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Ian Birchall


(June 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.77, June 1985, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The View from Inside
Jane Jenson & George Ross
University of California Press $25.50

TWO North American social scientists – funded by the German Marshall Fund, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Carleton and Brandeis Universities – spend a year working as members of a Communist Party cell in Paris.

A clandestine operation, you may imagine, with our heroes risking exposure as CIA agents at any moment. Such would indeed have been the case in the good old days, but Jenson and Ross came in the late seventies, as ‘participant observers’, and were received openly by a ‘Eurocommunist’ cell anxious to prove that it had rid itself of all that Stalinist nonsense about ‘security’ and ‘infiltration’.

The book is the story, in 350 pages of painful detail, of the day-to-day life of the cell. In their concern to merge the personal and the political they often seem to be dredging up material for a soap opera – ‘The Euros – an everyday story of left reformist folk’? But petty quarrels, low attendances and demoralisation are not much of a good read. The response of any SWP reader will be that our poorer branches are immeasurably livelier, better organised, more active and above all more political than this. It cannot be said that the book adds very much to our knowledge of the long-term decline of the French CP, but a few interesting points emerge. Firstly, the base of the cell studied, in southern Paris, was almost entirely non-working class – intellectuals, professionals, self-employed, with only one industrial worker. The following gives a taste of the life-style:

‘Christmas and New Year, like the summer, bring French politics to a halt. Along with much of the Parisian population, our friends (from the cell) dispersed in all directions for the holidays. Janine and Gerard went to their country house near Marseilles; Alexandre and Nicole went to their retreat in the Rhone valley; and others went to their own residences secondaires (second homes), to those of friends, or off to ski in a resort.’

Small wonder that cell members felt the party put too much stress on a ‘soak the rich’ line.

Secondly, the essential undemocratic nature of the party comes out clearly. Certainly there is free discussion in the cell. Members are openly abusive about the party leadership and all kinds of weird and non-Marxist notions are aired. Virtually no discipline of any kind seems to exist. But all this discussion has nothing to do with the decisions, which are imposed from above in traditional Stalinist fashion. One member compares the CP’s ‘democratic centralism’ to a tall house in which the leadership have the right to pour buckets of water down the staircase – and the membership have an equal right to pour water back up again.


Sexual questions consumed a lot of the cell’s time. Here what comes out is the amazing backwardness of the discussion. One argument began with a letter to L’Humanité from a woman who had been raped at a fête organised by the CP! A worker member of the cell immediately commented that all rape victims were asking for it. The cell apparently never gave any consideration to any form of child-minding arrangements for meetings. In this climate it is hardly surprising that many women members were attracted by various forms of abstract and unpolitical feminism.

But behind the anecdotes lies the problem of the decline of the French CP – and this neither of the ‘participant observers’ really understand. They declare sympathy for the ‘Eurocommunist’ current in the Party, and seem to believe that if it had been able to exercise more influence the Party’s decline could have been halted. But the Eurocommunist project was to turn the CP into an openly reformist party – and France had one of those already. Why vote for a wolf in sheep’s clothing when there were real sheep on the ballot?

One member particularly admired by Jenson and Ross speaks of the ‘sensible’ attitude of the Italian CP – but the Italian Party has failed to get even as far as the French in its quest for governmental office. The decline of the French CP is historic and inevitable – to understand that one needs, not ‘participant observation’ but politics.

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Last updated: 28 March 2010