London, August.—Contemplating the French volcano from the wrong side of the Channel this summer has been an unnerving experience. At times one had the sensation of being involved in one of those avant-garde productions in which the actors come down from the stage to harangue the audience. Most of the time, though, it was more a matter of trying to inhabit two different worlds at the same time. There was France on the brink of revolution (or so it seemed) and here was Britain stolidly consuming its usual diet of parliamentary cold porridge. At the height of the crisis it looked for a day or two as though the British universities might break through this invisible barrier by producing a minor explosion of their own. But in the end they simmered down, and the country went back to its habitual somnolence, barely disturbed by mutterings about Scottish separatism and the customary warnings about another financial storm in the autumn. Whitehall may be thinking about membership in a future European confederation; the average Briton still fancies himself a cut above those Continentals, who cannot even govern themselves properly and are always having upsets of one kind or another.
Fortunately there are the media. On the present occasion the august British Broadcasting Corporation was induced to conduct an experiment calculated to arouse the public from its accustomed repose. Greatly daring, the Corporation invited student rebels from a dozen European countries (plus a solitary delegate from Morningside Heights) to inform the television viewers about the new movement. And so, on a hot day in June, tragedy and farce were briefly permitted to mingle. While in Paris the students hurled fire-bombs at the police, to avenge the (probably accidental) death of a seventeen-year old drowned in the Seine while fleeing from the gendarmes, the BBC laid on an hour's entertainment for the great British public. Chaired by a respectable middle-aged moderator (in his spare time the author of weighty textbooks on the British party system), the student leaders patiently tried to explain what it was all about. One hour was too short, and the chairman took up too much time acquainting listeners with his own views. However, one or two points became a little clearer. It was evident, for example, that not all the invited guest speakers were entirely at home with the theoretical case put on their behalf by Dr. Ekkehart Krippendorf of West Germany, a teacher miraculously transformed into a student for the occasion. It was likewise fairly obvious that the handsome mustachioed Tariq Ali, a descendant of one of Pakistan's great families, could not count on unanimous support from those present when he said, “Most of us are libertarian Marxists.” He may be one. His French friends—Geismar of the teachers' union, and Cohn-Bendit of the self-styled “March 22nd movement”—sounded more like old-style Jacobins: pas de liberié pour les ennemies de la liberté.
The others were a mixed lot. The Spaniard, for obvious reasons, could not give his name, but made it clear that he and his friends wanted plain ordinary freedom and no fancy talk about “transcending bourgeois democracy” (non-existent in Spain). The Italian delegate spoke soberly and temperately, as befitted the representative of a country where democracy is still a fragile plant, though increasingly accepted even by Communists. The Czech, a studious-looking youth, seemed bookish and was clearly made uncomfortable by some of the talk about violence. And the group's pinup girl, Dragana Stavijel of Belgrade, caused mute consternation all round by (1) praising Tito and (2) listing Mao Tse-tung along with Yugoslavia's hated ex-police boss, Alexander Rankovic, among the “negative social influences” she wanted to see removed. The Maoist sympathizers present were struck dumb, but gave voice the following day when they denounced her, publicly and privately, as a Titoist plant. They might, one felt, have known what to expect from those East European revisionists who actually believe in liberty—for everyone, not just for themselves. After all, West Germany's Dutschke had an embarrassing experience in Prague last spring, when the Czech students urged him to drop his anarchist prattle about doing away with legal guarantees of “formal liberty.” Constitutional guarantees of freedom (he was told) was just what they wanted, not having had any during twenty years of Stalinist rule and Orwellian doublethink. Ah well. . . .
But we have not reached quite the end of this little episode, so revelatory of the sustained polarity summed up in the words “France” and “Britain.” For here was Daniel Cohn-Bendit—Danny the Red to the popular press—the terror (one was assured) of the French bourgeoisie and the scourge of France's bovine Communist party. And what did he have to say? Nothing one had not heard a thousand times from other libertarians. But the whole and unadorned truth about this young desperado was vouchsafed to readers of the Times at breakfast the following morning (June 14), for there they could read the parliamentary report on the Home Secretary's exchange with angry Tory backbenchers who demanded to know why this dangerous firebrand had been allowed into the country. Because, said Mr. James Callaghan (sounding like a benevolent uncle assuring a lot of nervous maiden aunts that they were not going to be raped) Cohn-Bendit wanted to visit his relatives. Moreover, he also wanted to see Buckingham Palace and “I could think of nothing better than that for his education. . . . I thought it would be useful for him to do some of the things he wanted to do. I have even offered to teach him the words of the Internationale which he doesn't seem too sure of” (Laughter). There'll always be an England.
There will likewise always be a certain amount of sly satisfaction on this side of the water whenever France appears to be in the kind of trouble that is not too deep and dangerous. This became very evident during the month of May, when the French economy seemed to have been laid low by the general strike. Schadenfreude assumed even broader proportions in June, when the franc wobbled on the exchanges and Paris had to draw on the credit facilities of the International Monetary Fund. After all those tedious lectures about sterling. . . . Then there were the usual mixed feelings about de Gaulle. He had it coming to him (said the newspaper and and TV sages), for being such an old autocrat, and more especially for being so unhelpful about Britain's membership application to join the Common Market. On the other hand, if he went back to Colombey in a huff, and the Communists took over. . . . On balance, the Times and the Economist decided to treat him as the lesser evil, and the other organs of opinion followed suit. There is, after all, no guarantee that a French government of even the moderate Left would be more forthcoming than the present one about Britain's remaining NATO obligations. Having missed the European bus in the 1950's, the British have learned to be patient. There will be time to revive this particular issue when the General is gone.
Anything else before we cross the Channel? Well, there has been a temporary slump in British crypto-Gaullism of the “all we need is a strong man to get us out of our economic mess” variety. But this will creep back like a fog, if only because the economic outlook remains bleak for as long as anyone can see ahead. Then there is the recent growth of racialism fed by the (now ebbing but still substantial) tide of colored immigrants from the West Indies and other surviving bits and pieces of what used to be known as the British Empire. The Conservative party can hardly afford to ignore this muddy pool of popular resentment, strongest of course among the lower strata of the working class. One-third of this class regularly votes Tory anyhow (in England, as distinct from Scotland and Wales, the proportion is nearer one-half). Between now and the next general election, racialism promises to become an even bigger issue than economic stagnation. Contrary to an impression seemingly prevalent abroad, dislike of colored immigration is fairly evenly spread across the British political spectrum and by no means confined to the Right. It is, however, likely to benefit the Tories rather than their opponents who have to live down a liberal phraseology familiar to the intellectuals but unattractive to the working class.
Closer to the political and cultural center, the Liberal Establishment goes on talking (mostly to itself) about the need to make the country more efficient and competitive economically. This is probably the most unpopular line of all, and by itself would be quite enough to explain the virtual collapse of the Liberal party as a political force, even if liberalism as a philosophy had not already disintegrated for other reasons. There is some hope among liberal-minded academics that radical students may be won over by talk of “participation” and reform of the educational system. That system could stand a hefty kick in the backside, but even the more progressive teachers are dubious about slogans that amount to letting the students decide what is to be taught. Middle-aged liberals or Fabians are old enough to remember what happened to Germany's universities when they were taken over by the Hitler Youth. Not that one would wish to compare the present generation of student anarchists with Hitler's storm troopers, but there happens to be a principle at stake. Even the New Left (which includes a number of teachers) is unlikely to fall for the gospel of Student Power. Where it currently scores is in reminding everyone that the French have lately been arguing about political principles. This interesting phenomenon has been noted with approval even by some of the more academic Tories who would dearly like to see a genuine debate over fundamentals take the place of Harold Wilson's cherished “pragmatism.”
And so on to France and our real topic. But not without casting a last long lingering look behind at all those elderly teenagers who during the merry month of May did their damnedest to climb on board the revolutionary bandwagon. Alas, their juniors rudely told them to get off at the nearest stop. Next to a purple-faced Tory muttering darkly about subversive foreigners, the world holds no sadder sight than an aging radical who thinks he has spotted a victorious revolution abroad over which he can enthuse in perfect safety. The British Left this year has had to digest some disconcerting experiences. First there was that changeover in Prague—clearly something to be applauded, but also a bit confusing: what with the workers at first seemingly backing Novotny and his Stalinist clan, while the revisionists (mislabeled “liberals” for want of a better term) in the party leadership had to rely on the intelligentsia and the students. Then the Soviet reaction: the usual mixture of brutality and helpless imbecility. And lastly the uprising in Paris—itself set off by the now familiar combination of governmental obtuseness and student anarchism—disclosed the regime and the principal trade unions in the role of twin pillars of “order,” whereupon for a month Gaullists and Communists conducted what was evidently a sham battle for control of parliament; the while Pompidou, Mitterand, and Mendès-France—allegedly mortal foes—all talked virtually the same reformist language, to the visible distress of their (conservative or radical) clienteles. It was enough to make an old New Statesman reader wonder what the world was coming to.
Nor was the Left alone in its bewilderment. What de Gaulle has recently had to say about workers' “participation” and the evils of capitalism sounded strange to British Conservatives unused to such language. The Times kept its editorial balance, but eyebrows were raised in the City, while Fleet Street gave vent to its inbred francophobia by playing up every minor act of violence and gleefully predicting that the outcome of the elections would be determined by “fear,” “bribery,” or even “police pressure.” One might have thought they were talking about Rumania, or perhaps Nigeria. For all one knows, these writers thought so too. Oddly enough, the French do not care for this kind of stuff, France not being the Congo but an ancient European country and in most respects as civilized as its neighbors, if not more so. But then the British have never had much use for benighted Continentals, and it takes only very little to bring out their ingrained sense of superiority. On which note we may leave them and board a cross-Channel steamer, after having first made sure about our re-entry: for these days a British passport no longer carries an automatic guarantee of admittance into the country, unless one happens to have been born there. Another of those little things that, taken together, add up to a shift from universalism to a kind of stodgy insularity.
What then do the French themselves think of their latest upheaval? Those among them, that is, who have the inclination and the means to make themselves heard. For of course there are also the millions who rarely speak up in public: the men and women who, unless they go on strike or cast their vote in the ballot box, are simply taken for granted. To whom, if one is so minded, one may add the dead in the countless cemeteries—all those mute inglorious ancestors who once walked the earth, and who by their actions or inactions helped to make the world what it is.
I seem to have started off on a conservative, not to say Burkean note. But it was Marx who wrote: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Marx—so frequently invoked these days, so seldom read: least of all by the new breed of radicals who take his name in vain, secure in the knowledge that their elders will not contradict them. For who in these stirring times is going to look up what a bearded Victorian scholar had to say about the movements of his age? We, the contemporaries of the great McLuhan, consumers of endless TV lectures on the relentless march of progress and the ever-growing size of the gross national product, cannot be bothered with Victoriana. And yet one wonders at times whether ignorance and arrogance are wholly admirable; whether there may not be some advantage in having actually read Marx and Lenin, in addition to Fanon and Guevara; whether the new radicals can really afford to go on with the fashionable cult of illiteracy. As for their elders . . . Roger Priouret, writing last June in Servan-Schreiber's L'Express, remarked upon Sartre's conversation with Cohn-Bendit at the peak of the students' revolt (as reproduced in the left-wing Nouwel Observateur); took note of the young man's cheerful declamations about the “uncontrollable spontaneity” of the movement he and a few others had helped to start; and wondered aloud why Sartre did not remind him that all this stuff about action for the sake of action was just a rehash of Georges Sorel, and that Sorel had been Mussolini's teacher. If it is simply a matter of an “active minority” stirring things up to get the masses moving in some direction totally unforeseen and unforeseeable, then paratroopers may get into the act as well as students; and indeed have done so in the past. . . .
Not that Sartre is blameworthy for having egged the militants on while they were in occupation of the Sorbonne. As a philosopher he may even be said to have a prescriptive right to the role of elderly Socratic sage, caught up in a tempest to which his own writings had made no small contribution. And anyway he wanted nothing for himself. Others were less disinterested, though not for that reason much more effective. M. Servan-Schreiber for example. . . . That special supplement of L'Express which he somehow managed to get out last May, when all periodicals (including his own) were strikebound, is likely to become a collector's item; if only for the sake of its full-page signed editorial boldly headlined La Renaissance de la France. The country, it seems, had been awakened by the great insurrection from years of torpid decline, and Servan-Schreiber—like his friend Mitterand, who at the same moment made his singularly ill-timed bid for power—stood ready to give a lead. The special number hit the streets during the brief interval between de Gaulle's first and second broadcasts, when for a few days it looked as though the Old Man might go back to Colombey, and there was no mistaking the tone of its editorial proclamation: power lay there to be grasped, and MM. Mitterand and Servan-Schreiber (but not the Communists, who were biding their time) thought the moment had come. Historians of the French Revolution (the great one) have commonly depicted the Girondists as the unluckiest lot of aristocratic pseudo-radicals who ever tried to seize the leadership of a great popular movement. Their successors will be able to devote a footnote to the sad experience of MM. Servan-Schreiber and Mitterand in 1968.
But there was Mendès-France—“the only opponent de Gaulle takes seriously.” Yes indeed, but where exactly did he stand? Well, pro forma he was parliamentary leader of the Parti Socialiste Unifié: originally a breakaway from the official Socialist party of Guy Mollet, by last May a holdall of warring factions ranging from Keynesian liberals and radical technocrats to old-style syndicalists and newfangled Castroites, with Mendès-France himself uneasily poised at the center of this whirlpool—at sixty-one an elder stateman, yet the only ex-Premier of the Fourth Republic with a hold upon the imagination of the young, and the only prominent political leader who publicly cast his lot with the radical students and workers who gathered at the Charléty stadium outside Paris on May 27th, with the red flags of revolution and the black banners of revolt flying over their heads. Charléty was repeatedly thrown in his face by the Gaullist opponent who unseated him (with the connivance of the local Communists) in the election campaign in June, and on each occasion he gave the same reply: it had been his duty as a democrat to “seek a dialogue” with the young at a moment when authority seemed to have collapsed in the face of popular revolt. Had he thereby encouraged a revolutionary movement? Well, “revolution” was respectable in France. After all, de Gaulle in his televised interview on June 7th had claimed with some pride to have initiated a few revolutions himself. . . .
But in truth the rage of the Gaullists was directed not against Mendès-France, a man the General respects, but against François Mitterand, the titular leader of the non-Communist Federation of the Left to which the P.S.U. was only very loosely affiliated. Had the democratic Left triumphed in the elections, instead of suffering the debacle it did, de Gaulle might conceivably have turned to Mendès-France. To Mitterand never! For Mitterand on May 29th, two days after Charléty and while de Gaulle had briefly left the Elysée to consult his army commanders, had boldly proclaimed that the seat of authority lay vacant, and that he, Mitterand, was willing to step in. It was a naked bid for power—not the sort of thing de Gaulle is likely to forgive. To make things worse, it was both premature and unconstitutional. For if de Gaulle had gone back to Colombey, the Constitution provided for an orderly succession, with the President of the Senate—Gaston Monnerville, an old-fashioned democrat and incidentally a “colored” Senator from Martinique—filling the role of acting President of the Republic during the interim period. By making his ill-timed announcement in the confused period between de Gaulle's first and second broadcast, Mitterand irretrievably spoiled his image with millions of voters who had previously taken his democratic rhetoric seriously. It did him no good that on the same occasion he named Mendès-France as the man best suited to be Prime Minister in an interim government of the Left. Who was he to make such pronouncements—a pretender with a motley following that barely filled one-quarter of the Assembly elected in March 1967 (and a good deal less now)? Mendès-France himself stayed silent that day. So did the Communists, who had their own reasons for disliking him: he had never been their choice, and his Parti Socialiste Unifié was now busy trying to outflank them on the Left, while its leader still had allies in the political Center and even further to the Right. . . .
Do constitutional niceties matter during a spontaneous popular uprising? Not if one happens to be a Leninist, or the sort of anarcho-syndicalist who cares not a fig for bourgeois democracy in general and elections in particular (é lections-trahison became the rallying-cry of the extreme Left in June). But Mitterand had come to the top as leader of a parliamentary opposition which constantly appealed to democratic tradition against Gaullist authoritarianism. He could not well afford to profess indifference for the constitutional process; the less so since for ten years he had questioned the legitimacy of the Gaullist regime, on the grounds that it had come to power by exploiting the May 1958 army revolt in Algeria. In point of fact de Gaulle on that occasion had quite properly waited for the aged René Coty, then President of the Republic, to entrust him with the Premiership, and had thereupon obtained a vote of confidence in the National Assembly, with a majority of the Socialists supporting his newly appointed government (which included Guy Mollet). If anything he had then shown himself a stickler for legality and due process to the point of pedantry, even though some of his lieutenants did fan the flames in Algiers. Now, ten years later, he was once more in the role that suited him best: defender of the Republic and bulwark of “order” against the demons of “anarchy.” The Left might argue that he was simply playing a part. If so, he showed himself more adept than their own leaders, now cast in the unattractive garb of rebels against the Constitution, and unsuccessful rebels at that. The Communists displayed better tactical sense when they came forward as upholders of “order.” Not that it did them much good in the June election, but at least they avoided the pitfall of sounding like revolutionaries when in fact they were trying to avoid a showdown. Quite a number of very clever people miscalculated during that last week in May: Mendès-France by implicitly laying claim to the Premiership without suggesting that the electorate might be consulted first; Mitterand by grotesquely describing the dissolution of parliament and the holding of new elections as “a call for civil war”; Giscard d'Estaing by trying to knife Pompidou; and Pompidou himself by temporarily eclipsing de Gaulle, thereby incurring his resentment, and ensuring his own fall. It is arguable that, next to de Gaulle, the Communists proved best able to ride the storm. Yet their tactical skill was too blatantly opportunist; and in June the voters showed what they thought of them.
For the party of Waldeck Rochet had managed to fall between two stools: it had done its best to seem respectable without reaping the expected electoral reward; looked at from the angle of its militants, it had surrendered its Leninist birthright for a mess of parliamentary pottage, and not even obtained a reward in the shape of greater voting strength. To this its apologists replied that the party had no option. Once de Gaulle made it clear that he would not yield to force, the only choice lay between silent acquiescence or a showdown which might result in something like civil war. That at least was how the Communist leadership saw it, and it probably did not need advice from Moscow to determine the decision in favor of legality. For whatever the Latin Quarter might think, the workers were not spoiling for a trial of strength with the armed forces. All they wanted was a grandiose repetition of the Popular Front experience of 1936; which is more or less what they got.
But was there not a third way? France after all—unlike Spain—is an industrial country where the working class carries real weight. Admittedly one Frenchman out of two still inhabits a commune of fewer than two thousand people: a circumstance often forgotten which tends to determine the outcome of parliamentary elections. But ten million workers were in occupation of factories and offices throughout the land; the army would never have moved against them (anyway soldiers cannot dig coal or pour steel); and there are only thirteen thousand five hundred CRS riot police in the whole of France: enough to hit a few students over the head, but hardly sufficient to battle ten million workers. If the Communist party and its trade-union federation, the CGT, had simply told the workers to sit tight and refuse to budge; better still, if they had told them to start production going again without bothering about the nominal owners: what would de Gaulle have done? Probably nothing at all. For the General in his own fashion is as pragmatic as they come, and if the unions had really shown themselves capable of running industry and keeping the trains moving, he would in all likelihood have called it “French socialism” and tried to take the credit for it. Alternatively, he might have packed up and gone back to Colombey. In either case France today would have had a socialized economy.
That in effect was what the Communists were told by their left-wing critics, and not by them alone. For there is reason to believe that the major Catholic union federation, the CFDT, was prepared to go along if the general strike escalated to the level of permanent factory occupation. And the managerial staffs, the celebrated cadres on whom in an emergency everything depends? No doubt they would at the start have professed deep indignation. But given resolute political leadership by the unions and the Left, they might have had second thoughts and decided to cooperate “in the public interest and to prevent an economic disaster” etc. At least it could have been tried. But the Communists never gave it a thought. All they could think of was a 10 per cent (or 15 per cent) wage hike, more power for union delegates in factories hitherto closed to them, and a parliamentary victory to follow, with themselves wrapped in the Tricolor and appearing as the saviors of society from “anarchy” and the “extremism” of the ultra-Left. To put it crudely, they behaved like a bunch of Social Democrats.
Viewed in retrospect, that is to say with the advantage of hindsight, it is plain enough that the Communists deliberately aborted the revolutionary movement on May 30th when—in the face of de Gaulle's determination to stay in power—they demobilized their followers. They did it quite simply by converting the general strike into a pressure campaign for higher wages and better working conditions. At one moment it had looked like a pre-revolutionary situation, but there was no Lenin lurking behind the Confédération Générate du Travail: only poor old Benoît Frachon who seemed genuinely shocked when on May 27th the Renault workers shouted his friend Séguy down (but they went back a month later, after they had extorted a better deal from the administration). From all this the Paris correspondent of the Economist characteristically concluded (on June 22nd) that the Communists had “acted like Fabians.” In reality their union leaders at least behaved like the working-class Social Democrats they had become. The distinction may be a bit subtle, but it is real nonetheless. After all, the British trade-union leaders during the so-called “general strike” of 1926 (a ludicrous fiasco involving about 1,500,000 workers out of a total eight times that number) did not make a bid for political power either. For that matter, no labor movement in an industrial country has ever done more than try to get the best bargain it could from the employers (including the State where industry has been partly nationalized, as in France). What has occurred in France is quite simply that the CGT has taken over what is left of the old Stalinist rump: in other words the unions have turned the tables on the party. It was bound to happen in the long run and the only surprise is that it did not happen earlier.
