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The Comintern and the Origins of the Popular Front 1934–1935

  • Jonathan Haslam (a1)

Although many in the West have written on the Popular Front and its role in French or Spanish politics during the thirties, very little has been revealed about its origins. Indeed, one of the foremost historians of the Popular Front has expressed perplexity on this matter. Daniel Brower asks: ‘What brought on this change? Why had fascism suddenly assumed such threatening proportions in the eyes of Comintern leaders? To this day the answer remains obscure.’ The aim of this article is to throw some light on this question.

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1 Brower, D. R., The new Jacobins: the French communist party and the Popular Front (New York, 1968), p. 49.

2 A recent example of this is a work by Claudin, Fernando, The communist movement: from Comintern to Cominform (London, 1975).

3 The Communist International 1919–1943. documents selected and edited by Degras, Jane, II, 1923–8 (London, 1960), pp. 446526; and Carr, E. H., The foundations of a planned economy 1926–1929, III, ii (London, 1976).

4 This began to make itself felt as early as 1930, and took the form of a reminder to party members that the tactic of united front ‘from below’ should not be neglected. Manuilsky, Soviet representative on the Comintern executive committee, pointed this out to French delegates at the committee's French commission in June 1930: Kommunisticheskii international, 18, 30 June 1930.

5 For Soviet concern at the dangers of a Franco-German rapprochement brought about by the U.S.A.: ‘On the eve of the Franco-American talks’, the editorial in Pravda, 21 10. 1931. For evidence of Soviet beliefs that German social democracy was a crucial support for the Versailles system: Knorin, W., ‘World social democracy in the struggle against the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses’, in Pravda, 7 11. 1931. Knorin was the head of the Comintern's Central European secretariat. The French communists were criticized in Moscow for inadequate work in undermining the armed forces. France was described there as ‘le gendarme du monde, I'organisateur de l'intervention contre I'URSS’: Le parti communiste français devant l'Internationale (Paris, 1931).

6 It had been Stalin and Molotov, against the advice of Manuilsky, who made the infamous decision that the German communists should join the Nazis in voting the social democratic government of Prussia out of power in the summer of 1931. This information comes from the East German history of the German communist party, based on archival material. It is quoted in Hermann Weber's introduction to Flechtheim, O. K., II partita Comunista tedesco (K.P.D.) nel periodo delta Repubblica di Weimar (Milano, 1970), pp. 66–7.

7 L'Humanité, 13 Feb. 1933, quoted in Kommunisticheskii internatsumal: kratkii istoricheskii ocherk (Moscow, 1969), p. 350.

8 Pravda, 6 March 1933.

9 Kommunisticheskii internatsumal: kratkii, p. 354.

10 This statement appeared in the second of two articles, entitled ‘The greatest crime of the social-democracy’ (sic) and printed in the Daily Worker, 4 May 1933.

11 Spravochnik partiinogo rabotnika (Moscow, 1934).

12 At the end of July 1932, the I.L.P. voted to disaffiliate from the Second International, and on 16 April 1933 negotiations began between Kuusinen of the Comintern secretariat and the I.L.P. leaders about some form of affiliation with the Comintern. At the same time the British communists were expanding co-operation with the I.L.P. on a whole set of issues. Both the I.L.P.-Comintern exchanges and the negotiations between Pollitt and Fenner Brockway, can be followed in the pages of the Daily Worker from 1933 to 1934.

13 The article, ‘Amico dei lavoratori’, has been reprinted in Palmiro Togliatti, Opere, edited by Ernesto Ragionieri, in, 2, 1929–1935 (Roma, 1973), pp. 214–16.

14 Thorez expressed these thoughts to an Italian communist friend, who has transcribed them in his memoirs: Cerreti, Giulio, Con Togliatti e Thorez: quarant'anni di lotte politiche (Milano, 1973), pp. 128–9.

15 ‘Fascism, the danger of war and the tasks of communist parties’, Bol'shevik, 28 Feb. 1934.

16 Referring to Hitler's assumption of power, Manuilsky pointed out: 'think, comrades, what would have happened had this event taken place some years ago, when the bolshevization of the Comintern's section ran into alternating crises. Such an event would have inevitably brought with it a profound crisis within the Comintern'. This address on ‘The crisis of capitalism and the tasks of the world communist movement’ was published in Bol'shevik, 21 Jan. 1934.

17 Fischer, Louis, Men and politics: an autobiography (New York, 1946), p. 404.

18 Firsov, F. I., ‘Georgi Dimitrov and the west European bureau of the Comintern’, in Georgi Dimitrov: an outstanding militant of the Comintern (Sofia, 1979).

19 For a recent account of this, see M. Semkov, P. Radenkova, ‘The victor of Leipzig’, in Georgi Dimitrov.

20 Further representations had followed on February 17 and 21: Dokumenty vneshnei politiki SSSR edited by Gromyko, A. A. et al. , XVII (Moscow, 1971), docs. 59, 60 and 64.

21 One of Pravda's editors, Mikhail Kol'tsov, describes this in an article published in the Daily Worker, I March 1934. Manuilsky's speech of welcome was printed in Pravda, 28 Feb. 1934.

22 For an account of these events, see Berstein, Serge, Le 6 février 1934 (Paris, 1975), and D. R. Brower, The new Jacobins, ch. II.

23 The best account of the communist dilemma appears in Hajek, Miloš, Storia dell'internazionale comunista (1921–1935): la politico del fronte unico (Roma, 1969), pp. 240–1.

24 According to one French historian, who fails to supply his source, André Marty at L'Humanité's offices refused to insert the instruction in the newspaper. He obeyed only as a result of a special instruction from the Politburo of the French party. See Lefranc, Georges, Histoire du front populaire, 1934–1935 (Paris, 1965), p. 28. Hajek, Miloš suggests that Lefranc bases his information on Franck, P. F., La semaine du 6 au 12 février: pour I 'alliance ouvrière, pour la IVe Internationale (Paris?, 1934). Another historian also bases his account upon the recollections of ‘a former party member who took part in the decisions of those days’: Borkenau, Franz, European communism (London, 1951), ch. v. It is impossible to verify this type of information when the source is not disclosed, though it appears attractive in providing detail normally difficult to obtain elsewhere.

25 The best account of this affair originally appeared in Walter, Gérard, Histoire du parti communiste français (Paris, 1948), and is entitled ‘Le cas Doriot’, ch. XVII. A further elaboration on the episode then appeared in D. R. Brower, The new Jacobins, pp. 41–9, to be followed by Racine, Nicole and Bodin, Louis, Le parti communiste français pendant I'entre-deux-guerres (Paris, 1972), pp. 205–6.

26 Thorez had signalled the possibility of a more accommodating attitude in an article, ‘Pour un travail bolchevik de masses’, which appeared in Cahiersdu Bolchévisme 20, 15 Oct. 1932. Here Thorez argued that because French social democracy had not participated in government, it was therefore not so easily unmasked. Hence the French communists faced a problem different from other communists, and more subtle policy was required to deal with it. For their ‘opportunist mistakes’, the French communists received strong criticism from Pyatnitsky, one of the Comintern leaders, at the thirteenth plenum in December 1933. He argued that this move by the French communists had in fact disoriented socialists who would otherwise have entered communist ranks: Pyatnitsky, ‘Communist parties in the striiggle for the masses’, Kommunisticheskii internatsional, 36, 20 Dec. 1933.

27 A biographer of Maurice Thorez has described how the animosity between Thorez and Doriot led to violence in the summer of 1932 in Moscow. See Robrieux, Philippe, Maurice Thorez: vie secrète et vie publique (Paris, 1975), p. 159.

28 This statement was published on 3 March: Georges Lefranc, Histoire, 44.

29 The letter was published on 11 April: D. R. Brower, The new Jacobins, 44.

30 Miloš Hajek, Storia, pp. 238–9.

31 Shirinya, K. K., ‘Vklad G. Dimitrova v razrabotku novoi orientirovki Kominterna v 30-e gody’, in Georgi Dimitrov: revolyutsioner-leninets (Moscow, 1974).

32 Dimitrov assumed these positions on 29 April: Khadzhinkov, Vesselin et al. , Georgi Dimitrov: biograjia (Sofia, 1972), p. 320.

33 Pravda, 23 May 1934; Célie, and Vassart, Albert, ‘The Moscow origins of the French “Popular Front”’, in The Comintern: historical highlights, ed. Drachkovitch, M. M. and Lazitch, B. (New York, 1966).

34 T. Angelova, ‘Georgi Dimitrov and the struggle of the Bulgarian communist party for the unification of all democratic forces against fascism and war, from the triumph of the socialist revolution in Bulgaria (1934–1944)’, in Georgi Dimitrov: an outstanding militant.

35 The decision was signed by Dimitrov and others, and was dated 16 May: Pravda, 23 May 1934.

36 Doriot did not attend the French communist party conference, from 23 to 26 June, on the pretext that he was not a delegate. At the same time he declared that the united front was merely a manoeuvre. The decision to expel him was formally the result of a conference recommendation to the central committee of the party. Thorez said that ‘Doriot's absence at the conference is the logical consequence of his non-participation in the work of the party's Politburo in the course of many months and his refusal to go to Moscow’: Pravda, 28 June 1934. V'Humanité published the decision to expel him on 1 July: Pravda, 2 July 1934.

37 Instead, the congress favoured a resolution which was much more vague, suggesting to the Second International that it renew its offers for a joint struggle against fascism: Pravda, 25 May 1934.

38 Pravda, 1 June 1934.

39 Pravda, 14 June 1934.

40 An article to this effect appeared in Pravda, entitled ‘Politika frantsuzskikh reformistov’, by Vassart, , on 16 06 1934.

41 Pravda, 30 July 1934; Brower, The new Jacobins, pp. 65–7.

42 Hajek, Storia, pp. 250–1.

43 Spravochnik.

44 ‘Dokumenty G. M. Dimitrova k VII kongressu Kommunisticheskogointernatsionala’, Voprosy istorii K.P.S.S., vII (1965).

45 Ibid. Reference to the fact that the letter was sent to Stalin and the Politburo is to be found in Istoriya kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo Soyuza, iv, 2 (1929–1937 gg), (Moscow, 1971). 311; also, D. Michev, ‘Georgi Dimitrov i revolyutsionnoe rabochie dvizhenie v Germanii (1933–1935 gg)’, in Georgi Dimitrov-revolyutsioner.

46 These figures are given in an editorial on Spain in Kommunisticheskii internatsional, 20 Nov. 1934. There was a natural tendency on the part of the Spanish party to exaggerate these numbers. At the seventeenth congress of the Soviet communist party in February 1934, Dolores Ibarruri claimed that the party numbered 30,000: XVII s'ezd vsesoyuinoi kommunisticheskoi partii (b): stenograficheskii otchet (Moscow, 1934). The former figure is probably closer to the truth, and given the fact the party's size grew throughout 1934, it must have been even smaller in February, when Ibarruri spoke at the congress.

47 For an account of this move see the Daily Worker, 1 March 1933.

48 The quotations are from Balbontín's open letter of 5 March. For this and the discussion with Codovilla, see Colomer, Eduardo Comin, Historia del partido Communista de España Primera etapa (II) (Madrid, 1965), pp. 93–4. Although it is antagonístic towards the communists, this work does have the merit of reprinting important documents of the party at great length. Stalin's discussion of Spain showed an astonishing lack of knowledge. He talked of ‘the defeat of Fascism in Spain once again indicating that the revolutionary crisis is maturing and Fascism is far from being long-lived’. It is hard to see how he came to such conclusions, given the strengthening of the right wing in Spanish politics at that time. For his speech, dated 26 January 1934, see XVII s'ezd.

49 Colomer, Historia, pp. 174–6.

50 The uprising began with a general strike on 4 October, to protest against the entry of the C.E.D.A., Gil Robles' party, into the Lerroux government. Gerö, the Hungarian adviser to the Spanish party from the Comintern, pointed to the entry of the party into the Alianzas Obreras as crucial to the creation of unity amongst the working class, a precondition for the general strike: Pravda, 7 Oct. 1934. After the uprising was crushed, the Spanish communists criticized the socialists for delaying the general strike until after the new government had been formed, and made the general point that the failure was due to lack of sufficient preparation. This declaration from the party's central committee was published in Pravda, 3 Nov. 1934. For a summary of these events, see Hajek, Storia, pp. 261–2, and Braunthal, Julius, History of the International, 2, 1914–1943 (London, 1967), pp. 451–2.

51 The British communists offered a united front to the Labour party, the Independent Labour party and the T.U.C. general council on 11 March 1933. The Labour party's refusal to accept it was based on the Second International's argument that talks had to be at the level of executive committees of both Internationals: the Daily Worker, 24 March 1933. The communists continued to work for a united front and sent an open letter to delegates attending the Labour party conference which opened on 2 October: the Daily Worker, 30 Sept. 1933. When fighting broke out in Austria, the communists repeated their offer to the Labour party and received the reply that ‘it would be idle to ignore fundamental differences of policy and method which exist between the Labour Party and the Communist Party, and to establish a so-called “united front”…’. The offer was made on 15 February 1934; the reply was dated 2 March: the Daily Worker, 6 March 1934.

52 The Czech party also had its ‘Doriot’ in the person of Guttmann, editor of Rudé Právo. Although he admitted his ‘errors’, he continued his opposition to the sixth congress strategy and in January 1934 the politburo decided to expel him from the party, this being approved at the following party conference. SeeIstoriya Chekhoslovakii, III, edited by Mel'nikov, I. N. et al. . (Moscow, 1960), 266. On 19 July 1934 TASS reported from Prague that both the Czechoslovakian and Sudeten German social democratic parties had rejected the communist offer of a united front. The Czechs said that ‘after the campaign which the Communists continuously waged against Social Democracy, we do not consider the offer from the Communist party as serious and therefore we reject it’ (Pravda, 21 July 1934).

53 In contrast to public approval for the stance of the German communists, they came in for attack in private from the Soviet leadership. At a meeting of the Comintern executive's ‘little commission’ at the thirteenth plenum in December 1933, Pyatnitsky had to deliver the Soviet criticism, which more or less blamed them for Hitler's rise to power. He himself showed no liking for this point of view, delivered it with great nervousness, and announced that no changes could be made in the resolution resulting from it. Everyone present understood that it had originated in the Soviet politburo and despite their dislike of it, accepted it. For an account of this episode, see Salinari, Luigi Longo-Carlo, Dal socialfascismo alia guerra di Spagna (Milano, 1976), pp. 223–4. For an account of the struggle between Dimitrov and the Germans: D. Michev, ‘Georgi Dimitrov i revolyutsionnoe’.

54 For an account of these opponents, see Leibzon, B. M., Shirinya, K. K., Povorot v politike Kominterna (Moscow, 1975), pp. 101–2, 109.

55 Giulio Cerreti, Con Togliatti, pp. 168–72.

56 Togliatti, Opere, iii, i, cxci–ii.

57 B. M. Leibzon, Povorot, p. 110.

58 Miloš Hajek, Storia, p. 252.

59 Although Soviet historiography is somewhat reticent on this point, the official party history of 1962 states that: ‘the abnormal situation, which came into being in the party in connexion with the cult of personality, gave rise to alarm amongst some Communists, especially amongst the old Leninist cadres. Many delegates at the [seventeenth party] congress, above all those who were acquainted with Lenin's testament, considered that the time had come to transfer Stalin from the post of general secretary to other work.’ See Istoriya K.P.S.S., 2nd edn (Moscow, 1962), ed. Ponomarev, B. et al. , p. 486. For Western interpretations, see Schapiro, L., The communist party of the Soviet Union (London, 1962), and Cohen, S. F., Bukharin and the Bolshevik revolution: a political biography 1888–1938 (New York, 1973).

60 Togliatti, ‘La preparazione di una nuova guerra mondiale da parte degli imperialisti e i compiti dell'Internazionale comunista’, delivered between the 10 and 11 August, at the seventh congress of the Comintern: Togliatti, Opere, iii, 11, 777.

61 The pact was signed in Paris on 2 May 1935. Stalin expressed his ‘full understanding and approval for the policy of state defence carried out by France with the aim of maintaining its armed forces at a level commensurate with its security needs’, 15 May 1935: Pravda, 16 May 1935. Izvestiya also emphasized that ‘the task of The Public of both countries is to support the policy of both governments, which is a policy of peace and defence’: Izvestiya, 16 May 1935.

62 Laval was quite frank in informing the Soviet chargé d'affaires ad interim in Paris, that he saw the pact as a means by which he could reach an accommodation with Germany: Rozenberg to Moscow, 19 Oct. 1934. Litvinov, foreign commissar, concluded that this was, indeed, true: Litvinov to Rozenberg, 19 Oct. 1934. See Dokumenty vneshnei politiki SSSR, xvii, doc. 365 and p. 824. For an account of Laval's aims with respect to the Russians, seeWarner, G., Pierre Laval and the eclipse of France (London, 1968), pp. 6180.

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