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'Not everything is possible': French Stalinism and the popular front 1936-38

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Dave Stockton looks at the consequences of Stalinism's embrace of social-patriotism

Fifty years ago in France the policy of the Popular Front was in full force. Today, many on the left in Britain, including Kinnock's backers in the pages of Marxism Today, faced with the prospect of a third Thatcher term are quick to recommend it to us. But an examination of the years 1936-8 show that far from halting the tide of reaction the Popular Front crippled the working class's ability to defend itself.

The immediate background to the original rightist turn of Stalinism in the 1930's was the disastrous effect of the so-called 'third period' on the official Communist parties. The French party had had 60,000 members in 1926 but only 28,000 in 1934—a direct function of the sectarianism of the years 1928 onwards. The most disastrous consequence of this policy had been the defeat of the German workers at the hands of Hitler in spring 1933. The Austrians succumbed after a fight in 1934. Stalin's intial response to this was to appease Hitler. But by late 1934 this was clearly not a possibility. Instead, the Kremlin endeavoured to form a pact with French imperialism against Hitler.

Within France the pressures for a change of line increased after 6 February 1934. The fascist leagues had called a demonstration which led to the Radical Party government of Daladier caving in and handing power to the right-wing parties of the National Union led by Doumergue.

The French workers had responded by a general strike of 12 February 1934, pushing 150,000 communist and socialist workers together in a mass demonstration. But this elemental desire for a united front of workers was subverted by the French Communist Party (CP) into a push for a Popular Front of workers and 'liberal' bourgeois parties. In October the CP urged the Radical Party to break with the Doumergue government. Until the spring of 1935 they rejected these overtures. Meanwhile, the French Socalist Party (SFIO) criticised the CP from the left for being prepared to drop all 'socialistic' demands.

However, in March 1935 the introduction of compulsory military service in Germany alarmed the Radicals sufficiently to consider a pact with the USSR. In May of that year Laval signed the pact with Stalin in Moscow. While it did not commit France to any automatic defence of the USSR it did indicate, on Stalin's part a 'complete understanding and approval of state defence, carried out by France with the aim of maintaining its armed forces at a level commensurate with the needs of its security.'

Trotsky had predicted these events for two years. As he put it: 'For the first time Stalin has said openly what is, i.e. in full view of the entire world, he has repudiated revolutionary internationalism and passed over to the platform of social patriotism.'

Despite Laval's role in signing the pact with Stalin, the French communists considered that the time had come to lead a vigorous campaign to get rid of the Union Nationale government he headed and to break the Radicals from their parliamentary support for it. Only thus could the road to a popular front be opened.

Meanwhile, street clashes were continuing between the fascist leagues and workers organisations. In Limoges in November blood was shed. Whilst Laval took out emergency powers merely allowing him to ban the Ligues he actually suspended communist mayors in towns where clashes took place. He remained on public good terms with Colonel de la Roque, leader of the Croix de Feu which continued its marches and motorcades—growing to 450,000 members by the end of 1935.

On 6 August striking workers in the naval dockyard in Toulon and Brest held demonstrations. These turned into clashes with the gardes mobiles (armed paramilitary force). Certainly the communist party supported the demonstrations but their response to the riots was instructive. A nationwide wave of demonstrations against Lavals decree-laws was useful but violence threatened the CP's overtures to the Radicals. Jaques Duclos had been denouncing Laval in L'Humanité and calling for him to be 'chased out'. He called for Laval's government to be replaced by a 'left wing' coalition based on the Radicals and the SFIO.

The Brest and Toulon riots led to a fierce campaign in the right-wing press blaming the communists and their union federation the CGT(U). The CP immediately ceased its campaign against Laval blaming provocateurs for the riots and calling for 'calm and discipline'. It decided—in pursuit of the united and Popular Fronts to effectively dissolve the CGT(U) into the old reformist CGT.

The CGTU had a membership of no more than 220,000. The CGT had perhaps 600,000 members. In late September 1935 the CGT accepted unconditionally the harsh unity terms of Leon Jouhoux and the CGT bureaucracy. The CP was forbidden to organize a fraction in the unified organisation and the CGT continued its membership of the International Trade Union Federation (Amsterdam International). The ban on all forms of political office for union officials was maintained. In March 1936 a unity congress fused the unions under a firm former CGT majority leadership.

The CP further prepared for the popular front by abandoning its previous agrarian policy of support for the rural proletariat and the small-scale working farmer. In Autumn 1935 they dropped all talk of class struggle in the country–side and turned to the defence of the entire peasantry promising price support subsidies for farmers and easier credit. Rassemble–ment Populaire (Popular Rally) committees were formed throughout France but they were purely committees of party representatives for election propaganda rather than mass organisations for mobilizing action.

In October the Committee of the Rassemblement Populaire began discussing what was to become the electoral platform of the Popular Front. The first draft, presented at its first meeting proved contentious. The CGT and the Socialist Party representatives thought it too timid. The SFIO had, at its Mulhouse Congress in June, adopted a rhetorically 'left' platform. It had promised: '…by resting on the support of the toiling masses, to break the resistance of big industrial and financial capital'.

The CGT had similarly just adopted a seemingly radical new policy—a 'plan' based on that of the Belgian reformist leader Henri de Man. The CGT's plan proposed relief measures; a 40 hour week with no loss of earnings to expand employment and purchasing power, a large public works programme and rural relief measures.

