Roger Martelli is a historian of the French Communist Party.
An Interview with Roger Martelli
Maya Adereth: What motivated you to join the Communist Party?
Roger Martelli: I officially joined the Communist Party in November 1969, but I became a Communist in May of 1968. I was in a preparatory class at the lycée Thiers in Marseilles, and I made friends with communist militants when we occupied our lycée that summer. By the time the Joint Program was signed in June 1972, I had been a member for three years, and my political experience revolved around the Organization of Communist Students. I was in the Communist Students Directorate and was appointed member of the National Board of UNEF-Renewal in the spring of 1971. UNEF was split between the communists and the Trotskyists, so my appointment demonstrates the degree of democratic decisionmaking we practiced at the time.
MA: What was the split over?
RM: At heart it was a question of who would control the organization. We hated the International Communist Organization - Youth Alliance for Socialism (which Jean-Luc Mélenchon participated in at the time). The Trotskyists had taken over UNEF so we set up another branch next door. At that time, I was mainly a militant in the Youth Organization of the Communist Party. When I joined I knew nothing at all, neither about the Communist Party, nor about Marxism. I came from a leftist family, my father had been an active militant in the CGT, and for me, the Communist Party was quite simply the most left-wing and the most serious of all political organizations. It was out of the question that I should join the SFIO.
MA: What do you mean by "more serious, more responsible"?
RM: I believed in the need for a revolutionary party. I had very few ideas about what a revolution could be, but at the university there was an atmosphere of revolution in the air. The Party was proposing to build up majorities, both by taking to the streets and claiming voters. That balanced combination—combining the revolutionary idea with a drive towards getting a political majority—I found convincing. I identified with the description the communist party presented of French society, of the necessity of a radical transformation of that society and in the political construction that it proposed: the union of the left around a Joint Program.
MA: How do you assess Thorez’s influence in the Party and how did the Party change when he stepped down in 1964?
RM: I can speak to this as a historian of the party rather than as a member. In 1964 when Maurice Thorez died, the Communist Party began to accelerate the movement of inner transformation that had begun in 1962. Up to 1961 the Communist Party, under Maurice Thorez’s leadership, had denied Nikita Khrushchev's analysis of the Stalin era. Thorez was aware of Khrushchev’s “secret speech”, he had read in Moscow, but he was very disturbed by it. Internationally, he was influenced by Mao who was cautious about Krushchev’s criticism of Stalin. So Thorez objected to de-Stalinization until 1961.
In 1961 things changed, on the one hand because Thorez became conscious that Nikita Khrushchev was strongly established at the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and on the other due to the Sino-Soviet split. Thorez agreed with Mao but he strongly believed that the Soviet Union was to be the only international center for the communist movement. From that moment Mao considered Thorez to have betrayed him. Thorez had, in fact, betrayed him, and put himself behind Khrushchev.
At the same time, the Communist Party, which had initially been somewhat weakened by the coming to power of General De Gaulle during the Cold War, found itself in a favorable position. Between 1947 and 1958 political divisions were not so much between left and right, but rather between the East and the West. By 1958, however, the institutions of the Fifth Republic gave renewed salience to the left-right divide. A presidential candidate had to constitute a political majority in order to run in the second round and command a majority in Parliament. Particularly between 1958 and 1962, this generated a cleavage between the Gaullist right and the divided left.
The Socialists had originally sided with De Gaulle, which greatly weakened them by the 60s and 70s. Within the divided left, the Communist Party was therefore the most influential one.
In 1958 it had been decided that the President of the Republic would be elected not by direct universal suffrage but by an electoral college of 80,000 people representing the municipal councils. And in 1962 De Gaulle decided two things: the President of the Republic would be elected by universal suffrage and secondly, that only the two candidates with the highest percentage would progress to the second round. This change in procedure made it necessary to devise political alliances that gave a majority. In 1962, De Gaulle dissolved the Assembly, legislative elections took place, and the Communist Party strengthened its position: it recovered part of the votes it had lost in 1958. And on the left, it was the only one to do so. That is when Thorez encouraged the Communist Party to develop a new political strategy which would unite the left.
That was when debates within the Party began. For instance, by revisiting what had been at the heart of the economic thinking of the Communist Party from 1964-65 onwards, particularly the idea that capitalism had become a much concentrated, monopolistic capitalism that was buttressed by the State. The issue was how to engage with the Welfare State, or the Fordist Compromise—the compromise between capital owners and the working class. On the social level, there was an attempt at opening up to the middle classes, and particularly to new categories of wage-earners outside the working class: engineers, technicians and managers.
That lasted until '68. A general coherence was being established, based on the idea that a revolution was necessary, but that revolution was not going to happen all at once. Before the "dictatorship of the proletariat," we would have to undergo an intermediate period of social change without a Socialist State, allowing the French public to get used to a more social policy. From this stage we would be able to shift from simple social democracy to socialist democracy, i.e. a develop a new type of power.
Between 1962 and 1972, the Socialist Party refused a Joint Program. The program had been criticized both by the Socialist Party, who did not want it, and by the extreme left, which thought it was a betrayal. In the 1969 presidential election, the Socialist Party got 5% of the vote while the Communists got 22%, and the Socialists realized they had little choice. In 1972 they agreed to sign the Joint Program; but only after they had undergone their own restructuring with the creation of the Parti Socialiste at the Congrès d'Épinay with François Mitterrand. The signing marks the end of the Communist Party’s dominance in the French Left, but at the time we didn’t know it. The Party was convinced that it would be the beneficiary of the signing of the Joint Program. Things became more complicated in the elections of March 1973: the Communist Party did better than it had 1968, but it still hadn’t recovered the level it had between 1962 and 1967. And worse, the Socialist Party was catching up.
MA: What contributed to the decline of the PCF ?
RM: Nothing was predetermined. The Communist Party was a political force and the question is whether it could adapt to reality. We should look at structural explanations, but we also have to look at contingent decisions which accelerated those structural changes. Among the elements which favored, for example, the PCF in the 1960s, was the fact that until 1975, France had experienced industrial growth, which went hand in hand with a growing exploited working class. In these industries, workers were able to establish very strong organizations to advance their interests. The PCF also benefited from increased voting participation. The Joint Program was in fact, a Keynesian program. It accepted integration into the logic of the capitalist system. We sought to use the state to improve the lot of the working class, to give more possibilities of intervention to its political organizations. But Keynesian state intervention also has the capacity to change the structure of the economy. And the logic of the Joint Program, being a radical variant of Keynesianism, was undeniably realistic. So, throughout the 1960s, the benefited from both the growth of the working class, the realism of a radical Keynesian perspective and a growing electoral base.
Things change precisely from the moment the Joint Program is signed because from 1973 onwards, we move from the period of great growth in the years to a more complex period of crisis. The oil crisis was only a sign, a symptom of the deeper crisis. This period is characterized by the rise in financial capitalism and the decline in industrial capitalism. From 1975 onwards, industrial employment declined and the traditional working class began to fall. But while the number of workers decreased, the number of employees increased. The shift to services broke the sort of alliances which formed the foundation of leftwing politics up to that point. So, the social base which was the basis of the expansion of the CP is retracting and it is splitting up, that is the first element.
The second element is that among ruling circles, we see a resurgence of liberalism—neoliberalism, as we call it. From that point on, the logic of capitalism becomes financial. For example, up until the 1970s, industrial state investment translated into job growth. In the 1980s, it was reflected in the growth of financial assets and the pursuit of decentralization. Of course, the coming to power of the Left and the Socialist Party in 81, the turning point towards austerity from 83-84, reinforces this idea, that, basically, there is no point in putting the Left in power since, in any case, it is not in a position to change our situation.
And finally, the last element that helps explain the decline of the PC is that until 71, basically, it had no real competitor. It had a competitor-partner which is the SFIO Socialist Party of Guy Mollet in particular, who led the Socialist Party from 1947 to 1969, but in the 70s it was dealing with a new Socialist Party which had a double face. François Mitterrand in 1971 declared at the Congress of Épinay: He who is not anti-capitalist has no place in the Socialist Party. The socialists also welcomed social movements like feminism, self-management, political ecology, which the communists viewed with distrust. So there was an atmosphere of radicalism in the party. On the one hand, Mitterrand's PS played a game of realism. Mitterrand spoke little about the Joint Program, and emphasized his capacity to adapt it. So he satisfies those in the party who want reformism as well as those who want a revolution. some of those who want the rupture and at the same time, he reassures those that refuse a Revolution. And the CP is, in a way, stuck. If you add the 3 elements: erosion of the social bases of the CP, the realism of the Joint Program, Keynesian program, The CP keeps weakening from the mid-70s and, moreover, the CP now has now a competitor on the left. The problem in my opinion, is that the CP did not understand what made its strength and did not understand what made its weakness either.
MA: I was surprised when we spoke to Anicet le Pors that he suggested the Party didn’t have much of an alternative to protest the shift of ‘83.
