Bolshevism versus class collaboration
A reply to Young Communist League’s defense
of Stalinist Popular Frontism
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
Working people are being subjected to a growing flood of articles in the big-business media and statements by capitalist politicians around the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. U.S. president George Bush’s upcoming tour of Europe to celebrate “Victory in Europe Day” is the occasion for an orgy of American nationalist propaganda. May 8, 1945—the so-called V-E Day—is when U.S. imperialism and its allies formally declared their defeat of German imperialism.
As part of the debate around these events, some organizations in the workers movement have defended what was known as the Popular Front. This is the political course that was pursued, beginning in the mid-1930s, by the Soviet government and the parties worldwide that looked to it for political direction. In the name of “defeating fascism,” they promoted programmatic or governmental alliances of workers parties with liberal bourgeois parties. Popular Front governments that included Socialist and Communist Parties were elected in France and Spain in 1936. During World War II, the Communist Parties around the world continued this line by supporting Washington and other “Allied” powers in their war with the “Axis” governments.
One of the advocates of this perspective today is the Communist Party USA. Over the last year the press of the CPUSA and its youth group, the Young Communist League (YCL), has published articles about the Popular Front.
Two representative items in Dynamic, the YCL’s newspaper, are an article in the October 27 issue by Joel Lewis titled “Against Fascism and War by Georgi Dimitrov” and a piece by Matt Murtagh called “The 2004 Elections and the United Front Strategy” in the Jan. 11, 2004, issue.
The articles seek to rationalize the stance of the CPUSA in the 2004 presidential elections, in which it campaigned for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, under the slogan “defeat Bush and the ultraright.” This is not a new position. For several decades the Communist Party has called on working people to support one of the twin parties of the U.S. capitalist ruling class, the Democrats, by arguing that the other major capitalist party, the Republicans, represents the “extreme right.”
Lewis writes that the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist movement to power in Germany in 1933 “contains eerie parallels with the world in which we live today,” suggesting a similarity between the Nazi-led regime and the Bush White House. He says the Popular Front strategy was based on lessons from the failures of “the German communists, who had focused their energies attacking reformists on the left instead of organizing a United Front against the Nazi Party.” He adds that “this dangerous mistake is being repeated today by those who propose equal condemnation for the Democrats and Republicans.”
Today, with the incumbent president reelected, the CPUSA’s line remains “Defeat the Bush agenda.” This means supporting Democratic Party candidates in the coming city, state, and national elections.
We’ll come back later to the U.S. elections and the political situation today. But the Dynamic articles on the Popular Front, which refer to lessons from the momentous events of Germany, Spain, France, and United States in the 1930s and ’40s, pose fundamental political questions that must be addressed.
These are not “historical” questions for scholars. They stand as necessary lessons for working people and youth today who are repelled by the brutal realities of capitalism and want to understand the world in order to change it. They were crucial to the outcome of the class struggle at every turning point in the 20th century, and they remain decisive today.
The main conclusion of revolutionists is that it is possible to end the exploitation of working people, imperialist war, national oppression, women’s second-class status, and other degrading social relations. The only force with the capacity to lead such a transformation is the working class, which must organize independently of all pro-capitalist parties. A revolutionary workers party is needed to lead a movement—both here and internationally—along a strategy for workers and farmers to take state power into their own hands through a social revolution, overturn capitalist rule, and join the worldwide struggle for socialism. The political activity of such a party, from union struggles to election campaigns, must be part of pointing toward the road to power.
What happened from the 1920s on, however, is very different from what is presented by the CPUSA and YCL.
What was the Popular Front?
“While Hitler was eventually able to consolidate his power in Germany,” writes Lewis, “his path toward war was slowed and his ultimate destruction ensured by the theoretical and strategic positions laid out by the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov and adopted by the Comintern and the Young Communist International in 1935. In his book, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War, Dimitrov laid the groundwork that transformed the worldwide communist movement into a mass movement against the racist and militarist threats of the ultra-right.”
That strategy was the Popular Front, which, Lewis says:
can be summed up in one simple word: Unity! The original United Front program of the Communist International referred to a political and industrial unity of the working class. Dimitrov’s concept of the Popular Front was a series of political alliances of all progressive forces with a common agenda of defeating the ultra-right. The Popular Front worked as a program that communists could follow in one country to further the struggle against fascism and war. But the Popular Front was also a larger international series of alliances that eventually manifested itself in the Grand Alliance between the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—an alliance which led to the ultimate destruction of Hitler’s Reich.
