1936: How the "Popular Front" in France and Spain mobilised the working class for war

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Seventy years ago, in May 1936, a huge wave of workers’ struggles broke out spontaneously against the increased exploitation provoked by the economic crisis and the development of the war economy. In Spain in July of the same year, the working class immediately began a general strike and took up arms in response to Franco military’s uprising. Many revolutionaries, including some of the best-known like Trotsky, interpreted these events as the beginning of a new international revolutionary wave. In fact they were misled by the enthusiastic support of the crowds, by a superficial understanding of the forces present and by the “radical” nature of some of the speeches.

On the basis of a clear analysis of the balance of forces at an international level, the Italian Communist Left (in its review, Bilan) realised that the Popular Fronts were far from being the expression of a development of the revolutionary movement. On the contrary, they showed that the class was becoming increasingly caught up in nationalist and democratic ideology and was abandoning the struggle against the effects of the historic crisis of capitalism. “The Popular Front has shown itself to be the concrete process of the dissolution of the class consciousness of the proletariat, the weapon intended to keep the workers on the terrain of the preservation of bourgeois society in every aspect of their social and political life.” (Bilan n°31, May-June 1936). With great rapidity, in both France and Spain, the political apparatus of the “socialist” and “communist” left would place itself at the head of these movements. By enclosing the workers in the false alternative of fascism/anti-fascism, they sabotaged the movement from within, oriented it towards the defence of the democratic state and finally enrolled the workers in France and Spain in the second world imperialist slaughter.

Today there is a slow resurgence of the class struggle and new generations are appearing in search of radical alternatives to the more and more manifest failure of capitalism. In this context, “anti-globalisation” movements, such as ATTAC, denounce the unbridled liberalism and the “dictatorship of the market”, that “snatches political power from the hands of states, and therefore of the citizens” and call for the “defence of democracy against financial dictatorship”. This “other world” put forward by the supporters of “anti-globalisation” often takes up measures inspired by the policies of the 1930s, 50s or 70s, when the state supposedly played a much more important role as an immediate economic actor. From this point of view, the policies of the Popular Front governments, with their programmes of state control of the economy, “of the unity of all strata of the working population against the capitalists and the fascist threat”, setting in motion a “social revolution”, are exaggerated in order to support the assertion that “another world”, that other policies, are possible within capitalism.

So it is absolutely essential on the occasion of this 70th anniversary to remember the context and significance of the events in 1936:

  • to recall the tragic lessons of these experiences, in particular the fatal trap for the working class of abandoning the terrain of the intransigent defence of its specific interests in order to submit to the needs of one bourgeois camp or another;
  • to denounce the lies bandied about by the “left”, that they were the incarnation of the interests of the working class throughout these events, by showing that they were in fact its executioner.

The 1930s were characterised by the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 and the triumph of the counter-revolution. They were fundamentally different from the present historic period of the resurgence of struggles and the slow development of consciousness. However, the new generation of proletarians who are trying to escape from counter-revolutionary ideology, continually come up against this same “left”, its traps and ideological manipulations, although it now wears the new clothes of “anti-globalisation”. It is only possible to escape them by reappropriating the lessons, so dearly bought, of the past experience of the proletariat.

Did the Popular Front strengthen the struggle against capitalist exploitation?

The Popular Fronts claimed that they were “unifying the force of the people against the arrogance of the capitalists and the rise of fascism”. But did they really set going a dynamic that strengthened the struggle against capitalist exploitation? Were they really a step towards the development of the revolution? In order to reply to this, a marxist approach cannot base itself exclusively on the radical tone of the speeches and the violence of the social eruptions which shook various Western European countries at the time. It takes as its basis an analysis of the balance of forces between the classes at an international level and for the whole historic period. What was the general context of strengths and weaknesses of the proletariat and of its mortal enemy, the bourgeoisie, in which the events of 1936 took place?

The product of the proletariat's historic defeat

The powerful revolutionary wave forced the bourgeoisie to end the war, brought the working class to power in Russia and shook the foundations of bourgeois power in Germany and throughout Central Europe. Following this, throughout the 1920s the proletariat suffered a series of bloody defeats. The crushing of the German proletariat in 1919 and then in 1923 by the social-democrats of the SPD opened the way for Hitler’s rise to power. The tragic isolation of the revolution in Russia signed the death warrant of the Communist International and left the way open to the triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution, which annihilated all the old guard of the Bolsheviks and the living force of the proletariat. Finally the last proletarian spark was pitilessly extinguished in China in 1927. The course of history had been reversed. The bourgeoisie had obtained decisive victories over the international proletariat and the course towards world revolution was replaced by an inexorable march towards world war. This meant the most horrible return to capitalist barbarity.

 Nevertheless, in spite of such crushing defeats of the battalions of the world proletariat’s vanguard, there were still episodes of combativeness, sometimes important ones, within the class. This was particularly the case in those countries in which it had not suffered a direct defeat, either physically or ideologically within the context of the revolutionary confrontations of 1917-1927. So, at the high point of the crisis in the 30s, in July 1932, a wildcat strike broke out among the miners in Belgium, which rapidly took on insurrectional dimensions. It took off from a movement against wage reductions in the Borinage mines. When the strikers were sacked, the movement spread throughout the province and there were violent clashes with the police. In Spain from 1931 to 1934, the working class engaged in a number of struggles, which were brutally repressed. In October 1934 all of the mining areas in the Asturias and the industrial belt of Oviedo and Gijon erupted in a suicidal insurrection, which was crushed by the republican government and its army. It ended up in brutal repression. Also in France, although the working class was profoundly demoralised and exhausted by the “leftist” policy of the CP, according to which, right up until 1934 the revolution was forever imminent and it was necessary to “create soviets everywhere”, it still manifested a certain combativeness. During summer 1935, in the face of legislation decreeing large wage cuts for workers in the state sector, impressive demonstrations and violent confrontations with the police took place in the docks of Toulon, Tarbes, Lorient and Brest. In Brest, after a worker was beaten to death by soldiers with their rifle butts, the exasperated workers launched violent demonstrations and riots between 5th and 10th August 1935. These ended in 3 deaths and hundreds of wounded; dozens of workers were jailed.[1]