There remains a mystery—or rather an apparent mystery, for there is a perfectly simple answer to the question a lot of people on the Left have been asking since then: why did the Communists sabotage Mitterand's attempt to form a sort of interim government at the end of May, when for a few days it looked as though they could drive Pompidou (if not de Gaulle) from office? Such a government, though backed by the Communists, would not have been dominated by them. What was even worse from their standpoint, its effective leader would have been Mendès-France: the only political figure who at that moment was acceptable both to the extreme Left and to the wavering voters of the political Center. Had a government of this sort been formed, and had it then settled with the unions on the basis of letting the workers have effective control of the factories, the Left would probably have won the subsequent parliamentary elections. For what it has always lacked—and what de Gaulle possessed in the highest degree-was authority: the will and the ability to govern, to make its decisions stick, to impress upon the millions of uneasy provincial voters the image of an organized body of people capable of running the country at least as effectively as the Gaullist regime. But a victory of this kind, though it might actually have established something like a socialist system, would not have placed the Communists in power. For if there is one thing that unites most Frenchmen (including a good proportion of the Communist voters) it is the absolute determination not to install a dictatorship of the East European type. And since the French Communist party still cannot imagine any other form of rule, it does not inspire trust—not even among its allies of the “Federation of the Left.” In fact these allies, when faced with the blunt choice between Gaullism and Communism, showed what they thought of it—by staying at home in droves during the second round of the parliamentary elections. They might have voted for Mendès-France—which is just why the Communists were determined to sabotage his candidacy at any cost—even at the cost of a parliamentary defeat.
Communist strategy had taken shape even before Waldeck Rochet assumed the leadership after the death of Maurice Thorez in 1964. It was briefly tested in the Presidential elections of December 1965, when the Communists stood down in favor of Mitterand (who won almost 45 per cent of the popular vote on the second ballot), and confirmed in the parliamentary elections of March 1967, when the Federation of the Left and the Communists combined against the Gaullists and their allies. On that occasion the Pompidou government scraped home with a wafer-thin parliamentary majority, although in terms of actual popular support the Gaullists gained an additional two million votes: largely in the poor rural south and mainly at the expense of the conservative Old Right which was virtually wiped out, after having already suffered an electoral disaster in 1962 over Algeria. In the early months of 1968, the Federation (which did not include the P.S.U., but did include Guy Mollet's Socialists, as well as the surviving Radicals and Mitterand's own motley following) moved close to a formal alliance with the Communists. There was not as yet a joint program—merely a draft statement which underlined differences (e.g., over Europe and NATO) as well as agreed aims. It was clearly the purpose of the Communists to commit their partners to a joint platform, so as to pull them away from their potential allies in the so-called Center: a (largely Catholic and pro-European) grouping whose economic outlook was bourgeois-liberal in the traditional sense. To accomplish this aim it was vital to turn the CP into something it had never been in all the forty-eight years of its existence: a party that looked and sounded genuinely democratic and patriotic.
On the eve of the great upheaval in May, Waldeck Rochet and his colleagues had reason to feel that they were making slow but steady progress. The Catholic intelligentsia was becoming friendlier, and so were the Christian trade unions which grouped something like a million workers. Christian-Communist philosophical debates were merely the visible tip of an iceberg floating toward something like peaceful coexistence between the Church and the party. Le Monde, the country's most important paper and the oracle of the entire intellectual and political elite, opened its columns to debates on Marxist philosophy. Political scientists like Maurice Duverger began to weigh the chances of a peaceful Socialist-Communist takeover in 1972, the probable date of the next parliamentary elections. Polls showed a slight majority of the voters willing to accept the presence of Communist ministers in a duly elected government. The internal evolution of the Italian Communist party gave encouragement to such notions. So did the fresh breezes blowing from Prague. L'Humanité, the party organ, began to edge away from Soviet orthodoxy. Its reporting from Eastern Europe increasingly followed a “Hungarian” line: midway between Polish neo-Stalinism and Czech revisionism. The party's official philosopher, Roger Garaudy, made polite bows in the direction of the Vatican. The official Communist publishing house issued a history of the Russian Revolution in which Trotsky was actually mentioned without being called a traitor. Its tame poet, Louis Aragon, publicly deplored the recent trials of Soviet intellectuals. The climate seemed set fair for an “Italian” experiment in respectability. True, the General was still there; but he was nearly seventy-eight, and M. Pompidou did not look like the sort of man who could fill his place when he was gone.
The may upheaval, itself sparked almost accidentally by the student insurrection at Nanterre, put these calculations to the test. On the one hand, it set the working class in motion; on the other, it frightened the provincial middle class and the peasantry (traditionally inclined to regard all urban workers as overpaid loafers). It also gave the Gaullists an opportunity to revive the Red Bogey. But that was “politics” and to be expected: the more so since the General, while eloquent enough on television when describing the mortal peril threatening his beloved France, quite obviously did not believe a word of it, and indeed had no reason to, seeing that the party had been very cooperative while the factory occupation was on. It was no great surprise when M. Pompidou dragged up Mitterand's unconstitutional behavior, or when he depicted the Federation of the Left as the helpless tool of the “totalitarians” lurking in the wings. What was remarkable was the Communist response. So far from unfurling the Red banner, the party did its best to wrap itself in the Tricolor. To see and hear M. Waldeck Rochet on radio and television during the campaign, the chief outrage the Gaullists had committed was trying to steal the national flag “which belongs to us all!” The Communist party (said M. Waldeck Rochet, looking the viewer straight in the eye) was the party of democracy, republican legality, and national unity. If anyone was behaving improperly it was the Gaullists: they were splitting the country down the middle, telling the voters to choose between themselves and the Communists. What nonsense! There was no such choice! The Communist party (said M. Waldeck Rochet in his comfortable Burgundian peasant accent) did not demand power for itself. All it wanted was a fair share within a future government of the republican and democratic Left.
