Lions led by donkeys

Matthew Cobb, dubbed an anti-communist by the Morning Star, examines the contradictory role of the French Communist Party during World War II

In June 1940, the Nazi blitzkrieg led to the occupation of France. A puppet government was set up in Vichy and France began to be transformed into an exploited colony. Virtually straightaway, ordinary people took action. They produced leaflets, cut telephone cables and eventually set up underground organisations.

Alongside members of the various non-communist Resistance groups, thousands of Parti Communiste Français militants were executed, while tens of thousands were imprisoned or deported to the death camps of Hitler’s Germany. Their bravery and determination contributed to the eventual defeat of the Nazis, and to the PCF’s massive influence after the war. But this also raises the question of the class content of the PCF’s action during the war - what was this sacrifice for?

The Resistance groups - including de Gaulle’s Free French - had varying political outlooks and class compositions, but they were united in their aim of driving the Nazis out of France. A revolutionary organisation involved in such united action had to maintain political independence, and be prepared to break the alliance with other class forces in order to fight for working class power when the moment came. But in the tumultuous events after D-Day, the PCF accepted the re-creation of an independent French imperialist state.

This was an expression of the party’s reformism, which had already been demonstrated during the massive strike wave of June 1936, when the PCF had argued for an end to the strikes and occupations, in order to support the Popular Front government. Although the party eventually fought arms in hand in the Resistance, its leadership was pursuing the same policies as it had for the previous decade - searching for forces within the French ruling class which could be allies for the USSR, while using its influence within the working class as a way of bargaining with those potential cross-class partners.

From Hitler-Stalin pact to German attack

Up until a few days before war broke out in September 1939, the PCF had been implacably hostile to the Nazi regime, arguing for France to prepare itself for war. One source of this pro-war stance was the 1935 Franco-Soviet mutual defence pact: the PCF sought to defend the USSR by limiting the aggressive appetites of the German fascist government, even at the price of supporting the more bellicose sectors of the French bourgeoisie.

Then, at the end of August 1939, there was a bombshell - the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Loyalty to Moscow now obliged the PCF to make a 180º turn and to oppose the war against the USSR’s new ally. Tens of thousands of PCF members ripped up their party cards in disgust and the terms ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ disappeared from the party’s publications. Immediately, the French government banned the PCF, arrested its deputies and suspended its local councillors. By the end of May 1940, around 5,500 communist militants had been locked up. The PCF was fragmented, weakened and marginalised. Its leadership was either in jail, in hiding or in exile; its policies were not understood by any but the most pliable members.

Things got even worse after the fall of France. At the suggestion of Moscow, the PCF tried to get the Nazis to legalise its newspaper, L’Humanité. Using anti-semitic arguments in their secret discussions with the Nazis, they pointed out that the party had supported the Stalin-Hitler pact and had not been beaten by the “Jewish dictatorship” of the previous interior minister, Georges Mandel - indeed, they argued that the party’s intransigence had hastened Nazi victory. Finally, the PCF leaders promised the Nazis to do nothing for them, but nothing against them. Despite the Nazis refusing to play ball, the Communist Party leadership more or less kept this promise until June 1941.1

Unable to produce a legal paper, the PCF published an underground, illegal version of L’Humanité, at great personal risk to the militants concerned. The paper initially focused its attention on trade union struggles, denounced the Vichy government, made propaganda for socialism, and opposed the “imperialist war” … waged by the British. As public hostility to collaboration grew, L’Humanité became increasingly anti-German, calling for united action for the independence of France.

During this period the PCF eventually accepted that the French working class was now subject to both class and national oppression, but it did not yet call for the Nazis to be driven out of France, nor was it organising workers to fight the occupier.

Against Nazi occupation

The decisive change came on June 22 1941, when Hitler finally launched his attack on the USSR - the Nazis were once more the enemy.

Even before the German offensive, tensions between the USSR and Nazi Germany had grown and, in parallel, subtle shifts began to appear in the policies of the underground communist parties. By May 1941, L’Humanité was calling on the French people to fight for “national liberation” and argued for the creation of “a national front for the independence of France” which would group together all classes, while rightly remaining deeply suspicious of general de Gaulle, who was supported by the British and surrounded by a gaggle of far-right officers.2

Despite the collapse in its working class support caused by the Stalin-Hitler pact, in some regions the party retained its authority. Many of its rank and file members were still determined class fighters. For example, in May 1940, PCF members played a key role in organising a massive coal miners’ strike that swept through the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The strike began over low pay, and within a week, over 100,000 miners were refusing to obey the managers and their Nazi masters. Local ceramic and engineering factories came out in solidarity, together with thousands of women textile workers and workers in the railway workshops. Eventually, hunger drove the strikers back to work, but, as miners’ leader Julien Hapiot wrote in an underground union paper, “From now on, the occupier knows that workers who suffer in misery will not always accept the yoke of national oppression.”3

As German troops made deep advances into Soviet territory in the summer of 1941, Moscow encouraged the communist parties to do all they could to disrupt the Nazi war effort. L’Humanité wrote: “What is required to help the USSR and Britain crush Hitler? To hasten the liberation of France? Sabotage, again sabotage and once again sabotage. Sabotage in the factories, in the stations, in the countryside, sabotage to stop the enemy from taking anything from our country.”4

Most French communists found this hard to swallow. There was a long anarchist tradition of sabotaging machines and killing policemen, which the communists had always fiercely opposed. The key thing, they argued, was the mass class struggle, not individual actions. Now the party was proposing exactly the tactics they had argued against for so long. The leadership therefore turned to the party’s youth section, the Jeunesses Communistes (JC) - untrained in Marxist traditions, eager to take action, a few dozen Paris teenagers would show the older members of the party how to fight the Nazi occupation.

One morning in August 1941, two JC members - 21-year-old Pierre Georges (‘Fabien’) and Gilbert Brustlein - assassinated a German naval quarter-master on the platform of the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station. A few weeks later, Brustlein and another JC member were sent to Nantes to carry out sabotage. Early in the morning of October 20, they came across a Nazi officer and shot him. Completely by chance, they had killed lieutenant-colonel Karl Hotz, the military commander of Nantes. This changed everything. Two days afterwards, on Hitler’s personal orders, the Germans executed 48 French hostages in retaliation, most of them communists (two of them were Trotskyists, but for decades this was hidden by the PCF). The most heart-rending of these deaths was that of Guy Moquet, only 17-year-old, who had been arrested for giving out Communist Party leaflets.

The urban guerrilla campaign was not a success. Fewer than 15 German soldiers were assassinated in the first year of armed struggle, while sabotage, which was supposed to be at the heart of the PCF campaign, was a near failure, with the notable exception of two derailments near Caen. Given that at this time the battles of the eastern front were killing thousands of men each day, destroying military vehicles and equipment at a terrifying rate, the events in France were simply irrelevant from a strategic point of view, no matter how irritating they might have been to the German high command.

On the other hand, fascist repression in France was extremely vicious. Waves of arrests, executions and deportations ripped the heart out of the Communist Party. In the non-occupied zone in the last six weeks of 1941 alone, 12,850 communists were arrested; 814 hostages were executed in the year following October 1941, most of them communists - among the victims was leading communist deputy Gabriel Péri, who had opposed the attempt to legalise L’Humanité in June 1940.5

In 1942, PCF leader Georges Beaufils appeared cynical about the effect of Nazi executions: “As soon as the news is given out that five or 10 of our men have been shot, we get 50 or 100 new recruits.”6 Not only was this figure an exaggeration: what happened to those recruits was awful. The armed wing of the party had an incredibly high turnover, as the new recruits were killed. On average, a member of the Bataillons lived a mere seven months after taking up the armed struggle. Twenty of these brave young people survived less than three months. Faced with this appalling loss of life, the armed youth groups were wound up by the end of 1942.

As urban guerrilla action by the JC faded, their role was taken over by the Franc-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), the armed wing of the Front National, the party’s front organisation. The FN was intended to rival the non-communist Resistance groups, and - like them - had a clear cross-class outlook. Although the FN never became a truly independent or national organisation, the FTP acquired a pivotal role.

The FTP groups in Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille and Grenoble were entirely composed of members of the Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée (MOI - Immigrant Workforce), many of them young Jews from eastern Europe. Although there were never more than a few dozen active FTP-MOI members in Paris, in the first half of 1943 they carried out 92 armed actions, including the assassination of SS general Julius Ritter.

In the middle of 1943, an Armenian, Missak Manouchian, became leader of the MOI. Within months he was arrested, along with virtually all the FTP-MOI members in Paris. The Nazis celebrated by publishing a poster with a lurid red background - the Affiche rouge - featuring photos of 10 MOI members, each carefully described as “Polish Jew”, “Hungarian Jew” or simply “Armenian”, together with pictures of derailed trains and dead bodies, and collectively labelled the “army of crime”. In February 1944, Manouchian and 22 of his comrades were subject to a show trial in Paris and were executed.

Although the Affiche rouge’s portrayal of the Resistance as foreign Jewish criminals satisfied the Nazis and comforted the Vichy collaborationists in their anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the sacrifice made by these immigrants touched the French, who did not consider the MOI terrorists. Instead they agreed with Manouchian, who in his farewell letter to his wife, written the day before his execution, proclaimed that he was “a volunteer soldier in the Army of Liberation”.

The rise of the maquis

The great change in the fortunes of the Resistance as a whole came in 1943. The Nazi war machine needed more and more workers, so the Vichy collaborators agreed to send French men and women to Germany as part of a labour conscription scheme, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO). Faced with the threat of working in fascist Germany, thousands of young people simply took to the hills, to join what soon became known as the maquis - a Corsican word for mountainous scrubland.

This wave of recruits raised the fundamental political question of what these young men were to do. De Gaulle wanted all military action in France - including by the Communist Party - to be under his control. As a bourgeois military man, the last thing he wanted was armed civilians taking independent action. The task of de Gaulle’s representative in France, Jean Moulin, was not only to unify the Resistance groups - including the PCF - but above all to ensure that armed action would be controlled by London, not by the Resistance. The young men in the maquis were understandably impatient to fight, but the Free French wanted them to sit and wait for the Allied invasion. As PCF leader Charles Tillon later put it, the choice was whether the maquis should be “drops of mercury or tin soldiers”.7

Urban guerrilla warfare can have only a limited political and military impact, which is why the PCF had opposed the anarchists who had advocated this tactic. The armed fighters cannot appear openly in front of the working class, and their individual actions have no immediate link to the ultimate aim - armed insurrection by the masses. Things can be different in the countryside, however, as shown by the work of one of the earliest communist maquis, set up around Limoges by Georges Guingouin.

From the very beginning of the occupation, Guingouin had run into difficulties with the party high-ups because of his determination to fight the fascists. Supplied with weapons by the British Special Operations Executive (who did not realise with whom they were dealing), Guingouin’s maquis organised sabotage and resistance throughout the region. They not only destroyed factories: they also prevented the requisitioning of animals and crops, and set food prices. Guingouin’s actions enjoyed the overwhelming political and material support of the population and formed the embryo of an alternative state in the Limousin. In March 1944 Vichy declared Guingouin’s region to be a no-go area, implicitly accepting maquis control.8

What kind of liberation?

The tensions between the Free French and the Resistance grew after the Allied invasion of France on D-Day - June 6 1944. The British and Americans did not want to see the French control their own country at all after the liberation. Instead, they planned to impose AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories), replacing one military occupation with another. The Allies and de Gaulle both wanted to ensure the population did not take any initiatives, and that included the Resistance and its idea of a national insurrection. The outcome of the three-way struggle between the Resistance, the Free French and the Allies, which opened up after D-Day, would decide the future of France, and of the whole of Europe.

To ensure the stability of the French imperialist state, de Gaulle and the Free French had prepared a kind of shadow administration, which would take over after D-Day. Resistance forces - including the Communist Party - were involved, but they also supported the creation of local committees of liberation. Together with the armed Resistance organisations (now called the French Forces of the Interior - FFI), these committees could potentially form an alternative power base in the country, directly representing the interests of the population.

Despite this, neither the PCF nor the non-communist Resistance was preparing for revolution. Both were clearly committed to the creation of a democratised imperialist state that incorporated the local liberation committees, with increased rights for workers, but no fundamental shift in the balance of class power. The PCF had demonstrated this in autumn 1943, when Corsica had been liberated by a workers’ insurrection supported by Free French troops. Despite the existence of armed workers’ militia and of local liberation committees representing the population, the party meekly accepted that de Gaulle’s representative should take control of the island.9

This was the final fruit of the dual pressure that affected the PCF. The strategic interests of the USSR led Stalin to accept capitalist domination in western Europe, in return for capitalist acceptance of Soviet domination of the east. For Moscow, the role of the PCF was to ensure that French imperialism would be friendly towards the USSR. At the same time, the PCF’s working class base was pressing for change. The outcome was that the French communists would be loyal participants in the Gaullist-led liberation of the country, so long as they were accorded some recognition and positions of power and there were some minor reforms.

The leadership of the Communist Party, following Moscow’s strategic calculations, therefore accepted that its ambitions should be limited to the creation of a national army and a purge of traitors and collaborators from the state apparatus. Maurice Thorez made this clear in January 1944, when he stated: “The communists are not thinking of taking power, either now, or after the liberation.”10 Revolution might have been the dream of rank and file Communist Party members and the nightmare of the right wing of the Resistance, but Stalin and his loyal followers would have none of it.

On August 15 1944 the Allied armies in Normandy finally opened the road eastwards, while the long-awaited Mediterranean landings took place near Saint-Tropez. Hitler immediately ordered his commanders to withdraw all German troops to the east of Paris. Over the next four weeks, Nazi rule in France collapsed. As the Allied invasion forces headed eastwards from Normandy and north from Provence, the whole south and western part of France - around half the country - was left to its own devices and the Resistance simply took power. But in over 30 major cities there were insurrections - the most symbolic took place in Paris, where the communists took the lead.

On August 15, the Parisian police, furious that their colleagues in the Parisian suburbs had been disarmed by the Germans, went on strike. The same policemen who had rounded up Jews and résistants and handed them over to the Nazis, now decided to act, just in time to save their reputation - and their skins. With food and energy supplies running low, the Parisian Liberation Committee - led by communists - launched an insurrection, and warfare broke out on the streets of the capital. Earlier in the war the PCF had carried out brave internationalist work by producing a German language bulletin, Soldat im Westen (‘Soldier in the west’), which called on German soldiers to support the Resistance. Now they gave full vent to crude nationalism, adopting the un-internationalist slogan “À chacun son boche” - ‘Everyone get a Hun’.

Although the crack German forces had left Paris, there were still 20,000 troops, including around 80 tanks and 60 pieces of artillery in the capital. The 20,000 résistants had only 600 hand guns between them. For communist Resistance leader Rol-Tanguy, the arrival of Allied troops was the only solution. His orders finished with this instruction to all FFI forces in the region: “Open the road to Paris for the victorious Allied armies and welcome them here11

As this showed, there was never any threat of a second Paris Commune. The PCF had already accepted that the outcome of the Paris insurrection would be the return of de Gaulle. This duly happened when Free French troops entered Paris on August 25 and the German garrison surrendered. The next day de Gaulle held a triumphant march down the Champs Elysées, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of delirious Parisians. For the Free French leader, the outcome could not have been better: he was able to enter Paris as a hero, surfing on the wave of a popular uprising, but firmly based on the traditional power of the army.

Potential for workers’ power

For the working class, however, the liberation of France contained a very different potential. In Toulouse, liberation committees took over all the major workplaces of the region - arsenals, engineering companies, banks and even prisons, but above all the whole of the massive aeronautical industry. The director of one factory complained that the committee in his company was “slowly transforming itself into a soviet. It asks for information on stocks, on the state of supplies, on what remains, etc. It also asks for the keys to all the offices.”12

There should be no illusions about the political outlook of these committees, however. A local communist leader declared they would “ensure the correct functioning of the factories and increased production. If people speak about the ‘soviets’ of Toulouse, it is a lie. These people are patriots, all patriots, who have made this agreement to win the war.”13

Nevertheless, even this glimmer of workers’ control was too much for de Gaulle, who was determined that there would be no revolution, in Toulouse or anywhere else. On August 28, when the hangovers from the liberation of Paris had barely faded and half the country had yet to be liberated, he ordered the dissolution of the national leadership of the FFI and of the military leadership of the Resistance. Hundreds of thousands of FFI fighters were instructed to join the Free French army, under the order of Free French officers, not their Resistance leaders. This represented a huge step towards the consolidation of de Gaulle’s imperialist state machine.

On September 9, de Gaulle appointed communist FTP leader Charles Tillon as minister of aviation. This was not only a recognition of the PCF’s role in the Resistance: it was also a way of getting the party to deal with the problem of the movement for workers’ control, which had now spread to the Paris region. Tillon did his job. The workplace liberation committees were dissolved in return for the creation of toothless ‘mixed production committees’ that would supposedly improve production “in the interest of the whole nation”, but would have no executive role. The embryonic class conflict was finally extinguished when the government enacted some of the demands of the Resistance Action Programme - nationalising sectors of the economy and creating toothless workers’ committees in every company. Minor reform headed off the promise of revolution.14

De Gaulle’s final challenge was to consolidate state power in the regions. All over the country Resistance-led liberation committees organised food, water and electricity supplies, and kept order through their armed Patriotic Militias. First, the government banned the Patriotic Militias from carrying arms. Although the PCF organised a series of protests, they did not withdraw Charles Tillon from the government. Being in office was more important than building independent workers’ organisations.15

All this went over the heads of most of the population, who were not interested in who controlled the weapons. They wanted to know where the food, heat and light was coming from, and could not see a connection between the two issues. There was a link, however - both were connected to the question of state power; but to demonstrate this the PCF would have to break its alliance with de Gaulle, threatening the stability of the pro-capitalist government that Moscow had instructed it to support.

The final act of this conflict came at the end of 1944, when the PCF accepted the dissolution of the Patriotic Militias. In return de Gaulle amnestied communist leader Maurice Thorez, who had spent the war in Moscow. In January 1945 Thorez thundered the communists’ commitment to “one army, one police, one administration”.16 Just as the PCF accepted the existence of de Gaulle’s capitalist state, it also made clear its commitment to rebuilding the capitalist economy - “Above all, produce!” it told workers, denouncing strikes as “the weapon of big business”.17 De Gaulle had won.

In September 1944, US spy and Harvard professor of history Crane Brinton described these events in what is probably one of the few references to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution to be found in the files of US intelligence: “It is clear that Trotsky’s classic analysis of the ‘dual power’ applies very well here … what is happening here is a process in part revolutionary - the taking over of power by ‘new’ men long carefully organised for just this aim.”18

“Dual power” refers to the temporary, unstable period in a revolution when contending class forces each have partial control of the key structures in society (army, economy and state apparatus). Brinton did not think that France was on the brink of a proletarian revolution - he was certain that the PCF was following Moscow’s line and merely sought to gain influence. But the disputes over the armed strength of the Resistance convinced him there was “dual power”.

The Soviet chargé d’affaires in Paris agreed, although he did not mention Trotsky: “In the liberated regions of the country and in Paris there is dual power. This is particularly the case in the provinces, where, alongside the regional commissars named by de Gaulle, there are local commissars appointed by the committees of liberation. As a result, real power is in the hands of the organs of the Resistance movement.”19

In reality, the elements of dual power were extremely embryonic, and the two sides did not clearly represent the interests of two different classes, because the PCF was not in favour of revolution, and the mass of the population was unsure, waiting for leadership. The PCF was following its own reformist appetites for working with the representatives of the ruling class rather than destroying their power. Happily for them - but not for the working class, this outlook coincided with Moscow’s long-held view that there should be no revolution in the west.

In 1952, PCF leader Jacques Duclos defended his party’s record in 1944, saying that, had it acted differently, de Gaulle and the USA would have used workers’ action as “a pretext” to smash the working class. “The wise and far-seeing policy of our party would not let this happen,” he argued. “We are revolutionaries, not adventurers.”20 In fact, a truly revolutionary leadership would have used the myriad opportunities posed by the embryonic dual power situation to build workers’ independent organisation, and to fan the sparks of workers’ control. The PCF did neither.

After the war, the PCF was the single most powerful party in France - a position it held for the next 40 years. Its prestige and cultural influence were unparalleled, and for decades even the slightest questioning of its wartime record produced a torrent of criticism. As in the USSR, the party falsified its history, distorting reality to meet the needs of the day. At the same time, Resistance leaders like Georges Guingouin or Charles Tillon were hounded from the party because of their ideas, while Georges Marchais, a talentless nobody who had volunteered to go and work in fascist Germany, was propelled into the leadership.

This reformist routinism was a far cry from the bravery shown by so many communist résistants during the war, but it drove the policies of the PCF leadership. The tragedy of the communist Resistance was that, no matter how courageous and determined the rank and file may have been, the PCF leadership was wedded to a policy that inevitably led to the reconstruction of French imperialism. The Allies kicked the Nazis out of France - no small gain! - but the French capitalists remained in place, and French imperialism continued its bloody wars of exploitation and oppression in Africa and Asia.

With a revolutionary programme based on the armed power of the population, the Resistance as a whole - communist and non-communist - could have put an end to that terrible record, and changed the course of history. That it did not is at least partly due to the politics of the PCF leadership.