[Trigger warning: mention of metaphorical suicide.]
Noir & Rouge, issue 9, Winter 1957/58?
The FCL and the elections of January 2, 1956
This article is not an “analysis” with definitive conclusions, or a polemic aimed at rekindling old quarrels. Since the first issue of Noir et Rouge (“Black and Red”), we always maintained that Anarchists should, in order to free themselves from their “family affairs” complex, resolutely abandon in their writing any state of mind or tone of voice which might prolong indefinitely conflicts which are all too marked by their personal nature. This must not prevent us, as we also stated at the start of our work, to go back without hesitation on some theoretical or tactical issues of Anarchism, which sometimes led to mistakes being made, deviations and also, why not say it, betrayals.
We thought that a reminder of how an organization which claimed itself, despite everything, libertarian communist, such as the former FCL (the former Anarchist Federation had indeed switched its name, in December 1953, to the name Libertarian Communist Federation) could help, by its concrete and relatively recent aspect, illustrate eloquently the sometimes contradictory thoughts of Anarchists around a still current issue.
Let’s try to see more clearly.
How could the idea of presenting a list of “candidates” in the legislative elections of January 2, 1956 be accepted by an organization whose newspaper was called “Le Libertaire” and whose official aim was the triumph of libertarian communism, the logical result from its anti-state theoretical position? In reality, this affair is not that simple and a quick study will show that the operation “participation” was the end result of a long process, which the FCL 1955 congress will definitely mark in print when it adopted the “revolutionary-participationist” theses, already developed in the internal bulletin of the organization, after a psychological preparation of militants which we will follow step by step. The theses adopted allowed for a “conditional” participation, the details of which are detailed in this article. Whatever: the principle was accepted, and from theory to reality there was only one step, quickly made with the early elections of New Year’s Day 1956.
In order to understand, or at least try to understand, past events, we have to do our best to take away the subjective elements of our judgment on the people responsible for the FCL electoral adventure. There is no point to know whether this or that militant had some secret thoughts when they argued in favour of participation, whether this or that “candidate” placed on the FCL list obeyed more their personal pride than their duty (sorry for the word) as a revolutionary militant. On these issues, each one of us can only suppose. Of the profound thoughts of individuals, we have no certitude. Also, simple objectivity forces us only to judge on proofs, that is what we will try to do in presenting the political arguments put forward by the supporters of participation. First of all, a bit of history, or rather a short story, will help us see more clearly.
How the idea made its way within the organization
For already several weeks, discussions on that issue circulated by word of mouth, so to speak, within the groups of the FCL in early 1955. Originally, the pretence was a reminder of our1 position about town council elections of April 26, 1953. At this time, the Anarchist Federation wrote on a poster (Le Libertaire 23/4/53, n°357):
“These elections are an imposture (…) It’s true, workers, as every party will tell you, every party having had a go at leading a town council achieved something: a sports ground, a celebration room, better school meals, etc (…) But unemployment, fascism, and war are still here (…) The state continued its war policy and destroyed the realizing possibilities of communes (…) We are not fooled (…) To the workers who, after this, still want to vote thinking they choose a lesser evil, we remind them that the right is reaction and the left is betrayal. We say: “Vote, but it will just be one more experience” (…) Mass abstention! Not because we have no interest for the town issues, but, on the contrary, because the whole regime is to blame, and because these elections are an imposture (…) etc.”
And the AF to call, by way of conclusion, to revolutionary action in order to overthrow the regime. Some militants might still remember the forceful opposition of political parties (Stalinists among others) in some sectors as diverse as Maisons-Alfort and Ménilmontant-Belleville, against our anti-elections campaign. However, despite the augurs predicting a further rise in abstentionism, the percentage of non-voters was on the contrary very small! At the time, we were quite surprised and some comrades expressed the idea that it would be good to revise our “anti” tactics, given the latest results. Things, however, remained there, with no change to the official position of the federation on the issue.
