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Pierre Frank

The Politics of French Stalinism

(June 1952)

From Fourth International, Vol. 13 No. 4, July–August 1952, pp. 108–113.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan (January 2013).

The situation in France has been marked by a whole series of events at the end of May and the beginning of June 1952 which were widely commented on in the world press but most often in a specious manner. The real relationship of forces, the perspectives in view were generally distorted. So too with the shifts of policy of the Communist Party of France. The object of the following remarks is to clarify several essential points.

France, Nerve Center of Western Europe

It is a commonplace that France is the most sensitive. spot of the Atlantic coalition in western Europe. Not only is the majority of the working class under the leadership of the Stalinists (who have obtained 5 million votes in all elections since 1945 – and the CGT, Stalinist-controlled trade union federation, obtains some 60 to 70% of the votes in the elections of delegates in the industries). But a defeatist and anti-American feeling is harbored by the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie and finds daily expression in the newspaper, Le Monde. French capitalism – which takes a dim view of the rearmament of Germany – is dominated by American pressure and .can do nothing but passively wait the advent of the war. It must attempt to disorganize the working class to the utmost and to weaken the hold of the CPF upon it. Hence the imperative need for French capitalism to engage in a series of attacks and provocations against the workers and against the CPF, short of civil war before the outbreak of the war itself. Antoine Pinay, the most reactionary premier since 1945, has atempted to push things furthest in this direction even to the point of running some risks. It should be noted that even some de Gaullists considered the arrest of Duclos an adventure.

However that may be, the government had prepared a conspiracy against the CPF on the eve of Ridgway’s arrival in France and sought a pretext to carry it out.

To get an idea of the importance of France for imperialist strategy, it should not be forgotten that there are around a million workers voting communist in the Paris area where the headquarters of OTAN [NATO – Note by ETOL] and its military arm, SHAPE, are located.

Stalinist Policy

The fact that France is one of the weakest rinks of the imperialist chain must inevitably tempt the Kremlin to utilize the workers’ movement and the strength of the CPF to try to break up the Atlantic coalition. The “radicalization” [1] of the CPF must be considered within this framework.

This “radicalization” began to take a particularly palpable form at the beginning of this year. The CPF countered the prohibition of the traditional annual demonstration on February 12 by an appeal for a general strike. The results of the action were inconclusive. Workers’ preparation was not especially intense except at Renault (France’s largest auto plants located in the Paris suburbs). The movement was spotty throughout the country. There was a clash at Renault between the workers and the police who, however, did not seek to push the fight too far.

The 12th of February action was to serve the purpose of an initial radicalization of the CPF membership as was very clearly indicated in the deliberations of the CPF Central Committee which took place around the middle of the month.

The radical note emerging from this session was further confirmed and sharpened by editorial articles in the Cahiers du Communisme, CP theoretical organ (March and May 1952) written by Etienne Fajon and Francois Billoux, members of the Political Bureau; Billoux had just returned from the USSR.

What was the nature of this “radicalization”?

It was pointed out that the political situation in France was marked on the government level by a series of more and more reactionary premiers since 1945, that discontent was general and, consequently that the situation was opportune to reverse the direction of events by means of widespread mass action regardless of the composition of the existing parliament. It was also pointed out that the principal enemy to be overcome for this purpose was the French bourgeoisie which was the main enemy although acting under American pressure; that the bourgeoisie as a class was betraying the interests of the nation, and that even if some individual bourgeois were in favor of east-west trade, it was for individual motives and should not therefore lead to an attenuation of the struggle against them. The need for concrete actions of struggle against the war was emphasized (refusal to transport ‘and handle arms). An impeccable position was taken against the French Union (the French Empire – Ed.) and for the support of the colonial movements. They glossed over the policy of collecting peace petitions (Stockholm) and explained that the struggle for peace was part of the struggle for socialism. They explained that the reversal of political orientation in France should lead to socialism. The question of perspectives was emphasized as a means of insuring the cohesion of the party in action.

