When the Workers Were Communists

Julian Mischi

The once mighty French Communist Party is a shell of its former self. What happened to its mass base?

Interview by

The French Communist Party (PCF) once commanded the loyalty of millions. Buoyed by its role in the resistance to Nazi occupation, the party won over a quarter of the vote in postwar legislative elections and was a permanent fixture in French life. In much of Northern Europe, the working class owed its allegiance to the parties of social democracy. In France, the Communists had that honor.

Though the party today can still claim the country’s third largest membership, its decline has been dramatic. The bulk of opposition to France’s political establishment has been generated from the Right, in the form of the xenophobic populism of the National Front. We spoke to sociologist Julian Mischi about the Communist Party’s decline in this new environment and how it can reconnect with a largely lost social base.

Can you describe the French Communist Party at its peak and its relationship with the working class?

Julian Mischi

The French Communist Party was a major force in twentieth-century French political life. It was founded following the Tours Congress in December 1920. During the Congress the majority of French socialists left the French Section of the Worker’s International (SFIO) and joined the Communist International set up by Lenin in Moscow in 1919. But the party did not achieve mass appeal until after it participated in the 1936 Popular Front and backed the Socialist-led government of Léon Blum. And of course its heralded role in the resistance to Nazi occupation.

At its height in 1946 the PCF claimed eight hundred thousand members. It was a mass party implanted in the working classes, especially in the industrial working class, and regularly drew a quarter of French voters. The 1977 elections ushered in the apogee of French communism at the municipal level, when roughly 1,500 communist mayors governed over 8.6 million inhabitants (16.7 percent of the French population at the time).

From the end of World War II through the 1970s, the PCF seemed to be “the party of the working class” because of its pro-worker programs like social security, which it introduced in 1945. Communist leaders of this period appeared as legitimate spokespeople for the French working class not just because they trumpeted their interests, but because most of them were from laboring backgrounds.

The party did not just represent the laboring class and speak in its name. Its cadre mobilized the working class and gave it power by recruiting and developing laborers as party leaders.

One would think that should be a model for all Left parties. What problems did these leaders encounter?

Julian Mischi

The great majority of local PCF staff were workers who had started as rank-and-file members before becoming professional activists. Through PCF networks (like unions or associations) and public institutions (like town halls and the national assembly), a laboring elite rose to leadership positions in the party. For a while the PCF propelled some workers (and small farmers) into bodies of power previously reserved for the bourgeoisie, shaking up the French political order.

The party’s strength came from its activists, who worked for the broad recognition of labor as a group and offered its members social mobility and new-found respect for their identity. In fact, the organization’s working-class character was anything but secondary: that working-class identity inscribed the political project into activists’ practices. This is why people used to speak of “worker” municipalities or “worker” deputies in the National Assembly.

But the promotion of an activist elite came at a cost.

First of all, the organization reproduced relationships of domination internal to the working classes: those who spoke for the party largely came from its most privileged sectors. They were mainly male French citizens, highly qualified, working in either major urban industries like steel, mining, and shipbuilding or large state-owned companies like the postal service, telephone company, or railway. The PCF marginalized the female, immigrant, unskilled, and rural fractions of the working class.

In addition, the PCF developed a very hierarchical and bureaucratic structure. Power concentrated in the hands of a group of permanent leaders who, through force of circumstance, became more and more divorced from workers’ everyday reality.

None of this is to downplay the incredible success of the PCF and its role in organizing the working class — but it never solved the challenges of bureaucratization.

The party today is a shell of its former self — how did it come to this point?

Julian Mischi

In the late 1970s the Socialist Party (PS) overtook the PCF as the dominant party of the French left. This was a real change — Communists had gotten 21 percent of the vote in the 1969 presidential election, compared to 5 percent for the Socialists.

As the PCF aged, it loosened its ties to its working-class roots. The higher you climbed the party hierarchy, the less likely you were to find activists from working-class backgrounds.

Of course, this was nothing in comparison to the exclusivity of the other major political formations that recruited their leadership from the most highly educated segments of the population, the cultural and economic bourgeoisie. But the PCF’s distance from the working-class milieu has fundamentally altered a party that historically stood for class struggle.

At the 2008 convention for instance, only 9 percent of PCF delegates were working as manual laborers. At the time, 24 percent of the French working population was engaged in manual labor.

What accounts for this shift in PCF’s make‑up?

Julian Mischi

First and foremost, the socioeconomic transformations in the working class since the late 1970s. Splintered work collectives, spatial relegation, the unemployment boom, job insecurity, and the decline of unionism all contributed to keep the working classes from engaging in activism. We could also point out that the rising influence of school has reduced the role of the PCF as a supplier of cultural capital amongst workers and their families.

