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The Popular Front:

A well-covered trap

When comrade Ian D resigned from the Marxist Bulletin/International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) last year, his resignation letter, subsequently published in his journal Revolution & Truth, accused his former comrades of refusing to debate his political differences with him. He claims that the leadership prevented any real debate on positions he raised regarding the popular front and the tradition of the Spartacist League. On several occasions he has repeated these accusations at political forums.

Comrade Ian produced several documents while still in the IBT in which he criticised our refusal to give any electoral support to bourgeois workers parties that are in a cross-class coalition with bourgeois parties. He argued that this principled refusal amounted to sectarian abstentionism. Instead he advocated that it was possible, under certain circumstances, to vote for those candidates that were members of the reformist party despite it being in a popular front with bourgeois parties.

This tactic is supposed to serve as a means to split the popular front along its class lines. As an example of when this tactic could have been implemented he referred to the elections in Chile in 1970 when Salvador Allende’s Socialist Party came to power at the head of Unidad Popular, a classic popular front. The government fell three years later in bloody defeat at the hands of General Pinochet who took full advantage of Allende’s refusal to arm the workers in order not to frighten his bourgeois allies.

Ian praises the Spartacist League’s position on Chile during this period, when it published an important article firmly opposing the Unidad Popular, warning that it laid the basis for a future bloodbath. He objects, however, to one paragraph in which the article moves on to the logical conclusion of opposing any electoral support to candidates of a bourgeois workers party unless they break with the capitalist components of the popular front. No other left organisation internationally (including all the supposedly ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist ones) took this position of hard opposition to popular frontism when faced with Allende’s popularity and the widespread illusions that the UP was pioneering a new, Chilean road to socialism.

Ian claims to have ‘discovered’ that the political degeneration of the revolutionary Spartacist League dates from its position on Allende’s Unidad Popular, while we in the IBT consider this to be a prime example of the uniquely revolutionary character of the SL in that period. Much of his argument is based on a published speech by then Workers Vanguard editor Jan Norden almost a decade later, including claims that Norden deliberately falsified the record in order to defend the SL position.

This sudden concern about the supposed sectarianism of the IBT’s political forebears regarding electoral tactics in Chile 28 years earlier arose in the context of Ian’s failure after much discussion to convince other Marxist Bulletin supporters, who had just left the Socialist Labour Party, that they should join the Socialist Alliance. It was this disagreement that provided the impulse for Ian’s discovery that the political tradition with which he had long claimed agreement had been deeply flawed. Ian then chose to resign from our organisation in favour of involvement in the Socialist Alliance (see page 4).

Since Ian has publically complained about the way his criticisms were handled by the organisation, we feel the need to set the record straight by publishing two documents that were produced by other comrades in response to Ian’s arguments. These documents, which focus on the question of the popular front, the dangers it poses and how to win workers away from it, demonstrate the important place of this question in our programme.

The documents speak for themselves. They reveal that serious political discussion of this question did take place and that the leadership did not prevent this discussion. The first letter is by a supporter of the Marxist Bulletin in Britain, the second by a leading member of the IBT. Comrade Ian is, of course, free to claim whatever he likes, but readers of Revolution & Truth are perhaps entitled to hope that the journal’s fact-checker will play a more active role in future.

Christoph, 31 March 1998

Ian’s recent document was very interesting and thought-provoking. I have had several discussions with the author on the subject and feel now able to summarise my position.

Ian’s claim that ‘a serious disjuncture between Spartacism’s practice and that of the Trotskyist movement’ took place in 1970 over the question of Chile seems rather odd. It was the Spartacists’ writings on Chile which not only distinguished them from the other left groups, but proved them right. Ian has to admit this when he says that the SL’s warnings ‘constitute an authentic Trotskyist critique’. However, he objects to one paragraph. The paragraph says that a) the class contradiction of the reformist party in a popular front has been suppressed in the bourgeoisie’s favour, and b) that to vote for them while they are part of the coalition would be treason.

