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

Chapter IV. Can the People’s Front Win the Middle Classes?





One of the chief arguments made in favor of the People’s Front is that through it there can be brought about an alliance between the working class and the middle classes against the onslaught of extreme reaction, of fascism. If this argument were true, it would be of great importance; and we must, therefore, examine it with care.

The middle classes consist of those social groups intermediary between the two basic classes of modern society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Though it is difficult to define exactly the boundaries of the middle classes, they evidently include: peasants and small independent farmers; shop-keepers and small business men; many types of professional workers; independent artisans; artists and intellectuals; minor executives; etc. These groups lead in capitalist society an unstable and precarious existence, because of the ambiguity of their relation to the means of production--they are not in the full sense either workers or capitalists. They seek, naturally, their self-preservation, the defense and, if possible, the betterment of their economic fortunes. But the nature of their social position makes it impossible for them to develop any independent program for the fulfillment of their own interests. At bottom, there are only two programs for modern society: capitalism, the program of the bourgeoisie; and socialism, the program of the proletariat. There is no third alternative.

Since they can have no independent program of their own, the middle classes are forced to adopt, after their fashion, the social program of one or another of the two basic classes. So long as capitalism is progressive and relatively stable, the middle classes accept capitalism without much question; and strive only to gain for themselves as large a percentage as possible of the material benefits of capitalism. But the evolution of capitalism into its monopoly-imperialist phase, and the recurrent crises, constantly undermine the economic foundations of the middle classes. Shop keepers are forced down into employees of chain stores; independent farmers become share-croppers or farm laborers; various categories of professional workers are changed into wage workers; artists and intellectuals are put to work for wages by the government, big corporations, advertising agencies; the small business men are driven out of business by the big trusts; taxes grow heavier. The middle classes protest in their feeble and fruitless manner. They call for anti-monopoly laws; beg for moratoria on farm loans; ask for anti-chain store legislation; request protection for small enterprises; look for a shift in taxes to other backs than their own. All their complaints are of no avail whatever, since the inexorable development of capitalism contains within itself the extension of monopoly and the ever heavier crushing of the middle classes.

As the general crisis deepens, the discontent and turmoil in the middle classes grows ever more turbulent. The middle classes toss back and forth with increasing restlessness. Hare-brained ideas and theories, fantastic groups and movements and parties, give expression to the dreams and wishes and prejudices of the middle-class theoreticians. We know dozens of them in this country: Utopia, Townsend, Huey Long, back-to-the-land, Humanism, neo-feudalism, Union Party. . . . The middle classes are seeking a way out of their impasse. But they have no possible way out of their own. And at last they must, in whole or in a division, face the ultimate choice: to line up behind one of the two basic classes and its program, to swing to the side of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

The mere statement of the position of the middle classes in modern society makes obvious the answer to the problem of "winning" them. They are looking for a solution, for a "way out," and they have none of their own to offer. They grow gradually disgusted and despairing of the pseudo-solutions proposed by their own ideologists. They are then ready to turn sharply, and to follow that side which will give them bold, decisive, vigorous leadership, which in firm accent will show them a way out and a solution. How could it be otherwise? They themselves are timid, frightened, hesitating; and they would not turn to a timid and hesitating leadership as a substitute. They themselves have discovered that bourgeois democracy has merely led them deeper and deeper into the abyss, and they are searching for something to take its place, not something to bolster it up again. They do not want a leadership and a program which will pander to their own prejudices; they have tasted the bitter fruits of these prejudices, and they look for a new set of ideas, a new direction. The "alliance between the working class and the middle classes" can be formed only if the working class holds the leading position in that alliance, only if the alliance is founded on the clear, frank, unafraid assertion of the proletarian program--for workers’ power and for socialism. If, on the contrary, it is the bourgeoisie or their agents that give clear and uncompromising leadership, while the working class hides its program and gives way to middle-class prejudices, the middle classes are certain to go over to the side of the bourgeoisie, to the side that demonstrates that it means business, that it knows what it wants and is determined to go and get it.

These conclusions are confirmed time after time in every-day experience. For example, nearly every big strike is an object lesson in the relation between the proletariat and the middle classes. The newspapers, as mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie, try always to make the strikers believe that if they conduct a militantly fought strike, especially if there is any violence, the "public" (i.e., the middle classes) will be antagonized, and its sympathies alienated from the strike. The origin of this "friendly" advice, repeated in every strike situation, should be enough to make it suspect. And, in truth, exactly the contrary is what normally happens. When the "public" is confronted with militant, fighting strikers, who make clear that they mean business and intend to win, the public lines up with the strikers. And why not? The public naturally wants to be on the winning side; when it sees the strikers acting like winners, conscious of their own power, it draws appropriate conclusions. Nor does violence, so long as it does not result in a complete rout of the strike, change the picture in the least. It may offend the moral feelings of the public; but when the middle classes see the workers ready to defend their rights by force as well as by argument, this becomes an additional and compelling reason for the middle classes to line up alongside them. After all, they do not want to see proletarian violence turned against themselves. The 1934 strikes of the Toledo Auto-Lite workers and the Minneapolis truck drivers--both fought with uncompromising militancy--are admirable test cases for this method of assuring at least sufficient support from the "public."

It is when the strikers, under the influence of reformist leaders, begin vacillating, backing down, avoiding struggle, that the public turns its back on them and swings to the other side. And once again, how natural! When the public sees that the strikers are not sure of themselves, do not know exactly what they want or how to get it, the public concludes that it will be best for its own skin to line up with the bosses--who make no bones about where they stand. The middle classes love truth and justice, no doubt; but when it is a question of their own pocketbooks and their own skins, they will always take care to discover truth and justice and what looks to them like the winning side.

Great social crises only confirm the same lesson. Above all, the experience of the Russian Revolution is decisive in teaching us how the middle classes can be won. Who, indeed, won the middle classes (that is, above all, the peasantry) in the Russian Revolution? Not at all the People’s Front parties of the Provisional Government. They--the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks--had the middle classes to begin with; they formulated their policies and programs in accordance with middle-class prejudices; and precisely for that reason, during the course of 1917, they lost the middle classes. The peasants went over, in their overwhelming majority, to the Bolsheviks. They did so because the Bolsheviks made clear that they meant business. The Bolsheviks did not waste time on "the defense of bourgeois democracy" against the counter-revolution, or about middle-class fear of violence. From start to finish, in sharp and uncompromising manner, the Bolsheviks put forward the political program of the proletariat: for Soviet power and for socialism. They showed the peasants that their needs--peace and land--could be fulfilled only by adherence to the proletarian program and proletarian leadership. And the middle classes decided that their best bet was to come along under the banner of that program.


We are thus able to see that the People’s Front conception is the opposite of Marxism in its approach to the middle classes. Far from winning the middle classes to the side of the workers, the People’s Front subordinates the workers to middle-class prejudices. It accepts a program built out of middle-class illusions--illusions which the middle classes themselves are beginning to discard, and accepts the leadership of middle-class politicians. It gives up the independent class action of the workers, through which alone the revolution can be won, in return for--nothing at all. The temporary "alliance" superficially achieved in the People’s Front cannot possibly hold together for any length of time. The middle classes are looking for a way out; they are unable to find one of their own; the proletariat, by adopting the People’s Front policy, declines to offer them its socialist way out; and the middle classes are left ripe for picking by the fascist demagogues. The fascists are not modest or conciliatory in their approach, nor do they have any qualms about violence. They shout for the "true revolution," condemn bourgeois democracy with contempt, preach a religion of blood and iron and violence, announce openly their drive for power. However false the doctrines of the fascists may be, the leadership they offer is bold and decisive; and the middle classes will follow it unless the leadership offered by the proletariat is even more bold and more decisive.

Exactly this happened in Germany. It was the class collaborationist policy of German Social Democracy (combined with the suicidal sectarianism of the German Communist Party) which left the German middle classes easy prey for Hitler. The Social Democracy called for defense of the Weimar Republic exactly when the middle classes had come to learn that they had nothing further to hope from the Weimar Republic. Hitler called for "revolution"; and he was, in desperation, believed and followed. Exactly this is now happening in France. The despairing middle classes of France, their economic and social position progressively undermined by the French bourgeois democracy--are instructed by the People’s Front to defend that democracy with their very lives. As a result, as they learn now that Blum’s government is just one more version of the same government that has failed them for so many decades, in increasing numbers they pass over to the camp of the fascists. The fascists, at any rate, have a program and are not afraid to state it; they demand and promise a change, a "revolution" even if they are not too clear as to just what kind it will be.


Marxism recognizes, and has always recognized, the crucial character of this problem of winning the middle classes--not the middle classes as a whole, which is impossible, but the bulk of their lower strata. Indeed, Marxism declares that without the support of allies drawn from non-proletarian social groups, as well as through the aid of anti-imperialist colonial revolts, the working class cannot succeed and the proletarian revolution is impossible. But Marxism insists that this alliance can be formed only on the basis of the independent leadership of the working class, only on the basis of the class struggle and the proletarian program for workers’ power and for socialism.

There is nothing hypocritical or dishonest about this conception. What Marxism says in effect to the middle classes, or at any rate the lower middle classes, is: you have grave and increasing problems in modern society; you are unable to solve them through any independent program of your own; they can be solved only through the proletarian program, only through socialism. You want jobs, food, security. Through a continuance of capitalism, in whatever form, you will have less of all of them. Through the workers’ revolution and through socialism, all of these can be guaranteed, and your basic interests fulfilled to an ever increasing degree. These claims can be made, and must be made, because they are true; and because they are the only foundation on which the middle classes can be won to the side of the proletariat.

The People’s Front is, on the other hand, completely false in all of its claims. And the Marxist analysis shows that the People’s Front, far from being able to win the middle classes, must necessarily lose them, will simply turn over to fascism the mass base which it requires.




Posted: 30 April 2005