But the Gaullists, plus their unreliable Giscardist allies, and the ever-wobbling Catholic democrats of the so-called Center (who still polled 10 per cent of the popular vote in last June's elections), were not the only bother. There had also arisen on the Communist party's other flank the specter of a radical ultra-Left. Some of it was distributed among the Anarchist, Trotskyist, Maoist, and Castroist organizations which bore the brunt of the street fighting with the CRS last May and June. The remainder was enrolled among the twenty thousand members of the left-wing Socialist (and therefore juts barely respectable) party of Mendès-France and Michel Rocard: the latter one of those bright young technocrats who, except for their philosophy, are barely distinguishable from the more left-wing Gaullists. What was to be done about these sudden apparitions? The Trotskyists and the rest were bad enough, but the government finally banned them, whereupon the party, at last, could breathe a sigh of relief. All through May L'Humanité had been lambasting the students for antagonizing peaceful citizens, and as late as June 7 the new secretary-general of the CGT, Georges Sèguy, was still wondering aloud why the authorities tolerated these “troublemakers,” whereupon the government took the hint and solemnly banned their (virtually non-existent) organizations.1
Séguy had only recently taken over from the aging Benoît Frachon, for many years secretary-general of the Confédération Générate du Travail and a veteran of the Communist-led union movement. Both men were members of the Politbureau, sharing responsibility with Waldeck Rochet and the other party leaders in whose name Georges Marchais in L'Humanité had already denounced Cohn-Bendit in May as a “German anarchist,” and in general sounded the patriotic and chauvinist note when the student revolt broke out. But that was before the workers followed suit: first by occupying the factories from May 15 onward, then by rejecting the wage agreements hastily negotiated by the CGT with the Pompidou government later that month (in the end they settled for a slightly amended version, which more or less brought their pay up to the West German level—at least on paper and not counting the effect on prices in the shops). By the time the election campaign got under way in June, the strike was virtually over and it was possible to go back to normal. This was the moment chosen by the party to proclaim its attachment to republican legality. (It got small thanks from the electorate, but that is another story). It was also the time for making it clear that the CP had no use for its left-wing allies. The students were bad enough, but Rocard with his P.S.U. was worse, and Mendès-France was intolerable. Had he not appeared at Chartéty on May 27 under the red-and-black banners, while Pompidou and Séguy were jointly trying to get the strikers back to work? And now Rocard had dared to say that the Federation and the Communists ought to have kept the strike going until the government resigned! It was an outrage, said M. Waldeck Rochet (M. Mitterand thought so too).2 The Communist party and the unions had behaved responsibly, Waldeck Rochet told the voters on television in his final pre-election broadcast. “The truth is that all through the grave events we have witnessed the French Communist party has conducted itself like a great party of progress, like a responsible party, conscious that it is the bearer of the hopes of millions of Frenchmen. We have deployed our entire activity in the service of the people, in broad daylight, within the framework of republican legality. . . .”3
Shades of August Bebel! Here was French Communism speaking the authentic language of German Social Democracy! But in France nothing is ever quite what it seems. For one thing, the party apparatus was still full of old Stalinists, quite capable of imposing a Novotny-type regime, given half a chance. And secondly, if the Fédération de la Gauche was a mishmash of old Socialists and bourgeois Radicals, the P.S.U. was not quite what it appears either. Not only was its titular leader an old Keynesian liberal, very recently converted to (non-Marxist) socialism: its energetic young secretary-general, Rocard, could easily pass for a Gaullist technocrat if he moved a fraction further to the Right. The fact is, the P.S.U. differs from the Communist party principally in that it has got rid of the awful deadweight of electoral Poujadism the CP still drags around with it. It doesn't have to worry about workers in declining industries or peasant-farmers in the South, because it doesn't represent either. What it does represent is the new technical intelligentsia whose Left-inclined representatives make up much of its membership (the remainder are Trotskyist or Guevarist students with nowhere else to go). In short, it is a typically “modern” formation, not unlike the Gaullists, and in competition with them for the same clientele. All of which is perfectly obvious to the Communists, especially to labor leaders like Frachon and Séguy, and not in the least to their liking. They know a revisionist when they see one (just as their Czech opposite-numbers do) and no sociologist has to tell them that if the P.S.U. ever takes over the leadership of the French Left, it will treat the Communists as so much political cannon-fodder. Which is not to say that Rocard was not in earnest when he urged the escalation of the general strike to the level of revolution. For all one knows it might even have worked; but the CP and the CGT had decided on the “parliamentary road to socialism,” and anyway they didn't like a movement they had not started and over which they had no real control.
And so the Gaullists stayed in power and were even swept back with a greatly increased majority, on a wave of law-and-order sentiment that came rolling up from the depths, and that cost the Federation and the Communists votes on both flanks, while the P.S.U. nearly doubled its share at the expense of its allies. With a mere 4.4 million votes out of 22 million on the first ballot—where the parties strike bargains for the run-off—the Communists were back to the old ratio of 20 per cent they have had for most of the past decade, and the Federation was even worse off, having likewise lost both votes and percentage points. Compared with March 1967, when the united Left came within reasonable sight of an electoral majority, the setback was serious enough to call into question the entire strategy pursued over the past few years—and this quite irrespective of the altogether disproportionate redistribution of parliamentary seats, which could be explained away as a temporary disaster. There just is not, it would seem, a popular majority for democratic socialism, but that is the old dilemma of the French Left. In this sense at least very little has changed.
The figures—if one is going to talk in these terms—are eloquent enough. From 1924 to 1956, Communists, Socialists, and Radicals together always held a majority of the popular vote, although it was of course unequally divided among them, with the old-style Republican Radicals gradually losing ground, especially after Mendès-France had left them. In 1958, when de Gaulle came in, the entire Left (including the Radicals) polled 43.41 per cent of the total vote in the legislative elections that year. In 1962 their combined percentage was slightly less: 42.82 per cent. In March 1967 (when the Gaullists nearly lost their parliamentary majority through over-confidence and indolence on the second ballot) the entire Left polled only a very slightly higher percentage of the total vote than it had done in November 1962: 43.51 per cent. By June this year it was down to 41.22 per cent, of which about half went to the Communists, the remainder to the Federation and the P.S.U. The latter polled nearly a million votes and did especially well in Paris, where they ran the Federation a close second and took some votes away from the Communists. The CP also lost ground in the industrial regions of the North—but to the Gaullists! It would seem that tens of thousands of workers (and their wives) transferred their votes from the Communists to de Gaulle's party, in protest against Communist pressure tactics during the factory occupation, when in many places the CP and the CGT prevented the holding of secret ballots on whether or not to go with the strike. For the rest, the Gaullist “Union for the Defense of the Republic” made solid gains almost everywhere, notably in the Paris region, but likewise in the traditionally Radical-Socialist South. It ran slightly ahead of the P.S.U. in a straw poll taken among young people of pre-voting age. There may be some significance in the fact that among these young men and women of eighteen to twenty-one, only the Gaullists and the Mendesists scored heavily, while the “old” parties (including the Communists) lagged considerably behind.4
On the morning after, everyone reacted in standard fashion: the Gaullists by celebrating their victory and ascribing it to the good sense of the voters; the Center by congratulating itself that it had not lost more heavily; the Socialists by blaming the result on the Red scare; and the Communists by blaming the left-wing extremists: some of them (according to René Andrieu in L'Humanité) clearly in the pay of the police. . . . “Every barricade, every car set on fire, brought tens of thousands of votes to the Gaullist party,” according to the editorialist of the Communist daily. Very likely there was something in this, but the writer forgot to mention that there were no barricades in the North, where the CP nonetheless lost heavily in factory and mining districts—not to the P.S.U., but to the Gaullists. The truth is always more complex, and more interesting, than propagandist fiction, but this is a lesson the Communists still have to learn, and not only in France.
What of the victors? They have won a respite that should carry them through the critical four or five years while the conversion of France into a modern industrial country is finally accomplished. One of the principal factors in the May explosion was the sudden discharge of resentments accumulated during a decade when France was making very rapid economic and technical progress not accompanied by anything in the nature of major structural changes in the society. To cite only the best publicized instance of all: while the number of students nearly trebled, the number of jobs available for them did not, and the educational system remained as rigid and centralized as before. The result, as usual in French history, was a spontaneous uprising in default of something less dramatic. This has happened before. In fact one may say that it happens regularly in France about once in every generation. For this reason alone it will not do to treat this year's crisis as merely a link in a chain of world-wide “student unrest.” There is a roughly similar situation in the West German universities, but no such social tinder lying about. For one thing, the West German working class has no revolutionary tradition; for another thing, it has absolutely no use for students coming from middle-class homes (95 per cent in the Bundesrepublik).
Above all, there is the function, or malfunction, of the French political system. On this topic a great deal of nonsense has been talked by people who have taken no trouble to inquire how the system actually works. I shall therefore cite one of the few contemporary historians deeply versed in this abominably complex subject, Mr. Philip Williams. In his newly published book The French Parliament 1958-67,5 Mr. Williams has this to say:
The French parliament today is much weaker than the Congress of the United States and somewhat weaker than the British House of Commons. But under the Third and Fourth Republics it was far stronger than either. In contrast to the United States, the French government was responsible to the legislature; in contrast to Britain, the French legislature remained so predominant that for nearly eighty years no ministry dared dissolve British cabinets were formed by the leaders of the majority party and its discipline gave them power over their nominal parliamentary masters; but in France, government and parliament alike were paralyzed by the number of small parties, the individualism of their members, and the fragility of their coalitions. Moreover, unlike Britain and the United States, France had emerged only recently from authoritarian rule and there were always strong political forces on the far Right or Left (usually both at once) which wanted to scrap the democratic system and revert to autocracy.
To which one may add that the system functioned, more or less, as long as laissez-faire was paramount and the government of the day did as little as possible. It ceased to work when the State became the dominant partner in the economy: a change dating from the Second World War. Ever since then, the problem of marrying a centrally planned economy to a parliamentary system has been the key issue, and for this very reason it has rarely been discussed in public. Certainly the Communists have not discussed it—for the simple reason that they thought it best to keep quiet about such dangerous topics until they were safely installed in power. The “Old Left” has kept silent too, and so have the Conservatives and Liberals of the Old Right. Only two groups in French political life have offered a solution: the Gaullists and the P.S.U. Not suprisingly, these are the only political formations which in recent years have had a following among the “technical intelligentsia” and among the young. The others are stagnating and the Communist party is the most stagnant of them all.