Dimitrov also warned of the danger of divisions in the alliance of progressive forces—divisions bred by the “ultra-left.” The ultra-left, most notably the Trotskyites, condemned any type of populist unity that crosses class barriers or which did not propose the immediate advancement of socialist revolution.
In reality, the Popular Front was a foreign policy course that the Communist International (Comintern) followed to serve the needs of a privileged bureaucracy in Moscow at the expense of the interests of working people—at a time of revolutions and working-class upsurges in many countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
The regime in Moscow headed by Joseph Stalin instructed Communist Parties around the world to carry out this line of forming a coalition of capitalist and workers parties. As Murtagh puts it, they pursued “an alliance of all antifascist forces, across class and even political divides, in order to first weather fascism and ultimately destroy it.”
This meant, in the name of “unity,” subordinating the interests of workers and farmers to the class needs of the “democratic” wing of the capitalist class.
Today defenders of the Popular Front strategy say it was a success because “Hitler was defeated.”
The opposite is true. The Popular Front was a counterrevolutionary political course that led to the defeat of revolutionary upsurges in Spain and France. When workers and farmers challenged capitalist prerogatives, the Communist Parties in those countries led the effort to demobilize and block them, resorting to thuggery and even assassinations against others in the workers movement. These defeats of revolutionary openings made World War II possible.
Far from being a strategy to defeat fascism, the Popular Front line made its victory possible in Spain. Rather than eliminate the danger of fascism, it helped stabilize capitalist rule—the source of fascism—in many countries.
A break with the Bolsheviks
The Popular Front, as presented by Dimitrov and applied by Communist Parties around the world in the 1930s and ’40s, had no continuity with the Bolshevik Party, which led working people to take power in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. In fact, it represented a sharp break with the course of the Bolsheviks and the first five years of the Communist International under the leadership of V.I. Lenin.
Murtagh attributes the origin of the Popular Front to Antonio Gramsci, a leader of the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s. This is a case of false paternity. Whatever the limitations of Gramsci’s politics, he was a genuine revolutionary.
The Popular Front policy was imposed on the Communist International by its bureaucratized leadership, headed by Joseph Stalin, which broke with the working-class course of the Bolsheviks.
From 1928 to 1934 the Stalinist movement had followed ultraleft policies. In those years, dubbed the “third period,” the Comintern leadership had declared that revolution was imminent everywhere, forbidding united-front actions with other workers parties such as the Social Democrats, which were falsely branded “social fascists.”
A reversal of that policy began to take public shape in the spring of 1935, when Stalin signed a pact with imperialist France and announced that he “understands and fully approves” the rearmament by Paris, which was then beginning its preparations for war. In 1935 the French Communist Party initiated a Popular Front coalition with the Socialist Party and a liberal party, the Radicals. That course was then instituted as policy for all other countries at the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern, held in Moscow in July-August 1935. Dimitrov, a leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, was assigned to present the report on this new line at the congress.
Now Communist Parties everywhere were ordered to collaborate not only with the working-class parties (except the “Trotskyists”) previously called social fascists but with capitalist parties they had until then opposed, which they now deemed “progressive” and “democratic.” On the international scene, Stalinist parties were instructed to support the “democratic” imperialist governments in their military and diplomatic preparations for war against fascist-led imperialist regimes.
This course of class collaboration—“crossing class barriers,” as Lewis accurately calls it—was a break with the course that the Bolshevik Party had taken in the Russian Revolution and the first years of the Comintern.
Early Comintern on the united front
In the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Party led workers and peasants to power. During the revolutionary upsurge the Mensheviks, a class-collaborationist party, argued that workers should subordinate themselves to the liberal capitalists in order to bring down the brutal tsarist regime; the goal of working-class power was left to sometime in the future. After the monarchy was overthrown in February 1917, the Mensheviks joined the provisional government in a coalition with the liberal capitalists (Cadets) and middle-class Social Revolutionaries.
In contrast, the Bolsheviks called on workers, in alliance with peasants, to organize—independently of all bourgeois forces—around a program of immediate, democratic, and transitional demands that pointed the road toward political power. They opposed the provisional government and advocated a fight for power by the soviets—elected councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants that had arisen during the revolution. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks led the insurrection in which the capitalist regime was toppled and workers and peasants established their own government based on the soviets. Capitalist-landlord rule was overturned, the old state apparatus dismantled, and a new kind of state established: a workers state.
In 1919, at the initiative of the Bolsheviks, the Communist (Third) International was founded. It was made up of the newly formed communist parties in countries around the world that, inspired by the October 1917 victory, had broken with the class-collaborationist misleadership of the social-democratic parties (the Second International) and set out to follow the revolutionary road of the workers and peasants of Russia.
At its third and fourth congresses, in 1921 and 1922, the Communist International dealt extensively with the strategy of the road to power, based on the revolutionary experiences of the recent years. This included the tactic of the united front, aimed at influencing the mass of workers still in the ranks of the reformist parties. The “Theses on Tactics” adopted by the Fourth Congress presented a revolutionary alternative to the course of the social-democrats, who were participating in capitalist governments in Germany and other countries.
“To the coalition between the bourgeoisie and the Social Democracy, whether it be open or concealed,” the theses explained, “the Communists counterpose the united front of all workers and the political and economic coalition of all workers parties against bourgeois power, in order to overthrow the latter once and for all.”
The theses said “the united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.”
The Fourth Congress also took up the demand for a workers and farmers government. This slogan, based on the political independence of working people from all capitalist parties, pointed to overturning the bourgeois state.
“The slogan of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government, by extending the basis of the tactic of the united front,” the theses stated, “is the path to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
In other words, the communist movement in Lenin’s time explicitly opposed the course—advocated in 1935 by Stalin and Dimitrov and today by the CPUSA and YCL—of workers backing electoral or governmental alliances with capitalist parties. The demand for a workers and farmers government, on the other hand, remains valid and useful today as part of a revolutionary strategy.
Germany: what led to victory of fascism
By the mid-1920s, however, a rising bureaucratic caste, whose main spokesperson became Joseph Stalin, had begun to dominate the Soviet Union. The Stalin leadership, concerned with preserving the material privileges of that middle-class layer, reversed the working-class internationalist course of the Bolsheviks and gutted the proletarian democratic functioning of the Communist International. Class struggle was replaced with class collaboration and internationalism with a narrow national outlook.
The fight to maintain the revolutionary course of the Bolsheviks against this growing political counterrevolution, initiated by Lenin in the last months of his political life in 1922-23, was continued by Leon Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders. By the early 1930s, however, the bureaucratic caste had consolidated its hold on the degenerated workers state.
The policies imposed on the Comintern shifted arbitrarily according to the narrow diplomatic needs of the bureaucracy in Moscow. Until 1928 collaboration was ordered with liberal and reformist politicians who might help secure diplomatic recognition of the Soviet regime by capitalist governments. Then, at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, the Stalinists proclaimed the “third period,” an ultraleft course of political adventurism and sectarian “red unions” based on the prediction that capitalism had entered the period of its imminent demise.
As part of this abrupt reversal, the Stalinists rejected the united front policy developed by the Comintern in Lenin’s time. The social-democratic parties were labeled “social fascists,” following Stalin’s dictum that social democracy and fascism were “not antipodes but twins.” Of course, there could be no united front with social fascists, who were considered the “main enemy.”
The Dynamic article by Lewis asserts that the 1935 Popular Front line was based on learning from the experience of the German Communist Party, which had focused on attacking its opponents in the workers movement “instead of organizing a United Front against the Nazi Party.”
What Lewis conveniently omits, however, is that the German CP policy was not unique to the Stalinists in that country. Opposition to the united front was the “third period” line that Moscow imposed on all Communist Parties—including on the CPUSA.
In the 1932 U.S. elections, for example, the CP denounced Democrat Franklin Roosevelt as the “fascist” candidate and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas as the “social fascist” candidate. Just four years later, following the new Popular Front line, the CP campaigned for the reelection of Roosevelt, now proclaimed an “antifascist.”
This sectarian course had its most disastrous results in Germany. The leaders of the mass Social Democratic and Communist parties rejected a united workers front to combat the growing National Socialist movement. They divided the workers movement, allowing the fascists to come to power without a struggle.
German CP: ‘After Hitler, our turn’
In the 1920s and early 1930s, imperialist Germany was shaken by growing economic crisis, including mass unemployment and ruinous hyperinflation, which fueled sustained working-class struggles and a revolutionary upsurge in 1923. At the same time, the deep social crisis and the lack of revolutionary working-class leadership led to the rise of the fascist National Socialist German Workers Party, or Nazis.
Fascism is a radical petty-bourgeois movement in the streets, backed and financed by growing sections of the ruling class. Its leaders appeal to desperate middle-class layers by railing against “high finance” and the bankers, lacing their nationalist demagogy with anticapitalist rhetoric.
Fascism is not something historically different in class terms from a capitalist regime. It is not an alternative to “democratic capitalism”—as liberals and Stalinists would have us believe—but is bred by “democratic capitalism” in times of sharp crisis in order to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie. This was the nature of the Nazis in Germany and of the fascists in Italy and other countries in Europe.
The German Communist Party, however, portrayed fascism as nothing but capitalist reaction, while indiscriminately labeling various reactionary bourgeois politicians as “fascists.” By blurring the differences, the Stalinists disoriented workers as to the danger that the National Socialists represented and how to combat them.
Under the impact of the social crisis, the Nazis grew rapidly. Between 1928 and 1930, the votes they received in the elections mushroomed by 700 percent, to 6.4 million. By the end of 1930, the Nazi Party’s storm troops numbered 100,000.
The working class in Germany, the most powerfully organized in the capitalist world, could have taken on and defeated the fascists. In the 1930 elections the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won 8.6 million votes and Communist Party 4.6 million—a combined total of 13.2 million, in a country of 65 million inhabitants. Workers were organized into powerful trade unions, and the SPD even had a mass defense organization, the Reichsbanner.
But the CP, blinded by its factionalism and following Moscow’s ukase, refused to campaign for a united front with the SPD and the trade unions in order to take on the Nazi goon squads in combat. Instead, the German Communist Party targeted the Social Democrats as the main enemy, calling them “social fascists.”
As the Communist and Socialist parties remained paralyzed, the fascist gangs stormed union halls and carried out other brazen physical assaults on the workers movement.
In 1931, when the Nazis launched a referendum to oust the SPD-led coalition government in Prussia, the Communist Party went so far as to give the Social Democrats an ultimatum: form a united front with us at once, or we will make one with the Nazis. When the SPD leaders rejected the proposal, the CP joined with the fascists campaigning for what the Stalinists called the “red referendum.” This further emboldened the Nazi thugs.
Seeking to resolve the social crisis in their favor, the German ruling class increasingly turned to the National Socialists, who came to power in 1933.
In the 1932 elections the SPD, frightened by the Nazi upsurge, supported Paul von Hindenburg, a reactionary former Prussian field marshal, as a lesser evil to Hitler. Then, in January 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany.
The following month the Reichstag (parliament) was set on fire by Nazis. Hitler’s regime used this incident as the pretext to arrest thousands of workers and ban socialist and communist newspapers. The Reichstag gave Hitler dictatorial powers.
After the Nazis had come to power, however, the Stalinists boasted that Hitler’s victory would soon give way to a socialist revolution, declaring, “After Hitler, our turn!”
While the Stalinized Comintern remained silent, the Nazi-led regime proceeded to crush the unions and annihilate the German Communist Party.
The capitulation of the German Communists and Social Democrats allowed the fascists to take power without a fight—the greatest defeat for the working class in the 20th century.
Trotsky’s call for united front
In contrast to the Stalin-led Communist International, the communist forces led by Leon Trotsky sounded the alarm from the beginning on the impending showdown between fascism and the workers movement. They explained what the fascist movement was and agitated for a united front of the Social Democratic and Communist Parties to defeat it. Trotsky wrote articles in 1931 such as “Germany, the key to the international situation” and “For a workers’ united front against fascism.” These and other articles were published in the Militant and its sister publications around the world. These can be found in the pamphlet Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It and the book The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, both published by Pathfinder Press.
With the acceleration of the class struggle in Germany after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist League of America (CLA), stepped up its campaign to mobilize working people against the fascist danger. The CLA sponsored a series of mass meetings, including one in New York in February 1933 attended by 500 people, on “The Meaning of the German events,” which featured CLA national secretary James P. Cannon.
During this period the weekly Militant was brought out three times a week with the slogan “The United Front of the Workers’ Organizations and the Battle to the Death!”
The U.S. Communist Party, however, rejected this call for a united front, calling the CLA “social fascist.”
The historic defeat in Germany and the destruction of the Communist Party there by the Nazi-led regime prompted a belated shift by the Kremlin in 1934-35. Instead of returning to the Leninist tactic of the workers’ united front, however, the Stalinists moved to support “democratic” capitalist governments under the slogan of an “antifascist people’s front.”