23/02/2014 by socialistfight
Revolutionary Programme and the United Front
By Shaheen Khan
“A centrist swears readily by the policy of the united front, emptying it of its revolutionary content and transforming it from a tactical method into a supreme principle.” (Trotsky, “Centrism & the Fourth International”, 1934)
The recent exchange of comments and short pieces by comrades MB, S and G on the character of the United Front and the relationship between revolutionary (transitional) programme and the United Front has prompted this response. Labels can sometimes be useful, often obfuscating; underlying the differences on this question is an emphasis on different elements of a process which makes for healthy debate within our organisation and can only enrich the process going forward. Tendential differences within an organisation can be healthy as long as we keep the debate informed by principle.
The Leninist Party
The strategic goal of the revolutionary party is the establishment of a world communist society. The only way to achieve this is by means of proletarian revolution; that is, the seizure of state power by workers’ and peasants’ councils. For this an independent Leninist-Trotskyist revolutionary party is an indispensable necessity, as only such a party can embody full class independence from the bourgeoisie and lead the proletariat in the struggle to establish its own dictatorship. To arrive at this point we have to transform revolutionary nuclei into mass parties which have won the confidence of the broadest layers of the masses.
Pre-Leninist Marxism, that is Marxism in the period of the First and Second Internationals right to the time of the First World War, saw no need for a separate Marxist revolutionary party. The attempt was to build a party which united all political tendencies in the workers movement – a unitary party of the whole class. The pre-Leninist programme was for a party which was a kind of permanent soviet or united front of the whole working class, and the workers’ parties comprised reformists, centrists, utopians and revolutionaries.
Lenin’s break with this theory of the unitary workers’ party and development of the theory of the vanguard party developed over a number of years. It was not until the outbreak of the First World War and the betrayal of the Second International in 1914 that Lenin openly called for an organisational split in the workers’ movement, based on programme. The theoretical basis of the call for a split was established by Lenin’s understanding of imperialism – with the emergence of imperialism, reformism had established an enduring material base in the working class, the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy, which allow non revolutionary consciousness to establish itself and flourish in the workers’ movement. The programme of reform dominates in the established mass parties of the working class and the struggle against it must be organised as the conscious struggle for a clearly articulated revolutionary programme. The Leninist vanguard party, based on a clear and unambiguous revolutionary socialist programme, must separate itself from the class, and only by separating, is it possible to fight adequately for the programme of revolution. As Trotsky so articulately put the mtter: “… The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself…The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.” (Trotsky, Germany, What Next?)
It is only intransigent political struggle against the reformists so as to win the masses they lead towards a revolutionary perspective which ultimately, in the process of revolution, unite the working class in struggle against the bourgeoisie. The task of the party is to convince the proletariat of its programme’s validity by struggling against other programmes; prove its political superiority in the class struggle through its ability to engage the class psychology of the masses and articulate the correct strategy and tactics in the class struggle.
What is a programme?
This question has remained a central question for revolutionaries and revolutionary parties since the advent of class society. Trotsky speaking to this question places the question of programme at the centre of class political understanding: “The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party”. (Trotsky, Germany, What Next?)
Prior to Marx and Engels understanding of the structure of capitalism and capitalist society, the formulation of programme was the product of the ideas of brilliant men who drew fancy pictures of a future paradise, without considering whether this paradise could be reached nor whether there was a concrete path for the peasants or workers to follow to emancipate themselves. It is under capitalism that this question takes on a definite and a near complete form, where the programme is formulated and given concrete and often written expression reflecting life itself. Thus we cannot manufacture a programme out of our own heads, but the programme must be taken from life itself. From his study of the structure of capitalist society Marx recognized that capitalism is digging its own grave; the machine breaks down, and the uprising of the workers refashion society to suit themselves. For Marx it was critical to study life as it actually is, and on this basis alone can a practical programme be drawn up.