It is in January-February 1955 that this old issue was put back under scrutiny. Reminding us of the 1953 elections, some comrades said it could be a better idea completely to stop using any 100% abstentionist propaganda, and that this was the weakness of libertarians, that it could be held against us, etc. And so the dialogue starts. But the debate takes a weirder turn very quickly, and some already express the wish for the FCL to adopt a more “lenient” tactical position by taking part in elections, potentially only at the level of town-councils. It was not going to remain there, and, in March 1955, the attack was formerly launched in the “Lien” (“Link”), the internal bulletin of the organization, with a motion from the FCL group of Maisons-Alfortville (if we precise the FCL group, it is because, at the time, there were two libertarian groups in Maisons-Alfort: the FCL one, and one from the new Anarchist Federation, reconstituted at Christmas 1953). Here is the motion in its entirety:
“The MAA group wonders if it would not be the opportunity, during the next national congress, to open a debate on the means to amplify libertarian communist propaganda. We make the observation that we are present in the streets, in unions, why would we not imagine carrying our action on the more strictly-speaking political level? In the event of an electoral campaign, what would the attitude of the federation be? Must we be content with claiming the traditional and formal principle of abstentionism? Would it not be suitable to reconsider this notion of abstentionism in order to see to what extent it can determine our behaviour without putting us in contraction with the founding ideas which are at the origin of the creation of the FCL: excessive class struggle, and direct action? By systematically abstaining, do we not risk losing our influence within the working-class? On the other hand, electoral struggle having become a form of the class-struggle, could we not envision this issue as a tactical issue relative to circumstances and to the realities of the social struggle? In fear of hurting preconceived ideas, must we be content with an ill-fitting revolutionarism which would be the equivalent of a pure and simple resignation? Must we, by lack of cohesion, of directive, and in fear of words, like in the past, compromise the libertarian communist revolution?
Motion, passed unanimously on 25/2/55 in M.A.”
We wished to publish this motion in its entirety, as it is extremely significative of the state of mind of some comrades at the time, in full ideological confusion.
In the same “Link”, the FCL national committee submitted a synthesis of the propositions for the agenda sent by a few groups for the May congress. In paragraph 4 of this synthesis proposal (orientation and tactics), point b mentioned: the issue of electoral participation. That is proof that this issue had been carefully crafted and that it was now launched forward. In April, the “Link” published 1) the definitive agenda for the congress, with the adoption of point b. 2) a very long 9-page article by comrade F2, entitled “In favour of revolutionary practicism”. To quote the full article would be too long and somewhat fastidious for the reader, so let’s just look at its four point conclusion:
“a) anti-parliamentarianism and revolutionary practicism.
b) participation in elections when real conditions exist to elect revolutionary working-class representatives, therefore determination of our position when faced with each concrete situation.
c) severe control by the organization of the people elected.
d) participation in elections can only be one of the forms of agitation of the organization and must in no way prevail over other forms.”
To inform comrades, let’s precise that by “revolutionary practicism”, the author of the article intended to answer the question: why is taking part in elections not to be confused with parliamentarianism or reformism? After a quick explanation which justified how revolutionary struggles can be in favour of some demands without falling into reformist syndicalism, he concluded:
“In the same way, we can take part in electoral struggles, have representatives in town councils or assemblies if we consider we will not then have posts of legislators but of agitators. We see this as a form of agitation which cannot be neglected. We can say that such a position is in no way reformism, but revolutionary practicism (…)”
Finally, in this same April “Link”, if a few groups already expressed their agreement with an eventual electoral participation of the FCL “when the real conditions exist”, the future “opposition”, at the congress, manifested on the other hand their vivacious hostility to the motion of Alfortville, as well as the Lyon group, the Mâcon group declared:
“The group wants to declare with force that the MAA text (the electoral struggle having become a form of the class struggle!) is in its eyes an attack on the Declaration of Principles of the FCL which states: “The specific libertarian-communist organization is attached to the present struggles of the exploited and oppressed masses, but always in the sense of direct action.” Consequently, the group demands that the issue of electoral participation be taken off the agenda of the congress.”
And thus the discussion grew within the FCL until the national congress, without Le Libertaire having made any publicity of the internal controversy of the movement. It must be noticed however that in June 1953, an article from Le Libertaire entitled “The Demo-Christians’ defeat is a sign of the maturity of the Italian proletariat” had caused some worries and surprises among the readership, reinforced on September 10 and 24 of the same year by two articles on the same theme: workers’ votes for left parties = political maturity (Le Libertaire, September 10, 1953 n°372, article by A.V. correspondent from the Anarchist Groups of Proletarian Action (Italy) “The current political situation in Italy” — Le Libertaire, September 24, 1953 n°375 “Stop fascism” by P.P.). When we said at the start that, after the elections of April 1953 and the few reproaches expressed on our tactics, things had remained there within the movement, we had forgotten to mention these few worrying lines, mea culpa! But let’s get back to the year 1955. Le Libertaire is then discrete about the issue of elections, apart maybe for a very short article (Le Libertaire, April 28, 1955 n°448, “The cantonal elections” by R.J.) about the cantonal elections, the conclusion of which will sound curious:
“The fact that there is a shifting to the left in such sterile elections and after systematic betrayals on the part of all parties that represented the left, shows a heightened will of the workers, a renewal of working-class fighting spirit. Up to us to know how to allow this will to fight to ascertain itself and be put into effect.”
Very curious was this workers’ “heightened will to fight”, since they were voting! And on top of this, for parties which had systematically betrayed them!
The national congress accepts participation
On May 28, 29 and 30, 1955, the FCL congress was held in Paris. During this congress, the theses of the “conditional” participation (the conditions being those mentioned in the article “Revolutionary practicism”) of our organization in future elections were adopted with quite a large majority, despite a “glorious last stand” from the opponents to the new electoral tactics, that is, the groups of Lyon, Mâcon and a few Paris militants.
Some conciliatory efforts had been attempted however, and we were ready to give up the absolutely abstentionist position, some of us even accepting maybe the participation in town elections, which represented a major concession already on our part. The affair having been scrupulously “peeled” in the groups, we had systematically regrouped all the “pros” and “cons” and counted them: to no avail, the sum of “cons” was always higher! The highest number of cases had also been envisioned, and since we were talking about elections, we might as well go the whole way! To start with, the principle itself of anti-parliamentarianism was examined: the congress agreed generally to preserve it, although a certain contradiction appeared with the adoption of the measures that were to follow. Another case was the participation in town council elections: let’s say this argument was the one which had the most strength on us, with its supporters exposing the useful role which having FCL elected officials could have at the level of the city, for one, the advantage of being in closer contact with the voters than during the legislative elections, propaganda being able to result in favour of libertarian communist ideas from the energetic action led to realise some things. We were also shown the advantages we would have from using the poster-stands and panels in order to make our ideas and programmes better-known, and, last but not least, the old call to our libertarian attachment to the idea of a commune was quite craftily used, by comrades who claimed they refused precisely any “sentimentalism”. We must recognize that some of the arguments were not valueless, but we could not stop asking these questions: even at the strict level of the commune or township, how would an elected official (maybe two), claiming to be anti-statist, accomplish any useful task without being soon isolated from their politician “colleagues”, then soon hindered and fought, even annihilated? To this, the proponents answered that the FCL elected official, when treated in such a way, could publicly attack their town council opponents, protesting against their methods and the regime which favours them, and thus increase our propaganda within the population. It can however be asked whether the voter, seeing the failure of their “revolutionary” elected official, would not have simply thought “he shouldn’t have gone if he knew what to expect!”, which would lead to an increase in the propaganda for the voter being brutally conscious that he has been fooled once more? Nothing is less certain.
Quite an amazing case was also put forward: indirect participation through a support to the “workers’” party closest to the FCL positions. We think it is not useful to spend long on this issue, which we also did at the time. To ask what “workers’” party was synonymous for some to answer with “the most left”, obviously, therefore the French Communist Party, or the Socialist Party, or even Trotskyists, why not? Now there would be the Socialist Left Union (!) to consider, but, once again, we must know whether militants, anti-statist by principle, are ready to get stuck in the slightly disgusting clockwork of the state machine in order to better demolish it from within. This is the only question, and we can after all commit political suicide in several different ways. And, since we are talking about suicide, participation in legislative elections themselves was finally discussed. To put it clearly, the possibility for a FCL militant to be presented on a list recognized by the organization, and if they were ever elected, to sit in Parliament among the 600 something MPs which compose the National Assembly. We can measure there the long road already walked by some comrades who, a few weeks earlier, only defended the town council participation!
