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Workers’ International News, December 1938


A British Popular Front?


From Workers’ International News, Vol.1 No.12, December 1938, p.4-7.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the last few weeks various moves have been made sounding out the possibilities of forming a Popular Front in Britain. Reports of secret conversations between the malcontent Conservatives, Opposition Liberals and members of the National Council of Labour have leaked into the press much to the discomfort of the Labour Party bureaucrats at Transport House who have hitherto posed as the inflexible and ardent proponents of “pure Socialism”.

Despite the din raised by the Communist Party in the past, for the first time the Popular Front becomes if not a practical question of the moment at least a proposition to be discussed as a possible alternative to the National Government in the future. It is kept in the background by British capitalism, now faced with a trade war with Germany which will reach greater and greater intensity as the world slump develops, and which far from being alleviated has received a renewed impetus as the result of the Munich victory of German imperialism. The hopes of the Chamberlain section of the capitalist class in the policy of appeasement and the Four Power Pact have not been realised owing to the sharpening of the antagonisms between Britain and Germany, France and Italy, due to the steady and inexorable drift of world economy towards the slump and economic catastrophe.

The same causes which have produced the sharpening of international tension, dwindling world markets and the inability of the home market to absorb the surplus goods produced at home, have operated internally to produce the serious talk of a Popular Front. If British capitalism is to survive the competition of German goods produced under totalitarian slave conditions, it is forced to launch an onslaught upon the standard of living of the British workers. Wages must be slashed, and already the railway companies have commenced a campaign for wage reductions heralding the coming offensive of British capital: hours lengthened, speed-up methods intensified to the limit of human endurance if British capitalism is even to hold a decreasing share in the markets of the world. It is the inexorable and iron logic of capitalism, For capitalism there is no other way out of the crisis short of war. All the burdens of rearmament plus slump must be laid on the shoulders of the workers. But the workers inevitably will organise to resist. There lies the secret of the Popular Front.

In the past few years since the formation of the National Government there has been a period of industrial peace in Britain. This was due to the fact that British capitalism could still afford small concessions to the workers and so keep their discontent within bounds. Corresponding to this was the political line of the Labour leaders, faithful and obedient servants of the capitalist class. They managed to lull the rank and file of the trade unions and labour parties by an occasional platonic gesture about aid for Spain, support for the Abyssinians, aid for China, and demagogic speeches about the misdeeds of fascism in various countries of the world, which committed them to nothing and fitted in quite well with the needs of British foreign policy. At home, in answer to the Communist agitation for a Popular Front, they replied pointing out the consequences of collaborating with capitalist parties and the need of the workers for Socialism which would be achieved through the election of a Labour Government.

In this way they could keep steady hold of the reins and maintain control of the masses. At the same time their inflexible attitude to the Popular Front did not stop the trade union leaders from discussions with Chamberlain in order to help in the rearmament programme in Britain, nor did it hinder Attlee and Co. from holding secret conversations with Chamberlain in the recent international crisis in order to collaborate in any measures taken by British imperialism against its rivals.

But the control of the masses by the Labour bureaucracy in the coming period is by no means secure. The membership of the trade unions is steadily rising; it has now passed the 6,000,000 mark and the mood of the masses is now changing; they are preparing instinctively for attacks on their living standards. In the recent strikes of the railwaymen, engineers and building workers the phenomenon was observed of the workers breaking the bounds set them by the bureaucracy, and carrying out the struggle in the teeth of the sabotage and opposition of their leaders, through the medium of their shop committees and under the leadership of the shop stewards, who had direct contact with the workers. Members of the Executive of the Railwaymen’s Union were howled down when they advised going back to work before the demands of the workers had been met. Going over the heads of their leaders in these strikes, they made direct contact with the workers in their own trades, in the factories in the same localities first, and then on a national scale, thus showing in what direction the coming struggles will move. These indications of what will happen evoked in the capitalist press a howl of fear and dismay. The capitalists were now seriously concerned how best to put a bridle upon the impulsive and stormy movement of the masses when it arises in answer to their attacks. That is the significance of the talks on the Popular Front. The Popular Front would serve the purpose if the masses get out of control of once again restoring the firm hand of capital at the helm, and help to put across the “sacrifices” on the altar of “national unity”. The illusions and deceptions as to what a Popular Front could accomplish with, as Lenin called all forms of class collaboration, “grandiose schemes, marvellous plans, which remained nothing but plans and schemes on paper” but which could not be carried out under capitalism, would hold the masses in check. Under cover of the Popular Front and simultaneously the capitalism would prepare, train and arm some form of fascist bands.

If the masses could no longer be held in check by the Popular Front, unprepared for struggle, bewildered and dismayed by the difference between promise and reality, the gangs could then be set in motion to smash the organisations of the workers and hold them down by physical violence. That is the meaning of the “bridle” of the Popular Front.

We have observed in the past the utterances of the Liberals and the “new opposition” of the Conservatives. Lloyd George and Churchill, those candidates for democratic haloes, were responsible for the carrying out of the imperialist war; they led the intervention against the Soviet Union in 1917-1920; Lloyd George came out openly in 1933 in praise of Hitler “as a bulwark against Bolshevism”; Churchill helped break the general strike in 1926, opposed any concessions to India to the last ditch, and organised the diehards in the Conservative Party on this issue; he supported Franco in the early stages of the civil war; Eden supported Hoare in the attempt to put across a deal with Italy at the expense of Abyssinia; Duff Cooper, another of the heroes of the Popular Front, came out openly in favour of Italian fascism last month. All advocate the necessity of “national unity” and “sacrifices”. Duff Cooper is advocating a “Committee of Public Safety” a disguised form of military and Bonapartist dictatorship, a bitter pill which is to be sugared over with phraseology borrowed from the French revolution. He talks about the possible decay and dissolution of the “party” and “parliamentary system”.

From out of the ranks of these gentlemen may possibly come the British fascist leader and the British form of fascism in the future. Their quarrel with Chamberlain and the National Government is how best to save British capitalism. It is with scoundrels such as these, stout defenders of capitalism that the Labour movement is to unite!

The Labour movement in this country has already had experience of collaboration with the Liberals. In the 1924 Labour government the Labour leaders justified their inadequacy and helplessness by pointing to the fact that they did not have a majority. Even the mildest of reforms could not he carried out for fear of being overthrown. Symbolically it was over the question of tampering with the armed forces, when J.R. Campbell (in those days still a revolutionary) was prosecuted for sedition, that the Labour Government received its quietus. Under the pressure of the rank and file in the trade unions and Labour Party, the case was withdrawn. It was then that the Liberals used this issue in order to throw out the Labour Government by supporting a vote of no confidence proposed by the Tories.

Again in 1929 the complete impotence and paralysis of the Labour Government, the complete inability to carry through a single major measure against capitalism, a complete incapacity to get through even one major reform was demonstrated. They shielded themselves from the wrath of the masses by the plea that they were a minority government, relying for their existence upon the support of the Liberals who were not prepared to allow these measures to go through. The suppression of the colonial peoples, all the misdeeds and crimes of the Labour leaders were laid at the door of the Liberals.

Let us never forget that the defection of MacDonald, Snowden and Co. in the formation of the National Government was covered by the Liberals who played no small part in the deception of the people and who participated in the National Government as an integral part. It was they who rendered invaluable service to the capitalists in discrediting and securing the downfall of the second Labour Government. There is nothing to show that in any future government of the “Left”, they will behave any differently, or will not use exactly the same means in combination with other capitalists to bring about a like result.

For years the Communist Party have been pumping the poison of chauvinism and Popular Frontism into the ranks of the working class. They have demoralised and disorganised their own rank and file in the direction of betrayal with the hope that the capitalists would make an alliance with Russia. They have pursued a policy of conscious deception with the idea in the minds of their paymasters that this would help in the defence not or the Soviet Union but of the privileges of tile Russian bureaucracy.

The masses, striving for a way out of the crisis, moving in the direction of independent action, are diverted by “communists”, Liberals and Labour leaders into the cul-de-sac of Popular Frontism.

What then is the alternative? We know that only workers’ revolution can solve the problems and contradictions of the present economic impasse.

But this is not enough. We must give the workers a fighting lead and a practical answer to the problems of to-day. The revolutionary socialists form only a tiny minority within the working class. Having rejected any form of collaboration with the capitalist parties as leading to inevitable disaster we must consistently develop and put forward the slogan of a Labour Government with a majority. The Communist Party have misused Lenin’s “left-wing Communism” in order to justify the policy of the Popular Front. But this work provides the key for our agitation among the masses. The decrepit Liberal Party is falling to pieces; we must not allow it to be revived by the Popular Front. In left-wing Communism Lenin explains clearly why we should give “critical” support to a Labour Government – not because a Labour Government can accomplish anything when hamstrung by the bonds of private ownership of industry, not that a Labour Government would be able, especially in the coming period, to ameliorate the lot of the masses in essentials, but as a stage in the education of the masses.

In order to expose completely the Labour misleaders of the working class it is necessary to show in action their complete inability to alter in any way the fundamental position of capitalism. Side by side and together with the masses we will struggle and fight for a Labour majority. We demand that the Labour and Trade Union leaders break completely with collaboration of any sort with any of the capitalist parties. We demand that they wage a genuine struggle for power, that they organise a campaign up and down the country for a Labour Government. The Labour Government cannot be achieved if they sit on their behinds in Transport House and wait for miracles. The T.U. and Labour Party bureaucracy do not want power and that is why they are stealthily flirting with the idea of a Popular Front in case the masses get on the move. Already there is a swing in the country in the direction of the Labour Party. This can only be further encouraged if Labour develops a bold campaign in the country by mobilising the masses round partial demands avid organising a tremendous movement against the National Government on all fronts.

The Labour Government can only be achieved by the independent mass activity of the working class. It could be a stage on the road of the revolution only if a revolutionary party can be developed in the coming period. Inevitably the reformist and Stalinist leaders will lead the working class to defeat. Ours is an epoch of blood and iron, of wars and revolutions, in which a party and a leadership that is able to measure up to events is the crying need.

If the working class cannot create a leadership which will show them consistently the way out, they will be defeated. There is no easy toad to salvation. Only through stern and relentless struggles, through tremendous sacrifice and effort will the masses achieve their emancipation. We must help them to realise this. Only by relying on their own independent strength can they achieve anything. One way of mobilising independently is round the slogan of a labour Government. The day to day struggles of the workers must be generalised round this rallying point. At the same time the only possibility of the success of the masses is through a revolutionary party which alone can lead the masses out of the hunger, misery, degradation, unemployment and war which are inseparable from capitalism and open out a new road for all humanity.

Against the strike-breaking conspiracy of the Popular Front! For a Labour Government! For a revolutionary party!

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