From the Archives: Spartacism vs. Trotskyism on the Popular Front


25/10/2018 by Ian

In the context of the recent split in the International Bolshevik Tendency, here is an article written in 1998, and published in the first issue of the short-lived Trotskyist journal Revolution & Truth. At the time I was still politically soft on Spartacism, as evidenced by the remarks about their theory of ‘interpenetrated peoples’ as well as the general analysis of the Spartacists in the 1960s, which has no real understanding of the significance of their Shachtmanite origins and positions on the national question and its relation to their inverted Shachtmanism on the degenerated and deformed workers states.

However, on the popular front, this refutes the positions of the Spartacists at length and no one from their tradition has ever properly replied to it politically. Now that the IBT has splintered and this issues is being debated among a number of others, it is worth republishing it to promote debate. 

Ian Donovan

Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectarianism

The impetus for the production of this journal comes from a vain attempt at political struggle inside the British sympathising group of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), and in a wider context, inside the tendency itself (see resignation letter posted separately on this website). Over the past two years, the British IBT grouping engaged in a classical Trotskyist entry into the Socialist Labour Party, a party which, initially at least, offered the potential for the building of a real, mass-based alternative to Blair’s now openly pro-business ‘new’ Labour Party. The entry the IBT group carried out involved suspending their separate public existence and their attempts to recruit directly to the IBT, in favour of seeking to act as a current within the SLP, in order to popularise their programme among the SLP membership. In doing so, they retained their membership rights and access to the IBT’s internal life, but their separate public existence was placed in a kind of suspended animation. This tactic was, in fact, the idea of the editor of this bulletin. It involved initiating and building a broader Marxist Caucus (the grouping that published the Socialist Labour Party Marxist Bulletin), on a programme that was a precis of that of the IBT. This drew in a number of subjectively Trotskyist militants (of generally Spartacist background) who agreed with the general programme put forward insofar as it reflected an attempt to do real communist work among the advanced militants of the SLP.

The IBT is a splinter group from the Spartacists, who are nowadays widely known and loathed as one of the most bizarre, unsavoury and cultist organisations on the international left. Now known as the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), the Spartacists publicly boast about expelling dissidents from their organisation. They run hysterical hate campaigns in their press against people who criticise them. They regularly accuse their political opponents of working for the police. They themselves sometimes cross the class line in attempts to enlist the help of the capitalist press and/or elements of the state in order to bolster their vendettas against critics (particularly former members); on occasion they quite openly attempt to finger other leftists to bureaucratic witch-hunters such as the SLP leadership (as they did with supporters of the IBT grouping when they were in the SLP). The ICL is now a byword for the most unsavoury, hysterical caricature of a revolutionary organisation imaginable, an anti-communist propagandist’s wet-dream. However, it also has a considerably more political past from the 1960s and 1970s, when it defended (and indeed, in some cases, developed) many correct positions in a more rational manner, and it is this period from which the IBT’s founding cadre come.

The dispute within the IBT centred, as is probably inevitable for a grouping that claims to be the ‘continuity’ of the Spartacists in their allegedly “revolutionary period”, on matters closely related to the history and record of the Spartacists. But it also centred on more contemporary and ‘immediate’ issues. In the last analysis, the fight attempted by the editor of this magazine was against the Spartacist-derived sectarian inheritance of the IBT, which manifested itself in their refusal to countenance active involvement in the Socialist Alliances in Britain. But it was centred on a more generalised level on one of the key positions of the Spartacists from the 1970s, one that, in the opinion of the editor, explains a lot about the sectarian political degeneration of the Spartacists, beginning at the end of the 1960s. This was directly opposed to the analysis of the IBT leadership, which locates the cause for the Spartacists’ degeneration purely in the personal foibles and (largely organisational) mistakes within an allegedly broadly revolutionary framework made by the Spartacists’ historic leader, James Robertson, in the late 70s. This supposedly led to a qualitative break with the Spartacists’ ‘revolutionary past’ sometime in the early 1980s (though there are many different shadings of interpretation as to actually when.)

Fundamentally, the most immediate aspect of the dispute concerned the Spartacists’ position on the popular front, that is, on blocs made by mass workers parties (such as the British Labour Party, French Communist or Socialist Parties, Chilean Socialist Party, etc.) with other, explicitly bourgeois, parties, usually for governmental office. Trotskyists have always been implacably opposed to popular frontism, and have always condemned the leaderships of workers organisations that engaged in this practice as betraying the interests of the working class, and worse, in situations of acute class struggle, putting their own working-class base in acute danger from bourgeois reaction, if not outright fascism. Indeed, the classical examples of popular fronts and their consequences are dealt with at length in the writings of Leon Trotsky from the 1930s, regarding particularly France and Spain in 1936 and later.

Bloody consequences of the Popular Front

The election of the French Popular Front in that year came in the context of a rising tide of discontent by French workers at many years of savage, unbridled exploitation. After the election, an enormous social explosion was triggered off, a dam burst, and millions of workers staged strikes and factory occupations, forcing considerable concessions from the bosses in terms of wage increases, and other ‘social wage’ benefits many of which still survive to this day. However, the Popular Front, though it was the formal governmental instrument by which these reforms were actually implemented, actually played a crucial role in blocking the road of the working class to going any further – the existing leaders of the workers organisations had made a deal with the ‘liberal’ bourgeoisie in the form of the Radicals, and in order to keep that deal up, the movement had to be demobilised. Thus the cadres of the Communist and Socialist Parties, which exercised a decisive influence on the masses, actually acted to restrain the workers after their struggle had reached a potentially revolutionary flashpoint – in the words of the then General Secretary of the French Communist Party (PCF), Maurice Thorez, “It is necessary to know when to end a strike” — in order to maintain the PCF’s alliance with the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie. The result was, two years later, a full scale attack on these gains by a resurgent bourgeois reaction, and even worse, after the start of World War II, the imposition of the pro-Hitler Vichy dictatorship by the French ruling class, whose guiding light was the slogan “Better Hitler than the Popular Front” (i.e., in reality, than the working class).

