Popular Front

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The 1930s were a decade of both danger and opportunity for the Soviet Union as well as the international Communist movement represented by the Comintern. Even before the onset of the Great Depression, the Comintern had predicted a general crisis of capitalism and adopted a militant strategy that renounced coalitions with other working-class based parties or trade unions in favor of preparation for the inevitable proletarian revolution. Social democrats in particular were labeled “social fascists” with the result that in Germany the left was badly divided in its opposition to the rise of Nazism. For German Communists, the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in January 1933 seemed to bring the proletarian revolution closer by disabusing the masses of democratic illusions.

Ignoring a few dissenting voices within its ranks, the Comintern persisted with its disastrous line throughout 1933 and 1934. However, the Nazi state’s increasing aggressiveness in international affairs did result in a shift in Soviet foreign policy. This, as articulated and pursued by Maksim Litvinov, the Commissar of Foreign Affairs, was towards obtaining agreements among nations to act in concert against aggressors, a policy known as collective security. The fruits of the new policy were Soviet entry into the League of Nations in 1934 and treaties with France and Czechoslovakia in 1935 promising mutual assistance in the event of foreign aggression. Finally, in July 1935 the Comintern at its seventh (and last) congress formally abandoned its militant sectarian strategy in favor of pursuing the establishment of popular fronts of all progressive forces against fascism. Communist parties thereupon assumed the mantle of patriotism, entered into national electoral alliances with their socialist counterparts, and in 1936 were part of victorious Popular Front coalitions in both France and Spain.

Spain, however, was soon plunged into civil war as military officers under General Francisco Franco rebelled against the republic and were aided in their rebellion by arms and troops from Italy and Germany. For communists and leftist intellectuals, the fight against fascism in Spain was a cause celebre. Some forty thousand volunteers from throughout the world were organized into International Brigades. The Soviet Union dispatched advisors and arms, but wary of antagonizing the British and French governments, it instructed Communists in Spain to shore up the “bourgeois republic” and oppose the anarchists and Trotskyites who sought to turn the civil war into revolution. These splits on the left and the failure of the western democracies to support the republic facilitated the triumph of Franco’s forces which was complete by early 1939. Just as the Spanish Civil War illustrated the ineffectualness of the Popular Front, so the Munich Pact of September 1938 — in which Britain and France acquiesced in the Nazis’ absorption of Czech territory — demonstrated the failure of the policy of collective security. The ground was thereby prepared for a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

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