From Charonne to Vitry (1981)

Writ­ten after the Vit­ry-sur-Seine and Mon­tigny-lès-Cormeilles “affairs,” and pub­lished in Le Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur, no. 852 (March 9, 1981), this arti­cle earned my expul­sion from the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty (PCF) at the time (of which I had been a mem­ber since 1961), via a res­o­lu­tion of the Paris Fed­er­al Com­mit­tee passed the same day and which appeared in L’Humanité on March 10, 1981. It also prompt­ed two clar­i­fi­ca­tions I must note: one is from Hen­ri Alleg, con­cern­ing the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of La Ques­tion in 1958 (see L ’Human­ité, March 18, 1981), and the oth­er is from Mme. Béa­trice Mail­lot con­cern­ing her brother’s engage­ment on the side of the FLN, and the rela­tion­ships between the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Alge­ria and the PCF (see Le Nou­v­el Obser­va­teur, no. 853, March 16, 1981). The arti­cle was repub­lished in Les fron­tières de la démoc­ra­tie (Paris: Edi­tions La Décou­verte, 1992).

Racist, the par­ty of Mous­sa Konaté1 and Hen­ri Alleg, the par­ty of those who died at Charonne, to whom Com­mu­nist deputies have asked that we final­ly erect a com­mem­o­ra­tive mon­u­ment? Antiracist, the par­ty of Guy Poussy2 and Paul Mer­cieca, the orga­niz­ers of the bull­doz­er oper­a­tion at Vit­ry, the par­ty of Robert Hue, who used an Alger­ian fam­i­ly to pit a small city against anoth­er fam­i­ly of Moroc­can work­ers? No com­mu­nist today can avoid this ques­tion.

I was not in the streets, near the Charonne metro sta­tion, on Feb­ru­ary 8, 1962. A month and a half pri­or, on Decem­ber 19, dur­ing the first of the tru­ly mas­sive unit­ed demon­stra­tions against the OAS, against the attacks by de Gaulle and Debré, and for imme­di­ate peace in Alge­ria, the Brigades spé­ciales of [Mau­rice] Papon’s pre­fec­ture, armed with their “wid­gets,” from those rifles to the iron cross­es they used as clubs, sent me to the ground along with dozens oth­er mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Youth’s ser­vice d’ordre. There were no deaths (yet) that day. Among the wound­ed, some man­aged to be car­ried to the hos­pi­tal by com­rades, by anony­mous friends who emerged from the great fra­ter­nal crowd. Oth­ers, “round­ed up” by the police, were trans­port­ed first to Beau­jon Hos­pi­tal, where they were spe­cial­ly “looked after.” The same was the case on Feb­ru­ary 8, and sev­er­al times since. I can still recall, in the moment the cops charged, that calm assur­ance of a group of work­ers in the CGT’s [the Gen­er­al Con­fed­er­a­tion of Labor] ser­vice d’ordre, spread­ing through­out our dis­ori­ent­ed ranks to lead us, know­ing by instinct and expe­ri­ence that there would be few­er and less seri­ous injuries in a resis­tant crowd than in a fear­ful crowd that seeks to flee. And I remem­ber that remark from an intern at Saint Antoine hos­pi­tal, upon see­ing me arrive with blood on my head: “Serves him right. What was he going to do about it?”

What were we going to do? We knew bet­ter than him, poor par­rot of his class dis­course, iso­lat­ed from his gen­er­a­tion, in a his­tor­i­cal peri­od when all the youth, work­ers, and even the bour­geoisie, felt it nec­es­sary to take a side against racism, impe­ri­al­ism, and war. Sev­er­al weeks lat­er, work­ers, employ­ers, stu­dents, teach­ers, num­ber­ing any­where from 800,000 to a mil­lion, took to the streets to bury the eight peo­ple who died at Charonne – sev­en of whom were com­mu­nists – and block the streets. Who could pre­tend that those eight peo­ple, and the mil­lion who came out, did not have an impact on those in pow­er when they made the deci­sion to aban­don their dou­ble game and rec­og­nize the Alger­ian FLN’s demand to gov­ern its own coun­try?

I am not recall­ing these expe­ri­ences to sum­mon the roman­ti­cism of youth­ful mem­o­ries, but to pro­vide some ref­er­ence points for thought. I think that these ref­er­ence points are nec­es­sary today, when for men and women of this coun­try and else­where, the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty (PCF) might rather con­jure the image of a bull­doz­er dump­ing heaps of soil in front of a house in the ban­lieues, where a hun­dred or so Malian work­ers, unwel­come every­where else, had set­tled.

To the ques­tion on everyone’s minds and lips – “How did the Par­ty come to this?” – I chal­lenge the notion that one can pro­vide a sim­ple, black and white answer. For some, it is the eter­nal “red fas­cism” that had final­ly showed its naked truth. For oth­er, first of all those in its own ranks, it was unex­pect­ed, the stu­pe­fac­tion of a bru­tal rever­sal to what they had always believed: the Par­ty had “fun­da­men­tal­ly changed…” Not to men­tion those who only saw it as one episode, a more or less explic­a­ble result of pre-elec­tion one-upman­ship in these dif­fi­cult times we are going through. But if we wish to under­stand this event, if we want to act while there is still time, it is not enough to resort to a for­mu­la. And we must not only talk about the present moment, not only about immi­grants and red sub­urbs, or youth and drugs – but also about the Party’s anti­colo­nial­ism and the form it has tak­en in the recent past, now repressed and cov­ered over by myths.