We still think it is pointless to be outraged or sarcastic like some Anarchists believed they had to be. It is easy to accuse comrades who are mistaken of all evils (being wrong can happen), harder to try to understand their motives. We can say that many, among these comrades, sincerely thought (with some naivety from some and an obvious lack of political training from others, a fact we are all responsible for, by the way) that one or a few decided and honest militants could seriously influence the fate of workers by playing in the Assembly the role of “revolutionary commandos”, this word which was to be often repeated in Le Libertaire during its electoral campaign in late 1955. These comrades simply forgot that the only gesture that revolutionaries can make in the Assembly is to throw a bomb in it and that if we are not, or no longer, partisans of this old method, by principle or by fear, we have nothing to do there! And even if we accept the purely “technical” aspect of the operation, what could have a couple (at most) of FCL MPs achieved by making scandals in Parliament? Did the agitation of Marty, with his leather belt, change anything to the fate of the exploited, when in the first years of his mandate, he routinely was evicted forcefully by the officials from Parliament? What about the risk of absorption of the new MP by the system? To this, we were told that “the organization would severely control its elected officials”. How? And for how long? We only have to be reminded of the example, painful to all Anarchists, of the “minister-comrades” during the Spanish revolution. They had behind them, in theory, a much more powerful organization than the FCL to “control” them and we can wonder: what was the best work accomplished at that time, the work of the CNT-FAI grassroots, or the work of the “minister-comrades”? It could be said that it is a different case, that it was the war and it is easy to criticize afterwards, it is true. But did this not leave us, libertarians, with the same unease?
To get back to the congress, material advantages were also mentioned: reimbursement of the cost of propaganda during the campaign, reimbursement of the deposits of any candidacy which scored over 5% of votes (our underscoring), indemnities earned by elected officials, etc. To this last argument, the experiment of January 2, 1956 was to answer with facts, justifying the most passionate, even desperate, warnings.
That is how, pushing away any effort of conciliation, ignoring the elementary calls to prudence, the FCL congress agreed on the principle of participation and ran towards its fate.
The FCL electoral campaign
It was on October 27, 1955 that the FCL position on the electoral issue went from being internal to being public, by the way of Le Libertaire. It was first something small, of course, an article which ended like this:
“A working-class MP must not play the parliamentarian game of the bourgeois class. He knows that the people he is talking to are not sincere, that there is no parliamentary compromise, that he must rely on the direct action of workers” (Le Libertaire, n°450, “Vote explanations and parliamentary pantomime” M.H.)
On top of an undeniable contradiction of all the terms in this epilogue, the idea of the “working-class MP” was launched. The following issues of Le Libertaire were going to toughen it all up, first of all with a series of articles “The FCL and the Popular Front” (n°451, 452, 453, G.F.) and above all by the editorials, which were much more direct. The November 17 one became even more precise and the upcoming electoral participation of the FCL could be guessed transparently. After the December 8 issue in which an extraordinary convening of the FCL national council in reason of “the seriousness of the circumstances and the proximity of the electoral campaign” was announced, it was the official confirmation on December 15, when Le Libertaire declared: “The FCL enters the fight” with the presentation of a list of 10 candidates and the opening of a special fundraising for the campaign which started. From this moment on, it was obvious that an irreversible process was underway and that the FCL was trapped in the usual pattern, with its “programme” and “meetings” etc. Let’s add that, through several comrades, we learned that the participation in these elections had not been decided without infighting, and a few “pros” at the congress being brutally put against the wall by the events and starting to realize the difficulties of the undertaking. Le Libertaire, however, organized its campaign. November 24, Camillo Berneri was called as ideological reinforcement, and the publication of part of his article on the electoral issue (Adunata dei Refrattari, 25/4/1936) tended to justify participation. On December 22, the Algerian workers of the first sector of the Seine were called to vote for the Libertaire list… by Le Libertaire obviously. On the electoral panels on the St Michel boulevard or the Versailles gate, the yellow poster of the Libertaire list reproduced, on top of the pictures of the FCL candidates (one of which is presently a member of the directing committee of the UGS), their programme: fight for better life conditions, fight against the war and colonialism, fight for secular schools and youth, fight for women’s “freedom and dignity”, fight for the elderly. This election programme, like many others, seemed attractive at first sight and some preoccupations were even excellent (among others, the advising of free abortion in medical settings and free contraceptive means could only attract the sympathy of all even only half–decent, not necessarily “revolutionary” people) but we could not stop seeing its demagogy, compulsory in these cases. Of course, Le Libertaire considered at length the role of “elected officials” in the Assembly, their action as “revolutionary commandos” etc. As for the public meetings held by the FCL, Le Libertaire wrote for example on December 29: “You only have to see the reactions from the audience, to hear the applause (…)” but rarely mentions the number of people in attendance! How are these meetings held, what atmosphere do they create? This is what we are going to see through two meetings held on the same evening of December 30.
