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John Newsinger


Revolutionary riches

(April 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995, pp. 30 31.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A History of the French Working Class (2 volumes)
Roger Magraw
Blackwell £40 each

There are a host of historians busily employed in denying a revolutionary role to the working class. These two marvellous volumes are a powerful rebuttal to those who have attempted to pacify the history of the French working class, to either excise altogether or to deny the significance of working class resistance and revolt.

As Magraw insists, ever since the revolution of July 1830:

‘French workers continued, at regular intervals, to behave in ways which, to put it mildly, disturbed the complacency of the dominant bourgeoisie. No amount of revisionist rewriting of history can explain away 1848, the Paris Commune, revolutionary syndicalism, the strike waves of 1917–20 and of 1936, the rise of the mass Communist Party.’

His two volumes seek to analyse and explain the trajectory of French working class militancy from 1830 through to 1939. He decisively reasserts and celebrates the French working class revolutionary tradition.

The revolution of 1830 saw a popular insurrection in Paris overthrow the Bourbon monarchy. Although Parisian artisans played the major role in the barricade fighting (nearly a third of those killed were building workers) they were nevertheless successfully excluded from power. After the installation of the new Orleanist monarchy, workers ‘petitioned ministers in confident expectation that they would introduce job creation schemes, fix wage levels, protect workers against new machinery, permit the organisation rights and shift fiscal burdens away from indirect taxes.’ Instead they met with repression.

Later the economic depression of 1845–47 threatened to create such widespread popular unrest as to call into question the maintenance of capitalist hegemony in France. One focus of working class unrest was, according to Magraw, carnival processions and celebrations. These were turned into demonstrations against the regime with floats carrying effigies caricaturing Orleanist notables, condemning their greed and corruption. The revolution of February 1848 broke out in Paris at the time of the carnival and the bodies of those killed by the troops were carried through the streets on carnival floats.

This time the working class did force concessions from a reluctant, scared and hateful middle class, most notably the National Workshops that provided relief for the unemployed. As soon as the new Republican government was ready, the National Workshops were closed and, when over 50,000 workers took to the barricades, troops were sent in. The June insurrection was brutally crushed with 1,500 killed (many prisoners were summarily executed by the army) and another 12,000 arrested. This, as Magraw says, was ‘naked class war’.

He goes on to recount the history of the working class under the Bonapartist dictatorship that took power in December 1851 and survived until war with Germany in 1870. He provides an excellent account of the Paris Commune and of subsequent developments under the Third Republic.

The second volume ends with the French working class rallying against fascism in the mid-1930s and in 1936 carrying the Popular Front government to power. This unleashed a great wave of factory occupations, but instead of this upsurge of working class anger and militancy being used to smash the power of the ruling class, it was successfully smothered and demobilised by the Socialist-Communist alliance. In this fashion, the Popular Front government accomplished its own defeat, undermined from within by a ruling class that had been left with its wealth and power intact. Once again working class hopes and expectations were to be shattered.

In November 1938, the 40-hour week conceded in 1936 was abolished, provoking widespread strikes and occupations. Symbolic was the occupation of the Renault factory. This was ended by military intervention with the workers being removed from the factory in groups of four and forced to give the fascist salute in front of hundreds of jeering police. A general strike on 30 November saw 3 million workers walk out, but the employers had regained their confidence and were on the attack. They responded with lockouts that ended with over 20,000 workers sacked and another 800 in prison. Even before the French defeat at the hands of the Nazis in the summer of 1940, French workers found themselves living in a right-wing police state that had successfully ground them down.

Throughout both volumes Magraw devotes considerable space to the development of socialist ideas and organisations, to the experience of women and immigrant workers, and the development of working class culture. We can only hope that Magraw’s labours will not end here and that a third volume is on the way, taking the history of the French working class up to 1968 and beyond.

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