The People’s Front: The New Betrayal by James Burnham

Chapter VI. The People’s Front in France





On February 6, 1934, gangs of fascists, reactionaries and royalists--for the most part young students and irresponsible sons of noblemen--rioted in Paris, across the river from the Chamber of Deputies. Less than a week later, on the 12th, the working class replied in its own way, spontaneously, by a vast general strike.

These events were of the highest symptomatic importance. They demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the crisis in France had reached a point where it could no longer be quieted down, much less solved, by legal and parliamentary means. They showed that the issue was leaving the halls of the Chamber of Deputies and moving out into the streets and the factories; that events in France were progressing relentlessly toward a revolutionary climax; that within the next few years the fate of France--fascist France or a workers’ France--was to be decided.

The underlying causes are, of course, to be sought in the status of French economy. The peculiar conditions of French economy--the already accomplished devaluation of its currency, the comparative absence of gigantic industrial enterprises, the methods of French agriculture and the large number of well cultivated small holdings, the huge gold reserve, and the advantages still at that time accruing to France from the terms of the Versailles Treaty--had delayed the impact of the world crisis. However, when the crisis, belatedly, hit France, these same peculiar conditions, aggravated by the collapse of the Versailles system, undermined the resiliency of French economy, and made it impossible for France to share proportionately in the world upturn that began in 1933. In 1935, for example, production in France as compared with production in 1928-29 was lower than in the case of any other great power. The truth is that France has reached an impasse. There are only two roads: the salvation of French economy through the workers’ revolution and socialism; or the solidification of disintegration by the straitjacket of Fascism.

These conclusions, so incontrovertible in the light of any objective analysis of French conditions, were, however, reached only by the bourgeoisie and by the revolutionary Marxists, the latter tragically weak in numbers and influence. The bourgeoisie drew appropriate conclusions and began carefully and systematically to prepare for the transition to fascism, just as the German bourgeoisie had done before them; began to take steps to take the fascist movement out of the hands of the students and light-minded aristocrats, and to search for a serious mass base; and began to make ready the arms, the pistols and clubs and machine guns and airplanes through which the issue would be finally decided.

The Marxists, also, drew appropriate conclusions. They called for a direct perspective leading to the conquest of power. They called for a concentration on the work of preparing the class forces, and a reduction of parliamentary activities to a secondary level. They called for a united front of mass struggle; for the building of a workers’ militia able to defend the proletarian interests; for steps to be taken toward the formation of committees in the factories and shops, on the land, and in the armed forces; for the transfer of the focus of struggle to these committees, with the aim, when the revolutionary crisis reached its climax, of the transfer of power to the committees: that is, with the aim of the transfer of power to a Soviet State. They called for broad mass actions, for boldness and decision, for the sharpening of the class struggle. These were and continue to be their slogans; and in them alone is the hope of the French working class.

The reformist leadership of the Socialist Party of France, on the other hand, and the Stalinists, just then turning reformist under the impulse of the new orientation of the Comintern, had quite different views. The depth of the crisis made no impression on their shielded eyes. The approach of a revolutionary situation? Mere fantasy. Workers’ militia and factory committees? Only the delusions and idiotic provocations of sectarian minds. The real business was to defend the great French democracy, to "rehabilitate" democratic capitalism, to protect it against its enemies. And their brains were little concerned with the enemy within, with the French counter-revolution; the great enemy was without--Hitler and German Nazism.

In the summer of 1934 the Socialist and Communist Parties concluded what they called a United Front--the widely heralded "Front Unique." But this was in actuality at the farthest remove from the genuine united front of action on specific issues. It was, first, a "non-aggression pact" whereby the two parties gave up the indispensable right of mutual criticism; and, second, an agreement on certain purely defensive measures whereby French, "democracy" could be protected. This, however, was only the beginning.

The key to French internal politics is to be found in the Radical-Socialist Party. This is the great Center party of French capitalism, in 1934 the largest party in France, the firm and unwavering defender of capitalist property rights. Its propaganda appeal is addressed chiefly to the middle classes, and among them it has found the bulk of its membership, promising them the scraps and leavings from the capitalist table. In normal times, for many decades, the Radical Party has usually formed the government, at one period in a coalition with the right, at the next in a coalition with the left (ordinarily with the Socialist Party), balancing itself delicately between the forces. It is a party shot through and through with corruption and venality of every sort. In 1934, the measure of this corruption was beginning to be widely known through a series of scandals; and, more fundamentally, the pressure of the crisis was teaching the middle classes that the program of the Radical Party had nothing further to offer them, that they had to abandon their traditional loyalty, and seek another way out. It was a Radical government that held office on February 6th; and in the face of the disorderly demonstration of the impotent young students and aristocrats, the Radicals showed how much courage and determination they had in the "struggle against fascism." The Radicals turned tail and ran; they immediately resigned the government, and hid in fright their political faces.

The proper conclusions were obvious. The problem of winning the lower strata of the middle classes in France to the side of the fight against fascism and for socialism was nothing else than the problem of winning them away from the Radical Party. The crisis and the conduct of the Radical Party had made this, politically speaking, a comparatively simple problem. Its program and its leadership were completely discredited before the masses. A bold and independent class policy on the part of the proletarian parties would simply have destroyed the Radical Party; with the bulk of the lower strata of its former supporters going over to the side of the workers’ parties, its upper strata going over to the fascists. And, in point of fact, in spite of the policy of the workers’ parties, this has happened and is happening. The Radical Party is falling apart (as indicated by its tremendous drop in votes during 1935 and still more in 1936); but its disintegration is most dangerously delayed, and the parties of the right--their bold policies contrasting so sharply with the spineless policies of the left--derive benefits from the disintegration out of all proportion to what might so easily be the case.

In direct opposition to the Marxist--indeed, the simple commonsense--answer to the question of strategy toward the Radical Party, the entire policies of both the Communist and Socialist Parties have been oriented toward conciliation to, bolstering up of the Radical Party. This is, in substance, the organizational form of the People’s Front in France established formally in 1935: the coalition of the Communist, Socialist, and Radical Parties. And, since the entire perspective of the workers’ parties is directed toward the maintenance of the coalition with the Radicals, it necessarily follows that the policy of the People’s Front as a whole is dominated by the Radicals, since to break with the policy of the Radicals would at once bring about the breakup of the People’s Front. The Radicals hold the whip hand. Their own necks have been saved by the prestige loaned them through their alliance with the workers’ parties; they have a time longer to fasten their prejudices on the minds of the masses--the whole People’s Front ideology being built out of their prejudices; while, in increasing numbers, the masses, disgusted with the emptiness of the program of the "left," pass over to the camp of the fascists.

There could be no other result from the People’s Front policy. The People’s Front is designed to "save capitalist democracy from fascism." But to save and defend capitalist democracy is merely the traditional policy of the Radicals--a policy proved utterly untenable by history, by 1934, and half-understood as untenable by ever growing numbers among the masses. The People’s Front simply took over the policy of the Radicals, and offers it as a solution under the cover of a new name. The program of the People’s Front is just the program of the Radicals re-written (and could not be anything else, since then the Radicals would not have signed it). It is in fact somewhat to the right of Roosevelt’s New Deal program. It features planks on "good government," League of Nations, public works, better organization of credit and banking, "democratic reform" of taxation, "against unemployment," rise in commodity prices, and (most revealing) "measures . . . being taken to safeguard the interests of the small shareholder." (Doubtless the last provision is particularly appealing to the "bourgeois-minded" French proletarian.)

What lies back of this shameful capitulation to the Radicals? The reasons can be briefly stated: In return for the capitulation, the Stalinists were granted the votes of the Radicals for the Franco-Soviet Pact. The reformist Socialist Party of France has always had, at bottom, the program of the defense of capitalist democracy; it has merely propagated this program within the working class, dividing labors with the Radical Party, which propagated it within the middle classes. In the time of crisis, therefore, the Socialist Party lines up with its natural political kin. To reformism, fascism or the proletarian revolution are equally deathblows; and through the People’s Front the Socialist Party, like the Communist Party, tries to avoid both the one and the other. And in the case of both of the workers’ parties, they find in their coalition with the Radicals in the People’s Front the means of preparation for the coming war: the war in which they propose to line up the French masses for French imperialism against German imperialism--the Stalinists in order to carry out Stalin’s conception of "defense of the Soviet Union," the Socialists because reformism, tied by its whole nature to the bourgeois democratic state, is on all crucial occasions the agent of the bourgeoisie.


The fruits of the People’s Front policy, the policy of collaboration with the Radicals, the policy of class collaboration, have not been long in ripening. In general terms, the great crime of the People’s Front has been its complete disorientation of the French proletariat. The People’s Front has prevented the working class from preparing and carrying out its revolutionary class struggle for power--the only possible solution from the point of view of the proletariat; and instead has deceived the working class into putting reliance on class collaboration, on bourgeois democracy, on the capitalist state. That is, the People’s Front teaches the working class to rely on the good will of the class enemy, and to renounce the strengthening of its independent force.

In 1935, the Stalinists, with their eyes on their Radical colleagues, repudiated the great strikes at Toulon and Brest as "provocations." The People’s Front urges the workers to sing the Marseillaise and carry the tri-color, and not to be too forward with the Internationale and the red flag. The People’s Front hails the pitiful parliamentary victories in the 1935 municipal elections as a major blow against fascism; and greets the majority in the 1936 elections for the Chamber of Deputies as a triumph. Under the compulsion of the logic of their policy, the People’s Fronters abandon all struggle against the two-year conscription laws, and become wholehearted supporters of the armament program of French imperialism.

But the People’s Front has at any rate been a great obstacle to fascism? Not in the least. Fascism has continued its development unhampered by the People’s Front, at the tempo dictated by finance-capital and the given relation of forces. In 1934 the fascist movement in France was not sufficiently deep and serious; it was led and composed of the froth of society, and was not the basis of a great mass movement. The general strike of February 12th--the independent class action of the workers--struck it a blow, and it recoiled; and it was held further in check by the shipyard strikes in 1935. But it recoiled only to gather new strength and to prepare more adequately. It won serious mass leaders of consequence, like the renegade communist, Doriot. In 1936, it again received a temporary set-back: not from the elections (for the fascists are well aware that the issue will not be decided in parliament, and in any case the Right increased its vote in the same amount as did the Left, both at the expense of the Center), but from the mighty and spontaneous general strike in June. Once again fascism goes forward, this time on the main road; it laughs at the statutes passed "outlawing" its organizations, merely changing names; and it feeds delightedly off the weaknesses, contradictions, and failures of the People’s Front and the People’s Front government.

In the Spring of 1936 the People’s Front took over the government. What is the record? In the face of the tremendous June strikes, involving 8,000,000 or more workers, and begun by the workers without a word of leadership from the People’s Front parties, the Blum government, together with its Radical and Stalinist supporters, stood aghast, frightened, breathless at the sweep of the masses. They explained to the workers that "they must know how to end a strike as well as how to begin one" (to quote the words of the Stalinist leader). Like true reformists, they acted in the manner described by the theorist of German finance-capital (in the same quotation I have given in Chapter III). "The deflection of the revolution into social-political measures corresponded with the transference of the struggle from the factories and the streets into Parliament and Cabinets, that is, with the transformation of the struggle ‘from below’ into concessions ‘from above’." They passed a series of laws, in agreement with the bourgeoisie--then in strategic retreat before the mass offensive--to show the workers that real benefits came to them not through struggle but through the beneficence of "their" government. And already, during these short months, the concessions to the workers, where not directly sabotaged by the capitalists, have been more than wiped out by the increase in the cost of living, resulting from the devaluation and other inflationary measures, which the government has been forced by economic compulsion to carry out.

The Blum government is a capitalist government, like all coalition governments; and as such it administers the affairs of French imperialism. In the interests of French imperialism, to protect the remnants of the Versailles settlement, it has undertaken an unprecedented armament program. How revealing to read in the New York Times of February 3rd of this year that all parties of the People’s Front voted for the military budget. (Even at the time of the Seventh Congress, Dimitroff argued that the Communists in France would not support the military budget.) All likewise voted for the military loan to Poland, which nation is now completing its transformation to fascism. The Blum government engineered the hypocritical "Neutrality Pact" in the Spanish crisis, actively blocked aid to the Spanish workers, and is now in the forefront of the international boycott. It passes laws restricting freedom and speech and assembly, and instituting compulsory arbitration; and sends Mobile Guards against strikers. It suppressed an incipient revolt in Syria, and continues in French Indo-China a régime which jails and tortures revolutionists. It suppresses issues of revolutionary journals in France (two issues, for example, of Lutte des Classes) and imprisons French revolutionists. Blum cables personal congratulations to Roosevelt on his victory in November. All parties of the People’s Front announce the complete solidarity of all true Frenchmen against the threat of Germany; all vie with each other in super-patriotism, and the greatest scandal of the year arises when a Socialist is accused of not having been sufficiently patriotic in the last war--the charge against Salengro, which the People’s Front so indignantly repudiated. The Stalinists, through Thorez, call for the transformation of the People’s Front into a "French Front." And this last is the most revealing of all: for through the People’s Front, there is being prepared in France the complete "national front," once again national unity, as in 1914, behind French imperialism in the coming war.

In all these weak, docile, spineless months, the People’s Front has to its credit only one bold and vigorous action. This occurred in January, when French Morocco, key colony of French imperialism, was menaced by Germany. At once, without a moment’s hesitation, the People’s Front sprang to the helm, ordered the fleet to sail, and stood by to defend with the lives of the masses the booty of the French bourgeoisie.

But underneath the façade of the People’s Front, deep down among the masses, the crisis continues and extends. After a lull following the June strikes, the workers are once more in motion. New strikes, not yet wide and general as in June, break out day by day; and now they are fought not in the holiday spirit of June, but in grim and bitter earnest. The great class armies are, under the impact of the impassable crisis, slowly aligning, in spite of everything the People’s Front can or will do. In the end, the issue will have to be met. Out of it will come either a fascist triumph, and the setting back of the European proletariat for decades to come, or the proletarian revolution. But to achieve the latter the workers must, learning from their experience, break utterly with the false, debilitating and treacherous policy of the People’s Front; and take the road of revolutionary class struggle for power and for socialism. Without this, victory is impossible, fascism is inevitable.




Posted: 30 April 2005