Workers Vanguard No. 941

28 August 2009


The United Front Tactic: Its Use and Abuse

By Joseph Seymour

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below a presentation by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Joseph Seymour to the 13th National Conference of the SL/U.S. held this summer.

The tactic of the united front, as it was originally developed and expounded at the Third Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in June-July 1921, was intended for mass parties, in particular the nascent Communist Parties in Germany and France. It was aimed at winning over a section of the working-class base of mass reformist organizations led by the Social Democrats and, in France, the right-wing syndicalists. The united-front tactic was not considered applicable for relatively small Communist Parties, such as those in Britain and the United States.

Therefore, it’s important to understand that our use of the united front is an adaptation of the tactic as it was originally conceived and implemented. This adaptation necessarily involves many differences, some obvious, others not so obvious. Thus the characteristic form of the original united front was a military action: a strike, a mass demonstration against government policies (sometimes involving a one-day general strike), defensive actions against the fascists. In contrast, the characteristic form of our united-front activities is a pre-planned political protest. Moreover, often these protests are based on demands that cannot possibly be achieved by the small left-wing propaganda groups participating in them, for example, a campus-based protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Such activities are really a form of agitation, not a united-front action at all in the original sense of the term.

In this presentation I’m going to focus on the united-front tactic as it was originally developed and expounded by Lenin, Trotsky and the other leaders of the early Comintern. However, a useful approach in considering the applicability of the united front for a revolutionary Marxist propaganda group like ourselves was indicated six centuries earlier by the young English feudal warrior Henry Percy, otherwise known as Hotspur. As recounted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Hotspur was discussing the united-front tactic with his ally, the old Welsh chieftain Owen Glendower. Glendower declaimed: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” To which Hotspur replied: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?” If the spirits don’t come when we call them from the reformist swamp, we don’t have a united front.

Agitation and Propaganda

I think one source of confusion in our discussions on the united front has been terminological imprecision resulting in a lack of mutual understanding. That is, we use the same terms, but we mean different things by them. A key term in this regard is “agitation.” The classic Marxist definition of agitation was provided by the early Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, who differentiated it from propaganda in this way. Propaganda is the explanation of many complex ideas to the few. Agitation is the explanation of a few basic ideas to the many. However, in our tendency agitation is often conflated with a call to action. The difference between propaganda and agitation in this case is viewed and presented not in terms of explaining complex versus basic ideas, but rather in terms of the immediate realizability of the latter.

The original Comintern documents on the united front linked agitation with propaganda while clearly differentiating both from involvement in struggle. Thus the July 1921 document “On Tactics” stated:

“From the day of its foundation the Communist International has clearly and unambiguously stated that its task is not to establish small Communist sects aiming to influence the working masses purely through agitation and propaganda, but to participate directly in the struggle of the working masses, establish Communist leadership of the struggle, and in the course of the struggle create large, revolutionary, mass Communist parties.”

Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (1980)

Or again in the same document: “The Communist Parties can only develop through struggle. Even the smallest Parties should not limit themselves to propaganda and agitation.”

I’ll try to expound this concept in terms of our own organization by a hypothetical example. Let’s say that a number of undocumented Latino immigrants working in hotels and restaurants in San Francisco are seized by federal agents and deported. Some of these immigrant workers are members of the hotel and restaurant workers union. A WV article focusing on this incident concludes with the position that as a general policy the labor movement must oppose deportations and support full citizenship rights for all immigrants. That’s agitation. Let’s continue and say that we have some supporters in the San Francisco hotel and restaurant workers union. They judge that many workers in the union are sufficiently incensed by the deportations that they’re willing to engage in a protest action. So our supporters put up a motion at a union meeting for a one-day protest strike opposing deportations and for immigrant rights. That’s a call to action. We should consistently use the term agitation in its original Plekhanovite sense, clearly differentiating it from propaganda on the one side and from calls to action on the other.

The United Front at the Third Congress

The Third Congress of the Communist International, held in mid 1921, recognized and addressed the temporary restabilization of the bourgeois order in Europe following the revolutionary turbulence of the immediate post-World War I period. In particular, revolutions in Germany and Hungary and an incipient revolution in Italy had been defeated by the forces of bourgeois reaction, abetted, especially in Germany, by the Social Democratic leaders. In 1998, comrade Reuben Samuels gave an educational on the Third Congress in which he summarized the conditions confronting it:

“The defeats of this period demonstrated both the immaturity of the newly formed communist parties and the ability of the Social Democracy—despite its role in WWI mobilizing the proletariat for the imperialist slaughter, and despite its vanguard role in the imperialist expeditions against the Soviet Union—to maintain its base among the organized working class in the advanced industrial countries.”