These expressions of continuing militancy, often marked by rage, desperation and political disorientation, were really “outbursts of desperation” which showed up all the weaknesses of the international situation of defeat and dispersion of the workers. The review Bilan brings this out in relation to Spain: “If the international criteria mean anything we have to say that, given the evidence of a development of the counter-revolution at an international level, the orientation of Spain between 1931 and 1936 can only follow a parallel direction [i.e. to the counterrevolutionary course of events], rather than the opposite course of revolutionary development. The revolution can only evolve in full as a result of a revolutionary situation at an international level.” (Bilan n°35, January 1937).

However, in order to mobilise the workers of those countries where the revolutionary movement had not been crushed, the national bourgeoisies were obliged to have recourse to a particular mystification. In those countries where the proletariat had already been crushed in a direct confrontation between the classes, the ideological mobilisation for war behind fascism or Nazism, or behind the Stalinist ideology of the “defence of the socialist fatherland”, were the specific forms of the development of the counter revolution. In those political regimes that had remained “democratic” the same mobilisation for war was undertaken in the name of anti-fascism. In order to achieve this, the French and Spanish bourgeoisie (and others like the Belgian bourgeoisie, for example) used the arrival of the left in power to mobilise the class behind anti-fascism in defence of the “democratic” state and to establish the war economy.

The position taken by the left towards the proletarian struggles mentioned above shows clearly that the policies of the Popular Front were not developed in order to strengthen the dynamic of the workers’ struggles. During the insurrectional strikes in Belgium in 1932, the Parti Ouvrier Belge and its union commission refused to support the movement. This served to direct the anger of the workers against Social Democracy as well. The strikers attacked the Maison du Peuple at Charleroi and tore up or burned their POB and union membership cards. From the end of ’33 the POB put forward the “Plan de Travail” (“Work Plan”), as a “people’s alternative” to the capitalist crisis, in order to channel the anger and despair of the workers.

Spain is also a particularly clear illustration of what the proletariat can expect from a ”republican” and “left wing” government. From the beginning of its existence, the Spanish Republic showed that it had nothing to learn from the fascist regimes about massacring workers. A large number of struggles in the 1930’s were crushed by republican governments or by the PSOE up until 1933. The PSOE, which was in opposition at the time, incited the suicidal insurrection in the Asturias in October ’34 with “revolutionary” talk. It then isolated the movement completely, in conjunction with its union, the UGT, which prevented any extension of the movement. From this time on, Bilan exposed the character of the “left-wing” democratic regimes very clearly: “In fact, from its foundation in April ’31 to December 1931, the Spanish Republic’s ‘move to the left’ – the formation of the Azana-Caballero-Lerroux government, the amputation of its right-wing represented by Lerroux in December 1931 – does not in any way offer favourable conditions for the development of proletarian class positions or for the formation of organs able to lead the revolutionary struggle. It is by no means a matter of seeing what the republican and radical-socialist government ought to do for the good of the (...) communist revolution. It is a question of analysing the significance of this switch to the left or the extreme left, this unanimous concert from the socialists to the unionists for the defence of the republic. Has it created the conditions for the development of working class conquests and the revolutionary direction of the proletariat? Or was this move to the left dictated by capitalism’s need to drug the workers, who had been carried away by a profound revolutionary outburst, to ensure that they would not follow the way of revolutionary struggle. The path that the bourgeoisie was to tread in October 1934 was too dangerous in 1931 (...)” (Bilan n°12, November 1934).

Finally, it is particularly significant that the violent confrontations in Brest and Toulon in summer 1935 broke out at the very moment that the Popular Front was formed. As these developed spontaneously against the slogans of the political and union leaders of the “left”, the latter did not hesitate to slander as “provocateurs” those who were disturbing “republican order”: “neither the Popular Front, nor the communists who are in the front line, break windows, plunder cafes or rip the national flag” (Humanité editorial, 7th August 1935).

So from the beginning, as Bilan showed in relation to Spain from 1933 onwards, the policies of the Popular Front and the left-wing governments were by no means based on a dynamic towards the strengthening of proletarian struggles. On the contrary, they developed against it, they deliberately collided with those workers’ movements that were on a class terrain in order to suffocate these last bursts of resistance against the “total dissolution of the proletariat within capitalism” (Bilan n°22, August-September 1935): “In France, the Popular Front, faithful to its treacherous tradition, will not fail to call for the murder of those who refuse to bow before the ‘French disarmament’ and who, as in Brest and Toulon, engage in strikes for their own demands, in class battles against capitalism and beyond the grip of the pillars of the Popular Front” (Bilan n°26, December-January 1936).

Anti-fascism ties the workers to the defence of the bourgeois state

Did the Popular Fronts not “unite popular forces against the rise of fascism” at least? When Hitler came to power in Germany at the beginning of 1933, the left used the advance of extreme right-wing or fascist factions in the “democratic” countries to show that it was necessary to defend democracy by means of a broad anti-fascist front. This strategy was put into practice for the first time in France from the beginning of 1934 and was set in motion by a huge manoeuvre. A pretext was given by the violent demonstration of 6th February 1934 in protest at the effects of the crisis and corruption in the governments of the Third Republic. Groups of the extreme right (Croix de Feu, Camelots du Roi) were involved in this demonstration as well as militants of the CP. A few days later there was a complete about turn in the CP’s attitude, due to a change in strategy on the part of Stalin and the Komintern. The latter had decided to substitute the “class against class” tactic with a policy of rapprochement with the socialist parties. From that moment on, February 6th was presented as a “fascist offensive” and an “attempted coup d’etat” in France.

