Marxism and popular fronts

This is an edited transcript of a talk given to the Communist University in London in August 2003. It was published in the Weekly Worker No.496, 18 September 2003, under the title ‘Pragmatism and the Art of Cross-class Alliances’, and has been slightly amended.

Popular fronts and cross-class alliances are not necessarily the same thing. Clearly every popular front is a cross-class alliance, but it does not follow from that that every cross-class alliance is a popular front. I shall offer some examples from the past and present with regard to both. First, though, we should start with a definition of what we mean by a popular front.

I am aware that talking about definitions can sometimes become a sterile exercise, where people bring out the relevant quotations from Lenin or Trotsky, and justify their position on the basis of scriptural authority – the “how many transitional demands can dance on the head of a pin?” sort of analysis. It is not generally useful.

Conceptual categories have to be seen as a guide to understanding the complexities of reality, not a substitute for studying them. I do not think conceptual categories are boxes we can stuff reality into. Nevertheless, some precision in the terms used is helpful or, if we use them in an imprecise way, let us be conscious of what those imprecisions are.

So what is a “popular front”? Well, I would argue that a popular front is a political alliance between the labour movement and a section of the bourgeoisie. I emphasise a political alliance: the Bolsheviks, for example, used to collaborate with bourgeois parties in smuggling illegal literature into tsarist Russia. Even the most sectarian person would not claim that was a popular front – it was a technical arrangement. For a popular front, there has to be a common political platform.

Basically a popular front requires two components. One is a section of the bourgeoisie that is going to participate in the alliance, which therefore requires the cooperation of one or more bourgeois political parties. (Again I emphasise bourgeois political parties, because if an alliance between a working class party and a non-working class party in itself constituted a popular front, then of course you would have to accuse the Bolsheviks of having established a popular front as a result of the October Revolution when they formed a coalition government with the Left Social Revolutionaries, who of course were not a workers’ party, but a party based on the peasantry.)

That raises the further problem of definition: namely, what do we mean by “bourgeois political party”? There is a school of thought that would argue that the class character of a party is determined by its programme. I have heard it argued that the Chinese Communist Party was a form of workers’ party, even though there were no workers in its leadership, no workers in its membership, and its popular base was among the peasantry. Apparently this is because it had a pro-working class programme (which actually it didn’t; but, even if it had, that would hardly make it a workers’ party).

The class character of a party is determined by a number of features: its programme, its leadership, its membership, and its broad popular base. So for a party to qualify as a bourgeois political party, I think it does require the support of a certain section of the bourgeoisie. If you were to define bourgeois political parties solely by their programme, then you would have to say that virtually every political party in Britain at the moment is a bourgeois party, with the exception of the Scottish Socialist Party. (Smaller left formations are, I would argue, insufficiently large and have an insufficient popular base to qualify as parties in any meaningful sense of the term.)

Certainly the term “bourgeois party”, determined in that way, would include everything from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats to the Greens. Is the Green Party a bourgeois party? Clearly there are some “progressive” business people who fund it, but no significant sections of the haute bourgeoisie are behind the Greens: in essence it is a kind of petty bourgeois party.

When Ken Livingstone and the Green Party established an electoral pact for the 2000 London elections, this was denounced by some people as a popular front and an alliance with a bourgeois party. I do not think this is a particularly useful way of clarifying whether or not political alliances or electoral blocs are permissible with organisations like the Greens.

So the first component that a popular front requires is the participation of a party which represents at least a section of the bourgeoisie. Trotsky famously referred to the Spanish popular front as an alliance with the shadow of the bourgeoisie – by which he meant that the majority of the Spanish bourgeoisie supported Franco against the republic. Nevertheless there was a section of the bourgeoisie that did support the republic – their parties were the Republican Left and the Republican Union.

The second component required is one or more mass organisations of the working class – not necessarily exclusively political parties, but possibly also trade unions. This necessity of involving mass organisations of the class is, in my view, the reason why it is not permissible to refer to various cross-class alliances in which the proletarian element, so to speak, consists of small socialist parties as popular fronts. Small socialist parties do not represent the labour movement. The proletarian pole of a popular front requires some form of mass-based organisation of the class.

A similar mistake is made in relation to the term “united front”. I recall that John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party used to be fond of referring to the Socialist Alliance as a united front, which is a complete misuse of the term. The united front is a policy developed by the Comintern at the time of its Third Congress in response to a situation where there had been splits in the workers’ movement in a number of countries: mass communist parties had been formed, while at the same time social democratic parties continued to exist with their own mass base.

The united front was a means of drawing the social democrats into joint political activity with the communist parties – first of all to strengthen the workers’ movement and secondly, in the course of joint activity, to let the mass base of the social democrats see in practice the superior leadership of the communists. So the united front is about an orientation towards a mass-based reformist party.

In circumstances where communists do not have a mass organisation, then Trotsky spoke about pursuing the united front from within, by which he meant that Marxists should work inside mass-based reformist parties.

If we are going to use terms like “popular front” and “united front”, we have to use them in that sort of sense – alliances at the level of society as a whole, involving organisations with some significant social base, representing significant social forces. We are talking about mass politics, so it is not really permissible to refer to the politically irrelevant manoeuvrings of far left groups as popular or united fronts.

The term “popular front” itself, of course, originates in the 1930s, when it was first used by the French Communist Party, the PCF, in 1934. It was the product of a response by the Soviet leadership to the threat from Nazi Germany. The Soviet leadership saw the need to develop diplomatic alliances with the bourgeois democracies against German expansionism. Communist parties were therefore pushed into a policy whereby they fought to establish popular front governments – incorporating not only the workers’ parties, but “progressive” sections of the bourgeoisie, who would pursue a foreign policy favourable to alliances with the USSR.

After the Stalin-Laval pact of 1935, the popular front was formalised as a policy for the entire Communist International at the seventh and last congress of the Comintern in July-August of that year, and basically came to an end with the German-Soviet pact of 1939.

There was an argument between Trotsky and C.L.R. James over this. James, in his book World Revolution, argues that the popular front is to be seen simply as a product of the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy. Trotsky argues that things were a bit more complicated, seeing the development of the popular front strategy as partially a response to pressure from the national communist parties. The CPs had suffered serious problems as a result of the so-called “third period” strategy, which had involved refusing alliances with any political parties, including the social democrats who were denounced as the left wing of fascism, so-called “social fascists’.

“Third period” policy had a disastrous impact, particularly in Germany, where it paved the way for the victory of Hitler, but in other countries too it led to the marginalisation and isolation of communist parties, severely weakening them and leading to a slump in membership. Hence the pressure from within communist parties for a change of line, such as that led by Jacques Doriot within the PCF, advocating a less sectarian approach.

It is, however, clear that the main motive for the popular front was Soviet diplomacy. Certainly, the turn to popular fronts, rather than a return to the united fronts of the 1920s, was determined almost exclusively by Soviet requirements rather than those of the communist parties themselves. So the popular front has to be seen as something of a cynical ploy on the part of the Soviet bureaucracy.

At last year’s Communist University I argued that the formation of the Communist International was a mistake based on false perspectives, particularly in its call for the formation of communist parties in every country. The impact varied from country to country. In Italy, it was pretty disastrous, dividing the workers’ movement immediately before the rise of fascism, but in Britain it actually had some quite positive results. Certainly the CPGB represented a big advance.

A similar way of evaluating the impact of the popular front has to be undertaken. It is not simply enough to denounce the popular front as a cynical Stalinist ploy. Generally I think the impact of the popular front was a negative one. You could perhaps argue that the popular front was an appropriate electoral strategy for contesting the 1936 general election in France. But certainly after that it had an extremely damaging effect on the workers’ movement in France.

The PCF, faced with a spontaneous upsurge of militant industrial struggles, was forced to step in and try to suppress those struggles in order to demonstrate before prospective allies that the Communist Party was a responsible organisation and not in favour of wildcat strikes. At the same time it saw its role as putting pressure on the French government when it seemed to be veering away from an alliance with the USSR. So the PCF would mobilise the working class into taking militant action around issues which the class did not really understand and which did not seem to be particularly in the interests of the working class. The consequence was that by 1938 it had very much squandered the potential that had arisen from the earlier big wave of militancy. The French working class was demoralised and demobilised.

In the United States, although the Communist Party was obviously much less influential in mass politics, the mid-1930s did see a wave of industrial struggles and the formation of the CIO trade union federation, which involved unionising unskilled and semi-skilled workers who had previously been ignored by the American Federation of Labor. Clearly this opened up the prospect of developing an independent workers’ party. Although the main obstacle to that was certainly the CIO leadership itself the CPUSA, which like the CIO leaders favoured an alliance with Roosevelt and the Democrats, played a role in obstructing the emergence of a labour party.

What of China? The Communist Party of China formed an alliance in 1937 with the Kuomintang, and orthodox Trotskyists routinely denounce it as the Chinese version of the popular front. Certainly it was an alliance with a bourgeois party, but I actually think it was the correct thing to do.

Far from being a capitulation to Chiang Kai-Shek, it involved the CCP promoting a split in the ranks, including the top ranks, of the Kuomintang and ended up with Chiang Kai-Shek being arrested by some of his own generals and forced almost at gunpoint to sign a military pact with the CCP in opposition to Japanese imperialism. Although the pact had broken down by the early 1940s, it had played a major role in demonstrating to the Chinese masses that the main defender of national self-determination against Japanese imperialism was the CCP. In that particular instance a popular front played a positive role.

Spain, in 1936-1937, was a particularly dramatic period in the history of class struggle in the 20th century. The Spanish republic experienced parliamentary election, military revolt, revolutionary uprising and internal counterrevolution all in the space of 18 months. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the Spanish civil war, the understanding and knowledge of many on the left is distorted by mythology – whether it is of the “official communist” or Trotskyist variety.

In the period from the beginning of 1936 to the middle of 1937 there were three distinct popular front formations. The first was the popular front electoral alliance that was formed simply to contest the February 1936 parliamentary elections. It was dissolved after the elections had been held. Then there was the government that was formed in September 1936 – a kind of leftist popular front government. Finally in June 1937 after the fall of Largo Caballero, the Socialist Party prime minister, there was the ironically named “government of victory” headed by Juan Negrín, an extreme rightwing form of popular front government which presided over an internal counterrevolution and the violent suppression of the left.

It seems to me that you cannot deduce from some general principle that popular fronts are an act of class betrayal whether or not these particular forms should be supported or not. Contrary to Trotskyist orthodoxy, the popular front electoral alliance was absolutely necessary and absolutely the right thing to do. Without that electoral bloc the rightwing parties would have won and it would have been a disaster for the workers’ movement in Spain.

In 1933 the rightwing parties had won the parliamentary elections. Between then and the end of 1935, when the government was forced to resign as a result of a financial scandal, there was a series of increasingly rightwing governments, which dealt with the workers’ movement with such a level of repression that it rendered the movement non-functional. This did not constitute a fascist regime, but nevertheless by the end of 1935 there were 15,000 working class militants in prison.

For the workers’ movement it was absolutely crucial to ensure that the rightwing parties did not win the ensuing elections in February 1936. Had the rightwing forces won, they could have claimed that they had received a democratic mandate to repress the workers’ movement and there could well have been a move towards a Franco-style dictatorship, but under the umbrella of formal bourgeois democracy. The only way to ensure the defeat of the right in the 1936 elections was by forming an electoral pact between the workers’ parties and the bourgeois republican parties.

The reason for that was the specific electoral system, which involved huge, multi-member constituencies. Whichever party, or coalition of parties, won the plurality of the votes would get the overwhelming majority of seats in that constituency. Without a broad alliance, therefore, it was impossible to win. In 1933 the rightwing parties had won precisely because the socialists had refused to enter into a pact with the republican bourgeois parties.

