Ian Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page


Ian Birchall

Revolution in France

So near and yet so far ...

Vital Link of Revolutionary Party Still Needed

(July 1968)


From Socialist Worker, No. 85, July 1968, pp. 5 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


THE FRENCH CRISIS is beginning, not ending, but it is now possible to attempt a preliminary estimate of the first phase of the struggle.

It is clear that although the particular form and timing of the French events took the revolutionary left by surprise as much as anyone else, in its essential features the general strike has confirmed the perspective that this paper has put forward over recent years.

Firstly, France has shown, more clearly even than Hungary or the Belgian general strike, that the working class of the advanced countries has not been bribed or integrated into complacency, but retains enormous revolutionary potential – even though France has the most sophisticated form of planned Western capitalism. The exceptional militancy of workers in the most modern sectors of industry, including motors and electronics, has shown that such militancy is in no way a hangover from the past, but a crucial portent for the future.

Secondly, the crisis has clearly indicated the role of such social groups as students. The French students played a central part, acting, as it were, as “detonator” for the social explosion – but they themselves were not able to act as the agents of social change, but merely to set the stage for the working class. Nor were the students able to hold out on their own after the workers returned to their jobs.

Thirdly, the position of the Communist Party in a direct confrontation with the bosses and their state machine has been shown to be, not merely insufficiently radical and militant, but completely counter-revolutionary.

But when all this has been said, the real problem remains. Why was the French working class unable to carry its initial victory through to the establishment of workers’ councils and a workers’ government?
 

Setback

The acceptance of elections is quite clearly a setback. In many situations the possession of democratic liberties and a representative assembly are positive assets for the working class, worth struggling for and defending.

CGT against revolution

But when real power, the means of the production of wealth, is in the hands of the workers, it is nothing short of a defeat to trade this for the right of “misrepresentation” in an elected body within the capitalist framework.

As a result, the victory of the Gaullist forces in the election comes as no surprise. If the left has shown itself incapable in struggle of establishing a regime based on workers’ power, there seems little point in inviting it to manage a capitalist economy.

It is not possible to present the results of the French struggle in terms of a simple profit and loss account. One cannot measure concrete economic gains against experience and demoralisation. The dynamic of a social movement is such that, if it does not go forward, it will start to go back.

At the end of May, the French workers had made unprecedented economic gains and the only thing that remained for them to go forward to was a revolutionary seizure of state power. For various reasons, they did not do this and from this point on it was possible for the bourgeoisie to regroup.

de Gaulle, whom even his most fervent supporters were ready to desert, was able to win them back to a massive demonstration; the army and police, whose loyalty was in severe doubt, enthusiastically rallied to the “ restoration of order.” Many of the most vicious acts of repressive brutality occurred, not when the workers and students were on the offensive, but when the return to work had already started.

Those leaders and advisers of the working class who counselled that further militancy would be a provocation and led the way to an illusory reconciliation have the blood of their comrades on their hands.

The danger is that this turn of the tide may continue, and allow a regroupment of extreme right wing forces. The return of Georges Bidault and the release of General Salan have indicated such a danger. We should not be hysterical about this prospect: the men, who brought de Gaulle to power in 1958 were betrayed by him over the Algerian issue and have spent the last seven years trying to kill him, will not easily be reunited with him.

Nor is there any mass base for fascism at the moment. The pro-Gaullist demonstrators, while they might well be sympathetic to some brand of fascism, had few members in the right age-bracket for street-fighting. Bidault showed a keen sense of political realism by refusing to expose himself to defeat and isolation by standing for election at this stage.

But in the long term – and not so long as all that – there is a huge political vacuum, and if the socialist forces do not fill it, the fascists will. Those who dream of a return to the status quo, however well-intentioned they may be, will only help to prepare the way for fascism.

In order to evaluate the nature of the general strike it is necessary to recognise the very complex interweaving of economic and political demands. It is an oversimplification of the situation either to reduce it entirely to a movement for higher wages and improved conditions, or to condemn as betrayal any raising of political or economic demands as opposed to “ pure ” revolutionary demands.

In different sectors, different industries, different regions, there was a wide range of demands – some quite simply for higher wages and longer holidays, some for purely political changes like the sacking of Pompidou or de Gaulle, many, perhaps predominantly, for control or participation in some form.

To understand the nature of such demands for control it is necessary to remember that corporatist ideology, the identification of all classes’ interests with that of the ruling class, has made much greater headway in France than in Britain. France has a highly developed system of economic planning with representation for employers and trade unionists.

The problems of “participation” and “democratic planning” are constantly on the lips of economists and bureaucrats. When de Gaulle spoke of the need for greater participation in the national economy and the partnership of capital and labour, he was not making any dramatic new adaptation to the events, but repeating the kind of speech he has been making since the Liberation.

Of course de Gaulle’s corporatism – scarcely distinguishable from that hawked by Mendès-France and the former Catholic CFDT trade union – is fraudulent. But it has a dual effect. On the one hand, when workers constantly hear talk of participation instantly hear talk of participation in control, they begin to ask for it in real earnest. On the other hand, it may lead to serious confusion and deception in a period of crisis and concession.
 

