What is shared between those who define themselves or are defined by others as ‘communist’? And how may ‘Communism’ be distinguished both from French anarchism and French socialism, with which it shared much common history and ground?
The 1795 Paris revolutionary ‘Manifesto of Equals’ inspired by François-Noel Babeuf and rescued from oblivion by Philippe Buonarroti (1761-1837) summarised what remained (and remains) common to nearly all those who described themselves as communist across the following two hundred and some years:
‘We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses… We lean towards something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of property! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all.
We declare that we can no longer put up with the fact that the great majority work and sweat for the smallest of minorities. Long enough, and for too long, less than a million individuals have disposed of that which belongs to 20 million of their kind, their equals.
Let it at last end, this great scandal that our descendants will never believe existed! Disappear at last, revolting distinctions between rich and poor, great and small, masters and servants, rulers and ruled.’
After agreeing to this general statement of belief, communists had much more to disagree with each other upon.
We have divided the considerable history of Communism in France into five periods:
From setting an example and insurrections to state communism
Early French intra-communist debates were primarily around ‘How to achieve communism?’ Some 19th century French communists answered: By example and education. Some: By a revolution to destroy state power. And others: By seizing state power and using it.
1. Exemplary communism
The example of communism could lead others to follow. Society could be transformed by establishing ideal communities within the existing order. Utopian communist ideas and projects flourished during the first half of the 19th century. Many built upon egalitarian Christian beliefs to give them wider legitimacy, often looking to messianic figures to offer leadership.
Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) initiated the most influential of these experiments with his ‘Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria’, popularised in a French translation as Voyage en Icarie in 1840. It was Cabet whose pamphlet ‘Le crédo communiste’ first drew the word communist into the political vocabulary.
By the mid-1840s Icarian communist groups existed in several French cities as well as in Paris. After trials for conspiracy in 1847, Cabet argued his supporters should emigrate to Texas to establish communist communities:
The community suppresses egoism, individualism, privilege, domination, opulence, idleness and domesticity, transforming divided personal property into indivisible and social or common property. It modifies all commerce and industry. Therefore the establishment of the community is the greatest reform or revolution that humanity has ever attempted.
2. Insurrectionary communism
Other 19th century communists considered the revolutionary insurrection itself to be the principal way of preparing for a new society. It would overthrow private property and the state. Once the old power structures were removed the new world could be built by the working classes themselves.
Barricades appeared in Paris for 3 days in 1830, 2 days in 1832, 1 night in 1834, a few hours in 1839, 2 days in February 1848, three days in June 1848, one day in December 1851 and for a week in May 1871.
Eric Hazan’s History of the Barricade begins by pointing out:
We could say that this is only a succession of defeats – some immediate, on the ground, others delayed – in which the forces of domination end up reversing the gains of an ephemeral victory. But thanks to Baudelaire, Blanqui, Hugo and Lissagaray, this is a history that is still living, a source of inspiration for those unresigned to the perpetuation of the existing order.
After the bloody suppression of the 1871 Commune the next Parisian barricades were only erected in 1944 and 1968, but the inspirational idea of a great event-led transition remained embedded in left French thought.
During the third quarter of the 19th century the barricade was gradually replaced by the General Strike as the hoped-for transformative event that would ensure the transition to a communist society.
The term ‘anarcho-communist’ covers those who held, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922), that after the great event and the overthrow of the national government, the state and authority of the employers, the existing workers’ organisations would be able to democratically run society.
3. State communism
The third way of achieving communism borrowed from Babeuf and Robespierre in seeing the role of the state as key to achieving a new world.
Drawn to Babeuf’s ideas by Buonarroti, Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) aimed to seize state power and use it to suppress the ruling elite. All the decisions on behalf of the Parisian workers and the French provinces should be taken by a handful of dedicated revolutionaries.
A proclamation was read on the steps of the Paris Town Hall on May 12 1839 in the names of the ‘Provisional Government’ including Blanqui (who was named ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the republican army) and Armand Barbès (1809-1870).
Their self-constituted Provisional Government called for support from Parisian workers to:
‘Perish finally the exploitation, and may equality sit in triumph on the mingled ruins of royalty and aristocracy’.
On May 15 1848 in the aftermath of a protest march against the new government’s lack of support for the Polish revolution, Barbès announced a new government from the steps of the Town Hall. 15 men and were tried in July 1849. Barbès and Alexandre Martin /Albert (1815-1895) were sentenced to deportation, Blanqui to ten years and the republican scientist François-Vincent Raspail (1794-1878) to six. Louis Blanc (1811-1882) was acquitted.
The Blanquists wished to seize state power without any democratic mandate from the workers who they believed would then follow the revolutionary leadership.
In the third quarter of the 19th century the political meaning of ‘communist’ and ‘communism’ in France shifted to specifically highlight the need for the whole working class (and not a handful of conspirators) to capture and use state power to rule on behalf of their class and so ensure a transition to a better world.
This evolution was to a large extent due the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Their Communist Manifesto was published in German in February 1848.
Its first French translation appeared in Paris just before the June 1848 workers’ uprising. Yet hardly anyone read the Manifesto or knew it existed in Paris in 1848.
Although both Marx and Engels had already lived some time in Paris before 1848, the small influence they did have on the dominant Proudhonian anarcho-communism in France only began to appear from the late 1860s. Two of Marx’s daughters, Laura in 1868 and Jenny in 1873, married French socialists who had come to London to learn from Marx, Paul Lafargue(1842-1911) and Charles Longuet (1839-1903).
The next French version of the Communist Manifesto only appeared after the defeat of the Commune in 1872 in a New York-based French-language paper, Le Socialiste. Volume 1 of Capital was translated under Marx’s direction and published in Paris in 48 sections between 1872 and 1875.
Marx’s view of working-class rule involved rule of the whole class rather than of a few revolutionaries. Friedrich Engels specifically attacked the Blanquist understanding of ‘dictatorship’ in 1874:
From the fact that Blanqui conceives of every revolution as the coup de main of a small revolutionary minority, what follows of itself is the necessity of dictatorship after its success – the dictatorship, please note, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small number of those who made the coup de main and who themselves are organized beforehand under the dictatorship of one person or a few. One can see that Blanqui is a revolutionary of the previous generation.
