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Ian Birchall

Too much, too little, too late:
left Social Democracy in the French Popular Front

(Summer 1981)

From International Socialism 2 : 13, Summer 1981, pp. 74–89.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Recent developments in the Labour Party seem to have strengthened the case of those who argue that the left can make real gains by working inside mass social-democratic [1] parties. Many Labour Party members believe it is actually possible for the left current in the Party to grow in strength and influence until it dominates the whole Party. Others, who claim to be Leninists, and who recognise the need for a revolutionary party at some indeterminate date in the future, nonetheless insist that at the present time revolutionaries should be inside the Labour Party working alongside those radicalised by the Party’s leftward move.

In assessing the viability of either of these perspectives, we can learn some interesting lessons from the experience of the left in the French Socialist Party during the nine teen-thirties. Here an organised left tendency in the Socialist Party, which proudly bore the name ‘Revolutionary Left’, faced the challenge of a potentially revolutionary situation. Here too the forces of French Trotskyism made their first experience of ‘entrism’ – the famous ‘French turn’, to which reference is still made by the advocates of entrism. The French crisis of the thirties had some familiar features – falling production, falling exports, rising unemployment and a growing racist right. But the story of the French Popular Front’s response to this is one of enormous possibilities, and eventual catastrophe.

In the period after Hitler’s accession to power the French right grew rapidly. The right-wing ex-servicemen’s organisation the ‘Croix de Feu’ rose to a membership of some three hundred thousand. Open incitement to the murder of the Jewish leader of the Socialist Party, Leon Blum, was a commonplace of the rightist press. The situation came to a head with the riots of 6 February 1934 which brought down the government. This stung the left into the recognition of a need for unity. There was growing cooperation between the Socialist Party and the CP, which under Comintern influence was dropping the disastrous ‘Third Period’ line in favour of Popular Frontism. These two parties in turn sought united action with the Radicals, which had been the dominant party in the government before the 1934 crisis. The Radicals were the party of the lower middle classes – lawyers, shopkeepers and civil servants. But the move to unity was not only from above. On 14 July 1934 half a million people demonstrated in Paris. In January 1936 the three parties, plus the main trade unions and a host of other organisations came together in the ‘Rassemblement Populaire’ (Popular Assembly), which put forward a programme. This was decidedly not a socialist programme, but centred on anti-fascism, civil liberties, peace through negotiation, measures to end the economic crisis and nationalisation of the Bank of France.

At the beginning of May 1936 the Popular Front alliance was victorious in the general election. It is important, however, to note that this victory did not spring from a massive swing in public opinion. Compared with the previous elections, in 1932, the Communists increased their vote by nearly 700,000. They did this mainly, however, at the expense of the rest of the left; the two other Popular Front parties actually lost votes. The total swing of votes from the right (non-Popular Front) to the left was only about 1.5%. But an electoral agreement for mutual withdrawal on the second ballot gave the Popular Front parties a large bonus of seats.

However, before Leon Blum had even formed his government, a massive wave of strikes, in most cases with factory occupations, spread across France. The Popular Front victory had unleashed the expectations of millions of workers, but the response of the Popular Front leaders was to settle for economic concessions and to get everyone back to work. In Blum’s own words, ‘great reforms became the only means of avoiding bloody revolution.’ [2] Big capital was able to pay the price; but the middle classes saw themselves as being called on to pay for the workers’ gains. The class alliance necessarily began to crumble. Once Blum had lost the momentum attacks increased. In November 1936 his Minister of the Interior, Salengro, was driven to suicide by a press campaign about his war record. In June 1937 Blum resigned, and the new Prime Minister was the Radical, Chautemps, who had already been a Prime Minister before the Popular Front. The old gang was back. A second Blum government, in the Spring of 1938, lasted less than a month.

By now matters were clarified for the French bourgeoisie. If home-grown fascism could not do the job, they would try a foreign import. From the moment the Second World War broke out, a large section of the French ruling class saw the main threat as being at home, and German invasion as the lesser evil. Daladier, who had served as Minister of Defence in the Popular Front government, imposed a ban on his erstwhile allies in the Communist Party. And in July 1940 the majority of the National Assembly elected in 1936 voted full powers to the collaborationist Marshal Petain. The Popular Front had not defeated fascism; it had simply postponed it for a few years.

Was there a political alternative to this sorry story? Most accounts in the revolutionary socialist tradition have centred on the role of the Communist Party in holding back the struggle. This was indeed scandalous, typified by Thorez’s famous speech of 11 June 1936, at the height of the mass strike, when he declared ‘it is necessary to know how to bring a strike to an end.’ But by 1934 the die was already cast in the Comintern. There was no possibility that the CP, monolithic and Stalinist, could have played any role other than the one it did. The Socialist Party (SFIO) was a horse of different colour. Its very weaknesses – pragmatism, lack of international framework, lack of proletarian base – made a wider range of possibilities available.

The SFIO sprang from the minority of the French Socialist Party which had refused affiliation to the Communist International in 1920. Leon Blum, a literary intellectual who was to become leader of the SFIO Parliamentary group in 1929, had served under Sembat, one of the Socialist Ministers in the pro-war government of 1914, and had been one of the main opponents of affiliation to the International. Yet while the SFIO was clearly to the right of the CP, it continued to claim to be a Marxist and a revolutionary party. [3] It stood for nationalisation, workers’ and peasants’ democracy and the destruction of the bourgeois state. But, like a classic pre-1914 social-democratic party, it believed in these things only eventually. In the shorter term, anything went. Blum even developed a complex theological distinction between taking power (in a hypothetical revolution), exercising power (in a reformist coalition) and occupying power (in defence against fascism). [4] In 1928 and 1932 the SFlO had kept its hands clean by refusing to enter a coalition with the Radicals, and when, in 1936, it campaigned for a Popular Front coalition, Blum made it clear that ‘the programme presented by the Socialist Party does not have the aim of establishing socialism, but, within the framework of the present social order, of relieving the suffering caused by the crisis.’ [5] It was doubtless such supple scrupulousness that enabled 85 SFIO deputies (out of 147 elected in 1936) to vote for Petain’s new constitution in 1940.

Although the SFIO had been the minority in 1920, by the early thirties it was considerably larger than the CP. Its membership grew rapidly in time with the rhythm of the social crisis. In 1934 it had 110,000 members; in 1935 120,000; in 1936 200,000; in 1937 280,000; and in 1938 260,000. It was however, overtaken by the CP, which leapt from 131,000 to 285,000 between May and December 1936. The SFIO Youth rose from 11,000 in 1934 to 40,000 in 1936 and 45,000 in 1937. [6]

But this base was not, for the most part, in the working class proper, but in various middle-class layers. Daniel Guerin, who in 1930 joined the SFIO in a working-class area of Eastern Paris, notes that the Young Socialists had ‘a certain dynamism’ and had read Marx, but that in the adult party there were ‘relatively few industrial workers. Small artisans and lower civil servants, their intellectual and spiritual horizons scarcely went beyond electoral dealings and the defence of their own professional interests.’ [7]

Even more fundamental than the social composition of its branches was the fact that, unlike the British Labour Party, the SFIO had no formal links with the trade union movement. The SFIO had always respected the principle of separation between political parties and trade unions, written into the ‘Charte d’Amiens’ adopted by the CGT in 1906. The refusal of the Communist Party to accept this mechanical separation of politics and trade unionism had been a subject of heated debate in the French labour movement in the early twenties, and was one of the factors leading to the split between the CGT and the Communist-influenced CGTU. [8] (The two were reunited in 1936.) So, while the CP systematically developed a fraction organisation within the unions, the SFIO confined itself to parliamentary politics.

The SFIO, then, had a programme that was working-class on the level of rhetoric alone, and a social base that largely non-proletarian. But, for a leftist militant in the thirties, it had one great advantage over the CP. For the current CP leadership had established its dominance by a series of purges and expulsions directed against the left – Trotskyists, syndicalists and others. However open it was at certain times to compromises on its right, it could not allow any opposition, or even dialogue, to its left. The SFIO had no such inhibitions. It was precisely the liberalism, the acceptance of parliamentary norms, that made its leadership quite willing to accept open debate within the party, and indeed, to permit the formation of permanent organised tendencies operating openly inside the party. Thus at the 1927 Congress there was an open debate between Blum and Jean Zyromski, who argued that class antagonisms were becoming more pronounced. This led to Zyromski founding a tendency called the ‘Bataille Socialiste’, which continued to operate throughout the thirties. Zyromski’s politics were, in fact, very close to those of the CP, a party which he was to join after the Second World War.

But the leading figure of the extreme left of the SFIO was Marceau Pivert. Pivert, born the son of a peasant in 1895, became a primary school teacher. He joined the SFIO in 1924. Initially his main interest was in educational questions. He first became prominent as a representative of the most anti-clerical tendency in the debate on education at the 1929 SFIO Congress. This is a fact of some significance. For anti-clericalism and support for lay education, however laudable they are in themselves, are issues which characterise the radicalised Voltairean petty-bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, a tradition from which the Radical Party as well as the Socialist Party emerged, and a tradition against which French Marxism has at many times had to fight. Pivert was an orator rather than a theoretician. His book, L’Eglise et l’Ecole [9] (The Church and the School), claims to be Marxist, but is primarily an anticlerical polemic.

