5. The Memory of Communism in France - Philippe Buton (Centre d’études et de recherches en histoire culturelle, University of Reims)

This is a very large topic. If I wanted to be thorough in this matter, I would have to examine the impact of the past on the image of the French Communist Party (PCF). It would be necessary to divide this aspect in two parts: elements referring to the international dimension of the PCF – for instance, the memory of the October Revolution or of the Bolshevik regime – and elements referring to its French dimension – for instance the attitude of the PCF during the Popular Front, during the Second World War (first faced with the German-Soviet pact, then in the Resistance), in response to the Algerian War and during May 1968. On the first point – the perception of international communism – the French memory seems to be divided into three phases: a favourable view of the communist experience (1945-1968), a progressive detachment from this model (1968-1989), and the last crisis after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the international communist system. On the second point – the French dimension of the PCF – it is clear that the main event was the Second World War, and the balance was always largely in favour of the PCF [1] . It was and still is the “party of the Resistance”.

In this paper, I do not want to analyse this memory in its entirety, but only one of its dimensions: the French communists’ counterattack consisting in using this memory in order to survive the end of USSR.

After the events that took place in the years 1989 to 1991, the image of communism in France sustained two major crises:

1° the image of the communist countries suffered as a result of these events;

2° so did the image of the communists in the capitalist world, especially that of the French Communist Party.

The link we can draw between these two crises is obvious:

1° Articles then books were published about the financing of the PCF by the USSR and other socialist countries;

2° Files from Moscow illuminated many unclear details in the history of the PCF.

A double defence was quickly set out by the PCF and its sympaphizers :

1° It was argued that, above and beyond ‘real’ communism, all these accusations were only tools in the hands of anticommunists, and anticommunism in its turn was but a tool serving capitalism. This was one of the major criticisms faced by Le Livre noir du communisme. For the record, when the controversy was at its peak, members of the Trotskyist LCR stood to attention, fists raised, and sang the Internationale as Stephane Courtois gained access to his office at Nanterre University. By acting thus, they wanted to express their opposition to the book’s content on behalf of a certain revolutionary ideology.

2° More elaborate is the second defence, the rhetoric of the “retour aux origines”, going back to the true origins of communism. We can observe how fundamental the memory of communism is in building its identity.

Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this rhetoric had been used as a firewall when crimes perpetrated by Stalinism were discovered. Officially, it was argued that Stalinism was not true socialism but rather a distorted or, better still, an unnatural socialism. The solution was then obvious: it was necessary to go back to the true essence of socialism, that is to say go back to the previous stage, to Lenin.

At the fall of the Wall, and for a few years afterwards, the same posture of defence appeared. Thus, in the controversy started off by Le Livre noir du communisme, Trotskyites like Jean-Jacques Marie but also a few orthodox communists were tempted to blame Stalin alone for everything that went wrong in the communist experiment in Russia. But the quality of Nicolas Werth’s work, along with the attempt of the PCF and its sympathizers to oppose honest researchers, like Nicolas Werth, and “manipulating historians”, like Stéphane Courtois, ended in the abandonment of that defence in favour of a broader one, denying not only to Stalin’s time but also to the whole Soviet period its claim to belong, in its nature, to the communist heritage. Here is an example. In November 2005, the department for education of the PCF published a document about communism, today and tomorrow [2]. It is divided into three parts: 1° “Communism has always been a great desire for mankind”, 2° “Communism in the twentieth century”, 3° “Communism in the 21st century”.

The first part puts the beginning of communism in 1381, with John Ball, and then endeavours to list the various communist declarations in the following centuries. It all aims to reduce the impact of October 17th, and deny that that date brought into the world a new kind of political party, a new political culture. Communism in the 20th century becomes thus but one experiment among others, a parenthesis it would be appropriate to close in order to return to the true genealogy of communism: Leclerc, Roux, Babeuf, the utopias of the 19th century, the Commune, etc.

This attitude of the PCF (sine qua non of its survival as a political party belonging by right to the legacy of communism) explains its behaviour towards the history of real communism: it is something that can be talked about, but is never deeply discussed. On the occasion of the anniversary of the October Revolution, L’Humanité thus published a debate between three historians: Marc Ferro, Nicolas Werth and Serge Wolikow. When you read this four-page brochure, it is hard to draw any positive conclusion from it. It is as if nothing had really been established. The aim of communists today is to make the real, historically relevant debate about communism look like some sort of esoteric debate about something that is really no concern of the PCF itself. This article in L’Humanité also shows how this political counterattack was backed up by another counterattack in the historical sciences. In order to give some answer to the threat posed by the Livre Noir, other studies were published that were explicitly meant to refute entirely the thesis presented in this book. This is the case of Le Siècle des communismes, a real and proper anti-Livre Noir. It is an important work for two reasons.

First and foremost, because of the different types of arguments used in order to refute the Livre Noir.

What does the Livre Noir aim to do?

-  It aims at demonstrating that the Terror begins with Lenin and not Stalin.

-  It also aims at insisting on the elements that all the various communist experiments in the 20th century have in common.

-  Finally it aims at showing that among these elements are violence and crime.

The three demonstrations here mentioned are countered with a subtle rhetoric by the Siècle des communismes:

-  1° We should not omit anything. The disturbing facts cannot be ignored anymore, but rather each and every one of them should be taken into consideration equally and without eventual discrimination on behalf of their relevance in the understanding of any phenomenon.

-  But then, another hierarchy is actually introduced that enables the book to insist on the bright side of communism, without possibly being accused of occulting its darker side.

Here are a few examples:

Footnote 1, page 24: “As a political movement, a specificity of communism is to have always maintained strong links with one state, the USSR, which makes it impossible to separate their respective histories. No other political movement in the 20th century was so closely linked to the fate of a country.” This is quite correct, but what is this remark doing at the bottom end of a page? Such a relevant side of the communist phenomenon should be the leading key to the analysis, rather than being pushed back in a footnote, where we almost feel the writer’s shame.

Note too the use of euphemisms. Thus concerning the years following the end of the Second World War, we read that: “The presence of the Red Army in Romania and Hungary (…) considerably weakened the activity of anti- and non-communist political forces.” As for the deaths of millions when the Chinese communists took hold of the country, they become the following: “The agrarian reform. (…). Started off in 1950, the reform lasted up to 1953 and led to the social, sometimes physical, elimination of the landlords” (page 245).

Other editorial choices led to the role of Terror in state communism being underestimated. Thus, by asking Brigitte Studer to write an article about “Totalitarianism and Stalinism”, the issue of Lenin and the origins of the Terror was completely left aside. Ten pages out of 542, meanwhile, is not much to fully survey Stalin’s Terror. Still, Stalin is better off than the Khmers Rouges, who only get one page out of the whole book.

There is a second reason why Le Siècle des communismes was an important book: it testified to a new alliance, in order to preserve the communist ideology, between two one-time enemies – that is, the orthodox communists and the old dissidents, usually the Trotskyists. This alliance for the sake of ideology would progressively become political, as was well illustrated when the leaders of the PCF demanded that the “parti socialiste” invite the LCR to the meetings of the French Left. The result of this sequence of events is complex, and somehow contradictory:

-  On the one hand, I believe we can state that there is today a massive, almost instinctive rejection of communism in its various incarnations. A proof of this is the editorial success of the Livre Noir. Also, analyses of communist totalitarianism have become widespread in the press, in schoolbooks, and at university. Not so long ago, such analyses would have been considered anticommunist and thus could not have been taught openly. Last but not least, the constant weakening of the PCF and its divorce from the CGT are further proofs of the general distrust of communism.

-  But, on the other hand, there has never been a proper debate within the French Left on a very important topic: the reasons why every single communist experiment was a failure. This explains the survival of many a curious phenomenon:

o My university was more or less on strike for a month. During that time, the main path on campas was baptized, without anybody minding, “rue de la Révolution d’Octobre” (October Revolution street).

o The simple fact that the PCF holds on to its adjective “communiste”.

o Che Guevara’s myth still appeals to part of the young public.

o Someone like Alain Badiou is still renowned.

o But more importantly, communism to some degree permeates the political culture of the whole of the French Left. It is this fact I would like to insist upon here.

This phenomenon appeared clearly during the debate that took place for the European constitution [3].

The theme of a “Europe, slave to capitalism”, which had Soviet origins and was then adopted by Western communists, has become widespread among the Left as well. It has become popular even among the Trotskyites, whose anti-European rhetoric was formerly not as extreme as elsewhere. They considered Stalinism to be a nationalist distortion of communism, while looking rather positively on everything internationalist. Thus, while Lenin had said in 1915 that, in a capitalist world, any project of European united states was either impossible or reactionary, Trotsky on the contrary insisted on his project of a “United socialist states of Europe”. And Trotskyite groups, like Pierre Frank’s, even though they didn’t place much emphasis on European construction, did not fight it, and in the case of Lutte Ouvrière even viewed it positively. But there was no such thing in 2005, when the LCR conveyed the same anti-European arguments as the orthodox communists. It greatly helped (and that was in fact its aim) the coming together of orthodoxy and dissidence.

Better still, the same theme was spread even among socialists of the Left, some of them being former Trotskyites. The content of the debate within the French Socialist Party was thus profoundly inspired by references to the most traditional communist culture.

