Was January 6 our February 6? A Historical Comparison with France, 1934

In the wake of the highly publicized murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and the recent string of police murders of Black people caught on camera, we have seen a second wave of mass protests mirroring those of summer 2020. We also face a continued rise in activity on the far right and the persistent weakness of the organized working class. Trump may have exited the White House, but revolutionary students must still consider these important questions:

What is the state of the far-right movement in the US after January 6? Has it been defeated, or is it simply “on pause”? Was January 6 the climax of the reactionary mass movement, or is the movement of the far right continuing to rise, using this time to gather new forces for future reactionary assaults on both the organizations of the working class and the parliamentary state in its liberal form? Is fascism on the horizon?

These are the basic questions that we must confront in order to formulate our tactics at the present moment of the class struggle. These questions can only be answered by concretely analyzing the objective conditions in the US today. Abstract phrases of the type “Trump is a fascist” – or their inverted equivalents: “the US is fascist and has always been so” – are evasions of the concrete historical questions we must address. Such generalities, when taken to be self-evident, clarify absolutely nothing.

However, an objective analysis never proceeds from zero, but always assumes a certain orientation to history. Any analysis of the reactionary mass movement today must begin with a clear-headed understanding of relevant historical lessons, particularly around the question of fascization. This article will examine a specific moment in history in order to draw parallels with our own context: the riots and attempted coup by assorted far-right groups in France, 1934.

Historical analogies, permissible in a conditional and limited sense, can be useful to prepare the ground for a concrete analysis of the present. In particular, the questions we formulated above regarding the concrete situation of the far-right movement in the US today can be summed up, in analogy with France, by the question: was January 6, 2021, our February 6, 1934?

The Cartel of the Left

We will begin with important contextual details. The economic crisis that shattered the capitalist economies of the world in 1929 reached France later than other capitalist countries, largely due to its massive post-WWI recovery and reconstruction effort that reached its peak in 1930. Prior to the arrival of the crisis, the French bourgeoisie had little need for fascist adventures.

Source: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~hausmanj/Cohen_Setton_Hausman_Wieland.pdf

However, beginning in 1930, industrial production plummeted, and economic depression devastated France (see above graph).[1] The dominant classes, wanting to place the burden of the crisis on the backs of the working masses, adopted measures that aimed to lower wages and increase productivity, further aggravating the crisis. Under attack, the working class launched major strikes and other actions in 1931, notably in mining and textiles.[2] Alongside the working class, the rural masses and the urban petty bourgeoisie engaged in struggle.

In 1932, the Radical Party and the Socialist Party (SFIO) formed an electoral alliance, the Cartel of the Left, that proved victorious in the May elections, channeling generalized popular discontent into the increasingly discredited parliamentary state.

Once in power, the Radical Party ministers, supported by the SFIO, refused to implement their electoral program, passing anti-popular deflationary budgetary measures,[3] intensifying police repression of workers, and tolerating the growing activity of fascist and other far-right leagues. The SFIO abandoned all efforts to fulfill the immediate demands of the working class. The organ of the CGT trade-union federation (at that time tied to the SFIO), Le Peuple, wrote on January 16, 1934:

As the representative of the national collectivity, the state must have a superior role. It coordinates, arbitrates, decides, executes. But in order for it to fulfill this role, it requires free competition between autonomous organizations representing all those with a stake in the economy.[4]

Instead of representing a proletarian line, the unions were telling workers to place their faith in (a) the supposedly neutral state and (b) market forces to harmonize the growing contradictions between classes. The actions of the Radicals and SFIO in power demoralized and disoriented the working class, while widening the alienation of the middle layers (employees, shopkeepers, intellectuals, etc.) from the parliamentary state. The Radicals and SFIO laid the groundwork for the coming fascist offensive by believing it was possible to satisfy the demands of finance capital while claiming to advance the interests of the working masses.

