Marxism and the United Front Tactic Today: Chapter VII

VII.        Revolutionary Tactics and Petty-Bourgeois Populist Parties in Imperialist Countries

 

In this chapter we will discuss how to assess a somewhat new phenomenon which has appeared in recent years– the emergence of petty-bourgeois populist parties in imperialist countries. By this we don’t mean parties like Respect which are to an important degree the (petty-bourgeois) political expression of the resistance of migrants and national and ethnic minorities. Rather we mean parties like Podemos in Spain which we have already briefly characterized in Chapter IV.

 

Should Marxists call for Critical Electoral Support for Podemos in Spain?

 

In our Theses on the United Front Tactic we stated that critical electoral support “could also be applicable to new petty-bourgeois populist parties in imperialist countries.” At this point we discussed, and confirmed, the applicability of such a tactic concerning parties like Respect (see more on this below in Chapter VIII). However, here we will discuss whether such a tactic would also be legitimate for new petty-bourgeois populist parties like Podemos in Spain.

As we have described above, Podemos is a new party which emerged out of the powerful Indignados movement which played a powerful role in 2011. It has strong support among the lower middle class which faces unemployment and social decline. It also has substantial support among sectors of the working class. This is not only reflected in the social composition of their supporters but also in their political agenda. Podemos gives high priority to social issues like the minimum wage, housing rent, and personal debt.

We maintain that it would be principled for Marxists to call for critical electoral support for Podemos in the present situation. Podemos reflects both the progressive protest of sectors of the lower middle class which are moving towards unity with the working class, as well as the protest of workers dissatisfied with the highly-bureaucratized and treacherous official leaderships (PSOE, the leaderships of the UGT and the CCOO). This characteristic of Podemos has been underlined by the rapid growth of its membership in the shortest possible time – up to nearly 400,000 members since the party’s founding in 2014 – their mass demonstration of more than 100,000 people in January 2015, as well as the growth of branches in working class districts. Furthermore, the party receives significant electoral support in working class areas.

It is true that there exist at the same time two bourgeois workers’ parties – the social democratic PSOE and the ex-Stalinist IU. However, the PSOE is widely (and correctly) seen as a party of the ruling class. As a result, the most dynamic sectors of the working class have moved away from the PSOE. To call for critical electoral support for such a party when, at the same time, there are other parties which reflect the dynamism of the militant proletariat, would be cowardly, right-wing opportunism.

In contrast to PSOE, the IU has not been historically aligned with governing the capitalist system, as it was never part of a national coalition government. Through its connections with the CCOO it retains some organic links with the organized working class, even though these links have become weaker in recent years (along with the concomitant weakening of the trade unions themselves). IU relates more to militant sectors of the working class than PSOE does. This is why critical electoral support for IU has been a legitimate tactic in past years.

However, the IU failed to attract the growing number of militant workers and people from the lower middle class, resulting in a substantial electoral losses for the party. During the last elections (December 2015) IU received only 3.7% of the vote. However this can potentially change in the future.

Naturally, there should be no doubt that the case of Podemos is an exception. In general, Marxists direct their electoral tactics in imperialist countries either to workers’ parties or to petty-bourgeois parties representing oppressed layers (national minorities, migrants). However, in Spain we witness the combination of a number of factors which create a situation in which critical electoral support for Podemos is legitimate. These factors include: the emergence of the powerful Indignados movement in 2011; the failure of IU to attract the radicalized sectors of the workers and the lower middle class; and, in parallel, the successful constitution of Podemos as a party reflecting the desire of these layers for radical change.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that parties like Podemos are an unstable, transitional phenomenon. Its petty-bourgeois character and the lack of institutionalized links with established mass organizations make it unlikely that the character of Podemos will remain as it presently is for any significant time. Rather, it is far more likely that the party will either shift to the right, and thereby lose many of its active members, or will undergo a split with one wing moving further to the left. A split is by no means out of question given divisions which already exist between the current majority around Pablo Iglesias and a number of minorities, the two principal ones being that presently led by the Mandelite „Anticapitalistas" Teresa Rodríguez and Miguel Urbán, and the other currently formed around the post-Marxist and anti-globalization intellectual Íñigo Errejón. [1]

 

The Trotskyists and the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) in the USA in the 1930s

 

We are fully aware that our tactics towards Podemos represent an innovation of the Marxists’ tactic in imperialist countries. However, we think that our tactic is not without historical precedents.

As we have already outlined above, Lenin and the Bolsheviks considered it legitimate to lend electoral support to the S.R. party, which was based on the poor peasantry but which also had support among sectors of the working class. [2] As the Bolsheviks have stated many times, Russia at that time was an, albeit backward, imperialist country. [3] However, one can argue that this is not a useful example, since Russia before 1917 still had not completed its bourgeois-democratic revolution, and contained semi-feudal economic structures as well as an absolutist state apparatus.

However, we also refer readers to another example: the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) in the USA. The FLP existed as a mass party in some states (e.g., Minnesota). It was composed of a number of farmers’ organizations – like the Non-Partisan League, an organization of poor farmers – as well as local trade unions. In Minnesota, the FLP repeatedly won – from 1918 until 1942 – elections for a number of US congressmen as well as senators. Furthermore, candidates of the FLP were elected as the governor of Minnesota between 1931 and 1939 (Floyd B. Olson, Hjalmar Petersen and Elmer A. Benson).

In short, the FLP was not a workers’ party but rather a “farmers and workers party,” i.e., a cross-class party or, in other words, a petty-bourgeois populist party.

However, under concrete circumstances, this populist party represented an important break of workers and small farmers with the two dominant capitalist parties – the Democrats and the Republicans. Under these conditions the US-Trotskyists developed specific tactics in the 1930s towards the FLP. These tactics included a call for critical electoral support for this party as well as entering the FLP and forming a revolutionary faction from within. [4] Farrell Dobbs writes in a book about the Teamsters struggle:

Confronted with these unique circumstances, the Communist League of America (as the Trotskyist organization was named at that time, Ed.) shaped a special policy for political work in Minnesota, deciding that FLP candidates for public office could be accorded critical support. That meant they could be backed in election campaigns, as against their capitalist opponents; but such support at the polls would be accompanied by criticism of the FLP’s reformist program and of the politics followed by its elected representatives. [5]

Yet another manifestation of such an approach was Trotsky’s advocacy of a workers’ and peasant government in the USA which he concretized as a transitional slogan in order to build a bridge to reformist and populist workers and peasants: “For a government of Lewis, Green and LaFollete”. The first two were the central trade unions leaders and the latter was a populist who had a strong following among many small farmers.

In our mind it leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat. We say to the workers and farmers: You want Lewis as president—well that depends upon his program. Lewis plus Green plus La Follette as representative of the farmers? That, too, depends upon the program. We try to concretize, to make more precise the program, then the workers’ and farmers’ government signifies a government of the proletariat which leads the farmers. [6]

In summary, under specific circumstances, revolutionaries have to apply the united front tactic – including electoral support and entryism – to petty-bourgeois populist parties even in imperialist countries like the US-Trotskyists did in the 1930s.

 

Discussing a Comparison: The Green Parties in the 1980s and 1990s

 

One could draw some parallels with the Green parties which emerged in German, Austria and other countries during the 1980s and onward. Of course, there are indeed some parallels. The Greens emerged in the early 1980s out of the environmental as well as peace movement. We have – in our predecessor organization – always characterized the Greens in their initial period as petty-bourgeois parties. While they were largely progressive petty-bourgeois organizations – initially they were strongly dominated by ex-Maoists and other leftists in Germany and Austria – they never had any connection with the workers’ movement. Furthermore they had no orientation whatsoever to the burning economic problems of the working class: wages, housing, social benefits; none of these subjects ever played any role in the politics of the Green parties.

As we have stated in past analyses, the Greens – after their initial “radical” period – were transformed from progressive petty-bourgeois parties into openly-bourgeois liberal parties. Since then, they had been part of numerous regional and national coalition governments in many countries.

The question which is of interest for us at this point is the following: would it have been legitimate for Marxists to consider electoral critical support for the Greens in their initial period in the 1980s when they constituted progressive petty-bourgeois parties?

Our answer is a clear and unambiguous NO. By definition there are many different variations of petty-bourgeois parties. In addition to right-wing chauvinist parties there are also various forms of petty-bourgeois protest parties like the so-called “Pirates.” In Italy we have the Five Star Movement led by the popular comedian Beppe Grillo – a populist party combining attacks on the corrupt parliamentary system with racist anti-migrant positions and an alliance in the European Parliament with the British right-wing racist UKIP party. Critical electoral support for any of these parties would be completely unprincipled for Marxists as they all do not represent a progressive political mobilization of the petty-bourgeoisie and the middle-class towards the working class.

This was also true of the Green parties in the 1980s, as was reflected in their political agenda (ignoring burning social and economic issues of the working class) as well as their electoral support base. While they succeeded in gaining some support at the universities and in middle-class districts, they always achieved far below the average voting results in working class districts.

There is also an objective social-economic base for this different development (compared with Podemos). When the Greens emerged and grew as a progressive petty bourgeois party, the middle class in its huge majority faced a prosperous future. Today, given the historic crisis of capitalism which began in 2008, this has dramatically changed. Today, significant sectors of the middle class face unemployment and severe social decline. It is therefore not surprising that Podemos attract sectors of the lower middle class as well as workers by putting issues like the minimum wage, housing rents and personal debt in the focus of its political agenda.

To summarize: in general the RCIT rejects electoral support for petty-bourgeois parties in imperialist countries. The case of Podemos is an exception due to the specific conditions of the new historical period and the political constellation in Spain (Indignados movement, failure of IU to attract the radicalized sectors of the workers and the lower middle class, etc.).



[1] See on this e.g. François Sabado: Podemos – eine neue Bewegung, Referat auf einer Veranstaltung der „Société Louise Michel“ (Mai 2015 in Paris)

[2] According to a valuable study about the social composition of the S.R., almost 50% of the party’s activists were workers or artisans. (Maureen Perriea: The social composition and structure of the socialist‐revolutionary party before 1917, in: Soviet Studies Vol. 24, Issue 2, 1972, p. 241)

[3] We have previously discussed the nature of Russian imperialism in several documents. See e.g., several works by Michael Pröbsting: Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and the Rise of Russia as a Great Power. On the Understanding and Misunderstanding of Today’s Inter-Imperialist Rivalry in the Light of Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism. Another Reply to Our Critics Who Deny Russia’s Imperialist Character, August 2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialism-theory-and-russia/; Russia as a Great Imperialist Power. The formation of Russian Monopoly Capital and its Empire – A Reply to our Critics, 18 March 2014, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 21, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialist-russia/; Russia and China as Great Imperialist Powers. A Summary of the RCIT’s Analysis, 28 March 2014, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 22, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialist-china-and-russia/; More on Russia and China as Great Imperialist Powers. A Reply to Chris Slee (Socialist Alliance, Australia) and Walter Daum (LRP, USA), 11 April 2014, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 22, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/reply-to-slee-on-russia-china/

[4] An extensive elaboration of the FLP in Minnesota, the trade unions as well as the work of the Trotskyists can be found in Farrell Dobbs’ four volumes: Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power, Teamster Politics, and Teamster Bureaucracy (all published at Pathfinder Press between 1972 and 1977). See also Kristoffer Smemo: The Politics of Labor Militancy in Minneapolis, 1934-1938; University of Massachusetts 2014.

[5] Farrell Dobbs: Teamsters Politics, Monad Press, New York 1975, p. 64, see also pp. 110-111

[6] Leon Trotsky on Labor Party: Stenographic Report of Discussion held in 1938 with Leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, Published by the Workers League, Bulletin Publications 1968, p. 14, see also www.marxists.org. Trotsky repeated this idea in another discussion with US-American comrades on 29 July 1938. (See Leo Trotzki: “Für eine Arbeiter- und Bauernregierung”, in: Leo Trotzki: Der Todeskampf des Kapitalismus und die Aufgaben der Vierten Internationale, Arbeiterpresse Verlag, Essen 1997, p. 197 [We have not been able to allocate this document in English language.])