The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
THE French Communists were at the zenith of their power at the end of 1946 and early in 1947. The Party at that time was almost a state within a state -- a force strong enough to imperil governmental authority if not to capture it. But during the last two years it has been dislodged from its key positions, the tide of public opinion has run against it, and today it is only a fifth column which, in a national crisis, could be scattered as it was scattered in the autumn of 1939 after the conclusion of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The story of how that Communist power was built up and how it was destroyed supplies an interesting page of French history. And it is of more than local significance, I think, since the question of the promotion of insurrection by a foreign Power and of the means to be taken to combat it is a practical problem in nearly every nation not already controlled by the Soviet Union.
In the elections to the first Constituent Assembly in France, which took place on October 21, 1945, the Communists garnered 26.1 percent of the votes, and after a vehement controversy they exacted from General de Gaulle six seats in the Cabinet. General de Gaulle successfully resisted their claim to receive at least one of the three ministerial departments which they thought vital for their purposes (Armed Forces, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior). But he had to give them control of the national economy. Marcel Paul, the secretary of the Federation of Light and Power Unions, became Minister of Industrial Production, and filled that office for a year. Charles Tillon ruled over the armament industry. Ambroise Croizat was appointed Minister of Labor (and a very competent Minister of Labor he turned out to be). François Billoux took over the portfolio of Reconstruction. And the outstanding leader of the Party, Maurice Thorez, was given the rank of Minister of State and a special assignment to supervise recruiting and promotion in the French civil service.
By deft use of the law of May 17, 1946, which nationalized all coal mines, Marcel Paul succeeded in carving out for the Communist Party a kingdom where his writ ran to the exclusion of any other. The trick was cleverly conceived and unflinchingly carried out. According to the nationalization law, a state-owned company called "Les Charbonnages de France" was set up on May 29. Shortly afterward, nine subordinate companies, also state-owned, each one of them concerned with a regional group of collieries, were organized. One-third of the members of the board of directors of each of those companies was supposed to represent the state, one-third labor, and one-third the consumers (including various industries closely dependent on a steady and cheap supply of coal -- the National Company of French Railways, etc.). In other words, the law provided that a fair balance be kept, in the management of the coal mines, among the three major groups involved. But Marcel Paul daringly filled the boards with a majority of union officials, on the ground that they had been invested with such great responsibilities under the Fourth Republic that they must be considered to be competent to safeguard the interests not merely of the workers but of the state and of the main industrial consumers of coal as well.
In the "Charbonnages de France," 14 directors out of 18 were representatives of labor, and in the regional companies, 11 out of 19. All were Communists, and continued to hold the posts they had held for years in the Communist hierarchy, while presiding over the boards of directors. M. Duguet, for example, the general secretary of the National Federation of Underground Workers (a Communist union), was in the chair of the "Charbonnages de France." And the directing board of the cooperative society at Beaumont (Nord Department), consisting of Communists selected by unions, was given the coveted privilege of distributing to all miners such foodstuffs, textile products and tires as were available in addition to the regular rations. The general manager and president of this organization, M. Parent, Mayor of Avron, was well known as a Communist propagandist.
The committees of workmen to report on safety conditions in the mines, the consultative committees of workmen empowered to keep watch on managerial policy and finances, the grievance committees -- all these were likewise loaded with Communists. The Communists even controlled about 40 percent of the engineers and foremen in the mines. They dispensed the funds set aside for insurance, disability, old age pensions, medical assistance, family allowances, recreation, etc. And finally, since the departments of France where coal mines are located, particularly the Nord and the Pas-de-Calais, contained numberless Communist municipalities, political power was added to economic power. In these areas the Communists had everything their own way; neither the Government nor its local representatives, the prefects and the subprefects, could dream of overruling them.