In effect, in extreme confusion and under the banner of national independence, the CPF ranks were raised to a higher political level and to greater combativity. On the other hand, the CPF leadership continued its policy of united front “from below,” seeking to set the socialist workers against their leadership solely by denunciation. They retained their slogan of a government of democratic unity, sometimes using the expression of a peace government or a government of honest men, the dominant note being ambiguity. There was not the slightest hint of a united front of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party nor of a struggle for a united front socialist-communist government.

What was most interesting on the organizational plane was that while the CPF leadership formally recognized the right of Stalinist-front organizations (like the Peace Movement) to follow a different policy, in effect it renounced the previous orientation of adapting the party to these organizations and tended – bureaucratically, to be sure – to delineate the CPF in action and as an organization.

As a mass organization, the turn of the CPF and its leadership are not assimilated solely by the reading of resolutions of its Central Committee or of articles by members of the Political Bureau. Like any mass organization, the CPF is educated principally in action, and even if the leadership of the CPF was not bureaucratic in character, it would have been obliged to envisage the means of making its new policy understood through action. For so bureaucratic a leadership, there was no hesitation in precipitately involving the revolutionary vanguard in an action of which most of the participants were uninformed until the moment they were thrust into it. As has been pointed out above, the February 12th strike was broadly utilized by the CPF leadership to begin to radicalize the ranks of the party. (For example, the first clash with the police at Renault, the raising of barricades, etc.).

The Events of May 28th

The arrival of Ridgway, fresh from Korea, thus occurred in a situation where the government on its side was preparing a provocation and a conspiracy and a Stalinist leadership on the other side was seeking to raise the level of the struggles.

The government proscribed the demonstration called on the place de la Republique, but the call for the demonstration remained. Tension mounted as the day approached. The government arrested Andre Stil, editor-in-chief of L’Humanité (leading Stalinist newspaper). Local demonstrations were organized by communist branches. Then, as a consequence of the deportation of Messali Hadj (Algerian nationalist leader) from Algeria, North African workers demonstrated on May 23 on French territory; the police opened fire, killing four Algerian workers. On the morning of May 28, the police seized L’Humanité.

In the late afternoon, when the factories let out, only a vanguard was answering the call of the CPF. To outmaneuver the police who had concentrated their forces at place de la Republique and in a fairly large neighboring area, the demonstrators gathered at a dozen different points. The number of demonstrators, which is difficult to establish, may however be estimated at from ten to fifteen thousand, but more important was the extremely combative character of the demonstration. In most cases the demonstrators took the offensive, attacked the police corteges, breaking them up, vigorously assailing the police and even a police station and police wagons in which demonstrators, were being taken off. A large number of police were wounded. There was one dead and many wounded among the demonstrators.

Although only a vanguard had taken part in the demonstration, it had transpired generally amidst the sympathy of the working masses.

This demonstration, and the extremely violent character of the clashes, cannot be considered as accidental, but as the prelude, the general rehearsal for the period in which civil war is ripening in France; it marks an important stage in the development of the class struggle to extremely high levels. It deserves a detailed study, because some of its features will appear in a more developed form in the struggles for power in the future.

Tactically, the communist militants had surprised the police and the demonstration had as its first result the raising of their combativity, their revolutionary potential, a series of questions becoming clearer to them (struggle against the state, arming of the workers ...). But politically matters were to take another turn, for on the same evening the government put into operation its conspiracy by arresting Jacques Duclos, general secretary of the CPF since the departure of Thorez.

The Government Conspiracy and the Workers Reaction

The day after the demonstration the government proceeded with the execution of its plans. L’Humanité was again seized. Some days later the police raided the headquarters of the Central Committee and a number of local CPF offices.

On May 29, communist workers attempted to arouse the workers to action in a number of factories. Despite general sympathy, they encountered considerable difficulties even in factories where their influence is very strong. The National Committee of the CGT met quickly to issue an appeal to action for the defense of democratic rights and for action on economic demands which were “to begin on June 4th.” This action was to take broader forms as it proceeded. The CGT’s appeal was extremely skillful and cautious. But the railroad workers federation called for an unlimited general strike.

On June 4th a strike was declared at Renault as well as in several Parisian metal factories, but generally speaking, despite all the sympathy the masses showed for the CPF and despite their hostility to the government repressions, the failure of the movement was almost complete, particularly among the railroad workers where there were not even partial movements as there had been on February 12th. On June 5, the movement also came to an end at Renault. At no times since 1945 had the ranks of the CPF found themselves so isolated in action from the working class.

The CPF and the Working Class

During recent years the members of the CPF had experienced the high and the low of their capacity to mobilize the workers, but never had they suffered as heavy a defeat, and this in face of the worst government provocation: the arrest of the principal leader of the party in violation of his parliamentary immunity. It was also evident that their leadership had been taken by surprise by this government aggression and by the absence of working class response to their appeals for action against the repression. Almost a week passed before they organized a mass meeting against the repression, which was attended by 30,000 people.

This situation (these relationships between the working class and the CPF) could not be explained to the satisfaction of the militants by the customary reasons used in defeats: inadequate preparation, faulty application of the policy of the party ... A political explanation was necessary and the principal purpose of the Central Committee meeting of the CPF in the month of June was to give such a political explanation to the members of the party in order as much as possible to divert the members from seeking such an explanation on their own. But before examining the results of this meeting, let us recapitulate what arc the relations between the CPF and the masses and how they were manifested on May 28 as well as in the following days.

The failure of the CPF to mobilize the masses, its isolation in action, does not in any way signify that the broad masses are separating themselves from it or that the fighting potential of the French working class has been seriously impaired. At the very moment when these events were occurring elections for delegates were being held in many industries (Renault, railroad ...). The losses of the CGT were at a minimum, from five to ten percent, while sixty to seventy percent of the workers continued to vote CGT. These votes were cast amidst extraordinary heavy employer pressure. Dismissals had mounted. Thus, at the Renault plant, where a few days after June 4, 63 percent of the workers had voted for the CGT, more than 400 militants had been dismissed since February 12. Under such conditions losses remained slight.

The Force Ouvrière trade unions (a trade union federation led by Social Democrats) did not progress either numerically or in influence. The Christian unions, who are to the left of Force Ouvrière, made very slight gains. The CPF maintained its positions in various municipal and legislative elections.

Generally speaking the working masses of France who, between 1936 and 1945. have in their majority gone over from the Socialist to Stalinist leadership, remained deeply tied to the Stalinists. There is not even the slightest movement back to the reformists despite the many defeats the working class has suffered since 1947. And the events of May–June 1952 have in no way modified the fundamental relations between the CPF and the working class.

This does not mean that the masses are blindly and uncritically following the CPF or that they are ready to reply to any appeal on its part. That had already been evident in the past but now it is necessary to understand why they did not react at the very moment when repression was at its height.

Beginning with 1947, the CPF has been thrust into opposition to the government; at times it had been sharply in conflict with the state, especially during the miners strike of 1948. However, from 1947 to the beginning of 1952, its general activity remained within the framework of propagandist opposition and consisted only from time to time of general mobilizations at an extremely low level (Stockholm petitions, mass meetings ...). Its general policy was that these petitions and these rallies would stop the warmakers ... During recent years the masses have not heard any propaganda for struggle.

The stiffening of the CPF and its “radicalization” occurred bureaucratically and was not apparent to the masses. We have already pointed out that the large part of the membership of the CPF only became aware of the turn in the struggle itself. Because of this fact, the masses – whatever their sympathies toward those who were fighting the bourgeois state and the employers – were not politically prepared for action, above all because of the past policy of the CPF. But this was also due to its present policy.

Discontent is general among the working masses. Grievances are numerous. But more or less instinctively the masses feel that they cannot obtain satisfaction of their demands in limited struggles. They feel the question to be tied to the question of power and that any real change for them must result from some real change in the government. But this sentiment of the masses is not stimulated and not transformed into action because the CPF’s position on the problem, to say the least, is equivocal.

The CPF does not carry on any campaign on the question of power. The Central Committee adopts resolutions which close in a ritualistic way by a call for a “government of democratic unity,” which has no meaning for CPF members or for the masses in general. Three or four years ago when the formula of a “government of democratic unity” was first issued – about a year after the end of the Stalinist coalition with the petty bourgeois parties – the slogan could have given the appearance of seeking for a new period of collaboration. Under present conditions, such an eventuality being excluded by the very nature of things, the slogan loses all real meaning and in fact presents an obstacle to the only real slogan, that of a united front government of the workers, a communist-socialist government issuing from the joint struggle of the two big working class parties.

The broad masses do not rally today to the appeals to action, of the CPF. Although isolated in this sense, the militants of the party remain the leaders of the working class of the country. The. masses will inevitably begin to act because of their absolutely intolerable conditions which will be worsened by preparations for the Third World War and by the war itself. This development can be aided or hindered by the CPF’s policy but it cannot be eliminated by it. When the masses take their own road to radicalization they will inevitably turn to the communist militants for leadership. They will choose as leaders those who have had the courage to be in the vanguard of the struggle and they will not begin by a careful scrutiny of the policy of their party. Any other conception would be an anachronism.

Fajon’s Report and the Central Committee Meeting

What is the significance of the June 19–20 Central Committee meeting?

The general opinion of the bourgeois press was that there was a turn of the CPF dictated by Moscow. Why the turn? It cannot be theoretically excluded that Moscow ordered a turn, but for. the present serious international objective reasons are lacking to substantiate such a hypothesis. The left emphasis, particularly given by Billoux’ article, undoubtedly originated in directives from Moscow. It is to be explained objectively by the development of the situation. For the moment, the factors are lacking which would permit the conclusion that Moscow has reversed itself. On the contrary, a study of the minutes of the Central Committee meeting give rise to a much more plausible explanation. One cannot and should not explain all the actions of a Stalinist leadership solely by orders from Moscow. Especially when a mass party is involved such a leadership cannot but take into account the relationships of the party with the masses. Moreover it possesses a margin of maneuver within the general line established by Moscow.

What is even more striking in Fajon’s report than its differences with Billoux’ article, which are not to be discounted, is its self-criticism. And when we speak of self-criticism, we can say, regardless of its political content, that for the first time this word can be used without quotation marks. In effect, Fajon says that the Political Bureau is responsible for the “insufficiently clear and incomplete” article by Billoux.

Jeannette Vermeersch (Maurice Thorez’ wife) speaks of “errors of estimation” in one of her articles. The Political Bureau also declares itself party responsible for errors committed in important instances: an article in L’Humanité, a headline in Liberté, organ of the Communist Federation of the North, are called sectarian. The Railroad Workers Federation and the Union of Trade Unions of the Seine are also criticized.

All in all, the self-criticism is certainly still very guarded, but what is inescapable is that the leadership does not shift the blame, as is its custom, onto a scapegoat. This self-criticism needs explaining, for the leadership does not beat its breast without having serious reasons for so doing.

It did so for many reasons. First, there is the idea, widespread in the party, that they were too far ahead of the masses. The leadership as well as the ranks understood that the first need was to re-establish contact with the masses. Moreover, this is unquestionably a real problem for any leadership and presupposes a whole series of measures to which we will return later. The greatest danger for the leadership would, be if the party members began to seek their own political solutions on the basis of their political development of recent months, the line set forth by Billoux, and the radicalization ensuing from recent struggles. On this basis, there was the risk that the militants would orient themselves outside of the roads mapped by the bureaucracy and would tend politically toward a more or less finished revolutionary conception. Under these conditions, the leadership shouldered part of the responsibility and outlined its political answer.

What are the principal differences between the Billoux article and Fajon’s report?

None of the ideas expressed by Billoux is openly condemned or contradicted, except on the point of the socialist perspectives of the struggle, but the accent is placed on something else. Fajon’s report insists on the contradictions existing within the French bourgeoisie. He no longer speaks of the need to defeat it as a class, but he also no longer says that it is necessary to support one faction of the class against another or something of the kind. The problem of a change of orientation in the policy of France is mentioned in passing instead of being the central theme. There is no change on the need of struggling side by side with the colonial peoples. He continues to emphasize the need of specific actions against the preparations of war. In order to continue to carry on the “struggle for national independence and peace,” he emphasizes the need of linking a campaign for the freeing of Duclos, which would be a campaign in defense of democratic rights, to the struggle for the immediate demands of the workers and the middle classes. But the change occurs on the question of perspectives.

The struggle for peace, “which is the decisive question of the present, which overshadows all others,” is dissociated from the “struggle for socialism which is our program for the future.” How different from the editorial of the same Fajon in Cahiers du Communisme (March 1952) in which, explaining the February Central Committee decisions, he wrote that world socialism could be considered as a perspective for the near future. It follows from this change that “what is essential is the broadest possible unity to safeguard peace of all those opposed to war” which means a re-adaptation to the position of the fellow travellers. Finally, says the Fajon report,

“it is to the degree that new strata of the population take part in the battle for peace and national independence, to the degree that this battle rises to a higher level ... that a policy of peace ... will triumph ... under a broad government of democratic unity.”

The change, as we see, while not unimportant in presentation or in emphasis, is hardly fundamental in nature. There is no repudiation, even in the Stalinist way, of the line defined in the Billoux article; no different line is presented. It is undeniable that the leadership in its own way is seeking to re-establish contact of the CPF with the masses so as to find a better opening for the application of the line defined in Billoux’ article.

Obviously this is a Stalinist leadership, i.e., it is profoundly empirical and opportunistic. It could not subject its past policy from top to bottom to self-criticism; it is constrained to remain within certain limits, i.e., to a number of current decisions and articles.

What were the factors which were at play in the readjustment of the tactics of the CPF? Nothing clear on this score is to be found in Fajon’s report and therefore one can only make certain presumptions. Did they take into consideration certain signs of wavering in the Atlantic coalition over the ratification of the general contract with Germany? It is possible, but this would prove that as a typical Stalinist leadership it still has illusions in the possibility that inter-imperialist contradictions can play the same role they did in the second world war. It certainly can count on the development in France of a broad expression of public opinion against the police regime being created by the government, which is already apparent in a whole series of verbal protests, resolutions, etc., arising from circles outside those controlled, animated, or influenced by the Stalinists.

Naturally a revival of contact with the masses requires a policy which takes the immediate demands of the masses and the defense of democratic rights as its point of departure. The Central Committee decision to carry on a campaign for the freeing of Duclos is not erroneous in itself. (This article was written prior to the quashing of the charges against Duclos – Ed.) And, as we have pointed out above, the climate is favorable for such a campaign finding a real echo.

But a campaign for such elementary objectives, must first of all be conducted through the medium of agitation for the united front. In this connection, in the trade union sphere, the CGT leadership has revived the proposals it has made since September 1951 on various occasions for unity of action to the other trade union federations. Nevertheless, the proposal is implemented in its usual way merely as a formal approach from the top without any systematic. campaign addressed to the ranks popularizing its objectives, as though it were merely a futile gesture.

On the other hand, the necessary scope can only be given by a struggle on a broader scale than the trade union field, i.e., by a political struggle involving all the working people of the country. But here the leadership of the CPF is much less at home. At the close of 1951, there were articles by Fajon in L’Humanité beginning a campaign for the socialist-communist united front. But this campaign never got beyond the local scale. And then it was suddenly stopped short. Then there was discernible a resumption of the practice of appealing to the ranks of the socialists against their leaders (particularly in Billoux’ article).

