THE COMINTERN AND THE UNITED FRONT
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The Comintern and the united front
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The united front tactic, launched by the Comintern in 1921, is still a problem of very contemporary significance for communists and workers today, because it is behind the banner of «Unity!» that workers' struggles, over and over again, have been, are, and will be led down the path to defeat by the opportunist parties which infect the workers' movement.
It is therefore important for communists, as political leaders of the working class (whether the workers always appreciate that or not!) to wield the slogan of unity in a precise way that leads to the path of revolution and not onto the path of compromise with capitalism, and into that bosses hospitality tent known as parliament.
In 1921, when the theses on the united front were issued, the issue of unity was conceived of one in which communists would seek to establish certain common goals with the opportunist parties, and then reveal the opportunists as traitors when they failed to take the fight to its logical conclusion. As the tide of revolution receded, it was seen as a good idea - if you'll permit us to stretch an analogy - to hitch the cart of communism to the social democrats and hitch a ride until the next revolutionary wave came along. In order to accomplish such a manoeuvre, it was understood that the dedication and commitment of the communist parties would ensure that they were left ideologically unscathed by this dangerous manoeuvre. What this left out of account, or at least failed to take nearly seriously enough, was that the Third international, formed in 1919 was itself a sort of federation of parties, for despite acceptance of the 21 points being the condition of membership, many of the parties nevertheless included strong opportunist wings. This meant the Comintern was itself a highly unstable political united front from the very start.
The 21 conditions of admission to the Comintern proclaimed at the 2nd Congress in 1920 were designed to exclude precisely these opportunist wings, with the Italian Left foremost amongst those advocating a yet more rigorous set of conditions. But despite Zinoviev's claim that «it will not be easy for the adherents of the centre to slip through the 21 conditions» in fact it would prove to be very easy indeed. All that was required was a verbal commitment which could be readily undermined by applying tactics which though posing as 'neutral' in fact masked a reformist as opposed to a revolutionary programme. Thus Cachin, a main spokesman of the French Centrists at the 2nd Congress - a man who had not only been fervently pro-war until 1917, but had acted as an agent for the French Government in trying to create a pro-war wing in the Italian Socialist Party, and had co-operated for this purpose with the renegade Mussolini - Cachin would do a sudden about turn and declare his full agreement with the 21 conditions, a conversion which seemed suspect to say the least after his previous manoeuvres. He would take the 2I conditions to the Tours Congress of the 2nd International affiliated SFIO in December 1920, and basking in his reputation as a leader of the left wing of this organisation, a role he had assumed only after the war, he would soon find himself at the helm of this same party, redoubled the French Communist Party (minus the extreme right wing which split). Cachin would prove in the future to be the loyal slave of Stalin - the centrist par excellence - whilst Cachin's co-leader of the PCF, 'comrade' Frossard, would promptly desert the party after the 4th Congress and gravitate back to the 2nd International.
Even the very presence of centrists of the likes of Cachin and Frossard (amongst numerous others) at the 2nd Congress had prompted the left, who wanted a clear split with these currents, to raise objections which would later prove to be well-founded.
In the majority of the newly founded communist parties the centrists would gradually assume command of the new parties against embattled left-wings which would become increasingly marginalized and have their criticisms stifled in the name of 'unity'. The centrist leaders would find it very easy, when a united front with declared social-democratic parties was finally officially endorsed, to turn the reformist of their Janus faces in their direction and persuade them of the smallness of the gulf that separated them.
At the 3rd Comintern Congress in the middle of 1921, the Italian Left agreed with the conclusions which had been drawn from the March Action in Germany; i.e. it agreed that not just a high quality CP was needed, but that this CP needed to have a sound connection with the masses; and that propaganda alone would not achieve this purpose, but active participation in the proletarian economic and partial battles was required.
Where the Left differed from the rest of the Comintern at the 3rd Congress was in drawing further lessons from the «March Action». The main problems located by the Left were:
«an empiricism and eclecticism which varied according to circumstances and which reflected, above all in the German party, the scant ideological continuity, which although there from the start, had been recently aggravated by the hurried merger with the Left independents. The main danger [...] was that this perpetual oscillation would eventually establish its centre of gravity following a definite swing to the right».
It is worth quoting a further, very long chunk, from the above source, the Introduction to the Rome Theses, from party publication In Difesa della Continuità del Programma Comunista (the present writer makes no claim to discovering anything original) which will clarify this stance.
«...Our determined opposition to the launching of generic and ill-defined formulations was not at all obscure and «Byzantine» but eminently understandable, and although we could see why Lenin and Trotsky defended them, we would nevertheless continue to assert that these formulations lent themselves - precisely because of their vagueness in a historical phase which required very precise directives - to very ambiguous and regrettably, compromiser interpretations. A typical example of this is the slogan «winning over of the majority of the working class» as sine qua non for the seizure of power. «Of course» - Lenin would clearly explain - «we do not give the winning over of the majority a formal interpretation, as do the knights of philistine 'democracy' (...) When in July 1921, in Rome, the entire proletariat - the reformist proletariat of the trade unions and the centrists of Serrati's party - followed the Communists against the fascists, that was winning over the majority of the working class to our side (...). It was doing so only partially, only temporarily, only locally. But it was winning over the majority» (in «A letter to the German Communist», 14th August, 1921). Not surprisingly, however, it wasn't long before several parties, and even currents within the Russian party (causing repercussions in the International) would interpret the «conquest of the majority» to mean something altogether different - and take it to mean either the material conquest of a numerical majority by recruitment into the party (contradicting thereby the fundamental theses of 1920 on the role of the party in the proletarian revolution), or else conquest, not of the greater part of the labouring class, but of the «masses» understood in a generic sense, organised or not, proletarian or «popular». In short it would come to signify, in the most generous of hypotheses, an abstract fixation on statistically determinable levels of direct influence (or, worse still, of actual control) over the working masses; a level which would supposedly have to be reached before the balance of forces could be utilised to launch the final battle. By over-estimating the importance of simple majorities, the factors were ignored which consist - as in Russia in 1917 - of a small party managing to attain a dominant position during a critical phase of the struggle, and courageously grabbing the opportunity when it arose; a party which, though not small out of choice, was solidly anchored in consistency of programme and action inside the working class. A party is therefore quite entitled to require that a verdict the effectiveness of its activity isn't arrived by the arid and academic standard of size. Unfortunately though it would not be long before the bad habit of «judging» parties on the basis of their membership rolls, or on the greater or lesser results attained in elections, would take hold of the International, and on such a basis the meetings of the Enlarged Executive of the Communist International (ECCI) would be transformed into tribunals, the sad prelude to future Stalinian praxis».