—“The First Four Congresses of the Communist International,” Marxist Studies for Cadre Education, No. 9 (2003)

One way of looking at the policies developed and adopted at the Third Congress, centrally the united-front tactic, is that they represented a more advanced stage of party building—they sought to gain the support of a less politically advanced layer of the working class. The main theme of the Comintern documents on tactics at this time was that a majority of the organized working class could not be won to the Communist movement simply through propaganda and agitation, that is, on the basis of ideas. For that, the Communist Parties have to demonstrate in practice leadership of day-to-day economic and political struggles, often of a defensive character, for partial demands.

However, a corollary of this position is that a minority of the working class, in fact a numerically significant minority—the most politically advanced elements—can be won over by propaganda and agitation to communism, in particular, through polemical attacks on the reformists and centrists. By 1921, the Communist Parties in Germany and France and some other European countries—Czechoslovakia, for example—had succeeded in attracting the main body of such politically advanced workers. They were now faced with a different task, one of gaining the support of a section of the workers who still adhered to the reformist parties and affiliated trade unions.

These workers pretty much knew what the Communists were about in terms of doctrine, policies and practices. The problem was not lack of familiarity on their part. Rather, these workers rejected what the Communists stood for. In large measure, they subscribed to bourgeois-democratic ideology, centrally the identification of democracy with a parliamentary-type government elected through universal and equal suffrage. In many cases, they viewed the Communists as irresponsible hotheads who would lead the workers following them into adventurist actions that would be smashed by the forces of the state and right-wing paramilitary groups.

However, some of these workers were willing to collaborate with the Communists on the basis—but only on the basis—of mutually agreed upon terms. The December 1921 “Theses on the United Front” describes the mindset of such workers:

“Considerable sections of workers belonging to the old social-democratic parties are even now unwilling to accept the attacks of the social democrats and the centrists on the Communist vanguard. They are even beginning to demand an agreement with the Communists, but at the same time they have not outgrown their belief in the reformists and large numbers of them still support the parties of the Second and the Amsterdam Internationals. They do not formulate their plans and aspirations all that clearly, but in general the new mood of these masses comes down to a wish to set up a united front and make the parties and unions of the Second and the Amsterdam Internationals fight alongside the Communists against the capitalist attack.”

The Amsterdam International was the trade-union grouping affiliated with the Second International.

There are two basic conditions for the united-front tactic to be effective. One, its aims have to involve issues, such as resistance to wage cuts, that reformist-minded workers would struggle for independently of the offer of collaboration by the Communists. Two, the Communist Party has to have sufficient social and political weight to substantially affect the outcome of such struggles. As Trotsky explained in his March 1922 piece, “On the United Front”:

“Wherever the Communist Party already constitutes a big, organized, political force, but not the decisive magnitude; wherever the party embraces organizationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organized proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness.”

The First 5 Years of the Communist International, Volume 2

He contrasted such parties to those that were qualitatively smaller: “In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organization of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organizational significance.” Later in this presentation I’ll discuss the tactics worked out by the Comintern leadership for those parties, particularly in Britain and the United States, that in Trotsky’s words were still a numerically insignificant minority.

The united-front tactic was intended as a two-edged sword. If the reformist leaders agreed to a united-front action, the Communists would be able to demonstrate in practice that they were the most effective and militant leaders of elemental working-class struggles. In doing so they would gain a more sympathetic hearing from reformist-minded workers for their broader program and goals. If the reformist leaders rejected the offer of a united front, then the Communists could say to the workers who followed them: “See, out of hostility to Communism, your leaders are depriving you of a strong and willing ally in your own struggles against the capitalists and their state apparatus.” As Trotsky put it: “It is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilability but to the lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists.”

The January 1922 Comintern appeal, “For the United Proletarian Front!” argues:

“No worker, whether communist or social-democrat or syndicalist, or even a member of the Christian or liberal trade unions, wants his wages further reduced. None wants to work longer hours, cold and hungry. And therefore all must unite in a common front against the employers’ offensive.”

The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents (Vol. 1, 1919-1922), selected and edited by Jane Degras (1956)

To understand the central importance of elemental wage struggles in motivating and implementing the united-front tactic, one has to recognize that in Germany, France and a number of other European countries at this time the trade-union movement was divided along political lines. Most of our sections are in countries—the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, Australia—where there are unitary trade unions encompassing workers of all political persuasions. But we also have sections in countries—France, South Africa, Mexico—where there are competing union federations affiliated with different political parties.

The United Front in France and Germany

Our policies toward the political organizations of the working class are significantly different than toward the economic organizations of the working class. A political party consists of a voluntary selection of individual activists based on a comprehensive program for organizing or reorganizing society. We seek to create a politically homogeneous revolutionary vanguard party. The course of doing so often involves splitting reformist and centrist parties. Thus the French Communist Party was created in 1920 by splitting a left-wing majority from the reformist Socialist Party. Similarly, the German Communist Party was transformed in the same year from a relatively small organization, with about 80,000 members, into a mass party by splitting a left-wing majority from the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party.

