Spartacist English edition No. 66
A Trotskyist Program and Tactics in Postwar France
May 1946 Constitution: Why the PCI Was Right to Vote Yes
The following article is translated from Spartacist (French-language edition) No. 44, Spring 2019.
As the Nazi occupation of France was coming to an end in August through September 1944, the country entered a period of tumultuous class struggle. The French bourgeoisie was deeply discredited. The ruling class had overwhelmingly collaborated with the Nazis, just as the bourgeoisie had in Italy, Greece and other countries. The Stalinist Parti communiste français (PCF) was growing exponentially, capitalizing on its enormous weight in the Resistance movement and on the legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which it falsely claimed to represent. The PCF’s ties to the Soviet Union enhanced the party’s prestige among workers who saw the Red Army triumph over the Nazi vermin and liberate the death camps in East and Central Europe.
The French capitalists clung to what remained of their colonial empire and sought to reclaim the place they deemed rightfully theirs among the victorious imperialist powers. But first they had to eliminate the threat of insurrection by an armed proletariat. When the German occupation ended, there were street battles in major cities as well as strikes and factory occupations, and even the emergence of embryonic organs of dual power. In Paris, workers took over the subway system. In Toulouse, they notably controlled the aircraft factories.
But the PCF leaders betrayed. Having collaborated with the Gaullist wing of the bourgeoisie in the Resistance, they then disarmed the proletariat and made every effort to restabilize the capitalist order in the name of the “battle of production.” After uprisings in Paris, Marseille and other cities in August 1944, the Trotskyist journal Fourth International (October 1944) wrote that if a party with the PCF’s influence had called for soviets (workers councils) and had fought for power, “the insurrection would have very quickly developed into a workers’ revolution. In fact, all the necessary conditions for a revolutionary situation existed, except for the presence of a sufficiently strong revolutionary party.”
Due to the Stalinists’ betrayal, working-class discontent was eventually diverted in a parliamentary direction, but struggles did not completely cease. The PCF received the largest number of votes in the October 1945 elections to the Constituent Assembly and formed a bourgeois coalition government with the Socialist Party (PS, also referred to as SFIO, “Section française de l’internationale ouvrière”) and a bourgeois party, the Mouvement républicain populaire (MRP). This was a classic popular front: the PCF subordinated the working class to the so-called “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie, just as it had in 1936. The bourgeoisie, however, could not put up for long with a situation in which the PCF—a party allied with the Soviets, who occupied the eastern half of Europe—was the dominant party in parliament. Furthermore, early 1946 marked the official launching of the Cold War, an imperialist crusade whose ultimate aim was the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union.
At that same time, the PCF-SFIO majority in the Assembly adopted a new draft constitution, which was submitted to a referendum in May 1946. This draft constitution, which included a set of supportable democratic reforms (particularly the abolition of the Senate and more limited powers for the president of the Republic), deeply divided French society. All the bourgeois parties, including the MRP, called for a “no” vote, and the referendum became the focal point for a virulent anti-Communist campaign.
The Trotskyists of the Parti communiste internationaliste (PCI) were confronted with an unusual question: faced with the unanimous opposition of the bourgeoisie, should they vote “yes” in the referendum? By a narrow majority, the PCI leadership overturned its initial decision to boycott the referendum, and the party called for a “yes” vote two weeks before it took place. The call for a “yes” vote was opposed by a PCI minority as well as by the leadership of the Fourth International (FI) and its strongest section, the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
The International Communist League has re-examined the debates in the PCI and FI on the May 1946 referendum. We concluded that despite the PCI’s serious political problems, it was correct to call for a “yes” vote. The referendum occurred in a context where deep social divisions remained contained within a parliamentary framework. In other words, in the absence of a revolutionary situation, whether or not to call for a vote for a bourgeois constitution in a referendum was a tactical question, not a question of principle. In a motion adopted in December 2014, the International Executive Committee of the ICL stated:
“While we would not call or campaign for the establishment of a bourgeois constitution, when presented with a law or a constitutional amendment or even a new constitution, our duty is to look at whether or not its passage is in the interest of the working class, and then judge our tactics.
“In the case of the May 1946 referendum, it was not only consistent with our principles to vote for the constitution, but it was also tactically justified and intelligent. This constitution represented an amendment in a democratic direction of the previous constitution of the Third Republic; moreover, the unanimous anti-communist offensive of the bourgeois parties against the draft constitution, which was supported by the CP and by a majority of the SFIO, signified that in the event the constitution was rejected—reflecting a change, in favor of the bourgeoisie, in the relative strengths of the classes—the next constitution to be adopted was likely to be less democratic than in May (which was indeed the case).”
Today, this referendum is largely seen as a minor detail in history. But at the time, it divided French society and gave rise to serious differences within the Trotskyist movement. The questions in debate included: the relationship between democratic reforms and the proletarian class struggle; how to combat the raging anti-Communism of the day; and what governmental slogans to raise in a period of sharp class antagonisms when the Marxist vanguard led only a small minority of the working class. Re-examining these debates can provide rich lessons for future proletarian struggles. However, this requires an understanding of the historical context.
The Second World War and the Soviet Union
The Second World War, like the first, was an interimperialist conflict. Marxists were for the defeat of both capitalist camps, the Allies as well as the Axis powers. Defeat in such a conflict weakens, demoralizes and discredits the bourgeoisie, which opens up the opportunity, as Bolshevik leader Lenin said, for the proletariat to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”—in other words, into a fight for social revolution. The world proletariat had every reason to fear and hate Nazism. For the U.S. and Britain (and the Gaullists), however, the war was all about redividing the world—just as it was for their German and Japanese enemies (and the Vichy government). If the Allies succeeded in concealing this aim behind the sham of “democracy” and “anti-fascism,” it was not simply due to the barbarism of the Nazis but also because the PCF and other mass Stalinist parties politically supported the Western bourgeoisies.
The Soviet Union’s entry into the war on the Allied side after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941 did not in any way change the Trotskyists’ position of revolutionary defeatism toward the imperialist powers. The Soviet Union was a bureaucratically degenerated workers state embodying the social conquests of the workers revolution of October 1917. Its planned, centralized economy was not driven by the capitalist profit motive. Trotskyists called for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union, while remaining defeatist toward the imperialist Allies. In an August 1941 manifesto adopted by its Executive Committee, the FI declared: “The Fourth International has unceasingly proclaimed what the Soviet worker has grasped by his class instinct: unconditional defense of the Soviet Union! We defend the Soviet Union regardless of the betrayals by the bureaucracy and despite these betrayals” (Fourth International, October 1941).