The French Com­mu­nist Par­ty has always ref­er­enced – today more than ever – the deaths at the Charonne metro, as well as to the mar­tyr­dom of Audin and Alleg, or the sac­ri­fices of Ive­ton and Mail­lot, to bear wit­ness to its anti­colo­nial engage­ment. I would like to dis­cuss here why this ref­er­ence, which many of my gen­er­a­tion had good rea­sons for com­mit­ting them­selves to, has always been a deep source of embar­rass­ment for me. I see in it a long-term equiv­o­ca­tion, which we are pay­ing the con­se­quences for in the present.

To begin with, over the past few years, this lega­cy has been invoked to empha­size the con­trast between the PCF and the task of the Social­ist Par­ty and its lead­ers. The his­tor­i­cal facts are there, in fact. It was indeed Mit­ter­rand who, as Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter in 1954, said: “Alge­ria is France. The only pos­si­ble nego­ti­a­tion is war.” And it was the social­ist gov­ern­ment (invest­ed with “spe­cial pow­ers,” also vot­ed for by Com­mu­nist deputies) that start­ed the “dirty war,” which was con­tin­ued by de Gaulle after the 1958 Algiers putsch. But first of all, what is this Manichean vision of his­to­ry that seeks the sin of some to be an indef­i­nite wit­ness for the grace and virtue of oth­ers? Why, more­over, is our cor­rect pol­i­cy then a guar­an­tee now? And above all: how can the detestable poli­cies of the social­ists erase and ren­der moot any analy­sis of our own uncer­tain­ties? There is no ques­tion that in the years between 1958 and 1962, no oppo­si­tion to the colo­nial war could have trig­gered a his­tor­i­cal­ly effec­tive mass mobi­liza­tion with­out the CGT, with­out the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. We who entered the Par­ty were per­fect­ly aware of this, as we knew that the role of orga­ni­za­tion and assem­bly was not a mat­ter of chance. And Marx­ist the­o­ry, even if frozen in a few for­mu­lae, along with organ­ic implan­ta­tion in the work­ing class were deci­sive fac­tors. Our analy­sis at the time remains cor­rect: the facts have con­firmed it. But for all that, we did not forge an ide­al image of this orga­ni­za­tion. Per­haps, hav­ing had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to come into the Par­ty lat­er in its his­to­ry, after the tri­als of the Pop­u­lar Front, Lib­er­a­tion, the Cold War, and the first tests of “actu­al­ly exist­ing social­ism,” we could make this choice with­out rep­re­sent­ing the Par­ty and its lead­ers as infal­li­ble. We saw the lim­its and con­tra­dic­tions of its anti­colo­nial­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing Alge­ria (which Thorez had pre­vi­ous­ly called a “nation in for­ma­tion,” there­by con­test­ing that it was ready for inde­pen­dence and ready to join the Arab world – and this error did not end up harm­ing him). But we chose the prin­ci­pal aspect, con­fi­dent that the class strug­gle and people’s strug­gle would irre­sistibly move in that direc­tion…

But let’s return again to Charonne. I find it very reveal­ing of the Party’s atti­tude which, both today and yes­ter­day, glo­ri­fies the fall­en com­rades but nev­er recalls why the demon­stra­tion was held in the first place. One hears only of an abstract and myth­ic anti­colo­nial strug­gle. Many of us can bear wit­ness with lucid mem­o­ries: if there was a Feb­ru­ary 8, 1962 and before it a Decem­ber 19, 1961, these unit­ed demon­stra­tions in which everyone’s divi­sions and sec­tar­i­anisms were put aside, it is only because the ter­ri­ble event of Octo­ber 17, 1961 hap­pened, of which the Par­ty nev­er speaks, nor any­one else for that mat­ter.

On that day, in fact, thou­sands of Alge­ri­ans – men, women, and even chil­dren – unarmed and ignor­ing the imposed cur­few, left the bidonvilles of Nan­terre and Aubervil­liers. Fol­low­ing the work­day, instead of return­ing to hole up in their ghet­tos – and those were real­ly ghet­tos! – they answered the FLN’s call and “descend­ed” into Paris to pro­claim their desire for lib­er­a­tion. The Brigades spé­ciales await­ed them. The next day, the bod­ies were recov­ered by the hun­dreds (the exact num­ber has nev­er been giv­en) from the Seine, from Saint Cloud to Mantes… Yes, in the end it is essen­tial to remem­ber that with­out the sac­ri­fice of those Alger­ian work­ers, trag­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed, with­out the shock it gen­er­at­ed in pub­lic opin­ion, the French work­ing class and its orga­ni­za­tion would nev­er have been shak­en up. What, then, is the Par­ty lead­er­ship wait­ing for, to final­ly put the immi­grant Alger­ian work­ers of Octo­ber 17 and the French work­ers of Feb­ru­ary 8 togeth­er in the same memo­r­i­al? Why is it wait­ing to ask one of its munic­i­pal­i­ties in a work­ing class sub­urb, which trusts the par­ty and “hous­es” [héber­gent] so many broth­ers and sons who have set an exam­ple for us, to erect a mon­u­ment to the vic­tims of Octo­ber 17, 1961?