Control

In countless cases over the last few weeks workers have been faced with the real issues of control of economic life. In some places workers committees have established links with the discontented peasantry to continue food supplies. Print workers and radio personnel have been faced with important decisions in controlling the crucial dissemination of information.

Reports from the CSF electronics factory at Brest tell of workers establishing a committee to completely reform the management structure of the factory. Doubtless many more similar examples will be uncovered when the full history of the strike is written.

The strike has involved a “cultural revolution” in the best sense of the term. This has centred on the students of the Sorbonne, but has been manifested by the spread of the strike even to groups like footballers and Folies Bergères dancers. The vast creative potential of non-alienated man has again, as at other crisis points of history, been glimpsed.

The French crisis was beyond a shadow of a doubt spontaneous – even a paranoid could hardly read it as a “communist plot,” and none of the revolutionary groupings had the resources to initiate it. But spontaneity is inevitably irregular and uneven. And if all revolutions of history have begun spontaneously, none has ever ended so.

If France, May 1968 has much in common with Russia, February 1917, there are two crucial differences – this time there are very few real soviets (as distinct from strike committees) and no party able to take on the mantle of the Bolsheviks.

As a result, it has been possible for the counter-revolutionary forces to exploit the contradictions and unevenness of the movement. This must be seen in terms of two specific aspects of the French situation – the political orientation of the trade unions and the role of the Communist Party.

The French trade-union movement, growing up at a time when parliamentary democracy was blatantly corrupt and ineffective, never shared the parliamentary illusions of its British counterpart. On the contrary, syndicalist ideas were very strong in it.

Occupation of the factories is not a new phenomenon in France – it was the most notable feature of the general strike of June 1936 at the time of the Popular Front government. Such occupations, of course, pose the question of control much more clearly than ordinary strikes, and are much more beneficial to the strikers’ morale.

Secondly, the French trade-union movement has been divided since 1948 into three political tendencies. As a result, the unions have been used to fight out the political disagreements between the major parties, rather than for straightforward defence of trade-union interests. This kind of “politicisation” of the unions did not, of course, benefit the workers, as can be seen by the sharp fall in union membership in France from seven million at the end of the war to just over two million today.

The political strike – of the one-day stoppage variety – has been widely used by the CGT, both during the Algerian war and against the Gaullist economic policy. It has served mainly as a safety valve to divert and weary the workers of conventional politics.

In this context the role of the CFDT is of particular interest. Originally a Catholic union, it broke its formal religious ties in 1964, and has developed its position as a “non-political” union ever since. Although its industrial base does not compare with that of the CGT, it has made significant inroads into the technological industries such as electronics.

In the present crisis it has at almost every point outflanked the CGT on the left, and in fact forced the CGT to support many actions to which it was originally opposed. In a recent statement, Seguy, secretary-general of the CGT, gave as one of his main reasons for not pursuing unity with the CFDT the latter’s excessive sympathy for the “ ultra-left ” groupings.

This is not to deny the essentially bureaucratic and reformist nature of the CFDT. It is rather to point out the extremely complex relation of political and economic demands; a situation in which concrete economic demands may be more revolutionary than an abstract political line imposed from outside. Even the enormous social explosion of the last months has only begun to fracture the deep-rooted structure of reformism.

This of course brings us to the most crucial factor in the whole situation – the role of the French Communist Party. For all too long the revolutionary left has thought that it was sufficient to expose Stalinism – to reveal its zig-zags, its opportunism and its betrayals.

What is required is a much more profound analysis of the sources of the enormous strength and resilience of the Communist Party. To do this requires a recognition that Stalinism has a coherent logic. Whatever may be the motives of the leadership, the rank and file militants who have beaten up leftists and turned students away from the factories do so out of the sincere acceptance of a political position.
 

Policy

In 1936 and 1945 the strategy of the Communist Party was largely directed from Moscow. Today, though Moscow still has a general interest in “stability,” nuclear weapons have replaced the international communist movement as its main instrument of foreign policy. The Communist Party must be understood more and more in terms of the traditional social democratic parties, with a growing gulf between leaders and rank and file.

To the ballot box, comrades

In view of the fact that it has been universally recognised that the CP has not led the present struggle but acted as a brake on it, it may at first seem surprising to learn that the party has gained in strength and support during recent weeks. But this is in accordance with the party’s historical development.

Its two greatest periods of growth have been in the Popular Front of 1936 and the Liberation of 1945; both were occasions when it held back a working-class thrust towards taking power and diverted it into safe parliamentary channels.

The great resilience of the French CP was shown at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. Certainly the rank and file did not support the Russian action – the leaders of the CGT were unable to get their members to endorse the Russian action, and had to leave it as an open question. But the party lost few members or votes over the question, because there was no plausible, alternative working-class party in view.

Despite a long-term tendency for its working-class base to decline, the CP has built itself deep roots in the factory organisations. French factories do not have the same system of shop stewards as in Britain; delegates are elected to factory committees to negotiate with the management, but nomination to these elections is confined to the official union bodies, and not on the basis of personal knowledge of and contact with the representative, as in the British shop stewards’ movement. As the strongest trade union body, the CGT has kept a firm grip on shop-floor organisation, a grip which continued through the recent strike.

