From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.9, September 1944, pp.267-270.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The swift expulsion of the German armies from France has not been merely the result of the Anglo-American military superiority, but was precipitated by the uprising of the French people. In Paris and in the second largest city of France, Marseille, the masses rose up, took guns into their hands, erected barricades and drove out German troops and French fascists before the arrival of the Allied troops. The action was repealed in many less populated cities. In the countryside, the guerrilla bands, the “maquis” or, as they have been respectably baptized, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) have taken innumerable towns and villages, whole departments.
In Paris (information about other cities has been very scarce) the insurrection was preceded by strikes. A railroad strike started as early as August 13. Then the postal workers struck. On the 18th the General Confederation of Labor, the central organization of French trade unions, joined by the Confederation of Christian Workers, called for a general strike. Soon afterwards fighting broke out in the streets.
De Gaulle and the Allied command were taken aback by such an independent intervention of the masses, that they had not called for. On August 26 a correspondent cabled from Algiers to the New York Times:
“Local leaders precipitated the uprising and battle in the capital without awaiting the approval of either General De Gaulle or the Allies, who had hoped to avoid that battle.”
This is a fairly good account, except that the insurrection was not “precipitated” by a few leaders. It came from the irresistible pressure of large masses.
As soon as the Parisian workers saw that, with the advance of the Allied armies, they had some chance to get rid of the Nazi hangmen, they rose up and fought. They could not wait for the few days until the Allied armies would have arrived. They had to settle their own accounts with the regime that had tormented them for four years. What an example of indomitable energy and independence!
The Paris insurrection was fought by the workers. This is confirmed by Le Populaire, organ of the Socialist Party published in Paris. On August 29, writing shortly after the event, it declares:
“To drive away the Nazis, the Parisian workers have known how magnificently to stop all work, to arm themselves and to defend their barricades.”
This short description coincides with the picture we can reconstruct here through the press dispatches. Undoubtedly, the Parisian workers carried along with them large strata of the petty bourgeoisie, not only its lower ranks, but also civil servants, students, sons and daughters of bourgeois families. The insurrection, the immediate objective of which was the overthrowing of the German yoke, thus took a “popular” and “unanimous” aspect. With its democratic and patriotic illusions the atmosphere was somewhat reminiscent of that of the 19th century revolutions.
The power fell into the hands of the insurgents. Their military organization, the FFI, which in Paris consists mainly of workers and workers’ sons, took over the policing of the city. A correspondent cables from Paris to the New York Times on August 31:
“The French Forces of the Interior, which have their share of young hoodlums, have taken over the city.”
(Only a journalist who feels more comfortable in reactionary salons than near barricades could call “hoodlums” the Gavroches who fought and died for freedom.) Then he continues:
“Their members [of the FFI] ride around armed with Bren guns, hand grenades and rifles. They guard the entrances and exits of Paris and they allow none but military personnel to pass in or out. It is to them that the people go to denounce collaborationists, and it is to them that people who have endured four years of German occupation look for leadership and direction.”
On September 7 another correspondent cables to the same paper, relating how the purge of collaborators is conducted:
“There are now 5,000 internees at Drancy [a town near Paris]. Most of these were taken there by the FFI during the first exciting days of the liberation of Paris.”
Similar news came from the provinces. A UP correspondent cables from Rouen on August 30:
“This correspondent saw police loyal to the republic talking orders from the maquis and aiding them openly.”
The masses, crushed under despotisms for four years, lifted their heads, now bursting forth with courage and hope. In Paris the president of the Tribunal d’Etat (something like a Supreme Court Justice), who had sent many anti-Nazi fighters to the guillotine, was arrested by his janitor.
The offices and the large printing plant of Le Matin, a rightist newspaper that had turned collaborationist, were taken over by the Socialist Party. In the days following the insurrection the circulation of the workers’ newspapers, or rather of the newspapers that the workers consider theirs – L’Humanité, organ of the Stalinist Party, and Le Populaire, organ of the Socialist Party – rose to about ten times the circulation of the bourgeois, mainly Gaullist, press.
What is the situation in the factories, now that the workers have gone back to work, after the fighting? The scarce information about France in the American press is still scarcer on that point. In fact, it would be a complete silence, if it were not for a dispatch from David Anderson to the New York Times on September 9, which provides illuminating information.
Mr. Anderson writes:
“Rumors of workers having taken over great industrial establishments in the Paris suburbs, particularly in the ‘Red Belt’ to the north and west, have been circulating for days. This morning I happened to run into one when visiting the Hispano-Sulza plant in Bois-Colombes on an entirely different matter.”
Although rumors of a fact as important as the taking over of great industrial establishments in Paris suburbs had been circulating for days, neither the correspondent nor, it seems, any of his colleagues found it interesting enough to investigate these rumors in order to inform the outside world. The whole situation was revealed to the American readers only because of a visit “on an entirely different matter.”
What a commentary upon the objectivity of the bourgeois press! Thousands and thousands of words are written, cabled and printed about the charm of Paris boulevards, but such a fact, big with most important consequences for the future of France, is disclosed to the public only by accident. However, let us thank Mr. Anderson at least for that accident.
On September 9, more than a week after the street fighting has ceased, he writes:
“Committees manned by the rank and file of some of the most important factories in the Paris area are growing in strength daily.”
The committees are growing at that time; thus they are obviously not momentary organs of the uprising, but rather a product of it. In fact, they consider future tasks:
“The men serving on them refer to themselves as ‘les responsables’ and profess to be the forerunners of permanent groups that will represent the workers in the direction of the plants after the war.”
What the workers want is control over the production of factories that they keep in motion through their hard and long labor. They have had enough of the uncontrolled dictatorship of the bosses. How can they express their will? It is not clear to them yet:
“They envision an equal three-way division of power among the workers, the technical staffs and the managements.”
The bosses will never share power in a permanent way. They may be compelled to do so for a short time when they are threatened with losing everything. But if the threat does not materialize, they will compose their forces, retake power, more dictatorial than ever. A permanent division of power over the factories is impossible. The unlimited power of the boss can be “controlled” permanently in one way: by socializing the factories. Who will do that? The present government? Of course not. Only a workers’ government can do it. That is why we have to build such a government.
The first necessary conditions to go along this road are already here: a firm will among the workers not to go back to the past, a deep contempt for the ruling classes, a great confidence in their forces. That’s what the mere existence of the workers’ committees means. They will gradually fully understand the implications of their position and draw the revolutionary conclusions. The obstacles will not be lacking, the moat dangerous of them being the treacherous policy of the Stalinist Party. But the French workers are on the march.
How did the Hispano-Suiza committee studied by Mr. Anderson come into existence? The plant was producing war material (probably airplanes’ engines) for the Germans. And then:
“The company’s regular management decamped on August 18 on the eve of the liberation of Paris ... The Hispano-Suiza management’s position can be made clearer when it is pointed out that the heads of many French firms deemed it wise to remain away from their plants until the fever of excitement over liberation had died down and they could explain why valuable aid had been given to the Germans during the occupation.”
What a telling story! The excitement over liberation was just too much for “many” capitalists! The bosses’ “explanation” had been in the past that the best way to sabotage the German war machine was to produce arms for it. As Mr. Anderson reports:
“This reasoning was not always understood or accepted by most of the employees.”
It was so little understood or accepted that, when the German bayonets were about to stop supporting the “explanation,” the bosses decamped, probably in search of a better explanation. It must have been hard to find, for by September 9 they had not yet returned with it. It is not too risky to predict, after the Italian experience, that some American official will soon help the unfortunate management to “explain.”
The way the committee appeared indicates that national feelings must run quite high among the workers. This is confirmed by the committee’s declaration to Mr. Anderson that “the workers are interested solely in producing weapons,” apparently for the war against Germany. The word “solely,” if correctly reported, is probably a kind of excuse the workers felt obliged to give to an American journalist. But the existence itself of nationalism cannot be doubted. In the present circumstances, with the bosses’ subservience to the German masters, this nationalism contributed to the sharpening of the class struggle which led to the taking over of the factories. In other circumstances it can work as a brake on the revolutionary initiative of the workers. It would be dangerous to close our eyes to that.
Mr. Anderson’s dispatch is rich in interesting pieces of news. Among others the following:
“The spokesman for the factory ... insisted on receiving visitors with a half-dozen of his associates, wearing French Forces of the Interior armbands, in attendance.”
With the present scarcity of news these few lines represent invaluable information. It shows that workers actually employed at the present time are in the ranks of the FFI, which is extremely important; but still more important is the fact that these workers wear the FFI armbands in their factory, where apparently they are the sole authority. It means that they consider their FFI group not as an alien organization in which they feel uncomfortable, – for in that case these class-conscious workers would hardly have kept their armbands at their place of work, – but as their own organization. It appears thus that certain FFI groups are groups of armed workers; they are, in fact, a workers’ militia.
On the character of the FFI organization as a whole, it is difficult to make general statements, in view of the scant information available abroad. Its strength is put by the most conservative estimates at 300,000 men and is certainly quite higher than that. Many of the members belong to the generation that was too young to be taken into the French army in 1940. Stories frequently refer to 17-year-old fighters. The ranks of the FFI are certainly far from being politically or organizationally united. In fact, they look rather like a conglomerate of semi-autonomous groups and bands. Information on what their members think about the future is scarce. A correspondent cables from London to the New York Times on August 26:
“The FFI have all the strengths of a people’s army and all the weaknesses of a league of non-professional soldiers bound toy a holy desire to free France but somewhat divided by the various political, economic and religious dogmas held by its members.”
What are these “dogmas”? Probably all kinds, from chauvinistic revanche to proletarian socialism. What is the relative strength of the various tendencies? No precise answer to this question is possible from afar. The strongest single tendency is, undoubtedly, the Stalinist, although the movement is far from being in the hands of the Stalinist Party.
On the whole, a leftist spirit must dominate, – a great thirst for freedom, a deep distrust for authority, a complete contempt for the old ruling classes, with their industrialists and bankers compromised by collaboration, a strong desire for something new. For what exactly? These aspirations remained probably until today rather vague, the immediate task having been the struggle for the liberation of the country. But questions that were able to wait for an answer yesterday will now have to be answered soon, – and precisely.
De Gaulle’s program is, nationally and internationally, the restoration of bourgeois France. Nationally, his first aim is the reestablishment of “law and order.” The present objective of De Gaulle is to stifle the uprising against the Nazis and Vichy in the noose of “republican legality”, – which, of course, would not prevent the general from using in the future, if need be, the Bonapartist sabre. He now meets the popular opposition to Vichy with a loudly proclaimed loyalty to the Republic. But it remains to be seen if, by calling to his side Jeanneney, senile president of the senile Senate of the senile Third Republic, he can satisfy the aspirations of the masses for liberty.
To the workers, who have suffered so much and fought so heroically, the De Gaulle government has nothing to give, except a few niggardly increases of salaries (when the cost of living has been multiplied by five to ten), which represent the bare minimum of what it was forced to do. To cover up this vacuum it speaks of a “legal revolution” which will bring “social changes” (?) “in the coming years.” The hungered and exasperated workers will soon see through such empty promises.
The government speaks of elections, – when the situation will be settled, “in nine months or more.” Meanwhile De Gaulle appoints his hand-picked men as prefects in every department, and they intend to rule in the good old bureaucratic way. They will inevitably come into conflict with the organizations which have sprung from the masses, the department committees of liberation, the FFI groups, the committees of the workers who have taken over factories.
The De Gaulle government has already been reorganized a few times in the past three weeks. The meaning of the changes, when seen from afar, is not always clear. Of the ministers brought from Algiers half a dozen were dismissed to make room for men from the resistance movement in France. From that movement De Gaulle is not, of course, taking into his cabinet the young “hoodlums” who fought with gun in hand. He is picking up “respectable” men, judges or professors, who under Vichy helped the resistance movement with money or otherwise while keeping a bourgeois facade and now think of nothing but of returning as soon as possible to “law and order.”
On the whole, the De Gaulle cabinet is composed of personalities of second rank, belonging to the administrative personnel of the Third Republic. One Socialist, not a leader of the party and belonging, it seems, to its extreme right, is now in the cabinet. In Algiers there were two Stalinist ministers. On September 9 one of them was dropped. No reason was given. Three days later it was reported that he had “resigned from the government to agitate freely for the cause.”
The relations between the Stalinists and De Gaulle remain unstable. If such a supposition is permitted, it can be said that, had the government directly sprung out of the uprising and not come from outside, it would have been much farther to the left, probably with a Stalinist and Socialist majority.
The Stalinist Party tries to channel the first deception of the masses in an attack against the “Algiers men”, who have kept too many ministerial posts in their hands and not given enough of them to underground leaders of France, that means, to the Stalinists.
The Stalinist influence among the Parisian workers is very great, far outstripping that of the Socialists. In the FFI the party has strong positions. In fact, the Stalinist Party is the strongest organized political force in France. It has avoided outright collaboration with De Gaulle and is, at the present time, in a kind of opposition, which cannot fail to increase its influence.
The resistance movement and the FFI are going toward a quick polarization. The conservative element, whose sole aim was the struggle against the Germans will rapidly separate itself from the proletarian and plebeian core for which the fight against German oppression has been a springboard for a struggle against bourgeois society.
After the first “popular”, “unanimous” stage of an uprising is over, a problem inevitably rises up: what to do with the arms that brought victory? Today in France hundreds of thousands (maybe over a million) have arms in their hands. The De Gaulle government cannot tolerate such a situation for long, so fraught with dangers for the bourgeois “law and order.” It can do, and is probably attempting to do, two things: either outright disarming the FFI groups or incorporating them into the regular French army. In the second case the question of the discipline would immediately rise up. The FFI elected or chose their own leaders. In the regular army they have to obey officers imposed upon them from above. Conflicts on that point have already sprung up, although American journalists are not too prompt nor too wordy in reporting them.
The problem of disarming the population will occupy a large part of the political arena in the coming period. De Gaulle has certainly not forgotten the story of the Commune: Thiers had come to the conclusion that the disarmament and crushing of the armed Garde Nationale was a necessary preliminary to the restoration of “order.” In a night of March he sent one of his generals to seize the cannon of the Garde Nationale parked in Montmartre. The Parisian masses rose up.
De Gaulle has obviously not the force at the present time to imitate Thiers. His first task is the regrouping of the bourgeoisie. He will eliminate its most discredited and hated representatives, soothe its divisions, try to give it back its internal strength and cohesion and an honest face. He needs time. He will postpone elections, postpone answering the urgent problems of the day, postpone everything ... until the day when the bourgeoisie feels strong enough.
At the right of De Gaulle the bourgeois factions will keep a cautious silence for some time, pushing him forward as their best cover. A Darlan-Giraud adventure is impossible at the present time.
A more and more loudly voiced opposition to De Gaulle will come from his left. A possible variant is an increasing Socialist and Stalinist participation in the cabinet. We may even see a Stalinist-Socialist cabinet, with De Gaulle relegated to the decorative post of president of the Republic.
Behind De Gaulle there is, of course, the Anglo-American power, with its various arms: food, the hopes that rich America will help economic reconstruction, and, if need be, military force. This power is great and it may for some time slow down the tempo of political developments, but only to make them more dramatic at a later stage. For the French workers are not alone, tomorrow they will have allies throughout all Europe. Their struggle will merge with that of hundreds of millions fighting for their emancipation. Victory will not be easy. But the French workers have made a good start: coming out of the political primitivism of German oppression, they have immediately started to storm capitalist society. The greatest hopes can be theirs.
September 17, 1944
Last updated: 15.6.2005