Dialectics of the popular front

BY: Turner Roth| April 30, 2021
Dialectics of the popular front


The insurrectionary outburst of violence and destruction on the afternoon of January 6 in the nation’s capital carried out by a questionably organized yet determined group of individuals on the one hand represents a new occurrence. Never before has a sitting U.S. president claimed that a general election was fraudulent. Never has a mob of a president’s supporters forced their way into the Capitol building, directly incited by their leader’s rhetoric, destroying or making off with government property. Never has the Confederate flag been hoisted in that building, and certainly never has a self-styled shaman adorned with face paint and buffalo horns wandered errantly through its halls, spear in hand. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump tweeted late in the afternoon. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

For all the unprecedented spectacle marking the end of an unprecedented presidency, there remains a vast number of continuities that produced the right-wing extremism of January 6. The grievance and reaction of January 6 find precedents in events like The Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 that precipitated the end of the biracial Reconstruction government in Louisiana, or the coup d’état and massacre led by white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. Both events inaugurated Jim Crow regimes of violence, social and economic oppression, and political disenfranchisement.

When considering the rebirth of nativist populism among the masses today, brought to a critical mass with the election of Donald Trump, it is not only this egregious history of white supremacy that should concern us along with its continuation into the 21st century through the exponential expansion of the police state and prison system that re-institutes Jim Crow under the guise of “law and order.” Nor alone the voter suppression by which Republicans at the state and federal levels have been able to roll back advances and stack judiciaries with appointees that uphold their reactionary anti-majoritarian policies. Certainly both trends — expansion of the police state and voter suppression — are essential conditions for the ascension to power of a far-right ideologue like Trump. His policies pushed in every way the most reactionary path forward, which altogether amounted to a regressive, backward-facing political project animated at its base by perennial pathologies of the American body politic, captured and mobilized by Trump in a singularly potent manner.

Capitalism is a destructive force no matter who wields it.

However important both these aspects may be, there is another crucial level of analysis that needs to continually be brought to bear, particularly now that the transition to a Biden administration has successfully occurred and the “sacred place” of U.S. democracy has been secured. While fully acknowledging the racist and fascist forces that Trump mobilized and continues to inspire after his electoral defeat, we must now more than ever neither fall into nor ideologically abet the kind of complacency that descended when Joseph Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, captured the presidency in 2008. The contradictions of capitalism are by the day becoming more evident to working people. Our role must be to clarify that capitalism is a destructive force no matter who wields it, and that the primary contradictions our society faces are those produced by the socioeconomic forms that animate it, which have been and continue to be those of the capitalist mode of production that reproduces racial, gender, and other special forms of oppression within the larger class contradictions.

The minor reforms of the Obama years are not only offset by the destructive continuities he fostered at home and abroad, but are the very conditions, along with those already mentioned, that made a Trump presidency possible in the first place. From an economic recovery plan dictated by some of the very same people responsible for the Great Recession, saving Wall Street at the expense of millions of working-class people, to the ballooning defense budget and imperialist policies that further dislocate and destroy the lives of millions of people in the Global South, the Democratic “kind face” of capitalism is not only in itself deeply destructive, but through its habitual tepid reformism has paved the way for hucksters and ideologues like Trump to capture power.

On the other hand, we recognize that even the worst neoliberal Democratic candidate is to be preferred to the far-right politicians in the Republican Party, and that in such a system as ours where an either/or binary choice pervades, it is in the interest of the American working class that the less destructive choice — the “lesser of two evils” — prevails. For the working people of the world, of course, there is much less of a difference who resides in the Oval Office, as both Democrats and Republicans are nearly equally wedded to imperial plunder and violence.

This struggle is never static and removed from contradiction.

In the dialectics of opposition to, and alignment with, the Democrats is formed the experience of many engaged in the class struggle and struggle for racial justice. It is in the dialectics of the popular front against the most reactionary elements of the capitalist class that communists and others working to bring about a socialist overturning of capitalist relations in the United States and throughout the world find expression of the live antagonisms and attractions that animate the dialectical movement of struggle. This struggle is never static and removed from contradiction but always formed by and developing out of the oppositions whereby our experience and material lives are given meaning. We are thus in a position of constant opposition and alignment. It is the popular front — or the people’s front — that captures the dialectical essence of this on a broad scale, both theoretically and in practice. Only out of such a popular front can a robust and mass-based party emerge that bucks the binary of evil, that is, the two faces of capitalism: reformist or fascist.


With the assumption of a popular front as the formation best equipped to counteract the right wing is the idea that the policies by which gains in social, political, and economic equality have been achieved form the terrain on which the capitalist class can be divided by coalitions that prevent the extreme policies of the Republican Party and its adjacent formations from taking hold. Indeed, if we are to take individuals like Noam Chomsky at their word, doing anything less than everything possible to prevent Republicans from ascending to office is to risk total annihilation. On this basis, then, the terminology and theoretical framework of the popular front articulate a direction by which leftist parties and organizations unite with liberal and progressive Democrats in the fight to prevent further advances of the right-wing. The right is defined by the merging of monopoly capitalism, militarism, and forms of identity-based extremism that inhere in the origin and development of settler colonialism into what it is today: a national mythos of foundational purity that attributes all societal ills to “cultural Marxist” ideas like pluralism and equality while obscuring global capital’s tendency to erode the very categories it valorizes: “family,” “morality,” “nation,” etc.

