Popular Frontism in France

The New Popular Front (NPF) received the most seats in the recent parliamentary elections in France, 182 out of the 577 total in the National Assembly. Standing on a programme of reducing the pension age to 60 – reversing President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘reform’; freezing the price of energy and basic necessities; ending austerity; increasing the minimum wage; indexing wages to inflation; reforming Macron’s immigration law, and ending the genocide in Gaza, it beat Macron’s bloc, Ensemble (with 163 seats), and pushed Marine Le Pen’s right-populist Rassemblement National (RN) and her allies into third place (143 seats).

The NPF is an alliance of La France Insoumise (LFI), the largest group led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French Communist Party (PCF), and the Greens, but also includes the French Socialist Party (PS). This is the party that in the first round of the 2022 presidential elections saw its share of the vote plummet to just 1.75% as a consequence of the neo-liberal, anti-working-class policies it had carried out when in control of the presidency and the government. The newly-elected NPF deputies include the former Socialist Party president François Hollande. While LFI now has 74 seats in the Assembly the PS has ended up with 59 compared to 29 in 2022, boosted by the disproportionate way that seats were allocated within the NPF.

For the second round of this year’s election, the NPF and Macron’s party reached an agreement that those candidates in third place would stand down to maximise votes for a ‘Republican Front’ against the far-right. Without a majority in the French Assembly, the NPF and its constituent organisations are now coming under huge pressure from the establishment to go further and form a coalition with Macron’s party – the capitalist Ensemble. Crisis and further instability, and a continued search by the working class for an alternative, is guaranteed.

The New Popular Front takes its name from the French Popular Front which came to power on 3 May 1936, winning 386 seats in the 608-strong Chamber of Deputies. The victory then was met within weeks by a mass strike wave as the working class sought to implement the programme of the Popular Front in action against the capitalists’ resistance – and reached towards real workers’ power as they did so.

Here we are reprinting an article written by PETER TAAFFE, which first appeared in two instalments in issues 407 and 408 of the Militant newspaper in 1978. We are, of course, in a different historical era to that of the 1930s, or even more so the 1970s. But in specifically addressing the arguments of two prominent British Communist Party members at the time, Monty Johnson and Eric Hobsbawm, starting from the particular experience of the original Popular Front government in France the article provides a still thoroughly ‘modern’ explanation of the general Marxist approach to ‘Popular Frontism’ – the fatal policy of an alliance between workers’ parties and the parties of ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ capitalism. ■

1936: when the workers moved towards power

After a lapse of more than three decades, the Popular Front is back on the agenda of the workers’ movement in Western Europe.

In France – notwithstanding the defeat of the Left in the March 1978 Assembly elections – in Spain and in Italy new versions of the pre- and post-war Popular Front governments coming to power will undoubtedly be posed in the turbulent period which lies ahead. As a preparation for such a possibility, the ‘theoreticians’ and spokesmen of the communist parties have looked for support – and seek to justify their tactics – in the experiences of past Popular Fronts.

Thus, in Britain Eric Hobsbawm and Monty Johnstone, ‘dissident’ members of the Communist Party (CP), have recently undertaken a defence of the Popular Front ‘strategy’, particularly in Spain and France in the pre-war period.

This is not at all accidental. During a period of upswing and relative stability the capitalists prefer to rule through their traditional parties. But faced with economic or social crisis and the resulting mass discontent, with the weakening and discrediting of their traditional parties, the capitalists invariably resort to the coalition tactic. They seek to break the movement of the masses by pushing the leaders of the workers’ parties into an alliance with the capitalist parties.

In Britain in the 1930s the ruling class pressurised the renegade Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald to form a ‘National Government’ with the Tories and Liberals. The same conditions as those of the pre-war are now reappearing in Western Europe.

CP theoreticians invariably appeal to the writings of Vladimir Lenin, the leader with Leon Trotsky of the 1917 October revolution, to justify this tactic. Yet running like a red thread throughout Lenin’s writings is an explicit denunciation of the policy of alliances with the liberal capitalists.

