Walter Held

The People’s Front in France

(April 1936)

Walter Held, The People’s Front in France, New International, April 1936, pp.36-40.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE CENTER of gravity of the international class struggle is today located in France. There too the democratic constitutional form of government has begun to shake, the governments have a continually briefer term of life, parliament falls into increasing discreditment, the number of unemployed rises from month to month, the steadily deepening agrarian crisis threatens countless peasants with ruin, despair spreads among the urban petty bourgeois strata – to all of which is being added the frightful pressure of the immediate war danger. The masses are seeking a way out they enter into movements, mass demonstrations, strikes. Armed disputes, guerrilla battles between Fascists and sections of the labor movement have left their mark on the inner-political picture of France for the last two years. All these are unmistakable signs of the fact that the period of the stable, “pacifist”, constitutional-democratic development of France has finally passed. Ever more threateningly is the French nation confronted with the Either–Or: the smashing of capitalism, the victory of the revolutionary proletariat and the establishment of its dictatorship, thereby opening a new chain of revolutions in Europe, or the victory of the extreme reaction in its most horrible, revolting form, the victory over the labor movement and all democracy of those sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the slum proletariat which have been infuriated to the utmost, who are most decayed – a victory whose fruits fall into the lap of monopoly capitalism and which flings back the entire nation to the ideological state of despotic barbarism, a victory which strengthens the existence of the already functioning Fascist states and draws other lands into its orbit (Belgium, Holland, Spain, Switzerland).

The serious observer of French politics, who desires the victory of the French proletariat, is therefore faced with answering the following questions: Is the French proletariat conscious of the import of this decisive struggle: Are its organizations pursuing such a policy which would make a victory probable? Have the French workers’ parties drawn the lessons of the terrible proletarian defeats of the last decade? Numerous are the voices which reply affirmatively by referring to the “People’s Front”. For does not this People’s Front realize not only the proletarian united front, but also the united front of the proletariat with the petty bourgeoisie? Let us therefore see what is actually involved in this “People’s Front” which can already look back upon more than a year’s history.

The French People’s Front is composed of the (parliamentarily) strongest bourgeois party, the Radical Socialists, the socialist and communist parties, plus the trade unions and a number of small Left wing bourgeois groupings. The Radical party deserves, at the outset, a more detailed consideration, for its essence reflects the whole People’s Front. The Radical Socialist party proclaims itself the heir of the Great French Revolution, and so it is in the sense that it has always loyally served the class of the bourgeoisie and its state which emerged victoriously from this revolution. Only, times have meanwhile changed, and with them also people. The bourgeoisie which fought against oppressive feudalism and absolutism became, many generations ago, the oppressive imperialist bourgeoisie. And whom doesn’t the French bourgeoisie oppress! Indonesians, Arabs, Berbers, Riff Kabyls, Negroes, Indians, etc., as well as proletarians and the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie of the country itself, are given a taste of the harsh fist of the victor of 1789. In harmony with the altered character of the bourgeoisie, the Radical party has become one of its most corrupt instruments of domination. The party, by means of its verbose glorification of the Great Revolution in economically peaceful times, did have its hands above all on the petty bourgeois and the peasant, yet without representing the present-day or the future interests of the lower layers of these classes. That is why the latter inexorably developed an antagonism towards it during the crisis.

Let us outline here in a few strokes the recent history of the Radical party. During the World War, its lust for annexation knew no bounds. Not even the demand for the withdrawal from the left bank of the Rhine sufficed for it. It signed the Versailles Treaty with a complete sense of responsibility, and at the beginning, it likewise supported the policy of the occupation of the Ruhr. In 1925 it was a Radical government which conducted the shameful colonial war in Morocco and the present “Radical” government of Sarraut is giving the insurrectionary people of Syria doses of grapeshot. The domestic role of the Radicals is no less glorious. The same Sarraut was Minister of the Interior in the Doumergue cabinet after the miserable capitulation of the likewise Radical Daladier government to the Fascist stroke on February 6, 1934. On February 9, several thousand communist workers rallied in Paris for a counter-demonstration; M. Sarraut’s police fired into their ranks; results, five dead. And M. Paganon, the “Radical” Minister of the Interior of the Laval government followed in Sarraut’s footsteps: more workers’ blood was shed by the Radicals in Brest and Toulon in the Summer of 1935. It has come to the point where the party is involved in virtually all the corruption scandals of the Third Republic, which constitute the perennial agitational material of the Fascists and royalists against the parliamentary system. That was the case as far back as the end of the last century. In a letter to Kautsky, Engels wrote on January 28, 1889: “The Radicals, in their haste to get into the government, have made themselves the slaves of opportunism and corruption and thereby fairly nurtured Boulangism.” Things are no better to this day; they have grown worse, as the Stavisky affair, above all, plainly showed.

The increasingly profound crisis is confronted by the Radical government members with the methods of capitalism: radical wage and salary reductions, enormous rise in direct and indirect taxes, hitting the lower strata primarily. At the same time, the military apparatus swallows up increasingly vast sums of money. The little man consequently feels himself betrayed by the Radicals (and rightly so). He seeks a new way out. Thence the swelling of the ranks of the Croix de Feu and other Fascist societies, thence also the communist election successes. If, recently, this process has been weakened or, more correctly, has taken place mainly to the benefit of the Right, then it is precisely a result of the People’s Front policy which once more elevates the Radicals on the shield of the nation.

Before the outbreak of the present crisis, the socalled “Left Cartel” existed in France, the parliamentary co-operation of the Radicals and the socialists. One of the effects of the crisis was the belief among the socialists that they could no longer submit to the policy of the Radicals. In order not to lose contact with the proletarian masses, the socialists called off the alliance with the Radicals and even parted with their own Right wing – the so-called Neos – who held firmly to the alliance. The S.F.I.O. oriented towards the proletarian united front. Meanwhile the Comintern buried the theory of social-Fascism, and the united front came into being. However, it soon became clear that the C.P.F., under the command of the degenerated Soviet bureaucracy, had not accomplished a turn to Leninism but to ultra-opportunism. Encirclement by Hitler Germany and Japan compelled the Soviet Union to look about for foreign allies. It found one, along the lines already prescribed by Czarist foreign policy, in the French General Staff, which is interested in preserving the status quo created by the Versailles Treaty – so favorable to French imperialism – which fears Hitler’s lust for vengeance, and is therefore likewise for restoring the constellation of 1914. [1] Upon the French communists fell the task of making this alliance popular among the French people. Towards this end it had to extend the united front to the Radicals. In the beginning, only the Left wing of the Radicals understood what new possibilities were opened up for liberalism by such a policy, whereas the Right wing continued to deem a collaboration with the communists, on the basis of their past, as “disreputable”. Recently, however, this wing also has convinced itself of the “sincerity” of the patriotic turn of the communists. The recently held congress of the Radical party almost unanimously accepted the People’s Front. Covered by communist authority, the socialists are also taking the road back – and not without a sigh of relief, for they had been treading shifting ground. In the People’s Front, the old republican Cartel – expanded by a communist tail – celebrates a happy primordial existence. This is the People’s Front and its real content.

The foreign political program of the People’s Front consists in the propagation of the Franco-Russian alliance and the promotion of the “system of collective security pacts” (the expression “military alliance” is generally forbidden nowadays) within the “framework of the League of Nations”. The French social democrats and communists have just voted in the French parliament for the ratification of the Franco-Russian military pact, thereby assuming the obligation to march on the side of the French bourgeoisie for the preservation of the French Empire in a coming war – if it fulfills the pre-conditions of the pact. Lenin once combatted – even though he was himself an irreconcilable opponent of the Versailles peace conditions – the National-Bolshevism of Laufenberg and comrades, who considered a “united front” of the German proletariat with the German bourgeoisie permissible in the struggle against the Versailles peace. The C.P.G. later liquidated these teachings and competed with Hitler in the struggle against the “shameful peace of Versailles”. And today tile C.P.F. concludes an alliance with its bourgeoisie for the defense of the status quo of Versailles!

Such foreign political aims bring obligations. And not the least reason why the French bourgeoisie follows this policy is that it hopes, by means of it, to keep the proletariat off its neck [2] – Clemenceau would not have dared to dream that his successors would succeed in playing the October Revolution against the proletarian revolution in France! To be sure, this required tremendous reactionary changes in the Soviet Union itself, the Soviet Union of Lenin and Trotsky first had to become the Soviet Union of Stalin- – Napoleon and his marshals.