«Let us then pause to consider the even greater deviations from principle (fully brought to light at the 4th Congress) committed by those wings and currents which chose to interpret the «winning over of the majority» slogan to mean the most blatantly traditional parliamentarism, or else used it to confer legitimacy on their yearning to renew their waltzings with wings and fragments of social-democracy, even to the extent of organisational reconciliations. In essence the main danger which loomed was the illusion of being able to overcome temporary defeats, and of finding a short-cut to the revolution, by artificially «building» parties, to a presumed optimum size and capacity, by either merging with the flotsam and jetsam which floated to the surface after splits in the social-democratic parties; or by painful diplomatic pacts on the basis of reciprocal concessions. Thus the compact discipline of programme, action and organisation which is the one sure sign and authentic mark of the class party, was cast aside».
«That the peril wasn't hypothetical, nor our alarm dictated by idealistic apriorisms, is proved by the fact that it was precisely at this point that Moscow agreed to discuss the terms of the PSI's (Italian Socialist Party's) eventual membership of the Comintern; despite the fact that historical events, branded with fire and sword into proletarian flesh, were demonstrating once again that the PSI was incurably counter-revolutionary. Indeed even as the repentant PSI 'pilgrims' were wending their way to Moscow to confess their sins, the first of their 'pacts of reconciliation' with the fascists was signed. By accepting the PSI's 'petition' to join the International, it meant accepting the worse than equivocal figure of the 'sympathiser party' ranked on the same level as the official party and linked directly to Moscow (it is to be noted that unfortunately the 'sympathiser party' would be institutionalised at the 5th Congress in 1924: under which banner even the party of the hangman Chiang-Kai-Shek would be accepted!). To expect the PSI, after having been justly reprimanded by Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev during international congresses, to separate themselves from the Turatian Right (something which in fact it would not do, even at its next congress in Milan a few months later), meant questioning the validity of the original Conditions of Admission formulated in 1920; if the lopping off of the Turatian Right of the PSI represented an effective test before the founding congress of the PCd'I as proof of its total acceptance of the '21 Points' [editor's note: the Communist Party of Italy (P.C.d'I) formed at the 1921 Leghorn Congress of the PSI as a split from the PSI], it was no longer effective from the very moment when the Serratian centrists and the Turatians formed a bloc at the Leghorn Congress against ultimatums from Moscow, and especially later, when in the bloody unravelling of class conflicts (even in purely economic struggles) the PSI would give a thousand proofs of its de facto rejection of what it had repeatedly condemned on principle, namely the International's platform. Parties are not informal aggregates of individuals and groups, they are organisms formed by a real historical process, and are endowed with an internal logic which cannot be reversed or distorted without undermining the basis and conditions for their future development. The Left (whose hard work of orientating proletarian forces was directly affected by this reversal of policy) would maintain that it was useless to say that the PSI, all things considered, wasn't as bad as some of the other 2nd International-type parties because the merger with the PSI, or with parts of it, wasn't a national or local question (much less a stupid matter of prestige), but had to do with a correct international line. In any case, having lopped off the Right, what would the PSI consist of if not the local «Italian» variety of social-democratic centrism, enemy number one of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, precisely because of its tendency to conceal its real character of gradualist and parliamentary reformism behind a mask of verbal «intransigence»? And once the PSI had combined with the P.C.d'I. as an organised group within it, what effect would this have? Would it not replicate the inauspicious situation of a party with not so much «two souls» (as was said then) as two conflicting bodies and mechanisms; a party which, as a result, would be completely paralysed, just like the parties immediately after the war? Finally, might not this compromise with the twelfth-hour penitents introduce into the Comintern the disastrous praxis of continual backtracking, of oscillations now in this direction, now in that, in other words a tactical eclecticism which would allow the 'particularities of the situation' to dominate over sound vision and historical foresight?»
«Tentatively forecast by a leadership known for its frankness but not inclined towards superficial judgements or hasty condemnations, not six months would pass before this second danger would take explicit shape in the Theses on the United Front approved by the Executive of the Communist International on 28 December, 1921».
«The 3rd Congress, in its bid to win over the masses, had formulated the theses on «The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Contents of Their Work». The overall perspective - perhaps over-optimistic - was still that a bid for power was more or less imminent. A few months later, towards the end of 1921 (though we considered the phase already underway) the International's view changed: it was now the bosses who were on the offensive. Because in all countries the proletariat was engaged in a vigorous fight just to defend living standards and jobs, it was instinctively taken, in the course of the struggle, beyond political divisions on the one hand, and professional categories on the other, to move onto a broader front and towards the greatest possible unity. How the 3rd International parties perceived this question at the time was set out in the «Theses on the Proletarian United Front» and it bears a remarkable similarity to the viewpoint which the PCd'I' had defended since its foundation at Leghorn, i.e., agitation for a plan of tactical defence of the proletariat as a whole, which though utilising demands and contingent objectives to extend and generalise the economic struggles, in step with the elementary pressure of the working masses themselves, didn't stop there, but prepared to eventually graft a counter-offensive on to the economic struggle, in other words, a return to the one road, continually upheld by communists and by them alone, of revolutionary action: action for which militants and workers had been prepared in the hard school of the defence of living standards. We read in the ECCI-RILU «Manifesto on the United Front» (January 1, 1922) «[Proletarians!]:
All right, you do not yet dare to take up the fight for the new, the struggle for power, for the dictatorship, with arms in hand; you are not ready to launch the great offensive on the citadels of world reaction. But at least rally to the fight for bare life, for bread, for peace. Rally for these, struggle in one fighting front, rally as the proletarian class against the class of exploiters»».
«Understood in this sense and within these precise limits, the proletarian united front could have taken shape in the way already proclaimed and vigorously defended by the Left in Italy. The united front which we were proposing, via our union network, to the big workers confederations, was based on a precise analysis of the situation: that mass movements of the entire proletariat, when grappling with problems of interest not just to particular categories of workers or areas but to all categories and all areas, could only achieve their objectives by going in a communist direction, i.e., in the direction which we would have pointed the entire working class if it had followed us. We were sure that proletarians who entered into the fray for objectives and with methods of action compatible in line of principle with their affiliation with this or that political party of working-class origin (thus including social-democratic and anarchist wage-earners) would use the experience of the struggle itself, stimulated by our propaganda and our example, to derive the lesson that even defending a basic standard of living is possible only through offensive action, and therefore we would be seen as having prompted and anticipated the inevitably revolutionary implications of such action. But the International's theses - even if they did thrash the point out thoroughly by reasserting that any going back to organisational 'unity' was ruled out after the previous scissions - unfortunately didn't stop there, but went on to approve the reinstatement of certain initiatives by the German party (shifting from one extreme to the other in a state of perpetual oscillation...) which, starting out with the ill-famed 'open letters' to other parties, ended up making formal agreements and alliances, even though only for temporary and contingent objectives. From there it was only a short step to providing parliamentary support to the so-called «workers» governments of social-democracy, as had indeed already happened in Thuringia and Saxony and as the arch-opportunist Branting would commend for Sweden».
«It is at this point, in particular when the slogan «United front» was launched, that the differences between us and the International became particularly apparent. Our interpretation of «United Front» was that it meant joint action by all categories and by all local and regional groups of workers, by all national proletarian trade-union organisations, with a view to action which would, when the situation had come to a head, have as its logical outcome the communist directed struggle of the entire proletarian class. It didn't mean, nor could it be taken as meaning, a shapeless jumble of different political positions and a redrawing of the boundaries described once and for all against opportunism, nor an obliteration, even a temporary one, of our specific character as a party of permanent opposition to the State, and to other political parties».
«It is true that the International's theses would insist that the party must maintain absolute independence in a political united front. But «independence» is not a metaphysical category; it is a physical fact which not only ceases to exist in the extreme case of joint action committees or parliamentary alliances (the call for governmental alliances would come later), but also in the more benevolent case of joint actions proposed in the expectation of their certain rejection, the allegedly useful consequence being that the rejecters of the proposal would stand revealed as the class enemy. In the latter case independence ceases to exist also, since it clouds the proletarian's perception of the clear gulf which exists, and which we have always said exists - whose existence in fact justifies our existence as a party - between the reformist and revolutionary roads; between legalitarian democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat; in short, between ourselves and everyone else. It is facile and un-marxist to say that because communists have been tempered by hard struggle, because they are in possession of an immutable programme, that to them such tactics and manoeuvres are allowable; that they could be sure of emerging unchanged and untarnished after deploying such methods. For whilst we communists are factors of History, we are also its product, and although we may wield the instrument of tactics with a sure grasp, tactics in their turn condition us, and we would be negatively conditioned by them if we were to deploy them in such a way as to go against our final objective. And what is true for us is much more the case for the masses following us, or who start to follow us precisely because we point out a way which is opposed to those indicated by our false «brothers» and «cousins»; a road which the masses must stay on, spurning all other routes, even those which appear to be equally viable «alternative» routes. It is acts, not intentions, which will conquer the sympathies of proletarians who we haven't formally won over: and the act of offering the Olive Branch to parties which we had previously public ally pilloried; of inviting them to take part in an action which inevitably goes beyond the limits of defending the standard of living of proletarians, and runs up against the question of the State, of our position towards it, and of the formations which surroundit, is an act which deprives us of that real, non-illusory autonomy which we have been at such great pains to create. Meanwhile it generates both within and outside our ranks bewilderment and dislocations which makes the passage to the illegal struggle for the conquest of power that much more difficult. Our tactical formula is that the proletarian trade-union front and incessant political opposition to the government and all the legalitarian parties, are not mutually exclusive. Can one possibly say the same - intentions aside - about the political united front?»
To this day, «The Theses on the United Front» are still used by almost every party which calls itself 'left-wing' or 'revolutionary' to excuse indulging in all kinds of compromises with social-democratic and reformist parties. And since the theses seem to be considered some kind of Ten Commandments, handed down to the ECCI by God, we're going to look at passages from the original theses in some detail in order to expand on the points already made. Quotations will be drawn from «Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos» of the First Four Congresses of the Third International published by Pluto Press. Italics in the original text are included with our bold emphases.
«The new layers of politically inexperienced workers just coming into activity» we read in paragraph 4 «long to achieve the unification of all the workers' parties and even of the workers' organisations in general, hoping in this way to strengthen opposition to the capitalist offensive. These new layers of workers, who have often not previously taken an active part in political struggle, are now finding a new way to test the practical plans of reformism in the light of their own experience. Like these new layers, 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 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 Amsterdam Internationals fight alongside the communists against the capitalist attack».
The united front is therefore put forward not as the programme of the Communist Party, but the programme of «politically inexperienced workers» and «workers belonging to the old social democratic parties», and it is the «new way to tests the practical plans of reformism in the light of their own experience».