For to make the system work it is necessary for the political parties to transcend their class origins; and while the Gaullists have not been very good at this (they still include far too many people who ought to be made to join some conservative outfit), they have at least seen the problem: as in their own fashion have the less benighted members of the P.S.U. The Communists not only have not seen it: they refuse to admit its existence. For the day they did, they would have to acknowledge that the working class by itself cannot run a modern economy. Stalin discovered this by experience (and murdered those who stood in the way), but Stalinism is no longer tolerable. As for the Czech example—leadership by a liberalized Communist party including both the technical intelligentsia and an elite of the working class—it is all very well, but it presupposes the actual possession of power: just what the French situation denies them. On balance, therefore, the choice lies between Gaullism (which is simply nationalism married to a reforming technocracy, and kept going by the charismatic appeal of a national hero, now on the point of becoming an historical monument) or some version of democratic socialism. For the time being, the transformation is still being undertaken in the sign of nationalism. When the Left gets its chance, the success or failure of the experiment will depend on whether it has learned its lesson.
The lesson, so far as France is concerned, seems to be that Alexander Dubcek is more relevant than Fidel Castro. The new model is being fabricated in Prague, not in Havana. But this notion will never set the Quartier Latin on fire. For even if the Communists finally get the message, the Maoists and Castroites among the students won't. Too bad, one cannot please everyone. For the next five years anyway the Gaullists are safe, and can amuse themselves by toying with “participation” and citing papal encyclicals (or for that matter the writings of Proudhon, if they want an authentic French socialist to play off against Marx and Lenin) to the effect that the workers are entitled to a share of the profit. The General cannot, one must suppose, live forever, but as long as he is around, his party can count on the voters, and he himself no doubt can count on the loyalty of his new Prime Minister. There is perhaps something faintly anachronistic about the spectacle of two elderly aristocrats—one a Catholic conservative with vague notions derived from the romantic anti-capitalism of his favorite authors, the other a perfect specimen of the Protestant haute bourgeoisie—setting out to find a “middle road” between capitalism and Communism. One does not quite see M. Couve de Murville in that role—but perhaps he is just being groomed for the Presidential succession, while the task of providing Gaullism with the social gospel it has hitherto lacked is left to younger men who have won their spurs in the various socialist parties and sects (there are a number of them around—one wonders how much elbow room they will get). The Gaullist party is probably less conservative than its own voters—another of those troubling paradoxes. And anyway it now confronts a decapitated Left, for Mendès-France had the rug pulled from under him very effectively by the Communist organization at Grenoble which made sure he would lose his seat to the Gaullists (while a section of the local bourgeoisie perversely voted for him because they were proud of his national standing).6 All very odd, but then France is not an easy country to understand. It is also a country that suffers from consistent misreporting by ignorant or hostile correspondents, particularly in the English-language press (the Continental Europeans are better served in this respect). How many people outside France are aware that Mendès-France in 1962 proposed the conversion of the Senate into a Second Chamber representing the citizens not in their individual role as voters, but in their corporate capacity as members of economic or social organizations? Or that the Gaullists “borrowed” this idea from him? Or that the P.S.U. leadership is trying to be simultaneously to the Right and to the Left of the CP? Or that its long-range strategy aims at an alliance with the Catholic unions, whose leaders in some cases are now more radical than the Communists, but also closer to de Gaulle. . . . One could go on forever. If there is one certainty about the 1968 French upheaval, it is that it figures among the least understood and worst reported events in recent European history.
1 See the Nouvel Observateur of June 12, especially Jean Daniel's hand-wringing editorial. M. Daniel had already found reason to complain about L'Humanité's pro-Nasser line during the Israel-Arab Six-Day War last year. Séguy's denunciation of the “extremists” was almost—but not quite—too much for him. And yet in fairness one has to add that Georges Séguy joined the Resistance movement during the war at the age of 15, and had a spell in Mauthausen concentration camp. He is no ordinary labor bureaucrat—which makes the whole thing all the more significant.
2 See Le Monde of June 23-24 for their declarations.
3 Le Monde, June 23-24, reporting the party leader's broadcast of June 21st. It is worth noting that all the opposition parties, including the P.S.U., had full access to radio and television facilities over the official State radio, the ORTF, as well as the independent stations located in Luxembourg and Monte Carlo.
4 For some of these figures see Le Monde of July 16, quoting M. François Goguel, secretary-general of the Senate and professor at the Institute of Political Studies. L'Express of July 8-14 has a slightly different set of figures. According to the calculations of its electoral statisticians, the three parties of the traditional “Left” polled 65 per cent of the total popular vote in 1945, 59 per cent in 1946, 54.5 per cent in 1951, 53 per cent in 1956, 46 per cent in 1958, 44 per cent in 1962, 43.5 per cent in 1967, and 40.5 per cent in the first round of the June 1968 elections. Whichever set of figures one accepts, the Left has seen its following steadily shrink since 1945. This circumstance encourages anti-parliamentary tendencies among old syndicalists and youthful Trotskyists alike. But they will have to explain how one can get the workers to go through with a factory occupation and with the actual running of industry and transport the next time there is a general strike. For an interesting discussion of this topic see Serge Mallet in the Nouvel Observateur of July 15-21, where incidentally he also shows in detail how the CGT leaders systematically aimed at compromise with the government, while at the same time equally systematically wrecking the chances of a joint coalition government of all the Socialist parties. In brief, the Communists acted neither in a revolutionary nor in a genuinely reformist manner, for they could have had a legal Socialist government had they wanted it. What they really did want was to go on being the official opposition to the Gaullist regime—forever, it seems.
5 London: Allen & Unwin.
6 See L'Express of July 1-7 for an analysis of the voting results.