Spartacist Canada No. 175
The Popular Front: Policy of Class Betrayal
quote of the issue
From Spain in the late 1930s to South Africa today, “Communist” parties wielding the Stalinist program of class collaboration known as the popular (or peoples’) front have helped the capitalist rulers derail workers struggles and protected bourgeois governments from revolutionary challenges by the proletariat. In 1937, as the Spanish proletariat was locked in a life-and-death struggle for power, James Burnham, then a leading propagandist for the U.S. Trotskyists, highlighted urgent lessons from the “theory” and history of popular-front betrayals, and their kinship to earlier social-democratic methods of subordinating the workers to capitalist rule. He contrasts the popular front with the Bolshevik tactic of the united front, i.e., joint action of different currents in the workers movement in which the revolutionary party retains its complete political independence and the right to criticize its opponents.
The Peoples’ Front, on the other hand, is not merely, not even primarily, an agreement for joint action on specific issues. It first and foremost involves the acceptance by all members of the Peoples’ Front of a common program. This difference is the key to the gulf which separates the Peoples’ Front from the united front.
What program? We have already seen the answer. The program of the Peoples’ Front is a program for the defense of bourgeois democracy: that is, for the defense of one form of capitalism.
Whose program is this? It is obviously not the program of the proletariat. The program of the proletariat, accepted by revolutionists since the publication of the Communist Manifesto, can be summed up in two slogans: for workers’ power and for socialism. Naturally the immediate tactic of the proletariat is not on all occasions the struggle for state power: that is possible only in a revolutionary crisis. But at all times and on all occasions the fundamental program remains the same—for the overthrow of capitalism, for workers’ power and for socialism. This program expresses the basic class conflict in modern society; records the Marxist understanding that the problems of society can be solved only by socialism, and that socialism can be achieved only through the conquest of power by the proletariat. The duty of the revolutionary party, the conscious vanguard of the proletariat, is to keep this full and fundamental program always to the fore and always uncompromised. In its program, the revolutionary party thus sums up the independence of the proletariat as a class, and asserts its independent historical destiny.
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 Peoples’ Front. In the Peoples’ Front the proletariat renounces its class independence, gives up its class aims—the only aims, as Marxism teaches, which can serve its interests. By accepting the program of the Peoples’ Front, it thereby accepts the aims of another section of society; it accepts the aim of the defense of capitalism when all history demonstrates that the interests of the proletariat can be served only by the overthrow of capitalism. It subordinates itself to a middle-class version of how best and most comfortably to preserve the capitalist order. The Peoples’ Front is thus thoroughly and irrevocably non-proletarian, anti-proletarian.
By its very nature, the Peoples’ Front must be so. The establishment of the Peoples’ Front, by definition, requires agreement on a common program between the working-class parties 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, without becoming themselves revolutionary workers’ parties. But if that should happen, then there would be no basis left for a Peoples’ Front: there would be only revolutionary proletarian unity. Consequently, the Peoples’ Front must always be an abandonment of the proletarian program, a subordination of the proletariat to non-proletarian social interests. In the Peoples’ Front, it is the proletariat and the proletariat alone that loses.
—James Burnham, The Peoples’ Front: The New Betrayal (1937)