Every political party pursues definite aims, whether it is a party of landowners, capitalists, peasants or workers. Every party must have definite aims, and this is what defines it as a party. As a party of landowners it would strive to tighten the grasp of the owners on the land, to hold the peasants in bondage, to hire labour cheaply etc. As a party of capitalists it would aim to procure cheap labour, keep the workers in hand, find customers and expand the market, and above all ensure that the workers do not think of or entertain ideas that their situation is exploitative and oppressive and search for ideas that can emancipate them. For the workers it is the same. Some workers think that what exists is the natural way of things, or rather that it is divinely ordained to be so, they too will one day have their way; on the other hand there are workers who understand that the only way to defend their interests is to organize themselves into a party – in many respects the party is composed of the most advanced and ‘intelligent’ workers, those who have pondered the aims and interests of the working class, knows how these interests are to be pursued. In the post Russian revolutionary period the question of programme was defined as: “All the AIMS which a Party representing the interests of its class vigorously pursues, CONSTITUTE THE PARTY PROGRAMME.” Bukharin/Preobrazhensky: The ABC of Communism) Thus, the aims which a party pursues constitute the Party Programme. The programme represents that which a particular class strives for and what interests it fights for.
“Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action” (Bukharin/Preobrazhensky). In striving to build the revolutionary party, we are essentially preparing the general staff whose leading cadre must be trained and tested in the class struggle. We fight to gain leadership of the class on the basis of our program, revolutionary determination and dedication. However the chasm between our programme and our small numbers is huge, and thus we are organised as a fighting propaganda group, our task being recruiting the most advanced layers of workers, education and formation of cadre, the consistent preparation and distribution of propaganda (newspaper/leaflets etc.). By means of propaganda literature one can educate the first cadres, but not the proletarian vanguard which lives neither in a circle nor in a schoolroom but in a class society, in the factories, in the organisations of the masses (trade unions etc.) The masses learn through their own experience, through a method of successive approximations in the class struggle under the leadership of the revolutionary party. We must learn to “speak in the language of its experience”, we must “contact with the daily struggle of the masses.” (Trotsky –discussions on the TP)
For revolutionary organisations the programme is more. It is a statement of what we stand for, but it also outlines what the workers and oppressed should fight for in the here and now. Trotsky in his discussions on the Transitional Programme called the programme a “manual of action for the millions”; a programme of action we fight for the working class as a whole to take up.
From the old programme to the new
Among Trotsky’s greatest contribution to revolutionary Marxism was his elaboration of the ‘Transitional Program’-this was an application of a method and not just the foundational statement of the Fourth International launched in 1938. Prior to this the same method was proposed in “the theoretical and practical party programme” the Communist Manifesto, by the young Marx and Engels. With their international and revolutionary perspective they also proposed a series of transitional measures to revolutionize the economic system: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie. This cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property…necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.” (Marx/Engels: The Communist Manifesto)
Marx and Engels understood clearly that there had to be a revolutionary road to power to overturn the capitalist system, and this was confirmed most emphatically by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx and Engels formulated ten transitional demands in the Manifesto, and in the preface to the Manifesto written in 1872, they declared some of these demands antiquated, and made a most important correction to their transitional program, namely, that: “…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” (Preface to the Manifesto, 1872)
This correction was directed against the fetishism of bourgeois democracy with Marx clearly counter- posing to the capitalist state the state of the type of the Commune. Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto in anticipation of an imminent struggle for power. This did not materialise as the revolutionary wave that swept through Europe in the mid 1840’s ended in counterrevolutionary defeats. While the Communist Manifesto outlined an elementary programme for the transition to socialism, the Social Democracy gradually abandoned this idea of transition and later revolution altogether. In its place they established a minimum programme (a set of demands for reforms within capitalism) and a maximum programme (socialism).
After the defeat of the Paris Commune the proletarian conquest of political power appeared to be postponed to a remote future. The huge organisations of labour became more conservative, falling prey to a surrounding capitalist society still in its ascendancy. The aristocracy of labour was neutralized and made conservative by the material concessions the capitalist class was able to grant. The illusions grew that capitalism could be reformed, and as the Social Democratic parties succumbed to reformism, the “maximum” program of socialist revolution gave way to the “minimum” program of fighting for reforms. The idea of a bridge between the two was considered unimportant. The ‘transitional method’ developed as a response to the first serious undermining of the revolutionary programme, as Engels’ writing in 1891 noted: “The political demands of the draft have one great fault…If all ten demands we granted we should indeed have more diverse means of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself would in no wise have been achieved.” (Marx/Engels selected works)
Engels saw that the fight for reforms, though important, ran the risk of becoming the fight for the reform of capitalism rather than its revolutionary overthrow. These doubts expressed by Engels’ were confirmed by the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) evolution into a reformist party-all the large mass Social Democratic parties capitulated to reformism and this was confirmed by their support of their own bourgeois in the first world war .