In recent days there have been signs that the question of this campaign, has been raised in the CPF again. In the campaign against the incarceration of Duclos, importance is given to the participation of socialists (notably of delegates from socialist organizations). Mention should be made of a proposal of the “Progressive Union” addressed to both parties and also to capitalist parties for a new “Peoples Front.” An article by Lecoeur (a member of the Political Bureau) in L’Humanité warns against rejecting the united front on an organizations level. In a general way, what emerges from the conduct of the Stalinist leadership since the beginning of June is an empirical search to find a solution to the problems of establishing ties with the masses for action.

The weakest point is the question of government. According to Fajon’s report, what is required is a struggle which by extending its scope eventually poses the problem of power. But the obverse is true. A systematic campaign in its many forms for a united front socialist-communist government is necessary because this conception, once accepted by the masses, becomes a means of launching partial struggles as an opener to broader battles. The withdrawal of perspectives by Fajon in his report that were contained in the Billoux article is precisely the important retreat that will hinder the communist militants the most in their search for a solution to the problem of their party leading the masses.

Although, in our opinion, Billoux’ article was also “insufficiently clear and inadequate,” but for different reasons than those of the Stalinist Political Bureau (the defeat of the bourgeoisie as a class, the changing of the political orientation of the country by a struggle which would unfold the perspective of socialism) this article could have had the effect of making the communist militants more susceptible to questions of united front and of the government of the united front as concrete means for winning the masses for a struggle for such a perspective. In conclusion, the obstacle to the progress of CPF militants in the Fajon report is not its attempt to find slogans to revive contact with the masses, but the elimination of what Billoux had presented as a perspective.

A General View of the Situation

But what is happening in the CPF should also be viewed on a more general plane.

France is facing growing tension, more frequent shocks and convulsions. Precisely because it is weak, very weak, the French bourgeoisie will seek through such devices as the Pinay conspiracy to create difficulties in the workers’ camp. Duclos’ arrest has not fundamentally changed the relationship between the classes in France any more than the arrests in Tunisia have fundamentally changed the relationship of forces between imperialism and the Tunisian people. But these arrests, by provoking premature actions of the vanguard, serve the purpose of gaining time for the bourgeoisie and of interfering with the normal progress of the masses.

The upsurge of the French proletariat under pressure of the conditions created by war preparations is proceeding slowly. A first start occurred in May-April 1951 but since then the bourgeoisie has succeeded in preventing a new outbreak.

Because of this situation and of a whole series of events, the radicalization of the CPF militants, which follows its own course of development appreciably different from the evolution of the broad masses, induces differentiations in the ranks of the CPF which cannot be normally expressed in a political form because of the bureaucratic regime. Nevertheless these stirrings do find forms of expression. It is noteworthy to recall the polemic last year of two Political Bureau members against a Central Committee member who had proposed the reestablishment of the Communist Youth. The events of May–June 1952 obliged the Political Bureau to indulge in self-criticism which for the moment serves the needs of the bureaucracy but in the long run undermines belief in the omniscience of the supreme leadership.

The reactions of the CPF to these events provides us with a close-up of the processes at work in mass Communist Parties as a result of the aggravation of the world situation. It was only after the event that we could grasp the overall consequences of what had happened to the Communist Parties of China and Yugoslavia. In France, we are now living at the onset of this process, which will still be a very complicated and tortuous one.

The radicalization today encompasses the vanguard elements and not yet the masses. Other events will shake up Stalinist monolithism even more. But these processes will develop within the ranks of the CPF. The militants will not seek a solution to their problems on the outside. Basing themselves on this or that phase of the searchings and groping of their top leaders their political thought will take shape and mature. The development of the situation will provide the Trotskyist vanguard, on condition it takes the work of the Third World Congress seriously, with numerous opportunities to influence the poltical evolution of the best cadres of the French working class who are outstanding Bolshevik elements despite the Stalinist hoop that now binds them.

June 27, 1952


1. Radicalization is the nearest we can come in conveying the meaning of the French gauchissement which literally means to become more left.

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