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Maurice Spector


The Popular Front’s Guilt

(November 1938)

From New International, Vol. IV No. 11, November 1938, pp. 329–330.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE PREREQUISITE of sound revolutionary policy is to see things as they are. No little part of the victorious advance of Hitler is the gift of his opponents’ inability to give a straight account of reality. How little these illusions have served the cause of effective struggle against fascism! When the Nazi movement appeared, clever liberals said Germany was not Italy. The Munich beer-hall putsch they thought very funny, very funny, what with Ludendorff falling down flat on his stomach and Hitler landing up in jail. The social crisis and with it the Nazi movement grew. Hitler lost two million votes and the German communists proclaimed that fascism was finished. The Rote Fahne vociferated that the proletariat was ready to strike at the command of the Communist Party. Hitler took power with little more resistance than a couple of street fights. The social democrats, headed by Otto Wels, and trade unionists led by Leipart hoped that by declaring their loyalty to the Nazi state, they would be allowed to function as a legal opposition. Hitler destroyed the entire German free trade union movement and put its leaders into concentration camps. Undeterred by any prejudice for truth, the Stalinists kept telling their followers that all was not yet over; the revolution would break out any day. The country was allegedly honeycombed with red cells and Storm Troopers were preparing to transfer their allegiance. But the German proletariat kept paying the price of capitulation. The next self-deception of these tragi-comic politicians was in Germany’s isolation. Hitler was surrounded by the “democracies”. The Reichswehr generals were in opposition. Hitler, however, had taken the measure of the “democracies”. He occupied the Rhineland and introduced conscription. He made a deal with the Poles and Mussolini. Austria was taken. Czechoslovakia was hemmed in. The gallant Czech people would fight, the world was next told. The French army was the best in Europe. The Russians had the deadliest air fleet and could drop whole regiments behind the enemy’s lines by the parachute route. But the ramshackle edifice of the Popular Front and collective security, put to the test, collapsed like a pricked balloon.

The fact is that the Munich accord is the greatest victory that German fascism has carried off since 1933. Hitler stands at the head of a totalitarian state of 80 million Germans, more powerful than Bismarck, or perhaps Napoleon. Munich was the final smash-up of the Versailles balance of power. The map of Central Europe is now redrawn. Economic and political domination of Southeastern Europe goes to Nazi Germany. The Little Entente is dissolved. The Czech alliance with the USSR is broken. The Franco-Soviet pact is dead. The Baltic countries are whipped into the orbit of either Germany or Poland. Hungary will be a satellite and nobody takes the military power of Carol’s Rumanian dictatorship seriously. In the last war von Mackensen romped through the gallant Rumanian army in the matter of a couple of weeks, if our memory serves us. The remnant of Czechoslovakia has become totalitarian. The French have appointed an ambassador to Rome. Chamberlain and Mussolini are preparing to liquidate Spain. Barcelona can be transformed into a fascist set-up as rapidly as Prague. The Soviet Union is isolated and to all intents and purposes the German army is encamped on the borders of the Ukraine.

Fascism bestrides the continent; it is idle to deny it. Munich was the grand pay-off for two decades of defeat of the proletarian revolution. In 1918 the German Social Democracy could have chosen an “eastern orientation”, a bloc with revolutionary agrarian Russia. The Bolsheviks proposed such a bloc. Europe was still in a state of post-war revolutionary ferment. A union of Russia and Germany would have put an end to capitalist domination and led to a United States of Europe. It was the most natural alliance for both parties. The bourgeois Germany of Rathenau found it necessary to conclude the Rappallo Treaty and foster trade relations. The German Reichswehr found it necessary to seek collaboration with the General Staff of the Red Army. But the Social Democracy contemptuously rejected the Bolshevik advances and embarked on a Western orientation. They decided to fulfil the impossible terms of the Treaty of Versailles, taking on themselves an odium that was to cost them dearly in the future, the odium for the degradation and humiliation of a once great power. But no matter how “loyally” the Weimar Republic kowtowed to the Versailles powers, they were always kept humbly waiting on the door-step of the servants entrance. Otto Bauer preferred the same policy for Austria. In 1923 and again in 1933, social democratic and communist parties evacuated all their positions, surrendered all the social gains of decades to fascism without a struggle. The Austrian workers fought, proving that the rank and file was made of different mettle than the parliamentary leadership. But it was too late.

