Socialist Worker

Trotsky, united fronts and workers’ struggle

Our series continues with Chris Bambery looking at debates and action in 1930s France

Issue No. 2153

In February 1934, in the wake of a huge financial scandal, fascists in France led an attack on the country’s parliament.

They forced the centre-left government from office. A hard right wing regime replaced it.

This seemed set to usher in a fascist takeover.

The fascist bands had tens of thousands of members but, unlike in Germany, were divided among themselves.

The exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was living in France from 1933 until 1935. He argued that fascism threatened France.

French bosses looked back with nostalgia to the “strong states” of Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew Louis Napoleon in the previous century.

But the new right wing government was too weak to emulate them. The danger was that support would continue to flow towards the fascists.

As in Germany, the French left was divided. Socialists and Communists refused to unite to mobilise against the menace.

Fortunately the rank and file reacted to the attack on parliament. Their pressure forced the main union federation to call a one day strike.

On the day there were two demonstrations in Paris, one led by the Socialists and the trade union leaders, the other by the Communists.

Rank and file protesters came together, creating one march, as their leaders looked on disapprovingly.

In this context, Trotsky argued that the immediate task was to create a united front against the fascists and to build workers defence forces to deal with fascist attacks.

These should not be conspiratorial affairs but rather “tens and later hundreds of thousands of fighters” drawn from the working class, its mass parties and the unions.

During 1934 the French working class, emboldened by its struggle against the fascists, went on the offensive over economic issues. Workers struck and occupied factories and dockyards.

Trotsky responded with his Programme of Action for France, written in June 1934. It is absolutely concrete, flowing from the needs of the struggle and written by someone immersed in day to day events.

Trotsky picked up from discussions in the Communist International over a decade earlier.

These stressed the need to put forward “transitional demands” – demands that would start from the immediate needs of the struggle and could carry it forward to the construction of a new socialist society.

The French Communists, following attempts by Stalin to create an alliance with France, switched from attacking the Socialists to securing an alliance with them and the main party of the middle class, the Radicals.

In June 1935 the three parties signed an electoral pact – the Popular Front.

Having championed unity against fascism, Trotsky now argued that unity with the Radicals would lead the left wing parties to distance themselves from strikes, confrontations with the fascists or anything which might alienate their new, “respectable” allies.

The sectarian policy of refusing to unite blocked the mass mobilisation needed to defeat fascism.

But the new Popular Front acted similarly, as a “brake” on mass mobilisation.

Trotsky urged the creation of local Committees of Action, directly elected and based on “struggle in action”.

The Popular Front was elected to government in May 1936.

The rank and file responded with a wave of occupations and strikes. Trotsky argued “the French revolution has begun”.

But the leaders of the Popular Front denounced the strikes.

All the main parties of the left put loyalty to the government above that of the working class.

The upsurge in struggle scared the bosses and they were prepared to make various concessions to try and end the strike wave.

But as it receded they demanded firmer action. The Radicals quit the Popular Front to form a government with allies to its right.

Having previously urged moderation, the Communists were forced to respond to attacks by the bosses and eventually the left called a one day general strike.

Yet having dampened working class expectations it was not a success.

Nothing in history is inevitable. Between 1934 and 1936 revolution was on the agenda in France.

Yet there was no mass, political force which could successfully argue a strategy to make revolution a reality.

Humanity would pay a terrible price for that.

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