutionary militants, especially the Trotskyists, to encourage the initiative of the masses.
The CGT got control of the strike and then negotiated with the Minister of Labour, Daniel Mayer. Between 6 and 8 May, a consensus was reached. On 9 May the CGT called for work to be resumed, in a leaflet which, by itself, serves to demonstrate the unequalled virtuosity and experience with which the Stalinists practice the art of treachery.
The CGT leaflet started with a headline in large type: “We have won our three francs”. It went on:
The 10 francs rise, please note, had simply disappeared. Now it was a question only of the three francs production bonus!
There is certainly nothing new under the sun. It was not in Manufrance or Paris Libéré that the Stalinists learned how to pass off as victories the rotten deals that they fixed up with the employers and the government against the workers. When Daniel Mayer said, “I shall not give way, whatever happens”, the Stalinists replied warmly in this leaflet, “Nothing is going to happen”. It is very surprising to observe how little the formulae of betrayal have changed in 32 years. ‘Euro-Communist’ or not, the Stalinist party undertakes to demonstrate that it is the principal bulwark of the bourgeois social order.
The treachery of the leaders came into conflict with the workers at Renault. The leaders got the workers back to work at Unic (where a branch of the PCI intervened). The Renault workers were forced to retreat. The return to work was voted by 12,075 against 6,866. However, in the departments where the strike had begun, and in some others, the workers refused to return to work. These, moreover, were the departments which were once again to be in the vanguard at the time of the referendum organised in August 1953.
This was the basis on which the strike committee declared for continuing the strike until the management agreed to pay “for the time lost”. On 12 May, at the time of the general move back to work, departments 6, 18 and 43 were occupied by the strikers. The leaders of the CGT were infuriated. On 13 May they handed out a leaflet which declared: “All together, we shall defeat those who divide us.”
They stated that the strikers in 6 and 18 were no more than 250 unbalanced people, and the leaflet went on, in large type:
On 15 May agreement was reached between the ministry and the CGT about the conditions for resumption of work: there was to be a bonus on re-starting of 1,600 francs and a repayable advance of 900 francs, and the hours needed to get production going would be paid as overtime. The management proposed to pay to the trade union delegates and to others who had supported the trade union leadership for the time of work which they had lost: in other words the prominent Stalinists got a tip for services rendered. The other part of the agreement consisted in the CGT undertaking to get the results of the referendum of 9 May upheld, particularly in connection with the sacking of ‘agitators’ as well, furthermore, undertaking not to oppose the requirement to repay the 900 francs, which it agreed to regard as an advance.
Between 28 April and 15 May there were 27 meetings between the CGT leaders and the Renault management, four of these meetings in the presence of the Minister of Labour. Work generally re-started on 16 May.
The Renault strike compelled the leaders of the French Communist Party to leave the ‘tripartite’ government. Its political consequences were of the highest importance. When the Renault workers expressed the general aspirations of the entire French working class, they were beginning to strain the structure of the counter-revolutionary Holy Alliance which had been agreed at Yalta and Potsdam. Despite the treachery of the leaderships, the workers had not been defeated. To be sure, they had had to withdraw, but at the same time they began to advance the political means which would enable them to confront and defeat the bourgeois state.
There was one condition for this struggle to succeed; it was that there should exist at least in the principal engineering factories in the Paris region organised groups of workers of the vanguard, brought together on the basis of precise political objectives and consciously preparing the conditions for victorious struggles.
Certain sections of the PCI, under the leadership of the trade union commission, had already undertaken this work. But the leadership of the PCI did not make it the axis of their orientation. It was disarming the militants by adopting a policy of ‘pressure’ on the apparatuses – and particularly on the Stalinist apparatus.
The strength of the Renault strike movement lay in the strike committees and in the organisation of the movement by delegates elected and mandated by the rank and file. As Trotsky explained:
But the Transitional Programme did not restrict itself to describing the importance of the strike committees or factory committees. The chapter on ‘factory committees’ ends as follows: “It is necessary to begin a campaign in favour of factory committees in time, in order not to be caught unawares.”
But this is still not enough. If the working class needs such organisms in order to rally its forces as a class, the organisms must necessarily include the traditional organisations, and these are controlled by bourgeois apparatuses.
Pierre Bois gives us a striking illustration of the stupidity of the ultra-left theses on Red Trade Unions and of the blind alley into which they led; this is in La Voix des Travailleurs de Renault (The Renault Workers’ Voice):
Fundamentally, then, if the workers were betrayed, they had only themselves to blame; they were not ‘active’ enough. Here the Union Communiste was sinking into the purest pre-war revolutionary syndicalism, which could not conceive of the union except as the active minority – that is, fundamentally as a substitute for the revolutionary party which does not exist. But, however much syndicalism before World War I was able in the face of the opportunism and parliamentarism of the Socialist Party to play a rô1e in gathering together a revolutionary vanguard, to the same extent the policy of the Union Communiste in 1947 amounted to preventing the advanced workers from understanding the policies of Stalinism, and, therefore, raised an obstacle to the construction of the revolutionary party.
The Democratic Renault Union went on endlessly about its own perspectives. In the union elections following the strike, the level of abstentions rose sharply, especially in the departments which had been most active in the strike. The SDR decided that what mattered were votes – for itself. Accordingly, in the table of results in La Voix des Travailleurs it simply replaced the column of abstentions, spoiled ballots, etc, with a column headed SDR. But dreams and self-mystification do not replace reality. The Stalinists stepped up their campaign against ‘the provocateurs and splitters’ and the SDR disappeared ingloriously from the scene.
The revolutionaries took the Renault strike as an unequivocal warning: they must seriously apply themselves to the task of constructing the revolutionary party, without trying to evade the obstacles.
They needed to put an end to a kind of abstract propaganda, which served only to conceal a policy of subordination to the apparatuses, to Stalinism. On the contrary, their task was to work out the line and the political means to intervene in the class struggle, which were based on the movement of the masses and on helping them to open up their way forward. That would be the way in which the revolutionary organisation would construct itself in the movement of the class, and the revolutionary party would construct itself.
The Renault strike was at the centre of the work of the Fourth Congress of the PCI, which was to be held on 9-11 December 1947. The resolution adopted by the Congress drew the balance of all the movements which followed the Renault strike and, in particular, the strike in the Paris transport system; it characterised the new stage in the political situation as marked by the change in relations between the working class and the Stalinist leadership. It made a critical balance of the orientation of the old leadership of the PCI, and placed the question of the development of the party on the order of the day:
In other words, the question which was raised before the PCI was this: how was it going to be able to help the political apparatus of the struggle to be built in the course of the struggle itself? The resolution of the Fourth Congress took up the significance of the slogan of the general strike and laid down: “The general strike is the central slogan of the new stage.”
The Fourth Congress placed so much insistence on this problem because the outgoing leadership of the PCI had precisely not carried on either before, during or after the Renault strike the systematic campaign to rouse the French proletariat for 10 francs an hour, on the axis of the general strike, and thereby counterposed slogans which helped the independent mobilisation of the working class in opposition to the ‘production first’ slogans of the Stalinists. The resolution criticised the activity of the outgoing leadership and explained:
This criticism of the rightist leadership of the PCI opened up a political orientation which aimed at giving a solution to the problems which had come out into the light of day in the Renault strike. To begin with, it took up the content of the agitation of the party:
But while the correct orientation is indispensable, the political means to advance it have still to be worked out. The Fourth Congress brought out the significance of the ‘committees of struggle’ which the party should encourage and on the relation between committees of struggle and strike committees:
What was worked out in this Congress – though still inadequately – was the possibility of constructing no longer a mere propaganda grouping and especially not an organisation to exert pressure on the apparatuses, but a real revolutionary organisation, which could forge deep-going links with the masses in the political struggle. The Renault strike, with the help of the Trotskyist militants, marked the appearance of new political relations between the masses and the apparatuses, which provided precisely the objective basis for such an organisation to develop.
But instead of this development, the months and years which followed were to see a new aggravation of the difficulties of the PCI and of the Fourth International, which ended in 1951-53 in the Fourth International bursting apart. Nonetheless, these difficulties and crises in the struggle to construct the revolutionary party cannot be overcome from only one side.
In the battle which developed in Renault, but which was expressed in many other workplaces, a Trotskyist nucleus, linked to the workers’ movement and working to unify their movement as it freed itself from the clutches of the apparatuses, was formed at the heart of the struggles of the proletariat. There can be no doubt that this was enormously important in the resistance of the majority of the PCI, and in particular of its trade union commission, to Pabloite revisionism.
When Pablo identified the movement of the masses with that of the Stalinist bureaucracy, when he demanded that the Trotskyist militants integrate themselves into the Stalinist apparatus to make it “evolve to the left”, the worker militants of the PCI could rely on living experience, their own and that of their class. No! The Stalinist bureaucracy was not the “delegated representative” of the proletariat. On the contrary, the proletariat in its entire movement was beating against the Stalinist straitjacket and trying to organise itself round a new axis. To help it and guide it in this movement – this was the task of a Trotskyist organisation, a task which required complete political independence from the bureaucracy. There is no doubt that this is the most important conclusion to be drawn from the Renault strike of 1947.
Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003