Fascization of the Mass Movement

The liberal parliamentary form of the bourgeois state proved to be an increasingly inadequate tool for the maintenance of bourgeois class rule. As popular discontent intensified and spread, the ruling classes felt the need to modify the political regime. The big bourgeoisie perfected its means of repression, systematically taking away the democratic liberties[5] won through class struggle since 1789. The 1933 victory of Nazism in Germany signaled to the most reactionary forces of the big bourgeoisie internationally that the time had arrived for the counterrevolutionary offensive. Meanwhile, the Cartel of the Left minimized the threat of reaction.

The most reactionary cliques of capitalists aimed to install a dictatorship capable of containing the masses in ferment and openly supported the growth of far-right and fascist leagues. Groups like the Croix-de-Feu, Jeunesses patriotes, and Action française (Cross of Fire, Patriotic Youth, and French Action) took advantage of the crisis by demagogically securing a base among the petty bourgeoisie undergoing proletarianization.[6]

Ernest Mercier, the director of numerous companies in the electricity, oil, and banking sectors, was one of the main collectors and distributors of monopoly capital funding of pro-fascist groups. Mercier called for street action to “correct” the powerlessness of parliament:

This correction can only come from an authority that will be imposed by popular will. The only solution, which the circumstances will impose shortly, is that of a government of authority.[7]

Mercier was hardly alone among the big bourgeoisie. For example, the founder and leader of the Catholic anti-Republican league Jeunesses patriotes (Patriotic Youth), Pierre Taittinger, was the founder of the Taittinger champagne house and the director of numerous companies, including the Société des Forces Motrices de la Vienne, a hydro-electric energy firm. The big-bourgeois supporters of the far-right and fascist leagues in the early 1930s were often the very same figures who later led the various “organizing committees” that directed the French economy under the fascist Vichy regime.

Nourished and led by big finance capital, fascism and other far-right, anti-Republican, anti-Communist, nationalist movements mobilized the urban petty bourgeoisie and backwards sections of the working class by putting forward a demagogic program which was anti-capitalist in appearance only. Three types of far-right groups existed in France:

(1) Shock troops of the far right founded long before the crisis of the 1930s, including the Ligue des Patriotes (League of Patriots), founded in 1882 as a revanchist[8] organization following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the royalist Action française, founded in 1899 as an anti-Dreyfusard[9] organization. Such groups, renewed in the form of fascist leagues in the context of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, struggled against the republican tradition of 1789, deployed anti-Semitism and anti-Communism to cement their mass base, denounced parliamentarism, supported corporatism, upheld the “traditional” family, and brandished the flag of an integral and racist nationalism.

(2) The “pure” fascist groups formed in the wake of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, like the Mouvement franciste (Francist Movement) of Michel Bucard, known as the “Blueshirts.” Bucard declared “Our Francism is to France what Fascism is to Italy.”

(3) Newly-founded “apolitical” groups that aimed to secure a mass base among the middle layers, including the Croix-de-Feu (Cross of Fire), which leveraged the prestige and values of soldiers who fought in World War I: military brotherhood, anti-corruption, resentment at the poverty of war veterans, a distorted and chauvinist “Jacobinism,” a struggle against “political elites,” and a hollow anti-capitalism.

In comparison to Italy and Germany, the far right and fascism in France had a relatively narrow mass base. For this reason, they relied on figures with key positions in the state apparatus, notably in the police and the army, in their attempt to seize power. The Prefect of Police, Jean Chiappe vowed: “I have always combatted demonstrators of the extreme left. But ex-combattants, never![10] Chiappe was closely tied to François de La Rocque, the head of Croix-de-Feu, among other far right figures.

The Fascist and Far-Right Counterattack of February 6

How did the left respond to the growing forces of reaction? The weak French Communist Party (PCF), having understood that the division of the working class had paved the way for the victory of Nazism in Germany, proposed an alliance with the SFIO in the name of unity of action: an alliance of the working class and middle layers against fascism and the offensive of capital. The PCF proposal was rejected by the socialists, who claimed the agreement would lead the SFIO to decomposition.

However, the SFIO was falling apart already, alliance or no alliance: in November 1933, the pro-fascist “Neo-Socialists” split from the SFIO, condemning the “inert powerlessness of the old political groups.” The Socialists refused to clearly call for a popular counter-offensive led by the working class. Meanwhile, the PCF itself lacked a strong foothold among the working class, as evidenced by its 1932 electoral showing, in which it won only 12% of the total number of votes won by the Radicals and the SFIO combined.

In January 1934, Alexandre Stavisky, a swindler who engaged in fraudulent businesses involving prominent officials in the Radical Party-led Chautemps government, was evading law enforcement after a scam involving fake municipal bonds. He was supposedly found dying of a gunshot wound by police in Chamonix. The far right claimed that the police had killed him in order to protect government officials who had been involved in the scam. The “anti-system” slogan “down with the thieves!” reverberated through the far right. The “Stavisky Affair” and its wide dissemination in the media was the spark that ignited the accumulated dry tinder of mass discontent and distrust of the government.

Meanwhile, social instability continued to grow. That same month, 50,000 workers demonstrated in Paris in favor of their immediate economic demands. Street fighting between communist militants and the far-right and fascist leagues became increasingly commonplace. On January 27, the Chautemps government gave way to a more “left” government led by Édouard Daladier of the reformist Radical-Socialist Party.

The new Daladier government, intent on neutralizing the far right, immediately dismissed Chiappe as Prefect of Police. This was the signal for the far right and fascists to act. On February 6, 1934, the day on which the government was to present itself before the Chamber of Deputies, the moment had arrived for a popular assault on the Bourbon Palace, seat of the Chamber.

To our comrades of the fire, to all Frenchmen and Frenchwomen.
A government enslaved to the red flag tries to reduce you to slavery.
Indifferent to bankruptcy, to the threat of poverty, it has no other objective than hatred, no other means than proscription.
The sectarian dictatorship wants to take hold here.
Do not submit. Follow the Croix de Feu. We stand above all the discredited political parties.
They will eliminate this dishonorable parliamentarism. They will establish a state of Frenchmen who are free from abject political combinations.
With order restored, we will maintain it and not betray you. Our code is honor and fraternity. For peace at home and abroad, follow our banners.”

That night, the fascist and other far-right leagues marched to the Place de la Concorde, where the demonstration developed into street fighting, as demonstrators attacked the police defending parliament. Some groups were more disciplined and focused than others but there was no single leading “vanguard” of the reactionary movement. Thousands of demonstrators faced off against the police, throwing stones, brandishing revolvers, and cutting the tendons of police horses with razors. During the riot, 16 people were killed and 2,000 were injured. Inside the National Assembly, brawls erupted between left- and right-wing deputies.

Besides the lack of centralized leadership, what prevented February 6 from culminating in an outright coup d’état was the refusal of one of the larger far-right groups, Croix-de-Feu, to use its concentrated force to take over parliament. This decision was the result of its leader de la Rocque’s weak dedication to republicanism.

Despite its failure, the events of February 6 displayed the reality of the fascist threat, as armed fascist and other far-right gangs colluded with the most reactionary political forces to attack the working class and republican institutions. The SFIO reacted not by mobilizing militants from their party, but by relying on the Radical-led government to see off the fascist threat. But the government was too weak to maintain power in the face of the demonstrations. The next day, despite a vote of confidence passed in his favor, Daladier resigned as Prime Minister.

The Radical Party crumbled under the pressure of fascist organizations and the financial oligarchy, agreeing to the formula imposed by the far right: a “National Union” government led by Gaston Doumergue, a political figure closely tied to big monopoly capital. Doumergue sanctioned a reactionary solution to the political crisis, refusing to struggle against fascism on the pretext of avoiding civil war. The new government included the Radicals but excluded the socialists.

The Popular Front

Following the events of February, the PCF moved to develop the SFIO-PCF alliance. After long negotiations, a unity of action pact was concluded between the two parties in July 1934. The accord aimed to mobilize the whole working population against the National Union government and fascist organizations, to defend democratic liberties, to oppose war preparations, and to work for the freedom of all anti-fascists imprisoned in Germany and Austria.

