Letter From Europe: Communists in Government

After the zig . . . the zag. After denouncing for the past three years or so years Francois Mitterand and his PS as reformists, who simply wanted to “manage the crisis” and run capitalism, the French Communist Party (PC) now has four Ministers in the government formed by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, following the sweeping PS victory in the June General Elections.

The PC will now itself be participating in the government of capitalism. Not for the first time though, since it also had Ministers from 1944 to 1947. At the time PC leaders toured the country urging workers to work harder and denouncing strikes as a “weapon of the trusts”. It was probably partly in the hope that they will again do this that Mitterand decided to admit them to his government (he didn’t have to, since his party has an absolute majority in the National Assembly.)

In this respect there was a significant phrase in the agreement signed in the night of 22/3 June between the PS and the PC and which paved the way for the appointment of the PC Ministers. After stating that the two parties pledged themselves to apply Mitterand’s election programme with “flawless solidarity” at government level, it went on to state they would do the same at regional and local level and “in the enterprises”. In other words, the PC cells in the factories are also committed to applying and defending the policies of the PS-PC government. Since its cells in the factories are the means by which the PC controls the main trade union federation, the CGT, in effect this organisation too will tend to become, in Lenin’s contemptuous phrase describing his idea of the role of trade unions under the Bolsheviks, a “transmission belt” for the PS-PC government. Of course this won’t be easy to implement and in the long run the workers will spontaneously kick against it, but once again it shows how being linked to a political party weakens the effectiveness of trade unions in the defence of their members’ wages and conditions.

This pledge is also contrary to what the PC was saying right up to the first round of the presidential elections on 26 April, that “change” could only be imposed by the struggle of the workers and not left to a PS President. We could quote many passages to this effect from Charles Fiterman, the No. 2 in the PC hierarchy and now Minister of Transport. For instance, in Avancees No 5, March 1981), after warning against giving a blank cheque to Mitterand and as a miracle man (“homme providentiel”), he wrote that the PC “calls on the workers not to delegate their responsibilities, but to struggle to impose change”. It was certainly because the PC had employed such language that the PS used its immensely superior bargaining position after the General Election to impose the insertion of this reference to solidarity “in the enterprises” on the PC. Has the PC sincerely accepted this? We doubt it (people who change their line so often and so rapidly just can’t be sincere), but then that’s not our problem.

Reformist Euphoria

At the moment it is all euphoria in trade union circles and a number of measure have improved, for the time being at least, the situation of many workers. The minimum wage, family allowances, pensions, rent allowances have all been increased. The big question, however, is: will it last? Will this increase in workers’ purchasing power be sustained or will it be eaten up by rising prices or taken away by austerity?

Unlike the Labour Party in Britain or the SPD in Germany, the PS in France has never really had any experience of governing capitalism, at least not on its own. This is why reformist illusions about the ability of the government to make the economy work in the interests of ordinary people are so strongly entrenched in the PS, at all levels including Ministers.

Take their economic thinking. It is simple and apparently logical: the way out of the crisis is to give workers more money to spend; their purchases will then stimulate production so starting off the process of recovery. This underconsumptionist view of the cause and way out of the crisis is shared by the PC, but is quite mistaken and a policy based upon it can only lead to one result: increased inflation while the crisis, which is a world crisis, continues.

The Minister of Finance, Jacques Delors (who had some experience of governing capitalism when he was adviser to a Gaullist Prime Minster between 1969 and 1972) understands a little more how capitalism works than most of his colleagues (relatively speaking that is, since although not a crude underconsumptionist he is still a Keynesian). He defends the new government’s policy of increasing popular consumption, not as a way out of the crisis but as an anticipation of the recovery he sees coming in the world economy: “we are wanting to anticipate, but in a reasonable way, the recovery of the economy at world level” (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1 June).

    The reflation measures already taken by the Government . . .  are a limited anticipation of the recovery of the world economy which the experts foresee for the end of this year or the beginning of the next. (The Times 24 June).

In other words, he at least recognises that the crisis in France is not caused by internal underconsumption (and so cannot be solved by increasing purchasing power) but that it is part of the general world capitalist crisis. This was in fact what ex-President Giscard and his Prime Minister Barre tried to explain during the presidential election campaign, but they weren’t able to convince people. PS (and PC) propaganda to the effect that Barre deliberately chose to keep the crisis and unemployment going because they were heartless men was more successful. Now—poetic justice perhaps—they in turn have been given a chance to run capitalism in a crisis. They will discover that the policy a government pursues is not a question of the feelings or motives of its members—of being concerned—but of what the economic situation permits, and dictates.

Riding for a Fall

If Delors is proved wrong in his prediction/hope that the recovery in the world economy will begin within a year, where will the government be then?  Unemployment will not have been reduced (except by converting some of the into civil servants) but inflation will have increased. The government has proclaimed that its social reform measures will not be financed by the printing press, but partly by taxing the rich and partly from the extra tax and social security contributions that would result from the increased employment it hopes its policies will bring.

If unemployment remains at a high level, as it inevitably will of the world economy doesn’t recover, they will be faced with a gaping budgetary deficit. They will then have a choice: cut back on the social reform measures or have recourse to the printing press. If other reformist governments who want to appear friendly to the trade unions are anything to go by, they will choose the latter. The resulting inflation will not only cut the value of the social benefits but also put up French export prices and make French goods less competitive on the world market, so aggravating the crisis and undermining the Franc.

This is the most likely result of the new PS-PC government’s current policy. It will fail completely and within a year or so they will be faced with growing working class discontent over persisting unemployment and rising prices which they will not be able to satisfy, since the continuing crisis will force them to recognise that under capitalism priority must be given to profits and profit-making rather than to social reforms and popular consumption.

The crunch will then come and they will be forced, like all governments of capitalism sooner or later, to take openly anti-working class measures. The question will then be to see how the PC acts—will it swallow the austerity measures in the name of “flawless solidarity” or will Fiterman and his colleagues resign? This will be a problem not only for the PC Ministers but also for those from CRES wing of the PS, including its leader Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the Minister for Research, whose economic analysis is very close to that of the PC and who declared in a policy statement submitted to the 1977 PS Congress:

    The Left must not allow itself to be caught in the cog-wheels of a supposed good management of capitalism, precisely when this problem has become insoluble. It must at the same time avoid letting itself become dragged into the spiral of inflation and external deficit which leads to subservience to international money-lenders and inevitably to the application of a policy of austerity, in short to a return in strength of the Right (Ceres par luimeme, p. 159. Our translation).

Since in fact there is no chance of the CERES/PC policy of a native French state capitalism behind tariff walls being adopted (which of course is no solution either), this is precisely what will happen. Will Chevenement and the others then resign or will they, like Tony Benn under Wilson and Callaghan, find some excuse for staying on?

If, on the other hand, by a stroke of luck, Delors’ gamble comes off and the world economy does not recover within the next year this would not disprove the socialist case against reformism, even if Delors himself went down in French history as an economic wizard! In fact, it would not have been the policy of the PS-PC government that caused the recovery, but capitalism at world level as it naturally moved on from the crisis and slump stage, a process over which neither the French nor any other government has any control and which would have come about quite independently of their actions.

Adam Buick (Luxemburg)

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