AMONG the more sensational declarations of the Soviet leaders at the Twentieth Party Congress was Nikita Khrushchev's statement which seemed so contradictory to the tenets of Stalinism. "It is probable," he said, "that forms of transition to socialism will become more and more diversified. Moreover, the implementation of these forms need not be associated with civil war under all circumstances." Further on he was more explicit: "In this connection the question arises whether it is possible to go over to socialism by using parliamentary means." With certain conditions, he gave this possibility his endorsement: ". . . the working class in a number of capitalist countries, . . . by rallying around itself the toiling peasantry, the intelligentsia, all patriotic forces . . . is in a position to defeat the reactionary forces opposed to the popular interest, to capture a stable majority in parliament, and to transform the latter from an organ of bourgeois democracy into a genuine instrument of the people's will." Khrushchev did not specify the countries in which this seizure of power through parliamentary means was possible, but he probably had in mind primarily Italy, France and Greece, as well as the "former colonial countries" such as India, Malaya, Ceylon and various Arab countries of the Middle East.

Thus Khrushchev broke with a thesis which had become more or less established by the end of Stalin's life, namely that the revolution could be achieved only by following the Bolshevik example and with the direct aid of the power of the Soviet Union.[i] The rehabilitation of Jugoslavia as a Socialist country brought with it the recognition that there are various forms of Socialism and various ways of achieving it, among them the parliamentary; hence collaboration again becomes possible between Communist Parties and Social Democratic or bourgeois parties which continue to embrace the rules of parliamentary democracy as an article of political faith. With the repudiation of the brutal and imperialist doctrines of Stalinism and the proclamation that a peaceful and even parliamentary revolution is possible, the question of alliances between the Communists and other parties is again on the agenda, reviving the old theme of the "popular front."

A rapid succession of important political events has confirmed the new trend. In recent months the Italian Communist Party has on several occasions supported the Segni government. In March the Communist deputies in France voted full powers to the government of Guy Mollet with respect to Algeria. This was a question on which they were not in accord with the government's policy, but they lent their support because (in the words of Maurice Thorez) "the essential concern which inspires the Party is to preserve the possibilities of a broader development of the united front with the Socialist workers."[ii] Some weeks later the dissolution of the Cominform was announced. The reason given in the communiqué of the eight Communist Parties of free Europe was the need to "heal the schism in the working-class movement." Henceforth it was to be left to each party to examine "the problems of collaboration with the parties and tendencies favoring socialism." Finally, on April 20, Pravda affirmed still more plainly that coöperation between Socialists and Communists was now feasible. On April 30, several members of the Executive Committee of the French Socialist Party left for an official visit to Moscow, where they were received with exceptional cordiality.

The question is therefore being asked everywhere: Will the parties of the left, especially the Socialist parties, respond favorably to these friendly overtures? Will there be a revival of the popular fronts?


Front populaire! Few words in the vocabulary of Western Europe are so charged with passion. They instantly evoke either enthusiasm or fury. They still ring with echoes of the Spanish Civil War, of the great wave of enthusiasm which swept the French workers in 1936. But they echo, too, the somber note of the coup d'état in Prague, of the subjugation of the Social Democratic parties in all the People's Democracies. The very violence of the reaction to this slogan indicates the need for the utmost seriousness and composure in trying to understand what the significance of the popular front was in the past and what it is likely to be in the future.

In dealing with the Communists it is essential to have a firm understanding of their ideological position. Their tactical skill often obscures the fact that they always act in accordance with a firm set of principles; even their most obvious contradictions are carefully thought out. In the case of the popular front, their policy satisfies a fundamental tenet of Marxism. According to Marx, the proletariat represents more than itself alone; under the conditions of extreme exploitation to which it is subjected, the proletariat is the embodiment of the oppressed masses as a whole, and its triumph will be theirs, for its victory is the only universal victory--the only possible victory for humanity. The industrial proletariat, having become the actual or virtual majority in society, will set up its own dictatorship, which will be the dictatorship of the majority over the minority of capitalist exploiters.

But this dialectic theory has not been borne out by the evolution of modern states. Lenin was obliged to supplement it with a more practical theory which brought into play the resources of psychology and of military doctrine in a Hegelian perspective. Lenin observed that the working-class consciousness, when left to itself, bogged down in a negative "economic" struggle. To attain a political consciousness the proletariat must establish a relationship "with all classes and strata of the population." Therefore the object is no longer to group the workers together in mass parties on the classic Social Democratic model but to create an élite to act as a vanguard propagandizing and agitating in every sphere of political activity. The Communist Party is to organize this vanguard and direct its campaign of penetration. By definition it is not sufficient unto itself; it actually exists only in so far as it fulfills its function of training, of crystallizing "all the elements of political opposition." The alliance of the Communists with the other leftist movements is thus in the very nature of the Communist Parties; only the forms can vary depending on circumstances. "The working class must always be ready to replace one form by another without warning and without delay."[iii] Among these forms, one is obviously that of the traditional parliamentary alliance. But it is not the only one, nor is it the one that has been most frequently resorted to.

The popular front is thus not a combination peculiar to France or Spain, but the implementation of a Leninist tactic, used successfully in 1917 by the Bolsheviks. It is an alliance of the working class with the peasants and the middle classes, a coalition instigated and guided by the Communist Party. In the intervening 40 years this alliance has taken various forms which can be classified in four essential types:

1. The "united front" in Europe (1921-1932)

The united front was founded on unity at the bottom fostered solely by the Communists and directly guided by the Party. Its original object was to remedy the effects of the schism in the International by drawing as many Socialist workers as possible back into the fold. This tactic was designed to divide the left-wing Socialists from their leaders, who were accused of "betraying the working class." In 1932 Maurice Thorez was still uttering the slogan, "With fist brandished against the Socialist Party and hand extended to the workers abused by that party."

2. The "national front"

The national front consisted of an alliance between Communists and bourgeois parties for the purpose of attaining patriotic objectives. This tactic was perfected in Asia, in countries where colonialism facilitated cooperation between the working class movement, the peasants and those members of the upper classes who dreamed of independence. Inaugurated in 1920 in Siberia and Mongolia, it was applied in China from 1922 to 1927, when the chief of the Kuomintang himself put an end to it by massacring the Communists of Shanghai and then of Canton. But the national front tactic was renewed with fresh vigor among the European resistance movements between 1940 and 1945, preparing the way for Communist domination of the People's Democracies. Unlike the united front, the national front appealed to the patriotic bourgeois parties rather than to the Socialists, who became isolated and encircled with a multitude of satellite organizations.

3. The "popular front"

In Europe the united front had failed and had opened the way to Italian and German Fascism. It was precisely the victory of Nazism and the threat to the U.S.S.R. which it posed that impelled the Comintern in 1934 to come out with a new watchword. This time it was not a question of capturing the Socialist workers or turning the Socialist parties to the right, but of joining in a genuine alliance, free of subversion, for concerted action against Fascism. This formula was put into effect primarily in Spain and France. In these two countries the Communists were particularly careful not to alarm the moderate elements in the coalition, and as a result found themselves in conflict with the more radical attitudes of the revolutionary Socialists and Anarchists.[iv] If the Popular Front in France eventually fell apart, it was not for internal reasons but as a result of international political developments: failure to intervene in Spain and then the Munich Pact. "The Popular Front died exactly as it was born: as the result of Communist concern over Hitler."[v]

4. The governmental coalitions

After Liberation the Communists were members of the government in both France and Italy. Emerging from the resistance movements, they appeared to be simply a party like any other, but one which had done more than others to justify its claim to patriotism. The governmental coalition differed from earlier alliances in that it was founded on agreement at the top on major political objectives, but did not by any means represent unity at the bottom. It is interesting to note that this coalition, which in France was called "tripartism," also fell apart for reasons involving foreign policy and the international position of Soviet Russia: 1947 marked the beginning of the cold war, when Zdhanov's thesis of increasing opposition between the "peace camp" and the "camp of the imperialist aggressors" became the official line.

