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James Burnham

The People’s Front: The New Betrayal

The following are the first two chapters of The People’s Front: The New Betrayal, by James Burnham, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1937.

Full version of the original pamphlet in PDF is available here


Origin and Theory of the Peoples’ Front


THE slogans of the Peoples’ Front were first advanced by the Communist International and its sections. They began to appear toward the end of 1933; moved forward slowly for some while; and received official sanction and theoretical expression at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International held during the summer of 1935. From then on they spread out at a headlong pace, and now present themselves as the key question of proletarian strategy throughout the world.

For some time these policies and slogans met with frantic resistance from those outside of the ranks of the Comintern and its sympathizers. This resistance, however, was largely based on a misunderstanding. Reformists and social-patriots could not at first convince themselves of the Comintern’s “sincerity.” They thought still in terms of the preceding strategy of the Comintern, the strategy of the so-called “Third Period.” Their minds were filled with memories of “social-fascism,” “united front from below,” and dual “red unions.” But the resistance was steadily overcome. The Comintern no longer even mentioned social fascism; the united front from below went into the discard; the red unions were liquidated.

And, one after another, the reformist parties went over to the slogans of the Peoples’ Front. In France the Peoples’ Front was formally established; soon afterwards, in Spain. Throughout the world it made headway in giant strides. Soon liberals and progressives” began to come over, in addition to the reformists and social-patriots. In this country, for example, The Nation and The New Republic , the leading liberal periodicals, became wholehearted Peoples’ Fronters. By now, within the labor movement, and among the social groups sympathetic to the labor movement, only one firm opposition to the Peoples’ Front remains the opposition, namely, of the revolutionary socialists.


The Peoples’ Front movement began under certain special international conditions, and it is necessary to review these, at least briefly.

First: The series of defeats of the working class, following the post-war revolutionary wave, had reached a climax in the triumph of Hitler. Hitler came to power without a blow struck against him by either of the great mass working-class parties of Germany Fascism seemed irresistibly on the ascendant.

Second: The threat of the new imperialist war, enhanced by the victory of Hitler, was growing ever more menacing.

Third: Within the Soviet Union itself, where the Peoples’ Front has its origin, great changes have been taking place during these years since 1933. The First Five Year Plan, with its forced and ruthlessly carried through collectivization of the peasantry, and its almost exclusive emphasis on the building up of heavy industry, gave way to the Second Five Year Plan. Among the important characteristics of the new Plan, we find more emphasis on “consumers goods” as against heavy industry; conciliation of the peasantry; the introduction of Stakhanovism, with its stimulus to increased differentiation of wages and salaries, leading to the rise of a labor aristocracy economically far removed from the mass of the workers; abolition of the special economic and social privileges of the urban proletariat All of these and a multitude of other similar changes are most strikingly summed up in the New Constitution, adopted in November, 1936, which puts the legal finish to the Soviet foundation of political power in favor of a plebiscite form of parliamentarism.

Fourth: During these years the “Litvinov period” of Soviet diplomacy reached its climax. The Soviet Union entered the League of Nations; and its series of treaties and alliances found culmination in the signing of the Franco-Soviet Pact of military assistance.

As I shall show later on, these four major features of the recent past provide a background necessary to any understanding of the policy of the Peoples’ Front.

The most authoritative statements on the theory and justification of the Peoples’ Front are contained in the speeches of Dimitroff, new Secretary of the Comintern, to the Seventh Congress; and in a short book, The Work of the Seventh Congress , written by the Comintern theoretician, Manuilsky. I shall, therefore, base my presentation of the theory of the Peoples’ Front on these works.

We begin, then, with an alleged “analysis” of the nature of the present historical period. In this period, according to these new oracles of the Stalinist Delphi, “the main danger is Fascism”—from whence the Peoples’ Front is ordinarily known as the “anti-fascist” Peoples’ Front. The Seventh Congress, Manuilsky remarks on page 16, “turned its fire mainly against fascism.” But, it seems, there are many varieties of fascism, “good” and “bad” fascisms. And much the worst kind of fascism is German fascism, Nazism. Dimitroff explains: “The most reactionary variety of fascism is the German type of fascism… . German fascism is acting as the spearhead of international counter-revolution, as the chief incendiary of imperialist war, as the initiator of a crusade against the Soviet Union, the great fatherland of the toilers of the whole world.” (The italics are all Dimitroff’s.)

Now fascism, we are told, threatens not only the working class, but also the peasantry, the middle classes generally, and even certain sections of the bourgeoisie, especially the “small business man.” Indeed, fascism in actuality is nothing else than a plot or conspiracy on the party of a small and vicious clique among the ruling class (“the two hundred families,” as the clique is known in France, from the fact that two hundred large stockholders guide the destiny of the Bank of France). Let us hear again from Dimitroff: “… fascism in power is the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital. … Fascism acts in the interests of the extreme imperialists… . It is in the interests of the most reactionary circles of the bourgeoisie that fascism intercepts the disappointed masses as they leave the old bourgeois parties.” Manuilsky repeats virtually the same words, though adding a psychological adjective of his own: “… fascism is the open and cynical form of the dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist, most imperialist [this matter of “degrees” of imperialism is a most subtle point] elements of finance capital.”

It is, moreover, fascism that makes war. Manuilsky: “The growing menace of world imperialist war is causing all class, national and state forces to separate into two camps: the camp of war and the camp of peace . The center of the forces which are operating to bring about war, to accelerate its outbreak, is fascism … .“ This idea has been repeated and reinforced until it is now a Stalinist commonplace.

From these various premises, it follows, according to the Comintern logic, that the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship and for socialism is in the present period definitely removed from the agenda. “The situation is different today,” writes Manuilsky. “Today, the proletariat in most capitalist countries are not confronted with the alternative of bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy; they are confronted with the alternative of bourgeois democracy or fascism.” Dimitroff amplifies: “Our attitude towards bourgeois democracy is not the same under all conditions. For instance, at the time of the October Revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks engaged in a life-and-death .struggle against all political parties which opposed the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship under the slogan of the defense of bourgeois democracy. The Bolsheviks fought these parties because the banner of bourgeois democracy had at that time become the standard around which all counter-revolutionary forces mobilized to challenge the victory of the proletariat. The situation is quite different in the capitalist countries at present. Now the fascist counter-revolution is attacking bourgeois democracy in an effort to establish a most barbaric regime of exploitation and suppression of the toiling masses. Now the toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism.”

This, then, is the theoretical foundation which provides the justification for the policy and tactics of the Peoples’ Front. And, in point of fact, the Peoples’ Front does follow legitimately enough from this foundation. There is only one difficulty: the foundation itself is entirely false.

By their definition of the nature of the present historical period, our Comintern scholars have already implied the proper strategy for the proletariat. The task of the proletariat is, quite flatly, to defend bourgeois democracy. And, in accomplishing this task, the proletariat must aim to ally itself with all other social groups which are threatened by the encroachments of fascism. These include, we have seen, the peasants, the middle classes generally, and likewise the non-fascist or rather “anti-fascist” sections of the bourgeoisie. All of these social groups, from proletariat to “anti-fascist bourgeoisie,” can, it is claimed, unite in a common program for the defense of bourgeois democracy against fascism. “We must,” Dimitroff advises, “strive everywhere for a broad anti-fascist people’s front of struggle against fascism.”

This, then, is what the Peoples’ Front is, as defined and advocated by its most authoritative sponsors: the broad union of these various social classes and groups on the basis of a common program for the defense of bourgeois democracy against fascism.

It is the avowed aim of such a Peoples’ Front not merely to carry on the day-by-day struggle and agitation; but, when conditions are favorable, to accept governmental power. “If we Communists are asked,” says Dimitroff, “whether we advocate the united front [and, as is shown by the next sentence, the Peoples’ Front] only in the struggle for partial demands, or whether we are prepared to share the responsibility even when it will be a question of forming a government on the basis of the united front then we say with a full sense of our responsibility: Yes, we recognize that a situation may arise in which the formation of a government of the proletarian united front , or of the anti-fascist people’s front , will become not only possible but necessary in the interests of the proletariat. And in that case we shall declare for the formation of such a government without the slightest hesitation.”