Hal Draper’s Dictatorship of the Proletariat also quotes Marx in 1875 as arguing that:
‘Freedom consists in transforming the state from an organ set above society into one thoroughly subordinated to it’.
From the mid-1870s, after the return of the thousands of those deported and jailed after the Commune, Marx’s ideas, challenging both Blanquism and Proudhon, began to get a wider French audience.
Jules Guesde (1845-1922), the founder with Lafargue of the small Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier) sect in 1882, was introduced to Marxism in student discussions at the Café Soufflet on the corner of the rue des Écoles with the Boulevard St-Michel after returning from exile in 1876.
In 1880 Guesde and Lafargue travelled to London, where Marx drafted the preamble to the Workers’ Party programme, and Guesde and Lafargue detailed its specific political and economic sections.
It was not long before Marx fell out with Guesde and Lafargue (as he did with many others). In response to their ‘revolutionary phrase-mongering’ he wrote: ‘What’s certain (if that is Marxism), is that I’m no Marxist’.
In the 1890s after 20 years of economic depression and rising inequalities, Marx’s ideas spread rapidly and widely on the French socialist left.
His scientific analysis of the instability of emerging capitalism and acute political observations on 1848 and the rise of Louis Napoléon as well as of the Paris Commune made him a key point of reference for
The founding of the French Section of the Workers’ International in 1905 to create the SFIO brought together France’s more rhetorically revolutionary groups like Guesde’s Parti Socialist de France and the more reformist groups and independent socialists such as Jaurès.
Within ten years, however, Jaurès had been assassinated by a pro-World War 1 French nationalist and Guesde was Minister without Portfolio in the National Unity (Union Sacré) Government.
World War 1
Nearly the entire French ‘Marxist’ left supported the war effort arguing that aggressive German military imperialism was the biggest threat to French workers. Three days after Jaurès’ murder, Vaillant argued he was ‘For the Country, for the Republic and for the Revolution’.
Unlike several British and Russian socialists, on August 4 1914 every single French SFIO National Assembly deputy voted in favour of war credits. They included Marx’s grandson, Jean Longuet (1876-1938). And, unlike the situation in Germany, Russia and Britain, a government of National Unity (Union sacrée) was established the same day. Socialists and radicals were incorporated in the war effort from the very start.
Virtually the whole CGT (Confederation générale du travail) leadership also supported the war. Opposition to World War 1 was at first limited largely to a handful of revolutionary-syndicalists.
Pierre Monatte (1881-1960) of the CGT’s La Vie Ouvrière monthly, Alphonse Merrheim of the metalworkers’ federation and Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) met Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) in a left bookshop on the Quai de Jemmapes near the CGT’s offices to plan their anti-war campaign. This was soon after Trotsky was deported to France from Austria in November 1914.
In 1915 Merrheim attended the September 1915 Zimmerwald conference. With Lenin and 16 other delegates he signed the final compromise Manifesto drafted by Trotsky:
Workers of Europe… Since the outbreak of the war you have put your energies, your courage, your steadfastness at the service of the ruling classes. Now the task is to enter the lists for your own cause, for the sacred aims of Socialism, for the salvation of the oppressed nations and the enslaved classes, by means of the irreconcilable working-class struggle. It is the task and the duty of the Socialists of the belligerent countries to begin this struggle with all their power…
Never in the history of the world has there been a more urgent, a more noble, a more sublime task, the fulfilment of which must be our common work. No sacrifice is too great, no burden too heavy, to attain this end: the establishment of peace between the nations.
Working men and women! Mothers and fathers! Widows and orphans! Wounded and crippled! To all who are suffering from the war or in consequence of the war, we cry out over the frontiers, over the smoking battlefields, over the devastated cities and hamlets: “Workers of all countries unite”
This call fell largely on deaf ears in France where the pacifist opposition to World War 1 grew very slowly. The anti-war trade unionists linked up withLouise Saumoneau (1875-1950) and Hélène Brion (1882-1962) campaigning for working women’s rights.
In January 1916 Merrheim and Saumoneau set up the Committee for restoring International Relations (le Comité pour la reprise des relations internationals – CRRI).
Following the first 1917 Russian Revolution the Committee published a leaflet calling for support for a May Day strike and a Russian call to ‘The Proletarians of all countries’ to unite against the War.
Conscious of growing support for the Russian soviets, in December 1917 the CGT congress passed a resolution nearly unanimously that welcomed both President Wilson’s April decision that the US would enter the War as an ally, and the Russian Revolution.
The anti-war movement grew in 1917, but it was still a minority. In June 1918, when Gaston Monmousseau (1883-1960), a member of the CRRI, moved a motion at the CGT Railway workers’ conference denouncing the ‘union sacrée’ and calling for the ‘energetic pursuit of the class struggle’, he rallied just one third of the votes.
French communism, by 1917, was a very broad spectrum. It included the followers of Marx, of Proudhon, of Blanqui, and of the handful of revolutionary syndicalists who had opposed World War 1, as well as socialist pacifists, feminists, anarchists and anti-authoritarian writers and artists.
The only communist tendency that had disappeared since 1830 were the utopian communists.
Over the next 70 years French communism would be transformed. It would be reshaped and reorganised into a generally monolithic force driven largely by the consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution.
In the English translation of Eric Hazan’s magnificent Invention of Paris there are apostrophes around ‘Communist’ when writing about the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français – PCF).
The Party has meant ‘Communism’ for most of the 20th century.
For the full 70 years from its Caesarean birth in 1920 to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the political and organisational strategies of the PCF were effectively determined in the best interests of the Russian Communist Party regimes in Moscow.
Debates among communists in the 1920s were largely around the political character of the Soviet Union. Was it essentially a Blanquist top-down regime built upon a narrow insurrectionary group, or was it a genuine bottom-up workers’ state closer to Marx and Engels’ vision of a democratic governing system that could manage the transition towards real communism?
Today, 1917 is mainly known as the year of the two Russian Revolutions. In France, where Germany still occupied a quarter of the country, the year was marked by strikes by women workers and mutinies in the army.