In February 1936, thanks to their electoral pact, the popular front won the election. Despite having only a bare majority of votes overall, they had a large majority in the Cortes, because of the effectiveness of the alliance they had built. So I think they did the right thing and the Trotskyist criticisms of it are basically left sectarian.

It is necessary to emphasise that the popular front was simply an electoral pact, which was not intended to put into office a popular front government. In fact the government that took office after the 1936 elections consisted of the Republican Left, the Republican Union and the Catalan nationalists. No working class parties participated. But the formation of this bourgeois government lifted the lid on the class struggle, leading to an outburst of major strikes, of big struggles by the rural poor. It unleashed a semi-insurrectionary situation in Spain.

Of course, the bourgeois government was not neutral in this conflict between labour and capital. It supported the capitalists and the landlords against the workers and the rural poor. It was a bourgeois government, but it was a liberal bourgeois government, not prepared to crack down on the workers and the rural poor with the ferocity which the majority of the capitalists and landlords thought was necessary. The result of this was a military conspiracy which led in July 1936 to a military rebellion headed by generals Mola and Franco, which led effectively to the collapse of the existing republican government, unleashing a revolution, where the majority of the state apparatus went over to Franco.

The question was, what was going to replace the republican government? Clearly, what was necessary was to build a government representing the workers and the rural poor, based on the spontaneous organs of direct democracy that had emerged in the course of the revolutionary upsurge provoked by the fall of the government. But there were no parties in Spain that really held that perspective, other than perhaps the POUM, which was too small to have a significant influence. As far as the anarchists were concerned, the revolution had already been accomplished with the disintegration of the state. Obviously, some kind of centralised authority in the republican zone was essential to conduct resistance to the military rebels.

Initially Caballero was in favour of introducing a revolutionary junta based on the trade unions, which would have effectively been a workers’ government without offending the anti-statist sentiments of the anarchists. A government like that could have implemented the kind of programme that might have led to victory over Franco. But he was dissuaded from that by Marcel Rosenberg, the Soviet ambassador, who pointed out that unless he formed a popular front government including representatives of the bourgeois parties, then bourgeois democracies such as France and Britain could not be persuaded to overturn the non-intervention agreement – which allowed Italy and Germany to provide Franco with all the arms he needed, while the republic was deprived of arms. Rosenberg further argued that if Caballero signed up to a popular front government then, crucially, the Soviet Union might see its way to circumventing the non-intervention agreement and providing the republic with arms.

The consequence was that in September a republican, cross-class popular front government was formed. It has to be said that the bourgeois parties were in a minority. When the government was finally completed in November, there were seven socialists, four anarchists and two communists out of 18 ministers. But, though the government was dominated by workers’ parties, its programme was determined by the bourgeois component of that government – there was no question of calling for the factories to the workers, the land to the tillers, independence for the colonies and so forth.

Divisions subsequently emerged within the popular front about what approach to take to the revolutionary gains of the working class from the summer of 1936. The socialist left, and in practice the anarchists, advocated a sort of compromise involving peacefully dissolving some of the organs of direct democracy, or absorbing them into the reconstituted bourgeois state. On the other hand the republican bourgeois parties, the right wing of the Socialist Party and crucially the communists were in favour of crushing all the gains of the summer of 1936 by violence if necessary, and irrespective of the divisions this would cause in the republican camp.

Eventually the differences resulted in armed conflict in Barcelona in May 1937 – the so-called “May days” – when the Stalinist-controlled police tried to put an end to workers’ control of the Barcelona telephone exchange, prompting a spontaneous working class uprising. In the aftermath of the uprising’s defeat, the Stalinists and the right wing of the popular front called for the suppression of the POUM.

When Caballero refused to accept this, he was ousted as prime minister, the socialist left and the anarchists were driven out of the government and an extreme rightwing popular front government came into office in June, which gave free rein to the GPU to murder and torture working class militants. This led to what Hugh Thomas, the bourgeois historian of the Spanish civil war, called “the war of two counterrevolutions”. The suppression of the workers’ movement and the deep demoralisation it caused were obviously significant contributory factors in Franco’s eventual victory.

