SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

The French revolution today

Although it took place over two centuries ago, the French revolution retains its relevance. It foresaw the vital role of the working class and laid the foundations of revolutionary socialist ideas, leaving a lasting class-struggle legacy. Izquierda Revolucionaria (CWI Spain) is publishing a Spanish edition of The Masses Arises, by PETER TAAFFE – due out this spring. This is the new introduction.

The Masses Arise was first published in 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the French revolution. The justification in covering a subject often discussed in numerous books – the years 1789 to 1815 – was to rescue, from a Marxist standpoint, the real lessons of these great events. This was necessary because there was an avalanche of ‘revisionist’ (right-wing, anti-revolutionary) works on the revolution, dominating the political arena then and since. Authors such as François Furet, a French ex-‘communist’, and the right-wing British historian, Alfred Cobban, had been joined by the likes of Simon Schama with his book Citizens to attack and denigrate those who made the revolution, particularly the heroic sans-culottes, as bloodthirsty ‘terrorists’ (see original introduction).

Ours seemed to be a lone voice seeking to rescue the real lessons of the great French revolution from under a heap of distortion. Needless to say, this was not recognised in capitalist or right-wing circles at the time or since. We showed that the French revolution founded the most democratic republic the world had seen up to then. For instance, the constitution of 1793 is far more democratic than many, if not most, capitalist constitutions today!

The 1793 constitution was achieved through an alliance between the plebeian sans-culottes and the revolutionary bourgeoisie; to be more exact, their representatives for a time, such as Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins in general. If France became – and, up to a point, remains so today – the country where the class struggle has tended to be fought out to a finish, the explanation is to be found in the French revolution, particularly the role of the masses at each stage.

Without this decisive factor it would have been impossible for Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky to base themselves on the experiences in France to work out the laws of revolution and counter-revolution, and apply them to the perspectives for the socialist revolution itself. Moreover, Trotsky, in his irreplaceable analysis of Stalinism, drew on his detailed knowledge of the French revolution.

Role of the sans-culottes

Of course, the sans-culottes were not the modern working class because the material conditions for the development of such a class were not at hand in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But it was not an accident that Furet and his like attacked the association by the left, including the Bolsheviks, of the French revolution with the one in Russia. Cobban, who preceded Furet, was also a cold war warrior who sought to combat the left in the 1950s and 1960s by denigrating the French revolution. The masses are the most vital factor, the driving force, in all revolutions, bourgeois and socialist. This is as true in the English revolution of the 17th century – the role of the Levellers, the Putney debates, etc – as it is for the French revolution a century and a half later.

It is not necessary to prettify or exaggerate the role of the sans-culottes. They were plebeian, not the working class in the modern sense of the term. Without their decisive independent intervention, however, the revolution would not have gone as far as it did. Not only the Girondins – representing the big bourgeoisie at a certain stage – wished to compromise and halt the revolution once concessions had been extracted from the monarchy. Even Robespierre drew back when the sans-culottes challenged and threatened the ‘sanctity’ of private property, persecuting the ‘extremists’ who the masses in Paris and throughout France looked towards.

The bourgeoisie, in other words, were ‘revolutionary’ – leaning on the plebeian masses and seeing themselves as the ‘leader of the nation’ – up to the point of the defeat of the monarchy, nobility and feudal reaction. They were prepared to tolerate and acquiesce to the terror against the restorationist forces, to support the Jacobins and even the ‘dictatorship’ of Robespierre. But once the old forms (feudalism and its remnants) were eliminated and the ground cleared for the development of capitalism, they turned on these figures, and particularly on the masses.

History is not important just for its own sake. For socialists, Marxists in particular, it is the lessons of history, the relevance of them to today’s struggles – particularly revolutions – which are vital. Without stressing the role of the masses and the egalitarian tendency of the sans-culottes – which could not be realised given the undeveloped character of the productive forces at that stage – it is impossible to understand the phenomenon of Gracchus Babeuf, the communist ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ and what this represented historically.

The great Babeuf was the ‘father’ of the ideas of communism, albeit in a rudimentary and primitive form. Nevertheless, those ideas did not disappear when Babeuf’s head was cut off by the rising French bourgeoisie. It continued in the ‘back alleys of France’, providing the thread that later led to the independent development of the workers’ movement there, as Engels pointed out.

France today

Partly through this example and the development of the working masses as an independent class force, came the revolutions of the 19th century: 1830, 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871 (the first outline of a new ‘workers’ state’) and the tumultuous revolutions or revolutionary situations of the 20th century. The events of 1968 are well known, less so the great sit-down strikes and occupations of 1936 which presaged the greatest general strike in history in 1968.

For this reason, the new edition of The Masses Arise includes material written by us in 1978 on these events. We also include the initial article written by myself in France in 1968 as the May/June events unfolded. These are not remote events but have a direct bearing on the lessons that can be learned by the working class today for the great class battles that impend in France, Europe and worldwide.

The 1968 general strike and month-long occupations of the factories weigh particularly on the minds of the French bourgeois today and its political representatives. When Nicolas Sarkozy, past French president, was elected in 2007 he had the avowed intention of extirpating the memory of May 1968. In 2008, clearly seeking to emulate the brutal anti-union laws which Margaret Thatcher and British capitalism had implemented, he introduced new labour laws against the right to strike in public transport and primary schools. He declared: "Now in France when there are strikes, nobody can see it". One year later, two-and-a-half million workers and young people demonstrated against Sarkozy’s policies. One placard read: ‘Now do you see the strike?’

This was just the beginning of the seismic change in consciousness now developing in the depths of the French masses. From over 50% support in opinion polls, Sarkozy’s standing dropped to 37% as unemployment rocketed against a background of record profits for the capitalists and a worsening of workers’ conditions. Most striking was the general support of the population, 69% in January 2009, for the strike.

The January events were followed by the colossal three million workers and youth marching through the streets in March, affecting over 200 cities. The anger of the masses was also symbolised in Le Havre by Renault workers chanting: ‘We are peaceful, but will not be for much longer’.

Economic crisis

Clearly France, like the rest of capitalist Europe and the world, witnessed in 2007-08 an entirely new and different situation to what went before. Unregulated, so-called ‘free-market’ capitalism experienced a devastating economic crisis, the worst since the great depression of the 1930s. Some parts of the capitalist world – eastern Europe, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – were mired in a depressionary-type situation. On one level, this has had a stunning effect on the working class. On another, it has stoked up burning political anger which cannot be fully expressed because of the collapse of the workers’ parties during the neo-liberal boom of the early 1990s.

This book is more relevant today than when it was first published in 1989. The collapse of Stalinism and with it the planned economies of eastern Europe led to a massive ideological campaign against socialism and Marxism, as well as the ideas of revolution. Voices advocating these ideas were drowned out by the campaign extolling the capitalist ‘free market’, which was now the eternal model for humankind. Under the impact of the devastating world economic crisis, the ideas of socialism and revolution are back on the agenda. Even in Britain, there have been references to ‘revolution’, ‘Jacobinism’ and ‘the tumbrels’!

The precondition for the working class seizing the opportunities presented by this crisis is to forge the political weapons to abolish an outmoded system and establish a harmonious socialist society of solidarity in place of the lust for profit. Above all, the development of the forces of genuine Marxism is a vital task. In taking this road, the new generation of workers and young people in particular could benefit enormously from studying all revolutions, the English as well as the French, in order to prepare for this mighty task.

A thorough grasp from a Marxist standpoint of what are complex events can be enormously beneficial – as the great teachers of Marxism demonstrated – in politically arming us for the coming tumultuous period. We fervently hope that the new generation will also turn towards and study the events of the French revolution. If this book does nothing else but familiarise them with the main events and thread of the revolution, from a socialist and Marxist perspective, we will have succeeded in our aim.

A new phase has now opened in France with the 2017 election of the ‘centrist’ Emmanuel Macron and his new En Marche movement. However, this did not represent a ringing endorsement of Macron or his policies of continued austerity and attacks on the rights and conditions of the French working class. The scale and political significance of his victory was exaggerated because all those who wished to bar the road to the far-right loser Marine Le Pen were forced, while holding their noses, to line up electorally behind him and his candidates. Nevertheless, Le Pen still received ten million votes in the presidential election, almost twice what her father received as the Front National candidate in 2002. So the threat from the far-right has not disappeared overnight.

Politics and the street

Macron’s programme of attacks on labour, trade union and other rights received a thumbs down in most opinion polls. Once the details became clear, a colossal collapse in support took place within months. At one stage, soon after the election a virtual halving in Macron’s support to 36% was recorded in the polls. He has since recovered but he does not lead a strong government. The serious bourgeois strategists are well aware of past class battles, particularly 1968, which cast a long shadow over current events. This in turn is rooted in the collective revolutionary experience, including the French revolution, of the people, particularly the working class.

Macron has called for an end to ‘civil war’ in France. The Economist magazine in London also commented: "Reform [attacks on the working class] in France, it seems, follows a pattern. The street objects; the government backs down; immobilisme sets in". Macron added that "democracy is not the street". Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, answered this very well: "Mr President, you need to consult France’s history to learn that the street killed the kings. The street shot down the Nazis, the street secured a fourth week of paid leave, the street killed the Juppé plan, the street secured the withdrawal of the CPE [contrat première embauche – first employment contract]".

This language – not accidentally – is distinct in France compared to other countries. It is determined by its stormy history and its many revolutions. If for no other reason, the present generation should study and learn about the magnificent struggles of their forebears as a means of preparing for colossal movements in the coming period.

While the number of workers organised in unions is currently quite low, this is a clear recognition of the traditions of improvisation by the French working class through extra-parliamentary and industrial action. This can come into play along the lines of 1968 or 1936 if they are pushed too far. The Spanish working class also shares similar traditions, displayed in the magnificent revolution in the 1930s and in the recent period of mighty general strikes – including the splendid school student union strikes under the influence of Izquierda Revolucionaria.

The French bourgeois are well aware that the working class will resist attempts to erode their hard-won rights and conditions, and this could go well beyond narrow ‘constitutional’ channels. When Macron was a former minister in the right-wing ‘socialist’ government, he had a little taste of mass resistance when polls showed that 60% opposed his ‘anti-labour reforms’. They were therefore not capable of being fully implemented.

Now, with a ‘new’ party, more like old wine in a new bottle, and supposedly armed with an electoral ‘mandate’, Macron calculates that this will cow the French working class into submission. But as his predecessors’ experience showed, this will count for very little once the French working class moves into action, as it surely will. As usual, it will have to overcome the sabotage of right-wing trade union leaders – like those of the CFDT – who not only oppose action against Macron’s measures but actively seek to collaborate with the government.

Mass resistance will be reinforced by the enduring economic crisis of capitalism, which has savagely impacted on Europe, particularly southern Europe. Martin Wolf, Financial Times economics commentator, describes Europe’s "lost decade" since 2008. Now, however, he triumphantly states: "The real GDP of Portugal and Spain is back where it was in 2007". And this is progress!

This crisis has also exposed the myth of a ‘European convergence’ through the EU: "The International Monetary Fund notes that 2007-08 marked the end of the convergence trend and the start of divergences". GDP per head in Greece is still more than 20% lower than in 2007. Joblessness also remains ‘elevated’ in Greece, Spain and to a lesser degree Italy, said Wolf. Capitalism will never be able to really unify the peoples of Europe on a democratic basis for the benefit of the majority.

Only the working class can carry through the task of unifying the productive forces – science, technique and the organisation of labour – through a voluntary, democratic, socialist confederation of Europe. This can only be furthered by the creation of new mass democratic workers’ parties in France, Spain and the rest of Europe, linked in the struggle for socialism. Only in this way will it be possible to realise the goal of the heroic sans-culottes for a world of real liberty – in today’s terms, workers’ democracy – and the satisfaction of all the wants of society. It is a goal worth fighting for!

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