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Book Reviews: 'The French Communist Party Versus the Students' & 'British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze'


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 CPs "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 see 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 as "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.



British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze by Andrew Glynn and Bob Sutcliffe. Penguin. 55p.

The thesis of this book can be stated simply: British capitalism is in crisis because profits have been squeezed between rising wages, on the one hand, and increasing international competition which has prevented compensatory price rises on the other.

The authors present figures to argue that there has been a drastic fall in the rate of profit since 1964 and predict that, sooner or later, this will be reflected in a collapse of share prices on the Stock Exchange too. Increasing international competition they attribute to the end of the post-war boom. "British capitalism", they say, "has entered a crisis which it may not survive". In short, in their view, the long-expected "big slump" is imminent.

Maybe. That there has been a fall in the rate of profit in recent years is undeniable; so is the fact that this has been the cause of a slow rate of capital accumulation in Britain. And, that, therefore, all recent governments, Labour as well as Conservative, have been forced to attack working-class living standards in a bid to increase profits, the life-blood of capitalism.

But is this fall in profits the beginning of a "big slump" or just the downturn of another normal capitalist business cycle which will eventually be followed by a recovery? Past experience (including our own) of predicting slumps advises caution. Capitalism has proved to be more resilient than we might like.

Two points of economic criticism. First, Glynn and Sutcliffe betray no knowledge of the basic cause of inflation and indeed appear to think that it is the result of capitalist firms putting up prices. But, as we have repeatedly shown in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, inflation has been caused by the currency policies of successive post-war governments. Partly this has been due to an ignorance of monetary economics, but partly also it has been political: inflation undermines working class living standards without provoking the head-on clash with the unions a direct reduction of wages would. Recent trade union activity has largely been a response to inflation and has only kept real take-home pay rising slightly faster that prices but less than productivity.

This brings us to our second criticism. Glynn and Sutcliffe grossly over-exaggerate the effectiveness of trade unions in raising wages. They attribute to the unions a major responsibility for the present crisis. For, according to them, by pushing up wages in a period of intense international competition the unions have squeezed profits. In fact there is no evidence that rising wages do squeeze profits. The working class has certainly resisted capitalist attempts to reduce their living standards more successfully than the capitalists would have liked, but this is not quite the same thing. As the authors themselves point out, in previous crises the workers have become more militant essentially only in defence of their living standards.

But, for political reasons, they want to believe the present crisis to be different. They believe that if the workers keep up their present pressure for higher wages (and if they are not "betrayed" by their trade union leaders as in the past) then capitalism, at least in Britain, can be overthrown.

Quite apart from the fact that what, in their minds, is to replace capitalism here is merely a national state capitalism (which, surely, would be subject to the same pressures from international competition to restrict working-class consumption in the interests of capital accumulation?), this is nonsense. The defensive trade union struggle cannot lead to the overthrow of capitalism precisely because in the end the capitalist class and their government have in their hands all the wealth and power they need to defeat the unions. To overthrow capitalism a conscious politico! movement for Socialism must arise (and not just in one country either). Otherwise, and until it does, capitalism will indeed "muddle on for ever".