Maurice Thorez, statesman
Communists and power

par Robert Hue

Président de la fondation Gabriel Péri (2004-2012), sénateur-Maire du Val d’Oise, vice-président de la Commission des Affaires étrangères et de la Défense, ancien secrétaire national du Parti communiste français.

avril 2007

It is nearly sixty years, since Sunday May 4th 1947, when Council president, Paul Ramadier, ousted the Communist Ministers from his government. There were five : François Billoux, National Defence ; Ambroise Croizat, Work and Social Security ; George Marrane, Public Health ; Maurice Thorez, State Minister ; and Charles Tillon, Rebuilding and Town Planning. The Communists took part in government since De Gaulle set it up in Alger in April 1944, apart from a brief period of “homogeneous” Blum government from December 1946 to January 1947.

Much has been written about this exceptional period in French history and in the history of the PCF. Much remains to be disentangled : reports of Communists within the State, the share of “ French exception” and the share of International Communist (IC), which concerns tactics and strategy, the role of the directions and their contradictions, the specific influence of Maurice Thorez... The opening of the PCF files, to which I contributed as National Secretary, and also the Moscow files, provide researchers with incomparable material. Certain work has already been published, others are expected. Despite our opinion, this research is essential not only for those who wish to understand the phenomenon of French communism, but also for those who want, in todays world, to contribute to a progressive social transformation with the aim of moving beyond capitalism.

It is however necessary to be appropriate with it, for various reasons, which it would take too long to discuss here. PCF worked little the question of the State, except, perhaps, in the years 60 to 70, when the economic section of the Central Committee was devoted to the analysis of what we call the monopolistic capitalism of State (CME), or through work of philosophers like Louis Althusser and other Marxists researchers, members or not of PCF. Some continue today. I believe that greatest attention should be paid to them.

The historian’s work is also invaluable. They show that the years 30 to 40 are very important for the PCF and the Left wing. The Popular Front, the Resistance, the Liberation have all left a deep impression on individual and collective memories. They fall under heavy influence and hostility whose conflicts mark the history of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. The questions raised by these experiences and their representations towards the Communists and the Left wing are still extreme. It is also about the participation of the Communists in government in which they are minority.

In May 1947, the PCF was the main party in France ; it won the legislative elections of November 10th, 1946 with 5.5 million votes and 28.8 %. With the formation of the Jospin government in 1997, we obtained 2, 455 000 votes and 9.88 %. In both cases however, we were confronted with failure. If we compare the 1947 situation with 2002, certain initial steps of these two crises appear similar : social dissatisfaction, international constraints and the perception of Communists in their participation of government. The same questions were indeed asked of us in 1947 and 2002 : how to be both part of the government and part of the social fight ? Initially, was it necessary, should we have gone into government ? To do what ? What belongs to the political tactic and what returns to strategy ? These questions emerged from the Thirties. They were asked - and are asked - in France and where ever Communists reach or reached power.

I cannot claim to have the answers here to these questions. I would like to try, as a politician and not as a historian who I am not, starting from my own experience and thoughts, to highlight the problems posed.

I have just indicated that this first appeared in the Thirties. It is therefore essential to return to the method in which Maurice Thorez, principal craftsman of the Alliances of 1936, with the Resistance and the Liberation, approached the question of party and State, while at the same time as political leader in France and of the International Communist (IC), and also as a member of the government.

Like any historical character, the personality and role of Thorez are - and must be - the object of broad and critical studies, in rigorously considering the objective and subjective conditions of all action. However, this is not the point that I wish to make myself here, even if, from a certain point of view, it is part of it.

In 1995, advancing the idea of a “unit Pact for progress”, I wrote : “For me it is both a prospect, a spirit and a step (...). It is necessary to work towards hope, waiting in society the political outlet that is cruelly missed. Today progressive Left wing forces, certainly manage to be united against Right-wing candidates (...) but they remain divided on solutions needed. There is a need to close this vacuum, which handicaps social struggle and slows down the passage to so much aspiration. With policy lacking, one is always wrong. And history illustrated this : a society cannot live without prospects. However, there is no fate for a progressive exit. If it is failing over a long period - credible, palpable, tangible - others, and sometimes worse, will occupy the space” [1]. Twelve years passed. During this period, over five years, the “plural left” controlled, Communist ministers were in charge. However in 2002 the catastrophe happened... “Worse” “occupied the space”. At the beginning of this electoral year we could not suggest that the situation had radically changed, or that the risks, which I mentioned in 1995 had completely disappeared.

It is therefore in the continuous reflection with others, on the occasions when we engage what we referred to as “the change”, that I have this contribution.

“I have never resigned in my life.”

What belongs to political tactics and what returns to strategy ? In a certain manner this is the question that Thorez mentioned in May 1947 when the Communist Ministers were going to leave the government formed in January by Paul Ramadier. PCF, I indicated, was then the main party in France by the number of its members as by electoral influence and the number of representatives to the House of Commons (175 out of 344 in metropolis, 618 on the whole). Shortly after the legislative (November), Thorez, Vice-President of the Council in all cabinets since March 1946, had asserted “by right” the position of President of the Council (Prime Minister). After evasive ambiguity, the Socialists decided to vote for him, 23 abstained. He obtained 259 votes. He needed 310 to be elected. 51 votes close... Blum formed a transitory homogeneous government in January, and then the Secretary-General of the PCF reinstated the government as State Minister in February, with four other Communists.

On Sunday May 4th, 1947, the Council sat in a tense atmosphere. Each one knew that a change was about to take place. Social conditions had deteriorated ; a strike broke out within the coldly nationalized Renault factories. Inflation soared. Wages stagnated. Anticommunism broke out, initially within the Gaullist, who would like to promote their outgoing champion (January 20, 1946), with the MRP, Christian-Democrats and Socialists. One operates, one plots, Vincent Auriol, then President of the Republic, testifies in his Newspaper : “S.D.E.C.E. communicates a note according to which the Communists would prepare for the seizure of power, preceded by a general transport strike between the 1st and 15th December, under the terms of a decision which would have been made on September 27. He added that the result of the elections could have modified this decision. I also learn that Thorez and Dimitrov spent two days in Stalin’s villa, an interview that disconcerts the Soviet Embassy in Paris. They declare that Thorez and Dimitrov were in favour of the easing up of communist policy in Europe. One wonders whether this interview will not slow down the current communist action. I will follow the events with attention and will immediately inform the President of the Council...”

The international context is also complicated. The iron division began between yesterday’s allies, on the one hand the Americans and British, on the other the Soviets. The first two increase their pressure in the part of Europe they control, including France where the Right wing and SFIO, de Gaulle left [2], are not insensitive to the warnings from the other side of the Atlantic. The Soviets consolidate their power in the East, where the progressive governments trained on the Popular Front model will not be long in being liquidated by Stalin for the profit of an authoritative single party and through a wild tinted political purification of anti Semitism.

Lastly, the war started in Indo-China (December 1946) and against the will of the governmental majority, the PCF supported Ho-Chi-Minh, as he protests vigorously when the army shoots in anger at a crowd in Madagascar.

On March 18th, the Communist deputies abstained in a vote of confidence. April 30th, the Communist ministers give their support to the strikers in Renault.

Landscape before the battle ; and it is thus on May 4th. At 9 p.m. Marcel-Edmond Naegelen, Socialist Minister in National Education, testifies in his Memories Of our time : “What occurred this day was extremely simple and fast. The meeting of the Ministers Council was open as usual. Paul Ramadier made a talk on the general situation and then he consulted individually all the Ministers present. Initially, I believe that he started with the Socialists and then the M.R.P. Ministers. There was already, I believe, a radical Minister ; if I am not mistaken, it was Yvon Delbos. All and sundry agreed with the talk of the Council President. Then, Ramadier questioned the Communists : “I would like to know what our Communist colleagues think about the program that I have just outlined”. Maurice Thorez answered : “We will support the claims of the working class”. The Communists defended at that time the claims of the workers from the Renault factories, where a conflict had just broken out. At the Ministers Council, Maurice Thorez estimates that it is possible to give them satisfaction. He rejects the theory of the “infernal cycle” between wages and prices called upon by Ramadier. Ramadier said : “I note that our Communist colleagues do not agree with the President of the Government nor with the majority of the Council, and I ask them which consequences they think that can bring”. Maurice Thorez declared : “I have never resigned in my life”. I sat opposite to him and thought to myself :“Eh well that promises for the day when you will be a Council President !” Then, Ramadier removed from his drawer a small booklet - it was the Constitution- I do not remember which article of this Constitution he referred to, giving him the right to withdraw the delegations that he had given to the Communists Ministers, because when one is a Minister is it only by delegation. The Communist Ministers rose and left ; there were no more Communist Ministers. Now ! That was extremely fast and absolutely simple. “

Absolutely simple. Such is the opinion of the General-Secretary Minister of State. The day before, May 3rd, he announced the departure of the Communists Ministers in government to the Central Committee at a meeting in Paris. Their departure or rather... It is Thorez speaking : “We do not want to give the impression that we leave with pleasure. (...) We want to oblige them (...) to put us out in a way that we can continue to tell the socialist workmen and the people in general : “They did not want to keep us in government, and they took the responsibility of signing decrees driving us out of government because we represent the working class and wanted them to make a policy in conformity with the interests of the country”. (...) There are moments when, tactically, it is absolutely necessary to receive a kick in the back. The essential reason is that we should not complicate the relationship with the Socialist Party. It is necessary for socialist workmen, and Republicans who were happy a month ago (...), when the Ministers voted in ministerial solidarity, that we affirmed at the same time our opposition to the war against Vietnam and that we remained in government “.

Let us recall that it is a speech, which is not intended to be public. It is addressed to the Executives of the Party by Thorez and throughout his intervention came like a leitmotiv : no change of line ! “There is a tactical change which is imposed on us, it declares, but not in the Party line. We had said : we are a party of government, a party which bases its policy on serious principles, principles which state that the working class, with its effort and its alliance, its narrow agreement with the middle class and in particular with the peasants, depend on the steps towards a new democracy”. And he continues : “(...) The general policy of our country slips towards a reactionary policy, towards a policy which is not only inspired by the reactionary media in our country, but which is directly inspired by international reaction (...). It is not possible for us not to continue our policy but to continue at the sides of these men, a policy which is no longer the policy of government.”

But he warns the members of the Central Committee : “We are not making a counter-manoeuvre to answer an operation.(...) Under these conditions, there cannot be a change in the fundamental policy of our party. (...) It is not believed that the locks are opened and that one can break all the crockery. (...) We will continue to defend all that will be well made to defend France and the Republic. (...) It is not a question of discrediting social democracy, or falling into play from others. (...). Consequently, it should not be regarded from now on as the happy prospect to which we resign ourselves to more or less although we are no longer in government. It is necessary to work towards creating improved conditions for our return to government. (...)”

A “government party”

I made a point of quoting this speech of May 3rd, 1947, because at the same time it summarizes all Thorez struggles since the beginning of the Thirties, its well anchored conviction about the essential character concerning unity and the national role of the PCF government party”, and at the same time it suggests their limits.

As Marx pointed out, “ men make their own history, but they do not do it from their own movement, nor under the conditions chosen by them alone, but under the conditions found directly and which are given to them and transmitted” [3]. Engels added : “ history is made in such way that the final result always emerges from the conflicts of a great number of individual wills, which one in its turn is done such as it is with a crowd of particular conditions of existence ; there are therefore innumerable forces here which are thwarted mutually, an infinite group of parallelograms of forces, from where a resultant arises - the historical event - which can be looked at itself, in its turn, like the product of a force acting as a whole, in an unconscious and blind way. Because, what each individual wants is prevented by another and what is released is something that nobody wanted” [4].

In fact, in 1947 the Popular Front-Resistance-Liberation cycle was completed. Particular conditions had made it possible for Thorez on the one hand to get the PCF out of the crisis in which the tactics had plunged “class against class” imposed by the IC, and on the other hand “to nationalize” an organization made bloodless by the “Bolchevik”. Action/reaction/action, thus we can summarize the long battle that the PCF direction - sometimes with intern divergences - carries out to make the PCF “a political factor” declares Maurice Thorez in front of the Latin secretariat of IC on December 3rd, 1934 when defending his policy of broad Alliance and Popular Front [5]. A historian could note in this respect : “In fact - but it was not the first time - Thorez showed real political capability, at the same time intelligence towards the French situation (...), of comprehension of the mysteries from Kominter and the Soviets, and also for a certain political courage towards the Almighty dictator of the Kremlin” [6].

Alas we know that it was not always the case, as were demonstrated in the months and years which followed the departure of the Communists from government. However, the turning taken by the PCF in these 30 to 40 years will be irreversible, in spite of vicissitudes of the cold war and the zigzags of its policy of Alliance. In 1936, Thorez wanted to go further while entering into government. He publicly indicates it on October 1935 in a speech to Reciprocity, relayed the following weeks by articles from Jacques Duclos and Marcel Cachin in Humanity. The political Office decided differently. Would a Communist participation in government have changed anything during this history ? It is impossible to answer. But Giulio Ceretti, one of the organizers of the assistance to republican Spain and Minister in Italy during the Liberation, put forward arguments which do not appear unfounded to me : “Our participation would have given a new dash to the masses and the government would have become a mobilization factor in helping Spain to achieve reforms” [7].

Then why the hesitation in 1936 ? For Ceretti, there are three reasons : “Firstly : essentially this kind of hesitation assigns the Communists each time they must leave the furrow traced by the Bolsheviks more than one half century ago. [We are in 1973.] We succeed in “assembling” a remarkable Popular Front movement and then, by dogmatism, we leave the advantages and the responsibilities to others, which have neither our courage nor our will to serve the people ; Secondly, the hesitation of Blum to join with us “for fear of upsetting the radicals” ; Thirdly : the fear of “the great” [Thorez] that we become prisoners, fear which was typical of the mentality at the time “ [8].

This “mentality” did not prevail in 1944-1947. Undoubtedly we had learned lessons from the failure of the Popular Front and appreciated the new conditions rising from Resistance (union in CNR), from the Liberation and its needs, the international situation (alliance with USSR). On January 23rd, 1945 in front of the Central Committee in Ivry, Thorez declared : “Yesterday, we were the best in combat (...), today we must be the best in the army, in the factory, in the fields, at school, in laboratories, everywhere I should say in the government. In practicing a broad policy of unity, a wise policy, in being aware of our responsibility in front of the people, in allowing gathering around us and with us” [9].

A strategic twist ?

The lesson from the past, the economic situation immediately after the war, and even the disappearance in 1943 of International Communism and the support brought by Stalin until 1947, do not explain everything. The famous interview that Thorez gave to the London Times on November 18th, 1946 testifies that Communist policy then fits in an innovating strategy, not to say “revolutionary” compared to the Soviet designs and that which prevailed, even at the time of the Popular Front, the IC.

We note this text, primarily these few sentences : “Progress of democracy throughout the world, in spite of rare exceptions which confirm the rule, allows us to consider another way for Socialism other than that followed by the Russian Communists. In any event, the way is necessarily different for each country. We always thought and declared that French people, people steeped in a glorious tradition, would find their way to democracy, progress and social justice”.

We did not stop on two other passages of the interview : “At the current stage of development of society, we have the conviction that nationalization - the return to the nation of the great monopolized means of production - constitutes a progress towards socialism. Nationalization undermines the absolute power of financial oligarchies. It limits the legal possibilities of exploitation of one man by another and places in the hands of a democratic government the appreciable means to recover work and social issues in the country. It is obvious that the Communist Party, in its governmental activity and the framework of the parliamentary system that it contributed to restore, will adhere strictly to the democratic program which was worth the confidence of the popular masses to it”.

Furthermore : “ During our election campaign we continually repeated that we do not ask the people for a mandate to apply a strictly communist program, i.e. relying on a radical transformation of the current mode of property and the resulting ratios of production. We recommended a democratic program and a national rebuilding program, acceptable to all republicans including nationalization, also support for average and small industrial and artisan companies and the defence of country property against trusts”.

The interview in The Times, we know, “was forgotten” until the Seventies, when the PCF started to strip from Stalinist dogma and began “other ways than those followed by the Russian Communists”. Opinions diverge regarding the aims followed by the General-Secretary of the PCF in 1946. For certain, it was not absolutely necessary to reassure de Gaulle, the partners of the party, even the Western Allies. For others, it was the start of a true strategic twist. These can be based on many others writings that The Times confirm. For example, on Thorez speech in front of the Central Committee on November 27th, 1946 :“Of course we consider other ways than those followed by our Soviet comrades. (...) We progress in a way which we could not have conceived 25 years ago when we fought our battle for adhesion in III° International, we did not think that 25 years later, we would claim for the presidency in government.” [10]

I belong to those estimating that this was the start of a rupture in the Bolshevik conquest of capacity and I reckon sadly that the PCF did not continue in this way. Undoubtedly, the same conditions of its departure from government have weighed in the direction of folding in on themselves ; some drift from the left wing with a realignment on Moscow. It is the opinion expressed in 1981 by Yves Roucaute, directing the Gramsci Institute, in its comment at the famous interview of 46 : “Thus the variation taken with the Soviet model is indicated because the USSR is law and the direction of the PCF is far from being dissatisfied. It can never be said enough that it is the exclusion of Communists from the government, which appears to be mainly responsible for their return to the Stalinist bosom ; and that this exclusion was the best-rendered service to Stalin and, paradoxically, the “falcons” of the United States. The state of mind of the PCF was deeply that of its Secretary-General, of the national rebuilding in the national Reconciliation (...). The appeasing was on the agenda, France too.“ [11]

This history - that I call “French Stalinism” [12]- still weighs on the Communist Party. From my point of view, it is the principal reason for its crisis, its decline and consequently of its difficulty to play the part that it should be playing in public life in spite of the efforts authorized to renovate and renew its strategy and its practices.

For me, the role of a Communist Party remains that which Thorez assigned to it : to largely gather the democratic forces, to take all responsibilities in the development of a progressive policy and to contribute actively to its implementation ; This, without ever losing its course - its “aim” - but by measuring the risks and also the compromises to be made at a given moment.

Citizenship and responsibilities

Since we have given up the “great evening” and the single party, the need to conclude alliances, to build a majority gathering is essential. Under different conditions today than in 1936 or 1944-47, because the conditions “given” and “transmitted”, that Marx and Engels spoke about, are obviously radically new at the age of globalized financial capitalism and shortly after the bankruptcy of “real socialism”. They are also different because of changes in wage earning, the informational revolution and requirement of citizenship due at the same time to historical experience of people and the rise in cultural level. “ Culture, wrote Paul Nizan, has a critical function. Knowledge has a breaking value. Culture and knowledge decrease, in any man who has them, the possibility of being easily deceived by words, to be credulous with lies” [13].

Today, the requirement of citizenship is to consider in an innovating way political practice and participation in the institutions on some level. There is no other means, in my opinion, of finding the key to the “infinite group of parallelograms of forces” which Engels spoke about, in order to control the conditions of political action. But the exercise of citizenship should be neither a gadget nor remain an incantation, or contradict in a demagogic way with the representative democracy, provided that this is either removed from gravities and that the monarchical drift specific to the 5th Republic should be stopped. On the contrary, the deployment of what one calls today the “social movement” implies a new responsibility for the political Left : to encourage mobilization of social and democratic forces through a permanent exchange, stripped of any other-worldliness, rejecting any demagogy and, at the same time, to fully exert its political office in building a parliamentary and governmental majority, and after, inside this one.

In return, one could succeed with the capacity without making real sovereignty of the people, often called upon but never respected. This sovereignty needs truth, not promises.

Here again, I will quote the example of Thorez in 1945 :“Things are not so simple [with the government, note]. For example, next week, one goes to vote on the law on retirement of old people, which contains conditions that government, with our approval, has unanimously introduced on 125 % of production necessary before applying the law, because this law will cost us 35 billion at June entry. If we must apply it in a few months, it would place us in an extremely difficult situation. (...) Time is gone where we could all say what we want because when we said it, the situation did not change. Now, it is enough that we say a word so that people (...) who rely on us take this word straight and if we were imprudently advanced in such or such a question, or in such or such a problem, we could extend a blow to the confidence of the working class and to the people inside our party” [14].

It is undoubtedly in this that Thorez was a statesman.

[1] Robert Hue, Communism : The Change, Stock 1995.

[2] See for example this notation of Cachin in his Notebooks, November 20, 1945 : “de Gaulle with Auriol : "Beware of English. Cachin came here with you and said to me that he was with me, he supported me against you" “. Notebooks, volume IV, 1935-1947, CNRS Editions, 1997.

[3] Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, social Editions, 1984.

[4] Letter with Joseph Bloch of September 21-22, 1890, in Marx-Engels philosophical Studies, social Editions.

[5] See Communisms n° 67-68, the Age of man 2001.

[6] Idem.

[7] With the shade of two T, Julliard 1973.

[8] Idem.

[9] Central committee of PCF on 21, January 22, and 23 1945, in Ivry-on-Seine. Speech published under the title “to link themselves, fight, work”, Departmental records of Seine-Saint-Denis, cote 261 J 2/3.

[10] Departmental records of Seine Saint-Denis, cote : 261 J 2/13

[11] The PCF and the tops of the State, PUF, 1981.

[12] Robert Hoots, Communism : The Change, Stock 1995

[13] The public enemy n° 1, Regards, March 14 - April 11, 1935, in Paul Nizan, For a new culture, Bernard Grasset, 1971.

[14] Central committee of November on 3rd, and 4th 1945, Town hall in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Departmental records of Seine Saint-Denis cote : 261 J 2/6.

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