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

Chapter VIII. The People’s Front in the United States.





The People’s Front has not, of course, advanced as far in the United States as in France or Spain. In the formal sense, there is not yet in the United States an established "People’s Front." The United States is not faced with a developing revolutionary crisis, as is France, nor is it in the midst of a Civil War, as is Spain. Though the historical issue for the United States, as is the case for every nation at the present time, is socialism vs. capitalism, though only the workers’ revolution and socialism can solve even a single one of the major problems facing United States economy; nevertheless the issue is not yet posed in terms of the immediate struggle for state power. The American proletariat is still faced primarily with the more elementary immediate demands: the struggle for the right to organize, for industrial unionism, for the exercise of democratic rights generally, for a powerful trade union and unemployed movement, for relief and union conditions, for a conscious mass revolutionary party of struggle.

But just as the issue of state power can be settled in favor of the proletariat only by the independent revolutionary class struggle of the workers, and is lost for the proletariat through the reformist strategy of the People’s Front; in the same way, at the more elementary stages, the interests of the proletariat can be served only by the appropriate methods of class struggle, and are fatally undermined by the class collaborationist methods of the People’s Front. The People’s Front in this country, seeping into the labor movement under the sponsorship of the Communist Party, has made considerable headway; and already its disastrous effects are becoming apparent in a dozen fields.


Up to the present, the best known and most conspicuous result of the People’s Front strategy emerged during the 1936 election campaign. From the point of view both of the social composition of his support and likewise of the political content of his program, Roosevelt was in effect a People’s Front candidate. No one could doubt that he was a staunch and outstanding defender of capitalist democracy, nor that the bulk of the proletariat, the farmers, and the lower strata of the rest of the middle classes, were solidly behind him. Thus the upholders of the People’s Front ideology found themselves, willingly or unwillingly, driven into the Roosevelt camp: either openly, as was the case with many, or, like the Communist Party itself, through a back-handed and ambiguous formula.

The Communist Party was compelled to define the issue of the campaign as "Progress vs. Reaction," "Democracy vs. Fascism." It had to discover the forces of fascism in the "Landon-Hearst-Liberty League" combination. It was then required to raise as the central slogan, "Defeat Landon at all costs!" And the only realistic interpretation of this slogan--the interpretation which the majority of even its own sympathizers made--was to vote for Roosevelt. Browder admits quite openly that this was the central direction of the Stalinist campaign. In his post-election analysis of the elections, delivered to the Central Committee of the party, he boasts as follows: "The first objective was the defeat of Landon. This was accomplished to a degree far surpassing all expectations . . . this aim we shared with the largest number of people.... Without exaggerating our role in bringing about this result, we can safely say that the weight of each individual Communist in the struggle was far higher, many fold, than that of the members of any other political group in America." He apologizes at length for the nominally independent Communist Party ticket that was in the field. If only "a national Farmer-Labor party . . ." had "decided to place Roosevelt at the head of the ticket nationally . . . . Would we have refrained from putting forward our own independent tickets and supported the Farmer-Labor party ticket even with Roosevelt at the head? I venture to say that under such circumstances we would almost surely have done so."

In point of fact, this was done in many localities either by the Communist Party officially, or by individual party members. In Minnesota, Washington, California, the Stalinists supported Farmer-Labor and "progressive" coalitions with no criticism of the fact that Roosevelt headed their tickets. In New York, the Stalinists gave full support to the American Labor Party, which entered the election campaign--as its leaders openly declared--only to gather labor votes for Roosevelt. Individual Communist Party members joined the American Labor Party, and spoke from its platforms in support of Roosevelt.

The People’s Front policy dictates a wholly anti-Marxist analysis of Roosevelt. He can no longer be treated as the chief executive for the dominant class. Criticism of him can only suggest that he is not responsive enough in carrying out the "people’s mandate," that he cannot be relied on to take progressive steps unless a certain amount of pressure against him is generated. Even when, after the elections were safely under his belt, Roosevelt, at the bidding of his masters, ruthlessly cut the WPA rolls, even in the light of Roosevelt’s attitude toward the auto strikes, the Stalinist criticism must remain mild and "loyal." The Communist Party, having abandoned the revolutionary aim of the overthrow of capitalist society, becomes the "party of Twentieth Century Americanism"; its purpose as defined by the People’s Front, is to function within the framework of democratic capitalism, as a reformist "pressure group." It must strive to become "respectable," to ingratiate itself with the class enemy; to show that in return for vague promises of friendship for the Soviet Union and polite words against fascism, it is willing to do its part in smothering the class struggle and guaranteeing the protection of bourgeois democracy against the threat of proletarian revolution.


A reformist political line cannot be isolated into any supra-mundane sphere of "pure politics." It must show its effects on every arena of the class struggle. We thus find during the past two years a cumulative development of the People’s Front strategy as applied to Communist Party activities in the trade unions and unemployed organizations. We may be sure that during the coming months this development will be carried unprecedented steps further. The basis of the People’s Front is class collaboration; and we know from past experience of reformism what this means on the trade union field.

Are the reactionary trade union bureaucrats agents of the class enemy within the working class? Do their policies act as the major brake to militant class consciousness within the unions? This is what Marxism has always taught, but no one could possibly learn this from the most detailed study of recent Stalinist literature. Nowhere is there any explanation of, or even reference to, the social function of the trade union bureaucracy. At the most, there is occasional personal criticism of some action too gross to ignore; but even this is kept to a minimum, in the interests of currying favor with the maximum number of the bureaucrats.

The policy of class collaboration forces the Stalinists to abandon more and more the fighting struggle for economic demands, and through that struggle the raising of the level of class consciousness, for the attempt to come to agreements with the bureaucrats, to settle disputes through deals behind the scenes, to rely on governmental arbitration boards and mediators. The Stalinist work in the unions must be subordinated to the great aim of achieving in this country a mass, classless People’s Front. To secure the adherence of a union to a Negro Congress, or an American League Conference, or a Farmer-Labor-Progressive what-not, or a Social Security Assembly is far more important than to get it to prepare and win a militant strike.

The results are already widely present within the labor movement, though not yet so widely recognized. In the WPA sit-downs, the Stalinists and the supervisors together explain why the workers must be peaceful and go home. In Pennsylvania, the Stalinists declare that the new policy for the Workers’ Alliance must abandon strikes as a method for "settling disputes." At the January unemployed demonstration in Washington, not a single militant slogan or banner was permitted; the whole demonstration was directed toward the achievement of a friendly chat with the relief authorities. In the Federation of Teachers, the general fight against the Boards of Education is deprecated, dual organizations (such as the Teachers’ Guild in New York) are met with conciliation, and the open struggle against the A.F.of L. Executive Council and for the C.I.O. principles is shunted aside. In the Cafeteria Workers, there is disclosed an ironbound alliance between the Stalinists and the older racketeers. The furriers, the wild men of the Third Period, turn respectable, and devote their energies against the progressives and revolutionaries in the union. Ben Gold, who as leader of the furriers roared for five years like an untamable lion, now speaks like the mildest lamb. In the United Textile Workers, the Stalinists at the Convention come to the rescue of the reactionary officials. On the Pacific Coast, among the Maritime Unions, the Stalinists last year first tried to put over the I.S.U. proposals on the Sailors, then attempted to head off the strike, then insisted that it be delayed until after the elections (so as not to injure Roosevelt) ; and in the end were forestalled only by the militant stand of the Sailors’ Union.

This trend will continue and increase. The Communist Party, under the banner of the People’s Front, now functions in the unions more and more as a reactionary force, and the progressive movement in the unions will have to be built not along with but in large measure against it.

These conclusions are impressively supported by the Stalinist policy with respect to the A.F.of L.-C.I.O. struggle. At the present time, as Marxists have made clear, the progressive movement in the unions must proceed in accordance with the basic slogans: for industrial unionism; for organization of the basic mass industries; for a class struggle policy; for trade union democracy. Every one of these slogans, taken individually or together, dictates repudiation of the policies and course of the A.F.of L. bureaucracy, and determined, though of course critical, support of the C.I.O. This follows not because the C.I.O. as at present constituted and with its present leadership is the sufficient answer to the needs of the workers (indeed, through its fundamental class collaborationism and its violation of intra-union democracy, it acts even now and will in the future increasingly act counter to the needs of the workers), but because in the light of the real and actual conditions of the present, the direction of the C.I.O. is the direction of advance for the labor movement, just as the direction of the A.F.of L. officialdom is the direction of decay and disintegration. As against the A.F.of L. bureaucracy, therefore, Marxists must, wholeheartedly and unambiguously, support the C.I.O. Only such an attitude is at present compatible with progressive trade unionism.

The Communist party policy for the next period, however, is formulated around the single slogan of "unity." "We shall," Browder says in the report already referred to, "redouble our efforts in the fight for trade union unity, for the unity of the American Federation of Labor. ... We think that it would be harmful if any unions were divided, one section going to the C.I.O., the other to the A.F.of L. . . . under no conditions do we carry that fight on in such a way as to make a split in that union. . . . For example, in the probable organization of some sections of heavy machinery, we will have the problem of whether these new unions shall go into the Machinists or into some of the other unions, whether it be the Amalgamated Association, or what not. Generally, we have been clear on this last question. We refused to use our forces to carry sections of newly organized workers away from the jurisdictional claims of the Machinists Union over into some of the industrial unions, where there was a fear that this would intensify rivalries and sharpen the split."

No one will argue against the desirability of trade union unity, nor will anyone "advocate" splits. Nevertheless, it is always the concrete content of unity, not unity as an abstract slogan, that is important. And, under the present circumstances, in the labor movement, the fight for unity itself can be understood only as a fight under the slogans stated above, and--translated into organizational terms--for the C.I.O. movement as against the Executive Council. Such a fight alone makes possible the re-integration of the A.F.of L. on a basis that would mean an advance and not a defeat; and such a fight is equally necessary to prevent the C.I.O. officials themselves from betraying the movement which at present they lead. Re-integration, of course, may not be possible without capitulation; and if this is the case, then the workers must be prepared to face the full consequences--prepared to face the necessity for the building of a new Federation. The conduct of a genuinely progressive campaign will have laid the basis for such an eventuality.

The "unity" campaign of the Communist Party, on the contrary, disorients the progressive struggle. It blocks the sharp and fruitful fight against the policies of the Executive Council, announcing in advance a willingness to compromise and indeed to capitulate; and at the same time it contributes to reactionary tendencies on the part of the C.I.O. officials. To an increasing extent its results will be discovered in one union after another--as, for that matter, they have already been discovered in a number of specific instances: for example, in the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, at the Convention of the Federation of Teachers, and at the A.F.of L. Convention itself, in each of which instances Stalinist influence smothered clear-cut support of the C.I.O.


In other fields of People’s Front activities, the same general trend is observable. For example, in youth work. Following the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, and the subsequent Congress of the Young Communist International, proposals were made in this country--as elsewhere--for the liquidation of the proletarian political youth organizations into broad, classless, non-political" (i.e., People’s Frontist) youth movements. When the position of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League made this impossible, the Y.C.L. tried to gain the same end by the creation of the American Youth Congress on the same People’s Front basis. The Y.C.L. now devotes a major part of its efforts to conciliating Y.M.C.A. and religious youth groups so as to maintain a bloc with them against revolutionary socialists. In the student field, the Y.C.L. consistently attempts to manipulate the American Student Union into a straight People’s Front program and organizational form.

Most significant of all is the application of the People’s Front policy to "anti-war work." Through a multitude of pacifist organizations, and especially through the directly controlled American League against War and Fascism, the Stalinists aim at the creation of a "broad, classless, People’s Front of all those opposed to war." The class collaborationist character of the People’s Front policy is strikingly revealed through the Stalinist attitude in these organizations. They rule out in advance the Marxist analysis of war as necessarily resulting from the inner conflicts of capitalism and therefore genuinely opposed only by revolutionary class struggle against the capitalist order; and, in contrast, maintain that all persons, from whatever social class or group, whether or not opposed to capitalism, can "unite" to stop war.

What this "anti-war work" means in actuality is suggested by the fact that the Stalinists have abandoned attacks on the armament program of American imperialism; greet the Buenos Aires Conference (a mighty step forward in this country’s preparations for the coming war) as a great advance toward "world peace"; and criticize revolutionary socialists as planning to sell this country out to Japan, when they call for non-support of the government in the war. The truth is, of course, that through the People’s Front, the Stalinists are making ready to support the government, and to recruit the masses for such support, in the new imperialist war.




Posted: 30 April 2005