Communists and the popular front

How should we respond to unprincipled alliances? Neither by prettifying popular front-type projects nor by sectarian abstention, argues Mike Macnair

For or against the policy of the 'people's front' is one of the strategic markers of the difference between 'official communism' and Maoism on one side, and Trotskyism on the other. There are solid grounds in both theory and historical experience for the Trotskyists' criticisms of the policy of the people's or popular front. But, at the same time, Trotskyist organisations since the 1940s have seemed forced to choose between, on the one hand, sectarian abstention from movements of any sort which have in any way an inter-class character (because they are 'popular fronts') and, on the other, a collapse into the practical adoption of the 'official communist' policy. Comrades from the International Bolshevik Tendency provided us at the November 2004 CPGB school on the dictatorship of the proletariat with an example of the first; the recent evolution of the Socialist Workers Party has provided us with an example of the second. A response to 1933 What was the policy of the people's front, and where did it come from? In the first place it was a response to the victory of fascism in Germany in 1933. In the run-up to 1933, the Comintern had, as is notorious, been following the policy of the 'third period' (Trotsky's phrase). This was a policy of saying that the fascists and the social democrats are the same. Therefore, it was impermissible to make any sort of temporary agreement whatsoever with the social democrats, it was impermissible to be in the same trade unions as the social democrats, and it was impermissible to fight the fascists alongside the social democrats. Conversely, it may be permissible to make tactical agreements with the fascists against the social democrats, as in fact the Communist Party of Germany had done in 1931-32. That policy went down in flames in 1933, and 1933 delivered an immense shock to politics throughout Europe. In the wake of the victory of fascism in Germany there was huge pressure for unity of the workers' movement against fascism. There was pressure too for unity of the 'democrats' against fascism. Soviet diplomacy The policy of the people's front grew out of 1933 in another sense. The Soviet Union's diplomatic policy towards Germany between 1921 and 1933 essentially consisted of secret military relations with the German nationalists. Lenin and Trotsky had initiated this policy in 1920-21, and it had been expressed in the Rapallo treaty (1922). Its core was that the Red Army collaborated with the secret rearmament programme of the German army, and there was substantial German assistance to industrial development in the Soviet Union. The policy of the 'third period' may have been driven at least in part by the imperatives of this relationship. The German social democrats were hostile to these relationships between the German military-industrial complex and the Red Army and Soviet industry and carried on a political agitation against them. At this time the diplomatic policy of the Soviet Union dominated the political line of the Comintern. The Comintern therefore had to distance the communist parties from the social democracy in order to maintain the USSR's military-economic relationship with the German nationalists who controlled heavy industry and the German armed forces. At the accession of Hitler Stalin's initial response was to expect that the Rapallo policy could continue. In consequence there was some delay in the Comintern's response to the victory of Hitler. Neither the Soviet Union nor the Comintern initially responded to the victory of Hitler with immediate hostility to the new regime. It only became clear in the course of 1934 that the anti-communist ideology of the Nazi regime was not simply political rhetoric, and that the Rapallo relationship was at an end. The consequence was that the Kremlin needed a new foreign policy. It hoped somehow to create an alliance with the former Entente powers - Britain, France and the United States - against the threat of Germany. But this could not be easily attained. The preponderant parties of the bourgeoisie in Britain and France in the 1930s were parties of the right. Their view of the Hitler regime was that it had done a wonderful thing: it had crushed communism, and the German workers' movement, and it was putting Germany back to work. It was a great step forward. So the Kremlin's diplomacy was swimming against the stream. In this context, the communist parties and the Comintern were to play an important ancillary role in support of the Kremlin's diplomacy in the 1930s, trying to push for a bloc of the 'democracies' against fascism. The people's front policy was linked to this role. Domestic pressures The people's front also had a second element. It grew out of Spanish and French domestic politics. Both in Spain and in France battles between the left and the right had become increasingly sharp. The structure of the electoral system, like that of most electoral systems, was such as to penalise divisions on the left. But at the same time the socialists had raised constant objections to an alliance with the communists: because they called the socialists scabs; because they were not committed to parliamentary democracy; and, most of all, because for them it would just be a manoeuvre, like the alliance of the communists and the USDP in Germany, which led to the majority of the USDP going over to the communists. To overcome the social democratic bureaucracy's hostility to unity with them, the communists needed to offer some guarantee that they would not go beyond what the social democrats were willing to do. That guarantee was provided by bringing into the alliance token bourgeois parties and to limit their proposals to what bourgeois democrats would tolerate. That allows the social democrats to conclude that the communists were no longer a threat to their left. In this sense the policy of the people's front was not merely an instrument of the Kremlin's foreign policy. It also grew out of the local needs of the communist parties themselves. Theory How was the turn theorised? Dimitrov's speech in reply to the debate at the 7th Congress of the Comintern is the classic statement. But it does not say a great deal. Much of it is perfectly orthodox Leninist material about the need to mobilise the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie against fascism. But there are theoretical underpinnings. First, we can look back to the 1920s. Lenin's concept of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry is a transitional form; in the April theses, he argued that it was 'realised' in the form of the soviets. The majority leadership of the CPSU after the death of Lenin made it into something different: a prolonged period of alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry, in the performance of the tasks of the 'bourgeois democratic revolution'. The difference in 1917 between, on the one hand, the Zinoviev-Kamenev version of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry and, on the other, Lenin's version of the same idea and Trotsky's permanent revolution theory, was that Zinoviev-Kamenev held to the idea that we can hold the proletariat and bourgeoisie back from fighting one another. The core of Trotsky's argument in Results and prospects is that you can have an alliance between proletariat and peasantry up to the overthrow of the tsar. But, as soon as you overthrow the tsar, the proletariat will attempt to achieve its immediate aims (such as the eight-hour day), the bourgeoisie will respond with disinvestment and capital flight, and the proletariat will be forced to use measures of expropriation. As soon as the proletariat uses measures of expropriation, the peasantry will enter into conflict on the side of the bourgeoisie, and the proletarian regime will only survive for a period of at most months without intervention from western Europe. The CPSU majority leadership said in the 1920s: on the contrary, the question of world revolution is wholly secondary. We can survive within the framework of a single country, because we can hold back the tendency of the proletariat to fight for its interests and the tendency of the bourgeoisie to fight for its interests. The people's front can thus be seen as a transposition onto the European scale of a proposition already asserted in relation to Russia: that it is theoretically possible to hold back antagonistic classes from fighting for their interests, and thereby stabilise a political regime. Suspension of criticism A second element is non-aggression between the participants in the alliance. To quote Dimitrov, addressing the arguments of the opponents of a united front: "The communists attack us, say others. But listen, we have repeatedly declared: we shall not attack anyone, whether persons, organisations or parties, standing for the united front of the working class against the class enemy. But at the same time it is our duty, in the interests of the proletariat and its cause, to criticise those persons, organisations and parties that hinder unity of action by the workers." This is addressed to the militants of the Comintern only as being what they are to say to the social democrats. There is a promise in there, however: 'If you social democrats will enter into unity with us, we will suspend criticism of you. We accept what you say, that unity is impossible while there is criticism.' This acceptance is not surprising, since the Stalinist leadership had precisely taken the view within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that there could be no unity without the suspension of criticism. Again there is some 1920s background. The policy of the Communist Party in relation to the official trade union lefts in the run-up to and during the 1926 general strike had been precisely that unity in action entails the suspension of criticism. The policy of the communists in China in relation to the Kuomintang had similarly been that unity entails the suspension of criticism. Anti-imperialist front and people's front Another element in the theory grows out of the idea of the 'anti-imperialist united front'. This was adopted at the 3rd Congress of the Communist International. The theory is that under imperialism the 'national bourgeoisie' in the colonies is subordinated and exploited alongside the proletariat. For that reason it is said to be possible to have a strategic political bloc which includes the 'national bourgeoisie' as well as the proletariat. In the theorisation of the policy of the people's front the theory of the bloc with the 'national bourgeoisie' is transposed onto the 'democratic bourgeoisie'. Why? The answer is that the 'national bourgeoisie' was always a figment of the imagination of the leaders of the Comintern in the early 1920s. Capital is free to move and this is precisely what creates the possibility of imperialism. Hence the national bourgeoisies in the colonial countries are not, and were not even in the 1920s, tied to their nations. What makes the national bourgeoisie 'national' is not real economic ties, but political ideology. The 'anti-imperialist bloc with the national bourgeoisie' is actually a bloc with nationalist political parties. And if we can have a bloc with nationalist political parties called the 'national bourgeoisie', then why not a bloc with 'democratic' political parties called the 'democratic bourgeoisie'? Post-war 'official communist' theory Much of the elaborate edifice of post-war academic Marxism is aimed at defence of this aspect of the theory of the people's front. The idea of the 'national bourgeoisie', and the idea of the 'democratic bourgeoisie', are actually inconsistent with the fundamental proposition of Marxism, that classes tend to fight for their interests. Finding 'national' and 'democratic' capitalists, in contrast, implies that classes tend to fight for their interests so long as they are not inconsistent with their political ideology. The theory implicitly claims that political ideologies - nationalism, democracy - can override class interests and the class antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This claim is not made explicitly in the 1930s. But in post-war 'official communism' and fellow traveller academic Marxist theory there are developed elaborate theories of why it should be the case that politics and culture override class interest. To give a few examples. The Althusserians and post-Althusserians constructed an idea that the structure overdetermines all else, and that there are 'ideological state apparatuses' which support ideological developments and ideological effectivity. Althusserianism is, as EP Thompson pointed out, an arcane system of cycles and epicycles like Ptolemy's system of astronomy. But the whole structure comes down to the point at the end that what determines action at the end of the day is the ideological structures and not direct responses to class interests. A second alternative approach is that of Thompson and the very wide school of 'humanist Marxists'. They set out to redefine class in terms of subjectivity and the subjective experience of alienation and oppression. The effect is that class analysis as such tends to disappear. In Thompson's Whigs and hunters we find peasants and artisans being talked of as 'workers'. The proletariat as a distinct objective class disappears within 'the people', and there is no longer any justification for class politics as such, as opposed to the politics of humanity and the politics of the oppressed. Both the Althusserian/post-Althusserian theories and Thompson's theory feed into postmodernism, 'goodbye to the working class' and the general theories of Eurocommunism which sought to marginalise class politics. A third example is the theory of the 'historic compromise', promoted by the Italian Communist Party. It is founded on Marx's episodic erroneous analysis of 19th century British politics. Periodically Marx and Engels talked as though the British aristocracy was a feudal class. Hence the political regime in 19th century Britain represented an 'historic compromise' between the feudal aristocracy and the capitalist class. In reality, British agriculture in the 19th century was conducted on a capitalist basis. The farmer employed free wage-labourers, and there was a reserve army of labour. The farmer bought and sold goods in the market. There was no significant subsistence farming, and there was no feudal rent. Rent in England, from the 1660s or 1670s, obeys the laws of capitalist rent that Marx describes at a later stage in Capital. And the 'landlord class' in Britain was actually a particular species of finance capital. The function of the theory for the Italian Eurocommunists was, like the other variants, to justify the idea of a strategic long-term compromise between antagonistic classes. Trotsky's critique Trotsky offers a number of distinct and interrelated theoretical critiques of the popular front. In Spain the argument about the popular front is simply a rerun of the argument in the 1920s about the permanent revolution versus the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Everyone agreed, quite correctly, that in the 1930s there were still feudal relations of production in Spain. The question was, therefore: how is a strategic alliance between the proletariat and peasantry to be constructed? The 'official communists' argued, and the semi-Trotskyist POUM agreed, that the way to construct the strategic alliance between the proletariat and peasantry was to make an alliance between the workers' parties and the parties which politically represent the peasantry. That is, to repeat Stalin and Kamenev's line in regard to the Russian provisional government in February-April 1917. Trotsky argued, on the contrary, that the way to construct an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry was through the programme of the communists. In particular this meant a struggle for land seizures, to mobilise the peasantry against its landlord exploiters. But this is just a rerun of the debates of 1917 and before about strategic alliances. In France the situation was different. Nobody could possibly say that the bourgeois revolution was incomplete in France. The question was not posed as one of dealing with the incomplete bourgeois revolution. The question posed was, how to defeat fascism. What Trotsky says about the popular front in France is that in the decay of capitalism there is an underlying tendency towards fascism. That in turn means an underlying tendency for the political centre to be marginalised and break up. Hence, in clinging to the political centre, by making coalitions with the Radical Party, the communists and socialists were clinging to a decaying and dying political formation. In doing so they paralyse the working class in the face of the rise of fascism. For this reason a coalition with the radicals and so on is unacceptable, precisely because it threatens to be the antechamber to fascism. Now there is a theoretical problem with this argument. It depends on Trotsky's claim that there is an underlying dynamic in decaying capitalism towards fascism. This is part of the more general Trotskyist error expressed in his phrase, "the death agony of capitalism": the idea that the crisis of the 1930s was the terminal crisis of capitalism, and that capitalism was descending into an insensate spasm of crisis. The form of capitalist government which best expresses the character of monopoly capitalism is fascism. We know from what has happened since 1945 that this idea is false. Classes fight for their interests In spite of the fact that the concrete political claim about the role of fascism in the "death agony" is false, there is a true claim underlying it. This is a set of ideas about political dynamics, which are in many respects most clearly expressed in Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. The first point is that class is fundamental. People tend to defend their class interests. And they will not be held back from defending their class interests forever (or for any significant length of time) by ideological processes which run counter to that. This is not to say that people always defend their objective class interests in a rational way. But it is to say that, for example, the class struggle was not suspended in 1939-45. The German bourgeoisie, which was in the saddle, continued to conduct class war against the German proletariat through the period of Nazism. The British proletariat, which was in a much stronger position relative to the British bourgeoisie, continued to conduct an economic guerrilla war in 1939-45, which had its issue in the 1945 Labour government, and in the immense strength of the shop stewards' movement in the unions after, and in the enormous growth both of the Communist Party and of the Trotskyists in the period. Secondly, mass political consciousness is unstable. There is a social stratum - 'the workers' vanguard' on the working class side - the activists, the party militants, the trade union militants - but also the activists and party militants of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois political parties, who have stable political ideas. But most people, most of the time, live under the dull compulsion of everyday life. Their ideas are simply lifted from last week's paper, yesterday's TV news, or what someone has told them. Their political consciousness is unstable. Precisely because they are not permanently politically active, they do not have any permanent stable political consciousness. The consequence is that, when the masses enter onto the political stage, there is an immense ferment of ideas, but there is no stability in the situation. The movement drives forward, and it ebbs backwards; it is impossible to hold onto gains in a stable fashion. When the masses enter onto the political stage, as Trotsky said in The history of the Russian Revolution, the movement can only go forwards or backwards. There is not a choice of stopping it at a certain level; it has to be carried through to its ultimate conclusion of taking political power from the bourgeoisie or it will ebb away in disillusionment. When it does ebb away, the bourgeoisie seek its revenge: it will drive the working class back as hard as it can. In consequence what usually follows from halfway revolution is not advanced stability in reform, but violent reaction. This is not a conclusion that needs either the "death agony of capitalism" or the idea that fascism is the natural