Rise of the French Communist Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the Tours Congress of the French Socialist Party, a large percentage of the delegates voted to become affiliated with the Communist International (or Comintern), which required the establishment of a French Communist Party (FCP) based on the ideas of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. The founders of the FCP supported and hoped to follow the example of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Summary of Event

The French Communist Party (FCP) was born on the evening of December 29, 1920, in the Salle de Manège at Tours. The occasion was the Unified Socialist Party’s Eighteenth Congress, in which 285 delegates debated and cast ballots on a motion for the party to join the Communist International, or Comintern. The motion passed, with 3,208 votes for and 1,022 against membership. In order to join the Comintern, the socialists had to accept twenty-one conditions for membership, one of which was that the party change its name from the Unified Socialist Party to the French Communist Party. Communist Party;France French Communist Party Political parties;French Communist Party Tours Congress (1920) [kw]Rise of the French Communist Party (Dec. 29, 1920) [kw]French Communist Party, Rise of the (Dec. 29, 1920) [kw]Communist Party, Rise of the French (Dec. 29, 1920) [kw]Party, Rise of the French Communist (Dec. 29, 1920) Communist Party;France French Communist Party Political parties;French Communist Party Tours Congress (1920) [g]France;Dec. 29, 1920: Rise of the French Communist Party[05230] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 29, 1920: Rise of the French Communist Party[05230] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 29, 1920: Rise of the French Communist Party[05230] Cachin, Marcel Frossard, Louis-Oscar Blum, Léon Loriot, Fernand Faure, Paul Longuet, Jean Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Comintern Jaurès, Jean

Although the idea of socialism (the social ownership of the means of production) had long been popular in France, socialist groups disagreed about tactics and other ideological issues. Moderate socialists were willing to make compromises with capitalists (who believed in individual ownership of private property), and these moderates hoped to gradually achieve socialism through reforms and democratic elections. Radicals, in contrast, disdained reformism, and they usually assumed that a violent revolution was both necessary and desirable. In 1905, most of the socialist groups of France agreed to merge into the Unified Socialist Party, Unified Socialist Party (France) which was also called the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO). This composite party, however, was unable to unify its members’ disparate opinions.

After World War I, socialists and other left-wing forces in France were extremely frustrated by a series of reversals. In April of 1919, the French government provided workers with an eight-hour day, and in doing so it prevented a general strike that had been planned for the next month. This was followed by the acquittal of the man who had been accused of murdering the famous socialist leader Jean Jaurès. In the legislative elections of November, the number of socialist deputies declined from 168 to 68 delegates, and some of the best-known socialist leaders were defeated. During the early months of 1920, a large railway strike ended in total failure, and the government imprisoned labor leaders and prominent socialists who had supported the strike.

The majority of French socialists were thrilled by triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) October Revolution (1917) in Russia. Discouraged by socialism’s limited success in France, the left wing of the SFIO believed that the Bolsheviks’ success demonstrated the need for a rejection of timidity and reformism. The right wing of the SFIO, in contrast, had serious reservations about the nondemocratic ideas and violent tactics promoted by Vladimir Ilich Lenin and the Bolsheviks. While moderates opposed the French government’s military involvement in the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), they had no intention of forming an alliance with the Bolsheviks.

Given the economic problems that emerged during the post-World War I years, many informed observers believed that the triumph of the Russian Revolution might trigger similar revolutions elsewhere in Europe, especially in the industrialized countries. In early 1919, Lenin called for socialist parties around the world to send delegates to Moscow, where they would consider a global organization to support the cause of revolutionary communism. Lenin argued that the earlier Second International had failed because its leaders had made fatal compromises with capitalism and had supported patriotic regimes during the war. In July, the Communist International (also known as the Comintern or Third International) Third International Comintern held its first congress. France’s Unified Socialist Party sent two delegates, Marcel Cachin and Louis-Oscar Frossard, to observe the congress. Both men favored adhesion to the Comintern, but they had no authority to speak for the entire party.

Based on Lenin’s theory that a communist party should lead the working classes, the conditions for participation in the Third International were quite stringent. In July of 1920, hopeful that a revolution was imminent in Germany, delegates to the organization’s second congress agreed that all member parties had to agree to twenty-one demands. All member parties were required to prepare for a violent seizure of power, eliminate their moderate and reformist elements, refuse cooperation with moderate socialist organizations, maintain a centralized organizational structure, and support the cause of communism in Russia. Lenin refused to accept any reservations toward or modifications of these demands. The socialist parties of Italy and Norway quickly accepted the conditions. Although parties in France, Germany, and Britain were sympathetic, they were hesitant to join the Comintern.

The Tours Congress, which opened on December 25, 1920, had 285 French delegates, who represented eighty-nine of ninety-five socialist federations. The delegates engaged in a vigorous debate about whether or not to join the Comintern and were largely divided along three lines: The left wing included both authentic Bolsheviks such as Fernand Loriot and pro-Soviet politicians such as Cachin and Frossard. The right wing, which was led by Léon Blum, firmly opposed many of the twenty-one demands. The center, led by Jean Longuet and Paul Faure, favored conditional association with the Comintern but hoped for a liberalization of the twenty-one demands.

Loriot, Cachin, and others who favored joining the Comintern denounced reformism and praised Lenin’s model of a well-organized, uncompromising revolutionary party founded on the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In contrast, Blum argued against the abandoning of democratic socialism for the dictatorship of a central committee. Although he accepted the idea of a socialist revolution, he insisted that such a revolution could only come about at the proper stage of capitalist development, when the masses were adequately prepared. Predicting that the Bolsheviks would utilize terror and permanent dictatorship, he insisted that such methods were not a suitable basis for the French republic.

After the delegates voted to accept the twenty-one demands, Blum declared that the “old house,” or the SFIO, would continue the struggle for the triumph of democratic socialism. A representative of the Comintern demanded that the party expel all persons advocating compromise and reformism, including Longuet and Faure. The Congress quickly acquiesced, and Blum’s group and the Longuet-Faure minority left the hall together.

Significance

The vote in favor of joining the Comintern and establishing the French Communist Party produced an enduring schism among French socialists that ended the tenuous unity that had begun in 1905. The left-wing faction that formed the FCP took over the party newspaper, L’Humanité, Humanité, L’ (newspaper) and Blum assumed leadership of the SFIO. Since three-quarters of the votes at Tours had accepted the Leninist point of view, the future of the SFIO appeared rather bleak. In 1921, the Communist Party had a membership of 120,000, while the SFIO had only 40,000. The SFIO’s less rigid ideas, however, were apparently more compatible with France’s political culture. Within four years, membership in the FCP had declined to 60,000, and the SFIO’s numbers had risen to 73,000. In the election of 1932, the SFIO received almost 2 million votes, while the Communists received fewer than 800,000.

In later decades, France’s Communist and Socialist Parties continued to adhere to the basic orientations expressed at the Tours Congress. Until communism began to crumble in the 1980’s, the FCP generally remained faithful to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and took its directions from the Soviet Union. The SFIO, in contrast, increasingly followed the path of reformism, compromise, and participation in coalition governments. Communist Party;France French Communist Party Political parties;French Communist Party Tours Congress (1920)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colton, Joel. Léon Blum: Humanist in Politics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. A well-written biography that includes an excellent discussion of the 1920 division between the Democratic Socialists and the advocates of the Marxist-Leninist ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacouture, Jean. Leon Blum. Translated by George Holoch. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982. A readable biography that analyzes Blum’s ideas and includes large passages from his speech at the Tours Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazitch, Branko. Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1973. Provides information that is difficult to find about the relatively unknown people who participated in the Third International.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mortimer, Edward. The Rise of the French Communist Party, 1920-1947. London: Faber & Faber, 1984. The most readable treatment of the early history of the French Communist Party, including its leaders and policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pipes, Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Random House, 2003. A scholarly account of international Communism, with an emphasis on the history of the Soviet Union. Written from a strongly anti-Communist point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tiersky, Tonald. French Communism, 1920-1972. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. Although this book is rather sketchy about the early period, it presents an excellent explanation of the differences between France’s Democratic Socialists and the communists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wohl, Robert. French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. A detailed monograph that includes a great deal of material about the Tours Congress.

L’Humanité Gives Voice to French Socialist Politics

Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences

Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Russian Civil War

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

United States Recognizes Russia’s Bolshevik Regime

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