Paragraphs 7 and 8 however draw attention to the fact that «the diplomats and the leaders of the second and Two-and-a-half Internationals» have also been forced by circumstances to «push the question of unity». In their case though, the adoption of the slogan of unity constitutes a «new way to deceive the workers and a new way of drawing them onto the path of class collaboration». Rather than this being seen as grounds for abandoning the political united front however, the theses argue that «the overall interests of the Communist movement require that the Communist parties and the Communist International as a whole support the slogan of the united workers' front and take initiative on this question into their own hands. In this, the tactics of each communist Party must of course be concretised with regard to the conditions and circumstances in each particular country». The initiatives which the Comintern would take would therefore overlie the programme set in place not by the party but by the «politically inexperienced workers». In a word, rather than the communist Party guiding the workers at the programmatic level, the alleged workers' project of an abstract unity was accepted, a unity moreover which it was accepted the social-democrats were already trying to exploit to deceive the workers and draw them onto the path of class collaboration.
Paragraphs 9 to 17 outline the different tactics recommended for different countries, and it is here that the eclecticism and contradictoriness of the theses become particularly apparent.
The theses effectively recognise the Communist party in Germany as having set the precedent for the united front which
«at its last conference supported the slogan of a united workers' front and recognised the possibility of supporting a «united workers' government» provided it is willing to mount a serious challenge to capitalist power. The ECCI considers this decision entirely correct».
The dangerous policy of investing an ill-defined bourgeois «workers' government» - a government within which social-democrats form the majority - with a potential for «launching a serious challenge to capitalist power» is here set in place; a policy later endorsed at the 4th Comintern Congress. The danger which lurks is that of substitutionalism, which would have an alliance of reformist and revolutionary parties fulfil the role which only the Communist party can fulfil; that of launching a revolutionary attack on bourgeois power. Raising illusions in so-called «Workers' Governments» also entails concentrating far more on parliamentary manoeuvrings and procedures than organising outside parliament. In a word, the way was laid open to the Communist party of becoming merely a left-wing component of social democracy relegated to a role of merely attempting to radicalise the social-democratic parties. The Left would warn, as we have seen, that a «Workers' Government» which was any less than a communist dictatorship certainly served no purpose as a «step» towards communism. The only advantage that communists could derive from it would consist in confirming the accuracy of communist predictions in the minds of proletarians by warning of the imminent betrayal in advance.
The danger of a dangerous blurring of communism with social-democracy would certainly not be averted by the policy outlined for Great Britain, where
«The British Communists must launch a vigorous campaign for admittance to the Labour Party».
The Labour Party was already by this time a clearly defined social democratic party which in 1918 had adopted a programme and constitution, drawn up by MacDonald of the ILP, Henderson, and Webb the Fabians, which opened up the membership of the Labour Party to individuals rather than socialist organisations and trade unions. It was a stage of such significance in the evolution of the Labour Party that the book «Fifty Years March - the Rise of the Labour Party», signals the change with a special chapter entitled A SOCIALIST PARTY AT LAST, and we can presume that this is an officially endorsed view since the book's foreword, despatched from 10 Downing Street, is by the Rt. Hon. C.R. Attlee, leader of the Labour Party between 1935-55. But if the Labour Party was, at least retrospectively, aware of this significant change, not so the CPGB or the Comintern who still considered it a «general workers association for the whole country».
Meanwhile the policy outlined for the CP in Sweden was:
«the recent parliamentary elections have created a situation which will allow the small Communist fraction of deputies to play a major role. Mr Branting, one of the most prominent leaders of the Second International and simultaneously prime minister for the Swedish bourgeoisie, is at present in such a position that, if he wishes to secure a parliamentary majority, he cannot remain indifferent to the actions of the Communist Fraction in the Swedish parliament. The ECCI believes that the Communist Fraction in the Swedish parliament may, in certain circumstances, agree to support the Menshevik ministry of Branting, as was correctly done by the German communists in some of the provincial governments of Germany (for example Thuringia). However, this certainly doesn't imply that the Swedish communists should limit their independence in the slightest, or avoid exposing the character of the menshevik government. On the contrary, the more power the Mensheviks have, the more they will betray the working class and all the greater must be the communists' efforts to expose these Mensheviks in the eyes of the broadest section of workers. The Communist Party must also set about involving syndicalist workers in the common struggle».
Undermine the Mensheviks by supporting them! The theses leave unanswered whether communists should actually back Branting to get him into government, and what concessions they were supposed to wring from Branting in exchange for their support, but the way was definitelysmoothed to the «workers' government» policy which would soon be announced. As to revealing the Branting Governments' inevitable betrayals, the CP in Sweden could equally issue its warnings without forming any 'tactical support'. Giving it support in «certain circumstances» could only cause confusion.
In paragraph 18 of the theses there is an attempt to address the obvious inconsistencies arising from outlining different and contradictory tactics for the different CPs:
«The ECCI considers that the chief and categorical condition, the same for all communist parties, is: the absolute autonomy and complete independence of every party entering into any agreement with the parties of the 2nd and Two-and-a-Half Internationals, and its freedom to present its own views and its criticisms of those who oppose the communists. While accepting the need for discipline in action, Communists must at the same time retain both the right and the opportunity to voice, not only before and after but if necessary during actions, their opinion of the politics of all the organisations of the working class without exception. The waiving of this condition is not permissible in any circumstances».
Accepting the necessity for «discipline in action» with the social-democratic parties, whilst at the same time guarding their independence is precisely what the Communist Parties would find it impossible to do. Where clarity was the essential weapon at the communists disposal to get their message across, instead reams of paper was wasted in explaining arcane manoeuvres which constantly involved the de-facto blurring of the lines between the communist project to overthrow capitalism, and the reformist project to preserve it.
This was the case for the CPGB perhaps more than any other party when it had to explain its attempted alliance with the Labour Party. Either the CPGB accepted the new Labour Party constitution, and accepted discipline on that basis, or no formal alliance would be possible. This was the Labour Party position. Instead of the CPGB accepting this, and merely restricting its links with the Labour Party to the realm of limited actions, in itself of questionable value, it continued to both criticise the Labour Party, and make repeated petitions to join.
