Book Review from the February 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard
The French Communist Party versus the Students by Richard Johnson, Yale UP.
The French Communist Party is one of the two mass Muscovite parties in Western Europe. It is in fact the main party supported by the organised industrial proletariat in France; and is led by ex-industrial workers who have always had a profound distrust of "bourgeois intellectuals" (i.e., radical-minded, university-educated children of business and professional people). These, for their part, have had an ambiguous attitude towards the French CP: respect for the fact that it is the main party supported by industrial workers, but also qualms about its bureaucratic structure and dogmatic ideology. Until the 1960's, argues Johnson, they had been prepared to forget these qualms for the sake of having access to the working class through the Party. "Outside the Party", they thought, "we are nothing", a fear the Party's bureaucrats exploited to the full to get them to toe the Party line.
Towards the end of the 1950's the CP's student section began to adopt a mildly critical line (that of the more flexible Italian CP in fact). The bureaucrats reacted by accusing them of betraying the working class because of their bourgeois origins.
May 1968, however, marked the final break between the radical students and the CP. Humanité, the daily CP paper, described those who took part in one riot as members of "certain groups (anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists, etc. ) composed in general of sons of the big bourgeoisie and directed by the German anarchist, Cohn-Bendit". Cohn-Bendit replied in kind by speaking of "Stalinist shit".
Many of the students explained the CP's "betrayal" on the grounds that it had become bureaucratised and the victim of its parliamentary strategy (the CP's immediate aim was, and still is, an elected "popular democratic government" with Party Ministers). Johnson rejects the "bureaucratisation" view by pointing out how, on the contrary, the French CP has been extremely flexible, zigging this way and zagging that way on Moscow's orders. Instead, he sees the CP's attitude as a ritual response dictated by its whole ideology (the working class as the sole revolutionary class; the Party as the sole legitimate representative of the working class; and the Party leadership as the sole infallible judge of working class tactics). To back up this view he points out that the Maoists and certain Trotskyist groups also denounced, on ideological grounds, the student movement at "petty bourgeois" and denied that there was a "revolutionary situation" in 1968.
Undoubtedly there was no such situation at that time (even though these groups' conception of a revolutionary situation is radically different from ours). A revolutionary situation did not exist because the great mass of workers in France, industrial and white collar, were not socialist-minded. They were merely discontented, wanting higher wages and some reforms—which they got and returned to work leaving the students out on a limb. On June 12 De Gaulle banned a number of student anarchist, Trotskyist and Maoist groups and, beating the drum of "law and order", on June 30 won a resounding electoral victory. The student groups' attempt at "revolution" in an non-revolutionary period had strengthened the forces of reaction.