This drift to reformism was emphatically combated by revolutionaries who saw the possibilities of a socialist victory. Trotsky developed the celebrated theory of permanent revolution which argued that workers could come to power in a backward country like Russia before the workers won in the advanced countries. Luxemburg was amongst the first to identify the syphilitic character of reformism and waged a stinging battle against it in Germany. Lenin saw the need to build a combat party to assure victory, and he built this party against opposition from all sides. It was all this taken together that contributed to the victory of the working class in the Russian revolution. A most important element in this process was the adoption of the transitional method and a transitional program.
The first four congresses of the Communists International which codified and amplified the Bolshevik position on many a question, did not draw up a transitional program as such. The revolution was still fresh and was a living example, and other questions of the civil war, capitalist encirclement and the attempt by imperialism to smash the workers state took precedents. However, the transitional method was evident in all its resolutions, and in the ‘Theses on Tactics” adopted at the Third Congress there is a specific reference to “the character of the transitional epoch”.
The Marxist movement has produced a number of programmes historically precisely because the revolutionary programme has to be relevant to the current class struggle and the stage of capitalist development. It is a living thing, tested and corrected in the course of struggle, by the experience both of the revolutionary organisation and the workers engaged in action. While there have been many programmes, some elements have remained the same, underpinning the continuity of the capitalist system – this is also so because the method underlying the Marxist programme has changed little in the past 150 years –based on the philosophy of dialectical materialism.
The Bolsheviks rejecting the betrayal of the Second International reiterated the essential elements of a revolutionary policy, and re-elaborated the transitional method which guided them in the Russian revolution. Later this transitional method was taken up by the Communist International (Third) as the method of the international revolutionary movement. The defeat of the revolution, at the hands of the Stalinist, led to the abandonment of this method and the re-establishment of the minimum/maximum programmatic divide, and it was left to Trotsky as part of his effort to ‘ensure the (communist) succession’ to elaborate a transitional programme which became the founding document of the Fourth International.
The 1938 Transitional Programme codified all the essential aspects – it incorporated the revolutionary movements historical principles, the lessons of recent revolutionary struggles, an elaboration of key revolutionary tactics for the class struggle – it was a guide to action in the existing world. It also incorporated a very important aspect – it spelled out the transitional method, the key to revolutionary strategy: “The strategic task of the next period – a prerevolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organisation -consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist programme of revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” (Trotsky: Transitional Programme)
The Transitional Programme and the crisis of revolutionary leadership
“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”. (Trotsky: Transitional Programme). This is the opening stanza of the transitional programme and it captures the subjective crisis facing the working class and mankind as a whole. While capitalism is in its death throes, objectively decaying, the critical question is the weakness of the subjective factor i.e. the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation). The success or failure of the working class to achieve victory depends upon the organization and consciousness of the struggling masses, i.e., on revolutionary leadership. The ruling class has at its command a monopoly of the means of violence, its political and bureaucratic apparatus, its enormous wealth and connections, its control of education, the mass media and all other institutions of capitalist society. Against such a force a workers state can be brought into existence only by a proletariat fully conscious of its tasks, organised to carry them out, and determined to defend its conquests against the counterrevolutionary violence of the ruling class.
Through its acquisition of political consciousness the working class ceases to be merely an exploited and oppressed class in itself and becomes a class for itself, conscious of its historic task to seize state power and reorganize society. Such consciousness is not spontaneously generated in the course of the day-to-day struggles of the workers; it must be brought to the workers by the revolutionary party. Thus it is the task of the revolutionary party to forge the proletariat into a strong political force by infusing it with a consciousness of its real situation, educating it in the historical lessons of the class struggle, tempering it in ever deepening struggles, destroying its illusions, steeling its revolutionary will and self-confidence, and organising the overthrow of the ruling class. A conscious working class is the decisive force in history.
The task of revolutionaries is thus to build the socialist consciousness of the working class through applying in their day to day work the method of the transitional approach, by building a bridge from the present consciousness and condition of the working class to the socialist consciousness. The role of the party is to orientate ourselves in our daily work to the method of the transitional programme, to infuse this method in formulating the ‘concrete demands that emanate from the concrete conditions’, and fight for these demands against all other programmes and tendencies in the working class and its organisations.