In more general terms, the CP has all the plausibility of the accomplished fact. In the minds of most workers it is identified with the left and is the only left they know. In these circumstances a general movement to the left will benefit the CP. The Party may now be finished among the students, but its disintegration among the workers has hardly begun.

It is not through exposure that the CP will be defeated among the workers, but through the breakdown of reformism through the experience of revolutionary activity. Therefore the exposure of the Communist line must always be accompanied with the united front with rank and file CP member in all concrete struggles. [1]
 

Experience

The French struggle will not be resolved quickly. What happens will depend on the emergence of alternative forces to the left. The call for a “new leadership” is not an elitist demand; it is a simple recognition of the need for a body to communicate and develop experience in struggle, and prepare for the transference of the state to the hands of the working class.

Doubtless there will be a number of contenders for this role, for it is no longer difficult to stand to the left of the CP. Among others, Mendès-France (who resigned from de Gaulle’s government in 1945 because of its refusal to impose a total wage freeze) is grooming himself for the role. But the only organisations worthy and able to fulfil the role are the “grouplets” so despised by the Communist Party.

No one section of the revolutionary left need be singled out. The roll of honour has been drawn up by de Gaulle himself in dissolving these organisations. (They were, incidentally, dissolved under a law drawn up to liquidate fascist groups. Advocates of legal action against fascists please note).

Meanwhile the CP enjoyed full radio and TV facilities in the election campaign. The Trotskyist groupings Voix Ouvrière and the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires played a valuable role, and the permanent liaison committee established between them is an important step forward to regrouping on the left. But, inasmuch as they abandoned sectarian attitudes and adapted to the real conditions, maoist and anarchist groups played a useful part, too.
 

Penetrate

It is not for us to suggest to the French comrades how to respond to the legal dissolution. But revolutionary ideas are like nails – the harder you knock them, the deeper they penetrate. The long haul ahead will depend on profiting, by patient propaganda and discussion, from the disillusion with the CP, especially among the most militant sectors and those slowest to return to work. This will be the work of years rather than months.

French workers are returning to work with substantial gains, not only on economic terms, but in experience. At the same time there is inevitably a feeling of retreat from the total victory that seemed promised in May. What happens next will be a crucial test of tactics and militancy. Many, though not all, of the gains of the Popular Front of 1936 were rapidly lost through devaluation and rising prices. The consequent demoralisation made possible the capitulation to fascism in 1940.

In the short term the French ruling class is willing to make concessions, rather than lose everything. Cuts will be made in other sectors – already there has been talk of cutting back on the independent nuclear striking force (a vindication of the old slogan “A blow against the boss is a blow against the bomb”).

But in the long term severe attacks will be made on the French workers’ gains. This is especially true in the context of international competition, and in a situation where much employment depends on the siting of US subsidiaries in Europe.

If French wages are higher and management rights limited, US firms will shift production elsewhere. So now a European strategy for the working class becomes a reality as never before. Other Western European workers must decide whether to cut French workers’ throats, or seek to extend the French gains throughout Europe. The basis of a European-wide movement has already been laid among the students; perhaps more significant was the refusal of Belgian print-workers to print ballot papers for de Gaulle’s phoney referendum when he could not get them printed in France.
 

Prepare

The lesson for Britain is therefore not merely to substitute Knightsbridge for Grosvenor Square in the demonstrators’ weekend round, but to prepare a revolutionary movement in Britain.

The initial success of the French uprising was of enormous value in inspiring British militants to develop their struggle; but the evidence of the continuing stranglehold of Stalinist reformism must caution against undue optimism and telescoping of the perspective.

On the one hand, France has shown the falseness of the purely economistic – bread-and-butter – trade union perspective. A revolutionary movement does not grow naturally out of a mere accumulation of partial economic struggles. In France it was only after a direct political confrontation that we saw the unleashing of a vast movement of economic demands.

But on the other hand, France should not give the cue for a voluntaristic strategy. Turning over a few cars in Grosvenor Square will no more automatically lead to a general strike than a Guevara going into the hills will automatically lead to a new Vietnam.
 

Crucial

The dramatic events of the Paris barricades had to be paralleled by a long patient campaign of contacting workers and political education. In this students have a crucial role to play, providing they recognise that they have no interests and no independent role outside of the general strategy of the working class.

The only middle term between economism and voluntarism is the creation of a revolutionary organisation. This can bring together students and workers; it can combine an overall political perspective with deep roots in the actual fragmentary struggles of the workers.

In France the creation of such an organisation is now on the order of the day; in Britain it is not so far removed.

*

Footnote

1. This is of course doubly true in the British situation, where a small Communist Party in opposition to a ruling Labour Party does not have the same pressures towards the right that are felt by a mass party like the French. The line that makes the British CP turn its back on the VSC and rent strikes is the same logic that counsels a return to work in France, but while there are many lessons to be drawn for British party members in the French events, this should not disrupt the united front at grassroots level.


Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 10 October 2020