What is such a Peoples’ Front movement and such a Peoples’ Front government able to accomplish? Our teachers will once again provide the answers.

(1) The Peoples’ Front can win the middle classes to the side of the proletariat, can win even the actual organizations and parties of the non-proletarian groups. Dimitróff: “In the mobilization of the toiling masses for the struggle against fascism, the formation of a broad people’s anti-fascist front on the basis of the proletarian united front is a particularly important task. The success of the entire struggle of the proletariat is closely connected with the establishment of a fighting alliance between the proletariat on the one hand and the toiling peasantry and the basic mass of the urban petty bourgeoisie constituting a majority in the population of even industrially developed countries, on the other… . In forming the anti-fascist people’s front, a correct approach to those organizations and parties to which a considerable number of the toiling peasantry and the mass of the urban petty bourgeoisie belong is of great importance. In the capitalist countries the majority of these parties and organizations, political as well as economic, are still under the influence of the bourgeoisie and follow it. The social composition of these parties and organizations is heterogeneous.

This makes it our duty to approach these organizations in different ways , taking into consideration that not infrequently the bulk of the membership does not know anything about the real political character of its leadership. Under certain conditions, we can and must bend our efforts to the task of drawing these parties and organizations or certain sections of them to the side of the anti-fascist people’s front, despite their bourgeois leadership. Such, for instance, is today the situation in France with’the Radical Party…“

(2) The Peoples’ Front can prevent war (the claims, we see, are by no means modest). Dimitroff: “The extent to which this world-wide front is realized and put into action will determine whether the fascist and other imperialist war incendiaries will be able in the near future to kindle a new imperialist war, or whether their fiendish hands will be hacked off by the ax of a powerful anti-war front.” Or Manuilsky: “We now have greater opportunities for waging a successful struggle against imperialist wars than we had on the eve of 1914… . Today, relying on the U.S.S.R., taking advantage of the antagonism among the capitalist states, the world proletariat has the opportunity of creating a broad people’s anti-war front, which should not only include other classes, but also weak nations and peoples whose independence is menaced by war.”

(3) The Peoples’ Front can stop fascism. Dimitroff: “Will the movement of the united proletarian front and the anti-fascist people’s front at the particular stage be in a position only to suppress or overthrow fascism [Note: This is the minimum claim which Dimitroff makes for it.—J. B.], without directly proceeding to abolish the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie?” Or Manuilsky: “By its experience [in setting up the Peoples’ Front], the French proletariat enriched the whole of the world working class movement and demonstrated to it that timely action against fascism (unlike what happened in Austria and Spain) can avert heavy sacrifices and the bitterness of defeat.” Or from our own Earl Browder, in his pamphlet, The Peoples’ Front in America : “There is a tremendous need for the united front of progressives [i.e., the Peoples’ Front] which can awake the country to the danger of fascism, and organize the country to defeat this danger.”

(4) Lastly, the Peoples’ Front government can provide a transitional step to the proletarian dictatorship. Manuilsky sums up what he pretends to be the differences between the “old-fashioned” type of Social-Democratic coalition government and the new-fashioned Peoples’ Front government, as follows: “One government [the Social-

Democratic coalition] paved the way for the fascist dictatorship; the other government [of the Peoples’ Front] must pave the way for the victory of the working class.”

*  *   *

Here, then, in summary, is the ideological structure through which the Soviet bureaucracy and the Communist International throughout the world attempt to deceive and betray the masses in the present historical crisis.


Analysis of the Theory of the Peoples’ Front


IT would be a great mistake to imagine that the Peoples’ Front is a new policy. It is, it is true, a new slogan ; but, in actual content, it is simply an old policy in a new disguise, an old strategy dressed up for the new, occasion.

The words of its defenders make entirely clear what the real content of the policy of the Peoples’ Front is, and it is, therefore, not necessary to give elaborate external proof The Peoples’ Front is merely a re-wording of the theories and practices of class collaboration and coalition government, as these have been advocated by reformists since the beginning of the modern labor movement Class collaboration is what the Peoples’ Front specifically proposes: the union of organizations and parties representing various classes and sections of classes on the basis of a common program to defend bourgeois democracy A Peoples’ Front government means, as defined by Dimitroff and Manuilsky, the assumption of governmental responsibility in a capitalist state by the coalition of these organizations and parties.

