From February 6 through February 10, more than 1,700 delegates to the French Communist Party’s twenty-fifth congress met in the roofed-over sports stadium at Saint-Ouen, a suburb of Paris. Coming at a time when the C.P.’s fortunes are at a low ebb, it was a historic occasion. The party’s popular support has plummeted from 22 percent of the vote in 1979 to 11 percent in the European elections last June.

The poor showing touched off six months of soul-searching and debate prior to the congress. There was even a modest-and unprecedented-rebellion in the ranks, as three of the ninety-five regional federations refused to endorse the Central Committee’s report on the political situation. Echoes of the rebellion, though faint, reverberated in the sports palace at Saint-Ouen. Welcome as those small stirrings of democracy were, they may have come too late. What follows are my notes on the congress, intended to convey the mood of the delegates and a sense of the state of the party.

‘Collective Blunderer’

Wednesday, February 6 , was Georges Marchais’s day. The secretary general made a speech which lasted five and a half hours. Such long-windedness is traditional at party congresses, but what Marchais had to say was not. Analyzed carefully, it was a monument of self-criticism. Its central message was that on all the major issues of the past twenty-five years, the “collective intellectual,” as Gramsci called the Communist Party, either had been wrong or had grasped the truth too late. It had failed to adjust to the structural changes in French society. “Big business took them in its stride much more rapidly than we did,” Marchais said, adding that the lapse was not surprising, since “the thinking of the French Communists was deeply influenced by the Soviet model.”

The party’s strategy had been based on a false assumption, he said. Making a wrong analogy to the pre-World War II antifascist struggle, it had pursued a defensive popular front course when it should have offered a socialist alternative. Thus, it had focused its “hopes on limited ends and an electoral alliance.” It had failed to perceive the potential for radical change in the upheaval of May 1968. It had fostered the illusions that “the solution to all problems will come from above” and that “the transfer of property to the state will be enough to change” the society. The party also had missed all the new issues-autogestion (worker management), women’s liberation, ecology, decentralization. As a result it had unwittingly paved the way for the election of that Socialist monarch François Mitterrand.

An organization that admits its mistakes deserves praise, and I took some personal satisfaction from Marchais’s confession, since I was accused of “slandering” the party when I said the same things in a book I wrote on the 1968 uprising. Now my analysis had been endorsed from the horse’s mouth. But on second thought, I decided I had little reason to rejoice. For although the party admitted past errors, it did not abandon its claims to righteousness and papal infallibility. Indeed, Marchais’s indictment was followed by total exoneration of the leadership. He said that he and his comrades had been trying to correct the party line for years. Leadership must have been perfect, since now there was no question of removing them from office. And party democracy was assumed to be working well, since there was no question of changing the rules of democratic centralism. ”

Marchais even modified his criticism of the “Soviet model” in the same speech, when he argued that whatever its flaws and need for improvement, the Soviet system was fundamentally sound and the countries of the Eastern bloc : were “building socialism.” Later that afternoon, when the fraternal delegates from abroad were introduced, the Afghan, Czech and Polish delegates received warm*applause–as undoubted members of the family.

Thus do past virtues become vices. In the name of “proletarian internationalism” oppressors are hailed as liberators; in the name of the 1917 Revolution, the party praises regimes that can be described as “soviet” (in the original meaning–workers’ councils) only by blinding oneself to reality. For the French C.P. the political cost of such dishonesty has been high.

Indeed, after the debacle last June, a number of members rebelled. The would-be reformers, dubbed renovateurs, criticized the party’s “globally positive” assessment of the Soviet Union, its sudden swings in domestic policy from un- principled concessions to sectarian isolation, its suppression of genuine debate through pressure from above.

There is an old party joke that members tell to illustrate the difficulty the rank and file have in influencing decision-making. A boy asks his father, a Communist, what “democratic centralism” means. Papa gives him a basin and tells him to stand in the courtyard four stories down; when the boy is ready, the father leans out the window and pours water into the basin. “NOW,” he says, “pour it back .”

To silence critics, the leadership, relies not only on its authority and on that of numerous party functionaries but on a system of majority rule without proportional representation, which reduces dissent at each successive organizational level. Thus during the pre-congress ferment, about one-third of the members opposed the official line at the cell level. At the next echelon, the section, the proportion fell. At the federation level it was only 10 percent, and at the national congress it dropped to less than 4 percent, judging from the size of the negative vote on the various resolutions.

Stalinism in Kid Gloves

On Thursday, Ellen Constans, a delegate from Haute-Vienne, the bone china-manufacturing country around Limoges, took to the rostrum to explain why her federation had offered an alternative resolution to the motion proposed by the leadership. She was followed by Felix Damette, a delegate from Paris and a member of the Central Committee, who in moderate tones and without questioning overall strategy, restated most of the reformers’ arguments and concluded by contrasting the party’s project for a self-governing society with the way it runs its own affairs.

