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Carl Davidson

Left in Form,
Right in Essence

United front against fascism

The Trotskyists believe they are the only authentic practitioners of the policy of the united front.

Yet in practice. they have opposed full implementation, either from rightist or “leftist” positions.

The most apparent example of this role was the Trotskyist attitude toward World War 2, in which they took a “defeatist” position towards the capitalist governments fighting the fascists, called for the “revolutionary” overthrow of the Soviet government and opposed the united front with the national bourgeoisie in the colonial countries invaded by the fascists.

The fact that the Trotskyist line led them inevitably to these positions substantiated the charge that they objectively served the interests of the fascists.

Trotsky and his followers tried to justify their line with a “left” cover, stating that they called for a revolution in Germany, the “unconditional defense” of the Soviet Union (but not its leadership) and the defeat of the capitalists everywhere through socialist revolution. They then tried to back it all up by drawing a doctrinaire analogy with World War 1, where the Leninists called for the proletariat in all capitalist countries to work for the defeat of their own bourgeoisie by “turning the imperialist war into a civil war.”

“It is really ridiculous,” wrote Georgi Dimitrov in 1936, “when ‘left’ phrasemongers of various kinds oppose these tactics (of the united front), adopting the pose of irreconcilable revolutionaries. If we are to believe them, all governments are aggressors. They even quote Lenin, who, during the imperialist war of 1914- 1918. correctly rejected the argument of the social-chauvinists that’ we were attacked and we are defending.’ But the world at that time was divided into two military-imperialist coalitions which were equally striving to establish their world hegemony and which had equally prepared and provoked the imperialist war. At that time there were neither countries where the proletariat was in power nor countries with a fascist dictatorship.”

But now the situation is different. Now we have: (1) a proletarian state which is the greatest bulwark of peace; (2) definite fascist aggressors; (3) a number of countries which are in direct danger of attack by fascist aggressors and in danger of losing their state and national independence; (4) other capitalist governments which are interested at the present moment in the preservation of peace. It is, therefore. completely wrong now to depict all countries as aggressors. Only people who are trying to conceal the real aggressors can distort the facts in such a manner.

A number of main contradictions came to the fore during World War 2: between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism between and within the imperialist powers; between the imperialists and the colonies; among the imperialist powers; between the working class and the bourgeoisie in all capitalist countries; between the first socialist state and all the capitalist countries, and between the first socialist state and the fascist powers.

Of all these, which was the principal contradiction whose development determined or influenced the development of the rest? In the period of World War 2, it was the contradiction between the Soviet Union and the fascist powers. The principal, immediate enemy – as opposed to the enemy in general – of all the world’s peoples was the fascist powers of Germany, Italy and .Japan and their lackeys.

Strategic meaning

What did this mean for proletarian strategy? First, that Marxists-Leninists everywhere called for a united front of all working class organizations against fascism, on the basis of which would be built an even broader popular front which was in contradiction to the fascists, including even the temporary and wavering allies to be found in the camp of the bourgeois-democratic capitalist governments.

The Trotskyists opposed this line under the guise of upholding the proletarian united front while rejecting its broader extension in the popular front. They believed that the capitalist camp could not be split and that efforts to do so on the part of proletarian revolutionaries in each country and the Soviet Union internationally amounted to so much “class collaboration.”

It was true that the capitalist countries initially wavered or opposed the Soviet Union’s call for a united defense against the fascists. Many elements of the bourgeoisie wanted the fascists to attack the Soviet Union first, while they stood on the sidelines watching the two powers exhaust each other so they could pick up the pieces later.

Trotsky, himself, believed that this was the inevitable course. In 1932 he wrote, “It would be sheer political stupidity to believe that once they came to power, the German National Socialists would begin with a war against France or even against Poland.”

Hitler-Stalin Pact

The Soviet leadership completely understood that sooner or later, they would have to fight the German fascists. But precisely this question – sooner or later? – made all the difference in the world. Since the bourgeois democracies continued to stall on the question of the united front and the German fascists were in the process of making up their minds of who to attack first, the Soviet leadership waited until the last possible moment and then decided to force the issue.

The method chosen was the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, more popularly known as the Hitler-Stalin pact. Its signing sent the Trotskyists into a frenzied howl but in actuality it constituted one of the most brilliant diplomatic moves of the period.

It meant that the capitalist governments were attacked first, that the Germans would have to fight eventually on two fronts at once, that the Soviet Union would not have to fight alone and that the international popular front isolating the principal fascist enemies would become a reality. In short, it meant the defeat of fascism.

The Trotskyists, of course, saw it as only one more “betrayal” of the working class. In their view, it was the Communists who were primarily responsible for fascism’s coming to power in Germany in the first place.

In this way the Trotskyists cover up for the political force that actually paved the way to power for the fascists – the German Social-Democrats.

Refused united front

The German Social-Democrats refused at every point in the struggle to form a united front with the German Communists against the rising power of the fascists. Instead, they shared governmental power with the bourgeoisie, collaborated with them in suppressing the struggles of the working class and pursued the line of the peaceful, constitutional path to “socialism.” In both theory and practice, however, they were tools of the capitalists for maintaining the stability of bourgeois rule.

In Austria, for example, even after Hitler had conic to power in Germany, the Social-Democrats begged for an agreement with the fascists. even going so far as to volunteer cooperation with a two-year suspension of the constitution and the parliament so long as it was done “constitutionally.”

For these reasons, the Communists correctly attacked the leadership of the Social-Democratic parties as “social-fascists,” that is, “socialists in words, fascist in deeds.” (Lenin had attacked the same parties during World War I as “social-imperialists” for defending their own capitalists.) In this way, the Communists sought to expose to the masses the actual implications of following the line of the Social-Democrats.

For Trotsky, this amounted only to so much name-calling. He pointed out the obvious fact that the Social-Democrats stood to be smashed with the victory of fascism and that this constituted an objective basis for a united front.

Decisive factor

The problem. however, was that it was not obvious to the Social-Democrats who feared proletarian revolution more than the victory of Hitler. This factor proved decisive.

This is not to say that the German Communist party made no mistakes or that their errors were insignificant. One of their main weaknesses was a social-democratic or right error. This was seen in the building of their party primarily on the basis of electoral districts, rather than on factory cells. They also made a number of ultra-“left” errors, including a one-sided emphasis on the “united front from below,” rather than a more persistent effort at unity with the Social-Democratic leaders as well, even if this was turned down. They also at one point perpetrated the illusion that the Hitler government would be short-lived and that the proletarian power would quickly replace it.

The Trotskyists believe that the Communists’ errors were the decisive factor in preventing the united front from being embraced by the Social- Democratic leaders. But this is utopian. The Communists would have been able to strengthen their influence among the masses of the Social-Democrats but the leadership had objective ties to the bourgeoisie. To think otherwise is to deny the character of the labor aristocracy as the agent of the capitalists within the workers movement.

This is reflected in this country in the Socialist Workers party’s one-sided emphasis on the union leadership in the united front against the Vietnam war. While Trotskyists went all-out to get endorsements from trade union leaders for antiwar demonstrations, they (lid no organizational work among the rank-and-file for the struggle against imperialism. Despite their running debate with the revisionists on the single-issue, multi-issue question, this is where they share with the Communist party a thoroughly rightist approach to the question of the united front.

The Trotskyist movement in the 1930s went on to merge with the Social-Democrats and the Trotskyists in this country joined the Socialist party of Norman Thomas. This and other aspects of the Trotskyists’ history in the U.S. show what left phrases mean in practice.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002