political form of monopoly capitalism to support it. It just follows from grasping the fluidity of political dynamics when the masses enter the political stage. It is equally true of strikes. People enter into a strike with great enthusiasm, but if their leaders lead them up the hill and down again, and the strike ends in defeat, that enthusiasm ebbs away and you end up with a union weaker at the end than it was at the beginning. From these points it does not follow that every popular front will be the antechamber to violent reaction. Rather they tell us something narrower. When (a) the electoral victory of a people's front expresses the fact that broad masses have had enough of the existing order and want fundamental change and (b) the bourgeoisie is not willing to make major concessions to restabilise the political order, then a people's front government will be the antechamber to violent reaction. Not the only such antechamber. The underlying point is that you cannot make 'half a revolution'. This point holds equally if the left puts the social democracy in power (1918 in Germany) or fails to address the fundamental questions of government and state order in favour of syndicalism (the 'struggle from below': eg, 1919-20 in Italy). Back to practice ... We can now return to the people's front in practice. Trotsky's argument that the people's front is the antechamber to fascism has a good many examples to support it. Spain is the classical example. France, though less obvious, is also an example. The victory of the people's front in 1936 seemed to achieve reforms and stop short, but in fact it prepared the capitulation of the French bourgeoisie in 1940, the extension of Nazi control to France and the Vichy regime. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon: Indonesia in 1965, Chile in 1973, and others in the colonial 'third world' (it has to be said that the consequence of the latter examples, together with the collapse of Stalinism, is to have definitively disproved by experiment the theory of the 'anti-imperialist united front'). But this is not the whole story. In 1941 to 1945 the war was fought under the banner of a global people's front. The policy of the bureaucracy of seeking a global diplomatic alliance with the Entente powers finally paid off - except that the cause of it paying off was the Nazi conquest of western Europe, and of the western parts of the USSR. Finally, with their backs to the wall, British and US imperialism were prepared to enter into a bloc with the Soviet Union, which did indeed defeat the Nazi regime. We still live under the shadow of that bloc. The overwhelming majority of the world's communists and the world's leftists still think that 1941-45 proves the worth of the people's front. The ideological outcomes - the theory of the United Nations, the global rule of law, and so on - are central to the ideas of 'official communism' and the left political trends descended from it. Thirdly, in most of continental Europe in 1945 it was completely impossible to form a government without communists. The democratic doctrines of the social democracy had been disproved by the periods of fascist occupation. In Germany it was possible to do without communists because of the extent of the massacre of the German workers' movement and because there was immediate British and US occupation; in Greece the post-war crisis went immediately to civil war. These people's front governments with communists in them could go in two directions. One, the communists take the power, under the aegis of the Red Army in most of eastern Europe and North Korea; and under their own steam in Yugoslavia, Albania, and North Vietnam. Governments dominated by communists but with minority participation of token bourgeois parties became a form of the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship. In Poland, for example, there were mass class struggles episodically throughout the history of the Stalinist regime. The response of the bureaucracy on each of these occasions was to make some token economic concession to the workers, but to make increasing political concessions to its 'token bourgeois' coalition partners, and to religion. The terminal result was the collapse of the bureaucratic regime. The presence of coalition parties in the bureaucratic regimes, while the regimes were alive, served again as an example of the claimed 'success' of the people's front. Why should we say the people's front is a failure if the people's front can be a success in eastern Europe, China, Yugoslavia and Vietnam? The answer is because at the end of the day it turns out that the bureaucratic regime is a failure. In this sense, 1991, and the political collapse towards capitalism of the Chinese and Vietnamese bureaucracies is the fundamental disproof of the people's front. In western Europe, the power was delivered back to the bourgeoisie. Once the situation was restabilised, the communists were pushed out of government. However, because of the geopolitics of the United States and the Soviet Union, this did not result in a fascist reaction. Instead, the bourgeoisie made major concessions to the western European working class: the 'welfare state'. Western Europe was to serve as a showcase for capitalism. Within this frame, we have seen periodic instances of coalition governments including the communist parties, particularly in France and Italy. But these are no more than social democratic governments which administer the capitalist system within the framework of the 'welfare state' idea. They neither express aspirations of the masses for fundamental change nor - for that reason - do they threaten to be the antechamber to fascism. This sort of people's front may not be the antechamber to fascism, but neither is it any sort of road to socialism. Since the decline of the US-led world order has resulted in the bourgeoisie being again unwilling to make concessions, this sort of people's front has meant 'left' governments which administer the bourgeoisie's attacks on the working class and hence - as in France - lead to a decline of the socialist and communist parties. Unpopular fronts The small communist parties, such as the old CPGB and the Communist Party of the USA, could not play the popular front game in the same way that the mass communist parties, such as the French or Italian CPs could. But they did so nonetheless by trying to attract sections of the left wing of the social democratic and trade union bureaucracy through the same tactics. The opportunists say: if we can get some (minor) bourgeois liberal or religious forces on board, that provides a guarantee to the social democrats that the communists are not going to try to take their place, or take their supporters away from them; and that any unity will be limited to what is acceptable to the bureaucracy. Of course, it is not easy to find bourgeois forces to join in a coalition with some small communist group. So what we end up with is 'celebrities' and vicars (and in the latest incarnation as practised by the Socialist Workers Party, a few imams). Trotsky said of the French Radical Party, and of the coalition partners of the Spanish CP, that they were the shadow of the bourgeoisie. In that case the token forces in the popular fronts created by small communist and Maoist parties were in a sense the shadow of the shadow of the bourgeoisie. But they still have the same fundamental function, which is to set limits to what the communists fight for. The underlying proposition in domestic politics is that the labour bureaucracy will not enter into unity with the communists unless the communists give guarantees that they will not fight the labour bureaucracy. The role of the token vicar, the token imam, the token liberal or celebrity is to give those guarantees. Tactics The fundamental objection to the policy of the people's front is that any strategy is illusory if it is founded on the self-limitation of working class aims to those which political groups founded on other classes are willing to agree. At the end of the day it is only the self-emancipation of the working class, and its taking the leadership of society, which can lead society forward. Secondly, the policy of suspension of criticism for the sake of unity is anti-democratic and as such opposed to the interests of the working class. But those who understand these basic principles remain - as the Trotskyists were in the 1930s - a small minority. How should we respond to popular front projects, whether large or small? The IBT argues that the people's front is the antechamber to fascism and the biggest danger to the working class, and therefore the Marxists must preserve a pure line by standing apart from the popular-frontist parties. The IBT is a small group, but it expresses in a clear way a view common among Trotskyists. But this was not Trotsky's advice to his supporters to in the 1930s. On the contrary, he advised them to join the socialist parties, which were participating in the people's front, and to work with other leftists within them to oppose to the coalition policy. In France, his advice to the socialist lefts was not to break with the Socialist Party because it was in the people's front: it was to stand candidates specifically against the Radical Party candidates. This advice is an application of the line of the Bolsheviks towards the second provisional government: "Down with the 10 capitalist ministers!" Similarly, Trotsky's 1938 formulation of a slogan towards the socialist and communist parties was: "Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!" Both are ways of dramatising the idea of the struggle for the political independence of the working class: by focusing attention on the non-working class candidates who form the coalition's guarantee to the bourgeoisie and the labour bureaucracy. Tactics need to be concrete; and Trotsky's tactics in the 'French turn' are debatable. But the underlying approach - of attempting to dramatise the question of class independence through fighting for the separation of the workers' parties (in spite of their bad politics) from their 'shadow of the bourgeoisie' coalition partners - seems likely to be more productive than either the collapse into prettifying the popular front project ('it's not really a popular front') or sectarian abstention.