Reserve army on the march

Issue: 118

George Paizis

Matt Perry, Prisoners of Want: The Experience and Protest of the Unemployed in France, 192145 (Ashgate, 2007), £55

The inter-war period was turbulent for the working class movement. In the aftermath of the First World War revolution was in the air. The bourgeoisie in the industrialised world feared it might not survive. However, capitalism did survive and entered the usual cycle of boom and bust, culminating in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and a worldwide slump that lasted many years. This led to a period of prolonged and extensive unemployment in France.

Furthermore, the workers’ movement in France was split. The emergence of the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1920 from within the discredited Socialist Party (SFIO) was followed by a split in the union movement. The leaders of the CGT union confederation expelled those affiliated organisations whose loyalty was in doubt. The result was that French workers found themselves organised by two rival union organisations—the CGT and the Communist-led CGTU.

The workers’ movement in France was split. In 1920 the majority in the discredited Socialist Party (SFIO) broke away and went on to form the French Communist Party (PCF). This in turn led to a split between two rival union federations—the CGT and the Communist-led CGTU. Worse still, as Stalin rose to power in Russia, the strategy and tactics of the PCF were increasingly subordinated to Moscow’s foreign policy.

From 1928 and well into the 1930s the PCF and its affiliated organisations were required to follow the notorious “class versus class” policy that held workers’ revolution to be imminent. Reformist leaders were portrayed as the main impediment to the overthrow of capitalism. The PCF’s press directed most of its vitriol at the reformists, rather than against the right and extreme right, and avoided or made very difficult the united front work that could resist the devastating effects of the crisis.

In the mid-1930s Moscow shifted from this “ultra-left” policy to the policy of the Popular Front, which saw Communists uniting with parties from across the political spectrum as part of Stalin’s attempt to ally with Western governments. In France this period saw an upturn in industrial struggle and the electoral victory of the Popular Front in 1936 as well as the reunification of the union movement.

Prisoners of Want shows that the unemployed movement fought not only to defend the unemployed but also to create some of the preconditions for a united fightback by workers. The book tracks the struggles of the unemployed through these periods. It is of particular interest now, because the current period of economic instability will inevitably lead to rising unemployment and part-time working.

The basic units of organisation formed by the unemployed in 1921 were the Comités des Chômeurs, unemployed workers’ committees that were either focused on a particular branch of industry or based geographically. Later, as unemployment became more widespread, ethnic committees were created for Poles, Chinese, Armenians, Jews and other minority groups. These were then coordinated through a regional and ultimately a national structure.

Regional, local and national papers carried reports of activities and successful initiatives. Funding came from the union movement, mainly from the CGTU. The main vehicles for organising the unemployed were therefore the trade unions. Demonstrations could be large, numbering in the thousands. Hunger marches were held, and national days of action were also features of the movement.

The effects of unemployment followed a predictable pattern: the employers used the threat of unemployment to keep down wages, raise overtime and generally erode the condition of those at work. Above all, they sought to resist rises in benefits, as this would interfere with the normal course of the market, making the unemployed less willing to accept inferior jobs. Immigrants were quickly singled out as a cause of unemployment by the right wing press. Women had far greater difficulty making claims for benefits and the press ran regular scare stories about fraud, which, as now, was far less than the amounts of benefits that went unclaimed. 1932 was a high point of struggle, with over 100 demonstrations throughout the country.

The unemployed contributed significantly to the growth of the PCF. There were differences in strategy between socialist-led groups and those led by the Communists. The socialists focused on demanding that the central government improve benefits and on self-help activities. In contrast, the Communist groups pointed the finger of blame at capitalism and organised demonstrations that were regularly banned, attacked and dispersed by the police.

The most famous event, which brought the plight of the unemployed to the front pages of the national press, was the hunger march of winter 1933. The PCF threw all its resources into organising the Lille to Paris march. This was met by sabotage from the socialist party and the CGT, as well as bans from the government “on humanitarian grounds, so as to avoid the suffering that it would bring on the participants”. These obstacles were overcome by a combination of protest, subterfuge and determination. Even when it began, the march still had to split into many sections to avoid arrest, harassment and imprisonment. Even day to day tactics were kept secret from the marchers themselves to frustrate the efforts of the police infiltrators.

The culmination of the protest was the arrival of well over 1,000 marchers, joined by thousands of supporters, to be welcomed by a crowd of tens of thousands and the municipal authorities of Saint-Denis. After a few days of political events the marchers returned home to celebratory report back meetings.

Emulation of the hunger march tactic in the provinces was not the only result of this campaign. It also inspired more aggressive demands such as opposition to forced labour, and invasions of municipal buildings as well as the establishment of more unemployed workers’ committees. The greater confidence in the movement allowed it to cut across the divide between the PCF and the SFIO.

The movement of the unemployed merged with the national turmoil over an attempted fascist coup in Paris in February 1934. Pressure from the rank and file of both parties for united action forced a change in the PCF policy towards the SFIO, leading to the establishment of united anti-fascist committees and later to the adoption of a joint Popular Front electoral programme for “bread, peace and liberty”.

The electoral victory of the Popular Front in 1936 came during a rise in unemployed activity and hunger marches and anti-fascist protests, and was greeted by a wave of 9,000 factory occupations. One of the measures adopted in June that year was the 40-hour week, to alleviate the effects of unemployment.

With the integration of the movement into the newly unified CGT union organisation and the rise of the Popular Front, with its associated quest for respectability by the Communists, the strategy for combating unemployment changed radically. The era of hunger marches, clashes with the police and occupation of municipal offices was over. Instead the focus shifted to lobbying sympathetic mayors and ministers, and the promotion of philanthropy and self-help initiatives. Unemployment did not diminish appreciably but the self-activities of the unemployed did.

The final chapter of the book deals with the unemployed movement during the Second World War. It shows that the movement helped the persecuted PCF maintain a level of activity in the early part of the war and use this as a base from which to launch its resistance activities after 1941.

This book is a valuable reference tool. It would make an important contribution to library collections on the 1930s and the experiences of the working class movement. Furthermore, it provides useful lessons for us today in the struggles against insecurity and social marginalisation.