Role of the liberal capitalists

On 6 March 1917, from Switzerland, just after the February revolution, Lenin wrote to the Bolsheviks in Russia: “Our tactic: absolute lack of confidence: no support to the new government; no support of Kerensky especially”. The Provisional Government was the equivalent of the latter-day Popular Front – an alliance of the leaders of one of the workers’ and one of the peasants’ parties, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, with the liberal capitalists.

Some of Lenin’s erstwhile followers, such as Josef Stalin and Lev Kamenev, through the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, were prepared to give support to this government “in so far as it struggled against reaction or counter-revolution”. Lenin compared this to preaching against sin to a brothel keeper!

In his famous Letters from Afar he piteously condemns the policy of Stalin and Kamenev – and by implication the present leaders of the CPs in Western Europe. He wrote: “He who says that the workers must support the new government in the struggle against Tsarist reaction is a traitor to the workers, a traitor to the cause of the working class, to the cause of peace. For actually, precisely this new government is already bound hand and foot by imperialist capital, by the imperialist policy of war and plunder”.

Lenin never at any time justified a programmatic block with the leaders of middle-class parties as a means of winning the little men of town and country to the side of the working class. On the contrary, the history of Bolshevism is a history of war against such notions, not just in Russia either.

When Alexandre Millerand, the French Socialist Party leader, formed a bloc with the leaders of the Radical-Socialist Republican Party at the turn of the twentieth century, he was condemned by Lenin. The Radical-Socialist Party was characterised by Lenin as “the most vicious and consummate representatives of finance capital, the political exploiter of the peasants and middle-class”. The way to win the middle-class, said Lenin, was not in a coalition with these “political exploiters” but by unmasking them before their followers, and by demonstrating in action that only the working class was capable of solving their problems.

In Russia in 1917 this policy – implacably opposed to the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary versions of the Popular Front – succeeded in winning the peasantry to the side of the working class. In Spain and in France in 1936 the “strikebreaking conspiracy” of the Popular Front succeeded only in pushing the peasantry and the middle-class into indifference and opposition.

Lenin was sometimes prepared to co-operate with the liberals on practical or technical matters such as the transport of revolutionary literature, joint action against the fascist Black Hundreds, etc. He was prepared under certain conditions to have common voting lists on the second ballot with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But at no time did the Bolsheviks form a programmatic bloc, have common organisations, or subordinate themselves to the Russian ‘Republicans’ or ‘Radicals’.

Lenin revised

In a shamefaced way, Eric Hobsbawm is prepared to concede that the idea of the Popular Front flies in the face of all of Lenin’s teaching, referring to “coalitions of communists with social democrats and certain middle-class parties which were not seen as the immediate preliminary to revolution and working-class power. Such governments had always been condemned by the revolutionary left”. (Marxism Today, July 1977) But, argues our sage, it was entirely justified by the “new situation” which had developed in France and Spain in the inter-war period. Elsewhere, Militant has detailed the catastrophic role of the Popular Front in Spain. But in the light of recent events, Eric Hobsbawm and Monty Johnstone have attempted to refurbish the image of the French Popular Front of 1936.

In reality, the titanic sit-down strikes of May-June 1936 which followed the 3 May election victory stand as a crushing condemnation of the policy of Popular Frontism. Between 1931 and 1936 the French working class had seen their already meagre wages reduced by an average of 30%. Their growing radicalisation was reflected in the elections of 1936. The Popular Front received over 5.5 million votes compared to the 4.5 million for the right-wing National Front. The revolutionary ferment amongst the masses was reflected in the Radical Party’s loss of half a million votes, its reduction to third place in votes, while at the same time the Communist Party doubled its vote to 1.5 million.

This dramatic collapse of the Radicals’ support within the overall victory of the Popular Front is airily dismissed by Monty Johnstone. Seeking to justify the CP leaders’ alliance with the Radicals he writes: “Whilst the Radicals were to lose one and a half million votes… the one and a half million votes that they did receive showed that they were still a force to be reckoned with… whereas between them the Socialists and Communists obtained only 218 out of 618 seats, the Popular Front as a whole won an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies with 378 seats”.

He does not mention, of course, the gross bias towards the Radicals in the allocation of seats within the Popular Front. Thus, on the first ballot they got 25 seats, yet on the second ballot, entirely due to the concessions given by the Communist Party and Socialist Party leaders, they got 116 seats. Throughout the election campaign, moreover, the CP leaders covered the Radicals with a revolutionary aura – in complete contradistinction to Lenin, who used elections to unmask liberal capitalists before their middle-class supporters.

The radicals openly boasted that they would be a brake on the ‘excesses’ of the socialist ministers. Thus, the Radical leader Édouard Daladier declared: “Whatever may be said to the contrary, the Front Populaire programme is really impregnated with the true Radical spirit”. (Manchester Guardian, 23 May 1936) This programme promised important reforms such as the 40-hour week but came out only for the nationalisation of war industries and the banks.

But the suspicion of the masses – and the doubts about the willingness of their own leaders to implement the Popular Front programme – was shown in the events which followed the election. Thus, on 25 May 1936, half a million workers marched past the spot where the Paris Communards were shot in 1871 “carrying red banners and wearing red flowers, and including many women and children many of them in perambulators”. (Manchester Guardian) The procession was nearly two miles long and lasted from early afternoon till late evening.

Then, in the last week of May and the first two weeks of June, a mighty wave of sit-in strikes was begun by the French working class. Beginning with the metalworkers in Paris, all corners of France and all layers of the working class joined in. On the eve of the strike trade union membership stood at 1,200,000, just 20% of the labour force. Yet upwards of three million joined the strike. For the first time in French history the trade unions ran out of membership cards! All those workers, the most exploited and sceptical, were roused to their feet by the sit-in strikes.

The horror of international capitalism is reflected in the reports of the British press at the time. The Manchester Guardian reporting on the strike in the department stores and the pleasure spots of the rich said: “Paris Coty’s perfumery workshops; the Galarie Lafayette; all the chocolate factories… the drivers of the ‘black Marias’ in Paris struck today and prison vans had to be driven by police inspectors… the Trois Quartiers and other department stores were declared ‘occupied’ by the employees this morning… 6,000 persons, including 3,500 women, are employed by Galarie Lafayette”. (4 June 1936)

A unique opportunity

On 11 June the same newspaper reported: “Coachwork factories in Paris, several cinemas and two or three dressmaking firms which were ‘occupied’ by the ‘midinettes’ went on strike today… the stable lads have ‘occupied’ the racing stables and several hundred undertaker societies and tombstone manufacturers have joined in the movement… The syndicate of concierges has asked for holiday with pay and automatic buttons for opening front doors at night”!

The loss of production was bad enough, but the occupations and strikes began to affect the stomachs of the rich: “The rather abrupt manner in which the waiters’ strike began in some of the restaurants while some of the customers were in the middle of lunch was rather unpleasant”. (Manchester Guardian 12 June 1936)

The Times reported on 11 June that: “The lifeboat men on the Seine have put up a notice to say that they are on strike and forbidding passers-by to throw themselves into the water. Another warns that so long as the strike continues only mothers-in-law will be saved”. Nor did religion escape: to the consternation of the local priest, workmen engaged on redecoration at the church of St Vessaine went on strike, occupied the church, and slept in the confessional boxes for the duration.

At the same time, “even the rural areas are now infected by the strike virus and in the Seine-et-Oise Department 3,500 agricultural workers joined in”. (The Times, 11 June 1936) In the ports, sailors marched through the towns with arms linked singing the ‘Internationale’ and the police fraternised with the workers.

Here was a unique opportunity for the French working class to have taken power peacefully! The forces of French capitalism were completely paralysed. ‘Not so’, declare the latter-day attorneys for the pre-war CP leaders – Monty Johnstone, Hobsbawm and Co. The sit-in strikes, they assert, were concerned not with ‘politics’ but merely with wages and conditions. On the contrary, in May/June 1936, the French working class was groping in the direction of power. All the serious capitalist commentators at the time show this. The Manchester Guardian reporter wrote on 30 May 1936, at a time when the sit-in strikes were beginning to spread: “The Conservative press is greatly disturbed. The ‘Intransigent’ declared: ‘In short the Ministry of the Masses is trying to take the place of the Front Populaire’.”

