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Ian H. Birchall

Before Thorez

(Autumn 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

French Communism in the Making 1914-1924
Robert Wohl
Oxford, £5.

Wohl sees his book not as ‘a reflection of the Cold War’ but as ‘a sign that the Cold War is coming to an end.’ If by this he intends a rehabilitation of Communism within the political consensus, his aim coincides with that of latter-day Stalinism. At all events he has contributed a serious and scholarly account of the making of the French Communist Party.

The real opportunity for revolution in France was between 1917 and 1918. Army mutineers set up Soviets; in the Loire basin workers seized factories and whole municipalities. The French socialist movement, bemused by pre-war theoretical debates, failed to offer leadership. In 1922 Trotsky was still berating French communists for failing to work in the unions; L’Humanité failed to so much as publish the CGT’s call for a general strike after three strikers had been shot at Le Havre. Only in 1924 was the Party reconstructed on a base of factory cells rather than area sections. The Bolshevik strategy of splitting the Socialist Parties and uniting the unions was never clearly understood in France. All this exposes quite clearly the danger of postponing the building of the revolutionary party until a revolutionary situation arises.

Wohl’s interpretation stresses the continuity between the early years of the party and its later weaknesses. Of course the debates on reform and revolution have relevance to later problems. And it would be naive to suggest that in Lenin’s lifetime there could not already be conflicts of interest between the Russian State and the French working class. But to a great extent the weaknesses of the early years were the weaknesses of a living movement faced with almost insuperable problems. The class-collaboration of 1936, the strangling of revolution in 1945, the failure to halt de Gaulle in 1958, the loving-up to right-wing social-democrats in 1967, have roots elsewhere, which only a class analysis of Russia itself can elucidate.

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Last updated: 31.12.2007