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Pierre Frank

Mr. X Versus de Gaulle

Can French Socialists and Communists Get Together?

PARIS, JAN. 22 – France has passed through a series of political and social shocks since 1934 and will not find stability until the working class, led by a revolutionary party, takes power. One of the essential tasks of such a party will be to achieve revolutionary unity in action of the French working class which has been divided on the political level since 1920. One of the greatest failures of the French Communist party in the period when it sought to be a revolutionary party as well as later when it was dominated by Stalinism, was that it could not orient itself correctly on the question of unity of action, of the united front of the working class. In general, it could be said that it has oscillated between a sectarian policy towards the Socialist party and an opportunist policy in the wake of the same rival.

The question of the relations between the PCF and the PS is again on the agenda. The setting for this was de Gaulle’s coming to power and the installation of a bonapartist regime that does not bother about playing parliamentary games. But it is likewise placed in a historic development that weighs on these parties and on the workers. To understand current developments and what is projected, it is necessary to bear in mind, at least in broad outline, the history of these relations.

After the split at Tours in 1920 which gave birth to the Communist party, nothing outstanding occurred until 1934, due to the lack of big struggles in the country. Each of the two parties acted without paying much attention to the other. The Communist party at certain times made proposals for a united front with the Socialist party; at other times it sought to undermine it with a policy of “united front from below”; i.e., with the ranks of the PS to the exclusion of their leaders – a bizarre concept of Stalinism not noted for its success.

In 1934, after Hitler’s victory in Germany, reaction and fascism rose dangerously in France. On February 6, 1934, a reactionary coup d’etat was attempted. Immediately following this, an almost spontaneous mass movement surged up in France, giving birth everywhere to anti-fascist vigilance committees. The two leaderships were impelled under this pressure to sign a pact for joint anti-fascist action. The leaderships hastily transformed this agreement, widening it to include the bourgeois radical party, thus creating the Popular Front.

This alliance between the workers’ parties and a wing of French capitalism coincided with a rapprochement between France and the USSR on the plane of international relations. In 1936 the Popular Front won a parliamentary majority; then it limited and halted the gigantic movement of occupation of the plants and left capitalist property and the capitalist state intact. Once this was achieved, the capitalists seized the initiative, and in 1937-38 the Popular Front was ruptured, relations between the Communist party and the Socialist party becoming envenomed.

The Ups and Downs

From the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 up to the day of Hitler’s attack against the Soviet Union, the PC and the PS were virtually at sword’s points; the Socialist ministers, during the first months of the war, underwriting the repression of Communist militants forced into the underground.

During the Resistance and Liberation period, Communists and Socialists cooperated again, first of all in the struggle against the German occupation, then ... in the reestablishment of the capitalist state and economy; the principal differences between the experience of 1944-47 and that of 1936-38 being that this time the MRP (Christian Democrats organized in the Mouvement Republicain Populaire) replaced the Radical party as the bourgeois ally, and the Communists had representatives in the government, beginning with Thorez, Vice-President of the government presided over by de Gaulle.

In April-May 1947, partly under the pressure of the workers at Renault who went on strike against the advice of all the trade-union leaders (Stalinists and reformists), and more directly because of the “cold war” that erupted, the break between the PCF and the PS widened again.

Parallel with these developments on the political level, the trade-union movement, split in 1921 by the reformists, was reunified from 1935 to 1939, then again from 1943 to 1948.

It is to be noted that the relations within the workers’ movement have hinged considerably on relations between the leading factions of French capitalism and the Soviet power. At bottom, the interests of the French bourgeoisie have counted much more to the Socialists than the specific interests of the French working class. With the leadership of the PCF the primary interests have been those of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Since the end of the Second World War and, above all, since the “cold war,” two factors have not ceased to weigh on the Socialist cadres in their relations with the PCF. Unlike the period before 1939, the PCF has largely held the majority in the working class. [1] There is this and the “Prague coup”; that is, the events that assured the transformation of Czechoslovakia into a workers’ state in 1948. [2]

* * *

From 1947 until de Gaulle’s coming to power in 1958, the “cold war” raged continually between the PS and the PCF. Even in 1956, during the administration of the PS leader, Guy Mollet, although the Communist deputies voted for this government, and particularly for its infamous “special powers” which were aimed at bolstering the war in Algeria and installing a fascist power there, the Socialists refused to take the Communist votes into consideration.

Even more, in distinction from what had always been the practice in the past, this attitude was widely supported by Socialist voters. In the second round of balloting, a Socialist candidate would continue to oppose a Communist candidate who had made out better in the first round, or would withdraw in favor of a bourgeois candidate. Unlike former times, the Communist candidates did not receive even a small part of the Socialist votes.