At the same time, the FI called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and re-establish a regime of proletarian democracy and revolutionary internationalism. Internationalism permeated the Bolshevik Party that had led the October Revolution and forged the Communist International (Comintern, or CI) to lead the fight for world socialist revolution. But the revolutionary uprisings that shook Europe after 1917, especially the 1923 German Revolution, ended in defeat, primarily due to the betrayals of the Social Democrats and the absence of experienced and programmatically solid communist parties. The wave of demoralization that ensued among the Soviet working masses provided fertile ground for the emergence of a nationalist bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin, which usurped political power beginning in 1923-24.
The Stalinist dogma of building “socialism in one country,” promulgated in late 1924, meant rejecting the Marxist conception that socialism—i.e., a classless society—can only be achieved through world revolution. Instead, the nascent bureaucracy began adapting to the imperialists and their lackeys. Leon Trotsky and other Bolshevik Party cadres formed the Left Opposition and continued the fight for authentic Marxism, while Stalin consolidated his power by condemning many of those who had led the October 1917 Revolution to exile, prison and subsequently to death. Trotsky himself was thus assassinated by a Stalinist agent in August 1940.
The rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis in early 1933, and the criminal passivity of the leadership of the powerful Socialist and Communist parties, were a shock for the international workers movement. The Stalinists had withdrawn into the sectarian adventurism of the “Third Period,” refusing to challenge the social-democratic leaders to join them in united-front actions to crush the fascist menace. When the debacle in Germany did not provoke the slightest revolt in the Comintern, Trotsky pronounced it dead for the revolutionary cause and called for building new Marxist parties to pick up the banner of Bolshevism. It was on this basis that the Fourth International was founded in 1938.
Panicked by the Nazis’ victory, Stalin sought an alliance with the imperialist “democracies” (Britain, France and the U.S.). To this end, in 1935 he proclaimed that the “popular front against fascism”—i.e., coalitions of workers parties with parties of the “democratic” bourgeoisie—was now the priority. This was a return to the politics of class collaboration that the Bolsheviks had rejected. It was in the name of the Popular Front that the PCF betrayed in June 1936, and then again in 1944-45.
The PCF’s Betrayals
World War II began barely three years after the June 1936 general strike in France, which had opened up a prerevolutionary situation. The strike was betrayed by the PCF in the name of supporting the Popular Front government elected in May and led by the Socialists. To justify his betrayal, PCF leader Maurice Thorez notoriously proclaimed: “You have to know how to end a strike.” But the bourgeoisie had taken fright and, for them, better Hitler than workers revolution. Except for a tiny minority around de Gaulle, who took refuge in England in June 1940, the bourgeoisie would go on to accept the Nazi occupation and avidly support the establishment of the Vichy regime, led by Marshal Philippe Pétain and allied with Germany. This is depicted in Marcel Ophüls’ 1969 film, The Sorrow and the Pity.
On 1 September 1939, the French bourgeoisie declared war. The Soviet Union had just signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. The PCF was banned and many of its leaders were thrown in jail. The PCF leadership, despite an initial patriotic impulse to rally behind the French government in the war, realigned itself with Moscow and began denouncing the government while minimizing the Nazis’ crimes.
When Germany prevailed in June 1940 after several weeks of blitzkrieg, the French bourgeoisie feared workers revolution more than ever. In his excellent book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940-1944 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), Robert Paxton explained: “As soon as the French government itself vacated Paris on June 10, rumors of a Paris Soviet began to spread.” The Commander-in-Chief, General Weygand, even told a June 13 cabinet meeting that the Communists had seized Paris. But taking Paris was the last thing the PCF had in mind. It continued to try to maintain the balance between its two sometimes contradictory loyalties: supporting the capitalist order in France on the one hand and the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy on the other.
After France’s military defeat, the National Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to grant full powers to Pétain, who then implemented his own “National Revolution.” Paxton refutes the myth that the Vichy regime was a mere puppet of the Nazis: “Neither diplomats nor soldiers at Berlin cared a fig for Vichy’s internal acts as long as order was maintained and French wealth poured into the German war machine.” Without prodding from the Nazis, the Vichy regime took the initiative to introduce its own anti-Jewish laws and then actively participated in the mass deportations of Jews to the death camps.
The occupation threw the workers and lower layers of the petty bourgeoisie into poverty, while speculators and industrialists producing goods for the German Reich made fortunes. Strikes and demonstrations were violently repressed and their leaders executed or thrown into camps. Hundreds of thousands of workers became prisoners of war or were sent as “volunteers” to do forced labor in Germany. The French cops played an indispensable role in the roundups of Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, leftists and others, for the death camps.
The decisive turning point in the PCF’s policy was the breakup of the Hitler-Stalin pact with Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in June 1941. The PCF leadership then went back to seeking an alliance with a wing of the French bourgeoisie.
In spring 1943, the party leadership criminally joined the Conseil national de la résistance (CNR), the bourgeois political coalition just established by de Gaulle. The PCF assured de Gaulle that it had no intention of fighting for workers revolution. In January 1944, Thorez thus proclaimed: “My party would not dream of taking power, not now, nor during the Liberation, nor during the country’s period of convalescence and recovery” (quoted in Philippe Buton, Les lendemains qui déchantent: Le Parti communiste français à la Libération [Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1993]).
With thousands of workers having joined the maquis [resistance] to evade forced labor in Germany, the PCF sought to take control of the heterogeneous guerrilla groups by forming the Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP), which it subordinated to the CNR. The PCF also committed acts of sabotage and individual terrorism, including the assassination of rank-and-file German soldiers, thereby fueling vile anti-German chauvinism. Thousands of PCF partisans were killed by the Vichy police and the Gestapo. By the war’s end, the PCF had gained tremendous authority in the working class, in large part due to its self-styled image as the “Parti des fusillés” [party of the executed].
De Gaulle, who had bet on the Anglo-Saxon imperialists instead of the Germans, was initially completely isolated. However, public opinion in France was shifting as a result of the abuses of Vichy and the Gestapo, and with the Red Army gaining the upper hand on the Eastern Front beginning with the battle of Stalingrad. To buy the PCF’s allegiance, in April 1944 de Gaulle reluctantly proposed that its leaders join his government-in-exile. The PCF accepted and was still in de Gaulle’s provisional government when he was toted back to France a few months later by the U.S. and British armies.
In August 1944, de Gaulle arrived in Paris and proclaimed himself the “savior” of a devastated country. On paper, the provisional government gave him enormous powers. But “liberation committees” composed of forces allied with the PCF had seized control of many towns, killing or imprisoning numerous bourgeois officials who had collaborated with Germany. The only army de Gaulle could count on if confronted by the working class was the U.S. and British troops. In reality, he could do nothing without the PCF’s support, which Thorez & Co. loyally pledged. In November 1944, the PCF’s main newspaper, L’Humanité, published the decree announcing that those who did not turn in their arms risked being court-martialed. In January 1945, Thorez called for “one state, one army, one police force”: workers were to turn in their weapons. Finally, the PCF helped de Gaulle integrate the various Resistance militias into the capitalist state.