Initially Pivert had been a follower of the Zyromski tendency, but by the early thirties he was moving clearly to the left. In particular he took a much more unambiguously internationalist position. At the 1935 Mulhouse Conference he argued that the best way to oppose German fascism was to fight French imperialism and to encourage German workers to follow the same example; while the best way to defend Russia was not to support the French military alliance with Stalin, but to take power. [10] In the same year Pivert established his own tendency, the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ (Revolutionary Left), within the SFIO. [11] He was never a member of Parliament.

Pivert’s tendency clearly stood well to the left of the Communist Party. The CP were in no doubt about this. In his report to the VIIIth PCF Congress in January 1936, Thorez spoke kindly of ‘comrade Zyromski’, while referring slightingly to the ‘phrase-mongers of the so-called revolutionary left’. [12] But in March 1935 Trotsky, while recognising that there was more than one possible evolution still open, declared that ‘it is nevertheless unquestionable that the revolutionary left wing of the SFIO little by little is becoming a laboratory in which the slogans and methods of proletarian struggle are forming.’ [13]

The credibility of Pivert’s tendency was built up in the years before 1936. Against the sectarianism of both the CP and the SFIO leaderships, Pivert argued for a united front of workers’ organisations. As early as 1930 Pivert and Zyromski bitterly attacked the SFIO leadership for refusing to stand down in the second ballot in favour of the CP in the Belleville by-election. At the 1935 Mulhouse Congress the motion from Pivert and Zyromski supporting unity with the CP obtained 777 votes out of 3219 (24%). [14]

Moreover, Pivert realised that unity was not simply a question of electoral alliances; it had to be taken on to the streets. In 1934, after the fascist riots of 6 February, it was, according to the testimony of Leon Blum [15], Pivert and Zyromski who persistently lobbied the Party leadership to persuade it to call a counter-demonstration, and succeeded despite the lack of enthusiasm of some of the leading bureaucrats. The resulting demonstration, on 12 February, brought together Socialists and Communists for the first time, and coincided with mass strike action by the CGT.

But while Zyromski focussed all his attention on the need for unity of action with the CP in general, Pivert and his followers recognised that the struggle against the fascists could not be a purely political one, and that effective unity would be achieved only as a result of militant physical opposition. They therefore advocated the establishment of self-defence groups.

Obviously this found little favour with the SFIO leadership. But in 1935, after fascists had attacked the headquarters of the Seine Federation, Pivert and his followers, together with the Bolshevik-Leninists (as the Trotskyists inside the SFIO called themselves), set up the TPPS (‘Toujours Prets Pour Servir’ – Always Ready to Serve). Yvan Craipeau, a Trotskyist militant at the time, describes what the TPPS were:

It was not simply a military organisation, but a grouping of activists, ready for any task at any time. Organised in tens, thirties and hundreds, with their leaders elected by the rank and file, the TPPS went out at night to fly-post, paint slogans in red lead, and throw leaflets into factories. The TPPS were likewise mobilised to steward meetings, and when necessary were sent as reinforcements when a fight was expected. They went to defend working-class paper-sellers, and sometimes stopped the fascists selling their papers. There’s no need to add that they were very badly armed (usually one revolver among six, the rest having truncheons or improvised weapons). Sometimes they were routed ... Usually the fascists were dealt with. Everywhere they were driven out of the working-class quarters. [16]

Nonetheless, the Pivertists remained external to working-class struggle. The mass strikes of 1936 did not fall out of the sky; throughout 1935 there was a gathering storm of strike action. Lille tram-drivers, Marseilles dockers, Michelin workers in Clermont-Ferrand, miners, weavers, engineers. There is no evidence of any systematic intervention in these disputes by the Socialist Left. The Chinese wall between economics and politics continued to hang like an albatross round the neck of the French labour movement.

Even more serious was the attitude of the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ towards the establishment of the Popular Front. [17] According to Guerin’s account, they made a distinction, obviously valid, between Popular Front No. 1, and Popular Front No. 2. No. 1 was the ‘misalliance, on the parliamentary and electoralist level, of bourgeois radicalism and Stalinism, under the banner of national defence.’ But No. 2 was ‘the powerful popular movement, the anti-fascist "unity of action", for which the political and trade union organisations of the working-class, supported by the intellectuals, had taken the initiative – a genuinely popular movement in the sense that it drew behind the working class a not inconsiderable layer of petty bourgeois and poor peasants.’ ‘We were’, Guerin adds, ‘resolute opponents of Popular Front No. 1, and enthusiastic supporters of Popular Front No. 2.’

The problem, he admits, was how to draw the line between the two. ‘For the sake of Popular Front No. 2, we let ourselves be drawn into participating loyally – too loyally – in Popular Front No. 1. We found a seeming justification for this compromise. We had to be present in No. 1 in order to push it forwards an get it to merge with No. 2.’ [18] Guerin here identifies the fatal ambiguity in Pivertist politics, which led Trotsky to his apparently harsh judgement: ‘The reformists and the Stalinists fear above all to frighten the radicals, the apparatus of the United Front quite consciously plays the role of disorganiser in relation to sporadic movements of the masses. And the "Lefts" of the Marcel Pivert type serve to shield this apparatus from the indignation of the masses.’ [19]

The contradiction within the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ were put sharply to the test by the Blum government of 1936. The role of the Blum government was necessarily ambiguous; it had to be sufficiently to the left to contain the mass movement, yet firm enough in its defence of the existing order to avoid a head-on confrontation with the ruling class. [20] Indeed, Blum lost momentum before he even took office. For constitutional reasons there was about a month’s gap between the declaration of the election result and the accession to office of the Blum government. Needless to say financial speculators took advantage of this period to sell francs for pounds and dollars, causing a drain of French gold reserves. But when Pivert asked for urgent measures to be taken in early May, saying ‘Do you think the fascists would have hesitated for a moment if they were in our place?’, Blum simply replied : ‘No! But we aren’t fascists!’ [21] And by the end of May the strike wave had erupted. Blum’s proposals for rapid decisive legislation [22] came to nothing.

When Blum addressed the Paris Congress of the SFIO on 31 May 1936, he spoke sympathetically of the occupations, pointing out that this was a legitimate working class tactic. Obviously he recognised the huge wave of support within his own party. But when he spoke to Parliament on 12 June 1936 the tone was different: he denounced the ‘intrusion of outside elements into the workers’ union organisations’, and promised that the government was ‘absolutely determined to ensure order in the streets.’ [23]

Yet the strike brought the French working class the only real gains they made in the period: two weeks’ annual paid holidays, legal provision for collective bargaining and the forty-hour week. The rest of the Popular Front period brought few advances – some half-hearted nationalisations, some administrative reforms, virtually nothing as far as colonial policy was concerned. Inflation largely destroyed the economic gains; the purchasing power of the working class was lower in 1939 than in June 1936.

Pivert’s response to the situation was far more positive. As we have seen, he argued with Blum within the Party for rapid action, even in breach of legality. But he also turned to the movement outside. On 12 May 1936 he wrote: ‘popular mass committees must be built. Common meetings of Socialist and Communist militants must be organised.’ [24] And later in the same month, his most famous article appeared. Titled ‘Everything is Possible’ it argued for decisive governmental action, and for the creation of Popular Committees to push the government forward. [25] The title so fitted the mood of the time that Maurice Thorez, in a speech of 11 June, found it necessary to insert the phrase ‘Everything is not possible’.

To take the movement forward at the critical juncture of June 1936 a political leadership quite independent of Blum was needed. But Pivert followed a different path. Blum, seeking to co-opt and muzzle his most vigorous rival, offered Pivert a post of general responsibility for press, radio and cinema, a post which was in some ways equivalent to the Ministry of Information, though Pivert was to hold no ministerial title and have no say in cabinet decisions. Pivert consulted the Executive Committee of the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’; Daniel Guerin alone voted against acceptance. [26] (This was, of course, at the time when the CP decided to remain outside the government while giving it support).

But there was worse. As Guerin explained with some visible embarrassment, Pivert played a large role in developing the SFIO’s political propaganda:

On Marceau’s initiative, the Socialist Party devoted a film to the attack on the reverted leader’s life presenting him as one of the best servants of the French people, one of the best fighters for bread, peace and freedom. His features were reproduced on gigantic hoardings. When, on 7 June, the day after his presentation to Parliament, he came to the Velodrome d’Hiver to swear to the French people never to let himself be removed from power without a fight, his entry was greeted by an extraordinary spectacle. Projectors were trained on him. An orchestra played the Internationale. The militants were transformed into choristers. The young guard in blue shirts formed an eager double line. The faithful chanted endlessly till they were breathless: Long Live Blum! or Blum! Blum! The man behind this cult was Marceau Pivert himself. He believed in modern propaganda techniques. He had made the acquaintance of a scatterbrain whose real name was Serge Chakhotin, and whom he introduced to the Gauche Révolutionnaire under the pseudonym of “Professor Flamm” ... Marceau Pivert took on “Professor Flamm” in the service of the Blum myth. During the month which was to elapse between the electoral triumph and the effective accession to power of the Popular Front Government under socialist leadership, we marched like sleepwalkers and reacted as if drugged. [27]

Being thus caught up by the SFIO machine, Pivert could scarcely help becoming an apologist for the Blum government. For a while, he even adopted a casuistical defence of Blum’s refusal to send arms to the Spanish Republican forces. Pivert argued that a government exercising power in a bourgeois society could not be expected to send arms, but that the popular masses’ should take on the job. To his credit, Pivert soon realised the weakness of such an argument and dropped it. [28]

By early 1937, Pivert found himself in such disagreement with Blum’s internal and foreign policy that he resigned his position. Speaking to the Party’s National Council in April 1937, he declared: ‘We wish that the Party, by means of an autonomous policy, would escape from the present confusion, take hold of the discontent and anger, and turn them against the capitalist enemy. If it doesn’t do this, then popular anger will turn, first against the Government, and then against the Party.’ [29] Unfortunately, it was too late.

Pivert alone, of course, was not the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’. While the way their leader was tailing Blum must have inhibited the militancy of his disciples, the current also had some deeper political weaknesses. Daniel Guerin, describing his own activity in the Paris suburbs, gives us an indication of the weakness of the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ strategy:

In my modest sphere of activity, on the Inter-Union Committee at Les Lilas, I took care not to politicise the strikes. I didn’t believe that it was possible, by adopting the attitude of someone with an axe to grind, to win the confidence of the working masses who were pouring into the unions. It would have been contrary to my nature, and, moreover both dishonest and clumsy, to take advantage of a trade union position to push the Party or the tendency to which I belonged. I scrupulously respected trade union independence and the workers I was responsible for never had occasion to suspect my intentions or purposes. ‘ [30]

As Guerin points out, such an attitude led to disastrous loss of opportunities:

’We had played the game of trade union legality too scrupulously. We had not dared to replace it with an embryo of the new legality: that of the “Soviets”. Eighteen months passed before reflection and perspective allowed me to develop and draw up a self-criticism.’ [31]

In the light of this failure to actually fight inside the trade union movement, the abstract programmatic demands of the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ inside the SFIO became more and more difficult. It was one thing to nourish illusions in Blum’s leadership; quite another to apologise for the Party when it was merely tailing the Radicals. At the Marseilles Congress in 1937, where the Pivertists opposed SFIO participation in the Chautemps government [32], there were physical attacks on members of the left, with chairs thrown from the balcony. [33]

By 1938 it had become clear that the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ could no longer remain in the party. The Pivertists were resolutely opposed to the politics of ‘national union’ pursued by the Blum leadership; their constitutional right to communicate their positions within the party was denied them, and there was little support to be won from the Zyromski tendency, which was becoming more and more openly pro-Stalinist. Some members, such as Guerin, welcomed the possibility of a clean break allowing them to build an open party. Others, including Pivert himself, seemed to have been more ambiguous on the question, and not wholly clear about the perspective.

At the Royan Congress of June 1938 Blum, invoking Jaures, waxed lyrical about the diversity of views permitted in the Party, which he compared to a ‘symphonic totality’, but concluded that since Pivert was guilty of indiscipline he must be expelled. Eventually the Pivertists were expelled by a vote of 4904 to 3033, with 370 delegates not voting. [34]

Nothing was left but to form a new Party. The PSOP (‘Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan’ – Workers’ and Peasants’ Socialist Party) was born. The initial hope had been to draw some twenty thousand members from the SFIO; in fact the PSOP’s numbers reached no more than about 6000. On the one occasion when the PSOP contested a by-election only 127 votes were gained. [35] It is hard to resist Victor Serge’s gloomy assessment that by splitting, the PSOP ‘lost its audience in a party of over 300,000 members, isolated its few thousand followers, and started a revolutionary movement just at the time when the working class was retiring into its own demoralisation. The split at Royan weakened the Socialist Party and created an unworkable alternative party.’ [36]

Nor did smallness mean clarity. The PSOP had still not made up its mind about the Popular Front; the newly founded organisation voted whether to affiliate to the ‘Rassemblement Populaire’ (the formal organisation of the Popular Front alliance), and decided not to by 100 votes to 83 with 11 abstentions. [37] The new Party rejected the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (arguing that this had facilitated the transition from Bolshevism to Stalinism). [38] It did, however, insist on revolutionary internationalism: ‘There can be for us no national defence other than revolutionary defence, which supposes that the political and economic leadership of the country has passed into the hands of the toiling classes.’ [39]

Politically the new Party was quite isolated. One public meeting was broken up by 300 CP members, who physically assaulted Pivert, calling him a ‘Trotskyist murderer’. [40] In January 1939, when the French government closed the frontier to Republican refugees from Spain, the PSOP called on other left-wing organisations to demonstrate. None responded except a few Trotskyists, so the PSOP demonstrated alone; fifteen hundred were arrested. [41]

The approach of the Second World War created strains which the organisational and political structures of the PSOP could not bear. In 1939 the Party was rent by a debate on the question of ‘revolutionary defeatism’. While the positions were not dramatically far apart, the result was inevitably confusion. Pivert tried to make the best of a bad job by claiming that the differing positions ‘are the reflection of hesitations and contradictions which the revolutionary vanguard could only cover up on the basis of authoritarian dogma, which we repudiate absolutely.’ [42]

With such pride in confusion, it is hardly surprising that the PSOP was able to make little response to the outbreak of war. According to Craipeau, only in Marseilles (where the PSOP was controlled by Trotskyists) and Nantes was there any propaganda produced. [43] The PSOP, with its amateurish and libertarian organisational structure, was quite unfitted to meet the needs of a war situation, which required the ability to work semi-legally or clandestinely. Pivert is said to have given instructions to establish a clandestine committee of four, himself, Guerin, Lucien Weitz and Maurice Jaquier. But when war broke out Pivert was in the USA (on a speaking tour organised by Jay Lovestone), Guerin, was in Oslo and Weitz in jail [44], Within a few months the Party had disintegrated.

In June 1940, after the fall of France, Pivert addressed a letter to General de Gaulle, informing the General that ‘only the socialist revolution in freedom can liquidate fascism’ and offering to put at his disposal some ‘packets of political dynamite’. De Gaulle replied politely, but studiously refrained from responding to Pivert’s request to distribute revolutionary Marxist literature for him. [45] Such was the farcical ending of a tragic story.

The left wing of the SFIO was naturally a focus of attention for the small revolutionary left in France. Since their exclusion from the CP during the twenties the French Trotskyists had been fragmented and isolated. In 1934, on Trotsky’s advice, they entered the SFIO – the so-called ‘French turn’. [46] While pursuing a united front strategy towards the Pivertists (with whom they had worked closely since February 1934) the Trotskyists formed a distinct tendency. In a few areas they won some influence – thus by June 1935 they had over 20% of the vote in the traditionally left-wing Seine federation. They succeeded in exercising a force of attraction on the Pivertists – notably Pivert himself – who up to this point were working within the same tendency as Zyromski. Entry work lasted just one year, from August 1934 to August 1935, when the Trotskyists were expelled from the Seine Socialist Youth following their refusal to support national defence. It was at this point that Pivert split with Zyromski to form the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ – a response to the Trotskyist influence, but also an attempt to discourage other departures to the left.

By the time of the formation of the PSOP, French Trotskyism was in an even more fragmentary state, and there was considerable disagreement about the attitude to be taken, but eventually most of the splinters came inside the PSOP. The PSOP accepted an invitation to attend the founding conference of the Fourth International as an observer, but in the end the invitation was withdrawn for security reasons. [47]

What assessment can be made of the achievements of this period? For Isaac Deutscher the ‘French turn’ ‘could not succeed’. It simply isolated the Trotskyists further from the CP rank and file and increased CP hostility towards the Trotskyists. [48] Pierre Frank, on the other hand, considers that the entry work was carried out with ‘remarkable political clarity’ which ‘renewed the ranks of the organisation by attracting a large number of youth’. [49] Both accounts seem exaggerated. The experience can hardly be considered a success, for the Trotskyists did not come out of the SFIO any stronger or more united than they went in.

But any alternative would probably have been worse. The small isolated forces of French Trotskyism could scarcely have built a significant independent organisation, certainly not within the timescale permitted by the rising level of class mobilisation and the threat of fascism. Entry work in the Stalinised CP was a virtual impossibility, and there was even little hope of making meaningful contact with the CP’s rank and file. Entrism was not a triumphant step forward, nor a significant strategic discovery. But it was better than a retreat into sterile propagandism. The left of the SFIO was an area in which revolutionary developments might have taken place: the duty of revolutionaries was to maximise that possibility.

Two further points should be made about the experience of ‘entrism’. Firstly, the Trotskyists were initially welcomed by all sections of the SFIO. The right regarded the acquisition of these ex-Communists as a useful publicity blow against the rival CP, while the left hoped that they would be allies in the internal debate. Both, in effect, hoped to co-opt them. The moment the Trotskyists began to make an effective intervention in the party they were expelled. Secondly, the ‘entryism’ of the ‘French turn’ was conceived as a short-term tactic in a potentially pre-revolutionary situation. It had nothing in common with the long-term ‘entrism’ developed by the Trotskyist movement in the post-war period, based on a notion of ‘boring (in both senses of the word) from within’ for an indefinite period (‘keep your head down for ten years and you get to be ward postal vote organiser’).

