In the mid-1930s French workers launched a wave of strikes and occupations. Neil Faulkner explains how the Stalinised Communist Party worked to contain this resistance
The Nazi seizure of power sent shockwaves across Europe. Hitler offered a solution to the economic crisis based on dictatorship at home and imperialism abroad. His was a model other ruling classes might follow.
The destruction of labour organisation by state repression and fascist terror allowed capitalists to ratchet up the rate of exploitation in the workplaces. It also eliminated any possibility of a socialist alternative.
‘The historic function of fascism,’ explained Trotsky, ‘is to smash the working class, to destroy its organisations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.’
The first successful attempt to replicate the pattern occurred in Austria. The revolutionary wave after the First World War had created a powerful Social-Democratic Party with 600,000 members, 40% of the popular vote, and its own paramilitary defence force. The Austrian ruling class wanted to crush this movement.
Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss carried out an internal coup in March 1933, dispensing with parliament, imposing rule by decree, and cracking down on working-class organisation.
The Social-Democratic leaders advised their supporters to do nothing. They preferred to support the pro-Catholic fascist Dollfuss against his pro-Nazi fascist rivals.
On 12 February 1934, the Dollfuss regime launched a full-scale police attack on the Social-Democrats. For four days, the workers fought back, but then they were crushed. Eleven activists were hanged. The Austrian labour movement was driven underground.
At least the Austrian workers had resisted, unlike the German workers the year before. ‘Better Vienna than Berlin’ became a rallying cry on the European Left. It would be heard often in the mid 1930s.
Vienna was not the only capital city where fascists made a bid for power in February 1934. On 6 February, a huge right-wing demonstration had formed in Paris demanding the resignation of a newly formed liberal government headed by Edouard Daladier.
After a night of vicious fighting between demonstrators and police that left 15 dead, Daladier, fearing he could not maintain order, stepped down. The fascists seemed able to unmake a government by force.
But the CGT union federation called a general strike on 12 February. The Socialist Party (SFIO) and the Communist Party (PCF) organised mass demonstrations. As the separate SP and CP demonstrations came together in Paris, there was an explosion of shouts and applause, with cries of ‘Unity! Unity!’
The PCF leaders had wanted to keep the two demonstrations apart. They were still peddling the ‘Third Period’ madness that the Socialists were ‘social-fascists’ (see MHW 84). But the working class had imposed unity on their sectarian leaders. And soon after, the Moscow line changed from ultra-leftism to ‘popular frontism’.
Stalin, isolated in Europe and threatened by Hitler, was now desperately seeking allies among the western powers. So the Comintern flipped over to a policy of political alliances – not just with social-democrats, but also with liberals.
In France, this meant an electoral pact – a Popular Front – of Communists, Socialists, and Radicals. The Popular Front won the general election of May 1936 and a new government was formed by Socialist Leon Blum.
The workers, inspired by the victory of ‘their’ parties, immediately went onto the offensive. From 26 May onwards, this movement swelled into a massive general strike involving two million workers. Over three-quarters of the strikes, moreover, took the form of factory occupations. The British ambassador compared the situation to that of Russia in 1917
The employers and the police were powerless. The ruling class looked to the Socialist premier for salvation. He duly called for ‘public security’ and convened a meeting of employers and union representatives to negotiate a settlement at the Matignon Hotel.
With the employers on the back foot, the concessions were massive: wage increases of between 7 and 15%; the working week cut from 48 to 40 hours with no loss of pay; two weeks paid holiday; and agreement in principle to free collective bargaining.
All Popular Front parties advocated acceptance of the Matignon Agreement and an immediate return to work. This included the Communist Party, whose leader, Maurice Thorez, declared: ‘So what next? … So we must know how to end a strike when satisfaction has been obtained. We must even know how to accept a compromise when all demands have not yet been met …’
But the economic gains of the workers were bound to be whittled away as soon the employers regained the initiative. This was especially so during a period of slump.
Yet Thorez said nothing about creating a network of workers’ councils to protect existing gains and organise future action for more. He did not see the June movement as an opportunity to establish permanent organs of mass democracy. He led his supporters backwards instead of using the factory occupations as a platform for further advance.
The majority of workers may not have been willing to fight for more in June 1936. But their mood was shifting rapidly to the left. Communist Party membership grew from 90,000 to 290,000 in the course of the year. It was fast becoming the dominant force within the Popular Front.
But the PCF leadership was fiercely loyal to Stalin. It adhered religiously to the Popular Front. This meant doing nothing to upset liberal politicians. It meant lowest common denominator politics. Dissidents who questioned this approach were expelled.
The effect was to subordinate the interests of the working class to those of the ruling class. ‘The ‘People’s Front’,’ wrote Trotsky, ‘represents the coalition of the proletariat with the imperialist bourgeoisie … The coalition extends both to the parliamentary and to the extra-parliamentary spheres. In both spheres, the Radical Party, preserving for itself complete freedom of action, savagely imposes restrictions upon the freedom of action of the proletariat.’
As the working-class movement receded, the government moved to the right. Blum abandoned his policy of economic expansion and social reform in favour of deflation and rearmament. The Popular Front opted for guns instead of butter.
This did not save Blum. A flight of capital created a financial crisis that forced his resignation in June 1937. A second Popular Front government was a right-of-centre administration led by a Radical rather than a Socialist.
A third government was formed in April 1938. This saw the return of Edouard Daladier, a right-wing Radical, to the premiership. It was not a Popular Front administration at all – it included no Socialists, but did include the parties of the Right.
On 12 November 1938, Paul Reynaud, Minister of Finance, declared: ‘We are living in a capitalist system. The capitalist system, being what it is, its laws must be obeyed. These are the laws of profit, of individual risk, of a free market, of the incentive of competition…’
The government then issued a series of decrees cutting wages, increasing the working week, and undermining terms and conditions of employment. Inflation had already wiped out the wage rises won in June 1936. The new attacks represented a full-scale counter-offensive against French workers.
The CGT called a general strike. But support was patchy, and the police attacked those who did take action with exceptional violence.
The Renault workers at the giant Billancourt works outside Paris fought a 24-hour battle with 1,500 riot police. After their defeat, the workers were forced to march out of the factory giving the fascist salute and shouting ‘Vive la police!’
The defeat of the strike broke the great workers’ movement spawned by the events of February 1934 and May-June 1936. Union membership collapsed from a peak of four million members to one million. One in six CGT local branches disintegrated. Thousands of workplace militants were victimised.
In 1934, Trotsky had written as follows: ‘Whoever consoles himself with the phrase ‘France is not Germany’ is hopeless. In all countries, the same historical laws operate, the laws of capitalist decline… The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of providing the people with neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order.’
The choice, Trotsky concluded, was socialist revolution or fascist barbarism.
The defeat, disintegration, and demoralisation of the French labour movement created the basis for France’s military capitulation in 1940, the occupation of the north of the country by the Nazis, and the establishment in the south of the pro-fascist Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. Trotsky’s prediction was confirmed.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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