Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
1: The Stalinist Apparatus end the Renault Strike of May 1947
From Jeune Revolutionnaire, April 1971, pp23-28
Using iron bars, the engineering workers of the striking departments of the Renault Billancourt Factory, and of departments 6, 18 and 37 in particular, were trying to force the great metal gates of the AOC Department (the Central Toolroom).
The immense glass and steel doors had been welded together on the inside. This was the result of a decision taken by the leadership of the French Communist Party, which in this way hoped to isolate the AOC workers from the rest of the strikers who were spreading out over the largest metalworking factory in France.
It was 29 April 1947. The AOC workers were waiting behind the gates. When the welding broke and the doors opened an immense shout burst out, running along the girders and windows of the building. The workers threw their arms around each other and chanted in rhythm, “Our Ten Francs! Our Ten Francs!”
The Renault strike, which had begun on 25 April 1947, took on new momentum. The powerful Stalinist apparatus, with its cells strongly and solidly rooted, had failed to stop the strike epidemic. The Stalinist ministers of the De Gaulle government were going to have to leave their armchairs.
The iron bars breaking the doors of the AOC were symbolic of the elemental force of the working class, held back and constrained for too long, that was now rattling the bars of tripartism , the policy of “Production First, Roll Up Your Sleeves”, and “The Strike is the Weapon of the Trusts” (speech by Maurice Thorez, Secretary of the PCF, at Ivry).
In March 1946 the Engineering Workers’ Federation of France and the Colonies – CGT3 – had issued a pamphlet subtitled The Battle for Steel and entitled Produce or Die; this pamphlet was signed by Alfred Costes, the Secretary General of one of the CGT’s most powerful trade union federations, the CGT being at that time the one sole trade union federation in existence.
This pamphlet reproduced, by way of preface, the speech delivered by the Minister of Labour, Ambroise Croizat, one of the Stalinist ministers, at the National Conference of Works Committees held on 23 February 1946.
The title of the pamphlet, Produce or Die, was a slogan in itself. The workers were indeed dying of hunger. There was rationing for everything. The black market was on every street corner. Food produce was being distributed parsimoniously  and was of poor quality. Lodgings were impossible to find. There was not enough coal to warm yourself enough. The cost of living rose to catastrophic levels.
1944-45 saw Europe’s working masses lift up their heads again. Emerging from the worldwide imperialist slaughter, the workers in their millions, within the structures that they had inherited from before the war, tried to raise their problem forcefully, that is to say, that of the Socialist revolution. At every level their struggles and hopes tried to overcome the limits of those organisational and political structures which proved incapable of leading them where they wanted to go. The whole history of the years 1944-45 is that of the working masses at every stage seeking to find the path to the most resolute class struggle, starting off from their own reality as exploited classes dominated by the Stalinist and reformist apparatuses, and seeking their way through the very same organisations that had as their object to divert the masses from finding their own way.
Croizat, as Minister of Labour in a bourgeois government, was scrupulously to carry out the counter-revolutionary instructions of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow.
At every stage of the class struggle he would strive to bring the masses back within the limits of the bourgeois society that they had, by their own movement, the irremediable tendency to break up. Thus in his speech that introduced the sinister pamphlet Produce or Die he declared: “Everyone to his place in an industry or factory ... We must avoid the serious mistake that would allow the factory to be run by the Works Committees, because they must not take the lead instead of, and in place of, the factory’s general management.” A few moments later he also added, with the cynicism common to all bureaucrats:
A bureaucrat of the second rank, Alfred Costes, could hardly be behind the Minister Comrade who ranked as his superior; as he explained in a paragraph entitled Production and Morale, “On the other hand, it would be a good thing to open and get going farms near factories to share the produce among the workers, by means of the trade unions and Works Committees. The trade unions and Works Committees must also resolutely lead the movement in favour of individual kitchen gardens.”
These phrases appear to be utter absurdity at a distance of 25 years. They are not, however, mythical. This outrageous proposal had a precise political aim: to smother and crush the class consciousness of the workers on their way to emancipation, and to pull it back to the level of the working peasant and market gardening. The proposal’s unreality was determined by the bureaucracy’s counterrevolutionary orientation.
The tone was otherwise set by Thorez, one of the most important Stalinist bureaucrats in Western Europe. At Auby on 1 March 1946 he said to the miners of the North and of Pas-de-Calais:
Again in front of the miners, six months before, at Waziers on 21 July, the same Thorez 8 had declared:
De Gaulle himself had declared on the radio a few weeks before, on 24 May 1945: “In the situation we are in, a slackening of effort by the producers, or even strikes whenever they happen, can have no other result than to make the deficiencies of production worse, to the detriment of everybody.”
This is no chance coincidence. It was the Stalinist leadership alone that took up the interests of the bourgeoisie, and it alone could do the job properly, because the following question lay at the centre of all the major problems of the time: would the working class accept or not this policy, which obliged it to reinforce the capitalist system of exploitation at the expense of its own survival and blood by throwing overboard the essentials of its socialist and revolutionary aspirations?
In the back room of a little bistro in the Rue de Silly at Boulogne-Billancourt were seven Renault workers. It was in the month of February 1947. Most of them were young, very young. It was not the first time that they had met, either there or elsewhere. Apart from two or three, they were never the same. Their discussions always revolved around the same theme: the cost of living, the more and more intolerable living conditions, the policy of the government and the policy of the trade union leadership, which was practically the same as that of the government.
Their problems all more or less boiled down to this: how to shake the formidable wall that consisted of the government in which the ‘Communist’ ministers sat, and to do away with its policy?
They were modestly labelled ‘The Committee of the Discontented’.
Their determination and will were nourished by the great hopes born of the ‘Liberation’ which had happened two and a half years before – already two and a half years ago! – but also by the partial strikes without direction that had sporadically broken out in the factory.
They were encouraged by the obstinate resistance offered by wider and wider layers of workers for more than one and a half years now to the common policy carried out by the government and the apparatuses.
A year before, on 26 January 1946, Paris had woken up without newspapers and on 28 January 1946 the printworkers had distributed a leaflet entitled Reply of the Striking Newspaper Workers to Monsieur the ‘Provisional’ Minister of Labour°, which began thus: “What first of all came out of your speech was your unexpected attempt to split the working class by arguments that up till now have been reserved for Sunday school pupils.”
These few young workers meeting in the little bistros of Boulogne-Billancourt, the ‘Committee of the Discontented’, had given life to the postal strike that ran from 29 July to 4 August 1946. From this strike a national strike committee sprang up on 1 August outside the trade union federation of the postal workers and which convened a conference of strike committees at Montrouge after the strike had ended. Two revolutionary organisations were represented amongst these people, all of them trade unionists of the CGT.
One was the Union Communiste, which survives today in the paper Lutte Ouvrière, and the other was the PCI (French Section of the Fourth International), the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste today (for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International) (OCI).
These ill-assorted and contrasting meetings, apparently ineffective and inconsequential, put down roots among the 45,000 workers of the Renault-Billancourt plant, who were going by their struggles to mark a new turn in the immediate postwar period. For during these meetings was formulated the demand which would influence some tens of thousands of metalworkers in the Parisian region, besides those at Renault.
The strike began in the Collas Sector. 500 workers of this sector voted to strike on Wednesday 23 April 1947, and adopted the demand of 10 Francs an hour rise for everyone. However, the strike in the Collas Sector did not set itself the aim of extending the strike to the entire factory of Boulogne-Billancourt. It was still only a strike like any other at this stage, partial, fragmented and isolated. Some even went so far as to construct a theory about this. Because the Collas Sector made gearboxes, it was enough to halt production there for a while in order to make the factory ‘seize up’. This was obviously an erroneous and irrelevant calculation, but that was the calculation of the UC. From the depths of the working class, and from these Renault metalworkers, thousands and thousands of working men and women were going to rise up and shout “No!” in the face of the government, and were by that same token going to pose the most advanced political questions, those of government. They posed everything, but they resolved nothing at all.
However, a strike committee got down to work, and the echo of the strike was already loud in the entire factory. The work of the ‘Committee of the Discontented’ was bearing fruit.
The Collas Strike Committee met on Sunday 27th, along with workers from other departments. Their goal was a strike of the entire factory on Monday 28th.
The newspaper L’Humanité, silent on 25 and 26 April, published on the 27th an article entitled, Manoeuvres against the CGT and the Nationalisation, in which the following could be read:
From that point of view, as far as the counter-revolutionary Stalinist apparatus was concerned, that was all that there was to be said. Had not the Moscow Trials “completely rubbed out the Trotskyist beast from the working class”?
The movement, however, spread with an extraordinary rapidity. From Tuesday 29 April 1947 a central strike committee was set up. ‘The Committee of the Discontented’ was part of it, but only one part; through the Renault engineering workers it was the whole class starting to move through one of its decisive battalions.
The Central Strike Committee was a living reality. It sat in Department 78. Its sessions were public. Its organisation corresponded to the deep needs of the class in its movement against the state, whilst at the same time its political horizons were strictly limited by the weakness of the organised working class vanguard. The sole Trotskyist engineering militant at Renault celebrated his 22nd birthday on 28 April 1947. The OCI (the PCI at that time) concentrated its entire energy and pushed for extending the strike to the whole of engineering in the Parisian region. At a meeting in the Place Nationale on Monday 28th Comrade Lambert of the PCI launched the slogan “Uncouple the Machines”. Closing down Renault meant concentrating the entire strength of the working class against the political power, the power of the bourgeoisie.
The strike became general on the 29th. All the engineering workers had stopped. work, from the Seguin Island to Factory 0. The Central Strike Committee, representing the entire working class in struggle, had 80 per cent of the departments represented on it. The departmental strike committees were unorganised, or badly organised. The pickets were not organised, though it was better in the Collas Sector.
The Stalinist apparatus was going to make a very quick turn, at least in words. It was Duclos who was going to put the Stalinist tactics in a nutshell: “Never shall we allow ourselves to be turned to the left.”
May Day was about to take place. The newspaper workers had not forgotten their January 1946 strike, 15 months earlier. They distributed an appeal of the Central Strike Committee of Renault at their own expense, which went out to the entire engineering area of the Parisian region and on the May Day parade.
At the same time as the Stalinist apparatus made a turn in words, in order to take over the movement that had flowed over it, it poured out its violence against the vanguard. The Stalinist apparatus had employed violence against the strikers in the name of “the strike is the weapon of the trusts” ever since 28 April. From 30 April to 2 May it now tried to use this violence against the strikers yet again in the name of the strike itself.
The clashes were becoming violent. Engineering workers who were giving out the leaflet of the Central Strike Committee on the May Day parade, were beaten up by the Stalinists.
Some departmental picket lines were broken by the cadres of the PCF. But the vanguard held firm. In the Collas Sector, which had become the bastion of the strike, its efforts to fight back were crowned with success. But in spite of these efforts and of the depth of the strike that was going on, the vanguard did not succeed in extending the strike outside the limit that enclosed Seguin Island. Strikers’ delegates did try to, particularly in the Western suburbs of the Parisian region. The deadlock was all too obvious at Unic. In the name of ‘supporting’ the lads at Renault, the Stalinist apparatus refused to extend the strike.
Things moved fast. Not that the Central Strike Committee was too slow to react; its weakness was only that of the vanguard that led and tried to organise it. Its limitation was not a practical one – although that was a problem, but one that could be overcome. The Young Socialists of the Seine, who were led by Trotskyist militants, brought their support to the strike. A loudspeaker car lent by them to the Central Strike Committee was soon stoned by the Stalinist apparatus. The workers replied to these stones by covering the car of the ill-famed Henaff with spit when he attempted to venture into the Place Nationale.
On Friday 2 May things appeared to the Stalinist apparatus to be ripe enough for it to be able to take the situation completely in hand. It then organised a vote by secret ballot. The result of the vote showed the depth of the movement, but the very organising of the vote itself showed the weakness of the Central Strike Committee. 11,354 engineering workers voted to continue the strike and 8,015 were against. By organising this vote the Stalinist apparatus wanted to restore ‘order’ among the workers. The Stalinist leader Florimond Route clearly expressed the line of the leadership of the PCF on 5 May:
As for Duclos, as far as the revolutionary aspirations of the masses were concerned, he clinched the matter in an interview granted to the New York Herald Tribune and reproduced on 8 May in the daily L’Humanite: “The people who talk about a general strike are imbeciles.”
It is necessary to translate here. Duclos had never understood anything about Marxism. He came straight out of the bakery into the counter-revolutionary apparatus of the GPU. His facile speech was a way of keeping imbeciles quiet. Duclos spoke of ‘people’ instead of workers, and of a ‘general strike’ instead of political power. For it was rather a question of political power, or, to be precise, of knowing whether the Stalinist leaders were going to remain in the government or not, which would mean a head-on clash with the masses who were very quickly deepening their own movement by taking up the demand for 10 Francs across the board, as the bureaucrats knew all too well. It would no longer be possible to contain the working masses any more, as had been the case at Citrof. In fact, the Stalinist leaders had no choice. They were obliged to leave the government, for that was the price they had to pay to be better able to help the bourgeoisie and to continue carrying out their counterrevolutionary policy.
This was a dangerous game, for by removing the obstacle set up by the slogan “the strike is the weapon of the trusts”, the Renault strike was going to pull out hundreds and thousands and millions of workers in a strike wave culminating in the General Strike of November/December 1947. It was impossible to hold back the flow of the masses and hem it in by remaining in the government; it was going to be very difficult to carry out this task even from outside.
Vincent Auriol, the Prexident of the Republic, reported what had happened to the Council of Ministers on 1 May 1947:
Thorez knew what he was talking about, for it was deep inside the organisation of the PCF itself. Tens and tens of militants, both men and women, had torn up their party cards – that of the party they had joined in order to make the Socialist revolution, which they now saw setting about the workers with violence as the days wore on. It was the men of the apparatus wielding iron bars who had tried to drive off the Central Strike Committee’s pickets. It was the apparatus that did not want to break the umbilical cord that tied it to the bourgeoisie. The few revolutionary militants who were leading the strike were doubtless a pole of regroupment for some of them. The Renault strike, it is true, represented a mere episode within the class struggle, but it was pointing towards the deepening of the class struggle, and as it developed it could only pose one question: that of power.
The Stalinist apparatus has failed on what it had always considered as its own ground, its strongest and most impregnable bastion. Thorez was right and saw correctly: it was not a question of a simple wage demand. The Renault strike was clearly posing the political problem of power, and by the same token posing to tens of thousands of revolutionary militants the central question of their own organisation, which is the construction of the revolutionary party.
The confidence of the young revolutionary militants, which had won over tens and hundreds of workers, had to be able to translate itself into organisational terms. For that there had to be a policy, a clear understanding of what lay in front of there. By their strike of April-May 1947 the Renault workers had not settled their accounts with the Stalinist bureaucracy. True, it had been outflanked; but this outflanking was nonetheless limited, whatever the shock waves that it had caused, their importance or their resonance.
It was then that the leadership of the Union Communiste, today represented by Lutte Ouvrière, went on to make the Stalinist bureaucracy the most magnificent present it could have dreamed about.
We should recall that at that time there was only one trade union federation, the CGT; the trade union split was to come about eight months later". The repercussions of the strike were enormous inside the trade union organisation itself.
All the major political problems were confronted and debated there. This was such that the Stalinist bureaucracy felt obliged to sacrifice its leader, the aforementioned Pinet, on account of ‘errors’ committed during the strike. Such was the case that in the election for the executive commission of the trade union section of Department 37 two lists confronted each other, one, the ‘Workers’ United Front’ being led by the Trotskyists of the OCI, and the other being a Stalinist list. The Executive Commission was to be elected in proportion to the votes gained by each of the lists.