Yet the French Communist Party had to pay a high price for these commanding positions in the Government, the administrative services and the French economy. When it accepted ministerial responsibilities under General de Gaulle, it had to pretend that it placed French national interests ahead of the interests of the Soviet Union. And indeed, when seen from the viewpoint of the Communist Party, there was an alarming tendency for some French Communists to do just that. The most outspoken exponent of national interests among the Party leaders was Ambroise Croizat, the Minister of Labor. Time after time, in a trenchant style that Sir Stafford Cripps might have taken pride in, he held aloft the ideal of the rebirth of France, declared that increases of wages were out of season, and insisted that increase in industrial production came before all else. General de Gaulle, showing a suppleness which he has sadly lacked ever since, expressed warm appreciation of the attitude of those Marxist colleagues of his who seemed to have such an innate sense of the majesty of the state. Once at a Cabinet meeting when he was reviewing the errors of the Government, he took pains to point out that his criticism did not apply to Maurice Thorez. According to an eyewitness, Thorez was so pleased that he blushed. It looked as though French Communists were being turned into efficient British labor ministers.
Moscow could not permit this to last: the Communists were in danger of losing their souls. They had emerged from the elections to the Constituent Assembly of November 10, 1946, as the strongest single party, and hoped with some reason that a working committee of Socialists and Communists which had been in existence since 1945 could at last bring the two Parties together and that as a result they could win control of the Government. Then on December 4, in the National Assembly, Maurice Thorez failed to win the premiership by the narrow margin of 31 votes. Thanks to Vincent Auriol, Paul Ramadier, Jules Moch and Léon Blum, the Socialists at last broke with the Communists and the French nation escaped a Communist government by a hairsbreadth. On May 4, 1947, the Communist leaders revolted against the Ramadier Cabinet. They now had five ministerial portfolios; one of their number, François Billoux, was Minister of National Defense, and Maurice Thorez was vice-president of the Council. But more and more they felt overshadowed by the other two major parties -- the Socialists of Léon Blum and the Popular Republicans (Catholic Democrats) of Georges Bidault. The arrangements made by Marcel Paul in the nationalized industries were being assailed by the new Minister of Industrial Production, Robert Lacoste. They decided -- or, more likely, Moscow decided for them -- that parliamentary methods had won them as much ground as they were likely to do, and that the time had come for brute force.
By the fall of 1947, the Soviet campaign against the Marshall Plan was under way. To support it in France, the Communist General Confederation of Labor engineered an insurrectionary strike in November-December which came within an ace of disrupting the authority of the government.
In this strike, and the similar one which was attempted 12 months later, the Communists resorted to extremes of violence. The tradition of French syndicalism, which has unfailingly been observed in the fiercest battles between capital and labor, is that plants and tools, the livelihood of all concerned, must be safeguarded. In 1947 and 1948, for the first time in the history of French unionism, that tradition was broken. The maintenance squads to which Communists had been elected often refused to fulfill their tasks. Pumps were not set working and pits were flooded; fires were not kept up and coke furnaces were damaged.
Jules Moch, Minister of the Interior, does not conceal that in 1947 he very nearly despaired of the life of the Republic. Three men planned and directed the battle which saved it: Robert Lacoste, the predecessor and then the successor of Marcel Paul at the Ministry of Industrial Production; Léon Jouhaux, then one of the general secretaries of the General Confederation of Labor; and Moch himself, who displayed imperturbable courage. All three are Socialists.
Robert Lacoste drastically revised the laws and ordinances enacted by Marcel Paul which gave Communists the control of key industries. He ruled that none of the representatives of the state, labor and the consumer industries on the board of directors of the "Charbonnages de France" could lawfully have any connection whatever with any of the groups on the board except the one he was commissioned to represent. He recalled the Communists whom Auguste Lecoeur, the Minister in charge of coal mines, had appointed as his personal delegates to various boards and committees. Wholesale replacements of the same sort were made among general managers and managers.
The workers' welfare societies were the bailiwick of a M. Delafosse, a Communist official who also acted as deputy manager of one of the big coal mines. Delafosse was put on trial for what he had done during the strike of 1947, and the welfare societies were merged with the administrative services. The Beaumont coöperative society lost the scandalous monopoly which it had turned into a source of strike funds. Finally, a law was passed which barred any member of the National Assembly from being appointed to boards of directors in the nationalized industries.
It was because Lacoste had in this way stripped the Communist Party of its most deadly weapons that Jules Moch, Minister of the Interior, dared used force against it when the insurrectionary strike of 1947 was called. What Jules Moch did to ward off a coup d'état is by now well known. [i] Among other measures he carried out a purge among the police commissioners in Paris and other cities and built up a new organization, half police, half military, on the principle that the civil administration of the country must be fully equipped to crush incipient rebellions without resorting to martial law. He divided the French territory into eight districts, plus the Paris area, and put at the disposal of the inspectors general in charge of each (with rank above divisional commanders in the Army) enough men and modern equipment to quell any disturbance. [ii]
For several decades Léon Jouhaux was the moving spirit of the General Confederation of Labor, but at the time of Liberation he had to bow before the rising power of Communism. He was allowed to continue as the secretary general of the organization but was deprived of virtually all authority; the true secretary general was a Communist, Benoit Frachon. Jouhaux played for time, and behind the scene gathered the elements of the third force -- democratic, Socialist, anti-Communist. The open split came when the strike failed in December 1947. Jouhaux set up Force Ouvrière, with a million members. Another million workers joined the Christian unions. Two million others gave up all union affiliations. The Communists were left in the General Confederation of Labor with some 2,000,000 members instead of 6,000,000.
In the municipal elections of October 1947 the Communists lost some 2 percent of their 1946 vote, and, in the departmental elections of March 20, 1949, involving one-third of the departmental councils only, a further 2.5 percent. The number of municipalities and seats in the departmental council wrested from them was much higher than such figures would suggest. In rural districts, the Communist loss in the March elections was more than 6 percent. The Communist army remains formidable; but there is a marked decline from the high-water mark of November 10, 1946, when the Party polled 5,489,000 out of 25,540,000 votes.
The quantitative decline of the Communist Party is reflected not only in electoral statistics but in the circulation of Communist newspapers and weeklies -- Humanité included. If the Government changed the electoral law tomorrow to do away with proportional representation, restored the prewar system of single-member constituencies and election by relative or absolute majority, and dissolved the present National Assembly, probably at least half of the present 183 Communist deputies would be thrown overboard. However, the "Popular Republicans" (Catholic Democrats), one of the two central groups on which the Fourth Republic rests, owe many of their seats to proportional representation, just as the Communists do. And since the present "third force" cabinet wishes the National Assembly to serve out its regular term (to October 1951), the Communists need not fear an early election. M. Henri Queuille, the present Prime Minister, is a country doctor who is averse to surgical operations. As he puts it, the Communist artichoke must be plucked leaf by leaf.
Few of the masses of men and women who are responsive to the Communist appeal know or care much about the Marxist doctrine. Why, then, do they rally to the flag of the Russian revolution? Because they think that their grievances will be righted by the Communists more energetically than by any other party; and it is well to remember that the chief grievance of the working classes, up to the end of last year, centered in a grossly unfair distribution of food supplies.
At the time of the Liberation, popular gratitude toward Russia was probably stronger than toward America and Britain. This was because Moscow had not been drawn into controversy with General de Gaulle and the National Committee as were Roosevelt and Churchill, and also because the Russians were believed to have paid a higher price in blood than any other people for the redemption of Europe. Moreover, the belief spread through France that the Soviet state had been purified by the magnificent outburst of Russian patriotism, that it had been turned into a kind of reformist régime no longer addicted to the pursuit of world revolution and that if it remained strong enough to overpower Germany on all occasions peace was secure. Disgusted with the conspicuous failure of the French élites and upper classes, many Frenchmen thought the country could profitably take a leaf out of the Russian book. In 1943, but for transport difficulties, General de Gaulle would have sent to the Russian front the Free French division which was to fight in Libya and Tunis. And it is significant that the first French diplomatic move after the Liberation was to sign an alliance with the U.S.S.R.