But let us look a little closer into the domestic political activity of the People’s Front. The world public first paid it attention on July 14 of last year, the French national holiday, when a committee composed of Radicals, socialists and “communists” summoned the masses to demonstrate; when the three party leaders, Daladier, Blum and Cachin, led the demonstration arm in arm; when the tricolor waved for the first time in a workers’ demonstration, and when M. Duclos, general secretary of the C.P.F., intoned the Marseillaise on the Place de la Republique. Shortly thereafter occurred those events which made the true character of the People’s Front even plainer. We refer to the spontaneous strikes, demonstrations and struggles in Brest and Toulon. Involved in this was the first spontaneous resistance of the proletarian masses to the hunger-decrees of the Laval-Herriot government. In order not to lose lightly the favor of the Radicals, sworn supporters of private property in the means of production, the Stalinists and socialists bluntly declared the resistance of the proletariat to be a Fascist provocation. And thus may the whole content of the People’s Front policy he defined: subservience of the workers’ parties to the Radicals. This subservience reached its low point in the vote given the Sarraut government, which is not even a purely Radical government, but one which includes such outspokenly Right wing bourgeois forces as Flandin, the Minister of War, General Maurin, the member of the Board of Directors of the Schneider-Creusot munitions works, etc.

Naturally, this policy has another side. It is not so easy to bring the proletarian masses under the leadership of the Radicals. For the S.P., and above all for the C.P., the essential task is therefore the duping of the masses into the belief that their policy is in harmony with the teachings of Marx and Lenin, that they continue to pursue the goal of the proletarian revolution. Were they to liquidate Marxism in words as well as in practise (which is what the Neo-Socialists proposed in their time), the masses would quit the C.P. and the S.P. and build themselves a new party. But by that the Blunts, Cachins and Thorezes would lose all their value both for the French bourgeoisie and for Stalin-Bonaparte, who uses them as payments. That is why they clothe their treacherous policy towards the bourgeoisie in formula taken from the vocabulary of Leninism, even combat “Millerandism” (coalition government) in words, and seek in the works of Marx and Lenin for any quotation that they can tear from its context and give a patriotic content.

It would lead too far afield to pillory here all the distortions of Leninism. Especially, of course, must Lenin’s writing against the ultra-Leftists, the “infantile maladies”, serve to justify opportunism. Even at the periphery of our own organization, voices have risen to express the idea that there is a contradiction between our rejection of the People’s Front policy in France and our proposal to support the Evangelical churches and the Catholic church in Germany against Nazi totality-barbarism. Let us answer both the Stalinists and our own doubting “friends” with one single quotation from the Infantile Malady:

“Everything depends upon whether one understands how to apply this tactic [of the united front and of veering] for the raising and not for the lowering of the general level of proletarian class consciousness, of the revolutionary spirit, of the capacity to fight and win.”

On July 14, 1935 there were only isolated Tricolors in the demonstration parade of the People’s Front, and the red flag predominated by far. In the People’s Front demonstration of February 16, 1936, on the contrary, the police of Sarraut – as he himself reported proudly to the Chamber – counted 450-500 Tricolors. The lowering of the general class consciousness by the tactic of the People’s Front expresses itself here in the proportional relationship to the increasing of Tricolors. As for the church struggle in Germany, contrariwise, it is a task of the revolutionists to support every resistance to the totality-barbarism of the Fascists and thereby to raise the general level of the revolutionary spirit and the capacity to struggle. Whoever does not understand how to apply the Lenin quotation adduced here, has not yet learned the ABC of revolutionary politics.

It has even occurred to the German S.A.P. to quote the shade of Lenin of 1905 in favor of the admissibility of the People’s Front. In an article on the People’s Front, Neue Front wrote at the beginning of October, 1935:

“The first question that rises in this connection is whether such an alliance, such a fighting community with parts of the bourgeoisie, is at all possible and admissible from the principled revolutionary standpoint, We affirm this and thereby solidarize ourselves with what the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership put forth as far back [!!] as 1905-1906 on the admissibility and the limitations of such alliances.”

One could not jump around more unscrupulously and criminally with the heritage of Lenin. In 1905, Lenin shared the general conception that Russia was on the eve of a great bourgeois revolution. Contrary to the Mensheviks, however, who concluded from this conception that the proletariat should leave the leadership of this revolution to the liberal bourgeoisie, Lenin was of the opinion that only the proletariat, in league with the revolutionary peasantry, could solve the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. That is why he condemned sharply any marching together with the radical bourgeoisie (this is just the question over which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split), but by means of the formula “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” he held open the door to an accord with the peasant Social Revolutionists, whose program was the bourgeois agrarian revolution. Let it be borne in mind that the Russian liberals were at that time still under the knout of the Czar and in spite of this Lenin categorically rejected any alliances with them. The French Radicals of today, on the other hand, who have everything in common with the liberals and nothing in common with the peasant-terroristic Social Revolutionists and who, in contrast to the latter, base themselves upon an agrarian revolution effected some 150 years ago, are the representatives of French colonial oppression. But the S.A.P. nevertheless does not fail to adduce the position of Lenin in 1905 (which was, moreover, thrown to the junk pile in his April 1917 theses) as a motivation for the. People’s Front policy. It can he seen from this example that the S.A.P. has as much in common with Leninism as quack-healing has with scientific medicine.