The tide of revolutionary unrest and the will to combat fascism rose high again in the French labor movement in 1934. The combined efforts of the Socialists and Stalinists succeeded in diverting the revolutionary ferment into the channels of popular frontism. Social-patriotism and class collaboration were sweetened in the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy which had entered into an alliance with the imperialist “democracies”. To this alliance the revolutionary cause of the Spanish workers was sacrificed. The struggle of the Spanish workers for their social liberation was prohibited by the united threats and pressure of the “democracies” and Moscow. To all protests of the militants, to all the warnings of revolutionary Marxists the Second and Third Internationals replied that the Popular Front was the way to fight fascism at home, and collective security the way to hold the fascist powers in check abroad. This was the “struggle for peace and democracy”. A revolutionary policy, a policy of the class struggle would we were told open the road to fascist aggression; it would weaken the democracies and encourage the aggressor. The Internationals of Social Democracy and Stalinism thus became the most ardent defenders of the capitalist status quo and of the Versailles set-up.

To Hitler these policies of the Comintern and Social Democracy were worth any number of army corps. He no longer had to fear the effect that a revolutionary working class in the “democratic countries” would have on the workers of the fascist countries. The Popular Front’s acceptance of the status quo as its point of departure enabled Hitler to represent his opponents as the people who wanted to perpetuate the Peace Treaty of 1919. On the other hand despite all the propaganda for the democracy of “brave little Czechoslovakia”, the event has shown that the French workers were little impressed. Millions of workers in both England and France must have had an uneasy feeling that they would be fighting to maintain three million Germans under Czech rule. There must have been many in France who recalled that when a proposal was made in the French Chamber in 1933 to join in the celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Czech republic, the Stalinist Peri got up to oppose it on the ground that “our sympathy goes to the working classes of Czechoslovakia and the minorities oppressed by the central power in Prague”. He proceeded to accuse Benes of preparing “concentration camps on the model of Hitler’s Germany”. In the debates in the Socialist party, Paul Faure recently reminded his colleagues that “at the moment when the Sudeten Germans were ceded to Czechoslovakia, the Socialist party took a position in favor of the Sudetens”. When it came to the point the French worker proved unwilling to fight for the rotten fruits of the Versailles Peace.

Collective Security proved to be a colossal swindle. What happened at Munich was a more grandiose repetition of the sanctions farce during the Italo-Ethiopian war. The Munich accord writes finis to the successive hoaxes of the Covenant of the League, the Kellogg Pact to outlaw war, the Nine-Power Treaty to safeguard China and all the rest of the legalistic skullduggery that was to lull the peoples into the illusion that “power politics” had given way to the “reign of law”, but was in reality a means of sanctifying the existing partition of the world among the powers on the basis of their relation of forces in 1918. All that the collective security talk did was to blunt the edge of the revolutionary struggle against war and militarism inside the mass movement and thereby enable Hitler, with the acquiescence of the “democratic” imperialisms to advance his interests in Central Europe and effect a new equilibrium. Collective Security was as little capable of stopping Hitler as sanctions stopped Mussolini.

Munich enables us to draw a fresh balance of the condition of “democracy”. Several years of the Popular Front have issued in the growth of reaction. The Manchester Guardian’s correspondent confirms this.

“The internal consequences of Munich in France are still incalculable. The idea of building up a tremendous defence machine has gained ground and with it all sorts of theories about an authoritarian regime, a military dictatorship, a totalitarian financial system.”

A hopeful sign is the report that

“among the working class, on the other hand, there is profound disgust with the ‘Republican regime’ as it has functioned in the last few months and a great loss of loyalty to ‘democracy’.”

The danger is that in default of revolutionary leadership, this same disgust with “democracy” may easily wind up in the channels of fascism. Frank Hanighen in the New Republic reports much in the same vein:

“... disquieting results are now back of the relief at demobilization and peace, one can discern among the workers not only a disgust with their clumsy government but also a disillusion with such slogans as ‘democracy’, ‘front against fascism’, etc.”

Such darlings of the Left as Kerillis are calling for an authoritarian republic. The mystique of the Popular Front is gone.

