Critical Support, Popular Fronts and Bourgeois Workers’ Parties

First published 16/11/2018 on

Our comrades in Brazil have translated the piece below with the following introduction:

We reproduce below the article by Comrade Ian, a former leading member of the International Bolshevik Tendency in Great Britain, and today a member of the Socialist Fight, British section of the Liaison Committee by the Fourth International. The Spartacist family, and in particular the TBI, exerted a strong programmatic influence in the Lenin Collective and in the LBI, and even more in the Revolutionary Regrouping, rupture of the Collective Lenin. The FCT was formed by a process of ruptures and overcoming of militants from the Lenin Collective, LBI, PSTU and PT.

In the aftermath of the recent three-way split in the International Bolshevik Tendency, there has been a flurry of political debate between them and supporters of Socialist Fight, mainly on Facebook but also elsewhere. One important issue in the many-sided debates has been an article I wrote long before becoming involved in Socialist Fight, 20 years ago in fact, titled Trotskyism, the United Front and the Popular Front: Against Class Collaboration and Sterile Sectarianism (1998), and published in a journal called Revolution and Truth.

This was a re-edited version of a sizeable document written by me when I was an IBT member. It challenged at length the Spartacists’ position (which the IBT inherited, and which all factions as far as we are aware continue to uphold to this day), that it is somehow a betrayal of principle for a Trotskyist group to call for critical electoral support to a Labour or Communist Party that is involved in any kind of cross class coalition platform, explicit or implicit, with non-working class parties of any kind. This article will not repeat all of the argumentation contained in the original 1998 article, which is quite long, but will confine itself to some key theoretical points and go on from there.

What is good is that Alan Gibson, a supporter of the BT, the fragment of the IBT centred in Canada, led by Tom Riley, has now written a significant response to that article. It is the first attempt by anyone from the IBT to fully reply to it; previously in 1998 a (very) preliminary response was written by comrade Christoph (“The Popular Front: A Well-Covered Trap”), but the core arguments were not really dealt with, and the IBT leadership called a halt to the discussion by imposing a ruling, in effect a loyalty test, on their own co-thinkers, that they should not debate my criticisms until a future pre-conference period, which at that point was several years away. As a result of this bureaucratic way of proceeding, I resigned from the IBT.

Chilean army troop taking possession of the streets – Santiago, Chile, September 11, 1973

I will summarise the theoretical arguments here. The Spartacists argued this position beginning in 1970. This was concretely regarding the Popular Unity coalition in Chile, a classic popular front comprising of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, some smaller centrist groups influenced by the Cuban revolution, and various small bourgeois parties. This coalition, led by Salvador Allende, presided over a considerable working class upheaval, and held it in check. It was overthrown by a US-organised and -backed military coup in September 1973, bringing to power a bloodthirsty regime led by General Pinochet which notoriously suppressed the left and working class with massacres and torture. Pinochet’s Chile became a testing ground for neo-liberal economics, overseen and inspired by the ‘Chicago Boys’ economists such as Milton Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs.

One thing the Spartacists were quite correct about was warning that Allende’s coalition with small bourgeois parties in a period of working class radicalisation was acutely dangerous, and made a coup and such a terrible defeat likely. Their warnings were at the point similar to those Trotsky issued in France and Spain in the 1930s, about the danger of such coalitions with the bourgeoisie. We have no quarrel with them on that.

The Spartacists’ New Policy

What they also did, however, was to introduce a new policy on electoral questions. They argued that the only principled position that any Trotskyist group could take toward mass Socialist and Communist Parties in Chile, or indeed anywhere, was to call on the working class not to vote for these parties, which the mass of the working class considered to be their class parties, unless they first broke with the bourgeois parties in the coalition and resolved to take power without them.

The problem with this is that it involves taking no side in a situation where the mass of the working class, with real enthusiasm, were voting for what they considered to be their parties with the hope that their ascent to office would bring major gains to the working class. The most conscious elements of the working class no doubt considered that a bloc with the liberals was not ideal, but nevertheless not of major significance if the workers could use them as a stepping stone to put their parties in power to achieve the gains that they sought.

And those most conscious elements may well have sought to find ways despite the agreement at the top between the workers’ parties’ leaders and the liberals, to find ways to do down the liberals and force the SP and CP to be elected even where their leaders disapproved. The advanced workers in that situation would certainly have not even considered that they should take no side between their own parties and the main bourgeois Christian Democrats and the like, even if they were not too fond of the SP/CP’s smaller bourgeois allies.

A working class rebellion against the popular front in this situation was entirely possible. But what form would it take? Of the working class going on electoral strike against their own parties, refusing to vote for them until they break with their small bourgeois allies?  Virtually impossible! That is not how class consciousness works and develops. Trotsky himself chronicled the way such a rebellion actually took place in the late spring of 1936 when the French Socialist Party (SFIO) and Stalinist Communist Party (PCF) stood as part of a similar coalition with small bourgeois parties. A real working class rebellion against a Popular Front took place:

“… even under these conditions the masses were able to give expression to their desire: not a coalition with the Radicals but the consolidation of the toilers against the whole bourgeoisie. […]

“The Socialists and the Communists worked with all their might to pave the way for the ministry of Herriot — at worst the ministry of Daladier [i.e. politicians of openly bourgeois parties]. What did the masses do? They imposed upon the Socialists and Communists the ministry of [SFIO leader Leon] Blum. Is this not a direct vote against the policy of the People’s Front?” (The Decisive Stage, from Leon Trotsky on France, Monad Press, 1979, pp157-8).

Trotsky’s perception of the dynamics of rebellion against such a popular front was counterposed to that of the Spartacists, and that of the IBT, insofar as he realised that the workers’ class loyalty to their parties would drive such a rebellion. The question of refusing to vote for them to ‘punish’ the leaders for their bloc is simply counterposed to the way working class consciousness develops particularly when their parties are seen by the masses as material gains for the class, institutions created by the working class that give expression to class interests. Advanced workers do not lightly abandon such entities in elections.

Bourgeois Workers Parties and Class Consciousness

The Spartacists sum up their original rationale for their policy in this way:

“Within reformist workers parties there is a profound contradiction between their proletarian base and formal ideology and the class-collaborationist aims and personal appetites of their leaderships. This is why Marxists, when they are not themselves embodied in a mass working-class party, give such reformist parties ‘critical support’ — against overt agents of capital — as will tend to regroup the proletarian base around a revolutionary program. But when these parties enter a coalition government with the parties of capitalism, any such ‘critical support’ would be a betrayal because the coalition has suppressed the class contradiction in the bourgeoisie’s favour. It is our job then to re-create the basis for struggle within such parties by demanding that they break with the coalition. This break must be the precondition for even the most critical support.” (emphasis in original, Spartacist (no 19), November- December 1970).

This idea, that the class contradictions within a bourgeois workers party are ‘suppressed’ as soon as it enters a popular front with a bourgeois coalition party, makes no sense theoretically. I criticised it in 1998 thus:

“What does it mean to say that the contradictions of a bourgeois workers party are ‘suppressed’ for the duration of the coalition? It can only mean that they fail to operate, if words mean anything. That is, that for practical purposes, until the coalition is actually broken, these parties cease to have an operative proletarian component and themselves become effectively bourgeois formations. But if the bourgeois workers parties within the coalition cease ‘for the duration’ to embody any class contradictions, if those class contradictions are ‘suppressed’, then how can one say that there is any class contradiction within the coalition itself, between its constituent parties? The proletarian component(s) of the bourgeois workers part(ies) are ‘suppressed’ by the coalition. So what contradiction are revolutionaries seeking to hammer on in demanding that the working class component “break with the bourgeoisie”? Surely if the proletarian component in the workers parties is suppressed, there is no contradiction in the coalition to exploit in order to blow it apart? So the demand to ‘break with the bourgeoisie’ becomes meaningless, a demand addressed at a formation whose class contradictions do not operate until the demand is realised, which means the demand has no leverage and is reduced to a barren abstraction. This is all completely logical within this odd theoretical framework.” (

Alan Gibson does respond to this, the theoretical-programmatic core of my argument, in a way that is itself theorised. He makes a series of theoretical points that merit a considered reply. Firstly he says:

“… what is the contradiction that can lead revolutionary Marxists to consider giving critical political support to a bourgeois workers party that runs on a programme which only offers a reform of capitalism rather than its revolutionary removal?

“Clearly we do not endorse such a programme.

“There are however times when that pro-capitalist programme comes into contradiction with the reformist mis-leaders expressing the idea that the working class has its own separate interests that are in conflict with the interests of capital (this is usually in response to this idea being expressed by a militant working class vanguard actively prosecuting the class struggle and the reformists wanting to channel that proletarian rage into the safety valve of parliamentary politics).

It is that idea which we are supporting while it is the reformist programme that we are critical of in our ‘critical support’.” (

The problem with this is it is one-sided. The counterposition of the reformist parties to the parties of the bourgeoisie is not just one of ideas. It is also a material counterposition. The working class party is seen as not simply an ideological force, but a material one, the embodiment of the social power of the working class in capitalist society as a force whose mass membership and support acts as a counterweight to untrammelled bourgeois force trampling the working class into the ground. This is the problem that the above does not really deal with.

For workers it is not just an ideological conflict, it is a conflict of social forces. Advanced workers may well reason that if the strength of ‘our’ party causes some fragmentation among the bosses and some small bourgeois currents are tempted, for their own reasons, to ally with the workers party against the main ruling class parties, then that is a sign of the strength of the workers movement, not a danger to it. Of course we want to overcome reformism and implant a revolutionary programme in the mass parties of the working class.

But the kind of illusion that I just elaborated, though it is clearly reformist, also has a class component to it which is quite profound and which a Marxist current has to engage with in order to fight the illusions it contains and bring its class element to a qualitatively higher level.  Advocating that such workers refuse to vote for their own party against the main parties of the bourgeoisie is seen by them as a betrayal of their class interests and class consciousness. And that’s why it is a futile position in most cases.

Alan continues:

“I would argue that this contradiction is very certainly “suppressed” by standing on a joint programme with capitalist parties. How could it not be?

I suspect that what is really going on here is that Ian understands the contradiction involved in a bourgeois workers party quite differently. For him it is primarily a sociological/objective matter rather than a political/programmatic one.”

And then, quoting himself in an earlier discussion, he writes:

“This misunderstands the contradiction at the heart of a bwp. It is not that the leadership are bourgeois and the base are proletarian in an individual sociological sense. They are all part of the working class. To the extent the leadership are separate from the membership in a sociological sense it is that the leadership predominantly come from the labour aristocracy while the membership do not.

“The real contradiction in a bwp that revolutionaries seek to exploit is between the programme of the leadership which does not project the overthrow of capitalism but rather just the reform of it and the aspirations of the membership for more than that – for changing capitalism into some version of socialism.

“And this links to the question of the PF. The main problem with the PF is one of politics. It is a device used by the leadership of a bwp to keep anti-capitalist sentiment in the membership at bay – ‘we can’t break the unity of the Popular Front’ they cry.

“Calling for a vote to those leaders while they are expressing that ‘unity with the capitalists’ line does not help in exposing the real contradiction involved in a bwp.”

The Subjective and the Objective

Actually, the contradictions in a bourgeois workers party are both objective and subjective. The advanced sections of the working class see the bourgeois workers party as their party, the representative of their class interests, even when it is making what they see as tactical blocs with parties of other classes. The assumption that it is purely subjective, slips into a form of subjective idealism and leads to absurdities like the French Spartacists, in the heyday of the French Union of the Left project in the 1970s, where the French SP and the CP were allied in an attempt to create a basically left-reformist government but parliamentary arithmetic under the Fifth Republic meant they also sought allies among small bourgeois parties, to being reduced to in their words “giving out leaflets saying ‘please don’t vote for the popular front’”. This is not an effective tactic to intervene in debates around class collaboration among the mass of workers.

There is an implicit assumption here that social-democratic reformism is not a form of deformed or stunted class consciousness, but that it equates to a nothing. But in fact, the search for reform or gradual social change, or even a social revolution carried out incrementally through parliamentary reformism by a working-class party, certainly contain many illusions that Marxists recognise as such, but are nevertheless forms of class consciousness. This is qualitatively different from the consciousness of workers who vote for bourgeois parties, such as the US Republicans or Democrats, or those who see no need for a class party and vote Tory or Liberal-Democrat in Britain.

The idea that the contradictions in a bourgeois workers party are ‘suppressed’ when a bourgeois workers party enters any kind of a coalition with a bourgeois party, implies that the consciousness of workers who may support such a pact is not class conscious at all. But this is self-evidently not true; reformist workers and reformist trade union activists, for instance, do seek to advance distinct working class interests through reformist means and this activism is a form of partial class-conscious political activity, subjectively. And part of this partial class consciousness is the belief that it is permissible, tactically, to make temporary blocs with other forces as a stepping-stone to achieve working class interests.

We as Marxists have a big argument with such reformist workers about that; we say that blocs with smaller bourgeois trends for the purposes of government are at best self-defeating for the working class, as it is almost certain that the reformist government will not deliver much due to the need to accommodate its partners.

We seek to hammer on that precisely by emphasising and seeking to strengthen the class impulses of the workers embodied in their support for their own party(ies), and direct those class conscious impulses against the coalition with the liberal bourgeoisie. But how can that be possible if the class contradictions within a bourgeois workers party are ‘suppressed’ when it enters a coalition with a bourgeois workers party? Surely if the class contradictions are ‘suppressed’, then there is nothing to direct?

If such a coalition is entered into by a bourgeois workers party or parties when the working class has become seriously radicalised, and capitalist society has lost its stability, i.e. in a pre-revolutionary situation, then these contradictions are exacerbated. For the popular front in that situation sets up an obstacle to further political advance of the working-class base, it will frustrate their struggles, demoralise the workers, and lay the basis for a rise of fascism.

It is all the more imperative therefore for Marxists to apply united front tactics to address the consciousness of the working class base of the parties. Critical support in elections is one valid tactic, to drive a wedge between the coalition and try to sabotage the bloc with the smaller bourgeois parties and force the reformists to take responsibility for their own policies. But how can tiny micro-sects refusing to call for votes for the reformists against the bourgeois parties (including against their hoped-for coalition partners) do that? It cannot. Such tactics cannot hope to influence the mass of workers and to break them from those forms of opportunist partial class-consciousness that gives rise to dangerous blocs with smaller bourgeois parties against larger ones. In saying that the class contradictions of a bourgeois workers party are suppressed, comrades in the Spartacist tradition imply that there is no class consciousness whatsoever in the working class that may vote, in their millions as they did in France in 1936, for the working class parties in a popular front.

Trotsky disagreed. This is why he applauded the actions of millions of French workers in forcing a Blum premiership on the popular front against the likely wishes of the leaders. The GBL (French section of the then-Movement for the Fourth International) carried out the electoral policy that exactly corresponded with Trotsky’s points about the masses’ attempted sabotage of the coalition.   In Spain, where the Socialist Party embodied a large class-conscious contingent of workers and particularly young workers and revolutionary intellectuals, as I pointed out in my 1998 article, Trotsky advocated entryism into the Socialist Party and was harshly critical of Nin and the Spanish Trotskyists (soon to be ex-Trotskyists) when they failed to carry out this policy.

Entrism and the Popular Front

Entryism is a higher form of the united front than mere electoral support and presupposes a party with a high level of class consciousness within the membership of such a party to make it feasible. But if the class contradictions within a bourgeois workers party that enters such a bloc cease to operate, how can such united front tactics be even feasible, let alone principled? Obviously, they cannot. The position that says that electoral support for a bourgeois workers party that is part of a popular front is unprincipled must also rule out entryism, as there is supposedly no operative class contradiction within the bourgeois workers’ party to exploit, a sine-qua-non of entryism.

It is good that Alan confesses the following in his reply:

“But even if I was convinced that Ian was correct in his interpretation of the quotes then all that means is I would say I disagreed with Trotsky.”

That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with Trotsky. However, as the Spartacists are fond of quoting Trotsky, “The Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch”. Trotsky is the Marxist who theorised the need to oppose popular-frontism. To argue then that Trotsky was in some way opportunist or centrist, as is implied by the Spartacist tradition’s attacks on leftists like ourselves who actually take notice of, and try to follow, what he wrote about elections, and entryism, involving workers parties who were involved in such blocs, is a serious political difference with Trotsky over a very central question indeed.

“Living Continuity of Bolshevism”

Alan complains of guilt by association when we point out the affinity of the politics of the IBT with the Spartacists. But in the list of articles in Bolshevik Tendency publications he cites in their defence, we find the following:

“We consider the SL to have been a very important group historically—indeed a vital link in the chain of revolutionary continuity.”

“Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the programmatic heritage of Trotskyism was represented by the Spartacist tendency. This tradition we claim as our own.” (

“… in the 1960s and 70s the Spartacist tendency represented the living continuity of Bolshevism. In this period, Robertson played a critically important role in preserving Trotskyism and made several valuable programmatic extensions to it.”

“By the mid-1950s, as Robertson was reaching political maturity, most claimants to the heritage of Trotsky’s Fourth International stood considerably to its right. This was not only true of partisans of the pseudo-Trotskyist “Third Camp,” like Max Shachtman and Tony Cliff, and the “New World Reality” revisionists like Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and Ted Grant, but also, by the mid-1960s, of Pierre Lambert, Joe Hansen and Gerry Healy, who for a time had purported to champion “orthodox Trotskyism” against Pablo et al. Robertson and the organization he built stood, by contrast, on the actual politics of the Fourth International under Trotsky.”(, emphasis added)

Far from ‘guilt by association’, these are the associations that the IBT itself makes. We disagree. We consider the Spartacists to be a thoughtful group of contradictory origin whose progenitor, the Revolutionary Tendency, got Cuba basically correct and were pretty much unique in doing so. They were a group who whose contribution to Trotskyism would have been worthwhile if they had been subordinate to an international body that could have fought out and corrected their problems.

But it is nonsense to say that they represented the ‘continuity’ of Trotskyism. Robertson was only in the US SWP for a few years after leaving the Shachtmanites and was never a leading cadre. He never fully broke from Shachtman’s chauvinism as epitomised by his defence of Israel in the 1948 war. At the time of the Irish Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s they called for a ‘Socialist Independent Ulster’. These are chauvinist positions, not Trotskyism, derived from Shachtman’s approach to the national question. James Connolly could have put them straight on Ireland; Tony Cliff even could have done the same on Palestine. Cliff’s positions on Palestine were in fact considerably better than Roberston’s, even though he has justifiably been accused of being soft on Zionism at the time. Not that soft!

Though these positions were changed to neutral positions in the 1970s, they still involved the chauvinistic error of equating the rights of imperialist/colonialist settler populations with those of the oppressed peoples they were sent to conquer, or whose national rights to stymie. The view that only the Russian Question matters is itself a political fetish, contrary to the ethos of Bolshevism and this uncorrected chauvinism inevitably polluted the Spartacists’ outlook on that also. Hence the ‘goatfuckers’ scandal and the Spartacists’ repeated Stalinophile/chauvinist deviations over Poland, etc. These political derelictions make the statement that the Spartacists represented the ‘living continuity of Bolshevism’ a complete illusion.