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Spartacist South Africa No. 10

Spring 2013

Analysis of the Theory of the Peoples’ Front

By James Burnham

We reprint below an excerpt from James Burnham’s 1937 pamphlet The People’s Front: The New Betrayal. This pamphlet gives a precise summary of the Marxist perspective on the popular front, a class collaborationist theory used to justify alliance or coalition of reformist-led workers organisations with outright bourgeois parties. In these alliances, the working class gives up its own independent political programme and is subordinated to that of the bourgeoisie. In a popular front, the contradictions are suppressed through the alliance with openly bourgeois forces. The seething mass discontent is challenged through the dead end of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie. The ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance is an example of this—a nationalist popular front through which the South African working class continues to be subordinated to the bourgeoisie. We are for the forging of a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party to smash the capitalist system through socialist revolution, and opposition to the popular front is key to this. For these reasons, we thought the excerpt below would be useful to readers of Spartacist South Africa. At the time he wrote this, Burnham was a leading member of the American Socialist Workers Party together with James Cannon. Burnham later defected from Trotskyism following his renunciation of the defence of the degenerated Soviet workers state, which went along with his revisionist attack on dialectical materialism and rejection of the Leninist conception of party building.

* * *

It would be a great mistake to imagine that the Peoples’ Front is a new policy. It is, it is true, a new slogan; but, in actual content, it is simply an old policy in a new disguise, an old strategy dressed up for the new occasion. The words of its defenders make entirely clear what the real content of the policy of the Peoples’ Front is; and it is, therefore, not necessary to give elaborate external proof. The Peoples’ Front is merely a re-wording of the theories and practices of class collaboration and coalition government, as these have been advocated by reformists since the beginning of the modern labor movement. Class collaboration is what the Peoples’ Front specifically proposes: the union of organizations and parties representing various classes and sections of classes on the basis of a common program to defend bourgeois democracy. A Peoples’ Front government means, as defined by Dimitroff and Manuilsky, the assumption of governmental responsibility in a capitalist state by the coalition of these organizations and parties.

It is not profitable to argue about words. There are many honest supporters of the Peoples’ Front who will dislike and try to reject the realization that it is identical with class collaboration and coalition government. This is because they have previously been trained in an attitude of hostility toward class collaboration and coalition government as betrayals of Marxism. Indeed, this training is one of the reasons why the Comintern invented the new phrase, “Peoples’ Front”, thereby hoping to make the policy acceptable to those who would have been suspicious of the old phrases. However, if we examine the actual content, there can be no dispute. The Peoples’ Front proposes, quite openly and explicitly, the collaboration of classes and a coalition form of government. Naturally it does so in the name of the proletariat, on the alleged grounds that this strategy will under present conditions best serve the interests of the proletariat. But reformism has always tried to justify itself on such grounds—otherwise the proletariat would not be influenced by it.

A striking indication of the fundamental identity between the Peoples’ Front and the traditional policies of class collaboration and coalition government is provided by the ease with which reformists and liberals in every country (who have always stood for these latter policies and stand for them today) have gone over to the slogans of the Peoples’ Front. They have done so because they have recognized that in the Peoples’ Front, Stalinism—for its own reasons—has gone over to their own policies, that is, to reformism. And, of course, they welcome this; though they are still shy of the Comintern, fearing that Stalin offers his reformist gifts only for the chance to swallow them up.

It is necessary to make a sharp distinction between the Peoples’ Front and the United Front. The Stalinist spokesmen are anxious to lump the two together, and to claim that the Peoples’ Front is nothing more than the logical extension of the United Front “to a higher plane”. Similarly, they attempt to confuse the workers by trying to make it appear that revolutionary socialists, in their consistent opposition to the Peoples’ Front, are attacking the United Front. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Revolutionary socialists have consistently stood for, and fought for, the united front, and continue to do so. Indeed, during the years of Hitler’s rise to power, one of the chief criticisms leveled against the Comintern by the revolutionary Marxists was that by failing to adopt a united front tactic in Germany, the Comintern guaranteed the victory of Hitler. For this criticism, at that time, the Comintern branded the Marxists as capitulators to the Social-Democracy, and as social-fascists. The most elaborate defense ever made of the united front is to be found in the pamphlets written about Germany during that time by Trotsky.

The united front, however, has nothing at all in common with the Peoples’ Front. The united front consists in an agreement reached between two or more parties and organizations, which have different programs, for joint action on specific issues. In this agreement there is absolutely no question of a common political program. Each organization retains intact its entire program; retains the right to put it forward; retains the right to criticize the other organizations in the united front agreement, either in general, or for failure to carry out properly the united front agreement. Thus, in the united front each organization guards its full independence; while at the same time the widest possible unity can be achieved for carrying through some action accepted as desirable by all of the constituent organizations of the united front.

The united front is possible because various organizations differing in complete program or in final social aim may nevertheless all be in favor of some specific action or set of actions. For example, united fronts are readily possible on such issues as defense cases, support of a strike, resistance to attack on civil liberties and other democratic rights, breaking of injunctions, holding of demonstrations, etc. At more advanced stages of social crisis, they must be formed on such issues as the building of a workers’ militia, defense against fascist gangs, the founding of workers’ and peasants’ and soldiers’ committees. The united front on such issues is in fact not merely possible but indispensable for successful struggle. Through it the widest possible forces are organized, and at the same time the masses are given a chance to compare in action the worth and dependability of the ideas and methods of the various organizations and parties which strive for their allegiance.

Revolutionary socialists do not merely accept the united front passively. They are the most active and the only consistent advocates of the united front; whereas reformists always resist the united front and must be forced into it—just as the Stalinists now, in basing their policy on the reformist Peoples’ Front, resist and fight against the genuine united front of action. How could it be otherwise? The ideas and principles of the revolutionary Marxists represent the historical interests of the proletariat. Consequently, any joint struggle by specific actions to the advantage of the proletariat will be welcomed by the Marxists; and the broader the basis, the better. At the same time the Marxists are anxious to have an ever broader mass arena for the presentation of their own ideas and a demonstration of their own methods, confident that a true understanding of them will turn the masses away from the reformists toward the revolutionists.

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 defmition, 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. Earl Browder, in his report to his Central Committee on December 4th, 1936, summed up the whole matter: “We can organize and rouse them [the majority of “the people”] provided we do not demand of them that they agree with our socialist program, but unite with them on the basis of their program which we make also our own.” [My italics.—J. B.]

The attempt of the Comintern apologists to find a theoretical foundation which will justify the Peoples’ Front compels them to make a completely anti-Marxist analysis of the present historical situation. They must corrupt Marxism with respect to every single important issue: bourgeois democracy; fascism; war; the problem and task of the proletariat.

Let us summarize briefly the analysis which Marxists make of the present period, so that it may be compared with the Dimitroff-Manuilsky analysis outlined in the preceding chapter:

Marxism always approaches every social, political, and historical question from the point of view of the class struggle. The basic conflict in modern society—capitalist society—is, according to Marxism, the conflict and struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This conflict must continue, and progressively deepen, until capitalism, on a world scale, is overthrown, and the bourgeoisie defeated, and liquidated as a class. Only the two basic classes of modern society—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—are capable of independent historical action, and thus of formulating independent social and political programs. Reduced to simplest terms, the program of the bourgeoisie is the defense of the capitalist order; the program of the proletariat; its overthrow. The intermediary classes, however they may try to escape it, always in actuality support one side or another in the basic conflict.

In the light of these elementary first principles of Marxism, the Comintern division of the world into “war makers” and “peace lovers”, its statement that the two great hostile camps are “democracy” and “fascism”, its contention that the issue is “between democracy and fascism”, are seen to have nothing in common with Marxism. Its propagation of a program for the defense of capitalist democracy represents merely the extension of one type of bourgeois ideology into the ranks of the working class.