The exact same thing can be observed when we consider the debate that has taken place in France within the so-called “altermondialist” movement. And from this point of view, the French – and Italian – “altermondialistes” are very much inspired by the communist culture in their own countries, as opposed to the “altermondialistes” of other European countries. This fact is partly explained by the presence within these groups of former members of the PCF.

The same can be said concerning French ecologist groups, whose leaders often come from the extreme-left.

So faith in Europe has largely been lost in the two left-wing parties — the socialist party and the ecologist party — that were traditionally the most pro-European.

Another element testifies in favour of the spread of a communist culture beyond the direct influence of the PCF itself: it is the development of a taste for radical action, rarely mixed with self-criticism. We can still observe many surprisingly radical reflexes among the population, even today. I know very well that this can all be traced back to a revolutionary passion coming from the French Revolution. It was this passion that made France particularly sensitive to the events that took place in the East. But nonetheless, there are some strikingly stable elements that can be observed up to this day. At a French university, some students rejected the principle of voting in secret ballots because it turned out the results were against the strike. In Reims, a General Assembly of the staff (lecturers, secretaries and so on) denied the legitimacy of a vote organized by the administration for the reason that only General Assemblies (even when we know that they only gather a very few staff members) are authorized to organize ballots.

Another element of radicalism is perceptible in the way anti-Americanism is spread. I studied the last generation of schoolbooks published in France focusing on the chapters dedicated to the geopolitical situation today. This is a topic on which the writers of these schoolbooks have no academic synthesis available. I was struck at the reading, in many instances, of a very biased analysis of the economical and political power of the United States; an analysis that led to misconceptions of terrorism, that was being perceived as the only weapon left to the poor.

The same phenomenon can be linked with a certain paralysis of the extreme-left when faced with the analysis of Islamism. True enough, this is not an attitude proper to France. Alliances with Islamic fundamentalists have been sought in Belgium by the former members of the maoist group “Amada”. But these groups are nowhere as big as the French LCR. Now, reading the debates that took place during the 16th congress of the LCR in January 2006 right after the riots in some Parisian suburbs, a certain indulgence is perceptible towards Islamic fundamentalism. I am convinced that this culture of radicalism is linked with the elements of communist culture I mentioned earlier. The suburbs are analyzed by some members of the LCR as living in a situation close to colonized populations; and it is then a duty to help them, whatever the means of the rebellion or the ideology these populations are referring to. Still, it is strange to see a Marxist organization distributing stickers that say: “Down with Islamophobia !”

One last example concerning the permeation of such a communist-inspired culture is the controversy that has been taking place in France about the memory of the First World War. In a widely-remarked article, the newspaper Le Monde evoked the “trench war between historians” to describe the quarrel between two schools, which have been called respectively the school of constraint and the school of consent. In fact, I do not believe that two such historical schools exist. Rather, there is a divorce between on the one hand a “learned” memory diffused mostly by the historians of the Historial at Péronne; and on the other hand a “shared” memory, both pacifist and revolutionary, that has been professed by the militant historians of Montpellier, a memory which has such an influence over literature, cinema and French politics.

What does this shared memory tell us? It seeks both victims and heroes. Therefore, it looks at the First World War through the eyes of the Second World War.

On the one hand, victims are the men who were sent to war; and that was what the socialist mayor of Craonne meant when he called the offensive of the Chemin des Dames the “first crime against humanity”.

But more importantly, this memory rediscovered the heroes that had been first celebrated by the communist memory and then by the extreme-left memory of WWII. A hero is someone who said no, a member of the Resistance, someone who disobeyed both the Germans and Vichy. The equivalents during the First World War are the deserter and the instigators of mutiny.

In conclusion, I would just like to stress the French paradox of the memory of Communism.

On the one hand, communism perceived as a strong political project – with a party, countries and symbols – is dead in France, as in other countries. But on the other hand, the lack of reflection, the lack on an historical point of view mean that some sort of communist political culture is still alive, not only and not mainly inside the PCF.

So, it is possible that in the future, this “culture para-communiste” will give birth to a new political project, still radical but not necessarily explicitly communist.


[1] For more details, see the last chapter of my book : La Joie douloureuse. La libération de la France, Bruxelles, Complexe, 2004.

[2] Entre aspiration humaine et tragédies de l’Histoire, quelle visée communiste pour le XXIème siècle ?, November 18th 2005.

[3] For more details, cf. « L’Europe, le communisme et l’extrême-gauche », Alain Bergounioux, Pascal Cauchy, Jean-François Sirinelli, Laurent Wirth (dir.), Faire des Européens ?, Paris, Delagrave, 2006, p. 131-145.