Communism 1918-1938

From Socialism to Stalinism

In the English translation of Eric Hazan’s magnificent Invention of Paris there are apostrophes around ‘Communist’ when writing about the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français – PCF). 

The Party has meant ‘Communism’ for most of the 20th century. 

For the full 70 years from its Caesarean birth in 1920 to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the political and organisational strategies of the PCF were effectively determined in the best interests of the Russian Communist Party regimes in Moscow. 

Debates among communists in the 1920s were largely around the political character of the Soviet Union. Was it essentially a Blanquist top-down regime built upon a narrow insurrectionary group, or was it a genuine bottom-up workers’ state closer to Marx and Engels’ vision of a democratic governing system that could manage the transition towards real communism? 

Today, 1917 is mainly known as the year of the two Russian Revolutions. In France, where Germany still occupied a quarter of the country, the year was marked by strikes by women workers and mutinies in the army. 


As the strikes and World War 1 death toll grew so did support for pacifist and anti-war ideas. Trade union membership jumped from 500,000 in 1918 to 1.5 million in 1919. 

Marx’s grandson, the SFIO parliamentary deputy Jean Longuet (1876-1938) successfully carried an internationalist resolution at the October 1918 SFIO congress. 

On Sunday April 6 1919 a 300,000 protest takes place against the acquittal of Jaurès’ assassin.

In April 1919 some 300,000 people were estimated by the organisers to have marched in protest against the not guilty verdict on Jean Jaurès’ assassin. Called by the SFIO and the CGT this was the first legal working-class demonstration in Paris since 1909. 

In contrast in Paris the May Day 1919 march was declared illegal and when the skirmishes finished, two demonstrators and one police officer were dead and thousands injured. 

France’s ‘blue’ anti-Bolshevik parliamentary election of November/December 1919 saw the 296 Socialist, Socialist Republican and Radical Socialist deputies elected in 1914 reduced to 180, despite the SFIO’s popular vote actually increasing to 1.7 million. 

The national political result was a nationalist Chamber of Deputies comprising 44% ex-servicemen who wore or had worn the soldier’s blue-grey uniform. It was called ‘the blue horizon’ parliament. Its principal aim was to make Germany pay for the war. 

Affiliation to the CI 

The Russian Revolution inspired and reinvigorated many. There was a widespread belief that it proved a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in France was still a possibility. 

Socialist activists also felt betrayed by the Second International’s abject failure in stopping World War 1 in 1914. They leapt at the idea of joining the Communist International (CI) that Lenin and Zinoviev set up in Moscow in March 1919. 

Large numbers became convinced that the ‘patriotic’ support the SFIO and CGT gave the war by had been wrong. One wrote to the SFIO: ‘Do found a new party, a proletarian party. But get rid of the label Socialist, because it’s dirty, really dirty’. 

The delegates at the 1920 Congress of the SFIO, held in Tours from December 25-30, split three ways on affiliation to the Communist International. 

War veteran Albert Treint (1889-1971) representing the Seine Federation (with a quarter of all the delegates) spoke and voted in favour of affiliation to the CI. 

Longuet wanted to affiliate but rejected article 17 of the Third International, requiring affiliates to follow CI directives, and article 21 stating that the revolution had to follow an insurrection. 

The third camp, led by supporters of the Union sacré in World War 1 like Léon Blum (1872-1950), Jules Guesde and Albert Thomas (1878-1932), wished to remain affiliated to the Second International. 

The final vote was 3,209 to request affiliation to the Communist International with 1,022 votes against. Alongside the Seine Federation, the voting majority was made up of SFIO federations representing those rural areas with a weak Catholic Church presence, where large numbers of small farmers also worked as day labourers, and where anger at the peasant-worker sacrifices of World War 1 was greatest. 

Only 13 of the SFIO deputies in the National Assembly sided with the majority, and none of these were manual workers. Four of these deputies left within months. 

[Pic 4. The Party’s December 31 1920 manifesto finishes ‘Long Live French Revolutionary Socialism. Long Live the Communist International’] 

The French Section of the Communist International (SFIC) was led in 1921 by a national committee of 23 men and one woman, with six men and two women deputies. They were a heterogeneous group of revolutionary syndicalists, some anarchists and many socialists sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, with more or less sectarian Marxists. 

Parti communiste 

Initially the new Section française de l’Internationale communiste (SFIC), formally called the Parti communiste (PC) from 1921, claimed 109,000 members, but its first major membership decline set in within months. 

Over the next hundred years it has had a roller-coaster existence, experiencing three other periods of major decline as well three of huge growth. 

By 1933 the PC’s membership had fallen to 29,000. Only 11 of the original 24 national committee representatives were still members. 

By 1932, after rejecting any deals with the socialists under the new two-tier electoral system, the PC only had 10 deputies. The political line imposed by Moscow from 1927 to 1934 saw anyone who was not a Communist as an enemy. This ‘class against class’ policy meant denouncing socialists as ‘social-fascists’ rather than trying to bring about a broad socialist-communist movement to challenge fascism. 

The minority trade union confederation PC members had formed in 1922, the (Confédération générale du travail unifiée CGTU), declined from roughly 390,000 affiliated members to 258,000 in 1933. 

Leaving the Party 

The 1920s saw a steady drift of members out of the PC. Some left politics altogether. Others went back to the SFIO or into the embryonic left and Trotskyist oppositions, continuing to claim the title ‘communist’. 

Some quit the PC because its growing emphasis on internal centralised military-like discipline challenged their belief in a democratic party. 

Some broke with it because of its attacks on SFIO reformists as being against the working class; some because of a sense of exclusion deriving from its emphasis on building a party led largely by manual working class men; while others resented its blind acceptance of policies laid down by Moscow. Some questioned whether the Russian Revolution had really gone beyond a Blanquist insurrection to the democratic workers’ state they had hoped for. 

Members also left when in 1923 it decided that belonging to the masons or the League of the Rights of Man (founded to defend Dreyfus in 1898) was incompatible with PC membership. 

Louis-Oscar Frossard, the former SFIO general secretary, and the first SFIC/PC general secretary resigned from his post and from the PC in January 1923. He rejoined the SFIO in June 1924 

[Pic 5. The PC’s daily newspaper changes its masthead as it gets more funding from and gets closer to the Russian Communist Party leadership 

The changing mastheads of l’Humanité, the daily newspaper founded by Jaurès in 1904, suggest the changing perspectives of the new party. Until April 7 1921, it kept the words ‘Socialist Newspaper’ on the strapline. On Friday 8 April this changed to ‘Communist Newspaper’. 

On February 8 1923 this became instead ‘The Central Organ of the Communist Party (SFIC). 

Lenin’s death 

The death of Lenin on 21 January 1924 had a significant and rapid impact on the PC. 

Pierre Monatte (1881-1960) was the leading revolutionary syndicalist in the aftermath of World War 1. He joined the PCF in May 1923 when he started to work as labour editor on l’Humanité and became a member of its national steering committee. 

He was soon in a minority, challenging the decision to remove Boris Souvarine (1895-1984) as editor of the internal Communist Bulletin, which had published left criticisms of the leadership. 

Monatte, Souvarine and Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) then came under constant attack by the influential Treint for their links to the Russian opposition and their support for Trotsky (1879-1940). In April 1924 Monatte resigned from l’Humanité. 

Souvarine, in Moscow to represent France at the 5th Congress of the Third International, was expelled from the PC by Zinoviev in July 1924. In November 1924 Monatte and Rosmer, who had brought back a translation of Lenin’s last testament criticising Stalin from Moscow, were also expelled. 

On October 4 1924, the year in which the PC adopts its ‘Bolshevisation’ strategy, with stronger central control and greater demands on the members, the l’Humanité masthead changed again. It now incorporated both the exhortation ‘Workers of the World Unite’ and the emblematic hammer and sickle adopted as the official Soviet Union flag in November 1923. 

On March 16 1926 the slogan was dropped and the hammer and sickle moved from the top left of the front page to top centre. The ‘Organe central du PCF’ and hammer and sickle then remained in place in the masthead until 1994. 

Stalin’s growing strength in Moscow and his forcing Zinoviev’s resignation in 1926 next undermined Treint’s ‘left’ position within the PC. In January 1928 Treint was expelled for factional activities following a report by Maurice Thorez (1900-1964). 

The communists who were expelled or resigned from the PCF attempted vainly to build sustainable organisations. Frossard’s Parti Socialist-Communiste disappeared within months. The ‘communiste-syndicaliste’ monthly journal, La Révolution prolétarienne, founded by Monatte and Rosmer in 1925 was forced to become a bi-monthly in 1927. 

Most supporters of Souvarine’s Cercle communiste Marx et Lénine (1926-1930) and his subsequent Cercle communiste et démocratique (1931-1934) rejoined the SFIO, as did Treint. 

Working class party 

The narrowing down of the PC to those who supported Stalin created a much more homogenous political party than those who’d been in the majority of the SFIO at Tours in 1920. No longer a broad umbrella group it became a party aligned ever more closely with Stalin’s victorious side in the internal faction fights within the Russian Communist Party. 

Probably the most significant change within the PC during its first decade was to push its Communist youth section (Jeunesses communistes) into a leadership role. Initially this was through the broad campaigns it led. 

[Pic 6. Under pressure from the Communist International the PC defended the Rif Republic and opposed French military intervention there in 1925] 

During the early the 1920s the PC campaigned to free the thousands of world War 1 mutineers of 1917 still kept in labour camps. 

In 1925, encouraged by the Third International, the PC then actively opposed France’s sending 50,000 troops under General Petain in 1925 to join the Spanish against the Rif Republic. This had been created in northern Morocco following Abdelkrim’s military defeat of the Spanish in 1921. 

Messali Hadj (1898-1974) joined the PC through his involvement in the 1925 actions against French troop involvements in Morocco and Syria. The radical philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was also active in the anti-war campaign and joined the PC with other intellectuals in 1928 before launching la Revue marxiste in 1929. 

Its militant campaigning enabled the PC to attract and build a core of young working-class origin activists, like Thorez and Benoît Frachon (1893-1975). 

Many of the younger PC leaders were given training as professional revolutionaries in Moscow where, from 1927, Stalin’s regular and increasingly murderous purges of internal opposition was becoming the mood music. 

One of a new generation of PC recruits was Lucie Bernard/Aubrac (1912-2007). She joined the Jeunesses Communistes in 1933 while at the Sorbonne studying history. She then spent six months at the Lenin International School in 1935. 

Eugen Fried, the Communist International’s representative in Paris from 1931, embedded five core concepts into the PCF: Defence of the Party, Support for Peace and the Working Class, ‘scientific’ Marxism and belief in the Soviet leadership. 

By 1932 the PC counted some 500 full-time workers, approximately one for every 50 members. Much of the finance for this professionalisation came directly from Moscow. 

At the same time the PC’s ‘Bolshevisation’ helped normalise very high levels of personal commitment among its members. Being a PC member for the 50 years from 1925 meant being consistently politically active in every arena of local community life and at work in the trade unions. 

Over time the conscious ‘workerisation’ of its leadership at all levels enabled it to present itself as ‘the only workers’ party’ in France. 

Class against class 

While its membership continued to fall, the PC implemented Moscow’s sectarian ‘Class against Class’ united front position on a 23 to 13 majority vote at its Central Committee In January 1928. This attempted to split the leadership of the Socialist Party from its manual worker supporters. 

‘It is necessary to speed up bringing together the working masses under the proletarian leadership of its Communist Party to wage an unremitting struggle against all the factions of the bourgeoisie… we propose (to the Socialist Party) class against class as a common formula for action and to go beyond elections for a struggle everywhere against white and tricolour reaction’. 

The PC initially claimed success with this hard line in the April 1928 four-yearly national elections because its share of the vote increased from 10% (half that of the Socialists) in 1924 to 11% and just over one million voters (compared to the Socialists’ 1.7m and 18% share). 

But by the 1932 National Assembly elections and four more years of Class against Class, its vote had fallen back to 796,000 (a share of 8%) to the SFIO’s 2 million votes (21% share). 

A united anti-fascist movement of intellectuals took off in France after Hitler came to power in January 1933. On March 21 1933 André Gide chaired the first anti-Nazi meeting of the newly-created Revolutionary writers and artists’ Association (Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires – AEAR). The novelist André Malraux (1901-1976), close to the PC at the time, was one of the speakers. 

In July 1933 Louis Aragon (1897-1982), PC member and early surrealist poet, became secretary of the AEAR, and editor of its journal, Commune. 

[Pic 7. The SFIO call to demonstrate against fascism on 12 February 1934 is supported by the CGT, and by the CGTU and the PC] 

February 1934 

The PC’s own real growth took off only in 1934. The extreme right riot of February 6 1934 that appeared to try to storm the National Assembly shocked France. The PC responded first, calling an evening 

demonstration on Thursday 9 February. The few thousand demonstrators were brutally attacked by the police, killing four, wounding hundreds and arresting a thousand. 

The SFIO then decided to support the protest demonstration and strike called by the reformist CGT. For the first time the PC and its revolutionary trade union confederation, the CGTU, then called on their supporters to join the socialists’ march on Monday 12 February 1934. 

After February 6 1934 a new Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes launched an anti-fascist call ‘to the workers’. The scientist and communist supporter, Paul Langevin (1872-1946), was one of its sponsors along with a Radical Party writer and the SFIO’s director of the Ethnographic Museum. By May it had been signed up to by 2,300 doctors, teachers, lawyers, writers, artists etc, and by September 1935 it claimed 8,500 members. It was the precursor of the alliance between the PC, the SFIO and the Radical Party. 

In Moscow George Dmitrioff, the new leader of the Third International, argued successfully to shift its emphasis towards anti-fascism and the defence of democracy. In July 1934 Stalin agreed that the PC’s Thorez could negotiate an action pact with the SFIO: this was the effective end of the sectarian ‘class against class’ policy that since 1927 had described the socialists as ‘social-fascists’. 

The PC reaped immediate results in the 1935 local elections. While the SFIO won several large cities, the PC won 26 out of 80 of the mayor posts in the Seine Department. This was the beginning of what became the ‘red belt’ around Paris from the 1950s to the 1990s. The PC also doubled the total number of commune councils where it had a majority to 297. 

[Pic 8. The PC threw itself behind the 1936 campaign to win a Popular Front government] 

Popular Front 

In January 1936 the PC’s slogan of ‘For Bread, Peace and Freedom’ was adopted by the Popular Front between the PC, the SFIO and the Radical Party. In the April-May 1936 elections in which the Socialists, Radicals and Communists did not challenge each other in the second round, the number of PC deputies rose from 10 to 72. 

Nearly two-thirds of these PC deputies were manual workers. Two-thirds came from just four departments with industrial areas with high densities of manual workers: Paris (16), the Seine (16), the Seine-et Oise (9) and the Nord (7). The total numbers of Communist voters doubled from 1932 (6.7%) to 1,487,336 (12.5%) in 1936. 

But while the new prime minister, Léon Blum, invited the PC to join the government, Moscow vetoed this, leaving the socialists in a much weaker position in government in relation to the left-centre Radicals. 

The PC’s anti-fascist popular front political turn attracted former anarchists like Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) who hoisted a red flag on his house to celebrate the 1936 success of the Popular Front. The 

circulation of L’Humanité rose to around 700,000. PC membership rose to somewhere between 200,000 and a quarter of million in 1937-1938. 

Spanish Civil War 

From August 1936 the PCF was the conduit for nearly all the Soviet support to the Spanish Republic that passed through France with the informal assistance of the Blum government. 

On October 16 1936 Stalin declared that freeing Spain from the fascists was not a Spanish duty alone. The International Brigades were set up the next week. 

Over the following two years some 15,000 French volunteers, overwhelmingly PC members, joined the Commune de Paris brigade, the Franco-Belge, the André Marty (after the Black Sea mutineer of 1919), or later, the Louise Michel or Marseillaise brigades. The largest number of volunteers to fight in Spain came from France, of whom about a third never returned. 

During this time the PC prepared for an expected period of working underground if there was a German invasion by setting up dozens of safe houses, where they hid money and arms. 

Paradoxically, the desire of nearly the whole left to wage a united fight against German and Italian fascism and their supporters in France meant that many on the left felt obliged to keep silent on the human rights violations undertaken by Stalin. 

One communist supporter who didn’t keep quite was Gide. He had taken a lead in anti-fascist actions since 1933. In 1936 he had protested against Blum’s ‘non-intervention’ policy in Spain. But when he published a book denouncing the Moscow trials he was accused of stabbing Spain in the back. 

The PC’s anti-fascist credentials were polished up again in 1938. On 20 September 1938 all the PC deputies in the National Assembly voted against the Munich Agreements that effectively surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Only three other deputies joined them in rejecting the appeasement retreat by Chamberlain-Daladier before Hitler. 

Communists outside the PC 

The few thousand activists who saw themselves as communists outside the PC in the 1930s were divided into two main tendencies. Most were in the left wing of the SFIO, the others were either independent or linked with one or other of the divided tiny handful of supporters of Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). 

Monatte continued to produce the independent anti-Stalinist Révolution prolétarienne from 1925 until 1939. 

[Pic 9. Rosmer sitting on Trotksy’s right at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915. They remained friends up to Trotksy’s murder in 1940] 

In 1929 Trotsky asked Rosmer to bring together his handful of French supporters. In 1930 the Ligue Communiste is formed, including the surrealist group around Pierre Naville (1904-1993) and other former PC members like Treint. After the 6 February 1934 fascist riot created a common cause for socialists and communists to work together on, Trotsky advised his supporters to enter the SFIO to conduct revolutionary propaganda and win new members. 

After the Trotskyists are expelled from the SFIO in 1935, a minority around Pierre Frank (1905-1984) decide to remain as a deep entrist underground movement inside the SFIO, calling themselves the Parti communiste internationaliste (PCI). 

Trotsky argued instead that the threat of fascism was so serious the principal priority for communist revolutionaries in France (and around the world) was to create a revolutionary party. So in 1936 Naville and David Korner/Barta (1914-1976), then brought the remaining one or two hundreds of Trotsky’s supporters into the Parti ouvrier internationaliste – POI (International Workers’ Party). 

The POI itself split in early 1939. Trotsky now ordered it to work as entrists inside the 10,000-strong party formed to left of the SFIO that had been formed in 1938, the Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan – PSOP (Peasant and Workers Socialist Party). Some followed Trotsky’s orders, others refused. 

The future of communism in France was, in any case, going to be decided elsewhere.