Twenty-five years ago, socialists the world over were talking about a new kind of socialism that they hoped would sweep the world. Buoyed by the 1981 presidential victory of France’s Francois Mitterrand, Socialists everywhere were electrified by a new buzzword: self-management. With this new word in its arsenal, the left thought it had a program that was unstoppable.
Later that year, on December 9, 1981, a striking six-page public interest advertisement appeared in The Washington Post and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The advertisement was a message from the 13 Societies for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) titled “What Does Self-Managing Socialism Mean for Communism: A Barrier? Or a Bridgehead?” written by the Brazilian TFP’s founder and president, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.1 The weighty document was an exposé of Mitterrand’s program of self-managing socialism and its ambitious designs for the West.
The “Message,” as it came to be called in the TFP, was subsequently published in 45 other leading newspapers in 19 countries of the West. The scope of the campaign was later extended when a one-page summary of the Message was published in scores of other publications worldwide in 49 countries in thirteen languages. Repercussions from the campaign came from 114 countries.
Thus, began a worldwide debate around this new kind of socialism that had been packaged so carefully.
Self-managing Socialism: Refining Communism
By calling socialism self-managing, the French Socialist Party hoped to revitalize and rejuvenate a left in crisis. The facelift would convey a naïve optimistic message that would appeal to many centrists. Indeed, this could be seen in the very symbol of the French Socialist Party: a clenched fist holding a red rose.
The TFP study sustained that the self-managing program was not only just a reformulation of old Socialist ideas but a refinement of Communism itself beyond the cold rigid totalitarian state that then ruled in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Self-managing socialism called for the disintegration of society into tiny autonomous quasi-sovereign entities that would implement locally, socialist ideas and principles. These small egalitarian committees would govern all aspects of French life.
Invading Private Lives
The new French Socialism hoped to apply gradually their self-managing reforms not only to the economy but the very structure and functioning of the family, schools, the arts and all aspects of social life. The program even extended into the personal lives of citizens by seeking to organize leisure and interior decoration of houses.
Needless to say, the program also favored the liberalization of all matters pertaining to the sexual revolution and the destruction of the family. In the self-managing family, the authority of the parent was undermined by new “rights” given to minors. The state hoped to take over the education of children at the tender age of two.
In short, self-managing society was the realization of the utopian Marxist ideal, which, if successful in France, could be applied worldwide.
A Failed Ideal
With the publication of the TFP Message on self-managing socialism, the full program of the French Socialist Party was brought to light. Citing the original socialist documents, the worldwide publication of the Message provided all the elements for an immense public debate.
The fact is that a public debate did ensue where Mitterrand and his self-managing program were questioned and contested. The new socialism entered into crisis.
The rest is history. Like so many other marketing labels used to mask Marxist ideology, self-managing socialism fell by the wayside.
Indeed, the French socialists soon lost not only their parliamentary majority, but in practice rejected their own program before the right returned to power. They prepared the ground for the presidency of Jacques Chirac, who abolished many of the innovations of the first years of the socialist government, and also annulled many leftist initiatives of previous decades.
Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky wrote in 1999: “The presidency of Mitterrand in France began with fine hopes and ended in universal disappointment. The failure of the most serious reformist project in post-war Western history makes it imperative to rethink the question of the possibilities and prospects of reformism.”2
According to John Vinocur, writing for The New York Times, the fall of self-managing socialism represented what he called the “failure of a method, the abandonment of an economic theory and a crisis of the myth and ideology that dominated French intellectual life for nearly 100 years.”3
President Mitterrand was forced to backtrack to such an extent that French socialist economist Laurent Joffrin admitted: “what was socialist did not work and what worked was not socialist.”4
Today, the Mitterrand legacy is often cast in negative terms. British leftist Denis MacShane in writing about the French leader observes: “The European left prefers to keep Mitterrand locked away in the iron coffin of socialist leaders we prefer not to talk about.”5
Indeed, Daniel Singer in the American leftist journal, The Nation, asks the question if Mitterrand’s place will be remembered “as the unifier of the French left or as the destroyer of its dreams?”6
Part of the failure comes from the fact that socialism like communism survives by hiding its final goals. Looking back over the twenty-five years since the Message’s massive worldwide publication, the TFP was proud to be part of the effort that unmasked the self-managing socialist model’s goals and destroyed the utopian Marxist dreams it represented.