On October 9-10, 1934, the PCF put forward a plan to expand the alliance to include the middle classes, calling for a Popular Front “of liberty, labor, and peace” against reaction and fascism. The Popular Front would bring in the Radical Party and other smaller parties of the petty bourgeoisie. The Popular Front advanced a program against the financial oligarchy, advancing a democratic – i.e., not a socialist – politics.

In 1936, the Popular Front won the national elections. The task was now to implement the democratic and national program that aimed to isolate and definitively beat fascism. To this end, the PCF pledged its “complete support” for a SFIO-led government, at the same time supporting a reinforcement of the base organizations of the alliance. The line of the PCF was expressed in the slogan it raised following the elections: “Everything for the Popular Front; everything through the Popular Front.This amounted to a practical rejection of the principle of working-class independence within the alliance.

While the project of forming a tactical alliance that aimed to dissolve the fascist leagues, extend democratic freedoms, and purge the army of reaction was correct as an action program, the implementation of the Popular Front paralyzed the initiative and independence of the working class within the anti-fascist alliance, sacrificing its long-term interests. By 1938 the Popular Front was in shambles, and in July 1940, France definitively fell to fascism, with many of the actors from February 1934 playing key roles in the Vichy regime.

This disastrous alliance demonstrates that instead of a unity based on unilateral, passive concessions, the working class must always maintain its unity in tactical alliances through active struggle.

Lessons for Today

What parallels can we draw between the French experience and our own? We can make an analysis of the US far right today, compared to France in 1934, from three different perspectives: the mass movement, the state, and the class organization.

The Mass Movement

In the US today, the broad masses, the petty-bourgeoisie in particular, have been in ferment since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. As in France in the early 1930s, a deep and protracted economic crisis has led to social dislocation and proletarianization of the ‘middle layers,’ centered on the petty-bourgeoisie of small business owners and employees, but including sections of the working class undergoing difficulty. We have witnessed a sharp rise in mass mobilizations on both the left and far right.

The result of these mobilizations is that increasing layers of the masses no longer see the bourgeois state as “their own.” The political crisis has been accompanied by an ideological crisis of liberal values and a proliferation of theories sanctifying the establishment of a new political order, e.g., QAnon. The sharpening of social antagonisms constitutes the fundamental condition of the process of fascization of the mass movement.

The liberal state is unable to manage the deadlock of the traditional parties, with no faction of the bourgeoisie able to impose its hegemony either over the rest of the bourgeoisie or the mass movement within the framework of parliamentarism. The weakness of the working class, in the political sense, has made the growth of armed reaction possible. This reactionary force is concentrated in certain state institutions, above all the police and lower ranks of the military.[11]      

The State

However, January 6, 2021 revealed that the far right is standing on a much thinner wedge of support among the big bourgeoisie than was the case in France in 1934. In the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, the bulk of the bourgeoisie came out massively against Trump and the protesters he mobilized.

To be sure, the US monopoly bourgeoisie is in crisis, reflected by increasingly reactionary measures undertaken by the state. Many of these anti-democratic policies have the far right as their immediate target but will be used in the long run as a weapon against the working class and its organizations.[12] The big bourgeoisie understands that its inability to master the class struggle will inevitably lead to social revolution. But in the absence of an organized working class, it is not ready to turn against the parliamentary state.

The bourgeoisie longs for the regime of stability and peace that was shaken by the Great Recession. However, the big monopoly bourgeoisie does not yet feel compelled to rely on the reactionary mass movement to conquer the state, weaken or abolish parliament, severely restrict democratic rights, and impose the organic unity of bourgeois rule by force. They have not yet reached for their last resort, fascism.

 The Class Organization

In France, the far right was organized into dozens of reactionary leagues. The largest and best-organized among them, including Action française and the Croix-de-Feu, had a certain degree of cadrification, with rules-based discipline and concrete programs. But the dispersal of the far right and fascist forces meant that conquering the French state was out of the question on February 6.

In the US, the process of cadrification of far-right and fascist gangs is even less developed. Dozens of reactionary paramilitary forces and street gangs converged on the US Capitol on January 6, but no united fascist “vanguard” leadership has emerged bearing party rules and a program that can appeal to petty-bourgeois resentments against the working class and big monopoly capital.

What remains of Trumpism certainly lacks the minimal political and ideological firmness and systematicity required to constitute such a counterrevolutionary fascist “vanguard.” A genuine fascist program would advocate the “revolutionary” renewal of the state as the guardian of order, security, and private property against the forces of “anarchism,” division, and parasitic liberalism that have squandered the resources of the nation.

In sum: the fascization of the mass movement in the US has proceeded spontaneously but the big bourgeoisie has not yet turned to this blunt instrument to secure its rule, nor has the reactionary mass movement organized its counterrevolutionary “vanguard.”

The main concern of the big bourgeoisie is ensuring that the masses adhere to its rule. Their preferred method of achieving this adherence lies in the liberal form of the parliamentary state. But if the bourgeoisie cannot accomplish this – knowing that the persistent refusal of the working class and masses to accept its leadership can only end in revolution – they may very well be forced to decide in favor of fascism or some other form of authoritarian rule.

What can prevent a future turn by the ruling class towards fascism? We’ve seen both in our own context and in our analysis of France in the 1930s that the expansion of the fascist movement speculates on the ideological and political weakness of the working class. For this reason, we must above all work with the utmost energy and enthusiasm to constitute the political independence and initiative of the working class, so that it can lead all social struggles against the decadent US imperialist state and organize the general assault on the bourgeoisie in the line of socialist revolution. In order to lead all discontented sections of the mass movement, the working class must formulate a positive program that can attract all classes and social groups who have lost confidence in the bourgeois state. Bearing in mind the experience of France and the Popular Front in forming tactical alliances against the far right, we must neither isolate the working class from the struggles of other sections of society, nor dissolve the interests of the working class in the struggles of other classes and social forces.

[1] Jérémie Cohen-Seton et al., Supply Side Policies in the Depression: Evidence from France, 2015, <http://www-personal.umich.edu/~hausmanj/Cohen_Setton_Hausman_Wieland.pdf>. Also see <https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A018BAFRA324NNBR>.

[2] These strikes were long and intense, involving significant street battles. One important strike was the March-April, 1931 general mine strike, of which Danielle Tartakowsky writes: “The mine strike of March 30, 1931 is the occasion of new clashes in Hénin-Liétard where two mobile guards are wounded, in Alès where Sémard and the mayor invite to march against the detention center. ‘The late hour favored excesses,’ comments the commissioner, who describes the procession ‘degenerating into a revolutionary demonstration.’ Danielle Tartakowsky, Les manifestations de rue en France, 1997, < https://books.openedition.org/psorbonne/62302>. (Our translation.) Another significant example was the Roubaix textile strikes of 1930-1931, which Thibault Tellier discusses in his book strikes: “The official arrival of the economic crisis in 1931 in our region, as everywhere in France, was the cause of the second strike movement, which took place between May and July 1931. The movement was much more significant than the previous one. Among those who initiated it was once again Désiré Ley. In order to prevent the effects of the crisis, he decided, in agreement with his colleagues in the Consortium, to carry out a general reduction in wages in order to obtain a reduction in cost prices. The workers’ response was not long in coming. On May 16, 1931, a general strike was called. It lasted 70 days and affected 11,500 textile workers.” Thibault Tellier, La représentation sociale, politique et littéraire du peuple des villes : l’exemple des grèves du textile à Roubaix en 1930-1931, 2018, <https://books.openedition.org/irhis/2046>. (Our translation.)

[3]  For the Radicals and SFIO, the path of deflationary measures was a question of reducing state expenditure by reducing the salaries of civil servants, thus hoping to bring about a reduction in the budget deficit and a fall in prices. See Michel Margairaz, L’Etat, les finances et l’économie: Histoire d’une conversion, 1932-1952, 1991: “The cuts could only be made in civil servants’ salaries and pensions, ‘deadly toxins’ (Louis Germain-Martin) for Radical governments with Socialist support. Thus, the Daladier (October 24) and Sarraut (November 26) governments, and with them the fragile majority of the Neo-Cartel, perished over their financial plans. […] In total, from the elections of 1932 to the end of 1933, efforts to reduce expenditure and increase revenue amounted to ten billion.” (Our translation.) <https://books.openedition.org/igpde/2276>. The pre-February 6 deflationary measures accelerated in 1933, as Pierre Villa notes: “The balanced budget doctrine carried full weight in 1933, when the government tried to reduce the number of civil servants, to increase the income tax, to tax fuel etc. After the fall of several governments, a restrictive fiscal policy was implemented: additional tax on the income of civil servants, an increase of 10% in income tax and the ‘contrivance’ of a new tax based on the discrepancy between the 1933 nominal income and the average of 1931 and 1932 nominal incomes.” Pierre Villa, France in the Early Depression of the 1930s, 1996, <http://www.cepii.fr/PDF_PUB/wp/1996/wp1996-06.pdf>. (Our translation.)

[4] Le Peuple, January 16, 1934

[5] See Jacques Chambaz, Le front Populaire pour le pain, la liberté et la paix, 1961: “Likewise, the Radical Congress of Vichy (5-8 October 1933) unanimously joined the anti-parliamentary campaigns. The final declaration, presented by André Marie, openly yielded to them (cf. official report, pp. 523 and following). After February 6, at the Extraordinary Congress of Clermont-Ferrand, the agenda of the young radicals, including Mendès-France and Monnerville, was singularly lacking in clarity on these problems by demanding ‘an organic reform of the State ensuring harmony between governmental authority, parliamentary control, and an essential collaboration of technicians.’ In a recent work: The Popular Front and the Elections of 1936, G. Dupeux rightly notes: ‘The criticism of parliamentary impotence, the nostalgia for a strong power were not the monopoly of the leagues.’” (Our translation.)

[6] “The petty bourgeoisie suffers real injustices and oppression under capitalist society. However, in absence of a proletarian political force which can provide rational answers to the sore questions which confront this middling class, it will spontaneously turn to false conclusions and absurd conspiracy theories (particularly of the nationalist type) to explain its reality.” — “Understanding the Rise of Far-Right Militias,” MDSO, 7/24/20.

[7] Cited in Georges Michon, Les Puissances d’argent et l’émeute du 6 février, 1934, 10.

[8] The term “revanchism” (from the French word for “revenge”) refers to a nationalist political movement that aims to undo a country’s territorial losses. It originated in the Franco-Prussian war in reference to French nationalists who wanted to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine following its loss in the French defeat.

[9] The Dreyfus Affair was a social and political conflict that began with a false accusation of treason directed at Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French military. He was imprisoned in French Guiana. After exculpatory evidence came to light pointing to Major Ferdinand Esterhazy as the guilty party, the evidence was suppressed, Esterhazy was acquitted, and new charges were laid against Dreyfus. This prompted Émile Zola’s famous open letter: J’Accuse… French society was divided between republican, anti-clerical Dreyfusards (including Zola, Henri Poincaré, Sarah Bernhardt) and reactionary, Catholic, anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards.

[10] Cited in Jacques Chambaz, Le front Populaire pour le pain, la liberté, et la paix, 1961, 218.

[11] “An Associated Press review of public records, social media posts and videos shows at least 22 current or former members of the U.S. military or law enforcement have been identified as being at or near the Capitol riot, with more than a dozen others under investigation but not yet named. In many cases, those who stormed the Capitol appeared to employ tactics, body armor and technology such as two-way radio headsets that were similar to those of the very police they were confronting.” < https://apnews.com/article/ex-military-cops-us-capitol-riot-a1cb17201dfddc98291edead5badc257>

[12] While mainly directed against the far right, this March 2021 National Intelligence report includes anti-capitalist ideology among those ideological trends that pose an “elevated threat to the Homeland.” See page 4: “DVEs [domestic violent extremists] who oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions, which are perceived as harmful to society.” <https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/21_0301_odni_unclass-summary-of-dve-assessment-17_march-final_508.pdf>