The Communists and the Colonized
The French Communist Party left a checkered record on anti-imperialism.
- Interview by
For decades, the French Communist Party (PCF) was among the strongest left parties in Western Europe. If it didn’t exert the same intellectual influence abroad as its Italian counterpart, it still commanded the loyalty of millions of workers — winning over 20 percent of the vote as late as 1978 — and dictated many of the terms on which the more moderate French Socialist Party operated.
But the party was always shrouded in debates around its attitudes toward French colonialism. These center primarily around its stances during the Algerian Revolution, which raged throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Still, the PCF had often-overlooked revolutionary and anticolonial origins. In the following interview, Selim Nadi, a PhD candidate at the Center for History at Sciences Po (Paris) and a member of the French Marxist theoretical online journal Période, argues that over the course of the twentieth century, the French Communist Party was transformed from an organization committed to internationalism and influenced by a young Ho Chi Minh to a body that embraced many aspects of nationalism.
The legacy of that transformation, he argues, still haunts the party, limiting its ability to combat Islamophobia and challenge the French state today.
The postwar colonial struggles were not the first instance of the French left supporting a war government. How did World War I set the stage for the later colonial attitude?
Like a lot of other socialist parties in Europe, the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) split on the question of whether socialists should support their national governments in a time of war. To sum up the kind of division in the SFIO we could say that there were embodied by three figures: Gustave Hervé, Jules Guesde, and Jean Jaurès.
Gustave Hervé, who represented a tiny minority, was radically anti-patriotic, anti-militarist and anti-parliamentarian (he also denounced colonialism in a very radical way). But with the outbreak of the “Great War” he quickly changed sides and supported the National Union. Later Hervé supported Mussolini’s March on Rome and in 1940 he stood with the war general Philippe Pétain.
Jules Guesde had more supporters than Hervé. According to Guesde, anti-patriotism and anti-militarism were counterrevolutionary. Finally there was Jaurès, probably the most well-known figure of this period. One could sum up Jaurès’s position by an attempt to reconcile patriotism and the struggle against the war. To Jaurès, patriotism was part of internationalism. One of his ideas was that “a little internationalism takes [the worker] away from his country; a lot of internationalism brings him back to it.”
Jaurès was killed in July 1914 because of his opposition to the war. Three days before Jaurès’s assassination, the SFIO published a text against the war but on August 4 every single SFIO MP voted in favor of the war credits. As Chris Harman wrote, the SFIO’s attitude was very similar to that of the German and Austrian Social Democrats, the British Labor Party, or the veteran Russian Marxist Plekhanov and the veteran Russian anarchist Kropotkin: “all were united in their willingness to back their rulers against others.”
During World War I, the minister of armaments, Albert Thomas, was a Socialist. He was responsible for the drop in industry wages as well as the support for the war effort. While the Great War played a crucial role in the rise of class consciousness in France, a “class alliance syndicalism” emerged and tried to replace the prewar revolutionary syndicalism (which later played a role in the creation of the PCF in 1920).
The aim of this new syndicalism was, of course, national defense. The other event that led to a split in the French Socialist Party was the two revolutions of 1917 in Russia. The February Revolution was generally supported by the workers’ movement but with the October Revolution the debates became more problematic.
The trade-union organization CGT as well as the leadership of the SFIO criticized this revolution for several reasons, but one of them was that this revolution was weakening the Allies in the war. The Socialist policy during WWI could be summarized by a speech that Thomas gave on October 28, 1917 where he said that the Socialist Party should be both with the working class and the “war government.” As Robert Wohl writes:
The reason the Socialist and syndicalist leaders gave for the policy of Sacred Union, both to themselves and to their followers, was that by helping to win the war the working class would earn the right to help make the peace, and to rebuild France in the light of their own doctrines.
After the Great War, there were several strikes in the French metropolis — especially in June 1919 and in 1920 where strikes were broken by the Millerand government — but also several failures during elections (November 1919) as well as, of course, a wider backdrop of revolutions around the world. By 1920 the Socialist Party split between the minority who rejected the conditions of the Third International and the majority — who formed the French Section of the Communist International (SFIC), which later became the PCF — who accepted them.
Did the split have an effect on each party’s attitude towards colonialism?
French imperialism did play a crucial role in the 1920 Tours Congress and in the decision to split. One of the conditions of the Third International explicitly stated that the Communist Parties of imperialist countries should clearly oppose colonialism and imperialism of their own country.
If a party wanted to join the Third International, it should “demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies, inculcate in the hearts of the workers of its own country an attitude of true brotherhood with the working population of the colonies and the oppressed nations, and conduct systematic agitation among the armed forces against all oppression of the colonial peoples.”
During this congress, a young Vietnamese militant made a remarkable speech in favor of accepting this condition. That was Nguyen-Ai-Quoc, who later became famous as Ho Chi Minh. He discovered communism with Marcel Cachin, participated in the founding of the French Communist Party, and became an active anticolonial activist.
In 1922 Nguyen-Ai-Quoc was a key editor of the journal Le Paria which was unique in its focus on analyses of the colonial situation. The newspaper was not so much concerned with independence, more with ending the repression in the colonies, but it played an important role at that time.
Around that time figures such as Abdelkader Hadj Ali were also members of the PCF. Hadj Ali gave classes at the “colonial section” of the Bobigny PCF School, where Messali Hadj briefly studied. Hadj Ali created the first association for North African workers in France. In its early years, the party did understand the importance of the colonial question, though it sometimes had difficulty enforcing these ideas within its own ranks.
There was also Robert Louzon, an anarchist activist who became part of the SFIC — and later PCF — who supported the founding of the General Confederation of Tunisian Workers (CGTT). This was especially remarkable as much of the French left was more focused on the Rif War, fought in Morocco against Spain and France, in which the communists took an anticolonial stance and even organized workers on that basis. He chose not to sideline the Tunisian struggle and created and financed an Arabic language newspaper to support it.
Louzon is actually a good case study in the evolution of the French left. He left the PCF in 1924 as the party came under the influence of Zinoviev and Stalin. After he left the PCF, Louzon went to Morocco in order to fight against the enrollment of Moroccans by Franco’s army. He continued to mobilize against colonialism and published, in 1930, two articles in La Révolution prolétarienne about the development of capitalism in Algeria (even if he did not understand the role racism played in French colonialism, his analysis of the Algerian Revolution between 1830 and 1930 is still remarkable).
By the mid 1920s, many members were expelled and the party shifted from the outlook it had during the Rif War, towards eventually the Third Period strategy. This strategy, also called “classe contre classe” could be characterized by a kind of sectarianism and the refusal of any alliances with the Socialists. Revolution, the Socialists argued, was imminent.
By 1930 Maurice Thorez was the head of the party, and policy eventually reorientated, like it did across the Communist movement, towards the Popular Front strategy.
How did the Popular Front change the nature of the PCF’s political commitments?
In the early 1930s, the PCF had a similar attitude to that of the German Communist Party in denouncing every single social democrat as a “social fascist” but this changes with the threat of fascism.
The French Communists embraced an ideology that became increasingly populist. Building towards a revolutionary break was no longer a priority. The main enemy was fascism and the main political subject became the “French people.” With the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (1939), the PCF’s antifascism was abandoned for a time but the consequences, in the long run, of this Communist nationalism is that the PCF adopted the idea that the socialist transition would happen gradually through parliamentary reforms and that the interest of France as a nation became more and more important to a socialist program.
The other important aspect of the Popular Front period was the way in which it shaped attitudes towards national liberation struggles in the colonies. The Vietnamese coalition between Stalinists and Trotskyists called La Lutte proposed to organize a congress with representatives from the colonies but Marius Moutet (the SFIO minister for colonies) refused because he thought that a congress where the Trotskyists were a majority would be dangerous.
Then with the Laval-Stalin Pact the national defense of France became the main issue for the Communists, which meant that any struggle against the French government as a colonial power could be interpreted as a serious obstacle to the fight against fascism.
What about the PCF’s idea of “center” and “peripherial” countries and the role of the French left in the liberation of countries in the Global South?
This actually was a rather chauvinist idea that took hold after the war, when the PCF was one of the strongest parties in the country and firmly under the sway of Thorez’s view that the march to socialism would take other “ways than the way of the Russian Communists.” According to the PCF, the liberation of the peripheries (the colonized countries) would only take place with the liberation of the center (Europe).
That said it is true that the PCF supported the Viêt Minh, who were seen as the comrades of French anti-Nazi fighters, in 1945. The consequences of that were that the Communists wanted to negotiate with the Viêt Minh. The spirit of the PCF argument after World War II was to find a balance between the interests of the colonized people and the interests of France.
In the immediate postwar period, the PCF participated (with the SFIO) in the de Gaulle government and when Thorez (who was a government minister) met Xuan (a general from Indochina), he told him that the PCF was not against the French positions in Indochina and that he wanted to see the French flag in every single place in the Union française.
During its participation in the government, the PCF wanted a “peaceful end” to the fight between France and its colonies but after its eviction from the government the PCF made massive propaganda against this “dirty war.” Not because it was for the Indochinese independence, but because it was a “useless fight.”
Was this the attitude that carried on to the Algerian struggle for independence?
Yes, and that was the definitive turn away from the PCF’s anticolonial heritage. The PCF saw in the Algerian insurrection of November 1954 only individualistic terrorism. In his book Années de feu, Jacques Jurquet, the former PCF member who later became a leading representative of French Maoism, stresses the responsibility of the socialists in the colonial repression as well as the “distance between the courageous (. . .) commitment [of the Communists] against the Rif War” and their attitude in 1954.
The PCF wanted the creation of a “real” Union française and in every single text or speech from its leader on Algeria the interests of France were paramount. The most memorable explicit colonial position by the PCF during the Algerian Revolution was of course the vote in favor of Prime Minister Guy Mollet’s special powers in 1956 in order not to “divide the republic.”
During this second phase of the Algerian Revolution the last anticolonial figures of the PCF were either excluded or left the party (like Jacques Jurquet, in 1956, and Maxime Rodinson, in 1958, for example). With the support offered to Guy Mollet, the PCF positioned itself clearly as an associate of the colonial counterrevolution in Algeria.
Fortunately, after the bloody repression of a peaceful demonstration by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in Paris, in October 1961, the PCF did condemn the police brutalities and murders but its declaration was notably filled with republican language.
Today, after the Paris terrorist attacks, the French left faces urgent questions of how to relate to the “war on terror,” the wave of migrants, and the French state’s role in modern imperialism. How has the modern PCF dealt with this?
It is still, in my view, stuck in the reformist and social-chauvinistic turn taken during the Algerian Revolution. After World War II, the conditions in the colonies were a unique chance of creating a real international solidarity between French Communists and colonized people.
It is true that today the PCF (which has been part of the Front de Gauche since 2009) has not had the same importance in France as it had in the 1950s. But it is the only left-wing party who is represented in the French parliament (the National Assembly) since it formed a parliamentary group with the Greens.
This year PCF National Assembly deputies voted in favor of the state of emergency after the November attacks. A lot of people compared this vote to the 1956 vote in favor of Guy Mollet’s special powers. According to Laurent Lévy, in an article published in ContreTemps, the main difference between the PCF vote in 1956 and the PCF’s vote in favor of the prolongation of the state of emergency, in 2015, is that the first was a rational vote, even if it was a mistake, prompted by tactical needs of the PCF, while the latter is a completely irrational vote. This is of course true.
But one of the common factor of both votes is the importance the French nation has for the Communist Party as well as its lack of strategic view. The “safeguarding of the French republic,” of its “values” is a key point in the PCF’s politics. By voting for the state of emergency the PCF not only supported the racist consequences of it, but also the repression of a large part of the social movement.
The ban of the demonstrations against the COP 21 demonstrations is, of course, a good example of this as well as the house arrests imposed on activists at around the same time. All this was implicitly supported by the PCF MPs. But the main difference between the 1950s and today is that, today, this party is not the largest left-wing party and its importance in the social movement is relative.
Of course, despite these shortcomings, one shouldn’t be completely pessimistic about the situation. There are serious debates about issues of imperialism, racism, and the tactical questions of organizing coming out of some currents of the French left like the New Anticapitalist Party and Ensemble.
France’s immigrant community is also increasingly mobilized against racism — with new antiracist organizations taking on an increasing prominence of late.
There is at last some hope that the French left can free itself of the shackles of chauvinism and adopt a truly emancipatory politics once again.