A Rejoinder: Strategy or Doctrine?

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Mel Rothenberg

MIKE GOLDFIELD HAS presented above a succinct left critique of the popular front line of the Communist Party, both of its principles and of its practice. He echoes the accusations of James P. Cannon that in promoting this line the Communists diverted the working-class movement into the arms of the Democratic Party, thus fundamentally betraying both the class struggle and the Afro-American struggle.

Now turn to Goldfield’s book and his description and analysis of the popular front period, from the mid-1930s to the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s. According to this account, this period was, despite all the contradictions, the high tide of Black and white working- class unity.

Further, Goldfield leaves no doubt that much credit for this is due to the work of the Communist Party, which played the leading role, even if somewhat inconsistently, in fighting racism and white supremacy among white workers.

As I pointed out in my review these are two very different pictures of the same period. I suppose one can admire a traitor in spite of his treason, but in adopting this attitude toward the Communist Party in the era of the popular front, Goldfield sends confusing, contradictory signals on the lessons to be learned.

There is some—but not the whole— truth in Goldfield’s criticism of the historical practice of the popular front and in his broad assertion that class collaboration is dangerous in principle for revolutionary socialists.

To sort these questions out in any detail, however, would involve far more words then I am permitted in this reply. A few general points must suffice to clarify my views on the complexity of the issues involved, and to indicate why I do not accept Goldfield’s doctrinal dismissal of the popular front.

A Complex Legacy

I agree that a fundamental weakness of the popular front was its subordination to the erratic and opportunistic foreign policy of the Soviet Union. Its driving force, which trumped any other concern, was to ensure the survival of Stalin’s regime. The survival of the Soviet Union, a basic and acknowledged goal of the popular front, was totally identified with the success of Stalin’s regime.

This is a tricky and complicated business. The argument that the failure of Stalin’s regime would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in turn would destroy the International Communist movement was not easily dismissed. In my view, none of the revolutionary Marxist groups successfully resolved this issue, which is why the crisis of Communism was and remains a crisis for the entire revolutionary left.

However, it remains true that when the Communists narrowed a strategic outlook to uncritical support of a leadership group, they abandoned all principle and produced a formula for opportunism and corruption.

Any broad strategic perspective, such as the popular front, can be justified only in so far as it is grounded in an analysis of underlying fundamental political and social forces. Although Dimitrov, R. Palme Dutt and other theorists of the Communist International made gestures in this direction, their analysis at this level was always weak and inconsistent, reflecting the momentary preoccupations of the Soviet leadership rather then any consistent social analysis.

The lack of a theoretical and analytic basis of the popular front strategy made a serious systematic discussion of its strengths and weaknesses impossible, and invited the kind of doctrinaire responses, both positive and negative, which have characterized left polemics on this question.

A Revolutionary Period?

At the end of the day, however, any policy must be judged in relationship to the realities and the possibilities of the period under consideration. If socialist revolution was on the agenda in the United States in the 1930s and ’40s, then pursuing a popular front policy would be indefensible. Cannon’s critique was based on the assumption that we were on the eve of revolution, and that is what gave it credibility at the time.

As we know now, revolution was unfortunately not on the agenda. The fundamental political and social movements of the period were the fight against fascism, the struggle for trade unions, job security and a social safety net for the working class, and the struggle for social equality and civil rights for Afro-Americans.

The mass movements never went beyond these demands and none of these movements, or even the fusion of all three of them, would challenge the basis of the system, the rule of capital. Cannon’s assumption, seconded by Goldfield, that principled left leadership could give these movements a revolutionary character was based on wishful thinking rather than any real analysis.

The popular front had the virtue of focusing on the existing movements as they really were, and in fact turned out to be a somewhat successful strategy for integrating them. In order to effect this the Communist Party forged an alliance with the liberals in the Democratic Party and the CIO leadership.

In the process the CP diluted its proletarian character and abandoned much of its revolutionary rhetoric and propaganda. This was a real price, but acknowledging this should be the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it.

Any policy must also be judged keeping in mind the actual strength of the socialist forces. An isolated and marginalized socialist left pursuing a maximal revolutionary program is not only futile; it is destructive and can carry grave consequences.

The united front from below policy, pursued internationally by the Communist International from the late-1920s through the mid-1930s, which Goldfield touts as a success, was exactly such an ultraleft program. While it is true that this line attracted some revolutionary enthusiasts from the working class and oppressed minorities (and declassed intellectuals), it separated Communists from the most effective and mass-based working class and minority organizations, and contributed to the Communist isolation from the mass movements.

Moreover, as Goldfield acknowledges but seems to regard as secondary, it generated a sectarianism and a war between Communists and other progressives that contributed to the triumph of Nazism in Germany. Its repudiation by the Communist International in 1935 was rightly welcomed by the great majority of Communists as emancipation from a failed and disastrous policy.

In commenting on the popular front in my review, I hinted at the current underlying social and political reality which might provide a rational for a similar policy today. This is far from providing an analysis and argument on which to base such a policy.

The entire left suffers today from the lack of a convincing,, strategically oriented, broad socialist analysis of the current capitalist order. Such an analysis constitutes a major intellectual challenge that necessarily involves the labor of many.

Without such an analysis it is premature to advocate for a popular front approach, or any other approach for that matter. Such an analysis will not occur in a political vacuum, however. It is on the agenda only when there is an approach to be defended or attacked. The popular front, as the most sophisticated and successful broad left strategy so far presented for advanced industrialized countries, seems a good place for us to begin.

ATC 78, January-February 1999