A further factor that tends to swell the number of Communist followers is that the French Socialist Party which was led in turn by Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum -- the "French section of the Second International" as it is wont to style itself -- has degenerated into a petty bourgeois party shorn of all revolutionary glamor. Young folks who long for a new social order, or, at any rate, for some drastic change in the existing social order, are (or were) attracted to the Communists even though they have no interest in Marxist-Leninism.
In contrast to this large "outer ring" of Communism in France are the selected few who make up the hard core of the Party -- the cadres, the framework of French Bolshevism. This group is completely under the thumb of the Kremlin. There exists within it a discipline which may imply the severance of family ties and can be compared only to the discipline of a religious order. Whoever formally adheres to the Party is assigned a cell -- there are in France, now, some 30,000 cells staffed with some 500,000 men and women. The number of Communists in the "core" is probably 1,000,000 -- some 500,000 who carry Party cards (there were 819,000 in December 1946) and another 500,000 who form the militant wing of the General Confederation of Labor. All these stand ready to go to any lengths to carry out Moscow's orders.
The greatest weakness of the Communist Party is qualitative. The leadership is not up to the standard set by Moscow. The controls are held, in accordance with the Moscow pattern, by a Politburo of 14 members and, under the Politburo, by some 10,000 salaried officials. There were perhaps as many as 25,000 salaried officials when the Party had several ministerial departments at its command; and many of the leaders are, indeed, more attracted by the prospect of a job on the public payroll than the prospect of martyrdom. When, in September 1947, A. A. Zhdanov ordered the Communist Parties in nine countries to frustrate the Marshall Plan by attacking the economic structures of those countries, the call for revolutionary action involved too sudden a switch from the opportunistic tactics of recent years for many French Communist leaders to be able to comply. It baffled their wit or was beyond their strength.
The Communists themselves admit that Party efficiency has been impaired. The February 1949 report of the Communist Central Committee which has leaked out is a merciless exposé of insubordination and carelessness rampant in many places. According to the report, the Party directives are often flouted, many secretaries of departmental federations follow their own ideas, and too many intellectuals of bourgeois education have forced their way into the Party. Obviously, a purge was in order, and has indeed begun.
But are the present members of the French Politburo resolute enough to carry through the necessary housecleaning? It is doubtful. Maurice Thorez, the popular orator of the Party, and (to a lesser degree) Jacques Duclos, its parliamentary debater, are relatively tame Communists. Participation in governmental work suited their taste. Temperamentally, they are very different from Etienne Fajon, the Cominform delegate who rules the Communist press, Léon Mauvais, the head of the Party police and of the organization bureau, and André Marty, the ship engineer who deserted in the Black Sea in 1917 and is now a narrow-minded partisan of a somewhat obsolete type. Many believe that, in an emergency, the men now in command would be superseded by new leaders already chosen by Moscow.
The tasks of a fifth column are open insurrection, subversion, sabotage and espionage. What is the French Communist fifth column likely to be able to achieve in these lines?
Rather little. In 1947, at the time of the first insurrectionary strike, 200,000 French troops were mobilized in support of the 120,000 police who are permanently at the call of the Minister of the Interior. Nothing was done to conceal or to soften the challenge thrown out to the strikers. Troop trains were run, and great quantities of coal were brought from the Ruhr to keep all industries going at the usual tempo. The railway men did nothing to hamper it. (Incidentally, it was realized then what luck it was that the Communist Party had never gained the same hold on the nationalized railways as in the coal mines and in electricity, gas and other industries.) The miners felt they were alone, and this was too much for the spirit of rebellion, if rebellion there was.
