1936-06 The United Front in France [Hardcastle]
Socialist Standard, June 1936.
At the General Elections which took place in France late in April and early in May there was a considerable gain of seats by the parties grouped together in a “United Front.” As a consequence a new Government has been formed, under the premiership of Mr. Leon Blum, the leader of the French Labour Party (“Socialist Party of France”). In the Cabinet with members of his party are also representatives of the French Radical Federation. The Communists (who promoted the United Front) while unwilling to enter the Cabinet, promise to give loyal support in Parliament and in the constituencies. The supporters of the Labour and Communist Parties are overjoyed at what they regard as a victory of outstanding importance. They foresee the early destruction of the power of the French ruling class and the abolition of poverty and unemployment and, naturally, the British Communists urge that this example of unity be copied here without delay. Let us see how this policy was applied and the results it has brought and is likely to bring. We shall then be in a position to answer the question whether such a policy should have the backing of the workers and the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
How it was done
The chief parties to the pact were three in number, the Radicals, the Labour Party (“Socialist Party of France”), and the Communists. The last two are indistinguishable in aim and outlook from the British Labour Party and Communist Party. The Radicals are quite correctly described by the British Communists (see Daily Worker, April 30th) as “The French Liberals.” They are a capitalist party, but favour moderate social reforms. They were formerly the largest single party in the French Parliament, but had not a majority of the seats.
The method by which the United Front agreement operated has long been practised in French elections – indeed, it was practised by the same three groups down to the 1924 General Election. The electoral system is based on a double ballot. At the first ballot only those candidates are declared elected who get a clear majority of votes over all the remaining candidates. At the second ballot, a week later, a further vote takes place in those constituencies that are not filled at the first vote. At this second vote the successful candidate is the one who tops the poll, whether he gets a clear majority over the rest of the candidates or not. In the great majority of constituencies there has to be this second ballot, as very few candidates get a clear majority over all other candidates.
The United Front parties agreed to support each other at the second ballot by withdrawing the two candidates who were least successful at the first ballot. Thus, if a Radical failed to get a clear majority at the first ballot, but nevertheless polled more votes than his Labour and Communist opponents, the two latter withdrew at the second ballot and all three parties backed the Radical. Similar withdrawals of Radicals took place in favour of Labour and Communist, and of Labour candidates in favour of Communists, and Communists in favour of Labour.
The result was as anticipated. The United Front group increased their total vote a little (about 270,000 votes), but gained a considerable number of seats. Owing to the uncertain allegiance of various individuals and sectional groups the position is somewhat uncertain, but is roughly as follows: The United Front group gained about 67 seats, and now numbers 381, out of a total of 618. The two other groups of parties, the Centre Group and the Conservative Group, have about 94 and 143 seats respectively. The United Front consists of 145 Labour, 72 Communists, 115 Radicals and 49 others, and, therefore, has a majority over the rest so long as all members of all its parties stand together. For various reasons, however, this is not likely to be the case for long. Some of the Radicals are certain to break away rather than continue association with the Labour and Communist groups.
The programme on which the United Front candidates fought shows clearly what is the outlook of the electorate.
The United Front Programme
The programme was a vague one, containing a series of reform proposals. They included a guaranteed minimum wage, a 40-hour week, pensions at 60 or before, public control of public services, including the Bank of France and the railways, suppression of the Fascist Leagues, abolition of private manufacture of armaments, etc., etc. The programme included also support of the League of Nations, the necessity of the maintenance of armaments for national defence, and efforts to secure disarmament, in which Hitler would be asked to join.
Within the joint agreed programme the separate parties put forward their own specific demands and slogans. The Communist slogans were “Long Live the Popular Front,” “Bread – Peace – Freedom,” “For a Strong, Happy France – vote Communist,” “The Rich must Pay,” “Long Live the Union of the French nation – against the 200 families who plunder France” (Daily Worker, April 27th). The Labourites complained that through maintaining what there was of internationalism in their propaganda they were less effective in appealing to the growing nationalism of the electorate than were the Communists with their appeals to patriotism. According to a correspondent of the Daily Express (May 4th) the Communist election posters were decorated with the national colours, blue, white and red! “They have stolen the patriotic thunder of the Right. They have waved the Tricolour, not the Red flag.” !
In short, as the Liberal-Labour-Communist alliance wanted to win a majority at all costs, they had to put forward a capitalist reform programme – spiced with appeals to fear of Nazi Germany – which would gain a majority of votes. As a newspaper correspondent said, their programme had “to be vague enough to enable Radicals and Communists, friends and enemies of private capitalism, to enter the same fold.” (Times, April 25th). The correspondent of the Conservative Daily Telegraph (May 13th) found “nothing alarming” in the programmes of a Labour and a Communist candidate: “They were at great pains to dispel the conception that any revolution would follow in the trail of their parties’ success at the elections” !
The Price of Compromise
Those who advocate the policy of a United Front with capitalist parties do not always realise that they have to pay a heavy price for the capitalist support they buy. The French Communists were, however, under no illusion. They were willing to pay the price and have admitted it frankly, and they have certainly been more successful than their equally compromising, but less astute, British colleagues. Their seats increased from 10 to 72. It must, however, be borne in mind that this was not mainly due to increased votes (although their vote nearly doubled since 1932), but to the operation of the pact. If the Communists had joined the Radical-Labour pact in 1932 (as they did at earlier elections) they would probably have had 50 seats instead of only 10.
These are some of the items in the price they paid for joining hands with the Radicals. Labour and Communists stood as United Front candidates and in consequence had to sacrifice much of what was distinctive in their own programme. They had to deny to the workers that “Socialism is the only hope” and independence the only method. On the contrary, they had to say that capitalism is not so bad after all, provided that its representatives are Liberals, not Conservatives, and that it is administered by a Lib.-Lab. Government. They had to help save the Radical party from being reduced heavily in size. Here are some statements from Communist sources about how they helped the Labourites and Radicals. The Daily Worker (April 29th) denied the suggestion that the pact only helped the Communist Party: “This is not true. The Socialist vote has also increased compared with the last election in 1932.”
The following day the Daily Worker quoted from the Russian Communist paper, Izvestia, the statement that the Radicals “have preserved their influence among the main mass of their voters. This was the direct result of the fact that they had joined the Anti-Fascist People’s Front…”
This, it will be seen, proves that the Communists made and kept a bargain which was fair to the Radicals, but saving a capitalist Liberal Party from extinction is queer work for an alleged working-class party to be doing. In the same issue of the Daily Worker is an admission as to the way this party may be expected to act now the Communists have helped to save them. They “are rather apt to be in the United Front during elections, but out of it, and in the camp of the reactionaries after the election.”
The passage quoted below is taken from At the Parting of the Ways, by P. Braun, and has bearing on this policy of entering into pacts with capitalist parties in order to fight “reaction” It relates to France.
“It is hardly necessary to point out that such a system of sometimes tacit, and occasionally open, agreements played chiefly into the hands of the social-reformists of various tints, who represent themselves as fighters for ‘democracy’ against reaction.”
This book was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, and consists of an explanation of resolutions passed by the Communist International. The book goes on to give the “new” and correct policy decided on by the French Communist Party, a policy of “unswerving opposition” to Radicals and Labourites – “the voting of Communists for Radicals against the ‘rights’ should not be permitted.”
The book was an official Communist publication, but was published in 1928. What was demonstrably correct in 1928 is not – in Communist circles – of any interest in 1936, for in the meantime the foreign policy of the Russian Government has taken a new turn, and all sub-organisations have to come into line.
The next question to consider is the outcome of the United Front victory.
The Communists and Labourites are making extravagant claims about the new Government. The Communist Daily Worker (May 4th) promised that victory would mean the abolition of slums in Paris; and the Communist leader, Maurice Thorez, says, “We have at our disposal a majority amply sufficient to carry out our programme, and the members of our party can face the future with joy.” (Daily Worker, May 5th).
These hopes are, of course, doomed to early disappointment. Where there is capitalism there will always be poverty, class-conflict, and discontent, and capitalism will remain in France. Just as Mr. J. H. Thomas declared on behalf of the Labour Government in 1929, that it proposed to work within capitalism, so Mr. Leon Blum, leader of the French Labourites, makes a similar declaration now. At first the election results frightened the capitalist investors, but Mr. Blum soon made a “reassuring statement,” and this “relieved the tension” on the stock exchange (Daily Telegraph, May 12th). Mr. Blumfs assurance was that he would govern “within the present social regime.” (Times, May 12th). He also said : –
“The aim of the Front Populaire would be to maintain buying power by preventing the diminution of wages and by the stimulation of all forms of economic activity – the possibilities being, of course, limited by the fact that they were working inside a capitalist system which they could not at present abolish. – (Manchester Guardian, 11th May. Italics ours.)
The French Labour and Communist parties are thus caught in the trap into which the advocates of compromise always fall. They promise to solve certain urgent problems by entering into pacts with capitalist parties, hoping perhaps to gain strength later on to press forward. They forget that in taking on the administration of capitalism they do not gain strength, but lose it. They at once begin to earn the unpopularity and contempt which always centres on the Government which carries on capitalism. The effort to solve problems inside capitalism creates uncertainty, mistrust, apathy and despair among the workers who have cherished false hopes, and it correspondingly helps the Conservatives and Fascists later on.
A United Front for Great Britain
What, then, of a United Front in Great Britain, as advocated by the Communists? If modelled on that in France it would include the Labour Party and some of the Liberal Party groups, but in practice there is not much likelihood that either Liberals or Labour Party would consent to enter a pact with a party so unpopular and insignificant in size as the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Let us assume, however, that the Communist Party grows sufficiently in size and influence to be able to compel the Labour Party to come to terms, what would happen then? In the first place, if a United Front were formed, both Labour Party and Liberals would lose the votes of timid electors who would fear association with Communists, however innocuous the reform programme the latter agreed to support. On the other hand, in the unlikely event of an agreement being reached to withdraw opposition candidates in the constituencies, a United Front might, as the Daily Worker claims, have won a majority at the last election and then “there would have been no Baldwin Government.” (Daily Worker, April 29th). Instead – on the French example – there would have been a Labour-Liberal cabinet instead of the present Conservative-Liberal-National Labour cabinet. What difference would it have made? Doubtless it would have granted some more reforms, perhaps the raising of the school-leaving age to 15 without exemptions, and shorter hours, increased old-age pensions, etc. But it would have carried on the administration of capitalism, which means that it would perpetuate the private ownership of the means of wealth production and the consequent poverty and subjection of the workers. It would have helped employers against strikes. Nothing essential would have been changed. Capitalism and the forces making for war would be with us as now. Why need we wonder what might happen? We know by past experience. The present premier, Mr. Baldwin, is a Conservative. From 1906 to 1923 the premiers were Liberals. Did they keep peace and bring prosperity? No, Poverty, war and crisis. One of them, Mr. Lloyd George, formerly hated and denounced just as Mr. Baldwin is now, would certainly be one of the Liberal ministers in any such United Front Government. Moreover, have we not had two Labour Governments depending on Liberal support? What did they do to help overthrow capitalism? All they overthrew was themselves, hopelessly discredited. In Australia, Labour Governments with big majorities ruled for years and ended in similar abject failure.
The advocates of forming a United Front with non-Socialists and anti-Socialists cannot quote a single instance anywhere of the working-class being materially helped, or of the Socialist cause being aided, by their policy.
As against all this political wirepulling, the Socialist Party stands for the policy of independence. Before Socialism can be achieved, control of the political machinery has to pass from the capitalists to the organised Socialist majority. It is the plain duty of Socialists, therefore, to work to remove the capitalists from Parliament and to avoid like the plague all pacts or propaganda which can only perpetuate in the workers’ minds the idea that capitalist rule is not so bad, provided that the capitalists are Liberals or Radicals or Labourites, not Tories or Fascists.
Unity is absolutely indispensable before Socialism can be achieved, but it must be unity of Socialists: on a Socialist programme and in a Socialist Party.