February 18, 2021


Party Unity and Renewal

Roger Martelli is a historian of the French Communist Party.

Maya Adereth: What motivated you to join the Communist Party?

Roger Martelli: I officially joined the Communist Party in November 1969, but I became a communist in May 1968. I was in a preparatory class at the Lycée Thiers in Marseilles, and I made friends with communist militants when we occupied our lycée that summer. By the time the Common Program was signed in June 1972, I had been a member for three years, and my political experience revolved around the Organization of Communist Students. I was in the communist students directorate and was appointed member of the national board of the student’s union, the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF) in the spring of 1971. UNEF was split between the communists and the Trotskyists, so my appointment demonstrates the degree of democratic decision making we practiced at the time.

MA: What was the split over?

RM: At heart it was a question of who would control the organization. We hated the international communist organization—Youth Alliance for Socialism (which Jean-Luc Mélenchon participated in at the time). The Trotskyists had taken over UNEF so we set up another branch next door. At that time, I was mainly a militant in the youth organization of the Communist Party. When I joined I knew nothing at all, neither about the Communist Party, nor about Marxism. I came from a leftist family, my father had been an active militant in the CGT, and for me, the Communist Party was quite simply the most left-wing and the most serious of all political organizations.

I had very few ideas about what a revolution could be, but at the university there was an atmosphere of revolution in the air. The party was proposing to build up majorities, both by taking to the streets and claiming voters. That combination—of the revolutionary idea with a drive towards getting a political majority—I found convincing. I identified with the description the Communist Party presented of French society, of the necessity of a radical transformation of that society and in the political construction that it proposed: the union of the left around a Common Program.

MA: As a historian of the party, how do you assess party leader Maurice Thorez’s influence? How did things change after 1964?

RM: In 1964 when Maurice Thorez died, the Communist Party began to accelerate the movement of inner transformation that had begun in 1962. Up to 1961 the Communist Party, under Maurice Thorez’s leadership, had denied Nikita Khrushchev’s analysis of the Stalin era. Thorez was aware of Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” but he was very disturbed by it. Thorez objected to de-Stalinization until 1961.

In 1961, things changed. On the one hand, this was because Thorez became conscious that Nikita Khrushchev was strongly established at the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and on the other it was due to the Sino-Soviet split. Thorez agreed with Mao but he strongly believed that the Soviet Union was to be the only international center for the communist movement. From that moment Mao considered Thorez to have betrayed him. Thorez had, in fact, betrayed him, and put himself behind Khrushchev.

At the same time, the Communist Party, which had initially been somewhat weakened by the coming to power of General de Gaulle during the Cold War, found itself in a favorable position. Between 1947 and 1958 political divisions were not so much between left and right, but rather between the East and the West. By 1958, however, the institutions of the Fifth Republic gave renewed salience to the left-right divide. A presidential candidate had to constitute a political majority in order to run in the second round and command a majority in Parliament. Particularly between 1958 and 1962, this generated a cleavage between the Gaullist right and the divided left. The socialists had originally sided with De Gaulle, which greatly weakened them by the 1960s and 1970s. Within the divided left, the Communist Party was therefore the most influential one.

In 1958 it had been decided that the President of the Republic would be elected not by direct universal suffrage but by an electoral college of 80,000 people representing the municipal councils. And in 1962 De Gaulle decided two things: the President of the Republic would be elected by universal suffrage, and only the two candidates with the highest percentage would progress to the second round. The change in procedure made it necessary to make political alliances that produced a majority. In 1962, de Gaulle dissolved the Assembly, legislative elections took place, and the Communist Party strengthened its position: it recovered part of the votes it had lost in 1958. And on the left, it was the only one to do so. That is when Thorez encouraged the Communist Party to develop a new political strategy which would unite the left.

Thus was initiated a revisiting of what had been at the heart of the economic thinking of the Communist Party from 1964–65 onwards, the notion of monopolistic capitalism buttressed by the state. The issue was how to engage with the welfare state—the compromise between capital owners and the working class. On the social level, there was an attempt at opening up to the middle classes, and particularly to new categories of wage-earners outside the working class: engineers, technicians and managers.

The new line was based on the idea that a revolution was necessary, but that it could not happen all at once. Before the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” we would have to undergo an intermediate period of social change without a socialist state, allowing the French public to get used to a more socially oriented government. From this stage we would be able to shift from simple social democracy to socialist democracy, i.e. a develop a new type of power.

Between 1962 and 1972, the Socialist Party refused a Common Program. The program had been criticized both by the Socialist Party, who did not want it, and by the extreme left, which thought it was a betrayal. In the 1969 presidential election, the Socialist Party got 5 percent of the vote while the communists got 22 percent, and the socialists realized they had little choice. In 1972 they agreed to sign the Common Program; but only after they had undergone their own restructuring at the Congrès d’Épinay with François Mitterrand. The signing of the Program marked the end of the Communist Party’s dominance in the French Left, but at the time we didn’t know it. Things became more complicated in the elections of March 1973: the Communist Party did better than it had 1968, but it still hadn’t recovered the level it had between 1962 and 1967. And worse, the Socialist Party was catching up.

