Marxism and the United Front Tactic Today: Chapter II

II.            The United Front Tactic in the History of the Revolutionary Workers Movement

 

These principles of the united front tactic have been born out and tested in the class struggle and have been part of the arsenal of Marxism from the very start, when Marx and Engels first developed them shortly before the 1848 revolution. On the basis of their experience and that subsequently gained by the Bolsheviks, the Communist International codified these lessons in the early 1920s. After its degeneration by the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky and the forces of the future Fourth International further developed this tactic based on the rich lessons of intense class struggles during the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Marx and Engels on the United Front

 

Friedrich Engels, first in his Principles of Communism and later together with Marx in the Communist Manifesto, laid down the fundamental ideas of the united front tactic. In these documents they explained the necessity of undertaking joint actions with reformist workers’ organizations, with radical petty-bourgeois groups and, in situations in which the bourgeoisie has still not become the ruling class, even with the latter.

 

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement. In France, the Communists ally with the Social-Democrats against the conservative and radical bourgeoisie, reserving, however, the right to take up a critical position in regard to phases and illusions traditionally handed down from the great Revolution. In Switzerland, they support the Radicals, without losing sight of the fact that this party consists of antagonistic elements, partly of Democratic Socialists, in the French sense, partly of radical bourgeois. In Poland, they support the party that insists on an agrarian revolution as the prime condition for national emancipation, that party which fomented the insurrection of Cracow in 1846. In Germany, they fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie. But they never cease, for a single instant, to instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers may straightway use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie itself may immediately begin. (…) In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries. The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. [1]

 

These tactical guidelines were also put into action by Marx and Engels and their supporters. In Cologne and other German cities, the members of the Communist League led by Marx and Engels collaborated with radical democrats while advancing the communist program. [2]

 

Elaborating the lessons of the revolutionary struggles and their defeats in the 1848-49 revolution in Europe, Marx and Engels warned communists to take care not to blur their slogans with those of the petty-bourgeois democrats, since the betrayal of the later was inevitable. In their famous “Address of the Central Authority to the League” of March 1850, the founders of the communist movement emphasized the necessity of organizational and political independence, while at the same time being prepared for joint action with such petty-bourgeois forces.

 

Consequently, while the democratic party, the party of the petty bourgeoisie, organised itself more and more in Germany, the workers' party lost its only firm foothold, remained organised at the most in separate localities for local purposes and in the general movement thus came completely under the domination and leadership of the petty-bourgeois democrats. An end must be put to this state of affairs, the independence of the workers must be restored. (…) The relation of the revolutionary workers' party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it marches together with them against the faction which it aims at overthrowing, it opposes them in everything by which they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests. (…) The petty-bourgeois democratic party in Germany is very powerful; it comprises not only the great majority of the burgher inhabitants of the towns, the small people in industry and trade and the master craftsmen; it numbers among its followers also the peasants and the rural proletariat, insofar as the latter has not yet found a support in the independent urban proletariat. The relation of the revolutionary workers' party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it marches together with them against the faction which it aims at overthrowing, it opposes them in everything by which they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests. (…) At the present moment, when the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach in general unity and reconciliation to the proletariat, they offer it their hand and strive for the establishment of a large opposition party which will embrace all shades of opinion in the democratic party, that is, they strive to entangle the workers in a party organisation in which general social-democratic phrases predominate, and serve to conceal their special interests, and in which the definite demands of the proletariat must not be brought forward for the sake of beloved peace. Such a union would turn out solely to their advantage and altogether to the disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose its whole independent, laboriously achieved position and once more be reduced to an appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This union must, therefore, be most decisively rejected. Instead of once again stooping to serve as the applauding chorus of the bourgeois democrats, the workers, and above all the League, must exert themselves to establish an independent secret and public organisation of the workers' party alongside the official democrats and make each community the central point and nucleus of workers' associations in which the attitude and interests of the proletariat will be discussed independently of bourgeois influences. (…) In the case of a struggle against a common adversary no special union is required. As soon as such an adversary has to be fought directly, the interests of both parties, for the moment, coincide, and, as previously so also in the future, this alliance, calculated to last only for the moment, will come about of itself. [3]

 

Marx and Engels would later apply the united front tactic to many other situations, including when they founded the First International in 1864. David Riazanov, a Russian Marxist and the best expert of Marx and Engels during his time before his arrest and execution by Stalin in 1938, describes in his book on the history of the political life of Marx and Engels how they had to carefully fight against the politics of the French Proudhonists, the English trade unionists, the anarchist supporters of Bakunin and others. At the same time they tried to avoid premature splits and win over the rank and file supporters of their opponents.

 

Application of the United Front Tactic by Lenin and the Bolsheviks

 

The Bolsheviks later applied the same tactic in the struggle against Tsarism. They concluded numerous practical agreements (concerning demonstrations, strikes, armed resistance, practical issues of underground work, etc.) with other organizations of the workers, peasants – like the Mensheviks, the Jewish Bund, the Socialist-Revolutionaries [S.R.], the Trudoviki, the S.R. Maximalists, various nationalists, etc. – and students and even bourgeois liberals in the struggle against the Tsarist autocracy. This tactic included not only practical collaboration but also, at times, even the creation of a formal joint party with the Mensheviks. Under the pressure of the workers’ vanguard, the Bolsheviks were even prepared to formally unite with the Mensheviks between 1905 and 1912, even though they continued to wage a difficult factional struggle against them, and in reality most of the time acted as an independent force. The Bolsheviks also repeatedly concluded practical agreements with petty-bourgeois democratic peasant forces (the Trudoviki and the S.R.) and, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin even tried to collaborate with the Russian Orthodox priest Georgy Gapon. The Bolsheviks also conducted tactical agreements with the Trudoviki and the S.R.’s in the Duma elections of 1907 and 1912. [4]

 

During the revolutionary process between February and October 1917, the Bolsheviks applied the united front tactic and demanded from the largest reformist parties representing the workers and peasants at the time – the Mensheviks and the S.R.’s – to break with the bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. After the Bolsheviks successfully took power in October, they formed a coalition with the left-wing of the S.R.’s. During all these periods in which they applied the united front tactic, despite these combined practical activities, the Bolsheviks retained their independent propaganda and sharply criticized the other organizations participating in the front.

 

In his book ’Left-Wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder written in 1920, Lenin explained that the Russian revolutionaries had to apply the united front tactic many times and under various conditions:

 

After all, the German Lefts cannot but know that the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties! (…) Prior to the downfall of tsarism, the Russian revolutionary Social-Democrats made repeated use of the services of the bourgeois liberals, i.e., they concluded numerous practical compromises with the latter. In 1901-02, even prior to the appearance of Bolshevism, the old editorial board of Iskra (consisting of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, Martov, Potresov and myself) concluded (not for long, it is true) a formal political alliance with Struve, the political leader of bourgeois liberalism, while at the same time being able to wage an unremitting and most merciless ideological and political struggle against bourgeois liberalism and against the slightest manifestations of its influence in the working-class movement. The Bolsheviks have always adhered to this policy. Since 1905 they have systematically advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, against the liberal bourgeoisie and tsarism, never, however, refusing to support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots) and never ceasing their relentless ideological and political struggle against the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the bourgeois-revolutionary peasant party, exposing them as petty-bourgeois democrats who have falsely described themselves as socialists. During the Duma elections of 1907, the Bolsheviks entered briefly into a formal political bloc with the Socialist-Revolutionaries. Between 1903 and 1912, there were periods of several years in which we were formally united with the Mensheviks in a single Social-Democratic Party, but we never stopped our ideological and political struggle against them as opportunists and vehicles of bourgeois influence on the proletariat. During the war, we concluded certain compromises with the Kautskyites, with the Left Mensheviks (Martov), and with a section of the Socialist-Revolutionaries (Chernov and Natanson); we were together with them at Zimmerwald and Kienthal, and issued joint manifestos. However, we never ceased and never relaxed our ideological and political struggle against the Kautskyites, Martov and Chernov (when Natanson died in 1919, a “Revolutionary-Communist” Narodnik, he was very close to and almost in agreement with us). At the very moment of the October Revolution, we entered into an informal but very important (and very successful) political bloc with the petty-bourgeois peasantry by adopting the Socialist-Revolutionary agrarian programme in its entirety, without a single alteration—i.e., we effected an undeniable compromise in order to prove to the peasants that we wanted, not to “steam-roller” them but to reach agreement with them. At the same time we proposed (and soon after effected) a formal political bloc, including participation in the government, with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who dissolved this bloc after the conclusion of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and then, in July 1918, went to the length of armed rebellion, and subsequently of an armed struggle, against us. [5]

 

As is well known, the Bolsheviks were strengthened by these various applications of the united front tactic. However, these temporary alliances and maneuvers did not at all diminish their ideological and political struggle. Only the combination of these two elements – organizational and political independence on the one hand, together with joint actions on the other – allowed the Bolsheviks to grow and strengthen themselves as a party.

