A popular front is a broad coalition of different political groupings, usually made up of leftists and centrists. They are very broad and sometimes include centrist radical or liberal 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 1930s Europe and the United States and in the history of Communist Parties. During this time, the front populaire referred to the alliance of political parties in France that was aimed at resisting fascism.
The term "national front" is similar in name but describes a different form of ruling, using ostensibly-noncommunist parties that were in fact controlled by and subservient to the Communist Party as part of a "coalition", which 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".
Until early 1933, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was regarded as the world's most successful communist party in terms of membership and electoral results. As a result, the Communist International, or Comintern, expected national Communist Parties to base their political style on the German example. That approach, known as the "class against class" strategy, or the ultra-left "Third Period", expected that the economic crisis and the trauma of war would increasingly radicalise public opinion and that if the communists remained aloof from mainstream democratic politics, they would benefit from the populist mood and be swept to power. As such, non-communist socialist parties were denounced as "social fascist".
After a series of financial crises in 1926, 1929 and 1931, public opinion in Europe was certainly radicalising but not to the benefit of left-wing anticapitalist parties. In the weeks that followed Hitler's rise to power in February 1933, the German Communist Party and the Comintern clung rigidly to their view that the Nazi triumph would be brief and that it would be a case of "after Hitler – our turn". However, 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 for a radical alteration of their stance, especially as Hitler had made it clear that he regarded the Soviet Union as an enemy state.
In several countries over the previous years, a sense had grown within elements of the Communist Parties that the German model of "class against class" was not the most appropriate way to succeed in their national political contexts and that it was necessary to build some alliance to prevent the greater threat of autocratic nationalist governments. However, figures such as Barbé and Célor in France and Bullejos and Adama in Spain, who advocated greater flexibility by co-operating loyally with social-democratic parties and possibly even left-wing capitalist parties, were removed from positions of power. Predecessors to the Popular Front had existed, such as in the (later-renamed) World Committee Against War and Imperialism, but they sought not to co-operate with other parties as equals but instead to draw potential sympathisers into the orbit of the communist movement, which caused them to be denounced by the leaders of other left-wing associations.
It was thus not until 1934 when Georgi Dimitrov, who had humiliated the Nazis with his defence against charges of involvement in the Reichstag Fire became the general secretary of the Comintern, and its officials became more receptive to the approach. Official acceptance of the new policy was first signalled in a Pravda article of May 1934, which commented favourably on socialist-communist collaboration. The reorientation was formalised at the Comintern's Seventh Congress in July 1935 and reached its apotheosis with the proclamation of a new policy: "The People's Front Against Fascism and War". Communist Parties were now instructed to form broad alliances with all antifascist parties with the aim of securing social advance at home as well as a military alliance with the Soviet Union to isolate the fascist dictatorships. The "popular fronts" thus formed proved to be successful politically in forming governments in France, Spain and China but not elsewhere. 
In France, the collapse of a leftist government coalition of social-democrats and left-liberal republicans, followed by the far-right riots, which brought to power an autocratic right-wing government, changed the equation. To resist a slippery slope of encroachment towards authoritarianism, socialists were now more inclined to operate in the street and communists to co-operate with other antifascists in Parliament. In June 1934, Léon Blum's socialist French Section of the Workers' International signed a pact of united action with the French Communist Party. By October, the Communist Party had begun to suggest that the republican parties that had not sided with the nationalist government might also be included, and it accepted the offer the next July after the French government tilted even further to the right.
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 Blum formed a government. In Italy, the Comintern advised an alliance between the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party, but the latter rejected the idea.
There were attempts in Great Britain 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 because of opposition from within the Labour Party, which was seething with anger over communist efforts to take over union locals. In addition, the incompatibility of liberal and socialist approaches also caused many Liberals to be hostile.
The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) had been quite hostile to the New Deal until 1935, but it suddenly reversed positions and tried to form a popular front with the New Dealers. It sought a joint Socialist-Communist ticket with Norman Thomas's Socialist Party of America in the 1936 presidential election, but the Socialists rejected the overture. The communists also then offered support to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The Popular Front saw the Communist Party 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.
McKenzie asserted that to be a mere tactical expedient, with the broad goals of communists for the overthrow of capitalism through revolution remaining unchanged.
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They are period suddenly came to an end with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939. Comintern parties turned from a policy of antifascism to one of advocating peace with Germany. Many party members quit the party in disgust at the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, but many communists in France and other countries refused to enlist in their countries' forces until June 1941 since until then, Stalin was not at war with Hitler.
Leon Trotsky and his far-left supporters roundly criticised the strategy. Trotsky believed that only united fronts could ultimately be progressive and that popular fronts were useless because they included 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. That 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 the 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, especially since French communists were restricted to supporting Blum's government from without, rather than becoming full coalition partners.
After World War II, most Central and Eastern European countries were ruled by coalitions between several different political parties that voluntarily chose to work together. By the time that the countries in what became the Soviet bloc had developed into Marxist-Leninist states, the non-Communist parties had pushed out their more radical members and was now ruled by fellow travelers. As a result, the front had turned communist.
For example, East Germany was ruled by a "National Front" of all antifascist 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.
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. Though all parties had origins in independent parties prior to the Chinese Civil War, noncommunists eventually splintered out to join the Nationalists, and the parties remaining in Mainland China allied with either Communist Party sympathizers or, in some cases, actual members.
In the republics of the Soviet Union, between around 1988 and 1992 (when the USSR had dissolved, and the republics were all 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 but 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 Soviet Union. It was their initially cautious tone that gave them considerable freedom to organise and to 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 by moving their republics towards greater autonomy and then independence. They also became the main challengers to the Communist Parties' 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, since the April 9 tragedy had radicalised society and so 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 Az?rbaycan Xalq C?bh?si Partiyas?; (July 1988)|
|Lithuanian SSR||Reform Movement of Lithuania (Lietuvos Persitvarkymo S?j?dis) (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 ?ctima?í 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 Soviet Union in 1991: