Max Shachtman


The Spanish Elections
and the People’s Front

People’s Front Acts as Brake on Upward Movement of Masses

(14 March 1936)

Source: New Militant, Vol. II No. 10, 14 March 1936, p. 4.
Transcribed/Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A singular unanimity marks the reception accorded the election victory of the People’s Front by labor papers which are otherwise antagonistic to each other’s views. The Jewish Daily Forward and the equally octogenarian New Leader vie with the editors of the Daily Worker in saluting the victory with an intoxicated enthusiasm which they do not allow a single critical comment to mar.

That the outcome of the elections reveals a distinctly gratifying advance by the Spanish working class is, of course, beyond debate. One must search far and wide in the modern history of the working class of the world to find a parallel to the amazing recuperative powers of the Spanish proletariat. What neither the social democratic nor the Stalinist press have obliged us with, however, is an explanation for the contrast between the resurgence of the formerly defeated Spanish working class and the continued paralysis of, let us say, the also defeated German working class. Unless one is to ascribe the causes of the startling contrast to some mysterious national superiority of Spanish proletarian physiology or intellect over the German, the difference must be sought for in another domain. Neither social democrats nor Stalinists are particularly anxious to probe for an intelligible answer to the question for the simple reason that it would fly in the face of their respective political philosophies.

The Great Value of Struggle

Both your regular social democrat and your official Stalinist placed the seal of approbation on the failure of the German labor parties – S.P. and C.P. – to lead the proletariat in direct struggle against the Fascist bandits before they came to power in 1933. At the same time, they “deplored” the armed struggle of the Spanish workers against the advancing reaction in October 1934 and more than hinted that it had all the intolerable aspects of a futile putsch. How many times did they both say – often in so many words: It would have availed the German proletariat nothing to struggle against insuperable odds; and the Spanish defeat in 1934 showed how fruitless was such needless bloodshed as would have been involved by a similar attempt in Germany.

Yet, the lesson of the Spanish labor revival in not only unambiguous, but it speaks out conclusively against these present-day plagiarists of Plekhanov whose solitary contribution to the summary of the 1905 revolution in Russia was the lament that “they should not have taken up arms”. The difference between Germany and Spain lies essentially in this: The German working class was defeated without a struggle. The Fascist thugs found that they could come to power without encountering any resistance from the proletariat. The ruling class was therefore able to say to itself: If I could bring this gang of semi-armed mercenaries to power for the purpose of crushing every vestige of labor organization, without labor even attempting to fight them off, how much less have I to fear from the workers now that the Fascist mamelukes are equipped with the complete arsenal of state power? I can therefore be more arrogant and brutal: I can therefore have greater self-confidence. The working class could, only say to itself; If I (read: if my parties, my leaders) was not able to lift a finger against the Fascist trash when it was armed with little more than knives, how shall I be able to fight them now that they are armed with the whole repressive machinery of the state? And if my leaders stood petrified in their tracks when they still had the vast “legal’’ possibilities of fighting the Fascists, before we were dispersed and driven underground or under the yoke of Hitler, what reason have I to believe that they will be anything but less effective now, when Hitler has two machine-guns for every dagger he had yesterday?

In other words, just because they were not led into struggle in Germany, the workers have less confidence in themselves and, contrariwise, the bourgeoisie has far greater self-assurance, firmness, solidity.

Reasons for Resurgence

In Spain, however, just because the workers fought, their mood and the corresponding mood of the bourgeoisie are different. The workers think: Yes, we were defeated in one battle, but we showed the Fascists that we can and will fight, even under adverse circumstances. We have proved to ourselves that if only we organize ourselves better in this, that and the other respect, we possess an invincible power. The bourgeoisie thinks: We are not playing with a toothless old hound here, whom we can kick around contemptuously. This working class is a lion which showed his teeth and claws and inflicted some serious wounds upon us. And even if his leap was not well prepared and his retreat not so well ordered, we did not terminate the fight by skinning his hide. In other words, in Spain the bourgeoisie emerged from the October with respect for the working class and an idea that a measure of prudence was needed; the workers emerged from the battle with a high spirit of self-assurance and confidence in their ability to retrieve their losses in the very next battle.

Essentially, this is the explanation for the remarkable showing made by the Spanish workers in their speedy comeback. At the same time it is a pitiless indictment of the cowardly capitulation of the Second and Third Internationals in Germany in 1933, of their effrontery in attributing to the working class their own despicable cowardice. (“We would have liked to fight, but the masses were not ready.”)

If the reader draws from the above conclusion that the Spanish masses did and do have the kind of leadership that offers an additional assurance of the final victory, he will have misread the situation badly. After having remained firmly asleep at the switch and deprecating the revolution of 1931 as a mere nothing, the Stalinists ended up, in October 1934, by grudgingly entering the united front of the working class organizations against which they had inveighed up to the last purpose of “forcing” the capitalists to restore the socialists to their inglorious position of captives in the government of the “republic of the working classes”.

People’s Front – A Lightning Rod

Then, as if this record were not sufficiently ignoble, they – both socialists and Stalinists – capped it by performing the function of lightning rods, grounding into the harmless soil of “democratic” capitalism the increasingly menacing flashes of working class resurgence which has been rising for months like a black cloudbank that might inundate the rule of the bourgeoisie in Spain for all time. This not very laudable function was performed through the mechanism of the Spanish People’s Front. To pass uncritically over the pompous phraseology of the People’s Front in Spain would be just as criminal as it was to beat the drums for these other “victories” which were gained in Germany by the “Iron Front” in its time – and would lead to just as complete a calamity for the Spanish working class and any other that would emulate it, as it did for the German proletariat a couple of years ago.

The first question that arises in connection with the Spanish People’s Front is: Is it correct for the workers to seek and arrive at an agreement with a bourgeois democratic party in the struggle against bourgeois reaction, even an agreement on the parliamentary field? Absolutely correct! But only under certain conditions and in certain ways. The principal condition, especially in elections, is that the party of the proletariat which makes the agreement with the bourgeois democrats retains, absolutely, its political and organizational independence. It may not merge itself into the bourgeois party. It may not write a “common program” with the bourgeois party. In this or that district, the proletarian party, may vote for the candidate of the bourgeois party, in exchange for similar votes for itself in other districts. But from its own platform – and it must have one of its own – it must always point out why it has a program of its own, why it speaks from its own platform, why it has arrived at a temporary agreement with a bourgeois party, why the agreement is only temporary and cannot be permanent, and why the proletarian class and its party can never write a common program with the bourgeois class and its party or parties. Otherwise the workers’ party loses its reason for independent existence; it has wiped out the irreconcilable struggle of the classes.

What was inexcusably criminal on the part of the Socialist party, the Communist party and the Maurin-Nin party of “Marxian Unification” was not only that they wrote a “common program’’ with the discredited. bourgeois parties – which was bad enough – and that thereby, politically speaking, they appeared before the masses in one party with the bourgeoisie, but that this “common program” was dictated and written by the bourgeoisie, and that in every other respect the joint party – under the pseudonym of the “People’s Front” – was dominated by the bourgeoisie. In other words, if the class criterion which Lenin loved so much to apply – “Who? Whom?” – is employed in this case, the result is clearly this:

Bourgeoisie Discredited

The “republican” bourgeoisie was so badly discredited in the eyes of the masses that it required a protective covering. In the “united front”, it was not “used” by the workers’ parties – but the workers’ parties used by it. It was not taken in tow by the socialists and communists – it dragged the latter in its wake. The payment which it made (the amnesty of the thirty thousand which leaves unaffected all those labor fighters who were imprisoned prior to the insurrection) was extorted from it by the overwhelming pressure of the masses who were storming the penitentiaries themselves. The payment which the workers made (restoration of bourgeois democratic power, new credit to the discredited “republican” parties of Azana and Martinez Barrios, etc.) were voluntarily, unnecessarily and unwarrantedly given to the bourgeoisie as a gift by the labor leaders.

It is not so much the workers who needed the support of the bourgeois politicians, as the bourgeois politicians who urgently required the support and protection of the workers. They received the latter in the form of the complete subordination of the labor parties to the bourgeois parties in the “People’s Front”.

Program of People’s Front

Take the question of the program, for example. Even assuming for the moment the admissibility of writing a common program with a bourgeois party – which we reject in principle – it is worth while examining the “program” that was finally adopted. In the January 16, 1936 issue of the Comintern publication, Rundschau, of Basle, we read that

“... in the minimum program of the Communist party for this electoral bloc stand the following demands: Amnesty for all the 30,000 political prisoners and for the more than 100 revolutionary fighters who are condemned to death; abolition of the reactionary laws, reestablishment of the rights of democratic liberties; national constitution for Catalonia; confiscation of the landed property of the aristocracy, the monarchists and all enemies of the people; dissolution of the Fascist and monarchist organizations, purging the army of Fascists; rehiring of all the workers discharged from factories after October 1934.”

Thus the minimum program of the C.P. for the People’s Front on January 16. Miserable enough, it will be said, and rightly so. But even this, which the Stalinists announced with such apparent intransigence as their rock-bottom, below which they would not move, is not to be found in the program of the bloc after it was formed – that is, with the exception of the proposal of amnesty for political prisoners and the promise to rehire workers discharged after October 1934. But in place of the “minimum” demands which the bourgeois allies (read: bosses) refused to include, the latter inserted a number of planks underneath which the three labor parties shamelessly signed their names. The People’s Front program which makes the French People’s Front platform and even President Roosevelt’s program look like substantial Left wing documents, is summed up by the very same Rundschau of a week later (January 23, 1936), as follows:

“Support of small industry and small commerce ... In the field of financial reform the most important is the proposal to work for the ‘Bank of Spain’ so revising its activity that it may fulfill in reality its task, the regulation of credit. Unfortunately, the Republicans could not decide (!) to accept the more far-reaching proposal which demanded the nationalization of all banks. In the field of improving the lot of the workers it is promised ... 2. The reorganization of the labor courts and the establishment of their independence.”

(Not only are the class collaborationist “labor courts” to be “reorganized” but their independence – from whom and what? – is to be established!) We forbear from quoting further. The program is simply inferior to the average petty bourgeois radical election platform. Compared with it, the average German social democratic party platform, even of the period of the “Iron Front” and “comrade” Hindenburg, is a significant social document. In so far, therefore, as the program of the “People’s Front” is concerned, the question of “Who? Whom?” is answered : The bourgeoisie wrote it; the proletariat accepted it.” More accurately, the treacherous leadership forced it on the proletariat.

Relationship of Forces

On the distribution of candidates, the complete subordination of the proletarian wing of the Front to its bourgeois wing is also clearly evidenced. Bear in mind, first, that in the 1931 elections, following the revolution, the socialists were returned as the largest party in the Cortes. Most of the “Republicans” got in by the skin of their teeth. Since that time, the “Republican Left” parties have been considerably weakened and even more discredited among the masses. Since that time, also, the communist party has grown and the proletarian forces in the country (also on a parliamentary scale) have been strengthened absolutely and relatively by the fact that women have the vote and that, this time, many anarchist and syndicalist workers decided to cast ballots. In face of these indisputable facts, the bourgeois wing of the Front was given the decisive predominance in the division of candidacies. With Catalonia having a list of its own, the division stood as follows: the Republican Left parties in the bloc were granted. 170 candidates and the labor candidates only 143 (127 socialists, 14 communists and 2 syndicalists). Elected were more than 120 members of the bourgeois parties and some 100 members of the labor parties.

To what relationship of forces in the country does such a division, which patently gives the bourgeoisie the upper hand, correspond? To absolutely none! It corresponds only to the contemptible attitude of grovelling before their bourgeois allies – in whom they have more confidence than they have in the forces of the proletariat – which is shared equally by the socialist and Stalinist leadership. The Maurin- Nin party which signed the People’s Front program and supported, it in the election, is nevertheless obliged to acknowledge in the post-election number of its periodical, La Batalla (Feb. 21, 1936):

“Catalonia apart, it is certain that, in the rest of the country the republican movement, as a force, is a veritable fiction, as it proved to be in the elections of 1933.”

This veritable fiction was given the leadership, the majority and the programmatic control of the People’s Front by Caballero, Uribe, Maurin and Nin.

Treacherous Stalinism

And even though the masses, some deliberately, some instinctively are fighting to break away from the leading strings of Azana and Co., of the astute demagogues of the bourgeois parties – even though the masses are groping, in elementary ways, towards class independence, and showing that by themselves they are infinitely more powerful and effective than they are when held under the bourgeois yoke, the labor leaders seek to fasten it only the more firmly around their throats. Typical and characteristic is the Madrid dispatch to the Daily Worker of Feb. 25, 1936, that is, after the elections and the stormy movements of the masses:

“Without consulting the Azana forces (Oh heinous crime!) many Left local governments are active in Asturias province and other parts. A stupidly premature (not only premature, but stupid to boot!) attempt is being made to divide Azana from the Left allies, the socialists and the communists.”

A more truly classic picture of social democratic treachery of the Scheidemann-Wels type could hardly be furnished than what is reflected in the two sentences quoted!

Is it surprising therefore that in addition to the hysterical praises sung to the Spanish “People’s Front” by the Stalinists, the Right wing of the social democracy should also give it the accolade of approval? Everything the Stalinists stand for is contained in the comment on the “victory” contained in the February 25, 1936 issue of the Jewish Daily Forward, written by its foreign expert, D. Shub, a biological Menshevik:

“The present victory over the reaction was made possible thanks to the fact that all the progressive parties and groups united in a democratic People’s Front which put forward a joint list of candidates in most of the districts of the country. Into the People’s Front entered the socialists, the syndicalists, the radical bourgeois republicans and also the communists, who gave up their own communist program in favor of the moderate (Hear! Hear!) democratic program of the People’s Front ... What the Spanish socialists did not succeed in attaining by means of a general strike and a bloody armed uprising sixteen months ago, which cost hundreds of human lives, has now been attained in a peaceful way by means of the usual methods of democracy.”

Shub rolls off these formulae with ease, because he has been repeating them for years. He hailed the victory of the social democrats in electing Hindenburg to the German presidency in exactly the same terms and spirit. In essence, it was just the same kind of victory, too. That he can now include the Stalinists in his comments, that he now agrees line by line with their evaluations, is no sign at all that he has moved closer to Marxism. It only means that the Stalinists have moved all the way to Shub. On these grounds, he has every right to felicitate himself. The Spanish workers have not.

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