The evasions and vacillations of the centrist tendencies undermined the struggle against Stalinism under conditions in which the policies of the Soviet regime had assumed an openly counter-revolutionary character. Having opposed Trotsky’s call for a “united front” of working class parties against Hitler in Germany, the Stalinists swung in the other direction after the victory of the Nazis. At the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, they unveiled a new program—the “Popular Front.” This called for, in the name of the struggle against fascism and the defense of democracy, the formation of political alliances with “democratic” bourgeois parties. The practical effect of these alliances was the political subordination of the working class to the bourgeoisie, private property and the capitalist state. While politically catastrophic for the working class, the Popular Front served the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. By offering to use the local Communist parties as instruments for the suppression of revolutionary struggle by the working class, Stalin hoped to curry favor with bourgeois regimes and improve the diplomatic position of the USSR. In fact, whatever the limited and short-term diplomatic gains achieved on the basis of this strategy, the defeats of the working class produced by “Popular Frontism” profoundly weakened the Soviet Union.
Stalinist policy was consciously directed against the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class. Stalin feared that the victory of the working class, especially in Western Europe, would rekindle the revolutionary movement of the Soviet working class. In 1936-38, the Stalinists helped strangle a revolutionary situation in France, which was touched off by a general strike in June 1936. The Popular Front regime supported by the French Communist Party demoralized the working class and cleared the path for the capitulation of the French bourgeoisie to Hitler in June 1940. In the Spanish Revolution, the Stalinists supported the bourgeois government of Azaña. The Spanish Communist Party became the principal prop of capitalist property and bourgeois law and order. It recruited heavily among better-off sections of the urban middle class who desperately feared socialist revolution. Stalin flooded Spain with GPU agents who carried out a reign of terror against revolutionary socialist tendencies. His agents organized the suppression of the working class insurrection in Barcelona, and they kidnapped, tortured and murdered Andres Nin, leader of the POUM. The Stalinists’ liquidation of the POUM was facilitated, tragically, by the centrist policies pursued by Nin, who had entered into the popular front government in Barcelona. In the United States, the Communist Party supported the Democratic Party and the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The purpose of Popular Frontism—which Trotsky defined as the alliance of bourgeois liberalism with the GPU—was the defense of capitalist property against the menace of socialist revolution. The rhetorical tributes to “democracy” were employed to facilitate the political disarming of the working class as an independent force, while concealing the class interests served by the “democratic” state. To the extent that the working class was prevented from fighting for political power, the struggle against the real threats to democracy was fatally handicapped. As demonstrated in France and Spain, the attempt to defend democracy without fighting for socialism proved bankrupt and ended in disaster. Among the arguments repeatedly made by the Stalinists in both Spain and France was that revolutionary policies “frightened” the petty bourgeoisie and turned them in the direction of the fascists. Thus, the working class could retain the sympathy of the middle class only by eschewing socialist demands that threatened private property and by giving support to moderate bourgeois leaders within the framework of the Popular Front. Trotsky emphatically rejected this cowardly and defeatist approach, which expressed a total misappraisal of the social psychology of the middle classes:
It is false, thrice false, to affirm that the present petty bourgeoisie is not going to the working class parties because it fears “extreme measures.” Quite the contrary. The lower petty bourgeoisie, in its great masses, only sees in the working class parties parliamentary machines. They do not believe in their strength, nor in their capacity to struggle, in their readiness this time to conduct the struggle to the end.
And if this is so, is it worth the trouble to replace Radicalism [the “left” bourgeois political tendency] by its parliamentary colleagues on the Left? That is how the semi-expropriated, ruined and discontented proprietor reasons or feels. Without an understanding of this psychology of the peasants, the artisans, the employees, the petty functionaries, etc.—a psychology that flows from the social crisis—it is impossible to elaborate a correct policy. The petty bourgeoisie is economically dependent and politically atomized. That is why it cannot conduct an independent policy. It needs a “leader” who inspires it with confidence. This individual or collective leadership, i.e., a personage or party, can be given to it by one or the other of the fundamental classes—either the big bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Fascism unites and arms the scattered masses. Out of human dust it organizes combat detachments. It thus gives the petty bourgeoisie the illusion of being an independent force. It begins to imagine that it will really command the state. It is not surprising that these illusions and hopes turn the head of the petty bourgeoisie!
But the petty bourgeoisie can also find a leader in the proletariat.
The transformation of the Comintern into an instrument of the Soviet bureaucracy was accompanied by a series of purges and expulsions, in which any leaders representing the traditions of revolutionary internationalism were replaced with loyal representatives of the apparatus. This transformation had begun in 1923 and continued throughout the 1930s, often as part of the struggle against Trotskyism. By the period of the “Popular Front,” the Comintern had completely rejected the program of world revolution, to which Stalin referred as a “tragi-comic misunderstanding.” The Comintern was finally dissolved in 1943, as a gesture to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s imperialist allies.
Leon Trotsky, Whither France (London: New Park Publications, 1974), p. 13.