The key period in which the revolutionaries could have made a breakthrough was between February 1934 and June 1936. At this time of rising struggle mass work was essential. [50] After June 1936, the struggle was essentially on the downturn, and the battles defensive; the to-ing and fro-ing about the PSOP in 1938–39 was largely meaningless.

The key to the situation was the United Front, provided that this was correctly understood. 1934–36 in France was a period of massive radicalisation in the working-class: hundreds of thousands of people joined the SFIO and the CP; even more significant, the CGT grew from one million to five million in the course of 1936. [51] The demand for unity between the bureaucracies of the existing reformist parties was significant in as much as, and only in as much as, it related to the newly radicalised workers who wanted to fight, but who were reluctant to do so as long as they saw the self-professed ‘leaders’ of the class putting the interests of their own organisations first.

It is in this context that we can see the greatest weakness of the Pivertist left – their failure to fight for leadership inside the trade union movement. This may be attributed partly to the weakness of their proletarian base, and partly to their over-scrupulous hang-ups about the ‘independence’ of the unions from political parties. But there can be no doubt that this abstention was a disaster. For workers with no previous tradition of organisation of any sort catapulted into a general strike and occupations, the dividing line between politics and trade unionism could be nothing but a metaphysical abstraction. The CP, which suffered from no such scruples, not only recruited massively to its own ranks, but laid the basis of the fraction organisation that was to give it the tight political grip on the CGT that it retains to this day. [52] Trade union organisations can never be politically ‘independent’; the only question is what politics they are dependent on. The Pivertists simply gave the Stalinists a clear run.

Organisation and politics are not separate, and the collapse of the PSOP at the outbreak of war was no accident; Pivert’s refusal of the Bolshevik tradition led to the building of an organisation which, however attractive its open and democratic style might appear, was unable to stand up to the strain of war and repression.

The conclusion can only be that the Trotskyist tradition was correct in labelling such people as Pivert ‘centrists’. Centrism is not a term of abuse, but a precise categorisation. It points to a contradiction which revolutionaries must exploit, by respecting the positive as much as by denouncing the negative.

The lessons for today are clear. Marceau Pivert had more revolutionary integrity and fighting spirit in his little finger than Tony Benn has in the entire length of his body; the ‘Gauche Révolutionnaire’ was more openly and unashamedly revolutionary than any tendency in the Labour Party today. And yet they failed. Their lack of political clarity and organisational firmness prevented them taking advantage of the situation when the movement was at its peak, in June 1936. After that the struggle was on the downturn. As far as entrism is concerned, there is nothing in the record to recommend it to us. Certainly left social-democracy gave embryonic French Trotskyism a pool to swim in, without which it might have collapsed utterly. But if it is victory, rather than survival, which is in question, then the results are decidedly meagre. In the end the logic of entrism means that would-be revolutionaries end up defending and justifying centrists like Pivert, instead of exposing their weakness.


1. I use the term to mean a party which combines socialist aims, however long-term, with parliamentary practice. No reference is intended to the ‘Social Democracy’ of people like Jenkins, Williams, Owen and Rodgers, who have no interest in either socialism or democracy.

2. L. Blum, A L’Echelle Humaine, Paris 1971, p. 78.

3. As late as 1957 Guy Mollet cited Marx to justify the Suez invasion (Le Monde, 2 July 1957).

4. A Philip, Les Socialistes, Paris, 1967, pp. 66–67.

5. Blum’s 1936 election address in his Narbonne constituency, cited G. Lefranc, Juin 36, Paris 1966, p. 82.

6. SFIO figures from G. Lefranc, Le Mouvement Socialiste sous la Troisième République, Paris 1963, pp. 436–37.

7. D. Guerin, Front Populaire, Revolution Manquée, Paris 1936, p. 21. Guerin, at various times socialist, syndicalist and anarchist, author of major studies of fascism and the French Revolution, campaigner for colonial freedom and gay liberation, is one of the most interesting independent Marxist intellectuals in modern France. His book on the Popular Front, on which this article draws heavily, is based on close personal involvement with the SFIO left, and is dedicated to the memory of Marceau Pivert.

8. For details of this debate, see A. Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, London 1971.

9. Paris 1932. Preface by Leon Blum.

10. Guerin, op. cit., p. 82.

11. After the Second World War Pivert rejoined the SFIO and became an Executive member, but lost his position through opposition to the Algerian war. He died in 1958.

