The Popular Front, A Social and Political Tragedy: The Case of France

by Dan La Botz

1. This paper comes out of a presentation made at the World Peace Forum, Vancouver, British Columbia, November 7-8, 2009.

2. Historically the CPUSA has since the mid-1930s supported Democrats, even when it ran its own candidates. In 2008, the CPUSA supported and its members worked for Obama’s election, though the party as usual argued the need to go beyond Democrats and Republicans and to eventually create a people’s party. Eric Mann, whose politics might be characterized as neo-Stalinist, argued "Ten Reasons to Support Barack Obama." Mann also has usually supported Democrats, arguing the need to stop fascism in the United States by forming an alliance with people of color. Bill Fletcher, who comes out of a Maoist background, also supported Obama. "All American progressive should unite for Obama," said Fletcher in an article co-authored with several others. ("Progressives for Obama," The Nation, March 24, 2008.) Fletcher’s position of "critical support" is also stated at Money Drives Politics.

3. Panel "Class or Nation? The Era of the Popular Front," Miguel Figueroa and Dan La Botz," 1929-1939 – From Crash to Catastrophe – A Teach-In on What Happened and Its Lessons for Today – November 7, 8, & 1, 2009 - Maritime Labour Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia.

4.I hope to continue this analysis of the Popular Front with another paper dealing with Spain to be published in the near future.

5. Some, following Walter G. Krivitsky, In Stalin's Secret Service: An Exposé of Russia's Secret Policies by the Former Chief of the Soviet Intelligence in Western Europe (University Publications of America, 1985), have suggested that Stalin’s search for collective security was only buying time in order to reach an agreement with Hitler. In any case, in the mid-1930s he was seeking collective security and that principally motivated the Popular Front policy.

6. Stalin’s role in transforming the Soviet Union and the policies of the Communist International, and specifically in using the Popular Front to form alliances with capitalist parties, in order to achieve his foreign policy objectives has been documented and argued in: Fernando Claudín, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (New York: Monthly Review, 1975) [Spanish edition 1970], Vol. I, 126-241. Claudín was a leader of the Spanish Communist Party throughout the period he describes and discusses. Many other histories from various points of view document Stalin’s policy as well.

7. Annie Kriegel, Aux Origines du Communisme Français (Paris : Flammarion, 1969 [1964]), pp. 377-419, gives the PS and PC membership figures.

8. Val R. Lorwin, The French Labor Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1954), p. 59 gives French CP membership for 1930.

9. Lowin, French Labor Movement, p. 69.

10. Jacques Delperrié de Bayac, Histoire du Front Populaire (Paris : Fayard, 1972), 84-99.

11. Ibid., p. 152.

12. The Socialist Party’s radicalism was only apparent, since both the SP and the CGT had long called for the nationalization of major industries as part of their program, while the Communist Party earlier in the 1930s called for workers’ revolution with the nationalization of industry to come afterwards.

13. Jacques Duclos, Memoires, 1936-1939 (Paris: Fayard, 1969), 145. Duclos, a Communist Party leader, writes of "…the spontaneous movement of factory occupations with the participation of workers who had never before in their lives gone on strike." [My trans.] Studies of the strikes, however, show that it was CGT and CP militants who, following months of propagandizing by the unions and the left, organized the strikes along lines that corresponded to the party’s policy. Bertrand Badie, « Les grèves du front populaire aux usines Renault, » Le Mouvement Social, No. 81 (Oct. – Dec. 1972), 69-109 ; Raymond Hainsworth, « Les grèves du Front populaire de mai et juin 1936 : Une nouvelle analyse fondée sur l’edute de ces grèves dan le bassin houiller du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais, » Le Mouvement social, No. 96 (July-Sept., 1976), 3-30.

14. Antoine Prost, « Les grèves de mai-juin 1936 revisitées, » Le Mouvement Social, No. 200 (July-Sept., 2002), p. 35 and fn. 3.

15. Jacques Danos and Marcel Gibelin, Juin 36 (Paris : Maspero, 1972), Vol, I, pp. 116-17.

16. Georges LeFranc, Le Front Populaire (Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 1968), p. 68. I paraphrase LeFranc here. Most historians of the Popular Front recognize the role of the Communist Party in keeping the strike movement from becoming more radical and threatening the Popular Front government.

