From Workers’ International News, Vol.2 No.1, January 1939, pp.14-16.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
After the Munich Pact, Daladier, taking advantage of his temporary popularity as a “Peace-lover” and encouraged by the attitude of the reformist and stalinist leaders, decided to go several steps further in the liquidating of democratic liberties and the last remains of the social conquests of June 1936. At the Marseilles Congress of the Radical Party he launched a violent attack on the CP, and a few days later his party withdrew its representatives from the Popular Front. On the day after Armistice Day the Daladier-Reynaud decree-laws were published. These, put into force, deal the labour movement of France the most serious blow it has yet received. Its provisions are already well-known, drastic restrictions of trade union and democratic liberties, foreign workers (who in the mines and other important industries constitute 20 to 30% of the number employed) are barred from electing shop-stewards, workers who have at any time been convicted (including naturally for political reasons) cannot be elected, “agitating” against the lengthening of the working week in National Defence industries is punishable by imprisonment, those who refuse to work the extra hours are sacked without unemployment relief. The decree-laws provide for increased taxes of small middle class incomes; and the discharge of 40,000 railwaymen under the guise of economy. The publication of the decree-laws was a signal for the unleashing of a violent anti-union campaign by the bosses. Within a few days literally thousands of trade-unionists were sacked and in many factories the management announced that the workers would have to work on the Saturday morning. It was clear that the decree-laws would provoke an immediate worsening of the conditions of living of the masses and would lay the foundations of a thinly disguised military dictatorship. What were the reactions of the masses and their leaders to be? Was the working class to allow itself to be coerced into accepting the decree-laws or was it going to stand up and fight?
The working-class did not wait for its leaders to pronounce themselves, it told them what to do; the bureaucratically-run Congress of the CGT at Nantes received over 1,500 telegrams from trade union branches and shop stewards demanding the calling of a General Strike. It was only under the tremendous pressure of the aroused rank and file that Leon Jouhaux, the Walter Citrine of the CGT was forced to agree to the principle of a 24 hour general strike, but managed to get the date to be fixed later, in the hope that in the meanwhile a compromise would be reached.
The working-class, however, was not disposed to “compromise.” On Monday the 21st, strikes broke out in the chemical, engineering and textile industries in Paris and the North (France’s heaviest industrial region). On the Wednesday, a general strike of the metal workers in the Valenciennes; region was called under rank and file pressure; it was to spread the next day to all the mines, railways and textile factories in the area. Simultaneously, as a protest against brutal police attacks on workers’ demonstrations, strikes broke out in Lille, Dunkirk, Denain, Anzin, Nantes, Rouen and other – industrial centres. In most cases the workers occupied the factories. During the afternoon of the 24th, a stay-in strike broke out in the Renault factories in Paris, one of the largest in France, which employs nearly 40,000 workers and whose buildings occupy the area of a small town. The workers resisted all attempts of the police to dislodge them until 1 a.m. on the Friday morning. During the evening over 15,000 armed Mobile Guards had been concentrated in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb which was virtually in a state of siege, all the main streets being barricaded. It was only after ferocious pitched battles and the use of tear-gas that the workers were driven out, leaving behind hundreds of wounded and over 300 prisoners.
The next day, the 25th, the movement developed still further. In Paris most of the engineering factories were on strike. At Anzin, in the North, as a reply to the government’s military requisition of the railway, the strikers occupied the station and blocked the line by overturning coal-trucks on the rails. Behind these improvised barricades the workers successfully resisted the charges of the Mobile Guards and only evacuated their positions on the demand of the local Stalinist leaders. During the evening, clashes occurred at three of the biggest railway stations in Paris, between the police and railway workers who were joined by passengers in demonstrating against the Government. In other towns the strikes continued.
