Joseph Redman

From ‘Social-Fascism’ to ‘People’s Front’

(September 1957)

From Labour Review, Vol. 2 No. 5, September–October 1957, pp. 148–153.
Joseph Redman was a pseudonym of Brian Pearce.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘In essence the party continued its sectarian line of self-isolation – with special emphasis on denouncing the Left in the Labour movement, such as the ILP, as “the most dangerous enemies of the working class” – until Hitler’s victory in 1933 gave a jolt to the entire world communist movement, and in Britain produced a certain thawing in relations with the ILP. A fairly clean break with the outlook of 1929 had to wait, however, until the Seventh World Congress, in 1935, with Dimitrov’s speech on the united front against fascism.’
The Communist Party and the Labour Left, 1925-1929 (Reasoner Pamphlet No.1)

Between the beginning of 1933 and the middle of 1936 the international communist movement underwent one of the most startling transformations of policy in all its history. From relegation of virtually all other political trends, and especially the social-democrats of all shades and grades, to the camp of fascism, it moved to a position of seeking a broad alliance inclusive of bourgeois and even extreme Right-wing groups. From abstract internationalism it swung over to the criticism of other parties for not being patriotic enough. From insistence on nothing short of a ‘Revolutionary Workers’ Government’ it became the opponent of strikes and revolutions as inimical to the true interests of the working class. The purpose of this article is to trace briefly some of the stages in this evolution with particular reference to Britain, and to point out some of the factors responsible for it. The justification for such a study is that while there are many who appreciate the criminal folly of the Leftist phase of the communist parties, opened in 1928-29, with which my Reasoner pamphlet mainly deals, there are as yet comparatively few who have examined critically the succeeding phase, leading through the people’s front and collective security campaigns to the world war of 1939 and the nazi onslaught on the Soviet Union in 1941. The correction of ‘Left’ errors is grasped but not the commission of a fresh lot of ‘Right’ errors – and, what is most important, the underlying continuity of the decisive determining factors is not seen.

In view of the attempt sometimes made to show that the change of policy that began in 1933 was not a sudden one but the culmination of a gradual process with roots in earlier years and broadening down from precedent to precedent in traditional British fashion, it may be as well to begin with a quotation from Idris Cox’s article in the Communist Review of July 1935, looking back over the previous few years: ‘The campaign for the united front in Britain’, he wrote, ‘only commenced in real earnest after Hitler came to power, in March 1933. The manifesto of the Communist International proposing that approaches be made to the Labour Party and trade union organizations came as a surprise to the whole party, including the leadership.’ This was understandable, as advocacy of the united front had been for the last three years one of the marks of the Trotskyite beast. Less than a year before, Harry Pollitt had denounced with fury the suggestion that as the capitalist crisis deepened so the gulf between the British communists and the Independent Labour Party would be narrowed (Which Way for the Workers?). Now an appeal for unity had to be addressed to the ILP and was accepted by them.

Concealed factors operating

Those who hoped that the Comintern had really learnt the lesson of Germany, so that a complete overhaul of communist thought and methods would now follow, were worried by the way the radical change of approach was combined with refusal to admit the disastrous consequences of the old policy. Heckert’s report to the Comintern Executive in April presented a prospect of rising waves of struggle in Germany, with revolutionary battles in the offing, and this remained official Comintern theory right through to the Thirteenth Plenum in December, when Pyatnitsky made his notorious statement that ‘in spite of the incredible terror, it is easier to work among the German proletariat now’. The ineffable R.F. Andrews (Andrew Rothstein) relayed this pernicious nonsense to British communists, assuring them that the German workers had ‘retained their fighting forces still intact’, that the German Communist Party had reorganized itself and was fighting better than ever before, etc. [1]

The concern to play down the consequences of the old policy naturally hindered understanding of the need to go over to a new one. It also rendered perplexing the behaviour of the Soviet Government in this period. If Hitler’s victory was so incomplete and his downfall so near, was it really necessary for the Russians to fall over themselves to renew the Soviet-German friendship treaty of 1926, which had been allowed to lapse some years earlier? Here the second concealed factor was operating. What determined international communist policy from 1933 onward was not only the utter collapse of the German Communist Party, along with all other working-class organizations in Germany, but also the extreme weakness of the USSR, caused by the economic, social and political crisis resulting from Stalin’s ‘complete collectivization in five years’. Neither of these factors could be publicly admitted – hence the new round of lies and prevarications which accompanied the change of policy, hindering and ultimately distorting it.

In the initial stages of the new policy there was no question of any bloc with sections of the capitalist class or of substituting ‘anti-fascism’ for socialism. Some of the communist leaders would doubtless have been astonished and indignant had they been told in 1933 what they were to say and write in 1936 and after! On the other hand, from the standpoint of 1936 some pretty ghastly Trotskyism was being put out in 1933 by, for example, R.P. Dutt (‘Only the united working-class front can defeat the offensive of fascism. The victory of the united working-class front leads the way forward to the victory of the workers’ revolution’ – Labour Monthly, May 1933. ‘The fight against modern imperialist war can only be revolutionary civil war; any other supposed alternative can only mean in practice unity with imperialism.’ ibid., August 1933). The idea being canvassed in Right-wing Labour circles that in view of Hitler’s victory in Germany the traditional (and around this time strongly reaffirmed) attitude of British socialists towards war ought to be modified, met with particular scorn. Should a war break out between fascist Germany and fascist Poland, wrote J.R. Campbell (Labour Monthly, September 1933), the workers in each of these countries should fight against their own government, and workers elsewhere should oppose participation in the war. To talk of referring such a dispute to the League of Nations would be absurd, as this was dominated by Poland’s allies. Communists must expose the attempt being made ‘to convince the workers of France and Britain that their heavily-armed imperialist governments, because they have up to this moment preserved parliamentary institutions, are peace-loving and must be supported in any war waged against the countries of dictatorship.’ It was all very well to howl at Hitler as a threat to peace, but were not French troops harrying Morocco and British aircraft bombing the North West Frontier tribesmen? (editorial, Communist Review, October 1933). [2]

Of particular interest, in view of the emergence of the ‘people’s front’ line not so long afterwards and the conflict with other sections of the working class movement to which it gave rise, is Dutt’s critique (Labour Monthly, October 1933) of those social-democrats who, observing the substantial support won by fascism among the petty bourgeoisie, concluded from this the need to ‘learn from fascism, that the workers’ movement must adapt itself to the petty bourgeoisie, must drop the narrow working-class basis, broaden its basis, take on a “national” character, etc’. Against such views Dutt maintained that ‘it is just the strong independent, fearless leadership and fight of the working class which is able to draw the petty bourgeoisie in its wake’.

At this point it should be mentioned that after the first panic reaction to Hitler’s victory, the Comintern had recovered its old aplomb – once Hitler had shown that, for the time being at any rate, he was ready to remain on friendly terms with the USSR. (D.N. Pritt was later to argue, in Light on Moscow [1939], that 1933 was a year of close and growing friendship between Russia and Germany, which the former unselfishly sacrificed in order to make friends with the Western powers. This argument served Pritt’s need of the moment, to furnish a ‘justification’ for the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, but proved embarrassing later, when it was necessary to depict 1933 as a year of intensifying menace from Germany towards Russia, in order to provide thereby a ‘safe’ explanation of Stalin’s alleged rise to dictatorial power in that year.) The old nonsense about ‘social-fascism’ was revived [3]; and nowhere except in Britain was there any substantial progress in actually achieving a united front – while here it was confined to relations with the ILP, and the content of these relations increasingly became reduced to a struggle by King Street against ‘Trotskyism’ in the ILP. In particular, the anti-Labour Party line at elections continued unchanged. The West London Sub-District Congress denounced as Trotskyist a proposal by Chelsea communists to ‘direct the party back into the situation of critical support’ of the Labour Party. [4]

Right moves for wrong reasons?

February 1934 saw the opening of a new phase with the attempted fascist coup d’etat in France. So late as January 24 the Central Committee of the French Communist Party had rejected the idea of offering a united front to the socialists, as this would only ‘foster illusions’ about the latter. At first the communist leadership in France tried to join in the fascist attack on the Radical Government (somewhat in the spirit of the ‘Red-Brown Referendum’ in Prussia in 1930 [5], but the spontaneous rallying of communist and socialist workers in unity against the fascist bands compelled them to manoeuvre. It was only a matter of manoeuvring however; though the communists officially supported the general strike against fascism, as soon as the immediate danger was past Thorez was once more fulminating against advocates of the united front (April 13, 1934).

Though not immediate as it had been in February, the danger of a fascist victory in France, perhaps leading to a Franco-German alliance, was now, however, always a possibility. The workers had been crushed in Austria and a Bonapartist type of regime installed which might well prove a mere transition to nazi conquest. What seems to have finally decided Stalin to make a definite turn in the direction in which, since March 1933, only gestures and half-measures had been the rule, was Hitler’s ‘second coup d’etat’, on June 30, 1934, when the so-called nazi Left (Röhm and the storm-troop leaders) were massacred. Trotsky had noted signs of Comintern wishful thinking about these people and their prospects as far back as June 1933 (How Long Can Hitler Stay?). Serious hope of conflict in the fascist camp had replaced the former denial of conflict between social-democracy and fascism. Ironically recalling a famous pronouncement of Stalin’s, Trotsky commented: ‘Reformists and fascists are twins; but a disappointed fascist and a fascist who has climbed into power are antipodes.’ Nothing would come of this hope, he warned: Hitler would bribe or crush ‘the refractory praetorians’ and ‘to expect an independent revolutionary initiative from this source [was] quite out of the question’. Following the Night of the Long Knives, Stalin appears to have decided that Hitler had come to stay and was growing dangerously powerful, and that it was necessary to proceed through the organization of ‘pressure’ upon Germany to induce Hitler to come to terms with him. To this Grand Design the tactics of the international communist movement were thenceforth increasingly subordinated.

The immediate effects seemed positive in so far as the task of forming a united front with the social-democrats was now taken up far more seriously than before. Thorez abandoned his April line, made a direct appeal to the French socialists, and in July signed a pact with them. The Soviet Union’s entry into the League of Nations, in September, marked the clearest expression yet of Stalin’s departure from the traditional foreign policy of the October Revolution and move towards alignment with one imperialist combination against another. Shortly afterwards, in the last months of 1934, a bewilderingly rapid change came over British communist policy towards the Labour Party. The Right-wing leadership of that party had, during the first half of 1934, moved rapidly away from the anti-war position taken by the Labour Party conference in 1933, and in June had come out with a statement in favour of support for a British capitalist government in the event of war with fascist Germany. This had offered a most respectable pretext for intensified denunciation of the Labour Party by the communists. Now, however, without any inner-party discussion, on the very eve of the London municipal elections, Communist candidates were suddenly withdrawn from contests with Labour, and in the Communist Review for December Pollitt called for reconsideration of the party’s approach to the question of ‘a third Labour Government’.

Already at this time voices were heard saying that the Communist Party was doing the right thing (belatedly) for the wrong reasons, and that the practical implications of this would be seen in attempts by the communists, in objective alliance with the Right-wing Labour leaders, to break down Left Labour opposition to imperialist war. Just because of these warnings, communist publicists redoubled their assurances that this was not so at all. ‘R.F. Andrews’, in the Labour Monthly for November, attacked the view that peace could be ensured by co-operation between governments instead of workers’ revolution, and sneered at those who put confidence in the League of Nations (‘59 capitalist governments and one Soviet government’). ‘The enemy is in our own country, we reply with Karl Liebknecht ... If we carry on a revolutionary struggle against imperialist war in Britain, we shall help the heroic German workers themselves to smash the brownshirts.’ In his pamphlet (now rare) The Labour Party and the Menace of War, published about this time, the same writer insisted that if Germany were to attack Russia and then Britain attacked Germany, the British workers must oppose such a war and fight to overthrow their own government. This would be the best help they could render their Russian comrades. R.P. Dutt, in the Labour Monthly of January 1935, similarly warned against any refurbishing of imperialist ‘national defence’ under the guise of ‘defence of democracy against fascism’. ‘We need more than ever to warn the workers never to become entangled in the lines of imperialist policies, but to judge every question of war and peace solely from the standpoint of the working-class revolution.’ Soviet participation in the League no more changed the League’s character than communist participation in Parliament changed the character of Parliament. It was in ‘the revolutionary struggle’ that there lay ‘the final decision of the issues of war and peace’. To support the British Government in conflict with Germany would ‘confirm the nazi propaganda of the vanity of working-class internationalism’.