The riot of 6th February 1934 enabled the left to exaggerate the existence of a fascist threat in France and consequently to launch a broad campaign to mobilise the workers in the name of anti-fascism for the defence of “democracy”. The general strike called by both the CP and the SFIO from the 12th crowned anti-fascism with the slogan “Unity! Unity against fascism!”. The French CP rapidly assimilated the new orientation and at the national conference at Ivry in June’34 Thorez declared: “At the present time, fascism is the main danger. It is against this that we must concentrate the entire strength of our mass proletarian action and win over to this action all the working strata of the population”. This perspective resulted in the rapid signing of a bi-lateral agreement between the CP and the SFIO in July 1934.

In this way anti-fascism became the theme around which it was possible to regroup all bourgeois forces that were “enamoured of freedom” behind the flag of the Popular Front. It also enabled the interests of the proletariat to be tied to those of the national capital by forming the “alliance of the working class with the workers of the middle classes” to spare France “the shame and the ills of a fascist dictatorship”, as Thorez put it. As an extension of this, the French PC developed the theme of the “200 families who pillage France and sell off cheaply the national interest”. So everyone, with the exception of these “capitalists”, were suffering because of the crisis and were in solidarity with one another. In this way the working class, and its class interests, were drowned in the people and the nation in opposition to “a handful of parasites”.

On the other hand, fascism was denounced daily and hysterically as the only element leading to war. The Popular Front mobilised the working class in defence of the fatherland against the fascist invader and the German people were identified with Nazism. The slogans of the French CP called for everyone to “buy French!” and glorified national reconciliation. So the left dragged the proletariat behind the ship of state by means of the most outrageous nationalism, the worst expression of chauvinism and xenophobia.

The high point of this intensive campaign was an electoral alliance and the public formation of the Popular Front on 14th July 1935. For the occasion the workers were made to sing the French national anthem under joint portraits of Marx and Robespierre and were made to shout “Long live the French Republic of soviets!”. By focussing all action on the development of the electoral campaign for the “Popular Front for peace and work”, the “left” parties redirected struggles off the class terrain towards that of bourgeois electoral democracy, drowned the proletariat in the formless mass of the “French people” and channelled it towards the defence of national interests. “This was a result of the new positions of 14th July, which were a logical consequence of the policy called anti-fascism. The Republic was not capitalism, it was the realm of freedom, of democracy which is, as we know the platform of anti-fascism. The workers solemnly swore to defend this Republic against internal and external trouble-makers while Stalin told them to approve the arming of French imperialism in the name of the defence of the USSR” (Bilan n°22, August-September 1935).

The same strategy for mobilising the working class on the electoral terrain in defence of democracy was used in various countries. It integrated them into the generality of popular strata and mobilised them for the defence of national interests. In Belgium, the mobilisation of the workers behind the campaign around the “Plan de Travail” used means of psychological propaganda which in no way fell short of Nazi or Stalinist propaganda. It resulted in the POB going into the government in ’35. The anti-fascist hype, led by the left of the POB in particular, reached a climax in 1937 in a dual in Brusselles between Degrelle, the leader of the fascist Rex party, and the prime minister Van Zeeland, who had the support of all the “democratic” forces including the Belgian CP. In the same year Spaak, one of the leaders of the left wing of the POB, stressed the “national character” of the Belgian socialist programme. He also proposed that the party become a people’s party because it defended the common interest and no longer the interests of one class alone!

However, it was in Spain that the French example inspired the policies of the left most clearly. Following the massacre in the Asturias, the PSOE still focussed its propaganda around anti-fascism, the “united front of all democrats” and called for a Popular Front programme against the fascist threat. In January 1935 they signed a “Popular Front” alliance with the UGT union, the republican parties and the Spanish CP, with the critical support of the CNT and the POUM. This “Popular Front” called openly for the substitution of workers’ struggle by struggle on the bourgeois terrain against its fascist faction and in favour of its “anti-fascist” and “democratic” wing. The fight against capitalism was buried in favour of an illusory “programme of reform” of the system, which had to carry out a “democratic revolution”. By mystifying the proletariat through this false anti-fascist and democratic front, the left mobilised it on the electoral terrain and obtained an electoral triumph in February 1936: “This [the republican-socialist coalition in 1931-33] was a conclusive demonstration as to the use of democracy as a means of manoeuvring to maintain the capitalist regime. But following this, in 1936, and in just the same way, it was again possible to push the Spanish proletariat to line up, not behind class interests, but behind the defence of the ‘Republic’, of ‘Socialism’ and of ‘Progress’ against the monarchy, clerical fascism and reaction. This shows the profound disarray of the workers in Spain, where the proletariat has only recently given proof of its combativeness and its spirit of self-sacrifice.” (Bilan n°28, February-March 1936).

In fact, the anti-fascist policy of the left and the formation of “Popular Fronts” managed to atomise the workers, to dilute them within the population, to mobilise them for a democratic transformation of capitalism to the point of imbuing them with chauvinist and nationalist poison. Bilan was proved right when the Popular Front was formed officially on 14th July 1935: “Impressive mass demonstrations signal the dissolution of the French proletariat into the capitalist regime. In spite of the fact that there are thousands and thousands of workers marching through the streets of Paris, there is no longer a working class fighting for its own aims in France, any more than there is in Germany. In this regard 14th July marks a decisive moment in the process of the disintegration of the proletariat and the reconstruction of a sacred unity of the capitalist nation. (...) The workers have borne patiently the national flag, sung the national anthem and even applauded Daladier, Cot and other capitalist ministers who, along with Blum and Cachin, have solemnly sworn ‘to give bread to the workers, work to the young and peace to the world’. This means lead bullets, barracks and imperialist war for everyone.” (Bilan n°21, July-August 1935).

The Popular Front's economic measures: the state in the service of the workers?