Even more striking are the comments of one picket to the same reporter: “Our boss”, he said, “has been treating us as dictators. Well, I told him that we preferred this sort of dictatorship within the framework of a democratic regime to the dictatorship of Hitler and Mussolini’.” How much wisdom there is in the simple words of this French worker.

Power slips from the workers’ hands

However, the leaders of the French workers’ parties were terrified by these developments, which had taken them by surprise and were threatening to get out of control: “Several Communist deputies to whom I spoke were visibly embarrassed and alarmed. They declared the strike to be ‘untimely’, described it as an uncontrollable mass movement, and declined all responsibility for it”. (Manchester Guardian, 3 June 1936)

But, objects Monty Johnstone, any attempt of the French working class to take power would have led to action by “Colonel de la Roque of the fascisti Croix de Feu with his 300,000 supporters trained for civil war by 60,000 officers of the reserve”. (Marxism Today, November 1975) This is the usual trick of the Labour and Communist Party leaders who attempt to frighten the working class with ‘civil war’ should they attempt to take power. Exactly the same tactics were used by the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaders prior to the October Revolution.

Lenin answered them as follows: “To fear the resistance of the capitalists and yet to call oneself a revolutionary, to wish to be regarded as a revolutionary – isn’t that disgraceful?… It [the capitalist class] will repeat the Kornilov [the Russian equivalent of de la Roque] revolt… No gentlemen, you will not fool the workers. It will not be a civil war but a hopeless revolt of a handful of Kornilovites… But when every labourer, every unemployed worker, every cook, every ruined peasant, sees, not from newspapers, but with his own eyes that the workers’ state is not cringing to wealth but is helping the poor… that the land is being transferred to the working people and the factories and banks are being placed under the control of the workers, no capitalist forces, no forces of world finance capital will vanquish the people’s revolution: on the contrary, the socialist revolution will triumph all over the world”. (Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, 1 October 1917 )

In reality, the relationship of forces in France in 1936 was a thousand times more favourable than in Russia in 1917. The fascists were completely impotent, as were the police and the army. The workers openly ridiculed the Croix de Feu during the occupations. At the massive Renault works, for instance, the Manchester Guardian reported the comments of a young worker: “One of the best shows we put on (during the occupation) was the magnificent trial of Colonel de la Roque. If you could have only seen de la Roque (an effigy) locked up in a big cage resting on two drumsticks with heavy chains around his wrists and crying ‘Pity me, pity me’ as he was condemned to death. A dummy of de la Roque with the swastika and Croix de Feu armlets was then hung and burnt”.

Monty Johnstone may speculate on the possible use of the fascists and police against the workers, but the capitalists were quite clear on the futility of such methods. Thus, The Times remarked on 28 May: “Police were called out in large numbers but when the management looked over the situation and particularly the extent of the support of the men in the whole locality of the factories they were forced to request that the police be not sent into action”.

Army useless

Nor could the army be used against the workers. The French army was a conscript army, as it is today. Demonstrations and upheavals were sweeping through the barracks precisely at this time, with the conscripts demanding amongst other things the reduction of army service to one year. At the Socialist Party conference, which took place in the midst of the sit-ins for instance, the leader of the left, Marcel Pivert, “demanded the immediate restoration of one-year service… and read telegrams of support from the rank and file of provincial garrisons”. (The Times, 1 June 1936)

Any attempt by the French ruling class to use the army against the working class would have resulted in it splitting in their hands. Like their Spanish brothers one month later, the French workers and peasants in uniform would have paralysed the attempt of the officers to use the army against their fathers, brothers and sisters.

But, argues Monty Johnstone: “Across the Rhine stood Nazi Germany allied to fascist Italy in the south-east, both getting ready to help France smash Republican Spain, whilst the British bankers used every form of pressure to give them a free hand to do so”. In a much less favourable situation than France in 1936, with the actual armed intervention of imperialism, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not deterred from taking power. The Russian revolution detonated revolutions throughout Europe.

The reports in the British Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper at the time perhaps inadvertently give the lie to Johnstone’s arguments. Speaking of the effects of French events in Germany, it reported on 16 June: “The Nazi press at first ‘played up’ these strikes saying they were an example of the ‘chaos’ from ‘Bolshevik’ influence in France. After a few days it became noticeable that workers were beginning to say they saw the huge gains won by the strikers as an example it might be a good one to follow”.

If the German workers were inspired just by wage increases gained by their French brothers and sisters, imagine the effect on them of the socialist revolution. Both Hitler and the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini would have been overthrown. The Spanish workers, who rose and were initially victorious in four-fifths of Spain just one month later, would have joined, as would the working class throughout Europe. On 8 June the Daily Worker itself had a banner headline, ‘Huge strikes sweep over Western Europe’. The Belgian workers under the direct influence of the French movement came out in a huge strike wave, with street battles between workers and police in all the main cities of Belgium.

There is no doubt that if the French working class would have succeeded in carrying through the socialist revolution – which was entirely possible in 1936 – the workers and peasants throughout Europe would have followed suit. The May/June sit-in strikes in 1936 could have become the overture to the Socialist United States of the continent.

No Lenin

The ruling classes of France and of Europe, together with their shadows within the labour movement, were paralysed by fear, some of them believing that the hour of their downfall had arrived. For instance, the Socialist Party prime minister of the Popular Front government, Leon Blum, remarked: “I am being spoken of as a Kerensky who is preparing the way for a Lenin”. But there was no Lenin to be found in the ranks of the French Communist Party leaders.

The method, the programme and the tactics of Lenin were a book sealed with seven seals so far as the French CP leaders were concerned. They bent every effort to derail the movement of the masses. In the process, enormous suspicion and hostility towards these leaders developed, at least amongst the advanced workers.

Thus, over a headline which said ‘Revolutionary Temper of Men in the Engineering Works’, the Manchester Guardian reported: “The revolutionary temper… is undeniable as may be seen by the extraordinary incident that occurred at Renault yesterday. The local Communist deputy who urged the strikers to resume work on the basis of Monday’s agreement… was howled down and driven out of the works. There is no doubt that not only the CGT [the Communist-led trade union] but even the Communist leaders have no control and no authority over the strikers of several engineering concerns”. (12 June 1936)

Seeing power slip from the hands of his class and no doubt gnashing his teeth, one worker commented: “It is strange to think that in a few days everything may go back to ‘normal’ and Renault will come into their own again; and the posters and drawings and flags and wireless set and everything will be gone. Foremen will be able to order you about and glare”. (Manchester Guardian 3 June 1936)

The French capitalists were forced to give wage increases and concede the 40-hour week, at least in words, as the price of getting the strike called off. The CP leader Maurice Thorez declared: “One must know how to stop a strike – that is, as soon as the essential demands have been satisfied”. (Manchester Guardian, 13 June)

But what the capitalists gave with the left hand they took back with the right later on. The wage increases were gradually cancelled out through inflation. No sooner was the ink dry on the agreement than the individual employers began to resist the implementation of the reforms. But The Times urged the French capitalists to bide their time: “The general terms of Monday’s settlement are being resisted in detail, with the risk that disappointment following apparent victory may produce a fiercer temper in the working class than a period of waiting would have done”. (June 1936)

Power for the working class was there for the taking in 1936, but for the treacherous role of the workers’ leaders, particularly the Communist Party leaders. Hiding behind the Popular Front, the French capitalists prepared their revenge. Later thousands of militants were victimised. In October 1936 further sit-ins took place and this time the police were used to evict the strikers.

The French capitalists, moreover, heaped on the shoulders of the working class the responsibility for inflation, thereby alienating the middle class from the workers. Trotsky had warned of such developments in June 1936. This shows the futility of attempting to win the middle class on a programme which does not go beyond the framework of capitalism. By taking power, by taking over the assets of the 200 families dominating the economy and establishing a planned economy, the French working class would have shown in action that it was the only force capable of solving the problems of the middle layers.

A planned economy would have allowed for cancellation of debts of the small owners in town and country and the extension of cheap credit and aid. The social reserves of reaction would have been completely undermined. Instead, Leon Blum was forced out of the premiership of the Popular Front government in 1937 and the Socialist Party was completely excluded in 1938. The French working class, as with their Spanish brothers and sisters, were thus delivered into the arms of fascism. The French Popular Front prepared the way for the enslavement of the working class by the Nazis and their French collaborators in the Vichy regime.

The post-war experience

In the immediate post-war period, the European capitalists again used the Communist and Socialist party leaders through the medium of coalition government to save themselves from the wrath of the masses. When the danger had passed, however, the CP and socialist leaders were unceremoniously booted out.

Even Eric Hobsbawm admits: “The governments of anti-fascist unity in Western Europe could get rid of the Communists whenever they wished, and in any case kept them in subordinate positions, where they took the blame for unpopular government policies, for example as ministers of labour”. But Hobsbawm is incapable of drawing the necessary conclusions from this.

The legacy of the Popular Front is one of defeats – sometimes bloody and terrible, as in Chile in 1973. Monty Johnstone tries to refute this by pointing to the elimination of landlordism and capitalism in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of war. Here there was a “striking success” for the Popular Front, he claims! In reality, it was nothing of the kind. The Stalinists formed a coalition, not with the liberal capitalists, but with the ‘shadow of the capitalists’. The quisling capitalists of Eastern Europe had fled with the advance of the Red Army. Real power – the army, and the police – was in the hands of the Stalinists. These ‘Popular Fronts’ or ‘National Fronts’ were merely a screen to mask this. When the ‘shadow’ began to take on some substance, the Stalinists leaned on the working class and completely eliminated the last vestiges of capitalism. (See Ted Grant’s pamphlet, The Marxist Theory of the State)

New and even viler versions of Popular Frontism are taking shape in Europe in the period into which we are moving. In Italy, for instance, the Communist Party (PCI) even abandoned the Popular Front in favour of a ‘National Front’. It has proposed an ‘historic compromise’ with a party to the right of the Tory party in Britain – the right-wing Christian Democratic Party – which has been linked to a number of military plots and fascist conspiracies in the past ten years. Yet the PCI leaders have recently expressed their preparedness to serve in a government even with the Christian Democrat Amintore Fanfani. They justify this by pointing to the defeat in Chile in September 1973! Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown, it seems, because he failed to link up with the Christian Democratic Party, thereby alienating the middle class! There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

Not in alliance with the ‘political exploiters’ of the middle-class stratum, but only by linking the struggles of the urban and rural middle class together in action could the middle layers have been won to the side of the working class in Chile. In turn, this would have meant the carrying through of the socialist revolution. Half measures and prevarication gave reaction the opportunity of ensnaring the support of at least a section of the middle class and preparing the way for a bloody retribution against the Chilean workers and peasants.

But the 1970s are not the 1930s, or even the 1940s. The Italian, French and Spanish working classes are immeasurably stronger than in the past. Stalinism no longer exercises a mesmeric effect on the rank and file of the communist parties. Once a Popular Front comes to power there will be enormous repercussions within the ranks of these organisations. The CP leaders will inevitably attempt to apply the brake to the movement of the masses, as the early period of the Portuguese revolution demonstrated.  They proclaimed their faith in the ‘socialist revolution’ only after the masses had themselves compelled the government to nationalise most of industry.

On the basis of the great events which impend in Europe, the rank and file of the communist and socialist parties will see that only disaster lies at the end of the road of the ‘Popular’ or ‘National’ Fronts. The workers in these organisations will seek a return to a programme capable of giving them victory in the struggle to eliminate capitalism. As a step towards this, the advanced workers must absorb the lessons of past Popular Fronts in order to prevent catastrophe in the struggles which are now opening up.