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

Chapter IX. The Real Meaning of the People’s Front





Every important political act at the present time can be understood only in the light of the approach of the new imperialist war. This is true of the acts both of all national governments and likewise of all important political parties and organizations. No serious politician doubts that the new war is not far off. Indeed, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War constitute a kind of prelude or overture to the war, demonstrating that the conflicts within society have reached a point where they can no longer be even temporarily solved through parliamentary and diplomatic maneuvers, through the League of Nations, conferences and pacts. The coming war, which will be on a scale unprecedented in history, is at one and the same time a struggle to the death in the rivalries among the great powers; and, even more fundamentally, the crucial test for the survival possibilities of the capitalist order. Mankind will emerge from the war either still tied to capitalist social relations and, therefore, with the prospect before it of unutterable misery and the thrusting back of civilization into the depths of barbarism; or the proletariat will utilize the war crisis to throw off the yoke of capitalism, to achieve the workers’ revolution, and to open out to men the mighty perspective of a socialist society.

With such stakes at issue, all governments and political parties direct their policies toward preparation for the war. For them to act in any other way would be blindness indeed.

Preparations for the war proceed simultaneously on a number of fronts. Most obvious, of course, is the accumulation of armament, which is now undertaken by all nations on a level far exceeding that of 1914. Along with this goes the internal organization of the national economy in such a way as to make it fitted to serve the war machine. Simultaneously, each nation jockeys back and forth diplomatically in an effort to form the most favorable alliances, and to break up potentially opposing alliances.

Such means, however, are not of themselves adequate. Each government must aim to achieve within its own confines national unity for the conduct of the war. The war is for the bourgeois state a life or death struggle; if national unity is not achieved, the effectiveness of the nation in the war is weakened to such an extent that it will almost necessarily lose. But to achieve national unity means that within the nation the class struggle, which divides every nation internally, must be suppressed or suspended; that, somehow or other, national solidarity must be made to take precedence over class interest for the continuance of the war.

National unity and the suppression of the class struggle is gained in part through the very direct means of the physical elimination, by execution or imprisonment, of those who advocate the class struggle. But such means of themselves would be insufficient. Supplementing them, and even more important, are the ideological means, the organized propaganda whereby the masses are taught that their supreme loyalty is to the national state, that their interests are best served by defense of the national state. If some formula can be found for enforcing this lesson, the problem of the accomplishment of national unity has gone a long way toward solution.

In part this ideological preparation is carried out directly by the capitalist state and by bourgeois institutions. The schools, the press, the radio, the Church, are utilized to imprint on the masses the duties of patriotism and loyalty. But large sections of the masses, in the course of their experience, learn to distrust the bourgeoisie when its face is openly seen. And, consequently, a great part of the ideological preparation must be done by agents of the bourgeoisie operating among the masses, and pretending to speak in their name. This is the historical function of reformism. And it was the reformists, the Social-Democratic parties of Europe, which in 1914 reconciled the masses within each nation to national unity in support of the war. Within Germany, the reformists explained that the class struggle for socialism had to be delayed until Tsarism was defeated; within France, until Kaiserism was defeated; and so on. And thus, by "their own" leaders, the masses were lead to imperialist slaughter.

By a judicious combination of the "physical means" and the ideological means, the fascist nations have already completed the process of achieving national unity. (It is to be expected that all nations, upon the outbreak of the war, will find themselves compelled to adopt a fascist form of government.) However, within the democratic nations up to the present a sufficient degree of national unity has not yet been gained, and attempts to complete it increase in intensity and rapidity as the threat of the war draws closer.

The People’s Front, understood in its fundamentals, is the major form of the preparation among the masses for the achievement of national unity within the democratic nations in support of the coming war. Under the slogans of the People’s Front, the masses will march forth to fight for "their own" imperialism. The basic formula is extremely simple: Defend democracy against fascism; our nation (France, Great Britain, or the United States) is a democracy; Germany is fascist; therefore we must defend our nation against Germany.

Thus, the People’s Front is the contemporary version of social-patriotism, the new form in which the betrayal of 1914 is to be repeated.


It is easy to see why traditional reformists accept the slogans of the People’s Front (even where they temporarily reject, because of traditional antagonism, immediate alliance with the Stalinists on the basis of these slogans). They have always stood for these policies and practices, reformism being nothing other than an agency of the bourgeoisie within the working class. Reformism has always been ready to fight a war in defense of democratic capitalism, since its own fate is bound up with democratic capitalism. But why is it that the Comintern has this time initiated the People’s Front movement, and stands as its most untiring proponent?