The flagrant failure of the insurrectionary strikes has demonstrated that the armed forces can be relied upon to protect the Republic against would-be revolutionaries of every description, even when the latter screen themselves behind labor claims which, in part, have some justification. The Communists were prone to think they had many sympathizers in the armed forces, since a good proportion of the recruits belong to the working classes. In 1944, moreover, General de Gaulle had been practically compelled to incorporate in the French Army the maquis organization known under the name of Francs Tireurs et Partisans. The maquis interlocked with the Communist Party. They fought bravely on the battlefield, but believed themselves invested with a revolutionary mission and boldly usurped governmental authority. Some feared lest the Communist Party had thus been provided with a pretorian guard within the Army. But the pretorian guard has faded away.
Taken as a whole, the French officer corps today may be classified as "reactionary." In such surroundings, a Communist, however cautiously he may behave, is quickly detected and sidetracked. Communist action or propaganda is a rare occurrence in the Army. One single case has been reported to me. Last November, at Villerupt (Meurthe-et-Moselle), when the miners' strike was in full swing, a company of infantry was ordered to occupy a factory where strikers had barricaded themselves. The 120 infantrymen under the command of a captain took the factory from the strikers; but suddenly they moved out, and the strikers retrieved their loss. The captain was a Communist. When Premier Queuille heard of the episode he was deeply concerned. Was this Communist captain to be the first of a series? He was unique. The incident had no sequel anywhere.
But would a network of Communist maquis come to light if circumstances more propitious to revolution did exist? To that query a high authority on the French general staff answers that no Communist organization which had been put together underground would have the faintest chance of surviving in the open. The experience of 1940-1945 showed that guerrilla warfare, which military books had discarded as a systematic method of fighting, had regained validity. The French general staff, in particular, has reason to be well aware of this, and has in fact given the subject a great deal of study. Elaborate preparations have been worked out not only to eliminate guerrillas, if ever they are unleashed on French soil, but also to assist in the formation of partisan bands in enemy lands and to support them with supplies and, in some contingencies, with airborne troops. To protect French territory against guerrillas, 300,000 men have been given special training and up-to-date equipment. Teams of skilled workers who could quickly repair damage inflicted upon railways, bridges, etc., have been organized, and the arrangements are being continuously perfected. Successful Communist insurrection is not a possibility.
In the field of sabotage and espionage the Communists are more dangerous, and here, too, the great strikes of 1947 and 1948 provided the state with valuable experience in checkmating them. The Communist leadership ordered sabotage of every conceivable kind; but even so the results were not too impressive. In his speech on November 16, 1948, Jules Moch listed 50 cases of destruction of equipment, and 367 cases of assault. The reluctance of the average workman to destroy the tools that he regards as his means of existence was much stronger than the Communist leaders expected. The slow-down -- what the British call "cacanny" -- is a form of sabotage more difficult to check; but in France it can hardly resist premium payments.
Perhaps the most successful sabotage to the credit of the French Communists was more or less inadvertent, namely, sabotage by incompetence -- the incompetence of officials given jobs by the Party. For example, two Communist ministers, MM. Fernand Grenier and Charles Tillon, reigned in turn over the destinies of the air forces, and under them all managerial functions fell into the hands of Communists. This explains why the recovery of French air power has been so slow, and also why Communist officers still are more numerous in the air forces than in the land forces. They are being methodically cleaned out, however, and in about ten months French factories will again be producing up-to-date fighting planes.
The danger of espionage is real, though it would not be easy, nowadays, to come across a Communist installed in a post of power in the administrative services or in the armed forces. The best known adept of Communism in the Army was a general who had been a mate of General de Gaulle at St. Cyr, and whom de Gaulle sent to Moscow as the head of a military mission. He has vanished from active service. In the diplomatic service, the appointment of one single secretary of embassy was conceded to the Communists in 1945-1946: they had asked for four. Last year, this exceptional diplomat was recalled from his post and is serving now in a nonpolitical section of the Quai d'Orsay. A dozen minor officials are supposed to have set up a cell there; they are known to everyone. The true difficulty begins with the very small fry -- the hundreds of clerks, typists, secretaries, etc., within whose reach a confidential document may come. But they are scattered, they seldom have a room to themselves and such a thing as supervision and investigation does exist. Since 1947 a slow process of housecleaning has gone on.