But did not the left at least limit the horrors of free competition by “monopoly” capitalism through its measures to strengthen state control of the economy? Did it not therefore protect the living and working conditions of the working class? Once more, it is necessary to place the measures extolled by the left within the general framework of the situation of capitalism.

At the beginning of the 1930s there was total anarchy in capitalist production. The world crisis threw millions of proletarians onto the streets. The economic crisis, produced by the decadence of the capitalist system, manifested itself through a great depression in the 1930’s (the stock exchange crash of 1929, record inflation rates, fall in industrial production and growth, dramatic acceleration in unemployment). This pushed the victorious bourgeoisie inexorably towards imperialist war for the redivision of the over-saturated world market. “Export or die” became the slogan of every national bourgeoisie and was expressed clearly by the Nazi leaders.

Movement towards war and the development of the war economy

Following the First World War, Germany was deprived of its few colonies by the Versailles treaty and was left with crushing war debts and reparations. It was hedged in at the centre of Europe and from that time on there arose the problem that determined the policies of all the European countries during the next two decades. As it reconstructed its economy, Germany was faced with the desperate need to find outlets for its goods and its expansion could only take place within the European framework. Events accelerated when Hitler came to power in 1933. The economic needs that pushed Germany towards war found their political expression in Nazi ideology: the challenging of the Versailles Treaty, the demand for “living space”, that could only be in Europe.

This convinced certain factions of the French bourgeoisie that war was inevitable and that Soviet Russia would be a good ally to block Pan-Germanic aspirations. All the more so as, at an international level, the situation was becoming clearer: as Germany left the United Nations, the USSR joined it. Formerly, the latter had played the German card in order to oppose the continental blockade, imposed upon it by the Western democracies. But then Germany’s relationship with the USA grew closer as the latter invested in the German economy, resuscitated it thanks to the Dawes plan and supported the economic reconstruction of a Western “bastion” against communism. At this point Stalinist Russia re-oriented its foreign policy towards breaking this alliance. In fact, until very late important sections of the bourgeoisie in the Western countries believed it possible to avoid war with Germany by making a few concessions and, above all, by directing Germany’s necessary expansion towards the east. Munich 1938 expressed this continuing incomprehension of the situation and of the coming war.

 The trip to Moscow made by the French minister for foreign affairs, Laval, in May 1935 underlined dramatically this positioning of imperialist pawns on the European chessboard with the Franco-Russian rapprochement. Stalin’s signing of a co-operation treaty, meant his implicit recognition of France’s defence policy and encouraged the French CP to vote for military credits. A few months later, in August 1935, the 7th Congress of the CPSU[2] drew the political consequences for Russia of a possible alliance with the Western countries in order to confront German imperialism. Dimitrov named the new enemy that had to be combatted: fascism. The socialists who had been violently criticised up to then, became a democratic force (among others) with whom it was necessary to ally in order to defeat the fascist enemy. The Stalinist parties in other countries followed the 180° turn of their elder brother, the CPSU, so becoming the most ardent defenders of the imperialist interests of the so-called “socialist fatherland”.

 In short, all the industrial countries felt a powerful need to develop the war economy; not only massive armaments production but also the whole infrastructure necessary for this production. All the great powers, “democratic” as well as “fascist”, developed a similar policy of major public works under the control of the state and an arms industry entirely directed towards the preparation of a second world war. Industry organised itself around them; it imposed a re-organisation of work, of which “Taylorism” was one of the choicest offspring.

The left and state control

One of the main characteristics of the economic policies of the “left” was the strengthening of measures for the state to intervene to support the crisis-ridden economy and state control over various sectors of the economy. It justified such measures as being those “of a ‘controlled economy’, of state Socialism, ripening the conditions that would allow ‘socialists’ to ‘peacefully’ and gradually conquer the main wheels of state” (Bilan n°3, January 1934). Such measures were generally extolled by the whole of European Social Democracy. They were taken up in the economic programme of the Popular Front in France, known as the Jouhaux plan. In Spain the Popular Front’s programme contained a broad policy of agrarian credits and a plan for vast public works in order to re-absorb unemployment, as well as workers’ legislation fixing, for example, a minimum wage. We can see their real significance by examining one of their principle models, the “New Deal”, which was set up in the United States after the 1929 crisis by the Democrats under Roosevelt. Also by analysing one of the most developed theoretical concretisations of this “State Socialism”, the “Plan de Travail” of the Belgian socialist, Henri De Man.

The “New Deal”, set up in the United States from 1932, was a plan for economic reconstruction and “social peace”. Government intervention aimed to re-establish the equilibrium of the banking system and re-float the financial market, to carry out major public works (the construction of dams by the Tennessee Valley Authority dates from this period) and to launch certain social programmes (pension system, unemployment insurance, etc.). The role of the new federal agency, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), was to stabilise prices and wages in co-operation with employers and unions. It created the Public Works Administration (PWA) to run the policy of large public works.

Did the Roosevelt government open the way – without knowing it – for the workers’ parties to conquer the main levers of state power? For Bilan, the opposite was true: “The intensity of the economic crisis, together with the unemployment and misery of millions of people, accumulated the threat of serious social conflicts that American capitalism had to dissipate or stifle by all means in its power” (Bilan n°3, January 1934). So, far from being measures to benefit the workers, the measures for “social peace” were direct attacks against the class autonomy of the proletariat. “Roosevelt aimed, not to direct the working class towards class opposition, but to dissolve it within the capitalist regime, under the control of the capitalist state. So social conflicts could no longer arise from the real (class) struggle between the workers and the bosses and were to be restricted to an opposition between the working class and the NRA, a state capitalist organ. So the workers were to give up any initiative in the struggle and resign their fate to their enemy” (Idem.).

One of the main architects of these measures of state control and the man who was the inspiration behind most of them, was Henri De Man. He was the head of the institute of the POB cadres and was vice president and the leading light of the party from 1933. His measures were put into practice by the Popular Fronts as well as by the fascist regimes (Mussolini was a great admirer of his). For De Man, who had made a detailed study of industrial and social development in the United States and Germany, the “old dogmas” had to be ditched. For him, the basis of the class struggle was the sense of social inferiority of the workers. So rather than orienting socialism around the satisfaction of the material needs of a class (the workers), it should be directed towards universal spiritual values, such as justice, respect for the human personality and a concern for the “general interest”. In this way the unavoidable and irreconcilable contradictions between the working class and the capitalists were eliminated. Not only must revolution be rejected but also the “old reformism”, which becomes inapplicable in periods of crisis. It is no use demanding a larger piece of a cake, which is constantly shrinking. A new and larger cake must be made. This was the aim of what he called the “constructive revolution”. Within this framework, for the POB “Christmas” congress of 1933 he developed his “Plan de Travail”, which envisaged “structural reforms” of capitalism:

  • the nationalisation of the banks, which would continue to exist but which would sell some of their shares to a state credit institution and would submit to the orientations of the economic plan;
  • this same credit institution would buy some of the shares of the large monopolies in certain basic industrial sectors (such as energy), so that these would become mixed enterprises under the joint ownership of capitalists and of the state;
  • besides these “associated” enterprises, a free capitalist sector would continue to exist, stimulated and supported by the state;
  • the unions would be directly involved in the co-ordination of this mixed economy by means of “workers’ control”, an orientation that De Man defended on the basis of the experience in the large factories in the US.

In what way did these “structural reforms”, extolled by De Man, lead to the defence of the working class struggle? For Bilan, De Man wanted “to show that the workers’ struggle must restrict itself naturally to national aims in terms of form and content, that socialisation meant progressive nationalisation of the capitalist economy or the mixed economy. Under the pretext of ‘immediate action’, De Man preached national adaptation of the workers within the ‘unique and indivisable nation’ and offered this as the supreme refuge of the workers who had been checked by capitalist reaction”. In conclusion, “The structural reforms of H. De Man aim to put the real struggle of the workers – and this is their only aim – into the domain of the unreal. They exclude any struggle for the defence of the immediate or historic interests of the proletariat in the name of a structural reform that, in terms of its conception and its means, can only help the bourgeoisie to strengthen its class state by reducing the working class to impotence.” (Bilan n°4, February 1934).

But Bilan went further and situated the proposed “Plan de Travail” in the context of the role that the left played in the historic framework of the period. “The advent of fascism in Germany closed a decisive period of workers’ struggles. (...) Social-Democracy, which was an essential element in these defeats, was also an element in the organic reformation of the life of capitalism (...) It used a new language in order to continue its task. It rejected verbal internationalism, as it was no longer necessary, and went over to a frank ideological preparation of the workers for the defence of ‘their nation’. (...) That’s where the real origin of De Man’s plan is to be found. The latter was a concrete attempt to sanction, by means of an adequate mobilisation, the defeat of revolutionary internationalism and the ideological preparation to incorporate the proletariat into the struggle around capitalism towards war. This is why its nationalsocialism has the same role as the national-socialism of the fascists.” (Bilan n°4, February 1934).

The analysis of the New Deal and of De Man’s Plan illustrates well that these measures by no means go in the direction of strengthening the proletarian struggle against capitalism. On the contrary, they aim to reduce the working class to impotence and to make it submit to the needs of national defence. As Bilan says, the De Man plan can in no way be distinguished from the programme of state control of the fascist and Nazi regimes or from Stalinism’s five year plans, which had been implemented in the USSR from 1928 and had in the beginning inspired the Democrats in the USA.

These kinds of measures were generalised because they corresponded to the needs of decadent capitalism. In this period, the general tendency towards state capitalism is one of the dominant characteristics of social life. “In this period each national capital, because it cannot expand in an unfettered way and confronted with acute imperialist rivalries, is forced to organize itself as efficiently as possible, so that externally it can compete economically and militarily with its rivals and internally deal with the increasing aggravation of social contradictions. The only power in society which is capable of fulfilling these tasks is the state. Only the state can:

  • take charge of the national economy in an overall centralized manner and mitigate the internal competition which weakens the economy, in order to strengthen its capacity to maintain a united face against the competition on the world market;
  • develop the military force necessary for the defence of its interests in the face of growing international conflict;
  • finally, owing to an increasingly heavy repressive and bureaucratic apparatus, reinforce the internal cohesion of a society threatened with collapse through the growing decomposition of its economic foundation, (...).” (ICC Platform).

In reality then, all these programmes that aimed at a re-organisation of national production under the control of the state were directed entirely towards economic war and towards the preparation for another world slaughter (the war economy). They correspond perfectly to the need for bourgeois states to survive within capitalism in the decadent period. 

Victory of the Popular Fronts: “social revolution” on the march?

But are these pessimistic analyses not swept away by the massive strikes of May-June 1936 in France and the social measures taken by the Popular Front government, and by the “Spanish revolution” that began in July 1936? Do these events not confirm, on the contrary, in practice, the correctness of the approach of “anti-fascist” or “popular” fronts? When it comes down to it, were these not a concrete expression of the “social revolution” in action? Let us examine the reality of these events.

May-June 1936 in France: the workers mobilised behind the democratic state

The great wave of strikes which followed immediately on the rise to government of the Popular Front after its electoral victory of 5th May 1936 was to confirm the limits of the workers movement, marked as it was by a defeat in the revolutionary wave and bowed under the weight of the counterrevolution.