It is not profitable to argue about words. There are many honest supporters of the Peoples’ Front who will dislike and try to reject the realization that it is identical with class collaboration and coalition government. This is because they have previously been trained in an attitude of hostility toward class collaboration and coalition government as betrayals of Marxism Indeed, this training is one of the reasons why the Comintern nvented the new phrase, “Peoples’ Front,” thereby hoping to make the policy acceptable to those who would have been suspicious of the old phrases. However, if we examine the actual content, there can be no dispute. The Peoples’ Front proposes, quite openly and explicitly, the collaboration of classes and a coalition form of government Naturally it does so in the name of the proletariat, on the alleged grounds that this strategy will under present conditions best serve the interests of the proletariat. But reformism has always tried to justify itself on such grounds—otherwise the proletariat would not be influenced by it.

A striking indication of the fundamental identity between the Peoples’ Front and the traditional policies of class collaboration and coalition government is provided by the ease with which reformists and liberals in every country (who have always stood for these latter policies and stand for them today) have gone over to the slogans of the Peoples’ Front. They have done so because they have recognized that in the Peoples’ Front, Stalinism—for its own reasons—has gone over to their own policies, that is, to reformism. And, of course, they welcome this; though they are still shy of the Comintern, fearing that Stalin offers his reformist gifts only for the chance to swallow them up.

It is necessary to make a sharp distinction between the Peoples’ Front and the United Front. The Stalinist spokesmen are anxious to lump the two together, and to claim that the Peoples’ Front is nothing more than the logical extension of the United Front “to a higher plane.” Similarly, they attempt to confuse the workers by trying to make it appear that revolutionary socialists, in their consistent Opposition to the Peoples’ Front, are attacking the United Front. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Revolutionary socialists have consistently stood for, and fought for, the united front, and continue to do so. Indeed, during the years of Hitler’s rise to power, one of the chief criticisms leveled against the Comintern by the revolutionary Marxists was that by failing to adopt a united front tactic in Germany, the Comintern guaranteed the victory of Hitler. For this criticism, at that time, the Comintern branded the Marxists as capitulators to the Social-Democracy, and as social-fascists. The most elaborate defense ever made of the united front is to be found in the pamphlets written about Germany during that time by Trotsky.

The united front, however, has nothing at all in common with the Peoples’ Front. The united front Consists in an agreement reached between two or more parties and organizations, which have different programs , for joint action on specific issues. In this agreement there is absolutely no question of a common political program. Each organization retains intact its entire program; retains the right to put it forward; retains the right to criticize the other organizations in the united front agreement, either in general, or for failure to carry out properly the united front agreement. Thus, in the united front each organization guards its full independence; while at the same time the widest possible unity can be achieved for carrying through some action accepted as desirable by all of the constituent organizations of the united front.

The united front is possible because various organizations differing in complete program or in final social aim may nevertheless all be in favor of some specific action or set of actions For example, united fronts are readily possible on such issues as defense cases, support of a strike, resistance to attack on civil liberties and other democratic rights, breaking of injunctions, holding of demonstrations, etc. At more advanced stages of social crisis, they must be formed on such issues as the building of a workers’ militia, defense against fascist gangs, the founding of workers’ and peasants’ and soldiers’ committees The united front on such issues is in fact not merely possible but indispensable for successful struggle Through it the widest possible forces are organized, and at the same time the masses are given a chance to compare in action the worth and dependability of the ideas and methods of the various organizations and parties which strive for their allegiance.

Revolutionary socialists do not merely accept the united front passively. They are the most active and the only consistent advocates of the united front; whereas reformists always resist the united front and must be forced into it—just as the Stalinists now, in basing their policy on the reformist Peoples’ Front, resist and fight a united front of action. How could it be otherwise? The ideas and principles of the revolutionary Marxists represent the historical interests of the proletariat. Consequently, any joint struggle by specific actions to the advantage of the proletariat will be welcomed by the Marxists, and the broader the basis, the better. At the same the Marxists are anxious to have an ever broader mass arena for the presentation of their own ideas and a demonstration of their own methods, confident that a true understanding of them will turn the masses away from the reformists toward the revolutionists.

The Peoples’ Front, on the other hand, is not merely, not even primarily, an agreement for joint action on specific issues It first and foremost involves the acceptance by all members of the Peoples’ Front of a common program This difference is the key to the gulf which separates the Peoples’ Front from the united front.

What program? We have already seen the answer. The program of the Peoples’ Front is a program for the defense of bourgeois democracy: that is, for the defense of one form of capitalism

Whose program is this? It is obviously not the program of the proletariat. The program of the proletariat, accepted by revolutionists since the publication of the Communist Manifesto , can be summed up in two slogans: for workers’ power and for socialism. Naturally the immediate tactic of the proletariat is not on all occasions the struggle for state power: that is possible only in a revolutionary crisis. But at all times and on all occasions the fundamental program remains the same—for the overthrow of capitalism, for workers’ power and for socialism. This program expresses the basic class conflict in modern Society; records the Marxist understanding that the problems of society can be solved only by socialism, and that socialism can be achieved only through the conquest of power by the proletariat. The duty of the revolutionary party, the conscious vanguard of the proletariat, is to keep this full and fundamental program always to the fore and always uncompromised. In its program, the revolutionary party thus sums up the independence of the proletariat as a class, and asserts its independent historical destiny.

For the proletariat, through its parties, to give up its own independent program means to give up its independent functioning as a class. And this is precisely the meaning of the Peoples’ Front. In the Peoples’ Front the proletariat renounces its class independence, gives up its class aims—the only aims, as Marxism teaches, which can serve its interests. By accepting the program of the Peoples’ Front, it thereby accepts the aims of another section of society; it accepts the aim of the defense of capitalism when all history demonstrates that the interests of the proletariat can be served only by the overthrow of capitalism. It subordinates itself to a middle-class version of how best and most comfortably to preserve the capitalist order. The Peoples’ Front is thus thoroughly and irrevocably non-proletarian, anti-proletarian.

By its very nature, the Peoples’ Front must be so. The establishment of the Peoples’ Front, by definition, requires agreement on a common program between the working…class parties and non-working class parties. But the non-proletarian parties cannot agree to the proletarian program- the program of revolutionary socialism…without ceasing to be what they are, without becoming themselves revolutionary workers’ parties. But if that should happen, then there would be no basis left for a Peoples’ Front: there would be only revolutionary proletarian unity. Consequently, the Peoples’ Front must always be an abandonment of the proletarian program, a subordination of the proletariat to non-proletarian social interests. In the Peoples’ Front, it is the proletariat and the proletariat alone that loses. Earl Browder, in his report to his Central Committee on December 4th, 1936, summed up the whole matter: “We can organize and rouse them [the majority of the people”] provided we do not demand of them that they agree with our socialist program, but unite with them on the basis of their program which we make also our own .” [My italics.- J. B.]

The attempt of the Comintern apologists to find a theoretical foundation which will justify the Peoples’ Front compels them to make a completely anti-Marxist analysis of the present historical situation. They must corrupt Marxism with respect to every single important issue: bourgeois democracy; fascism; war; the problem and task of the proletariat.

Let us summarize briefly the analysis which Marxists make of the present period, so that it may be compared with the Dimitroff-Manuilsky analysis outlined in the preceding chapter:

Marxism always approaches every social, political, and historical question from the point of view of the class struggle. The basic conflict in modern society—capitalist society—is, according to Marxism, the conflict and struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This conflict must continue, and progressively deepen, until capitalism, on a world scale, is overthrown, and the bourgeoisie defeated, and liquidated as a class. Only the two basic classes of modern society—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—are capable of independent historical action, and thus of formulating independent social and political programs. Reduced to simplest terms, the program of the bourgeoisie is the defense of the capitalist order; the program of the proletariat, its overthrow. The intermediary classes, however they may try to escape it, always in actuality support one side or another in the basic conflict.

In the light of these elementary first principles of Marxism, the Comintern division of the world into “war makers” and “peace lovers,” its statement that the two great hostile camps are “democracy” and “fascism,” its contention that the issue is “between democracy and fascism,” are seen to have nothing in common with Marxism. Its propagation of a program for the defense of capitalist democracy represents merely the extension of one type of bourgeois ideology into the ranks of the working class.

Capitalism, Marxism teaches, went through a great progressive phase. It was the bourgeoisie, the builders of capitalist society, who broke through the fetters of feudal society, who developed modern science and technic, who completely revolutionized industry and communication, who laid the material basis for the adequate fulfillment of human needs. During its progressive phase, capitalism was marked by terrible and devastating conflicts, and by the periodic ravages of the business crises. But after each crisis, capitalism rose stronger than ever, and went to new heights.

Now, however, capitalism, in the advanced period of imperialism, has entered the phase of its general decline as a world system. It is strangling itself. The very factors which once made it a progressive force now act as a brake and obstacle to its further progress. The capitalist system can no longer handle the things which it has itself created. And, as a consequence the conflicts and crises redouble in intensity. After each periodic crisis, capitalism rises weaker, not stronger. Permanent unemployment insecurity hunger, mass discontent progressively grow. Great social upheavals multiply and increase in scope and intensity. Wars and revolutions, on an unprecedented scale, become the general rule instead of the exception, quieting down only long enough to prepare for new wor1d-wide outbreaks.

In the face of this perspective, in the general decline of the capitalist order, the proletarian revolution on a world scale, the building of socialism, presents itself as the only solution. Nothing else whatever can alter the perspective, nothing else can halt the progressive degeneration if not the utter destruction of Civilization.

Bourgeois democracy, Marxism teaches further, is a form of capitalism, one of the political forms through which the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat is exercised. It is, in a sense, the ‘normal” form of bourgeois dictatorship during the progressive phase of capitalism. But Marxism is as unalterably opposed to bourgeois democracy as to any other form of capitalist rule; it is opposed because it is opposed in general to capitalism and to bourgeois rule, and aims at the overthrow of capitalism and the defeat of the bourgeoisie. During the decline of capitalism the bourgeoisie finds greater and greater difficulty in keeping the deepening social conflicts within the basic framework of democratic parliamentarism. Democracy becomes too awkward, too clumsy, slow, inefficient unreliable, as a mechanism for class rule. Consequently, manipulating middle-class discontent through a demagogic pseudo-radicalism, the bourgeoisie is compelled to resort to the iron strait-jacket of fascism to insure its continuance in power. Fascism, that is to say, is not a conspiracy or plot on the part of anybody. It is nothing accidental; nothing that results from any peculiar ill-will or viciousness. Fascism, or a fascist type of government, is, on the contrary, a wholly normal development: the normal (though not necessarily universal) mechanism for capitalist rule as the decline and disintegration of the capitalist order deepens, just as bourgeois democracy, parliamentarism, is the normal (though not necessarily universal) mechanism during the progressive phase of capitalism.

It may thus be seen that there is no basic social conflict between bourgeois democracy and fascism. If we examine social questions historically, as Marxism does, we find in a sense the contrary: fascism is the resultant of bourgeois democracy in the period of capitalist decline; bourgeois democracy is the precursor of and the preparation for fascism.

A similar analysis applies in the question of war. War, imperialist war, is caused by the basic conflicts of capitalist society, by the struggle to which every capitalist power is forced for cheap raw materials, additional markets, opportunities for the export of capital. These causes operate within democratic capitalist nations as fully as in fascist nations. Fascism, though it may be a stimulus to war, is not at all the cause of war; war and fascism are both the results of capitalism. War, or the approach of war, may, on the other hand, be an immediate stimulus to fascism: since a nation faced by war, or the prospect of war, may well require the totalitarian state in order to prosecute the war successfully.

It follows with full certainty that fascism and war can be defeated only by the overthrow of capitalism. The attempt of the Peoples’ Front to preserve bourgeois democracy, any attempt to base a strategy on such a conception, is not merely helpless in the struggle against war and fascism. It makes both inevitable.

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