When he had finished, the convention stage managers suddenly displayed a zeal for democracy.’ Up to that point only speeches from the rostrum had been permitted. Now the debate was thrown open to the floor. “Spontaneously,” twelve delegates came to the microphones, some of them reading “impromptu” remarks. Unanimously, they backed the leaders, approved their policies, criticized the critics and questioned their motives. This little interlude was brought to a close by Charles Fiterman, a former Cabinet minister and the member of the top leadership considered to be most sympathetic to the renovateurs. Fiterman admonished Constans and Damette.

Stalinist methods? To be sure. The critics faced a classic dilemma. If they had attacked the leadership directly, they would have been expelled; when they restrained themselves, they were accused of concealing their true motives. Still, for a party that once hounded its heretics, that could be considered extraordinary tolerance. After all, the dissenters were not drowned out, and following the twelve loyalists’ hosannas, a dissenter was allowed to have his say. Nor was that the end of the debate. On Friday morning, a functionary named Pierre Juquin was unwittingly thrust into the limelight. The 55-year-old Juquin, a teacher of German,was not in the past considered a rebel. A protégé of Marchais, he had climbed to the party’s highest council, the politburo, serving as its official spokesman and defending each new twist in the party line. But last summer he grew disenchanted and decided that unless the party changed it was doomed. His apostasy made him a favorite target of the faithful.

Juquin did not try to inflame the audience, nor did he recant. Choosing his words with care, he stated the case for change, arguing that the party was in “a race between history and ourselves.” After he had finished, the comedy of spontaneous debate was ‘resumed. This time seventeen accusers took the floor, decrying skeptics and pleading for certainty.

Joining the delegates at lunch, I reminded my neighbors of Karl Marx’s favorite maxim,

De omnibus disputandum

. Though 1 had said it in French, the woman sitting across from me was unconvinced. Clearly Comrade Karl would have been kicked out of her cell as a “German anarchist.” Interestingly enough, not all her comrades agreed with her. In former days they would have ganged up on me. The party is not quite what it used to be. After all, three speakers supported Juquin, and the issue of the right to dissent dominated the proceedings on the convention floor to the end.

On Saturday, during the debate on the final resolution, a delegate had the temerity to propose an amendment to the section on democratic centralism that would prohibit the ouster of party officials solely for expressing critical opinions. Paul Laurent, speaking for the leadership, pretended that such a provision would give dissenters a guaranteed tenure. After the amendment was duly rejected, sixty-five delegates abstained on the resolution–a small number in itself but impressive when compared with almost total submission on previous occasions. Everyone knew what was at stake: the monolithic nature of the leadership and its power to silence dissidents.

Thaw in a Cold Climate

On Sunday the weather was bitterly cold. Inside the Saint-Ouen arena couples danced to the music of a famous pop group called Telephone. But the congress had nothing to dance about; the participants were just killing time until the names of the 137 members of the new Central Committee were announced. Eventually the word came down. Damette and Juquin were in and so was Marcel Rigout, an ex-minister representing the Limoges region. But Constans was out and so were a dozen less well-known leaders from the Lorraine, from Paris and from the Renault and Peugeot plants. They had paid the price for insubordination. Juquin was dismissed from the politburo. An ambiguous outcome: the glass was half empty-or half full.

The Communist Party is entering a new phase in its history. Now that the Socialist Party has become openly social democratic and talks of boosting profits rather than changing people’s lives, there is an opening on the left for a party that asserts that the economic crisis cannot be solved by capitalism. Yet to be credible such a party must offer a vision of an alternative society. It must define the tactics for carrying on the struggle within the system, and it must provide a road map showing the way out, taking into account the international context.

If the C.P. wishes to assume this role it must talk and act in ways that do not contradict its slogans about restoring power to the people and the like. Marchais and his comrades rightly complain that they are treated unfairly by the press, but they have provided hostile journalists with a lot of ammunition.

At the close of the twenty-fifth congress, the optimists pointed out that the Italian C.P. permitted open debate within its ranks only fifteen years ago and is now in much better shape. The pessimists retorted that the Italian situation was different, that the Italian party then had three times the members the French C.P. has and that fifteen years is a long time. The race with history Juquin spoke of is on. The Socialists, having first reduced their Communist allies to the role of junior partner in the government, are now giving them, unwittingly, a respite. Time, however, is short. Those five days in Saint-Ouen shook the party, but not had enough to make it change.

As they emerged from the sports stadium on Sunday night, warmed by the singing of the “Marseillaise” and the “Internationale” and by the pleasure of being together, the delegates were met by a frosty blast from the world outside.