I share this assessment of the popular front. I do not think that this is something particularly new, even though it probably was never before expressed in these terms. A reformist party that either enters into a coalition government with a bourgeois party or stands in elections in a bloc with such a bourgeois party gives up its class independence. It proclaims to the workers: ‘In this period of crisis, we cannot act for one class (the working-class) alone, we have to save the nation (the bourgeoisie).’ It accepts the leading role of the bourgeoisie, it signs up to its programme, or at least, will use the presence of the bourgeois party in the government as an excuse for their own betrayals. This is the role and deadly danger of the popular front. It fools workers into thinking that ‘their’ party will act in their interests when the actual role of the reformist party is to save capitalism from proletarian revolution. This is the context in which we have to consider our attitude towards reformist parties in coalition with the bourgeoisie.

The SL was able to see the danger of the popular front right from the beginning and gave a warning that even Ian agrees with. So did the SL produce a prophetic warning but use the wrong (or falsified) justification for it? Can their motivation be incorrect (or dishonest) but the result an ‘authentic Trotskyist critique’? The fact is that whether you believe that the SL misrepresented Trotsky or not, their position proved to be absolutely correct.

However, I would concede one thing to Ian. From reading the quotes provided by Ian it becomes clear that the SL used Trotsky’s phrase about those who ‘peddle their wares in the shadow of the popular front’ to back up their principle of no vote to the reformist party in the popular front when Trotsky actually used it for attacking the POUM for signing the popular front programme. Unlike Ian though, I do not think that we can deduce that this in itself proves Norden to be a liar (at the time of writing it).

Ian’s main argument seems to be the fact that the French Trotskyists did not stand candidates against the Socialist and Communist popular front candidates, did not refuse to give them support and that Trotsky did not criticise them for it.

However, Ian cannot furnish us with a quote by Trotsky in which he approves of their policy either. I cannot resist stating that I find Norden’s comment on this everything but dishonest: ‘what we consider a wrong policy, that is, calling for votes to the workers parties of the popular front’. He disagrees with the GBL and says so. As I said above, I am not sure if this also means that he disagrees with Trotsky (but does not admit it). I see no reason why we should defend this tactic of critical support by the GBL.

It appears that Trotsky’s main intervention on France during 1934–1936 was to emphasise the need for workers action, the setting up of committees of struggle, the formation of workers’ militias. In his ‘Action programme for France’ (June 1934) he wrote (I am translating from a German text):

‘If the party of “democratic” socialism, from which we are separated through irreconcilable differences of teachings and methods, should gain the trust of the majority during the unavoidable struggle against the enemy, we are and always will be ready to defend an SFIO government against the bourgeoisie.’

Trotsky would have supported an SFIO government against the bourgeoisie, but would he have been willing to defend an SFIO government with the bourgeoisie? I think the answer is ‘No!’. The Bolshevik deputies in the Petrograd soviet, for example, voted against it when the socialists (SR) joined the bourgeois government in 1917 and Trotsky denounced them for it.

The other classic example of a popular front government is Spain. Ian quotes from the ‘Down with Zamora-Maura’ text but seems to fail to understand the significance of the following passage:

‘The proletarian vanguard is fully interested in pushing the Spanish Socialists to take power into their own hands. For that to happen, it is necessary to split the coalition (my emphasis). The achievement of this task is conceivable only in connection with important political events, under pressure of new mass movements, and so on.’

The task is to split the coalition, i.e. the popular front. A similar passage can be found in his letter to the Dutch section dealing with the POUM. It is worth noting that Trotsky does not discuss the question of the popular front in terms of electoral tactics very much. On both France and Spain he stresses the need for the independent activity of the masses against the bourgeoisie and its lackeys in the popular front government. He was obviously convinced that you cannot get rid of the popular front at the ballot box.

But was he in favour in voting for the reformist parties participating in the popular front? Again Ian cannot provide us with a clear quote confirming his interpretation of Trotsky. He said in 1931 that the revolutionaries would help the masses (not the Socialist candidates) to force their Socialist leaders to take power into their own hands. This is all. It does not necessarily mean electoral support. Lenin’s call in 1917 on the SR’s and Mensheviks to take power did not imply any support at all, it was meant as a tool in order to expose them in front of the masses, to expose them as cowards and ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie.

But back to Spain. Again I would like to use a passage quoted by Ian himself: ‘1. To condemn and denounce mercilessly before the masses the policy of all the leaders participating in the Popular Front.’ I do not think that this would square with voting for those parties that intend to establish a coalition with the bourgeoisie in the first place. Why vote them into the popular front government when you do not want them to be in it?

Ian might reply that Trotsky went further than that by advocating to ‘join the Socialist Party and the United Youth’. However, it is important to see how Trotsky continued ‘in order to work there as a faction in the spirit of Bolshevism’. Working in the spirit of Bolshevism means absolute opposition to the government and a perspective of splitting the working class base away from its misleaders.

It might be useful to consider the following: Would it be permissible for a small group of revolutionaries to join a socialist party that displays traits of nationalism? Yes, but only in order to work there as a faction in the spirit of internationalism.

Trotsky’s advocacy of entry into the Spanish Socialist Party was a tactic aimed at turning the rank and file against the leaders.

Ian’s advocacy of treating a reformist party within a popular front essentially the same as one outside such a cross class coalition means to turn the rank and file in to the leaders.

Tom, 18 April 1998

Dear Ian:

I must tell you that I found your most recent communication a bit disappointing. I regret that you seem so disturbed by the fact that we remain committed to the views upon which this organization was founded. Nonetheless I wish to make the following comments to offer on some of the political questions posed.

1. I understand that your experience with the degenerated SL/B was very traumatic. I suspect that this has something to do with your apparent impulse to want reject the iSt as ever having been any good. As you know the IBT is based on quite a different assessment. The SL of the 1960s and 70s could have represented the living continuity of Leninism without necessarily either being faultless or constantly generating new and unique extensions of the Trotskyist program. The fact that it correctly addressed the major political questions it faced is quite sufficient.

The struggle to carry forward the programmatic heritage of Trotskyism elaborated and defended by the once revolutionary SL is absolutely central to our activity in this period. If there were nothing qualitatively superior about the tradition of the iSt of the 1960s and 70s, then belonging to the IBT (as opposed to any other larger ostensibly revolutionary groupings) would not make much sense. As Jim recently demonstrated people who do not believe in what we stand for don’t normally have much motivation to remain in our ranks.

I think that you were wrong in your proposals regarding joining the Socialist Alliance, and the more information that comes to light about that formation the more convinced I am of that. But these are the kinds of differences that will naturally arise within a revolutionary organization and which must be held. And these sorts of discussions can often be fruitful. In reading over again the discussion we had on IRC on the question a couple of months ago I felt that it was useful, and raised a number of valuable points.

2. The paragraph in the 1970 Spartacist that you imagine lies at or near the core of the SL’s degeneration strikes me as both profoundly true and perfectly clear. It is simply an elaboration of the politics behind the Bolshevik slogan ‘Down With the Ten Capitalist Ministers!’ The paragraph in question (the substance of which we reiterated in our main programmatic statement to date, ‘For Trotskyism!’) reads as follows:

‘Within reformist workers parties there is a profound contradiction between their proletarian base and formal ideology and the class-collaborationist aims and personal appetites of their leaderships. This is why Marxists, when they are not themselves embodied in a mass working-class party, give such reformist parties “critical support” – against overt agents of capital – as will tend to regroup the proletarian base around a revolutionary program. But when these parties enter a coalition government with the parties of capitalism, any such “critical support” would be a betrayal because the coalition has suppressed the class contradiction in the bourgeoisie’s favour. It is our job then to re-create the basis for struggle within such parties by demanding that they break with the coalition. This break must be the precondition for even the most critical support.’

Comrade Robertson was not really covering much new ground with this paragraph – to me it reads as an elaboration of Leninist orthodoxy. For example in the Transitional Program Trotsky explains: ‘The chief accusation which the Fourth International advances against the traditional organizations of the proletariat is the fact that they do not wish to tear themselves away from the political semi-corpse of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!” is an extremely important weapon for exposing the treacherous nature of [these] parties...’

As long as the workers’ parties are in a bloc with bourgeois formations (the ‘capitalist ministers’ of the Provisional Government in 1917) their political independence from the bourgeoisie is suspended, and so until they ‘break with the bourgeoisie’ there is no basis for supporting them. Which, to my mind, would include voting for them.

3. In our view Norden’s article in Spartacist does not distort, much less ‘falsify,’ Trotsky. It is true that in making his argument he selects those parts of Trotsky’s comments that tend to support his case, and it is also apparently the case that some of the sections of the FI pursued tactics that contradict the policy adopted by the iSt. But the quotations Norden takes from Trotsky’s letter to the Dutch section do not seem to require any particular context:

‘There’s a quotation from a letter by Trotsky to the Dutch section saying that the popular front “is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch” and “the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism”.’

Surely we can agree that there is no ambiguity about this, nor any need for contextualization. The following (with your emphasis retained) also seems clear enough:

‘...Trotsky takes on not only those who directly support the popular front but also those who “present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneouver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the Popular Front.”’

You claim that with this: ‘Norden in effect says that when Trotsky attacked those who “present this question as a tactical or even a technical maneouver” he was attacking those who carried out some kind of “critical support” to only the workers parties involved in a popular front.’

You point out that earlier in the quote Trotsky refers to the POUM’s alibi for signing on with the popular front as a ‘technical’ maneuver and perhaps that could be seen as introducing ambiguity as to his precise intent in using the phrase. But it is going much too far to assert that Norden omitting this constitutes a deliberate ‘falsification’ of Trotsky. You implicitly acknowledge this when you qualify your accusation with the phrase ‘in effect.’

The centrists elsewhere in Europe at the time (all of whom sided with the POUM against Trotsky on the question) downplayed the significance of the popular front and tended to treat it as a mere tactical question. They denounced Trotsky’s ‘sectarianism’ in posing opposition to the popular front as a matter of principle. They did not, to my knowledge, call for joining the popular front, while they did call for voting for it on the grounds that was only a ‘tactical’ question and that it was important not to alienate the masses. Had one of the more leftist of these formations posed their support as ‘merely’ voting for the candidates of the workers’ parties within the PF (and skipping a vote for the virtually non-existent bourgeois ‘shadow’) I do not imagine that Trotsky would have had kind things to say. But as he did not address the question it is impossible to cite him on it.

I think that the use of the quote by Norden (and ourselves) is politically entirely legitimate. Some left groups openly embrace popular frontism. Some (like the POUM, the SAP, et al in the 1930s and the Pabloites in the 1970s) treat it as a minor ‘technical’ question, a matter of details and maneuver, the kind of thing that only sectarians care about. (This is roughly the attitude I would expect we might see from the LRCI if the question were sharply posed today.) In Russia after the February revolution Stalin et al took this view of the coalitionist Provisional Government and in response Lenin wrote his famous April Theses calling for a complete break, rather than an attitude of conditional/critical political support.

I can personally recall discussions with Mandelites in the 1970s where they argued that Allende’s ‘Popular Unity’ government was not really a popular front because of the minimal weight of the formations constituting the ‘shadow of the bourgeoisie.’ They would certainly have been happy to vote only for the workers’ parties within it (because they supplied 95 percent of the UP candidates). I was very impressed with the SL’s hard line on the question. I still am. The USec wanted to tail the MIR which was embedded as the left wing of Allende’s ‘Chilean Road.’ The SL made the correct point that the key was a hard break with the popular front – not to dismiss or minimize its imperfections or try to push it to the left or offer any political support to its ‘working class’ component. And it seems to me that the only way to pose this electorally is to make the break with the bourgeoisie a pre-condition of voting for the workers parties within it. Certainly this is how we have treated the NDP here – see the leaflet reprinted in the latest 1917.

4. It seems that you think that now would be a good time for us to make a discussion of these questions a focus of our activity internationally. You are of course entitled to your opinion. But we are also entitled to ours. And we are entrusted with the responsibility of leading the IBT and setting its priorities. I believe that the IS is supported by the entire IEC in the view that, as this discussion does not grow out of any question posed in our actual work, and as it is a position which is long established and explicitly articulated in our fundamental documents, discussing it is not presently an international priority.

It is therefore appropriate to postpone further substantive discussion of this rather hypothetical question of possible electoral tactics toward a possible popular front coalition, and what is perhaps the underlying, more fundamental issue of whether or not the SL/iSt tradition is worth standing on, until the next pre-conference period.

If we were to commence pre-conference discussion a year prior to the third IBT international conference, as we did this time over the Transitional Program, then that would mean a delay of a little over a year and a half. Given that in our recently concluded second international conference the question of the legitimacy of the iSt was also posed (albeit from another angle), no reasonable person could find this procedure objectionable. I hope you can agree.

Tom for the IS