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T.J. Peters

The Renault Strike

(June 1947)

From Fourth International, Vol.8 No.6, June 1947, pp.185-186.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Why the Renault Strike Brought on the Crisis and How It Took Place

The strike movement launched by the Renault strike in May spread quickly in Paris and to the provinces. It toppled the old Ramadier government. It brought about the elimination of the Communists (Stalinists) from the cabinet. It caused a rapid change in policy of the Communist Party of France and the General Confederation of Labor. It divided the Socialist (reformist) party of Blum down the middle. It brought new political forces to the fore on the arena of mass action. And, according to all reports, the results threaten to affect political life thoroughly not only in France but in other countries on the Continent, such as Italy, Belgium etc.

How and why did a simple strike for a 10 franc an hour increase, by some 30,000 workers, assume such convulsive proportions? What was the causal chain that produced it? What perspective does it pose for France, for Europe in the period ahead? We shall attempt briefly to explain the background, situate the course of the strike process itself and indicate the perspective it opens up.

When the Nazi occupation army fell apart upon the invasion in the Summer of 1944, the workers of Paris and of all of France were armed and in the vanguard of the struggle for the liberation of the country from the yoke of the Hitlerite oppressor. Factory committees were in charge of the plants and the streets were held by the workers’ army which the Communist (Stalinist) leadership misnamed “Patriotic Workers Militia.” The masses who, before the war, were in their majority reticent to join the CPF (Communist Party of France) because they thought it too radical, now turned to it in overwhelming numbers precisely because they thought it revolutionary. They wanted to put an end to bourgeois rule, to do as the Russian workers did in 1917. They were thoroughly instructed in the reality of “national unity” as it existed before the war by the overwhelming “collaboration” with the Nazis on the part of the French capitalist class.

They thought of the Communist (Stalinist) Party of France as they remembered it in the past, when it was a revolutionary party. They thought of the USSR as the Russia which in 1917 put an end to capitalism. That is the example they wanted to follow.

A relatively small section of the workers, mostly those who had persistently followed the pre-war party of Blum known as the SFIO (French Section of the Second—or Socialist—International) because of the confusing zigzag policy of Stalinism, remained true to this party, which had become thoroughly petty bourgeois in composition, because of the continued zigzags—this time more and more in a right wing direction—of the CPF.

To these masses, ready to put an end to capitalism and looking to it for leadership, the CPF, headed by Maurice Thorez, brought the slogans of “national unity” under a new form in which Communists (Stalinists), socialists (reformists) and the bourgeois Catholic Popular Republican Movement (MRP) shared the governmental power; of “nationalization” in which the profits of the capitalists were left intact; of “production first” in which the workers were asked to sacrifice wages and conditions in order to “reconstruct” the economy which remained capitalist. Everything the workers wanted would be achieved this way, Thorez promised, the “democratic” way, without violence. Not by workers’ militias, not by mass action, but by parliamentary arrangements with the MRP and the other bourgeois parties, would the revolution the workers wanted come about. De Gaulle was in power by the grace of the Stalinists and reformists. He demanded that the workers lay down their arms. With a correct instinct, they demurred. It was only on the word of Maurice Thorez at the end of 1944, when in return for his services de Gaulle signed a Franco-Russian pact and absolved him of being a “deserter” as well as made him a Minister, that the “Patriotic Workers’ Militia” turned in its arms. The workers returned to everyday life. They awaited the results of the policy proffered to them by the CPF whom they had come to trust.

The years since 1944 have been years of constant frustration for the French workers. They laid down their arms, transformed their factory committees into trade union locals, produced and toiled. What happened? The bourgeois army under de Gaulle reestablished itself on the old reactionary model, provoking war against the peoples of the old colonies of French imperialism such as Indo-China and Madagascar and North Africa, who were awakened to struggle for their own independence. The bourgeois “collaborators” returned to their posts of ownership and management in industry. The rotten pre-war politicians like Daladier and Reynaud and Co. returned to their seats in parliament. The “nationalizations” preserved the wealth of the 200 families of France.

Production increased 8-fold, workers’ wages only 3-4 fold in the midst of continual inflation.

Still the Stalinists continued to shout “national unity,” “production first,” “strikes serve only the trusts” etc. For years, bitter frustration was the lot of the deceived French workers. Only a relative handful organized in the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste (Section of the Fourth International) denounced the betrayals of the Stalinists, called for the disruption of the fake “national unity” with the bourgeoisie, for nationalizations without compensation and with workers’ control, for a sliding scale of wages to meet the inflation, for strikes and mass actions, for a workers and peasants government based on this program, concretized in the slogan: CP-SP-CGT to power!

Towards the end of 1945 and the beginning of 1946, the French workers began to show the first signs of restlessness and dissatisfaction with the course imposed upon them by the Stalinists and their reformist partners in the tripartite government. In January 1946, the Paris printing trades launched a strike for wage raises which tied up the entire press of the capital for a week and was a contributing factor in the decision of de Gaulle to quit the presidency of the Provisional Government. In the first elections to the Constituent Assembly in October 1945, the tiny Trotskyist PCI had run only two lists of candidates in Paris—it received the astonishing amount of 13,000 votes for these two candidatures. These were first symptoms.

