Book Review: ‘Marxism and the French Left’

Left is not right

‘Marxism and the French Left’, by Tony Judt (Clarendon Press)

In this book, Tony Judt describes how the ideas, aims and methods of organisations belonging to the “French Left” have changed in the course of 150 years. He defines what he means by “Left”, it was, he says, “to be Republican, Radical, Socialist, or Communist at different times (or at the same time in different places)” — all of them with roots in the French Revolution.

With this as his starting point he draws a number of distinctions between the experience of workers’ political and trade union movements in France. Britain. Germany and other countries. For example he says:

    “Whereas in Germany, or (especially) in Britain experience in the union movement was often a safe path to a successful parliamentary career, in France there was no such relationship.”

And that in France, changes which took place in the years 1850-1870.

    “favoured the emergence of two sorts of collective action by the working population the development of the associational traditions of the mutual aid societies and workers’ co-operatives on the one hand, collective protests (strikes) on the other.”

Except that trade unions and strikes were a feature in Britain long before 1850, the above statement was equally true of British workers.

Judt also describes the innumerable splits, regroupings and formulations of allegedly new policies by the various parties in France over the years. He could have found the same in Britain. But at the end of the day, what does it all amount to? While the self-styled “Left” in Britain does not hark back to the French Revolution, that useless term is just as vague in its usage in Britain as in France. The politicians and the media habitually discover a “left wing” in all the parties. Tory. Labour and Alliance.

Notwithstanding variations in their historical origins there are no essential differences between the modern British Labour Party and its opposite numbers in Italy, France and Germany. Indeed the author himself says that the French “Socialist” party differed no more from the German party than did the latter from the Italian party or either from the British Labour Party. t

All these parties, and similar ones in other countries, share a common belief in their ability to run capitalism better than the other, avowedly capitalist, parties. In particular they claim to be able to maintain full employment, avoid depressions and raise workers’ living standards. But capitalism cannot be controlled. In Australia the Labour government ran into a trade crisis and has informed the workers that their standard of living has to be reduced. In Spain unemployment rocketed under a “socialist” government, as it also did in France following the victory in 1981 of the French “Socialist” Party. In Britain the 1974 Labour government also ran into a crisis, had to borrow heavily from the International Monetary Fund, and saw unemployment rise from 600,000 to 1,300,000.

There are other similarities We are told that for French “socialism” the year 1981 “was their finest hour”. The new government nationalised a number of industries, as did the British Labour government at the time of its “finest hour” in 1945. Now in both countries the workers have elected Conservative governments, busily engaged in “privatisation” of nationalised industries. Neither nationalisation nor privatisation matter to the working class.

One purpose of Judt’s book is to show the failure of “Marxism”. What he understands by “Marxism” takes in the nineteenth century social democratic parties, the parties in the Russian-dominated Third International, and the parties, like the Austrian party and the British Independent Labour Party in the so-called Second International. He ends with the statement that “so far as Marxism is concerned the only practically existing form of it is still that in force in Communist Regimes” He makes no attempt to justify his claim that they are “communist” that is. advocates of communal, or social, ownership of the means of production and distribution, of a classless, moneyless society where everyone has free access to wealth.

The book contains numerous references to the British Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party (now defunct), but no mention of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its distinctive and unique principle of a socialist working class seeking power, not at all for the purpose of reforming capitalism, but solely to abolish capitalism and establish socialism.

It is only by ignoring the history of the professedly Marxist Social Democratic Federation and of the eventual breakaway by some members to found the Socialist Party of Great Britain that the author can say that there are, in Britain, “no indigenous Marxist traditions”

Edgar Hardcastle

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