The role of the USSR those weeks of crisis was a complete reflection of the impotence and degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy. Nobody has yet explained how the destruction of the political and spiritual capital of the Russian revolution could possibly enhance the authority of the USSR in international diplomacy. When Eden was toasting Stalin in Moscow and Litvinoff was toasting His Majesty, when Barthou and Herriot were negotiating for Russia’s entrance into the League, and the Franco-Soviet pact appeared in outline, it looked like a diplomatic triumph for the Stalinist regime, particularly after the accession of Hitler in Germany. But all this was a pretentious facade. The complete isolation of the USSR during the Berchtesgaden-Godesberg-Munich negotiations is the pay-off. While Chamberlain and Hitler talked, Litvinoff sat in the charnel-house of Geneva. At no time was the voice of the Soviet Union heard clearly. Litvinoff mumbled something, Maisky mumbled something. Poland was warned not to take Teschen (which she proceeded to do nevertheless). It appears that the real explanation for Soviet paralysis was Colonel Lindbergh. Against the colonel, Stalin ordered full mobilization (of verbal batteries) and war to the knife. Lindbergh destroyed the Popular Front, Lindbergh overthrew collective security and Lindbergh is the mortal enemy of democracy.

Anyone familiar with Stalin’s record of diplomatic “successes” cannot be surprised by the addition of Munich. The famous Anglo-Russian Committee experiment wound up in the Scotland Yard raid on Arcos. The famous strategy of Stalin in the Kuomintang ended with the slaughter of Russian functionaries in Shanghai and Borodin and Galen taking to their heels with Chiang Kai Shek’s men in hot pursuit. When Hitler came to power Trotsky’s suggestion that the Red Army mobilize was denounced as adventurism (despite the acknowledged fact that the Reichswehr was not prepared to resist had the French marched during the occupation of the Rhineland much later). Instead Stalin hurried to conclude a trade treaty with Hitler. When the workers of all other countries were demonstrating in protest against Hitler’s terrorism, only the Soviet workers were ordered to remain silent. Loudly demanding the application of sanctions during the Italo-Ethiopian war, the Stalinist bureaucracy itself steadily maintained its oil shipments to Mussolini. When the Spanish civil war broke out, Stalin did intervene – to keep the working class harnessed to the Popular Front and bourgeois democracy.

But the sabotage and ruination of the revolutionary movement abroad means the increasing isolation of the October revolution. The fear of the gathering volume of political and social discontent in the Soviet Union forces Stalin to his preventive purges, which undermine the strength and morale of the army, the navy, the schools, and every institution in the country. The one shortage that Stalinist Russia escapes is executions. The imperialist powers have naturally drawn their conclusions, Daladier and Chamberlain ignore the USSR in their calculations, and Hitler speculates on the state of mind of the Ukrainian peasant – and no doubt also receives reports on the outlook of fascism among the soviet bureaucrats.

The European crisis has strikingly revealed the horror that the masses entertain for modern war. This is confirmed on all hands. The Paris correspondent of the New Republic writes: “the mobilization instead of reviving nationalist brio among the people, had an almost reverse effect”. If anything more was needed the sense of relief that swept Europe after the Munich conference is sufficient evidence of the desire for peace. Yet in this situation, where the masses are helpless without leadership, the Stalinists, laborites and social democrats were out in the forefront as vociferous warmongers. The Social Democracy of 1914 cannot be said to have actually assumed the initiative of agitating for war. The Comintern of 1938 did. The masses drifted, in the clutch of the diplomacy of their governments. As an organized international force and as a political factor, the working class were therefore absent. The Britsh Labor party on account of its pro-war stand is committed to the heavier rearmament program of Chamberlain. Their leaders like Lord Strabolgi have already come out “for a measure of compulsory National Service” that is to say, conscription.

In sharp contrast with the chauvinist incitements of the Laborite and Stalinist organizations was the fervent peace sentiment manifested by the masses. More than ever that peace sentiment becomes a progressive factor that intelligent revolutionary socialist policy must reckon with. The “struggle for peace” which the Moscow Comintern proclaimed as its guiding light at its Seventh Congress, and which ostensibly justified the Franco-Soviet pact and USSR. entry into the League of Nations, turned in reality into a struggle for imperialist war. The American League for Peace and Democracy (erstwhile League Against War and Fascism) became the leading exponents of “collective security” for the imperialist status quo. The crisis made clear that the “pacifism” of the masses, repeatedly evidenced in the United States by the figures of the Gallup poll and the support of the Ludlow Amendment, is well nigh universal. Even in France when the workers were brought face to face with the impending catastrophe of war, Stalinist propaganda rapidly lost influence. The struggle for peace must become one of the cornerstones of our policy. But we must convince the masses that the way to peace lies as little in “isolation” as in “collective security” and certainly does not lie in huge programs of rearmament. We must prove that the struggle for peace can be victorious only as a struggle for socialism, that it can be secured not by congressional resolutions or constitutional amendments, but by the working class conquest of power.

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