The PCF’s crucial role in coming to the aid of capitalism, including by defending France’s colonial possessions, was in keeping with Stalin’s policies. Stalin approved the postwar division of Europe at the February 1945 Yalta Conference with the U.S. and Britain and at Potsdam in July of the same year. Capitalist rule was to be maintained in West Europe in exchange for recognition of Soviet occupation in most Central and East European countries. Almost all of those countries later became deformed workers states.
The Stalinist leaders in Italy and France betrayed obvious opportunities for proletarian revolution. In Greece, it took a bloody civil war for the imperialists and their Greek monarchist/fascist underlings to succeed in crushing the proletariat (see “Greece 1940s: A Revolution Betrayed,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 64, Summer 2014).
From World War II to the Cold War
In June 1945, Benoît Frachon, a PCF leader and deputy secretary-general of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT, the PCF-affiliated trade-union federation), boasted to Richard Eldridge, an attaché of the U.S. Department of Labor, that if there was still discontent in the working class, the government or the Socialists were to blame. Speaking of the Communists, he said: “It is we who prevented a general strike” (quoted in Irwin M. Wall, The United States and the Making of Postwar France, 1945-1954 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991]). Frachon had good reason to boast. In France at that time, there were five million unionized workers—nearly half the working class—and 80 percent of them were in the CGT.
In the summer of 1945, although postwar unrest had ebbed, the bourgeoisie still truly feared a workers revolution. The Soviet Army that had crushed the Nazis was less than 400 kilometers from the French border, and revolutionary upheavals continued in Greece and Italy. Tensions arose between the U.S. and the French bourgeoisie, but when it came to anti-Communism they were entirely in agreement. The U.S. feared that the Red Army would drive deeper into Europe, while the French bourgeoisie had to fight social unrest and widespread support for the Communists in the proletariat. The U.S. occupation forces in West Europe, assisted by the British, provided the indispensable military might under cover of which the capitalists, with the aid of the Stalinists, could disarm the proletariat.
The U.S. ambassador to France alerted American authorities to the PCF’s popularity, and the director of the Central Intelligence Group (predecessor of the CIA) told President Truman that “the Communists now have sufficient strength to seize power in France whenever they may deem it desirable to do so” (quoted in Daniele Ganser, NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe [New York: Frank Cass, 2005]). Washington already had a plan for an anti-Communist “Free Trade Union Committee,” which had been approved at an American Federation of Labor (AFL) congress in November 1944. In November 1945, Irving Brown, the AFL’s chief of European operations, arrived in Paris and immediately campaigned to discredit and split the CGT. Four months later, Winston Churchill, the man who had ruled Britain during the war, declared while visiting the U.S.: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
When the war in Europe was drawing to an end and Hitler’s armies were disintegrating, prisoners and deportees began returning to France en masse. De Gaulle feared that this influx would lead to yet more instability, so he organized municipal elections in April-May 1945 to finally dismantle the “liberation committees,” the extraparliamentary organs that had emerged from the Resistance. Legislative elections were held in October, at a time when the PCF’s authority among workers, and even among peasants, was at its height. The PCF won 26 percent of the vote, becoming the largest party in the National Assembly. De Gaulle needed the PCF’s cooperation to pass the legislation he wanted. This included drawing up a new constitution for a Fourth Republic. A referendum held in conjunction with the legislative elections approved the transformation of parliament into a constituent assembly.
The PCF needed only the Socialists in order to have a majority in the Assembly. But the Stalinist leaders insisted that the MRP, the main bourgeois party, be included in the coalition. The fact that a popular front includes a bourgeois party (even a rump one) serves to guarantee that the coalition will not go beyond the framework of the bourgeois order. The reformist leaders are thus provided with an alibi to hide their own acceptance of anti-working-class measures, and of the capitalist order more broadly. And the PCF deputies joined with the MRP and the SFIO to elect de Gaulle head of the government.
The PCF used its enhanced authority to get the masses to accept the extreme hardships of postwar life. In 1944, gasoline consumption was one-tenth the prewar level, while that of coal was down to a third. Bread and other food staples continued to be rationed until 1949. A wage hike of 25 percent was granted in 1946, but food prices had increased by nearly 70 percent. Throughout this period, the PCF worked to prevent strikes. In July 1945, Thorez told miners: “Production, production, and more production, making coal—today, this is the highest form of your class duty and your duty as Frenchmen” (quoted in Philippe Buton, Les lendemains qui déchantent).
However, the workers still had illusions in the PCF, which notably took credit for the creation of the Social Security [national health care] system by its minister Ambroise Croizat. But the PCF played its full role in the bourgeois government to rebuild the French capitalist economy, spreading the illusion that this was about fighting for jobs and food. The PCF greatly expanded its base, which grew from 60,000 members in August 1944 to one million the following year. In 1946, PCF members held 80 percent of the leadership positions in the CGT.
The PCF was then the largest Stalinist party in the capitalist world, publishing 12 daily papers and 47 weeklies. L’Humanité was the country’s leading paper in terms of print run. De Gaulle was hesitant to do anything that might provoke the PCF to unleash the militancy of its working-class base. Meanwhile, the Socialists had lost a lot of influence, especially in their traditional industrial strongholds. Even the bourgeois parties were obliged to adopt leftist verbiage. The MRP presented itself as a progressive party, even though everyone knew that voting for the MRP meant voting for de Gaulle.
Problems of French Trotskyism
Thanks to the PCF’s betrayal, the bourgeoisie essentially managed to return things to normal and re-establish bourgeois parliamentarism. But the situation remained far from stable. What was missing to set the PCF’s working-class base against its leadership and open the road to revolutionary struggle was a politically solid Trotskyist party with sufficient roots in the working class.
French Trotskyism was handicapped from birth by the absence of a stable collective leadership. It had been formed out of successive and heterogeneous waves of PCF oppositionists who merged with much difficulty to become the Ligue communiste in 1930. This was in contrast to the nucleus of American Trotskyism, which came out of the faction led by James P. Cannon in the American Communist Party. About half of that faction was won over to Trotskyism en bloc in 1928, and Cannon succeeded in building a solid Trotskyist organization in the U.S., the strongest and best politically equipped section of the Fourth International from the 1930s on. For 35 years, this organization stood up to the pressures of conducting revolutionary work in that bastion of imperialism. The continuity of revolutionary Trotskyism runs through that party to the ICL today.
In contrast, French Trotskyism was marked by dilettantism and egotistical bickering, which prevented it from playing a significant role in the June 1936 general strike. At its founding congress in 1938, the Fourth International passed a resolution on the French section, the Parti ouvrier internationaliste (POI, Internationalist Workers Party), which stated:
“The inadequacies of the POI’s leadership are shown by an increasing organizational letdown, with, as sequel, the existence of a certain ‘revolutionary’ amateurism, the lack of a serious party administration, of a normally functioning national treasury, and of a [POI newspaper] Lutte Ouvrière editorship which is stable and full of the spirit of emulation.”
—“Resolution on the Tasks of the French Section,” printed in Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973)
Cannon was sent to France in early 1939 to remedy this situation and steer the POI toward bold, energetic Bolshevik work targeting the PSOP (Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan [Workers and Peasants Socialist Party]), a left split from the SFIO. Cannon spent several weeks there to transmit his substantial experience in genuine Bolshevik mass work and to try to forge a Trotskyist leadership. But the French section completely ignored him and opposed, through every conceivable dilatory tactic, the urgent recommendations from Trotsky and the FI to enter the PSOP and fight there for the Fourth International (see the 1983 LTF pamphlet, “La question française”—Discours inédit (avril 1939) de James P. Cannon, fondateur du trotskysme américain [James P. Cannon, “The French question,” April 1939, printed in SWP Internal Bulletin Vol. I, No. 10, June 1939]).
The French Trotskyist movement was thus very weak and fragmented at the start of World War II. Some of its cadres, such as Jean Rous, openly abandoned Trotskyism at that time. Others such as Barta (from whose group the current organization Lutte ouvrière originated) founded a small semi-syndicalist organization. One of the main leaders of a group that originated in the POI was Yvan Craipeau, against whom Trotsky had written a fierce polemic condemning his refusal to defend the Soviet Union in the coming war (“Once Again: The USSR and Its Defense,” 4 November 1937). And then there was the group founded by Raymond Molinier, who was expelled in late 1935 for indiscipline resulting from his ultra-opportunist policy toward the SFIO. The founding congress of the FI called for Molinier’s “unconditional” expulsion as a precondition for any reunification with his group.
All these groups experienced serious political difficulties during the war. The POI’s initial policy was to subordinate the mobilization of the working class to the Gaullist wing of the imperialist bourgeoisie. For their part, the Molinierists denied that there was any element of national oppression in occupied France, and some of them reportedly even entered Vichyist organizations. The Barta group was similarly contemptuous of the national question, while using it as a pretext to renounce defense of the USSR as soon as the Red Army advanced beyond the borders of the Soviet Union in 1944.
Nonetheless, some Trotskyists fought to uphold a revolutionary internationalist proletarian perspective, in sharp contrast to the PCF’s chauvinism. They carried out particularly heroic internationalist work toward German soldiers stationed in France, publishing and distributing the German-language newspaper Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier). This journal invited German soldiers—mostly workers in uniform—to fraternize and called on them to turn against their own imperialism. Many Trotskyist cadres paid with their lives for this work. (To learn more about French Trotskyism during this period, see the introduction to Prometheus Research Series No. 2, “Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’,” February 1989. See also “Trotskyists in World War Two,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 38-39, Summer 1986.)
By the end of the war, the Trotskyist movement had been badly weakened by the multifaceted repression of the French state, the Gestapo and Stalinist goons. The reunification of the former POI with the Molinierists to create the PCI took place without a thoroughgoing assessment of the problems experienced during the war. The scarcity of tested cadres allowed elements like Pierre Frank, one of Molinier’s former lieutenants, and Yvan Craipeau to gain top leadership positions in the organization. It also allowed the Greek adventurer Michel Pablo (Raptis) to take over the leadership of the FI’s European Secretariat and then the Paris-based International Secretariat. At bottom, in Europe the continuity of Trotskyism had been broken.
The American Trotskyist party, Cannon’s SWP, should have assumed much greater responsibility for the leadership of the Fourth International. Cannon was in fact the main leader of the FI after Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. Together with Trotsky, he had led a crucial fight in the SWP in 1939-40 against the Shachtman-Burnham faction for defense of the Soviet Union in the world war. The SWP leadership had emerged intact from the war years. But instead of demonstrating that it was up to the task of leading the International, it withdrew into an isolation that was not truly imposed on it.
The Trotskyists After the War
The French Trotskyists’ size and influence in the working class at the end of the war were minuscule compared to the PCF. The PCI was far from having a homogeneous program. A series of fights had essentially corrected the rightist deviations that bent in the direction of supporting the pro-Gaullist Resistance. But differences remained on questions as crucial as the class nature of the Soviet Union, which some leaders (including Craipeau) considered state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist.
When the occupation ended, the PCI struggled to build factory committees that could become organs of dual power and fight for socialist revolution. The Trotskyists faced many political obstacles, particularly the pervasive idea that the imperialist Allies had waged a progressive, democratic war against fascism. Moreover, the reformists, and especially the Stalinists, came out of World War II with greatly enhanced authority. This situation was in contrast to World War I, which had utterly discredited the Social Democrats.
To combat the PCF’s attempts to channel the aspirations of the working class into parliamentarism, the PCI raised the call for a “PS-PC-CGT government.” This demand was a powerful tool to set the base of the workers movement, especially the base of the PCF, against its leadership by exacerbating the contradiction between the aspirations and objective interests of the working class, on the one hand, and the policies and actions of its sellout leadership on the other. The inclusion of the CGT—a mass trade union, not a parliamentary party—in the slogan reflected the extraparliamentary nature of this perspective; it evoked a regime based on workers councils or other mass organizations of the proletariat.
The call for a PS-PC-CGT government, linked with other transitional demands, was aimed at directing the proletariat’s struggle toward a workers government in opposition to the bourgeois popular front. An example of this approach is expressed in an article in La Vérité (25 December 1944) that presented the key demands of the PCI’s “action program”:
“A reconstruction plan drawn up by the CGT, implemented under the control of workers committees;
“Nationalization of the banks and trusts without compensation or buyouts;
“A government of the P.S., P.C., C.G.T.;
“Arm the people, workers militias;
“United international action by the proletariat.”
