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Unpopular Fronts?

Ian Birchall

AL RICHARDSON’S article "The Place of Trotskyism in the Logic of Marxism", What Next? No.20) starts well, but soon relapses into exactly the kind of thinking it purports to be attacking. After announcing that Trotskyism is in need of an "overhaul", Al merely restates a number of the old clichés. As Pierre Broué has pointed out, Trotsky was an original Marxist thinker, but from the mid-twenties defeat and isolation left him in a position in which he had to defend orthodoxy at the price of developing original thought. All too often his followers have been even less original and even more defensive.

Al is right that the Trotskyist tradition – despite many absurdities ... and worse – has made a positive contribution, which can provide both instruction and inspiration for a new generation. I doubt, however, whether that record alone will be enough to attract them to the banner of Marxism. Young people are notoriously sceptical of accounts of their grandparents’ hard times, and I suspect the tale of "how we fought the Stalinists in 1952" will not cut a lot of ice with the current antiglobalisation protesters.

Marxism can re-establish itself in the working class movement only if it can present a concrete analysis and strategy for the twenty-first century. Yet Al implies that the movement should have nothing to say about racial and sexual oppression, or about environmental problems, even though these are vital to the everyday experience of working people. On the other hand, he is very attached to clarity about the term "Thermidor", even though that analogy was decidedly unilluminating in the 1920s and 1930s, and nowadays the word may safely be consigned to those interested in cooking lobsters.

I have no intention of debating "entrism" or the "degenerated workers’ state" with Al; I’m sure we could both easily write each other’s lines. But in the context of the recent campaign to build a broad and effective alliance against the war in Afghanistan, it may be of some interest to look again of the question of Popular and United Fronts.

Al commends to us Trotsky’s writings on France and Spain in the 1930s. He is quite right to do so. In France the Socialists and Communists made an electoral alliance with the Radical Party and in 1936 the Socialists formed a coalition government (backed from outside by the Communist Party). The Radicals were one of the main bourgeois parties in France, representing in particular the interests of the peasantry and the petite bourgeoisie; the defence of private property was integral to their politics. The Communists were able to shelter behind the Radicals in their efforts to water down the programme of the Popular Front, excluding any attack on private property.4 As a result the workers’ parties were able to give no lead or encouragement to the wave of factory occupations, even though it had been initially inspired by the Popular Front’s electoral success. The Radicals were unreliable allies, and in 1940 it was the Popular Front National Assembly which handed power to Pétain.

In Spain the story was similar but if anything more tragic. The Popular Front line touted by the Stalinists meant an alliance with no less than four bourgeois parties and hence the Communist Party totally repudiated the working class rising of July 1936. Again defeat, at the hands of Franco, was the eventual result.

The turn to the United Front by the Comintern in 1921 reflected the needs of a particular concrete situation. By the time the new International had been constructed, the revolutionary wave of 1919-1920 had begun to subside (if the Comintern had been formed earlier, in 1917, things might conceivably have been different). Although substantial Communist Parties existed in a number of countries, the majority of the working class still looked to reformist leadership. Hence it made eminently good sense to propose united action to the reformist parties. If they accepted, a united movement could resist the employers’ offensive and shift the balance of forces in favour of the working class. If they refused, then they lost credibility as fighters for reforms in the eyes of their own members and thus strengthened the hand of the Communists.5

In the early 1930s the United Front acquired a new role, resistance to the rise of fascism. In Germany the two workers’ parties, Socialists and Communists, each had millions of voters and hundreds of thousands of members. If they had united, then Hitler would have had no chance of coming to power. Hence Trotsky was of course absolutely right to stress the need for unity of the workers’ parties against the lunatic sectarianism of the Comintern. However, it should be remembered that Trotsky did not demand that only the mass workers’ parties should be allowed to fight fascism. On the contrary, he pointed out that in the struggle against fascism, Communists were "duty-bound to come to a practical agreement not only with the devil and his granddam, but even with [Prussian police chief] Grzesinsky".6

There is no disagreement, then, that Trotsky’s writings on the United and Popular Fronts of the 1920s and 1930s deserve close attention from any Marxist who wants to learn how to analyse a concrete situation. But they are not Holy Writ, they do not have some supertemporal value. History does not repeat itself;7 the value of studying the unique conjunctures of the past is to train ourselves to confront the unique conjunctures of the future. The value of Trotsky’s writings from 1921 is that they were written in 1921, for 1921, on the basis of a concrete analysis of 1921. They did not attempt to hide between formulae developed eighty years earlier in a very different context.

The Popular Front had a certain resonance in the 1930s, at least in a country like France, where it corresponded to a long tradition of republican unity.8 Popular Frontism was central to the Comintern strategy in the World War II resistance movements, and to Communist participation in post-war coalition governments. But thereafter the strategy was in serious decline, although the rhetoric lived on for many years. The French CP’s attempt to construct a Popular Front against de Gaulle in 1958 was a lamentable failure, notably because de Gaulle was demonstrably not a fascist. The British CP’s attempts to construct alliances with Liberals and even Heathite Tories against Thatcher in the 1980s were even more pathetically irrelevant. Popular Frontism in the 1930s had counter-revolutionary consequences; by the 1980s it was little more than a minor distraction.

Any discussion of the form of alliances that revolutionaries should encourage in the present period must be based on a recognition of the fundamental changes that have taken place in the organisations of the labour movement since the death of Trotsky. Al quite correctly states that the horrors of Stalinism have made the word Communism "stink in the nostrils of the working class". But, characteristically, he makes no mention of the parallel decay of social democracy. The names Gaitskell, Mollet, Wilson, Brandt, Soares, Gonzalez, Mitterrand, Craxi, Blair, etc, etc, have scarcely given the word socialism the aroma of a compelling aftershave.

Before 1945 it was comparatively rare for social democratic parties to form governments, alone or in coalition; since 1945 we have seen a great number of instances, with invariably mediocre results. Perhaps the most creditable of the bunch, the 1945-51 Attlee government, coupled its real achievements with strikebreaking and the decision to initiate British manufacture of nuclear weapons without informing the Cabinet. And as the years go by, things get worse; reformists become increasingly incapable of delivering reforms.

As a result, it became less and less relevant for revolutionaries to focus on the question of Popular Frontism. At the end of World War II the French Trotskyists demanded that the Socialists and Communists should break their alliance with the Christian Democratic MRP and attempt to form a government on their own. This made some sense; the MRP pulled the government to the right and gave the CP in particular a wonderful excuse for class collaborationist policies.

But more recently, if we consider the Socialist-Green coalition in Germany, it is clear that while the role of the Greens has not been particularly creditable, it would be difficult to claim that the Greens have exercised a rightward pull on the Social Democrats, or that an exclusively Social Democratic government would benefit the working class more.

Or, to take a hypothetical example, suppose that at the next election New Labour fail to achieve an overall majority and seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals, having some sense of popular feeling, make it a condition that the new government will raise income tax to improve health and education. It would, I think, be very difficult for revolutionaries to mount a campaign demanding that Labour reject this condition. (For the benefit of those wishing to quote me out of context, may I make it absolutely clear that I have no illusions in Charles Kennedy and that I have no interest whatsoever in advocating a Lib-Lab alliance or coalition. I am simply noting that after four-and-a-half years of New Labour governing on its own, a coalition could scarcely be much worse.)

Popular Frontism in the 1930s was about the formation of governments and electoral alliances. For revolutionaries today this is not the main issue. Whether the Socialist Alliance should form a coalition government with the Greens is a question that can be safely left until both are winning rather more votes.10 But Al broadens the question, attacking those "who feel that revolutionaries can fall in amicably with bourgeois parties, whether it be the Greens or any other". As I understand this,11 Al believes that revolutionaries should refuse to stand on the same platform as Greens in campaigning against racism, privatisation or the current war in Afghanistan. (Whether he thinks we should organise snatch squads to physically throw Greens and other members of the middle classes off mass demonstrations I am not so sure.)

Al would therefore be presumably quite happy to stand shoulder to shoulder on a platform with Clare "Bomber" Short, since she is a bona fide representative of a workers’ party (that is, she has feathered her own putrescent nest at the expense of working people), but would indignantly refuse to shake hands with a Green Party member who has firmly stood up against the war.

In the last couple of years I have been involved in organising local meetings on the Kosovo war, asylum seekers, Genoa, privatisation and the Afghanistan war. On each occasion we have been happy to welcome speakers from the Green Party, who have argued a case close to and often indistinguishable from that put by socialist speakers. I have no regrets whatsoever on this score.

Indeed, I am somewhat puzzled by the description of the Green Party as a "bourgeois party". The Labour Party falls over itself to get sponsorship and finance from multinational companies, including those with appalling anti-union records, in order that it can dispense with trade union cash and then finally break the link with the trade union movement. The Green Party, to the best of my knowledge, gets little or no finance from large capital. Yet Al denounces it as a bourgeois party and wants it thrown off platforms.

Of course the Green Party has no roots in the working class movement, and indeed it is not a homogeneous body. A few Greens support the war; they should be challenged vigorously. Others believe in purely individual solutions to social problems; I was recently advised to fight pollution by making my own yoghurt, in order to cut the consumption of plastic. But many Greens see very clearly the class dimension of environmental issues;12 our aim should be to win them for socialist politics rather than locking them out of meetings.

The fact is that in the present period we are faced with a variety of groupings which are neither bourgeois nor proletarian, but are radically opposed to certain aspects of capitalism – Green Party, Greenpeace, Reclaim the Streets, Wombles, etc. That they exist is a result of the decay of the labour movement. Many young people are revolted by the spectacle of inequality, poverty, brutality, abuse of power and war in the contemporary world. They see the need for radical change. Very few of them are likely to imagine that they will get such change from Blair’s New Labour. Many of them will also reject the revolutionary left, which they see as small and divided. If we are to win them for socialist politics, for the recognition that only the working class has the power to change the world, then we have to draw them into joint action for concrete goals.

In some ways the situation in similar to that before the First World War, when the corruption and ineffectiveness of parliamentary institutions drove many of the best militants to syndicalism and anarchism. The Comintern later had to make great efforts to win over these militants by engaging in joint struggle.13

What is not needed is denunciation. It is much easier to denounce than to persuade, which is presumably why some sections of the left spend so much more time doing it. Greens have to be persuaded that only the road of revolutionary socialism can enable them to achieve their quite legitimate goal of ending the environmental disasters caused by capitalism’s pursuit of short-term profit. What they do not need is to be told that they are somehow morally deficient because they refuse to join the Labour Party. After all, we Trotskyists above all should recognise the futility of the politics of denunciation. For decades we have been denounced, abused and slandered by our enemies; it has not noticeably weakened us.14

In fact, the Marxist tradition has not been nearly so dogmatic and inflexible on the question of alliances as Al would have us believe. Take the case of Romain Rolland.15 Rolland was a pantheist (thus, I suppose, some sort of primitive Green), who derived his doctrine from Spinoza, Tolstoy and Wagner. He distrusted strikes, rejected Marxism, and came perilously close to anti-Semitism.

At the outbreak of the First World War Rolland withdrew to Switzerland and published a celebrated article called Au-dessus de la mêlée (above the struggle). Rolland was no revolutionary defeatist; he believed that France was defending legitimate interests. He had no concrete strategy for ending the war, and positively opposed mutiny. All he hoped to do was to "humanise" the war, by denouncing chauvinism and lies about atrocities, by opposing weapons such as poison gas and by assisting prisoners of war.

One can well imagine how the Richardsons of the day would have sneered at Rolland, and urged that he could have no place in the anti-war movement. How different from the response of the tiny group of intransigent French internationalists who opposed the war from day one – Alfred Rosmer, Pierre Monatte, Marcel Martinet, Amédée Dunois, etc.

Dunois published extracts from Rolland’s articles in L’Humanité, paper of the pro-war Socialist Party. Pierre Monatte described spending whole nights "copying this long and poignant cry of humanity".16 The copying was done by typewriter and even by hand.17 In 1919, when Rosmer and Monatte relaunched La Vie ouvrière, they linked Rolland’s name to Trotsky’s – "these two men have saved us from disgust and despair".18

And this cannot be dismissed as merely a deviation on the part of the French syndicalists. In 1917, when Lenin was about to leave for to the Finland Station, he asked Henri Guilbeaux to bring Rolland to the station to be present at his departure.19 Rolland did not accept the invitation.

In 1938 Trotsky – with André Breton and Diego Rivera – took the initiative in founding the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art. Groupings were set up in various countries; in France a long list of supporters was published.20 To the best of my knowledge few if any of these artists and intellectuals were members of workers’ organisations, yet Trotsky, the hammer of Popular Frontism, seems to have had no qualms about co-operating with them.

Trotsky’s 1938 Manifesto21 was an inspiration to Dave Widgery and the others who founded Rock Against Racism. RAR and the Anti Nazi League have sometimes been criticised by those with a perspective similar to Al’s as being guilty of Popular Frontism. In fact there is only one significant difference between the International Federation and the ANL. The International Federation confined itself to avant-garde cultural groupings such as the surrealists and disappeared without trace after a few months. The ANL sought support from leading representatives of popular culture (rock music, sport, television) and it succeeded, inflicting a defeat on the British far right from which it took over a decade to recover, and ensuring that the British fascists never achieved the kind of success which Le Pen was to obtain in France.22

Al will object that the ANL does not fit the classic definition of the United Front according to the 1921 Prayer Book .... sorry, writings of Trotsky. Fine; I’ll concede the point, but so much the worse for Trotsky. The ANL achieved its purpose in neutralising a vicious enemy of the working class; perhaps we have more to learn from that concrete experience than from some Platonic essence of the United Front.

So it is more useful to start with concrete problems than with scriptural definitions. Al insists that a 1921 vintage United Front is not "a temporary non-aggression pact between sectarians". But if we concede the point, we are still left with the immensely more interesting question of whether such a "nonaggression pact" is a good thing. Those of us who remember the seventies, when we had the lamentable spectacle of two, and on occasion three, Trotskyist groups contesting the same byelection, welcome it unreservedly. The Socialist Alliance has not only made possible a more effective electoral intervention by the left; it has also, in my experience, created an atmosphere in which groups are more guarded in their criticisms of their rivals and more open to intelligent and fraternal debate.

But if the Socialist Alliance began as a "non-aggression pact", it has developed beyond this, drawing in many people with no connection with what Al would call "sectarian" groupings. Perhaps it is still not a United Front in the strict sense; but it is far more interesting to evaluate it in terms of its aims and achievements rather than by invoking texts. And that does not mean, as Al appears to think, using the standards of bourgeois psephology. Al should talk to some of those involved in the Socialist Alliance about their success in drawing in local activists and finding a broader audience for socialist ideas, rather than simply counting votes.

More generally, a United Front only has any meaning if it has a concrete purpose. In 1932 the aim was to stop Hitler; the only question to be asked was what was the most effective means of doing so. Today the aim is to stop Bush and Blair plunging the world into a "war on terrorism" that will make Vietnam look like a Saturday night pub brawl.

There is one big difference between 1921 and 2001. In 1921 the reformists were not in power and apart from a few wartime coalitions had never been in power. The United Front invited them to resist the attack from the right. Today the reformists are in power in many places. It makes no sense to invite Blair, Blunkett, Straw and short to join a United Front when the main opponent of such a Front is themselves. Of course we can demand that Blair stop the bombing; but that is no different from demanding the same of John Major during the Gulf War of 1991. And of course dissident Labour MPs, councillors and rank-and-file members have an absolutely vital role to play in building a mass movement against the war. But that is not necessarily contradictory to working with members of other organisations. We do not strengthen the labour movement participation by simply booting Green Party members off the platform; again, it is much easier to exclude than to build a broad movement.

The greatness of Trotsky (and the reason why I am still quite proud to be called a Trotskyist, though I don’t always insist on it) is that, from the theory of permanent revolution through to his analyses of fascism, he always strove to develop Marxism to deal with the changing realities of the twentieth century. It would be a good idea if, with all due recognition of our own limitations, we were to imitate him in this respect rather than simply reiterating formulae from his writings.


1. Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale communiste, Paris, 1997, p.351.

2. Despite his eccentricities, Al deserves great credit for his work in creating and developing the valuable journal Revolutionary History.

3. See I. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf, Basingstoke, 1997, p.108.

4. J. Danos and M. Gibelin, June ’36, London, 1986, pp.40-41.

5. For an account of the specific concrete circumstances in which the United Front tactic was developed, see A. Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, London, 1987, pp.165-72. Rosmer’s account shows very clearly that the tactic belonged to a specific historical moment, rather than having some timeless significance.

6. L. Trotsky, "The Only Road" (1932), in International Socialism 38-39, August-September 1969, p.56.

7. Al seems to believe that it does; hence the motto which used to appear on Revolutionary History: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

8. In Britain, where the Liberals were not wildly interested, and "progressive Tories" were rather thin on the ground, it was not nearly so significant.

9. While this would fall short of the left demand "Tax the rich", all income tax is to some extent redistributive.

10. Though one opinion poll during the 2001 election showed that if electors voted according to the policies for which they expressed support, then there would be a Liberal Democrat government, and the main opposition would be formed by the Greens and Socialist Alliance.

11. And as is confirmed by remarks I have heard Al make on other occasions.

12. Over the last year I have been involved in a campaign against the incinerator in Edmonton, which pumps out its noxious brew of dioxins over a solidly working class area of North London. Why could it not have been built, say, next to Windsor Castle, is a question that has been raised at several public meetings.

13. See A. Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, and V. Serge Revolution in Danger, London, 1997.

14. To take an example. Black nationalism is divisive and ineffective as a means of fighting racism. But for white socialists to write denunciations of black nationalism will convert nobody; it will merely reinforce the black nationalists in their prejudices. But by mobilising black and white to unite against racism, we can undermine the whole basis of black nationalism. There is an excellent article in which Trotsky makes a similar point about attitudes to Islam. Al may perhaps know it; it appears in a book he edited. (A. Richardson, ed, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, London, 1995, pp.175-81.)

15. See I. Birchall, review of R.A. Francis, Romain Rolland, Oxford, 1999, in Historical Materialism 6, Summer 2000, pp.287-95.

16. R. Wohl, French Communism in the Making 1914-1924, Stanford, 1966, p.59.

17. A. Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre, Vol.1, Paris, 1936, p.215.

18. Wohl, p.135.

19. V.I. Lenin, "Telegram to Henri Guilbeaux", in Collected Works, Vol.26, Moscow, 1971, p.430.

20. For a full list of names and other information on the International Federation see Revolutionary History, Vol.7, No.2 (1999).

21. In Trotsky On Literature and Art, New York, 1970, pp.115-24.

22. The ANL cast its net very wide. If it did not recruit the devil’s granddam, at least it had Morgan Phillips’ daughter (Gwyneth Dunwoody).