After hav­ing long thought about what these his­tor­i­cal facts mean, I am now con­vinced that they clar­i­fy, in a deci­sive fash­ion, whole swathes of our nation­al his­to­ry and the role the Com­mu­nist Par­ty has played in them. Two aspects should not obscure one anoth­er: nei­ther the fact that, ulti­mate­ly, the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle and the nation­al class strug­gle con­verged against their com­mon adver­sary, nor the fact that this con­ver­gence inter­vened so late and in so incom­plete a man­ner. For the Alge­ri­ans went to the front­lines on their own, and we went into the streets in turn; sur­pris­ing as it may seem, they were not linked to the orga­ni­za­tion of the demon­stra­tion! The lat­ter was pri­mar­i­ly a demon­stra­tion against fas­cism and for peace, to end a war that most French peo­ple no longer want­ed to fight, but only sec­on­dar­i­ly for inde­pen­dence, because the for­mer was the con­di­tion of the lat­ter. A for­tiori, the protest was not ful­ly about class inter­na­tion­al­ism, although it was present and active. This why it was indeed rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the lim­its and con­tra­dic­tions I men­tioned above. Objec­tive expla­na­tions and knowl­edges are need­ed in order to clar­i­fy the present. Where do the hes­i­ta­tions of the PCF’s anti­colo­nial­ism stem from, which is still mobi­lized, with all the risks, in con­nec­tion to the sit­u­a­tions in Rif and Indochi­na? Cer­tain­ly, against the myths of a spon­ta­neous “class con­scious­ness,” the per­sis­tent effects of belong­ing to an impe­ri­al­ist nation should be con­sid­ered, whose colo­nial (and neo-colo­nial) ben­e­fits leave some “crumbs” for the work­ers and, con­se­quent­ly, their orga­ni­za­tions. Cer­tain­ly, the Party’s ground­ing in Alge­ria itself should be con­sid­ered too, in a Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion that could even less escape the illu­sions and ali­bis of the French “civ­i­liz­ing mis­sion”… Above all, the nation­al­ism of the PCF should be con­sid­ered, that sur­pris­ing con­cen­tra­tion of con­tra­dic­tions in which the lega­cy of the work­ing class’s patri­ot­ic role in the anti-fas­cist resis­tance and the worst “great pow­er” (or medi­um pow­er) chau­vinisms, cement­ed by the influ­ence and mim­ic­k­ing of Sovi­et nation­al­ism, are mixed togeth­er.

It is clear enough, in fact, that today there is no incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty (much to the con­trary) between this kind of nation­al­ism and the degrad­ed form in which we were led, in a con­text of piti­less con­fronta­tions, to the “uncon­di­tion­al­ly defense” of the Sovi­et state, from whom the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies the world over expect­ed indis­pens­able sup­port, if not greet­ings. Both fed into, and con­cealed, the oth­er. But the Alge­ri­ans fought under a dif­fer­ent ide­ol­o­gy than ours (which set them apart from the Viet­namese). Their Mec­ca was not that of com­mu­nism. To dis­cov­er paths of com­mon action with them, beyond the objec­tive dif­fi­cul­ties, the Par­ty had to over­come both its inter­nal nation­al­ism and rel­a­tivize its view of the “camps” com­pris­ing the world. That was a lot to deal with, appar­ent­ly.

We now know that those lead­ers of ours (like Waldeck Rochet or Lau­rent Casano­va) who sought to wrench the par­ty away from its wait-and-see atti­tude to play a more deci­sive role in sup­port­ing the nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gle of the Alger­ian peo­ple led by the FLN were also, in part, those who cor­rect­ly saw the mean­ing of Gaullism, and were also – fol­low­ing oth­ers – accused by Thorez and Duc­los of “bour­geois nation­al­ism.” The fact is that after hav­ing vot­ed for spe­cial pow­ers to be giv­en to Guy Mol­let (per­haps await­ing a mirac­u­lous solu­tion to the prob­lem: this is one of the famous “errors of ’56,” recent­ly not­ed in sibylline for­mu­lae), after hav­ing stopped – in order to not be cut off from the mass­es,” the protest move­ment among con­scripts [le mou­ve­ment des appelés], in which young com­mu­nists played an active role, it took the Par­ty lead­er­ship years to come to a clear posi­tion. For fear of run­ning too far ahead, the Par­ty found itself reg­u­lar­ly run­ning late. But this was not the Par­ty that pub­lish Hen­ri Alleg’s The Ques­tion. This was not the Par­ty that cre­at­ed the Audin Com­mit­tee, but a group of left-wing Chris­tians, Trot­sky­ists, and sev­er­al “dis­si­dent” social­ist and com­mu­nist mil­i­tants avant la let­tre. It was the UNEF, direct­ed by the same “right­ist” and “left­ist” mil­i­tants, that was the first trade union to meet with an Alger­ian syn­di­cal­ist orga­ni­za­tion. It was the work­er-mil­i­tants of the French Con­fed­er­a­tion of Chris­t­ian Work­ers (the same ones who went on to form the French Con­fed­er­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Work­ers) who so often showed the way for the CGT.