As the strikes and World War 1 death toll grew so did support for pacifist and anti-war ideas. Trade union membership jumped from 500,000 in 1918 to 1.5 million in 1919.
Marx’s grandson, the SFIO parliamentary deputy Jean Longuet (1876-1938) successfully carried an internationalist resolution at the October 1918 SFIO congress.
In April 1919 some 300,000 people were estimated by the organisers to have marched in protest against the not guilty verdict on Jean Jaurès’ assassin. Called by the SFIO and the CGT this was the first legal working-class demonstration in Paris since 1909.
In contrast in Paris the May Day 1919 march was declared illegal and when the skirmishes finished, two demonstrators and one police officer were dead and thousands injured.
France’s ‘blue’ anti-Bolshevik parliamentary election of November/December 1919 saw the 296 Socialist, Socialist Republican and Radical Socialist deputies elected in 1914 reduced to 180, despite the SFIO’s popular vote actually increasing to 1.7 million.
The national political result was a nationalist Chamber of Deputies comprising 44% ex-servicemen who wore or had worn the soldier’s blue-grey uniform. It was called ‘the blue horizon’ parliament. Its principal aim was to make Germany pay for the war.
Affiliation to the CI
The Russian Revolution inspired and reinvigorated many. There was a widespread belief that it proved a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in France was still a possibility.
Socialist activists also felt betrayed by the Second International’s abject failure in stopping World War 1 in 1914. They leapt at the idea of joining the Communist International (CI) that Lenin and Zinoviev set up in Moscow in March 1919.
Large numbers became convinced that the ‘patriotic’ support the SFIO and CGT gave the war by had been wrong. One wrote to the SFIO: ‘Do found a new party, a proletarian party. But get rid of the label Socialist, because it’s dirty, really dirty’.
The delegates at the 1920 Congress of the SFIO, held in Tours from December 25-30, split three ways on affiliation to the Communist International.
War veteran Albert Treint (1889-1971) representing the Seine Federation (with a quarter of all the delegates) spoke and voted in favour of affiliation to the CI.
Longuet wanted to affiliate but rejected article 17 of the Third International, requiring affiliates to follow CI directives, and article 21 stating that the revolution had to follow an insurrection.
The third camp, led by supporters of the Union sacré in World War 1 like Léon Blum (1872-1950), Jules Guesde and Albert Thomas (1878-1932), wished to remain affiliated to the Second International.
The final vote was 3,209 to request affiliation to the Communist International with 1,022 votes against. Alongside the Seine Federation, the voting majority was made up of SFIO federations representing those rural areas with a weak Catholic Church presence, where large numbers of small farmers also worked as day labourers, and where anger at the peasant-worker sacrifices of World War 1 was greatest.
Only 13 of the SFIO deputies in the National Assembly sided with the majority, and none of these were manual workers. Four of these deputies left within months.
[Pic 4. The Party’s December 31 1920 manifesto finishes ‘Long Live French Revolutionary Socialism. Long Live the Communist International’]
The French Section of the Communist International (SFIC) was led in 1921 by a national committee of 23 men and one woman, with six men and two women deputies. They were a heterogeneous group of revolutionary syndicalists, some anarchists and many socialists sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, with more or less sectarian Marxists.
Initially the new Section française de l’Internationale communiste (SFIC), formally called the Parti communiste (PC) from 1921, claimed 109,000 members, but its first major membership decline set in within months.
Over the next hundred years it has had a roller-coaster existence, experiencing three other periods of major decline as well three of huge growth.
By 1933 the PC’s membership had fallen to 29,000. Only 11 of the original 24 national committee representatives were still members.
By 1932, after rejecting any deals with the socialists under the new two-tier electoral system, the PC only had 10 deputies. The political line imposed by Moscow from 1927 to 1934 saw anyone who was not a Communist as an enemy. This ‘class against class’ policy meant denouncing socialists as ‘social-fascists’ rather than trying to bring about a broad socialist-communist movement to challenge fascism.
The minority trade union confederation PC members had formed in 1922, the (Confédération générale du travail unifiée CGTU), declined from roughly 390,000 affiliated members to 258,000 in 1933.
Leaving the Party
The 1920s saw a steady drift of members out of the PC. Some left politics altogether. Others went back to the SFIO or into the embryonic left and Trotskyist oppositions, continuing to claim the title ‘communist’.
Some quit the PC because its growing emphasis on internal centralised military-like discipline challenged their belief in a democratic party.
Some broke with it because of its attacks on SFIO reformists as being against the working class; some because of a sense of exclusion deriving from its emphasis on building a party led largely by manual working class men; while others resented its blind acceptance of policies laid down by Moscow. Some questioned whether the Russian Revolution had really gone beyond a Blanquist insurrection to the democratic workers’ state they had hoped for.
Members also left when in 1923 it decided that belonging to the masons or the League of the Rights of Man (founded to defend Dreyfus in 1898) was incompatible with PC membership.
Louis-Oscar Frossard, the former SFIO general secretary, and the first SFIC/PC general secretary resigned from his post and from the PC in January 1923. He rejoined the SFIO in June 1924
[Pic 5. The PC’s daily newspaper changes its masthead as it gets more funding from and gets closer to the Russian Communist Party leadership
The changing mastheads of l’Humanité, the daily newspaper founded by Jaurès in 1904, suggest the changing perspectives of the new party. Until April 7 1921, it kept the words ‘Socialist Newspaper’ on the strapline. On Friday 8 April this changed to ‘Communist Newspaper’.
On February 8 1923 this became instead ‘The Central Organ of the Communist Party (SFIC).
The death of Lenin on 21 January 1924 had a significant and rapid impact on the PC.
Pierre Monatte (1881-1960) was the leading revolutionary syndicalist in the aftermath of World War 1. He joined the PCF in May 1923 when he started to work as labour editor on l’Humanité and became a member of its national steering committee.
He was soon in a minority, challenging the decision to remove Boris Souvarine (1895-1984) as editor of the internal Communist Bulletin, which had published left criticisms of the leadership.
