The Popular Front and its Relevance in the Present Struggle

by Allan Bowling on April 3, 2016

MoS2 Template Master

The seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump and the militant right-wing elements that his nativist, chauvinist bravado has inspired to levels of activity not seen in decades in the United States, has forced many on the Left to ask what can and should be done to oppose Trump on an organizational level. Inevitably the Popular Front is invoked as the prime historical example of a strategy of joint opposition of fascism by liberals, socialist, and communists; a blueprint for cooperation against the fearsome force of fascism. But is this really an appropriate strategy? I believe that examining the Popular Front and the related United Front as they manifested at two points in history will provide the key to answering this question: the Popular Front in France in 1934-35, and the United Front in China in 1923-27. It is not the aim of this article to formulate a plan to address the rise of fascism associated with Trump’s campaign, merely to furnish a more proper understanding of one of the most commonly-invoked strategies for doing so.

The United Front is a strategy first articulated in December 1922 by the Fourth Comintern Congress. Their “Theses on Comintern Tactics” summarized the United Front as “simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.” The Comintern was motivated by the March on Rome that had delivered Mussolini’s Nazionale Fascista party to power in Italy two months earlier, itself the culmination of a sequence of events that began with the piecemeal defeat of the militant trade union movement romanticized as the Biennio Rosso, or “Two Red Years” by gangsters of the same stripe as Mussolini’s party. However, the United Front remained unpopular in Europe through the 1920s, with the so-called Third Period beginning in 1928 as the most hostile interaction between social democrats and communists. The dynamics of the Third Period characterized social democracy as “social fascism” keeping capitalism afloat during the final hour by splitting a reformist working class movement from the revolutionary parties.

The first manifestation of what became the Popular Front arose in France in February 1934 during the Stavisky Affair. The period immediately following the Nazi coup in 1933 found the Comintern in a state of confusion, having seen its policy of treating social democrats as the communists’ greatest enemy blow up in its face. Acting almost on a hunch, a French communist politician from St. Denis named Jacques Doriot formed a United Front between communists and social democrats in his Paris district to jointly resist an attempt at a fascist coup on 6 February 1934. The cooperation continued again on the 12th, when the United Front organized a general strike to exert popular pressure on the government to remain intact. The Comintern moved to reprimand Doriot for this breach of policy, but concurrent events in Austria, where the Dollfuß regime’s attempt to disarm the social-democratic militia ended in their armed uprising, prompted the Comintern to reconsider. That July, Georgy Dimitrov presented a draft resolution to the Comintern on the United Front. In September, the Spanish Communist Party also found itself in a United Front situation, joining a coalition government after having subsumed the Social Revolutionary Party. The following month, the French communist leader Maurice Thorez went still further, inviting the Radicals, a liberal party, to join his national anti-fascist coalition. In January 1935, the Comintern reluctantly endorsed this Popular Front, and universalized it for all communist parties at the Seventh Congress starting on 25 July.

The presentation Dimitrov made at the Seventh Congress detailed the nature of appropriate situations in which such an anti-fascist alliance might be formed.  The “establishment of unity of action by all sections of the working class is necessary, even before the majority of the working class is united in the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism…. We make no such proposal [to form a dictatorship of the proletariat] now.” However, he considered this to be more than the formation of a stable front against fascism; it was not a blanket endorsement of parliamentarianism, but it was a way for the proletariat to advance its cause and society toward socialism in the present environment. The key was the preparatory work in constructing a non-party popular front mass movement from the bottom-up, such that the maximum amount of popular pressure could be brought to bear “to defend every inch of bourgeois-democratic liberties, which are being attacked by fascism and bourgeois reaction.” However, this United Front government had to have definite and fundamental revolutionary demands: control of production, banks, disbanding police and replacing them with armed workers’ militias, as required by the situation. Thus, it would not become “ordinary ministers, within the framework of a bourgeois government,” but a way to establish the widest possible united front with the aid of the joint action by workers’ organizations.

The Popular Front strategy, however, began to quickly crumble. It broke first in Spain, when out of worry for the effect on Germany, Stalin and the Comintern pressured the Spanish Communist Party into accepting a junior partnership in the Republican government in the spring of 1938 when its leader, Jose Diaz, believed it had the power to press for dominance instead. The popular committees that were meant to apply pressure from below were never allowed to be organized, so the Popular Front was never anything more than a government pact, as if between normal parliamentary parties. Diaz drew up a “Lessons of the Spanish People’s War” for the Comintern in early 1940, which emphasized this failure.

Likewise in China, the legacy of the United Front is a deeply troubled one. China has seen not one but two United Fronts; the first from 1923-1927 against the scourge of warlordism and the second from 1937-1946, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, only the First is relevant here. In January 1923, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) Sun Yat-Sen signed an agreement with Soviet representative Adolphe Joffe which outlined the basic conditions for an alliance with the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), then under the direction of Chen Duxiu. The KMT was the Comintern-favored party at the time as it was both larger than the CPC and seen as the safer option in the context of Chinese political affairs in the 1920s. The country was deeply wrought by warlordism and regional powers, a consequence of the Republican government’s inability to retain national unity after winning the 1911-12 revolution. As per the agreement, the CPC would accept KMT leadership and disseminate into the KMT’s ranks, and the two parties would embark on a great conquest of the Beiyang Government in Beijing and the warlordism that it was ill-equipped to address.

However, Sun Yat-Sen’s death in 1925 heralded the rise of the much more right-wing leader Chiang Kai-Shek, who took the KMT is a more nationalist and anti-communist direction. In April 1927, halfway through the famed Northern Expedition, Chaing struck. Thousands of communists were murdered across China as the KMT tried to consolidate authority in its territories before the close of the anti-government campaign. The assimilated status of the CPC into the KMT meant it was caught flat-footed and unable to respond effectively. Between the massacre in Shanghai and the destruction of the Guangzhou Soviet that December, the experience was enough to convince the Comintern of the folly of an open alliance with non-communists, and the next Congress (the Sixth, in July 1928) produced the Third Period isolationism described above.

In both of these examples the gains made by communists were few. While in France the Popular Front helped stop Fascism at the 11th hour, it is only a moderate success story. When the socialist Leon Blum’s Popular Front government fell in 1938, has was replaced by the Radical party’s Édouard Daladier, who is most famous for his role in Appeasement of Nazi Germany; a sharp contrast to Blum’s support for the Spanish Republicans and the confrontation in the Parisian streets during the Stavisky Affair. In Spain the Popular Front was a good deal more disastrous; the Spanish Communists were forced to accept a junior coalition role instead of pressing for leadership, and the consequence was disunity for the Republicans and the victory of Franco’s nationalists. In China the dissolution of the communists into the Nationalist ranks left them tailing the liberals, whose inevitable betrayal was catastrophic for the communists.

These are the dangers the American Left faces in considering the strategy of a Popular or United Front against Trump. Are we capable of following Dimitrov’s advice, and placing communist and socialist parties in leadership roles over liberals and social democrats, who have no choice but to unite with us against fascism? Or do we find ourselves tailing a much larger liberal party with openly anti-communist tendencies, in whose success we become increasingly sheepdogged out of fear of the “greater evil” of the Right? If this “Popular Front” of Democrats, socialists, and communists is victorious, could it ever provide us with the leverage to force pro-socialist concessions from a Democratic government, or to advance the cause of socialism in any way whatsoever?

It is this opinion of this author that it cannot.


“Theses on Comintern Tactics.” Fourth Congress of the Communist International. Moscow. 5 December 1922.

Georgi Dimitrov, “The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class against Fascism: Main Report delivered at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International, August 2, 1935” Selected Works. Sofia: Sofia Press, Vol. 2, 1972.

Geoffrey Swain.“The Cominform, Tito’s International?” Historical Journal. 35.3. (1992).

Jose Diaz. “On The Lessons of the Spanish People’s War” in Bolshevik, February 1940.

(Allen Bowling is a history professor at a community college in the Washington D.C. area and a member of the Party of Socialism and Liberation.)

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Wayne Price April 3, 2016 at 10:51 pm

So the problem with the Popular Front was not that workers’ parties were collaborating with bourgeois parties (and therefore could not go beyond programs which accepted capitalism) but that the Communist (Stalinist) parties did not dominate and control them!

Therefore the fascists took over and established murderous authoritarian states, instead of the Stalinists taking over and establishing their murderous authoritarian states.


Carl Davidson April 4, 2016 at 8:34 am

‘Are we capable of following Dimitrov’s advice, and placing communist and socialist parties in leadership roles over liberals and social democrats, who have no choice but to unite with us against fascism?’

This question is a non starter. Anyone with any sense knows that none of our socialist or communist organizations are in ‘leadership roles’ over much more than small groupuscles and a circle or two around them. Only PDA, and progressive but non socialist group, had some mass influence in their convincing Bernie to run at all, and giving him some inital organizational reach. (He was dead set against running ‘third party’, since he knew all that could do would be to throw the election to the GOP, which he didn’t want to facilitate.)

But the task of taking action to help defeat Trump/Cruz in November remains before us. So spell it out with the tools history has presented to us, not the ones we wish we had.

Make a Jacobin /In These Times reading group in your living room to bring socialists together, join or form locals of PDA or WFP, back local candidates that will expand the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Work for Bernie as far as he can go, then vote for whichever Dem that wins to defeat the GOP. Don’t wait for ‘the campaign’ or ‘permission from on high’. Just Git ‘er done!


Kevin MacKinen April 4, 2016 at 11:12 am

Professor Bowling’s point is not that liberal or “progressive groups should “kneel in veneration to the accompanying strains of The Internationale,” before Communists and Socialists. It’s that communists and socialists need to have relevant practical programs that strike blows at our class enemy, offer material hope and can lead — as the PLA led in China; as the July 26th movement did in Cuba — they only two revolutions to datw that fought and won against a fascist regime.

I might add that direct confrontation with fascist forces in an era of ascending fascism only makes those fascist forces dig in and entrench themselves more. Cut off their supply lines. Take from them what they need to survive, and hit them obliquely. That is how you beat them. Liberals and other progressives are welcome. Everyone one can be useful.


Carl Davidson April 4, 2016 at 12:06 pm

On Kevin’s point, I think nipping the proto-fascist forces in the byd by defeating them at the polls is also worthwhile. (And th prime one we face at the moment) And I would add Tito’s Yugoslavia and Hoxha’s Albania as countries were the popular front, along with armed partisans and led by communists, to and held power.


S.Artesian April 4, 2016 at 1:14 pm

Pretty much a nonsensical discussion, no? I mean Pop Front, United Front have very real distinctions, but the most important issue here and now is that there are no workers’ parties/organizations equivalent in strength, mass base, political development, or international support in the US equivalent to either the SFIO and PCF in France, or to the CNT/PCE in Spain.

That’s the big blue whale in the room, right?

What Davidson asserts as the reason to support Clinton or Sanders or whomever the Dems nominate is exactly the reason not to support the Dems– “Anyone with any sense knows that none of our socialist or communist organizations are in ‘leadership roles’ over much more than small groupuscles and a circle or two around them.”

Any step “forward” begins in a break with the parties committed to administering capitalism. Just that simple.

On the theoretical level, conflating the PF with the UF disregards the orientation and purpose of each. The PF was/is a cross-class alliance which subordinates the separate class interests of the workers to the institutions of bourgeois rule: the police, the parliament, etc. The UF was conceived of and attempted as a practice that specifically delineated the common interests of the workers as a class, and opposed those common interests to the institutions of bourgeois rule. The UF is not simply about “striking together” but creating those institutions of specifically working class rule to lead the strike. In sum, soviets are the highest expression of the united front.

The tactic of the UF, and it is only a tactic, is based on the recognition that in fact a Franco, a Salazar, or any iteration of fascist/bonapartist rule in fact CANNOT be prevented except by the replacement of capitalist rule with workers’ rule– which gets us to the conundrum of the UF– how is it possible to create the UF that requires organization of workers’ power separate from the bourgeois state when one or more of the main class based parties adheres to that state– as the SPD did in Germany; as the PSP did in Allende’s Chile?

Unless of course you think the Democrats ARE the workers’ party in the US, in which case, why worry? Just join the Democrats and work from within. Played out ok with LBJ, didn’t it? And Clinton 1, right?


Allan Bowling April 9, 2016 at 9:14 am

Hi, the author here.

“Pretty much a nonsensical discussion, no? I mean Pop Front, United Front have very real distinctions, but the most important issue here and now is that there are no workers’ parties/organizations equivalent in strength, mass base, political development, or international support in the US equivalent to either the SFIO and PCF in France, or to the CNT/PCE in Spain.

That’s the big blue whale in the room, right?”

