Popular Front vs United Front; the errors of the LCFI and the grosser errors of Ian Donovan

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21/01/2021 by socialistfight

By Gerry Downing

The political differences that have arisen between the Socialist Fight – Trotskyist Tendency and the Liaison Committee for the Fourth International (LCFI) arise from an attempted statement between them on the current situation in the USA. Socialist Fight was not asked to endorse this statement, meaning the Americas-based LCFI does not regard us as in political sympathy with them any longer. We would not have endorsed the statement in any case, they probably realised.

When the Socialist Fight split from the supporters of Ian Donavan almost a year ago, we were extremely disappointed that the LCFI and a few others in Britain effectively supported Ian’s position, despite differences. The definite point of rupture for Gerry Downing was his defending Gilead Atzmon’s characterisation of the Russian Revolution as “a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy”.

Atzmon also defended Stalin against Trotsky and socialist revolution and he gloried in his anti-Semitism by recognising that “Stalin insisted eventually to give Russia back to the Russians and this clearly made some people upset … Stalin’s paranoia – he knew what he was up against.” He was up against “the Jews” of course. He further wrote “… we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously … American Jewry makes any debate on whether the ‘Protocols of the elder of Zion’ are an authentic document or rather a forgery irrelevant. American Jews do try to control the world, by proxy”, he goes on.

Atzmon has indicated his support for fascism in a forthright manner: “Fascism, I believe, more than any other ideology, deserves our attention, as it was an attempt to integrate left and right: the dream and the concrete into a unified political system … And it is to our detriment that, in the post-World War II ‘liberal’ intellectual climate, it is politically impossible to examine fascism and ‘national socialism’ from an impartial theoretical or philosophical perspective … stifling honest examination of national socialism has left open the question of whether the problems of global capitalism may be alleviated by combining socialism with nationalism.” (Atzmon, Being in Time p. 26)

As these arguments developed, it became clear Ian had developed a full-blown ideological outlook in lockstep with Atzmon. Subsequent arguments saw Ian defend Atzmon’s admiration for Ku Klux Klan man David Duke. He wrote to me on Facebook: “If you understood why political Zionism is worse than apartheid and Jim Crow, you might gain some insight. Clue: read Moshé Machover on different types of settler colonialism. If you understand that, you might understand why [Alan] Dershowitz [arch-Zionist] is worse than David Duke. Some forms of colonialism are genocidal. Some are not.”

Ian believes Zionism is a far greater danger to humanity’s future than fascism

In this we can clearly see Ian believes that Zionism is a far greater danger to humanity’s future than fascism and no one in the ranks of the L in the Americas publicly demurred. So, the current spat over how to confront Trump’s fascist followers has developed from that. It is clear from the exchanges that neither side understand the Marxist/Trotskyist, that is the revolutionary socialist, understanding of fascism itself. In the exchanges there are fifteen mentions of the popular front and only one mention of the united front, “working class forces should have fought the Trumpists themselves: the campaigns initiated by various small leftist groups in the US for an anti-fascist united front were correct” but there is no attempt to distinguish between the two. In the early stages after the abandonment of Third Periodism – 1928-34 – Stalinists in France referred to their popular front as a united front until Grigori Dimitrov set them straight at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935.

The references made to Spain is so hopelessly confused that it is necessary to set out the correct position before examining the various errors and one-sided formulations both sides are guilty of. The extract below is from the introduction to Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain, written whilst he was still a serious Marxist who clearly understood the political trap of the popular front. It is long but every paragraph contains a vital lesson:

 “In 1931, the Kremlin had secured its goal by a policy of non-collaboration with the rest of the proletarian parties. The communists were thus isolated from the mass movement by union-splitting, no united front of organizations, attacks on other working-class meetings, etc. In 1931, the Kremlin had wanted nothing but maintenance of the status quo in Europe. In 1936, however, the Comintern adopted a new perspective, embodied in the Seventh Congress. The new course was to maintain the status quo as long as possible, this time not merely by preventing revolutions, but by active class collaboration with the bourgeoisie in the ‘democratic countries’. This collaboration was designed, in the event of war breaking out, to provide Russia with England and France as its allies. The price Russia was offering to pay for an alliance with Anglo-French imperialism was the subordination of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. ‘Socialism in a single country’ had revealed its full, meaning as ‘no socialism anywhere else’.

