Max Shachtman

Reports on Four Months in France and England

Tug-of-War in Europe –
An Eyewitness Picture

(25 June 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 29, 19 July 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Ten years have intervened between the last two visits I have been able to make to Europe. I was there in 1938, at the very moment of the Munich Conference when the overture was played to the grim symphony of destruction that followed a year later. I was there again for almost four months this year – 1948, leaving the continent a fortnight ago. It goes without saying that the changes have been sweeping and profound.

It is impossible for cold print to convey the picture of devastation which meets even the casual traveler’s eye, even though accounts of the destruction have become commonplace in the United States – and that which I saw in France and England was far, far from the worst signs of it. If nevertheless I mention it first, it is because there is nothing else which so vividly conveys an idea of the barbarous depths to which our decadent society has already brought us and the even lower depths into which it is now preparing to hurl us. For an American – no matter who he is – the sight must be viewed with the living eye in order to be understood.

But the picture of physical devastation is only the surface appearance of the changes that have taken place, like the gruesome facades opposite the famous Paddington Station in London. Here is a long row of what used to be hotels and rooming houses, one right after the other, for hundreds of yards. By a grotesque accident, every single building front remains standing. But one look past the glassless window frames and you see that everything behind them has been blasted and burned to blackened rubble ...

So too, the war has wrought deep changes not only in the physical front of Europe but also in its social structure, among the classes in conflict, in the political alignments and perspectives.


The first thing that is evident is the crushing moral defeat of fascism that came with its military defeat in the war. So thoroughgoing has been the discreditment of fascism, above all of Hitlerism, that I consider it nonsensical to think of a rehabilitation of any powerful fascist mass movement in Europe in the coming years – no revival, that is, of the fascist movements as they were. The ignominious collapse of the whole edifice of fascism in Germany, Italy and all over Europe, the ludicrous contrast with its former boasts of durability and even permanence – this might well serve as a lesson to all those who lightly dream of imposing an iron dictatorship over a modern world and modern people.

De Gaulle and Stalinism Based on Resistance

In no country of Europe today is it possible for a political movement or a political personality that was tainted by fascism or even by collaboration with it to make any significant step forward, to find a sympathetic audience among the people. That is true even in Germany, where fascism struck its deepest roots in the social structure.

By the same token, only those are able to hold their head above the political waters who are able to point to a record of active participation in one of the movements of national resistance that arose during the war against the rule of the Nazis. In France, for example, if de Gaulle enjoys any popular support, if he is able to speak out against the Stalinists and get an attentive audience, it is due almost entirely to his prominent association with the resistance movement against Nazism. And it is only because of this that he has been able to rally around him a considerable number of young people who, unlike him, are not reactionaries but who see in the struggle against Stalinism (that is, Russian domination) the continuation of their wartime struggle against Nazi rule.

In a different way the same holds true, especially in France, for the Stalinists. Just before the war and in the first year or two of the war, the Stalinist party was probably the most discredited political organization in France. If it succeeded, as it undoubtedly did, in retrieving and surpassing to an unprecedented degree its former political prestige and strength, that was due above all to the exceptional, militancy it displayed in the underground national resistance movement which it helped develop – for reasons of its own which are now so obvious to all.

Between them, the de Gaullists and Stalinists today represent the big majority of the French people. By any standard the Schuman government rules as a minority. Schuman’s Catholic Party plus the party of Leon Blum plus the odds and ends they manage to get in the Chamber of Deputies for their scanty majorities – all represent not only a minority of the working class but a minority of the population as a whole.

How is it possible for such a government to continue in power? In actuality it does not satisfy any of the classes, least of all the working class. It has not succeeded in resolving the most acute economic problems, the first of which is the problem of the cost of living in relation to wages.

The answer is not simple but is not impossible to find.

France is the outstanding “defeated victor” in the war. Even before the war it was in the process of becoming an economically backward country as compared with the U.S. or Germany or even Russia. Even before the war, its equipment was antiquated; today it is practically obsolete, because it has never been replaced. The workers are indifferent to the needs of production because they have not the slightest incentive to increase productivity.

Burdens on France’s Chaotic Economy

Economically speaking, the bourgeoisie is almost completely disorganized. In France the disintegration of capitalism has reached the point where there are (so to speak) three economies existing side by side; and their coexistence makes for a fabulous chaos. There is the private industry of the private capitalists. There is the nationalized industry, which is a mass of inefficiency and even corruption. And there is the widespread black market, in which – for the price – one can buy virtually everything. If you wish, there is in addition the supplementation from the American economy, the so-called Marshall Plan aid.

Incapable of reconciling itself to the fact that it is at best a third-rate power, France continues to act the way it did at the end of the First World War, Its empire is falling apart and it. seeks desperately to hold it together. In Indo-China it has for more than two years had to fight a full-scale imperialist colonial war to deprive the country of its independence. The same is true for the lesser known war it has been carrying on in Madagascar. In both of these cases French imperialism has the loyal support of Leon Blum’s Socialist Party.

While its economy is in the most disorganized condition, the state tries to maintain a military budget which is impossible from any point of view and which is an unendurable burden upon the economy and upon the people. It costs France a quarter of a million francs a year to train and maintain a single soldier; the. average wage of the French worker is a little more than half of that. The military budget is officially about a third of the total; actually it is about half the total budget. Wages have been fixed at about 12,000 francs a month – less than $10 a week. The cost of living rises persistently and is higher than the official figures because these do not take into account the prices on the black market. But the production index rises hardly at all.

The French bourgeoisie and the government wait impatiently and in terror until Marshall Plan aid shall begin to flow into the country. The conditions of the peasants, especially those in the North, are comparatively good because they devote their production to the black market – and are cordially hated, as a consequence, by the workers.

The conditions of the workers are extremely bad. Only the poorest cuts of meat are ever found on the family table, and then very seldom. Butter is the greatest luxury imaginable, found almost only on the black market at impossible prices. Coffee is adulterated. French wine, traditionally among the finest, has become so bad that this is revealed in the declining figures on wine exports. Clothing is of the worst quality. Only rent is low – by our standards, not those of the French workers.

Stalinists in Decline Offer No Perspective

The effect of this situation on the working class is very interesting, and has both its heartening and discouraging aspects. The French worker feels that he fought the Nazis not only for liberation from foreign rule but from any rule. The most popular meetings, still today, are those which sound the note of continuing “our revolution”: the one that was begun against the Nazis and collaborators and which must be concluded by the socialist power of the people. The masses did not want and do not want to return to anything like the pre-war France.

That is why, by and large, the workers followed the Communist Party. From the purely physical point of view, the CP could easily have taken power in France after the liberation.

Everyone in France knows that. There was absolutely nobody to offer resistance. Even in the last November strikes there was a situation where the CP could have had the upper hand. The police and the Republican Guard were frightened to death. But the CP did not even try to take power, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, are learning the reason.

The CP could not take power without precipitating war between the U.S. and Russia. All it could do was to try to disrupt production, nullify the effects of the coming Marshall Plan and force the government into a more favorable attitude toward the Kremlin. In other words, while the CP could not rule it refused to let anyone else rule.

It is impossible to maintain a high morale among the followers of an insurrectionary party in such conditions. That is why the morale of the CP has fallen catastrophically. Its strength today is purely negative and its membership for the most part purely formal. The mood of its members, and of the members of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) which it controls, is passive in the extreme. The big majority of its official seven to eight hundred thousand members never even come to meetings of their nuclei or branches.

The party has nothing to offer them. It cannot speak of taking over the government, tied as it is to Russia’s diplomatic plans. It cannot even speak realistically of a coalition with the SP, since everybody knows that is out of the question. It has no perspective whatsoever, except opposition to American imperialism. It is held together by an iron guard, a nucleus of about 10,000 tough, hardened, cynical Stalinists who staff the party and its ubiquitous multiplicity of front organizations.

Why, then, does not the party member leave it? There are two associated reasons.

In the first place, the French worker in the mass has learned the importance of organization – learned it the hard way. It is difficult for him to conceive of any kind of political or social existence without belonging to an organization. In this respect he has become much more like the traditional German worker, in the best sense, than he ever was before.

Why Workers Stay in CP – No Alternative in Sight

In the second place, he sees no alternative. What else is there in France for him?

De Gaulle? I do not believe that Gaullism can be considered a serious movement in France right now – not yet, though it is possible that it may become one. It does not have the confidence of the French bourgeoisie; it does not have the confidence of the Americans; it does not have the confidence of the middle classes. They vote for him – those who do – as a protest against the Communist Party (that is, against Russia) and as blackmail against the Americans in a sense; but no one wants the civil war which would inescapably come with De Gaulle’s accession to power. If he could come to terms with the Stalinists – in other words, with their Russian masters – on the basis of a deal in foreign policy, this obstacle would be eliminated. That is why it can be said that De Gaulle can come to power today only with the tacit agreement of the CP. Naturally, it is also possible for him to enter a coalition government.