Three kinds of demands constitute the Transitional Program. The first type of demands are what are known as Immediate demands which involve the day-to-day defense and improvement of the standard of living of the masses i.e. the issues that arise from concrete conditions in different localities of struggle and give rise to the most elementary form of defensive organisation of the masses – unions, civics etc. This is the ground level for revolutionaries, and participation at this level is a prerequisite for everything else. Battles over the standard of living of the masses arise from the failure of capitalism on a world scale to guarantee even food to its wage slaves.
The second types of demands are of a Democratic type, involving the defense and extension of the right to organise independently on both the economic and political levels. Democratic demands flow from the retrogressive tendency of capitalist regimes to suppress elements of democracy, particularly to curb and if necessary crush the organisation of the masses. The proletariat is the only consistent class that struggles for democracy in society (both at a political and economic level). Transitional demands are broader than the above two, and arise from the incapacity of capitalism to provide for the needs of the working class as a whole. Transitional demands are rational as far as the needs of the working class are concerned but cannot be satisfied by capitalist economy and society. On the economic level, transitional demands points towards the planned economy of socialism, while on the political level on the need for the workers to establish their own government.
These three sets of demands cannot be taken apart separately and individually. They represent a contradictory whole and must all be seen as part of the same program and methodology. Immediate demands include the struggle for reforms, but these must be placed within the correct actual, the revolutionary and therefore transitional approach. The struggle for reforms must be placed within the perspective of the struggle to overthrow the system; they must be subordinate to this and be explained in this fashion. In fighting for immediate demands the workers gain organisational cohesiveness and battle experience which is of prime importance in more far-reaching struggles. It is through the process of the struggle for these demands that the workers gain consciousness of their interests as a class, and begin to take the goal of socialism as their own. The struggle for democratic demands revolve around the question of fighting to defend the democratic gains the working class have made under capitalism, establishing the working class as the only consistently democratic class in society. Transitional demands poses directly the question of the failure of capitalism to meet the needs of the working class and society as a whole, and poses the question of which class is to become the master of society. It takes us to the eve of the direct struggle for power.
The Historical and Political basis for the United Front
“The progress of a class to class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party is a complex and contradictory process. The class itself is not homogenous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times… Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore for the greater part of its historical journey it remains politically split. The problem of the united front – which arises during certain periods most sharply – originates therein.” (Trotsky –Germany, What Next?)
The proletariat moves towards revolutionary consciousness not by passing grades in school but by passing though the class struggle. To fight the proletariat must have unity in its ranks, and thus the tactic of the united front originates in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat…the words in the Manifesto which states that the Communists are not opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole mean that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of the workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks. This does not mean that the “class interests are placed above party interests”. The correctly understood interests of the class are identical with the correctly formulated problems of the party. The very need for the party originates in the plain fact that the proletariat is not born with the innate understanding of its historical interests.
The Russian revolution of 1917 marked the beginning of a new period. The level of revolutionary turbulence and political struggle around the world resulted in considerable forces being split off from the old Social-Democratic parties. The Bolsheviks put together the core of an international party, programmatically defined by the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. However by 1920 there was a considerable downturn in the tempo of revolutionary development internationally and things settled back to stability in which the old Social-Democratic labour parties still were hegemonic within the working classes of the world, as Trotsky remarked at the Third Congress of the Communist International (CI): “Now for the first time we see and feel that we are not so immediately near to the goal, to the conquest of power, to the world revolution.
At that time, in 1919, we said to ourselves, ‘It is a question of months’. Now we say ‘It is perhaps a question of years.’” (First Four Congresses of the Third International) Lenin’s fight against ultra-leftism espoused in his classic Left-Wing Communism—an Infantile Disorder contained the essential features of Bolshevik tactics in the period of relative bourgeois stability. For both Lenin and the Communist International: “The chief thing…has already been achieved; the vanguard of the working class has been won over…” [But] Victory cannot be won with a vanguard alone.”
After separating the Communists from the reformists it is not enough to fuse the Communists together by means of organisational discipline, it is necessary that this organisation should learn how to guide all the collective activities of the proletariat in all spheres of its living struggle.