However, we advocate and, when appropriate, seek to build industrial unions and factory committees encompassing all workers employed therein, regardless of their political views and affiliations. We aim to gain the political support of the majority of union members in order to replace the incumbent reformist or (in the U.S.) liberal labor bureaucrats, while preserving these organizations intact. But the incumbent bureaucrats will not necessarily play by those rules of the game, especially when they are losing it. That’s what happened in France in 1921.

In the pre-World War I era, the main trade-union organization in France, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), was a bastion of left-wing or revolutionary syndicalism. The CGT was proudly and willfully independent of the Socialist Party and to no small degree hostile to it. Syndicalist militants viewed that party, with good reason, as a predominantly petty-bourgeois organization permeated by parliamentarist careerism and intellectual dilettantism. However, in the last few years before the war the political distance between the CGT and Socialist Party was appreciably narrowed when a new, more right-wing leadership around Léon Jouhaux took over the former. With the outbreak of the war, Jouhaux and other CGT leaders joined with Socialist Party leaders in a so-called “sacred union” of national defense. Jouhaux himself became a government official.

After the war, the CGT polarized between an avowedly reformist right wing around Jouhaux and an amorphous left wing consisting of pro-Bolshevik militants, old-line syndicalists and anarchists. Faced with the increasing prospect of losing out to the forces of the left, the Jouhaux group split the organization in late 1921. The right-wing union federation, which retained the old name, had about 250,000 members. The left-wing organization, called the CGT-Unitaire (CGTU), led by an unstable bloc of fledgling Communists, syndicalists and anarchists, claimed 350,000 members. So to be effective, workers struggles over wages, conditions and layoffs had to involve united action between the Communists and their left-wing allies in the CGTU and the reformists in the CGT.

The situation in Germany was more complicated because the political division between the Communists and reformists was intermeshed with different forms of working-class economic organization. The Social Democrats retained control over the main trade-union organization, the Allgemeine Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (ADGB). This was literally a union of trades, based on occupations, not on industrial or other economic units. For example, the machinists union consisted of machinists in different factories while not including non-machinists in these factories. While the Communist Party sought to work in the ADGB, the Social Democratic officialdom was able to use bureaucratic methods to prevent the Communists from wielding authority in the unions, corresponding to their influence in the ranks.

However, the revolutionary turbulence of late 1918-1919 gave rise to another form of mass working-class organization, factory councils. These embraced all workers in the enterprise and were more representative of the ranks than the unions. Council representatives had to be wage-earning workers in that enterprise, thus barring paid union functionaries. By late 1922, the Communist Party had gained sufficient authority to organize a national congress of several thousand factory councils. Thus the united-front tactic often involved calls for united action between the Communist-led factory councils and the Social Democratic-dominated unions.

A good example, albeit in the negative sense, of how the united-front tactic played out on the ground involved a railway workers strike in early 1922. The German railways were state-owned. As part of a fiscal austerity program, the government announced that 20,000 railway workers would be laid off. This provoked a strike by an independent railway union, that is, one not affiliated with the ADGB. The government, headed by the Social Democratic president Friedrich Ebert, declared the strike illegal. In response, the Communist Party issued an appeal for all workers organizations to defend the right to strike and mobilized its own forces in support of the railway workers. When the Social Democratic Party and ADGB leaders refused to support the strike, the railway union executive ordered its members back to work. However, the Communists’ policies and activities increased their political authority among a strategically important section of the working class while discrediting the Social Democrats.

The United Front and the Post-Soviet Period

It’s obvious that the use of the united-front tactic in elemental, day-to-day struggles of labor against capital by the early European Communist Parties is not relevant for us today, nor will it be tomorrow. However, there are other important differences that are much less obvious. One such difference is the role of freedom of criticism or, more precisely, of criticism. In his 1922 piece Trotsky identified freedom of criticism as a negative condition of the united front, that is, something the Communists would not stop doing:

“We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticizing perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the half-way spirit in the labor movement. For this reason any sort of organizational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us.”

Remember, we are considering mass Communist Parties that had the capability to make their criticisms of the reformist organizations known to the latter’s members and supporters. The German Communist Party in the early ’20s had dozens of daily newspapers, read by hundreds of thousands of workers, including a fraction of the members and supporters of the Social Democracy. The German, French and other European Communist Parties had parliamentary deputies and members of local government councils. They had trade-union officials and representatives on factory committees. In practically every factory in Germany, France and some other countries—such as Italy and Czechoslovakia—Communist workers were continually arguing politics with social-democratic, syndicalist or anarchist co-workers. There was no lack of political engagement and debate between the Communists and other tendencies in the workers movement.

The SL/U.S. faces a very different situation vis-à-vis our somewhat larger reformist opponents—the social-democratic International Socialist Organization (ISO), the Stalinoid Workers World Party and Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the Maoist-Stalinist Revolutionary Communist Party. The leaders and cadre of these organizations do not want to engage in political combat with us and do not feel any need to do so. Quite the contrary. They seek to cordon off their newer, younger members and contacts from “the Sparts.” The ISO, for example, bar us from their public talks. In response, there’s been a tendency to use the united-front tactic to get around the unwillingness of our reformist opponents to engage us in political debate. We can argue about the effectiveness of the tactic for this purpose.

But what is not arguable is that this was not the original purpose of the united-front tactic. Its aim was not to create an additional arena of debate with the reformists over doctrine and program but to engage them at an altogether different level. Thus the December 1921 “Theses on the United Front” stated: “The Communist Parties of the world, having secured complete organizational freedom to extend their ideological influence among the working masses, are now trying at every opportunity to achieve the broadest and fullest possible unity of these masses in practical activity.” [emphasis in original]

I’m going to conclude by discussing the tactics worked out by the Comintern leadership for the smaller Communist Parties in Britain and the United States, for which the united front was not applicable, that is, they lacked sufficient weight to initiate and organize mass working-class actions. At the same time, these were not propaganda groups either. In the early 1920s, the British and American CPs encompassed thousands of experienced worker militants and had in their top ranks some widely known and respected workers’ leaders, such as Tom Mann in Britain and William Z. Foster in the U.S.

In the case of both the British and American parties, Lenin played a central role in working out the appropriate tactics. The basic axis of the united-front tactic is the offer by the Communists of joint struggle with the reformist organizations, including their current leaderships. In Britain, this was expressed through critical electoral support to the Labour Party and also the offer by the Communists to join the Labour Party. As such, the Communists would act openly as an organized faction on the basis of a revolutionary program. At the same time, as members of the Labour Party, Communists would help to build it, for example through winning over more politically backward workers who still supported the Liberals and Tories.

In the U.S., the only mass working-class organizations were (and still are) the trade unions. Hence the Communist demand that the unions form a political party opposed to the Democrats and Republicans in which the Communists would participate. I’m not going to address whether many, perhaps most, American Communists misunderstood the tactic as calling for and being willing to build a new reformist party similar to the British Labour Party. That question is not germane to the purpose of this presentation. What is germane is an understanding that the advocacy of a trade-union-based party was the American analogue of the united-front tactic.

During the early 1970s we had an extensive internal discussion on the labor party question. The substance and conclusions of the discussion were synthesized in a presentation, “A Talk on the Labor Party Question,” in 1972 by comrade Jim Robertson, that was republished in the Spartacist pamphlet On the United Front (January 1996). He explained:

“In the last debate in New York, I spent all my time on the decisions of the Third and Fourth Congresses. I’m going to evade that this time and simply point out that the Labor Party slogan is the current American version of the issue of the united front. It’s posed in the absence of a massive political expression of reformism or Stalinism in the United States; rather, with the organization of industrial unions with a deeply committed pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy, it is toward them that the issue of proletarian unity and the process of communist triumph in struggle is centered on the Labor Party question.”

Jim also emphasized that actual motion toward such a labor party, or even substantial sentiment in favor of it, would only be generated by a qualitatively higher level of working-class struggle than existed at the time or even during the big strikes that built the mass industrial unions in the 1930s. Absent such a convulsive upsurge in working-class struggle, our advocacy of a union-based party in opposition to the Democrats is a subordinate aspect of our more fundamental propaganda for the dictatorship of the proletariat (expressed using the term “workers government”).

This approach to the labor party question has, I think, a general relevance for the SL/U.S. in the current period. There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not we have a perspective. I think we do have a perspective but not in the way the term has been used. Our perspective should be to produce more and better propaganda in the Plekhanovite sense of explaining many complex ideas to the few. Let’s stop with the get-rich-quick schemes already. When, in the future, opportunities for organizational breakthroughs arise, we’ll all know it. Doubtless, these will involve both objective problems and internal differences, possibly fights, but that’s not what has been happening in our tendency since the fall of the Soviet Union.

What has happened, I think, is a deepgoing subjective drive to achieve organizational breakthroughs in order to demonstrate (mainly to ourselves) that we are not historically irrelevant, since everyone else in the world thinks we are historically irrelevant. We are historically relevant but we don’t have to and cannot now demonstrate that through substantial organizational breakthroughs or some other kind of external success. That’s just objective reality.