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.
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. ”