The MRP – the “Popular Republican Movement,” Schuman’s Catholic Party? It is helpless to solve the situation it confronts and holds no appeal for the working-class movement. As an instrument of American imperialism, it holds out only one perspective: Marshall Plan aid.

The Socialist Party? It is completely discredited and without a working-class base: “Marshallism” has compromised it thoroughly; its colonial policy is even worse. Its vote has fallen catastrophically, its paperLe Populaire is not read, its members number only 70,000 and poor ones at that.

Its boner in organizing the so-called Force Ouvrière has not helped it: this trade-union splitoff from the Stalinist-controlled CGT was indeed precipitated by the demand of anti-Stalinist militants in the ranks, and under sufficient provocation in the form of CP terrorism, bureaucratic hooliganism and physical assaults upon opponents of the Stalinist trade-union apparatus; but it has not succeeded in tearing any substantial numbers of worker away from the CGT. If anything there is a flow back into the old organization, largely because of the dominant feeling that a unified trade-union struggle is necessary if the wage demands necessary for life are to be conquered.

And so the CP member remains more or less attached to the party, without having any faith in it.

This was graphically evidenced at the Stalinist May Day Demonstration which I attended in Paris. By our American standards this was, to be sure, a gigantic outpouring of demonstrants: the marching ranks seemed endless, one could not see to the end of the immense crowd. And yet everyone agreed that for the CP this apparently huge demonstration was a sensational and catastrophic disaster. It numbered a quarter of a million – no small number! – but on May Days not long before the CP could have brought out and did bring out no less than a million.

What was even more obvious, however, besides its diminished size, was something else: it was lackluster. There was not more than a bare spark of enthusiasm, there was no spirit. There were scarcely even any slogans held aloft, and what there were bore nothing but the most general of generalizations – “peace,” “prosperity,” etc.

The CP had nothing to say to the workers on May Day, and the workers felt no drive emanating from it. They were there because there was nowhere else to go.


Like the people of Europe in general, the French worker as yet sees no way out of the vise whose two jaws are Russian and American imperialism. Illusions about Russia are declining, but are still very strong: the fear of criticizing Russia is still evident, even in the bourgeois press. Illusions about America are declining more rapidly.

Very few fail to understand the significance of the Marshall Plan. Very few fail to understand that its food and industrial reconstruction are simply by-products of its main purpose which is the mobilization of European economy and Europe’s nations and peoples for war with Russia.

No Outspoken Supporters of Marshall Plan in Europe

No one can hope to speak to the workers of Europe, or of France in particular, as any kind of champion of the Marshall Plan. Still less is there any kind of hearing among the workers for any kind of champion of the idea of smashing the Stalinist terror by means of an atom bomb to be dropped by American imperialism. Only Americans can talk or think in such terms.

Yet, in the midst of all this helplessness and chaos, there is still flowing strongly the irresistible passion of the people for peace, abundance and brotherhood – above all, for peace, the yearning for which surpasses every other aspiration and hope? It was apparent in France; it was apparent in England; I am convinced that it exists everywhere else.

Those who support or tolerate De Gaulle or Schuman or Bevin do so not because they are thus subjectively lining up with one of the war camps but because they hope against hope that these forces ARE trying to maneuver for an independent position between the war camps; because they hope that thus there may be a longer period of the uneasy peace now in the world – that perhaps, by a miracle, the war may be postponed to an indefinite future. In Europe no one but irresponsible madmen and isolated reactionaries dares to speak about war, or war with Russia, in the free and easy terms of our militarists and imperialists here in the United States.

In Europe there are no outspoken supporters of American imperialism or of the Marshall Flan. There are only apologists for it – and there is a significant difference between the two.

The most that anyone dares say on behalf of American capitalism or the American government or the Marshall Plan is: After all, we are going to get food and economic assistance from the U.S. And even such apologists find it imperative to add that whatever aid is coming will be absolutely under the control of their own respective governments.

Even in England, which is less dependent on the U.S. than any other European country, there is not a political figure who does not find himself obliged to take a vigorous and forthright position against the slightest signs of political intervention by the U.S. Thus, for example, there was the denunciation of Hoffman for his remarks about nationalization in England; there is denunciation for any hint from the U.S. that Marshall Plan aid will depend on the devaluation of the British pound.

Workers Yearn for Peace, Independence from Blocs

The striving for independence from Russia and from the U.S. expresses, so far as the masses are concerned, the striving for peace, for evasion of the war they fear, and for a socialist future over which they themselves can freely preside. Nowhere have these feelings acquired free, clear and full expression in any organized movement. That is the tragedy of Europe today. The working class is heavily oppressed by the ideological as well as physical burdens of yesterday. Its daily life is such that politics is its second or even its third, preoccupation; but in a certain kind of cynicism which has spread in its midst, it expresses in elementary form its contempt for the politicians and political parties that exist.

This can even be generalized into the following statement: Nowhere in Europe does any working-class party or any party which appeals to the workers enjoy the enthusiastic or convinced support of its followers – nowhere. At the most, these parties can console themselves with the thought that they are tolerated in an irritated way by their own members, supporters and followers.


We have already spoken of France. At bottom the same story can be told of England.

The differences, of course, are important. The Labor Party has an absolute majority in Parliament for the first time. There too the workers do not want to go back to the old ways, and despite their dissatisfaction they are not at all going back to Churchill and the Tories, to say nothing of the completely disintegrated Liberal Party. In every by-election the workers – but not the middle classes – have continued to vote solidly for the Labor Party.

The hardships of the English worker are almost as great as those of the French, with the difference that there is practically no black market in England. There is another difference: the British workers want socialism but not totalitarianism in any form, however disguised. They want a continuation of the program of nationalization, and there is a growing dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic method of administration of the nationalized industries, a growing demand for workers’ control. But the so-called left-wing Laborites are not a serious force because they are heavily compromised by their contact with the Stalinists, who are more or less marking time in England and have not become anything like an important political factor.

The Labor Party, it must be said, is going through an experience that requires the closest and most interested attention of every revolutionist.

Nobody expected it to go as far as it did with the nationalization of basic industries. Some twenty-years ago, Trotsky spoke of such steps as meaning the beginning of the socialist revolution by parliamentary methods, and scouted their possibility on that ground. In the intervening years the rapid advance of capitalist statification has radically changed the picture, in England and elsewhere.

How far can the Labor Party go without encountering the organized resistance of the bourgeoisie? To what extent is the bourgeoisie capable of offering resistance? To what extent will the working class endure the so-called “austerity” program while waiting for the nationalization program to yield an abundant life?

To answer such questions dogmatically without taking into account the new forces engendered by the disintegration of European capitalism would be, I think, a grave mistake and open the door to unexpected and disconcerting developments. In any case an attitude of head-on, blind antagonism to the Labor government is the height of absurdity. The British revolutionists who hold such an attitude are playing into the hands of either a bourgeois reactionary movement or the Stalinists. The militant workers’ feelings that the immediate key is the struggle for expanding workers’ control and participation in the nationalized industries is a more important guide to the immediate tasks.

Yet, for all the advances made by the Labor Party government in the field of nationalization, it has not been able to bring the workers back even to the height of enthusiasm marked by the general election which brought the party to power. In England too there is a widespread passivity among the workers; their support of the Labor Party government is more toleration than active support. Their main hope is that the government will be able to steer an independent road between Moscow and Washington.

In Europe today, the Social-Democratic and Communist Parties have reached numerical heights that they almost never had before. Yet both movements are patently bankrupt. For the first time, the workers – even those inside these parties – are for the most part without enthusiasm for their organizations. They do not really believe in them, they are not passionately devoted to them; there are exceptions, but this is the rule. The workers stay with them only because there is not yet a serious alternative offered to them by a serious movement.

Not the least important of the views held by our own Workers Party that I found confirmed in Europe was this one: that all hope of progress for the working class and for the reconstruction of the Marxist movement lies in the ability of the now scattered, disoriented and diminished ranks of the Marxists to offer a democratic alternative to Stalinism and a revolutionary alternative to reformism and its patron, American imperialism.

Max Shachtman, national chairman of the Workers Party, recently returned from a stay of several months in Europe. Several days after his return, on June 25, he reported on his observations at a very well attended public meeting in New York’s Hotel Diplomat. On this page, we print the major part of his speech.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 22 May 2018