What Really Happened
in France?

The New Leader Invents Some Facts
to Fit Its Theory of Democracy

(13 July 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 28, 13 July 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

During the unfolding of the complete story of the French capitulation, the New Leader, organ of the Social Democratic Federation, has provided us each week with an astonishing example of sheer desperation in politics. How explain the surrender? How explain it, that is to say, in terms of the mythology, to which the New Leader subscribes, that the Second Imperialist World War is an ideological war between democracy and fascism?

The first explanation offered by the New Leader, before the main circumstances of the surrender became known and at a time when it could still plausibly speak of the French defeat as mainly a matter of overwhelming technical superiority of the Nazis, was that it was the fault of the 40-hour week and other social concessions of the Popular Front governments. Incredible as it may seem, this “socialist” paper devoted its leading article (by Willy Schlamm, graduate of Muenzenberg’s Stalinist school of corruption and hence an obvious choice for leader-writer of a Social Democratic paper) to such an interpretation. Anything rather than to question the nature of bourgeois democracy!

That interpretation was too much for even the trained stomach of New Leader columnist Charles Yale Harrison (he has not yet had the opportunity to help betray a people into the hands of fascism, like Schlamm, and is therefore not as hardened). Harrison wrote a protesting column. During that week moreover came the first details of the circumstances of the French capitulation. Schlamm’s interpretation was therefore dropped by the New Leader though without repudiating it. Then came a new interpretation, even more astounding. To realize how astounding, one must first summarize the facts which have now emerged, assess their meaning – and then read the New Leader.

Weygand’s Argument for Surrender Was Political

Weygand, appointed by the “liberal” Reynaud government to displace the “defeatist” Gamelin, had scarcely concluded reorganizing the army before he demanded of the cabinet, June 15, an end to the war. His argument was primarily not military but political, i.e., the class-struggle politics of the French bourgeoisie. The defeats had engendered unrest among the French masses, and the developing situation was likened by Weygand to the situation in Russia in 1917: military defeats and unrest eventually culminating in proletarian revolt. “It must not come to that,” Weygand said. How prevent it? Not, naturally, by surrendering to a revolt of the French workers. Instead surrender to Hitler, and thereby (with Hitler’s blessing) save the remaining French armies to “maintain order and quiet in the country.”

Weygand’s argument was one which the cabinet understood very well. “Civil peace” – cessation of struggle between the workers and the capitalists – is a slogan very useful to the bourgeoisie in arranging, through traitors like Blum and Jouhaux, to chain the workers to the war machine. But the bourgeoisie itself never practices civil peace; it uses wars as the occasion to intensify its struggle against the workers at home; in the name of “national defense” the French bourgeoisie, first through the cabinet of Daladier, then through that of Reynaud, had outlawed the biggest of the workers’ parties, dissolved hundreds of trade unions, arrested thousands of workers’ militants, wiped out every vestige of trade union control of hours and wages. And now that further consequences of the war itself might revive working class activity, the bourgeoisie preferred to abandon the war, to surrender to the foreign invader rather than to make any concessions to the workers at home. “The main enemy is at home” is and always has been the slogan of the bourgeoisie toward the workers.

Why Reynaud Agreed to Give Way to Petain

Weygand’s argument therefore won a majority in the cabinet. Nor did the minority, of Reynaud and his associates,- carry the argument any further. Had Reynaud thought the issue sufficiently important his course was clearly indicated: to denounce the capitulators as traitors to France, to refuse to yield to them, to convene the Chamber of Deputies and appeal to it for a majority against Weygand-Petain-Chautemps, and to ensure a majority in the Chamber by rousing all France against surrender. But to rouse all France – that meant to rouse the French proletariat, to join with the workers against the powerful and authoritative section of the bourgeoisie for which Weygand-Petain were speaking – that meant to precipitate precisely that great and decisive struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat which Weygand was seeking to avoid by surrendering to Hitler and getting Nazi bayonets to help hold down the French workers. Faced therefore with only two alternatives – either join the capitulators, by quietly resigning without convening the Chamber and by acquiescing in the formation of a government of capitulation headed by Petain.

Capitulation Meant Not Peace, but Changing Sides!

Once the regroupment of the bourgeoisie around the Petain-Laval cabinet had been completed, the full implications of the capitulation became clear. It was not to be the retirement of France from the war; by no means. It was to be the switching of France from the side of Britain to the side of Hitler.

How could those who had been fighting this war, as the New Leader had assured us, for the sake of democracy against fascism, now join Hitler? For that is what they did. If it had become impossible for the French democracy to continue the fight within the borders of France, there was nothing to prevent the French democracy from keeping the navy and the colonies in the war – if it was fighting for democracy.

It could have been easily arranged. If necessary the government could have formally abided by the armistice provisions, ordered the navy to return to France and the colonies to cease fighting, while privately arranging for the navy and the colonial governments to join the British in continuing the war. It could easily have been done – if the French bourgeoisie had been fighting for democracy, as the New Leader assures us.

But nothing of the sort happened. Instead we have witnessed a demonstration of the complete solidarity of the French bourgeoisie. The colonial governments to a man have obeyed the cabinet at Vichy. The navy obeyed, going to the length of fighting, a great naval battle with the British at Oran, Algeria, rather than accept the alternatives of joining the British, being interned in British ports or scuttling their ships.

The French “National Committee” in London cannot claim the adherence of a single representative figure of the bourgeoisie! Seldom, indeed, has any class been as united as is the French bourgeoisie today in its new regroupment around the Petain-Laval government. United for fascism and for collaboration with Hitler.

Oran a Mirror of the French Events

That dramatic clash at Oran deserves a closer glance. The armed forces are always a reflection of the class relations existing in a country. The officer caste is a carefully selected and trained body, class-conscious to the core. Admiral Gensoul was able to secure the carrying out of the orders of Petain-Laval only because these orders were recognized as truly authoritative by. the fleet’s officer body and because these orders corresponded with their deepest convictions concerning the needs of French bourgeois policy. Otherwise they could not possibly have agreed to enter a battle in which many of them died, and which they could have avoided to the plaudits of the British and American bourgeoisie.

And the rank and file of the fleet, a thousand of whom died in the battle? They certainly did not share the outlook of the officer caste. On the contrary, they were either class-conscious workers opposed to all the imperialists in this war or, if not, they were workers who had accepted the democratic mythology and did not want to turn the ships over to Hitler-dominated French ports. Why could they not prevent the officers from carrying out the Petain-Laval orders?

Because for years the big workers’ parties had mis-educated them into the impotence of this terrible moment. From 1935 on the Stalinist party had preached “national unity,” i.e., obedience to the officers; and when the party had somersaulted after the war began, its belated reversal was completely compromised by Stalin’s pro-Hitler orientation. The “socialists” of course preached obedience to law and order, consequently to officers, for aye and forever. For five years the two big workers’ parties had thus joined hands to extirpate all thought of sailors’ committees, of proletarian revolt. The result came at Oran when, in the face of all their beliefs, the sailors nevertheless obeyed their officers. And this was in the navy, where – it is manned by trained workers primarily – the specific weight of the proletariat is far higher than in the army. All the more certain, therefore, was it unlikely for the soldiers to revolt at. this moment either in the colonies or in France. Here, indeed, was the final consequence of “national unity” for the sake of the war for democracy against fascism: worker-sailors and soldiers obeying a fascist-oriented government.

Classical Example of Transition to Fascism

The Fall of France

All the facts are clear. Indeed, seldom has a great historical event been less complicated by cross-currents and side-eddies. The capitulation of French democracy will go down in history as the classical example of the facility with which bourgeois democracy turns into its “opposite,” fascism, when the bourgeoisie finds it necessary. In this case is revealed the absurdity of the phrase, “fifth column,” with all its operatic implications of secret conspiracy in the dark of the moon. What happened in France was the reorientation and regroupment of the entire bourgeoisie. It becomes a screaming absurdity henceforth to talk of any bourgeoisie going to war for democracy.

All this is clear, enough, is it not? Yes, to anyone who will put together the simple facts recorded in the press during the last few weeks. And here we return to the gentlemen of the New Leader and their truly astonishing demonstration of sheer desperation in politics. The facts about France destroy the mythology of the war for democracy? Then they must change the facts. That is what the New Leader has been doing these last two weeks. Believe it or not, in the June 29 issue, under the signature of Dick Reynard, its foreign editor, you can read that the Petain-Laval government was established by a fascist putsch – i.e., an armed overthrow of the democratic government – by men whom Reynaud had vainly attempted to intern (why he couldn’t is not explained). And in the July 6 New Leader, in a short comment on the Oran naval battle – as short as possible – it explains that event as being the result “of a fascist cabinet putsch.” The mythology of bourgeois democracy needs, with each passing event, additional myths to sustain the verbal structure. Apparently the New Leader intends to invent whatever myths that will require.

Fortunately, the meaning of the French events cannot be so easily distorted and perverted. The widespread understanding of these events is indicated by Fitzpatrick’s monumental cartoon in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, depicting the French bourgeoisie as fearing the French masses more than they did Hitler. That Fitzpatrick, a great artist with much social insight, but ideologically little more than a democrat, should see the French events so clearly, is a heartening fact, testifying that many who are not Marxists have understood the plain import of what has happened. That the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed the cartoon is a happy accident! The active editor is a naive bourgeois. It would never have been published had he been a Social Democrat!

Last updated on 24 May 2020