In Spain, even more so, the popular front led to disaster for the working class. Indeed, within six months of the election of the second Popular Front government in Spain, a military-fascist revolt took place, which signalled the start of a bloody civil war, pitting in effect the workers and peasants against the Spanish bourgeoisie, which in reality supported Franco’s fascist forces. However, the masses were saddled with the Popular Front as their leadership — that is, a bloc of the mass parties of the workers (the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the inconsistent, but more left wing POUM, or Party of Marxist Unification), with small groups of maverick bourgeois politicians, whom Trotsky dubbed as ‘the shadow of the bourgeoisie’. The Popular Front, with the Stalinists playing the most bloodthirsty role (Soviet Intelligence, the GPU, acting as chief executioner of leftists) actively sought to suppress any struggles of the working class against capitalism, or any attacks on the sacred right of capitalist private property by the masses. The ultimate expression of this was the supression of the workers uprising in May 1937 in Barcelona, and the murder of leftists such as Andres Nin, leader of the POUM. The POUM was a leftist organisation that had itself capitulated by joining the Popular Front government, but was regarded by particularly the Stalinists as too dangerous, too influenced by ‘Trotskyism’ to be allowed to operate. The popular front suppressed the workers revolution in favour of ‘democratic’ capitalism, in a situation where the whole of the capitalist class supported fascism and the need to smash the workers organisations. In this way, predictably, it led to the victory of Franco and 40 years of terroristic dictatorship.

The fundamental attitude of Marxists towards popular fronts is quite simple: we are opposed in principle to such coalitions with the bourgeoisie, and we never endorse such blocs. Where we are not in a position to prevent such a bloc being instigated by the existing misleaders of the workers movement, we use every means at our disposal to split the working class parties away from such class-collaborationist blocs. We seek to reassert the independence of the working class, which the signing of such a bloc with the bourgeoisie by the leaders of the workers organisations is a serious attack on. That is, we seek to give effect to the demand that has been addressed to the leaderships of the working class in such situations by revolutionary Marxists from 1917 to the 1930s, and is just as crucial today: “Break with the bourgeoisie!”

Popular Fronts and elections

One important example from the history of the classical Trotskyist movement of how in practical terms to oppose Popular Fronts in elections was around the election of the French Popular Front in 1936. The French Trotskyist grouping. the Groupe Bolchevique Leniniste (GBL), seeking to draw a line against class collaboration in the elections, called for critical votes to Communist Party (PCF) and Socialist Party (SFIO) candidates, while at the same time attempting to sabotage the bloc of these parties with the bourgeois Radicals by standing GBL candidates in some of those electoral districts where CP and SFIO candidates had stood down in favour of a bourgeois Radical. Trotsky in fact criticised his French co-thinkers for being insufficiently energetic in carrying out this policy:

“All the political facts prove that there is no basis for the People’s Front either in the social relations of France or in the political mood of the masses. This policy is imposed from above: by the Radical bourgeoisie, by the Socialist businessmen and careerists, by the Soviet diplomats and their ‘Communist’ lackeys. All together they have done everything possible by means of the most dishonest of all electoral systems in order to dupe and rob politically the popular masses and to distort their real will. Nevertheless, even under these conditions the masses were able to give expression to their desire: not a coalition with the Radicals but the consolidation of the toilers against the whole bourgeoisie.

“Had revolutionary working class candidates been run on the second ballot in all the electoral districts in which the Socialists and Communists withdrew in favour of the Radicals, they would, no doubt, have obtained a very considerable number of votes. It is unfortunate that not a single organisation was to be found capable of such initiative. This shows that the revolutionary groups in both the centre and locally are lagging behind the dynamics of the events and prefer to temporise and evade whenever it is necessary to act. This is a sad situation. But the general orientation of the masses is quite clear.

“The Socialists and the Communists worked with all their might to pave the way for the ministry of Herriot — at worst the ministry of Daladier [i.e. politicians of openly bourgeois parties]. What did the masses do? They imposed upon the Socialists and Communists the ministry of [SFIO leader Leon] Blum. Is this not a direct vote against the policy of the People’s Front?” (The Decisive Stage, from Leon Trotsky on France, Monad Press, 1979, pp157-8).

What is particularly notable about this passage is that Trotsky criticises his own followers for being insufficiently energetic, for not carrying out the policy of standing in all the districts where the PCF and SFIO had bowed out in deference to a bourgeois Radical, for only standing in a few of them. What Trotsky did not criticise, however, was the GBL’s policy of voting for the PCF and SFIO candidates in the remainder of the constituencies – a fact which, in the opinion of the editor of Revolution & Truth (and indeed, of any reasonable scholar of history) amounts to proof that he saw nothing wrong with that aspect of GBL policy (absurdly, the only way that the Spartacists have been able to dispute this is by intimating that Trotsky did not know about the GBL’s election policy – which the above passage shows is a farcical assertion!).

This was the nub of the aborted dispute in the IBT. It was in part a dispute about the honesty of quotations in some major political analyses of the Spartacists from the 1970s, particularly in the major piece on Popular Frontism published in Spartacist #27-28 in 1979. A reasonable summary of the IBT’s and Spartacists’ position on how to deal with popular fronts in elections is to be found in the current issue of Marxist Bulletin (no 7):

“In these cases there can be no support, however critical. A bourgeois workers party in coalition with the bourgeoisie makes no pretence of standing for the workers as a class but rather stands for ‘class unity’ (which is always in the interest of the ruling class). Revolutionaries do not join such formations and we will not vote for them, even the working class component – instead we call for for the workers’ candidates to break from the popular front and stand openly in the name of the working class, as a precondition for any kind of support”

In reality, this is only a paraphrase of a much more famous passage, from Spartacist (no 19) of November- December 1970, referring to the Chilean ‘Popular Unity’ (UP) coalition, a classic Popular Front of workers’ parties with small bourgeois partners, which came to power that year (and was overthrown by a bloody military coup three years later):

“Within reformist workers parties there is a profound contradiction between their proletarian base and formal ideology and the class-collaborationist aims and personal appetites of their leaderships. This is why Marxists, when they are not themselves embodied in a mass working-class party, give such reformist parties ‘critical support’ — against overt agents of capital — as will tend to regroup the proletarian base around a revolutionary program. But when these parties enter a coalition government with the parties of capitalism, any such ‘critical support’ would be a betrayal because the coalition has suppressed the class contradiction in the bourgeoisie’s favour. It is our job then to re-create the basis for struggle within such parties by demanding that they break with the coalition. This break must be the precondition for even the most critical support.” (emphasis in original).

The programmatic issues at stake here have been obscured by the fact that this article from Spartacist, “Chilean Popular Front”, was pretty well unique in warning of the inevitable consequences of the Allende coalition in a situation of rising class struggle i.e. “a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready…” (ibid). In this sense, this article has rightly gone down in history as prophetic, particular since the Spartacists’ ostensibly Trotskyist competitors often, in their mad rush to not be “sectarian” towards the “mass movement” led by Allende, denied that UP was in fact a popular front, and therefore failed to warn the masses of the likely consequences of Allende’s government. In this sense, and in this sense only, the Spartacist League/US position was qualitatively better that anything else on offer at the time. The warnings of the consequences of Allende’s coalition was entirely of a piece with the similar warnings issued by Trotsky about the consequences of the Popular Front in France and Spain.

Anti-Trotskyist electoral policy

The warning may have been Trotskyist, but the electoral policy advocated in Spartacist is a completely different question. The assertion by James Robertson (the author of the Spartacist article), that any critical electoral support for the workers parties involved “would be a betrayal” because the coalition “has suppressed the class contradiction” of the workers parties “in the bourgeoisie’s favour” is in fact a condemnation of the policies of the Fourth International in the 1930s from a sectarian standpoint. Because of the prophetic nature of the article itself, it has been little noticed (at least by those within the orbit of the Spartacist tradition) that a new position made its debut in this article. Anyone criticising it can of course, be misrepresented as in some way trampling over the graves of the Chilean working class, or some other emotional piece of demagogy by the Spartacists and their apologists, such as the leadership of the IBT.

What does it mean to say that the contradictions of a bourgeois workers party are “suppressed” for the duration of the coalition? It can only mean that they fail to operate, if words mean anything. That is, that for practical purposes, until the coalition is actually broken, these parties cease to have an operative proletarian component and themselves become effectively bourgeois formations. But if the bourgeois workers parties within the coalition cease ‘for the duration’ to embody any class contradictions, if those class contradictions are ‘suppressed’, then how can one say that there is any class contradiction within the coalition itself, between its constituent parties? The proletarian component(s) of the bourgeois workers part(ies) are ‘suppressed’ by the coalition. So what contradiction are revolutionaries seeking to hammer on in demanding that the working class component “break with the bourgeoisie”? Surely if the proletarian component in the workers parties is suppressed, there is no contradiction in the coalition to exploit in order to blow it apart? So the demand to ‘break with the bourgeoisie’ becomes meaningless, a demand addressed at a formation whose class contradictions do not operate until the demand is realised, which means the demand has no leverage and is reduced to a barren abstraction. This is all completely logical within this odd theoretical framework.

This, in the opinion of the editor, was the real starting point of the sectarian degeneration of the Spartacists, and the real political origins of the bizarre cultist/sectarian formation that is the ICL today. It means in practice, as long as a popular front exists, that the workers parties involved in the popular front cannot be treated as working-class organisations, they can only be treated as such when the popular front ceases to exist. Therefore, with this understanding, any tactical approach that starts from the understanding that the contradictions of such formations remain operative, that there is any operative contradiction to exploit while the popular front still exists, must necessarily be condemned by the holder of Robertson’s position as dyed-in-the-wool opportunism. Given the dominance of Popular Frontism of one sort or another in many countries where the Spartacists were seeking to establish toeholds internationally in the 1970s, this position had an enormous influence on the development of the Spartacists, who confronted it at every step, and therefore their political deviation became more and more systematised. Their growth was correspondingly stunted, and their political persona increasingly deformed.

In Chapter 1 of Capital Volume I, Marx takes as the starting point for his analysis of capitalism the nature of the commodity and its contradictions, primarily between use-value and exchange-value, and goes on throughout his monumental work to show how this basic contradiction is at the root of all the many contradictions of capitalism itself. There is no need to write a work of the size of Capital to illustrate how the Spartacists’ major theoretical/ programmatic error on the nature of workers’ parties in popular fronts, applied in a consistent manner, can easily lead to … a deranged sect like the contemporary ICL. All one needs is a little elementary logic and sense of development of phenomena, and simple observation of the habits of contemporary Spartacists.

The Spartacist School of Misquotation

The one place that the Spartacists tried to give a synthetic defence of this position is in their coverage of the 1979 Colchester iSt international conference. In Spartacist #27-28 (Winter 1978-9) a number of materials are presented, including presentations and summaries by ‘founder leader’ James Robertson and then Workers Vanguard editor Jan Norden, and a ‘display’ of various isolated quotations from Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement supposedly to illustrate that the iSt (international Spartacist tendency – now ICL) position was compatible with Trotskyism on this question.

In their presentations, both Robertson and Norden attempt to justify their policy of refusing on principle to even consider the possibility of ever giving any electoral support to workers parties involved in any coalition, implicit or explicit, with non-working class parties. Robertson sets the parameters of the discussion pretty clearly at the conclusion of his presentation:

“And as my last sentence, let me frighten you with a thought I just had. If, in fact we did not have this position that we do on opposition to popular fronts and any electoral support to any wing of a popular front, I think that we would belong in the left-wing of the Mandelite USec majority [of their 2 1/2 international]…” (Spartacist #27-28, Winter 1979-80).

This is a classic case of not so much making an argument, but brandishing a bogey-man in front of a membership not exactly trained in solving political problems through critical thought, and also a means of, in advance, writing any potential critic out of the organisation (‘If you don’t agree with me, you belong in the USec’). Such use of a ‘bogey-man’ to fend off proper discussion of a key political question and how to address it, does not bode well. When one examines the presentations of Robertson and particularly Norden in more detail, the fundamental dishonesty of these people becomes apparent.

As part of his presentation trying to search out ‘precedents’ for the iSt position, Norden quotes from a particular essay by Trotsky:

“There’s a quotation from a letter by Trotsky to the Dutch section saying that the popular front ‘is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch’ and ‘the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism’ [‘The Dutch Section and the International’, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-6) ]. As you’ll notice, different passages from this quote keep appearing in our press. I’d like to just mention tonight two other things that are in the same key quotation. One is that Trotsky takes on NOT ONLY THOSE WHO DIRECTLY SUPPORT THE POPULAR FRONT BUT ALSO THOSE WHO ‘present this question as a tactical or even as a technical manoeuvre, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the Popular Front.’…” (ibid, R & T capitalisation for emphasis and clarity about Norden’s meaning.)

Here we have a chemically pure and provable example of quotation-chopping and falsification — i.e. “Trotskyists” who deliberately falsify Trotsky. Norden in effect says that when Trotsky attacked those who “present this question as a tactical or even a technical manoeuvre” he was attacking those who carried out some kind of ‘critical support’ to only the workers parties involved in a popular front, or at least, those who do not support the popular front, but allegedly capitulate to it in some other way. This can easily be proved to be a falsification of Trotsky’s views. In Spartacist #27-28, in a ‘display’ of a number of related quotations on their own separate page, the whole of this paragraph is reproduced in order to reinforce the impression that Trotsky was polemicising in support of the position Norden was promoting (indeed, this passage was later recycled by the IBT to defend the same position, e.g. in polemicising against the LRCI in Trotskyist Bulletin no 3). R & T reproduces below a larger section of this essay, including the whole of the preceding page, clearly showing that Norden was here misrepresenting Trotsky’s views:

“At the moment when Nin’s bankruptcy became clear even to his own supporters, he united with the nationalist-Catalonian philistine Maurin, breaking off all relations with us by the declaration that ‘the IS understands nothing of Spanish affairs’. In reality Nin understands nothing of revolutionary policy or of Marxism.

“The new party soon found itself in the tow of Azana. But to say about this fact, ‘it is only a small, temporary technical electoral agreement’ seems to me to be absolutely impermissible. The party undersigned the most miserable of all People’s Front programs of Azana and simultaneously also its death sentence for years to come. For at every attempt at criticism of the People’s Front (and Maurin-Nin are now making such desperate attempts) they will always receive the stereotyped reply from the Radical bourgeois, from the Social Democrats, and from the Communists: But didn’t you yourselves take part in the creation of the People’s Front and sign its program? And if these people then try to make use of this rotten subterfuge ‘it was only a technical manoeuvre of our party’ – they will only make themselves ridiculous. [R & T emphases in this para]

“These people have completely paralysed themselves, even if they were now unexpectedly to display a revolutionary will, which is not, however, now the case. Small crimes and betrayals, which remain almost unobserved in normal times, find a mighty repercussion in times of revolution. It should never be forgotten that the revolution creates special acoustic conditions. All in all, I cannot understand how it is that extenuating circumstances are sought for the Spanish betrayers, while at the same time our Belgian friends, who are fighting with pre-eminent courage against the enormous POB machine and the Stalinists, and who have quite substantial successes to show, are publicly disparaged in De Nieuwe Fakkel.

“8. In the latest number of La Battala [newspaper of the POUM] there is an appeal of the Maurin-Nin party to our South American sections, which represents an attempt to group the latter around the so-called ‘Party of Marxist Unification’ on a purely national basis. Like every section of the London Bureau, the Spanish ‘Marxist’ party of confusion tries to penetrate into the ranks of the Fourth International, to split them, etc. There you have the little cur who snaps at our heels. Must we not say openly to our South American organisations, which still have in their ranks SAPist parliamentarians, etc., what the difference is between us and the London Bureau and why Nin breaks with us in Europe and wants to appear in South America as the pious unifier of all the revolutionary forces? This contemptible hypocrisy, which always characterised centrism, must be mercilessly exposed. This alone would suffice to prove the absolute necessity of our theses on the London Bureau.

“9. The question of questions at present is the People’s Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even a technical manoeuvre, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the People’s Front. In reality, the People’s Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the People’s Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ and Social Democrats, were in the closest alliance and in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this People’s Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the Peoples’ Front. Their demand was to break this People’s Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.” (The Dutch section and the International, Trotsky Writings 1935-6, pp 369-370).

In other words, when Trotsky, in this letter berating the Dutch section for its softness on the POUM, attacked ‘those who present this question as a tactical or even as a technical manoeuvre’ as seeking to ‘peddle their wares in the shadow of the popular front’ he was attacking the POUM and their apologists for excusing the POUM’s decision to sign the popular front program, not for attempting to split the popular front or draw the line against coalitionism by calling to votes only to the workers parties, or any other comparable tactic. Whatever one may think of the usefulness of such tactics, or whether or not one thinks them even principled, it is utterly dishonest of Norden to present Trotsky’s views on this question as in any way similar to his own on the basis of this quotation!

But there is more. Norden again attempts to cite Trotsky, this time (wisely) without directly quoting him, in order to bolster his case thus:

“People frequently say that in the 1930s the Trotskyists did not have our policies in France. Undoubtedly this will come up in the discussion period. But I would like to call attention to the way Trotsky formulated the question in 1921 in his messages to the French party [see ‘On the United Front’ in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol 2.) He said that if — again he presented it as a precondition — the Dissidents agreed to break the Left Bloc with the bourgeoisie, then we can talk about united front tactics with the Communist Party. But only in that circumstance.”

This is another dishonest manipulation of views attributed to Trotsky. What Norden does not say, of course, is that when this was written, the Communist Party had 130,000 members, while the Dissidents (i.e. the reformists) only had 30,000. That puts a rather different complexion on matters. The Communist Party had rather more power to dictate to the much smaller reformist party what it should or should not do. Needless to say, this ‘little’ circumstance does not rate a mention in Norden’s presentation. The CP at that point was four times larger than the proto-SFIO, and could afford to issue ultimatums to them. A fuller version, in context, reads:

“21. If we take into account that the Communist Party numbers 130,000 members, while the Socialists number 30,000 then the enormous successes of Communist ideas in France become apparent. However, if we take into account the relation between these figures and the numerical strength of the working class as a whole, together with the existence of reformist trade unions and of anti-communist tendencies within revolutionary trade unions, then the question of the hegemony of the Communist Party inside the labour movement will confront us as a very difficult task, still far from solved by our numerical superiority over the Dissidents.

* * *

“26. Reformist-Dissidents are the agency of the ‘Left Bloc’ [i.e. the Popular Front – R & T] within the working class. Their successes will be the greater, all the less the working class is seized by the idea and practice of the united front against the bourgeoisie. Layers of workers, disoriented by the war and by the tardiness of the revolution, may venture to support the ‘Left Bloc’ as a lesser evil, in the belief that they do not thereby risk anything at all, or because they see no other road at present.

“27. One of the most reliable methods of counteracting inside the working class the moods and ideas of the ‘Left Bloc’, i.e a bloc between the workers and a certain section of the bourgeoisie against another section of the bourgeoisie, is through promoting persistently and resolutely the idea of a bloc between all the sections of the working class against the whole bourgeoisie.

* * *

“31. The indicated method could be similarly employed and not without success in relation to parliamentary and municipal activities. We say to the masses: ‘The Dissidents, because they do not want the revolution, have split the mass of the workers. It would be insanity to count on their helping the proletarian revolution. But we are ready, inside and outside the parliament, to enter into certain practical agreements with them, providing they agree, in those cases where one must choose between the knows interests of the bourgeoisie and the definite demands of the proletariat, to support the latter in action. The Dissidents can be capable of such actions only if they renounce their ties with the parties of the bourgeoisie, that is, the ‘Left Bloc’ and its bourgeois discipline.’

“If the Dissidents were capable of accepting these conditions, then their worker-followers would be quickly absorbed into the Communist Party. Just because of this, the Dissidents will not agree with these conditions. In other words, to the clearly and precisely posed question of whether they choose a bloc with the bourgeoisie or a bloc with the proletariat — in the concrete and specific conditions of a mass struggle — they will be compelled to reply that they prefer a bloc with the bourgeoisie. Such an answer will not pass with impunity among the proletarian reserves on whom they are counting.” (The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol II, pp101-105).

This quotation, all but the first paragraph of which is also ‘displayed’ separately from Norden’s speech transcript among the disembodied quotes in Spartacist 27-28, appears by “united front tactics” to have been referring to “practical agreements” in relation to “parliamentary and municipal activities” “inside and outside the parliament”, not to electoral tactics at all. In other words, what Trotsky was talking about is not electoral tactics for a tiny communist organisation seeking to address the masses of workers who support a mass reformist party, but practical agreements between the parliamentary and local governmental elected deputies of a mass communist party with the deputies and councillors of a smaller reformist party to force through laws and measures in the interests of the working class, enact measures in support of strikes etc. In other words a completely different question in a completely different context. The deliberate attempt to confuse two utterly different questions makes this a typical piece of hack-work, a deliberate falsification of Trotsky’s views.

French Trotskyism and the Popular Front

When Norden comes to the concrete questions of the French Popular Front of 1936, we get a real taste of evasion. Norden writes:

“A comrade mentioned that in the 1936 French parliamentary elections [one of the two French groups which claimed allegiance to the movement for the Fourth International] maintained a Trotskyist candidate in a district where the CP or SP candidate stepped down in favour of a Radical. That’s a conceivable tactic. But that does not necessarily imply critical support to the workers’ party of the popular front. In fact, in 1935 the position of the French Trotskyists was precisely that. They called for running candidates in those circumstances, and they did not give critical support to any of the parties of the popular front. It was in the ’35 municipal elections.”

[R & T note: there is a footnote reference at the end of this passage. It reads : “The second part of their ‘electoral’ policy was for a workers mobilisation on voting day to disperse a scheduled reactionary demonstration. (La Verite, 10 May 1935)”]

The above passage is most disingenuous. The Trotskyists’ tactic was to stand against a Radical candidate where a SP or CP candidate withdrew in favour of such a bourgeois candidate. But according to Norden this “does not necessarily imply critical support to the workers party of the popular front”. Really? If they were not giving electoral support to the workers parties involved, then why did they not stand candidates against them? Why did they single out the bourgeois parties alone, if that was their conception? Norden is playing with words here – the preferential refusal to stand against SP and CP candidates at least amounts to an informal ‘no-contest’ position regarding these candidates, which is itself a form of support. As for Norden’s citation of La Verite to back up his assertion that in the ’35 municipal election the Trotskyists “did not give critical support to any of the parties of the popular front”, it is notable that Norden does not quote them, but simply asserts that this is what they said. Nor does the text of what the La Verite article said appear in the ‘quotes gallery’ on pp32-33 of Spartacist #27-28. R & T has no access to La Verite of 1935. But judging by the standards of Norden’s previous selective misquoting of Trotsky, the absence of a quote here is highly suspicious – there is every reason to suspect falsification here also.

On the subject of France, Norden later continues:

“Now I want to say something about a little historical research I’ve been doing, and that is the question of the popular front in the 1930s. The French GBL (Groupe Bolchevik-Leniniste) had the position of supporting the social democrats or Stalinists in those districts where it didn’t run its own candidates in the 1936 elections. To some extent that was taken as a precedent later, after World War II. Its not the only precedent in the history of the Trotskyist movement by a long shot. In 1942 the Chilean POR (Partido Obrero Revolutionario) ran a candidate for president against the popular front. And in 1948 the Italian Trotskyists opposed any vote to the popular front, but they were criticised by Pablo.”

It is impossible to resist chipping in here to briefly mock the idea that the latter two cases have any real significance in deciding what the definitive policy of the Trotskyist movement was. Both these events took place after the death of Trotsky, in sections that were not exactly central to the Trotskyist movement, ever. Since when did “running for president” against the popular front necessarily mean that one could not, at the same time (say in a contest for parliamentary seats) call for votes to another party, whether or not it was involved in a popular front?

Continuing from where Norden left off:

“So what was the situation in 1936? First of all, nobody paid any attention to this question at all. In the internal bulletin of the GBL there is one sentence on its policy in the election — and two pages of discussion in a later bulletin — compared to more than a hundred pages on the split with the Molinier group. Nor was the GBL policy mentioned in any of the post-June 1936 issues of Lutte Ouvriere. It was not a big issue. I’m not even sure Trotsky knew what the GBL policy was [R & T emphasis]; he might have, but it’s not clear. I was looking through the [Trotsky] archives [at Harvard University], and Trotsky writes big notes over everything putting triple exclamation points every time Vereecken opens his mouth. But here there’s no marks at all on his copy [of the GBL internal bulletin referring to election policy].

“Now, why is that? The reason is that the real policy of the French Trotskyists — and the essential policy of Trotsky at the time– was, ‘Not the Popular Front But Committees of Action’. Here’s what the Central Committee said to someone who wanted to vote for all of the popular front candidates: “You have to understand the totality of our position. We must explain to the proletarians that their fate will not be played out on the parliamentary terrain. We call on them to struggle on another terrain. And that’s why the electoral questions have an absolutely secondary aspect” [GBL, Bulletin Interieur No 14, 24 April 1936.] Trotsky thought there was going to be a revolution — ‘The French Revolution Has Begun’, remember? And his policy was ‘Soviets everywhere’ -that was what the first issue of their paper said in June 1936. And that’s what the French Trotskyists did — they came out, and their main policy was ‘No to Electoral Cretinism’, you can’t smash the fascists in parliament, you have to have workers militias. And they went out and formed workers militias. That’s what their real policy was.

“Secondly, I think there’s an explanation for why they had what we consider a wrong policy, that is, calling for votes to the workers parties of the popular front. In France all three factions of the French party were soft on the Socialist Party — which they had been in and didn’t want to leave [and that influenced their policy towards the popular front]. Immediately after the popular front was formed in May of 1935, Trotsky sent a letter to the International Secretariat arguing that after the Stalin-Laval pact the Bolshevik-Leninists could no longer remain in the SFIO and had to prepare for independent existence [‘A New Turn Is Necessary’, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934-35)] Molinier said it would be a crime to leave the Socialist Party. But all three factions in the French Party were begging to be let back into the Socialist Party after they were expelled. It took them six months to even pass a resolution for an aggressive policy towards the Socialist Party. So that is the context, it’s not just Molinier who had a soft position on the popular front — but all the factions of the French party did.”

It is absurd that Norden can speculate that Trotsky did not know what the electoral policy of the GBL was in 1935-36. In fact, there is a whole separate volume of Trotsky’s writings about the political crisis of the GBL during that very period. It is called The Crisis of the French Section (1935-36) (Pathfinder, 1977) and shows through numerous letters and polemical essays that Trotsky was paying very close attention to the internal life of the GBL and in fact waging within it a programmatic battle against the adventurist, centrist conceptions of the party and programmatically liquidationist, fake mass work-ism worst exemplified by Raymond Molinier. There is no passage in that book (or anywhere else) where Trotsky attacks the policy of being prepared to give electoral support to mass workers parties involved in a popular front. The reason why Trotsky did not scrawl critical annotations over the piece on this question in his copy of the GBL internal bulletin is obviously because he did not see what it said as in any way contentious. This is obvious to any honest reader of the material.

Norden’s assertion that electoral questions were to some extent secondary in the explosion of class struggle that detonated in June 1936 is rather silly, since the final round of the 1936 elections was concluded on May 3, before the mass strike movement occurred. In fact, it was the Popular Front election victory, which was perceived by most French workers as the victory of the working class, that acted as the catalyst, bursting the dam through which an enormous torrent of working class discontent flowed out. It is true that Trotsky was very well aware that France was heading for a major social explosion, and that the popular front was being erected in order to provide a means of dissipating the masses’ discontent and protecting the bourgeoisie. This is why Trotsky had begun calling for “Committees of action, not the People’s Front” as early as November 1935, as a means of popularising the need for alternative organs of workers power to counterpose to the bourgeois government in the storm everyone knew was coming. But to cite the essay where Trotsky stated that “The French Revolution Has Begun!” as supposed evidence that Trotsky turned a blind eye to an opportunist, capitulationist electoral policy by his French co-thinkers only shows what contempt the Spartacists have for Trotsky.

Firstly, the essay “The French Revolution Has Begun!” was published on June 9th, i.e. more than a month after the election of the popular front (concluded on May 3rd), the event that acted as the trigger for the loaded gun of the mass strike movement. Secondly, of course, for Trotsky to have turned a blind eye to such an opportunist electoral policy would have been a capitulation to spontanaeism and a criminal abdication of leadership, since a supposedly revolutionary formation with an opportunist electoral policy would be likely to commit other betrayals, and in a revolutionary situation such capitulations would be likely to lead to a POUM-style betrayal of the revolution. In making this slovenly and dishonest ‘explanation’ of why they can find not one single citation from Trotsky to back up their position, the Robertsonites are in fact accusing him of criminal negligence and programmatic betrayal of Marxism.

Norden’s explanation that the reason why the French section gave critical electoral support to the CP and SFIO in 1935-6 was because they were ‘soft’ on the SFIO is ridiculous. They were certainly less than perfect on a lot of things, a fact not disconnected with their marked reluctance to join the SFIO in 1934, and when it came to leave, they were conversely reluctant to do so. They were conservative and tended to shy away from making timely tactical turns when circumstances changed rapidly. And of course, the Molinier wing of them capitulated to the centrism of Marceau Pivert, which is the main topic of The Crisis of the French Section. But to ‘explain’ this allegedly treacherous policy of giving electoral support to the CP and SP in this period by the ‘softness’ of the French Trotskyists on the SFIO begs the obvious question. Why did Trotsky not fight with them over this? The Spartacists do not have the guts to say it, but the fact is that Trotsky was in their terms ‘soft’ on the popular front too. But to attack Trotsky on this question would expose their own revisionism only too clearly, so they take the cowards’ way out, attacking people with far less historical authority and attempting thereby to deliberately mislead students of the history of Marxism.

In fact, far from eschewing such tactics as electoral support to workers parties in order to ‘set the base against the top’ and the top’s policy of coalition with the bourgeoisie, Trotsky was, when the internal situation within a given party warranted it, even prepared to advocate entryism in a mass workers party that was part of a popular front government. In an essay dated 12 April 1936, nearly two months into the term of office of the Spanish Popular Front government, Trotsky advocated the following laundry list of ‘tasks’ for the Spanish Bolshevik- Leninists:

“1. To condemn and denounce mercilessly before the masses the policy of all the leaders participating in the Popular Front.
“2. To grasp in full the wretchedness of the leadership of the ‘Workers Party of Marxist Unification’ and especially of the former ‘Left Communists’ – Andres Nin, Andrade, etc. – and to portray them clearly before the eyes of all the advanced workers.
“3. To rally around the banner of the Fourth International on the basis of the ‘Open Letter.’
“4. To join the Socialist Party and the United Youth in order to work there as a faction in the spirit of Bolshevism.
“5. To establish fractions and other nuclei in the trade unions and other mass organisations.
“6. To direct their main attention to the spontaneous and semi-spontaneous mass movements, to study their general traits, that is, to study the temperature of the masses and not the temperature of the parliamentary cliques.
“7. To be present in every struggle in order to give it clear expression.
“8. To insist always on having the fighting masses form and constantly expand their committees of action (juntas, soviets), elected ad-hoc.
“9. To counterpose the program of the conquest of power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the social revolution to all hybrid programs (a la Caballero, or a la Maurin).
This is the real road of the proletarian revolution. There is no other.”
(“Tasks of the Fourth Internationalists in Spain”, from Leon Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution, p214. R & T emphasis.)

Working “as a faction” inside a party that is part of a popular front coalition in power, Robertsonites and their apologists will undoubtedly sputter? That is betrayal, class treason! Well, Trotsky apparently did not think so. And entryism is a considerably higher form of the united front than mere electoral support, as recent experience in Britain attests.

Degeneration of the Spartacists

So what is the significance of these proven falsifications of Trotskyism on behalf of the Spartacists, which as demonstrated, began in 1970 over Chile? In “The road to Jimstown”, the External Tendency of the iSt, a forerunner of the IBT, wrote:

“For a long time the SL led a kind of Dorian Gray existence. The face that was presented to the world in Workers Vanguard remained healthy, vigorous and clean, while the diseased and scabrous reality was only apparent to those on the inside…”

In reality, this was self-delusion on behalf of the people who wrote it. Rather, those who were inside the Spartacists and faced the most unpleasant and irrational organisational aspects of Robertsonism, naturally focused on what impinged on them most immediately: the regime question. But what of those who never joined, who were repelled by sectarianism and political dishonesty from the outside? This is also a waste, a crime against Trotskyism, and unlike the somewhat narrow view of those who were inside, did more to “discredit anti-revisionist Trotskyism in the eyes of leftists, workers, students, black militants and others who are exposed to it” (ibid) than the narrow organisational horrors that so much has often been written about.

The Revolutionary Tendency of the US SWP in the early 1960s was programmatically correct in its counterposition of an anti-Pabloite, anti-revisionist position to the SWP leadership. But it was an extremely weak formation, led by a coalition of basically two layers. These were: (1) a layer of revolutionary, but older and fairly tired orthodox Trotskyist militants who had real experience in the class struggle but were subsequently demoralised by the expulsion from the SWP and the split with Healy; and (2) the layer of student-based youth, around Robertson, Mage and Wohlforth, with a tendency to abstract, infantile sectarianism. The defection of Wohlforth and Mage, and the drifting away of the Geoff Whites, Ed Lees and other such people, created an organisation that by the late 1960s was led by Robertson as basically an intellectual guru. But these people had learned their Trotskyism in a pretty academic way, and had no sustained experience of doing political work in the working class. This led to a programmatic degeneration at the end of the sixties, where they adopted a gross caricature of Trotskyist opposition to Popular Fronts, that in practice equated the mass working-class based components of such formations with their bourgeois coalition partners and made it simply impossible to address the contradiction between the tops and the working class base of these parties. Thus the iSt’s complete failure to deal with the problems posed by bourgeois workers’ parties in Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter). This change of position, no matter what the subjective factors that produced it, was a break from Trotskyism. It transformed the SL/US from a somewhat fragile Trotskyist organisation in the 1960s into something that was definitely not Trotskyist or revolutionary, rather, it was a curious hybrid of Trotskyism and Bordigism, with an increasingly bizarre, cultist practice.

Trotsky considered the question of the popular front to be the “main question of proletarian class strategy in this epoch”, “the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism”. The Spartacists are hoist on their own petard, since they have approvingly quoted this passage and tried to falsify its meaning. Those who go fundamentally wrong on the question of the popular front have no right to be called revolutionaries – and ‘Menshevism’ does not exhaust the list of possible ways of going wrong. In fact, this calls into question the revolutionary character of the whole body of distinctively Robertsonite-Spartacist writings and positions on questions that are closely linked to the popular front, such as their conception of the United Front, their exaggerated phobia of ‘propaganda blocs’ and the like, their elevation of being a ‘propaganda group’ from an unfortunate necessity at times to being a positive virtue, and related matters which were fleshed out in the 1970s.

The paradox of the iSt is that it had inherited from the RT a position on the ‘Russian question’, by means of Cuba, that was uniquely correct in the ostensibly Trotskyist movement. Even after it fundamentally broke from Trotskyism on one absolutely key programmatic question, the popular front (in an ultra-left sectarian direction) its cadre still had enough Marxist understanding (albeit mangled somewhat) to develop a position on the national question and interpenetrated peoples that was in many ways an extension of Marxism. Yet despite that, the iSt was revisionist, and it was revisionist in a particular way that, quite deliberately, acted to cut it off from interaction with the real world. Whatever the original subjective motivation for this revisionism, it involved the adoption of a new, non-Trotskyist position on the popular front over Chile, which could only be synthetically justified nine years later by gross quotation chopping and falsification.

Marxism, electoral tactics, and the Popular Front

So what is the principled position of Marxism on electoral tactics regarding popular fronts? The popular front is a treacherous policy by the leadership of a mass workers organisation that acts, in a revolutionary situation, to lead its working-class base into a deadly trap. The job of Marxists is to defeat that treacherous policy, break the coalition with the bourgeoisie, and thereby force the treacherous misleaders into a position where they can be exposed before their working-class base and replaced with a revolutionary leadership of the masses. All tactical considerations must flow from that strategic objective.

How does this work out concretely, in terms of more recent events. Two concrete recent examples of popular fronts make a useful illustration: France in 1981 and 1988, and South Africa in 1994. First there is South Africa. In the first free General Election of 1994, the South African CP (SACP), a bourgeois workers party, stood as part of a popular front with bourgeois political parties, centrally the African National Congress. The SACP candidates in fact stood on the ANC ticket, and were indistinguishable in terms of political identity from the ANC. The Presidential candidate of the popular front was Nelson Mandela, the leader of the ANC. It would be impermissible for revolutionaries to give critical support to anyone standing on the ANC ticket, because in doing so one would not be drawing the class line in any political sense. However, (albeit somewhat for the wrong reasons) Workers Power made the nearly correct point over these elections that in principle it would have been permissible if the South African Communist Party had stood on its own ticket in the election, to give it critical support, while refusing on principle to call for a vote to Mandela and the ANC. To put it slightly differently – it would be permissible to consider the possibility of giving critical electoral support to the SACP, depending on a concrete assessment of its relationship to its working class base, whether giving it electoral support would really embody class independence. The decisive position in this regard is not the popular front, but the relation of the party to its working-class base.

Then, conversely, there is the question of France, and the Mitterrand coalition, along with the CP at various times, with smaller fragments of bourgeois parties. Mitterrand stood for the French Presidency (and won) on this basis in 1981 and 1988. He effectively stood as the unitary candidate of the popular front, of both bourgeois workers parties and bourgeois parties on both occasions. It was not possible, because of this, to even consider the possibility of giving electoral support to Mitterrand, because Mitterrand was one individual, who could not be physically cut up or divided into a bourgeois and proletarian component. In this sense the Spartacists were correct inrefusing to even consider calling for a vote to Mitterrand on both occasions, and Workers Power were wrong, and guilty of capitulation to the popular front, for calling for a vote to him. Where the Spartacists were wrong, however, was to extend their position of refusing to even consider critical support, to the National Assembly elections. In those elections it was possible to distinguish between the candidates of the Socialist and Communist Parties on the one hand, and those of the bourgeois parties on the other hand. Therefore, in this case it was possible to consider giving critical electoral support to CP and SP candidates. Whether or not critical support would actually be applicable would, as in the case of the SACP, depend on other factors, such as their relationship to their working-class base, whether these parties were seen by the working class as in any way standing for their interests, etc.

The IBT inherited all the Spartacists’ sectarian deviations on these questions. But in practice, it has partially negated their impact, by the fact that the IBT participates in activities that the Spartacists continually scream are ‘popular frontist’ or ‘unprincipled’, attempting to attack them from within this common theoretical-historical framework. The IBT leadership is quite susceptible to this sniping, and is continually looking over its shoulder at what the Robertsonities are saying about them. Its explanation of the Spartacists’ degeneration is apolitical and unsystematic, and locates the cause in the personal corruption of individuals, not the political break of the organisation from Trotskyism. Politics is very much secondary in the IBT’s evaluation of the degeneration of the Spartacists.

7 thoughts on “From the Archives: Spartacism vs. Trotskyism on the Popular Front

  1. People calling themselves Trotskyist have divided on when a bourgeois workers party should be given critical support in an election. The Spartacists maintain that a bourgeois workers party is supportable only when it raises some demand which raises a central class issue distinguishes them from the outright bourgeois parties. Many, on the other hand, have the policy of always supporting a bourgeois workers party when it runs against an outright capitalist unless the revolutionary party can field its own candidate. This was long the position of the Healyites, and probably most apparent Trotskyists.

    From the Spartacist position, it would seem to follow that a bourgeois workers party in a popular front is electorally unsupportable. After all, it can’t raise demands that distinguish them from the bourgeois parties, so on the Spartacist criterion there’s no ground for support.

    So, what are your criteria for supporting a bourgeois workers party in an election?


  2. Ian says:

    Stephen, this is a complex tactical question, and rather than give a potted answer here I will write a separate piece on it. Sufffice to say that I think the Sparts often make ‘principles’ over what are in fact tactical questions that require some real subtlety.


  3. […] Facebook discussion with Gerry Downing asking me to respond to Ian Donovan’s 1998 document “Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectaria…” […]


  4. […] Donovan of Socialist Fight has responded to my short critique of his 1998 document Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectaria…with another lengthy document on the Socialist Fight web site – Critical Support, Popular […]


  5. […] in November 2018 I wrote a short critique of a 1998 piece by Ian Donovan written as part of his departure from the International Bolshevik Tendency – of which we were […]


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