The aim now was to win over the masses which remained with the Social Democrats. The tactic of the united front was developed in this period to supplement the central principle of Leninism, the principle of the programmatically defined communist vanguard party separate from the non revolutionary mass organisations of the working class. The united front is a way of approaching the masses at the base of the non revolutionary workers’ parties without in any way liquidating the vanguard revolutionary party.
Elements of the tactic of the United Front
James Burnham, the American Trotskyist propagandist who was later to desert revolutionary politics wrote a brilliant piece on the united front question. He put it very succinctly: “The united front consists in an agreement between two or more parties and organisations, which have different programs, for joint action on specific issues. In this agreement there is absolutely no question of common political program. Each organisation retains intact it entire program; retains the right to put it forward; retains the right to criticize the other organisations in the united-front agreement.
Thus, in the united front each organisation guards its full independence; while at the same time the widest possible unity can be achieved for carrying through some action accepted as desirable by all of the constituent organisations of the united front. The united front is not merely possible but indispensable for successful struggle. Through it the widest possible forces are organised; and at the same time the masses are given a chance to compare in action the worth and dependability of the ideas and methods of the various organisations and parties which strive for their allegiance.” (Burnham on the United Front)
The main elements of the united front tactic can be summarized as follows:
The class life of the proletariat is not suspended during the preparatory period to the revolution. Clashes with the bourgeoisie, with the state power continue unabated. In these clashes working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will be condemned. The problem of the united front – despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organisations basing themselves on the working class- grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of unity in the struggle against capitalism.
- If we were able to unite the working class around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over the reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But in the real world certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organisations and join us. The organised portion of the working class fall into one of three historical trends in the working class movement: 1. Communists who support every movement against the exploiters and their state. 2. Reformists who strive for conciliation with the bourgeoisie, but who are forced to support the partial movement of the exploited against the exploiters. 3. Centrists who constantly vacillate between the other two, and have no independent significance. These circumstances thus make it possible for joint action on a whole number of vital issues between workers in these three respective trends and the unorganised masses adhering to them.
- The united front is a tactic in the class struggle which seeks to establish the broadest possible fighting unity of the exploited and oppressed masses despite their political differentiation. The purpose of this unity is to repulse the attacks of the bosses and bourgeois governments and to secure better economic, social and political conditions for the working class in such a way that it brings nearer the goal of overthrowing capitalism. In this sense the united front arises in the first place from the needs of the class struggle. Revolutionaries thus are generally the first to initiate calls for common action against the class enemy.
- The United Front is a common action for clearly limited and prescribed goals; it entails the sharpest criticism of the united front partners. It is necessary to start from the objective needs of the class struggle and not the present consciousness of the class or worse what the opportunist leaders may accept. The scope of proposals put forward by revolutionaries, while it would in all likelihood be less than the “full programme”, is to be considerably in advance of the timid proposals of the reformist leaders and even ahead of the general consciousness of the masses. The aim of the united front must be to link the present consciousness of the masses (and especially its advanced section) to the urgent tasks of the day as dictated by the nature of the enemies attack.
- While the tactic of the united front is about joint action it allows for the testing of all the various political tendencies in practice in front of the class. This exposes the weaknesses, inconsistencies and class character of all the political actors, and the various shades of opportunism from reformism, anarchism, syndicalism, and centrism and various bourgeois and petit-bourgeois ideologies and programmes find themselves naked in front of the class. To unite the working class it is necessary to break them from their allegiance to their historical organisations and leadership. To do this it is not sufficient to expose the opportunist leadership through propaganda alone. It is necessary in demonstrate in practice that the reformists / centrists/opportunist organisations cannot adequately fight for or defend workers’ interests. The revolutionary party has to deploy a range of tactics which if correctly applied prove to the masses in the class struggle itself that it is the only consistent class party. The party must learn how to lead mass struggles, to demonstrate in practice its right to lead.
- The united front tactic presupposes the maintenance of an independently organised revolutionary organisation based on a transitional programme for the seizure of state power and the overthrow of capitalism. This party must at all times operate as an independent detachment, and not dissolve itself in the united front. The united front is about establishing the correct ongoing relation between the revolutionary party and the working class. The united front is thus repeatedly being deployed in one form and in one arena or another. It is a tactic within the framework of overall strategy of the party. This strategy necessarily includes the independent action of the party.
- In its different forms the united front is constantly struck and broken. It must never be turned into systematic subordination of the proletarian vanguard to any limited platform of demands which are acceptable to various non-revolutionary leaders of mass organisations. This would relegate the revolutionary programme to passive propaganda and restrict agitation solely to immediate demands.
- The united front is a tactic, not a strategy. Elevating it to the position of permanent policy can only mean a rejection of the Leninist conception of the need to split the working class organisationally. The working class can at times achieve a tactical and temporary unity around its immediate day-to-day needs. But the only strategic unity of the working class is the unity based on its historical class interests, and is therefore of necessity under the leadership not of a united front but of a revolutionary party.
- Because the united front is not a strategy there is no such thing as a united front programme that goes from today’s struggles to the seizure of power. The revolutionary organisation advances those parts of its programme that appear necessary to unite broader forces in a practical fight. The demands must be specific, precise and avoid all extraneous and artificial demands or ideological dressing that does not bear upon the achievement of the common goal. These demands cannot be categorized schematically, but they consist of immediate economic demands, democratic demands or transitional demands. These demands can be struck on a platform of several demands which are tied together as a combined series of actions to meet a particular crisis or it can consist of a single demand. United front’s can therefore be a single action –a strike- or it can be a longer campaign of action.
- The demands of the united front must be associated with clear and precise methods of struggle (e.g. demonstrations, strikes, defence squads, armed militias) and forms of organisation (e.g. strike committees, mobilization committee, and soviets). The united front thus entails more than just the actions but embraces its preparation and post festum evaluation.
- The united front can be struck with anyone (“the devil himself”) who is prepared to fight for the aims – it is open to all who share the demands and are prepared to fight in a disciplined way for them without renouncing their freedom of criticism of the front partners. Under freedom of criticism we must recognized both the criticism of the vacillation of the bloc partners in carrying out the objectives of the united front and their broader political failings. We reserve the right to criticize our partners before during and after the common action.
- Breaking the united front can be as important as making it. Where the united front has served its purpose and the goal achieved or lost the united front needs to be redefined or broken and lessons drawn for the forces involved. Our approach to the united front must be principled, and a concrete analysis of a concrete situation alone can yield what is the correct basis for a united front proposal.
- Any attempt to build a united front for socialism is liquidation, in principle, of the Leninist party. It is false to portray the level of unity and clarity of a united front as sufficient to fulfil revolutionary tasks. There is no natural movement of the class towards the party – it can only be built in conscious struggle.
Our Differences -the United Front and the role of the Propaganda group
Comrade MB outlined his view on the United Front question in an email dated 27th May 2010. It must be said that his remarks were in a short letter to comrades and cannot be equated to a theoretical piece that is carefully thought out and considered. However these views are strongly held as confirmed in various telephonic discussions with comrades. Comrade G and S wrote short notes on the United Front question which differs significantly with the views of comrade MB.
Comrade MB’s argument is in inverted commas and our position follows:
“We are trying to apply the united front approach to our circumstances. These circumstances differ significantly from those of the 1920’s and the 1930’s.” Comrade G starts off by correctly posing the question of the difference between our strategy and our tactics, “Our strategy is the path to conquer power, and our tactics are the steps taken on this path”. The United Front is a particular tactic and it becomes applicable under particular conditions, the deep economic crisis followed by a social crisis being a case in point. The working class needs unity in action to defeat the generalized assault by the ruling class to avoid further setbacks and defeats. The United Front is a defensive action which helps to build class solidarity and consciousness and lays the foundation for the class to go on the offensive. To talk in terms of a ‘United Front approach’ is to raise the United Front tactic to the level of a strategy, an all encompassing approach that defines our politics, as Comrade G put it “the United Front approach shades into the area of strategy. The United Front approach gives to the united front certain ‘permanence’.”
If one understands that the United Front is characterised by a ‘minimum agreement’ between contending political tendencies then to adopt this approach as our approach is to reduce our politics to this level. In practice this amounts to an abandonment of our perspective of building mass Trotskyist parties that would lead the working class to power.
“This means we need to grasp the nature of the present period that confronts us in comparison and contrast with those two periods.” If one were to discuss the period then it must be located in both the epochal crisis of the world capitalist system, the historical defeat of the working class internationally and the defeat of the South African working class through the process of the democratic counter-revolution and beyond. The conjunctural crisis, economic crisis of the 2008 period and the social crisis emanating from this must be located in this broader scenario.