MA: What contributed to the decline of the PCF ?

RM: Nothing was predetermined. The Communist Party was a political force and the question is whether it could adapt to reality. We should look at structural explanations, but we also have to look at contingent decisions which accelerated those structural changes. Among the elements which favored, for example, the PCF in the 1960s, was the fact that until 1975, France had experienced industrial growth, which went hand in hand with a growing working class. In these industries, workers were able to establish very strong organizations to advance their interests. The PCF also benefited from increased voting participation. The Common Program was in fact a Keynesian program. It accepted integration into the logic of the capitalist system. But Keynesian state intervention also has the capacity to change the structure of the economy. And the logic of the Common Program, being a radical variant of Keynesianism, was undeniably realistic. So, throughout the 1960s, the party benefited from both the growth of the working class, the realism of a radical Keynesian perspective and a growing electoral base.

Things change precisely from the moment the Common Program was signed because from 1973 onwards, we moved from the period of great growth to a more complex period of crisis. This period is characterized by the rise in financial capitalism and the decline in industrial capitalism. From 1975 onwards, industrial employment declined and the traditional working class began to fall. But while the number of workers decreased, the number of employees increased. The shift to services broke the sort of alliances which formed the foundation of leftwing politics up to that point. So, the social base which was the basis of the expansion of the CP was retracting and splitting up.

From that point on, the logic of capitalism became financial. Up until the 1970s, industrial state investment translated into job growth. In the 1980s, it was reflected in the growth of financial assets and the pursuit of decentralization. Additionally, the Communist Party of the 1970s was dealing with a new Socialist Party which had a double face. In 1971, François Mitterrand declared that “He who is not anti-capitalist has no place in the Socialist Party.” The socialists also welcomed social movements like feminism, self-management, political ecology, which the communists viewed with distrust. This presented a form of competition internal to the left which the Communist Party was not able to overcome.

MA: I was surprised when we spoke to Anicet le Pors that he suggested the Party didn’t have much of an alternative to protest the shift of 1983.

RM: The problem was the party’s organizational culture. The Communist Party has been able to renew elements of its discourse on several occasions: it gave up the dictatorship of the proletariat, it gave up Marxism-Leninism, it gave up its attachment to the Soviet Union. But what has never been questioned is the conception of the party, that is to say a party which must be totally unified. While there could be discussions, at any given moment the party needed a line, and the line had to be followed. There is also a tradition in the PCF, which is distinctly Stalinist, in which whoever disagrees is seen to be moving away from communist purity. This made it very difficult for the party to adapt to a changing reality, and it also made it difficult to stage a stable opposition to the 1983–1984 reforms. By the time dissenters were able to be heard, the previous group of dissenters had already been expelled.

MA: What could Mitterrand have done differently in the 1980s?

RM: The recurrent problem with the left when it comes to power is a time lag. In 1981, most of the countries of the Western world were already experiencing the neoliberal counterrevolution. So, at the very moment that the left gained power in France, the left was defeated everywhere else. This makes the French experience a relatively isolated one in the European and global context. Mitterrand comes to power at a time when the left is dynamic but severely weakened. The CP, which is also taking up responsibilities, does so in a minority position. As early as 1982 a debate had started within socialist circles and the government: should we follow what some people at the time—such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement or, at the very beginning, Laurent Fabius—proposed and exit the European monetary snake? That would demonstrate a commitment to a policy that would be more nationally centered on the state taking control of the economic dynamics. Or, as Jacques Delors thought, should we adapt to the new position by curbing state influence, reducing industrial employment and constraining the budget. Mitterrand, who was first and foremost a politician, hesitated. In 1982–1983 he still left some room for debate within the government and he did not make a clear choice, but in 1983 he had made his decision: the deficit should not increase. France was in no position to keep the whole of its industries afloat, because a large part of the industrial apparatus was not competitive in a global context. Therefore, he advocated “industrial downsizing” Having started as an initially Keynesian logic, with nationalizations, social acts, and so on in view, the program became increasingly oriented towards limiting public expenditure and increasing market “flexibility.” That choice was made between 1982 and 1983, and in 1983 the communists were eventually entirely marginalized when it came to defining political options. For another year, between 1983 and 1984, they played a sort of balance game, that is, they remained in the government, they condoned major orientations and notably the National Budget, all the while distancing themselves more and more from the industrial choices that were being made, especially with regard to the steel industry.

In 1984, that balance game became impossible to carry on. This is when Mitterand put an end to the idea that the austerity policy was going to be temporary. And so, the CP found itself more and more out of its depth and out of a position to influence the government, especially if we consider the galaxy of organizations, including the trades unions, which were affiliated with the party.

And so, at the moment when the neoliberal inflection of French capitalism was taking place, the workers’ movement was weakened in comparison with the previous period. The network of popular associations that had hitherto been the stronghold of communism had gradually disappeared. In spite of having been associated for decades with improving workers’ lives and wages, the the CP was unable to have an effect on the changes that were taking place.

February 20, 2021


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