HITLER HAD been in power for 12 months. The strongest working class movement in the world lay shattered beneath his feet. Fascists were gaining ground across Europe. The world was mired in economic slump, which brought with it mass unemployment and wage cuts.
Such were the desperate circumstances facing workers in France in February 1934. Yet that month saw one of the greatest events in working class history. It hurled back the French fascists and lit a beacon of hope during a time called the 'midnight' of the 20th century.
The trigger was an attempt by fascists to smash their way into power. They had grown by exploiting despair caused by economic depression. The largest far right group, the Croix de Feu, claimed 50,000 members. The fascists called an armed demonstration for 6 February and tried to storm parliament. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 injured as the police beat back the assault.
The fascists did not seize power, but they did force a change of government. The new government declared itself a 'bulwark against anarchy'. But it planned to turn its fire on the workers' movement, not on the fascists. It was the kind of right wing authoritarian government that had paved the way for Hitler in Germany.
ALARM SPREAD throughout factories and working class areas as news of the fascists' action circulated. But the official leaders of the working class lagged behind the mood. The main trade union confederation, the CGT, called for a general strike. But it called it for almost a week later, on 12 February.
The Socialist Party, the biggest left wing party in France, joined the call for demonstrations on the same day. The smaller Communist Party acted with more urgency. It called a demonstration for 9 February. But it made no attempt to involve other forces on the left. The police attacked the Communists' demonstration, killing six and injuring 100. Then, at the last possible moment, Communist leaders threw themselves behind the trade union day of action.
The general strike on 12 February was an outstanding success. Almost five million workers downed tools. One million took to the streets across France. In Paris the Socialists and Communists called separate marches to the same place. The leader of the Socialist Party, Leon Blum, described the scene: 'I was marching in the front row. The gap between the two columns narrowed and we all shared the same anxiety-would the meeting of the two be a collision? Was this going to degenerate into a conflict between two factions of the working class of Paris? Now the two columns were face to face and from all sides the same cry sprang up. People shook hands. The heads of the columns melted into each other. By a sort of popular groundswell the people's will had imposed unity of action of the working class.'
Another participant, a left wing intellectual, remembered: 'To the astonishment of the party and union leaders, this encounter triggered off a delirious enthusiasm, an explosion of shouts of joy.
'Applause, chants, cries of 'Unity, unity'.' The general strike and demonstration of 12 February had a tremendous impact. The fascists' aura of invincibility vanished. Everyone now knew there would be ferocious working class resistance to any attempted fascist coup. Though the right wing government remained in office, it was frightened away from an open alliance with the fascists and hesitated over how to attack working class organisation.
The action and instincts of workers in France had forced their leaders to unite in action against the fascists. That had not happened in Germany. There, as in France, there were two mass working class parties-the socialist SPD and the Communist Party. The parties were separate because they had fundamental disagreements. The Socialist Party, for example, supported the First World War while the Communists opposed it.
But the existence of two parties was not in itself the problem. The tragedy was that neither the Communist nor the Socialist leaders saw the need for united action in the face of fascism.
The Communists had a crazy policy in the early 1930s. They treated the Socialist parties as a threat equal to, or even greater than, the fascist gangs. The Socialist leaders saw the Communists as 'a threat to democracy'. That is why there was such rejoicing when French workers forced the Socialist and Communist leaders to act together.
LOCAL ANTI-FASCIST committees sprang up across France in the weeks following the February general strike. Most involved Communists, Socialists and others, regardless of what their national leaders wanted.
In July 1934 the Socialist and Communist leaders signed a 'unity pact' committing them to joint demonstrations on a limited range of issues. But there were two notions of unity. For those in the anti-fascist committees it meant the unity of workers in widening action. For the Socialist and Communist leaders the emphasis was on a bureaucratic agreement at the top.
Stalin's regime in Russia was also looking for its own form of unity-a pact with the right wing governments of France and Britain. That meant the Communist Party in France should seek electoral pacts with non-socialist forces rather than an alliance of workers.
The Communist Party spent 18 months getting a pact with a party called the Radicals-a rough equivalent to today's Liberal Democrats combined with 'One Nation' Tories. In January 1936 the Communists, Socialists and Radicals agreed the 'Popular Front' programme to fight a general election.
To keep the Radicals on board the programme was far tamer than even the mealy-mouthed policies of the Socialists. But it was a left wing tide that swept the Popular Front alliance into office in June 1936. The Socialists and Communists gained seats while the Radicals suffered losses. The electoral defeat of the main bosses' parties sparked a confidence among workers, a feeling that they could take on the employers directly.
Strikes erupted, and their size and demands went way beyond what the new government and trade union leaders wanted. There were 12,142 strikes and 1.8 million strikers in June 1936 alone. That was higher than the previous annual record for strikes in 1920. Over three quarters of the strikes involved factory occupations. One historian wrote:
'The strikes spared almost no section of industry, from Renault's huge Billancourt plant with its 32,000 workers to tiny workshops...from the relatively highly unionised mines and docks to the totally un-unionised employees of department stores.'
The capitalist class thought France was on the brink of revolution. The new government was headed by Socialist Leon Blum. Blum's first act was to stop the strike wave by organising talks between the bosses and the unions. The near revolutionary strikes compelled the employers to give significant concessions. But the upsurge continued.
THE SOCIALIST Party and trade union leaders could not halt it. But the Communist Party could. It did not hold office in the government but supported it. To keep its alliance with the Radicals, the Communist Party used its influence in the factories to end the strike movement.
The Popular Front government, elected with such left wing hopes, began behaving like the right wing government it had replaced. It announced a bigger rearmament programme than the previous government. It squeezed workers, cancelling out the gains won by the strikes. Trade union leaders later acknowledged that as the occupations receded in the summer of 1936 'the employers began to organise resistance. It grew from month to month.'
The fascists felt a new lease of life as workers' confidence fell back and they became disillusioned with the government. The Popular Front government finally fell apart in April 1938, and power shifted back to the right.
Mainstream right wing politicians, employers and some among the middle classes were flirting with the idea of a fascist government. Their slogan was 'Better Hitler than Blum'. These people went on to collaborate with the Nazis during the Second World War. It is impossible to read about what happened in France in the 1930s without seeing parallels with today. Although there is not yet a crisis as deep as it was in the 1930s, there is a growing bitterness with mainstream politicians.
This is leading to a polarisation of society to the right and to the left in France, and across Europe. There are vital lessons for today. The general strike and mass demonstrations of 1934 show how united workers' action can push fascism back. Doing that can unleash a powerful swing to the left which can offer an alternative to capitalism.
Steering that back into the safe channels of mainstream politics leads to demoralisation, a bosses' offensive and a chance for the fascists to bounce back stronger.