France - The "modernisation" of the Socialist Party: the art of fashioning the new out of the old

Nov/Dec 2007

Since Ségolène Royal, the candidate of the French Socialist Party in this year's presidential election, lost to the right-wing candidate Sarkozy, the top spheres of the Socialist Party have been embroiled in a heated debate about the need to "modernise" this party by making it more palatable to the middle-class electorate, in order to make it "electable" again.

In Britain, this reminds us of the polemics which took place within the leadership of the Labour party following its defeat in the 1992 general election under Kinnock's leadership. At the time, these polemics led to the emergence of Blair's "New Labour", which boasted of its independence from the trade unions and from any sort of "socialist" references - which was in no way "new", since Labour had long abandoned, in practice, the defence of the political interests of the working class. And the odds are that the French Socialist Party is about to carry out a similar "modernisation".

However, this is taking place in a different context and in a party which has its own history. The following article published by our French comrades in their journal Lutte de Classe (#107 - Oct 2007) describes this context and history.

Since Ségolène Royal's failure in the presidential election, there has been endless talk of renovation within the leading spheres of the Socialist Party. A few individuals, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann declared themselves in favour of "anchoring themselves to the left". Others like Fabius, who at one point represented the right-wing of the party is posing as someone who could unify the left. But even leaving aside the leading figures of the Socialist Party, who were lured by Sarkozy into accepting portfolios and other positions, the majority of the party leadership makes speeches in which the main theme is the need for the SP to adapt itself to the present epoch, to endorse the "market economy" more clearly and to give their backing, more less discreetly to Sarkozy's reforms.

For Ségolène Royal, it was no problem to go back on her word, once the election campaign was over. She announced that it was necessary "to put into question a certain number of things, for instance, the minimum wage at 1,500 euros (...) or the generalisation of the 35-hour week". And yet, the SP's promise of a 1,500 euro minimum wage was only promised for 2012, by which time it would have reached that level anyway, just by applying the normal annual increments.

The deputy mayor of Evry, Manuel Valls, has been among the most outspoken, on the subject of the "renovation". He declared, "A lot of left ideas are worn out. In order for the SP to recover its credibility, it must be the vehicle for a very different project." And so that nobody can be mistaken on the direction which has to be taken by the SP, he added, "we can travel part of the distance with the majority", (in other words Sarkozy's UMP - Union of the Presidential Majority), giving immigration policy as an example of an area where there could be a "consensus".

As we can see, these socialist leaders are going along with their right-wing critics who attacked their "backwardness" during the election campaign, counterposing them to Tony Blair and Gerhardt Schroeder, and blaming them for not having had their own "Bad Godesberg".

The myth of Bad Godesberg

It was at the congress of Bad Godesberg, in 1959, that the German Social Democratic party rejected all references to Marxism and the class struggle. But to see in this a fundamental turn in the history of this party is to ignore everything about it. Indeed, it had been a very long time since the class struggle had ceased to be the SPD's political compass - since 1914, in fact, with its rallying to the patriotic "defence of the fatherland" and its participation in the last German Imperial government, in 1918.

The rallying by the leadership of the SPD to the capitalist social order was confirmed by the role it played in the repression of the revolutionary wave in Germany in 1919 under the authority of Friedrich Ebert, the party chairman and another of the SPD leaders, Gustav Noske, War minister. Noske said at the time: "Somebody has to be the bloodthirsty dog, and I am not afraid of taking this responsibility."

Afterwards, Ebert became president of the Reich from 1919 to 1925. Another leader of the SPD, Hermann M ller, occupied the post of Chancellor between 1928 and 1930. He only left that position when Germany was hit by the economic crisis which was to lead to the accession to power of the Nazis. While in power during the years 1919-1930, the SPD did not even feel the slightest urge to nationalise the economy.

The congress of Bad Godesberg in 1959, therefore, did not represent the rallying of the SPD to the market economy. It was only the confirmation of a transformation which had taken place more than 40 years before.