Beyond these measures a series of 'structural reforms' were needed since the crisis also highlighted weaknesses in the structure of French industry. They included a call for expelling private interest from the Bank and 'nationalizing credit'; the need to 'liberate the state' from the plutocracy by nationalizing the war industries, the coal mines, the energy supply industry and transport—with compensation, of course.

This reformist plan had nothing socialist about it. But it did include measures that most French capitalists were unwilling to accept. Therefore so were the communists. In the Rassemblement Populaire Committee the CP delegates made a point of siding with the Radicals nearly every time that the latter disagreed with SFIO representatives. Camille Chantemps a senior Radical suggested that all long term measures would create 'needless controversies' and should be excluded.

A year later Maurice Thorez was to boast openly 'It must be said…that the communists were seen refusing to write into the programme of the Popular Front the socialisations which certain people urged'.

Thus the programme of the Popular Front which appeared in the newspapers of 11 January 1936 owed much to the Communist Party's wooing of the Radicals. It was divided into three parts: the defence of liberty, the defence of peace and economic demands.

The first section demanded an amnesty for political prisoners. Against the fascist leagues it demanded the 'disarmament and effective dissolution of all quasi-military organizations' and the 'enforcement of laws against the provocation of rioting or against attacks on the security of the state'.

When it came to trade union liberties the programme excelled itself in vagueness. It demanded: '(a) Application of and respect for the labour rights of all and (b) Respect for the right of women to work.' The programme also demanded a raising of the school leaving age by one year.

In the second section—the defence of peace—the proposals were even less precise. To appeal for popular support for peace, to work within the framework of the League of Nations for Peace, for collective security and the application of sanctions against aggression. In addition the programme called for a reduction of armaments 'generally and simultaneously', the nationalisation of the war industries and the repudiation of secret diplomacy. Last but by no means least for the CP, given Kremlin policy, it pledged 'to extend, notably in Eastern and Central Europe, the system of security pacts open to all, following the principles of the Franco-Soviet pact'.

Thirdly, came the economic demands. The CGT were given a nod with the commitment to the 'restoration of consumer purchasing power destroyed or reduced by the economic depression'. The measures to do this were however weak and vague in the extreme. They included a national unemployment fund, the 'reduction of the working week without lowering the weekly wage', 'adequate retirement pensions' to encourage older workers into giving up their jobs to younger workers and a programme of useful public works by central and local government 'and private capital'.

The programme made no specific or unequivocal promise to nationalize anything but the war industries. It promised no new legal rights for French workers who suffered a virtual tyranny within the factory. The disarmament of the fascist bands took the form of a dissolution of all quasi-military organisations and thus on the part of the CP was a renunciation of workers defence squads or the arming of the proletariat. That the fascists might be forced to deposit their arms with their police friends (who often gave them the arms in the first place) was little more than a minor inconvenience. Worse, in endowing the bourgeois state with extra public order powers it armed it against the class struggle of the workers.

If the programme was full of dangerous measures and half-hearted petty reforms the organisation of the Popular Front to assure its implementation was almost non-existent. Present day apologists have described it as a mass movement or an achievement of hegemony by the communists over a broad peoples alliance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The radicals and the SFIO refused resolutely to turn the local Popular Front committees into mass bodies. Individual membership was ruled out. Local committees were to be 'in the image of the national committee', that is, composed only of representatives of the member organizations. All decisions had to be made unanimously. The Socialists wanted the committees to have some sort of control over candidates in the coming election. They proposed a letter which the parties' candidates would sign pledging themselves to 'participate in a majority both disciplined and bound to the spirit of the Popular Front and to support the government constantly by your votes'. The Radicals refused point blank to be bound by such provisions. The CP also promptly declared them 'inopportune'.

The exact scale of the CP's opportunism was shown in the remaining months up to the general election. During the second half of 1935 most of the Radical deputies in the Chambre (the French lower house of parliament) blithely continued to support Laval's anti-working class rule by decree. The CP's tactics were merely to coax the Radicals into deserting Laval. This meant courting Edward Daladier the leader of the left wing of the Radicals and from October the president of the party.

In the succeeding months more and more Radicals did indeed defect from Laval's ministry and ceased to vote for it in the Chambre. He was finally obliged to resign on 22 January. The Communist party—meeting at that very moment in congress—decided that if an interim government was formed which was 'left-wing' (i.e. a purely Radical Party government) and it offered to dissolve the fascist leagues then the CP would vote confidence in it and support it in parliament until the elections.

A government under a Radical, Albert Savaut, was formed—but in coalition with the conservatives. Regardless of this the communists for the first time abstained in the vote of confidence on a bourgeois ministry.

The interim government soon faced internal and external crises. Hitler, seeing the manifest weakness of French imperialism and its government, chose this moment to re-militarise the Rhineland—something forbidden by the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact.

At first the government looked as if it might respond. The communists had their first opportunity to display their new-found social patriotism. Gone were the denunciations of the 'Versailles robber treaty'. Now it was the fascist violators of international law who were the main enemy. 'Long live the union of the French Nation!', screamed L'Humanité.

The CP now felt it could face the approaching elections with a new confidence. At its eighth congress Marcel Cachin, the party's veteran leader, announced that the membership now stood at 74,400—a gain of 45,000 over the 1933 figure. The congress launched a campaign for 100,000 members.