The “PS-PC-CGT government” slogan had a precedent: after the February 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks called for a government of the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks that would be responsible to the soviets. Following the overthrow of the tsar by the February Revolution, a situation of dual power had been created: the soviets of workers and soldiers on one side and the bourgeois Provisional Government on the other. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks put forward the slogan “all power to the soviets,” while the SRs and Mensheviks, who had a majority in the soviets, supported the Provisional Government, which they entered in May. The demand for an SR-Menshevik government was therefore integrally linked to the call for power to the soviets. Trotsky explained in Lessons of October (1924) that the Bolsheviks’ tactic exposed the SRs and Mensheviks before the proletariat for wanting “to ‘exert pressure’ on the ruling bourgeoisie, a ‘pressure’ so calculated as to remain within the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime.” In The History of the Russian Revolution (1932), Trotsky noted that when the Bolsheviks had won a majority in the Petrograd soviet in September, and then in other places, the slogan “‘Power to the Soviets’...received a new meaning: All power to the Bolshevik soviets.”
The Question of the Constituent Assembly
Despite the correct “PS-PC-CGT government” slogan, the PCI’s action program adopted in November 1944 at the end of the Nazi occupation also called for a constituent assembly—in other words, for the election of a new bourgeois government. This call was presented in opposition to the unelected “Consultative Assembly” that was an integral part of de Gaulle’s provisional government.
Unlike truly democratic demands, such as abolition of the monarchy, the right of self-determination, etc., the call for a constituent assembly can only be a trap for the workers. As we explained in “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand,” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13):
“While the Constituent Assembly played a progressive role in the great French bourgeois revolution of 1789, historical experience since has demonstrated that this ceased to be the case thereafter. Beginning with the Revolutions of 1848, in every situation where a constituent assembly or similar bourgeois legislative body was convened in the context of a proletarian insurgency its aim was to rally the forces of counterrevolution against the proletariat and to liquidate proletarian power. This was evident in the Paris Commune of 1871, the October Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918-19. Though never subsequently codified by the CI as a general statement of principle, the thrust of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership following the October Revolution was to treat the constituent assembly as a counterrevolutionary agency.”
The Trotskyists’ agitation for a constituent assembly at the close of the war was wrong, and it exacerbated the political confusion inside the PCI. There was very strong opposition to this demand inside the PCI, particularly from former Molinierists.
The call for a constituent assembly was only one aspect of the PCI’s generally correct propaganda at that time. But this demand was put forward more and more prominently as the October 1945 legislative elections approached. These elections were accompanied by a referendum on whether to turn the new parliament into a constituent assembly. The PCI called for a “yes” vote, and for committees to defend the constituent assembly in the (imaginary) scenario of its convocation being threatened.
The confused arguments raised by the PCI are telling about the contradiction between calling for a constituent assembly and struggling for a workers revolution based on soviets. According to an October 1945 PCI pamphlet on the elections, the constituent assembly would have “two urgent tasks to fulfill: First, get the economy going to provide work and bread for everyone. Second, enact a democratic constitution, which would consecrate the sovereignty of the popular masses and ensure their direct and permanent control over the affairs of the state” (our translation). Implicitly, the working class could run the bourgeois state in its own interests.
In fact, the creation of a constituent assembly after the October 1945 referendum in France was one of the factors that contributed to deflecting potential revolutionary struggle into the dead end of parliamentarism. In the months leading up to the May 1946 referendum on the new constitution, strikes in France were rare and political life was confined to the parliamentary sphere.
Conflict over the Constitution
The ruling parties had opposing views about the new constitution. De Gaulle, who had the MRP under his thumb, wanted a bonapartist constitution tailor-made for him, which the PCF refused to go along with. The PCF and the MRP introduced their own proposals, with the Socialists serving as mediators. The PCF got enough support from the Socialists to block the MRP’s most reactionary and anti-Communist proposals. The SFIO helped block the MRP’s proposals for state funding of religious schools and other measures to bolster the church and the family. They also supported the PCF’s call for a unicameral legislature—i.e., without a senate—and weak presidential powers. The SFIO leaders had to accept some of the PCF’s demands because they needed the latter’s influence in the proletariat to get workers to accept plans for capitalist “reconstruction.” De Gaulle ended up resigning in January 1946, denouncing the “regime of the parties.”
Weakened by his resignation, the MRP wanted to leave the government. But the officer corps, following the “advice” of American military leaders working behind the scenes in France, forced the MRP to stay in office. The historian Georgette Elgey cites a letter from the head of the French general staff, General Billotte, to Maurice Schumann, leader of the MRP:
“This solution [a PCF-SFIO government], which would very quickly lead to the SFIO disappearing completely behind the PC, letting the latter take over the political leadership, has been objectively examined by the Anglo-Saxon military officers. They consider it a very grave threat to the rearguard of their occupation troops, and as likely to hasten a possible military conflict with the USSR.... I now think that the tripartite system under Socialist leadership is the lesser evil that will allow us to wait out the elections without too much damage being done. In the meantime, France can perhaps be stabilized.”
—Georgette Elgey, La république des illusions,
1945-1951 (Paris: Fayard, 1965)
This perfectly illustrates the role of bourgeois parties in a popular front: They serve to guarantee the maintenance of capitalism. Naturally, the MRP agreed to remain in the government.
The PCF hypocritically proposed a declaration on private property that left the door open for the expropriation of some private companies. Regarding the colonies, the PCF and SFIO timidly put forward the idea of some sort of federalism while speechifying about the “doctrine of assimilation.” What the PCF refused to do was call for unconditional liberation of the colonies—the only revolutionary Marxist position. In fact, the PCF was part of the government during the May 1945 Sétif and Guelma massacres in Algeria under French colonial rule. They remained in the government as French imperialism embarked on the war in Indochina against Ho Chi Minh’s forces, and while tens of thousands of people were massacred in Madagascar after the March 1947 uprising.
The Stalinists made concession after concession to the MRP. Yet the draft constitution did include substantial democratic reforms, certainly when compared with the reactionary constitutional laws of 1875 that established the Third Republic after the 1871 Paris Commune was crushed. The first 39 articles were largely devoted to democratic rights, and colonial subjects were to have the same economic and social rights and freedoms as French citizens (but the draft was in fact noncommittal regarding their political rights). It also made provision for a unicameral legislature and a weak presidential executive, despite the MRP’s objections.
On April 3, the MRP’s François de Menthon resigned from his post as rapporteur of the constitutional commission. On April 15, the MRP declared that it would refuse to vote for the draft, which was approved by the PCF-SFIO majority a few days later, shortly before the May 5 referendum. A raging anti-Communist campaign was launched against the PCF: “The Constitution that the SFIO and PCF wanted was solely identified with communism, dictatorship and fascism. The ‘no’ vote, on the other hand, was presented as a vote for freedom” (Pierre Letamendia, Le Mouvement républicain populaire: Le MRP, histoire d’un grand parti français [Paris: Beauchesne, 1995]).