Communists understand fascism as the dynamic process of capitalism in decay.

The election and rule of Donald Trump has been both symptomatic of this direction embodied by the Republican Party for quite some time and prognosticative of the direction it will continue to head down, one which warrants the reference point of fascism as a diagnostic not only for already-present symptoms but also likely future mutations. The Communist Party USA’s use of the term “fascism” in describing the Trump-Pence regime during the recent presidential contest pointed at precisely this blend of present manifestations and dormant possibilities of the transmogrification of the liberal-bourgeois political order into one that has eliminated even the veneer of formal democracy and that slim space of contestation permitted by our hyper-militarized police state. In distinction with a section of liberals who likewise referenced fascism to describe the trajectory of governance under Trump, and who upheld the naive belief that the election of the Democratic candidate to office would amount to “defeating fascism” and restoring an order supposedly antithetical to that of the one Trump represents, communists understand fascism as the dynamic process of capitalism in decay.

This tendency is not just a specific historical and geographical formation but also a socioeconomic order that requires brutalization and rigidification of social life as conditions of accumulation and crisis response. Fascism is, as Aimé Césaire understood it, the boomerang coming back from the colonial and imperial domination of foreign lands, while it is also, as Theodor Adorno described it in a 1967 lecture, “the wounds, the scars of a democracy that, to this day, has not lived up to its own concept.” We are thus under no illusions that any capitalist party can “defeat fascism” because they have as their modes of intelligibility the very conditions that produce it. The CPUSA’s call to “vote fascism out” thus never ended with voting but presupposed the continual mobilization necessary to countervail the fascist threat. As Joe Sims put it in his “Turning Point in Freedom Road” keynote to the National Committee on January 23: “In this period the Party has to master the art of continuing to focus on fighting the right-wing danger while keeping our eyes on the prize of responding to working-class and people’s needs.”

Any theorizing of people’s-front strategy and tactics requires a thoroughgoing, unflinching critique of the dominant party we are put in the position of shoring up against greater-evil opponents. Such a critique not only provides a space to articulate ideological commitments that prefigure a world we desire, but also accounts for the ways in which the Democratic Party and its international equivalents have contributed to the rightward trajectory of governments during the neoliberal era.  Through their refusals to represent the working classes of the world, these parties have facilitated the march of right-wing parties and far-right organizations in inciting reactionary affections among the masses by redirecting their sense of abandonment toward compensatory ideals of racial, cultural, or national superiority. It is thus necessary to fully consider the failures of neoliberal centrists — or, as Tariq Ali calls it, the “extreme center” — as inhering in the very same process of fascist revival globally.

In contemporary discourse surrounding popular front strategy there is a tendency to separate these two processes, acknowledging the ways in which the neoliberal center has failed but nonetheless opposing its essential trajectory to that of right-wing neofascism as a qualitatively distinct political formation. At the limit, this permits a tendency to defend the extreme center and eschew critical engagement in the interest of left-center unity against the arch-reactionaries.

A united front doesn’t just delay the destructive logic of capitalism, but creates a new form of political and economic life.

Yet if the goal truly is to defeat these reactionaries, then there needs to be a sufficient theoretical grasp of the conditions of possibility for right-wing stranglehold and the fascist threat, which necessitates a thorough critique of the extreme center’s abandonment of working-class politics. Only on this basis can an adequate strategy be developed for a united front that doesn’t just delay the destructive logic of capitalism, but creates a new form of political and economic life. It is evident that mere electoral support of Democrats and other forms of electoral activity intended to halt the Republicans will not of itself lead to anything more than a less-accelerated march toward capitalist destruction of the planet, which is why the building of movements that exert the will of the masses directly on the streets and shop floors needs to be the central pillar in building an independent political force.

Yet it is also evident that communists cannot abandon the terrain of electoral struggle and retreat into “hothouse schemes,” as Gus Hall put it, of instant revolution in isolation from the masses. The radical slogans mainly voiced on social media by disenchanted and isolated individuals mean nothing if there is lacking a wider organizational vehicle to make those words into a material force. However, if the organizational power of those who stand fully on the side of the working class is forever subordinate to the reigning institutions of the extreme center, buttressing these forces in the ever-threatening slide to more extreme forms of capitalism in decay, there can likewise never be working-class victory but only revisionism and deadly reformism.

Lenin has already instructed us: “Bourgeois politicians, one and all, in all parliamentary countries, have always paid lip-service to democracy while betraying it.” By extension, forever supporting the lesser-evil politicians can only ever be a betrayal of democracy insofar as the capitalist system they serve is the ultimate betrayer of true democracy. It is then clear that we need a viable alternative. The Communist Party USA strives to be that alternative. Success in this endeavor will ultimately depend on whether the masses can not only be met but led in a revolutionary direction. History has shown the possibility, but the present lags behind. We must endeavor to catch up to our own history, and with it, make a new future.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CPUSA.
Image:  Blink O’fanaye (CC BY-NC 2.0).



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