Edgar Hardcastle

Why the French Popular Front Failed

Source: Socialist Standard, July 1939.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Now that the discredited French Popular Front is out of office and in dissolution, the people who originated it are busy holding inquests and explaining why it failed. The Communists take a simple line. The Daily Worker (June 1st, 1939) says that the Front “suffered a setback because the whole force of British reaction was launched against it and there was no British Popular Front to rally to its defence.” This is a half-truth that is both untimely and unconvincing. Among the fairly consistent defenders of the French Popular Front Government was the London Times; and if the success of the Popular Front in France depended wholly on events in Great Britain, the proper time to say so was in 1936 before the Popular Front took office. At that date, however, the French Communists were in the Popular Front themselves and were making the most extravagant forecasts of its success. Their leader, Maurice Thorez, was saying in May, 1936, that “we have at our disposal a majority amply sufficient to carry out our programme, and the members of our party can face the future with joy.” The British Daily Worker (May 4th, 1936) was promising among other trifles that the victory of the Popular Front would mean the abolition of slums in Paris!

The Labour organ, the Daily Herald, was equally joyful, “it is,” said the Herald, “a beginning more hopeful than anything which France has known for many a long day.” (Herald, June 8th, 1936.)

We Told You So

Socialists dismissed these optimistic forecasts without the least hesitation. We said that the outcome was not in doubt. Blum and the Communists had, as they explicitly stated, taken on the job of running the capitalist system without the mandate or the intention to try to abolish it. THE SOCIALIST STANDARD (June, 1936) made the following comment: –

“The French Labour and Communist Parties are thus caught in the trap into which the advocates of compromise always fall. They promise to solve certain urgent problems by entering into pacts with capitalist parties, hoping, perhaps, to gain strength later on to press forward. They forget that in taking on the administration of capitalism they do not gain strength but lose it. They at once begin to earn the unpopularity and contempt which always centres on the Government which carries on capitalism. The effort to solve problems inside capitalism creates uncertainty, mistrust, apathy and despair among the workers who have cherished false hopes. . . .”

Now everything that Socialists knew would happen has come to pass. The 40-hour week and other reforms passed by the Popular Front Government have been largely abandoned already. French workers who came out on strike against the Popular Front Government were met with martial law and bitter attacks by the Popular Front leaders. Enthusiasm based on false hopes has turned to apathy, and the French Labour movement is now at sixes and sevens within itself.

The Paris correspondent of the Economist (June 3rd, 1939) says that “M. Jouhaux, leader of the trade unions, admits that membership has fallen by 20 per cent, from the high levels of 1936.” Of the French Labourites (the Socialist Party of France) he writes: –

“The Socialists have a strong position in the Chamber, but their credit is not high, and they are deeply divided. In three years their greatest political victory has been transformed into political defeat.”

The Paris correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (June 3rd, 1939) puts the loss of trade union membership higher than is admitted by M. Jouhaux. He estimates that it has fallen from 3,500,000 to under 2,000,000 while the membership of the reactionary Christian trade unions “has been growing and is now believed to stand near half a million.”

“All this,” he says, “has tended to eliminate all the old revolutionary agitation among the working class – an agitation which nearly broke M. Blum’s heart.”

Keeping the Workers Content with Capitalism

That last remark, about M. Blum’s view of his followers, may sound strange to the unthinking who suppose that a Labour Government should welcome an aggressive attitude among those it leads. What they forget is that anyone who takes on the administration of capitalism has to “govern or get out” – in other words, he has to use every means of safeguarding capitalism against any demands by the workers which endanger capitalism’s smooth working.

There is no question here of libelling M. Blum. He has himself been even more candid.

Just prior to the conference of his party at the end of May, M. Blum made a speech on the failure of the Popular Front. The Paris correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, after noting that the membership of the Party had fallen from 270,000 to 180,000, reported the speech as follows: –

“Many French Socialists have also been disillusioned by the failure of the Front Populaire experiment – a policy which in a speech at St. Nazaire yesterday M. Blum attributed not only to a conspiracy of the vested interests, still less to the Senate which defeated both his Governments, but above all to the ‘unreasonable’ attitude of a certain part of the working-class itself. He explained that while he had always considered the Front Populaire experiment as a ‘reformist’ experiment to be carried out within the framework of the capitalist system, the workers treated it as something revolutionary.” – (Manchester Guardian, May 29th, 1939.)

The correspondent then reproduces a very illuminating passage in M. Blum’s own words : –

“The Senate would never have overthrown us had it not had the impression that the working-class were no longer following our advice.”

The Guardian in its editorial (May 31st) put the matter a little more crudely when it said that the Blum Government fell rather because of its “inability to keep the working classes disciplined.”

This is the true function of Popular Front and Labour Governments no matter what the original good intentions of the individuals may be, that of “disciplining” the working class, of making them content with reforming capitalism instead of abolishing it.

That is why Socialists are opposed to the Labour and Popular Front policy of administering the capitalist system.