Communist Platform

The role of the working class in the policy of United Front and Popular Front

1. Three years ago we published an article entitled The tactics of United Front and Popular Front in the political strategy of the communist movement (which appeared in the journal “Teoria e Prassi” [Theory and Practice] no. 24 and, in a brief form, in “Unity and Struggle” no. 23, organ of the ICMLPO).

In that article we reconstructed the historical origins of the tactics of the proletarian United Front and of the anti-fascist Popular Front promoted by the 7th Congress of the Communist International (1935), the struggles led by the communist parties in order to defeat the opportunist right-wing and ultra-left deviations in its ranks, the political and social conditions necessary for the formation of United Front and Popular Front governments. And finally, we referred to the important experiences of the workers’ and people’ blocs underway in Tunisia, Palestine, Ecuador, Mexico, France and Spain.

In the present contribution we would like to pay special attention to the fundamental role of the working class in both tactics, with particular reference to the two experiences of the French and Spanish Popular Fronts in the 1930s, rich in lessons for the formation of Popular Fronts in the present phase of the class struggle at the national and international level.

2. In his report to the 7th Congress, George Dimitrov expressed himself this way:

“It would be insufficient to rest content with the conclusion of a pact providing for joint action and the formation of contact committees from the parties and organizations participating in the united front, like those we have in France, for instance. That is only the first step. The pact is an auxiliary means for obtaining joint action, but by itself it does not constitute a united front. A contact commission between the leaders of the Communist and Socialist Parties is necessary to facilitate the carrying out of joint action, but by itself it is far from adequate for a real development of the united front, for drawing the widest masses into the struggle against fascism.

“The Communists and all revolutionary workers must strive for the formation of elected (and in the countries of fascist dictatorship – selected from among the most authoritative participants in the united front movement) non-party class bodies of the united front, at the factories, among the unemployed, in the working class districts, among the small townsfolk and in the villages. Only such bodies will be able to include also the vast masses of unorganized working people in the united front movement. “

Regarding the formation of People’s Fronts, Dimitrov’s directive was extremely clear:

“In mobilizing the mass of working people for the struggle against fascism, the formation of a wide anti-fascist People’s Front on the basis of the proletarian united front is a particularly important task. The success of the whole struggle of the proletariat is closely bound up with the establishment of a fighting alliance between the proletariat, on the one hand, and the laboring peasantry and basic mass of the urban petty bourgeoisie who together form the majority of the population even in industrially developed countries, on the other.”

But, in view of the different social and political conditions existing in the various countries where one must confront the fascist menace, some doubts and uncertainties appeared among the communists about the priority to assign to the building of the one and the other front.

On this particular problem, the solution suggested by Dimitrov in his closing speech was inspired by the principles of Marxist dialectics:

“Some comrades are quite needlessly racking their brains over the problem of what to begin with – the united proletarian front or the anti-fascist Popular Front.

“Some say that we cannot start forming the anti-fascist Popular Front until we have organized a solid united front of the proletariat.

“Others argue that, since the establishment of the united proletarian front meets in a number of countries with the resistance of the reactionary part of Social Democracy, it is better to start at once with building up the Popular Front, and then develop the united working class front on this basis.

“Evidently, both groups fail to understand that the united proletarian front and the antifascist Popular Front are connected by the living dialectics of struggle; that they are interwoven, the one passing into the other in the process of the practical struggle against fascism, and that there is certainly no Chinese wall to keep them apart.”

Therefore, the detailed and precise study of the concrete situation and of the relationship of forces among the classes in every particular situation and in every national reality will indicate to the communists where they have to direct their main efforts, that is, where to begin, without forgetting that, as Dimitrov vigorously emphasized, “the unity of action of the working class itself” is “the guiding force” of the building of a broader front.

3. Dimitrov’s political instructions were confirmed by the Resolution adopted by the 7th Congress at the end of its work (“Resolution on the offensive of fascism and the tasks of the Communist International in the fight for the unity of the working class against fascism,” adopted on August 20, 1935):

“For a successful struggle against the offensive of capital, against the reactionary measures of the bourgeoisie, against fascism, the bitterest enemy of all the toilers, who, without distinction of political views, have been deprived of all rights and liberties, it is imperative that unity of action be established between all sections of working class, irrespective of what organization they belong to, even before the majority of the working class unites on a common fight platform for the overthrow of capitalism and the victory of the proletarian revolution. But is precisely for this very reason that this task makes it the duty of the Communist Parties to take into consideration the changed circumstances and to apply the united front tactics in a new manner, by seeking to reach agreements with the organizations of the toilers of various political trends for joint action on a factory, local, district, national and international scale.

“[...] In order to develop the united front movement as the cause of the mass themselves, Communists must strive to secure the establishment of elected (or, in the countries under fascist dictatorship, selected from the most authoritative participants in the movement) nonparty class organs of the united front in the factories, in the working-class districts, among the small townsfolk, and in the villages. Only such bodies, which of course, should not supplant the organisations participating in the united front, will be able to bring into the united front movement also the vast unorganized mass of the toilers, will be able to assist in developing the initiative of the masses in the struggle against the offensive of capital and against fascism, and on this basis help to create a large body of working class united front activists.”

4. Why is it that the working class can and must exert its hegemony in the policy of the Front?

The working class, the industrial proletariat, is the principal antagonist of capital, because the general development of capitalism does not threaten its very existence (as it does, on the contrary, for the petty-bourgeois strata), but it increases, on a world level, the number of workers and makes their economic and social role ever more important as they are the principal producers of society’s material wealth; therefore, the material interests of the working class coincide with the fundamental tendency of development of the productive forces (including science and its technical applications to production).

The industrial proletariat – which does not possess any means of production – is the class directly exploited by capital, which obtains from the unpaid surplus labor of the workers the profit from which the whole bourgeois class in all its social ramifications lives. The working class is thus the only social class that has a really antagonistic relation with capital in the sphere of the productive process itself, and is therefore the most combative class, the only class that is revolutionary to the end in capitalist society.

Work in the great capitalist industry educates the workers every day through activity conducted in common, as to the organization, discipline, the spirit of collectivism. All this allows the industrial proletariat to increase its class conscience, to assimilate the ideas of scientific socialism, and to get ready for its revolutionary task: the elimination – at the head of all the oppressed and exploited people – of the political rule of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the passage from capitalism to socialism and afterwards to communism.

These are the reasons why, in all the historical phases of the revolutionary process, the working class can exercise its hegemony over other strata of oppressed and exploited working people, and – under the leadership of its party, the Communist Party – it can extend its hegemony and exercise a leading function over a part of the working petty-bourgeoisie too.

5. The restoration of the historical experiences of the Popular Fronts carried out in France and Spain in the 1930s is extremely useful in order to understand that the joint action of the working class organized in its own organs is fundamental for the mobilization of the masses and the success of the policy of the Popular Front.

What was the origin of the Popular Front in France? On February 6, 1934, the French right-wing organized a rebellion, proclaiming the need for a “strong State” (as in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany) against the “weak and corrupt” parliamentary regime.

In order to counteract the threat of the reactionary and fascist right wing, the French Socialist Party (SFIO) hesitated to appeal to the workers mobilization, while the French Communist Party launched an appeal calling for a great counter-demonstration for February 9. The range of the February 9th demonstration, in the course of which the two great contingents of communist and socialist workers joined together, marked a turning point, which was followed by the mighty general strike of February 12th.

Although the necessity of building United Front committees of action in the factories was felt at once, the Pact of Unity of Action agreed to in July of 1934 between the French Communist Party and the French Socialist Party, in which the two parties promised to defend democratic freedoms and the republican institutions threatened by fascism, did not provide for the formation of Worker Committees and unitary Rank-and-File Committees for struggle against fascism. On no occasions did the communists give up asking for their formation, but the center-right leadership of the SFIO, whose heads were Leon Blum and Paul Faure, was always unwilling.

After the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of April-May 1936 and the formation of the Popular Front government headed by Leon Blum, the French working class demonstrated its high combativeness.

Everything began in Le Havre, with the struggle of the workers of the Breguet factory against the dismissal of two trade union delegates who refused to work on May Day. In support of their delegates, the 600 workers of that factory downed tools and, for the first time in France, a strike was accompanied by the occupation of the plant. In Toulouse and other places the suspension of work also took place in support of trade union demands, with the occupation of the workplaces. The same form of struggle spread all over France, and on May 28 the 35,000 Renault workers downed tools, pushing forward the struggle of all the metalworkers in the region of Paris. In the French provinces not only the workers of the big factories, but also the working women and men of the small factories, and later the dockers and seamen, were mobilized.

In the course of these occupations, the workers stayed in the workplaces day and night, provided for by their families and the populations of the nearby towns. In the occupied enterprises, power was concentrated in the hands of “strike committees,” and every day a workers assembly took place there.

With the strikes and occupations, the workers obtained some important improvements in their wages and work conditions from the Popular Front government, but in France no revolutionary prospective was opened after the fall of the Leon Blum government.

In the first months of the Blum government there was a direct relationship between the struggles of the workers in their factories and the laws proposed by the ministers and adopted by Parliament. At the beginning of the government action this link between the working class, the popular masses and the action on an institutional level was explicitly conceded.

But the government ended up representing more and more the parliamentary groups that supported it, and less and less the social movement that had brought it to power.

The leading role of the working class was unquestionable during much of the economic struggle, but there was not, at the rank-and-file level, an organized approach that could find its expression in the organs of the proletarian United Front as “motive force” of the Popular Front, according to Dimitrov’s clear indication.

A heavy responsibility for this void falls on the reformist leaders of the Confederation of Labor, who were opposed to the United Front.

And this lack was felt particularly at the times when the Council of Ministers and the leaders of the political parties were making decisions of great importance, without any control by the proletarian mass organs.

Thus the principal limitation of the French experience of the Popular Front of the 1930s was the fact that the joint action among the political parties found its expression in great unitary mass meetings and demonstrations in the streets and squares of Paris and other French cities, but not also in the actions of the heads of the rank-and-file committees of the proletarian United Front or the anti-fascist Popular Front, as recommended by the Communist International.

6. In Spain, after the expulsion of King Alfonso XIII from the country as a consequence of the defeat of the monarchical parties in the elections for the Constituent Assembly in 1931, the Republic was proclaimed and a provisional government was established, with the republican Manuel Azana as Prime Minister and the socialist Largo Caballero as Minister of Labor. Just over a year after the proclamation of the Republic, in August of 1932 the first unsuccessful attempt at a military coup d’état took place, with the rebellion of General Sanjurjo.

The Azana-Caballero government promoted a weak agrarian reform, which did not satisfy the hunger for land of the poor peasants. An ever greater split opened up between the government and the rural and urban proletariat. The government fell in 1933, and the new elections gave victory to the right-wing forces, while the economic crisis reached its highest point, with a constant growth in the number of unemployed.

The Socialist Party began a partial self-criticism, and the Communist Party of Spain began to practice a rank-and-file policy of unity with all the proletarian forces.

On October 6, 1934 an insurrection broke out in Asturias. Led by unitary organs (the Workers ‘Alliances), in which communist, socialist and anarchist proletarians came together, an uprising spread from the mining basin to the chief town, Oviedo. For several days the region was under the control of the revolutionary forces, led by a Committee that took charge of all government functions. The workers’ columns resisted the government troops that converged from Castile and Galicia. But in the end the revolutionary forces were forced to surrender to the troops led by the Falangist generals Franco, Ochoa, Yague and Varela. The repression was very harsh: more than 1,000 were killed, many were shot immediately, and 30,000 were taken prisoner, many of whom were tortured.

After this atrocious repression, the Communist Party mobilized the most revolutionary elements of the masses in joint actions, creating the concrete conditions for the formation of the anti-fascist Popular Front.

In June of 1935, the Secretary of the Communist Party, Jose Diaz, addressed a public appeal to the Socialist Party, to the anarchists, the trade unionists, the republicans and all the antifascists for the formation of a United Front of workers and peasants, and of an Anti-Fascist Popular Concentration, with the proletariat in the hegemonic position. We reproduce some politically important passages of that call:

“We, the Communist Party, are struggling and always will struggle for the realization of our maximum program, for the establishment in Spain of a workers and peasants Government, for the dictatorship of proletariat in our country.

But at this moment when a heavy peril is threatening the workers, with fascism the master of the State’s principal means, we declare that we are ready to struggle together with all the anti-fascist forces, on the basis of a minimum program of obligatory acceptance by all people who will enter into the Anti-Fascist Popular Concentration.

“[...] The Anti-Fascist Popular Concentration must be founded on the Workers’ and Peasants ‘Alliances, on the organs of unity and struggle of the proletariat and the peasants. It is not necessary that I expand on the importance and meaning of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Alliances. This has been evident in October, with the seizure of power by the Asturian workers.

“This necessity, this foresight of ours, must be well understood. It is well-known that the only revolutionary class, consistently revolutionary to the end, is the proletariat. For this reason the proletariat has to be the leading force of the Anti-Fascist Popular Concentration. This is the best guarantee that the Popular Concentration will serve the interests of the anti-fascist masses without giving up until it achieves its objective. And its objective is to tear down the reactionary and fascist government.” (Jose Diaz, “The struggle for unity against complete reaction,” Speech in Madrid on June 2, 1935.)

On January 15, 1936, the Left forces signed a Unity Pact and, one month later, the Popular Front, made up of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the republican parties of the small and middle bourgeoisie, won the elections. A new government was formed under the presidency of Azana, in which the socialists and communists had no representatives. Some Popular Front Committees were formed, but they were nearly always subordinated to petty-bourgeois legality, and the Communist Party was not able to transform them into organs of genuine popular power.

On the other hand, the middle bourgeoisie and sectors of the army refused to attack the interests of capitalism, in order to save their privileges.

The revenge of the reactionary and fascist traitors came quickly. In July, in Morocco (then a Spanish colony) and in Spain a military rebellion broke out, led by the “four generals” (headed by Francisco Franco, the hangman of Asturias) and the Spanish civil war began, in the course of which – on the fronts of the river Ebro, of Guadarrama, of the defense of Madrid, and in many other battles – the working class heroically shed its blood together with the International Brigades.

The weakness of the proletarian United Front organs was not the only limitation of the

Spanish experience – for example, there was the failure to understand the nature of that war as a revolutionary national war – but it negatively influenced the development of the struggle, because the only genuine guarantee of a struggle against a powerful and unmerciful enemy is the compact unity of the working class.

7. The policy of the United Front and Popular Front embodies, today just as yesterday, the correct Marxist-Leninist tactic that should be carried forward decisively and intelligently, taking into account the specific reality of every country. This tactic is indispensable for establishing relations with the masses and increasing our influence in the workers and popular movement, for developing its mobilization and realizing better relationships of force, as a precondition for further revolutionary advances.

Today, with the brutal and reactionary offensive of capitalism, with the populist and fascist threat in many countries, with the danger of imperialist war, the realization of the Popular Front (in its various forms and designations), which presupposes alliances with the strata of the petty bourgeoisie struck and impoverished by the economic crisis, by the austerity measures, etc., is a fundamental objective; on the condition that the working class, with its United Front of struggle, plays an important role of leadership and political influence on all the other strata of the working people.

The proletarian United Front is mainly the joint action of all sectors of the working class; it is the formation of unitary organs (committees, councils, etc.) of struggle in the workplaces and areas; it is the class trade-union unity, the unity in struggle of the organized and unorganized workers, in order to defend the economic and political interests of the proletariat, its freedoms and rights, against the capitalist offensive and bourgeois reaction, against the dangers of imperialist war, in close connection with the final objectives of our struggle.

The process of building the United Front and the Popular Front can go on at the same time. The one helps the other. It is important that the working class supports the demands of the other social strata and sectors attacked by capitalism. It is equally important that the popular coalitions recognize the urgent demands of the working class.

Clearly, a Popular Front without the working class is inconceivable. At the same time we have to say that the concept of a Popular Front as a simple “alliance” among different social classes and strata (the working class, the petty bourgeoisie of the cities, the poor peasants, etc.) is insufficient. This alliance always has a leadership, which can be of one class or another. As Marxist-Leninists, we have to put into practice the concept of the leadership, of hegemony of the proletariat in this alliance.

When we speak of the leadership of the working class in the Popular Fronts, we are not referring only to the role of the Communist Party, which is its vanguard detachment. A class leadership means struggling for the creation of Popular Front organs that are in the hands of fighting elements of proletarian derivation. A genuine Popular Front must not only include the representatives of the working class with their political, partial and immediate demands, but it put them at its head in the heat of the struggle.

The strengthening of the leading role of the working class in the framework of the politics of the Popular Front serves to avoid many errors (for example, to identify the Front with the Party), and it helps to develop the organic relationship of the communists with the best proletarian elements.

One of the reasons why decisive steps towards the formation of a Left coalition of anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, democratic and popular forces has not been achieved in Italy until now is the lack of understanding and recognition of the leading role of the working class, and the consequent negation of the dialectical relation between the proletarian United Front and the policy of unity between the working class and the other victims of capitalism.

Because of this profound limitation, the policy of the Front is in fact denied or boycotted by many opportunist, social-democratic and revisionist forces; or it is conducted as a petty-bourgeois policy, often restricted to occasional situations, or limited to the formation of coalitions or alliances exclusively in the electoral arena. This leads to continual breaking up and setbacks in the initial experiences of the Front.

On the other hand, there are some sectarian and ultra-left tendencies that do not understand the hegemony of the working class and consequently reject the policy of the Front.

These deviations must be openly fought, re-launching and developing our work in an objective situation that today, in Italy and in the whole world, presents favorable conditions and political opportunities for the formation of the United Front and the Popular Front.

 It is necessary that the worker and popular, revolutionary and anti-capitalist left, the political, trade union and social forces that are resisting the capitalist offensive, build up places for common meetings, discussions and mobilizations, that they establish popular coalitions based on the struggle against the class enemy and its collaborators. In this way they will strengthen the class nature of these coalitions, clearly distinguishing them from those of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois left, and confirming the prospect of a revolutionary break with the present economic and political system.

The Marxist-Leninists must always be at the head of this struggle, without ever giving up, even for a moment, their independent work of communist agitation, organization and mobilization of the exploited and oppressed masses.

Communist Platform – for the Communist Party of the Proletariat of Italy
February 2015

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