That afternoon, when the workers were trying to make the General Strike an accomplished fact, when they were occupying factories, mines and railways, and standing up to Mobile Guards and tear-gas bombs, the Administrative Commission of the CGT met, and as if nothing had happened during the last few days, fixed the date of the general strike for five days later – the 30th! “Discipline!” cried Jouhaux, Blum and Thorez, “on Wednesday, everybody must stay at home; no pickets, no meetings, no demonstrations, and whatever happens all must go back to work on Thursday.” At the same time the reformist and Stalinist cohorts were frantically trying to put a stop to the mounting strike wave. The railwaymen of Anzin were persuaded to go back to work on the Saturday morning, although 400 of them had been sacked for striking. On the Monday morning, the bureaucrats had succeeded in ending the miners’ strike in the North, while in Paris and other towns work was resumed in many factories. Only the metal workers of Valenciennes stood firm, although they had been persuaded to evacuate the factories. It was in this district that the militancy of the workers had forced the Mobile Guards to temporarily withdraw the previous week. At the Renault, SNCAC, and SOM factories in Paris, the workers, sent back to work by their leaders, found that the bosses, taking advantage of this capitulation, had declared a lock-out. The only positive action undertaken by the CGT over the week-end was the organisation of a nation-wide series of meetings and demonstrations.
Instead of throwing all their weight behind the revolutionary movement of the masses, instead of organising the general strike immediately, thus paralysing the partially unprepared bourgeoisie and continuing until the workers’ demands were won, the reformists and Stalinists cut across the growing strike movement, squashed it, and substituted for it a perfectly harmless and platonic one day strike. Moreover, they gave the Government five whole days in which to put into action its whole repressive apparatus from the military requisition of the key services (transport, etc.,) to the sowing of confusion among the masses through the powerful means of propaganda (press, radio, etc.,) which it controls.
The bourgeoisie made very effective use of this respite. During the days that preceded the General Strike the masses were inundated by a torrent of radio speeches and newspaper articles. Over the week-end we were treated to speeches over the radio from Reynaud, Daladier, and de Menzie, minister of Public Works, where assertions that the 40 hour week and the “social laws” were not being attacked, alternated with threats of court-martial for workers in State and requisitioned industries who dared to go on strike. The bourgeois propagandists made great play of the CP’s motives, and many workers and especially the petit-bourgeoisie, remembering the war-mongering attitude of the CP in September knew full well that its hostility to Daladier was caused more by his foreign policy than by the decree-laws, they were persuaded that they were being used as pawns (which was partially true) and rallied to the Government. The radio and the whole of the bourgeois press, from the reactionary Matin to the “radical” l’Oeuvre (Mme. Tabouis’ paper) printed exaggerated reports of lack of enthusiasm in various industries and long lists of company unions, professional and ex-servicemen’s organisations, which had declared themselves against the strike. As the leaders of the CGT, instead of answering this propaganda and organising the movement, spent their time in behind-the-scenes manoeuvres aiming at a compromise, the workers were completely demoralised and everyone had the impression that everybody but himself was going to work on Wednesday. Simultaneously, the railways, buses, underground, telephone exchanges and all the key services were put under military control and troops were being concentrated in the industrial centres and the Paris area. On the morning of the 30th, Paris looked like a besieged city; in front of every important factory, of the telephone exchanges; in the corridors of the underground stations were groups of Mobile Guards and regular troops in full war-equipment.
It was under these conditions that the General Strike took place. On the morrow, the bourgeois press rejoiced at the defeat of the workers while l’Humanité wrote: “The General Strike was a tremendous movement ...” Who was right? Was the General Strike a failure or a success?
While in the country as a whole the great majority of the factories were forced to close, in Paris, except among the metal workers, engineers and chemical workers, the proportion of strikers was very much smaller. In the key industry of transport, the workers suffered a stinging defeat. The busmen and underground workers, as advised by their leaders, presented themselves at the depots at the usual hour (5 a.m.) but refused to start their machines, The following is an account from La Lutte Ouvrière of what happened at the Puteaux bus depot:
“By 5 a.m., 150 out of 400 workers had arrived at the depot which they found occupied by mounted and foot police and the 36th Infantry Regiment from Rouen. The busmen refused, in spite of threats, to get the buses out. As by 6.30, no buses had started the workers were surrounded by Mobile Guards and the inspector in charge asked those who wanted to work to step to the right, the rest to remain in the circle of Guards. Three workers who protested were immediately arrested and taken away, the inspector declaring that he would not tolerate any words, except answers to the roll-call. One by one workers hesitatingly stepped to the right, especially fathers of families. An hour later, only a stubborn little group still remained within the circle. The inspector then launched an ultimatum: ‘Those who do not start work within five minutes will be court-martialled.’ The comrades, powerless, gave in. The buses started off. The workers had been defeated.”
What happened at the Puteaux bus depot was more or less repeated in every other bus and underground depot in the Paris area and the railway terminuses. In is interesting to note the fact that though the CGT at 7 a.m. gave the transport workers who still resisted, the order to go back to work, this was not reported in either le Peuple Populaire or l’Humanité.
Many workers, seeing that the buses were running and being badly shaken by the prophecies in the bourgeois press of the preceding days, came to the conclusion that the strike was off, and hurried to their factories. Militants seeking instructions or news, found the CGT headquarters shut, and as neither of the organs of the CP, SP or CGT appeared that day, had to rely on the radio news-broadcasts. In June 1936, when a factory did not join the strike, workers in the area spontaneously organised a demonstration outside the factory and called its workers out; numerous meetings and demonstrations gave courage to waverers. But on November the 30th, the CGT forbade even indoor public meetings “to prevent disorders.” The workers completely unprepared and demoralised by the passivity of their leaders were not in the position to organise the movement spontaneously.
“But to stand up to the troops and Mobile Guards the workers would have to be armed and that would mean civil war!” object Jouhaux, Blum, Thorez and their English counterparts. Precisely! Under the conditions of decaying French capitalists a serious struggle for the defence of the liberties and standard of living of the masses must inevitably develop into a revolutionary movement for the overthrow of the Daladier government. The CP wanted to replace it by a government of “collective security” and of the Franco-Soviet Pact. But workers and peasants did not want to replace Daladier by Herriot or Reynaud (whom the Stalinists refrain as much as possible from attacking as he favours “collective security”). They wanted a government that would make the rich pay, expropriate the trusts, liberate the peasants from the exploitation of the grain trusts and big landed proprietors and the small tradesmen from dependence upon the banks, a government what would abolish the two years military conscription, liquidate unemployment, guarantee the 40 hour week and holidays with pay and put an end to rising prices. Such a Government could only arise out of a revolutionary general strike, and would base itself upon the mass organisations of the workers and peasants. The workers had shown during the strike wave that preceded November 30th, that they were willing and capable of fighting as a class and standing up to Mobile Guards until their demands had been satisfied. If, at that time the Socialists or the CP had called upon the workers to fight for such a government, and had actively helped them to organise their mass committees and armed self defence squads, with the tremendous resources at their disposal, the movement would immediately have broadened out and taken in its wake the more class conscious soldiers, who with their families were equally badly hit by the crisis. But such action could not be expected from either Blum or Thorez whose whole policy these last three years has been one of class-collaboration and capitulation. Objectively, the situation was revolutionary. What was lacking was a powerful revolutionary party to lead the workers, who, in the absence of their own party were not defeated but betrayed. Once again the Popular Front has justified it existence as a strike-breaking conspiracy, with Daladier, the former leader of the Popular Front, using the military against the workers while Blum, Jouhaux and Thorez cripple their struggle from within. The betrayal in France underlines once again the need for unrelenting struggle against Popular Frontism under the revolutionary banner of the Fourth International.
Paris, December 12th, 1938
Last updated on 12.10.2005