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

Chapter III. History and the People’s Front





We have seen that the People’s Front is in content equivalent to class collaboration and coalition government. Consequently, the lessons of history with respect to class collaboration and coalition government apply with full force to the People’s Front. It is not my intention to examine these lessons in detail; but some brief reference is necessary.

The policies of class collaboration are based upon the assumption that socialism can be achieved by peaceful and orderly evolution within the framework of capitalist society. By education and organization, it is argued, a majority of the people can be won to the side of socialism; and a socialist society can then be introduced by the ballot. The War of 1917, the Russian Revolution, and the triumph of Hitler have proved that assumption to be utterly and grotesquely false; but it has, nevertheless, dominated the reformist parties of the world from shortly after the founding of the Second International, and still continues to guide their actions.

The influence of class collaboration spread throughout the world labor movement because it was over a comparatively long period of time able to show certain concrete achievements. And it could do so, so long as capitalism as a whole was still in its progressive phase. During the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, and up to 1914 in this century, capitalism was still a great expansive force. The trend of capitalist production, in spite of the recurrent business crises, was upward to ever new heights. As a consequence, the bourgeoisie was in a position to grant considerable concessions to the proletariat, for the sake of avoiding an intensification of the class struggle. Class collaboration was a method of bargaining for these concessions. And through it, the reformists were able to establish at least to some degree such benefits for certain strata of the workers (the "labor aristocracy") as social insurance, cheap municipal housing, recreation centers, etc.; and to concentrate on "good government" campaigns which eliminated the grosser forms of governmental corruption.

However, in actuality, these concessions were simply bribes paid by the bourgeoisie through the reformist working class leaders in return for a renunciation of the revolutionary class struggle for workers’ power. These bribes were accepted at the expense of the independence of the proletariat; and it could not have been otherwise. The policy of class collaboration made the workers dependent, not on their own independent class strength, but on the bourgeoisie; tied them to the bourgeoisie through the bourgeois state. The reformist leaders became, and could not help becoming, agents of the bourgeoisie within the working class.

The results became openly apparent in 1914. At the outbreak of the War, the reformists were confronted with the choice: for or against the imperialist war; proletarian internationalism or social-patriotism. And since their whole past policy had bound them within each country to "their own" bourgeoisie, the reformists went over to the side of the war, and led the masses to slaughter.

The same process went on during the post-war boom in the 1920’s; and led, and could not help leading, to capitulation before Hitler as soon as the ruling class decided that the time for fascism had arrived.

Thus class collaboration has always been anti-revolutionary, anti-Marxist. But now, with the world decline of capitalism as a system, even the feeble excuse that once was made for it no longer holds. Capitalist production is no longer expanding, but is progressively drying up. The bourgeoisie is no longer in a position to make major concessions to the masses. In order to maintain capitalism and the domination of the bourgeoisie, the concessions and the "privileges" must be one by one withdrawn; real wages must be lowered; social benefits cut off. And the methods of class collaboration are no longer capable even of obtaining the petty bribes. Even immediate demands and elementary rights can be won and defended by the workers only by the methods of militant and sharp class struggle. The advance of fascism, the opening up of a new series of wars and revolutions, have shattered the last remaining "justification" for the structure of class collaboration.


Coalition government is simply the general policy of class collaboration carried into the parliamentary and governmental sphere. By entering into a coalition government, or equally by accepting office under capitalism as a "labor government," the proletarian parties undertake to administer the bourgeois state. That is, they become the political executives for capitalism. There is no way to avoid this; and the intentions and wishes--however sincere--of the reformist leaders have nothing to do with the political reality. The state, the governmental mechanism, is, according to Marxism, the chief executive committee for the dominant class in society; its function is to ensure the rule of the dominant class, and to uphold the basic social relations upon which that rule is based. At certain times this function cannot be carried out when an openly bourgeois party is in office; the masses may have lost confidence in the bourgeois parties, and be ready to rise in revolt against a government administered by them. The bourgeoisie then permits the working-class parties to enter the government to forestall a revolutionary assault on the capitalist state itself. The working class is thus turned aside from its proper business of the struggle for power, and deceived by its leaders into believing that the bourgeois state has become its own government. The bourgeoisie allows its working-class agents to do its business and maintain its rule.

The whole meaning of a coalition or "labor" government is clearly described in a remarkable article which appeared in a private bulletin of the Union of German Industry (the organization of the big German industrialists) during the Autumn of 1932, six months before the German bourgeoisie placed Hitler in power. This article discusses the problem of whether the time has come for Nazism to be allowed to take over the business of administering German capitalism. I give the quotation (which I take from The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror) at some length not merely because of its clarification of the present point, but because of its further bearing on the whole problem of the nature and meaning of fascism:

"The problem of consolidating the capitalist regime in post-war Germany is governed by the fact that the leading section, that is, the capitalists controlling industry, has become too small to maintain its rule alone. Unless recourse is to be had to the extremely dangerous weapon of purely military force, it is necessary for it to link itself with sections which do not belong to it from a social standpoint, but which can render it the essential service of anchoring its rule among the people, and thereby becoming its special or last defender. This last or ‘outermost’ defender of bourgeois rule, in the first period after the war, was Social Democracy.

"National Socialism has to succeed Social Democracy in providing a mass support for capitalist rule in Germany. . . . Social Democracy had a special qualification for this task, which up to the present National Socialism lacks. . . . Thanks to its character as the original party of the workers, Social Democracy, in addition to its purely political force, also had the much more valuable and permanent advantage of control over organized labor, and by paralyzing its revolutionary energies chained it firmly to the capitalist State....

"In the first period of re-consolidation of the capitalist regime after the war, the working class was divided by the wages, victories and social-political measures through which the Social Democrats canalized the revolutionary movement.... The deflection of the revolution into social-political measures corresponded with the transference of the struggle from the factories and the streets into Parliament and Cabinets, that is, with the transformation of the struggle ‘from below’ into concessions ‘from above.’

"From then onwards, therefore, the Social Democratic and trade union bureaucracy, and with them also the section of the workers whom they led, were closely tied to the capitalist State and participation in its administration—at least so long as there was anything left of their post-war victories to defend by these means, and so long as the workers followed their leadership.

"This analysis leads to four important conclusions:

"1. The policy of ‘the lesser evil’ is not merely tactical, it is the political essence of Social Democracy.

"2. The cords which bind the trade union bureaucracy to the State method ‘from above’ are more compelling than those which bind them to Marxism, and therefore to Social Democracy; and this holds in relation to the bourgeois State which wants to draw in this bureaucracy.

"3. The links between the trade union bureaucracy and Social Democracy stand or fall, from a political standpoint, with parliamentarism.

"4. The possibility of a Liberal social policy for monopoly capitalism is conditioned by the existence of an automatic mechanism for the creation of divisions in the working class. A capitalist regime which adopts a Liberal social policy must not only be entirely parliamentary, it must also be based on Social Democracy and must allow Social Democracy to have sufficient gains to record; a capitalist regime which puts an end to these gains must also sacrifice parliamentarism and Social Democracy, must create a substitute for Social Democracy and pass over to a social policy of constraint.

"The process of this transition, in which we are at the moment, for the reason that the economic crisis has perforce blotted out the gains referred to, has to pass through the acutely dangerous stage, when, with the wiping out of these gains, the mechanism for the creation of divisions in the working class which depended on them also ceases to function, the working class moves in the direction of Communism, and the capitalist rule approaches the emergency stage of military dictatorship. . . . The only safeguard from this acute stage is if the division and holding back of the working class, which the former mechanism can no longer adequately maintain, is carried out by other and more direct methods. In this lie the positive opportunities and tasks of National Socialism. . . .

"If National Socialism succeeds in bringing the trade unions into a social policy of constraint, as Social Democracy formerly succeeded in bringing them into a Liberal policy, then National Socialism would become the bearer of one of the functions essential to the future of capitalist rule, and must necessarily find its place in the State and social system. The danger of a State capitalist or even socialistic development, which is often urged against such an incorporation of the trade unions under National Socialist leadership, will in fact be avoided precisely by these means. . . . There is no third course between a re-consolidation of capitalist rule and the Communist revolution."

There is no avoiding the harsh logic of history. When the workers’ parties enter a coalition government, or form a labor government on the basis of the bourgeois state, they thereby necessarily become the administrators of capitalism. And they must, therefore, act to maintain and uphold capitalism. In peaceful times, they do this as described in the quotation, by canalizing the energies of the workers into peaceful paths which do not threaten the overthrow of the capitalist order. In this way, the coalition and labor governments of the Scandinavian countries have functioned. Similarly in the case of the two Labor Party governments formed in Great Britain: neither was able to take a single step toward socialism; they had to carry out the mandate of British finance-capital, even to the extent of upholding the extreme Tory policy in connection with India. It is interesting to recall a comment of one of the Comintern theoreticians writing in the days just preceding the People’s Front era:

"When the Labor Party first took over the administration of the affairs of British imperialism, the MacDonald ‘Labor’ government allowed the laws passed by the Conservatives and directed against the miners to remain in force; it also set the seal of its whole authority to the law providing for the lengthening of hours in the mines. When, for the second time, it became the administrator of the British bourgeoisie, it at once understood the latter’s program in the matter of ‘a standard of life for the workers of Great Britain worthy of human beings’ in the same way as German Social Democracy understood the program of its own bourgeoisie in regard to this; it promoted capitalist rationalization at the expense of the workers with all its might; through its peacemakers it permitted the miserable wages of the whole of the textile workers to be cut in the interest of making the textile industry capable of competition; by rapid rationalization it increased unemployment to an unprecedented extent, and prepared the wage cuts of the sailors and the civil servants, as well as a reduction in the unemployed dole."
(Bela Kun, The Second International in Dissolution.)

But in times of crisis, much more than this must be done. The coalition or labor government, as the administrator of capitalism, must defend capitalism if capitalism is attacked. Consequently, it must uphold the imperialist war policy of the bourgeoisie. And, against the threat of proletarian revolution, which would overthrow capitalism, it must take steps to smash the revolution. This is precisely what happens. We discover, for example, in the post-war revolutions in Germany and Austria, that it is the Social Democratic parliamentarians who shoot down the revolutionary workers. Quite literally shoot them down, as the blood of Luxemburg and Liebknecht so unanswerably testifies.

The reason why a coalition or labor government can never serve the interests of the proletariat, and must always serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, is, from the point of view of Marxism, easy enough to understand. The bourgeois state, its entire apparatus and mechanism, exists to enforce the rule of the bourgeoisie; and arose historically, out of the ruins of feudal society, for just that purpose. Consequently, being designed solely to uphold capitalist property relations and the domination of the bourgeoisie, the workers can enforce their power politically and achieve socialism, only through smashing the bourgeois state in its entirety, and building another type of state, a state based on different historical and social roots. The proletarian state, since the Russian Revolution, has been known as a Soviet State: that is, a state based on democratically elected soviets or councils or committees of the workers and peasants. Exactly what form these will take in any given country cannot be predicted with certainty beforehand. But it can be stated with complete assurance that only such a political structure, involving the complete overthrow of the bourgeois state machinery, can uphold and enforce the power of the workers.

The classic proofs of the impossibility of the utilization by the workers of the bourgeois state are to be found in the analyses of the Paris Commune by Marx and Engels, and in Lenin’s State and Revolution. The latter work, read today, seems very much like a contemporary polemic against the entire People’s Front policy.

Lenin quotes Marx and Engels: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the ‘working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’." Lenin continues: "Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, shatter the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to taking possession of it." And Lenin goes on to outline the kind of state which will replace the "ready-made state machinery." Lenin’s whole attack on Kautsky, which occupies a decisive section of this pamphlet, is focused on Kautsky’s admission of the possibility of the utilization of the bourgeois state for the benefit of the workers and to achieve workers’ power. "Kautsky may enjoy the pleasant company of the Legiens, Davids, Plekhanovs, Potresovs, Tseretelis and Chernovs, who are quite willing to work for the ‘shifting of the relation of forces within the state,’ for ‘gaining a majority in parliament, and the conversion of parliament into the master of the government.’ A most worthy object, wholly acceptable to the opportunists, in which everything remains within the framework of a bourgeois parliamentary republic. We shall go forward to a break with the opportunists; and the whole of the class-conscious proletariat will be with us--not for a ‘shifting of the relation of forces,’ but for the overthrow of the bourgeosie, the destruction of bourgeois parliamentarism, for a democratic republic after the type of the [Paris] Commune, or a republic of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." And he concludes his broadside against the reformists of the Second International: "Far from inculcating into the workers’ minds the idea that the time is near when they are to rise up and smash the old state machinery and substitute for it a new one, thereby making their political domination the foundation for a Socialist reconstruction of society, they have actually taught the workers the direct opposite of this, and represented the ‘conquest of power’ in a way that left thousands of loopholes for opportunism."


The crucial historical example of a People’s Front government, up until the recent past, was none other than the Provisional Government of Kerensky in Russia in 1917. Kerensky’s government in every respect conformed to the definition of a genuine People’s Front government. In it were to be found all of the parties of the workers and peasants, with the exception, of course, of the Bolshevik Party. It was a government sworn to uphold democracy. And, in August, 1917, it was attacked by the troops of Kornilov, the then equivalent of a fascist.

Nevertheless, the policy of Lenin, the policy which led to the success of the first proletarian revolution, was never for one moment based on political support of the Provisional Government. From the instant of his arrival in Russia, he fought against all those who in any way gave the Provisional Government such support (among whom, when Lenin arrived, was to be found Stalin). Lenin’s policy was based upon the transfer of state power to the Soviets; and in the final analysis this had to be accomplished not through, but directly against the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government had to be smashed in order that proletarian power could be achieved.

The decisive test of Lenin’s policy came in August, during the days of Kornilov’s attempted counter-revolution. But, even though the object of Kornilov’s attack seemed on the surface to be the Kerensky regime, nevertheless Lenin maintained throughout his position of "no-confidence" in the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks pursued an independent class policy in organizing to meet the immediate threat of Kornilov, placed no reliance whatever on the government, and kept the workers and troops under their influence from being subordinated to the government and its policies. They did this because they knew that the government would try to betray the workers and the revolution (as indeed Kerensky did in fact try to do, in negotiating for an agreement with Kornilov), and that the progress of the revolution would have to go on, after the defeat of Kornilov, to the overthrow of the government and the transfer of power to the Soviets. "It is no wonder," writes Trotsky in his History, "that the masses led by the Bolsheviks in fighting against Kornilov did not place a moment of trust in Kerensky. For them it was not a case of defending the government, but of defending the revolution. So much the more resolute and devoted was their struggle. . . ." During their hours off duty the sailors came to the prison for a visit with the imprisoned Kronstadters, and with Trotsky, Raskolnikov and others. "Isn’t it time to arrest the government?" asked the visitors. "No, not yet," was the answer. "Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward we will settle with Kerensky." In June and July these sailors had not been inclined to pay much attention to revolutionary strategy, but they had learned much in a short two months. They raised this question of the arrest of the government rather to test themselves and clear their own consciences. They themselves were beginning to grasp the inexorable consecutiveness of events. "In the first half of July, beaten, condemned, slandered; at the end of August, the trusted defenders of the Winter Palace [the seat of the Provisional Government] against Kornilovists; at the end of October, they will be shooting at the Winter Palace with the guns of the Aurora."

How absolute a gulf between Lenin’s policy, and the policy of the Stalinists and Socialists today in Spain--the gulf between revolutionary Marxism and reformist betrayal!




Posted: 30 April 2005