French socialism and Marxism

To demand that French socialism has its "Bad Godesberg", that is, that it rejects all references to Marxism, makes even less sense in France, because when the Unified Socialist Party (the French section of the workers' international - SFIO), was formed in 1905 from the merger of the various socialist currents, it did not claim to be Marxist. It certainly saw itself as revolutionary, by declaring "by its goal, by its ideas, by the means that it uses, the socialist party, while pursuing the realisation of immediate reforms demanded by the working class, is not a reformist party, but a party of class struggle and revolution". However, while the declaration of principles that it adopted seemed, in essence, to align itself to the positions of the Marxist wing (led by Guesde and Lafargue) it did not take long for Jaurès, who, 6 years earlier, had supported the participation of the socialist, Millerand the bourgeois government of Waldeck-Rousseau, to set the tone.

But anyway, abstract references to Marxism were no more a guarantee of loyalty to proletarian internationalism than they had been in Germany. In August 1914, the beginning the First World War, saw all the currents of the SFIO sink into chauvinism. It will never be known what Jaurès may have done, since he was assassinated three days before the beginning of hostilities. But all the tendencies of the SFIO declared for the national government. The "Marxist" Jules Guesde became a minister alongside the ex-Blanquist and collaborator of Jaurès, Marcel Semblat. The French Socialist Party participated in the bourgeois governments which followed each other during the war, up until the formation of the Clemenceau government in September 1917.

From the national government to "Longuettism"

This first transformation of the SFIO, which saw it succumbing to total support for governments which associated themselves fully with the war aims of French imperialism, was followed by a gradual return to their former policy of opposition in parliament. The reason for this was that opposition to the war was growing within the ranks of the working class and within the party ranks. Already, at the 1916 December Congress, the outgoing leadership which had unreservedly supported the policy of French imperialism, won only by the skin of its teeth (53% of votes) against a current which mixed support for "national defence" with pacifist declarations. This current, led by Jean Longuet, had received 37% of the votes. On top of rejection of the war, now hopes were raised within the working masses by the Russian revolution, and this provided another reason for the leaders and MPs to rally to the opposition. During the National Council and the October Congress, the" Longuettists" took control of the party. The bankruptcy of the 2nd International was obvious for the many who had flocked to socialist ideas at the end of the world conflict. The Socialist party had more than tripled its membership between 1919 and 1920. The new leadership could not avoid taking this into consideration. In February 1920, the Strasbourg conference therefore decided to withdraw from the 2nd International.

Ten months later in December, the congress of Tours, which was supposed to rule on whether to affiliate to the new Communist International turned out to be less a confrontation between the social chauvinists who had declared themselves in 1914, (the Renaudels and the Sembats) and those who supported affiliation to the Communist International. It was in fact a confrontation between the supporters of the Communist International and the Longuettists. The high priests of the national government no longer played a leading role or else were converted, like Cachin, into supporters of affiliation to the young Communist International - in which the working class base of the party had placed its hopes.

The congress of Tours was therefore not a confrontation between revolutionaries and reformists, but between those who refused and those who accepted the "21 conditions" for affiliation to the Communist International, conditions which defined what the policy of revolutionaries should be. The minority which refused these 21 conditions and which represented a quarter of the mandates, split away, to remain as the SFIO. (The majority became the Communist Party - PCF)

1920 - 1940: from reformism to majority support for Pétain

During the period which followed, the SFIO never called into question, formally at least, the necessity for the proletariat to conquer power. It forged electoral alliances with a bourgeois party, (the Radical Party), forming with it a "left bloc" which won the parliamentary elections of 1924 and 1932. But in both these cases the SFIO stuck to the slogan "support without participation". However, Leon Blum, the uncontested leader of the party, did not exclude the possibility of the socialists being brought to power as a result of an election victory. But this expert in sophistry distinguished between the "conquest of power", a revolutionary act of the working class, (which he relegated to a hypothetical future) and the "exercise of power" from which a parliamentary majority must, according to him, institute the maximum social justice, but within the strict bounds of bourgeois law. And to reassure the bourgeoisie with regard to his intentions, he explained that he was not intending to "commit any kind of swindle by using our presence within the government to transform the exercise of power into the conquest of power".

In terms of seats in parliament, the SFIO was the most powerful group inside the Popular Front coalition, after the elections of May 1936 (in the run-up the general strike). It therefore, could not, this time, refuse to participate in government, or even refuse to lead it. Under the pressure of workers' strikes, the president of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, asked Léon Blum to fast-track the transfer of power and to announce immediately on the radio that the law restricting the working week to 40 hours would be voted in, as well as the demand for wage rises. Similarly, it was at the request of the representatives of big business that negotiations were organised which gave birth to the "Matignon accords". Blum did not behave as a champion of reforms leading to the socialisation of production, but as a"loyal manager for capitalism" as he, himself, put it. And he declared with satisfaction in June 1936 that "in the world of the bourgeoisie and especially among the bosses, I was considered to be, and expected to be, a saviour". So those who have just discovered today that the Socialist Party has fallen into "social liberalism" are few decades late.

Blum did not even try to modify the governmental institutions and shamefully retreated in front of the Senate's opposition. Once the big bourgeoisie had recovered from their fright after June 1936, the Right decided to terminate Blum's office.

The last period of the parliamentary majority which had come to power in the May 1936 election was even more contemptible. The government led by Marshall Pétain, formed on the 16 June 1940, included 2 socialist ministers, who were given the portfolios of labour and the colonies. On the 10 July 1940, 170 socialist MPs out of 206 present in Vichy, (where the government's institutions had taken refuge after the invasion of France by Germany), voted full power to Pétain. Despite this, we are being told that the SP still has not cut its ties with Marxism and the class struggle.

After being suspended by the Vichy regime, the SFIO had hardly any militant life from 1940 to 1944 within France. Some of its leaders joined De Gaulle, (in Britain), like André Philip in 1942 or Daniel Mayer in 1943. The SFIO was represented in the French Committee for National Liberation which acted as a provisional government from June 1943. But it was a party whose leadership had been mostly replaced, because the MPs who had voted Pétain to power, had, by now, been sidelined.

From tripartism to the Fifth Republic

The SFIO, when it reappeared on the French political scene in 1944, followed the same social and economic policy as its allies, whether on the left (the French Communist Party PCF) or the right (the Republican Popular Movement, MRP), with De Gaulle until January 1946 and without him after his resignation. Although the SFIO had achieved an absolute majority with the PCF in the constituent assembly elections in October 1945, neither party demanded the socialisation of all the main means of production. The policy of the governments which these two left parties participated in, until May 1947, was to rebuild the French economy for the greater profit of French business. And if there were, during this period numerous nationalisations, also desired by the MRP and De Gaulle, it was because the nationalisation of energy resources and the control of credit were indispensable for this economic rebuilding to take place.

After the socialist prime minister, Ramadier, dismissed the Communist ministers in May 1947, the SFIO shared power with the Right, until 1951. As a result, they shared responsibility, not only for a reactionary social policy, but also for the policy implemented in the French colonies - whether in the Indochinese war, or in the scandalous electoral fraud organised by the socialist governor-general of Algeria, Edmond Naegelen.

However, this policy cost the SFIO dear, electorally: from 17.9% of the votes in 1946, its vote fell to 13.9% in 1951. From 1951 to 1956 it had to take a spell in opposition - all the more so, because the SFIO could not be seen to be endorsing the first attacks on secular education which the Right had launched, with the aim of obtaining the funding of religious schools by public money. This was voted in as Barangé's law. The SFIO, despite its reactionary social policy, did not want to alienate secular voters, nor the teaching body from which it recruited a good proportion of its troops.