Thorez delivered the main political report entitled significantly 'The Unity of the French Nation'. Its theme was that all classes in France should unite against 'the 200 families', the very top bankers and industrial monopolists and the fascists. As a cover for its abandonment of class interests it adopted the demogogic slogan 'Make the rich pay!' How the rich could be made to pay whilst leaving intact their control over the whole workings of the economy he did not say.

The party's election campaign was marked by an unbridled patriotism. The communists stood for 'a free strong and happy France'. The fascists were stigmatized as the 'dividers of Frenchmen.'

As for its social programme the CP simply pillaged the waste basket of reformism for a list of reforms which were obviously not meant to be taken too seriously by their prospective Radical allies. The programme called for a 40 hour week, collective agreements in industry, paid holidays for workers, cheap credit for shopkeepers and price support for farmers. These were to be financed by a progressive capital levy on fortunes over 500,000 francs. This was the real content of the ubiquitous slogan, 'Make the rich pay!'.

It is plain that Thorez and Company, although they wanted a mighty increase in the CP's votes in the election really wished for a Radical government, under Daladier with the Socialists in a minority position squeezed between the government party and the communists. The election was to more than fulfil their expectations with regard to the CP's votes and seats won but it dashed their hopes for the Radicals.

The elections were held on 26 April and 3 May. In the first round all parties put up their own candidates. In the second round 'Republican discipline' was to prevail; supporters of all the Popular Front parties were supposed to vote for the best placed Popular Front candidate be they communist, socialist or radical. The results were a clear victory for the Popular Front. Its parties received 5,421,000 votes against 4,233,000 for the right.

The fate of the three main parties of the Popular Front was instructive. The Radicals lost 400,000 votes and lost 50 seats retaining only 106 seats. The SFIO lost 30,000 votes but with 1,950,000 votes and 147 seats, they were the largest single party, gaining fifteen seats.

But it was the Communist Party that scored the greatest triumph. Its parliamentary representation leapt from eleven to 72 seats. It gained one and a half million votes, more than doubling its previous total. But despite its joy in their own victory, when the dust settled an unwelcome prospect faced the CP.

As soon as the results were announced the SFIO rushed to declare its readiness not only to participate in government but claimed its right, as the largest party, to the premiership and to the lion's share of the ministerial portfolios.

The CP equally promptly disclaimed any desire for ministerial positions. It did so not on the principle of non-participation in a bourgeois government but in order to spare the nerves of the Radical ministers who would otherwise have to sit at the cabinet table with fire-eating 'communists'. Blum, however, refused to take office at first and Servault was appointed premier.

The working class was stirred to its very depths by the victory of the Popular Front. Equally it frightened and demoralized the autocratic French employers who were used to badly organised or often completely non-union workshops.

A series of strikes broke out from 7 May onwards in the metal industries. The demands were initially for the re-instatement of union militants who had struck on May Day. It started in the Breguet factories at Le Havre, spread to Latecoere in Toulouse and to Bloch in Courbevoie. All these works were highly modern aircraft factories. In each case the workers won. The autocratic patrons collapsed like a pack of cards.

Wider and wider sections of the proletariat went into action in the week of 22 May to 29 May. It extended to 100,000 workers in the heavy industrial and engineering belt around Paris. The initial demands were for the re-instatement of sacked militants and recognition of the union as the collective bargaining agent for the workforce. But as the strikes increased in number so the demands broadened to include wage increases and paid holidays.

Up to this point the Communist Party and its officials in the CGT had encouraged the movement. Their objective was a limited one: to gain recognition for the Association of the Metalurgical Unions in the Paris region as a legal bargaining agent. L'Humanité's call was for an industry-wide collective contract.

The caretaker government dared not use the gardes mobiles and was terrified that the strikes were getting out of control. They called in not only the CGT and socialists but for the first time the CP leaders. Jaques Duclos left the meeting saying the Communist Party wanted 'first of all to avoid any disorder, then to obtain the opening of negotiations as soon as possible to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict'.

The CP rushed to fulfill its promise, scuttling the occupation at the huge Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt against heavy worker resistance. Such was the CP's authority that in two days only 10,000 strikers remained in occupation in Paris.

Yet things were not to go as smoothly as the CGT, CP and SFIO leaders hoped. The limits of their control lay in the fact that only just under one million French workers were unionised. But the factory occupations stirred up the great unorganised majority in thousands of factories and other workplaces where the workers had never felt the slightest union protection against their arrogant bosses.

The patrons had long maintained strict hierarchy and harsh discipline in the factory. Meticulous timekeeping, bans on smoking—all enforced by a well-organised spying system—saw to it that any trade union activist, militant socialist or communist or even the reader of a left-wing newspaper was sacked as soon as he or she was discovered. The factories were like army barracks. In addition the workers had economic grievances. Real wages had fallen by about 15 per cent between 1930 and 1935 under the impact of the depression.

The growing strike wave found an enthusiastic response only on the left-wing of the SFIO and amongst the small group of French Trotskyists. The former were grouped around a young teacher militant of the SFIO Paris region, Marceau Pivert. They called themselves the 'Revolutionary Left' although they were in reality only left centrists zigzagging between the ideas of the two Leons—Blum and Trotsky.

Pivert did not manage to break with Blum until the great revolutionary wave of 1936-8 had passed. He never managed to join forces with Trotsky. But under the influence of the masses he became for a period the voice of the 'June days'. On 27 May he wrote in the SFIO paper Le Populaire:

'In the atmosphere of victory, of confidence and discipline which is spreading over the whole country everything is possible to those who dare! Everything is possible and our party has at the same time the privilege and the responsibility to be carried to the head of the movement. Let it go forward, let it lead, let it take decisions, let it carry them out, let it take things in hand and no obstacle will be able to resist it. What millions and millions of men and women are calling for from the depths of their collective consciousness is a radical change and at short notice.'

Within days of Pivert's article and the 600,000 strong 28 May demonstration in commemoration of the Paris Commune, the strikes broke out again, this time with redoubled force. On 2 June the metalurgical industry was in full occupation again. But now it spread rapidly to other sectors—to the chemical, textile and food industries. The universal pattern was the sit-in strike. Even the sales girls in the large Paris stores 'sat down'.

By 4 June newspaper distribution was stopped, the clothing trade, the locksmiths, the jewellers, the gas and building industries were hit. On 6 June the miners—a bastion of hitherto right-wing SFIO influence—struck. Important sections of the petit-bourgeoisie took action. Farmers and shopkeepers supplied the strikers with food. By 10 June over two million were on strike!

Simone Weil, a journalist and participant in the movement, captures the mood of elation and good nature universal at the beginning of any great class struggle or revolutionary movement:

'The strike is in itself a joy…Joy to enter the factory with the smiling permission of a worker on guard…Joy to hear instead of the merciless din of the machines, the sound of music, songs and laughter. Joy to walk past the bosses with your head held high…At long last, for the first time, and forever after this, there will be other memories around these machines than silence, compulsion, submissiveness.'

On the crest of this wave Blum was forced to assume office on 4 June. It has been argued that this mighty wave of working class militancy was some sort of endorsement of the Popular Front or was a product of the election victory. Certainly the knowledge that the right had been defeated at the polls and that the patron's project of a more vicious anti-working class government had suffered a serious set-back encouraged the workers to take action. The Savrault caretaker government could hardly be expected to take vigorous military or police action against the strikers. Also workers did not expect Blum to so. Nor indeed could he immediately given socialist and communist participation in the strike wave.

However, Trotsky rightly pointed out the massive strike wave was not primarily a vote of confidence in Blum and the Popular Front:

'The sweep of the strike springs, we are told, from 'hopes' in the Peoples Front government. This is only one quarter of the truth and even less than that. If matters were really limited to hopes alone, the workers would not have run the risk of struggle. The strike expresses above all the distrust or the half trust of the workers, if not in the good intentions of the government, then its ability to overcome obstacles and come to grips with its problems. The proletarians want to 'assist' the government, but in their own way, in the proletarian way. Of course, they still lack complete consciousness of their own strength. But it would be a gross distortion to portray matters as if the masses were guided only by pious 'hopes' in Blum.'

How little the workers should have placed any trust whatsoever in Blum would be shown by the record of his government. How little he welcomed this proletarian 'assistance' he revealed years later at his trial by the Vichy regime. He referred to the June days as 'that social explosion which, right at the outset, came as a slap in the face to his government'

Blum was not the only 'workers leader' alarmed and affronted by the actions of the proletariat. The Communist Party did everything it possibly could to limit, hold back and ultimately to demobilize the strike wave. In a direct answer to Marceau Pivert's article, 'Everything is possible' in L'Populaire of 28 May, Marcel Gitton, leading CP journalist replied on May 29 in L'Humanité with an article entitled 'Not everything if possible'. According to Gitton all the workers wanted were 'more humane conditions of work' which an 'intelligent and understanding' management would now agree to negotiate. No 'wave of the wand' could solve all the workers problems. The Popular Front was the workers best hope. Its programme should be carried out 'in order, calm, tranquillity and without a perfectly useless precipitancy'. Worst still, 'rash actions could only lead to the alienation of an important part of the petit-bourgeoisie'. Finally he added 'We consider it impossible in the face of the Hitler menace, to put in jeopardy the security of France for which the Popular Front is responsible'.

But the workers actions had already shown that a lot more was possible than the Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders thought. The proud and autocratic employers were terrified—their factories occupied by 'their' workers. Albert Lebrun, President of the Republic, pleaded with Leon Blum: 'The workers have confidence in you—go on the radio and speak to them'.

Blum had an important role to play for the bourgeoisie. On 5 June at a meeting of the 'Delegation of the Left', the leaders of the Popular Front parties issued a unanimous call for an end to the strikes. The next day Blum condemned the strikes in parliament: 'I have been asked if I think factory occupation is legal. I do not regard it as legal.'

On 7 June he invited representatives of the national management association and the CGT to a meeting at the premier's official residence the Hotel Matignon. The meeting lasted but a few hours. The haughty patronat were falling over themselves to make any concessions that would save private property in the means of production and evacuate their mines, steel mills, factories, offices and shops.

Union recognition, collective agreements, freely elected workers committees in the factories, paid holidays, a 10-15 per cent hike in wages, compulsory arbitration. If the lightening speed with which the employers swallowed these bitter pills was a wonder to behold it was no less marvellous to see them pass through the parliamentary talking shop and the reactionary senate with the speed of an express train. Truly reforms are the by-product of revolution even the fear of it, and the 'Matignon Agreements' were a classic example.

The CP, the CGT and the SFIO now threw all their weight on the brakes to halt the movement. It was a difficult job. On 9 June in a front page article in L'Humanité Benoit Franchion, a CP member of the CGT delegation to the Hotel Matignon, called on the strikers to return to work. Yet the strikes continued with over one million workers still occupying their workplaces.

On 10 June the government brought in the gardes mobiles, the armed assault police. Yet to use them would not be easy. The chief of police of the Paris region reported that he had not enough men to clear the factories. Indeed it would be necessary, he remembered sarcastically, to call up the strikers as special constables to do it!

The CP-led Association of Metallurgical Workers of the Paris Region called a mass meeting of delegates from the factories to put the Matignon Agreements to them and get a return to work. The CP leaders were—in their own words 'jeered at'.

The CP had to assert control over its own cadres. It held a meeting of its own party cell secretaries which voted a motion of confidence in the leadership. On 11 June a special rally of party members from the Paris Region was held. Addressed by Thorez, he told it 'To share power now is out of the question!'. He held before the meeting the spectre of a hostile peasantry and of the fascist threat. Nothing must be done he said to 'dislocate the cohesion of the masses'.

The strike movement had to be limited to the 'satisfaction of demands of an economic character', and 'compromise' was necessary even 'if all the demands have not yet been accepted but if victory has been achieved on the most essential and important demands'. Then he uttered his memorable words, 'It is necessary to know how to end a strike as soon as satisfaction has been obtained'.

The French Stalinists thus set their face resolutely against any revolutionary development of the massive strike wave. L'Humanité on14 June carried the amazing, (but entirely true) slogan 'The Communist Party is order!'

Despite all this the Communist Party was a rapidly growing mass force within the working class. It had 163,000 members in May 1936 and by July this had risen to 246,000. By October L'Humanité's circulation had risen to 380.000. Why? Workers joined the party because its name, its claim to Bolshevism, its links with the USSR and its role on the left of the CGT implied militant class struggle. In fact, these appearances were completely belied by its actions; but it took time to discover this.

On the trade union front the workers flooded in a massive tidal wave into the unions. The CGT expanded enormously. With around one million members before the strikes its membership had reached 2,500,000 by mid-June. It was to double again within six to eight months.

This unionisation of the unorganised—matched in scale only by the great unionisation drive proceeding in the USA—was an expression of the new class combativity of the French proletariat. But the influence of the trade union bureaucracy joined the influence of the Blum Government and the PCF as a brake on the movement.

With all the major forces of the workers' movement now aimed at its dissolution the strike wave gradually subsided. On 26 June the number of strikers had fallen to 166,000. By early August there were only 4,800.

Only one small grouping had offered a radically different perspective for the French working class. The Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (Inter–nationalist Workers Party), that is, the Trotskyists, had only just been formed. The third issue of its weekly paper La Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle) contained an article by Trotsky headlined 'The French Revolution Has Begun!'

In this article Trotsky scathingly attacked the CP and the CGT's line that the strikes were simply economic or craft strikes. Trotsky's estimation was that 'these are not craft strikes that have taken place. These are not just strikes. This is a strike. This is the open rallying of the oppressed against the oppressors. This is the classic beginning of revolution.'

Trotsky looked with a cold eye at the perspectives of the class enemy and summed up their tactic and strategy faced with the workers offensive:

'The ruling class has a real staff. This staff is not at all identical with the Blum Government although it uses the latter very skillfully. Capitalist reaction is now playing a risky game, for high stakes, but it is playing ably. At the present it is playing the game of "losers win". "Let us concede today all the unpleasant demands which have met with the unanimous approval of Blum, Jouhaux and Dadalier. It is a far cry from recognition in principle to recognition in action. There is the parliament, there is the senate, there is the chancery—all these are instruments of obstruction. The masses will show impatience and will attempt to exert greater pressure. Daladier will divorce Blum. Thorez will try to shy to the left. Blum and Jouhaux will part company with the masses. Then we shall make up for all the present concessions and with interest." This is the reasoning of the real staff of the counter-revolution, the famous "200 families" and their hired strategists. They are acting in accord with a plan'.

How different was the policy of the workers leaders. Trotsky pointed out that the actions of Blum, of Jouhaux and Thorez were helping the ruling class to recover, to launch a counter-attack and to triumph. If the 200 families had a plan for counter-revolution and a staff to carry it out then, said Trotsky: 'There must be a staff and a plan of proletarian revolution.'

Trotsky foresaw a second wave of the struggle, one which 'will not have by far the peaceful almost good natured, spring-like character that the first has had. It will be more mature more stubborn and harsh, for it will arise from the disillusionment of the masses in the practical results of the policies of the People's Front'.

Trotsky's voice rang out in the tone of Leninism and Bolshevism. The headline of the issue of La Lutte Ouvrière that carried his article also said it clearly, 'In the Factories—On the Streets, Power to the Workers!' This message was so explosive that the government ordered the paper's immediate seizure. The 'Republican freedom' of Blum and Thorez had no place in it for Bolshevism.


As Trotsky had predicted, once the strikes had ended and the factories emptied of their occupiers the bourgeoisie took up the campaign to limit and then reverse the concessions they had made to the working class. Their first resort was to a flight of capital abroad. The Radicals would not hear of exchange controls and since Blum and Thorez had no intention of alienating them, millions of francs left the country. The bankers of the '200 families' put a strap on the Government's borrowing. So Blum was obliged to resort to printing money, that is, to inflation of the currency.
The workers soon discovered that the dramatic wage rises of June were shrinking before their eyes. Despite Blum's reflation and stimulation of the purchasing power of the masses, the bourgeoisie failed totally to increase investment and step up production. Without a drastic jacking-up of their profit rates nothing was likely to make them do so. Yet the concessions they had just made to the unions in terms of union organisation in the plants and collective agreements made it difficult for the individual employer to lead an offensive.
An economic guerrilla war thus intensified between employers and workers. At the same time the bourgeoisie checked the Popular Front's proposed recommendations and attempts to divert the economy. All this had the ultimate aim of discrediting the government, demoralizing the working class and preparing the road for an anti-working class government that would smash the reforms, crush the power of the unions, restore profitability and labour discipline.
The CP accepted a Blum-led government with ill-concealed gloom. Daladier had been their man. He, they thought, would pursue a vigorous pro-Soviet foreign policy, would curb the fascist leagues and keep the bourgeoisie happy.
The CP showed its discontent with Blum by launching a campaign for a broadening of the Popular Front to the right.
On 14 July, Bastille Day, L'Humanité urged Parisians to go and cheer the army at the Champs Elysees with the headline, 'The army is at one with the people'. In August Duclos, for the CP, proposed a 'French Front'. The programme for the new front was 'respect for the law', 'defence of the national economy' and the 'liberty and independence of the country'.
What did this mean? Since the Popular Front could only be extended by taking in the conservative Republicans, it clearly meant a retreat from the reform programme. All that concerned the CP was a vigorous anti-German foreign policy and the utopian project of persuading the bourgeoisie to respect the Matignon Agreements in return for the working class renouncing any further advances.
But a self-denying ordinance was no longer enough. The deterioration in the economy prompted Blum to attempt a full blooded anti-working class austerity policy. To start the year of 1937 a decree of 6 January made it illegal to strike without recourse to arbitration.
On 13 February, in a radio broadcast, Blum announced the necessity for a 'pause', that is, for a turn from niggardly reforms to actually clawing back the gains the workers had made. Le Temps, voice of the big bourgeoisie, gloated on 8 March, 'Its more than a pause, its a conversion'.
The attempt to ban the fascists had proved a fiasco as well. On 18 June, 1936 the Ligues had indeed been banned. De la Roque's Croix de Feu dissolved as a Ligue only to re-emerge as the Parti Socialiste de France (PSF). Previously it had 450,000 members; as the PSF it rose to 600,000 and then to 800,000. From September 1936 it resumed its provocative marches and motorised columns which descended on and terrorized left wing municipalities and helped the police to break strikes.
So the Popular Front had clearly not defeated fascism with its state ban. On the contrary only the working class was disarmed by it. The fascists with their many connections with the police, with the big bankers and industrialists had secret arms caches and could be armed against workers at the moments notice. The employers who did not wish to see their factories occupied again carefully nurtured these organisations.
The SFIO and the CP meanwhile did nothing to train disciplined defence squads of workers to defend the unions, the factories, the party premises. Workers, of course, fought back but too often with bare knuckles, with improvised weapons against an armed Para-military police force, backed up by fascist gangs and provocateurs.
The worst example of this occurred at Clichy a suburb of Paris in 16 March 1937. A joint SFIO-CP counter-demonstration was organised to stop a rally of de la Roque's PSF. Eight thousand workers marched and clashed with the police defending the fascist meeting. The police opened fire on the demonstrators. At the end of the evening six were dead or dying, 500 were wounded.
The CGT called a half-day general strike in protest. But Thorez had gone to the scene late in the evening and refused to speak to the crowd from the town hall window. He rounded on a group of workers calling for a workers militia with the angry outburst 'Filthy Trotskyists!'
When the issue was raised in parliament on 23 March Jacues Duclos for the CP actually presented the motion of confidence in the government for its handling of the affair. The Popular Front government now had workers blood on its hands and the CP was only too glad to help wash them.
Blum's ministry meanwhile was coming to an end. On 14 June 1937 Blum had asked for the special, famous decrets-lois (ruling by decree) to solve the economic crisis. The CP voted for these measures in the Lower House. But the Senate, in which conservatives and Radicals had a large majority, threw it out. Rather than precipitate a constitutional crisis which would pit the working class against the indirectly elected chamber, Blum resigned on 22 June.
His ministry was replaced by the second Popular Front Goverment led by Camille Chautemps—a Radical—and in which Blum served as deputy premier. The CP eagerly offered to serve in this ministry, the Radical-led one they had always wanted but were politely if firmly informed that now was not the time. Their moment had passed.

The working class movement reached its peak of growth in the spring of 1937. The CGT reached its apogee in March 1937 with just over four million members. Unionisation reached very high percentage levels in private industry.

Wage rises likewise saw a sharp increase in the first year of the Popular Front. In the two years 1936-8 average real wages and salaries rose by almost five per cent. This largely affected male industrial workers, however. Women workers, public service workers, and pensioners saw their real incomes stagnate or decline. This had a tendency to isolate the heavily unionised industrial workers from these other sectors of the proletariat and, importantly, from the peasantry.

The political passivity of the working class imposed by the CP and the SFIO in pursuit of the Popular Front also left these sectors leaderless. They tended to move to the right seeking 'order'. The employers, seeing this, stepped up their combined economic and political offensive against the proletariat. In the big Parisian department stores the management unilaterally withdrew concessions made in 1936.

In particular they tried to dispense with the disciplinary councils which limited their right to sack and get rid of the sliding scale of wages that roughly kept workers abreast of the inflation. Employees immediately struck, occupied the great stores and forced local management to retreat—conceding a one year renewal of the previous agreements.

At the great tyre making works of Goodrich an occupation strike broke out. Chautemps sent the police to clear the works but the workers fortified the plant. Neighbouring factories struck and surrounded 'Fort Goodrich'. Up to this point the CP and L'Humanité supported the struggle.

The CP's national congress was indeed meeting at this very moment. Chautemps immediately put the CP and the CGT to a loyalty test. He gave them the stark alternative evacuate 'Fort Goodrich' at once or he and his cabinet would resign. The Stalinists immediately caved in and vacated the plant, seriously alienating and demoralizing the workers.

Meanwhile, Franco-Soviet relations were plumeting in the winter of 1937-8. Stalin and the CPSU politburo were losing all patience with the French Government over its failure to ratify any military aspects of the Franco-Soviet Pact. On 17 January Zhdanov, in a public session of the Supreme Soviet, asked 'if this pact exists or not?'

The French CP now tried to force Chautemps' hand in an attempt to 'correct' the government's policy. Their chosen method once more was parliamentarism. They began to embarrass the government by demanding an end to the 'pause' in reforms at precisely the point that the government was trying to launch a fully blown austerity programme.

The parliamentary manoeuvring worked badly. Chautemps, warned by the French-secret service of Hitler's imminent seizure of Austria, actually wanted to get out of the firing line. He suddenly resigned on 10 February 1938 and in the following days Hitler invaded and annexed Austria.

France was again absorbed in a ministerial crisis. Leon Blum, as head of the largest party, once more attempted to form a government. But this time using the war danger he called for national unity. To this social-patriotic call the CP loudly added its voice.

Like reformists before or since they were on a hiding to nothing if they thought they could use patriotism to appeal to the better nature of the bourgeoisie. Blum's emotional calls for all to rally to the defence of the fatherland were met by a complete rebuff from the right. In the Chamber the far-right deputies yelled 'Death to the Jews!' and the oft-repeated phrase in the right-wing press was 'Rather Hitler than Blum!' For them, at least, 'the main enemy was at home'.

The right rejected a fight against Hitler on two grounds. Internally it would mean a coalition with the SFIO, the CP and the CGT just when they wanted to launch an anti-working class offensive against them. Internationally it meant alliance with the 'red menace' and a risky one indeed since Hitler and Mussolini were arming for war. They much preferred an alliance with the fascist dictators against the USSR.

Hence, Blum's hope of a National Government was totally illusory and he put together another ministry with the unwilling Radicals. The latter were determined to break their links with the CP. They wanted a coalition including the 'moderate' (i.e. non fascist and monarchist) right and the SFIO to restore order and discipline the unions.

Here the class struggle intervened to bring all these hopes to confusion. A new strike wave comparable in size only to June 1936 was in the making. From the end of February 1938 to the end of March over 10,000 workers occupied factories in the big provincial cities, Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Limoges. In Marseilles chemical workers struck against their bosses renunciation of the sliding scale of wages. On 24 March the Paris Metal Workers—the heavy battallions of the French labour movement entered the fray. The Citröen factories were occupied and the struggle spilled over into other fronts. In two weeks the number of strikers in the Paris region rose to 100,000.

Again Blum called employers and unions to the Hotel Matignon. The unions tamely accepted his offer of a 'compromise' deal: a seven per cent wage increase and an increase in the working week to 45 hours in defence related industries. On 4 April the employers rejected Blum's deal. The strike movement grew and hardened.

By now the movement had developed its own momentum. Initially the CP and SFIO union leaders gave it encouragement as a counter-weight to the pressure of the bosses. But both realised that the bourgeoisie was in no mood for further concessions on the scale of June 1936. The CP anyway wanted massive re-armament and a 'patriotic' government.

Meanwhile Blum's government was coming to the end of its life. Putting forward his proposals to end the strikes in the Lower House, Blum won by 311 votes to 250. But in the Senate on 8 April, his proposals were contemptuously rejected by 214 votes to 47.

Neither Blum nor the CP were willing to create a constitutional crisis; both because they were determined not to turn the 'economic' strike wave into a political struggle and a potentially revolutionary crisis and because of their fear of finally rupturing the Popular Front. If the fatherland (and the 'workers fatherland') had to be defended then the workers had to be kept within the bounds of legality, they reasoned.

On 11 April Daladier, the Radical leader, formed a government and the CP voted for it. The employers readily conceded to Daladier, the very compromise they had refused to Blum. The unions who had been prepared to compromise under Blum did not dare to refuse Daladier the same deal.

