Sunday, December 21, 2014

Marcel van der Linden on Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group (1949-65)

Marcel van der Linden
In memory of Cornelius Castoriadis, 11 March 1922 - 26 December 1997
From Left History 5.1 (1997)

The political and theoretical views developed by the radical group from 1949 onward, have only recently received some attention outside the French speaking world. (2) For a long period things were little different in France where the group and its similarly named periodical also received scant attention. This only changed after the students' and workers' rebellion in May-June 1968. The remnants of the journal, which had been unsaleable up to then - it had stopped appearing three years earlier- suddenly became a hot-selling item. Many of the 'heretical' ideas published in it seemed to be confirmed by the unexpected revolt. In 1977 the daily Le Monde wrote on the intellectual efforts of Socialisme ou Barbarie: "This work - although unknown to the public at large - has nevertheless had a powerful influence on those who played a role in May 1968." In the writings of the group one finds "most of the ideas which are being debated nowadays (from workers' control through to the critique ofmodern technology, of Bolshevism or of Marx). (3)

In Socialisme ou Barbarie an attempt was made to consider the bureaucratization of social movements. The central questions were: is it an iron law that movements opposing the existing order either fall apart or change into rigid hierarchies? How can militants organize themselves without being absorbed or rigidified into a bureaucratic apparatus? Socialisme ou Barbarie first posed these questions because the group asked itself why things had gone wrong in the traditional labour movement. After all, in the course of the twentieth century this movement had increasingly alienated itself from its grass roots and taken on the shape of turgid labour and trade union bureaucracies.

In reaction to this development Socialisme ou Barbarie tried to stimulate new types of opposition. The approach used was that of direct democracy. The history of the group was essentially a lengthy search for a new relationship between spontaneity and organization, between practice and theory. The debates which took place during this search often had a freshness which is still relevant today.

Socialisme ou Barbarie's most prominent intellectuals were Castoriadis and Lefort. Cornelius Castoriadis was born in 1922 and studied law, economics and philosophy at the University of Athens. Before the Second World War, during the dictatorship of Metaxas, he had joined the Greek Communist youth organization. However, when the Germans occupied the country and the Communist Party wanted to ally itself with the bourgeois resistance, Castoriadis rejected the decision. 

After a short period of political wanderings, he ended up with a small Trotskyist group led by Agis Stinas. This was a risky choice, because Trotskyists were threatened from two sides in Greece. The occupying power persecuted them whenever possible and in 1943 executed the most important leaders, among them Pantelis Pouliopoulos and Yannis Xypolytos. (4) When the country was 'liberated' in 1944, it was the Communists' turn. During massive 'mopping-up operations' they murdered at least 600 of Trotsky's followers, often after having tortured them. (5) This traumatic experience was a determining factor in Castoriadis' further development. The Trotskyist view on Stalinism, which he had supported only a short time before, seemed less and less correct.

The Stalinists were not a part of the labour movement which had been absorbed by capitalism, as Trotsky had claimed, but bureaucrats, who opposed the workers as well as capitalism! When Castoriadis settled in France at the end of 1945 he joined the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI), the French section of the Fourth International, which had a few hundred members. He immediately started propagating his new position.

Claude Lefort was Castoriadis' most important partner in the building of the dissident current in the PCI. Born in 1924, Lefort was still a philosophy student when he met Castoriadis for the first time. As early as 1943 he had formed an underground group at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, although the Trotskyist position on the Soviet Union and Stalinism had never seemed very convincing to him. When he first heard Castoriadis speak, Lefort was deeply impressed: "His analysis overwhelmed me," he said in an interview. "I was convinced by him even before he had come to his conclusions. [...] Castoriadis' arguments were in my view on a par with the best of Marx, but the Trotskyists called it heresy." (6)

From 1946 onwards Castoriadis and Lefort worked together. As was customary in the Trotskyist movement, both had cover names. The first called himself Pierre Chaulieu, the second Claude Montal. (7) Hence they were at first known as the Chaulieu-Montal Tendency. (8) The political histories of Castoriadis and Lefort differed rather markedly. Castoriadis had been a member of a Communist party and later of a Trotskyist organization. In both cases he had only taken up an oppositional view during his membership. He was thus used to party discipline - at least for a while. Lefort, on the other hand, had no such experience. He had spent fewer years as a member of a party organization and had taken an oppositional view in the Trotskyist movement from the beginning. The idea of identifying himself with any party was therefore a strange one for him. (9) This difference between them became more critical in later political debates.