17. Danos and Gibelin, Juin 36, Vol. I, 68.

18. Bertrand Badie, « Les grèves de 1936 aux usines Renault, » in: La France en mouvement, 1934-1938 (Paris : Champ Vallon, 1986), p. 85.

19. Danos and Gibelin, Juin 36, Vol. I, p. 82; Vol. II, p. 89.

20. Ibid., Vol, II, 90-96.

21. Lorwin, Ibid., pp. 74-77.

22. Anweiler, Oscar, The Soviets : The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921. New York: Pantheon, 1974; Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, 1917-1921 (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1972); Carmen Siriani, Workers Control and Socialist Democracy: The Soviet Experience (London: New Left Books, 1982); S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.)

23. Lorwin, French Labor Movement, p. 79.

24. Danos and Gibelin, Vol. II, p. 100-104,

25. Discussions of the nationalization of the French railroads can be found in: Georges Harcavi, "Nationalization of the French Railways," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 201 (Jan., 1939) pp. 217-226, and in, Adolf Sturmthal, "Nationalization and Workers’ Control in Britain and France," The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 61, Nol. 1 (Feb., 1953) pp. 43-79.

26. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, the Popular Front and the Colonial Question. French West Africa: An Example of Reformist Colonialism," in: Tony Chafer and Amanda Sackur, French Colonial Empire and the Popular Front: Hope and Disillusion. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1999), p. 157.

27. Duclos, Vol. II, 277-80.

28. For a discussion of the left in Vietnam during this period see, "La Lutte and the Vietnamese Trotskyists," a collection of excerpts from Daniel Hemery’s book Revolutionnaires Vietnamiens et pouvoir colonial en Indochine, edited by Ted Crawford and published in RevolutionaryHistory, Vol. III, No. 2 (Autumn, 1990).

29. Duclos,Vol. II, 272-277.

30. The revolutionary socialist analysis of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia was developed by Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Pantheon Press, 1972); Max Shachtman, The Bureaucratic Revolution: The Rise of the Stalinist State (New York: The Donald Press, 1962); Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: International Socialism, 1964). Shachtman’s analysis is compelling (and it is independent of his unfortunate later political evolution).

31. There is one more element that must be added to this already complicated picture, and that is the very real revolutionary aims of Stalinism as a social system and a political movement. In the years of the Popular Front, 1934-1939 in France, the Stalin’s counter-revolutionary transformation of the Soviet Union, that is, the destruction of workers’ power and the imposition of a new bureaucratic ruling class, was till in process and not yet complete. What would become clear as that regime established itself was that like other social systems—though for different reasons, through different mechanisms, and with different aims—it too would tend toward conquest and empire. Stalinism, a new social system with its own raison d’être was by its very nature both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist. The tendency of Stalinist imperialism which only became absolutely clear after World War II with the conquest of Easter Europe and the extension of the bureaucratic communist social system to China, first revealed itself in Spain during the Popular Front period. Unfortunately we cannot take up the complicated events of the Popular Front in Spain in this article, but we plan to return to it in another article in the future.

32. Ingo Kolbloom, La Revance des Patrons : Le patronat français face au front populaire (Paris: Flamarrion, 1986).

33. Guy Bourdé, "La grève du 30 novembre 1938," Le Mouvement Social, No. 55 (Apr-Jun, 1966), pp. 87-91 ; and Guy Bourdé, La défaite du Front populaire (Paris : Maspero, 1977). Citations here from the article. See also, Dano and Gibelin, Vol. II, 127-155.

34. Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p. 366.

35. Zyromski, after decades as a leader of the Socialist Party, worked with the Communist Party during the Resistance and joined it in 1945. A brief biographical note on Zyromski can be found in the Biographical Dictionary of European Labor Leaders.

36. Trotsky’s critique of the Popular Front in France was laid out in his book Whither France? (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1968) made up of articles written between Feb. 1934 and May-June 1936. First published in English in 1936. For Trotsky’s writing on France see, Léon Trotsky, Le movement communiste en France (1919-1939) (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967). Daniel Guerin, who was quite close to Pivert and the Gauche Revolutionnaire, writes in his book Front Populaire: revolution manqué (Paris: René Julliard, 1963), pp. 65-104, that Trotsky’s approach to the French events was imperious, authoritarian, and moreover misguided since the conditions in France did not resemble those of Russia in 1917. He also argues that the Trotskyists attitude toward the mass movements differed little from that of the Stalinists.

37. I am avoiding here discussing cases such as Cuba and Venezuela which open other complicated questions.