Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 2, 2020

Eric Blanc, Leo Panitch, and the Popular Front

Filed under: Biden,Fascism,Lenin,parliamentary cretinism,Popular Front,Spain — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

Toward the end of the stellar Cosmonaut interview with August Nimtz on Lenin’s views about electoral politics, the principals try to relate it to the current day. They concur that there’s more than a whiff of Popular Front nostalgia in the air with support for Biden symbolizing the kind of class-collaborationism that Lenin spent his entire career opposing.

Just a day after listening to the podcast, I read an interview that probably would have had Lenin spinning in his tomb fast enough to supply electricity in Moscow for a year if a transformer had been attached to his toe. Eric Blanc, today’s leading exponent of neo-Kautskyism, interviewed Leo Panitch, a Canadian professor emeritus who has co-edited the prestigious Socialist Register journal since 1985.

Titled “How Can Socialists Help Stop Trump?”, the interview was Blanc’s attempt to get benediction from Panitch for supporting a vote for Biden. I have no idea what Blanc’s religious background is but Panitch is a Jew like me and in the world of Marxism amounting to something like a powerful rabbi. For orthodox Jews, there are always knotty problems on how to interpret Talmudic law. Can you push a baby stroller on the Sabbath, a young couple might ask the rabbi. Stroking his long white beard, he’d reply “Only within the eruv.” (The eruv is a rope strung around an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where exceptions to strict Talmudic law are permitted.)

Like the young Jewish couple, Eric Blanc was asking for dispensation:

I would love to hear your take on the question of whether or not socialists should be voting and/or campaigning for Joe Biden.

For me, I’ve really had a hard time squaring the circle on this, because on the one hand, it seems clear to me that another Trump presidency would be a disaster for our side and, on the other hand, I don’t really clearly see how we can advocate a vote for Biden without going against the grain of our overall project of class formation, trying at all times to polarize and organize workers versus bosses. Maybe the best we can say is that this presidential moment is so exceptional that we should make an exception to our general socialist electoral strategy?

Going against the grain of our overall project, indeed. As a leading member of the DSA, Blanc was effectively ignoring the democratic decision at its last convention to only back Sanders. In the Nimtz interview, there’s a useful discussion of democratic centralism that reminds us of its original intent. It was to make sure that the Bolshevik parliamentarians complied with decisions made democratically by the rank-and-file. Afterward, Stalin ripped out the heart of democratic centralism and turned it into a formula for keeping the rank-and-file under his thumb. In the social democratic world, you didn’t have the same kind of repression. Socialist leaders were permitted to take whatever position they felt like, just as is the case with Eric Blanc’s support for Biden.

Panitch offers absolution in the form of a reference to the electoral formation that was hegemonic in the 1930s for the left:

For the time being, in every electoral cycle, you’ll face that dilemma. But right now, we are facing an increasingly dangerous development, which isn’t simply Trump, but also the explicitness and assertiveness of his supporters – his vanguard. And in this kind of moment, you do have to adopt a Popular Front position vis-à-vis the election.

That said, it doesn’t mean that you set aside or even need to apologize for taking this stance. To the contrary, it means you use the reasons you took that approach as a means to go on and organize the class as the Communists did in the 1930s under the Popular Front – more effectively actually than they were doing during their “Class Against Class” line in the beginning of the Depression. And the way you do that is to say, “look, the greatest danger of re-electing Trump is the closure of organizing space, the closure of political space” – which would significantly reduce our chances to do the class formation we need to.

It is highly revealing that Panitch sees the electoral choices adopted by the left as binary in nature. Either you used the “class against class” line of the CP or the Popular Front line that replaced it. The “class against class” line was a reference to Third Period Stalinism that helped Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In the late 20s, the CP regarded the SP as “social fascists”, just as bad as the Nazis.

In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold.  The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum.  The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.

A year later Hitler was in power and began rounding up Communists. This disaster forced the Kremlin to revise tactics. In May 1934, a Pravda article reversed Kremlin policy and urged cooperation between the SP and the CP. A year later, the reorientation was formalized at the Comintern Congress. The new policy was called the “The People’s Front Against Fascism and War”. It went further than the Pravda article. It endorsed electoral coalitions that included bourgeois parties as well. As long as they were antifascist, the Communists would unite with them in a government. The Second International was happy to join forces with the CP since they had been class-collaborationist all along. Indeed, it was their support for Paul Von Hindenburg, the Joe Biden of the Weimar Republic, that was responsible for Hitler becoming Der Fuhrer.

What’s absent from Panitch’s bird’s eye view of the period was acknowledgement of an alternative to both disastrous policies. In the early 20s, after a botched ultraleft attempt by the CP to take power in Germany, Lenin proposed a united front between the CP and the SP. He purloined this idea from Paul Levi whose proposals for such a policy effectively led to his ostracism in the German CP. When he took his complaints public, he was expelled with Lenin’s blessing—unfortunately.

Most of the Leninist left views the united front as a tactic that only allowed common actions between the two mass working-class parties, such as demonstrations. However, the Comintern also conceived of a workers and farmers government that while still ruling over capitalist property relations could begin moving forcefully to their overturn. Whatever the theory, a coalition government of the CP and SP in Germany in 1931 could have spared the lives of six million Jews and millions of other people enduring the barbarism of WWII. History dealt us a bad hand. Was the Popular Front an effective block against fascism, as Panitch unfortunately argues?

While this article is not the place to review the Popular Front in any detail, a few things are worth pointing out.

In Spain, a classic example of the Popular Front involving participation by two bourgeois parties, the government did not take steps to overturn capitalist property relations, largely because Stalin was trying to placate “antifascist” governments in France, the USA and England that would have objected.

After Franco began his counter-revolutionary war against the Spanish Republic, his army included Moroccan troops who resented the Popular Front’s refusal to grant their country national independence. George Padmore, an African-American Marxist who broke with the CP over the Comintern’s scuttling of support for colonized peoples in favor of alliances with liberal imperialist governments, wrote a scathing article titled “Why Moors Support Franco” in the May 20, 1938 New Leader that has some bearing on Joe Biden’s long-standing racist politics, especially his backing for the 1994 Crime Bill that led to the mass incarceration that has led to 34 percent of Blacks being behind bars in 2014 despite being 13 percent of the US population.

Why Moors Support Franco

Much has been written about the Moors in various sections of the Left-Wing Press in this and other countries. They have been called the “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” “mercenaries,” and other such names.

It seems rather strange that the people who use these epithets conveniently forget that these unfortunate Africans are as much the victims of a social system as Europeans, who are forced by sheer economic necessity into the armed forces of the Capitalist States and used by the imperialists to shoot down unarmed and defenceless natives in the colonies in the name of “democracy” and “law and order.”

It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.

The British workers have much to learn from this tragic affair, which every revolutionary Socialist, regardless of race or nationality, must deplore.

No people have had to pay such a price for Empire as the Spanish workers. It should be a warning to the French and British workers whose ruling classes control the largest Empires.

Following the American war of 1898, Spain turned to Africa in the hope of recouping there the loss of her West Indian and Pacific colonies. But it was too late. Most of the Continent was already shared out. However, in 1912, France granted her a small strip of North-Eastern Morocco as a bribe for her support against Germany.

But it was not until after the World War that an attempt was made to establish control of the hinterland. In 1921, Abdel Krim organised a revolt of the Riffs against this penetration. The Spanish garrison at Anual was completely wiped out. The Riffs swept everything before them. The prestige of Spain suffered a terrible blow.

The Military High Command called for revenge. As a preliminary step, the military caste suppressed the Spanish constitution and set up a dictatorship under Primo de Rivera in 1923. Thus, in order to enslave the Moors, the yoke was first tightened around the necks of the Spaniards: which confirms what Lenin says, “No people oppressing other peoples can be free.”

In the following year Spain and France combined against the Moors. Abdel Krim surrendered in 1926 and was banished to Madagascar. In those days the Communist International, especially its French section, was in the vanguard of the struggle on behalf of the Riffs. Today not a voice is raised on behalf of Abdel Krim. But the Moors have not forgotten their valiant leader rotting on an island in the Indian Ocean.

Had the Popular Front Government, immediately it assumed office, issued decrees granting the colonial peoples economic and political reforms as a gesture towards self-government and appealed for their support against Franco, it would have been assured.

For the Moors have no particular ideological interest in Fascism. They, like most colonial peoples, are not concerned with the conflicting political conflicts going on in Europe. To them all whites are alike – a feeling which can hardly be otherwise when Labour and Popular Front Governments oppress and exploit them in the same way as Tory and other reactionary Capitalists. It is only the more politically advanced colonial workers who are able to make a distinction between the white oppressors and the white oppressed.

Not until the European workers’ movements, especially in countries with great empires like Britain and France show more solidarity in deeds and not words will this distrust and suspicion be removed.

Economic misery and starvation also made it possible for the Fascists to recruit natives. All of the most fertile regions of Morocco have been confiscated and given to Spanish colonists. The majority of the tribesmen eke out an existence tilling small lots of land in the most primitive fashion. Others are engaged in pastoral occupations. But they have no means of disposing of their livestock. Since Spain is the only market, preference is given to the Spanish settlers whenever there is a demand for cattle and eggs – the only two commodities exported. The result is that thousands of natives have drifted from their villages into the coastal settlements and towns, where they beg in the bazaars.

The industrial workers are engaged in the iron ore mines at Melilla, but their condition is hardly any better than the peasants. The average wage is about 6d. per day at the present rate of exchange!

With no industries to tax and a large army and bureaucracy to maintain, the Spanish authorities in Morocco endeavour to augment the annual subsidy provided by the home Government by saddling the natives with heavy taxes. Those unable to pay have their lands and cattle confiscated.

Commenting upon the economic situation, Senor Vicens, advisor to the Popular Front Government, in an interview with “Opportunity” (March, 1938), said that “Crops were very bad last year and the misery of the people has been terrible ever since. To many of them the war was a godsend: it meant an offer of work with a promise of pay.

“The first Moors brought into Spain for this war were already in the colonial military formations. They were regular soldiers, ordered by their commanding offers to serve in Spain. The chiefs and officers being Fascists, they were ordered out on the Fascist side.

“Though many of them had no particular desire to come to Spain at that time, they had no choice in the matter – any more than any other colonial troops have any choice as to when and where they are to fight.”

Asked to explain why the Popular Front Government failed to make some gesture of independence to the Moors, Senor Vicens replied:

“The Republicans would have granted autonomy to Morocco readily, long ago, except that France would not permit it. France was fearful of the effect on her adjoining African colonies. As soon as Morocco had become an independent State the French colonies would have demanded their liberation and independence. France was not ready to grant them this, and we were bound to France by a spirit of co-operation.”

It is the Spanish workers and peasants, on the one hand, and the Moors, on the other, who are paying with their lives for this treachery.

This is the price of Popular Front Government in Spain and in France! British workers beware!

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