With hindsight one can see that the first period after the Second World War -until 1947 - was of a different order from the time which followed. Before 1947 political relations were relatively open and flexible; later this was to change for a long time. The tension between the two superpowers only increased gradually. Stalin had not yet modeled the newly-conquered countries in Eastern Europe after the Soviet example and Truman had not yet decided to employ the enormous economic potential of his country as a weapon against communism.

In Western Europe the war had brought about a strong shift to the left. The Communist parties were more popular than ever. Their percentage of the vote often grew to a multiple of what it had been before the war: there was a massive increase in membership. After the years of misery in the depression and the war the population longed for progress and social reforms. Communists had been taken into the government in many countries. At the beginning of 1947 Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Iceland and Finland all had Communist ministers.

In the course of 1947 this relatively peaceful co-existence came to an end. The relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union had been worsening for some time. Economic problems came to the fore in Western Europe, while at the same time the American economy was in danger of overheating and frantically searched for new markets. It was in these circumstances that George Marshall, the American Secretary of State, developed the plan to offer Europe a substantial program of aid. In this way a number of aims could be achieved at the same time: the power of capitalism in Europe would be increased; American capital could secure its exports; and the influence of communism could be forced back. The Marshall Plan marked a turning point which led to a changed international constellation. In Western Europe the Communist ministers were put out of office. In Eastern Europe a political and economic transformation to 'people's democracies' was enforced, which meant that these societies increasingly began to resemble Soviet society. The polarization between the blocks started dominating developments: the Cold War had started.

In France bourgeois circles had happily used the Communists and their influence in the large trade union federation CGT immediately after the end of the German occupation. By letting them form a government together with the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats (SFIO and MRP) in 1945 Charles de Gaulle - who had become prime minister for a short while in November - hoped to be able to discipline the workers. The Monnet Plan, which regulated the reconstruction, was supported by the Communist PCF. The New York Herald Tribune wrote on 12 July 1946: "The key for the success of the plan to date, which has been considerable, is the enthusiastic cooperation of the French Communist Party.

The Communists dominate the most important unions in the CGT, the large French trade union federation. The Communist leadership has been responsible for such surprising steps as the acceptance by the most important French unions of a kind of adjusted piece rate system, which rewards individual workers with a high output.'' This policy was also supported by the Social Democrats. The policies of the two French workers' parties led to wage decreases in a period of inflation and therefore helped to lower living standards.

The Communists' integration policy could not, however, altogether prevent the workers from standing up for their interests. In January 1946 typographers, demanding higher wages, went on strike. In July 1946, postmen stopped work. And in April 1947 there were strikes at the Renault car works, which had been nationalized a couple of years before. It was especially this last strike, in which Trotskyists had played a leading role (a "Gaullist-Trotskyist-anarchist chaos," according to the secretary of the CGT, Plaisance), that made clear that the Communists were starting to lose their grip on developments. On 30 April 1947 Communist leader Maurice Thorez informed the government that the PCF could no longer support the price and wage policy of the government. Ramadier, the social democrat prime minister, who was under pressure from Washington, used the opportunity to throw the Communists out of the government a few days later.

The PCF and the social-democratic SFIO now increasingly opposed one another. The latter, pro-American and a participant in a number of later governments, was bitterly opposed by the former. In the period 1947-49 there were great strike waves throughout the country, now wholeheartedly supported by the PCF and CGT The Social Democrats, for their part, attempted to undermine the workers' resistance. Financially supported by the CIA. they succeeded in splitting the CGT and in setting up a new 'moderate' trade union federation (Force Ouvrière). Although this remained a far smaller organization than the CGT, many trade union members became demoralized by the new divisions. Within a few years more than half the CGT members had departed, leaving about two million halfway through the 1950s. Force Ouvrière started out with a few hundred thousand members and never managed greatly to increase this number.

The Cold War, the economic recovery of the 1950s. and the antagonism between the two 'workers' parties' and their trade unions, resulted in a clear drop in militancy: the radical zeal disappeared. In 1947 there had been more than 22 million strike days; by 1952 this had dropped to less than one and a half million. The circumstances for radical socialists were naturally very difficult. Enormous political pressure was exerted on all kinds of far left groups (Council Communists, Trotskyists, Bordigists, etc.) to join one camp or the other: Washington or Moscow. Those who refused such a choice were not given a hearing and were deemed suspect. The anti-capitalist opposition was completely monopolized by the Communists. There was hardly any room for independent revolutionaries.