The working class has been under severe attack for the past twenty years, the working class has suffered serious organisational and political defeats without however, being broken or totally disarmed. The organisations of the working class are in disarray-where they exist they are weak, have little or no mass following- and a politics that is a mixture of radical direct issue demands and reformist illusions/even reactionary consciousness.
The union movement is in total chaos, heavily bureaucratised, institutionalized and weak at the point of production, the leadership hopelessly reformist, completely tied to the project of making capitalism more ‘workable’. The period that we talk of, while it reflects the particular way the crisis of capitalism expresses itself, and therefore gives to the period its special features, does not detract from the general features of capitalist crisis which are characterised on a subjective level by a crisis of leadership, of class politics and class consciousness. What is obvious to us is that the period speaks to the urgent need to begin to build the revolutionary leadership of the working class which is the revolutionary party, and not the united front which is but a tactic in the long haul of struggle to unite the masses around the party programme and organisation.
To link the period to a united front approach is to reduce our tasks to agreements on minimum demands which reformists and centrist agree to fight around in the united front envisaged. The period demands bold all-rounded and all-encompassing revolutionary policies of a revolutionary party which can lead the class out of the impasse it faces.
“Our application of the united front approach occurs in the absence of real mass organisations, besides COSATU; and the trade union federation is, as we know, remains in a poor state politically and organisationally. “While we note the absence of real mass organisations and organised mass political formations, in the form of civics and mass working class parties, is what distinguishes our period from the 1920’s and 30’s, this does not mean that we should search for organisational solutions to this through a united front policy devoid of our programme and perspective. Throwing ourselves into building mass organisations on the ground like Civics without giving these interventions our distinct political direction would result in them failing just like the broad Social Movement have done.
We must also not shift our focus from our main task which should be to contest and win back the trade unions as fighting organisations of the class. If we fail to focus on this and build community organisations alone, they, like the Social Movements, will begin to decline because they are weaker, less rooted, less organised. The cleavage between the “workers” and the “community” will be a chasm where opportunist and lumpen elements will gather and take hold, particularly without our programme as a guide to action. Trotsky raised some concerns about the united front tactic. He warned: “… the policy of the united front has its dangers. Only an experienced and tested revolutionary party can carry on this policy successfully.”
This view was reiterated by the CI: “If the use of this tactic [of the united front] is to advance the cause of Communism, the actual Communist Parties carrying it out must be strong, united and under an ideologically clear leadership.” What Trotsky emphasises is the need for ideologically clear leadership with policies that are programmatically articulated and consistently carried out in our practical interventions. Failing this, our sojourn into mass work would degenerate into opportunism.
“We are at the beginning of a pre-revolutionary period, in that objective contradictions have built up over a number of years that raised the prospect of a revival of mass struggles over the next few years. “This is incontestable and correct. The curve of class struggle is upward and this means that we as a propaganda group should harness all our efforts to intervene in the struggle, to bring our particular brand of revolutionary politics into the process, to fight for our programme so that such a programme becomes the programme of the working class. The United Front programme we fight on is a ‘minimum’ programme of agreement with reformists and others, which is often the entry point of our intervention in class struggle. Our task is to fight beyond this and infuse in front of the masses that have faith in and follow the reformists/centrists our programme of transitional demands which is capped by the need to overthrow the ruling class. The pre-revolutionary period for us can mean only one thing – the urgent need to organise, develop propaganda and agitation of the Marxist Party-and not to focus on some elementary, minimalist programme of a United Front approach.
“A number of factors combine-a few decades of neoliberal capitalism, the loss of faith in the ANC, the capitalist crisis and the cumulative suffering of the masses –to constitute this tense, volatile and potentially explosive period of class struggle. The United Front approach is our response to this prognosis.”
The United Front cannot be seen by communist as some sort of simple answer to every question of working class politics, or something to be advanced as a matter of principle. It is no grand strategy. It is simply one tactic to be employed episodically by the revolutionary party, allowing mass resistance to the onslaught of capitalism, or unity in the offensive against it. The united front may be absolutely necessary to defend basic class interests, which revolutionary socialists obviously always defend. The United Front is a tactic and cannot be translated into an approach, a strategy, which ties the party to long term agreements on minimum demands and unity with opportunist elements for extended periods.
The independence of the party and its politics including its full right of criticism remains an integral part of our approach to united front politics. As the CI made clear: “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 on the politics of all the organisations of the working class without exception.” (The First Four Congresses of the Third International)
In their public propaganda during united front activity the revolutionary party explains the ideas of revolutionary socialism. In its placards, leaflets and chants, it does not carry only the agreed demands of the united front, but also other demands which advance the struggle towards socialist revolution. It supplements the united front demands with transitional demands leading towards revolutionary action and consciousness.
“Our first task is to learn how to assist relatively weak or non-existent organisations (residents, youth, unemployed, student, etc) to become relatively strong fighting, defensive, mass campaigning organisations of the working class in the next period. These are vital building blocs of a potential united front of struggle. The united front of struggle is neither a socialist organisation ‘of the left’ nor a revolutionary vanguard party but a practical bloc of fighting organisations united around the immediate issues and burning questions facing the working class. At every point between now and the eventual constitution of such a united front we will struggle for our programmatic ideas to receive a wider currency but we do so intelligently and realistically based both on our understanding of the period we are passing through and our carefully considered plans for the next crucial steps or tasks that the class struggle demands. We must be simultaneously bold and patient.”
While he poses the question of the united front and even raises the matter of struggling for our programmatic ideas, what comrade MB fails to do is to emphasise the need to elaborate elements of these demands as a guiding light in our United Front work. He imagines that this will arise on its own through organisational fusion of working class organisations, a kind of economism which holds that the task of the working class is to unite around its ‘burning questions’, its immediate concrete demands (the united front) and the politics ( party programme) is to follow later. Without realising it Comrade MB is proposing the organic growth of the movement and in the process is undermining the conscious element. As comrade G so eloquently put it: “The United Front must be subordinate to the revolutionary programme. This programme does not have been precise to the nth degree…but a broad set of demands is essential precisely to galvanize the fighting battalions, to link the immediate conditions to the political struggle”.
Comrade MB fails to raise the centrality of leadership, its orientation to a transitional method and programme and the role it plays. Trotsky’s orientation to the programmatic intervention in mass struggles was crystal clear: “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist program of the revolution.” (Trotsky: The Transitional Programme)
The call by comrade MB for an intelligent and realistic, bold and patient approach does not detract from the need for a programmatic and principled intervention in mass struggles. In the absence of this, the call to be ‘realistic’ and ‘intelligent’ amounts to capitulation to the ‘tactics as process’, bowing to the movement as it grows, overestimating the conscious element. It is a call to justify the economism that characterises the approach.
The criticism that comrades G and S are articulating is that the emphasis on building the united front is not based on an orientation to the programme which should be our primary focus, and in the process transforms the tactic of the united front into a strategy. The United Front becomes the mass approach (unity around concrete, immediate demands) which runs parallel to the party question, (the political face).
The critical question is the building of the proletarian party into a mass party comprising many million working class militants organised around a revolutionary programme for the conquest of power. We are a small and isolated propaganda group who are reaching out to fulfil this great historical task. The chasm between our condition and the historical task is huge. We are at a point where we have organised ourselves into Marxist study circles, study and elaborate on Marxist theory, prepare propaganda and agitation, build a newspaper and enter mass formations of the class like unions, civics etc. through which we take our communist politics into the class struggle.
We orientate ourselves to our programme and take elements of this programme that reflect the ‘concrete conditions’ into the struggle to combat the program of other political formations and the non revolutionary consciousness of the working class. It is through this process of infusing consciousnesses into the process of struggle that raises the level of consciousness of the working class. The working class will through its own experience, via a process of successive approximations begin to make our programme part of its revolutionary struggle. Our programme will itself be changed in this process as it becomes more concrete, more refined in the class war. But the working class needs a fighting unity to combat the assault of the capitalist class.
The class is politically split and many millions of workers are tied to other organisations which are under the leadership of reformists/opportunists etc. It is at these points that the question of the United Front becomes critical. But the unity envisaged is only of a temporary nature based on the immediate questions on which we can agree to fight together. We must at all times maintain our independence and our banners, our motto being ‘March separately, Strike together’. We must take our politics into the United Front and in order to do so we must orientate ourselves to our revolutionary transitional programme!