At the 1956 elections, the SFIO only made minimal progress, (15% of the vote which was plus 1.1%). But after a campaign in which it promised to put an end to the war in Algeria, "a stupid war and without a way out" declared its secretary general, Guy Mollet, this minimal success was enough to put the SFIO back into government with its Republican Front allies. Instead of making peace, Mollet used the special powers conferred on him by a vote in the National Assembly to intensify a war in which summary executions and torture took place on a large scale, despite his hypocritical denials. This same government was also responsible for the "expedition" to Suez, against Egypt, which had just nationalised the Suez Canal. And even though this government was overturned in 1957, the SFIO was part of the following two governments, occupying most notably, in the person of one Robert Lacoste (the man who had covered up the worst of the military atrocities), the post of resident minister in Algeria.

In May 1958, the socialist leader, Guy Mollet was one of the politicians who went to see De Gaulle, in order to get him to use his prestige to get the army to accept a political solution in Algeria.. Appointed minister of state in the new De Gaulle government in June 1958, Mollet helped to write a new constitution. Under the banner of this constitution, the SFIO stood in the November 1958 parliamentary as "the vanguard of the Fifth Republic". But he himself fell victim to the electoral system which he had helped to introduce, which reduced the number of socialist MPs from 94 to 51, despite an unchanged score.

After De Gaulle was elected president of the Republic, the SFIO was only represented in government, by André Boulloche, the education minister. However, he resigned a few months later, after a disagreement over the increase in funding for private schools under the so-called Debré Law, passed in 1959.

Federation follies

After the Evian Accords marked the end of the Algerian war in February 1962, the SFIO's participation in the opposition to De Gaulle became more clear-cut. But after the parliamentary election of 1962, which gave the absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies to the UNR (De Gaulle's party), it was clear that, in the framework of the new institutions, the Socialist party had no chance of returning to government without forming alliances. For this election there had been a tactical agreement with the Communist Party. But given the conditions of the time, a government agreement with a party which, for Guy Mollet was "in the East and not on the left", was unthinkable. The only possibility which remained was to make agreements with those right-wing factions which were not part of the Gaullist right.

The preparations for the presidential election in 1965 were to demonstrate the difficulties of such a strategy. The socialist mayor of Marseille, Gaston Defferre, had launched his candidature as early as 1963. He had made this conditional on the achievement of a "great federation", regrouping the socialist party, the radicals, and the MRP. With regard to the Communist Party, Defferre was very clear: "I do not envisage any talks with the Communist Party, I will not negotiate with it, I will not accept any common programme". In other words the PCF was invited to contribute the votes of its electorate, no more, no less. But it refused to play this game. And an agreement between the SFIO and the MRP once more came up against the issue of the funding of private education. The "great federation" died before it was even born and Defferre withdrew his candidature.

This was the opportunity that François Mitterrand seized in order to enter the political arena of the big players. Neither the PCF nor the socialists could abstain from participating in the presidential election. But neither of them could hope to win on their own, let alone suffer a respectable defeat on their own. Mitterrand had the advantage of belonging to neither of the two big left parties. What is more, he had a ministerial past in numerous right-wing governments under the Fourth Republic, which made him attractive to a section of the conservative electorate. On the other hand, as he was one of the few politicians who had taken a position against the Gaullist constitution (he had described it as a "permanent coup d'etat" but that was before he used it himself, without modification), the PCF named him the model "honest democrat" and one with whom they hoped to collaborate. Mitterrand made no commitment with regard to the PCF, but nevertheless became the "one and only candidate of the left". The fact that he was the only candidate remaining against De Gaulle in the second round (which was the consequence of the way the electoral system worked), allowed him to appear as if he was the leader of the entire left.

This electoral campaign saw, at the time, the formation of a democratic and socialist Left (FGDS), uniting the SFIO, the Radical Party and various other "clubs", among them, the Convention of Republican Institutions which was Mitterrand's own organisation.

