Magazine article Monthly Review

Mitterrand's Achievement

Magazine article Monthly Review

Mitterrand's Achievement

Article excerpt


"Revolutions," Rosa Luxemburg wrote, "are the only kind of war in which ultimate victory can only be prepared through a series of 'defeats.'" The implication was that defeats are not in vain if we can learn from them. Today ultimate victory looks distant on the European horizon, but I still propose to draw some lessons from the severe defeat suffered by the French left in the recent parliamentary election.

But has the French left really suffered such a blow? Judging by the rejoicing of the French Socialists, dizzy with their 32 percent, and the echoes of their foreign friends, you may have doubts on the subject. It is true that the French Socialists have tiptoed off the governmental stage without drama--to borrow T. S. Eliot's cliche, with a whimper rather than a bang. But the restraint of the respectable right on the night of March 16 was for us small comfort. Its narrow majority was not due to any recovery of the left. It was due to the triumph of Le Pen and his followers. The neo-fascists of the National Front were the only ones with reasons really to celebrate that night! Ten percent of the votes cast in a general election and thirty-five deputies in parliament constitute a superb performance for the National Front. Exactly the same showing constituted for the French Communist Party another step on the road to political irrelevance.

But let us forget the shifts in each camp and the change of the electoral law. In terms of the balance of electoral power between left and right, the change is tremendous, a swing of more than 5 percent. In the parliamentary poll of 1981 the left had about 56 percent and the right 43 percent. Now the polls are 55 percent for the right and 44 percent for the left.

Nor is the swing only electoral. The defeat of the left is much deeper than that. The labor movement is on the defensive and in total disarray. The ideological domination of the right looks absolute, the cultural climate has changed beyond recognition. A foreigner who left Paris, say 15 years ago and returned unprepared wouldn't believe his or her eyes and ears. A capital where imagination was apparently groping toward power now looks more and more--if you forgive me--like darkest America. In France, too, almost nobody today looks beyond the capitalist horizon; there, too, freedom is confused with freedom of the market.

What do the Socialists claim? We have proved that we can manage, and therefore we shall return. Soon. The claim does not sound absurd. From Ebert and Scheidemann, who officiated while Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were being massacred, to Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, or Helmut Schmidt, and passing through Frenchmen like Guy Mollet of Algerian fame, such "Socialists" have always been welcome to manage the affairs of big business or, as Laurent Fabius put it in a Freudian slip, to do its "dirty job" for it.

What the French now present proudly as alternance--consensus politics, the switch from Tory to Labor and back, from Christian to Social Democrats, from Republicans to plain Democrats--has been the rule in Britain, Germany, and the United States, but the exception in France and Italy. Because, rightly or wrongly, it used to be assumed that the left in those countries might (I'm not saying would but might) not respect the established rules of the game and thus threaten the very foundations of capitalism. The British labor movement was not less militant than the French, far from it. Yet you didn't have in Britain the same popular feeling that one could "change life" through radical political action. It is Francois Mitterrand's "achievement," it is now alleged, to have eliminated this difference.

In order to understand the--I hope provisional--ideological bankruptcy of the French left, one would have to go beyond one man and also beyond French frontiers to analyze a series of problems which I can only mention here. …

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