Alfred Rosmer

Workers Front and Popular Front

Source: New International, Vol. 4 No. 2, February 1938, pp. 51–53.
Transcription & Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AFTER AN absence of five months I found a Popular Front apparently more solid than ever, ratified by universal suffrage after more than a year of the exercize of power, consolidated by the cantonal elections at the beginning of October in which all the political parties composing it gained something while the conservative parties registered setbacks and the pro-fascist formations of La Rocque and Doriot rallied only a tiny number of voters.

That’s the appearance. The reality is quite different. The Popular Front still is in power but it maintains itself there only on the condition of renouncing its program on every point, of submitting more each day to the pressure of the adversary and of yielding to it constantly and openly.

Parallelly, and this is much more serious, the Workers’ Front, after its important victories of May–June 1936, finds itself reduced to the defensive. The dash which impelled it has progressively diminished. It is now the employers’ organizations that attack and before this counter-offensive which was easy to foresee the workers are poorly defended by their trade union organizations. The gains of the past year have already been broken through at more than one point. When they seek to defend them by the strike, which is their only weapon in the long run, they collide regularly with the government, which is still one of the Popular Front and which the socialists and Stalinists support with their votes on every occasion.

The distinction between Popular Front and Workers’ Front may seem arbitrary. It is rarely that they are distinguished or that the question is thus put; still more rarely that they are counterposed. Yet this distinction expresses the real situation; it is not formulated this way but the events themselves show it up and as they unroll they render it increasingly visible. It already manifests itself in the growing discontent of the workers towards a policy whose pernicious consequences they feel directly.

In order to be oriented in a fairly complicated situation, the political and social agitation of the recent years must be briefly summarized.

The Popular Front movement was born of the miscarried insurrection fomented by the conservative parties and the pro-fascist leagues on February 6, 1934. What exactly did this street action and the attempted assault upon the Palais-Bourbon represent? What did the men who unleashed them want? Simply to drive from power the Radicals and to take revenge, even by a rising, for the elections that had been unfavorable to them? Or did they have a program, a plan, a new governmental crew ready to install a dictatorial or fascistic regime? To this day it is still hard to say. But I am, for my part, absolutely convinced that what was involved was nothing more than the overturning by violence of the verdict of universal suffrage – a repetition of the operation successfully realized in 1926 by the launching of a financial panic which compelled Herriot to yield power to Poincaré. The big bourgeoisie does not want to see the Radical petty bourgeoisie installed in power. But the form which the action of its leagues assumed this time – a rising against the parliament and, it seems, against the republican institutions – alarmed the country as a whole; the provinces replied spontaneously to the Parisian rising; everywhere the workers, the small peasants, the artisans, the petty functionaries mobilized by themselves in order to organize the resistance. It was a repetition of the crises through which the Third Republic has passed since its establishment: the 16th of May in 1876–1877, Boulangism in the early ‘90s; the Dreyfus affair of 1898–1900: the “reds” against the “whites”, the old political struggle colored this time by the fascist threat. A spontaneous union occurred in the ranks, desired by the workers who no longer have confidence in the Third International. The amazing capers of the Stalinists, leaping suddenly from the Third Period – the direct struggle for the seizure of power – to the simple defense of bourgeois democracy, cemented the Popular Front by solidly welding the workers to it. “Anti-fascism” provided a convenient propaganda slogan and an even better electoral weapon, which guaranteed easy successes and the triumph of the Popular Front in the legislative elections of May 1936. A Popular Front government was then constituted, the leadership of which was demanded by the party that elected the largest number of candidates: the Blum ministry was set up.

But the ascent to power of Blum occurred under absolutely exceptional conditions. The workers did not confine themselves to voting for the candidates of the Popular Front. Right in the midst of the electoral agitation, they launched a potent strike movement which, beginning in the Paris region and the metal plants, very rapidly spread throughout the country and to all the industries, the big plants and the small. And no ordinary strikes, but strikes conducted under the new form of occupying the plants. The employers had profited by the economic crisis to impose upon the workers substantial wage reductions and harsh working conditions; in the textile industry, for example, a daily wage of less than 20 francs was the rule rather than the exception. Here too the movement began with the rank and file. In the metallurgical industry of the Paris region, where the first strikes were launched, the percentage of unionized workers was very small. The militancy of the workers had been aroused by the reactionary riot of February 6 and developed by the rodomontades of Colonel de la Rocque and his Croix de Feu, by the frequent mobilization of his well-disciplined troops at various points of the country. In turn, they profited by favorable new conditions created by a substantial program of new armaments: the industrialists were crammed with government orders that had to be filled rapidly.

It is this specifically labor action that assured the workers the 40-hour week, paid vacations, shop delegates, collective agreements allowing everywhere substantial increases of wages, above all of those that were shamefully low. The Blum cabinet confined itself to recording in the labor legislation the gains already realized in fact. The bills it submitted to the parliament were adopted virtually without discussion. The Senate, particularly retrograde in matters of social legislation and hostile, by its very make-up, to workers’ demands, voted without discussion for what the government proposed out of fear of worse; the Senators were trembling, literally and not only figuratively. The trade union heads, Stalinists as well as friends of Jouhaux, had a hard job to make the workers accept compromise settlements, the strikers demanding the full acceptance of their demands.

This point must be insisted on. It is by their own action, by their direct action, by the occupation of the factories, that the workers gained the great reforms mentioned above and obtained substantial wage increases. But the Popular Front attributed them to itself, inscribed them on its credit side and more particularly, inside the Popular Front, on the credit side of the Léon Blum cabinet. In fact, the governments of the Popular Front were not only not going to consolidate the gains but their policy was to have the exclusive effect of taking back some of them indirectly – the rises in wages by the devaluations of the currency and the rise in the cost of living – and of compromising others.

The cantonal elections at the beginning of October were to provide a very valuable general indication of the state of mind of the whole population towards the Popular Front and towards its policy as experienced in sixteen months of governmental action. As I said at the outset, they were a success for all the parties belonging to the Popular Front – a result all the more important and significant because the mode of ballotting peculiar to these elections greatly favors the country as against the city: one counsellor per canton, be it rural with a few thousand inhabitants, or industrial with tens of thousands. Another fact no less important : the real victors were the socialists. The Radicals gained in votes but lost several seats. The Stalinists, who had till then penetrated the cantonal assemblies with the greatest difficulty – especially because the last general elections had taken place while they were still in the “Third Period” – quadrupled their very small number of counsellors, which makes it possible for them to try to cover up their defeat. Only, the defeat was definite and too obvious to be dissimulated; their few successes were absolutely out of proportion to the enormous efforts they made, the great sums of money they spent, the means they employed to pick up votes at any price, the most typical of which was the slogan: Votez français! – which confused them with the candidates of La Rocque or Doriot. Of Votez communiste! there was no longer a sign. Not only the incontestable victory reserved to the socialists but the very dimensions of this victory surprised everybody – the socialist leaders included. In point of fact, it was thought that the socialist candidates would suffer from the wear upon their leaders in the government, above all from the manner in which Léon Blum, since the month of March, had capitulated to the bourgeoisie by proclaiming the need of a “breathing spell” in the workers’ actions, with the aggravation that four months later he accepted defeat without struggle, consenting, under the brutal injunction of the reactionary Senate, to concede the direction of the ministry to the Radicals, to allow Georges Bonnet to be brought from Washington as minister of Finance, a position of primary importance under the present circumstances. Georges Bonnet was openly a right wing Radical, belonging to the group of Radicals basically hostile to the Popular Front. His first concern was to destroy progressively and systematically the timid reforms accomplished by his socialist successor, Vincent Auriol. It was a matter of reassuring and tranquillizing the bourgeoisie, of restoring its confidence.

The socialists, who remained in the ministry in a reduced position, swallowed all these disavowals of their governmental action.

On the other hand, in foreign policy, the shameful attitude of Léon Blum towards the pro-fascist rebellion of Franco against a simply republican regime, itself also the outcome of a Popular Front movement, had provoked the indignation and the anger of the workers.

On these two central points, Léon Blum strove methodically to justify his policy. He invoked two “alibis”.

For his domestic policy, he said repeatedly: “The government which I headed was not a socialist government; it was, as everyone knows, a government of the Popular Front; therefore there could be no question of applying the program of our party but rather that of the Popular Front. That is just what I did to the best of my ability. There are other parties besides our own in the Popular Front, notably the Radicals. A movement like the Popular Front has its limitations. That must not be forgotten. Nor must we forget what we have done, the great reforms that we realized.” An easy defense, a convenient distinguo to explain away everything, even the disavowals and the retreats before the bourgeoisie, but still of a kind with which to impress the voters.

As to Spain, the adherence to the so-called non-intervention policy seemed more difficult to justify. It is not necessary to be privy to the chancellories to know the real reason for it: it was imposed on the French government by the British cabinet, stout defender of the interests of the British bourgeoisie and resolutely hostile to a socialist revolution in Spam. But Léon Blum carefully refrained from admitting this. He affirmed that the non-intervention policy had saved the peace; intervention meant inevitable war. Take note that for the French government nothing more was involved than permitting the delivery of orders placed in France by a regular government, a government of the Popular Front, against a pro-fascist military rebellion already kept in check at Madrid and at Barcelona, the two capitals of Spain, by the Spanish proletariat. But by repeating, falsely: intervention meant inevitable war, Léon Blum profoundly perturbed the workers and the peasants, above all the latter who, having a deep aversion to war, were quite disposed to accept this justification of an indefensible policy. Another element of the socialist success must be sought in the growing discreditment of the Stalinists among the proletariat in France. Their renunciation, now complete, of communism and the duplicity by means of which they sought to cover it up, their pursuit of the “Front of Frenchmen”, in preparation of the next imperialist war, alienated from them the best and the most conscious people in the working class. To be sure, this discreditment should not be exaggerated. The Stalinist grip upon a large part of the French proletariat still remains serious and disturbing. But it is nevertheless a significant and important fact that in the North, the industrial region par excellence, and in various others, notably in Marseilles and throughout Provence, the cantonal elections showed them on the decline. The votes they lost went to the socialist candidates.

At the moment when the Popular Front triumphed in the elections, the workers had already lost a part of the gains that they had wrested by the strike in May-June 1936. The enormous rise in the cost of living – about 50 percent – had progressively destroyed the wage increases they had obtained. Only those workers, in very rare trades, had been preserved who had demanded, in the collective agreements, the sliding scale – wages following, even if tardily, the rise in living costs. Whereas those most sacrificed were the surest voters for the candidates of the Popular Front: the functionaries. Their salaries, very low, did not vary. Vincent Auriol, then Minister of Finance, had asked them to be patient, the cashbox of the State being too poor and the budgetary deficit too high to suffer an increase in expenditures. As a consequence, their real salaries had substantially declined and had become so inadequate that a lively agitation was manifested among them, the strike itself being envisaged as a supreme resort. After some horse-trading to which the leaders of their organizations lent themselves they had to be content with the derisory alms that the all-powerful Georges Bonnet was willing to grant them: 100 francs per month.

The taking back of the 40-hour week – the other great workers’ gain – could not be realized in so simple nor, above all, in so automatic a fashion. The workers are resolved to defend it. But the bourgeoisie, which has already begun its attack, does not conduct it frontally; it operates very skillfully. It laments over the consequences of the reduction in the working time; over the slowing down of production which prevented French industry from profiting by the economic boom as most of the great nations did; and the increase in the price of manufactured commodities which puts it in an unfavorable position at the moment when competition is becoming sharper on the world markets. It is especially alarmed by the slowing down of war manufacturing which the “enemy” – Berlin-Rome – is pursuing at an accelerated rhythm.

Heeding these complaints, the Chautemps government charged the National Economic Council to proceed to a general investigation of production and to study, more particularly, the effects of the establishment of the 40-hour week. The conclusions of the report of this investigation have just been publishd. A large section is devoted to the 40-hour week. To be sure, it is not proposed to abrogate it: so drastic a measure is, for the moment, impossible. But it speaks of the necessary “regulations” for giving the law the indispensible “flexibility”. Several of these “regulations” have forthwith been realized by decrees. Others will be the object of a more thorough examination. But it can already be seen that the attack will go through the war industries. The report dwells, in fact, on the absolute necessity of accelerating the manufacture of armaments and munitions and underlines the fact that both the workers’ and employers’ delegations found themselves fully in agreement on this point. Since, on the other hand, a big campaign is now being conducted in all the press and the newspapers repeat each morning that France has already been greatly outdistanced by Germany and by Italy in the field of aviation and in the construction of new naval units, it appears clear that the 40-hour week is being scheduled to disappear soon in the factories working for the war, which are today nationalized. And it is not the Stalinists who will defend it, for they are now in the front ranks of the most inflamed nationalists and keep repeating that they want a strong France.

This action, pursued on legal soil against the recent gains of the working class, and directed by the Popular Front government itself, is accompanied by a direct action pursued by the employers. The latter constantly provoke their workers by various violations of the stipulations in the collective agreements. It is a period of “taking soundings”: when the workers fail to react, a first breach is made which will be enlarged by other attempts; if they defend themselves energetically by the strike and the occupation of the factories or stores, the employers hasten to accept a compromise in which they always win something.

To these two actions, which are public, is added a third, which is clandestine. At the very moment when the employers declare their acceptance of the collective agreements, when they sign the contracts with their right hand, the left distributes subsidies to La Rocque or Doriot for the organization of shock troops whose first task is the destruction of the workers’ organizations. They also subsidize a secret organization known as Comité Secret d’Action Révolutionnaire, which has already been functioning for a long time, formed by the most active elements of the Croix de Feu and of the Camelots du Roi, accumulating arms, munitions and explosives in specially arranged cellars, and which the police of the Popular Front has only just now discovered.

Thus the present situation, fairly dark, is characterized by the following features: the workers are progressively despoiled of the fruits of their victories by the Popular Front government which they brought to power; they feel it more or less plainly. Nevertheless, something of their confidence in the Popular Front still subsists and the discontentment manifests itself solely in the form of a certain push towards the socialists. The bourgeoisie, surprised by the sudden attack of May–June 1936, has already regained enough strength and self-confidence for the methodical preparation of a counter-offensive. The workers’ drive is not, however, completely broken; the recent occupations of factories and stores have just proved it. But the workers have been left to themselves. On the socialist side, a return of the socialists to power is vaguely envisaged, a second Léon Blum ministry, provided this time with a precise and “socialist” program of action. In the General Confederation of Labor, there is a lot of chatter about the “plan” and “structural reforms”. The paradox of the present moment lies in the fact that it is the bourgeoisie that is arming and thinking of resorting to revolutionary action, while the workers will be turned over to it disarmed by the Stalinists who are preoccupied primarily with realizing the “Front of Frenchmen”. Such are the fruits of the Popular Front.

PARIS, December 1937


Last updated on: 30 July 2015