The People’s Front: The New Betrayal by James Burnham

Chapter I. Origin and Theory of the People’s Front





The slogans of the People’s Front were first advanced by the Communist International and its sections. They began to appear toward the end of 1933; moved forward slowly for some while; and received official sanction and theoretical expression at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International held during the summer of 1935. From then on they spread out at a headlong pace, and now present themselves as the key question of proletarian strategy throughout the world.

For some time these policies and slogans met with frantic resistance from those outside of the ranks of the Comintern and its sympathizers. This resistance, however, was largely based on a misunderstanding. Reformists and social-patriots could not at first convince themselves of the Comintern’s "sincerity." They thought still in terms of the preceding strategy of the Comintern, the strategy of the so-called "Third Period." Their minds were filled with memories of "social-fascism," "united front from below," and dual "red unions." But the resistance was steadily overcome. The Comintern no longer even mentioned social-fascism; the united front from below went into the discard; the red unions were liquidated.

And, one after another, the reformist parties went over to the slogans of the People’s Front. In France the People’s Front was formally established; soon afterwards, in Spain. Throughout the world it made headway in giant strides. Soon liberals and "progressives" began to come over, in addition to the reformists and social-patriots. In this country, for example, The Nation and The New Republic, the leading liberal periodicals, became wholehearted People’s Fronters. By now, within the labor movement, and among the social groups sympathetic to the movement, only one firm opposition to the People’s Front remains: the opposition, namely, of the revolutionary socialists.


The People’s Front movement began under certain special international conditions; and it is necessary to review these, at least briefly.

First: The series of defeats of the working class, following the post-war revolutionary wave, had reached a climax in the triumph of Hitler. Hitler came to power without a blow struck against him by either of the great mass working-class parties of Germany. Fascism seemed irresistibly on the ascendant.

Second: The threat of the new imperialist war, enhanced by the victory of Hitler, was growing ever more menacing.

Third: Within the Soviet Union itself, where the People’s Front has its origin, great changes have been taking place during these years since 1933. The First Five Year Plan, with its forced and ruthlessly carried through collectivization of the peasantry, and its almost exclusive emphasis on the building up of heavy industry, gave way to the Second Five Year Plan. Among the important characteristics of the new Plan, we find more emphasis on "consumers’ goods" as against heavy industry; conciliation of the peasantry; the introduction of Stakhanovism, with its stimulus to increased differentiation of wages and salaries, leading to the rise of a labor aristocracy economically far removed from the mass of the workers; abolition of the special economic and social privileges of the urban proletariat. All of these and a multitude of other similar changes are most strikingly summed up in the New Constitution, adopted in November, 1936, which puts the legal finish to the Soviet foundation of political power in favor of a plebiscite form of parliamentarism.

Fourth: During these years the "Litvinov period" of Soviet diplomacy reached its climax. The Soviet Union entered the League of Nations; and its series of treaties and alliances found culmination in the signing of the Franco-Soviet Pact of military assistance.

As I shall show later on, these four major features of the recent past provide a background necessary to any understanding of the policy of the People’s Front.


The most authoritative statements on the theory and justification of the People’s Front are contained in the speeches of Dimitroff, new Secretary of the Comintern, to the Seventh Congress; and in a short book, The Work of the Seventh Congress, written by the Comintern theoretician, Manuilsky. I shall, therefore, base my presentation of the theory of the People’s Front on these works.

We begin, then, with an alleged "analysis" of the nature of the present historical period. In this period, according to these new oracles of the Stalinist Delphi, "the main danger is Fascism"--from whence the People’s Front is ordinarily known as the "anti-fascist" People’s Front. The Seventh Congress, Manuilsky remarks on page 16, "turned its fire mainly against fascism." But, it seems, there are many varieties of fascism, "good" and "bad" fascisms. And much the worst kind of fascism is German fascism, Nazism. Dimitroff explains: "The most reactionary variety of fascism is the German type of fascism.... German fascism is acting as the spearhead of international counter-revolution, as the chief incendiary of imperialist war, as the initiator of a crusade against the Soviet Union, the great fatherland of the toilers of the whole world." (The italics are all Dimitroff’s.)

Now fascism, we are told, threatens not only the working class, but also the peasantry, the middle classes generally, and even certain sections of the bourgeoisie, especially the "small business man." Indeed, fascism in actuality is nothing else than a plot or conspiracy on the part of a small and vicious clique among the ruling class ("the two hundred families," as the clique is known in France, from the fact that two hundred large stockholders guide the destiny of the Bank of France). Let us hear again from Dimitroff: ". . . fascism in power is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.... Fascism acts in the interests of the extreme imperialists.... It is in the interests of the most reactionary circles of the bourgeoisie that fascism intercepts the disappointed masses as they leave the old bourgeois parties." Manuilsky repeats virtually the same words, though adding a psychological adjective of his own: ". . . fascism is the open and cynical form of the dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist, most imperialist [this matter of "degrees" of imperialism is a most subtle point] elements of finance capital."

It is, moreover, fascism that makes war. Manuilsky: "The growing menace of world imperialist war is causing all class, national and state forces to separate into two camps: the camp of war and the camp of peace. The center of the forces which are operating to bring about war, to accelerate its outbreak, is fascism . . . . " This idea has been repeated and reinforced until it is now a Stalinist commonplace.

From these various premises, it follows, according to the Comintern logic, that the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship and for socialism is in the present period definitely removed from the agenda. "The situation is different today," writes Manuilsky. "Today, the proletariat in most capitalist countries are not confronted with the alternative of bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy; they are confronted with the alternative of bourgeois democracy or fascism." Dimitroff amplifies: "Our attitude towards bourgeois democracy is not the same under all conditions. For instance, at the time of the October Revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks engaged in a life-and-death struggle against all political parties which opposed the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship under the slogan of the defense of bourgeois democracy. The Bolsheviks fought these parties because the banner of bourgeois democracy had at that time become the standard around which all counter-revolutionary forces mobilized to challenge the victory of the proletariat. The situation is quite different in the capitalist countries at present. Now the fascist counter-revolution is attacking bourgeois democracy in an effort to establish a most barbaric regime of exploitation and suppression of the toiling masses. Now the toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism."

This, then, is the theoretical foundation which provides the justification for the policy and tactics of the People’s Front. And, in point of fact, the People’s Front does follow legitimately enough from this foundation. There is only one difficulty: the foundation itself is entirely false.

By their definition of the nature of the present historical period, our Comintern scholars have already implied the proper strategy for the proletariat. The task of the proletariat is, quite flatly, to defend bourgeois democracy. And, in accomplishing this task, the proletariat must aim to ally itself with all other social groups which are threatened by the encroachments of fascism. These include, we have seen, the peasants, the middle classes generally, and likewise the non-fascist or rather "anti-fascist" sections of the bourgeoisie. All of these social groups, from proletariat to "anti-fascist bourgeoisie," can, it is claimed, unite in a common program for the defense of bourgeois democracy against fascism. "We must," Dimitroff advises, "strive everywhere for a broad anti-fascist people’s front of struggle against fascism."

This, then, is what the People’s Front is, as defined and advocated by its most authoritative sponsors: the broad union of these various social classes and groups on the basis of a common program for the defense of bourgeois democracy against fascism.

It is the avowed aim of such a People’s Front not merely to carry on the day-by-day struggle and agitation; but, when conditions are favorable, to accept governmental power. "If we Communists are asked," says Dimitroff, "whether we advocate the united front [and, as is shown by the next sentence, the People’s Front] only in the struggle for partial demands, or whether we are prepared to share the responsibility even when it will be a question of forming a government on the basis of the united front then we say with a full sense of our responsibility: Yes, we recognize that a situation may arise in which the formation of a government of the proletarian united front, or of the anti-fascist people’s front, will become not only possible but necessary in the interests of the proletariat. And in that case we shall declare for the formation of such a government without the slightest hesitation."

What is such a People’s Front movement and such a People’s Front government able to accomplish? Our teachers will once again provide the answers.

(1) The People’s Front can win the middle classes to the side of the proletariat, can win even the actual organizations and parties of the non-proletarian groups. Dimitroff: "In the mobilization of the toiling masses for the struggle against fascism, the formation of a broad people’s anti-fascist front on the basis of the proletarian united front is a particularly important task. The success of the entire struggle of the proletariat is closely connected with the establishment of a fighting alliance between the proletariat on the one hand and the toiling peasantry and the basic mass of the urban petty bourgeoisie constituting a majority in the population of even industrially developed countries, on the other. . . . In forming the anti-fascist people’s front, a correct approach to those organizations and parties to which a considerable number of the toiling peasantry and the mass of the urban petty bourgeoisie belong is of great importance. In the capitalist countries the majority of these parties and organizations, political as well as economic, are still under the influence of the bourgeoisie and follow it. The social composition of these parties and organizations is heterogeneous. . . . This makes it our duty to approach these organizations in different ways, taking into consideration that not infrequently the bulk of the membership does not know anything about the real political character of its leadership. Under certain conditions, we can and must bend our efforts to the task of drawing these parties and organizations or certain sections of them to the side of the anti-fascist people’s front, despite their bourgeois leadership. Such, for instance, is today the situation in France with the Radical Party….

(2) The People’s Front can prevent war (the claims, we see, are by no means modest). Dimitroff: "The extent to which this world-wide front is realized and put into action will determine whether the fascist and other imperialist war incendiaries will be able in the near future to kindle a new imperialist war, or whether their fiendish hands will be hacked off by the ax of a powerful anti-war front." Or Manuilsky: "We now have greater opportunities for waging a successful struggle against imperialist wars than we had on the eve of 1914. . . . Today, relying on the U.S.S.R., taking advantage of the antagonism among the capitalist states, the world proletariat has the opportunity of creating a broad people’s anti-war front, which should not only include other classes, but also weak nations and peoples whose independence is menaced by war."

(3) The People’s Front can stop fascism. Dimitroff: "Will the movement of the united proletarian front and the anti-fascist people’s front at the particular stage be in a position only to suppress or overthrow fascism [Note: This is the minimum claim which Dimitroff makes for it.--J. B.], without directly proceeding to abolish the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie?" Or Manuilsky: "By its experience [in setting up the People’s Front], the French proletariat enriched the whole of the world working class movement and demonstrated to it that timely action against fascism (unlike what happened in Austria and Spain) can avert heavy sacrifices and the bitterness of defeat." Or from our own Earl Browder, in his pamphlet, The People’s Front in America: "There is a tremendous need for the united front of progressives [i.e., the People’s Front] which can awake the country to the danger of fascism, and organize the country to defeat this danger."

(4) Lastly, the People’s Front government can provide a transitional step to the proletarian dictatorship. Manuilsky sums up what he pretends to be the differences between the "old-fashioned" type of Social-Democratic coalition government and the new-fashioned People’s Front government, as follows: "One government [the Social-Democratic coalition] paved the way for the fascist dictatorship; the other government [of the People’s Front] must pave the way for the victory of the working class."


Here, then, in summary, is the ideological structure through which the Soviet bureaucracy and the Communist International throughout the world attempt to deceive and betray the masses in the present historical crisis.




Posted: 30 April 2005