 

Codification of the United Front Tactic by the Communist International

 

The Communist International (Comintern), founded at the initiative of the Bolsheviks in March 1919, attempted to generalize the lessons of the past, that of the Russian revolutionaries having naturally played a particularly significant role. This was not an easy task, and Lenin and Trotsky faced enormous obstacles in their attempts to win the Comintern to their points of view. On the one hand, they had to contend with remnants of the opportunistic past of social democracy, while on the other they were faced with various shades of ultra-left adventurism based on the inexperience of many earlier communist parties.

 

However, eventually Lenin and Trotsky succeeded to win the Comintern over to the principles of the united front tactic, and the Third (1921) and Fourth congresses (1922) codified them. The following extensive passage summarizes the lessons which were agreed upon by the Comintern in its Fourth Congress:

 

There is consequently an obvious need for the united front tactic. The slogan of the Third Congress, “To the masses”, is now more relevant than ever. The struggle to establish a proletarian united front in a whole series of countries is only just beginning. (…) The Communist International requires that all Communist Parties and groups adhere strictly to the united front tactic, because in the present period it is the only way of guiding Communists in the right direction, towards winning the majority of workers. At present the reformists need a split, while the Communists are interested in uniting all the forces of the working class against capital. Using the united front tactic means that the Communist vanguard is at the forefront of the day to day struggle of the broad masses for their most vital interests. For the sake of this struggle Communists are even prepared to negotiate with the scab leaders of the social democrats and the Amsterdam International. Any attempt by the Second International to interpret the united front as an organisational fusion of all the ‘workers’ parties’ must of course be categorically repudiated. (…)

 

The existence of independent Communist Parties and their complete freedom of action in relation to the bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionary social democracy is the most important historical achievement of the proletariat, and one which the Communists will in no circumstances renounce. Only the Communist Parties stand for the overall interests of the whole proletariat. In the same way the united front tactic has nothing to do with the so-called ‘electoral combinations’ of leaders in pursuit of one or another parliamentary aim. The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Every action, for even the most trivial everyday demand, can lead to revolutionary awareness and revolutionary education; it is the experience of struggle that will convince workers of the inevitability of revolution and the historic importance of Communism. It is particularly important when using the united front tactic to achieve not just agitational but also organisational results. Every opportunity must be used to establish organisational footholds among the working masses themselves (factory committees, supervisory commissions made up of workers from all the different parties and unaligned workers, action committees, etc.). The main aim of the united front tactic is to unify the working masses through agitation and organisation. The real success of the united front tactic depends on a movement “from below”, from the rank-and-file of the working masses. Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which Communists must not refuse to have talks with the leaders of the hostile workers’ parties, providing the masses are always kept fully informed of the course of these talks. During negotiations with these leaders the independence of the Communist Party and its agitation must not be circumscribed.” [6]

 

The Comintern required its sections to follow the same principles in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, while adapting there to a different set of concrete circumstances. The same resolution stated:

 

In the colonial and semi-colonial countries the Comintern has a dual task: (1) to create a core of communist parties which represent the interests of the proletariat as a whole, and (2) to support to the utmost the national revolutionary movement which is directed against imperialism, to become the vanguard of this movement, and to emphasize and expand the social movement within the national movement. [7]

 

The Comintern went into more detail on the anti-imperialist united front in a special resolution which was discussed and adopted at the same congress. This resolution explained the importance for revolutionaries to join the struggle for democratic tasks, for national independence, against imperialist domination, etc.

 

The chief task which is common to all national revolutionary movements is to bring about national unity and achieve political independence. The real and logically consistent solution of this question depends on the extent to which such a national movement is able to break with the reactionary feudal elements and to win over the broad working masses to its cause, and in its programme to give expression to the social demands of these masses. Taking full cognizance of the fact that those who represent the national will to state independence may, because of the variety of historical circumstances, be themselves of the most varied kind, the Communist International supports every national revolutionary movement against imperialism. At the same time it does not forget that only a consistent revolutionary policy, designed to draw the broadest masses into active struggle, and a complete break with all adherents of reconciliation with imperialism for the sake of their own class domination, can lead the oppressed masses to victory.” [8]

 

At the same time the resolution emphasized the necessity for communists to keep their organizational and programmatic independence given the vacillating character of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders of the anti-imperialist struggles.

