The Popular Front: a warning from history

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By Dave Stockton

In recent weeks, sundry self-appointed advisors to Labour have been arguing that if and when Boris Johnson succumbs to a vote of no confidence and an interim government is needed to eject him from Number Ten, because both rebel Tories and Liberal Democrats have indicated they would never vote for Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister even for a short period then he should stand aside in favour of a more “neutral’ figure like Harriet Harman, Hilary Benn or even the Tory veteran Ken Clarke.

Since a general election would have to follow almost immediately, others have gone further and suggested that in order to secure a parliamentary majority to stop No Deal and then Brexit itself, there needs to be an electoral pact with Labour standing aside in favour of the Liberals, Greens or Nationalists.

The first victims of this would be Labour’s radical anti-austerity programme and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Moreover, even if it succeeded in getting rid of Johnson, unless Labour won an overall majority (unlikely), it would push it towards a longer-term coalition with the Lib-Dems etc. to keep the Tories out.

In fact, even in terms of the anti-No Deal struggle, this could very likely lose Labour as many seats or votes as it gained since a radical anti-austerity programme is a vital element to winning Labour seats in those “left behind” areas where a minority of Labour supporters voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and where it needs to bring forward a major reconstruction and job-creation programme.

In addition, the majority of right wing members of the Parliamentary Labour Party would certainly press for this as a way of getting rid of Corbyn and those on the left who had fallen for the lesser evil argument once would probably join them.

The Popular Front reborn

Paul Mason, prolific author, fomer BBC Newsnight and Channel Four journalist, now working freelance, has offered his solution to how to oust Johnson. In a Guardian article ‘Labour’s best tactic to beat Boris Johnson? A popular front’ (Fri 2 Aug 2019), he argues correctly enough;

“For progressives, the last two weeks have shown how high the cost of losing that general election would be. The country would be ruled by a faction of elite Tories who have abandoned their moral and intellectual dividing lines with the far right. Britain would become an appendage of the United States, in foreign policy and in trade. It would be goodbye to the welfare state and the tolerant society.”

But the problems begin with his solution. He asserts:

“There is only one proven response in history that beats an alliance of far-right populists and conservative amoralists: a temporary alliance of the centre and the left.”

According to Mason this was “the only tactic that halted or delayed the march to fascism in the 1930s.”

This might come as a surprise to those who know that Paul was a member of the Trotskyist group Workers Power for the better part of twenty years, regularly writing articles defending Leon Trotsky’s viewpoint. The co-leader of the October revolution was an intransigent opponent of the Popular Front. True, Paul long ago abandoned Trotskyism and now describes himself as a radical social democrat. His journey, revealed in his various books, took him through utopian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci en route. Alas he now seems to have arrived at Stalin.

Paul’s potted history in the Guardian tries to obfuscate this by crediting the origin of the Popular Front to the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov. True it was he, elevated by Stalin to the leadership of the Comintern in March 1934, who at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in July-August 1935, announced the antifascist popular front tactic – a block not only with the reformist parties but also with the liberal or progressive bourgeois parties.

But it was approved on the strict condition that Stalin’s Third Period policy (1929-33) with its characterisation of the social democrats as ‘social-fascists’ and its refusal of a united front “from above and below”, was not criticised.

While the Nazis were rising from 2.6 per cent of the vote in 1928 to 37.3 per cent in 1932, aided by their stormtroopers vicious attacks on socialists, communists, and Jews, the German Communist Party (KPD) were denouncing their social-democrat rivals in the SPD as ‘social-fascists’. At the same time the SPD claimed the Communists were as bad as the Nazis, since both were enemies of democracy. Both the SPD and KPD ignored the fact that the Nazis did not distinguish between reformists and revolutionaries: their avowed goal was to destroy the entire labour movement.

In fact throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s the SPD repeatedly formed coalitions or electoral pacts with bourgeois liberals and conservatives, even voting for the reactionary First World War General Paul von Hindenburg as a ‘lesser evil’. People who remember the sectarian crimes of the KPD in their Third Period usually ignore the SPD’s coalitions which were ‘popular fronts’ before the term was invented. They too were an obstacle to a fighting workers’ united front.

This disastrous policy had prepared the way for the triumph of Hitler by obstructing the formation a united front between the two huge German workers’ parties, each with its own militia. There were 130,000 in the KPD’s Red Front and some 250,000 in the SPD’s Reichsbanner/Iron Front, plus millions of members in the affiliated trade unions. At local level, rank and file militants of both parties sought to collaborate in defence against Nazi attacks. But it was Leon Trotsky and the small groups of his followers who reflected this thirst for unity at an international level.

They almost singlehandedly fought for the united front against fascism against both the KPD and SPD’s disastrous policies. Despite Hitler’s rise to power and mass arrests of the Communists and Social Democrats, for over a year the Comintern asserted that nothing had been wrong with their tactics, despite the fact that both parties’ leaders and activists were being tortured in Dachau and other concentration camps.

