The Popular Front: the Deadest of Dead-End Strategies



A few days ago, Paul Krehbiel—a member of the Committees of Correspondence, an organization with roots in a split from the Communist Party USA in 1991—had an essay posted on Portside entitled "United and Popular Front: Lessons from 1935-2017."

Krehbiel usefully describes both a United Front and a Popular Front:

The United Front and Popular Front strategy was developed by Georgi Dimitrov, leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party and a leader of the Communist International.  Dimitrov presented his strategy at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935.  He said that all working-class and socialist organizations should work together in a United Front to defend their interests, and to resist and fight to defeat and overthrow fascism.  He then said this United Front should also promote the creation of a broader, Popular Front, that would be comprised of the forces in the United Front but would reach out to all other sectors of society that are against fascism, including capitalists who opposed it.

Krehbiel argues that in the face of the fascist potential of the Trump administration, it is time once again to revive Dimitrov's strategy, which Krehbiel sees as a success, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

My response, also posted on Portside, is as follows:

Paul Krehbiel neglects to mention that the Communist Party USA's devotion to a Popular Front strategy led to the Party becoming, essentially, cheerleaders for FDR and opponents of the creation of an independent labor party in the United States. This was a disastrous decision which we are all still paying for. Reaching back to the Popular Front today, when the dominant wing of the Democratic Party isn't even as quasi-social democratic as the New Deal Democrats were, is nonsensical. Hillary Clinton in particular is no New Deal Democrat supporting "many social programs" and "helping children"! Doug Henwood's book on Clinton makes this quite clear.
Furthermore, no country "overthrew fascism and established socialism." At least for terribly orthodox Marxists such as myself, "socialism" means the classless society. The classless society has yet to be created—and Stalinism, a term absent from Paul's article, was in no way socialist or even working-class in character. (Moreover, "socialism" in Eastern Europe was achieved via Russian tanks, not through popular revolution.)
Paul also doesn't mention that the CPUSA put its forthright opposition to Jim Crow "on hold" for the duration of the Second World War, which is why black socialists like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph either left the party or simply wanted nothing to do with it.
If one wants to argue that under current conditions there's often no choice in the U.S. but to merely vote for Democrats against Republicans (Cadets versus the Black Hundreds, as Lenin might have put it) then one can do that without invoking Dimitrov's discredited pamphlet, which in practice led to the end of criticism of the "left" bourgeois and social-democratic parties that the Communist Parties aligned themselves with, in government, which helped lead to the disasters of the Popular Front in Spain, Chile, Indonesia…not to mention the "Salerno Turn" which led Palmiro Togliatti's Italian Communist Party to give up the possibility of socialist revolution for a "government of national unity" after the overthrow of Italian fascism.
Let's bury Dimitrov—and Stalin—for good.
In retrospect there are other important points I could have made.

The Popular Front was designed in the Soviet Union, not as means towards a revolutionary strategy for socialist transformation, but to block such a possibility. The Stalinist regime was in the midst of consolidating its power in the 1930s. It wanted nothing more than to be left in splendid isolation—to build "socialism in one country." Stalin feared both a defeat of fascism by workers' revolution and by war. Workers' revolution in the "West," particularly in Spain or Germany, might embolden the Russian working class to against the Stalinist party-state. And the Kremlin, acting on that fear, sabotaged those revolutionary challenges at every turn.

The Popular Front was designed to convince the Nazis that unless they sought a separate accord with Stalin, the USSR was prepared to align itself with the West. The Popular Front was, plainly, a counterrevolutionary strategy designed to assist the Stalinist regime in stabilizing its rule. It was self-consciously counterrevolutionary.

All the more reason to consign the Popular Front to the dustbin of history. 



About Author
Jason Schulman
Jason Schulman is on the editorial board of New Politics, the editor of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy (Palgrave, 2013), and author of Neoliberal Labour Governments and the Union Response: The Politics of the End of Labourism (Palgrave, 2015).
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3 comments on “The Popular Front: the Deadest of Dead-End Strategies
  1. Bennett Muraskin says:

    The CP cannot be blamed for

    The CP cannot be blamed for the absence of a labor party in the US. Attempts to create a labor party before and after the Popular Front period also failed.

    It is true that the Popular Front strategy was conceived in the Soviet Union, but it happened to suit American conditions. The left achieved is peak influence in the US during the Popular Front. Those who attacked the New Deal from the left, i.e. the SP and the SWP, gained little traction.

    I would make a distinction between the Popular Front before and then during WW II. Only after Germany invaded Russia, did the CP become a cheerleader for Roosevelt and give up on labor militancy and tone down its position on civil rights.

    In 2016 Sanders achieve much more running as a Democrat that he ever could running as a Socialist on a third party line.

  2. Jason Schulman says:

    The CPUSA and the Popular Front

    Imagine if the 100,000 members of the CP/YCL had worked towards building a labor party. I suspect we’d have a labor party. But they opposed this because they were supporting FDR.

    The Pop Front suited American conditions if your goal is to dissolve American socialism into American liberalism.

    The SP failed to grow because it was wracked by factionalism (the Trotskyists didn’t help, I admit) and the SWP gained little traction in part because its leaders were jailed via the Smith Act and because the CPUSA was so much larger. Same fate for the Workers Party. No Moscow gold for either wing of Trotskyism either. (Plus both groups were, if you were in the CP or in its orbit, “Trotskyite fascist wreckers” who deserved to be beaten — literally — out of the labor movement.)

    Sanders had no choice but to run for President as a Democrat if he wanted to get any media attention, yes. But this isn’t something to happy about, and it doesn’t follow that the US Left should be advocating a “cross-class alliance against Trumpist fascism” a la Dimitrov. There is no “progressive” wing of the capitalist class to “ally” with, no wing of capital that wants to ally with us anyway. It should be obvious that the Establishment Democrats would rather lose elections than see the Democratic Party be taken over by “Berniecrats.”

    As to why attempts to create a labor party in the US failed, see my article on precisely that in Jacobin:

    • Bennett Muraskin says:

      There is no threat of fascism

      There is no threat of fascism under Trump, as bad as he is, and the US Left is tiny, so calling for a Popular Front is farcical. However, the failure of the US left to form a labor party is a chronic condition that goes way back.

      Considering the gains made by the CIO during the New Deal and WW II, there was only minimal support for a national labor party. The CP did not have to work very hard to squelch it.

      On a state level, there was a strong labor party in Minnesota and similar formations in Wisconsin, North Dakota and in Washington state. In NY State the CP and the SP actually did colloborate in the formation of a state labor party.

      Unfortunately the US has never been close to a workers revolution, unlike Germany, France, Italy and some other European countries. The SP at its peak elected a sum total of two congresspersons. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Norman Thomas got less than 3% of the Presidential vote.

      The CP, in its heyday, elected on no one to Congress, unless you count Marcoantonio, who ran on the ALP ticket. Neither the SP or CP elected a single governor or senator. The UAW could not even elect one of its own as mayor of Detroit.

      The anti-capitalist IWW was not even a factor during the Depression. The SWP had success in one city and that was about it. So, yes, the Popular Front was as far left as the American working class was willing to go.