 

“The expediency of this slogan follows from the prospect of a prolonged and protracted struggle with world imperialism which demands the mobilization of all revolutionary elements. This mobilization is the more necessary as the indigenous ruling classes are inclined to effect compromises with foreign capital directed against the vital interests of the masses of the people. And just as in the West the slogan of the proletarian united front has helped and is still helping to expose social-democratic betrayal of proletarian interests, so the slogan of the anti-imperialist united front will help to expose the vacillation of various bourgeois-nationalist groups. This slogan will also promote the development of the revolutionary will and the clarification of the class consciousness of the working masses and put them in the front ranks of those who are fighting not only against imperialism, but also against the survivals of feudalism.” [9]

 

The communists put these principles into practice in numerous ways. One of the first applications was an initiative of German metalworkers in the Stuttgart local of the trade union federation ADGB in December 1920. Here the Communist Party (KPD) had important influence and they got the local to adopt a resolution calling on the leadership of their union, and of all unions, to launch a joint struggle for immediate demands to improve workers’ conditions. (Reduction of food prices; increase of unemployment benefits; reduction of taxes paid by workers and an increase in taxes on great private fortunes; establishment of workers’ control of supply and distribution of raw materials and foodstuffs; disarmament of reactionary gangs and arming of the workers.)

 

While the trade union leadership first ignored this campaign, it soon received support from many other union locals. As a result the KPD leadership, mainly Paul Levi and Karl Radek, drafted an Open Letter which was based was an extended version of the Stuttgart initiative. This letter was directed both at the reformist workers parties (SPD, USPD; and also the small ultra-left KAPD) as well as to all trade unions. While the labor bureaucracy did not agree to joint actions with the communists, this campaign increased the influence of the communists in the working class and in particularly in the trade unions. [10]

 

The Comintern extended the united front tactic also to the field of governmental slogans and developed respective slogans for a “workers’ government” a “workers’ and peasants’ government.” The Comintern stated: “The parties of the Second International are trying to 'save' the situation in these countries by advocating and forming a coalition government of bourgeois and social-democratic parties. (…) To this open or concealed bourgeois-socialdemocratic coalition the communists oppose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers' parties in the economic and the political field for the fight against the bourgeois power and its eventual overthrow. In the united struggle of all workers against the bourgeoisie the entire State apparatus must be taken over by the workers' government, and thus the working class's positions of power strengthened. [11]

 

Lenin similarly explained the need for communists to deploy the united front tactic in election campaigns. Taking the example of Britain, where the Communist Party was small and the reformist Labour Party dominated the workers’ movement, Lenin advocated that the communists give critical electoral support to the reformists.

 

The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years – 1903-17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks. If the Hendersons and the Snowdens accept a bloc on these terms, we shall be the gainers, because the number of parliamentary seats is of no importance to us; we are not out for seats. We shall yield on this point (…). We shall be the gainers, because we shall carry our agitation among the masses at a time when Lloyd George himself has “incensed” them, and we shall not only be helping the Labour Party to establish its government sooner, but shall also be helping the masses sooner to understand the communist propaganda that we shall carry on against the Hendersons, without any reticence or omission.

 

If the Hendersons and the Snowdens reject a bloc with us on these terms, we shall gain still more, for we shall at once have shown the masses (…) that the Hendersons prefer their close relations with the capitalists to the unity of all the workers. (…). We shall gain immediately, because we shall have demonstrated to the masses that the Hendersons and the Snowdens are afraid to beat Lloyd George, afraid to assume power alone, and are striving to secure the secret support of Lloyd George, who is openly extending a hand to the Conservatives, against the Labour Party. It should be noted that in Russia, after the revolution of February 27, 1917 (old style), the Bolsheviks’ propaganda against the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (i.e., the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens) derived benefit precisely from a circumstance of this kind. We said to the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries: assume full power without the bourgeoisie, because you have a majority in the Soviets (at the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets, in June 1917, the Bolsheviks had only 13 per cent of the votes). But the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens were afraid to assume power without the bourgeoisie, and when the bourgeoisie held up the elections to the Constituent Assembly, knowing full well that the elections would give a majority to the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks (who formed a close political bloc and in fact represented only petty-bourgeois democracy), the Socialist- Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks were unable energetically and consistently to oppose these delays. If the Hendersons and the Snowdens reject a bloc with the Communists, the latter will immediately gain by winning the sympathy of the masses and discrediting the Hendersons and Snowdens; if, as a result, we do lose a few parliamentary seats, it is a matter of no significance to us. We would put up our candidates in a very few but absolutely safe constituencies, namely, constituencies where our candidatures would not give any seats to the Liberals at the expense of the Labour candidates. We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets agitating for communism, and, in all constituencies where we have no candidates, we would urge the electors to vote for the Labour candidate and against the bourgeois candidate. (…)

 

At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (…), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany. [12]

 

Later, at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, Lenin also advocated the entry of the British Communist Party into the Labour Party in order to better influence the rank and file workers.

 

As Lenin explained, all these tactics had nothing in common with softness on reformism, but were an application of the urgent desire of communists to build closer ties with the still non-revolutionary masses as well as the urgent need to discredit the reformist leaders before their own supporters; this by demonstrating to them in practice that these leaders are unwilling and incapable of consistently fighting for the interests of the working class.