But the events of the May-June 1968 were lethal to the FGDS. The SFIO did not play any noticeable role in them. Mitterrand tried to make his own move, by announcing that he was a candidate for the presidency of the Republic, while De Gaulle was getting ready to make his declaration: "I will not resign. (...) Today I dissolve the National Assembly." The elections that followed were a marked success for the right. The FGDS lost 61 of its deputies. The personal credit of Mitterrand was damaged. By the end of 1968 the FGDS was a spent force.

In 1969, after the failure of the referendum on regionalisation, and the resignation of De Gaulle, Defferre tried his luck again in the presidential election of June, in the name of the SFIO, even though Guy Mollet would have preferred his party to call for a vote in the first round for the centrist Poher, against the Gaullist, Pompidou. The PCF stood Jacques Duclos, who obtained 21.27% of the vote. Defferre only managed to get 5.1% of the vote. This was proof that the policy of making alliances with the PCF, recommended by Mitterrand, was the only way for SFIO to get back into government at some point.

The "new Socialist Party"

This mutation was begun with an organisational congress, held at Alfortville (May 1969), where the birth of a "new" socialist party was proclaimed and the old name, SFIO, was abandoned. Two months later at a congress in Issy-les-Moulineaux, Alain Savary became the first general secretary of the party.

But it was at the Epinay congress in June 1971, that the decisive turn occurred. The Convention of Republican Institutions, Mitterrand's little organisation, was invited to attend, with the aim of a merger. At the end of what amounted to a takeover by new member Mitterrand, he got himself elected as the general secretary.

Mitterrand, being convinced that the party needed the support of the Communist electorate, and since he had previously been the common left candidate supported by the PCF in 1965, could present himself as the man best equipped to extract acceptable terms from the PCF. And to please the younger generation of militants who came out of May 1968, those of the SP, as well as the PCF, he did not hesitate to use very radical-sounding language: "Reform or revolution? I want to say - but don't accuse me of demagogy, it would be easy in this congress - yes, revolution. But in order to be true to my inner self, I will add, immediately: for me, without playing on words, the day to day struggle for the positive reform of structures can be of a revolutionary nature.

But all that I have just said could sound like an alibi if I did not add another sentence: violent or peaceful, the revolution is first and foremost a clean break. Whoever does not accept this - and the means is another issue - whoever does not consent to breaking with the established order, with capitalist society, politically, that person, I have to say, cannot be a member of the Socialist Party."

Supported by a mixed bag coalition which regrouped supporters of Defferre, Mauroy and Chevènement, who had much more weight than those of his Convention, Mitterrand pushed the duo of Savary and Mollet into a minority position.

One year later, in June 1972, the Left Common Programme which guaranteed ministries to the PCF in the event of electoral victory, was adopted by the SP and the PCF, and shortly afterwards signed up to by the Left Radicals.

But Mitterrand's aim had not been merely to obtain the electoral support of the PCF, which he already knew he could rely on, as was later shown by the 1974 presidential election, when the PCF chose not to stand a candidate against the "common candidate of the left" in the first round. He also aimed to "re-balance" the left, that is, reinforce the electoral influence of the Socialist Party at the expense of the PCF. The by-elections which took place in the following months showed that the SP was well on its way towards achieving this. Numerous former PCF supporters voted for the SP candidate in the first round, as they had in the presidential election. In order to differentiate itself, the PCF sought disagreements with the SP over a variety of issues - such as the number of nationalisations to be carried out and the decommissioning of nuclear weapons. But to no avail. At the legislative elections of 1978, the Socialist Party got more votes that the Communist Party for the first time since 1936, with 24.9% against 20.6%.