The “gains” of 1936

On 7th May, a wave of strikes broke out in the aircraft industry, followed by the engineering and automobile industries, accompanied by spontaneous factory occupations. Despite their combativeness, these struggles were a sign of how limited was the workers ability to undertake the combat on their own class terrain. In the first days of the movement, the left succeeded in dressing up as a “workers’ victory” the derailment of workers’ combativeness onto the terrain of the national interest. It is true that this was the first time that factory occupations had taken place in France: it was also the first time that anyone had seen the workers singing the Marseillaise together with the Internationale, or marching behind the red flag together with the national tricolour. The control apparatus of the CP and the unions remained master of the situation and succeeded in keeping the workers closed up in the factories to the soothing sound of the accordion, while their fate was settled at the top, in the negotiations which were to lead to the Matignon agreements. Unity there certainly was, but it was that of the bourgeoisie’s control apparatus over the working class, not of the working class itself. When a few objectors refused to understand that once the agreements had been signed it was time to go back to work, Humanité explained to them that “it is necessary to know how to stop a strike... it is even necessary to know how to agree to a compromise” (Maurice Thorez, speech of June 1936), and that “we must not frighten our Radical friends”.

During the Riom trial, held by the Vichy regime to punish those responsible for the “moral decadence of France”, Léon Blum himself explained just how the factory occupations had been part of the national mobilisation: “the workers were there as guardians, as overseers, and also in a certain sense as co-proprietors. And from the special point of view which concerns you, does not the fact of observing the community of rights and duties towards the national patrimony lead to ensuring and preparing its common and unanimous defence? (...) this is how one creates for the workers, little by little, a joint property in the fatherland; this is how one teaches them to defend the fatherland”.

The left got what it wanted: it led the workers combativeness onto the sterile ground of nationalism, of the national interest. “The bourgeoisie is obliged to have recourse to the Popular Front in order to channel an inevitable explosion of the class struggle to its own benefit, particularly so inasmuch as the Popular Front appears as the emanation of the working class and not as the capitalist force which has dissolved the proletariat in order to mobilise it for war” (Bilan n°32 June-July 1936).

To put an end to any workers' resistance, the Stalinists used their bludgeons on those who “let themselves be provoked into short-sighted actions” (M Thorez, 8th June 1936) and the the Popular Front government called in the police to shoot down the workers in Clichy in 1937. By beating up or killing the last recalcitrant minorities of workers, the bourgeoisie succeeded in dragging the whole of the French proletariat into the defence of the nation.

Fundamentally, there was nothing in the programme of the Popular Front to worry the bourgeoisie. On 16th May, Daladier, the president of the Radical party, was reassuring: “no article of the Popular Front programme contains anything to inconvenience the legitimate interests of any citizen, to worry investors, or to damage any healthy force of French labour. There is no doubt that it has not even been read by many of those who fought it most passionately” (L’Oeuvre, 16th May 1936). Nonetheless, to inculcate its anti-fascist ideology and to remain entirely credible in its role of defender of the fatherland and the capitalist state, the left had to hand out a few crumbs. The Matignon agreements and the pseudo-conquests of 1936 made it possible to present the left in power as “a great workers’ victory”, to win the workers’ confidence in the Popular Front and their defence of the bourgeois state even in wartime.

This famous Matignon agreement, signed on 7th June 1936 and celebrated by the CGT as “a victory over poverty”, and which to this day is still presented as a model of “social reform”, was therefore the carrot used to sell the Popular Front programme to the workers. What exactly did it offer?

Under the appearance of “concessions” to the working class, such as wage increases, the 40 hour week, and paid holidays, the bourgeoisie ensured above all the organisation of production under the leadership of an “impartial” state, as the CGT leader Léon Jouhaux pointed out: “(...) the beginning of a new era (...), the era of direct relations between the two great organised economic forces of the country (...) Decisions have been taken completely independently, under the aegis of the government, the latter playing the role of umpire where necessary, which corresponds to its function as the representative of the general interest” (radio speech of 8th June 1936). The aim was to get the workers to accept unprecedented increases in line speeds through the introduction of new methods of labour organisation designed to increase hourly productivity tenfold especially in the armament industry. This meant the generalisation of Taylorism, of production line working, and the dictatorship of the stopwatch in the factory.

It was Léon Blum in person who stripped away the “social” veil that had hidden the laws of 1936, in his speech at the Riom trial in 1942, which had been intended to lay the blame for the heavy defeat inflicted on the French army by the Nazis in 1940 at the door of the Popular Front and the 40 hour week: “What lies behind hourly productivity? (...) it depends on the good coordination and adaptation of the worker’s movements to his machine; it also depends on the moral and physical condition of the worker.

There is a whole school of thought in America, the school of Taylor and the Bedeau engineers, who you can see on inspection on the factory line, who have undertaken very thorough studies of the material methods of organisation that maximise the machines hourly productivity, this being precisely their objective. But there is also the Gilbreth school which has studied and researched the data on the physical conditions which will enable the worker to obtain this productivity. The essential point is to limit the fatigue of the worker (…) do you not think that all our social legislation was of a kind to improve this moral and physical condition of the worker: the shorter working day, more leisure, paid holidays, the feeling of having conquered a certain dignity and equality, all these were intended to be elements to maximise the hourly productivity that the worker could extract from the machine.

This is how and why the “social” measures of the Popular Front government were necessary to adapt and lull the proletariat to the new methods of production aimed at the rapid rearmament of the nation before war broke out. It is noteworthy moreover that paid holidays, in one form or another, were granted at the same time in most of the developed countries heading for war and therefore imposing on their workforce the same increases in production speeds.

In June 1936, inspired by the movements in France, a dockers’ strike broke out in Belgium. After first trying to stop it, the unions recognised the movement and orientated it towards demands similar to those of the Popular Front in France: increased wages, the 40 hour week, and one week’s paid holiday. On 15th June, the movement generalised towards Borinage and the regions of Liège and Limburg: 350,000 workers throughout the country were on strike. The main result of the movement was to refine the system of social consultation through the setting up of the national conference of labour where bosses and unions agreed on the national plan to optimise the competitiveness of Belgian industry.

Once the strikes had been brought to an end, and a lasting increase in hourly productivity achieved, it only remained for the Popular Front government to take back what it had conceded. The wage increases were eaten away by inflation in a matter of months (food prices rose by 54 % between 1936 and 1938), the 40 hour week was called into question by Blum himself one year later, and completely forgotten when Daladier’s Radical government in 1938 accelerated the whole economic machine in preparation for war: abolishing extra payments for the first 250 hours of overtime, putting an end to labour contracts banning piecework, and sanctioning all those who refused overtime in the cause of national defence. “In factories working for national defence, dispensations on the legal 40 hour week were always granted. In most other things, in 1938 I obtained the agreement of the workers organisation’s for a 45 hour week in factories working directly or indirectly for national defence” (Blum at the Riom trial). Finally, with the support of the Blum government and the agreement of the unions, the bosses recovered their paid holidays. Christmas and New Year were incorporated into the paid holiday time, and this was followed by the abolition of all the existing public holidays: the whole added up to 80 hours extra work – which corresponded exactly to the two weeks of paid holidays granted by the Popular Front.

As for the recognition of union delegates and labour contracts, this represented nothing more than the strengthening of the unions grip over the workers by extending their presence in the factories. To that end Léon Jouhaux, the socialist and trade union leader, explained it in these terms: “the workers organisation’s [i.e. the unions] want social peace. First of all so as not to embarrass the Popular Front government, and secondly so as not to hinder rearmament.” When the bourgeoisie prepares for war, the state must control the whole of society to direct all its energy towards this bloody end. And in factories it is the unions which allow the state to police the workforce.

If victory there was, it was the sinister victory of capital preparing its only “solution” to the crisis: imperialist war.

Preparing for war

From the outset of the Popular Front in France, with its slogan “peace, bread, liberty”, its anti-fascism and pacifism, the defence of the French bourgeoisie’s imperialist interests was mingled with democratic illusions. Within this framework the left skilfully exploited preparations for war internationally to demonstrate that the “fascist peril is at our frontier”, organising for example a whole campaign over the Italian aggression in Ethiopia. Still more clearly, the SFIO and the CP played different roles in relation to the Spanish Civil War: whereas the SFIO refused to intervene in Spain in the name of pacifism, the CP urged intervention in the name of the “anti-fascist struggle”.

If there was one thing for which French capital could thank the Popular Front government, it was its preparation for war.

First of all, the left was able to use the enormous mass of workers on strike as a means of pressure against the most retrograde forces of the bourgeoisie, imposing the measures necessary to safeguard the national capital in the face of the crisis, and making the whole thing look like a victory for the working class;

Secondly, the Popular Front launched a rearmament programme via the nationalisation of war industry about which Blum was to declare during the Riom trial: “I proposed a great fiscal project... whose aim was to direct all the forces of the nation towards rearmament and to make this intensive rearmament effort a condition for a definitive industrial and economic recovery. It resolutely left behind the liberal economy, to replace it with a war economy”.

And indeed, the left was aware that war was coming: it was the left which pushed for the Franco-Russian entente, and which denounced most violently the Munich tendencies of the French bourgeoisie. Its “solutions” for the crisis were no different from those in Nazi Germany, New Deal America, or Stalinist Russia: the development of the unproductive sector of the armaments industry. As Bilan pointed out: “it is no accident if these great strikes broke out in engineering industry, starting with the aircraft factories (...) these sectors are working flat out, thanks to the rearmament policy being followed in every country. This fact is felt by the workers, and they were forced to launch their movement to reduce the brutalising rhythm of the production line”.

Finally and above all, the Popular Front led the working class onto the worst terrain possible for it, that of its crushing defeat: nationalism.

Thanks to the patriotic hysteria developed by the left through anti-fascism, the proletariat was led to defend one fraction of the bourgeoisie against another, the democrat against the fascist, and one state against another, France against Germany. The French CP declared: “the time has come to put into practice the general arming of the people, to undertake the fundamental reforms which will increase tenfold the country’s military and technical powers. The army of the people, the army of workers and peasants, well taught and well led by officers faithful to the Republic”. In the name of this “ideal” the “Communists” celebrated the name of Joan of Arc, “the great liberator of France”, and the CP called for a French front with the same slogan as that used by the far right only a few years before: “France for the French!” Under the pretext of defending democratic freedoms threatened by fascism the proletariat was led to accept the sacrifices necessary for the health of French capital, and finally to sacrifice their lives in the slaughter of World War II.

The Popular Front found effective allies in its executioner’s task amongst its left-wing critics: Maurice Pivert’s Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan (“Socialist workers’ and peasants’ party”, PSOP), the Trotskyists and the anarchists. All played the part of touts amongst the most combative elements of the class and were constantly posing as the “most radical”, though the only thing radical about them was the mystification they peddled. The Jeunesses Socialistes de la Seine (“Socialist youth of the Seine”), or Trotskyists like Craipeau and Roux, practiced entryism, and were the first to argue in favour of and organise the anti-fascist militia; Pivert’s friends within the PSOP were the most virulent in criticising the “cowardice” of Munich. All were unanimous in defence of the Spanish Republic alongside the anti-fascists and all would take part later in the inter-imperialist bloodbath as part of the Resistance. All did their bit in defence of the national capital, they have all deserved well of the fatherland!

Spain, July 1936: the proletariat sent to the abattoir

Thanks to the formation of the Popular Front (Frente Popular), and its victory in the elections of February 1936, the bourgeoisie injected the working class with the poison of the “democratic revolution” and succeeded in binding the workers to the defence of the “democratic” bourgeois state. In fact when a new wave of strikes broke out immediately after the elections, it was held back and sabotaged by the left and the anarchists because “the strikes are playing into the hands of the bosses and the right”. This was to find a concrete and tragic expression during the military Pronunciamento of 19th July 1936. The workers reacted immediately to the coup d’etat by going on strike, occupying barracks and disarming the soldiers, against the orders of the government which called for calm. Wherever the government’s appeals were respected (“the government commands the Popular Front obeys”), the military took control and a bloody repression followed.

