Jean-Paul Martin

The Meaning of the Ambiguity of Gaullism

(October 1958)

From Fourth International (Paris), No. 4, Autumn 1958, pp. 34–38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The ambiguity of Gaullism has given rise to a series of observations and studies in “left” circles in France which are worthy of attention. They are evidence of a serious effort to understand on a deep level the political meaning of Gaullism and of its future development.

In general there is a consciousness that de Gaulle is supported by bourgeois forces which are to a certain extent antagonistic: that, as super-arbiter of these forces, he plays a Bonapartist role, and that his present regime is a provisional stage on the way to a clearer, less equivocal form.

On the man himself, the commentators mostly agree: a military man of monarchical and reactionary character, curiously combining an essentially religious mystique of “grandeur” with incontestable Machiavellism, brought up in a quite aristocratic mistrust of the “common people.” Thus the man of the “noble” speech at Constantine, pathetically exhorting the “rebels” to cease their “fratricidal” struggle and participate in a work of splendid construction, is at the same time the author of the letter to Salan ordering him to speed up and complete the “pacification”!

The essential characteristics of the new Bonaparte have been clearly delineated by the pens of Edgar Morin, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, and others. It only needs to be added that the political intelligence of de Gaulle is confined to his skill in equivocation, and, when all is said and done, his Machiavellism is the simultaneous expression of the Bonapartist role he is attempting to play, and of the only role which present circumstances allow him, placed as he is at the cross-roads of contradictory forces and currents. But at the same time the game of equivocation, the sybilline phrases and expressions, the silences, the shilly-shallying, the waiting, which some want to interpret as the consummate art of wisdom, perspicacity, and shrewd intelligence, are only the clear expression of the man’s limits and of the unreality in which he moves in solitary grandeur, mystified himself, in a national atmosphere which, at this historic cross-roads, is also mystified.

The appearance of Messianic types is the certain sign of a society in decay fleeing from reality because it is unable to grapple with it successfully. But all the observers of the Gaullist phenomenon agree in dissociating the individual attributes of the man from his objective political significance. Whatever de Gaulle may be as an individual, he actually represents a political regime in which definite social forces are at work, moulding it towards its final form and evolution. What are these forces?

Some see only the one which effectively carried de Gaulle to power and which still essentially determines his policy: the army. For example, this is the opinion of J.-J. Servan-Schreiber who, in the series of courageous and lucid articles published in l’Express before the referendum, showed clearly the highly important role of the army and the clique of military brass hats who control it.

Of course it is incontestable that the army, in alliance with the big “agrarian” settlers of Algeria, played a leading role in the crisis which resulted in the coming of de Gaulle to power, and that it continues to influence the regime to an enormous extent. Nevertheless this analysis errs by envisaging the army as an autonomous force, fails to emphasize its bourgeois class character, and at the same time ignores the intra-capitalist contradictions.

It is true that in the special circumstances of the waging of the Algerian war and the evolution of the political situation in France, the brass hats, generals and colonels, raised themselves up to a certain degree as an autonomous Bonapartist force, the force of the army, to impose a political solution. This solution was aimed at the refusal of independence to Algeria and the Sahara, and the guarantee of real control over both by the French bourgeoisie. To this extent, the army met with and still receives the unanimous approval of the French bourgeoisie without differentiation of strata, for at the present time there is no important part of the bourgeoisie that considers losing Algeria, which would result in losing effective control of the Sahara.

Later on we shall further clarify this question. Let us, for the moment, bear in mind the fact that the Bonapartist action of the army was based, in the final analysis, on the generally accepted interests of the whole of the bourgeoisie. But as soon as a political regime of Bonapartism was installed, each of the bourgeois forces naturally tried to bend this regime also toward the satisfaction of its own particular interests.

Bonapartism or fascism, as capitalist political regimes, take power in the beginning through forces which escape from the exclusive control of the monopolist big bourgeoisie. But once these regimes are installed, the intra-capitalist struggle begins, to determine which bourgeois fraction will completely tame the still Bonapartist, i e, partially autonomous, character of the state, in its own exclusive interest. Experience shows that the palm of victory always goes in the end to the fraction of the monopolist bourgeoisie, of big industry and finance, which normally always controls the bourgeois state.

From this point of view, a deeper sociological analysis of de Gaulle’s Bonapartist regime must show the role not only of the army and the colons, but equally of the other forces of the metropolitan bourgeoisie which will naturally try to domesticate this regime exclusively in their own favor.

Even the present alliance between the army and the settlers, moreover, is not so complete, since for example the army (especially its subaltern cadres) envisages “integration” as necessarily ending up in the economic, social and even political “equality” of the Algerians with the Europeans, while the big settlers are not at all disposed to equalize wages and social services, or to countenance an administration in which Moslems have real preponderance.

But by far the most important question is that of the opposition between the big metropolitan bourgeoisie and the other economically backward sections of the bourgeoisie. Several observers have correctly stressed this opposition, each with his own nuances. Since the end of the war, especially during the last few years, France has been passing through a process of fundamental restructuration of its economic and social foundations, which demands a corresponding re-adaptation, a “reform,” of its political institutions. It is here that must be sought, not the conjunctural cause (the coup of May 13th), but the deeper cause of the crisis which led to the coming of Gaullism to power as an attempt to solve the problems raised by the restructuration of the country’s foundations.

Under the pressure of the postwar international and especially European conjuncture, France became involved in a process of “modernization” and economic expansion which by its last few years of accelerated growth has overturned the previous conservative economic, social, and political structures of the country. Whence flow the political fragmentations in a plethora of parties and extreme instability of governments, which in the last analysis reflect the “revolutionary” condition of French society. All the classes and strata are struggling one against another with a view to accelerating, retarding, or reversing this process.

Naturally under such conditions the more dynamic and conscious sectors of the bourgeoisie have felt an urgent need to establish a state which will firmly canalize the process in the direction most likely above all to enhance their own interests. The conjunctural crisis of May 13th gave birth to the Bonapartist regime of de Gaulle, imposed by the army and the settlers. The big metropolitan bourgeoisie, already entrenched in the governmental circles of Paris, will quite naturally attempt to domesticate it exclusively in its own interests.

This is the general picture on which the different political observers of the Gaullist phenomenon are trying to elaborate. Edgar Morin has made several discerning observations on the tendency of France “to become a European nation and even a simple nationality inside a European super-nation.” [1] It should be added that this tendency is primarily economic, presupposing and reflecting the modernization of French economic structures and their adjustment from above to the European economy.

The political fraction of “Europeans” essentially represented by the Pflimlins, the Schumanns, the Reynauds, the Gaillards, is fighting precisely for such an orientation, without exaggerated illusions about the international position and possibilities of France. A variation of this tendency, however, has been represented by Mendès-Franee, who, while stressing the importance of the modernization of the French economy, sees the future of the country in a “Eurafrican” perspective, at the head of a French “Commonwealth.”

In any case, as Edgar Morin has remarked, this tendency is strongly opposed by the heterogeneous resistance of national and colonial economic interests, by the resistance en bloc of the army which refuses to submerge itself as such in an international army, and by the resistance of the Communist Party. But in reality the situation is not one of stalemate because the game has not yet reached the final sage: “European integration or neo-nationalist crystallization are still two possible alternatives.”

It would have been better expressed as: European integration, with a Eurafrican, liberal (Mendès-France), opening, or neo-nationalist and neo-colonialist crystallization are still two possible alternatives.

According to Edgar Morin, the Bonapartist regime of de Gaulle retains the ambiguity of the social forces which are now converging in itself and between which it will be forced to choose. But whatever the outcome, Edgar Morin correctly concludes, it will be a matter of consolidating the authoritarian state of the bourgeoisie, which will reject the only true solution for the masses of France and everywhere else: that of “international democratic socialism.”