On March 4, 1922, The 1st Comintern Plenum would clearly state in its «Resolution of the English Question» that the «salvation of the English Proletariat lies in the formation of the united front». The unity would be forged around a reformist programme (though the resolution studiously avoids calling it that) in which the workers must defend themselves against unemployment, reduction of salaries, additional hours of work, and impoverishment. Just the kind of programme, in fact, around which the Labour Party could steal the communists fire by promising to fulfil such a programme once they were elected. In other words, any demands which a social-democratic party and communist party could agree on and forge a political pact around, could be derailed at the expense of the communists, and to the advantage of the social-democrats, with the workers led to the polling booths instead of onto the path of Revolution. As if reading the Labour Party's mind, the resolution goes on to propose that:
«The English workers' movement must increase its efforts to enhance the possibility of the formation, after the next elections, of a workers' government».
So despite the mass of propaganda which the CPGB had directed against the Labour Party, it would now have to rally support behind them and leave its own followers in a state of total confusion. And as if that there not enough, further confusion would be caused by the Comintern suddenly promoting the highly syndicalist notion of the TUC as a general staff of labour. The CPGB was thus being asked to hand over to the TUC and the Labour Party, then as always thoroughly intertwined, the leadership of the workers' struggle and entrench their authority. Handing over authority to the leaders of the TUC is a very different matter to forming communist cells within the TUC, preserving complete freedom of criticism, and urging the leaders to pursue policies of advantage to communists. All in all it is not surprising that the new tactic as Murphy said came as a 'shock' to the British party and at once led to a 'considerable loss of membership' (ECCI, «Fourth Congress Report», p.61). 25/3/22).
To return to the original theses of December 1921: Paragraph 19 explains that the precedent for the United Front is the various alliances forged between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks between 1903-1917. We touch on an area here which the Italian Left would frequently raise in the Comintern debates and which once again marks out its perspectives from other left-wing currents. The question is: can the Russian experience be applied in all respects to the fully capitalist regimes installed in the West? The alliances between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks took place in a situation where several classes - Bourgeoisie, peasant and proletariat - were in a revolutionary upsurge against the forces of tsarist absolutism. The alliances in the main had to assume revolutionary aspects as there was no entrenched parliamentary democracy. But in the West there was. Any alliances in the West between the communist parties and reformist parties equivalent to the Russian Mensheviks would take place in a very different situation. Up to the 1st world War, the parties of the 2nd International, representing the forces of organised international marxism, had entered parliament and encouraged illusions in the concessions which could be won from capitalism in a boom period. The definitive going over of these parties to the side of the bourgeoisie was marked by a lining up of these parties on their respective war fronts, with any militancy remaining within them expressed as an insipid pacifism. The remedy to this betrayal would be the formation of the Third International on a clearly revolutionary programme in 1919.
February of 1919 also marked the constitution of the Weimar Republic under the presidentship of 'comrade' social-democrat Ebert. The revolutionary wave which had swept through Germany after the Kiel naval mutiny in November 1918 had swelled into a movement directed by workers' and soldiers' councils which in December had formulated demands for socialisation of production, and pending its replacement by a people's militia, a purge of the army. A social democratic government nominated by the workers' and soldiers' councils immediately capitulated to the military when the entire High Command threatened to resign; and instead of proceeding to the immediate socialisation of production at the moment when the workers' councils were in effective control of the workshops, it set up a 'Socialisation Commission' with employers' and workers' representatives which naturally failed to reach agreement and soon faded ineffectually out of existence. Instead of partitioning the great estates east of the Elbe, it appointed another commission to study the problem. Thus all three main demands of the councils were sabotaged by the social-democratic government, and the much acclaimed 'revolution' of the Weimar Republic arose as a monument to the workers defeat by the forces of 'social-democracy'. In January 1919, the German Communists led a series of mass demonstrations against these compromises of the Ebert Government which ended up with a number of public buildings and newspaper offices occupied in Berlin. They were driven out by force and their leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt shot. Thus did blood-spattered Social-Democracy seal its arrival at the helm of the capitalist State by sacrificing communists and workers to the great God Profit.
Any illusions about what the social-democratic parties could achieve at the helm of Government had been thus well and truly buried in the same year as the 3rd International was created. So the historical lessons of the traitorous nature on social-democracy were already there to be drawn without providing further examples by helping them get into government again. What needed to be pointed out was that capitalism had now fully developed a new strategy for derailing the workers' movement, a strategy entrusted into the hands of a fifth column of social-democratic parties linked to the workers' economic organisations. And if this strategy remained vulnerable to unmasking in the immediate aftermath, what better than draw the communist parties into an alliance with these parties to patch up any ideological cracks? Perhaps we can say the Comintern was simply naive, thinking that in the heat of the struggle it could become the predominant voice in a political united front. But undialectically putting forward as justification for the strategy the alliances which the Bolsheviks had made with other parties in the lead up to a revolution in a backward feudalistic country like Russia, would mask serious tactical problems under unthinking hero-worship for the Bolsheviks: a hero-worship Stalin would use to counter-revolutionary advantage when he installed the 'Leninist' religion, with a dead Lenin as Saviour, unable to argue with any interpretation Stalin chose to put on his words.
However far we can stretch our estimation of the originally good intentions of the Comintern's policy of the United front, we have to wonder at their inability to have fully appreciated the degree of the social-democrats betrayal, and the place they had assumed in capitalism's counter-revolutionary strategy. The social-democrats and their agents in the trade-union movement had now become indispensable tools in the armoury of capitalism. They were not merely 'misguided' parties of the working class whose leaders could be won over, they would instinctively use any form of united front to win workers away from the revolutionary programme and to try and instil them with a respect for bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
But not content with trying to forge alliances with the reformists on a national level, the united front theses propound that (Para 20) the Communist International «obviously cannot reject similar agreements on an international level». Once again the workers are blamed for this policy, since it allegedly «has deep roots amongst the masses». In March 1922, there was a meeting of the 2nd, 2 1/2 and 3rd Internationals. The meeting sought to wring concessions from the Bolsheviks about the treatment of social-democrats in Russia, and the Comintern delegation headed by Bukharin was prepared to make concessions and allow observers from the three Internationals to witness the forthcoming trials of social-revolutionaries in Russia and to promise that death sentences would not result. Lenin was forced to disown the delegation, deeming the price for unity «too high» (from the article «we have paid too much», vol.33, collected works), and no more attempts would be made in the months that followed.
Para 20 also warns, and there are repeated warnings throughout the theses, that the united front tactic could damage communist parties which are «not sufficiently developed and consolidated» and it is implied that a «formless united bloc» could result. Strength, unity and unity under «an ideologically clear leadership» is essential to avoid the pitfalls. It was precisely any such clearness which would be ruled out as increasing concessions came to be made to social-democracy in the name of «Unity».
Para 22 is especially revealing in that it warns of two right-wing tendencies that exist in the CI. The one still hasn't broken with the 2nd International, and the other is keen to avail itself of flexible tactics. The theses maintain that the united front tactic would «reveal» these currents and help the internal consolidation of the CPs. In fact it would turn out that these currents would only reveal their presence by being the most enthusiastic and vocal of the proponents of the united front, and it was precisely they who would be eventually installed in the leadership of the communist parties to take the parties down the path of further compromises.
At the 4th congress in December 1922,, further modifications would be added to the United front tactic in the «Theses on Comintern Tactics». In section 10, the previous united front tactics are endorsed, and further warnings issued. It is spelled out that
«Any attempt by the 2nd International to interpret the united front as an organisational fusions of all the workers' parties must of course be categorically rejected».
Whilst propounding that
«the united front tactic has nothing to do with so-called 'electoral combinations' of leaders in pursuit of one or another parliamentary aim» meanwhile «the slogan of a workers' government (or a workers' and peasants' government) can be used practically everywhere as a general agitation slogan».
A new dimension was thus introduced here by expanding on the weakest parts of the original united front theses (tactics for Germany and Sweden) which had tentatively, or between the lines, backed the policy of support for «workers governments». As well as forming a united front with workers parties, the way was now laid open, by using the precedent of the Russian revolution, to united fronts with other classes, a precedent which would lead to trying to win over the petty-bourgeois masses in Germany - under the pretext of «conquering the majority» - by flattering their nationalist pretensions. Meanwhile communists were supposed to carry on forging alliances with the social-democrats - who - it was observed - were forming coalitions with the bourgeois parties!
The now almost mind-numbing confusion is added to by contradictory definitions of a workers' government. The Communist Parties, without being involved in electoral combinations, are supposed to form a tactical alliance with the social-democrats parties who have already given a thousand and one examples of their entrenchment in the capitalist camp. The alliance is now however not one of uniting around a number of limited reformist aims, but is to establish a workers' Government with these ambitious aims:
«the most elementary tasks of a workers' government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, bring in control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie».
Furthermore, this hypothetical red-in-tooth-and-claw alliance might even get into government through parliamentary pacts! for
«even a workers' government that comes about through an alignment of parliamentary forces, i.e., a government of parliamentary origin, can give rise to a revolutionary upsurge of the revolutionary workers' movement».
«It is obvious that the formation of a genuine workers' government, and the continued existence of any such government committed to revolutionary politics, must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war. The mere attempt by the proletariat to form such a workers' government will from its very first days come up against extremely strong resistance from the bourgeoisie. The slogan of a workers' government therefore has the potential to rally the proletarians and unleash revolutionary struggle».
Later on, the entrance of communist parties into such imaginary governments is endorsed, but only if
«there are guarantees that the workers' governments will conduct a real struggle against the bourgeoisie of the kind already outlined».
Obviously the Social Democratic parties alone would not be able to provide such guarantees, but could an alliance of the communists with the social democrats provide it? This was the mistaken notion which was encouraged, and inevitably this would lead to fantasies about obtaining a communist parliamentary majority as a substitute for revolutionary organisation and agitation outside parliament. In a word, the way was being paved to drop the 'revolutionary' from 'revolutionary parliamentarism'; a tactic which had defended the use of parliament by the communist party (mistakenly in our view) merely for propaganda purposes.
Support for «workers' governments» would eventually become a slogan beneath which any number of compromises with social-democracy would be carried out. Most especially it would become evident when the Comintern began to issue instructions not in the interests of international communism, but in the interests of the Russian State. At this point the united front strategy became not one of outlining a tactic, albeit a garbled and confusing one for taking power, but one for forging alliances between the Russian State and «sympathetic» governments in order to set up trade deals to ensure the survival of the Russia State. The new perspective was that the World Proletarian Revolution depended on the existence of the Russian State, rather than the perspective, as outlined by Lenin, that the existence of the Russian State depended on the spreading of the World revolution.
The Italian Left at the 4th Congress makes only cautious criticisms in the debate on the United Front. The Italian Left's representative, disciplined to the Comintern's United Front theses but highly sceptical, concentrated on damage limitation by stressing that any directing organ of the United Front comprised of leading representatives of leading parties shouldn't have power delegated to it which would overrule the various party programmes, because this would compromise the Communist party's independence. Nevertheless it would
«be prudery to decline negotiations on political as well as economic questions even with the most objectional of the opportunist chiefs».
As a counter-balance to the political united front, the importance of work in the Trade-unions, workshops and factories is stressed. The discussion at that time was still a comradely discussion. At the 5th congress and in the Left's Lyon theses of 1926, a more robust and clear rejection of the United Front tactic is developed, as revealed in our commentary on the (again translated from «In Difesa...»)
«In the months which followed the disaster of the German October in 1923, it would be very easy for the Plenum of the Moscow Executive of 8-12 January 1924, to blame the disaster on the insufficiencies, errors and weaknesses of the German leadership. And it would be just as easy for the latter to respond that - small errors apart - they had in fact applied, point by point, the instructions of the Comintern, which in its turn had conformed to the resolutions of the 4th Congress».