A few months ago, seven subordinate Army officers of Communist leaning were put under arrest and charged with having supplied a newspaper with secret information. Most have been released. Only one of them was in a position to give away anything of importance, and he is still in custody. His connection with the Communist Party is a matter of doubt.
The most disturbing question that arises in this connection concerns Frederic Joliot-Curie, the high commissioner for atomic energy, who openly displays Communist affiliations. The tolerance he has enjoyed up till now on the part of the Government he owes to M. Raoul Dautry, a former Minister of Armament, a true patriot and staunch conservative. M. Dautry swears that Joliot-Curie will never impart confidential information to any foreigner, even a Russian, and, as it were, "goes bond" for him. This rather odd state of affairs can hardly last much longer.
To complete the story with some general conclusions:
First, American aid to Western Europe beyond question tipped the balance against the Communist Party in France. There were two crucial times: in 1946-1947, when ministerial power came within reach of the Communists, and in the autumn of 1947 and the autumn of 1948, when the insurrectionary strikes were unleashed. If masses of unemployed had been wandering in the streets at those moments the Socialist Party of Léon Blum might have been induced to stick to the alliance with the Communists, and the measures devised by Jules Moch to put down insurrection might have been much more difficult to carry out. Marshall aid, and the funds which came earlier, prevented that.
Second, the French Communists now have no chance to govern France unless there is an invasion of French territory by the Red Army. Some of our American friends infer from this that armaments ought not to be supplied to the French Army, since a Russian invasion, though improbable, must be regarded as possible until France's national defense has been rebuilt; thus, they say, there is a danger of American equipment falling into the hands of the Russians. The best answer to this is that if France were overrun the Russians would in any case secure booty of many kinds and that the only remedy for this danger is to end the "military vacuum" as quickly as possible. It will take three or four years before the goal of West European military reconstruction can be fully reached; but as the result of her own exertions plus American assistance, France will before that have an army capable of resisting the invaders or, at any rate, of avoiding capture. The greatest danger would be a prolongation of the "military vacuum" after 1952 -- the time the Soviet Union will supposedly become an "atomic Power." Then resistance might indeed seem hopeless and morale everywhere would sink. The time to work to avoid that is now.
Third, the French Government must take even more energetic measures to purge the civil service of Communist and semi-Communist elements. Abrogation of the right of government employees to strike is overdue; but little can be achieved in that direction without the concurrence of the Socialist Party.
Fourth, as long as parliamentary institutions function normally, no Cabinet can unqualifiedly charge a Party boasting 183 Deputies in the National Assembly with treason and felony. Evidence which judges and courts find adequate for indictment for treason is hard to collect. The words of Maurice Thorez about the welcome which the Red Army would find in France (reëchoed by so many Communist leaders in unison in so many lands that instructions from Moscow are clearly indicated) are not enough, if closely examined, to support a successful penal action. Thorez and his friends cleverly qualified their remarks with some such clause as "on the day the Red Army comes to liberate France," etc. In court this would supply a way of escape. Doubtless, however, the Ministry of Interior knows more about Communist activities and Russian intervention than Jules Moch has thought fit to reveal.
In the past, the Soviet Government has professed itself completely unconcerned whenever complaints have been made about its relationship with foreign Communists: it has asserted that any national government is at liberty to do whatever it likes within its own frontiers. Mustapha Kemal, 25 years ago, availed himself of such assurances to destroy the Turkish Communists at the very moment when he was tightening his country's bonds with Russia. Whether the Kremlin would show the same tolerance today is anybody's guess.
[i] See "France Gets to Her Feet," by André Géraud. Foreign Affairs, April 1949.
[ii] Recently, M. Berteaux, the inspector general at Lyons, a man of exceptional ability and energy, has been appointed head of the whole network.