Yes that’s the ultimate point of the article. We can’t form a Popular Front right now because to do so would be disastrous. The only appropriate place to unite with liberal parties is when we (communists) can lead them by the nose in the anti-fascist direction we want them to go: to support the things that we want/need them to and give OUR forces an extra push of strength. Without the ability to lead them, we wind up tailing them – that is, the situation is reversed and it is the liberals who we find leading US to support THEIR ends instead. And their ends are not our ends. Even Sanders, for his supposed progressive tendencies, is still part of that left flank of fascism that is social democracy. We will never accomplish anything revolutionary by allowing ourselves to be led by liberals.

At this point there can be no union or support for liberal parties like the Democrats. To unite with them is to support one imperialist party over another, as if it is somehow better. A materialist analysis of the forces in play shows that the Republicans and Democrats, for all the fearmongering about “fundamentalism” that people like Davidson want to spread around, are functionally identical: neoliberal parties of imperialism.

The masses are not stupid, they see the people who support border patrols and drone strikes and “tough on crime” laws, and they don’t care how reluctant those supporters are, because all that matters is the fact that the support is there; you’re clearly on one side and not the other.


Carl Davidson April 4, 2016 at 1:38 pm

Of course the Democrats are not ‘the workers party’. There is none in the US today. But they are NOT the party of theocratic rightwing Christians (Cruz) and rightwing populism (Trump). Either of these need to be strongly defeated in November, and at this point, about a third of working-class voters favor or lean toward them. Given the nature of our electoral system, just ‘breaking’ with the Democrats does nothing. If you don’t think it matters, say so. If you want to make a longer argument about how we might go about breaking up the Dems, which I think is largely an inside job, and not simply a matter of ‘build it and they will come,’ make your case. But simply telling us not to vote Democratic in November as a way of defeating Trump/Cruz is rather useless.


S.Artesian April 4, 2016 at 5:15 pm

But that’s not what I said: I said using the examples of Popular Front/United Front are nonsensical– as both are predicated on a class- movements separate and apart from the institutions of the bourgeoisie. One, the PF, wants to recuperate that movement within the structures of bourgeois rule– like the Unidad Popular did in Chile in 1973. One is a tactic for separating from those structures. That’s the point.

You can make, and you Carl, probably have made your same exact argument for Obama vs. McCain; Obama vs. Romney; Kerry vs. Bush; Gore vs. Bush; Clinton vs. Dole, Johnson vs.Goldwater, Humphrey vs. Nixon — etc. etc. = “Vote against the bigger evil.”

Big deal. Look where it gets you. Nowhere. As a matter of fact that’s the one thing your “form Jacobin study groups to defeat the ultra-right” thesis has in common with the popular front– it gets you nowhere; it has never worked; it has only set things up for vicious repression.

Saying Tito and/or Albania represented a successful popular front simply proves the failure of the PF in that you abstract the “success” from the real process of history that surrounded it. That “success” came only as part of the utter decimation of the working class internationally by, in, and through WW2, which conflict was certainly not prevented by the PF, but because of the PF’s impact on the prospects for revolution in Spain, and in France, was facilitated.

I’ll certainly make the argument, and the longer argument about that, but not here, not now. Just wanted to point out how ridiculous it is trying to draw connections to the popular front era, or the united front tactic.

But nice of you to jump, actually leap, onto the last 2 sentences of the post, forgetting all about the issue the author of the article raised. Actually, not a leap, just a knee jerk.


Carl Davidson April 4, 2016 at 6:07 pm

Actually, I never voted for Clinton, and have only made this argument for Obama and now Bernie or Hillary. I have voted Citizens Party, New Party, Green Party, and backed Labor Party Advocates (such as it was), as well as Jesse’s Rainbow faction.

the main question of interest to me is how to help the Dems go the way of the Whigs, and what tactics, largely used under its tent, will help it on its way, but in a manner the aids the left and not the right. And it is not likely to happen in one round. I’ve tried all the ‘build it and they will come’ options over the past 50 years, and none have gained any traction.

Bernie’s effort, however, is full of interesting lessons and prospects.


S.Artesian April 4, 2016 at 9:54 pm

So the Obama experience, worked out well, you think? Because Obama what– stopped the war in Iraq? Afghanistan? Did such a good job with Libya? Closed Guantanamo? Allowed access to government records? Stopped deportation of undocumented workers? Stopped financing the brutal, corrupt “war on drugs”? Went after those who tortured combatants and non-combatants? Helped out autoworkers? Didn’t genuflect to the banks? Reduced the poverty rate? Rolled back reaction?

But again, the point is how absurd it is trying to draw comparisons between the current conditions in the US and the “lessons” of the PF or the UF from 80 or 90 years ago-

Make the Democrats go the way of the Whigs? That took the Kansas-Nebraska Act; that took Bloody Kansas. It sure as hell did not happen because of events inside the Whig party, “under its tent.”

You never voted for a Clinton before? That’s nice. You will, this time, though, and it will get you exactly where stumping for Obama got you…believing there’s a lesser evil because the white phosphorous isn’t coming down on you.


William Crain April 4, 2016 at 4:35 pm

Pretty mind boggling ~ thanks to Louis for making sense of it all, i think. cause i really don’t get it:( seems like the Nat’l League and American League are plagued by the farm teams / seems hard to comprehend the parliamentary gov system vs the party system of the US of A.
How the Kuomintang subjugates the CPC, murdering mass Commies and i can’t get my head around it all. Except to see from this article don’t trust Libruls ever.


Carl Davidson April 5, 2016 at 8:37 am

Obama is what he is, Artesian, but every time McCain, Palin or Romney opens their mouths, I’m glad I gave him a vote against them. And likewise to whichever Dem candidate runs against Cruz or Trump, although I’m working for Bernie as far as he can go..

As for comparison with the popular fronts of the 1930s, I’m not into it, even though we can learn a few things. Conditions are too different. We do better to start with an assessment of the forces in play today.

But I do think the Whigs fell apart due to a combination of their internal factional strife with external factors. The two were inter-connected, and Lincoln was able to regroup his faction with the Liberty Party and the Free Soilers under the new GOP.

The inter-connection is true with the factional wars within the Democrats (and the GOP), and I would think it wise to sharpen the current conflict between Sanders and Clinton. My longer argument is here:


S.Artesian April 5, 2016 at 1:17 pm

“Obama is what he is, Artesian, but every time McCain, Palin or Romney opens their mouths, I’m glad I gave him a vote against them.”

Priceless. And every time a drone blows somebody up, are you glad then? And are you glad when a working mother gets deported across the border? And are you glad every time a torturer gets face time on TV.

Hey Carl, I don’t need your longer argument. You just made the shortest argument against your position ever.


Carl Davidson April 5, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Artesian, perhaps not in your book, but in mine, it’s acceptable, lacking better options, to vote for one candidate to defeat another, so long as you tell the truth about both. Obama, as I have often noted, represents a faction of Empire, the global multlateralists, to be exact. I don’t expect him to act as an anti-imperialist. I expected him to pull the troops out of Iraq, which he did, and for which he is constantly denounced but the other major faction, the unilateral hegemonist NeoCons, of which McCain is a proponent. One case in point: Obama made a deal with Iran, and McCain, et al, want to rip it up and start a war with them. If you don’t think these are differences that matter, you can safely ignore presidential politics for years to come. But if you do think they matter, then you are likely not indifferent to which faction of Empire is on top, especially since it will take some time in developing the progressives forces to a point where we can field ant-imperialist candidates with some chance of victory. You may be comfortable ‘taking positions’ on the margins where you can claim some moral ground, but where they have little or no impact. I’ve been there and done that for many years of my life, and seen no good reason to return to that cul-de-sac.


S.Artesian April 5, 2016 at 3:27 pm

This is a pointless discussion. But let me add this to the pointlessness: Reagan also made a deal with Iran, a couple of them actually, which he made at the same time as the US was waging a war in Nicaragua, and which were instrumental in continuing that war. . Nixon made a deal with China, more than one, and around the same time that the US was plotting the destruction of the UP government in Chile; Carter? He made deals too, while funding the warlords in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

Let’s see… I don’t think there’s a single US president who hasn’t made some sort of deal reconciling, recuperating some supposed enemy, while at the same time engaging in the violent attack on those seeking a bit more than cash or weapons from this home of the brave.

Obama pulled the troops out of Iraq? Sure thing. And he’s putting them back in.

Too bad he can’t run for a third term so you could happily yet again for yet another war criminal.

That’s my last word on this: you’re only too happy to vote for a war criminal.


Carl Davidson April 10, 2016 at 8:31 am

The masses indeed are not stupid. The left and center forces among them, in their millions, will know what to do in November, even if some on the far left do not. Just watch them.


S. Artesian April 18, 2016 at 9:17 pm

AP reports, 4/18/2016, the latest steps toward peace from the Nobel peace prize winner:

“US to send 200 more troops, Apache helicopters to Iraq”


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: