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Harold Isaacs

The Coming Showdown in France

(August 1936)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 2 No. 7, August 1936, pp. 12–14.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WITH the great strike wave of June the crisis in France came of age. Tomorrow it will mature. Today is the period of the preparation of forces, of preliminary skirmishing, of feeling out the enemy, of choosing the time and place and conditions of battle. The army that best utilizes this period will enter the approaching final conflict with the greatest advantage on its side.

Like the February revolution in Russia, the tremendous strike movement, the occupation of factories, the unfurling of the red flag over shops and ships, sprang from the spontaneous initiative of the masses. The workers took friend and foe by surprise. Their own “leaders” were even more shocked than the big bourgeoisie and its de la Rocques. Unprepared to wheel its own heavy artillery into action, the big bourgeoisie placed its TEMPORARY reliance upon the People’s Front to stem. the proletarian tide, to win them a respite until the Fascist ranks could be marshalled to smash the workers by direct means.

While thus utilizing the People’s Front government, the big bourgeoisie prepares to overthrow it and replace it by an agency more suited to its needs. The inadequacy of the People’s Front regime flows from the fact that it bases itself upon a program to revive French capitalism, believing that the wheels, of French industry can be made to turn profitably and at the same time satisfy the demands of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. Not understanding that the depth of the economic crisis has reached the point where only the radical transformation in the ownership of the means of production can lift the country out of its impasse, the Blum-Daladier government fails to realize how sharply the Wendels, the 200 families will resist its proposed reforms, how strongly they will organize to do away with the cumbersome folderol of democracy in order, under the whip of Fascism, to effect a new concentration of capital and to preserve themselves at the expense of the workers. Blum-Daladier-Thorez proceed on the false assumption that they will ward off the blows of big capitalism by convincing the workers not to “provoke” the struggle. But the crisis flows not from the workers alone, but from the crisis of capitalism itself. That is why the workers must be organized for the struggle against capitalism. That is why the workers must forge their own fighting instruments to resist the Wendels and their de la Rocques. The People’s Front government does not resist, but seeks to propitiate the Wendels in the hope that the Wendels will not make use of their de la Rocques.

Watchful Waiting Policy of Bourgeoisie

It was in this spirit that the People’s Front Government faced the great strike wave of June. To the workers it begged: “Be calm. Do not go too far. Do not provoke the reaction!” To the big capitalist it said: “Give us the crumbs we ask or insurrection is around the corner. Back us in this and we’ll save your capitalist order.”

This is the dilemma of the People’s Front government. It was brought into power by workers who want a radical change in things as they are. In power, it tries to keep things unchanged and satisfy the workers at the same time. This it cannot do. That is why it must inevitably give way to Fascism – or to a Soviet France.

At the height of the strike wave the big bourgeoisie which was not yet prepared to smash it by its own direct means, “accepted” a settlement that added a 35 charge to the cost of production, a charge they know perfectly well French capitalism cannot stand in the present situation. They “accepted” because they wanted only to postpone the issue and avert the immediate crisis. Blum’s bills, brought with desperate, fearful haste before Parliament, (“We are facing a situation in which every hour counts!” cried Blum) were voted for by the Left and Right wings together, a band of frightened parliamentarians who heard the rumble of revolution on the streets. But the Fascist agents of the big bourgeoisie had already contemptuously turned their backs on Parliament. “Our destiny is not being decided there,” they bluntly announced. “The street and the factory will decide.” (Echo de Paris, right wing organ, June 7)

The very morrow of the settlement proved them to be right. Already drained by the ravages of the crisis, French capitalism could not actually execute the settlement without destroying itself. Workers returning to their machines, after weeks of pleading and cajolery from their leaders, met with delays, new disputes, lockouts, dismissals and speedup. The honeymoon, they discovered, was over. New, harsher strikes began to break across the country. Coal miners in the north, steel workers around Paris and in the Moselle Basin, seamen at Marseilles, Toulon and Bordeaux, shipyard workers at St. Nazaire, and workers, in hundreds of other shops and factories took possession and presented new demands. At the same time bitter clashes began to take place in the streets of Paris and other cities between striking workers and the Fascist gangs, who came out of their hiding places and openly took the offensive.

