Socialists use different strategies and tactics to fight the capitalists, depending on the situation we face. Whatever kind we use, our intention is always to weaken our rulers and strengthen the working class.
The existence of fascist ideas and fascist parties complicate the situation. Fascists are independent of both of the two main classes in society.
Being based mainly in the middle classes, they are not simply a tool of the capitalists—but they are completely opposed to workers’ organisation and interests.
Socialists must therefore use strategy and tactics to deal with this threat. But does this mean we must subordinate our ambition of strengthening the hand of the working class in an attempt to defeat fascism?
Looking at the errors that the French Communist Party made in the 1930s can help us answer this question.
On 6 February 1934 French fascist parties attempted to exploit the world economic crisis and the success of Adolf Hitler in Germany by laying siege to parliament.
A night of fighting ensued between police and fascists. Though the fascists were driven back, a centre-right government replaced a centre-left one.
Until that point, the Communists had refused to unite with the Labour-like Socialist Party, labeling them as “social-fascists”.
The Communist Party in Germany, under the influence of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, had used similar policies of isolation and division, which had helped the Nazis ride to power.
The Socialists, Communists and the CGT trade union demonstrated separately against the fascists in Paris on 12 February.
The marches came together with cries of unity against the fascists, much to the dismay of their respective leaderships.
This example of unity spread across France. Anti-fascist committees sprung up everywhere. Renewed confidence fed into industrial struggle—strikes and factory occupations broke out.
The Communists responded with a complete strategic U-turn.
They not only united with the Socialist Party but also the governing Radicals, a middle class party.
In this “Popular Front”, the Communists subordinated their politics to the most right wing section of the alliance—the Radicals.
Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary, criticised this Popular Front as ruthlessly as he had attacked the Communists’ previous policies of division.
He argued that the economic crisis meant that the ruling class was taking society towards “complete bankruptcy” and “an era of economic and political counter-reforms”.
In this situation capitalists could not tolerate their own “democratic order”. They believed that the system needed restructuring to better serve their interests.
Fascism can thrive at moments like this as its “historic function is to smash the working class”.
Fascism requires a deep crisis of capitalism to take hold. If it can prove to the capitalists that it is a force that can destroy workers’ organisations, they will allow it to take power.
This is what happened in Italy and Germany.
For unity against the fascists to be successful, the orientation must be on strengthening workers’ self-activity on the streets and in the workplaces.
But the Popular Front provided the opposite approach, Trotsky argued. It meant workers “put their hope in all sorts of miracles from above instead of giving a revolutionary outlet to the energies from below”.
The unity of the Popular Front initially gave the working class confidence. By May 1935 the biggest strike wave in French history had broken out.
The strikes were highly political. The most militant sections did not want to accept the reforms that the newly elected Popular Front government proposed to appease the workers.
A revolutionary leadership was needed to take the struggle forward.
But the Communist Party’s commitment to the Popular Front led it to tell workers to call off the struggle.
Workers’ militancy turned to disillusionment. The fascists grew in strength.
The Popular Front government finally fell apart in April 1938, and power shifted back to the right.
Socialists must unite with all those who want to stop the fascists. But they must combine this with attempting to deepen workers’ struggle.
A militant working class is needed both for smashing fascism and defeating capitalism.