Trotsky on the Popular Front

Marxists study history not for the smugness of 20/20 hindsight, but in order to learn its lessons. Trotsky's insistent call for a united front of workers' organisations to defeat fascism in Germany went tragically unheeded. From our historical perspective it is easy to see that had the Comintern and the German Communist Party adopted the genuine Leninist policy advocated by Trotsky Hitler would never have come to power. The whole history of the twentieth century would have been transformed.

Instead, the German Communist Party, following Stalin's insane line of "social fascism" - i.e. that the social democrats were the twins of the fascists and the workers greatest enemy - allowed Hitler to come to power, as he bragged, without smashing a window pane.

The Stalinists were incapable of an honest appraisal of this, or any of their many errors. Instead they made another 180-degree turn. Having catastrophically zigzagged from the "bloc of four classes" in China, to the madness of the "third period" and "social fascism" - consequently betraying the Chinese Revolution and handing over the German proletariat bound and gagged to Hitlerite reaction - they now arrived back at their starting point, having learnt nothing along the way. They had returned to the errors which, without the intervention of Lenin and Trotsky, would have doomed the Russian Revolution to defeat. They had resurrected the essentially Menshevik position that Stalin had pursued before Lenin's return to Russia in April 1917.

Conveniently forgetting that the "third period" was supposed to herald the final collapse of capitalism, they now turned about face to the policy of the popular front. Faced with the fascist menace they now deemed it necessary to unite not only with the socialists and social democrats, but also with so-called progressive capitalists!

Such leaps and zigzags had become characteristic of Stalinism, basing itself less and less on the interests of the international proletariat and more and more on the needs of the bureaucracy as it consolidated its grip on power. The German catastrophe and the subsequent lack of dissent from the Communist parties internationally had led Trotsky to conclude that the Comintern was dead as a force for revolution and that a new international would be required.

The Spanish Revolution and the events in France in 1936 marked another turning point in the degeneration of Stalinism and the struggle of Trotsky to defend the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Bolshevism. This was the period of the "Popular Front" which Trotsky defined as a "strike breaking conspiracy". We shall see why.

Seventy years ago this month, in June 1936, the working class of France had power within its reach. The strike breaking conspiracy of the Popular Front, the betrayal of the Socialist and Communist leaders, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Defeat for the workers' movement, defeat of the Popular Front itself and then the disaster of fascism. Four years later the Nazis were in Paris.

In the early 1930s the French Communist Party (PCF) pursued Moscow's line of "social fascism". Following the German catastrophe there was the same abrupt about-turn in the French party as everywhere, the PCF united not only with other workers' parties but also with the bourgeois liberals of the Radical Party to form a —popular front.' The logic of this, the Stalinists claimed, was to guarantee the maximum unity of anti-fascist action. One of the key features of the popular front is that it abuses the workers' natural desire for maximum unity.

The Popular Front, it was claimed, would win over the support of the middle class by implementing reforms while remaining within the capitalist system. Yet it was precisely this system which was ruining the middle class. The only way to win and keep the support of the middle layers is with a clear and bold socialist programme, not by deals with their political exploiters. When the struggle of the workers offered them a bold lead, the middle class followed. In the end it was the strike breaking actions of the Popular Front which served to push the middle layers in the opposite direction.

The Popular Front's programme of reforms raised the expectations of the French workers. Demands such as the 40 hour week ensured a big majority in the 1936 elections. The Popular Front polled 5.5 million votes, reflecting a growing mood of radicalisation. When the vote was broken down by individual party, the bourgeois Radical Party had fallen to third place, losing half a million votes, while the PCF's share doubled to one and a half million. In reality, the Radicals only kept the votes they got because of the support of the workers for the Popular Front. Thus the workers' parties provided the liberals with a lifeline, rather than their inclusion in the Popular Front being responsible for gaining the support of the middle class.

The French capitalists saw the Radicals as a brake on any potential socialist excesses emanating from the workers' parties. They had no cause for concern. A perfectly adequate brake existed in the shape of the Socialist and Communist Party leaders.

It was not the Radicals but the PCF leaders who insisted that nationalisation of the banks and industry be excluded from the government's programme.

Despite all its shortfalls, the Popular Front's programme included some important reforms, which the workers began to implement by their own actions without waiting for parliamentary decrees.

Throughout May a series of strikes and occupations sent a shiver down the spines of the French capitalists. They turned to the leaders of the unions and the workers' parties to convince the workers to return to work and await the "legal" reforms of the Popular Front government.

At the beginning of June the new Popular Front government took office. The first act of the new Premier, Socialist Party leader Leon Blum, was to declare that he would not implement a socialist policy, because the people had voted for the Popular Front not socialism.

Expecting big things from "their" government, many workers did indeed return to work. When they got there, however, they found that nothing had changed. The movement exploded anew. The bold actions of the workers gained the support of the middle class more assuredly than the sugared smiles of Blum and co.

By the second week of June, the movement had spread across the country. Trotsky rightly commented, "the French Revolution has begun."

Union leaders were demanding a return to work. The workers themselves were drawing more profound conclusions form their own experiences. Rather than returning to work, they issued the bosses with a 48-hour ultimatum. Either their demands were met in full or they would be increased to include the nationalisation of armaments firms, and workers' control and management of industry. The movement was spreading over the border into Belgium and even into the colonies of North Africa. The bosses conceded to one demand after another. Their fear was matched only by that gripping the workers' leaders.

Blum's government sped reforms through parliament. The demo planned for June 14 to celebrate the Popular Front's victory was cancelled out of a fear that millions would descend on Paris intent on taking power into their own hands. Troops and riot police were being concentrated in the capital instead.

Despite the immense breadth and power of the workers' movement PCF leader Maurice Thorez declared that the time was not right, the movement was premature. The policy of this "leader" of the working class was to prevent defeat by refusing to fight. Why didn't the workers understand, they must fight to defend capitalist democracy against fascism first, and not advance their own demands until later? The consequence would be the worst defeat imaginable.

The workers saw things somewhat differently. They were in control of the factories, they had the support of the countryside, and increasingly of the troops and even the police. Thorez chose this moment to declare "we must know how to end a strike."

Had the workers' strike committees been linked together across the country, drawing in their growing support amongst the peasants and the soldiers, the revolution could have been carried out quite peacefully. The Popular Front would have been even shorter lived than its cousin the Kerensky government in Russia. A French October would have altered the entire course of human history. Had the PCF followed the policy of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They did not. They followed the line of Moscow and the Popular Front, even as a revolution unfolded before them.

In the face of such a movement, reaction would have been swatted like a fly. Yet it was this fly - reaction, the threat of Colonel de la Rocque, of fascism - which the CP based their policy on, not the power of the workers. The workers must not try to take power, only by keeping the Popular Front together could fascism be defeated. After all wasn't that why they had entered the Popular Front? There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

It was precisely the role of the workers leaders and the Popular Front which led the workers to defeat, and led to the eventual triumph of fascism. Had Stalin's version of Menshevism been maintained by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917, if Lenin had not succeeded in rearming the party, fascism would have triumphed in Russia first. Now Stalin's line was leading the revolution to defeat and paving the way for fascism across Europe.

If it is possible to imagine such a thing, across the border in Spain the Stalinists and the Popular Front were preparing an even greater tragedy. Faced with the threat of Franco, and again in spite of the awe-inspiring power demonstrated by the revolutionary movement of the workers - Trotsky commented that they could have made ten revolutions - the Spanish Stalinists, towing the Moscow line, declared that the revolution must not go beyond "democratic" tasks. In their empirical model, the revolution was divided into sharply defined stages. Stage one was to defeat fascism and secure capitalist democracy. This had to be completed before there could be any mention of the workers' own demands for socialism. Any attempt by the proletariat to go beyond the limits of capitalism, they declared, would be premature and fatal. It was the Menshevism of the Stalinists that would prove fatal for thousands and thousands of workers.

Trotsky exposed the blatant flaws in this "theory":

"Fascism—is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletariat revolution. Menshevism, itself a branch of bourgeois thought, does not have and cannot have any inkling of these facts.

The Bolshevik point of view, clearly expressed only by the young section of the Fourth International, takes the theory of permanent revolution as its starting point, namely, that even purely democratic problems, like the liquidation of semi-feudal land ownership, cannot be solved without the conquest of power by the proletariat; but this in turn places the socialist revolution on the agenda. Moreover, during the very first stages of the revolution, the Spanish workers themselves posed in practice not merely democratic problems but also purely socialist ones. The demand not to transgress the bounds of bourgeois democracy signifies in practice not a defence of the democratic revolution but a repudiation of it. Only through an overturn in agrarian relations could the peasantry, the great mass of the population, have been transformed into a powerful bulwark against fascism. But the landowners are intimately bound up with the commercial, industrial, and banking bourgeoisie, and the bourgeois intelligentsia that depends on them. The party of the proletariat was thus faced with a choice between going with the peasant masses or with the liberal bourgeoisie. There could be only one reason to include the peasantry and the liberal bourgeoisie in the same coalition at the same time: to help the bourgeoisie deceive the peasantry and thus isolate the workers. The agrarian revolution could have been accomplished only against the bourgeoisie, and therefore only through the masses of the dictatorship of the proletariat. There is no third, intermediate regime."

Unfortunately there is not room here to look at Trotsky's writings on Spain in the detail they deserve. That will form the subject of another article in this series.

It is impossible to address the question of the Popular Front without referring to those writings however. In relation the Stalinists' "theory" Trotsky wrote:

"From the standpoint of theory, the most astonishing thing about Stalin's Spanish policy is the utter disregard for the ABC of Leninism. After a delay of several decades - and what decades! - the Comintern has fully rehabilitated the doctrine of Menshevism. More than that, the Comintern has contrived to render this doctrine more 'consistent' and by that token more absurd. In Tsarist Russia, on the threshold of 1905, the formula of 'purely democratic revolution' had behind it, in any case, immeasurably more arguments than in 1937 in Spain. It is hardly astonishing that in modern Spain 'the liberal labour policy' of Menshevism has been converted into the reactionary anti-labour policy of Stalinism. At the same time the doctrine of the Mensheviks, this caricature of Marxism, has been converted into a caricature of itself.

"The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: 'Communists' plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant prove equal to zero.

"A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.

"Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war."

Worse still the Spanish workers were being asked to subordinate themselves not to the bourgeoisie but to its shadow. They could see that a revolutionary mass movement in the prevailing circumstances, no matter how it started, would end up by challenging private property. In their own way, they demonstrated an understanding of the permanent revolution, which, despite all the evidence of reality, the Stalinists continued to deny. Such a revolution could not be defeated by democratic means, so the Spanish bourgeoisie, save for one or two stragglers, went with Franco.

The Popular Front marked a new turning point in the degeneration of Stalinism and Trotsky's struggle.

"I once defined Stalinism as bureaucratic centrism," wrote Trotsky, "and events brought a series of corroborations of the correctness of this definition. But it is obviously obsolete today. The interests of the Bonapartist bureaucracy can no longer be reconciled with centrist hesitation and vacillation. In search of reconciliation with the bourgeoisie, the Stalinist clique is capable of entering into alliances only with the most conservative groupings among the international labour aristocracy. This has acted to fix definitively the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism on the international arena."

The German obscenity had led Trotsky to conclude the need for a new international. Events in Spain confirmed the further degeneration of the Comintern and the Russian bureaucracy. Not just through error, but now in their own material interest, they were playing a counter-revolutionary role.

The political struggle between Trotsky and the Comintern had become the struggle of Bolshevism against Menshevism. Trotsky considered the Popular Front to be the most vital question of the day. It continued to be so for decades. Through this policy countless thousands of workers perished. The tragedy of the Popular Front was repeated in Chile from 1970-73. Behind the facade of Popular Unity, the reaction of Pinochet prepared. Thousands upon thousands of Chilean workers paid with their lives.

Those who today genuinely wish to defeat reaction, to advance the cause of the socialist revolution must draw this lesson above all others, it is necessary to learn from history or repeat its mistakes and pay dearly in defeat and in blood. Study the history of the revolutionary movement, study the ideas and the life's struggle of Leon Trotsky, to whom we will leave the last word:

"The Spanish revolution once again demonstrates that it is impossible to defend democracy against the methods of fascist reaction. And conversely, it is impossible to conduct a genuine struggle against fascism otherwise than through the methods of the proletarian revolution. Stalin waged war against 'Trotskyism' (proletarian revolution), destroying democracy by the Bonapartist measures of the GPU. This refutes once again and once and for all the old Menshevik theory, adopted by the Comintern, in accordance with which the democratic and socialist revolutions are transformed into two independent historic chapters, separated from each other in point of time. The work of the Moscow executioners confirms in its own way the correctness of the theory of permanent revolution."