On CGT orders the workers evacuated the plants, red flags flying but often grumbling bitterly against the union leaders. By 21 April nearly all factories had resumed normal working. At the mass meeting that ended the occupations the militants angrily called the bureaucrats to account and denounced the 'compromise' as a sell-out. Bourde notes:

'The minorities were listened to with greater attention when they denounced the treason of the Stalinists and the reformists. And the less committed workers turned away from the unions; in a few months the metal workers federation lost 80,000 members. The 'second round of June 1936' left an impression of malaise and opened a crisis inside the workers organisations.'

Not only the CGT and its Metal Workers Federation suffered from the sell-outs of the first half of 1938. Certain Paris sections of the CP lost one third of their members. Overall membership stagnated and fell. The Comminist Youth League fell to half its 1936 level.

The reward that the Stalinists procured for their demobilisation of the April strike wave was a ferocious anti-working class austerity drive and the trampling on the Franco-Soviet Pact. Yet they still would not mobilize the unions to resist the attack until it became absolutely clear that the French bourgeoisie was going all the way with Chamberlain in appeasing Hitler.

On 21 August Daladier announced that France had to be 'put back to work' by relaxing the 40 hour week across the whole of industry. The CP fulminated against the measures but again offered compromises. Daladier contemptuously granted them and proceeded to cut the 40 hour week to shreds by a series of decree laws.

But soon the Munich crisis was upon France. It came to a head on 22 September when Hitler rejected Chamberlain's proposals to hand over Czechoslovakia to him, but too slowly. The Czech's ordered a general mobilization, France a partial one. Britain declared a state of emergency and mobilized her fleet. Trenches were being dug, the stations were full of reservists, gas masks were being distributed.

Then came the last minute meeting in Munich which gave Hitler what he wanted. The Munich Pact was a death blow to the sorry remains of both the Franco-Soviet Pact and the Popular Front. The Soviet Union had been ignored, Czechoslovakia dismembered and a four power non-aggression pact signed between the two leading fascist states and the two leading 'democracies'.

The CP loudly and bitterly denounced the pact, but in vain. Only the left wing of the SFIO led by Zyromsky sided with them. Daladier now took the opportunity to launch his final offensive on the bewildered CP and on the discredited Front Populaire. Paul Reynaud, his new Finance Minister, proclaimed a further series of decrees lifting all price controls and virtually absolishing what was left of the 40 hour week. It was a gaunlet thrown down to the CGT.

When announcing the decrees the minister had talked openly about 'restoring capitalist profit'. Daladier talked with evident pleasure about getting rid of the 'week with two Sundays'. The CGT now had to fight or succumb. Yet the bureaucrats temporized. The Confederal Bureau gave an order for a one day general protest strike in 18 days time! Daladier used this time to prepare the crushing of the strike.

The Paris region metal workers however sensing the stupidity of the 18 days waiting jumped the gun and took action. Sit downs began on 21 November. A few days later 100,000 were on strike or in occupation with the Citröen, Bloch and Renault plants occupied.

But alas this time Daladier was ready. Two thousand riot police were sent into the Renault factories. A bitter barricade fight took place, workers hurling steel bars, crankshafts and bolts at the invaders. The police used teargas. After four hours the workers—upwards of 25,000—were expelled and 300 arrested.

Without workers defence squads and without immediate support from other plants, the guards brigade of the CGT was crushed. The effect of this defeat, in a factory where 7,500 workers were party members, was demoralizing in the extreme. The other factories were evacuated without resistence. Now only the general strike remained. The CGT pathetically promised the strict legality of its protest.

Daladier hemmed it in with laws and decrees. On the due day he requisitioned the railways, the underground, the buses and all public services. Workers in these were threatened with prison sentences if they struck. The unions passively complied; even the communist controlled railway workers federation yielded without a murmur and kept out of the strike. In private industry the strike was reasonably effective, with 50 to 80 per cent out.

Worse was to follow though. When workers returned in low spirits after what the Government press hailed as a fiasco they found lists of sacked militants posted on the gates. Union recognition was dismissed and collective agreements were torn up by the jubilant patrons. Workers, demoralized and humiliated, flooded out of the unions. The CGT, 3.5 million strong in 1938 fell to 2.5 million in August 1939. By May 1940 it was to have under one million members. The wheel had come full circle since June 36. Everything was lost.

What had been gained by breaking the great upsurges of the working class in 1936 and in 1938? Peace? War was to come nine or ten months later. The defence of the Republic and democracy? After the French military disaster of 1940 Petain was to install a bonapartist dictatorship in the southern part of the country while the Gestapo had a free hand in the north. The defence of the Soviet Union? In 1941 Hitler was to launch an onslaught which resulted in the deaths of 20 millions Soviet citizens. The Spanish Republic? Franco finally smashed it in March 1939.

Yet in the name of these objectives and via the Popular Front strategy the workers were poisoned with chauvinism. The way was prepared for the 'democratic imperialisms' to lead the masses into another barbarous world war.

Trotsky 'Stalin has signed the death warrant of the Third International!' in Writings 1934-5 p291
R F Kivel Capitalism and the state in modern France (Cambridge 1981) pp108-14
D R Browyer The New Jacobins p117
D R Browyer ibid p147
D Guerin Front Populaire: uuRévolution Manquée (1976) p117
Quoted in M Adereth The French Communist Party - a Critical History p77
Trotsky 'The French Revolution Has Begun' in On France p165
Cited in Guerin op cit p121
Trotsky 'The French Revolution Has Begun' in op cit p164
Guy Broudé La Defaite De La Front Populaire p37