The PSU (1960 – 1989): Quand la Gauche se réinventait. Le PSU, Histoire d’un Parti Visionnaire. 1960 -1989. Bernard Ravenel.
Review: Quand la Gauche se réinventait. Le PSU, Histoire d’un Parti Visionnaire. 1960 -1989. Bernard Ravenel. La Découverte. 2016.
Following the rise of Spain’s Podemos there has been great interest on the left in the creation of new parties or changed forms of organisation that try to resolve the difficulties, electoral and political, of social democracy. This is not without precedent. The Parti Socialiste Unifié, PSU, (See Wikipedia entry, in English and in French) was created in 1960 in the middle of one of French socialism’s greatest crises, its inability to stand for Algerian independence and failure to stand up to de Gaulle and the creation, his mould, of the 5th Republic in 1959. The PSU became one of the most significant new left parties of the 1960s and 1970s with an impact across the European left. Apart from its anti-colonialism, it promoted ecological politics, feminism, ideas of participative democracy, and, above all, autogestion, self-management, which have resonance today,
In Quand la gauche se réinventait (When the left reinvented itself) Bernard Ravenel offer the first comprehensive history of the PSU. This is a difficult task. The party was far from a leftist groupuscule whose life can be summed up in account of a few ideologues and their battles. Founded with 30,000 members, they won two Parliamentary deputies in 1962, and 4 in 1967. In 1968, after participating in the May events, the PSU candidate, Michel Rocard (1930 – 2016) received 3,61% in the June Presidential elections. Throughout its existence the party had many local councillors, often in the hundreds. At its height in 1970 it counted 350 workplace branches and had strong links with the – then – radical socialist Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CFDT). One of its central motifs, self-management (autogestion) became popular on the French left, and was formally adopted by the Parti Socialiste in the mid-70s, occupying a major place during that decade in debates and policy formation. This was part of a broad international move towards backing workers’ control.
Bernard Ravenel describes the PSU as a “chaudron”, cauldron, whose brew nourished several generations of the socialist left. But Quand la gauche se réinventait is more than an account of that inspiring party in which people found their bearings. He aims to transmit the memory of their struggles to future generations, to create a bridge between them, and to help enrich present-day critical left thinking (“pensée critique”).
The legacy of the PSU is extensive. After fierce internal disputes Rocard, and many others, left the party and joined the Parti Socialiste in 1974 to become a leader of what some call the “deuxième gauche (second left). In a celebrated speech at the Nantes PS congress, 1977, Rocard attempted to distinguish “two lefts”. The First was centralist, standing for the authority of the State. It was ‘Jacobin’ and even nationalist. The Second stood for decentralisation, dispersed authority, civil society and support for a plurality of oppressed minorities. In practice market friendly policies and modernisation became the hallmark of the Second left. As Ravenel observes, this meant that self-management was – as it did for the Socialist Party in office – mere “varnish”. (1)
An “erudite hamster”, as less than friendly observers called him, Rocard was to become a Socialist Prime Minister under Mitterrand’s second Presidency in 1988 until 1991. He created the Revenu Minimum d’Insertion (RMI), a universal social security payment in a system that had hitherto been contribution based, leaving people at the end of a certain time with no money at all. But apart from this important measure Rocard is probably more remembered for reconciliation with the market than for radicalism. (2)
After Rocard’s mid-70s departure, along with his supporters and many others, the PSU had continued with diminishing fortunes. Their membership crept below 10,000. The party’s presidential candidate in 1981, Huguette Bouchardeau (1,1%) in 1983 entered the Mauroy government under François Mitterrand with responsibilities for ecology. Her participation in a cabinet committed to fiscal cut backs effectively marked the end of the PSU. It formally split in 1989. Some members joined the French Greens (les Verts), others the group (Alliance Rouge et Verte, AREV) which became Les Alternatifs, who now form part of part of the Front de Gauche, Ensemble. Former PSU activists have participated in range of movements, continuing to take up green issues, the defence of immigrants, and feminism.
These are the bare bones of the history of the PSU. If the party is known at all on the English speaking left it is for its role in defending the cause of Algerian independence. Bernard Ravenel begins Quand La Gauche se réinventait by marking out the wider background to the groups that formed the party. It may come as a surprise to many outside France to learn that during the 1950s a variety of substantial groups – and not the tiny Trotskyist movement or the even smaller Socialisme ou Barbarie, – had opposed both Stalinism and the rightward moving French socialists of Guy Mollet’s SFIO (with the historically interesting name, Section française de l’international ouvrière).
These groups, which numbered around 20, 000 supporters, owed much to the attempts to create a ‘Third Force’ on the post-war French left, neither Stalinist nor social democratic. Others came along with the left-leaning reformist, and anti-colonial Prime Minister (7 months in 1954) Pierre Mendès France. Others, such as the sociologist Pierre Naville, the activist Yvan Craipeau, and the novelist Colette Audry, had been figures in the French Trotskyist movement wearied by its incessant quarrels and ineffectiveness.
Engaged in the fight for Algerian national liberation the PSU participated in the often-violent battle against the putschists who tried to maintain French Algeria. It is a measure of the honesty of Ravenel’s book that he does not fail to mention that many Communist students stood should to shoulder with them in demonstrations against the racist attempt to retain colonial rule (Pages 52 – 53).
Algerian independence in 1962 appeared to leave the PSU without a defining mission. But the party soon found a new role. This was not simply opposing De Gaulle’s Presidential referendum in 1962 but in laying down a new approach on the left.
In broad terms one might say that this had been dominated by two stands. The first, symbolised in the figure of Léon Blum considered that the French republic was basically healthy, the carrier of a long emancipatory history. If the left might pursue a long-term strategy of conquering power by mass activity, it could exercise power within this given framework. In the 1960s this stand meant, however, concentrating on the effects of De Gaulle’s ‘coup d’état’, to return to full republican democracy. The other strategy, at the heart of the line of the Parti Communiste français (PCF) was to consider that “monopoly capitalism” had fused with state power. An essentially healthy proletariat was both held down by capitalism, and formed for an historical leading role within production. Without the restraints of capitalism, freed under conditions of what the Communists would later call “advanced democracy”, and nationalisation, the working class, organised in unity within its allied union structures the CGT, and its party would create socialism. The political agency of socialism was therefore ‘given’, it was up to its political expression, the PCF, to conquer to the state and set it free. (4)
The PSU, critical Marxists, open a wide range of left thinking, inspired partly by writers such as Serge Mallet, looked to new forces within the working class who had begun to raise demands relating to the more immediate control of production. Around the ‘Front Socialiste’ the party supported workers’ struggles (such as the 1963 miners’ strike). But they developed wider ambitions, elaborating a “counter-plan” in 1964. At a time when indicative planning was still practised they offered an alternative to the French planning system based on democratic participation. As Ravel observes, this as the first time in the country that a socialist group proposed to develop planning, of investment and consumption, under democratic control as a form of transition to socialism. He writes, “le contre-plan veut ouvrir une voie démocratique at donc pacifique au socialisme..” The counter-plan wished to open the way to a democratic and thus peaceful transition to socialism. (Page 82)
This perspective, elaborated by PSU strategist Gilles Martinet (a former Resistance member and ex-Communist), offered an alternative to the “republican” reliance on a politically reformed state, and the PCF view that the workers needed to channel their demands through the CGT, and the Party. As the Party developed, particularly after 1968, the idea emerged of passing from such worker and popular “control” to the full-blown self-management (autogestion) of production and distribution. There was also a sketch supporting political decentralisation. For many of us, this thread of ideas, which Ravenel outlines with great clarity amidst the often-complex debates – not to mention critiques – that followed, remains one of the PSU’s enduring contributions to the left.
Badiou and the Armed Struggle.
Quand la gauche se réinventait is no less acute in its description of May 68 and the effects this had on the PSU. The leftist Trainspotter will rejoice in the accounts of the factional battles that ensued after the évévenements. One aspect has drawn the attention of reviewers: Alain Badiou’s support for preparing for armed struggle, with mass participation in the conquest of power (Page 202) More fundamentally in the early 1970s the PSU endured a prolonged confrontation between those who supported changing the organisation into a Leninist vanguard party (‘avant-garde” in French) and those continued to believe in a broad democratic socialist structure. Ravenel describes the latter in terms of a Gramscian vision of the party as a “collective intellectual” (Page 214).
These disputes ended with some ‘Leninists’ resigning and joining the group to be known as Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. Another group, which included the future Green theorist, Alain Lipietz went on to found the grandly titled Organisation communiste gauche ouvrière et paysanne, GOP. Other ‘Marxist-Leninists’ were excluded. Rocard, and the more openly ‘reformist’ currents, made their excuses and left. Martinet had already quit for the Socialists in 1972.
Activists from the PSU were involved in all the central struggles of the 1970s. These included Lip (1973, the celebrated occupation of a Watch factory which was then run as a co-operative), Lazarc (protests against the military’s expropriation of peasant land) feminist campaigns (abortion), and the early battles against Nuclear Power. In 1975 they supported the Portuguese Revolution, and the (similar to PSU) ‘centrist’ Movimento de Esquerda Socialista (MES) efforts to establish workers’ power and popular control. Ravenel personally participated in on-the-spot links. Relations with the CFDT, cited above, continued, helped by the common Christian radical origins of many of their members, although they did not become close. The federation’s leader, Edmond Maire early expressed the view that he had no wish to become for the PSU what the CGT was the PCF. (5)
Critical of the Common Programme of the parliamentary left (PCF, PS, and then the Radicaux de gauche (1972), from its signing to its break up (1977), the continuity PSU remained apart from the mainstream. The Party also had important differences with one group of backers of autogestion inside the Parti Socialiste. The faction, CERES, best known for its leader Jean-Pierre Chevènement, preferred a legislative and nationalised to a grass-roots framework. It was only a commentator on the processes which dominated this alliance up till Mitterrand’s victory in 1981. Yet it could be said that through such activists, and the presence of former members inside the Socialist Party, its influence continued to be felt within both movements and the institutional French left.
Quand la gauche se réinventait is not a history that deals with the alleged turn of intellectuals against the left during the 1970s. According to what one might call the New Left Review version of history, which treats of academics, ideologues, and the media, rather than activists, leads many to believe that the country underwent a profound ‘anti-totalitarian’ moment during the decade. Ravenel describes the more humble task of achieving political power for the democratic socialist left. He cites extensive documentation, including the PSU paper, Tribune Socialiste, and interviews with those involved. That the transformation of that left was never achieved by the PSU – Ravenel describes his book as a history of the vanquished (vancus) – should not detract from their achievements. He is not afraid to reveal one of the less savoury sides of their work. Following a degree of reconciliation with the Algerian one-party state, in 1970 they received a ‘loan’ (never to be repaid) for finance of the (modest but comfortable) Headquarters. These good graces of Houari Boumediene were not publicly trumpeted (Page 189)
Ravenel is thus transparently a trustworthy and welcome guide to some of the most important experiences on the 20th century French left. For him the dream of “reformisme révolutionnaire” was never achieved. Was this because of a change in the social landscape, the basis of the political environment? Ravenel concludes that the PSU was unable to realise its ambitions and programmes which were tailored to the transformation of “industrial society”. This world had gone, replaced by an increasingly “post-industrial” world. Referring to theorists of the ‘new working class’ amongst others in 1981 André Gorz announced the fatal decline of a motivated skilled working class that wanted control of production and had the means to do. (Adieux au prolétariat. 1981) This claim certainly had an impact on the way PSU activists thought. But, citing from own experience of these warm and open people, as the defeats of the 1980s accumulated against them, and their initial ‘critical support’ for Mitterrand evaporated, their legacy remains a vibrant source of hope.
(1) Page 135. Les Gauches Françaises. Jacques Julliard. Flammarion. 2012. Alain Bergounioux Gérard Grundberg as well as Ravenel remind us that a whole series of future leading Socialist party politicians, from Alain Savary, Jean Poperen to another future PM (1992 – 1993), Pierre Béregovoy passed from the PSU to the Socialists (in their case beginning with the re-alignments in the FGDS (1967). Pages 141 – 145. Les Socialistes français et le Pouvoir. Fayard. 2007.
(2) Michel Rocard, le président empêché. Jonathan Bouchet-Peterson. Libération. 27.16. 2016
(3) Pages 35 – 42. The Parti socialist autonome (PSA) a split from the Socialists, counted 8,500 members, the Union de la gauche socialiste (UFS), a Christian leftist organisation had 8,000, and a dissident Communist faction, the Tribune du communisme, had several hundred. These groups had a long and complex history, including relations with another force which would join with the PSU, the supporters of the reformist Prime Minister (7 months in 1954) Pierre Mendès France. Socialisme ou Barbarie was virulently hostile to the alliance with the latter. See. Maille. R.(Alberto Véga) : Mendès-France et le nouveau réformisme. Socialisme ou Barbarie. No 29. December 1959/February 1960. This followed a long history of hostility to this non-communist radical left, principally the result of their attachment to taking part in elections.
(4) See Page 125. Léon Blum. Pierre Birnbaum Seuil. 2016. On the PCF’s concepts see Le Communisme une passion française. Marc Lazar. Perrin. 2005.
(5) The CFDT vision of socialism as self-management and its relations the PSU is dealt with in La Deuxième gauche H.Hamon. P.Rotman. Editions Ramsay 1984. They describe the specific effects of the key events, such as the 1973 Assises du socialisme, and the intimate links between PSU members and the union federation. The CFDT identified itself increasingly as “reformist” formally abandoned all reference to socialism the Congrès de Strasbourg 1988, but retained a reference to autogestion.
For more on the PSU see: INSTITUT TRIBUNE SOCIALISTE
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