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A popular front is a broad coalition of different political groupings, usually made up of leftists and centrists. Being very broad, they can sometimes include centrist, liberal or bourgeois forces as well as social-democratic and communist groups. Popular fronts are larger in scope than united fronts.
In addition to the general definition, the term "popular front" also has a specific meaning in the history of Europe and the United States during the 1930s, and in the history of Communism and the Communist Party. During this time in France, the "front populaire" referred to the alliance of political parties aimed at resisting Fascism.
The term "national front", similar in name but describing a different form of ruling, using ostensibly non-Communist parties which were in fact controlled by and subservient to the Communist party as part of a "coalition", was used in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
Not all coalitions who use the term "popular front" meet the definition for "popular fronts", and not all popular fronts use the term "popular front" in their name. The same applies to "united fronts".
In the weeks that followed Hitler's rise to power in February 1933 the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Communist International clung rigidly to their view that the Nazi triumph would be brief and that it would be a case of "after Hitler – our turn". But as the brutality of the Nazi government became clear and there was no sign of its collapse, Communists began to sense that there was a need to radically alter their stance - especially as Hitler had made it clear he regarded the Soviet Union as an enemy state.
Georgi Dimitrov - who had humiliated the Nazis with his defence against charges of involvement in the Reichstag Fire - became general secretary of the Comintern in 1934 and by 1935, at the International's seventh congress the process of total reorientation reached its apotheosis with the proclamation of a new policy - "The People's Front Against Fascism and War". Under this policy Communist Parties were instructed to form broad alliances with all anti-fascist parties with the aim of both securing social advance at home and a military alliance with the USSR to isolate the fascist dictatorships. The "Popular Fronts" thus formed proved to be successful in forming the government in France, and Spain, and also China. It was not a political success elsewhere.
There were attempts in the United Kingdom to found a Popular Front against the National Government's appeasement of Nazi Germany, between the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Communist Party, and even rebellious elements of the Conservative Party under Winston Churchill, but they failed mainly due to opposition from within the Labour Party but incompatibility of Liberal and socialist approaches also caused many Liberals to be hostile.
The Popular Front policy of the Comintern was introduced in 1934, succeeding its ultra-left "Third Period" during which it condemned non-Communist socialist parties as "social fascist". The new policy was signalled in a Pravda article of May 1934, which commented favourably on socialist-Communist collaboration. In June 1934, Léon Blum's Socialist Party signed a pact of united action with the French Communist Party, extended to the Radical Party in October.
In May 1935, France and the Soviet Union signed a defensive alliance and in August 1935, the 7th World Congress of the Comintern officially endorsed the Popular Front strategy. In the elections of May 1936, the Popular Front won a majority of parliamentary seats (378 deputies against 220), and Léon Blum formed a government. In Italy, the Comintern advised an alliance between the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party, but this was rejected by the Socialists.
Similarly, in the United States, the CPUSA sought a joint Socialist-Communist ticket with Norman Thomas's Socialist Party of America in the 1936 presidential election but the Socialists rejected this overture. The CPUSA also offered support to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in this period. The Popular Front period in the USA saw the CP taking a very patriotic and populist line, later called Browderism.
The Popular Front has been summarized by historian Kermit McKenzie as:
...An imaginative, flexible program of strategy and tactics, in which Communists were permitted to exploit the symbols of patriotism, to assume the role of defenders of national independence, to attack fascism without demanding an end to capitalism as the only remedy, and, most important, to enter upon alliances with other parties, on the basis of fronts or on the basis of a government in which Communists might participate.
This McKenzie asserted was a mere tactical expedient, with the broad goals of the communist movement for the overthrow of capitalism through revolution unchanged.
The Popular Front period came to an end with the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and USSR, at which point Comintern parties turned from a policy of anti-fascism to one of advocating peace. Many Communist party members quit the party in disgust at this compromise between Hitler and Stalin. But many Communists in France and other countries refused to enlist in their countries' forces in 1939 or 1940 because Stalin was not at war with Hitler.
Leon Trotsky and his far-left supporters roundly criticised the Popular Front strategy. Trotsky believed that only united fronts could ultimately be progressive, and that popular fronts were useless because they included non-working class bourgeois forces such as liberals. Trotsky also argued that in popular fronts, working class demands are reduced to their bare minimum, and the ability of the working class to put forward its own independent set of politics is compromised. This view is now common to most Trotskyist groups. Left communist groups also oppose popular fronts, but they came to oppose united fronts as well.
In a book written in 1977, the Eurocommunist leader Santiago Carrillo offered a positive assessment of the Popular Front. He argued that in Spain, despite excesses attributable to the passions of civil war, the period of coalition government in Republican areas "contained in embryo the conception of an advance to socialism with democracy, with a multi-party system, parliament, and liberty for the opposition". Carrillo however criticised the Communist International for not taking the Popular Front strategy far enough – specifically for the fact that the French Communists were restricted to supporting Leon Blum's government from without, rather than becoming full coalition partners.
After World War II, most Central and Eastern European countries became de facto one-party states, but in theory they were ruled by coalitions between several different political parties who voluntarily chose to work together. By the time that the countries in what became the Soviet bloc came under undisguised Communist rule, the non-Communist parties had pushed out their more courageous members and had been taken over by fellow travelers willing to do the Communists' bidding. As a result, the non-Communist members of the front became subservient to the Communists, and had to accept the Communists' "leading role" as a condition of their continued existence.
For example, East Germany was ruled by a "National Front" of all anti-fascist parties and movements within parliament (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, Liberal Party, Farmers' Party, Youth Movement, Trade Union Federation, etc.). At legislative elections, voters were presented with a single list of candidates from all parties. In practice, however, only the Communist SED had any real power.
The People's Republic of China's United Front is perhaps the best known example of a Communist-run popular front in modern times. It is nominally a coalition of the Communist Party of China and eight minor parties. In practice, however, the minor parties are completely subservient to the CPC, and their leaders are mostly handpicked by the Communists.
In the Republics of the Soviet Union, between around 1988 and 1992 (by which time the USSR had dissolved and all were independent), the term "Popular Front" had quite a different meaning. It referred to movements led by members of the liberal-minded intelligentsia (usually themselves members of the local Communist party), in some republics small and peripheral, in others broad-based and influential. Officially their aim was to defend perestroika against reactionary elements within the state bureaucracy, but over time they began to question the legitimacy of their republics' membership of the USSR. It was their initially cautious tone that gave them considerable freedom to organise and gain access to the mass media. In the Baltic republics, they soon became the dominant political force and gradually gained the initiative from the more radical dissident organisations established earlier, moving their republics towards greater autonomy and later independence. They also became the main challengers to Communist Party hegemony in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan. A Popular Front was established in Georgia but remained marginal compared to the dominant dissident-led groups, because the April 9 tragedy had radicalised society and it was unable to play the compromise role of similar movements. In the other republics, such organisations existed but never posed a meaningful threat to the incumbent Party and economic elites.
These are non-socialist parties unless indicated otherwise.
|Republic||Main ethnonationalist movement (foundation date)|
|Russian SFSR||Democratic Russia (1990)|
|Ukrainian SSR||People's Movement of Ukraine (Narodnyi Rukh Ukrajiny) (November 1988)|
|Belarusian SSR||Belarusian People's Front (October 1988), Renewal (Andradzhen'ne) (June 1989)|
|Uzbek SSR||Unity (Birlik) (November 1988)|
|Kazakh SSR||Nevada Semipalatinsk Movement (February 1989)|
|Georgian SSR||Committee for National Salvation (October 1989)|
|Azerbaijan SSR||Azeri Popular Front Azərbaycan Xalq Cəbhəsi Partiyası; (July 1988)|
|Lithuanian SSR||Reform Movement of Lithuania (Lietuvos Persitvarkymo Sąjūdis) (June 1988)|
|Moldovan SSR||Popular Front of Moldova Frontul Popular din Moldova; (May 1989)|
|Latvian SSR||Popular Front of Latvia Latvijas Tautas fronte;(July 1988)|
|Kirghiz SSR||Openness (Ashar) (July 1989)|
|Tajik SSR||Openness (Ashkara) (June 1989)|
|Armenian SSR||Karabakh Committee (February 1988)|
|Turkmen SSR||Unity (Agzybirlik) (January 1990)|
|Estonian SSR||Popular Front of Estonia (Eestimaa Rahvarinne) (April 1988)|
|Autonomous Republic||Main ethnonationalist movement (foundation date)|
|Tatar ASSR||Tatar Public Center (Tatar İctimağí Üzäge) (February 1989)|
|Chechen-Ingush ASSR||All-National Congress of the Chechen People (November 1990)|
|Abkhazian ASSR||Unity (Aidgylara) (December 1988)|
These were established after the collapse of the USSR in 1991: