United and Popular Front: Lessons from 1935-2017
., Navigating the Storm
Donald Trump won the presidency in November 2016 on a program of racism, nationalism, misogyny, attacks on human rights, the promotion of corporate power, appeals to white workers while pushing anti-working-class policies, scapegoating immigrants and Muslims, militarism, erosion of democracy, and advocating authoritarianism. A number of scholars have written about many of these characteristics previously, such as Robert Paxton and others, as they were key elements of fascist regimes that came to power in Europe after WWI, especially Mussolini in Italy in 1922, and Hitler in Germany in 1933. Some writers today are asking, "Is Trump a fascist, and will he bring fascism to the US?" While Trump's actions aren't as brutal as Hitler's and Mussolini's in his early days in power, it's still too early to tell. But Trump's statements and actions have alarmed people from all walks of life. And history has shown that a country can turn to the right very quickly.
Millions of people are protesting Trump's ascension to power, beginning with the powerful Women's Marches the day after Trump assumed office. Street demonstrations, rallies, mass Congressional phone calls and town hall meetings, and much more have continued since. Discussions abound regarding how best to build this resistance movement. While we can learn from many sources, the success of the United Front and Popular Front strategies of the 1930's and beyond provide important lessons for us today.
The United Front and Popular Front strategy was developed by Georgi Dimitrov, leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party and a leader of the Communist International. Dimitrov presented his strategy at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935. He said that all working-class and socialist organizations should work together in a United Front to defend their interests, and to resist and fight to defeat and overthrow fascism. He then said this United Front should also promote the creation of a broader, Popular Front, that would be comprised of the forces in the United Front but would reach out to all other sectors of society that are against fascism, including capitalists who opposed it. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were arresting and killing targeted groups in their own countries, and invading foreign lands, waging war, and taking over other governments. They were rolling over traditional defense forces with lightening speed and power, some of whom simply surrendered in the face of vastly superior military power. Fear spread across Europe and beyond. This dire state of affairs led the Communists to develop a better, more comprehensive strategy for fighting and defeating fascism.
Fascism and the Crisis of Capitalism
Dimitrov described the roots and rise of fascism as a logical response, from the point of view of capitalists, to resolve the severe internal contradictions and crises within capitalism, reverse its falling rate of profit, and save the capitalist system from growing turmoil, chaos and threat of collapse or overthrow. The solution was to merge the most reactionary sectors of monopoly and finance capital with strong right-wing political and military forces. The goal was to stop capitalism from hemorrhaging assets and end all threats to its power and rule. It's chief method was to cripple democratic institutions and working-class organizations such as unions that the working-class and the people as a whole had used to wrest concessions from capital in the past, which cut into capitalist's profits. The result of imposing fascism was the further enrichment of select corporations and political groups, and their dictatorial control of the government, the economy, and the major institutions of society.
Today in the US we see the merger of right-wing political and corporate forces at the highest level of government, in the persons of billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump in the president's office, with former CEO of Exxon Mobil Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, General James "Mad Dog" Mattis as head of the Department of Defense, combined with extreme right-wing, neo-fascist media white supremacist and former Goldman Sachs banking executive Steve Bannon as Trump's chief strategist and advisor, to name just four. While capitalism is not on the verge of collapse, it is wrought with growing internal contradictions and crisis that the ruling capitalist class finds increasingly difficult to resolve.
This merger of corporate and extreme right-wing power are key elements in the construction of fascism. No one can predict whether the group around Trump will try to impose a fascist regime, or not. Nor can anyone answer the question, if the Trumpists move more decisively toward fascism will it be similar to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy? If it happens there could be features of Nazi Germany, or some other fascist or right-wing country, or develop its own unique forms of right-wing control. A major motivator could be another major economic crisis. While there are some similarities between Trump's group, and Hitler's and Mussolini's groups, there are also differences that should be recognized. It is not ordained that fascism will come to America. Much depends upon the size and scope and direction of the anti-Trump, anti-fascist resistance movement. There are good historical examples of mass movements that stopped fascism. One country that succeeded in the early 1940's was Norway. Other countries overthrew fascist regimes and established socialism. There are enough warning signs within the Trump movement to cause concern, and impel us to plan for a sharper turn to the right.
Popular Front: Alliance of Necessity
Unfortunately, the leaders and major political forces in most European countries in the 1920's and 1930's, for the most part, weren't prepared for the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, nor other right-wing dictators in other countries. Divisions and sectarianism on the left and within the ruling classes of many countries existed, as well as among other sectors of society, and there was an under-estimation of just how serious the threat was until it was too late. Much horror, suffering and the deaths of tens of millions resulted.
In 1939, the United Kingdom and France and other smaller states joined forces to fight Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. France succumbed, but a left-led resistance organized a French underground anti-fascist movement. The Soviet Union joined the fight against the Nazi's in June of 1941 after Germany invaded the USSR, and the USA joined in December 1941 after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Out of necessity the UK and the USA and smaller capitalist countries recognized that they had to ally with every country opposed to fascism, and that included the socialist Soviet Union. They put aside their anti-communism temporarily and joined forces, creating a Popular Front against fascism, exactly the kind of broad coalition the Communists had first proposed in 1935. The UK, USA and other capitalist countries also saw the necessity of creating a broad Popular Front domestically as well to mobilize and unite all forces in every society to build the greatest power possible to defeat fascism. Communists, socialists, and trade unionists worked together with major capitalists, including joining the military in capitalist countries to fight fascism. This strategy, and this strategy alone, was responsible for defeating fascism. Dimitrov's strategy was published as a book, For a United and Popular Front. A similar broad front is emerging in the US in the resistance to Trump today, which is exactly what is needed.
Some on the left opposed the Popular Front strategy, believing that it meant selling out to capitalism and the corporate billionaires. When Dimitrov proposed his strategy to defeat fascism, he did not intend that the working-class, the unions and the left give up their views, nor their independent organizations. Nor did the capitalists give up their support for capitalism. The Popular Front was a necessary temporary multi-class alliance to amass enough power to achieve a common goal: the defeat of fascism. The left, and especially the Communist Parties in many countries, including the US, pursued this strategy since Dimitrov's 1935 speech. They did broad outreach everywhere, and helped build industrial unions, fought Jim Crow racism, and contributed to the defeat of fascism. As a result, the Communist Party USA gained a wider acceptance in society, and grew from less than 10,000 members to 100,000 members over the course of ten years. These same principles brought victories to the labor movement in the 1930's with the organizations of powerful unions, the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's, the anti-war movement during the war in Vietnam, the women's movement, the LBGTQ movement, and more. The right always counter-attacked in an effort to stop progress or roll back gains that the people made. Too often history took two steps forward and one step back.
After fascism was defeated in 1945, the capitalist elite in the United States immediately turned against the left, domestically and internationally. In Greece, for example, the US capitalist class and their government supported the Greek capitalists to crush a powerful Greek Communist-led movement for socialism. In the US, the US corporate elite launched a propaganda campaign to malign the Communists, socialists and other progressives by launching an anti-communist crusade that painted anyone left of center as a Communist. This right-wing movement purged Communists, socialists, progressives and strong-willed liberals from their unions, teaching jobs, from Hollywood and many other sectors of society. This was a part of capitalism's overall ramping up of the Cold War to oppose leftism everywhere in the world. The attack was so ruthless that it wounded the left nearly everywhere. In the US even the broad liberal mainstream of society, most of whom supported capitalism, was retaliated against and weakened. Liberalism, in the eyes of this conservative ruling capitalist bloc, opened up society to a discussion of different ideas and different views, including leftist views. This was seen as a threat to their singular, right-wing philosophy and control of the world as they wanted to shape it. But even the most repressive conditions were successfully resisted. Fascist Italy was one such place.
Togliatti and Underground Organizing
Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party, developed a strategy to deal with extremely repressive conditions. He deepened the strategy to fight fascism inside Italy where unions were banned, democracy crushed, and repression ran rampant. Togliatti told Communist Party workers in a series of secret lectures conducted underground that they had to go where ever workers went. There were popular local clubs where workers went after work to drink beer and wine and socialize. The Fascist Party had come into many of these clubs and put their fascist emblem on the door. Many Communist and other progressive workers stayed away, repelled by the fascist emblem and fascist speeches inside. But Togliatti told the Communist workers that they had to go inside and socialize with the workers. Not everyone at these clubs agreed with the fascist program, Togliatti explained. Listen to what people talked about, how they reacted to news reports about Fascist activities, or Resistance activities, he told them. When a worker was seen questioning a Fascist act, sit with him and become friends. Listen and contribute to the conversation, helping the worker see other things that he may not have noticed. Help him make connections, advance his political consciousness, and when the time is right, agree to meet outside the club, privately for more in depth discussions. Eventually this led to recruitment into Resistance activities. Because the Communists adopted this method of work, after Mussolini was captured and executed and the Fascist government overthrown, the Communist Party came out of the underground as one of the strongest political parties in the country. Their reputation in building the resistance was very high, and they got elected to political offices in cities and towns across Italy in the post war period. Togliatti's work was published in a book, Lectures on Fascism.
Bernie Sanders was Correct: Stop Trump
While we don't have fascism in the United States as we go to press, there are lessons to be learned from these historical examples. When Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination, he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. A number of Bernie supporters were angry and upset, and some felt betrayed. Others, including this Bernie supporter, argued that Bernie was correct by urging people to vote for Hillary, if only because Trump was much worse. Taking such a position does not mean that one supports everything Hillary stands for, such as her close ties to Wall Street and support for neo-liberalism, the fear that she may be too quick to go to war on inaccurate information and faulty arguments. The reality is that Trump is a part of the billionaire class, as Bernie called them, and his history and campaign abuses spelled a sharp turn to the right, and his policies would be harmful to many people on nearly every issue. Hillary, on the other hand, would have worked for some positive programs, based on her past, such as her history of helping children, and support for many social programs. While Trump isn't a full-blown fascist as of this writing, the anti-fascist strategies of the 1930's and 1940's can guide us today, especially in building the largest possible front against the Trump-Pence-GOP-rightwing-corporate alliance.
Fortunately, the anti-Trump Resistance is pursuing this path today, reaching out to the broadest political forces if they oppose Trump even on one issue. Our Resistance movement is winning important victories: stopping of Trump's ban on Muslim's entering the country, the defeat of Trump's and House Speaker Paul Ryan's effort to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, Labor's victory in stopping anti-labor Andrew Puzder from becoming secretary of the Labor Department, failure to force Mexico to pay for Trump's counter-productive wall, and more. These victories came about because huge coalitions of people from all walks of life and all social classes came together to accomplish a common goal. These efforts parallel the victorious campaigns against the right and fascism 60 years ago. The lesson for today is clear: Unite the many to defeat the Trump cabal, while building the movement that can usher in an era of peace, equality, economic security, and justice for all.
[Paul Krehbiel is a long-time trade union activist, former president of United Union Representatives of Los Angeles, a coordinator of Los Angeles Labor for Bernie, and is Co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.]