Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Martin Alexander and Helen Graham (eds.), The French and Spanish Popular Fronts: Comparative Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, pp277, £27.50

The appearance over the last decade or so of all-class organisations based upon liberal politics around such issues as racism, women's rights, the environment and militarism, issues on which a Marxist approach is sorely needed, demonstrates the necessity to examine earlier analogous manifestations, the Popular Fronts of the late 1930s. The recent calls by certain Stalinists, Labour Party members and academics for electoral pacts involving outright bourgeois parties, make this task even more pressing. Britain of the late 1980s is not France or Spain of the late 1930s, but the lessons of Popular Frontism have not lost their relevance.

`The picture is full of complications and no more than a fraction of the potential questions have been touched on here.' The words of one contributor sum up some of the problems with this collection. There are over 20 contributions, averaging a dozen pages apiece, covering a very wide range of subjects; the origins of the Popular Fronts, the attitudes of the churches and military towards them, the governments' economic policies, political organisations and regional and cultural studies. It's an eclectic brew, rather too skimpy for the expert - can one cover adequately, say, the left wing opposition to French Stalinism in 12 pages? - and often too obscure for the newcomer; take, for example, the essay `Popular Tourism and Mass Leisure in the Vision of the Front Populaire.' Readers of some knowledge will find plenty of interest, but the eclecticism, each author with his or her own specialised subject, style and outlook, leaves the collection with a decided lack of cohesion. There again, this is always a problem with this type of book.

The centrality of Stalinism to the Popular Front, and its crucial r61e in the subsequent demoralisation and defeat of the French and Spanish working class, are downplayed. We learn very little about how the French Communist Party undermined the mammoth strike wave that shook France in June 1936, other than the albeit telling fact that the Stalinists wouldn't challenge the unions' reluctance to fight for equal pay for women. There's a wealth of material not yet translated into English on French Stalinism which could have been drawn upon. Similarly there's next to nothing on the Stalinists' reign of terror in Spain. It's not just a question of the GPU's methods, horrible as they were, but the fact that outright terror was an essential part of the Popular Front, and that the most militant workers and peasants had to be killed or terrorised if the Popular Front's all-class alliance was to survive. The complex relationships between a Stalinist party and the internal pressures of the capitalist and working classes and the external pressures of the Soviet bureaucracy are only mentioned in passing.

Whilst the formation of the Popular Fronts is well covered, little space is devoted to their demise. Commenting on the social and economic policies of the Spanish left, Jose Manuel Macarro Vera recognises that the Popular Front was historically unviable. The reinforcement of the `proletarian bloc' implied `the whole question of the seizure of political power' and this would have spelt the end of the Popular Front. Conversely, making the Popular Front economically viable meant attacks upon the working class, thus provoking class conflict. And there it's left. Just how this dichotomy worked itself out, either in France or in Spain, is not outlined in this book, which is a serious omission.

The Popular Front governments in both Spain and France were brought into office on tremendous waves of working class militancy, which exploded in response to Fascist provocations. In both countries, this militancy had to be defused, dissipated by the workers' parties supporting the Popular Front to ensure that their bourgeois partners in office would not split the coalition governments. The French and Spanish Stalinists played a key part in this, demoralising the masses and, in Spain, physically exterminating those who attempted to expose the charade. There are no `comparative perspectives' on Stalinist treachery here. Reliant upon the demobilisation of the masses and unable to satisfy them with petty reforms, which only raised the resentment of the capitalists, the Popular Fronts led to disaster.

The Popular Front administrations in France were rapidly followed by Edouard Daladier's increasingly repressive government, which overturned what gains the workers had won, and delivered them to the tender mercies of Marshal Petain. In Spain, the Republic fell victim to Franco's Falangists. The real lesson of the Popular Front is that the democratic rights of the working class can only be defended in and through the struggle for state power. Any attempt to stop half way, or to subordinate politically the labour movement to the liberal end of the ruling class will only lead to disaster. The most important aspect of the Popular Front is that the French and Spanish working classes were defeated precisely because of it, and it's a shame that this central issue is only hinted at in this collection.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003