Stalin continued to believe for most of 1933 that good relations were possible with the Nazi regime; only when Germany began major rearmament did the mortal danger to the Soviet Union became impossible to ignore. Only then did he allow the Communist International to propose the united front to the erstwhile ‘social fascists’. But by then his search for collective security with the western imperialist democracies prompted a new change of course, seeking instead an ‘antifascist alliance’ with the ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties.

The Rassemblement Populaire

Stalin’s search for a military alliance with French imperialism against Germany went on throughout 1934 and culminated in the Stalin-Laval pact signed in May 1935. On his return from Moscow, Pierre Laval (who was to head the collaborationist Vichy government during the war), declared “Stalin understands and fully approves France’s rearmament proposals”. The French Communist Party (PCF) immediately responded, “Stalin is right”.

The PCF under its general secretary Maurice Thorez had already “improved” the united front into the popular front – an antifascist alliance with the Radical Party, the main party of the imperialist bourgeoisie. He, rather than Dimitrov, could really claim the credit for this. This meant that the PCF literally overnight dropped its opposition to rearmament, and abandoned supporting a revolutionary perspective for liberation movements in the colonies.

In fact the popular front was no more and no less than the Communist parties adopting the post-1914 Social Democrats’ patriotism, defence of their own imperialist ‘fatherland’, and adopting their view that the “main enemy is abroad”. Only in this sense is Paul Mason right that the popular front is part of the Labour tradition.

Mason claims the Popular Front government in France was responsible for the social reforms carried out by Leon Blum’s government (the famous two weeks’ annual holiday). This is a travesty of history. The truth is that French workers wrung these concessions from the hands of the terrified bosses as a result of a massive general strike and wave of factory occupations. The Popular Front ministers, and the PCF in particular, vigorously opposed the movement. When the leftwing socialist Marceau Pivert wrote an article headlined “Everything is possible!” Maurice Thorez the rebuked him in the PCF’s L’Humanité with a response headed “Not everything is possible!”

Trotsky analysed this “new” tactic as; “the coalition of the proletariat with the imperialist bourgeoisie…. The Radical Party, preserving for itself complete freedom of action, savagely imposes restrictions upon the freedom of action of the proletariat.”

He argued every electoral pact with a bourgeois party requires that it be struck on the latter’s objectives not those of the workers’ parties. Moreover, the revolutionary impetus of the workers would have to be restrained, indeed broken, to preserve the alliance with the bourgeois liberals. He was soon proved right.

In France the popular front government between Socialists and Radicals broke up in 1938 when the Radicals dumped their allies for a coalition with the right wing parties. In 1939, when Stalin signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Communist International suddenly dropped the antifascist popular front. After the fall of France in 1940, the same parliament that had led to the popular front in 1936 elected Marshal Pétain and his dictatorial regime that collaborated with the Nazis.

In Spain the popular front did worse still in May 1937, when it crushed the anarcho-syndicalist workers of Barcelona, the vanguard of the Spanish revolution. This ended in 1939 with Franco’s victory. A great success for antifascism! Need we tell the similar story of the tragic failure of the Chilean Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in 1973 ending in Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship?

Conclusion

Before, during, and after the terrible failures of the popular front in the 1930s, Trotsky pointed out the reason for this. Whilst a united struggle between mass reformist workers’ organisations and more radical, even revolutionary, forces to their left can increase the power of resistance of the working class as a whole, a united front with the enemy, i.e. with bourgeois parties, can only diminish or cancel out the resultant forces because they have diametrically opposed fundamental interests.

It makes the workers’ parties drop their most radical anti-capitalist demands and programmes – i.e. those most necessary to solving the problems of the most oppressed and exploited parts of the working class. It also demands the renunciation of the militant methods of the class struggle for fear of frightening away the bourgeois liberal allies. It also stops the petit-bourgeois voting base of the conservative and liberal parties from gravitating to the workers’ parties if the latter project a decisive solution to the crisis. At the same time, the most reactionary parties of the capitalist class grow stronger and the liberals weaker.

Of course those who argue for an a electoral pact or even a “temporary” coalition government will probably not make reference to the unhappy history of the popular front but simply see compromise with the Liberal Democrats etc., as a pragmatic necessity to stop Johnson.

But as we explain in our editorial (page 3) such a pact or coalition cannot be the starting point for defeating Johnson and would obstruct the possibility of a radical Corbyn government. Instead the way forward must be by deploying all the methods of the class struggle – mass demonstrations, direct action, and political strikes. The bourgeois parties cannot and will not support this when it passes beyond mere protest – though many of their followers and voters will.

If Labour shows it is a powerful social force capable of enforcing its programme it can not only win an election but also create the organised mass forces able to defend such a government against the sabotage of the unelected and undemocratic elements of the state machine. Thus a workers’ united front can end in a workers’ government. A popular front can only obstruct this and lead to defeat, as it has always done before.


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