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

Chapter V. Can the People’s Front Stop Fascism?





We have already seen, in general, the answer to this question. The answer requires further amplification. The People’s Front cannot stop fascism. The theory of the People’s Front rests upon a false account of the nature of fascism. It explains fascism as a plot by a small group of extreme reactionaries, instead of as a normal development of capitalism in its period of decline, a development conditioned not by the wills or wishes of any individuals or group of individuals (indeed, finance-capital itself accepts fascism unwillingly--it is a far more costly and dangerous method of rule than parliamentarism) but by the inner nature of capitalist society. Consequently, fascism can be stopped in only one way: by the overthrow of capitalism. So long as capitalism remains, the causes of fascism remain; and from the causes, the effect will follow. But the People’s Front gives up, explicitly, the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, and, therefore, cannot conceivably stop fascism.

The People’s Front justifies its policy by stating that the fundamental issue at the present time is "Bourgeois democracy vs. Fascism." We have seen that there is no such issue, that the only issue is "Socialism vs. Capitalism." Considered from a historical point of view--which is invariably the view of Marxism--there is no fundamental social opposition between bourgeois democracy and fascism. In the period of capitalist decline, bourgeois democracy, one form of capitalist rule, goes by a natural and necessary transition into fascism, another form of capitalist rule. Bourgeois democracy prepares the ground for fascism; fascism takes root, grows and matures, within the ground of bourgeois democracy. No basic transfer of power is involved in the transition from democracy to fascism; the same class continues to rule by other means; fascism, in spite of its demagogic radical language, constitutes no genuine social revolution. It is of the utmost significance to remember that Hitler came to power in Germany within the framework of the Weimar Constitution--the Constitution described by Social Democracy as "the most democratic in the world."

There is no more basic opposition between bourgeois democracy and fascism than between middle age and old age. Old age is different, certainly, from middle age; but one turns into the other by an unavoidable historical process. Unavoidable, except by one means: by death before old age is reached. The analogy is accurate: bourgeois democracy will give way to fascism--unless bourgeois democracy is itself destroyed by the proletarian revolution. The whole process is clearly described in the long quotation given in Chapter III. When the ruling class can no longer maintain its power by "creating divisions within the working class" through making concessions to the working class, it must abandon a liberal policy in favor of a "social policy of constraint" in order to continue its rule. That is, it must pass from democratic rule to fascist rule. It would be fortunate if working-class leaders thought and wrote with even one-half the clear-eyed objectivity of this spokesman for German finance-capital.

We have seen more than this: the People’s Front is not merely powerless to stop fascism. This policy, if unchecked, makes the victory of fascism inevitable. It does so because it is based on the continuance of capitalism; and if capitalism continues, fascism will conquer. It does so, furthermore, because it turns the middle classes over to the fascist demagogues.


But, it is objected, is not bourgeois democracy, for all its failings, preferable to fascism? Does not the working class have a real stake in bourgeois democracy in contrast to fascism? After all, the working class has at least some rights under capitalist democracy--some chance to organize, agitate, defend itself. Whereas fascism destroys its organizations and all of its rights.

This is, to many persons, perhaps the most persuasive of all arguments in favor of the People’s Front. And in this argument lies one of the most dangerous and subtle of all the confusions through which the proponents of the People’s Front hope to be able to deceive the masses into following their leadership.

The truth is simply this: the working class has no stake whatever in bourgeois democracy, considered in the abstract, any more than in any other form of capitalist dictatorship. Its stake is in proletarian democracy, in the socialist revolution. However, in the process of achieving the socialist revolution, the working class has a genuine interest in--not bourgeois democracy--but concrete democratic rights, some of which exist under the regime of bourgeois democracy.

"Democracy," as the word is used at the present time, has either one or two entirely different meanings. In the first place, it is used to refer to a particular form of state organization: the capitalist parliamentary regime. As such, it stands for a specific social institution--the bourgeois state. This institution is the executive arm of the ruling class, whereby it exploits the masses, keeps them in check, and assures the continuance of its own power and privilege. As such, it is in all respects the enemy of the exploited class, of the proletariat. The central object of the proletariat is to overthrow this institution, this state, and to substitute for it a proletarian state, which will be the political arm of proletarian power, and the instrument for the building of socialism. To "defend democracy" in the sense of defending the capitalist state is simply to defend the class enemy. Never, at any time, in this period of the decline of capitalism, could this be a correct strategy for the proletariat.

In the second place, the word "democracy" is used to refer to certain concrete "democratic" rights. These rights differ widely in historical origin and social function, and the attitude of the proletariat toward them must differ correspondingly. Let us divide them roughly into three broad groups:

(1) The first group consists of those special "rights" which embody and enforce bourgeois property relations. These include the right to hold property in the basic means of production; the right to employ wage labor; the right to monopolize for the sake of private profit; the right of individuals and private corporations to control the instruments of propaganda—press and telephone and radio; the right to suppress the products of science and invention in the interest of profit; and many similar "democratic rights." Such rights as these it is the aim of the proletariat to destroy, in exactly the same way that the bourgeoisie itself destroyed the special feudal and slave-holding rights.

The bourgeois-democratic state, however, has as its primary function the defense and maintenance of just these "democratic" rights. Thus the struggle against these rights is identical with the struggle against the bourgeois state.

(2) There is a second group of democratic rights which, though likewise having its historical origin in the struggle for power of the bourgeoisie, has a different social status. These include many of the so-called "civil liberties": the rights of free speech, free assembly, habeas corpus, petition, public secular education, etc. In bourgeois society these rights are manipulated by the ruling class to its own ends. For example, we discover that the campaign of the newspaper owners against unionization of their employees proceeds under the slogan of defense of free speech; or that the right of habeas corpus is used by skilled lawyers to evade investigation and criminal punishment.

Nevertheless, the attitude of the proletariat toward this second type of "democratic rights" is not one of simple and direct opposition, as in the case of the first type. This follows for two reasons: first, because, in spite of their perversion by the bourgeoisie, these rights can be used by the proletariat also in the defense of its own class interests and in preparation for its own struggle for power. Free speech, though its chief function in capitalist society is to permit a virtual monopoly of propaganda by the owners of capital, can, nevertheless, be part of the defense of a revolutionary and labor press. The defense of the right of proletarian mass meetings can proceed at least partly under the form of the defense of free assembly. The right of habeas corpus can be useful as a legalistic weapon in the aid of class struggle prisoners. Secondly, the attitude of the proletariat toward this second group of rights is different because part of the historical aim of the proletariat is, by changing the social content of these rights and eliminating their class bias, to deepen and extend them as part of the structure of the true and genuine democracy of a classless society.

(3) There exists under capitalist democracy, to one or another extent, a third group of rights which are not, properly speaking, "democratic rights" at all, but rather proletarian rights. These are such rights as the rights to picket and to strike and to organize. The historical origin of these rights is in all cases to be found in the independent struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state. There is no need to stress the incalculable importance to the proletariat of the maintenance of this third group of rights.


We have seen, then, that it is to the interest of the working class to defend unequivocally the third group of concrete rights; and to defend the second group in so far as they aid the cause of the proletariat. The problem is: How are these rights to be defended?

The propaganda of the People’s Front systematically confuses the two conceptions of "democracy" which we have distinguished: "democracy" as meaning the bourgeois-democratic state; and "democracy" as meaning certain concrete social rights. In this way, it attempts to get the masses to believe that the defense of the concrete social rights is necessarily bound up with the defense of the bourgeois-democratic state. In this it should be noted that the People’s Front is exactly on a par with the liberal capitalist propaganda in this and every other democratic country. This is the approach which the liberal press uses to justify its "defense of democracy" against "dictatorship whether of the Right or of the Left." To this reactionary argument, the ideology of the People’s Front can find no convincing answer.

The truth is the opposite of what the liberals and the People’s Front theorists assert. The truth is that the defense of the concrete rights is not merely, not bound up with the defense of bourgeois democracy, but can be accomplished only against the bourgeois democratic state, as; against every form of capitalist rule. Let us examine briefly why this is so.

The only group of concrete rights which are essential to capitalist rule is the first, since this group sums up the basic property relations of capitalism. The second group (the "civil liberties") was useful to the bourgeoisie in its struggle to accomplish the complete defeat of the feudal aristocracy, and continues to be a pleasant social luxury so long as capitalism as a whole is vigorous and expanding. The third group was never acceptable to the bourgeoisie, was wrung from it by the class struggle of the workers, and can be tolerated by the bourgeoisie only so long as capitalism is sufficiently healthy to permit such a concession, only so long as the exercise of these "proletarian rights" does not threaten the actual existence of the capitalist order.

However, capitalism is now in decline as a world order. As the decline deepens, the bourgeoisie is forced to an ever greater extent to restrict the exercise of the second and third groups of rights (even though the second group was itself first established by the bourgeoisie). In the permanent crisis of monopoly-imperialism, the exercise of these rights is far too dangerous to capitalist rule. Concessions can no longer be afforded. Mass unrest, if the proletarian leadership is permitted to organize and express it through the exercise of these concrete rights, threatens the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Fascism completes the total abrogation of the third group of rights (the "proletarian rights"), and the virtual abrogation of the second--at least so far as the second applies to the proletariat.

The restrictions of these concrete rights, however, begin long before fascism comes to power--fascism only completes the process. In Germany, Austria, France, England, even in the United States, we have seen it and continue to see it happening. The executive arm of the government takes over more and more control, gradually introducing a "decree" form of government. Compulsory arbitration is introduced; censorship is established; free assemblage restricted. Pickets are either not allowed, or their numbers and activities limited.

It is the "democratic" state itself which in the first instance carries out these progressive restrictions on concrete "democratic" rights. Even more: it is the democratic state administered by Social Democratic majorities, labor governments, or People’s Front governments, that carries it out. This is just what happened in Germany and Austria, and what is happening today in France. Blum has passed laws restricting the rights of political organization, of free press and propaganda, has instituted a form of compulsory arbitration and other types of restrictions on striking workers. Naturally he does so under the pretense of delivering "blows" at the fascists. But in actuality his government is destroying the democratic rights of the French masses--all in their name.

We reach a paradoxical sounding but none the less true conclusion: In the present period of social crisis, the defense of the bourgeois democratic state means actually a defense of the abrogation of concrete democratic rights. Concrete democratic rights can be defended only by independent class struggle; and such a struggle finds itself in ever greater conflict with the bourgeois democratic state which itself is the agency that undermines democratic rights. In the name of democracy, the People’s Front, by calling for a defense of the bourgeois democratic state, sets a trap which will bring about the destruction of all genuine democracy.


Nevertheless, the advent of fascism on a world scale presents a new strategical problem to the proletarian movement. Fascism, the "social policy of constraint" carried to its conclusion, completes the destruction of the two second groups of democratic rights; and is able to consolidate power only by doing so. Consequently, the defense of these concrete democratic rights assumes a new and greater importance in the strategy of the proletarian movement--a considerably greater importance, for example, than it occupied during the days prior to 1914. This defense is not at all, as we have seen, for the sake of bourgeois democracy, or in alliance with or subordination to bourgeois democracy. That is the fatal error of the People’s Front. It must be an independent class defense; and as such will have to be conducted in the last analysis not alongside of but against the bourgeois democratic state.

The democratic rights are of inestimable advantage to the proletariat in its struggle for power. Wherever they are threatened in practice this threat must be resisted, and the revolutionary socialists may take the lead in organizing resistance. The resistance must depend first and foremost on mass action: on strong, militant picket lines, great demonstrations and mass meetings, union organization; in the end, on a workers’ militia and workers’ councils. Legalistic means, pressure on the "government," are, of course, not excluded. Campaigns for the "democratization" of the state apparatus, such as the Supreme Court campaign in this country, or, more particularly, the campaigns for the re-introduction of democratic forms in the fascist nations (as attempted, for example, in Austria), are necessary. These must, however, be always subordinated to more direct forms of mass action, for it is the latter only that can in the long run defend the democratic rights. When the crisis grows more acute, and the fascist gangs appear on the scene to break up picket lines and workers’ meetings, once again the workers must defend their rights first and foremost by independent organization and mass action: they, with their class forces, must settle directly with the fascists. The democratic government will not, cannot do so: as history has so conclusively proved to us, the democratic government in the end will only hand over the reins to the fascists; or if, as in Spain, it pretends to fight at all, it will be only because of the overwhelming class pressure of the workers that compels it.

The struggle for the defense of concrete democratic rights is of the utmost importance at the present time. It can rally great sections of the masses, and offers one of the most fruitful of all fields for the application of the genuine united front tactic. And, behind the leadership of the working class, it can draw middle-class as well as proletarian groups, thereby offering an "approach to the middle classes" which is in no sense capitulation. Furthermore, this struggle is at present a revolutionary struggle. Through it, and not by the treacherous and illusory "defense of bourgeois democracy," the road of the fascists will be impeded and blocked. And, since the protection of democratic rights can no longer be continued for any indefinite period of time under the capitalist order, the determined struggle to defend them will prove a compelling factor, leading to the proletarian revolution and to socialism, which alone can guarantee to men a true democracy.




Posted: 30 April 2005