IBT Letter to Weekly Worker on popular fronts

In ‘Vote for class independence’ (a response to my article ‘Stalinism versus Trotskyism’ in Weekly Worker April 21), comrade Mike Macnair asserts his “basic historical objection” to the International Bolshevik Tendency’s line of never voting for any popular front candidates: “Trotsky argued, at precisely the time that the French and Spanish people’s fronts were campaigning for office, that the Trotskyists should enter the Socialist Parties in order to link up with left opponents of the people’s front project” (Weekly Worker April 28).

A revolutionary organisation might decide to send members into a mass reformist workers’ party participating in a popular front if there appeared to be significant recruitment opportunities. This is unrelated to the issue of advocating votes or any other sort of political support to candidates running as part of a popular front.

The crux of Macnair’s argument is a denial of any significant difference between a reformist workers’ party that stands independently and one that runs in a bloc with bourgeois forces. He writes: “Both a vote for a social democratic party and a vote for a social democratic or Stalinist party engaged in a ‘people’s front’ are in slightly different ways votes for class collaboration. Both are equally capable of also contradictorily expressing an aspiration to class independence.”

Comrade Macnair believes that there is no meaningful distinction between reformists who claim to represent the independent class interests of the proletariat and those who insist that, at least for the interim, the essential interests of the workers and bosses coincide. We would remind CPGB comrades that the demand ‘Down with the 10 capitalist ministers!’ (a call for the reformists to break their bloc with the bourgeoisie and take power in their own name) played a critical role in winning the majority of the Russian workers to the Bolsheviks in the run-up to the October Revolution. Lenin recognised that demanding that Kerensky et al break with their ‘progressive’ capitalist allies as a precondition for any sort of critical support was the easiest way to unmask the pseudo-socialists as representatives of the bourgeoisie within the workers’ movement.

Comrade Macnair’s reply leans heavily on a claim by Ian Donovan, a former member of ours who had earlier been “chewed up by the Spartacist League’s internal life” (in the words of Mark Fischer, Weekly Worker February 18 1999). In his subjectivity, comrade Donovan imagined he had found the roots of the Spartacist tendency’s degeneration in a couple of articles on the popular front published in the 1970s. We are not sure how Macnair got the impression that “the IBT never answered comrade Donovan” on this issue. We direct his attention to our response in Marxist Bulletin No8 (February 1999), which has been available on our web page for some years.

As we demonstrate, comrade Donovan’s ‘discovery’ was only a rationalisation for a rightward political trajectory that soon led him to renounce Trotskyism altogether. In 2000, in defence of the CPGB’s scandalous policy of voting for the Movement for Democratic Change - the party of Zimbabwe’s white settler capitalists - Donovan actually went so far as to argue against demanding the expropriation of bourgeois property in that country (see Weekly Worker June 22 2000 and our comment in ‘No greater crime’ 1917 No23).

The most interesting political point raised in comrade Macnair’s contribution is his reference to Lenin’s 1920 assertion in ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder that the Bolsheviks had been correct to vote for the bourgeois Cadets in the second round of elections to the tsarist duma. Macnair appears agnostic on the issue, commenting only that “Lenin may have been wrong” on this point. We think Lenin was indeed mistaken to pose this as a model for the fledgling Comintern, and note that voting for the Cadets stands in contradiction to the policy outlined in his famous April theses, the document that laid the political basis for the victory of the October Revolution.

We have, of course, the considerable advantage of the experience of the past 85 years of class struggle. In 1920 even Trotsky, whose brilliant theory of permanent revolution anticipated Lenin’s April theses by more than a decade, was not prepared to rule out the possibility of a strategic bloc with the ‘anti-imperialist’ bourgeoisie in the colonial world. Only on the basis of the disastrous experience with the Chinese Guomindang did Trotsky conclude that the permanent revolution was universally applicable (ie, that there is no country on earth in which the bourgeoisie is capable of playing a historically progressive role).

We advise Weekly Worker readers interested in reading more about the issue of voting for workers’ parties in popular fronts, and the related question of the ‘anti-imperialist united front’, to study our 1988 exchange with Workers Power, reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No3.

Alan Davis

Posted: 25 May 2005