The term Popular Front (or People's Front) was coined in the 1930s and referred to an alliance of the workers' parties (Communist and Socialist) with so-called "progressive" bourgeois parties (Liberals, Republicans, Radicals, etc.). The two classic examples of this were in France and Spain. In 1931 and again in 1936, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) joined a coalition with bourgeois parties. The same happened in France in 1936. the Communist parties were also part of these Popular Fronts. Both the Communist and Socialist party leaderships played a treacherous role in holding back the revolutionary movement of the working class. This prepared the ground for the victory of reaction. In Spain it lead to the terrible defeat at the hands of Franco.
The question is, why did the leaders of these parties throw away revolutionary opportunities that faced? The fact of the matter is that the idea of an alliance with the so-called progressive or democratic wing of the bourgeoisie was not new. The Mensheviks had already developed this idea during the Russian Revolution. As Russia was still a relatively underdeveloped country with a huge peasant population, the Mensheviks argued that the next stage of the revolution could not be socialist as the material conditions did not exist. It would be bourgeois, that is the tasks of the revolution would be to overthrow the landed aristocracy and bring to power the bourgeoisie who would then have the task of building a modern capitalist economy. Only once this had been achieved would the conditions for socialist revolution ripen.
Trotsky explained the reactionary nature of the Russian bourgeoisie, even before it had come to power and thus developed his theory of the Permanent Revolution (see section on this site). Lenin understood the need for socialist revolution in 1917 and thus was in complete agreement with Trotsky when the actual revolutionary events unfolded. So one could explain the behaviour of the Socialist party leaders in the 1930s on the basis of their adherence to basically Menshevik positions. But how do we explain the behaviour of the Communist Parties. The Third International under Lenin and Trotsky had gone beyond the idea of two stages (first the democratic and only later the socialist) in the revolution.
The behaviour of the Communist Party leaderships can only be explained by the bureaucratic degeneration of Soviet Russia, where the bureaucracy had assumed interests opposed to those of the world working class. The genuine revolutionary traditions of October 1917, by the 1930s had been buried, and the old theory of stages had been resuscitated by Stalin. Thus, as Spain was still relatively underdeveloped, the working class should not take power, but should support the democratic wing of the bourgeoisie. This was sold as a "Communist" position to the masses. The masses were told that they were not strong enough to take power. They had to form an alliance with a section of the capitalist class.
This line lead to the defeat of the Spanish workers. It had been previously applied to the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. Again the young Chinese Communist party was crushed by the forces of reaction. This line of action was repeated after the Second World War in France and Italy, where the revolutionary wave of 1943-48 was finally defeated and the conditions for a recovery of capitalism were created. In both France and Italy the Communist Parties entered government led by bourgeois parties. The price they paid for this collaboration was defeat in the elections. The capitalists did not have to turn to open reactionary methods (such as Fascism or military rule) because the workers had been defeated and demoralised and then the enormous economic boom that followed created the conditions for a period of stable bourgeois parliamentary democracy. But the essence was the same: the workers were defeated.
The same theory of the Popular Front was applied in Chile, 1970-73, by the leaders of the Communist and Socialist Parties. It prepared the ground for the Pinochet coup! The leadership of the Italian Communist Party developed the theory of the Historic Compromise, taking as its starting point the Chilean experience. They explained that the coup took place because the Chilean Christian Democrats (one of the most conservative of bourgeois parties) were not part of the Allende government. To avoid the same happening in Italy, they argued, it was necessary to form an alliance with the Italian Christian Democrats. Again, after winning a record vote in 1976, the Italian Communist began a long term decline in the defeat at the 1979 elections.
The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a "progressive wing of the bourgeoisie". These so-called democrats always from an alliance with the workers at crucial moments in history: when the crisis of capitalism leads to the maturing of conditions for revolution. They understand that their only option is to use the leaders of the trade unions and workers' parties to hold the workers back, to make sure they do not go beyond the "democratic stage" of the revolution. Thus the property and the state of the capitalist class remain untouched. Without putting overall control of the economy in the hands of the workers, without the abolition of capitalism, it is not possible to solve any of the problems facing the working class. Thus a process of disillusionment sets in, whereby the workers lose confidence in their own forces. This can either lead to a coup as in Chile in 1973 or to the coming to power of reactionary conservative governments via the ballot box.
Trotsky provided a precious analysis on the question of the Popular Front, that all genuine socialists and communists should study.
We would suggest the following:
We would also suggest reading:
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