«(..) along with all this came the umpteenth «tactical switch» on a world scale. Henceforth, No more united front from above - as had been practiced by various parties, and the German party in particular, because of «a mistaken interpretation» of the resolutions of the 4th Congress, instead it was to be united front from below:
«The moment has come to openly proclaim that we are renouncing all negotiations with the Central Committee of German social-democracy and the central leadership of the German trade-unions; we have nothing to discuss with the representatives of social-democracy. Unity from below, that is our watchword. The united front from below, already in part accomplished, is now feasible even against the afore-mentioned gentlemen».
There was to be no more subtle distinctions between right and left-wing social-democrats».
«There was to be no more interpretations of the Workers' and Peasants' Government as «a Government within the framework of bourgeois democracy, as a political alliance with social-democracy»; «the slogan of the workers' and peasants' Government, translated into revolutionary language, is the Dictatorship of the Proletariat... it is never, in any case, a tactic of agreement and parliamentary transaction with the social-democrats. Quite the contrary, even the parliamentary activity of communists must have as its object the unmasking of the counter-revolutionary role of social-democracy and be an illustration to the workers of the deceit and imposture of the «Workers'» Governments created by it, which in reality are only liberal bourgeois Governments». And, finally, there is to be no more opposing «better governments» to «worse Governments»: «fascism and social-democracy are the right and left hand of contemporary capitalism».
«The 5th Congress of the Communist International, held between 17th June and 8th July, would reflect the profound confusion of the parties after a disastrous two years of abrupt tactical about-turns and ambiguous edicts (even Togliatti asked that it be clearly stated what exactly one was supposed to be doing!), and the praxis of crucifying the leaders of the national sections on the altar of the infallibility of the Executive would be re-endorsed. And once again, it was the Left alone that would raise the voice of disapprobation, firmly but calmly showing its unwillingness to be distracted by local and individual fripperies. If ever there was a time when the Left might have wished to congratulate itself about the correctness of its predictions - the terrible proof being proletarian blood spilled in vain - or if ever there was a time to demand that the heads of the «culprits», the «corrupt» leaders roll and be replaced by «innocent» and «incorruptible» heads, this was the moment. But that wasn't what the Left wanted and nor did they call for it: what they required was that the difficult task of facing up to deviations from principle be confronted courageously and the scalpel applied to those «errors» which were the inevitable result. The «heads», in other words, were only the chance expression and not the cause. «United front from below»? Fine: on condition that the loophole of the «exceptions» put forward in the initial proposal was closed, and on condition that an unequivocal statement was made to the effect that «it could never be founded on a bloc of political parties... but only founded on working-class organisations, of no matter of what type as long as their constitutions are such that communists are able to conquer the leading positions». When it comes to leadership then, there is no question of sending invitations to other political organisations, the left and right social-democrats for instance, since they are unable «to struggle on the final road to world communist revolution» or «even uphold the day-to-day interests of the working class», and, to whom it would have been criminal «for us to appear to be giving a certificate of revolutionary capacity, thus throwing away all our principles, all our work preparing the working class». Should there be struggle against social democracy «the third bourgeois party»? Certainly; but how then to justify, in that case, the new «bombshell» of the proposed fusion between the International Red Union and the hated Trade-Union International of Amsterdam? Was Workers' Government «synonymous with dictatorship of the proletariat»? We had paid too dearly for employing just one ambiguous phrase: we called for «a third-class funeral not only for the tactic of Workers' Government, but even for the very expression itself». We called for this because «dictatorship of the proletariat, this tells me: the proletarian power will be exercised without giving any power of representation to the bourgeoisie. This also tells me that proletarian power can be conquered only by revolutionary action, through armed insurrection of the masses. When I say Workers' Government, it can also be understood (if one so wishes) to mean the same thing; but, if you choose not to interpret it in that way, you can take it to mean (Germany! Germany!) another type of government, one characterised neither by the exclusion of the bourgeoisie from the organs of political representation, nor one achieved through the conquest of power by revolutionary means (rather than by legal means)». In response, it was urged that was not the formula of «workers' government» more easily understood by the masses? To which we replied: «How can a simple peasant or worker understand the concept of the Workers' Government, when, after three years, we, the leaders of the workers' movement, haven't even managed to understand it and define it in a satisfactory way ourselves?»
«But the question went even deeper. The fact that in 1925 the International had shifted «to the left» could have given us cause for relief, if we had posed the problem in terms of a mean-minded revenge. But we didn't: «What we have criticised in the International's method of work is precisely the tendency to sway from left to right depending on the momentary circumstances, or under the impulse of beliefs on how the latter are to be interpreted. As long as the problems of flexibility, and of eclecticism... are not discussed in depth, as long as this flexibility continues to spread and new oscillations take place, a strong swing to the left can only but make one fear a yet stronger swing to the right [need we add that this is precisely what occurred over the following years?]. It isn't a swing to the left in the present circumstances we require, but an overall rectification of the instructions issuing from the International: even if such a rectification be done in a way we wouldn't like... yet let it be made, and in a clear-cut way. We want to know where we are heading».
«Finally, the Left declared that it wished more than anyone that there be centralisation and discipline on a worldwide scale; but such discipline «can't be entrusted to the good will of this or that comrade, who, after twenty or so meetings, signs an agreement in which the Left and Right are finally united». It is a discipline «which must be made a reality in the realm of action, by leading the proletarian revolutionary movement towards global unity», a discipline which, to be such, «needs a clarity in its tactical direction and continuity in the constitution of our organisations, prescribing the limits which separate us from other parties». What was needed was a basis for discipline on the firm pedestal of clarity, firmness and invariance of principles and tactical directives. Before, in days that seemed long gone, discipline had been created in an organic way by being rooted in the granite like doctrinal force and practice of the Bolshevik Party. Today, the Left would declare, either discipline will be rebuilt on the collective foundation of the worldwide movement, in a spirit of earnestness and the fraternal sense of the importance of the hour, or all will lost. The Left would dare to announce to this congress (which scarcely touched on the Russian question, as though it were a dangerous taboo) that the «guarantee» against a relapse into opportunism shouldn't be sought any longer in the Russian party alone, because it is the Russian party which has need, urgent need, of us, and in us searches for the «guarantee» which we, in vain, require of it. The time was ripe for «The International of the world proletariat to render to the Russian CP a part of the innumerable services it has received from it. The latter finds itself, from the point of view of the revisionist danger, in the most dangerous situation of all, and against this danger the other parties must give their support. And it is from the International that it must draw the main strength it will require to get through the extremely difficult situation it is grappling with».
«A great battle, but a lost battle! The debacle of the German October would accentuate the internal crisis of the Bolshevik Party. The reflux of the revolution in the West, and the facile theorisations concocted to explain it, would spawn the monstrosity of «socialism in one country». There was renewed enthusiasm for the policy of united front from above instead of united front «from below» and for waltzing with bourgeois radicalism in Germany. And in Italy, during the Matteotti crisis, Gramsci would make the disastrous proposal to the «oppositions» of constituting an anti-parliament; a proposal which not only, yet again, attributed an autonomous role to the petty-bourgeoisie, but also anticipated the «popular fronts» against fascism. The ignoble doctrine of «the means justify the end» would appear and be vouched for by a scholasticised «marxism-Leninism» which had sunk to relying on vulgar Machiavelian formulas. And so on and so forth».
The Left's criticisms of the United front policy then can be summed up in the words the trade-union united front as opposed to the political united front. In the economic struggles that develop as a consequence of the workers' conditions of life, the worker feels in his bones the opposition between his/her interests and those of the bosses. To passively accept the bosses justifications for inflicting wage cuts, laying off workers, cutting holidays, etc is however quite possible if capitalism and the mysterious «market forces» are accepted as immutable and eternal. Thus the worker can be left impotent and defeated even in his daily struggle for existence, unless he seeks out a different frame of reference to justify continuing to make demands for improved conditions and wages. It is thus at this point, the situation in which the worker has come against the wall of capitalist possibilities, that marxist politics become particularly relevant and necessary.
If this is the case, if this is the situation where workers will listen to marxists, is also the point at which the marxist must be at greatest pains to differentiate themselves from reformist and social-democraticsolutions to the workers' economic struggles. The reformists, with a far greater understanding than others of the importance of organising in the unions, know that this is the point where they must establish strong links with the workers. Unlike the marxists however, what they will tell the worker when there is an industrial struggle is VOTE FOR US! Thus the reformists say: get us into parliament and we'll sort it all out for you. But they also say that they have to be «realistic», i.e. capitalism can only offer so much!
The «realism» which the reformists offer is identical to the «realism» which the bosses put forward in industrial disputes as their reason for giving paltry increases in the annual wage round and lowering the living standards of the workers.
So we have gone a full circle, both the reformists and capitalists offer «realism»: and marxists by offering an escape from this capitalist realism, by offering Communist Realism, receives an audience in the working class at a point where marxism becomes indispensable. But this is only effected by attacking both capitalism and reformism at the same time. This is why the political united front, a formal alliance between the communist and reformist parties undermines the influence of the communist party rather than increasing it. It fails to appreciate that the very reason why workers listen to marxists in the first place is because they offer an escape route from the depressing defeatism on offer from both the capitalists, and their paid servants, the reformists.
Nowadays the workers' economic united front is a distant prospect, but the essence of the policy remains the same. As long as capitalism exists, workers battles will break out against it. Within these battles, even though as a party we are minute, and our influence almost zero, we will continue to fight to extend these battles out of the narrow sectors where they first break out, in order to get our message over that these battles are CLASS BATTLES, not sectoral battles. In order to do that, we will frequently come up against conservative forces in the trade-union structure and bureaucracy, which can imprison their members in a closed loop with just the workers' representatives, bosses, and 'full-time officials' of one particular work-place, eye-ball to eye-ball across the table going round and round in circles. In such a case, the contest is far from even. On the one side the bosses: with the forces of the entire state at their disposal - police, army, press, judiciary. On the other side: a huddled group of workers' representatives, either worried they'll get the sack, or worse still, be promoted up to foreman or personnel officer - and then get the sack.
Due to the incapacity of the trade-union leaders to provide a clear leadership, because of the trade unions being tied by a thousand threads to the bosses and the state, workers' battles have frequently expressed themselves through Rank-and-file bodies which arise in opposition to the official unions, and though frequently re-incorporated back into the union structure, they continue to reappear in response to the increasing distance of the union bureaucracy - busily showering their members with junk-mail - and the members. The appearance of these unofficial bodies, and the splits that could result from them, will be very important in forming a pole of attraction around which a class union will eventually crystallise. But as this process unfolds, the protagonists will inevitably be accused of undermining the 'unity' which presently exists under the unholy alliance of the Labour Party and the TUC.
In Britain two paths exist: establishing unity around the Labour Party and a trade-union movement hand-in-glove with it; a combination which aims at propping up the capitalist system and containing all workers' struggles within what is legal and compatible with it; or establishing unity around the marxist revolutionary programme, and a class party with strong connections with the working masses in economic organisations which have broken out of the strictures of reformism and are open to communist influence. The exact form of such workers' economic organisation is not the important one, but it will have to be characterised by the real needs of the class struggle which include a breaking down of the barriers currently erected by the trade-union bureaucrats and structures. Struggles which break down the sectoral nature which capitalism imposes, quickly divests itself of an economist nature and so assumes a class nature. We therefore do not advocate a union composed merely of party activists, which would be a necessarily minute organisation with no contact with the vast mass of workers, but one which evolves out of the actually pressing necessity of working people to fight their immediate battles; a battle that can only be fought by emerging from the individual sectors within which we are imprisoned and moving onto a class level.
For those who have opted for the latter path, we offer our programme, a programme tried and tested in the heat of workers' struggles, and formulated on the basis of the real experience of the terrible failure of the Political united front.
Source: «Communist Left», n.10/11, 1996
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