The Great Fear of 1947 Could France Have Gone Communist? Martin Evans and Emmanuel Godin Ask How Close Was France to Becoming a Communist Country in the Years after the Second World War

By Evans, Martin; Godin, Emmanuel | History Today, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Great Fear of 1947 Could France Have Gone Communist? Martin Evans and Emmanuel Godin Ask How Close Was France to Becoming a Communist Country in the Years after the Second World War


Evans, Martin, Godin, Emmanuel, History Today


ON OCTOBER 4TH, 1944, Pablo Picasso formally joined the French Communist Party (PCF) at the Paris offices of L'Humanite, the party newspaper. Attended by the poets Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, the painter Andre Fougeron and the writer Albert Camus, the ceremony was a simple affair overseen by Jacques Duclos, the deputy leader. Given the stature of Picasso--it would be no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most famous living artists in the whole world--this was a huge coup for the Communist movement, reported the following day on the front page of L'Humanite across five columns along with an illustration of his drawing 'Man with a Lamb'. Three weeks later, in an interview with the left-wing American journal New Masses, Picasso explained the significance of his decision. For him it was the logical progression of his work as a whole:

   I have become a Communist because
   our party, strives more than any other
   to know and build the world, to make
   men clearer thinkers, more free and
   more happy. I have become a
   Communist because Communists are
   the bravest in France, in the Soviet
   Union, as they are in my country
   Spain. I have never felt more free,
   more complete since I joined ... I am
   once more amongst my brothers.

In the following years Picasso would become a torch-bearer for the Communist cause not just in terms of painting, but also through drawings, posters and the signing of manifestos. So it was he who orchestrated the purge of artists tainted with collaboration; he who led the procession to Pere-Lachaise Cemetery to commemorate the memory of Communist resisters on October 16th, 1944; and he who attended the first Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland, in August 1948 and the Second World Peace Conference held in Sheffield in October 1950. In this way he did invaluable service for the party--his dove image would become an icon of the international peace movement--and no Communist event would be complete without his balding head and squat, muscular frame.

Picasso's commitment was emblematic of a generation of artists and intellectuals who either joined the party, like the painter Fernand Leger, or became enthusiastic fellow-travellers, as in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. For them the Liberation of France in 1944 was a new beginning and no political force encapsulated this mood of optimism better that the PCF. Why was this so? First and foremost the PCF was seen as the true voice of the working class, a class whose energy and vitalism contrasted with the decadence of the bourgeoisie, so cruelly depicted in Jean Renoir's 1939 film la Regle du Jeu. The future belonged to the proletariat whose mission was to usher in a just society. Thus all progressives had a duty to side with the PCF. Allied to this the PCF was the party par excellence of anti-fascist Resistance and this became a badge of honour to be assiduously cultivated at every moment. Again and again, the PCF presented itself as 'the party of the 75,000 martyrs' and the pull of such language, much more than the vagaries of Marxist ideology was tremendously powerful in recruiting members. Patriotism and communism were synonymous, an idea movingly illustrated in Louis Aragon's resistance poem 'A Poet to His Party':

   My party has given me my eves and
   my memory
   I did not know any more than a child
   knows
   That my blood was so red and my
   heart French
   I only knew that the night was black
   My party has given me my eves and
   my memory

Such prestige was strengthened even further by the role of Stalin's Soviet Union in vanquishing Hitler's Germany and the PCF used every opportunity to highlight the sacrifices of the Soviet people. Stalin himself was worshipped in the PCF as a god-like figure; the father of the international movement and the architect of the victory of Communism over Nazism. As a young party member in Paris Robert Bonnaud vividly remembers the adulation accorded to Stalin when the PCF organized special screenings of the Soviet film Battle for Berlin in 1949. …

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