The break-up of the Union of the Left did not prevent Mitterrand from being elected president of the Republic in 1981. And the PCF got ministerial portfolios against its own expectations. The first months of the Mauroy government seemed to give credit to the idea that the left was, as it had promised, going to change things. There was the reduction of the official working week from 40 hours to 39 hours. There were a series of nationalisations, which allowed the Communist Party to assert, in front of its electorate, that the government was following a policy of social progress. Even though those nationalisations, compensated for handsomely, were meant to allow capital to reinvest in more profitable areas, while the state would take responsibility for "restructuring" the companies or industries now under its control and for the redundancies which would result.

A policy of social progress, indeed! As early as June 1982, prime minister Mauroy ordered a wage freeze. The following year saw a huge wave of redundancies and job cuts, including in the steel industry and at Talbot-Poissy (today part of Peugeot) with the government's blessing.

This Socialist Party (which some people still present as influenced by "old-fashioned" Marxism), once it no longer needed the radical-sounding language which it had used at the time of the turn towards the Left Union, sounded as, and behaved as, the loyal servant of the bourgeoisie in government. One of the self-professed "left-wing" leaders of the SP, Henri Emmanuelli, has argued "we have had our Bad Godesberg on 23 May 1983 at 11am. The day we decided to open our borders and not to leave the EMS (European Monetary System). We chose a market economy." Although in our view, the SFIO renounced the socialisation of the means of production and chose a market economy years before, Emmanuelli was not wrong when he criticised those who demanded of the Socialist Party that it have its "Bad Godesberg" by answering that this had already been done.

As for the CP, by participating in this government, it sanctioned a policy which was against the interests of the working class and it paid the price at the European elections of 1984, when its share of the vote fell to 11.2%. As a result it chose to remain outside of government for the rest of Mitterrand's presidency.

The end of an era

Since 1981, the electoral influence of the PCF has continued to fall - first, because of its participation in the Mauroy government from 1981 to 1984 and then the government of Jospin, from 1997 to 2002, as well as its support, in practice, for the other socialist governments even if it was not part of them, which has led to disappointment and demoralisation amongst its electorate.

It is during the first rounds of successive presidential elections that this electoral plunge is easiest to measure: from 15.3% of votes for George Marchais in 1981, 6.7% for André Lajoinie in 1988, 8.6% for Robert Hue in 1995, 3.3% for Hue again in 2002, to 1.9% for Marie-George Buffet in 2007.

But this electoral decline for the CP, so desired by Mitterrand, has reached such great magnitude that it has backfired on the SP. The SP no longer has an ally in the presidential elections which can mobilise millions of votes to its left and deliver them for the second round. Ségolène Royal experienced this for herself, last April. The blackmail over the so-called "useful vote" produced a result in the first round of the presidential election which was slightly better that of Mitterrand in 1981 (25.81% against 25.84%), but it was not the small number of votes that went to the CP candidate in the first round which could have tipped the balance in Royal's favour in the 2nd round. Her only hope lay in the section of the electorate who had voted for Francois Bayrou, which she tried to seduce, but in vain.

For the SP, it is the end of an era. For it to accede again to government, in the framework of the institutions and current electoral calendar (in other words, with parliamentary elections which directly follow the presidential election) it is necessary to win the presidential election first. Except, of course, if a radicalisation of the working class electorate caused a political upheaval. But this a possibility which the SP would prefer not to rely upon. Notwithstanding this perspective, the SP has hardly any hope of coming back to government. Unless a section of the UMP electorate becomes disillusioned in Sarkozy's policies and feels that it is better represented by the language of the SP.

Faced with this perspective, some SP leaders who see themselves being kept away from the pleasures of power for another 10 years or more, have chosen to respond favourably to the approaches made by Sarkozy. Others, with various nuances, speak of renovation, of modernising the party, of adapting it to our epoch... in other words, to the political situation created by the electoral decline of the CP. But in fact they are simply harking back to the past, when they were sharing power with the right in government, as was the case from 1944 to 1951 and from 1956 to 1959. Much more than their personal quarrels, which the media finds so fascinating, this is the main problem which confronts the SP leaders today.