Blum’s “New Deal” for France

These new strikes and street fights rose to plague the leaders of the People’s Front just as they were embarking upon their neo-Rooseveltian program for the revitalization of French capitalist economy. The economic program of the People’s Front, under the pressure of the big bourgeoisie and Its Radical agents inside the government, has already been watered down from the thin promises made during the election campaign. Vincent Auriol, Socialist finance minister, promised that no banks would be nationalized, that no tax on capital v/as contemplated. The projected “reform” of the Bank of France turned out to be nothing more radical than a new governor, a conservative ex-colonial administrator who immediately assured the regents of the bank that all would remain as before. In addition the “reform” included a bill for the revision of the statutes of the bank which in no sense whatever modifies its essential character. “Naturalization of the war industries” was boiled down to a proposal for the purchase of a few plants by the government. The program was reduced to a plan for public works to be financed by a new loan of ten billion francs from the Bank of France (a new mortgage for the 200 families!) and the issuance of baby bonds. This program makes Roosevelt look like a Bolshevik!

Meanwhile the People’s Front government extends itself to prove to the big bourgeoisie that it can carry out the essential policies of French finance capital even more efficiently than its predecessors. With Daladier as minister of national defense, it embarks upon a vast armament program. It drops without a murmur its promise to cut the two-year military service term. Blum goes to Geneva and states more daringly than any French representative has yet done the readiness of France to go to war in defense of its system of collective security and regional pacts. To all this the government, aided by the Stalinist patriots, can offer the added advantage of mobilizing the masses for the “union of the French people” against any external “aggressor.” It can turn Bastille Day into a demonstration of the military might of French imperialism and get some of its followers to salute the war machine of French capitalism with the clenched fist salute of proletarian internationalism! Such are the plums it lays before the big bourgeoisie!

“Dissolution” of Fascists

Against the Fascist gangs, the People’s Front issues decrees of dissolution. De La Rocque laughs in Blum’s face. The Croix de Feu and its allied nationalist organizations are transformed into the “French Social Party.” De La Rocque openly announces that he has embarked upon the struggle for the conquest of power. “Are 1,000,000 men and women dedicated to the struggle for the renaissance of the fatherland, going to be dispersed without appeal? Nobody believes it for a single instant,” he wrote in his organ, Le Flambeau on June 27, under the title Toward Power. “If anyone tries to break our party, the issue will be settled through illegality.”

Abhorring nothing so much as illegality, the People’s Front government promptly recognized that the new Fascist party was “legal” and cringed when Croix de Feu deputies in the Chamber openly declared that they would overthrow the People’s Front regime. “We’ll follow you into power,” warned Taittinger, “and we’ll know how to deal with you!”

Unhindered, the French Fascists are carrying on an intensive campaign of organization and propaganda, with the scarcely disguised backing of the war chest of the big industrialists whose existence even Salengro, Socialist minister of the interior, admitted. Yesterday they came out onto the streets in hundreds. Today in thousands. Tomorrow? Helpless itself against the Fascist gangs, the government pleads with the workers to preserve “order” and sends its police to break up street fights, without discrimination as to where the police clubs fall. The workers’ legitimate resistance to the Fascists in the streets is opposed by People’s Front police. They are forbidden to organize in their own defense. In the chamber of deputies Salengro declared that if combat groups existed in the Socialist party, “I will demand their suppression this very night!” (Herald Tribune, July 1)

Government Attacks Revolutionists

Unable to resist the Fascists, the government tries to show itself more worthy of bourgeois hire by directing its really savage blows against the revolutionary currents in the working class. During the height of the strike wave LE MATIN, organ of the 200 families, ECHO DE PARIS, organ of the Fascist, and L’Humanité, organ of the Stalinists, joined in a daily campaign of execrating the French Trotskyists who were charged with being the “provocateurs” responsible for the continued strike struggles. The PARTI OUVRIER INTERNATIONALISTE (Workers Internationalist Party) formed in the very fire of the struggle and its organ, La Lutte Ouvrière became the main target of police repression.

Active in the factories and on the streets, the Trotskyists propagated the slogans of revolutionary action. They told the workers that a mere “settlement,” another capitalist promise, was not enough; that the Socialist-bourgeois coalition government of Blum-Daladier could only provide a temporary stop-gap, that it demoralized the workers’ defenses while behind its back the real agents of finance capital prepared for the final conflict. They urged the permanence of strike committees, factory committees to safeguard the workers’ gains, united by town, city and province. Only a workers’ militia could smash the Fascist offensive. Only by these means could the slogan “Soviets everywhere!” come to life.

This agitation corresponded so closely to the moods of the masses that LE MATIN, charging Leon Trotsky with being the real villain of all the troubles, said on its front page of June 14: “The organ of the Trotskyists, dated June 12, indicates the line to be followed. THE DIRECTIVES CORRESPOND SINGULARLY WITH CERTAIN FACTS THAT HAVE FEATURED THE VARIOUS CONFLICTS.”

So the police of Blum-Salengro descended upon the Trotskyists. (“Under the pressure of the Communists,” gloated the Echo de Paris on June 16, “the government has declared war on the Paris Trotskyists.”) Their paper was banned. All their equipment was taken. Twelve of the leaders associated with the paper were arrested and charged with “conspiracy against the state.”

Government Prepares to Attack Workers

Use of force against the most advanced workers could not fail to find its logical extension in the threat of force against striking workers everywhere. This was not long in coming, as the wave of strikes continued, breaking out everywhere beyond the control of unions and parties alike. On July 7 Salengro told the Senate that the government would not tolerate any further occupation of factories by strikers, and, he added, to the intense delight of the whole Radical and big bourgeois press, if all means of persuasion failed, “appropriate means” would be employed to force evacuation.

He explained the procedure as follows: “(1) Appeal by the trade union leaders to the strikers. (2) Appeals by the authorities to the strikers and employers. (3) Joint intervention by the trade unions, and the government. (4) Repetition of these appeals.”

In case all these fail (and how normal the assumption seems that the workers are carrying on the struggle without and even against the trade unions!), he said, “FORCE WILL BE USED.”

To the DELEGATION DES GAUCHES (Left deputies. Salengro explained that force would be used “with care,” that the use of bayonets would be avoided. “The delegation of Left deputies UNANIMOUSLY APPROVED the statement by Salengro and decided at his request, to appeal to the workers for discipline.” (Havas, July 9)

Stalinists Restrain Workers

The Stalinists expressed mild misgivings (“Comrade Salengro’s statement was not very well inspired”) BUT VOTED TO SUPPORT HIS PROPOSALS, as members of the delegation of Lefts. “All for the People’s Front, everything through the People’s Front!” reaffirmed Thorez that same day (Havas, July 9). Thorez went further. “He and his followers (he said) perfectly understood the Senate’s alarm over the continued labor controversy” (Associated Press, July 9). “Workers are not opposed to property,” said Thorez the next day, reiterating his party’s fidelity to the People’s Front, and declaring, in the now familiar Stalinist formula, that it was for “the union of the whole French people.” He “expressed alarm” over the fact that some Socialists were actually talking about measures of socialization. “The future of the People’s Front must not be compromised by going too fast,” he said, announcing that his party “would oppose any such measures as premature.” (Havas, July 10) “While the Socialists, INFLUENCED BY THE TROTSKYISTS, shouted at every corner: ‘Everything is possible!’ ... we firmly replied: ‘No, everything is NOT possible!’” (Berlioz, Daily Worker, July 15) Depend on us, cry the Stalinists to the bourgeoisie, if the Socialists go revolutionary on us, we’ll keep ’em in line!

The good intentions of the Stalinists have already won recognition from the Fascists themselves. Thorez’ exhortations to the strikers to “know how to end a strike” (“These words of great political wisdom ...” reports Berlioz to the Daily Worker, July 15, “were much more effective than the irritating (?) police mobilization ordered by the Minister of Interior”) were greeted by the whole right-wing press. The ECHO DE PARIS said that Thorez’ words “seems to confirm . . . that the Russian leaders clearly see the danger of war, that communism cannot be installed ... without convulsions and a general weakening of our country ... BUT IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN HOW FAR FRENCH COMMUNISM WILL SUBMIT DOCILELY TO THE DIRECTIVES OF MOSCOW AND WILL NOT SOON OBEY ITS OWN BLIND IMPULSES.” (ECHO DE PARIS, June 13). In other words, the Fascists understand and appreciate how much the Stalinists want civil peace, at all costs, but they have no confidence in the ability of the Stalinists to hold the masses in check. That is why, at the behest of the big bourgeoisie, they are preparing to do that job themselves.

The Fascists are consciously, rapidly preparing and marshalling their forces. The Socialist, Stalinist and trade union leaders, their faces turned pleadingly toward the big bourgeoisie, are leaving the workers to their own deserts. More, they threaten to use force (“careful force”!?) against the workers if they prove recalcitrant.

This road leads straight to disaster.

Middle Class Repelled by Vacillation

The petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, who still today look tentatively leftward for a way out will, if this road is pursued, turn their backs on the working class parties and the People’s Front and turn toward the Fascists.

There is no greater fraud than the claim of the Socialist-Stalinist leadership that the workers must retard their struggle in order not to DRIVE AWAY the petty bourgeoisie and the peasants. ONLY real struggle by the workers will draw the lower strata of these classes to their side. Such a struggle will drive away, to be sure, the Daladiers, the Herriots, the Chautemps, the agents of big capital in the People’s Front. That is what the Stalinists fear above all else. The petty bourgeoisie itself will turn away from the workers when they get tired of trying to understand why the workers’ parties order their followers to march, as they did on Bastille Day, carrying portraits of Lenin, Stalin ... AND HERRIOT, the Radical chief who led them up their present blind alley.

Conquest of Power by Workers Essential

What the French workers need now is a revolutionary general staff of their own. They cannot depend in the next wave on their own spontaneity. The big bourgeoisie will be far better prepared to thrust back. The capitalist ripost may well inflict a partial defeat on the proletariat. Unless the proletariat has. its firmly welded staff, such a defeat can well be a decisive defeat! The workers must be united in their own organizations, with their own staff, they must be massed in their own committees, their own societies, free of the slavish subjection to the bourgeoisie which the People’s Front sponsors. All this they must be the better to withstand the capitalist counter-offensive, in order in their turn to take the offensive for power.

It is not enough to “arrest” de la Rocque, as the Stalinists demand, or to shuffle around a few police chiefs, as the government has done. The de la Rocques and their press are manipulated by big capital and the big capitalist press like puppets tied to strings. Revolutionists must strike at Fascism at its heart, in the citadels of big finance capital. De la Rocque? yes, but Wendel too and the Comité des Forges. L’Action Française (Royalist-Fascist), Le Flambeau? Yes, but also Le Temps, Le Matin and the rest.

The big bourgeoisie, if it has its way, will, in its own time, smash the People’s Front government and replace it with one better to its liking. The workers must be prepared to resist this offensive of big capital. The Blum government will be incapable of doing so. Despite the miserable role played by this coalition government, the workers must take up, with their whole force, its defense against the capitalist offensive. That is why the imperative call of the day is for workers committees, peasant committees, army committees. “Soviets everywhere? Agreed. But the time has come to pass from words to action!”

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