In light of this right-wing offensive, the draft constitution was rejected by a narrow margin, with a turnout of almost 80 percent. According to one poll, at least 33 percent voted no “to oppose communism.” With anti-Communist hysteria at fever pitch, part of the SFIO backpedaled in the campaign for the constitution. Ten days before the vote, one of the party’s national leaders sent a telegram to every Socialist federation forbidding them to campaign jointly with the PCF for a “yes” vote. But in the end, only 18 percent of SFIO members voted “no.” And while the colonial lobbies denounced the constitution as a threat, the “yes” vote was overwhelming in the few colonies where the native population actually had the right to vote.
Jacques Fauvet, longtime editor of Le Monde and a prominent ideologue for French capitalism, commented in his book La IVe République (Paris: Fayard, 1959) that if the referendum had passed, “France would therefore have been governed by an Assembly at the only time in its pre- or postwar history when the Socialists and Communists had an absolute majority of elected representatives and close to a majority of the electorate.”
The working class had patiently accepted the massive increase in working hours and reduction of real wages imposed by the PCF and SFIO, which claimed that these measures would help rebuild industry and strengthen French imperialism relative to the U.S. and other countries. But the standard of living had fallen below prewar levels and the working masses were close to starvation. This was not the “liberation” they had fought for, and in 1946 they began to run out of patience. Adopting the constitution in the face of the bourgeoisie’s anti-Communist campaign could have rekindled class-struggle proletarian militancy. That is why it was so important for the bourgeoisie to defeat the draft constitution and thereby weaken the PCF.
The PCI and the Referendum
The PCI took up the question of the constitutional referendum at a March 1946 Central Committee (CC) meeting, which decided to call for a boycott (in fact, for abstention). In an article titled “Against the Tripartite Plebiscite: Boycott the Referendum” (La Vérité, 13 April 1946), the PCI declared: “Today, the leaders of the French Communist Party and the Socialist Party are asking workers not only to vote for a constitution that is bourgeois and anti-democratic but also to sanction the policy of three-party rule which, for the last ten months, has done nothing but worsen the condition of the working masses.”
Throughout the entire period of negotiations over the draft constitution, the PCI never considered voting “yes.” But events were rapidly changing the context, and therefore the corresponding tactical approach that Trotskyists needed to take. The PCI was divided into two main tendencies: one around Pierre Frank, Marcel Bleibtreu and Pierre Lambert, and the other—a rightist minority—mainly centered around Craipeau and Albert Demazière. Once the MRP withdrew its support to the draft constitution and the anti-Communist crusade began, the minority started to raise arguments for voting “yes.” As the polarization between the bourgeois parties and the PCF deepened, others in the PCI also began to reconsider their position.
On April 20, the day after the PCF and SFIO had voted in favor of the draft constitution in the National Assembly, Lambert gave a report to the PCI Political Bureau, the resident leadership in Paris. While he began by saying that the PCI should “wait to take a position” on the referendum, he ended up supporting a motion for a “yes” vote, which passed by five votes to four. At an April 23 emergency meeting, the CC narrowly approved this position. Much of Lambert’s report to that meeting was published in an article in La Vérité (26 April 1946). The article mentioned the capitulations of the PCF to the MRP and stated that the PCI “will vote YES in the May 5 referendum, not because we want to endorse the successive capitulations of the workers parties, not because we are supporters of the Constitution, that bastard child of tripartite politics, not because we accept the Union française [colonial French Union] and the enslavement of colonial peoples, but because what’s posed is a plebiscite for the parties of reaction or for the workers parties.”
To examine questions of constitutional reform, including by referenda, the starting point for Marxists is what can advance the proletarian class struggle. The May 1946 referendum in France was one of those situations where voting “yes” was both in accordance with Marxist principles and appropriate. From the standpoint of the workers and oppressed, the draft constitution was a positive change to the existing bourgeois order. And it was a lot better than the one that was finally adopted in October 1946, instituting the Fourth Republic.
The PCI’s decision to vote “yes” in the referendum was an application of Leninist tactics. In forging the Bolshevik Party as the essential instrument for socialist revolution, Lenin denounced the “constitutional illusions” fostered by the SRs and Mensheviks, who claimed that adopting a democratic constitution would stabilize Russia and make the state accountable to the people. Lenin explained that with or without a constitution, the bourgeois state would continue to attack the workers and the oppressed, but that “it would be the height of absurdity for revolutionary Social-Democrats to refrain from fighting for reforms in general, including ‘constitutional reform’” (“A Turn in World Politics,” 31 January 1917—before the outbreak of the revolution). For Lenin, “The Marxist solution of the problem of democracy is for the proletariat to utilise all democratic institutions and aspirations in its class struggle against the bourgeoisie in order to prepare for its overthrow and assure its own victory” (“Reply to P. Kievsky,” August-September 1916).
A Question of Tactics, Not Principles
On April 22, the International Secretariat (I.S.), the leading body of the Fourth International, then based in Paris, passed a motion denouncing the idea of voting “yes.” This was read into a meeting of the PCI Central Committee the next day. The main leaders of the postwar I.S. were Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel (Germain), leader of the Belgian section. Both continued to oppose the PCI’s position in the party discussions that went on for several months.
The I.S. motion argued that the PCI’s line was “a typical opportunist deviation” and that the only principled position was to oppose something that “sanctions the bourgeois character of the state.” According to this motion, “The rejection of the Constitution will not result in the passage of another and more reactionary Constitution nor in the handing of the power of the Communists and Socialists over to the bourgeoisie, but simply in an elaboration of a new Constitution by a new Constituent Assembly” (SWP Internal Bulletin Vol. VIII, No. 7, June 1946).
For starters, the FI leadership was wrong to say that the PCI was violating a principle. A Marxist principle is a distillation of the lessons of the class struggle: it is adopted because going against it would invariably mean acting against the interests of the working class. If France had been in the midst of a prerevolutionary or revolutionary situation, the question of fighting for soviets or other organs of insurrectionary struggle would have been posed. To call for adopting a bourgeois constitution in those circumstances would indeed have meant betraying the proletariat. But that was not the case in France in April-May 1946, unlike the first few months after the end of the Nazi occupation.
In its criticisms of the PCI’s position, the I.S. did not take into account that the French Trotskyists were trying to confront the political problems posed by the referendum. To vote “no” would have meant making a bloc with the right wing. To call for a boycott or abstention would have been sterile and abstract. The call for a “yes” vote was consistent with the call to break with the bourgeois MRP and form a PS-PC-CGT government. A breakup of the popular front would have exposed the reformist workers parties, which would have lost their main excuse for the betrayal of subordinating the working class to the bourgeoisie. This would thereby have advanced the class struggle. Moreover, the adoption of the PCF-SFIO draft constitution by the population would have struck a blow against the Cold War campaign in France.