The answer here also is not difficult. The policy of Stalinism rests upon the attempt to achieve national self-sufficiency for the Soviet Union. It is this issue which forced the break between Stalinism and Marxism, since the Marxists maintained that the Soviet Union could go forward as a proletarian state, toward socialism, only in conjunction with the struggle to extend the proletarian revolution to other nations. Now, since Stalinism conceives its problems in terms of national self-sufficiency, it looks upon the solution of the question of defending the Soviet Union as resting, first, upon a maintenance of the international status quo so long as this is possible (during which time self-sufficiency will be built up); and, when the war comes, an alliance with whatever bourgeois nations are willing, in order to prosecute the war successfully.

The Soviet Union believes that the coming war will witness at least Germany and Japan aligned against it, with Germany the spearhead of the attack (which is the explanation of what we noticed in the first chapter--Dimitroff’s contention that German fascism is the "worst" type of fascism). It is not sure which way Italy will swing (which explains why Italy was not brought into the Radek Trial, though Germany and Japan were). It believes it has a good chance of alliance with France and Great Britain, and a chance for at least benevolent neutrality from the United States. Above all, it counts on military alliance with France, the "traditional" enemy of Germany.

But a conflict arises. Between a workers’ state and every capitalist state is a social gulf more impassable in the long run than that between any two capitalist states. And, within the capitalist states function sections of the Communist International, wholly subordinate to Stalinist policy. If the sections of the Comintern carried out policies of class struggle, they would threaten the respective bourgeois states with destruction; and would, in any case, make impossible the achievement of national unity (which requires suppression of the class struggle) within those states. From the point of view of Stalinism, twin evils would follow: the bourgeois states would then not be willing to trust the Soviet Union as an ally; and even if they became allies, they would be weakened internally through their inability to achieve national unity, and would be ineffectual as military partners.

Stalinism must, therefore, make clear to its potential allies that it is dependable; and must aid its potential or actual allies in their own preparation for the war. It must show, that it is to say, that in return for a military alliance it will do its part in suppressing the class struggle and the proletarian revolution, in bringing about national unity, within the allied nations.

The People’s Front is a major device whereby just this is done. The People’s Front gives up the class struggle in favor of class collaboration; it renounces the struggle for socialism in favor of the defense of democracy (a position altogether acceptable to the capitalist democracies of Great Britain, France, and the United States); it prepares the ground for the transition from a People’s Front to a "national front," to full national unity, as has already been brought completely into the open in France, and been made ready in Great Britain and the United States.

The People’s Front is part of the preparation for support of the coming war. This, in the last analysis, is its real meaning.


Throughout the world, the revolutionary Marxists also prepare for the coming war. They, however, and they alone, prepare the struggle against the war. They raise aloft the slogans of revolutionary defeatism, call for no support of any capitalist government, democratic or fascist. They prepare, as Lenin prepared, to utilize the war crisis for the ever more relentless advance of the class struggle, for the turning of the imperialist war into a class war for the triumph of the workers.

In this way, they prepare also the only genuine defense of the Soviet Union. The Stalinist bureaucracy, through the People’s Front, and through its alliances with the bourgeois-democratic powers, prepares not the defense but the defeat of the Soviet Union. The defense of the first workers’ state can rest only on the international working class, in the last analysis can be accomplished only through the extension of the workers’ revolution to other countries. The price exacted for "aid" by French or British or American imperialism could only be: liquidation of the revolution, and restoration of capitalist property relations. The proletarian dictatorship is an infinitely more profound danger to French and British and American imperialism than the Nazi dictatorship. Fascist dictatorship is an "inconvenience" for capitalism; workers’ victory is the death thrust. The Stalinist foreign policy, considered as a defense for the Soviet Union, is like asking a kidnapper to take a job as nursemaid. The true defense of the Soviet Union is the world prosecution of the class struggle. And, since the policy of Stalinism acts to suppress the class struggle throughout the world, the defense of the Soviet Union must be undertaken not in common with but against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The unrelenting struggle against Stalinism is a necessary condition for the defense of the Soviet Union.

Not the least of the preparation of Marxists for the coming war, and for the defense of the Soviet Union, must be the unswerving attack against the theory and practice, the policy and slogans and methods of the People’s Front. The People’s Front condemns the workers, in advance, to defeat. As against the class collaboration of the People’s Front, Marxists uphold the slogans of the fighting united front of proletarian action, through which the unity of the working class will be forged, its allies gained, and its compass set toward the struggle for power. Only by breaking utterly with the policies of the People’s Front, and all that they signify, will the proletariat go forward to the sole solution for it and for mankind: to the proletarian revolution, and to the international socialist society.




Posted: 30 April 2005