The example of Spain illustrates my point that the treacherous character of a popular front cannot be deduced from general principles: an empirical study of each concrete popular front formation is necessary. Obviously, this pragmatic approach runs contrary to Trotskyist orthodoxy.

Lastly I shall examine some examples of cross-class alliances in Britain over recent months which have led to accusations of popular frontism, both of them involving the Socialist Workers Party. The first concerns the Stop the War Coalition and the second relates to the alliance which the SWP attempted to form in Birmingham to stand a Peace and Justice candidate in the European parliamentary elections next year.

As regards the Stop the War Coalition, one could well argue that the platform of the February 15 demonstration had a popular frontist character. It included trade union general secretaries, Labour MPs and Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats, which I think one could reasonably describe as a minor bourgeois party. So that clearly had a popular front aspect to it. I do not think that was wrong, actually. I would not even have been against an alliance of a broader character. I would not have been opposed, for example, to having Ken Clarke, one of the leading opponents of the war in the Tory Party, speaking on that platform, if such a pragmatic decision was needed to maximise the turnout on that demonstration.

The real argument against the SWP is that it failed to use those forces in a way that could have produced a useful crisis within the labour movement, particularly in terms of rallying opposition to Blair. The crucial question really was to ensure that there was the maximum revolt against Blair in parliament when it came to a vote on the war against Iraq. In fact the SWP argued in the pages of Socialist Worker that parliament was an irrelevance. The real issue, it argued, was direct action – students occupying their colleges, sit-downs in public places and so forth. That is what would defeat Blair. Total nonsense.

The real criticism of the SWP in relation to the Stop the War Coalition and particularly February 15 is not that it pursued the popular front, but that it failed to pursue the united front. It is not interested in what happens within the Labour Party. The SWP’s primary thrust is to develop an external political opposition to the Labour Party, which I think is a sectarian approach, lacking any conception of united front politics.

That brings us to the question of Birmingham. I have to say that I think the use of “popular front” to refer to a Peace and Justice alliance is an abuse of terminology. As I have said, the popular front requires an organisation that represents mass forces within the workers’ movement.

The Socialist Workers Party does not. It has an active membership of some 1,200-1,500, a dues-paying membership of maybe double that and a few more thousand completely fictitious members. It represent only a tiny, tiny fraction of the labour movement and is obviously not the vehicle through which the labour movement can build an alliance with the bourgeoisie. I would not claim any in-depth knowledge of the class character of the Birmingham mosque. Though Asian businessmen may provide some money, that does not mean that a significant section of the bourgeoisie is behind it.

One may have all kinds of arguments against this particularly form of alliance, but I think that the use of the term “popular front” simply muddies the water and does not produce any political clarity.

My own criticism of this alliance is that it is a product of the irrelevance of the SA. The SWP was promoting the Socialist Alliance as the means of producing an electoral alternative to Blair and harnessing the undoubted disaffection that exists with the government among traditional Labour voters. But of course it has failed. Its only election victory has been in Preston, which was on the basis of the support of the local mosque. So the SWP thinks that the way it can develop an impact on electoral politics is to pursue this on a larger scale.

To counterpose the Socialist Alliance as a united front to the alliance with the mosque in Birmingham as a popular front just seems to me to lose a grip on reality. My first conclusion, then, is that those terms should be employed only in relation to alliances at the level of society as a whole, involving organisations with a significant social base. We are talking about mass politics, in other words, not the manoeuvres of the far left.

My second conclusion is that popular fronts, or indeed any other cross-class alliance, cannot be criticised on the basis of deduction from general principles, but on the basis of empirical study of the alliance in question and whether or not it forms an effective way of defending the interests of the working class. Sometimes, though not often, it does. It is not necessarily the case that a cross-class alliance represents a betrayal of the interests of the workers’ movement.

Finally, the main issue is that of the united front – the question of how Marxists relate to mass-based reformist parties. That is the essence of politics in Britain at the moment. Clearly, where no section of the left has any significant mass base, where the only political party which has significant working class support is the Labour Party, there is a need for what Trotsky called the united front from within.