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Paul Mason’s ‘popular front’ of failures is not the way to beat the right

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Journalist Paul Mason has called on Labour to support a ‘Popular Front’ to stop the far right. It proved a disaster in the 1930s—and he should know it, writes Nick Clark
Issue 2668
Paul Mason wants a popular front against a no-deal Brexit
Paul Mason wants a popular front against a no-deal Brexit (Pic: @paulmasonnews/Twitter)

“Rule nothing out,” Paul Mason tells Labour Party activists, as he advises them to form a pact with the Lib Dems and the Greens to stop a no-deal Brexit.

This, the former left wing journalist wrote recently in the Guardian newspaper, is the only way to stop the Tories and the far right.

Mason believes that the biggest divide in British politics today is between the reactionaries who support Brexit, and the supposedly progressive liberals who oppose it.

It’s no longer possible, he says, for Labour to win a general election purely by challenging austerity.

And the cost of losing one would be a country “ruled by a faction of elite Tories who have abandoned their moral and intellectual dividing lines with the far right.”

So Mason has looked back into history to find a solution—and come up with the “Popular Front”.

This tactic, adopted by Communist Parties in the mid-to-late 1930s, led them into electoral alliances with liberals and social democrats.

It always ended badly for the left.

Yet Mason touts the Popular Front as the “one proven response in history that beats an alliance of far right populists and conservative amoralists”.

It resulted in a Spanish government that took power against the fascists he says, and gave France its “first Socialist prime minister”. As a former Trotskyist, he surely knows this is only half the story at best.

In France the Popular Front led the Communist Party to shut down a revolutionary wave of strikes—only for the party to be outlawed by the government it protected.

In Spain it ended with Communists butchering a revolution that could have stopped the fascists.

But Mason isn’t even entirely honest about who came up with the Popular Front, or why. Mason claims the Popular Front was “invented by the Corbynistas of their day.”

In the same article he hails Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov as a champion of the Popular Front.

He doesn’t mention that Dimitrov was also a shill for Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

This omission is hardly surprising given that Mason has taken to denouncing as “Stalinist” anyone on the left who supports Brexit. But this background to the Popular Front is quite important.


It tells us what the Popular Front was actually about—what it was supposed to do, who it was supposed to benefit, and why it betrayed ordinary people.

From the late 1920s, Communist Parties—controlled by Stalin through the Third International or Comintern—had been sectarian towards social democratic parties. They refused to unite in action with them against the fascists.

That changed dramatically after 1935, as Stalin looked for allies among the rulers of other capitalist countries against the threat of Nazi Germany. Suddenly Communists were supposed to unite with the leaders of mainstream capitalist parties “interested in the preservation of peace”.

In France, workers in the Communist and Socialist Parties had already begun to unite.

Fascists had forced out the prime minister—a member of the liberal Radical Party—in 1934 after staging a bloody riot.

But the advance of the fascists was halted when members of the Socialist and Communist Parties—and their union federations—united against them.

Leaders of the Socialist and Communist-controlled unions each announced general strikes and demonstrations, to take place separately on the same day. On the day, the demonstrations merged.

It was exactly the type of united, working class action that defeats the right.

But the French Communist leaders, in line with Stalin’s new policy, joined an electoral alliance not just with the Socialist Party, but the capitalist Radicals.

This Popular Front won elections in 1936. Socialist Leon Blum became prime minister and Communist and Socialist party membership grew.

But when a capitalist crisis hit, bosses reacted with attacks on workers’ jobs and wages.

A massive wave of strikes and occupations exploded, and began to raise questions of fundamental change.

The Communist Party put an end to it. Its attitude was to defend the Popular Front now, and save revolution for later. It told its supporters, “Everything is not possible,” and, “It is necessary to know how to end a strike.”

The strike wave was ended. In its wake, workers became demoralised with the government. The government shifted right,

Socialists and Communists lost support, the right in the Radical Party took over—and the Communist Party was banned in 1939.

With the workers’ movement demoralised, the Nazis were easily able to subdue France after they invaded in 1940.

It was a similar story in Spain. In 1936 a Popular Front of Communists, Socialists and liberal capitalist Republicans won a general election.

The result gave working class people the confidence to fight for more with a wave of strikes and demonstrations. But it also led to a conservative-backed coup led by the fascist general Franco.

Action by workers halted the takeover. They armed themselves, took over army barracks and convinced soldiers to join them. Franco only managed to gain control of less than half of Spain.

In the most militant regions, society was effectively run by workers’ organisations, not the republican government.

But Communist members, convinced that the Popular Front was the best defence against Franco, tried to postpone this revolution.


They defended the republican government and tried to disarm the workers’ militias and organisations.

They undermined the very thing that had stopped the advance of fascism, and Franco took control of Spain in 1939. What would this tactic mean for the left in Britain today?

For Mason it would begin with conciliation with the Lib Dems, letting them off the hook for enabling austerity and racism as the Tories’ coalition partners.

Better instead to partner up with them, only later “allowing voters to measure the Lib Dems’ actions against their rhetoric”.

If that’s your starting point, where do you go from there?

Mason wants Labour to go into a general election with a policy of “Remain and reform”.

That is, keep Britain inside the European Union (EU), then try and transform it into something progressive.

But how does that fit with the goals of the Lib Dems, Greens and Scottish Nationalists who essentially want to keep the EU the way it is?

Their backing for the EU rests on the fact that its institutions are designed to benefit the bosses of its member states. That’s their priority, and they won’t drop it.

Labour’s priority is slightly different—getting elected.

“Every Labour member should be asking themselves the question—is beating Johnson in a snap election more important than anything else?” says Mason.

If that’s the case they should also ask what they might have to give up to get unity with the liberals.

Last week Jeremy Corbyn appealed to the leaders of those parties to support him in a government that’s only purpose is to stop no-deal.

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said she could only support one if Tory Ken Clarke or Blairite Harriet Harman was in charge.

Would Mason sacrifice Corbyn’s leadership—giving in completely to the right—for the sake of a Popular Front? “Rule nothing out.” And that’s far from the worst outcome.

A Popular Front would mean propping up those whose decades of rule through austerity and racism fuelled the growth of the far right in the first place.

Labour could end up agreeing to all sorts of right wing measures demanded by the liberals in a Popular Front government.

And it would be the one made to shut down any strikes or protests against it. The thinking behind all this is that the left and liberals share a common cause against the right.

Mason presents the Popular Front as a defence against “the threat to democracy, to the welfare state and to our tolerant society.”

But Britain isn’t a unified, tolerant society, or much of a democratic one.

It’s a society run by people who represent the interests of the richest at the top. They’ve spent decades attacking the welfare state, and pushing the racism that divides us.

Beating the right, and winning for the left, means struggling against them.

That struggle involves many tactics, and needs unity among working class people. But we have to rule out a Popular Front.

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