 

Similarly, the communists applied the anti-imperialist united front tactic in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. In China, they supported the struggle of Sun Yat-sen against the reactionary war lords who acted as agents of foreign imperialist powers. In autumn 1922 the communists, at the suggestion of Henk Sneevliet (a Dutchman who later joined the Fourth International for some time), even entered the Sun Yat-sen’s party – the Kuomintang. This tactic offered the communists, who initially were only a small group of intellectual without roots among the working class, the possibility of overcoming their isolation and becoming a mass party. Unfortunately the Stalinists later transformed this successful tactic into an opportunistic capitulation to the Chiang Kai-shek, the new leader of the Kuomintang after Sun Yat-sen’s death – instead of auspiciously splitting with this petty-bourgeois populist party when it became an obstacle for the class struggle. This resulted in the infamous massacre of tens of thousands communists in 1927 at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek’s army.

 

Even earlier, Sneevliet has played a crucial role in building a revolutionary organization in Indonesia (a Dutch colony at that time) – the Indische Sociaal-Democratische Vereeniging (ISDV). This organization engaged in anti-imperialist activities and would later join an Islamist mass organization which was active against the colonial administration – the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union). When the conservative leadership of the Islamist organization finally expelled the revolutionaries in 1921, the communists had already won over many workers and peasants. They would go on to found the first Asian section of the Comintern – Perserikatan Komunis di Hindia (PKH; Communist Union of the Indies). [13]

 

Likewise the Soviet Union supported the struggle of Turkey led by the bourgeois nationalist Kemal Pasha against British imperialism and its Greek allies.

 

Trotsky and the Fourth International on the United Front Tactic

 

Leon Trotsky, continuing the struggle for the revolutionary banner of the working class struggle after the Stalinist bureaucracy had taken power in 1924, upheld the Marxist method of the united front tactic as it had been developed by Lenin and the Comintern. In fact, he was – besides Lenin – the main advocate of the united front tactic when it was adopted by the Comintern at its Third Congress.

 

Against the Stalinists opportunist maneuvers with the British trade union bureaucracy in the mid-1920s Trotsky defended the fundamental principles of the united front tactic: “The tactic of the united front still retains all its power as the most important method in the struggle for the masses. A basic principle of this tactic is: “With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders. And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal. It is necessary to use the occasion of the break to expose the traitorous leaders and to contrast their position to that of the masses. It is precisely in this that the revolutionary essence of the united front policy consists. Without this, the struggle for the masses always threatens to turn into an opportunist kowtowing … [14]

 

Later the Stalinists distorted the united front tactic and replaced it with their theory of “social fascism” according to which social democracy was only the “twin” of Hitler’s fascism. Consequently, the Stalinists rejected any united front with the social democrats, a stance which helped the reformist leaders to justify their betrayal and which allowed them to support several right-wing Bonapartist governments along with taking no action against the rise of the NSDAP before 1933.

 

Trotsky similarly defended the application of the united front tactic in anti-imperialist and democratic struggles. For example he called for critical but unconditional support of Chiang Kai-shek’s struggle against the Japanese invaders in the late 1920s and 1930s (despite the fact that the latter murdered tens of thousands of communists in 1927!): “Quite so: as against imperialism it is obligatory to help even the hangmen of Chiang Kai-shek. [15]

 

Trotsky strongly rejected the criticism of those Ultra-leftists who refused to join an anti-imperialist struggle under a bourgeois leadership on the grounds that this would constitute a form of popular-frontism. He called revolutionaries in 1937 to participate and support the military struggle against Japan under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek as long as they are not strong enough to replace him. He compared the necessary tactic for revolutionaries with those during a workers’ strike under the leadership of treacherous reformist bureaucrats. It would be the duty of every class-conscious worker to join such a strike without giving any political support to the bureaucrats. Trotsky’s attitude becomes clear from a document he wrote on the Chinese war against Japan in 1937 from which we shall quote extensively:

 

But Chiang Kai-shek? We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China, just as Marx and Engels had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling. Only cowards, scoundrels, or complete imbeciles can refuse to participate in that struggle.

 

Let us use the example of a strike to clarify the question. We do not support all strikes. If, for example, a strike is called for the exclusion of Negro, Chinese, or Japanese workers from a factory, we are opposed to that strike. But if a strike aims at bettering— insofar as it can—the conditions of the workers, we are the first to participate in it, whatever the leadership. In the vast majority of strikes, the leaders are reformists, traitors by profession, agents of capital. They oppose every strike. But from time to time the pressure of the masses or of the objective situation forces them into the path of struggle.

 

Let us imagine, for an instant, a worker saying to himself: “I do not want to participate in the strike because the leaders are agents of capital.” This doctrine of this ultraleft imbecile would serve to brand him by his real name: a strikebreaker. The case of the Sino-Japanese War, is from this point of view, entirely analogous. If Japan is an imperialist country and if China is the victim of imperialism, we favor China. Japanese patriotism is the hideous mask of worldwide robbery. Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive. To place the two on the same plane and to speak of “social patriotism” can be done only by those who have read nothing of Lenin, who have understood nothing of the attitude of the Bolsheviks during the imperialist war, and who can but compromise and prostitute the teachings of Marxism. (…) But Japan and China are not on the same historical plane. The victory of Japan will signify the enslavement of China, the end of her economic and social development, and the terrible strengthening of Japanese imperialism. The victory of China will signify, on the contrary, the social revolution in Japan and the free development, that is to say unhindered by external oppression, of the class struggle in China.

 

But can Chiang Kai-shek assure the victory? I do not believe so. It is he, however, who began the war and who today directs it. To be able to replace him it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat and in the army, and to do this it is necessary not to remain suspended in the air but to place oneself in the midst of the struggle. We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against the foreign invasion and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, and the internal betrayal. At a certain point, which we cannot fix in advance, this political opposition can and must be transformed into armed conflict, since the civil war, like war generally, is nothing more than the continuation of the political struggle. It is necessary, however, to know when and how to transform political opposition into armed insurrection.

 

During the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 we attacked the policies of the Comintern. Why? It is necessary to understand well the reasons. The Eiffelites claim that we have changed our attitude on the Chinese question. That is because the poor fellows have understood nothing of our attitude in 1925-27. We never denied that it was the duty of the Communist Party to participate in the war of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie of the South against the generals of the North, agents of foreign imperialism. We never denied the necessity of a military bloc between the CP and the Kuomintang. On the contrary, we were the first to propose it. We demanded, however, that the CP maintain its entire political and organizational independence, that is, that during the civil war against the internal agents of imperialism, as in the national war against foreign imperialism, the working class, while remaining in the front lines of the military struggle, prepare the political overthrow of the bourgeoisie. We hold the same policies in the present war. We have not changed our attitude one iota. The Oehlerites and the Eiffelites, on the other hand, have not understood a single bit of our policies, neither those of 1925-27, nor those of today.

 

In my declaration to the bourgeois press at the beginning of the recent conflict between Tokyo and Nanking, I stressed above all the necessity of the active participation of revolutionary workers in the war against the imperialist oppressors. Why did I do it? Because first of all it is correct from the Marxist point of view; because, secondly, it was necessary from the point of view of the welfare of our friends in China. Tomorrow the GPU, which is in alliance with the Kuomintang (as with Negrin in Spain), will represent our Chinese friends as being “defeatists” and agents of Japan. The best of them, with Chten Tu-hsiu at the head, can be nationally and internationally compromised and killed. It was necessary to stress, energetically, that the Fourth International was on the side of China as against Japan. And I added at the same time: without abandoning either their program or their independence.

 

The Eiffelite imbeciles try to jest about this “reservation.” “The Trotskyists,” they say, “want to serve Chiang Kai-shek in action and the proletariat in words.” To participate actively and consciously in the war does not mean “to serve Chiang Kai-shek” but to serve the independence of a colonial country in spite of Chiang Kai-shek. And the words directed against the Kuomintang are the means of educating the masses for the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek. In participating in the military struggle under the orders of Chiang Kai-shek, since unfortunately it is he who has the command in the war for independence—to prepare politically the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek . . . that is the only revolutionary policy. The Eiffelites counterpose the policy of “class struggle” to this “nationalist and social patriotic” policy. Lenin fought this abstract and sterile opposition all his life. To him, the interests of the world proletariat dictated the duty of aiding oppressed peoples in their national and patriotic struggle against imperialism. Those who have not yet understood that, almost a quarter of a century after the World War and twenty years after the October revolution, must be pitilessly rejected as the worst enemies on the inside by the revolutionary vanguard. This is exactly the case with Eiffel and his kind!” [16]

 

In the Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International written in 1938, Trotsky once again attempted to generalize the experience of the Bolsheviks and show how important it is for communists to put forth demands at reformist and petty bourgeois mass parties of the workers and the oppressed in order to reach out to their rank and file.

 

This formula, “workers’ and farmers’ government,” first appeared in the agitation of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and was definitely accepted after the October Revolution. In the final instance it represented nothing more than the popular designation for the already established dictatorship of the proletariat. The significance of this designation comes mainly from the fact that it underscored the idea of an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry upon which the Soviet power rests.

 

When the Comintern of the epigones tried to revive the formula buried by history of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” it gave to the formula of the “workers’ and peasants’ government” a completely different, purely “democratic,” i.e., bourgeois content, counterposing it to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Bolshevik-Leninists resolutely rejected the slogan of the “workers’ and peasants’ government” in the bourgeois-democratic version. They affirmed then and affirm now that. when the party of the proletariat refuses to step beyond bourgeois democratic limits, its alliance with the peasantry is simply turned into a support for capital, as was the ease with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries in 1917, with the Chinese Communist Party in 1925-27, and as is now the ease with the “People’s Front” in Spain, France and other countries.

 

From April to September 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded that the S.R.s and Mensheviks break with the liberal bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. Under this provision the Bolshevik Party promised the Mensheviks and the S.R.s, as the petty bourgeois representatives of the worker and peasants, its revolutionary aid against the bourgeoisie categorically refusing, however, either to enter into the government of the Mensheviks and S.R.s or to carry political responsibility for it. If the Mensheviks and S.R.s had actually broke with the Cadets (liberals) and with foreign imperialism, then the “workers’ and peasants’ government” created by them could only have hastened and facilitated the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But it was exactly because of this that the leadership of petty bourgeois democracy resisted with all possible strength the establishment of its own government. The experience of Russia demonstrated, and the experience of Spain and France once again confirms, that even under very favorable conditions the parties of petty bourgeois democracy (S.R.s, Social Democrats, Stalinists, Anarchists) are incapable of creating a government of workers and peasants, that is, a government independent of the bourgeoisie.

 

Nevertheless, the demand of the Bolsheviks, addressed to the Mensheviks and the S.R.s: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power into your own hands!” had for the masses tremendous educational significance. The obstinate unwillingness of the Mensheviks and S.R.s to take power, so dramatically exposed during the July Days, definitely doomed them before mass opinion and prepared the victory of the Bolsheviks.

 

The central task of the Fourth International consists in freeing the proletariat from the old leadership, whose conservatism is in complete contradiction to the catastrophic eruptions of disintegrating capitalism and represents the chief obstacle to historical progress. The chief accusation which the Fourth International advances against the traditional organizations of the proletariat is the fact that they do not wish to tear themselves away from the political semi-corpse of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!” is an extremely important weapon for exposing the treacherous character of the parties and organizations of the Second, Third and Amsterdam Internationals. The slogan, “workers’ and farmers’ government,” is thus acceptable to us only in the sense that it had in 1917 with the Bolsheviks, i.e., as an anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist slogan. But in no case in that “democratic” sense which later the epigones gave it, transforming it from a bridge to Socialist revolution into the chief barrier upon its path.

 

Of all parties and organizations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers’ and farmers’ government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should in our opinion form the program of the “workers’ and farmers’ government.”

 

Is the creation of such a government by the traditional workers’ organizations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is, to say the least, highly improbable. However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie. In any case one thing is not to be doubted: even if this highly improbable variant somewhere at some time becomes a reality and the “workers’ and farmers’ government” in the above-mentioned sense is established in fact, it would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.

 

However, there is no need to indulge in guesswork. The agitation around the slogan of a workers’-farmers’ government preserves under all conditions a tremendous educational value. And not accidentally. This generalized slogan proceeds entirely along the line of the political development of our epoch (the bankruptcy and decomposition of the old bourgeois parties, the downfall of democracy, the growth of fascism, the accelerated drive of the workers toward more active and aggressive politics). Each of the transitional demands should, therefore, lead to one and the same political conclusion: the workers need to break with all traditional parties of the bourgeoisie in order, jointly with the farmers, to establish their own power.” [17]

 

Thus we see the significance which Trotsky gave to the issue of the united front tactic as a tool to strengthen and unite the class struggle of the workers and oppressed, as well as to increase the influence of the revolutionary party among the working class and popular masses, and to undermine the hegemony of the “parties of petty-bourgeois democracy.” In addition, Trotsky considered the united front tactic as a crucial tool for revolutionaries not only in relation to bourgeois (Menshevik-type) workers’ parties, but also towards petty-bourgeois populist (S.R.-type) forces which have a mass following among the non-proletarian oppressed classes and layers.

 



[1] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), in: MECW Vol. 6, pp. 518-519; see also Friedrich Engels: Principles of Communism, in: MECW Vol. 6, pp. 356-357. As a side note we want to point out that the English translation of this quotation is misleading regarding one issue. At the end of the first paragraph is stated that communists fight “against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.” However, in the German original Marx and Engels do not use the phrase “petty bourgeoisie” (Kleinbürgertum) but rather use the words “Kleinbürgerei” which means petty bourgeois ideologies and attitudes. Obviously, the wrong translation changes the significance. While Marx and Engels proclaimed the struggle against the monarchy, the feudal class and petty bourgeois ideologies, the English translation gives the wrong impression that they also intended to fight against the petty-bourgeoisie as a class.

[2] See on this, among many other sources, Friedrich Engels: On the History of the Communist League (1885), in MECW Vol. 26, p. 325; David Riazanov: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. An Introduction to Their Lives and Work (1922), chapter 5; see also the excellent study by August H. Nimtz: Marx and Engels: Their contribution to the democratic breakthrough, Albany, New York 2000, (chapter 3 and 4); Otto Rühle: Karl Marx. Leben und Werk, Avalun-Verlag, Hellerau 1928, pp. 182-188; August Nimtz: Marx and Engels – The Unsung Heroes of the Democratic Breakthrough, in: Science & Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 203-231

[3] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Address of the Central Authority to the League, March 1850, in: MECW Vol. 10, p. 277 respectively pp. 279-280 and pp. 281-282

[4] On this, see the relevant resolutions of the party conference from July 1907 and January 1912 respectively in: Robert H. McNeal and Richard Gregor: Resolutions and decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vol.2, The Early Soviet Period: 1917-1929, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1974, pp.116-117 and 150-153. See also, e.g., the two excellent volumes by the Marxist historian August Nimtz: Lenin's Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905. The Ballot, the Streets—or Both as well as Lenin's Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917. Both have been published by Palgrave Macmillan US in 2014. See also Aleksei E. Badayev: The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, Co-operative Pub. Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R, Moscow

[5] V.I. Lenin: ‘Left-Wing’ Communism - An Infantile Disorder, in: Lenin Collected Works (LCW), Vol. 31, pp. 70-72. The Fourth Edition of the Lenin Collected Works was published by Progress Publishers, Moscow (1977-1980).

[6] Communist International: Theses on Comintern Tactics, adopted on 5th December 1922 at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International; in: The Communist International 1919-1943. Documents Selected and Edited by Jane Degras, Volume I 1919-1922, pp. 424-425

[7] Communist International: Theses on Comintern Tactics (1922), p. 424

[8] Communist International: Theses on the Eastern Question, 5 December 1922, Fourth Congress of the Communist International, in: Jane Degras: The Communist International 1919-1943. Documents Volume I 1919-1922, pp. 385-386. Concerning the Marxist understanding of the anti-imperialist united front tactic we refer readers to chapter 12 and 13 of our book Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South. Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital. Consequences for the Marxist Theory of Imperialism. Vienna 2013, published by the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (The book can be downloaded for free at www.great-robbery-of-the-south.net.)

[9] Communist International: Theses on the Eastern Question, p. 390

[10] On this see Dirk Hemje-Oltmanns: Arbeiterbewegung und Einheitsfront. Zur Diskussion der Einheitsfronttakitk in der KPD 1920/21, Verlag für das Studium der Arbeiterbewegung GmbH, Westberlin 1973; Arnold Reisberg: An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik, Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1971, Vol. 1 and 2, John Riddell: The Comintern in 1922. The Periphery Pushes Back, in: Historical Materialism 22.3–4 (2014), pp. 52-103; Larry Peterson: German Communism, Workers' Protest, and Labor Unions. The Politics of the United Front in Rhineland - Westphalia 1920-1924, Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 1993

[11] Communist International: Theses on Comintern Tactics (1922), pp. 425-426

[12] V.I. Lenin: ‘Left-Wing’ Communism - An Infantile Disorder, in: LCW Vol. 31, pp. 86-88

[13] For sources on these interesting developments in Indonesia and China see below in chapter V where we discuss this experience again.

[14] Leon Trotsky: Resolution on the General Strike in Britain submitted to the Centrals Committee and Centrals Control Commission joint plenum, July 1926; in: Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, New Park Publications, London 1974, p. 191

[15] Leon Trotsky: The Defense of the Soviet Union and the Opposition (1929); in: Writings 1929, p. 262

[16] Leo Trotzki: Über den chinesisch-japanischen Krieg (1937), in: Schriften 2.2, pp. 865-867; in Englisch: Leon Trotsky: On the Sino-Japanese War (1937), http://marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/10/sino.htm (Emphasis in Original)

[17] Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International: The Mobilization of the Masses around Transitional Demands to Prepare the Conquest of Power (The Transitional Program); in: Documents of the Fourth International. The Formative Years (1933-40), New York 1973, pp. 201-203