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Ian H. Birchall

Left-over Reformist

(Winter 1963/64)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.15, Winter 1963/4, p.39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Modern French Republic
Pierre Mendès-France
Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 30s.

M. Mendès-France is an intelligent political thinker, a clear writer, and probably has a sincere desire to change society for the better. Unfortunately there is a widespread impression, in England rather than in France, that he also has something to do with socialism. Such an impression is unlikely to survive a reading of this book. The first shock may be administered by the references to Mater et Magistra as though it were some sort of authority, or by the author’s obvious admiration for Churchill; but these are incidental to the whole Utopian fantasy, which must be created by any political theorist who fails to put class conflict at the very centre of his analysis. Instead we are offered democratic political institutions aid an Economic Plan. ‘The Plan must have the support of everyone: the President of the Council in his office, the research worker in his laboratory, and the worker in his factory’. Marx is outdated, and the sophisticated, forward-looking M. Mendès-France takes as his authority – Montesquieu. The key to the failure of the last two republics was the ‘total lack of equilibrium between the principal State organisations: the Assemblies and the executive power’. M. Mendès-France goes further in his desire for equilibrium; trade unions must be incorporated into the machinery of government and play a role in creating the Economic Plan; as a result the unions will come to recognise that the State is no longer their enemy. Nothing, indeed, could be more desirable for French capitalism, if M. Mendès-France could show how it is to be achieved. But he is concerned almost exclusively with abstractions, with ‘a blueprint for the France of the future’. A great deal of space is devoted to the role and composition of a Second Chamber; there is scarcely a mention of the additional bedrooms required by France’s inadequately housed. M. Mendès-France is not totally blind to the problems of modern capitalism, and a central theme of his work is the difficulty of reconciling economic planning with individual freedom. But because he does not transcend the limits of the society that produces this contradiction, his remedy is all the more pernicious: greater participation by the workers in a system that is not their own.

During the Algerian War and the threat of fascism, Mendès-France still offered a plausible leadership; but now, as Gaullism returns to the typical patterns of modern capitalism, he is no longer the key figure of the French Left. Both British workers and the most intelligent British capitalists are turning eagerly to Harold Wilson; but neither French capital nor French workers need or want Mendès-France.

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Last updated: 25 March 2010