The printers went back to work without a decisive victory, but with some gains. A period of lull followed with isolated sporadic strikes, which were quickly squashed. In August 1946, the workers of the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone services in all France went out in a general strike. Unlike the printers’ union, traditionally syndicalist, the PTT workers’ union was Stalinist-controlled. A strike committee was elected which challenged the Stalinist CGT leadership for authority and ran a strike for several weeks which, although inconclusive, brought some gains too. Moreover, the movement served as a focal point for the organization of a strong “revolutionary minority” at the annual CGT convention which followed shortly thereafter. In June, the Trotskyist PCI, running 12 lists in various parts of France, gathered 45,000 votes around its banner which, calculated on the basis of the 80-odd lists put out for the various departments of the whole country, indicated that there was a reservoir of some 250,000 revolutionary workers upon which the Trotskyists could already count for support against Stalinism and reformism. The symptoms become more distinct and more significant.

There followed sporadic strikes and stoppages, including some already in the decisive metal industry in Paris, but they still remained isolated. In the November elections for the permanent National Assembly, the PCI running 18 lists got 60,000 votes, and more or less held its own. The Stalinists began to use a little more radical phraseology. The CGT under their control adopted the Trotskyist slogan of the “minimum vital” or Basic Wage of 103,000 francs per year (or 9,000 per month) at first, later reducing it to 84,000 per year (or 7,000 per month). The Blum government issuing from the new parliament rejected all wage increases—the economy “can’t stand it,” which is quite true if it is to remain capitalist and compete in its shaken war-worn form with US and other capitalists—and proposed instead a “price roll-back campaign” of first 5% and then 10%. The Stalinists agreed to withdraw their demand for “minimum vital” wage and await the results of the “Blum experiment.”

That took place in January 1947. Meantime the Ramadier government relieved the Blum government, the tri-partite coalition gave way to a quadripartite coalition which included the discredited pre-war “Radicals.” The “price roll back” made for a great deal of psychologic effect, but the workers’ pockets remained as before. Frustration began to turn to anger. Stoppages increased.

The Storm of Anger

By the end of March, sporadic stoppages in the metal plants became more frequent. In particular, agitation among the workers made itself felt at Renault. A “Study Circle” was transformed into a “Committee of Struggle.” At the beginning of April, this Committee drew up petitions for a general assembly in two departments, Nos. 6 and 18. The assembly was held. Strike action was proposed, a vote taken. The vote was virtually unanimous for the strike. A joint strike committee of the two departments was elected by the assembly. On Friday, April 25, the two departments walked out with all their 1,500 odd members.

The following Monday, a mass meeting called by the strike committee at the Place National in the suburb of Billancourt where the Renault works are centered gathered thousands of workers who listened to its spokesmen explain the issues. A representative of the “revolutionary minority” organized a year ago around the paper Front Ouvrier and developed during the postal strike and the CGT convention last year was invited to speak. Lambert, the speaker, explained the treacherous course of the Stalinist leadership of the CGT, called for a general walkout in support of the two departments and, contrary to the advice of anarchists and Catholic speakers, urged the workers to take over the powerful CGT themselves by pushing for a new election of all factory section representatives as a beginning. The speech was hailed by a thunder of applause. The speaker then went on to explain the issues in the strike and how it could be won.

By Wednesday all the 30,000 Renault workers were out. On Thursday came May Day. The Stalinists “adopted” the strike and distorted the issues in order to prevent an even greater immediate eruption. They were forced to oppose the wage-freeze in the cabinet. The crisis ensued and they were out.

The democratically elected Central Strike Committee of the Renault workers called for a 10 franc an hour increase in basic wages. The Stalinists called first for a 3 franc, then a 10 franc increase in incentive pay. That is, the Stalinists wanted to tie any increase in pay to increased production, in line with their whole past policy of “production first.” The Government led by the “Socialist” Ramadier, representing French capitalism, cannot afford either kind of increase because of the dilapidated state of French capitalist economy which can only “revive” on the backs of the workers. The Stalinists’ solution is an attempt to conciliate between the needs of capitalist economy and the demands of the workers by means of a new speed-up drive, which has been the purpose of “incentive pay” policy from times immemorial. The capitalists want the speed-up, but not the increase. The workers want the increase, which they need to face constantly rising prices, and not the speed-up. In the differences around this central slogan of the 10-franc increase, the whole social crisis thus finds a focal point. That is why the Renault strike found such a great sympathetic response among all the angry workers. That is why the Stalinists—anxious to serve the foreign policy of the Kremlin but at the same time to retain their mass support—twist and turn in their policy and finally take the road to “loyal” opposition in the government. That is why the SFIO, fearful of losing its last support among the workers, is divided down the middle. That is why the government continues to rock. That is why it is a source of unrest in all Europe.

The Renault strike met with the support of other metal plants in the suburbs of Paris such as Renaudin, Lavallois and in the provinces such as Saint-Dizier which joined the strike. Agitation mounted in the entire industry for a general strike. The Stalinists, unable to prevent strike votes, resorted to delaying tactics. The two interpretations of the 10-franc demand were put to a vote. Despite all the skullduggery, the votes for the Renault formula found increasing support in every plant. In some plants, the strikebreaking tactics of Stalinist functionaries aroused such hatred that here and there these creatures were physically ejected from the plants—a new phenomenon for France.

The agitation of the Central Strike Committee centered on the following: for a general strike, for setting up inter-factory strike committees on regional district lines, for the 10-franc minimum wage raise in line with the Basic Wage which the CGT itself adopted and betrayed, for the sliding scale of wages, for a new election of all trade union functionaries.

The Renault strike gave an impetus to strikes of government workers in the Customs service, of laundry workers, of tanners and paper workers, and of workers in the vital milk distribution network.

The capitalist government, as well as the Stalinists, still possessing many resources, have been able to temporarily arrest the strike wave. It is, of course, impossible to predict how this wave will unfold in the next period. But one thing is certain: there is no possibility of returning to the unchallenged Stalinist domination. The French workers are on the march.

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Last updated: 2 October 2020

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Last updated: 2 October 2020