The Stalinist maxim, according to which “the cadres decide everything”, stemmed from what was really the Stalinist leadership, which controlled the mass organisations of the working class, and in particular the trade unions; from it flowed as well the absolute need for the bureaucracy to try to expel revolutionary militants. The apparatus knew by experience that if revolutionary militants did not challenge it for leadership in the stronghold that was represented by the trade unions, whatever the upsets it suffered, and whatever the crises that shook it, it would always end up dressing its wounds, closing up its splits and filling in its cracks.
And there, 25 years ago, the rotten ultra-leftism which we know today provided the first indications of its political blindness by creating the Renault Democratic Union (SDR).
Our leftists were proud of the immediate success this achieved. By opening up the perspective of an independent trade union in this way the leadership of VO (Voix Ouvrière) hoped to discover a political short cut, not only to the organisation of a vanguard party, but even to settling the question of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In that way they did succeed in bringing together a part of the vanguard.
It survived this ‘experience’ for only two years, and nothing was left of it – nothing apart from that by wanting to organise the vanguard outside the terrain of the class struggle that the trade union represents, the leftists had left the field clear for the Stalinist bureaucracy. But even now they have not understood this.
A new vote took place for a return to work on Friday 9 May. 12,075 workers decided on a return to work for Monday 12 May 1947, and 6,866 were against; the Renault strike was virtually over.
Under the pressure of the masses, the Stalinists were forced to leave the government. They left it to be better able to carry on outside what they had achieved inside.
The masses advanced towards headlong battles. Neither energy, devotion, nor tenacity were lacking. The only thing missing for a total victory over the capitalist regime was the decisive weapon: their revolutionary party!
1. Tripartism: the three-fold alliance which had run the state since the end of the war and involved the Communist Party, the SFIO (French section of the Second International) and the MRP (Popular Republican Movement – the coalition of right-wing politicians).
2. PCF: Parti Communiste Franqais: the French Communist Party.
3. CGT: Confederation Generale du Travail: the General Workers’ Federation, the Communist-dominated trade union federation, then still united before the split with the Force Ouvriere
4. We should recall that at this time a coal face worker, because his job was considered as hard work, was entitled to a meat ration of 2,750kg a month, or 80g a day.
5. From April to August 1946 the retail price index rose from 325 to 730; at the same time the wages index went from 277 to 383, which represents a toss in purchasing power of 39 per cent over 16 months.
6. These works committees were created by a law drafted by the PCF Minister of Labour and agreed by General De Gaulle. They brought together representatives of the management and union activists elected by the workforce. Their initial aim was to involve union activists in helping restart production. As an incentive these committees were awarded a fixed proportion of the wages bill to pay for various welfare schemes, from running a canteen to organising holiday camps for the workers’ children. Through their hold on many works committees the CGT and the PCF built up huge economic power amounting to billions of pounds in today's money while the activists became entangled and separated from the workforce by having to manage these welfare schemes which could employ up to several hundred staff in some of the largest companies in the public sector.
7. Pas-de-Calais: the area immediately across the Channel around the port of Calais.
8. Thorez was then Minister of State in charge of civil servants under the order of De Gaulle, President of the Constituent Assembly. The Tenth Congress of the PCF was held in Paris in June 1945.
9. They had Ambroise Croizat in mind.
10. Still the main daily newspaper of the French Communist Party.
12. The right-wing Rassemblement du Peuple Franqais, which was headed by De Gaulle. The main body of the French trade unions had been the CGT. The Communists split it in 1922 to form the CGTU, but the two federations reunited in 1936 to set up the unitary CGT at the time of the Popular Front. It began under Social Democratic control, but by 1945 was under the control of the Stalinists. At the end of 1947 the Social Democrats, with much encouragement and financial assistance from the USA, split off to set up Force Ouvriere. Together with the CFDT, which had emerged in 1964 from the Catholic CFTC, there are now three major trade union federations in France. There are also a number of unions not attached to any of these federations, just as there were in the 1940s.
Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003