RM: The problem was the party's organizational culture. The Communist Party has been able to renew elements of its discourse on several occasions: it has given up, the dictatorship of the proletariat, it has given up Marxism-Leninism, it gave up its attachment to the Soviet Union. But what has never been questioned is the conception of the Party, that is to say a party which must be totally unified. While there could be discussions, at any given moment the party needed a line, and the line had to be followed. It derives from the original conception of Bolshevism, which hasn't really changed. There is also a tradition in the PCF, which is distinctly Stalinist, in which whoever disagrees is seen to be moving away from communist purity. This made it very difficult for the party to adapt to a changing reality, and it also made it difficult to stage a stable opposition to the 83-84 reforms. By the time dissenters were able to be heard, the previous group of dissenters had already been expelled. I would add that the party could not imagine a future outside of itself, and could not envision alternative ideological descendants to the plebeian-democratic-revolutionary current of the French Revolution. Personally, I tended, especially from the 1990s onwards, to think that the solution could not simply be within the CP but that in a way, we had to try to bring together, and to bring to life in the conditions of our time. The CP has never incorporated an idea like that.
MA: What could Mitterrand have done differently in the 80s?
RM: The recurrent problem with the left when it comes to power is a time lag. When the left came to power in 1981, most of the countries of the western world were already experiencing the neoliberal counter-revolution. So, at the very moment that the left gained power in France, the left was defeated everywhere else. This makes the French experience an isolated one in the European and global context. Mitterrand comes to power at a time when the left is dynamic but with its left wing weakened. The CP, which is also taking up responsibilities, does so in a minority position. Now, as early as 1982 a debate had started within the socialist world and the Government: should we follow what some people at the time – such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement or, at the very beginning, Laurent Fabius, then Minister of Industry— proposed and exit the European monetary snake? That would demonstrate a commitment to a policy that would be more nationally centered on the State taking control of the economic dynamics. Or, as Jacques Delors’s thought, shoudl we adapt to the new position by curbing state influence, reducing industrial employment and constraining the budget. Mitterrand, who was first and foremost a politician, hesitated. In 82-83 he still left some room for debate within the government and he did not make a clear choice, but in 83 he had made his decision: the deficit should not increase. France was in no position to keep the whole of its industries afloat, because a large part of the industrial apparatus was not competitive in the context of what was going to become globalization and therefore - he used the expression - there must be a certain amount of industrial downsizing. And in 1983-84, having started as an initially Keynesian logic, with nationalizations, social acts and so on in view, it evolved to a logic which, little by little, was more and more a logic of limiting public expenditure, State intervention and of greater what we would called at the time - mobility, later we would call it flexibility, that is to say adapting to the evolutions of financial capital. That choice was made between 82 and 83, and in 83 the Communists were eventually totally marginalized when it came to defining political options. For another year, between 1983 and 1984, they played a sort of balance game, that is, they remained in the Government, they condoned major orientations and notably the National Budget, all the while distancing themselves more and more from the industrial choices that were being made, especially with regard to the steel industry.
And, in '84, that balance game became impossible to carry on. Impossible why? Because in '84. François Mitterrand decided to put an end to the fiction of the parenthesis, i.e. the idea that the austerity policy was going to be a temporary policy and that afterwards we would resume the reforms policy, what Léon Blum had called the pause in 1937, and now he was moving on to what was going to become the dominant orientation of European social democracy, i.e. social liberalism, even though the French Socialist Party, until the beginning of the 2000s, refused to officially adopt the positions that Tony Blair had taken in Great Britain.
And so, the CP found itself more and more out of its depth and out of a position to influence the government, especially since – you have to keep that in mind - communism in France means not just a party, but also a galaxy of organizations including the trades unions. Now, the CGT was experiencing the same trend of retracting, retreating and weakening as the CP itself.
And so, at the moment when the liberal, neo-liberal inflection of French capitalism was taking place, the workers' movement was weakened in comparison with the previous period. It did endeavor to counteract the decreasing trend, yet was unable to do so because it was fragile all at the same time in terms of trades unions, political command and associations networks. The network of popular associations that had hitherto been the stronghold of communism had gradually disappeared, so that the CP was unable to bear on what was going on. All that in spite of the fact that its image had been associated for decades with improving workers and their wages conditions. Which was why it would keep receding at an ever-faster pace.
But the revolutionary current is still there, it has manifested itself in movements like the Yellow Vests, but politically it remains dispersed. Jean-Luc Mélenchon's France Insoumise has occupied part of the place, but it remains fragile.