It is absolutely true that the important, even decisive, factor of the prewar period had definitively disappeared – there was no perspective whatever for an important wing of French capitalism to seek an alliance with the USSR against American imperialism. The factor of “foreign policy” went directly against a rapprochement between the PCF and the PS.

Affected by the Workers

But both of them are workers’ parties, both of them distant from the revolutionary struggle for socialism, but both with deep roots in the working class, unable not to take into account the interests and the democratic rights of the workers in capitalist society. If this was evident for the PCF, it was likewise true for the PS, no matter how it had been affected by the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie during the years of the Fourth Republic (1945-58) when the Socialist party was in power or never far from it. This was rapidly shown upon the installation of the Gaullist regime.

If the rebellion in Algiers on May 13 permitted de Gaulle to make his bid as a candidate for power, it was Guy Mollet above all who succeeded in having him accepted by the political circles of the Fourth Republic and who, despite strong resistance from the Socialist parliamentary caucus, blocked any united action by the workers against the turn.

Up to this day, Guy Mollet defends his attitude toward de Gaulle at that time, even declaring that in identical circumstances he would do it again.

But the installation of the Gaullist regime resulted from the beginning in bringing about a profound change in relations in the working class. This did not take any of the spectacular forms of the years 1934-35. On the contrary, the new tendency was not easily perceptible. In the municipal elections of 1959, for the first time an appreciable percentage of Socialist voters were noted to have voted on the second round for Communist candidates despite the slogans of the Socialist party.

But it was on the occasion of the legislative elections of November 1962 that the turn was taken by the Socialist leadership.

In the elections, the Socialist party appeared in a combination called the “cartel of the no’s,” an assemblage of parliamentary formations extending from the right to the left of the Fourth Republic (PS, Radical party, MRP, independents) who came out against the election of the president of the republic by universal suffrage. This cartel had no common program, the candidates being united solely on a commitment to withdraw on the second round for those who made out best on the first.

Four days before the election, Guy Mollet made a public declaration the gist of which was that he saw no reason for not withdrawing on the second round for a Communist candidate. Such a declaration was equivalent to breaking the electoral cartel of the no’s, and the other partners interpreted it as a break. On the second round, the Socialists withdrew in many areas in favor of Communist candidates, and their appeals were met with enthusiasm by more than seventy-five per cent of the voters. A chapter had ended. What would the future hold?

Miners Judge the Turn

Guy Mollet declared that only an electoral operation against the personal Gaullist power was involved, that there was no political agreement between the two parties, no common program, no reciprocal engagement. This was formally true, but it was no less true that this could not be the end of the matter. The mass of workers, who had something to do with this Socialist decision because of what was developing silently within their ranks, felt stimulated; for them it heralded a new situation. A few weeks later a great strike was staged by the miners, a fraternity where these relations have always been decisive for their struggle.

In 1963 the Socialist party congress decided to hold a public discussion with the PCF on their reciprocal relations, and a delegation of the PS that included Mollet and Deferre went to Moscow where they talked at length with Khrushchev.

The discussion between the PS and the PCF was launched at the beginning of 1964 with a rather odd opening: the two participants began talking about different questions without entering into a dialogue. The leadership of the PCF raised the question of the program for joint action, including the presidential campaign. The leadership of the PS raised in its way the problems of the split of 1920, the “21 conditions” for adherence to the Communist International, etc. The leadership of the PS has remained silent on the question of the program for current action; the leadership of the PCF has said nothing about the doctrinal questions underscored by the Socialists.

It is evident that the leadership of the PCF is seeking above all to mobilize their party for an action in the direction of the Socialists and towards the outside, whereas the leadership of the PS does not want to become engaged in a possible action without having previously prepared their ranks. For them, joint action is equivalent to supping with the devil, and, as is known, to do that it is necessary to have a long spoon.

Soon the special congress of the Socialist party will be held. Perhaps new factors will enter into its deliberations. We shall see ...


1. Whereas in 1936, the relation of votes was around 65 to 35 in favor of the Socialist party, since 1945 the same relationship shifted in favor of the PCF. It is understandable that in view of this important change, many Communist militants, not grasping the conditions as a whole that led to this result, have not been able to see tha policy of the Popular Front as injurious since it led to the strengthening of their party. Contrariwise, the Socialists, without condemning the experience of the Popular Front, have felt some bitterness over the results it appeared to bring their party.

2. It is pointless to cite the details of the Prague affair, which the Khrushchevists refer to as an example of the peaceful and parliamentary road to socialism, whereas the Socialists point to the way the Communists utilized their posts in the government. Both of them appear to forget the presence of the Soviet Army at the time in Czechoslovakia.

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Last updated: 10.12.2005