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Chris Bambery

1934: rebellion from below

(April 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The year 1934 marks the moment 60 years ago when the workers’ movement internationally turned towards militancy and resistance in the face of the fascist threat and the misery of unemployment. Chris Bambery looks at some of their fights

As 1934 opened the fascists believed that their hour had come. Hitler was consolidating his dictatorship in Germany. Fascism seemed set to sweep the board in France and Austria.

The traditional party of the French middle class, the Radicals, was losing its support. The various French fascist bands claimed a membership of 1 million. A series of financial scandals involving Radical Party ministers had rocked France. In January a Ukrainian Jewish speculator, Stavisky, was found shot dead in an Alpine resort. The common view was that he had been killed to stop him revealing links with top politicians.

The fascists responded to the Stavisky affair with a mix of anti-Semitism and denunciation of corrupt politicians. On 6 February the various fascist bands called a demonstration outside the Chamber of Deputies, and tried to force their way in. Marbles were thrown under the hooves of police horses, fascists wielded canes with razors attached, railings were torn up to be used as missiles and a bus was set on fire. Not until the early hours were the rioters finally dispersed. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 wounded.

While all this was going on the Radical government had won a vote of confidence. But the next day, fearing it could no longer maintain order, it bowed to the fascist threat and resigned. A right wing government of ‘order’ took over. It presented itself as a bulwark against fascism, but to most workers it seemed a step towards fascism.

The Communists and the Socialists were divided. But the main trade union federation, the CGT, called a nationwide strike. The CGT was led by right wingers but its leadership was under more direct pressure from the rank and file than either the Socialist or Communist leaderships.

No one knew how the strike call for 12 February would be met. The French working class had suffered a series of defeats since the end of the First World War. Union membership was low. The Communist Party refused to back the day of action until the day before. The general strike met with a huge response. In the Paris region alone a million workers downed tools. In the capital there were two demonstrations, one called by the Communists, the other by the CGT and the Socialists, which converged on the Place de la Nation. The Socialist leader, Leon Blum, recalled:

‘I was marching in the front row. The gap between the two columns narrowed from second to second and we all shared the same anxiety; would the meeting of the two columns be a collision? Was this journée going to degenerate into a conflict between two factions of the working class population 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 column melted into each other. This was not a collision but a fraternisation. By a sort of popular groundswell the people’s will had imposed unity of action of the working class’.

In the weeks following, the Socialist and Communist leaders retreated into their old posturing. But at a rank and file level Committees of Vigilance sprang up which mobilised against the fascists. Within weeks the two parties had to enter into a ‘Unity Pact’ under pressure from below. The French fascists were thrown back from the edge of power onto the defensive. Native French fascism was never able to challenge for power. The working class began a process of radicalisation which would explode in June 1936, with the biggest general strike the world had yet seen and nationwide factory occupations.

Events in France were in strong contrast to those in Austria. Rather than imposing a fascist dictatorship directly, the Austrian chancellor Dolfuss aimed to chip away at the Socialists’ power base. In February 1934 he was confident enough to order the Heimwehr (the fascist militia), the police and the army to ‘cleanse’ the working class areas of Vienna.

The working class districts of Vienna were ringed with artillery and tanks. A three day battle began. But the Socialist Party ordered that resistance should be left in the hands of a few thousand Schutzbund (Socialist militia) members. As house to house fighting went on there was the strange spectacle of the bulk of Vienna’s workers left to watch the fighting as spectators, cheering on their side! After three days of heavy fighting the Schutzbund was overwhelmed. Some 2,000 workers were killed, over 5,000 were wounded, while tens of thousands were jailed. The Socialist Party and the trade unions were banned.

Yet the resistance of the Viennese workers was an inspiration to workers across Europe. The slogan ‘Better to die in Vienna than surrender in Berlin’ served as a call to action, and nowhere more than in an isolated mining region on the other side of Europe.

For seven years, from 1923 to 1930, Spain had been under the heel of the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. The dictatorship collapsed amidst popular jubilation in 1930. A year later the monarchy was swept away and a republic proclaimed. But the carnival atmosphere soon gave way to a growing polarisation. After years of repression the working class expected great things from this republic. The country exploded in a strike wave led by the revolutionary anarchist trade union federation, the CNT. In the countryside landless labourers seized land. Within a year the CNT reached its peak membership of 1,200,000.

In response, the Spanish upper classes increasingly looked to the newly formed semi-fascist CEDA. The right wing won a victory in the elections of November 1933, helped by the CNT’s boycott of the poll. This new government began to crack down on the workers’ movement and invited CEDA to join it in office.

The Socialist Party underwent a sweeping radicalisation. Its timid constitutionalism was replaced by openly revolutionary language. Its leader, Largo Caballero, who had previously collaborated with the dictator de Rivera, was now called the ‘Spanish Lenin’! Among the party’s rank and file this new language had a powerful effect. The Socialist Youth began to describe themselves openly as Marxists.

The Socialist Party joined the Workers’ Alliance, a united front which included the Communist Party and revolutionaries. This promised that if CEDA joined the government it would organise a nationwide insurrection. Caballero hoped that this threat would in itself be enough to stop CEDA from taking office. Meanwhile the CNT refused to join the alliance.

Only in one area, the mining region of Asturias in north west Spain, was there true unity. Here the CNT joined the regional Workers’ Alliance which aimed to mobilise the workers against fascism, not just to defend democracy but to make the revolution. They argued this was the only way to defeat fascism.

On 4 October CEDA entered the government. The Socialist Party leadership’s bluff had been called. Reluctantly it proclaimed a general strike, which with no preparation was a failure everywhere except Asturias. The miners had waited months for what they saw as the day of the revolution. Hastily formed militias besieged the hated paramilitary police Civil Guard posts. Local Workers’ Alliance committees rapidly took over the villages and towns, and organised every aspect of local life from food and hospitals through transport and communications to a makeshift war industry.

The miners had few arms but seized on dynamite from the mines to defeat the civil guards. A thousand dynamiters were dispatched to the regional capital, Oviedo. Here revolutionary power was established on the streets. Prostitutes joined workers in bitter hand to hand fighting with the government forces who were driven into a few isolated strongholds. Such was the optimism of the workers of Asturias that they dismissed news of the general strike’s failure elsewhere as government lies.

The government sent troops under the command of General Franco to crush the Asturias Commune. In the mountain approaches they faced stiff resistance. Giant catapults rained down dynamite on them. When the 20,000 strong Red Army ran out of explosives they fought with rocks. But inevitably they were pushed back. On 18 October the Commune surrendered. Franco’s troops entered the mining communities leaving a trail of murder, rape and torture. Over 3,000 workers died during the revolution and 30,000 were jailed.

Nevertheless the heroism of the Asturian miners was not in vain. They effectively stopped Spanish fascism from coming to power constitutionally as Hitler had done in Germany. Above all the uprising accelerated the radicalisation of the Spanish working class. The left won a sweeping victory in the elections of February 1936, and when in July Franco led the army in an uprising, the workers did not hesitate to take to the streets, to arm themselves and to seize the factories.

Across the Atlantic 1934 marked an even more dramatic reversal in the fortunes of the working class. A mere 3 million American workers were organised in trade unions before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Union organisation was confined to craft workers, whose leaders argued that unskilled workers were ‘unorganisable’.

In the great steel, car and rubber plants non-unionised workers could be fired at will. They faced a ten to 12 hour day and regular speed up on the production lines. The level of fightback was low. In the Great Depression unemployment topped 18 million. Over 3 million workers were forced to take 10 percent wage cuts. More than a million were homeless, on the road in search of work and food.

The leaders of the union federation, the AFL, were unconcerned with their fate. In 1932 they even opposed federal unemployment benefit! Trade union membership fell by 7,000 a week. In 1932 unemployed demonstrators in River Rouge were machine gunned. Four protesters were killed. In Washington unemployed war veterans were driven off the capital’s streets by cavalry.

Yet things were set to change. In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president as the Democratic Party candidate. He had promised change which he would not deliver but the vague talk of change encouraged resistance. At the beginning of 1934 there was a brief economic recovery. Unemployment fell by two million to ‘just’ 14 million. The effect of this was dramatic, removing the threat of redundancy and of the blacklist for many workers.

Three strikes – among Toledo auto component workers, San Francisco dockers and Minneapolis teamsters (truckers) – all unofficial, triggered a nationwide strike wave which swept the old union leaders aside.

In Minneapolis a small group of Trotskyists had spent years working among the truckers, organising the union. At the beginning of 1934 they were able to lead a strike of 600 coal shovellers to victory. The effect of the strike in the city was dramatic and the Trotskyists were able to spread the message that workers could fight and win.

Within weeks all the teamsters walked out to secure union recognition. The strike then spread to affect all the city’s workers. The bosses caved in, only to renege on the deal having ensured the state governor would mobilise the National Guard. The second strike which followed remains a model for revolutionaries. Cruising pickets went back on the streets. When they met with opposition from the police they brought out other workers in solidarity. Strikers’ wives were mobilised as picket squads, as were unemployed workers. Decisions were taken by mass meetings and an elected strike committee.

The picture in Toledo and San Francisco was similar. In Toledo socialists had organised an unemployed movement which allowed them to win support among car workers which, when the strike broke, gave them a position of leadership. In the San Francisco docks a group around the Communist Party had launched a rank and file paper, the Waterfront Worker. From a small beginning they were able to build an all out dock strike.

Victory in all three strikes was gained by new methods. Each was run by elected strike committees. When cops attacked pickets other groups of workers struck in solidarity. Previously unorganised workers showed great militancy. In Toledo 10,000 pickets defied a court injunction, chased off the National Guard and then bombarded scabs in the plant with rocks using giant catapults made from tyre inner tubes!

Within two years of these strikes America was rocked by a new strike wave which threw up another new tactic – factory occupations. The leaders of the AFL were simply swept aside. A new union federation, the CIO, was built among the unskilled.

The year 1934 was a year in which the fortunes of the working class shifted dramatically. In the case of France, Spain and the United States this shift was unexpected, stemming from rank and file action. What mattered was that socialists could respond to that shift. In the 1930s there were just handfuls of revolutionaries so the main beneficiaries were the Communist Parties, which swelled in size. Today, 60 years on, events are moving with the same urgency.

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