The Debate in the IEC
The American SWP also opposed the PCI’s decision. In June 1946, its representatives on the International Executive Committee (IEC) voted for a resolution stating that the referendum was merely “an electoral manoeuver of the bourgeoisie” and that the PCI’s position “contributed to nurturing parliamentary illusions” (SWP Internal Bulletin Vol. VIII, No. 9, July 1946).
Faced with a new situation in the aftermath of the war, Cannon and his supporters were slow to recognize that the immediate revolutionary opportunities in France had passed. In the U.S., they had reaffirmed a proletarian, revolutionary stance, but they had grandiose perspectives for the SWP and expected an imminent increase in proletarian struggles. This was in spite of the fact that the American bourgeoisie had come out of the war in a greatly strengthened position, both domestically and on a world scale.
Within the SWP there was an opposition to Cannon, led by Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow, that was rapidly moving to the right. The opposition supported the PCI’s call for a “yes” vote in the constitutional referendum, which pushed Cannon to oppose the PCI. Cannon rigidly believed that Europe was heading either toward proletarian revolution or some variant of fascism or bonapartism. Goldman and Morrow, on the other hand, recognized that the capitalist class could maintain its rule through the sham of bourgeois democracy, and that this would reinforce democratic illusions in the working class. These empirical observations were correct. But Goldman and Morrow were on a political trajectory that liquidated the Trotskyist program of socialist revolution into a series of democratic demands. For example, in 1945 Morrow advised the French Trotskyists: “During the fight for legality, do not be afraid of making Vérité appear entirely as an organ fighting for nothing more than real democracy” (SWP Internal Bulletin Vol. VII, No. 12, November 1945).
Goldman and Morrow had proclaimed that a period of bourgeois-democratic rule was necessary in West Europe and had renounced unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union. These positions were closely linked: the European bourgeois democracies were the anti-Soviet allies of American imperialism. Morrow also called for the French Trotskyists to liquidate their forces into the SFIO, or even into a wing of the Mouvement de libération nationale, a bourgeois-nationalist movement. After exiting the SWP in 1946, Goldman and Morrow quickly abandoned Marxism and became pro-imperialist supporters of the Cold War.
While Goldman and Morrow embraced the postwar democratic order, Cannon and the SWP majority, despite some disorientation, remained committed to the program of proletarian revolution and to building a Leninist party in the U.S. to lead it. However, the SWP displayed a sterile orthodoxy, especially in regard to the renewed authority of the European Stalinists, and a certain parochialism. Like the FI’s new European leadership around Michel Pablo, the SWP impressionistically refused to recognize that proletarian struggles in West Europe had been defeated for the immediate period. In April 1946, just prior to the French referendum, the FI held its first postwar conference, which adopted a manifesto declaring that at that moment “the crisis of society has reached unprecedented depth and breadth.” The resolution added:
“In a situation which is undoubtedly as favourable for revolution as never before, both because of its profound crisis character as well as its universal extent, does the party exist which is necessary to lead the revolution successfully?...
“It is a matter of a whole revolutionary period taking place on a world-wide scale. The capitalist world has no other way out except its prolonged death agony.”
—Workers International News, April-May 1946
To say that the capitalists were incapable of re-establishing their order and that workers’ struggles were going ever forward was simply unrealistic. Moreover, the later decline of the Stalinist parties did not result from a massive leftward shift in the working class but from a bludgeoning by bourgeois reaction.
Discussion on the French referendum continued at a June 1946 IEC plenum. Jock Haston, leader of the British Revolutionary Communist Party, put forward a resolution in defense of a “yes” vote, placing the question back in its appropriate framework:
“At all stages of the class struggle it is our duty to develop and struggle for the proletarian form of state and to seek the overturn of the bourgeois parliamentary state. But soviets arise out of the class struggle at a given stage in history. While advocating and struggling for soviets and the dictatorship of the proletariat, revolutionaries have the duty to base their tactics upon the class struggle, not as we would like it to be, but as it really exists.”
The resolution concluded:
“The majority of the PCI correctly understood this problem and gave the correct directive to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum. They did not create illusions in the bourgeois state thereby, but on the contrary, used this opportunity to expose the bourgeois character of the state. They did not create illusions in the mass workers’ parties, but on the contrary, used the opportunity to expose the capitulation of these parties to the MRP. At the same time they sought to use the conflict to drive a wedge between the workers’ parties and the MRP, and to create a bridge to the workers who support the mass parties. From the standpoint of principle, our French comrades of the majority were on solid ground. From the standpoint of tactics, their insight was superior to that of their critics.”
—SWP Internal Bulletin Vol. VIII, No. 9, July 1946
These arguments are sound. Although this resolution was defeated at the IEC plenum, it was later adopted by the PCI Central Committee.
Confusion on the “Workers Government” Slogan
Some of the arguments put forward by the supporters of a “yes” vote in the PCI leadership were far from being entirely correct. For example, in his report to the Political Bureau on 20 April 1946, Lambert raised the idea of an “anti-capitalist” constitution, an absurdity under bourgeois rule. It does not appear that the Trotskyists seriously examined to what extent the draft constitution represented a democratic reform in comparison with the Constitution of the Third Republic. Their argument was basically limited to taking the side of the workers parties (the “yes” camp) against the MRP and the bourgeoisie (the “no” camp).
In fact, both the “yes” supporters and their opponents displayed real confusion regarding governmental slogans. Sometimes they called for a “Socialist-Communist government,” thereby omitting the CGT, and sometimes for a “PS-PC government based on the CGT.” This disappeared the non-parliamentary, and therefore revolutionary, axis of the “PS-PC-CGT government” slogan.
We in the ICL recognize that there was a connection between voting “yes” in the referendum in the midst of a sharp class polarization and calling for an extraparliamentary PS-PC-CGT government: these linked positions would serve to advance class struggle against the bourgeoisie and its state. But the Craipeau-Demazière right wing coupled its support for a “yes” vote with governmental slogans formulated in a parliamentary framework. As long as the PCF and SFIO had a majority in the National Assembly, the PCI’s rightist elements called on them to “break with the bourgeoisie and form a government against the bourgeois parties.” But after the PCF and SFIO lost their majority in June 1946, Craipeau & Co. concluded that since the slogan of a PS-PC-CGT government could not be achieved by parliamentary means, it “must be abandoned” (PCI Internal Bulletin No. 30, undated [our translation]).
A set of draft theses written for the PCI’s Third Congress in September 1946 by Frank, Bleibtreu and Lambert correctly defended the extraparliamentary aspect of the slogan:
“To defend the slogan of a ‘PS-PC-CGT government’ by giving it a parliamentary content means defending a bourgeois government (British Labour government). It means abandoning our revolutionary position of irrevocable opposition to every government of the bourgeoisie.”
—PCI Internal Bulletin No. 28, undated (our translation)
For its part, the Mandel-Pablo FI leadership declared that “the slogan ‘For a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government’ is concretized in the formula systematically addressed to the old conservative leadership: ‘For a Socialist-Communist Government! Break with the Bourgeoisie! Take Power, All the Power!’” (Fourth International, June 1946). They argued that such a government could “in exceptional conditions” arise from a parliamentary combination of reformist workers parties. Indeed, Mandel claimed that one of the reasons it was necessary to reject the May 1946 constitution was that the latter would freeze the situation, whereas without it, the workers could pressure the PS-PC parliamentary government to take anti-capitalist measures:
“You must then compel the Socialists and the Communists to take full power. If they are to be able to move ahead and to attack the monopolies, they must not have their hands tied in advance by the adoption of a constitution which is designed solely to perpetuate, after the elections, the disastrous coalition with the MRP.”
—“The Position of the French Party on the Referendum,” SWP International Information Bulletin, Vol. I, No. 1, September 1946
And Pablo wrote:
“But can power be won through the parliamentary road? This hypothesis is not theoretically excluded in certain exceptional conditions. What is important is not how a ‘workers’ government is formed, but the kind of action (purely parliamentary or revolutionary) which it undertakes afterwards and the program it tries to carry out.”
—“On the Slogan of ‘Workers’ and Farmers’ Government’,” Fourth International, February 1947
These arguments have been utterly refuted by history. It has been shown time and again that the proletariat cannot come to power through the bourgeois parliament or any other institution of the capitalist state. Drawing the lessons of the 1848-51 revolution, Karl Marx explained in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) that up until then “all revolutions perfected this [repressive state] machine instead of breaking it.” The task of the proletariat is to overthrow the capitalist state through workers revolution and establish its own class power.
In putting forward their revisionist conclusions, Pablo and Mandel were able to draw on a confused discussion at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. The “Theses on Tactics” from this Congress described various forms of “workers governments,” including parliamentary governments with a social-democratic majority and coalitions involving a Communist party, as well as a “genuine revolutionary proletarian workers government, which, in its pure form, can be embodied only through the Communist Party” (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 56, Spring 2001). For revolutionary Marxists, the slogan of a workers government can be nothing other than a popular expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The defeat of the “yes” vote in the May 1946 referendum was clearly a victory for the French capitalists. Anti-Communism was given a green light, fueling the Cold War. Emboldened, the bourgeoisie redoubled its brutality in the colonies. In Vietnam, French troops bombarded Haiphong in October 1946, leaving 20,000 dead. The massacre in Madagascar took place four months later.
In France, too, the defeat of the referendum had negative consequences for the working class. In the June 1946 legislative elections, the SFIO and PCF lost their majority in the new Constituent Assembly. (The PCF maintained its strength overall but lost votes in its proletarian strongholds in the North and in Paris.) The revised constitution that was approved by a new referendum in October was much more reactionary than the one that had been rejected. It included, among other things, a separate upper house (Senate) and greater presidential powers.
Proletarian struggles picked up again, beginning with the Renault strike in April-May 1947. The PCF-CGT leadership initially denounced the strike as the work of “anarcho-Hitlerite-Trotskyite saboteurs” but was ultimately forced to support it to avoid losing all credibility. Realizing that the PCF was no longer able to contain the working class and thereby keep down wages and living conditions, the MRP and its SFIO allies threw the PCF out of the government in May. That same year, the government brutally crushed a CGT-led strike wave, and in 1948, Socialist minister of the interior Jules Moch unleashed troops against the miners. Maneuvers by the U.S. rulers, their agents in the American Federation of Labor and by social democrats to split the CGT came to fruition with the formation of Force ouvrière, a CIA-funded anti-Communist union federation.
Lambert and the PCI right wing were clearly correct in calling for a “yes” vote in the May 1946 referendum, but rightists like Craipeau took advantage of that to take over the leadership of the PCI at its September 1946 congress. Scarcely a year later, Craipeau decamped with half the organization and joined the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire, a short-lived petty-bourgeois grouping founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.
The European-based FI leadership headed by Michel Pablo had not only been wrong about the French referendum but also resorted to arguments that were hardly any better than those of the rightists. The Fourth International grew increasingly disoriented as workers states were established in East Europe. These states came into being because real power was in the hands of the Red Army, the armed forces of a degenerated workers state, but for this very reason these new states were bureaucratically deformed from their inception.
The FI under Pablo was incapable of generating a theory that could explain these developments without drawing revisionist conclusions. First the FI denied that capitalism could be overthrown without a proletarian revolution, and even demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops while U.S. imperialist troops were stationed a short distance to the west. Then it began flirting with the Yugoslav Stalinist leader Tito (who had just broken with Stalin) before capitulating to Stalin at the start of the Korean War. Reversing his own claim that the Stalinists would soon be in rapid decline, in 1950-51 Pablo called for “deep entry” into the Stalinist parties and even into some social-democratic parties.
What had been confused impressionism turned into a revisionist program: Pablo justified abandoning the building of an independent proletarian vanguard and liquidated the Fourth International. He wrote that “the objective process is in the final analysis the sole determining factor, overriding all obstacles of a subjective order,” and projected “several centuries” of “transitional” regimes between capitalism and socialism. He concluded that “the Communist Parties retain the possibility, in certain circumstances, of roughly outlining a revolutionary orientation” (“Where Are We Going?” SWP International Information Bulletin, March 1951).
At the time, Bleibtreu and Lambert were leaders of the PCI majority; they opposed Pablo’s liquidationist perspective, but they were bureaucratically expelled, and they failed in their duty to bring the fight into the international arena. In 1953, Cannon’s SWP belatedly took up the fight against Pablo’s liquidation of the party by reaffirming that it was vital to fight for a Leninist vanguard workers party. The SWP linked up with the PCI and Gerry Healy’s group in Britain to form the anti-revisionist International Committee (IC). But the IC never functioned in a centralized way, nor did it elect an international leadership with the political authority to intervene into the work of its sections and coordinate the international struggle against Pabloism. (On the Pabloite destruction of the FI in 1951-53, see “Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist No. 21, Fall 1972.)
The French Trotskyists had a correct tactic in the 1946 French referendum. But the SWP was able to maintain the principles of Trotskyism until our comrades took over the task 15 years later in a fight to reforge the Fourth International: When the SWP reconciled with Pabloism in the early 1960s, it expelled from its ranks the cadres who founded the Spartacist League/U.S. and our international tendency. It is through those cadres that the continuity of Trotskyism runs.