In this sense, the PCF’s decline is part of the broader crisis of the European workers’ movement, which was further undermined by the end of the Soviet Union and neoliberalism’s surge across Europe.

But those are external factors that the PCF and party leadership have little control over.

There are also internal factors. Activists’ large-scale disengagement are, to my thinking, inseparable from certain strategic and ideological orientations that led the working classes to abandon the PCF.

What are some of these orientations?

Julian Mischi

For one thing, the “party of the working class” has changed its discourse. It undertook a process of de-workerization, notably with the emergence of a “miserabilist” discourse in the late 1970s during the “notebooks of misery and hope” campaign.

After references to the heroic struggles of the laboring class during the Popular Front and Liberation, the PCF began to present itself as the mouthpiece of “the poor.” While we might understand this as the party’s desire to provide an account of the initial effects of the social state’s withdrawal from working-class neighborhoods, the focus on misery and want was out of step with worker-activists. They could not identify with what they understood as a belittling image. The PCF replaced the figure of the worker with that of the “excluded,” and the denunciation of exploitation gave way to the denunciation of misery.

This orientation neglected the aspirations — especially the cultural aspirations — of the most powerfully positioned segment of the laboring world, the backbone of the PCF.

It also represented a significant break in how Communist leaders achieve social legitimacy. Under this new orientation, they speak for the poor, without giving them power in the party and the state apparatus. They shifted from class struggle to poverty reduction.

A second development emerged in the mid-nineties: the PCF set out to address everyone represent French society in all its “diversity,” rather than targeting the working classes specifically. A class-based vision of society faded in favor of consensual themes like “citizenship” or “social networks.” They turned a plan for workers’ self-emancipation into humanist rhetoric, a rhetoric widely shared elsewhere in the non-profit and political spheres.

The problem was not so much that the PCF abandoned references to the “working class,” since that formulation is not as relevant now as it was thirty or forty years ago. What is crucial, I think, is the fact that its representatives ceased to reflect on class relations and to encourage the people who experience domination to lead the struggle. As a consequence, they have had difficulty addressing the concerns of today’s working classes.

In fact, the presence of working-class activists has becomes less and less important to the PCF leadership. Conventions rarely call for worker activists to have more power in the organization or municipal governments. There is less focus on developing spokespeople from the working class.

Instead, they approach the working classes from the perspective of electoral issues: winning back their members is now about winning back an electorate. The party solicits the working class, alongside other social categories, as voters, not as fellow class-members.

Motivated by their rejection of past workerism (often associated with Stalinism) contemporary Communist leaders tend to deny labor a specific political role as a class.

How did this play out concretely?

Julian Mischi

The party abandoned its mechanisms for training and selecting activist leaders with working-class origins due to declining active membership and challenges to practices of democratic centralism. At the same time, when they rejected their Stalinist roots and sought out a new public image, party leaders became suspicious of the more activist wings, which appeared as vehicles for indoctrination.

For example, party schools disappeared or lost their popular education function over the course of the nineties. They abandoned the “cadre policy” that favored working-class members.

As the social origins of activists became less and less essential, elitist logics about the proper operation of political life took root, making the PCF less distinguishable from other parties. People working mid-level occupations, public administrators, and middle-managers of state-owned companies replaced working-class activists in the PCF’s networks as well as in their town and city halls.

Members with more cultural capital and greater ease speaking publicly (for example, teachers and managers) increasingly held top positions. Now, Communist networks value activists who presents themselves as highly skilled in political work. These activists end up collaborating with elected officials and serving as chiefs of staff, specialized administrative managers, project managers, and the like. Upper- and mid-level civil servants and elected officials in local government dominate the PCF.

Local government administration now structures the Communist Party. In fact it is only because of this specialized world that the PCF can survive: union networks and company-based activism have lost too much ground. The experience of inequality in the workplace and involvement in the General Labor Confederation (CGT, the main union in France) — once a fundamental matrix for Communist engagement — has all but disappeared.

So, the leadership of the PCF has changed dramatically?

Julian Mischi

Yes. The last national leader of the PCF who rose up through the CGT was Georges Marchais, a former precision mechanic. After him, PCF leaders were closely connected to local government administration. Robert Hue, who replaced Georges Marchais in 1994, had been president of the National Association of Communist and Republican Elected Officials. For the first time in its history, a mayor became general secretary of the party.

Contemporary PCF leadership does not come from the CGT. While Marie-Georges Buffet (who led the PCF from 2001 to 2010) and her successor, Pierre Laurent (the party’s current national secretary), have union experience, it is through student, rather than trade unions.

What consequences does this transformation have for the party?

Julian Mischi

Most importantly, the PCF now prioritizes electoral strategy. Electoral issues structure all activist endeavors, from the national leadership to department-level federations, which elected officials now coordinate.

Indeed in the late 1990s, the PCF got rid of the rule that required a distinction between cadre and elected officials. In 1998, local leaders were instructed to use their alliance with the Parti Socialiste to win regional council elections. As the party’s financial resources declined, they had to seek income in the form of elected positions to pay permanent party staff.

Elected officials, who generally manage local governments alongside the Parti Socialiste, have their own concerns. They work with local-level middle management and political communication experts, and may be wary of party activists. Their priority is connecting with “residents” and voters (especially through so-called “participatory democracy”), as opposed to developing a structured activist organization in working-class circles.

Have there been any promising signs in recent years?

Julian Mischi

PCF activist networks bounced back in the mid-2000s, first during the victorious campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, then as part of the Front de Gauche (Left Front).

Between 2005–7, the ranks of activists stabilized at around 130,000 card-holders. The proportion of young people rose slightly. Members who had withdrawn returned and reactivated activist networks, now joined by new and younger members.

In many cases the younger members were part of the mobilization against the First Employment Contract, a 2006 plan that would make it easier to fire young employees during their first two years of work. Communist Youth and Communist Students’ Union groups reappeared in the major cities.

The 2012 presidential campaign undeniably remobilized the communist ranks and brought in new members. On this occasion, presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (leader of the Parti de Gauche, not the PCF) radicalized his discourse by raising the theme of social antagonism. This is ironic, because recent PCF presidential campaigns hadn’t gone further than euphemistic communist and anti-capitalist references. Earning 11 percent of the vote, Mélenchon polled higher than any Communist candidates from the 1990s and 2000s.

Can we expect a Communist revival in France?

Julian Mischi

Well, the Front de Gauche’s strategy has run into several problems. Among them, within the Front, the Parti de Gauche is playing into the personalization of its leader. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a rather anti-collective attitude and recently decided that the time for political parties is over and has begun trying to make a direct connection with “the people.”

But Communist elected officials’ influence within the PCF and its reliance on the Parti Socialiste are also problematic. The March 2014 municipal elections revealed considerable tension between the PCF and the Parti de Gauche when the latter opposed the inclusion of socialist candidates on ballots in major cities. At the same time, new members and older rank-and-file activists within the PCF oppose the ongoing alliance with the Parti Socialiste.

But the priority of most elected officials and a significant part of PCF leadership is to hold on to municipalities under Communist leadership and to deputy mayoral positions in city halls won by the Leftist coalition. This is what has happened in Paris: Communists are part of the socialist-led municipal majority and elected officials from the Parti de Gauche are part of the opposition.

Communist activists cannot seem to find the right balance. Local elected officials have undeniably made it possible for the PCF to maintain a degree of influence despite the collapse of its national audience. But Communist municipalities, once the core of the PCF’s implantation in working-class milieu, now undermine its revitalization: the Parti Socialiste shifted right, local governments professionalized, and activist networks weakened.

At the same time, the PCF has become increasingly decentralized. Electoral alliances vary widely, not only from one election to the next, but also from place to place. These alliances depend partly on the calculations of local leaders, and partly on the power relations between elected officials and party membership. It is not a very collective way of organizing because it lends clout to locally prominent figures while limiting activist engagement.

What’s the picture today?

Julian Mischi

On the one hand, we mustn’t forget that the PCF has by far the most members (hovering around 53,000) of all the political configurations left of the Parti Socialiste. It is also one of the few activist forces still organized in moderately-sized towns, where other left-leaning parties struggle to find candidates for local elections. And compared to other major parties, the PCF is still a relatively working-class organization in a political space increasingly dominated by the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois segments of the population.

The PCF undermined its own organizational ability to protest the social and political order as much as external factors disarmed it. This left an opening for competing representations of the working classes, particularly those coming from the relatively dominant labor sectors.

So it is that the Front National, an extreme right-wing party, can present itself as the “party of workers” without a strong foothold in working-class neighborhoods or factories. Anti-neoliberal political organizations do not have the capacity to organize in these venues. The situation reminds us of the importance of gradually building up collective tools that bring a broad group together without severing ties to working-class spaces or losing sight of the everyday reality of workers.

Is there a way forward?

Julian Mischi

France needs a renewed relationship with the working classes to combat the closure of the political field to all but insiders. It needs to breach a political order dominated by professionals and the bourgeoisie.

Activist organizations must play a role in this process: they can develop and pass down the strategies to decode the dominant classes’ world and counter their actions. They can build collective tools to fight against institutions that decide the working-class’s fate without their agreement. They can face off against the coordination of neoliberal and employers’ interests at the national and European scale.

Only collective force and informed political consciousness can prepare a mass counter-offensive. Waiting for elections or leaving it to elected officials is not enough, unless we are willing to accept the working class’s full political dispossession.