12. M. Thorez, Une Politique de Grandeur Francaise, Paris 1945, pp. 81–82, 66.

13. Trotsky, Whither France?, Colombo 1961, p. 104.

14. An alternative Trotskyist motion got 105 votes.

15. L’Oeuvre de Leon Blum (1934–1937), Paris 1964, p. 14.

16. Y. Craipeau, Le Mouvement Trotskyste en France, Paris 1971, pp. 123–4.

17. Trotsky summed up the force of rightward attraction that characterised the Popular Front in a single brilliant sentence: ‘Pivert clutches at Zyromski, who clutches at Laval.’ op. cit., p. 121.

18. Guerin, op. cit., pp. 93–4.

19. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 118.

20. An interesting example of Blum’s ambiguity is the question of votes for women. All the main Popular Front parties had agreed not to raise the demand for female suffrage (on the traditional grounds that women were influenced by priests and would vote for the right). But Blum gave office in his government to three women – the first French government ever to do so. One of the three was Cecile Brunschwicg, leader of the Union for Women’s Suffrage. It has been said of Ms Brunschwicg that ‘the radicals were all personal friends of hers and she agreed with them that female suffrage was too dangerous so long as the republic was in difficulties, which it always was.’ (T. Zeldin, Ambition and Love, Oxford 1979, p. 349).

21. Cited G. Lefranc, Juin 36, p. 99.

22. As outlined to the Chambre des Deputes, 6 June 1936. Blum’s idea that Parliament could push through a number of major reforms in a few weeks is reminiscent of recent equally Utopian suggestions emanating from T. Benn.

23. L’Oeuvre de Leon Blum (1934–1937), pp. 264, 278.

24. Le Populaire, 12 May 1936.

25. Populaire de Paris, 27 May 1936.

26. Guerin, op. cit., p. 113.

27. Ibid., pp. 107–8.

28. Ibid., p. 154.

29. Lefranc, Le Mouvement Socialiste sous la Troisième Republique, p. 339.

30. Guerin, op. cit., p 127.

31. Ibid., p. 129.

32. Ibid., p. 139.

33. Ibid., p. 173.

34. Lefranc, Le Mouvement Socialiste sous la Troisième Republique, pp. 357–8.

35. Guerin, op. cit., pp. 271, 226.

36. V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford, 1967, p. 347. Serge is somewhat shaky on the facts, suggesting the GR resigned rather than being expelled, and overestimating the SFIO’s membership. But his feel for the general trend of the period is probably sound.

37. Guerin, op. cit., p. 225.

38. Ibid., p. 228.

39. Pamphlet of November 1938, cited in Y. Craipeau, Contre Vents et Marées, Paris 1977, p. 24.

40. Guerin, op. cit., p. 237.

41. Ibid., p. 255.

42. Craipeau, Contre Vents et Marées, pp. 27–31.

43. Ibid., p. 58.

44. Ibid., p. 43.

45. Guerin, op. cit., pp. 311–15.

46. The ‘turn’ was conceived as an international strategy. This article deals only with its effect in the specific French situation. A study of the results elsewhere would undoubtedly reveal the dangers of a small revolutionary tendency trying to make strategic generalisations on an international scale.

47. The most comprehensive account of French Trotskyism in this period is Y. Craipeau, Le Mouvement Trotskyste en France. J. Roussel, Les Enfants du Prophete, Paris 1972, is also useful. P. Frank, La Quatrième Internationale, Paris 1969, and J.-J. Marie, Le Trotskysme, Paris 1970, are much less satisfactory, seeing the past in terms of an apostolic succession leading to the present-day LCR and OCI respectively.

48. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Oxford 1970, p. 272.

49. La Quatrième Internationale, p. 37. Frank himself split with the main group of French Trotskyists at the time of the break with the SFIO, and was accused by Trotsky of advocating the same ‘centrist’ positions as Pivert. Frank remained in the SFIO until his expulsion in December 1935.

50. In February 1934 the Trotskyist paper La Verité actually went daily, although it appeared on only three days (8, 10 and 11 February).

51. According to G. Lefranc, Histoire du Front Populaire, Paris 1965. Obviously in such a period precise figures are impossible to obtain, but there can be no doubt that there was massive growth.

52. Maurice Thorez showed the grasp of reality which made him a successful bureaucrat when he poured scorn on the SFIO left who claimed that ‘we’ve gone beyond the struggle for the beef-steak’. (Report to VIIIth Congress of PCF, January 1936, op. cit., p. 66).

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