It is 9 p.m. We are in a small classroom of the school 36 bis rue Violet (15e), Paris. Let’s count: there are exactly 13 people, including 5 FCL militants which we have seen before (it is true that we are in a half-bourgeois district and this could also explain the almost emptiness of the room, and it is cold). An orator, comrade F. finishes his speech before running off to the second meeting which is held 18 rue du Moulin-des-Prés, in the heart of the proletarian district of the 13th arrondissement, this time. In order better to see the difference, let’s follow the wandering orator and arrive soon after him around 10 p.m. in this modest gym where we can now count 15 people, including 6 militants minimum. The room is dead, despite the “popular” tone used by the orator (in the 15th arrondissement, arguments were more subtle, their expression more refined) and that might be when we measure the sad comedy of such a situation. Once the speeches are over, the opponents are prayed to expose their position. Once, twice, no opposition. The electrophone then spouts out a “vibrant” Internationale, while the audience, following the imperious example of the militants, get up from their seats. In order to kindle enthusiasm, there would have been in other meetings Soviet chants and war songs…
That was on December 30, the last day of the electoral campaign. On January 2, 1956, the FCL scored in the 1st sector of the Seine (13th, 14th, 15th, 5th, 6th, 7th arrondissements) 960 votes in the first results (« France Soir »), 1200 for another, then 1600, 1800 according to the newspaper. We will never know how many exactly, and for a couple dozen, maybe hundred votes it does not matter so much. Le Libertaire of January 5 announced, very vaguely: “Thousands of workers of the 1st sector of Paris have manifested their agreement with our politics”. It seems to us logical to remark that the FCL should have been the first to give a precise figure. Why such an ambiguity? Since they still have to give some figure, and the readership is curious, Le Libertaire of January 12 announces “close to 3000 votes”, so overall, we can guess the number of FCL voters at around 2000 people “VOTE MASSIVELY” had said Le Libertaire.
The conclusion? It is easy enough to establish. Militants claiming to be libertarian communists tried the electoral adventure. What anti-statist propaganda was able to arise from these few weeks? And how could the astonished voters faced with the list from Le Libertaire (when, to them, Le Libertaire was Anarchists, whatever you say!) make a difference between that list and others sometimes run by small parties such as Trotskyist groups and others, the first care of which is to advise, in case of a second turn, their voters to vote for the French Communist Party? Material advantages? We believe to know that a certain number of comrades, who mistakenly and recklessly bet on this adventure had to pay for a long time, out of their savings, the various spendings incurred. The deposit (without anywhere near 5% of the vote), the posters, all the expenses caused by such an undertaking (Le Libertaire of January 19 mentioned: the FCL owes over a million for the election campaign expenses — article by B.D. “Elections and bourgeois democracy”). And what must have felt these comrades whose only capital was their enthusiasm and good faith? Le Libertaire itself, faced with the results out of proportion with the efforts made confessed on January 12:
“We are not a party in which bluff is king, and we believe that one of the essential conditions for Progress is to face the facts, even if they are not always of a nature to create enthusiasm. We are not hiding that the result obtained by the FCL is modest (…)”
It is hard to hide the glaring fact, even though for the actual results Le Libertaire tries by savant arithmetics to prove the 3000 voters (if you say so!) represent really 20 to 30,000 workers of the Paris area influenced by its propaganda! (Le Libertaire n°461 “Lessons from our participation”). The FCL voters are therefore called to a discussion meeting on January 25, to envision the situation after the elections. That was the moment to see who were the voters and what they thought. Unfortunately, the minutes which should have logically followed such a meeting were never published in Le Libertaire and it is on this last not very encouraging sign for eventual new participationists that we will end the tale of an experiment from which Anarchists should learn.
1 The author was a member of the FCL until the June 1955 congress, resigning from this organization after the vote accepting electoral participation. Other isolated comrades, as well as the Lyon and Mâcon groups, also resigned during that period.
2 We do not think that the full names of the mentioned comrades have any great importance, only the facts matter here.