From the day that the work­ing mass­es, fol­low­ing-pre­ced­ing the Par­ty, entered the strug­gle, the squab­bles over pri­or­i­ty became deriso­ry. That is always the case in ret­ro­spect. But the fact remains that the PCF has no right to claim a monop­oly on anti­colo­nial­ism. And above all, in this explic­a­ble, if not jus­ti­fi­able, hes­i­ta­tions, a per­haps frag­ile yet real his­tor­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty was lost, whose con­se­quences would have changed many things. The oppor­tu­ni­ty was missed to forge an organ­ic uni­ty in strug­gle between French work­ers and immi­grant work­ers. For both, inter­na­tion­al­ism remained, save for some excep­tions, a cal­cu­lus of con­ver­gent inter­ests, not a com­mon prac­tice in which one learns lit­tle by lit­tle to know each oth­er, to over­come con­tra­dic­tions, to envis­age a shared future. Who can say today how such uni­ty would have changed the his­to­ry of inde­pen­dent Alge­ria, for its ben­e­fits and for ours? In France, there were – and still are – more than a half mil­lion Alger­ian pro­le­tar­i­ans in dai­ly con­tact with the world of large-scale indus­try and the tra­di­tions inher­it­ed from Octo­ber 1917 and 1936. They pro­vid­ed a good num­ber of mil­i­tants and cadres to the patri­ot­ic strug­gle. Their influ­ence could have been cru­cial in build­ing Alger­ian social­ism – and thus ulti­mate­ly in the strug­gle for a “new inter­na­tion­al order,” dif­fer­ent from the one pre­pared for us by multi­na­tion­al cap­i­tal­ism, in the face of tech­no­crat­ic mil­i­tary inter­ests and a “nation­al bour­geoisie” quick to turn the hero­ism of its peo­ple to its own exclu­sive benefit…as with all bour­geoisies! Today, Alge­ria is cer­tain­ly a coun­try whose role in the world is more pro­gres­sive than oth­ers. It’s also a coun­try where work­ers are deprived of any pos­si­bil­i­ty for trade union or autonomous polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, and there­fore of any imme­di­ate rev­o­lu­tion­ary pos­si­bil­i­ty.

Who can say how this uni­ty would have changed the his­to­ry of class strug­gles in France itself, at the moment when the major shift in the pro­le­tari­at took place, as those “O.S. strikes” came to the fore, with the mobi­liza­tion of immi­grant work­ers as a pri­ma­ry fac­tor? Emerg­ing from the Alger­ian War as the par­ty of the whole work­ing class, would not the PCF have appeared to Por­tuguese, Antil­lean, African, or Turk­ish work­ers as their “nat­ur­al” orga­ni­za­tion? And would the par­ty not have had, then, from ’68 through the years of the “Com­mon Pro­gramme” an entire­ly dif­fer­ent impact in the estab­lish­ment of the bal­ance of forces that the left need­ed in order to con­fi­dent­ly come to pow­er? This fac­tor can­not be ignored amongst the caus­es, although not the only one, of a his­tor­i­cal fail­ure – that of March 1978 – that we have not yet acknowl­edged.

But oth­er, no less pre­cious, oppor­tu­ni­ties were missed in the onset of the 1960s, decid­ed­ly prox­i­mal to our present real­i­ty. One such oppor­tu­ni­ty for the PCF was its becom­ing a major pole of attrac­tion for French youth. At present, we are a very low lev­el in this respect, if we do not want to con­fuse hege­mo­ny for a con­cep­tion of a deeply-root­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary world­view [con­cep­tion du monde], and the for­ma­tion of a few mea­ger, though reas­sur­ing, fetish­es and rit­u­als.