Monatte, Souvarine and Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) then came under constant attack by the influential Treint for their links to the Russian opposition and their support for Trotsky (1879-1940). In April 1924 Monatte resigned from l’Humanité.
Souvarine, in Moscow to represent France at the 5th Congress of the Third International, was expelled from the PC by Zinoviev in July 1924. In November 1924 Monatte and Rosmer, who had brought back a translation of Lenin’s last testament criticising Stalin from Moscow, were also expelled.
On October 4 1924, the year in which the PC adopts its ‘Bolshevisation’ strategy, with stronger central control and greater demands on the members, the l’Humanité masthead changed again. It now incorporated both the exhortation ‘Workers of the World Unite’ and the emblematic hammer and sickle adopted as the official Soviet Union flag in November 1923.
On March 16 1926 the slogan was dropped and the hammer and sickle moved from the top left of the front page to top centre. The ‘Organe central du PCF’ and hammer and sickle then remained in place in the masthead until 1994.
Stalin’s growing strength in Moscow and his forcing Zinoviev’s resignation in 1926 next undermined Treint’s ‘left’ position within the PC. In January 1928 Treint was expelled for factional activities following a report by Maurice Thorez (1900-1964).
The communists who were expelled or resigned from the PCF attempted vainly to build sustainable organisations. Frossard’s Parti Socialist-Communiste disappeared within months. The ‘communiste-syndicaliste’ monthly journal, La Révolution prolétarienne, founded by Monatte and Rosmer in 1925 was forced to become a bi-monthly in 1927.
Most supporters of Souvarine’s Cercle communiste Marx et Lénine (1926-1930) and his subsequent Cercle communiste et démocratique (1931-1934) rejoined the SFIO, as did Treint.
Working class party
The narrowing down of the PC to those who supported Stalin created a much more homogenous political party than those who’d been in the majority of the SFIO at Tours in 1920. No longer a broad umbrella group it became a party aligned ever more closely with Stalin’s victorious side in the internal faction fights within the Russian Communist Party.
Probably the most significant change within the PC during its first decade was to push its Communist youth section (Jeunesses communistes) into a leadership role. Initially this was through the broad campaigns it led.
[Pic 6. Under pressure from the Communist International the PC defended the Rif Republic and opposed French military intervention there in 1925]
During the early the 1920s the PC campaigned to free the thousands of world War 1 mutineers of 1917 still kept in labour camps.
In 1925, encouraged by the Third International, the PC then actively opposed France’s sending 50,000 troops under General Petain in 1925 to join the Spanish against the Rif Republic. This had been created in northern Morocco following Abdelkrim’s military defeat of the Spanish in 1921.
Messali Hadj (1898-1974) joined the PC through his involvement in the 1925 actions against French troop involvements in Morocco and Syria. The radical philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was also active in the anti-war campaign and joined the PC with other intellectuals in 1928 before launching la Revue marxiste in 1929.
Its militant campaigning enabled the PC to attract and build a core of young working-class origin activists, like Thorez and Benoît Frachon (1893-1975).
Many of the younger PC leaders were given training as professional revolutionaries in Moscow where, from 1927, Stalin’s regular and increasingly murderous purges of internal opposition was becoming the mood music.
One of a new generation of PC recruits was Lucie Bernard/Aubrac (1912-2007). She joined the Jeunesses Communistes in 1933 while at the Sorbonne studying history. She then spent six months at the Lenin International School in 1935.
Eugen Fried, the Communist International’s representative in Paris from 1931, embedded five core concepts into the PCF: Defence of the Party, Support for Peace and the Working Class, ‘scientific’ Marxism and belief in the Soviet leadership.
By 1932 the PC counted some 500 full-time workers, approximately one for every 50 members. Much of the finance for this professionalisation came directly from Moscow.
At the same time the PC’s ‘Bolshevisation’ helped normalise very high levels of personal commitment among its members. Being a PC member for the 50 years from 1925 meant being consistently politically active in every arena of local community life and at work in the trade unions.
Over time the conscious ‘workerisation’ of its leadership at all levels enabled it to present itself as ‘the only workers’ party’ in France.
Class against class
While its membership continued to fall, the PC implemented Moscow’s sectarian ‘Class against Class’ united front position on a 23 to 13 majority vote at its Central Committee In January 1928. This attempted to split the leadership of the Socialist Party from its manual worker supporters.
‘It is necessary to speed up bringing together the working masses under the proletarian leadership of its Communist Party to wage an unremitting struggle against all the factions of the bourgeoisie… we propose (to the Socialist Party) class against class as a common formula for action and to go beyond elections for a struggle everywhere against white and tricolour reaction’.
The PC initially claimed success with this hard line in the April 1928 four-yearly national elections because its share of the vote increased from 10% (half that of the Socialists) in 1924 to 11% and just over one million voters (compared to the Socialists’ 1.7m and 18% share).
But by the 1932 National Assembly elections and four more years of Class against Class, its vote had fallen back to 796,000 (a share of 8%) to the SFIO’s 2 million votes (21% share).
A united anti-fascist movement of intellectuals took off in France after Hitler came to power in January 1933. On March 21 1933 André Gide chaired the first anti-Nazi meeting of the newly-created Revolutionary writers and artists’ Association (Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires – AEAR). The novelist André Malraux (1901-1976), close to the PC at the time, was one of the speakers.
In July 1933 Louis Aragon (1897-1982), PC member and early surrealist poet, became secretary of the AEAR, and editor of its journal, Commune.
[Pic 7. The SFIO call to demonstrate against fascism on 12 February 1934 is supported by the CGT, and by the CGTU and the PC]
The PC’s own real growth took off only in 1934. The extreme right riot of February 6 1934 that appeared to try to storm the National Assembly shocked France. The PC responded first, calling an evening
demonstration on Thursday 9 February. The few thousand demonstrators were brutally attacked by the police, killing four, wounding hundreds and arresting a thousand.
The SFIO then decided to support the protest demonstration and strike called by the reformist CGT. For the first time the PC and its revolutionary trade union confederation, the CGTU, then called on their supporters to join the socialists’ march on Monday 12 February 1934.
After February 6 1934 a new Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes launched an anti-fascist call ‘to the workers’. The scientist and communist supporter, Paul Langevin (1872-1946), was one of its sponsors along with a Radical Party writer and the SFIO’s director of the Ethnographic Museum. By May it had been signed up to by 2,300 doctors, teachers, lawyers, writers, artists etc, and by September 1935 it claimed 8,500 members. It was the precursor of the alliance between the PC, the SFIO and the Radical Party.
In Moscow George Dmitrioff, the new leader of the Third International, argued successfully to shift its emphasis towards anti-fascism and the defence of democracy. In July 1934 Stalin agreed that the PC’s Thorez could negotiate an action pact with the SFIO: this was the effective end of the sectarian ‘class against class’ policy that since 1927 had described the socialists as ‘social-fascists’.
The PC reaped immediate results in the 1935 local elections. While the SFIO won several large cities, the PC won 26 out of 80 of the mayor posts in the Seine Department. This was the beginning of what became the ‘red belt’ around Paris from the 1950s to the 1990s. The PC also doubled the total number of commune councils where it had a majority to 297.
[Pic 8. The PC threw itself behind the 1936 campaign to win a Popular Front government]
In January 1936 the PC’s slogan of ‘For Bread, Peace and Freedom’ was adopted by the Popular Front between the PC, the SFIO and the Radical Party. In the April-May 1936 elections in which the Socialists, Radicals and Communists did not challenge each other in the second round, the number of PC deputies rose from 10 to 72.
Nearly two-thirds of these PC deputies were manual workers. Two-thirds came from just four departments with industrial areas with high densities of manual workers: Paris (16), the Seine (16), the Seine-et Oise (9) and the Nord (7). The total numbers of Communist voters doubled from 1932 (6.7%) to 1,487,336 (12.5%) in 1936.
But while the new prime minister, Léon Blum, invited the PC to join the government, Moscow vetoed this, leaving the socialists in a much weaker position in government in relation to the left-centre Radicals.
The PC’s anti-fascist popular front political turn attracted former anarchists like Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) who hoisted a red flag on his house to celebrate the 1936 success of the Popular Front. The
circulation of L’Humanité rose to around 700,000. PC membership rose to somewhere between 200,000 and a quarter of million in 1937-1938.
Spanish Civil War
From August 1936 the PCF was the conduit for nearly all the Soviet support to the Spanish Republic that passed through France with the informal assistance of the Blum government.
On October 16 1936 Stalin declared that freeing Spain from the fascists was not a Spanish duty alone. The International Brigades were set up the next week.
Over the following two years some 15,000 French volunteers, overwhelmingly PC members, joined the Commune de Paris brigade, the Franco-Belge, the André Marty (after the Black Sea mutineer of 1919), or later, the Louise Michel or Marseillaise brigades. The largest number of volunteers to fight in Spain came from France, of whom about a third never returned.
During this time the PC prepared for an expected period of working underground if there was a German invasion by setting up dozens of safe houses, where they hid money and arms.
Paradoxically, the desire of nearly the whole left to wage a united fight against German and Italian fascism and their supporters in France meant that many on the left felt obliged to keep silent on the human rights violations undertaken by Stalin.
One communist supporter who didn’t keep quite was Gide. He had taken a lead in anti-fascist actions since 1933. In 1936 he had protested against Blum’s ‘non-intervention’ policy in Spain. But when he published a book denouncing the Moscow trials he was accused of stabbing Spain in the back.
The PC’s anti-fascist credentials were polished up again in 1938. On 20 September 1938 all the PC deputies in the National Assembly voted against the Munich Agreements that effectively surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Only three other deputies joined them in rejecting the appeasement retreat by Chamberlain-Daladier before Hitler.
Communists outside the PC
The few thousand activists who saw themselves as communists outside the PC in the 1930s were divided into two main tendencies. Most were in the left wing of the SFIO, the others were either independent or linked with one or other of the divided tiny handful of supporters of Leon Trotsky (1879-1940).
Monatte continued to produce the independent anti-Stalinist Révolution prolétarienne from 1925 until 1939.
[Pic 9. Rosmer sitting on Trotksy’s right at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915. They remained friends up to Trotksy’s murder in 1940]
In 1929 Trotsky asked Rosmer to bring together his handful of French supporters. In 1930 the Ligue Communiste is formed, including the surrealist group around Pierre Naville (1904-1993) and other former PC members like Treint. After the 6 February 1934 fascist riot created a common cause for socialists and communists to work together on, Trotsky advised his supporters to enter the SFIO to conduct revolutionary propaganda and win new members.
After the Trotskyists are expelled from the SFIO in 1935, a minority around Pierre Frank (1905-1984) decide to remain as a deep entrist underground movement inside the SFIO, calling themselves the Parti communiste internationaliste (PCI).
Trotsky argued instead that the threat of fascism was so serious the principal priority for communist revolutionaries in France (and around the world) was to create a revolutionary party. So in 1936 Naville and David Korner/Barta (1914-1976), then brought the remaining one or two hundreds of Trotsky’s supporters into the Parti ouvrier internationaliste – POI (International Workers’ Party).
The POI itself split in early 1939. Trotsky now ordered it to work as entrists inside the 10,000-strong party formed to left of the SFIO that had been formed in 1938, the Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan – PSOP (Peasant and Workers Socialist Party). Some followed Trotsky’s orders, others refused.
The future of communism in France was, in any case, going to be decided elsewhere.
The ten-year non-aggression Pact signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939, by the foreign ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union shocked Communist party members to the core. It came less than a year after the PCF had rejected appeasement over Czechoslovakia by France and Britain and five months after Hitler had occupied the whole country.
The Daladier (socialist-radical) government then banned the Communist daily . In its last legal issue on August 26 it reiterated that France must:
keep its commitments in relation to the threats against Poland… we will consider any attack on her as an attack on all free people, on us. This is the unanimous belief of French people worthy of the name. It’s our belief.
l’Humanité, 26 August 1939
On September 2 1939, the day before France and the UK declared war on Germany, all 72 PC deputies in the National Assembly voted in favour of war credits. They were convinced this was an anti-fascist war.
Called up, Maurice Thorez(1900-1964), the PCF’s General Secretary since 1930, left Paris to join his military unit as did the young full-time Communist organisers and other militants.
For nearly four weeks there was no word from Moscow as to how the PC should respond to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Finally, Dmitrioff’s emissary from Moscow arrives in Paris with ‘the line’: the war was an ‘imperialist war’ by France and Britain, and communists should not fight against the Germans.
Thorez was ordered to desert from the French army, which he does on October 4. He travelled first to Belgium and then moved to Moscow, where he lived until November 1944. A French military court promptly sentenced him to death for desertion.
‘Only the Communist party,’ the leaflet above claimed in November 1939, ‘fights against all the capitalist warmongers’.
Repression against the PC
Moscow’s new position led 25 deputies to resign from the PC along with many of its mayors and councillors. The PC itself was banned by the Daladier government on September 26 1939 and 44 of its deputies were arrested and jailed or deported to Algeria. Some escaped to live clandestinely in France.
Some activists likeLucie Aubrac (1912-2007) immediately threw themselves into the resistance movement.
All the communes controlled by the PC had their elected councils dissolved and 2,800 elected representatives had their mandates removed. In the reunified CGT all members who did not condemn the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact were expelled and 620 trade union branches were closed by the radical-socialist Minister of the Interior.
By March 1940 there had been nearly 11,000 searches, 3,400 arrests, 459 communists interned without trial, and 100 found guilty by military tribunals of whom 14 were given death sentences. A law was proposed in April 1940 to allow the death penalty for those making communist propaganda.
An underground issue of L’Humanité demanded:
‘No English soldiers with De Gaulle! No German soldiers with Petain! Long live the Union of the French Nation. No British dominion. No German protectorat. Long live the Free Independent and Happy France that the Communists want and will bring about.’
Two-sided L’Humanité news sheets were still run off roughly once a week and distributed largely just to PC members and trusted supporters who would reproduce them when possible. The paper regularly included articles signed ‘Maurice Thorez somewhere in France’. PC membership dropped to perhaps just 5,000, of whom several hundred were full-time workers, still being paid from the secret ‘banks’ of money the PC had stored in ‘safe houses’ earlier.
During the ‘phoney war’ period from October 1939 to April 1940 a handful of communists in arms factories committed acts of sabotage. This was supposedly for trying to ‘stop, slow down, make unusable the instruments of war’ as one PCF leaflet urged workers to do against the ‘imperialist war’. Some members were shot by the French government for ‘sabotaging national defence’ during the phoney war as a leading communist acknowledged in June 1940.
The PCF’s contribution to the pacifist anti-war effort was one of the arguments its Paris-based leadership used in abortive negotiations after the German occupation in June 1940. Moscow had ordered its local emissaries to talk to the Germans to secure the reappearance of local trade union newspapers and eventually the banned L’Humanité (as was happening in Denmark, Norway and Belgium).
A month later Moscow changed its mind and called off the negotiations as ‘dangerous because they could compromise the militants involved as well as the Party’.
June 21 1941
The German invasion of Russia on June 21 1941 led to the PC reversing its line again. A special issue of l’Humanité argues the attack on ‘socialism’ in Russia means the war is now a national and international war against fascism.
Even earlier some individual members had joined the very small numbers in the resistance. In May-June 1941 PC members had played a key role in the coal miners’ strike in the North of France. In the biggest wartime strike, around 100,000 miners struck for improvements in working conditions and wages
The German troops who had been parading down the Champs Elysée every morning since France was occupied on June 14 1940 became some of its targets.
The PCF’s nearly two years’ experience in clandestine work made it central to the developing resistance movement within France. Its armed resistance began on 21 August 1941 when a 21-year-old member, Pierre Georges (1919-1944), later known as Colonel Fabien, shot and killed a German officer at the Barbès metro station.
On October 22 and 24, after three more resistance killings of officers and several bombings, the Germans took mass reprisals for the first time: they shot 100 people, including Guy Moquet, the 17-year-old son of a PCF deputy.
The taking of these hostages had been strictly ordered: in first place were former elected communist or anarchist representatives; in second place, people who helped the diffusion of communist propaganda.
From late 1941 the PCF set about creating an arms-length, independent armed organisation, the FTPF.
The FTP Snipers and Supporters was formed by the Communist Party in 1942] Benefiting greatly from the two years’ experience PC activists already had in operating in clandestinity the FTP, as it became known, soon became one of the more effective resistance organisations.
In the Paris region fewer than a hundred members of the CGT’s earlier organisation of migrant workers, the Main-d’oeuvre immigrée (MOI), are organised into the FTP-MOI from March 1942, with its orders coming via the PC from Moscow.
The MOI was made up mainly of exiled Italian and Spanish communists, former members of the International Brigades, and Jewish resistance fighters.
The MOI led a major armed resistance campaign with attacks taking place every two days from the end of 1942 until November 1943, when its last surviving section was arrested and executed early in 1944 after a show trial.
Despite thousands of police searches and arrests, the PC’s clandestine organisation survived through to 1944.
National Resistance Council
In January 1943 a former PCF deputy who had escaped from jail took a fishing boat to cross the channel to represent the Communist Party with De Gaulle in London.
On 27 May 1943 Jean Moulin’s efforts to unify the eight main resistance groups across France with the anti-fascist trade unions and political parties led to a key meeting take place in a Parisian first floor flat at 48 rue du Four.
The PC, the FTP and the now reunified CGT all participated in this founding of the National Resistance Council along with representatives of the SFIO, the Radicals, the Christian-democrats and the conservative catholic Republicans.
The PC’s involvement was directed by Stalin who earlier that same month had dissolved the Komintern (the Communist (Third) International), to demonstrate goodwill to his British and American allies. No longer the French Section of the now non-existent Communist International, the party then removed the SFIC from its name, becoming just the Parti communiste français (PCF).
The three main groupings of resistance fighters totalling about 100,000 were brought together under the banner of the FFI (Forces françaises de l’intérieur) on February 1 1944. The FTP, while fighting as the FFI, nonetheless kept its own structures. PCF resistance fighters played a major role in the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
Communist ministers 1944
In September 1944 two communists are named ministers by De Gaulle in his French Provisional Government. Charles Tillon, the commander of the FTP, was named Minister of the Airforce. The former PC deputy elected in 1936, François Billoux, was named Minister of Public Health. He had been released from jail in Algeria after the allies landed in North Africa in 1943 and served on the Provisional Consultative Assembly.
At the same time, the communist trade unionist Benoît Frachon (1893-1975) launched a call for the ‘battle of production’, urging workers to produce more for the war effort.
Frachon was one of the PCF’s leading triumvirate who lived clandestinely just south-east of Paris from 1941-1944. He had been one of the CGT’s six negotiators with the government and the employers who ended the 1936 factory occupations with the Matignon Agreements.
In November 1944 De Gaulle finally granted a pardon to Thorez for his 1939 desertion and he returned to France, although the PCF did not acknowledge his absence from the country for some years for fear of tarnishing his image.
The PCF’s reputation as the ‘party of 25,000 executed activists’ was sky high at Liberation. By December 1944 it claimed 370,000 paying members and within two years it claimed 800,000.
In October 1945 the PCF attracted 26% of the vote for the First Constituent Assembly. This compared to 23% for the Socialists and 24% for a progressive Catholic party close to De Gaulle.
In January 1946, after De Gaulle resigns as President of the Council of Ministers, Thorez then became a deputy president, and seven PCF members were made ministers: Tillon at Armaments, Marcel Paul at Industrial Production, August Lecoeur at Coal, and most importantly Ambroise Croizat (1901-1951) and Marius Patinaud at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
In the next government, from June to November 1946, there were nine PCF ministers as well as Thorez.
In the first November 1946 National Assembly elections of the Fourth Republic, the Communists won 5.4 million votes, 28.6% of the second ballot vote, and 182 seats.
The PCF had become France’s largest political party in an election in which turnout was a massive 77% of the 25 million men and women voters.
A French road to socialism
After the election Thorez publicly argued for the first time that ‘It was possible to move towards socialism in other ways than that followed by the Russian Communists’. The PCF demanded that Thorez be elected president of the council of ministers (prime minister).
At the National Assembly on December 5 1946 Thorez received 259 votes for the top position as president. But he needed 314 seats to win, and would not have been elected even if 29 Socialist deputies had not abstained.
Instead, first the former Popular Front head, Léon Blum (1872-1950) for a month, and then Paul Ramadier, another socialist, became president of the council of ministers in a three-party coalition. Between January and May 1947 alongside Robert Schuman and François Mitterrand, the PCF held five ministerial posts in the Ramadier government.
The achievements of the PCF between 1944 and 1947 were considerable. Its mass support and presence in government, meant that French nationalisations went further than they had in Britain.
The nationalised industries included the coal industry, certain firms that had been penalised for their wartime collaboration (like the Renault car firm), the merchant marine fleet and leading aviation companies. Paris’ public transport system, the RATP, was taken over to join the private rail network already nationalised in 1938
Finance was also brought within the public sphere. The Banque de France and the four major deposit banks (including Crédit Lyonnais and Société Générale) and 34 insurance companies all became state-owned.
Ambroise Croizat (1901-1951) was Communist Minister of Labour and Social Security from 22 November 1945 until May 4 1947. In 1945 the right to elect personnel (sectional) representatives was restored, and in workplaces with 50 or more workers Works Councils were set up.
In the 18 months Croizat was in office the concept of ‘women’s wages’ was outlawed, marking a step towards equal pay for men and women. The 40-hour week was restored with a 20 hours ceiling on overtime that had to be paid at an enhanced rate. The two weeks’ paid holiday was restored, and extended to younger workers. May Day was declared a paid holiday.
He also reorganised France’s social security to give contributors a say in the top administrative councils of the different funds. In future social security was to be jointly managed by the unions and the employers. Minimum pensions and a family benefit welfare system were also brought in.
The end of national unity
In May 1947 the Communist ministers were all sacked when the PCF finally gave its support to the Renault strikers and so opposed the national wage controls, primarily to avoid getting totally outflanked to its left.
The Renault factory at the heart of this strike was located on the Île Seguin on the Seine, a part of Boulogne-Billancourt five miles from central Paris. In 1947 some 17,000 of its 30,000 workers were PCF members.
Renault had been nationalised in January 1945 by De Gaulle’s provisional government because of Louis Renault’s active collaboration with the Germans, in particular because of the wartime management’s active denunciations of trade unionists and communists to the police.
By April 1947 there were handfuls of other communists than PCF members inside Renault. There were some ten members of the rebadged Union communiste around the Barta Group of David Korner (1914-1976), a few members of the tiny PCI around Pierre Frank (1905-1984), as well as a dozen anarcho-syndicalists.
Fortuitously most of these communists were working in key sections of the factory making gearboxes, gears and steering systems. As a result, if they went on strike the whole factory would have to stop production within days.
When they started holding meetings around the demand for 10 francs an hour wage increase, first raised by the local CGT’s PCF leadership, but then dropped in ‘the national interest’, they got considerable support from other sections of the factory. On Friday 25 April the gearbox section stopped work and put up pickets calling the rest of the factory to strike.
Despite being denounced by the local CGT as ‘a band of anarcho-Hitlerite-Trotskyists’, some 3,000 workers joined the strike at the Monday mass meeting, and then 10,000 on the Tuesday.
On Wednesday 30 April the five PCF ministers spoke publicly in support of the demands made by the strikers. On May 4 Ramadier asked them whether they supported the government’s programme to continue the colonial wars in Indochina and Madagascar and to reject the workers’ demands for higher wages. Thorez responded that ‘We support the demands of the working class’.
Ramadier, already under pressure from the Americans to exclude all communists from government posts, then fired them. One of the Socialist ministers present at that May 4 Sunday late night meeting reported:
‘The Communist ministers got up, left. There were no more Communist ministers. That was it. It was extremely rapid and absolutely straightforward’.
Despite having one third of deputies in the National Assembly and over 5 million voters, the PCF would then spend the next 34 years in opposition.
From the Fourth to the Fifth Republics (to be finished)
France remained firmly on the American side in the Cold War and
became a major recipient of Marshall Aid after the Communists were expelled
from the centre-left government in 1947.
The presence of a substantial PCF articulating a discourse of
capital-labour conflict continued, however, to have significant consequences.
It made it more difficult for those sections of the employers who
were looking for dialogue to find accommodating worker representatives, thereby
reinforcing anti-trade union attitudes among the employers.
But it also reinforced workers’ sense of class identity and kept up
pressure on the Socialists and progressive Republicans to promise significant
reforms, while presenting a constant threat of strikes and street
demonstrations if workers’ interests were overlooked.
The PCF’s focus on extra-parliamentary pressure was reinforced by
its exclusion from government between 1947 and 1981, despite it being the
largest left party for all except the last few years of this period.
The overshadowing of the PCF
by the Socialists took a long time. In 1971 at the founding conference of the
Socialist Party François Mitterrand, who had joined just a few days earlier and
became its First Secretary, famously declared that
Anyone who does not accept the rupture … with the established order, … with capitalist society, cannot, I say, cannot be a member of the Socialist Party
(Quoted in Le Monde, May 10 2001).
Emphasising his social
democratic face, Mitterrand went on to create a Common Programme with the PCF
and the MRG (Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche) that lasted until 1977.
His unity strategy was successful. For the first time since 1936, in the
National Assembly elections of 1973 the Socialist 21 percent of the vote nearly
equalled that of the Communists; in 1976 the PS became the single biggest
left-wing party. From then, despite the emergence of both a Green and a Far
Left vote, the hegemony of the Socialist Party appeared assured. Mitterrand
outmanoeuvred the long-standing PCF leader Georges Marchais by constantly
appealing for socialist unity between 1977 and 1981, making Marchais appear
sectarian and responsible for dividing the left. Then Mitterrand offered the
PCF a place in government, a tactic Jospin used again in 1997. The result was
that the PCF became identified with the Socialist government’s policies and
found it more difficult to mobilise independently of it and against it. It
pulled out of the government in 1984 after Mitterrand’s ‘u-turn’ towards
monetarism, but it became increasingly dependent upon the PS’s electoral
largesse. Subsequently, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the
Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, the changes to its traditional manual
working class constituency and growing political competition from both the
racist FN and the Trotskyites, saw both the PCF’s vote and its
At the end of 1999 although
the PCF was still France’s largest membership party, it claimed only 203,600
members. By June 2001 Robert Hue’s own estimate was around 150,000 (Le
Monde, June 19 2001). Its vote in cantonal (local government) elections
fell from 13.3 percent in 1988 to 9.8 percent in both 1998 and 2001, and even
more critically, in the 2001 municipal (town council) elections it lost 23 of
the 74 Communist mayors who had been elected in 1995 in towns with more than
15,000 inhabitants. This compared to a PS loss of just seven from a total of
177 Socialist mayors (Le Monde March 17, 20 2001). The PCF has been
reduced, through its own inadequacies as well as through Mitterrand and
Jospin’s absorption strategies, to a small core within the wider Socialist
front. In the legislative elections of 2002, as many left voters who had used
the first round of the presidential elections to protest against the Jospin government’s
failing, returned to casting a ‘useful vote’, the PCF vote also fell below five
percent. This percentage is critical for any French political party, because it
is the level that triggers state funding. The collapse is shown in Table 4.5,
although as a result of its electoral pact with the PS and the Greens, the PCF
was still able to secure 21 deputies to the 138 for the PS, seven for the PRG
and three for the Greens in the 2002 National Assembly.
One investigation found that many full-time union activists were actually on
mutual fund payrolls and, in the case of the Concierge Pension Fund, the late
General Secretary of the Communist Party as well as a former General Secretary
of the CGT, were both found to be receiving pensions despite never having paid
any money in (Le Monde, 8 January
the Communist Party ended up securing only one third of the votes in
the first round of the 2002 presidential elections of the two main Trotskyist
Mitterrand outmanoeuvred the long-standing PCF leader Georges Marchais by constantly appealing for socialist unity between 1977 and 1981, making Marchais appear sectarian and responsible for dividing the left. Then Mitterrand offered the PCF a place in government, a tactic Jospin used again in 1997. The result was that the PCF became identified with the Socialist government’s policies and found it more difficult to mobilise independently of it and against it. It pulled out of the government in 1984 after Mitterrand’s ‘u-turn’ towards monetarism, but it became increasingly dependent upon the PS’s electoral largesse. Subsequently, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, the changes to its traditional manual working class constituency and growing political competition from both the racist FN and the Trotskyites, saw both the PCF’s vote and its membershipdecline.
At the end of 1999 although the PCF was still France’s largest membership party, it claimed only 203,600 members. By June 2001 Robert Hue’s own estimate was around 150,000 (Le Monde, June 19 2001). Its vote in cantonal (local government) elections fell from 13.3 percent in 1988 to 9.8 percent in both 1998 and 2001, and even more critically, in the 2001 municipal (town council) elections it lost 23 of the 74 Communist mayors who had been elected in 1995 in towns with more than 15,000 inhabitants. This compared to a PS loss of just seven from a total of 177 Socialist mayors (Le Monde March 17, 20 2001). The PCF has been reduced, through its own inadequacies as well as through Mitterrand and Jospin’s absorption strategies, to a small core within the wider Socialist front. In the legislative elections of 2002, as many left voters who had used the first round of the presidential elections to protest against the Jospin government’s failing, returned to casting a ‘useful vote’, the PCF vote also fell below five percent. This percentage is critical for any French political party, because it is the level that triggers state funding. The collapse is shown in Table 4.5, although as a result of its electoral pact with the PS and the Greens, the PCF was still able to secure 21 deputies to the 138 for the PS, seven for the PRG and three for the Greens in the 2002 National Assembly.
. One investigation found that many full-time union activists were actually on mutual fund payrolls and, in the case of the Concierge Pension Fund, the late General Secretary of the Communist Party as well as a former General Secretary of the CGT, were both found to be receiving pensions despite never having paid any money in (Le Monde, 8 January 2000).
the Communist Party ended up securing only one third of the votes in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections of the two main Trotskyist candidates combined.