The month of February 1935 saw the British Communist Party at a high point in its fortunes – the highest since 1926. At the party congress held in that month it was shown that membership had increased considerably and that members were no longer mostly unemployed, but on the contrary mostly held positions in their trade unions. During the second half of 1934 the party had raised its morale and enhanced its prestige by a successful campaign against the Mosley fascists. A detailed programme was adopted by the congress for socialist construction in a Britain ruled by workers’ councils, following a revolution (For Soviet Britain!), and the congress resolution recognized the working-class united front as the way forward, leading to the defeat of the National Government and the election of a Labour Government, and so the provision of conditions for advance to workers’ power. While it was recognized that broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie should be drawn into anti-fascist struggle behind the leadership of the working class, there were no illusions about any section of the capitalist class or any of the capitalist political groups: in his speech to the congress Pollitt singled out the Churchill trend in the Tory Party as a specially dangerous source of the danger of fascism. February 1935 saw the tremendous demonstrations against cuts in unemployed relief payments which forced the Government to restore these cuts and made The Times write of ‘the spirit of 1926’ being abroad again. In by-elections the Labour vote shot up above the record 1929 level. Trade union membership recorded the first increase since 1930. R.P. Dutt had every justification for writing in the Labour Monthly for March: ‘The united front is advancing and we need already to be looking forward to the next stages of the fight.’ His March 1935 preface to the second edition of his book Fascism and Social Revolution still put forward ‘working-class revolution’ as the answer to fascism: ‘bourgeois democracy breeds fascism’, and what is needed is ‘revolution before fascism and preventing fascism’.

A year of ‘might-have-been’

Like 1926 the year 1935 stands out as a year of ‘might-have-been’ in the history of the revolutionary workers’ movement in Britain. To understand how the Communist Party helped the Right-wing Labour leaders to make 1935 end with a resounding election victory for the Tories it is necessary to look oversea again.

In the opening months of the year the French communists were vigorously campaigning along with Left socialists against the proposal to increase the military service period to two years. In April, however, a delegation from the Komsomol visited Paris. They held talks with the leadership of the French socialist youth which were later published by Fred Zeller, one of the participants (in The Road for Revolutionary Socialists). The Soviet spokesman Chemodanov explained that there was danger of a German attack on the USSR and that if it came French socialists must march against Germany. ‘If, in this period, you make your revolution in France, you are traitors.’ On May 2 France and the USSR signed a treaty of mutual assistance, and on May 15 Stalin and Laval issued a joint communiqué which read, in part: ‘M. Stalin understands and fully approves the national defence policy of France in keeping her armed forces at the level required for security.’ Commenting on this declaration, Trotsky wrote:

The French workers are forced every to enter into agreements with the capitalists, so long as the latter continue to exist. A Workers. State cannot renounce the right which every trade union has. But should a trade union leader, upon signing a collective agreement, announce publicly that he recognizes and approves capitalist property, we would call such a leader a traitor. Stalin did not merely conclude a practical agreement, but on top and independent of that, he approved the growth of French militarism. Every class-conscious worker knows that the French army exists primarily to safeguard the property of a handful of exploiters, and to support the rule of bourgeois France over sixty million colonial slaves. Because of the just indignation aroused in the workers’ ranks by Stalin’s declaration, attempts are being made today ... to explain that ‘in practice’ everything remains just as before. But we on our part do not put an iota of trust in them. The voluntary and demonstrative approval of French militarism by Stalin, one must suppose, was not intended to enlighten the French bourgeoisie, who did not at all need any urging and who met it quite ironically. Stalin’s declaration could have had only one single aim: weakening the opposition of the French proletariat to its own imperialism in order to buy at this price the confidence of the French bourgeoisie in the stability of an alliance with Moscow.

When Lenin made his famous pact with the French military mission in 1918 he issued no declarations of solidarity with imperialist France, which would have disorientated the anti-war movement of the French workers – though Soviet Russia’s position then was far more dangerous than in 1935. Now, however, ‘for defence of the USSR the bureaucracy places its hopes in its political skill, in Litvinov’s diplomacy, and in military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia, but not in the revolutionary proletariat. On the contrary, it fears that the French or Czech workers might, by inopportune action, frighten the new allies. It sets itself the task of putting the brake on the class struggle of the proletariat in “allied” countries.’

The consequences of the Stalin-Laval declaration soon made themselves felt in France. In the previous October, soon after Russia’s entry into the League, Thorez had called for a broadening of the socialist-communist united front into a ‘people’s front’ with the radicals, but the implications of this alliance with a capitalist party only now became fully obvious. Strikes which broke out in the summer of 1935 at the dockyards of Brest and Toulon were opposed by the communists as the work of ‘fascist-Trotskyist provocateurs’. Within a few weeks the British communists adjusted their line in accordance with developments in France. At a conference called by the Labour Monthly in May George Allison was still saying:

We must be absolutely clear that under no circumstances can we support any kind of war that is waged by British imperialism. Even if circumstances force British imperialism into going into war alongside the Soviet Union, this would not alter the fact that British imperialism was waging a war to defend its Empire …. We must make it clear that the working class can stage the fight against war, and in the process can actually stage the war against capitalism, which is actually the cause of all wars.

But in the August Communist Review J.R. Campbell was already raising the question: ‘Can we argue that the proletariat’s attitude to a war in which its bourgeoisie (for its own interests) is co-operating with the Soviet Union is the same as the attitude of the proletariat in a country which is attacking the Soviet Union?’ – and answering it in the negative.

The Seventh (and last) World Congress of the Communist International, held in July and August 1935, had for its essential task the generalization on the world scale of the development which had taken place in France. ‘The congress is important’, wrote Trotsky, ‘because it marks – after a period of vacillation and fumbling – the final entry of the Comintern into its “Fourth Period”[6] which has for its slogan: “Power to Daladier!”, for its banner the Tricolour and for its anthem the Marseillaise, drowning the Internationale.’ From a means of struggle against capitalism the tactic of the united front had been perverted into a means of coalition with part of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the workers. The Gleichschaltung of the various Communist Parties followed rapidly in the weeks succeeding the world congress. Reporting on the congress in the October Labour Monthly, Pollitt affirmed that defence of the Soviet Union must mean support of ‘everything that the Soviet Union does in its foreign policy’. If war should break out between Germany and Czechoslovakia, the communists must support the Czech ruling class. As regards the Italian attack on Abyssinia which had been in progress since early in the year, ‘we must force economic and military sanctions if necessary’. (This was a particularly interesting development, as the communists had been opposing a campaign for an international trade union boycott of Italy – which would have involved the Soviet trade unions in stopping the flow of Russian oil to the fascists – and the Seventh World Congress had been strangely quiet on the Italo-Abyssinian War. Litvinov’s attempts to woo Italy had apparently reached an impasse and there was need for a bit of pressure to be organized from Britain and France).

Pollitt’s open call for ‘military sanctions if necessary’, i.e., for war with Italy, at once split the Left forces in the British working class movement. At the Labour Party conference in October the anti-war element, whose chief spokesman at that time was Cripps, found themselves confronted by a tacit alliance of the Right with those who took their line from the Communist Party. It was amid the confusion and mutual recrimination caused by the communist change of line that Baldwin held the General Election that gave Britain another spell of Tory Government, sufficient to take her into war and to the brink of disaster. What would have been unthinkable in February – a majority for the Tories – was accomplished in November. While the major responsibility for making this possible probably rests on the Right-wing Labour leaders, some share must certainly be borne by the Communist Party. The masses appear to have reasoned in the usual way: if both sides are advocating Tory policy, that’s a sound argument for voting Tory.

In the period of the 1935 General Election the communists completed their return to their pre-1928 relationship with the Labour Party by withdrawing all of their own candidates (except two) and giving active help to Labour candidates, and by applying again for affiliation to the Labour Party. Left socialists who had regretted the self-isolation of the Communist Party after 1928 and worked to bring communists and Labour together again viewed this development with mixed feelings: in what sense would the admission of this pro-sanctions party strengthen the forces of revolutionary Marxism in the ranks of Labour? The degeneration of the communist leaders was indeed rapid in the early months of 1936. In the Labour Monthly for February we find Gallacher jeering at Cripps for ‘the usual “Left” phrases, about war being inevitable under capitalism, that all capitalist States were the same, and until we got socialism we could not get out of war ... this confused jumble which was all directed towards weakening support for the League of Nations and Collective Peace.

‘Revolution in a single country’

Stalin’s interview with Roy Howard (March 1, 1936) struck a new, even lower, keynote for the period now opening. In this interview Stalin abandoned all pretence of Marxist analysis of the international situation, substituting for class concepts those of ‘the friends of peace’ and ‘the enemies of peace.’ And when asked about the Soviet Union’s ‘plans and intentions for bringing about a world revolution’, he replied that ‘we never had such plans and intentions’ – the idea that they had was ‘a tragi-comic misunderstanding’. This categorical repudiation of his own as well as Lenin’s declarations regarding the Soviet State’s attitude to the revolutionary movement abroad [7] dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s of the Stalin-Laval communiqué. Commenting on Stalin’s declaration, Trotsky observed that while such a treaty as the Franco-Soviet alliance might well be inevitable, ‘there is not the slightest need to call black white and to rebaptize bloody brigands as “friends of peace” ‘. The French bourgeoisie would not cease to criticize the Soviet Union from their own point of view just because they had signed a treaty with it, and their example ought to be copied. Such great actions of the Soviet people as the aid given to the Chinese revolution in 1924-27 and to the British strikers in 1926 could not be struck out of history by references to ‘tragi-comic misunderstandings’. The bourgeoisie would never forget them, though Stalin might succeed in making the world’s workers forget them, to the peril of the Soviet Union. But it was full of sinister significance that the Soviet bureaucracy was coming out so openly as the opponent of revolution in the capitalist countries – ‘socialism in a single country’ was being interpreted to imply ‘revolution in a single country’. One might suppose that the Soviet leaders actually feared the rise of a mighty revolutionary movement in the capitalist world.

Stalin had included in his Howard interview a formal, vestigial reference to capitalism and imperialism, quite unconnected with the general line of his remarks. Even this was omitted from the address given by Ambassador Maisky to the Fabian Society a fortnight or so later.

The problem of peace in our time (he said) is primarily a problem of creating on the basis of collective security a firm and well-knit ‘peace front’ including all those powers which, for whatever motive (there is no need to analyse motives at the moment), desire peace and not war. If such a ‘front’ is really created, if in a short space of time it is transformed into a serious force, capable in case of extremity of talking to the aggressor in a language of tanks and machine guns, the peril of a new world war will be postponed for a very considerable period of time. may be even for a whole generation.

In April, in France, the ‘classical’ country of the people’s front, Thorez made an election broadcast offering his hand to the fascist Croix de Feu on a ‘patriotic’, anti-German basis – a hint of what was to come later in Britain in relation to the Churchill Tories in whom Pollitt had not so long before seen one of the sources of the fascist danger. In June, when the French workers swept forward in a tremendous wave of stay-in strikes that recalled Italy in 1920, the communists called them back (‘one must know when to end a strike’) and settled for some wage increases which were soon cancelled out by the devaluation of the franc. This was the first instance of the people’s front policy bringing the communists into opposition to the workers’ revolutionary strivings on a nation-wide scale. (Soon afterward an even starker spectacle of the same order was to be seen in Spain, where in July and the succeeding months the communists prevented the carrying through of the workers’ revolution and in effect ensured the ultimate triumph of Franco.)

Devoting his Labour Monthly notes of the month of June to the people’s front, Dutt drew attention to the appearance of an English edition of Thorez’s book on the subject. Cautiously, he still emphasized that in British conditions transforming the Labour Party was the key to achieving results comparable to those obtained by the people’s front in France, and pointed out that the Liberal Party was ‘a party of sections of the big bourgeoisie, not a party of the petty-bourgeoisie comparable to the French Radical Party’. (Trotsky had warned only shortly before that it would be fatal to identify the Radical Party with the middle classes, who were increasingly losing faith in it, and for good reason. ‘The people’s front, the conspiracy between the labour bureaucracy and the worst political exploiters of the middle classes, is capable only of killing the faith of the masses in the revolutionary road and of driving them into the arms of the fascist counter-revolution.’) By the time the Labour Monthly for August was being put together, however, greater clarity had been achieved, or perhaps just greater boldness decided on, and William Rust wrote of the need to bring the liberals into the British people’s front – this, incidentally, in an article regretting that the workers had shown little interest in the people’s front idea and had even expressed concern lest propaganda for it should ‘distract attention from the drive for the workers’ united front’. The proposal to create a front embracing the liberals – and it will be remembered that the communists went so far as to call on the workers to vote liberal against Labour in the Aylesbury by-election in 1938 – was indeed a strange one to make in British conditions and perhaps did more than anything else to confirm the suspicion in Left Labour circles that cynical motives quite remote from the interests of the working-class movement were at work in determining communist policy. (Trotsky, writing some years later, gave it as his view that ‘the essence of the matter is that the Labour Party’s policy is too radical for the Kremlin. An alliance of communists with Labour might bring in a certain nuance of anti-imperialism, which would hinder the rapprochement between Moscow and London. Having the liberals within the people’s front means a direct and immediate veto by imperialism over the actions of the workers’ parties.’) [8]