Nei­ther the pathet­ic “Chif­fon Rouge”5 nor the stu­pe­fy­ing cult of per­son­al­i­ty around “Georges” will help us over­come the dis­missal we are expe­ri­enc­ing, espe­cial­ly among younger work­ers. But it will not be the anti-drug cam­paign either, since its tar­gets have been cho­sen out­side of any analy­sis of the real prob­lem, con­fus­ed­ly and with police denun­ci­a­tion [à coups d’amalgame et de dénon­ci­a­tion poli­cière], stuff­ing vic­tims and those respon­si­ble in the same bag, treat­ing the for­mer as hostages in the com­pe­ti­tion between polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions – and here I will not dwell on the cogent argu­ments con­cern­ing alco­holism by the doc­tors [Paul] Mil­liez, [Alexan­dre] Minkows­ki, and their col­leagues, who would be dif­fi­cult to dis­miss as pup­pets of pow­er.6 Whether they reject the drugs of vio­lence and despair or those who are tempt­ed by them in a soci­ety that is itself sick, our plans and slo­gans, our orga­ni­za­tion­al meth­ods, when not provo­ca­tions, appear to these youth as if com­ing from anoth­er plan­et! In truth – to cite only a recent exam­ple, also reveal­ing as a “mass” demon­stra­tion – it is with dis­may that we see L’Humanité, under the autho­rized pen of André Wurmser, give a les­son to Roger Ikor, whose son’s death pro­voked a cry of despair and indig­na­tion, by pro­vid­ing him with the exam­ple of the Com­mu­nist Youth – of which I was once a mem­ber – mobi­lized for Health, Order, and Work [San­té, l’Ordre et le Tra­vail] and would have us believe that they are at a dis­tance from all the dis­or­der of their gen­er­a­tion… These youth are of a dif­fer­ent age. On the pre­text of pulling them away from the bot­tom­less pit of drugs (for how long, and by what means? Is this the actu­al goal of the oper­a­tion?), what kind of impasse forces us to take on the respon­si­bil­i­ty to engage them? And who among us would like to see their chil­dren enter the par­ty, exchang­ing one form of famil­ial pater­nal­ism for anoth­er, more oppres­sive and per­verse one?

We should rec­og­nize that it is a sin­gu­lar soci­etal fact that our lan­guage no longer has any hold on “youth” today. Class divi­sions are not absent, much the oppo­site. Any teacher or edu­ca­tor can see them today, widen­ing before our eyes. But there is an immense gap between these glar­ing inequal­i­ties in work, cul­ture, and leisure, and “class con­scious­ness.” This gap can leave room for the vis­i­bly most bru­tal and most irra­tional oscil­la­tions, from one extreme of the polit­i­cal spec­trum to the oth­er, bring­ing togeth­er, for bet­ter or worse. young work­ers and young bour­geois intel­lec­tu­als in the same mass thrust: wit­ness May ’68, but also the fas­cism of yes­ter­day. This milieu accen­tu­ates the ide­o­log­i­cal ten­den­cies ascen­dant in the con­junc­ture, but it also has the sur­pris­ing prop­er­ty of repro­duc­ing a gen­er­a­tional mem­o­ry, beyond the renew­al at an indi­vid­ual lev­el. But the youth of the 1960s, those who took part in May ’68, found in anti­colo­nial­ism and anti-impe­ri­al­ism the rea­sons for its polit­i­cal engage­ment: first in rela­tion to Alge­ria and Latin Amer­i­ca, then in rela­tion to Viet­nam. It’s clear that in both cas­es, these youth were pro­found­ly dis­ap­point­ed by the PCF, always sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly lag­ging behind a slo­gan or rev­o­lu­tion – even though many stu­dent mil­i­tants and young work­ers would go on to join the par­ty, often for long peri­ods, bring­ing with them their enthu­si­asm and desires. From the Front Uni­ver­si­taire Antifas­ciste to the Comités Viet-nam “de base,” and the ide­o­log­i­cal revolt of the edu­cat­ed youth in ’68 and its attempts to join up with, after hav­ing pro­vid­ed the ini­tial spark, the largest work­ers’ strike in French his­to­ry then in motion (attempts that were cer­tain­ly aleato­ry and con­tra­dic­to­ry, but in which the Par­ty chose to only see the dan­ger­ous influ­ence of a “Ger­man anar­chist,” “gau­chos” and oth­er “ultra-left­ists”…), this is a dis­tress­ing sto­ry that would be nec­es­sary to retrace, with­out any kind of com­pla­cen­cy. I do not wish to pre­emp­tive­ly judge it, but I con­sid­er it very prob­a­ble that the destruc­tive effects of nation­al­ism and an anti-impe­ri­al­ism too often more ver­bal than con­se­quen­tial can be read at every step. Here again, it is a mat­ter on one fac­tor among oth­ers, but this demor­al­iza­tion, ide­o­log­i­cal exas­per­a­tion [ras-le-bol], and the extin­guish­ing of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas of the youth car­ried a heavy impact when, through­out the world, lib­er­a­tion strug­gles had start­ed to fall off and it had become evi­dent that the coun­tries in the “social­ist camp,” always giv­en as exam­ples in the “over­all pos­i­tive” bal­ance-sheet, were now caught up in the infer­nal log­ic of impe­ri­al­ist they had been fight­ing.

And, to cap things off, it was in this peri­od that the Par­ty missed the oppor­tu­ni­ty – as was once again the case in 1968 and 1976, to trans­form and ren­o­vate itself in order to become the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ty of our time.” An analy­sis of why would take too much time. Louis Althuss­er, among oth­ers, under­took one a short time ago, offer­ing a cri­tique and show­ing “what must change” – but has nev­er changed – in the PCF, in a series texts still fresh in our mem­o­ry and which earned him a flood of insults and calum­nies. Two years ago, myself and a few oth­ers called for com­rades to “open the win­dow” – more shut­tered than ever – and tried to do so, as close to the mil­i­tant expe­ri­ence of com­mu­nists as pos­si­ble. I will only say once more than since the Par­ty is not a king­dom with­in a king­dom, that is, a closed space with­in French soci­ety, mirac­u­lous­ly pre­served in its nature and his­to­ry from the changes and cri­sis tra­vers­ing that soci­ety, the sud­den dis­cov­ery that it is being pen­e­trat­ed and besieged by the worst temp­ta­tions and resur­gences of moral­ism and racism should not be sur­pris­ing. The unprece­dent­ed cri­sis of the par­ty, the past sev­er­al weeks of which have revealed new devel­op­ments, can­not be seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered as an iso­lat­ed phe­nom­e­non. It reflects, in its own way, the cri­sis of French soci­ety itself, which in turn reflects a glob­al cri­sis that pos­es grave threats. Against the abstract and vol­un­tarist slo­gans com­pla­cent­ly repeat­ed by the lead­er­ship, there is no water­tight par­ti­tion between our sur­round­ings and the cur­rents that car­ry us. But the the­o­ret­i­cal forces and human ener­gies the Par­ty could muster have not stopped weak­en­ing from with­in. They have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­cour­aged, even per­se­cut­ed.

This leads us to the “blun­ders” [bau­vres] of Vit­ry, Mon­tigny-lès-Cormeilles, and else­where, which every­one can plain­ly see are nei­ther iso­lat­ed nor mat­ters of chance, since the Par­ty lead­er­ship cov­ers them and claims them as sym­bols of its pol­i­tics, even if it did not plan them accord­ing to an elec­toral cal­cu­la­tion of a fright­ful uncon­scious. What is clear­ly expect­ed, then, is the chan­nel­ing this cur­rent of fear, self-defense, and with­draw­al into an “every man for him­self” atti­tude towards acquired advan­tages – which we sense all around us, even among our neigh­bors, friends, and col­leagues, and which has found gov­ern­ment back­ing in the “Secu­ri­ty and Lib­er­ty” law – to the Party’s ben­e­fit dur­ing this dif­fi­cult phase it is going through. On this ter­rain, the risk of com­pe­ti­tion between polit­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es exerts itself. This res­ig­na­tion, this aban­don­ment to racism and pop­ulism, this Peyr­e­fitte-ism of the poor, that sud­den­ly emerges in the light of day with the bull­doz­er oper­a­tions, where we have the pow­er, and risk tak­en with­out hes­i­ta­tion, to get behind the idea that all North Africans are hard drug traf­fick­ers! The par­ty has already tak­en up [Lionel] Stoleru’s posi­tion – at the same time offer­ing him, in what is tru­ly a crown­ing achieve­ment, the role of “défenseur des immi­grés” – that is, his lan­guage and his slo­gan for an imme­di­ate block on immi­gra­tion, with­out spec­i­fy­ing any con­di­tions that would allow for the inter­ven­tion and expres­sion of immi­gra­tion them­selves, when it is well-known in prac­tice that this slo­gan serves to jus­ti­fy all sorts of arbi­trary expul­sions. How much time must it take for the Par­ty, in these con­di­tions, to pass to the next stage: “Let them go home, they are tak­ing away our jobs”? Here and there, one hears the rumor – the con­se­quences are already being drawn out. Even if this means hav­ing to use as an ali­bi, and to calm the emo­tions elicit­ed with­in the par­ty ranks, the exem­plary strug­gle of a Mous­sa Konaté, or the aid col­lect­ed for the vic­tims of the El-Asnam earth­quake. The gan­grene has pen­e­trat­ed, slow­ly but sure­ly. Once it has bit­ten, if noth­ing and no one stops it, then no one knows when it will stop, but it’s clear who will ben­e­fit: if it is a mat­ter of mobi­liz­ing nos­tal­gic watch­words like “France for the French” [la France aux Français], oth­ers are bet­ter equipped and have bet­ter cre­den­tials to do so than the com­mu­nists. Their posters are already on the walls.

The prob­lems of coex­is­tence between eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties and between gen­er­a­tions, prob­lems of hous­ing, social secu­ri­ty, cul­tur­al and sport­ing facil­i­ties [équipements cul­turels et sportifs] that munic­i­pal­i­ties in the work­ing-class ban­lieues face are only too real. For the most part, the com­pla­cent cen­sors of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty give them short shrift, whether uncon­scious­ly or impu­dent­ly. The cri­sis has inten­si­fied these prob­lems, which are delib­er­ate­ly deployed by pow­er pol­i­tics to greater enforce the crux of the divi­sion between work­ers and pop­u­lar orga­ni­za­tions. Anoth­er rea­son to refuse to fol­low the line of the steep­est slope; anoth­er rea­son to empha­size every­day col­lec­tive action – pol­i­tics in the strong sense of the word. This does not mean “fist­fights,” or spec­ta­cles or provo­ca­tions, but pol­i­tics as orga­nized by peo­ple them­selves, which draws them away from their iso­la­tion and fear, and sus­tains the patient efforts towards sol­i­dar­i­ty by mil­i­tants, edu­ca­tors, and social work­ers, who do not wait until an elec­toral con­junc­ture to strug­gle. A pol­i­tics that would favor and devel­op the autonomous forms of mobi­liza­tion of immi­grants, emerg­ing from their exploita­tion, their con­cen­tra­tion, their com­mu­nal tra­di­tions main­tained against all odds.

This rais­es the prob­lem of “mass action,” about which enough has been said. In this respect, it must be borne in mind that out­side the bases that pro­vide its munic­i­pal ground­ing on the one hand, and its lead­ing influ­ence with­in the trade unions, espe­cial­ly the CGT, on the oth­er, the polit­i­cal strength of the PCF is vir­tu­al­ly nil. Both are incon­testable gains from the class strug­gle, indis­pens­able means of defense and strug­gle in a con­junc­ture of cri­sis, where work­ers are shoul­der­ing the costs and day after day unem­ploy­ment and a not par­tic­u­lar­ly “mod­ern” form of mis­ery are grow­ing, and which has not encoun­tered until now any kind of ade­quate, unit­ed col­lec­tive resis­tance, open­ing up polit­i­cal per­spec­tives. But the CGT, which has spo­ken of these “regret­table inci­dents,” instead of denounc­ing the dan­ger, sent a mem­ber of its con­fed­er­al bureau to the shame­ful demon­stra­tion at Vit­ry, orga­nized by par­ty lead­er­ship to lend uncon­di­tion­al sup­port to the may­or and fed­er­al secretary’s ini­tia­tive. What pre­vents a “mass-and-class trade union” from ask­ing itself about the con­tra­dic­tions, like­ly to be height­ened, between its activ­i­ty in the enter­pris­es (for exam­ple when it works to unite all work­ers, French or immi­grant, from man­u­al work­ers to engi­neers, against a mass lay­off decid­ed through the frame­work of “indus­tri­al restruc­tur­ing”) and the antag­o­nisms it aids in deep­en­ing around the res­i­den­tial areas [lieux d’habitation]? Is it not pre­cise­ly by resist­ing the split­ting of man as work­er and the “con­crete” man of every­day life that class uni­ty ceas­es to be a the­o­ret­i­cal abstrac­tion? And is this not pre­cise­ly the mor­tal dan­ger, and thus the prac­ti­cal chal­lenge thrown up by the cri­sis of the work­ers’ move­ment? And here the com­mu­nist munic­i­pal­i­ties – or rather some of them – that have come to grips with pay­ing the cost of the rup­ture of the Union of the Left in the 1983 elec­tions, are increas­ing­ly tempt­ed to seek out a new elec­toral base by exploit­ing the fears and prej­u­dices they feel can­not be com­bat­ed. By what unfor­tu­nate “chance” must this temp­ta­tion coin­cide with a just strug­gle for the pop­u­lar exer­cise of the right to vote (and inclu­sion on vot­er rolls) and sub­se­quent­ly have its mean­ing divert­ed – while com­pelling the Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic to unmask the few cas­es in which they prac­tice the con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ci­ples they claim? What a waste of the efforts of mil­i­tants, ambushed [pris à revers] once again by their own lead­ers!

How many com­mu­nists of Charonne are there today in the PCF’s ranks, who took part in the strug­gle and con­vic­tion of those who died on Feb­ru­ary 8, 1962, who can com­pare the rea­sons for our com­mit­ment and our per­spec­tives in the past with those of today, so as to draw the nec­es­sary lessons? Increas­ing­ly few­er, no doubt, since the way of life [règle de vie] of a par­ty with­out crit­i­cal mem­o­ry, in which the co-opt­ed lead­ers only talk amongst them­selves, is now an accel­er­at­ed “turnover” in num­bers. Those mil­i­tants with­out whom, in the dif­fi­cult years of the past, the par­ty would nei­ther have a mass audi­ence nor the capac­i­ty as an orga­ni­za­tion of strug­gles, we shed with­out regrets or scru­ples, whether they leave them­selves or whether, as hold­ers of a sym­bol­ic card that no longer gives them any rights except to pay dues, they remain at home in the improb­a­ble expec­ta­tion of a sud­den resur­gence – or whether yet they are expelled in a hyp­o­crit­i­cal man­ner, since to cri­tique a line over which they have nev­er had any say in ori­ent­ing, elab­o­rat­ing, or car­ry­ing out is today called “putting one­self out­side the par­ty” (look for the cor­re­spond­ing arti­cle of statutes). Increas­ing­ly few, but cer­tain­ly far from zero. One such exam­ple is the way in which our com­rades in Rennes col­lec­tive­ly forced an overzeal­ous fed­er­al sec­re­tary to back off in a dis­pute over an Islam­ic cul­tur­al cen­ter. We all know sim­i­lar types of mil­i­tants. But they have a task ahead of them, as do our younger or old­er com­rades for whom the con­tra­dic­tion between the declared prin­ci­ples and goals and the effec­tive prac­tices have passed beyond what can be sup­port­ed, and who refuse, by all pos­si­ble mea­sures, the indi­vid­ual solu­tion of depar­ture or silence.

A major social cri­sis, like the one we have already been expe­ri­enc­ing for sev­er­al years, always leads to trans­for­ma­tion across all social class­es: con­di­tions of life, con­di­tions of work, ide­olo­gies and “men­tal­i­ties,” rep­re­sen­ta­tive orga­ni­za­tions. What­ev­er it can throw up to escape this cri­sis, the com­mu­nist par­ty will not emerge unscathed. Faced with a work­ing class that less and less resem­bles dog­mat­ic Marx­ist stereo­types, the self-pro­claimed politi­co-ide­o­log­i­cal monop­o­lies will end up shat­tered into pieces. And all for the bet­ter. But that does not mean that work­ers will be able to dis­pense with exist­ing orga­ni­za­tions. Col­lec­tive­ly, they do not have ide­al free choice. If they want to defend them­selves, they will be forced to impose a pro­gres­sive out­come to this cri­sis them­selves; they can­not engage in a pol­i­tics of the worst, nor start over with a clean slate. There­fore, par­ty and class will change togeth­er to a sig­nif­i­cant degree. But in what direc­tion? There is no pre­de­ter­mined end, only more or less unfa­vor­able mate­r­i­al con­di­tions. It is up to us, com­mu­nists, to put a stop to the dou­ble spi­ral that leads, on the one hand, a frac­tion of the work­ing class and pet­ty bour­geoisie towards a defen­sive, cor­po­ratist, xeno­pho­bic, and moral­is­tic ide­ol­o­gy; while, on the oth­er, the par­ty (along with the CGT, unless this shift, which has already caused it to lose hun­dreds of thou­sands of mem­bers, does not lead to its dis­in­te­gra­tion) would pro­vide this his­tor­i­cal regres­sion with the cov­er of a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” phrase­ol­o­gy.

I am pub­licly pos­ing the ques­tion to my com­rades in the par­ty, mil­i­tants and offi­cials: are you going to believe in this inevitabil­i­ty, and let your­selves slide down the slope? Is it impos­si­ble to draw lessons from the his­to­ry I have just recount­ed in broad strokes, to estab­lish anoth­er pol­i­tics, whose class bases have always exist­ed, even if it means harsh revi­sions and bit­ter tri­als, as was the case for oth­er exam­ples which swam against the cur­rent [ramer à con­tre-courant]? Is there real­ly no alter­na­tive in the enter­pris­es and the low-income neigh­bor­hoods oth­er than pas­siv­i­ty or align­ment with rul­ing class ide­ol­o­gy and meth­ods? Is it nec­es­sary for us, in our ranks, to pre­vail, with­out debate nor strug­gle, against the line and prac­tices of the com­mu­nists in Vit­ry and their emu­la­tors across all lev­els of the Par­ty, which over sev­er­al years has insti­tu­tion­al­ized a dou­ble lan­guage and monop­o­lized pow­er through bare­ly dis­guised fac­tion­al meth­ods? Per­haps we shall know before too long.

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King

The trans­la­tor wish­es to thank Joseph Ser­ra­no for his help­ful com­ments on ear­li­er drafts. 

  1. A mil­i­tant in the PCF and CGT, from Mali, who was a leader [respon­s­able] of the Syn­di­cat des Grands Mag­a­sins, and whose depor­ta­tion order by the Barre gov­ern­ment was can­celed after sev­er­al weeks of mobi­liza­tion. 

  2. Sec­re­tary of the PCF Fed­er­a­tion of Val-de-Marne. 

  3. The Com­mu­nist may­or of Vit­ry, who helped a pub­lic works bull­doz­er dri­ve into the entrance of a house where Malian work­ers had set­tled, against the opin­ion of the munic­i­pal­i­ty. 

  4. The Com­mu­nist may­or of Mon­tigny-lès-Cormeilles (Val-d’Oise). In the con­text of the PCF cam­paign against drugs, he pub­licly decried the young Moroc­cans liv­ing in the city as “deal­ers.” 

  5. Translator’s Note: Bal­ibar is refer­ring to the song “Le Chif­fon rouge,” writ­ten in 1977 by Mau­rice Vidalin, but sung and pop­u­lar­ized by Michel Fugain. It was a main­stay in the social strug­gles of the PCF and CGT in the late 1970s and ear­ly ‘80s, and its lyrics con­tained mis­éra­biliste accents, in line with the PCF’s polit­i­cal dis­course and work­ing class strat­e­gy dur­ing this peri­od. Thanks to Julian Mis­chi for the pre­cise ref­er­ence. 

  6. Translator’s Note: In 1981, Paul Mil­liez, a doc­tor known for his polit­i­cal engage­ment, head­ed a com­mis­sion on crim­i­nal jus­tice and vic­tim rights, which sug­gest­ed to the Min­is­ter of Jus­tice greater resources be devot­ed to crime vic­tims, and a more restora­tive pol­i­cy mod­el be intro­duced. 

Author of the article

is a French philosopher and currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University.