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On the meaning of ‘popular front’

The Bolivarian movement led by Hugo Chávez contains bourgeois forces and has been the scene of repeated struggles between popular and bureaucratic wings. But far from subordinating workers to bourgeois leadership, it has served as the instrument to mobilise the masses in struggles that have won significant gains.

By John Riddell

August 8, 2011 -- also availabe at johnriddell.wordpress.com, posted at Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal with John Riddell's permission -- In a comment posted July 16 to my article “Honduras Accord: A Gain for Ottawa?” Todd Gordon warns against the danger of “popular-front style organization” and a “popular front electoralist strategy” (see his comment below this article). Socialists often use the term “popular front” or “people’s front” as a form of condemnation. But what exactly does the term mean, and how does apply it to poor, oppressed countries like Honduras?

Broadly speaking, the term “popular front” refers to a coalition of working-class and capitalist forces that stifles rank-and-file initiative and yokes a mass movement to a ruling-class agenda. Such a project is harmful in any country of the world. Still, the way socialists use the term “popular” and “people’s” in rich, exploiting countries differs from usage in countries that the rich ones oppress and victimise.

In Canada, for example, most radical activists avoid calls for “unity of the Canadian people”. At radical demonstrations, Canadian flags are seldom seen. Indeed, much of the Quebec and Indigenous population reject Canadian nationhood.

The culture of Latin American radicalism, by contrast, makes frequent appeal to the need to unite the people. The militant chant, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” is heard around the world – usually without translation. “Pueblo” here refers to the common people; my Oxford Spanish dictionary gives one of the meanings of “pueblo” as “the working class”. The alliance led by Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba proudly takes the name, “Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America” – where “our America” means the hemisphere without the US or Canada.

The statement that the Honduran resistance is in danger of becoming a “popular front” translates oddly into Spanish, given that this resistance has taken the name “popular front” from the outset: Frente nacional de resistencia popular. The mismatch in political terminology reflects a difference in social structure and class relations.

Origin of the term ‘popular front’

This distinction was apparent when the term “popular front” was first coined. In October 1934, the French Communist Party, then fully in the grip of Stalinism, proposed a “broad popular front,” an electoral bloc that was to embrace not only the Communist and Socialist parties but the Radicals – a major party of the French bourgeoisie (Claudín 1975, p. 181).

For Leon Trotsky, leader of revolutionary forces opposed to Stalinism, the French popular front represented “the coalition of the proletariat with the imperialist bourgeoisie…. The Radical Party, preserving for itself complete freedom of action, savagely imposes restrictions upon the freedom of action of the proletariat.” (Trotsky 1979, p. 129.)

The Stalin-led Communist International then extended the policy around the capitalist world, and popular-front governments ruled, for a time, in France and Spain.

In the colonial world, the “popular front” took the form of efforts by many Stalinist-led parties to subordinate liberation struggles to a search for alliance with bourgeois forces in the metropolitan countries. “One of the tasks of the People’s Front”, Trotsky wrote, “is to turn hundreds of millions of the colonial population into cannon fodder for ‘democratic’ imperialism.” Trotsky affirmed, however, the need for a “revolutionary democratic program” uniting not only workers but farmers and other popular masses (Trotsky 1974, pp. 97-98).

Trotsky opposed participating in or voting for the bourgeois nationalist parties such as those of Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico and Victor Haya de la Torre in Peru. He said they represented a people’s front in the form of a party, subordinating the proletariat to sectors of the bourgeoisie.

He did not oppose common struggle with bourgeois forces for specific goals, but insisted on the need for the proletariat to strive for leadership in democratic and national liberation struggles.

Lenin on national-revolutionary struggles

In arguing against the popular-front policy, Trotsky sought to defend the policies of the Communist International (Comintern) in Lenin’s time. The early Comintern aimed, in the imperialist countries, to unite working-class forces against all wings of the capitalist class. The Comintern called for a “workers’ government” of anti-capitalist struggle, which could embrace a social-democratic party but would exclude bourgeois forces.

As for the colonial and semi-colonial countries, Lenin warned that “a certain rapprochement” had taken place “between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies”, such that the colonial bourgeoisie “joins forces with [imperialism] against all revolutionary movements”.

Nonetheless, Lenin called on communists to “support bourgeois liberation movements in the colonies” on the condition that “they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organising in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited”.

Lenin’s term for such movements was “national-revolutionary”. Lenin’s position, developed in collaboration with the pioneer Indian communist M.N. Roy, was adopted by the second Comintern congress in 1920 (Riddell 1991 p. 213; Lenin Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 242).

Latin American reality

Most of the countries of Latin America were not colonies in Lenin’s day; they had broken free of direct colonial rule 100 years earlier. However, the new republics quickly became subject to manipulation and domination by colonial powers. They became semi-colonies: independent in form, but deeply penetrated by imperialism. In the second half of the 20th century, even as productive forces expanded in important sectors of the economy, most Latin American governments became increasingly subject to US control. More recently, neoliberal “globalisation” has infringed radically on national sovereignty in the global South.

Under these conditions, the rise of mass resistance in many Latin American countries during the last two decades has been expressed, especially in its early stages, in struggles for democracy and national sovereignty. Leadership for these struggles has often come from unexpected quarters: in Haiti, a radical Catholic priest; in Venezuela, an army officer; in Bolivia, a leader of a peasant union; and in Honduras, from Manuel Zelaya, previously a pillar of the ruling class and head of one of its two main political parties.

In such contexts, there is no single rule of thumb that will draw the class line between vanguard forces of the proletariat (the employed industrial working class) and the national bourgeoisie.

Take the example of Venezuela. The Bolivarian movement led by Hugo Chávez contains bourgeois forces and has been the scene of repeated struggles between popular and bureaucratic wings. But far from subordinating workers to bourgeois leadership, it has served as the instrument to mobilise the masses in struggles that have won significant gains.

The Bolivarian United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) does not much resemble the “popular front” party of Cárdenas; it is more reminiscent of the inclusive and internally divided socialist and labour parties of the pre-1914 period.

In addition, it is hard to identify vanguard “proletarian” forces that could provide a left alternative to the PSUV. Efforts to constitute such an alternative have not enjoyed success. The proletariat itself, while engaged in the struggle, has not been its central driving force.

It is not clear how “popular front” analysis advances our understanding in such situations.

Those who denounce the Bolivarian movement as a “popular front” have not advanced any alternative governmental project, other than that of building people’s power “from below” with the ultimate goal of revolution.

There is much to be said in favour of building the struggles of working people “from below”. In my opinion, however, this concept should not be counterposed to possibilities for electoral and governmental struggle within the capitalist framework. Here we are touching on a question much debated in the Latin American left – but one that is different from that of “popular frontism”.

Toward an epoch of revolution

The Communist International and the revolutionary forces led by Trotsky developed their policies in what they regarded as an epoch of world revolution, in which the possibility of workers’ power was increasingly posed on every continent. This reality, in various forms, dominated working-class history in most of the 20th century.

It is not our defining reality today. Revolutionary struggles have broken out in this century, to be true, but so far they are limited in scope and geographical reach. Compared with the epoch of Lenin and Trotsky, the prospect of revolution has receded across the globe. Today, we can see the clouds of revolution gathering, defining our future – but not yet our present.

In this sense, the present period resembles the preparatory period that lay between the Paris Commune of 1871 and the outbreak of world crisis in 1914.

Under such conditions, working people of a single poor and weak country, deprived of effective support from any developed economy, are not yet objectively capable of carrying through a successful socialist revolution on their own. That shapes the goals and strategy of popular movements in these countries, and it must shape our understanding too.

Grounds for caution

As we have seen, using “popular front” as a term of condemnation is likely to cause confusion in the Latin American context, if only for linguistic reasons.

Apart from that, however, Todd Gordon is right to warn of the danger that struggles by the popular masses in Honduras and other countries may be derailed by their subordination to bourgeois, pro-capitalist and ultimately pro-imperialist forces. But this danger cannot be diagnosed simply by the presence of bourgeois forces in a resistance front, the prominence of democratic demands or the decision to enter the electoral arena and advance a governmental project.

For a popular resistance front in an oppressed country to win over forces from the bourgeois camp may well be a victory, weakening the enemy camp. What is decisive is the program, and the actions taken to achieve that program. What’s needed is a radical democratic and anti-imperialist program encompassing action on central class issues such as agrarian reform, union rights, free education and health, Indigenous self-determination, women’s rights, etc. In many countries, insurgent forces have also demanded a popularly elected constituent assembly in order to strengthen the institutional basis for these and further advances. Such a program points to the goal of establishing what is sometimes called, in Latin America, a poular revolutionary government — a concept that Lenin’s Communist International termed a “workers’ and peasants’ government.”

Yes, mass movements of the oppressed run a danger of being diverted into service of a bourgeois agenda. But in Honduras, as in many other countries of the region, there are grounds for optimism that this peril can be avoided.

* * *

July 15 comment by Todd Gordon

The following comment, which provided the starting point for the foregoing text, was posted by Todd Gordon on July 15. It can also be found, along with another important comment by Todd and one by Richard Fidler, at the end of the article “Honduras Accord: A Gain for Ottawa?

July 16, 2011: Pushing towards electoral participation, in a popular front style organization, at the cost of the real grassroots movement building that had been taking place (which I think is what the leadership of the FNRP wants, quite frankly), is not a stronger position to be in to challenge the power of the Honduran ruling class and foreign capital, particularly given as noted before that coup forces still retain political and economic power and repression continues.

Don’t overstate the democratic space that has been opened. Noting this context and the reality of the Zelaya et al. popular front electoralist strategy is not reducing revolutionary strategy to enforcing the isolation of Lobo (which as stated has been ended by Cartagena). This isn’t an anti-electoralist stand on principle, but a recognition of the kind of processes taking place under Zelaya — what does it mean that repression of movement activists continues despite Cartagena? That Zelaya has already hinted at possible compromise with Lobo around the constituent assembly?

References

Claudín, Fernando 1975, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, vol. 1, New York: Monthly Review.

Riddell, John 1991, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite, vol. 1, New York: Pathfinder.

Trotsky, Leon 1979, Leon Trotsky on France, New York: Pathfinder.

Trotsky, Leon 1974, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, New York: Pathfinder.

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