The middle months of 1936 close the period of transition with which this article is concerned, and open that in which the finished and hardened people’s front policy was tested, so leading on inexorably to the next major historical period – that of the war of 1939–45. It is probably not coincidental that mid-1936 saw not only the most open and thorough betrayal yet of the international workers’ revolutionary movement but also the beginning of the wave of ‘anti-Trotsky’ frame-up trials in the Soviet Union. The foreign policy (including Comintern policy) of the Soviet bureaucracy and its home policy have always been closely interrelated.


The nationalist propaganda and substitution of the ‘people’ concept for class concepts which the French. Czechoslovak and to some extent the British communists took up in 1935-36, on the basis of ‘anti-fascism’, had a curious precedent. In 1931–32 the German Communist Party, in a desperate attempt to compete with the nazis by some method other than the workers’ united front, had gone in for German nationalism and the ‘people’s revolution. The nazis were said to be preparing to sell out to French imperialism—seen as the chief danger to the German workers (cf. R.P. Dutt in Labour Monthly, August 1931 and January 1932), and the German communists came forward as the ‘true patriots’ who would lead a struggle of the whole people to ‘break the chains of Versailles’. The communist papers made a tremendous fuss of some officers who came over from the nazis to the Communist Party on a nationalist basis (see, e.g., the article by one of them, Lieutenant Scheringer, in Labour Monthly for May 1931). This only antagonized the genuine Left and internationalist elements among the social-democrats, while not in the long run weakening the nazis, who could always outbid the communists at this game. One of the nationalist officers ‘converted’ to communism, Major Giesecke, is said to have handed over to Hitler a complete list of the personnel of the Communist Party’s underground military organization, who were all arrested immediately after the nazis came to power, so paralysing any resistance that might have been made.

Trotsky’s contemporary comment on this phase of German communist policy is interesting. ‘These wretched revolutionists, in a conflict with any serious enemy, think first of all of how to imitate him, how to repaint themselves in his colours and how to win the masses by means of a smart trick and not by a revolutionary struggle ... Of course every great revolution is a people’s or national revolution in the sense that it unites around the revolutionary class all the virile and creative forces of the nation and reconstructs the nation around a new core. But this is not a slogan, it is a sociological description of the revolution, which requires, moreover, precise and concrete definitions. But as a slogan, it is inane and charlatanish, market-competition with the fascists, paid for at the price of injecting confusion into the minds of the workers.’



1. Articles in Labour Monthly, April 1933, and Communist Review, May 1933.

2. Cf. R.F. Andrews: ‘We may justifiably ask, is the Hitler dictatorship any worse than British rule in India?’ – The Truth about Trotsky (February 1934), defending Soviet continuance of trade relations with Germany after Hitler’s victory. (A typical Aunt Sally, incidentally, as Trotsky never called for a Soviet boycott of Germany in this period. pointing out that Stalin had so weakened the USSR that such a measure would probably harm Soviet interests more than nazi Germany’s).

3. See, e.g., Whalley’s article in Labour Monthly, February 1934, and Gallacher’s pamphlet Pensioners of Capitalism.

4. Communist Review, December 1933. January 1934.

5. See, e.g., Jellinek’s article in Labour Monthly, March 1934.

6. The reference is to the ‘Third Period’ announced by the Sixth World Congress in 1928 (and never explicitly wound up). This was to have been a period of the ending of capitalist stabilization, of a new round of wars and revolutions, with social-democracy fully transformed into social-fascism.

7. E.g., in the original (April 1924) version of his Foundations of Leninism, Stalin had written that ‘the fostering of revolution, the support of revolution, in other countries, is incumbent upon the countries where the revolution has triumphed. This had merely confirmed Lenin’s statement of 1915 that the proletariat of a country where the revolution had won would ‘rise against the capitalist world, attracting the oppressed classes of other countries, raising among them revolts against the capitalists, launching, in the case of need, armed forces against the exploiting classes and their States.’

8. The 1936–39 period was to see the dismantling of communist-directed anti-imperialist organizations and a change in the party line on self-determination for the colonies which brought communists into sharp conflict with fighters for national independence (French North Africa providing the classic example).

Last updated on 10.10.2011