‘The Main Question of Proletarian Class Strategy’
Popular Front: Not a Tactic But a Crime
The following quotations were originally printed in Spartacist No.27-28 (Winter 1979-1980) published by the then-revolutionary international Spartacist tendency.
“The question of questions at present is the People’s Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneuver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the People’s Front. In reality, the People’s Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the People’s Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ and Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this People’s Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the People’s Front. Their demand was to break this People’s Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.
“All the People’s Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian People’s Front of 1917, which could after all lay claim to a much greater justification for its existence, for it was still a question of the struggle against czarism and the remnants of feudalism.”
—Leon Trotsky, “The Dutch Section and the International” (15-16 July 1936), in Writings of Leon Trotsky
(1935-36), [emphasis in original]
“For the proletariat, through its parties, to give up its own independent program means to give up its independent functioning as a class. And this is precisely the meaning of the People’s Front. In the People’s Front the proletariat renounces its class independence, gives up its class aims—the only aims, as Marxism teaches, which can serve its interests….The People’s Front is thus thoroughly and irrevocably non-proletarian, anti-proletarian.
“By its very nature, the People’s Front must be so. The establishment of the People’s Front, by definition, requires agreement on a common program between the working-class and non-working-class parties. But the non-proletarian parties cannot agree to the proletarian program—the program of revolutionary socialism—without ceasing to be what they are….
“The People’s Front, understood in its fundamentals, is the major form of the preparation among the masses for the achievement of national unity within the democratic nations in support of the coming war. Under the slogans of the People’s Front, the masses will march forth to fight for ‘their own’ imperialism….
“Thus, the People’s Front is the contemporary version of social-patriotism, the new form in which the betrayal of 1914 is to be repeated.”
—James Burnham, The People’s Front: The New Betrayal (1937) [emphasis in original]
“26. Reformist-Dissidents [the followers of Jean Longuet] are the agency of the ‘Left Bloc’ within the working class. Their success will be the greater, all the less the working class as a whole is seized by the idea and practice of the united front against the bourgeoisie. Layers of workers, disoriented by the war and by the tardiness of the revolution, may venture to support the ‘Left Bloc’ as a lesser evil, in the belief that they do not thereby risk anything at all, or because they see no other road at present.
“27. One of the most reliable methods of counteracting inside the working class the moods and ideas of the ‘Left Bloc,’ i.e., a bloc between the workers and a certain section of the bourgeoisie against another section of the bourgeoisie, is through promoting persistently and resolutely the idea of a bloc between all the sections of the working class against the whole bourgeoisie….”
“31. The indicated method could be similarly employed and not without success in relation to parliamentary and municipal activities. We say to the masses, ‘The Dissidents, because they do not want the revolution, have split the mass of the workers. It would be insanity to count on their helping the proletarian revolution. But we are ready, inside and outside the parliament, to enter into certain practical agreements with them, provided they agree, in those cases where one must choose between the known interests of the bourgeoisie and the definite demands of the proletariat, to support the latter in action. The Dissidents can be capable of such actions only if they renounce their ties with the parties of the bourgeoisie, that is, the “Left Bloc” and its bourgeois discipline.’
“If the Dissidents were capable of accepting these conditions, then their worker-followers would be quickly absorbed by the Communist Party. Just because of this, the Dissidents will not agree to these conditions. In other words, to the clearly and precisely posed question whether they choose a bloc with the bourgeoisie or a bloc with the proletariat—in the concrete and specific conditions of mass struggle—they will be compelled to reply that they prefer a bloc with the bourgeoisie. Such an answer will not pass with impunity among the proletarian reserves on whom they are counting.”
—Leon Trotsky, “On the United Front” (2 March 1922), in The First Five Years of the Communist International , Vol. 2 [emphasis in original]
“The job of the cartel [the ‘cartel de la gauche,’ or ‘Left Bloc,’ in France] always consisted in putting a brake upon the mass movement, directing it into the channels of class collaboration. This is precisely the job of the People’s Front as well. The difference between them—and not an unimportant one—is that the traditional cartel was applied during the comparatively peaceful and stable epochs of the parliamentary regime. Now, however, when the masses are impatient and explosive, a more imposing brake is needed, with the participation of the ‘Communists’….
“The coming parliamentary elections, no matter what their outcome, will not in themselves bring any serious changes into the situation: the voters, in the final analysis, are confronted with the choice between an arbiter of the type of Laval and an arbiter of the type of Herriot-Daladier. But inasmuch as Herriot has peacefully collaborated with Laval, and Daladier has supported them both, the difference between them is entirely insignificant, if measured by the scale of the tasks set by history.”
—Leon Trotsky, “France at the Turning Point” (28 March 1936), [emphasis in original]
“The July days [in Spain] deepen and supplement the lessons of the June days in France with exceptional force. For the second time in five years the coalition of the labor parties with the Radical bourgeoisie has brought the revolution to the edge of the abyss. Incapable of solving a single one of the tasks posed by the revolution—since all these tasks boil down to one, namely, the crushing of the bourgeoisie—the People’s Front renders the existence of the bourgeois regime impossible and thereby provokes the fascist coup d’etat. By lulling the workers and peasants with parliamentary illusions, by paralyzing their will to struggle, the People’s Front creates favorable conditions for the victory of fascism. The policy of coalition with the bourgeoisie must be paid for by the proletariat with years of new torments and sacrifice, if not by decades of fascist terror.”
—Leon Trotsky, “The New Revolutionary Upsurge and the Tasks of the Fourth International”, July 1936
“What was inexcusably criminal on the part of the [Spanish] Socialist party, the Communist party and the Maurin-Nin party of ‘Marxist Unification’ was not only that they wrote a ‘common program’ with the discredited bourgeois parties—which was bad enough—and that thereby, politically speaking, they appeared before the masses in one party with the bourgeoisie, but that this ‘common program’ was dictated and written by the bourgeoisie, and that in every other respect the joint party—under the pseudonym of the ‘People’s Front’—was dominated by the bourgeoisie.”
—Max Shachtman, “The Spanish Elections and the People’s Front,” New Militant, 14 March 1936 [emphasis in original]
“In France the Popular Front took shape as the union on a reformist program of the working-class parties with the great ‘middle-class’ Radical-Socialist Party. There were no such parties in the United States, but the same social forces nevertheless operated under similar conditions, and the United States equivalent of the Popular Front was simply the New Deal Roosevelt Democratic Party.”
—“Editor’s Comments,” New International, December 1938
“It is the specific question of LaFollette and LaGuardia. The movements backing them are not dreams, but the genuine, homespun authentic American type of ‘Farmer-Labor’ and ‘Labor’ Party. And what sort of movements are they? About this no elaborate argument is needed. Are they ‘anti-capitalist’? Not one of their leaders would dream of pretending so. They are dedicated heart and soul to the preservation of capitalism…. Are they ‘free of all entanglements with capitalist parties’…? How absurd: their chief task in 1936 was to gather votes for Roosevelt. Do they run genuine representatives of the proletariat for office? LaFollette and LaGuardia are the answer.
“The Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation and the American Labor Party are both vicious muddles of class collaboration, Popular Frontism, outworn Populism and atavistic liberalism, the docile instruments of labor bureaucrats and careerist ‘progressive’ capitalist politicians.
“Support of these movements at the present time in actuality represents the perspective of the liquidation of independent working-class politics. That is the long and short of it.”
—“A Manifesto to the Members of the Socialist Party,” Socialist Appeal, 14 August 1937