ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Marcel Cachin,la mémoire du mouvement ouvrier
by Lucien Degoy
Translated Saturday 16 February 2008, by
Marcel Cachin died fifty years ago on February 12th, 1958 aged 89. An important actor in the 1905 socialist reunification that created the SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière, or French Section of the Workers’ International), co-founder of the PCF (French Communist Party) in 1920, editor of l’Humanité for forty years from 1918 till 1958, a highly respected lawmaker (as deputy, then senator) Marcel Cachin played a decisive, though today dimly remembered part in the emergence of socialism, then of French communism.
Two historians evoke the historic figure in an interview with Lucien Degoy: Denis Peschanski is head of research at the CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research), and Serge Wolikow Modern History professor at the University of Burgundy. They are both specialists in twentieth century political history; they have both written many studies and published several books on the labour movement, on the left and on the communist party in France. Peschanski was chief editor, Wolikoi co-editor of Cachin‘s "Carnets" (Notebooks published between 1995 and 1998).
HUMA: A great figure of the labour movement, Cachin had an exceptionally long political career. Yet his stature since has rather dimmed. Has he left a lasting mark in French social memory?
PESCHANSKI: I’d rather answer in the negative. He was a man who counted for a lot in history, and not just in the narrower, purely communist memory. But now, owing to the present situation of the French Communist Party he is no longer a figure of reference.
WOLIKOW: Cachin does not loom large in the field of private memories (to be distinguished from historical memory) even though his contribution to history was very large indeed, even to the history of the communist or socialist left. The reason for the gap is to be sought not in his personality, but maybe in the difficulty one faces when it comes to taking up his legacy. Cachin does not stand for rupture; he stands for an elusive kind of continuity, and over a long period. Not just from socialism to communism, but through the various stages of communism. He was a man that played an important part on the public scene but counted for little within the party itself.
PESCHANSKI: Cachin did not owe his legitimacy to party machinery. He still remained true first to socialism, then to communism. He does not stand out as one who earned his legitimacy for breaking off with the movement, as men like Charles Tillon did, but as a man who built his legitimacy in the course of his life, as he went along. The legitimacy he earned that way imposed itself on the other communist leaders, which maybe shows that he was perhaps the most important personage in the history of the French communist movement. Even more important than Maurice Thorez or Jacques Duclos, because the role he played in the communist set up is intimately connected to that specific dimension of the labour movement which the party itself carries. Cachin’s itinerary shows up the limits of all discourse about the “communist graft”, of all discourse that sees the PCF as an imported patch foisted on to French society.
WOLIKOW: That was precisely the reason he became an emblematic figure of French communism and for a very long time. Up to WWII he embodied French communism in the eyes of the average Frenchman.
HUMA: He was fourteen when Marx died, thirty-six in 1905 when the SFIO was created; fifty-one in 1920 when the PCF was founded: to think that it was given to a single person to actually live through all the various forms or stages of the French labour movement! It’s incredible!
PESCHANSKI: Memory and history are often kept apart. Not so with Cachin. In his own lifetime he was already a living memory, perceived as such by militants, by working class people and by the country at large. He somehow carried with him a long memory, the memory of the labour movement. The same was never true of Thorez, despite the personality cult around him at the end of the Popular Front (1938). Cachin is a symbol, a historic figure.
HUMA: You are saying that Cachin was an emblematic figure, but on the other hand that he was not the number one in his party. Isn’t that something of a paradox?
WOLIKOW: As a matter of fact he occasionally was the number one, but his role, however central it might be, was never extolled, nor retrospectively made the object of an official cult, for reasons that have much to do with his position within the organization.
PESCHANSKI: He was one of the co-founders of the Communist Party: that is something! But later on he did not make himself heard outside the periods of unity. He came from socialism, opted for the communist movement. He came from the matrix and wished to return to it in so far as he did not feel at ease outside the periods when that matrix was operative still.
WOLIKOW: Another important dimension, now little remembered, is the question of the relations between the avant-garde and the masses. Cachin was for the masses, he never addressed small groups. He himself had no taste for the avant-garde, for sects, he was in favour of ample movements.
HUMA: Why set him above Thorez?
PESCHANSKI: He was the one that reached across to the labour movement; only he could symbolize that matrix. Thorez symbolized the communist rupture; so even though he was very much in the forefront during the second phase of the Popular Front, in 1937-8, he just could not represent that union himself. And then it will be remembered that Cachin was an outstanding orator.
HUMA: Where does the singularity of the course he followed reside? Can abiding features be pointed out in the choices he made in the course of history?
PESCHANSKI: There was a very important phase that went from 1906 till 1912, a period during which Cachin was permanently in charge of propaganda for the SFIO. This led him to visit every single hamlet in the country to draw up inventories of grievances, to gather the people, to hold meetings. That was the time when he started on his “Notebooks” where he collected whatever attracted his notice. These “Notebooks” testify to his intimate knowledge of the labour movement and beyond that of French society. Which gave him a big advantage over all other political leaders: he knew precisely what he was talking about. Cachin used his pen. He saw how important it was as a means to get to know that society thoroughly.
WOLIKOW: When travelling about the country he never hurried self-importantly from one place to the next. He was not content with appearing in meetings; he met people, took everything in, held discussions, took notes to feed his reflection. He was a special type of intellectual, both a teacher and a keen observer. He was a reporter. The fact he remained such an extraordinarily long time at the head of l’Humanité, from 1918 till 1958 (he joined the team in 1912) was not due to his diplomatic manner, or what you might call his gift for equivocation, but to positive qualities: writing came easy to him and he loved it. He loved to collect information and pass it on at a time when political journalism was being instituted.
PESCHANSKI: He did not invent the genre, which started in the nineteenth century, but he was one of the actors in the broad, popular version of political reporting.
HUMA: So in 1905 the SFIO was unified. Cachin came from Jules Guesde’s party. What about his relations to Jean Jaurès, to whom he is sometimes opposed.
WOLIKOW: Not Cachin, but Guesde is opposed to Jaurès over that particular period. What was debated then was governmental participation, ministers or no ministers, i.e. reform or revolution, but not the conception of the Party. Cachin remained true to Guesde’s conception of a working-class party. He was concerned with organizing the common people; he cared very much about what was to be called “the grassroots basis”. He was a good party organizer and devoted much energy to the task. He admired Guesde for building the first workers’ party in France, while setting up a kind of municipal socialism at the same time.
PESCHANSKI: The relation to Guesde was not just personal, it was ideological as well. Cachin, it seems to me, embodies the Guesdist reading of Marxism, which was very different from Jaurès’s. They had converging visions of the socialist struggle, but they did not start from the same roots.
WOLIKOW: To both of them socialism and the Republic were not to be opposed, no more than socialism and the Nation. They also shared the same views as to how to conceive the party’s organization, the importance of striking roots locally in the municipalities, of observing a number of democratic processes. But Cachin vindicated the Guesdist legacy to the last.
HUMA: In 1914 after Jaurès was murdered and war was declared, Cachin supported “l’Union sacrée” that set and enshrined the country’s unity in the face of war above class divisions. How do you account for the choice he made?
PESCHANSKI: Originally he was rather a pacifist. Then he opted for “l’union sacrée”, and even played an important role on the international scene. In 1915 he led a delegation to Italy to try and persuade the Italian government to go to war. He made good of the opportunity to forge links with deputies of all parties, which earned him some lasting credit.
HUMA: How do you explain this position, knowing that a few years later the man founded the Communist Party which notably defined itself as the party that condemned and rejected war?
WOLIKOW: His nationalism was patriotic. He thought that France carried principles that were compatible with those of democratic socialism. Besides, there was no instituted opposition to the war within the socialist ranks at the time. Jean Jaurès was dead and could not be made to speak. Cachin’s positioning was part of a general movement among French socialists and labour movements during the first years of the war. What needs to be explained is why, even as an important proportion of the socialists withdrew from the sacred union from 1917 onwards, Cachin struck out in another direction and opted for the revolutionary movement. And so he joined the minority ranks of the antimilitarists who were in favour of setting up a new political force. I believe the reason for this is to be found in his familiarity with the lower classes, with destitution, with what was going on in Russia, which he took down in his “Notebooks.”
PESCHANSKI: His two trips to Russia in 1917 and 1920 fill up the second volume of the “Notebooks” already published. These documents constitute an essential source for the history of the labour movement. Cachin’s account of his mission and visit is extremely thorough. In 1917 he sat on the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee whose mission it was to persuade the Russians to go to war. In 1920 the aim was to call the Socialist Party to account over the Soviet situation: the logic was different. Like Jules Guesde, Cachin regarded war as a parenthesis in the struggle for socialism. After the war he did not go back on these views, but simply considered that the situation had changed and that adjustments had to be made. That is why he can be said to have inscribed his trajectory in history. He never questioned his previous choices, except maybe his views on l’Union sacrée, but only to a limited extent, and rather perfunctorily.
HUMA: So in 1917 he changed tack and embraced Bolshevism?
PECHANSKI: Not really in 1917. He became aware that something important was taking place in Russia. He met Lenin but had little sympathy for the man, as little as for the Bolsheviks. The real break came in 1920, and even then, he did not consider it a break.
WOLIKOW: The Socialist Party was divided between several currents. During that period it had been in a state of suspension so to speak. There had been a majority to distance itself from the Union sacrée, but that majority remained in the party whereas the others were divided as to what must be done, what resolution to pass on the Soviet revolution, or the future of the Party and so on. The situation was uncertain. Cachin took a central or centre-left position; he advocated an expectant, prudent line regarding the Second International, he recommended taking a cautious evolutionary view . Frossard and he were sent to the USSR. His prudence and central role in the organization while the far-left was only a minority explain why adhesion to the Third International eventually rallied a majority of votes.
PECHANSKI: Cachin’s authority, his personality and his trajectory counted for a lot in the decision. As it was the result of a majority vote within the socialist movement this adhesion implied no rupture. Rather, it was Léon Blum who appeared as the artisan of the rupture even though he said he would “stay and look after the house”. After the adhesion, the centrist and rightist members left as a consequence of the growing radicalism of the communist movement. But Cachin stayed. That for him was the beginning of a rather sinuous course.
WOLIKOW: It will be observed however that part of the International’s leaders were hoping that he would be pushed to one side. A compromise began to be brokered: let Cachin keep l’Humanité and the Party proceed to bolshevize the Party and establish “worker control”.
PESCHANSKI: Cachin’s status then changed dramatically. Whereas he had been a journalist and a deputy and played a decisive part in 1920-1 when the Party changed tack and went over to the Bolsheviks, he lost his central political position in the party hierarchy as a consequence of the rules and discipline enforced by the International. He nevertheless was the number one communist deputy whom all militants respected. There was not his like for non-official contacts. He kept that idiosyncratic relation to history that allowed him always to take a relative view of situations.
WOLIKOW: Once at the head of l’Humanité, moments of tension and crises with the Party hierarchy succeeded one another. The climax came in 1929, when he lost all actual power while officially retaining the function. Advantage was taken of his being held in prison to write articles in his name. Social democracy was then considered as the arch enemy, being capitalism’s last stronghold as capitalism entered its final phase. Cachin rejected this so- called class versus class line, and like Pierre Sémard, tried to minimize the damage as Huma sales plummeted.
HUMA: That changed with the Popular Front?
PESCHANSKI: It did completely. Cachin found himself at home in the Popular Front. He felt in tune with the strategy that Thorez promoted from 1930-1 onwards. Cachin recovered an important position. That too was a facet of his personality: unlike other leaders, when he disagreed about the line, he stepped aside but did not withdraw, and came back to the centre-front as soon as things got better. He was often solicited, all the more so as symbolically he was a key figure when unity prevailed.
HUMA: His position as the head of l’Huma was then decisive no doubt?
PESCHANSKI: Cachin saw there was an objective case for the paper’s relative autonomy, since the paper could not just be an instrument or organ for the dissemination of the party’s line and since it was confronted with specific constraints as a political newspaper. I have had the opportunity to study the communist vocabulary in l’Huma’s leaders between 1934 and 1936 and noted a significant change in that period. Cachin himself contributed to it significantly in the leaders he wrote (one third of the total number). In the vocabulary he used the word “class” was gradually replaced with the word “people”, then, in a third phase initiated by Paul Vaillant-Couturier and Thorez, the word “nation” took over. In this respect Paul Vaillant-Couturier and Gabriel Péri played in l’Humanité the role of pilotfish to promote a new policy of alliance and union. The words “class”, “people” and “nation” were the lexical fund of the PCF.
WOLIKOW: That was the time when the circulation of l’Humanité jumped from 200,000 to 550,000! Cachin had been quite reserved about his views. Then at the Villeurbanne conference in January 1936 he spoke out for the first time and candidly explained to the delegates that the people would not hear the communists’ message if communists went on using a language that no one else could understand. It has now been established that he was in favour of the communists’ participation in the government. Unlike André Marty, Thorez was not opposed to it, but the International said “no”, as did the Italian leaders with Togliatti.
HUMA: In the 1936 election the PCF almost doubled its share of the vote while being plainly committed to a “class strategy”. Cachin was favourable to this, wasn’t he?
WOLIKOW: When Cachin positioned himself on the ground of the People, the Nation, the Republic, he did not downplay the social dimension for all that. He was long a deputy for the 18th arrondissement around Montmartre in the north of Paris, and was in close contact with trade unions. He spoke for the people, but his discourse addressed workers on a broad basis, not on an exclusive one. In his leaders he was intransigent on the social question, but he did not oppose it to the Republic, democracy, the State, or the democratic and popular struggle against fascism.
PECHANSKI: As a matter of fact, the social discourse and the anti-fascist political discourse converged at the time, whereas the configuration was different at the Liberation. It is also to be noted that during that period Cachin never called fidelity to the USSR into question. He had built his own image of the Soviet Union, an image which could serve over a long period of time, even though there were a lot of things to which he turned a blind eye. He was later reproached for keeping silent about the notorious trials under Stalin.
WOLIKOW: He was in the USSR at the beginning of 1937and felt uneasy. He wrote little. When he mentions Bukharin, Trotsky, Stalin in his Notebooks, you feel he does not want to take sides. Of course the Soviet Union’s prestige was overpowering, and not just in the communist ranks. The USSR was embellished as a consequence of the antifascist dynamics, of the necessity to use a lever in the anti-capitalist struggle, and as a result of the crisis of capitalism itself.
HUMA: What position did Cachin take at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939?
PESCHANSKI: He was extremely ill at ease relatively to the pact and especially over the strategic about-turn that followed a few weeks later.
WOLIKOW: To begin with, the communist leaders tried to make it appear as though the Party’s strategy was still in line with the previous strategy despite Stalin’s change of tack. For a few weeks the Party adopted a defensive strategy, which consisted in explaining that the pact was a consequence of the western powers’ capitulation in Munich. The USSR had to be defended of course, but that it was just as necessary for the country to defend itself against Nazism. So the communists voted the war credits on September 2, 1939 on the eve of the declaration of war. But orders came from the International to change the tune: from the notion of a national defensive war against the Nazi foe the word now was that a war between imperialist countries on the model of WWI was sure to be of no benefit to the working class and the PCF.
HUMA: What did Cachin do?
WOLIKOW: Like many communists that had been bred on the Popular Front culture he was nonplussed. He stepped aside but did not lose his self-control. Before the Senate, in the vote that relieved communist deputies of their mandate he reasserted his faith in the ideals of the Popular Front and antifascism even though these had been forfeited by the PCF and the International. But he was treading a very thin line. Especially as the Germans tried to exploit him: Cachin did not go underground and unlike the other communist deputies he was not sent to prison.
HUMA: Why wasn’t he? Why did they spare him?
PECHANSKI: He was seventy-one. The Vichy authorities probably did not want to turn him into a martyr. Nevertheless the Germans tried to use him when a turn came in the armed struggle. After June 22nd, 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR, the definition for the war changed again. The communists went back to the concept of the national liberation war, the war against Nazism and for democracy. Marcel Cachin was arrested then released a few days later after signing a letter dated October 1941, which was used by French collaborators and in which he condemned individual attacks against the occupants. He did not realize then that he was going against the Party line. In fact he knew nothing about it. Cachin had been marginalized. He had no contact with the PCF’s underground commands. Besides, l’Humanité clandestine never vindicated the individual attacks in the early days of the armed struggle, Fabien’s attempt at Barbès in August 1941. The Party leadership knew that public opinion would not have backed them. But the official position gradually changed. In the late Autumn of 1941 a new slogan “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” appeared now and then for hostages were executed. After the Châteaubriant massacre, then Gabriel Péri’s execution on December 15th, public opinion swung around. For the communists, the armed struggle and the attacks met political, not military objectives. Public opinion had to be won over to the struggle. After these massacres a river of blood divided Germany from French society and public opinion became increasingly aware that the Vichy government was playing the collaborationist card.
WOLIKOW: After this episode that much at least was clear to the Party’s leaders, namely that Marcel Cachin had to be protected. The old militant had gone back to his native Brittany. The Party set itself the task of making sure that he could not be made use of again and of consigning him at all costs to a safe shelter. He eventually accepted to go into hiding. He attached a few conditions to it but still he consented and was made to lie low in the country. He signed a few texts that were distributed, but he played only a very minimal role in the clandestine Party leadership. He reappeared in 1945, to be celebrated like a living symbol.
HUMA: But then his role was only marginal, wasn’t it?
WOLIKOW: It was and yet he was kept in the spotlights. He once stood for president, went on international trips. Being the dean of the deputies he was the PCF’s tutelary figure. The PCF was by then the first party on the left.
PECHANSKI: Between 1944 and 1947 he felt quite in his element again. Then he was no longer the man for the situation. New figures appear in the paper too that fill the topmost positions.
HUMA: Then he hardly ever wrote in his Notebooks?
PESCHANSKI:He did. As late as 1947 he wrote down interesting things about the Liberation, the question of the conquest of power, on Gaullism… On January 30, 1946 when General de Gaulle left he wrote: “We’ve had the better of him without frightening the population…” After 1947 when the communists sat on the opposition benches, the “Notebooks” contain day-to-day scraps of information; it is clear that he no longer consigned his true feelings to them.
WOLIKOW: These “Notebooks” are well worth reading. They are exceptionally rich, especially as the communist archives are now accessible. Many of the leaders he wrote for l’Humanité are also exceptional on account of the quality of the writing and the testimonies they afford on pages of history in the making. They should be published.