But back to the People’s Front, as it lives and breathes in France today. The decisive question is: what perspective does it have, does it at all want to conquer power and if so, in what way and how does it aim to employ it? The People’s Front has a majority in the present French parliament, which will probably be increased after the coming elections. What, then, is more logical than that it should form the government? Do not the “communists” too place themselves on the foundation of the bourgeois state in France, don’t they demand of it the dissolution of the Fascist organizations, don’t they make themselves the defenders of the security of the state in the “program of the People’s Front” – a miserable document which does not even dare demand the immediate abolition of the Laval emergency decrees and which proposes a ... parliamentary investigation commission for the colonies? Now, if the present bourgeois state can wipe out Fascism, if this phenomenon can be eliminated without eliminating its cause – capitalism, and petty bourgeois misery engendered by its crisis – and if this is the avowed purpose of the People’s Front, then why don’t the communists participate in the government? After all, it is to be expected that the laws against the Fascists would be applied more resolutely by People’s Front ministers than by Right wing bourgeois ministers, who are half- or whole-hearted allies of the Fascists. This conclusion was indeed drawn in the last ministerial crisis by the social democrats, who declared themselves ready to form a government in the event that the communists also participated. Yet the communists refused, and they suddenly raised against Blum, the socialist leader, the accusation of “Millerandism” of class-collaboration! “Respect for the principles of traditional socialism demands the rejection of participation in the government,” declares Duclos, in l’Humanité, who is suddenly concerned with traditional socialism but not with the proletarian revolution. What is this to mean? The communists, who boast every day of being the initiators of the People’s Front, the communists, who still speak of their Radical “friends” in l’Humanité, the communists, who give their votes In the Chamber to Sarraut (when Sarraut put the question of confidence for the first time, the communists abstained from voting; the second time – after the Fascist assault on Leon Blum – they were already voting for Sarraut), these communists suddenly accuse the social democrats – who have never been ought but Millerandists – of Millerandism! Ah, but these gentlemen are masters of deceit! They know that, in ministerial positions, they will be unable to go any further than the Radicals, i.e., the bourgeoisie, permit them to go, that they will be unable to realize a single proletarian demand, that they will not even be able to dissolve the Fascist leagues in reality – and not merely on paper. They therefore postpone the taking over of power by the People’s Front in accordance with the formula coined by Dimitroff at the Seventh Congress (which gained the applause of the S.A.P., moreover) with regard to the time: “When the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie is already sufficiently disorganized and paralyzed so that the bourgeoisie is incapable of preventing the formation of a government of struggle against reaction and Fascism.” Since the days of Marx and Engels, but above all since Lenin’s time, it has always been taken for granted by communists that a disorganization and paralyzing of the bourgeois state apparatus is the signal for the armed uprising of the proletariat. But in the era of Stalin-Dimitroff-Thorez, all the formulae out of the vocabulary of Leninism acquire a positively treacherous content. How is the bourgeois state apparatus to be disorganized and paralyzed if the People’s Front policy of the workers’ parties renounces any attack upon this state apparatus? If the communists for the sake of the friendship between the General Staff and Moscow, give up all propaganda in the army? If the workers’ parties most resolutely resist the arming of the proletariat and stab in the back any strike that breaks out on the pretext that it is a “Fascist provocation”? In reality, the Dimitroff formula – which is chewed and re-chewed by the journalists of l’Humanité in one form or another – conceals the greatest betrayal imaginable, the betrayal of the German social democracy in 1918-1919. That is, should proletarian mass uprisings occur despite the treacherous policy of the S.P. and C.P., which would paralyze the bourgeois state apparatus, then the “communists”, together with the social democrats, and the bourgeois Radicals would form the “People’s Front government” in order to save the state apparatus and to restore “law and order”.