Capitalism, Marxism teaches, went through a great progressive phase. It was the bourgeoisie, the builders of capitalist society, who broke through the fetters of feudal society, who developed modern science and technic, who completely revolutionized industry and communication, who laid the material basis for the adequate fulfillment of human needs. During its progressive phase, capitalism was marked by terrible and devastating conflicts, and by the periodic ravages of the business crises. But after each crisis, capitalism rose stronger than ever, and went to new heights.

Now, however, capitalism, in the advanced period of imperialism, has entered the phase of its general decline as a world system. It is strangling itself. The very factors which once made it a progressive force now act as a brake and obstacle to its further progress. The capitalist system can no longer handle the things which it has itself created. And, as a consequence, the conflicts and crises redouble in intensity. After each periodic crisis, capitalism rises weaker, not stronger. Permanent unemployment, insecurity, hunger, mass discontent progressively grow. Great social upheavals multiply and increase in scope and intensity. Wars and revolutions, on an unprecedented scale, become the general rule instead of the exception, quieting down only long enough to prepare for new world-wide outbreaks.

In the face of this perspective, in the general decline of the capitalist order, the proletarian revolution on a world scale, the building of socialism, presents itself as the only solution. Nothing else whatever can alter the perspective, nothing else can halt the progressive degeneration if not the utter destruction of civilization.

Bourgeois democracy, Marxism teaches further, is a form of capitalism, one of the political forms through which the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat is exercised. It is, in a sense, the “normal” form of bourgeois dictatorship during the progressive phase of capitalism. But Marxism is as unalterably opposed to bourgeois democracy as to any other form of capitalist rule; it is opposed because it is opposed in general to capitalism and to bourgeois rule, and aims at the overthrow of capitalism and the defeat of the bourgeoisie.

During the decline of capitalism, the bourgeoisie finds greater and greater difficulty in keeping the deepening social conflicts within the basic framework of democratic parliamentarism. Democracy becomes too awkward, too clumsy, slow, inefficient, unreliable, as a mechanism for class rule. Consequently, manipulating middle-class discontent through a demagogic pseudo-radicalism, the bourgeoisie is compelled to resort to the iron strait-jacket of fascism to insure its continuance in power. Fascism, that is to say, is not a conspiracy or plot on the part of anybody. It is nothing accidental; nothing that results from any peculiar ill-will or viciousness. Fascism, or a fascist type of government, is, on the contrary, a wholly normal development: the normal (though not necessarily universal) mechanism for capitalist rule as the decline and disintegration of the capitalist order deepens, just as bourgeois democracy, parliamentarism, is the normal (though not necessarily universal) mechanism during the progressive phase of capitalism.

It may thus be seen that there is no basic social conflict between bourgeois democracy and fascism. If we examine social questions historically, as Marxism does, we find in a sense the contrary: fascism is the resultant of bourgeois democracy in the period of capitalist decline; bourgeois democracy is the precursor of and the preparation for fascism.

A similar analysis applies in the question of war. War, imperialist war, is caused by the basic conflicts of capitalist society, by the struggle to which every capitalist power is forced for cheap raw materials, additional markets, opportunities for the export of capital. These causes operate within democratic capitalist nations as fully as in fascist nations. Fascism, though it may be a stimulus to war, is not at all the cause of war; war and fascism are both the results of capitalism. War, or the approach of war, may, on the other hand, be an immediate stimulus to fascism: since a nation faced by war, or the prospect of war, may well require the totalitarian state in order to prosecute the war successfully.

It follows with full certainty that fascism and war can be defeated only by the overthrow of capitalism. The attempt of the Peoples’ Front to preserve bourgeois democracy, any attempt to base a strategy on such a conception, is not merely helpless in the struggle against war and fascism. It makes both inevitable.

Spartacist South Africa No. 10

SSA 10

Spring 2013


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