“Lenin and the Bolsheviks were realists enough to allow the Soviet state to utilize conflicts between various capitalist powers even to the extent of using one against another in the event of war. Even more fundamental to their revolutionary politics, however, was the doctrine that, whatever the Soviet’s military alliances, the proletariat in every country has the unalterable duty to oppose its ‘own’ bourgeoisie in war, to overthrow it in the course of the war, and to replace it with a workers’ revolutionary government which is the only possible real ally of the Soviet Union.

“This fundamental tenet of Marxism was repudiated by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. The French Communist party was already openly proclaiming its readiness to support its bourgeoisie in the coming war. Despite this, England’s coolness had largely negated the Franco-Soviet pact. Even under Blum the pact had not yet led to conferences between the two general staffs. The Spanish civil war provided the Kremlin with an opportunity to prove once and for all to both French and English imperialists that, not only did the Kremlin intend to encourage no revolution, it was prepared to take the lead in crushing one that had nevertheless started.

“… The Spanish Stalinists, however, joined Prieto and Azaña in appeals to the workers not to seize property. The Stalinists were the first to submit their press to the censorship. They were the first to demand liquidation of the workers’ militias, and the first to hand their militiamen over to Azaña’s officers. The civil war was not two months old when they began – what the government did not dare until nearly a year later – a murderous campaign against the POUM and the Anarchist Youth. The Stalinists demanded subordination to the bourgeoisie, not merely for the period of the civil war, but afterward as well. ‘It is absolutely false’, declared Jesus Hernandez, editor of Mundo Obrero (August 6, 1936), ‘that the present workers’ movement has for its object the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship after the war has terminated. It cannot be said we have a social motive for our participation in the war. We communists are the first to repudiate this supposition. We are motivated exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic’.” [1]

Similarly, for Largo Caballero, leader of Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Prime Minister 1936-37. He was clearly far to the left of the Stalinists, who stood on the right of all working-class parties during the revolution. But he also concentrated on just winning the war and abandoned his previous stance for the social revolution. He sought also to gain the support of foreign governments, by pledging his government was “not fighting for socialism but for democracy and constitutional rule.” [2] The Stalinists ousted him after the May Days in Barcelona because he had some sympathies with the revolutionary aspirations of the workers and replaced him with the right-wing social democrat Juan Negrin, who was closer to their politics and who did what Joe Stalin told him.

A united front is between workers’ organisations only

A united front is between workers’ organisations only which allows the revolutionary socialists freedom to propagate for the revolution. Even when our forces are too small for a formal agreement, we use the transitional method to place demands on the existing leadership of the class to take action in defence of class interests. A popular front contains bourgeois forces, this is in breach of a “fundamental tenet of Marxism” as Felix Morrow explains. This applies in all imperialist counties.

However, in semi-colonies, as in colonies in the past, the anti-imperialist united front may contain bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalists who are actually in armed conflict with imperialism or are preparing for that. However even here there must be no question of revolutionaries abandoning publicly their revolutionary strategy to ally with the nationalists, as Stalin and the Comintern did in China with such disastrous consequence in 1927. And even here the formulation “without political support” is problematic because there is an element of political support against imperialism whilst there can be no political support for any nationalists against their own working class. Without this nuance it would be impossible to win the best of petty bourgeoisie revolutionaries to the ranks of Trotskyism.

Argentina is a semi-colony of imperialism in which there is and has been much confusion on this question historically and now. Here is an extract from the WRP Explosion which examines the position of the opportunist self-declared Nahuel Moreno’s position on it:

“When the “heroic democratic revolution” article (their characterisation of WW2) was exposed in International Worker, Geoff Pilling departed in great haste for Argentina, to return with soothing platitudes, “it was a mistake, it slipped past the editor, inexperienced author, nothing to worry about”. Now Pilling can hardly be unaware that N Moreno wrote extensively on this subject. We have in our possession two long articles of his from Working Class Opposition (the paper of the US Morenoite group, the IWP) of 5 December 1986. WRP leaders must have read and decided to support this: “On the other hand, although our main enemy is imperialism, during WW2 it was fair (!) to make a military alliance with the US and England against Hitler”. [3]

A military bloc with the Democrats

And defending the ‘democratic republic’ is what Ian Donovan does, as the LCFI correctly point out:

“The British comrades are in favour of a military bloc with the Democrats and invoke the institutions of the imperialist state machinery against Trumpism, making a false analogy between Spain in 1936 and the United States in 2021, since in both situations there is a fascist attack on a bourgeois parliamentary regime in an imperialist country.” [4]

But if Donovan takes the Stalinist line here the LCFI adopts the POUM/Anarchist line of a popular front to defend, not a bourgeois parliament but, “proletarian democracy”.

“However, this is a false analogy because it minimizes the fact that in Spain, in opposition to Franco’s fascist imperialist side, there was a popular front, the main component of which is a mass party of the working class, its trade unions and its trade union centres. Therefore, what threatened the Franco regime was proletarian democracy and not just a bourgeois parliament. Defending proletarian democracy against a fascist coup has nothing to do with defending imperialist “democracy” against a fascist coup.” [5]

Workers defending their revolution against the Stalinist counter-revolution in Barcelona in the días de mayo in 1937

The Franco regime and the Republican governments in Madrid and Barcelona were threatened by something far more terrible than “proletarian democracy”; they were confronted immediately by an actual socialist revolution which had triumphed on the ground and lacked only a leadership and a state to finish its task, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917. They had seized the factories, they had seized the land, they were clearly in the saddle in that first year of the revolution. True they lacked the developed soviets, workers committees (but these were there in embryo), that emerged in Russia in 1905 and 1917 but there were far more subjectively conscious revolutionary socialists there, originating from the ranks of the POUM and the Anarchists, who understood and heroically fought for that revolution in Spain than in Russia in 1917. And its victory would have had a far greater effect internationally had it won. The popular front was the ideological camouflage behind which the Stalinist counter-revolutionaries marshalled their assassination squads and their turture prisons for revolutionaries to grovel to the ‘democratic imperialists’ as Morrow explains above.

But there was a very obviously more than just a revolutionary situation in Spain in 1936, clearly there is nothing like that in the US in 2021. Surely the situation is more like that in Germany in the early 1930s, the forces of fascism is in the ascendent and we must learn how to defend before we can go over to the attack? Inadvertently Ian supplies us with the answer:  

“The distinction between military and political support we are advocating was summed up by Trotsky in his rendition of An Aesop’s Fable as to why it was necessary to stand militarily with the social-imperialist German Social Democracy against Hitler’s hordes in the early 1930s.

“A cattle dealer once drove some bulls to the slaughterhouse. And the butcher came nigh with his sharp knife.

‘Let us close ranks and jack up this executioner on our horns,’ suggested one of the bulls.

‘If you please, in what way is the butcher any worse than the dealer who drove us hither with his cudgel?’ replied the bulls, who had received their political education in Manuilsky’s institute. [The Comintern.]

‘But we shall be able to attend to the dealer as well afterwards!’

“Nothing doing,” replied the bulls firm in their principles, to the counselor. ‘You are trying, from the left, to shield our enemies – you are a social-butcher yourself.’

And they refused to close ranks.”

Advocating defeatism on both sides, in the circumstances of a fascist coup in an imperialist country like the US, can only mean repeating the error Trotsky was attacking here: failing to see the immediate danger to the working class and the oppressed.”

Trotsky did not propose a popular front with the Weimar Republic

But Trotsky did not propose a popular front with the Weimar Republic, still less the Centre Party, the German National People’s Party (DNVP) or the Bavarian People’s Party but with the “social-imperialist German Social Democracy” as Ian terms them, hoping we will miss the fact that this was the major party of the German working class for 70 years (founded in May 1863 in Leipzig) and contained the older, skilled but cautious and demoralized industrial workers. No revolution was possible without their support. Morrow explains the criminal policy of the Stalinist to divide the working class in the face of the fascist threat and their outrageous alliances with the Nazis themselves against the “main enemy” another working class organisation, the German Social Democrats (SPD).

The class independence of the proletariat must be maintained and defended all countries, in imperialist Britain no popular fronts with the Greens, the Scottish or Welsh Nationalists. But in semi-colonial Ireland and in South Africa, for instance, it was possible to critically support the IRA/Sinn Fein and the ANC/SACP as long as they directly fought imperialism. As soon as Sinn Fein crossed class lines with the Good Friday Agreement it was no longer possible to support them in any way. It was correct to call for a vote for the ANC in the first 1994 election where the black masses first got their elementary democratic right to vote but when Nelson Mandela supported the IMF’s neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme of March 1996, then we were obliged to withdraw all support, critical or not.

The SPD was and is a bourgeois-workers’ party

The SPD was and is a bourgeois-workers’ party, like the British Labour party today, not a direct bourgeois imperialist party like the US Democrats. In Spain it is true that the Popular front contained the “Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM, independent communist)” but it but it also contained outright capitalist parties, the “Republican Left (IR), (led by Azaña) [6] the Republican Union (UR), led by Diego Martínez Barrio. This pact was supported by Galician (PG) and Catalan nationalists (ERC). socialist union Workers’ General Union (UGT)”, and supported by “the anarchist trade union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). [7] These parties now represented only “the shadow of the bourgeoisie” as Trotsky termed them, but their presence meant that capitalist property relations had to be defended and restored were necessary to maintain their allegiance.

No serious Trotskyist militant could be unaware of Trotsky’s break with Andreu Nin for the unprincipled lash-up with Bukharin’s right communists led Joaquín Maurín to form the POUM in 1935, and his unalloyed condemnation of their, and the anarchists’ participation in the Popular Front and its government in Barcelona in particular:

“According to the Socialists and Stalinists, i.e., the Mensheviks of the first and second instances, the Spanish revolution was called upon to solve only its “democratic” tasks, for which a united front with the “democratic” bourgeoisie was indispensable. From this point of view, any and all attempts of the proletariat to go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy are not only premature but also fatal. Furthermore, on the agenda stands not the revolution but the struggle against insurgent Franco.  Fascism, however, is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletariat revolution. Menshevism, itself a branch of bourgeois thought, does not have and cannot have any inkling of these facts. [8]

And who thinks Donald Trump and his followers represents feudal reaction. Socialist Fight has made its own statement on the fascist threat. As we say there:

“The threatened coup attempt around Biden’s inauguration on January 20 did not materialise. The fascists intended to stop the inauguration and attack the 50 state capitals.  But the massive mobilizations of the National Guards and police to confront them meant they faced mass arrests and prosecutions. The state prepared a huge fortress around the Congress, making an approach impossible without having a mighty army. The situation was extremely tense, but the FBI vetted the National Guard for fascist sympathisers and the inauguration went off without any serious confrontation. The failure of the coup attempt in January set them back; they fascists are not as yet organised enough to attempt a full coup again, but they will continue to regroup and build a leadership for the next confrontation.

“While revolutionaries do not form any ‘united front’ or ‘military bloc’ with the moderate and liberal factions of the bourgeoisie (this is a popular front, in fact), it is correct to call on the working class, the oppressed and the unions, to defend democracy, regardless of its limitations, against the fascists’ attempt to annihilate it. We don’t defend it because we have illusions in it. But because we can function much better under bourgeois democracy where we still have certain important democratic rights, albeit under constant attack, and we can use this for our advantage, as Lenin argued against the infantile Left.” [9]

Notes


[1] Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain, 5. The Politics of the Spanish Working Class, https://www.marxists.org/archive/morrow-felix/1938/revolution-spain/ch05.htm

[2] Spartacus Educational, The Spanish Civil War, Francisco Largo Caballero, https://spartacus-educational.com/SPcaballero.htm

[3] Gerry Downing, WRP Explosion, p.177,  https://socialistfight.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/wrp-explosion-by-gerry-downing.pdf

[4] LCFI. About our differences over the Trumpist invasion of the Capitol, https://www.socialistfight.org/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Manuel Azaña Díaz, President of Spain, 1931-33 and 10 May 1936 – 3 March 1939. A bourgeois politician who formed the popular front government had led it until the Republic fell in March 1939.

[7] Wikipedia, Popular Front (Spain), January 1936, The Popular Front (Spanish: Frente Popular) in Spain’s Second Republic was an electoral coalition and pact signed in January 1936 by various left-wing political organizations, instigated by Manuel Azaña for the purpose of contesting that year’s election. In Catalonia and today’s Valencian Community the name of the coalition was Front d’Esquerres (in Catalan, meaning Front of the Left)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_Front_(Spain)#:~:text=The%20Popular%20Front%20included%20the,led%20by%20Diego%20Mart%C3%ADnez%20Barrio.

[8] Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning, (December 1937), https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/xx/spain01.htm

[9] Socialist Fight: The World Situation in the wake of the Coup Attempt on Capitol Hill, 21/01/2021,  https://socialistfight.com/2021/01/21/socialist-fight-the-world-situation-in-the-wake-of-the-coup-attempt-on-capitol-hill/

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WRP Explosion

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