April 14, 2023
Towards a full Marxist critique of Stalinism’s Popular Front strategy.
By: Joana Salay, Portugal
Some sectors and left-wing activists have revived the book Anti-Dimitrov by Portuguese Communist theorist and militant Francisco Martins Rodrigues (FMR), which makes a harsh critique of the Communist International’s use of the popular front strategy since the Seventh Congress.
The book’s revival is taking place in the context of the rise of various class collaborationist governments, mainly in Latin America, and in which the defense of the broad unity of the “progressive” sectors against the swell of reactionary forces is quite widespread. The work of FMR is gaining support in a sector that is beginning to see the limits of the broad front approach and is looking for theoretical answers to the errors they identify in Stalinism throughout history. In this article, we want to discuss the context of FMR’s critique of the popular front, the essence of popular front politics in the Stalinist movement, and the limits we identify in FMR’s critique of Stalinism and, with that, discuss what program we should use to oppose the popular front strategy.
Origins of FMR’s break with the PCP
A militant of the PCP [Portuguese Communist Party] and in the midst of the Portuguese dictatorship, FMR began to criticize the party line. He believed that the struggle against the “opportunist deviation” that the majority of the Central Committee (CC) was waging against Fogaça, a party leader who defended the idea that Salazar (the Portuguese dictator) could be peacefully removed from power, was incomplete. It was necessary to move the party away from a strategic alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie for the overthrow of fascism, which was the materialization of the popular front tactic in Portugal.
It was during a meeting of the CC of the PCP in August 1963 in the USSR when FMR presented a systematic critique of the Portuguese party’s official line. In the text “Peaceful Struggle and Armed Struggle in Our Movement” he systematizes his disagreement in terms of three central differences: the road to the national uprising and the question of armed struggle; the proletarian leadership of the revolution and the policy of national anti-fascist unity; and the line of the international communist movement and the struggle against imperialism and revisionism.
From then on, and after visiting China and Albania in 1964, FMR would be a protagonist in the construction of Maoism in Portugal. In 1983 FMR broke with the UDP (Popular Democratic Union), one of the groups that helped found the current Bloco de Esquerda, believing that they had fallen into the same deviations as the PCP.
During his political career, he founded several ultra-left groups in the country, the last of which was Política Operária in 1985, where he was active until his death in 2008.
His critique of the popular front strategy, written in Anti-Dimitrov. 1935-1985, meio século de derrotas da revolução [Anti-Dimitrov 1935-1985-Half a Century of Revolutionary Defeats] (1985), is the theoretical expression of the conclusions he drew from his experience with Stalinism and Maoism.
The book affirms that the popular front strategy presented by Dimitrov, general secretary of the Communist International between 1934 and 1943 and approved in 1935 at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International (CI), put the communists in the role of defenders of bourgeois democracy. FMR takes up several important moments in the history of the international workers’ movement, such as the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese Revolution, and the Portuguese Revolution itself, to show how the policy of unity with sectors of the bourgeoisie led to the defeat of the revolutionaries, mainly because it eliminated working-class political leadership.
The theory of the popular front
In his book Os governos de Frente Popular na História [“Popular Front Governments throughout History], published in Brazil by Editora Sundermann, Nahuel Moreno takes stock of the material and theoretical bases of the emergence of the popular front theory and its variants. He asserts that it is with Menshevism that the idea that to accumulate forces and win, the workers’ movement must seek unity with bourgeois sectors, and further, he shows how Lenin and Trotsky fought vehemently against this orientation.
The essence of the Menshevik policy was the search to form “a common front of political collaboration with the class enemy.” This was later concretized in a vision of the revolution in stages, where first it is necessary to carry out the bourgeois revolution and develop capitalism to only later make the socialist revolution. In opposition to this strategy and affirming that the fundamental division of Russian society was between the bourgeois class and the proletariat, Lenin and Trotsky developed a politics by alternative means whose strategy was the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was with this strategic vision that Lenin took the position of no-support for the Kerensky government and affirmed that the task of the Bolshevik party was to patiently explain to the masses the bourgeois character of this government.
However, it was with Stalin and Dimitrov that this conception of the “progressive bourgeois camps” was raised to the level of a general theory, permanently applied by the workers’ parties in all countries and circumstances, and systematized in the strategy of the popular front.
In the context of the rise of fascism in Europe, after applying an ultra-left and sectarian policy in Germany, refusing to form a united front with social democracy to defeat Nazism, they went to the opposite extreme and concluded that “the most solid unity of all the ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’ forces, of all the ‘friends of peace’ was necessary for the defense of the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and of Western democracy, on the other”. Among the forces called friends of peace were the Blum government in France, Largo Caballero, and Negrin in the Spanish State, and the French, British, and American imperialisms.
Mao Zedong elevated this theory to a philosophical principle with the theory of contradictions. Relativizing the main contradiction of capitalist society depending on the conflicts of the moment, Mao constructed a theoretical-philosophical justification for the defense of the construction of a progressive camp of the “nation” led by the national bourgeoisie, against the camp composed of imperialism and the “small number of traitors” who support it.
From “socialism in one country” to the search for progressive bourgeois camps
The theory of the popular front has had several variants, as in semi-colonial countries where the Stalinists sought to form “anti-imperialist fronts” with the so-called “national bourgeoisie” or “anti-monopolists.” The essence is always the same: the consolidation of the progressive bourgeois camp.
However, it is important to understand that the theoretical basis of the theory of the popular front comes not in 1935 with Dimitrov/Stalin as FMR’s book makes us think. Rather, it originates in the theory that consolidated Stalinism as the expressive force of the bureaucratization of the USSR, the theory of “socialism in one country,” which was formulated in 1924 at the Sixth Congress of the CI by Stalin himself. While it was based on a real contradiction of the Russian revolution, namely the isolation of the USSR after the defeat of the German revolution, in practice the theory meant the abandonment of the strategy of international revolution and of the working class as the revolutionary leadership in the name of a future “accumulation of national forces,” which paved the way for capitalist restoration.
As Moreno affirms, the theory of “socialism in one country” is the theory of the progressive bourgeois camps at national and international levels. On the national level, it is expressed in the collaboration with sectors of the rich peasants and NEPmen who exploit sectors of the city. On the international level, it is the collaboration with imperialism expressed in peaceful coexistence. In this sense, in order to understand the foundations of Dimitrov’s Theory of the Popular Front, we must analyze the USSR’s process of bureaucratization, which did not begin in 1935 but in 1924. At that point its strategy of class collaboration is already visible with the reactionary theory of “socialism in one country” and with the stageist conception of the revolution.
If not Dimitrov, what is the strategic orientation?
After writing Anti-Dimitrov, FMR accelerated a course of elaborations and criticisms and ended up concluding that the USSR was never a Workers’ State, but rather state capitalism. He attributed this to the fact that the proletariat was not in power. On the other hand, he equates Trotskyism and Stalinism, affirming that both would be part of a bureaucratic and class collaborationist project since Trotskyism continued defending the USSR as a Workers’ State and identifying the Stalinist parties as part of the workers’ movement. Unfortunately, we are not able to develop this part of the polemic with FMR in the present article. However, we believe it is important to briefly show the path of Trotskyism and the program it presented as a way out of the impasses created by Soviet degeneration.
Trotskyism asserts itself as a current in the systematic struggle against the degeneration of the USSR and its theoretical expressions, beginning with “socialism in one country.” The only ones who fought against the strategy of the Popular Front in general, in the period of its approval at the Seventh Congress, and in particular in France in 1934 and 1935, were Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
Trotsky founded the Fourth International in 1938, after many years of fierce struggle against Stalinism, which led to systematic persecution against the Left Opposition by the Soviet apparatus.
The Fourth International was founded to reaffirm the Leninist revolutionary strategy and therefore claimed the first four congresses of the CI as theoretical political patrimony. However, faced with the process of Stalinist degeneration, it understood that a complete analysis of the process was necessary.
That is why Trotsky built a program that is based on an understanding of Stalinist degeneration as the fruit of bureaucratization and isolation of the revolution, as well as the process of revisionism since 1924. The program is based on a fixed set of foundational principles. One is the defense of the permanent revolution, which defends the proletariat as the subject of the revolutionary processes and affirms class independence, and the internationalist strategy that confirms the revolution will unfold at the national and international levels. Another is the need to defend workers’ democracy as a method and strategy. In addition, Trotsky understood the need to defend the USSR itself, which, in spite of bureaucratization, still expressed the working class social conditions conquered by the October Revolution. He saw the USSR as threatened not only by the imperialist counterrevolution, but also by the bureaucratic counterrevolution itself, and for that reason affirmed a political revolution was necessary. In opposition to the class collaboration of Stalinism, Trotskyism built a program of class independence and internationalism.
What led to the development of the popular front strategy within the workers’ movement?
For this reason, we believe that in order to develop an accurate critique of Dimitrov’s Popular Front, it is necessary to locate its origins in the expression of the same process that was already unfolding in the rise of Stalinism and in the theory of “socialism in one country.” The risk of separating the two processes and of not understanding the material and political foundations of Soviet degeneration can lead down two different paths. The first is the tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as FMR did in concluding that the USSR was state capitalism. The second is that of making an incomplete critique of Stalinism and not breaking with the theoretical foundations that led to a strategy of class collaboration, which is the path taken by a significant number of the “ex-Stalinists.” And both end up ignoring a revolutionary, Bolshevik alternative. For instance, FMR never dedicated himself to building an International in spite of having founded several groups in Portugal.
The partial ruptures with Stalinism end up maintaining important aspects of its counterrevolutionary content in place, including the defense of a stageist conception of the revolution, class collaboration, and socialism in one country. Even the guerrilla groups constructed a reformist, capitalist solution in their strategy, despite being radicalized toward armed struggle. In Brazil, Caio Prado Júnior himself, who broke with the idea that Brazil had a feudal economy, still did not see the country as part of a capitalist world totality and defended a revolution in stages when he elaborated a stage prior to the socialist revolution that would need to eliminate the country’s colonial features. He did not understand that these features will only be eliminated by the socialist revolution. Thus, by partially breaking with the Stalinist formulations and not going to the origins of degeneration, these thinkers end up at a halfway point and fail to take up or construct a truly revolutionary path.
The current polemic
We take up these historical polemics because we believe that they are part of the revolutionary response to the current challenges. We see a resurgence of “progressive” governments and, faced with these governments, some left forces end up defending the alliance with those “who defend democracy” against reactionary forces. This is undoubtedly a new variant of the theory of progressive bourgeois camps, which leads to the numbing of the working class and its political submission to sectors of the bourgeoisie.
In the face of this trend, how should revolutionaries position themselves?
Here we want to raise a discussion with the PCB. In the first place, despite the fact that some sectors of the party publicly affirm the need to break with Dimitrovism – starting from the (incomplete) critique of FMR as a base – Jones Manoel relativizes the issue. He claims that Dimitrov was misinterpreted and misapplied and that his theory of the Popular Front would not be a strategic error, since the “Broad Front is a tactic like any other.” That is to say, it is not even a total break with Dimitrov’s theory of the Popular Front. Let us see, then, how the current policy of the PCB is concretized vis-à-vis the Lula government.
In an article published on the PCB website on March 8, Gabriel Landi apparently polemicizes from the left with the idea that Lula’s government is in dispute (which we agree with). From a careful reading of Landi’s article, we could not determine what would then be the line vis-à-vis Lula’s Broad Front Government. Do we have to trust the government? Challenge from the left? Landi ends by affirming that “within certain limits, every capitalist government is “in dispute” and that “the dispute over the direction of bourgeois politics takes place much more against the State than within it.”
In other words, it is necessary, outside the apparatuses of the state, to put pressure on bourgeois politics to improve the living conditions of the working class. So, should this be the line of revolutionaries in the face of the PT government? Evidently, we do not want to deny here the need to fight for reforms and in defense of democratic victories. These are part of the process of the class struggle, and above all, they are part of the struggle for the proletariat to affirm itself as the subject of the revolution. However, the objective of that struggle is not to “dispute the direction of bourgeois politics,” but the independent mobilization of the working class and its allied sectors.
The comrades of the PCB do not follow the lessons left to us by Lenin acting against the popular front government of Kerensky: no support for the government and patiently explaining its character to the masses. They repeat an error similar to that of the French organization OCI against the popular front government of Mitterrand (1981-1985), since they do not concretize any policy in relation to the Lula government, and therefore end up capitulating in relation to government measures and the expectations of the masses. Not by chance, Jones Manoel recently defended the collaboration with João Paulo of the PT “towards socialism” in Pernambuco. Behind a leftist socialist garb, he is building a new form of class collaboration.
The proposals of revolutionaries must go in the opposite direction. Every battle, inside and outside parliament, must serve to strengthen the struggle and the independent organization of the working class against capitalism and for the seizure of power through a socialist revolution. Everything that serves to build this revolutionary consciousness is a valid tactic for our movement. Everything that tends to create the illusion that bourgeois politics or its capitalist governments are “in dispute,” supports class conciliation and the popular front. In that sense, revolutionaries must openly expose the bourgeois character of Lula’s government and patiently explain this character to the masses; that is the challenge facing our movement in Brazil.
 Trotsky, “El congreso de liquidación de la Comintern”, en Escritos, t. VII, vol. 1, pp. 133 y 135-136.
Translation: John Prieto