“The armed struggle on the imperialist front is the proletariat’s grave” (Bilan n°34)

However, the illusion of the “Spanish revolution” was strengthened by the supposed disappearance of the Republican capitalist state and the non-existence of the bourgeoisie, all of them hiding behind the pseudo-”workers government” and even more left-wing organisations like the “Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militia” or the “Central Council of the Economy” which kept up the illusion of dual power. In the name of this “revolutionary change”, so easily won, the bourgeoisie demanded and obtained from the workers national unity around the sole objective of beating Franco. However, “The alternative is not between Azaña and Franco, but between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; whichever of the two partners is beaten the real loser will be the proletariat which will pay the price of a victory of either Azaña or Franco” (Bilan n°33, July-August 1936).

Very quickly, the Republican government of the Popular Front with help of the CNT and the POUM, turned the workers reaction to the Francoist coup d’etat into an anti-fascist struggle and manoeuvred to replace the social, economic and political battle against all the forces of the bourgeoisie with a military confrontation in the trenches against Franco alone, while the workers were allowed to take arms solely to get themselves killed on the military front of the “civil war” far from their class terrain. “We might suppose that the arming of the workers had a congenital virtue from the political point of view and the once they were materially armed, the workers could get rid of their treacherous leaders and give their struggle a superior form. Nothing could be further from the truth. The workers that the Popular Front is succeeded in incorporating into the bourgeoisie, since they are fighting under the leadership and for the victory of a bourgeois fraction, are thus prevented from even the possibility of evolving towards class positions” (Bilan n°33, July-August 1936).

Moreover, there was nothing “civil” about this war. It rapidly became a pure inter-imperialist conflict, and a prelude to World War II, as the democracies and Russia took the side of the Republicans while Italy and Germany took the side of the Falangists. “Class frontiers, which alone could have dismantled Franco’s regiments and renewed the confidence of the peasants terrorised by the right, have been replaced by other specifically capitalist frontiers. National unity has been achieved for the imperialist slaughter, region against region, town against town in Spain and by extension, state against state in the two democratic and fascist blocs. Whether or not the world war has yet started, the mobilisation of the Spanish and international proletariat is now ready for mutual slaughter under the imperialist flags of fascism and anti-fascism” (Bilan n°34, August-September 1936).

The illusions of a “social revolution”

The war in Spain has developed yet another myth. By substituting the war between “democracy” and “fascism” for the class war of the proletariat against capitalism, the Popular Front disfigured the very content of the revolution: its central objective is no longer the destruction of the bourgeois state through the seizure of political power by the proletariat but the supposed measures of socialisation and workers’ management in factories. It is above all the anarchists and certain tendencies which identify with councilism which have exalted this myth, even going so far as to claim that in this Republican, anti-fascist, and Stalinist Spain, the conquest of socialist positions went much further them was possible in the October revolution in Russia.

Without developing this question here, it must be said that these measures, even if they had been more radical than they were in reality, would have changed nothing of the fundamentally counterrevolutionary nature of the events in Spain. For both the bourgeoisie and for the proletariat, the central point of the revolution cannot be anything other than the destruction or the preservation of the capitalist state.

Not only can capitalism perfectly well put up temporarily with measures of self-management or the so-called socialisation of the land (the creation of cooperatives) while it waits for the chance to restore order when the time is right, it can even encourage them itself as means of mystification, channelling the proletariat’s energy into illusory conquests and away from the central objective which is at stake in the revolution: the destruction of capitalist power, and its state.

Exaltation of the so-called social measures as the high point of the revolution is nothing but verbal radicalism, which turns the proletariat away from its revolutionary struggle against the state and camouflages its mobilisation as cannon fodder in the service of the bourgeoisie. Having abandoned its class terrain, the proletariat was not only to be enrolled in the anarchists’ and POUMists’ anti-fascist militias and sent to the slaughter on the front, it was also to be subjected to an increasingly brutal exploitation and ever more sacrifices in the name of war production and the anti-fascist war economy: wage reductions, inflation, rationing, the militarisation of labour, and the lengthening of the working day. And when the proletariat rose up in desperation, in Barcelona in May 1937, the Popular Front with the Generalitat of Barcelona, and with the active participation of the anarchists, openly suppressed the working class of the city, while the Francoists interrupted hostilities until the left had crushed the workers’ uprising.

From the Social Democrats to the leftists, and even including certain fractions of the right, everyone agrees that the rise of the left to government in 1936 in France and Spain (but also, though no doubt less spectacularly, in other countries like Sweden and Belgium) was a great victory for the working class and a sign of its militancy and strength during the 1930s. Against these ideological manipulations, today’s revolutionaries, like their predecessors of Bilan, must state loud and clear that the Popular Fronts and their so-called “social revolutions” were nothing but a mystification. The arrival of the left in power in this period on the contrary expressed the depth of the defeat of the world proletariat and made it possible to enrol the working class in France and Spain in the imperialist war of the whole bourgeoisie was preparing, by enrolling them en masse under the banners of anti-fascist ideology.

And I thought above all that this was a great achievement and a great service that I had performed, to have brought these masses and this elite of the working class back to their feelings of love and duty towards the fatherland” (declaration by Blum at the Riom trial).

For the working class, 1936 marks one of the blackest periods of the counterrevolution when the worst defeats of the working class were presented to it as victories; when the bourgeoisie could, almost without opposition, impose on the proletariat still reeling from the defeat of the revolutionary wave begun in 1917, its own “solution” to the crisis: war.


[1] See B Kermoal : “Colère ouvrière à la veille du Front populaire”, Le Monde Diplomatique June 2006. 

[2] Communist Party of the Soviet Union 

History of the workers' movement: