From New International, Vol.XV No.2, February 1949, pp.45-47, 62.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
It is approximately one year since the Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly, or Grouping) was founded in France. To have been founded in the first place and then to have grown within the space of one year to its present size and significance, certain unique circumstances must necessarily have existed. These were found in the France of 1948. They may be summarized in the following terms;
A polarization, both political and ideological, took place rapidly in France after the end of the war. This polarization occurred at both the proletarian and bourgeois extremes of French society, and naturally tended to draw the numerous middle-class layers of France (peasantry, urban professionals and shopkeepers, etc.) to one or the other side. In the general milieu of the Left, the French Stalinist party naturally dominated. The tendency was toward the freezing fast of all political programs and doctrines. Ideology, in working-class and progressive circles, became compartmentalized, narrow and hard. In view of the fact that Stalinism was everywhere supreme in the field, that the Socialist Party had sunk back into a more than ever hopeless version of its pre-war reformism (after a short Resistance period of new life), and that French official Trotskyism had proved its bankruptcy to all who cared to examine it, the political outlook in France was gloomy indeed. One real movement existed – Stalinism; the rest was confusion and despair.
It is here that the RDR enters into the picture, and if this is not understood then the RDR’s great contribution and function can never be grasped. It broke up the icefields of Stalinist ideology and set the flux of French left-wing political life in motion once again. If it had accomplished no other purpose, its foundation would have more than outweighed its faults.
One of the RDR’s creators, David Rousset, has explained its historic function in these terms:
We are thus faced by a vast social zone extending from the moderate wing of the middle classes to working-class groups, either hostile to the Communist Party or disturbed and hesitant with respect to its policies. Hundreds of thousands of men and women retire from public life. It is the most important social phenomenon in France today. It ruins any possibilities for the traditional democratic play of forces. Politics is in abeyance. If it persists and becomes aggravated, it will call forth a totalitarian solution. It indicates, finally, a dangerous sclerosis in French society. Our Assembly, however, tends precisely to fill up this emptiness, to lead back to public life those masses who were drawing away from it. This is what I mean by again giving a popular basis to democracy. [Discussion on Politics, Les Temps Modernes, September 1948, p.390.]
Or again, in an article published in Le Semeur, organ of the French Federation of Christian Student Organizations, Rousset explains the origin of the RDR as follows:
It is a framework for political action adapted to today’s conditions, but due to the general decomposition of social forces throughout France and Europe it is premature, so it seems to me, to pose the problem of a new party demanding all ideological homogeneity that no one can achieve at this moment. What is important is the assembling, on a broad front from an ideological viewpoint but more precise so far as immediate program of action is concerned, of the very great number of Frenchmen who are tired of all that has happened these past years. Because the immediate danger, internally, is some authoritarian solution and ... externally, involvement in war. To prevent that, large masses, capable of expressing themselves, must be rapidly mobilized ... so that the existing relationship of forces may be modified.
Within the context of the RDR’s actuel and living struggle against war and Gaullist reaction, of course, it is believed that the vital clarification of political and ideological problems will take place.
Now, this is not the place to examine in any detail whether the RDR, in one brief year, has lived up to all its hopes and expectations. Furthermore, its leaders and spokesmen are best qualified to handle this question. We should only like to point out that the RDR has grown significantly and stabilized its organizational framework considerably. In view of the prevalent political apathy – the very condition of the RDR’s creation! – the fact that the RDR has definitely entered into the stream of conscious French political life is noteworthy in and of itself; Particularly in left-wing circles, the RDR, together with its press and publications, has become a major factor.
Above all, it has become a center of attraction for those turning away from the SFIO (Socialist Party) and the Stalinist movement, yet desiring to remain in active political life. At the precise moment when alternatives of withdrawal or a deepening ideological decay in either the Stalinist or reformist political organizations seemed to exist as devil’s choices, the RDR emerged and presented a new, progressive alternative. Again, only in this way can it be understood and welcomed.
It is clear that Jacques, author of the preceding article, hardly shares this view. We shall attempt to indicate how his analysis of the RDR is based upon little else than his, own sadly lacking information, to begin with, and on an approach which in advance prevents him from attaining the slightest understanding of what this new movement is all about and why it merits the friendliest and most welcoming response from American socialists.
The essence of Jacques’ charges against the RDR seems to be as follows: This new movement, particularly in the presence of its intellectual leadership, represents a turning away from political life and activity, a revulsion against party life and action, and a withdrawal in the direction of an idealized and spontaneous “syndicalist” philosophy and practice. The socialist and revolutionary cause in France has been positively harmed by the formation of the RDR since it encourages these “syndicalist” moods and prevents the building of a vanguard revolutionary party. The RDR is thus not merely a failure, a “total frustration,” but a reactionary tendency in French political life, although Jacques does not specifically state this obvious conclusion.
It is possible to answer Jacques in many and alternative ways. On one level, many of his remarks reveal an ignorance of the bare facts about the RDR, even to an inaccurate translation of its name. 
The RDR is headed by a group of intellectuals who, because of their anti-Stalinism, their antipathy to the totalitarian regime in Russia, etc., have decided to “turn their backs on all politics.” So says Jacques. Is this not absurd?
What is the RDR’s program, if not “political”? What are its activities (its press, meetings, branches, organization, etc.) if not “political”? Finally – and perhaps this will convince even Jacques of its “political” character – the RDR’s National Executive Committee, meeting January 30 and 31, decided to present RDR electoral lists in the coming cantonal elections in March, as well as to prepare for a national convention of the RDR in October of this year (La Batalla, February 7, 1949).
What Jacques means, of course, by his “anti-politics” charge is that the RDR does not fit into his conception of a revolutionary vanguard party. That the RDR is not a revolutionary Marxist vanguard party is ... true. Did it or any of its leaders ever claim that it was? Or is it Jacques real point that it should have become one, from the day of its foundation?
We have tried to indicate the origin of the RDR and we challenge anyone to conceive how the French crisis of one year ago could have given birth to a “vanguard party.” The need was not another artificial attempt to call forth a "vanguard party" – had not the French Trotskyists been blowing upon this futile theme for a minimum of fifteen years without the slightest success? – but the creation of such a broad grouping as could eventually, after a long period of practice and experience, produce precisely such a party.
Rousset has explained this clearly enough:
We must, however, find these answers [to political questions], and we can succeed in this only by maintaining a living contact with daily social development. It is only through our being in and practising a common struggle that the necessary theoretical solutions will be found. It is this that explains, on the one hand, why we are not ready to found a party and, on the other hand, why we are founding an assembly. This assembly itself expresses our agreement on more limited, more immediate objectives, which correspond more directly to the present situation …It thus allows for a regroupment of new or former militants – that is, it creates a milieu for work. It therefore responds to immediate and necessary tasks, the principal one for us being the need to give a popular base to democracy and it permits the creation of conditions indispensable for effective theoretical research. In simpler terms, by first regrouping the great mass of those who desire a transformation in their means of existence, it opens the way for the formation of a new political vanguard. This is why, without any hesitation or any demagogic intent, we are not a party but an assembly. [Ibid., p.387]
But it is not the RDR’s only sin that it refuses to be what it never could be in the circumstances. The leaders of this movement, according to Jacques – all of them, without exception – distrust political parties as well as politics in general. It is Sartre who even denies that the RDR is a “political movement” (we are not given the source of this denial) and therefore becomes, in Jacques’ eyes, the one “who best expresses of all the spirit of the RDR” At one point, it is even referred to as “Sartre’s movement.”
The errors and misrepresentations here run wild. To begin with, distrust of the existing political parties in France was the beginning of wisdom and a sine qua non for any kind of progressive reorientation. That certain individual intellectuals, reacting in a familiar manner, have extended this skepticism on their part into a paralyzing generality is beside the point. Jacques claims this is characteristic of all the RDR’s leaders, and does not hesitate to give a rather dishonest example in proof. After quoting a speech of Rousset in which the speaker cites the fact that the Spanish masses rose, at the start of the civil war, without being tied to rigid political parties (a statement of fact!), Jacques continues: “As soon as the parties stepped in, the inevitable bureaucratization was followed shortly by reaction.” Is it not clearly intended to give the reader the impression that this is the subsequent content and thought of Rousset’s remarks? This unfortunate impression could not be further from the truth, as any reader who examines Rousset’s speech (La Gauche, December 28, 1948) can easily ascertain.
The same kind of false impression is left with regard to Sartre. Whatever criticisms can be made of him, from the standpoint of Marxist politics and philosophy, the most stupid one is to accuse him of an anti-political bias! If only American intellectuals would function with the same political consciousness and activity as Sartre! His whole work is permeated by political thought and action and, in fact, the only possible basis on which one could make an adequate and objective study of the man and his doctrine is clearly through a political and social analysis of his work.
This holds particularly true for his important play Mains Sales (Paris version, not the New York distortion) which contains his interpretation of the relationship in political life between ends and means – an interpretation which, in our opinion, is strongly open to criticism and must be rejected. But Sartre’s philosophy and doctrine; having as it does many elements in common with the best of Marxist teachings, must be approached not only squarely but fairly. Jacques’ remarks are simply false.
It may well be, for example, that Jacques confuses the French word syndicalisme (meaning trade-unionism) with our term syndicalism (IWW, etc.), but there is nothing in Sartre’s writings to indicate the latter trend. Actually, he has virtually nothing to say about labor unions and workers’ organizations, beyond perfectly acceptable comments and generalities about democracy and the need for the French labor movement’s rank and file to find a means of expressing its will on issues of Stalinist-called political strikes, etc. In France, as a moment’s reflection will indicate, the struggle for trade-union democracy is vitally different from that in America. There it is bound up in the closest conceivable fashion with political problems.
Let us see what Sartre himself understands by the role of this RDR which he helped to create. We quote again from his discussion with Rousset (ibid., p.339):
Inasmuch as we are not only – we do not want only to be – the expression of a class, but that, placed as we are on the line of demarcation between the middle class and the working class, we seek rather to bring about a reunion of these two classes which, on many levels, have the same interests. That implies different ideological elements facing each other. That implies that we will be in the presence of people impregnated with Marxist culture and others with different points of departure – particularly for the intellectuals with their standpoints stemming from bourgeois philosophical thought which is, in its best aspects, a democratic philosophy.
What is of importance for us is that the functioning of our Assembly’s internal democracy leads to the constitution of – I will not say an ideology – but a powerful ideological current held in common between these different elements. And this wish is not utopian, because all those united in our Assembly have certain essential ideas in common, be they Marxist or be they not.
And whether we share Sartre’s viewpoint that an ultimate common ideology can be created between these diverse currents or not, the whole point of the matter is that Marxism and revolutionary socialism in France can gain nothing but credit and benefit by participating in this effort! This is one road to the creation of the essential revolutionary party. This is why one finds in the RDR today such tendencies as pacifism, World Federation (the Garry Davis movement), intellectual socialists of all shades and varieties, Christian Socialist youth and students, revolutionary socialist youth elements (Action Socialiste Revolutionnaire etc.), and the group of French Trotskyists who had enough courage and understanding to break with their hopeless past ties.
The masses of France, pursues Jacques, were ready for a new party but the leadership to create such a party was lacking. The RDR stepped in and instead of progress we had a “relapse.” For one who quotes Trotsky at such length and with such approval, this reveals a deep ignorance of a major tenet in Trotsky’s teaching: the relationship between class and party. Is there the slightest truth in his statement that, one year ago, the French masses were set for a new revolutionary party, with all its consequences, but the RDR blocked them? How could a handful of “anti-political intellectuals” accomplish such a task?
The truth is that, suffering from defeat in the famous general strike of winter 1947, plus a deepening disillusionment with Stalinism, a mood of pessimism and apathy had set in. This is common knowledge. A revolutionary party cannot be created out of nothing, and that was the situation in France – at least until Jacques proves that the facts were contrariwise. No RDR could have been born and survived a month if the over-all tendency had been in the other direction.
Sufficient has been said, we believe, to suggest some important fallacies in Jacques’ approach to the problem of the RDR. He has criticized it for not being what it never could be; for being something that it is not; for aiming at some mythical goal it cannot attain; and for not aiming at some goal (acceptable to Jacques) which it never could have attained. His criticism is doubly faulty and valueless since it blocks our seeing the real problem of the RDR, its real faults and weaknesses.
The destiny of the RDR is clearly a highly undecided matter. Whatever our opinion as Marxists may be, nothing could be worse than the laying down of a doctrinaire formula which would exclude, in advance, the possibility of revolutionary socialists working in such a movement, in the most open, friendly and objective kind of way. Truism though it maybe, experience is still the greatest teacher and the membership of the RDR must learn in this way, together with the ideological and analytic assistance provided them by its Marxist wing.
The real weakness of the RDR movement, as we suggested, has not even been mentioned by Jacques. The RDR has no solid trade-union ties, nor much support among the workers of France in their actual organizations. Thus, it tends to be still largely a movement of students, intellectuals, middle class, etc, and its working-class composition is small indeed. It must find a means of creating these ties, but here we come upon its principal political weakness: namely, its unwillingness to openly confront the issue of Stalinism, political and ideological, and its pursuit (in its press, etc.) of an essentially ostrich-policy about Stalinism in general and French Stalinism in particular. There seems to exist a widespread belief that since Stalinism still leads the majority of the French proletariat, the RDR’s best hope of getting workers’ support is not to antagonize “their” party. We believe the RDR membership will rapidly learn this is an illusion.
Where the RDR has been at its best is in the development of a specific program for current French issues of economy, inflation, etc. On broader political issues, only a beginning has been made for discussion and clarity. The organizational weaknesses of the RDR are apparent and certainly better known to those in its ranks than to us (including Jacques and myself) at a distance. But all these criticisms, of course, assume the justified, progressive nature of the RDR and look forward to a “bigger and better” movement.
The RDR is no finished product but a fluid and live movement with an intensive political and intellectual life of its own. In this sense, it is precisely what was needed in France; and the long, revolutionary tradition of that country (above all replete with examples of the creation of just the right organization to fit an historic need) indicates the potentialities for a bright and healthy future for the RDR.
1. We cite this not out of petty polemical spite, but because it is so revealing of his misunderstanding of the RDR’s nature. It is not a “Rally of Revolutionary Democrats,” as Jacques states, but a political assembly calling people together on a democratic and revolutionary program which was clearly specified in its very first manifesto (i.e. against war, against Europe’s division into pro-Russian and pro-American blocs, for the socialist organization of French life etc. ...). Jacques’ title makes the RDR out to be some kind of neo-Jacobin movement or, worse still, nothing at all. It is one thing to attack and criticize the RDR for its program, its practice or its claims but it is another thing to deny, in effect, that it has any shape or form or program.
Last updated: 2.10.2008