The isolation had two contradictory consequences. On the one hand the lack of successful practical activities led to a greater emphasis on theoretical-programmatic questions. Naturally this resulted in differences of opinion and quite often ended in large conflicts and even splits. On the other hand the enmity of the world 'outside' brought the small left-radical groups together, resulting in co-operative ties despite the political differences. There was a kind of 'dialectic' of division and reunion.

The changed situation also led to intense debates within the international Trotskyist movement, especially about Eastern Europe. It is unnecessary to enter into the niceties of this discussion; it seems sufficient to note that there were minorities in a number of countries who refused to regard the Soviet Union as a 'transitional society' between capitalism and socialism, as had Trotsky. These minorities considered both East and West to have equally reprehensible systems of exploitation and repression. In the United States such a view was defended by a group known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency. Johnson was the pseudonym of the black revolutionary C.L.R. James, Forest the cover identity of Rae Spiegel (Raya Dunayevskaya), a former secretary of Trotsky. In Great Britain the opposition inside the Trotskyist movement was led by Ygael Gluckstein from Palestine, who operated under the name of Tony Cliff. In France it was Castoriadis and Lefort in their Chaulieu-Montal Tendency who voiced the opposition to the old viewpoints. All these opponents left the international Trotskyist organization, the Fourth International, between 1948 and 1951 in order to set up independent groups. They were to maintain regular contacts with each other. Castoriadis and Dunayevskaya were still working together in the Sixties. (11)

In August 1946 Castoriadis and Lefort published 0n the Regime and Against the Defence of the USSR, in which they criticized the Trotskyist critical-positive evaluation of the Soviet Union. They especially opposed the idea that Stalinist society - despite the shortcomings also admitted by the Trotskists (specifically the lack of any democracy)- should have to be defended against capitalism. Castoriadis and Lefort proposed that a new elite, a "social layer" of bureaucrats, had achieved power in the USSR and that this elite exclusively defended its own interests rather than those of the Soviet workers. For this reason the Soviet Union was a new kind of society, which scrove for expansion just as much as Western capitalism.(12)

In a later stage Castoriadis and Lefort abandoned the characterization of the Soviet Union as a new type of society and described it as 'bureaucratic capitalism.' According to them this was a society based on exploitation, without the classic laws of competitive capitalism but with the surplus value formation typical of capitalism.

Numerous articles were written by the opposition to convince their Trotskyist party comrades." When this failed and the Chaulieu-Montal Tendency seemed doomed to remain a small minority within a movement that was itself quite tiny," the dissidents decided to break with the Fourth International. At the end of 1948 ten or twenty of them left the organization. (15) In March 1949 the group published the first issue of the magazine  Socialisme ou Barbarie - a well-made periodical of one hundred pages or more. The reasons for leaving the Fourth International were once again explained in an open letter to the members of the Fourth International who had been left behind. Trotskyism was reproached for being a movement without political-theoretical power because it was incapable of finding an "independent ideological basis for existence." Trotskyism could not truly liberate itself from Stalinism, because it continued to define itself as the opposite of Stalinism.

The central article of the first issue was an extensive text entitled "Socialism or Barbarism," which amounted to a statement of the group's position. This text was mostly written by Castoriadis. Just as Marx wanted to give a programmatic foundation to the League of Communists with his Manifesto of the Communist Party, so Castoriadis attempted to formulate a political foundation for the new organization with "Socialism or Barbarism." He took the world situation, which had changed so thoroughly as a result of the Second World War, as his point of departure. Two "superstates" had divided the world between them: the United States and the Soviet Union. Both had expansionist tendencies and strove to dominate the other. The result of this would inevitably be a third world war, which would result in barbarism for international society, unless the power elites in East and West were overthrown through a radical-socialist revolution. Socialism or Barbarism: those were the only remaining roads for humanity.

What would such a radical-socialist revolution mean? Its point of departure would lie in the most fundamental contradiction shared by East and West, bureaucracy and competitive capitalism: the contradiction between managing and subordinate labour... read more: