February 18, 2021

Interviews

# Objective Constraints

Anicet le Pors is a French communist party politician who served as a member of the French Senate from 1977 to 1981, and Minister of Civil Service and Reforms from 1981 to 1984.

Anicet le Pors: I was born into a family from the north of Finistère, known as “the land of the priests.” It’s a region that has lived under the influence of Catholic Church for centuries. My parents emigrated to Paris in 1929, and I was born in 1931 in the thirteenth arrondissement. My early political involvements were deeply influenced by Catholicism; my first trade-union membership was at the CFTC (French Confederation of Christian Workers), and I subscribed to several magazines in the tradition of liberation theology. I joined the CGT, which in 1955 was the largest trade union in the country. In 1958 I joined the Communist Party, the day after Parliament endorsed the Gaullist Constitution of 1958. I did so in defiance, against the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.

I changed my profession precisely as the left was ascending to power. At that time the Communist Party came up with an ideological innovation headed by Professor Paul Boccara called State Monopoly Capitalism (Capitalisme Monopoliste d’État “CME”), which was a revival of Lenin’s idea of the integration of the state with monopolized capital. According to this theory, this integration is what enables capitalism to stave off the falling rate of profit. It was described at the time as over-accumulation-devaluation of capital.

This was an important ideological breakthrough in the mid-1960s which found its full expression in the 1970s. I was a well regarded economist in the Ministry of Finance and active in the Economic Section of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party. But these qualities made me “unusable” until the Communist Party had me elected Senator in 1977 in Hauts-de-Seine. Thereafter Georges Marchais asked me to work on his speeches directly with a view toward the 1981 presidential election. I sat on the Central Committee from 1979 to 1981, working with Georges Marchais and Charles Fiterman. The left won the elections of 1981 at the price of an internal rebalancing of the comparative political weights of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. That is how François Mitterrand finally got elected— by weakening the Communist Party. Despite the unfavorable circumstances we carried on. We worked a lot on the Common Program of 1972, but there were tensions between the parties that were not easily resolved. The results of the 1981 presidential election were very contradictory: we were weakened at the very time when we were called to power. Those were the circumstances of the time.

With François Mitterrand in office, we had a smaller presence in the government than we were entitled to. We should have had six ministers, but we only got four: Charles Fiterman, myself, Jack Ralite for health and Marcel Rigout for vocational training. The euphoria lasted less than a year because Thatcher was elected in 1979, Reagan in 1980 and Helmut Kohl in 1982, meaning that the major developed capitalist countries had elected people with unquestionably liberal policies that cut across all the social democratic ambiguities that had existed before.

MA: What were the political divisions like within the Communist Party?

AP: The tensions within the party were between a small orthodox group linked to the Soviet Union who strongly opposed the Union of the Left. The main issue in the 1970s was nationalizations. I was in charge of the “Nationalizations and Industrial Policy” department and it’s true that we overplayed the issue of nationalizations. We argued that nationalizations, provided they reached a significant threshold, would allow us to structurally change our economic system. The socialists, opportunists that they often are, adopted our views. I had a friend who was having marital difficulties who was convinced that if the left came to power, her marriage would be fixed. This was the degree of people’s belief in politics.

My slogan was, “Where there is property, there is power.” And that is the primary idea which motivates me to this day. But at the time, we thought public property had a mythical capacity to change everything. The socialists only agreed to nationalize because they saw it as a condition of preserving the Union of the Left. They were ideologically overpowered. Internally, the debate was around the scale and the industries. The socialists were against, for example, nationalizing the banks and financial sector completely. They thought it was enough to nationalize 51 percent—just enough to give us the majority. But we insisted on 100 percent. And given the internal discussions, I was surprised with how far Mitterrand ultimately went.

Why didn’t it work out? Two reasons. By the spring of 1983, the goal of a voluntarist industrial policy had become irrelevant. We were inevitably dependent on the market. Secondly, workers were not actively fighting for these issues. The Auroux laws were passed in 1982, but it was only four years later that they were enforced. By that time the economy was already liberalized, and there was little room for them to act. This was also the case with the Public Sector Democratization Act, which was only enforced in 1983. By the time the leverage and tools for mobilization became available, it was too late. At no time were workers called upon to mobilize in support of social transformation.

The conflict between the communist and socialist parties intensified after 1983. That year I spoke to a leader of the CGT at a funeral at Père-Lachaise and warned him that if Delors stops indexing wages to prices, as Brussels had instructed him to do, we would no longer be able to negotiate salaries in the public service. He told me, “Right now, we cannot choose you and discard Delors.”

This only worsened in June 1984. I invited Georges Marchais and his wife for lunch, and we agreed that we couldn’t stay in a government that was increasingly shifting right. We resolved to leave in the fall, when the budget was being discussed. We didn’t foresee that Alain Savary, the Minister of Education, would resign on July 12th. The next day, I was on an airplane with Pierre Mauroy flying to Lille. Since Savary left, he told me, he would leave too in order to “fall to the left.” Mauroy resigned on the 17th, and Marchais and I were forced to leave the government on the 19th. But even within the party, things were getting complicated. As I mentioned, there was a small group who were very loyal to the Soviet Union. Most people within the party weren’t sure whether they should stay or leave. Once we left, many people were extremely disappointed with the fracturing of the left. There was growing discontent in workplaces over wage de-indexation, but at the same time there was a feeling of defeat around the failure of the Union of the Left.

MA: It sounds like you feel that the left was objectively constrained; in other words, that there wasn’t really a way out.

AP: Yes. We were faced with a capitalism that was so financially internationalized that we had no leverage to change the course of things. If you combine the influence of the US, UK, and Germany, there is not much France could do. Ignoring these very real constraints is not doing politics.

MA: Maybe we can go back to the history of the party, particularly in 1968. What was the relationship like between the student movement and the labor movement? And how did those conflicts play out in the party’s policy positions?

AP: Until 1968, the Communist Party was influential in the labor movement and among intellectuals. For the latter, the theory of state monopoly capitalism gave us a lot of intellectual capital. I remember getting a drink with Georges Séguy and Georges Marchais right before the adoption of the Common Program, and Marchais informing us that the CGT had just recruited its three-millionth member. Today there are fewer than 300,000. So we had a lot of hope, but we were also distrustful of the socialists (due to their position on the Algerian War and the Suez Affair, among other things) at the same time as we sought a union with them. The events of 1968 bear the mark of these contradictions. We participated in the events at the same time as we witnessed meetings between Mitterrand and Mendès-France and understood that the situation was hopeless. I remember once going to a meeting at the Place du Colonel Fabien and seeing the head of the Economic Section tearing up piles of paper, so as not to leave a trace in case the Gaullists retaliated.

There was also a cultural shift with the emergence of the so-called bohemian bourgeoisie, who pushed the boundaries of morality, sexuality, and so on. The communists didn’t identify with that. Culturally, we were rigid: when you got married, you got married. You never bought your house, you always rented. If you bought a car, it was from Renault, because it was the national company.

When the Algerian war ended in 1962, there was room to move past some of the tensions. We published a book called Changing Course, in which we argued that we were not headed towards a revolution, but we should strongly break with the current system. That is where we first proposed the Common Program. In the beginning, it worked very well. We agreed with the socialists on the basis of the Program. But as things developed it became clear that the socialists were the main beneficiaries of the union and we were weakened electorally.

MA: What was the relationship like between the CGT and the Communist Party, and how did it change?

AP: When CGT members first saw Mitterrand arrive, they trusted him. But the number of CGT militants was declining, and we were declining electorally. There was a Professor of Law at Sciences-Po, named Georges Lavaud, who argued that the Communist Party had two functions: publicly as a tribune for the people, and behind closed doors as an occupant in places of power. In an article titled “What’s the use of the Communist Party?” I argued that there was also a theoretical function. I also demonstrated a very clear decline in the Party’s three functions. The first time we were in government, between 1944 and 1947, we controlled 30 percent of cities larger than 9,000 inhabitants, CGT was practically the only trade union, and we had all of the greatest intellectuals. The second time we were in government was 1981–1984, the period we are concerned with. By this point we were largely a failure; electorally we fell from 26 percent in 1946 to 15 percent in 1981, nearly all the intellectuals were gone, but we remained a stronger tribune than the socialists. Our three functions were undoubtedly degraded, but they persisted. By 1997–2002, the plural left had totally collapsed in terms of numbers. We lost positions of power, and intellectually we ceased to play any kind of role. Things haven’t improved since then. The question used to be: What is the use of the Communist Party? Now the question is: Does it even exist?

MA: What role did the collapse of the Soviet Union play in the decline of the Communist Party?

AP: I always say that the twentieth century was a Promethean century: we believed that with Marxism, we could become the masters of our destiny. But what was the result? Common ownership was reduced to statism and bureaucracy. This doesn’t detract from the initial desire for emancipation. Prometheus takes the light and fire of the sun and gives them to men, encouraging them to live differently. But Prometheus dies chained to a rock, eaten away by the eagles. Prometheus failed, but he remained our reference. That’s why I don’t mourn the twentieth century. In 2010 I wrote a book titled “In Defense of Failure.” We undertook a great experiment, and now is the time to ask “what has happened” and “what can we do about it?” That is how I see my role today.

MA: What hope do we have of rebuilding an alternative economic vision today?

AP: It is only through major upheavals that we can generate new situations. Not through continuity, but through rupture. We must not make concessions on our principles in order to win. We need to put forward a coherent approach that represents our values. In the words of Goethe, the goal is the path.

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