Since 1947 the tactic of forming alliances has had no further successes in Western Europe. In Italy the coalition of Communists and Nenni Socialists has won votes but has not been able to attract other parties. In France the national front tactic resorted to once more under the guise of the Peace Movement has been quickly hamstrung by the sectarianism of the Communists, which reached its height with the denunciation of Titoism. But now the Twentieth Party Congress declares that the time has come to put into effect a broader system of alliances. Is this a real change? Are these to be common fronts of the same old type or will they really represent something new? The conclusions drawn from this brief review may offer a clue: the nature of the coalitions arranged by the Communists has always been determined by the international position of the Soviet Union; these coalitions have failed or partially succeeded depending on the domestic circumstances which have confronted them in each country.


It would be a mistake to interpret the vigorous denunciation of Stalin and his narcissism as a fundamental break with the tenets of Stalinism. What it actually represents is a reappraisal of the international position of the U.S.S.R., resulting once more in a change of tactics among the Communist Parties in the capitalist countries.

The Soviet leaders were moved by two considerations: (1) The cold war has reached an impasse and it is in the interests of both camps to find a way out. (2) The internal strength and external influence of the Soviet Union and the countries of the "socialist camp" are still growing.

Consequently it is possible to relax the controls which mobilized the foreign Communist Parties in defense of the U.S.S.R. and to allow them greater initiative and flexibility. However, an examination of the directives given to the various Communist Parties, both Russian and foreign, fails to reveal anything really new: emphasis is still on the priority of heavy industry, the struggle against colonialism and in favor of national independence, the alliance of the Communists with all other opposition groups. It is true that Khrushchev and his colleagues have affirmed more plainly than ever the possibility of a peaceful and even parliamentary transition to Socialism. But Stalin himself had foreseen this possibility, although by the end of his life he had moved far away from it. "Of course," he once wrote, "in the remote future, if the proletariat is victorious in the most important capitalist countries, and if the present capitalist encirclement is replaced by a Socialist encirclement, a 'peaceful' path of development is quite possible for certain capitalist countries, whose capitalists, in view of the 'unfavorable' international situation, will consider it expedient 'voluntarily' to make substantial concessions to the proletariat."[vi] The difference between the two Soviet leaders is that Khrushchev believes the stability and strength of the Socialist camp are such that it is not necessary to wait for Socialist encirclement and revolution in the major capitalist countries. This is an important difference, but is it likely to modify, for the present, the actual nature of the alliances sought by the Communist Parties? The answer is no, as is evident from the fact that A. Mikoyan, addressing the Twentieth Congress shortly after Khrushchev had spoken, cited the coup d'état in Prague as a model for the peaceful and parliamentary seizure of power! "Thanks to the favorable situation which took shape in Czechoslovakia after the war," he said, "the socialist revolution was accomplished peacefully; the Communists came to power after having concluded an alliance not only with the working people's parties that stood close to them, but also with the bourgeois parties which supported the common national front. The people of Czechoslovakia have been victorious in a peaceful revolution."

In short, we are witnessing a break with Stalin's political practice rather than a break with the essential doctrines of Stalinism. The Soviet leaders have simply come to the conclusion that the position of their country has been strengthened and that friendly coexistence is more profitable than cold war. This superiority complex has induced them to make the tactics of the Communist Parties more tractable. Yet, in accordance with Stalin's analysis, the principal Soviet weapon continues to be "the utilization of internal contradictions in the imperialist world." In other words, in the underdeveloped or colonial countries the Communists must support the independence movements; in the capitalist countries they must unite with the leftist and neutralist forces against aggressive imperialism. In his report to the Twentieth Congress, Khrushchev clearly indicated that international considerations were behind the new overtures made to the non-Communists: "The interests of the struggle for peace make it imperative to find points of contact and on these grounds to lay the foundations for coöperation, sweeping aside mutual recriminations. Here cooperation with those circles of the socialist movement who have views on the forms of transition to socialism differing from ours is also possible and essential."

The coöperation referred to here seems to resemble the popular front concept, but with greater stress on collaboration--perhaps even reunification--with the parties and labor unions under Social Democratic influence. Will the two branches of the International, which have followed divergent paths since 1922, now begin to come together?

The Executive Committee of the Socialist International, meeting at Zurich in March, has already turned down the Communist advances and ruled out "any form of political compromise with the parties of dictatorship." The Social Democrats cannot forget that under such alliances their fellow party members in the People's Democracies were ruthlessly swallowed up, and they demand, as did the Labor Party leaders in London, the prior release of their comrades who are languishing in the prisons of the East. The Communist and Social Democratic conceptions of freedom are still essentially different: within a Socialist state the Social Democrats want to preserve the gains of political democracy, and for this the party system is an indispensable condition. But even the Jugoslav Communists have not permitted more than one party to function; it is therefore unlikely that the Soviets will permit it for a long time to come. Furthermore, the Social Democratic parties have become bourgeois and nationalist in their outlook: today they merely render lip service to the revolution and seek only to gain for the workers the greatest possible advantage from the prevailing economic and political system. Incapable of establishing the barest minimum of harmony among themselves, they independently pursue objectives which are at times selfishly nationalistic. In reality, the Socialist parties have nothing left in common with the social democracy of an earlier era other than a few revolutionary slogans and workers' hymns. The difference in the mentality and social composition of the French Socialist Party and the French Communist Party is much greater than it was in 1936.

Yet in some Socialist parties there is a lingering nostalgia for the unity of an earlier day. In France especially there is a vivid memory of the increased power which this unity gave to the left and of the great successes which it made possible in 1936. Whatever their ideological differences may be, there are many Socialists and Socialist sympathizers who dream of returning to such a state of affairs. The Communist Party, with 25 percent of the French vote, represents half of the "leftist" strength; without it, the left would be obliged to ally itself with the center-right in order to govern and would finally have to adopt policies not in harmony with its principles. The Socialist Party is tired of serving as a hostage, and a large segment of the Party would find it a relief to be able to join an honest alliance with the Communists. But do the practical conditions for such an alliance exist?

A glance at the trend of developments in Western Europe suggests that circumstances do not favor the creation of new popular fronts. The relaxation of international tension, while it permits the Communists greater tactical freedom, tends at the same time to weaken some of the forces of cohesion. Let us take the example of Italy, where a de facto popular front has existed ever since the Liberation; the Communists and Nenni Socialists always act together. Since the détente, the question of the Atlantic Pact has lost its urgency and no longer pushes Nenni into the arms of the Communists and away from the Christian Democrats. It becomes possible for Nenni to ally himself with certain elements in the center. Several recent votes in parliament have shown a leftist majority in which the Communists played a supplementary rather than a leading rôle, just as in France they have supported the Mollet government. Such parliamentary coalitions are of an unstable nature; they do not imply any reciprocal commitment and they leave the non-Communist partners entirely free in their movements. They are very different from the popular front, and in a way serve to lessen the likelihood of its resurrection.

Moreover, the numerical strength acquired by the Italian and French Communist Parties since the days of the Resistance is a further hindrance to the formation of balanced coalitions. These parties being much stronger than their proposed allies,[vii] the latter are fearful of being swamped and forced into a subordinate position. The creation of a popular front government would raise insoluble problems in the present state of affairs, because the allies of the Communists would refuse to give them the key ministries which they would be entitled to demand. If the French Communist and Socialist Parties had an equal number of deputies, a coalition would be more likely.

Finally, developments in the economy are not conducive to a lasting rapprochement. France and Italy are experiencing the first consequences of the "neo-capitalism" which is by now solidly entrenched in Germany. The standard of living among large segments of the population is rising. First the Fiat and then the Renault plants have signed contracts with their workers providing regular salary increases tied to increased productivity. The Communists tried to block this settlement, arguing their traditional principle of non-collaboration between classes. But their attempt failed, and reform--the worst enemy of Communist dialectics--won a point. The condition of the workers in Western Europe is going through an evolution. As they approach the condition of the middle classes, the likelihood of an alliance pitting the working masses against the bourgeois parties becomes more remote.


It seems, then, that the condemnation of Stalin's excesses and the overtures made by the Communists to the Socialist parties will not prove adequate to bring about the formation of new-style popular fronts. Does this mean that the possibility of eventual alliances between the Communists and other parties should be dismissed? Absolutely not. It simply means that the situation remains unchanged by recent events. In certain circumstances coalition with the Communists could become useful or even inevitable. Communist support of Western European governments may last for some time and even become more marked in Italy. But the situation in France is more unstable because of the war in Algeria. It will be difficult to go on putting off the choice between prosecuting an interminable war and agreeing to negotiate. But a policy favoring negotiation will not be possible without the Communist votes, while prolongation of the war will require censorship and other repressive measures in France herself. Only a rightist government bordering on dictatorship could carry out such a program and in these circumstances the forces of the left would quickly close ranks, just as they did in 1934 when threatened by the Fascist Leagues. Even a Socialist as far removed from Communism as Léon Blum declared before his judges in 1942: "I was convinced and I am still convinced that it is impossible to defend republican liberties in France if we exclude from that effort the working masses and the fraction of the working-class élite who still adhere to the Communist concept."

From any viewpoint, it seems clear that in the months to come the parties of the left in France are going to establish closer ties. It is desirable that these take the form of a parliamentary coalition, bound by a public agreement, rather than that of a popular front, born of the urgency of danger and sure to be quickly taken over by the Communists. The countries of Europe have become too weak to be able to afford to ostracize such a large proportion of their populations, including working-class and intellectual elements whose participation is vitally needed for national reconstruction. Collaboration between the Communists and the other parties of the left would obviously pose a delicate question, but it is one which should be viewed dispassionately. Given the present international conditions and the internal evolution of the countries of Western Europe, it would not be the same as either the Popular Front of 1936 or the coup d'état in Czechoslovakia.

A real popular front, a reunification of the labor unions and of the Socialist and Communist Parties, would depend on a change which has not yet come about in the Soviet Union. Of course it is possible that the process of de-Stalinization may carry its instigators much farther than they wish to go and may lead willynilly to the reintroduction of democracy and the essential principles of human freedom into the Soviet system; it is possible that the Western Communist Parties may one day cease to take orders from the Kremlin. Under these conditions, a solid and enduring alliance between Communists and Socialists could be concluded, and perhaps new, united revolutionary parties could be founded. It is not impossible that Soviet leaders envisage the Jugoslav Communist Party as a means of luring the Socialist parties into a new International with the Communists. The Jugoslav Communist Party, which has proved its independence, would be well situated to act as intermediary between the Social Democrats of Europe and the East. But this possibility can be realized only if profound changes take place in the policy and structure of the Soviet régime. The speakers at the Twentieth Party Congress have made it plain that any such changes are still a long way off.

[i] For Stalinist theories on revolution see the article by "Historicus" in Foreign Affairs, January 1949.

[ii] Maurice Thorez, "Quelques questions capitales," Cahiers du Communisme, April 1956.

[iii] Nikolai Lenin, "'Left Wing' Communism, An Infantile Disorder." London: The Communist Party of Great Britain, n.d.

[iv] An account of this period in France is given by J. Danos and M. Gibelin in "Juin 36." Paris: Editions Ouvrières, 1952.

[v] Pierre Ayçoberry, "Front Populaire," Reconstruction, February-March 1956.

[vi] J. Stalin, "Problems of Leninism." Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1940, p. 35.

[vii] There are 150 Communists and 98 Socialists among the deputies in the French National Assembly. The Communist Party has about 400,000 members, the Socialist Party about 110,000.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • J. M. DOMENACH, Editor of Esprit, Paris; a member of the Catholic left, active in the French Resistance during World War II; author of "La Propagande Politique" and contributor to "Communism in Western Europe"
  • More By Jean-Marie Domenach