For Claude Lefort [2], who insists on the “double identity of Gaullism,” “in a certain way de Gaulle is the meeting point of fascism and Mendesism.” Important changes have taken place in French society. “The first of these changes,” notes Claude Lefort,

concerns the life of the state. It has seen its role and its activities considerably extended: it directs a huge sector of production, constantly intervenes in general economic life, determines by its behavior that of all the private enterprises. The transformation sector alone affects economic expansion, the new growth of industrialization, and the concomitant rationalization of the sectors of production and distribution.

These two convergent processes are defined by Claude Lefort as

a [political] organization of Anglo-Saxon type, where the unification of the political forces [bipartisanship] and the integration of the state bureaucracy with the political and trade-union bureaucracies, much further advanced than in the French model, effectively responds to the needs of a modern society.

Multifarious economic and social vested interests, “agrarian” settlers, the big agricultural producers of the metropolis, big merchants, small tradesmen, and marginal industrial enterprises, have tried to oppose the “modernization” of the French economic and political structure.

But naturally the “European” or “Mendesist” bourgeoisie does not give way. According to Claude Lefort, they will try, before it is too late, to modify the “pro-fascist” tendencies of Gaullism toward which the army-settler alliance and the reactionary parasitic sections in the metropolitan country are driving in order to utilize the “strong power” to impose “silence on the rival factions and advance the general interest of the ruling strata.”

In other words, de Gaulle alone presents himself as capable of promoting a social reform of the type urged by Mendesism. Granted, a paradoxical situation. But if the nature of Gaullism is ambiguous, it is because it expresses an objective ambiguity. The crisis operates on two levels: that of Algiers and that of France.

Because of this, according to Claude Lefort, Gaullism “is not the first stage of a process which necessarily leads to the installation of fascism”; it might well result in a kind of authoritarian Mendesism.

On the other hand, this is not the opinion of P. Chaulieu [3], who thinks that “the administrative problems of society are not geometrical problems, and solutions that are ‘rational’ [from the viewpoint of the dominant class] are worthless unless they are accompanied by the force necessary to impose them.” Now the de Gaulle regime, according to Chaulieu, is weak in its present form, which makes “the most probable outcome” that of “the entry of the country into a period of deep social crisis and of open conflict between the classes.”

Claude Lefort’s analysis is of the same type as the much more complete and profound analysis devoted to Gaullism by Serge Mallet in the July and August-September numbers of Temps Modernes. The differentiation of the current social forces, though necessarily a bit schematic, is shrewdly made by Serge Mallet.

Algeria is dominated by an aristocracy of big landed proprietors based on a European middle peasantry attached to the colonial system, and a workers’ aristocracy which owes its privileged position solely to racial discrimination and colonial methods of exploitation.

This landed aristocracy has linked its destiny to a whole commercial framework: exporters, steamship companies, agents, wholesale traders, living mainly or exclusively on the trade in the agricultural products of North Africa, i.e., on part of the surplus value abstracted from the Algerian fellahin. Its class allies in the metropolitan country are the monopolist landed proprietors – the beet-growers of the North and the big wine-producers of the South – protected and subsidized by the state.

This highly organized “mercantile feudalism,” very influental in current political formations and in the state administration, has for allies also all the reactionary parasitic strata, produce wholesalers, proprietors of marginal industrial undertakings, colonial army officers, etc. It also tries increasingly to base itself on the innumerable small traders of town and country who are resisting the modernization and expansion of the economy and on the clientele of the Poujadist and similar movements.

Against these strata, according to Serge Mallet, stands finance capital, in flagrant opposition to their interests.

At the present time French finance capital is indeed the fusion of industrial and banking capital, which, according to Serge Mallet, were still dissociated during the ‘30s. It was then, Mallet explains, that industrial capital, of the big “captains of industry” like Michelin, Renault, Citroen, were tempted by the fascist solution to “hamstring a working class in full revolutionary ferment,” and simultaneously to “get rid of the control of the big banks.” Whereas at the present time finance capital is working for economic expansion and modernization in the metropolitan country, the exploitation of Sahara oil, and the expansion and activation of the African market by industrialization.

Hence its need to control a state which will remove from its path the obstacles which, economically speaking, are represented by the existence of the “agrarians” of Algeria and the metropolitan country, and the large and small commercial parasites of the distribution network.

The state desired by finance capital is certainly a “strong” state, but not a fascist one; a state in the image of the American system “where the minor contradictions are fought out inside two or three big class parties, while the Executive, composed of the trusted men of finance capital, carries out the long-term plans.”

The attitude of finance capital, according to Serge Mallet, has also changed towards the working class. The policy of high wages, paid holidays, and other economic advantages often granted now without a struggle by management, is a technological and economic necessity for modern capital in order to maintain and increase productivity by the close association of the producers.

The conclusions of such an analysis, intended by Serge Mallet for the working up of a “programme of ‘left’ opposition to Gaullism,” are significant.

Modern capitalism cannot do without the worker-consumer. Furthermore, modern production methods make the “coupling” of finance capital and the proletariat even more intimate than in the past. “The assimilation of the workers to the factory” constitutes today – technically – a prime necessity of modern production. Gaullism will of necessity pass under the control of finance capital, which will use its “strong state” and its reforms of institutions in economic alliance with the proletariat, to combat and get rid of the retarding elements of the bourgeoisie.

The present contradictions in the Gaullist regime can be explained by the still remaining influence upon it of the reactionary forces of the “coup of May 13th” and the compromise which finance capital is obliged to make with its (bourgeois) economic adversaries who are at the same time, however, “its sole base.” Nevertheless, despite these hazards, finance capital will pursue and achieve its objectives.

The coming of Gaullism will give maximum acceleration to the concentration of capital, bring about the collapse of uneconomic marginal enterprises, precipitate the liquidation of the small and medium traders, bring large-scale trade under the control of finance capital. [...] The working-class movement in a certain way can utilize this development to its profit,” [all the more so in that the “Gaullist” regime] will move the main arena of class struggle from the political to the economic field.

And here is Serge Mallet’s final conclusion: The “left” must make alliances not with the petty bourgeoisie in defending its “reactionary” economic demands, or with the “social-chauvinist Guy Mollet,” but rather with social forces such as that of the “liberal Mendès-France,” or with “the national colonial bourgeoisie,” which is not in opposition to the “historically progressive measures which will be taken by the representatives of big capital.”

“The Popular Front,” under these conditions, “can no longer be a simple tactical operation, on the basis of the new class relationships,” it will not appear to be possible except as “the French road to socialism” by way of structural reforms within the framework of the political and economic (the latter “progressive”) domination of big finance capital.

Whence flows a “transitional” programme for the “left,” which is summarized in “progressive” reforms acceptable if not desired by big finance capital, but which, economically speaking, will lay the later bases of a socialist development of the economy and, in a parallel way, of socialist democracy.

It is naturally easy to point out the shortcomings of a “logical” construction such as that provided by Serge Mallet, too marked by oversimplifying “economism,” and by an obviously mechanical conception of the class structure and functioning of the capitalist system.

In reality the opposition between big capital and the economically backward layers of the bourgeoisie is less acute than Serge Mallet imagines, both because these layers are the social base of the political and social domination of big capital, and because of the economic interpenetration which occurs between certain of these layers and big capital.

The latter is unable to engage in a resolute struggle against the big “agrarians” and the “mercantile vested interests,” big merchants of the colonies and the metropolitan country, without causing a political crisis which would undermine the social regime itself. Furthermore, these latter layers are often associated under one form or another with the banks and enterprises of big capital. As for the “liberal” designs of big capital in relation to the colonies, which are said to flow from its desire “peacefully” to exploit the wealth of the Sahara, and to broaden the colonial markets by industrialization, they are in fact much more limited for a number of reasons.

Effective control of the Sahara is impossible without real political control of Algeria. But this tendency is opposed politically by the present tendency of the Algerian revolution, an integral part of the Arab revolution, which aims not at an appearance of autonomy but at a real independence and its integration in a united inter-Arab Maghrebian republic.

The difficulty in finding a solution in Algeria springs not only from the presence of a big European colony which now dominates the country, but equally from the importance of the wealth of the Sahara for French imperialism, which has undergone considerable economic expansion during the last few years. Only the defeat of the Algerian (and Arab) revolution under one form or another, would allow of a “liberal” solution, which might if need be take the form of an apparently autonomous or independent regime, provided that in fact it was effectively controlled by French imperialism.

As for the industrialization of the colonies, this is always hampered by the vastness of the capital required for primary investment, without immediate returns, and by the vested interest represented by the extraction of cheap raw materials for the economic expansion of French imperialism.

The picture drawn by Serge Mallet and other well-intentioned apologists of “Mendesist” big capital, supposedly eager for straightforward economic expansion, “liberal” towards the colonies, “enlightenedly paternalistic” towards the metropolitan proletariat, and pioneering in the direction of “socialism” throughout a whole transitional period, which it is necessary to traverse in a kind of alliance with them under a “Popular Front” formula – this picture could correspond only to a finance capital acting in the context of an “economically pure” capitalism in a state of continuous expansion. During the last few years, the boom, which ensured full employment and high wages, has created such illusions. But it suffices for the economic conjuncture to turn towards “recession” for all the “good intentions” of finance capital to be seriously compromised.

A transitional programme for the “left” which takes into account, not the evolution of capitalism as a whole, but only its phase of “upswing,” can only land one in the reformist illusions of a Bernstein.

It was a period of apparently infinite capitalist “upswing” which engendered Bernstein. It is a much more limited conjuncture of upswing which has engendered this whole literature on “revolutionary reformism” during the last few years, with the blessing of the present leaders of the Kremlin thrown in.

But Europe is now in the early stages of a “recession.” Big capital will be forced, by abandoning the policy of full employment, to abandon also that of high wages, since unemployment provides them with other means for associating their slaves with production.

But economic illusions will not be the only ones to suffer in the new conjuncture. The political illusions about the possibilities of democratic reformist action by the proletariat under the domination of big capital are no less compromised. Gaullism’s “strong state,” by taking all power away from Parliament, re-enforcing the Executive, and plebisciting its autocratic Constitution, has already barred the “new parliamentary road” to “socialism.” In the new decorative Assembly which the rigged elections of November are preparing, the representation of the Communist Party will be scandalously reduced to an insignificant quantity.

Thus the means for political action by the proletariat are neutralized. Under these conditions, to speak of the “Popular Front” with the “progressive” big bourgeoisie as the “French road to socialism,” sounds like a grim joke.

Whether the Bonapartist regime of “Gaullism” evolves towards a fascist form, or towards a more hybrid form combining a parliamentary façade with a de facto army-and-police dictatorship, the proletariat will in any case be excluded from any legal political role whatsoever. To break out of the dictatorial straight-jacket which the bourgeoisie is now manufacturing, it will be necessary for it one day to mobilize itself in extra-parliamentary revolutionary action.

In order to make this action possible one day, it is necessary to have an effective transitional programme. But it must be a transitional programme which links the economic and democratic demands necessary at the present stage to regroup the class against “Gaullism,” to more advanced anti-capitalist demands which will endanger the very structure of capitalism, with the whole programme set in the perspective of the taking of political power under the form of a workers’ and peasants’ government.

Such a transitional programme should be worked out, starting right now, by the united front of the workers’ parties (especially the CP and the autonomous SP) and trade-union organizations, on which the workers’ and peasants’ government would be based.

And this is the true “French road to socialism,” outside of which the “left” and the proletariat are in danger of settling in for a long time under the de facto dictatorship of “Gaullism,” just as yesterday, for lack of such a programme, they found themselves defending the anachronistic decadent bourgeois republic, which ended by throwing the broad masses into the arms of the “savior.”

15 October 1958


1. See the review Arguments, June 1958.

2. Socialisme ou Barbarie, July–August 1958.

3. Ibid.

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