The objection will be raised by those who let themselves be blinded by the election successes of the People’s Front: All this may be true, yet the People’s Front is preventing the victory of Fascism in France. This is an illusion which Marx characterized as “parliamentary cretinism”. The successes of the People’s Front are sham successes in the truest sense of the word. If the People’s Front has at its disposal nothing but ballots and empty fists, the Fascists, on the other hand, are not so naive. Here you find revolvers, carbines, machine guns, and even flying squadrons. Colonel la Rocque is preparing the civil war in the most modern style. The Croix de Feu already represents a tremendous civil war force. And while the workers’ parties abandon all agitation in the army, the Fascists do not abandon their agitation among the officers. Let the People’s Front wallow in its sham successes, let it succumb to the illusion that the bourgeois state will cut off one of its own legs – the Fascist civil war troops – but the Fascists are preparing for their hour. And the workers, doped by the People’s Front tactic, will confront them without arms or defense. In great social crises, disputed questions are no longer settled with ballots, but with cannons, machine guns and airplanes. The bourgeoisie and the Fascists are preparing for this dispute, while the S.F.I.O. and the C.P.F. are disarming the proletariat by their People’s Front policy. The end can only be a catastrophe.

Fortunately, a force is rising in France which sees this picture clearly before its eyes. The Bolshevik-Leninist group and the Revolutionary Socialist Youth which is closely connected with it, are conducting a sharp struggle against the policy of class fraternization, against the alliance with the Radicals, for the formation of proletarian unity committees (Soviets), for preparing the general strike, for the arming of the proletariat, for the building up of a new revolutionary party. They have at their disposal today but a few thousand organized supporters. But their ranks are consolidating daily. Closely connected with the masses, they are fighting inside the People’s Front against the policy of the People’s Front. In the demonstration of February 16, they were the only ones who poured a drop of wormwood into the toasting goblet of the government head, Sarraut. Their slogan was: “Down with the Sarraut government!” The latter complained about it in parliament and l’Humanité, loyal to the regime, characterized our comrades as “provocateurs”.

The fate of France – which means of Europe, under present conditions – depends for the next decade upon whether this vanguard, the French section of the Fourth International, will succeed in bringing decisive masses under its influence in time, and in giving a different turn to events. Never has history put before a small vanguard, dependent exclusively upon its own strength, a more tremendous and harder task.

We German emigrants have still another word to say about the French situation. At the 8th Congress of the French C.P. which took place a few weeks ago, Thorez – whose secretaries are apparently busy digging up Marx and Lenin quotations that can be abused in a patriotic spirit – quoted the concluding sentence from Marx’s criticism of Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie:

“If all the internal conditions are fulfilled, the day of the German resurrection will be heralded by the crowing of the Gallic cock.”

Let us answer Thorez that we – like the Bolsheviks who decisively rejected the aid of the Hohenzollerns, offered by traitors à la Scheidemann, in the struggle against Czarism – renounce the aid of French imperialism in the struggle against Hitler barbarism. Should our French comrades, however, succeed in leading the French proletariat to victory, in establishing the new Commune then the quotation from Marx again acquires its deep revolutionary sense, then the crowing of the Gallic cock will herald the resurrection day of German freedom. And above the ruins of the Hitler Realm and of French imperialism will rise the red banner of the Fourth International.


Walter HELD
Copenhagen, March 4, 1936



1. There is no question, in the French-Soviet alliance, of a policy which the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie “imposes” upon the bourgeoisie, as many theoreticians would have it. This policy has its advocates in the furthest circles of finance capital and of the extreme Right. The big financier, Mercier, former commander of the Fascist Croix de Feu, took a trip to the Soviet Union and declared, on his return, in a lecture to the Polytechnical School: “France must declare, in close and complete accord with England that she will resist any attack upon the Soviet Union, strengthen the League of Nations and reinforce the bonds with the Little Entente and Austria.”

2. Flandin, the national-liberal foreign minister of the Sarraut government, seeks to explain to the extreme Right wing the change of the communists in the following words: “But if accidentally ... a closer community of views and in action on the plane of foreign policy and for the preservation of peace in Europe between France which is, despite all, the heir of the Revolution of 1789 [Applause from the Left and the extreme Left] and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, leads the leaders and members of the communist party to a patriotic conception and action of national solidarity, then I do not believe, gentlemen, that you will be the last to felicitate yourselves.” (Flandin, speech in the Chamber, Feb. 25, 1936.)


Last updated on 6.8.2004