On the United Front Question

by Joseph Seymour

Published in the Spartacist League Internal Discussion Bulletin number 23, 1974, reprinted in On the United Front, Spartacus Youth League pamphlet, 1976, and Spartacist Publishing Company 1996.

A united front does not refer to any and every kind of cooperation with other political organizations. A united front is essentially a common action characteristically around concrete, usually negative, demands on bourgeois authority. The characteristic organizational form of the united front is a technical coordinating committee. This does not mean that a united front need be limited to a single event. It is possible to have a united front campaign, for example, a legal defense case. However, if a united front campaign acquires significant political importance, it has an immanent tendency to develop into a higher form of collaboration—a bloc.

In contrast to a united front, a bloc is an open-ended agreement to collaborate for broadly defined aims usually involving common propaganda, tactics, etc. Characteristically a bloc is a unified opposition to the incumbent leadership of a workers organization. The classic bloc was the Zimmerwald Movement during World War I--the oppositional formation of all antiwar socialists to the social-chauvinist leadership of the Second International. For Lenin’s faction, the Zimmerwald Movement was viewed as the embryo of a new international. During the early 1930’s, the French Trotskyists engaged in an important bloc with left syndicalists in the form of an oppositional caucus, the Unitary Opposition, in the Stalinist-led union federation, the CGT-U. A bloc is inherently in unstable equilibrium, either leading toward regroupment/fusion or breaking apart.

It is common for a bloc to take the form of a nominally independent membership organization (e.g., a trade union caucus). The actual bloc character of such an organization is evident if its activists are primarily loyal to different party organizations; the bloc partners thus constituting the basic factions within the organization. If the bloc breaks up, the dominant partner often retains the original bloc organization as a transitional instrument, usually run along front group lines. The initiation and participation in a bloc, including that embodied in a nominally independent organization, is a legitimate Leninist tactic. Depending on concrete circumstances, its purpose is either an entry, common work leading to regroupment/fusion or an attempt to establish a transitional organization of the vanguard party.

What Was NPAC?

NPAC was a bloc (not a united front) between the SWP and certain bourgeois politicians on a program and tactics congruent with bourgeois liberalism in the 1969-71 period. Thus NPAC was a non-electoral "popular front" quite parallel to those set up by the Stalinists "against war, fascism," etc. in. the 1930’s.

In terms of actual organizational power, NPAC was an SWP front group, that is, the activists and apparatus were effectively controlled by the SWP/YSA so that other political forces, including the liberal bourgeoisie, operated at the sufferance of the SWP.

Our call for the "Bourgeoisie Out of the Anti-War Movement" was not meant as a self-sufficient programmatic statement. Rather it was a central agitational slogan as part of a series of interrelated demands constituting a revolutionary defeatist and class-struggle policy toward the Vietnam War. In no sense was the demand, "Bourgeoisie Out of NPAC" meant to be, "NPAC Without the Bourgeoisie." We gave agitational emphasis, at the time, to kicking out the liberal politicians because their presence represented the most obvious, gross and unpopular manifestation of the SWP’s liberal social-chauvinism on the war question.

The Spartacist tendency had broken with the SWP’s "independent" anti-war organizations in 1965 when, after a big fight, the primal ancestor of NPAC, the National Coordinating Committee, was formed on the basis of the single slogan, "End the War Now." We asserted such an organization was a deliberately conceived obstacle to a defeatist and class-struggle centered anti-war campaign. We further pointed out, at the time, that the logic and purpose of the SWP's line would lead to a common organization with bourgeois political forces (then represented by pacifists and liberal academics) should opposition to the war develop within the ruling class. The organizational entrance of prominent Democratic politicians around 1969 represented the full realization of and not a change in the nature of the SWP’s antiwar organizations. Of course, the actual presence of Hartke et al. was a powerful verification of our line on the SWP and antiwar movement in general, which is why we gave it so much agitational emphasis.

Between 1965 and. the entry of prominent bourgeois politicians into anti-war organizations around 1969, the SL employed a number of main agitational slogans in its anti-war activities, notably "Victory for the Vietnamese Revolution" and "For Labor Strikes Against the War." These slogans (like that of "Bourgeoisie Out of the Anti-War Movement") were not presented as self-sufficient programmatic statements. Rather such slogans were attempts to encapsulate, under differing conditions of intervention, a revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian policy toward the Vietnam War.

Given the front group nature of NPAC, an expulsion of the bourgeois politicians could only have come about through a major left split in the SWP which destroyed the latter’s organizational control of NPAC. Had such a development occurred in 1969-71, we would have had two tactical choices to be decided by concrete circumstances. One was opposition to any "independent" anti-war organization in favor of a series of united fronts centered on working class tendencies. The other tactic would have been a bloc of working class tendencies in the form of a defeatist and class-struggle oriented, nominally independent, anti-war organization. The purposes of such a bloc are outlined in the first section.

Democratic Versus Class Demands

It is incorrect to view this question as if there were two fundamentally different types of united fronts, i.e., one a united front to defend democratic rights in which bourgeois elements are permitted, the other around class demands in which only workers organizations can participate.

A rigid dichotomy between democratic and class demands is invalid. Clearly the right of a member of a workers party to teach in a public school is in the interest of the workers movement. On the other band, even purely wage struggles have a democratic component. In numerous, important situations any difference between support for the democratic right to strike and support to an actual strike simply collapses. At the limit, one should recall that the Bolshevik Revolution was partly motivated by the need to defend the democratic institutions of the working masses from imminent bourgeois reaction. Rather than two kinds of united fronts, there is a continuum of social struggles ranging from localized civil liberties cases to the seizure of state power by a workers militia, in which the united front is an applicable tactic.

The notion of a dichotomy between democratic and class issues contains the seed of a serious rightist deviation, particularly if applied to backward countries. The idea of struggles around democratic demands normally involving alliances with the bourgeoisie as distinct from the struggle for workers power contains key elements of a two-stage revolution, if extended beyond episodic situations. Applied literally it would prevent a communist vanguard from seeking to transform a mass upsurge initially centered on a united-front struggle for democratic rights into a class—based socialist revolution.

Just as a continuum exists in the democratic/class-struggle programmatic character of a united front, so a continuum exists in the degree of bourgeois participation. It is an elementary proposition of Marxism that struggles which are objectively against the interests of the bourgeoisie will be opposed by the organizations of the bourgeoisie. The more directly and significantly the demands of a united front go against bourgeois interest, the less likely bourgeois participation. Thus, while there may be substantial bourgeois support for the right of an academic Marxist to hold a professorship, there would not have been any bourgeois support for a committee to transform the recent San Francisco city workers strike into a general strike. Thus, the bourgeoisie is self-excluded from a given united front by its program and context.

"The Workers United Front"

The "workers united front" of the 3rd and 4th Congresses of the Communist International was the application of the united front tactic to a particular historically conditioned political class alignment, then exemplified by Germany. This political alignment included a mass reformist workers party and consequently the general recognition by the workers of the need for an independent class political expression. Secondly, the communist vanguard had sufficient organizational weight to materially affect the outcome of a concrete struggle and was therefore viewed as a desirable ally by workers loyal to the reformist-party. A propaganda group of a few hundred could not apply the "workers united front" tactic to a many-millioned reformist party.

The "workers united front" was not a type of united front to be distinguished from other types of united front; it was essentially a slogan (see 18 December 1921 ECCI Directive the United Front, Sec. 7) to agitate for a series of united fronts between the communist vanguard and reformist parties. As an agitational slogan it had two virtues. It pointed to the contradiction between the reformist party’s claim to represent class interests and its collaboration with the bourgeoisie often against the communists. Secondly, it asserted that unity in struggle between the reformist party and communist vanguard would, in reality (and not merely in exemplary fashion), bring the full power of the organized working class into play.

The "workers united front" did not involve the mechanical exclusion of bourgeois elements. Rather in Western Europe in the 1920’s, bourgeois support for workers’ struggles would necessarily be marginal. Where bourgeois support for mass struggles (including strikes) would not be marginal—namely, in the colonial countries—the slogan of "workers united front" was not considered applicable. Even in Western Europe, united fronts with bourgeois elements were not ruled out in principle. When the French army occupied the Ruhr in 1923, the KPD formed a united front with right-wing nationalists! While Radek’s tactics were criticized as being overly embracive (the Schlägeter line), no one considered a united front with such forces as wrong in itself. When Trotsky called for a united workers front against fascism, he certainly did not mean that if a contingent from the Catholic Center Party (which had a certain working-class constituency) showed up to defend a union meeting against Nazi goons, they should be told to go home. Quite the contrary! The primary, often dominant, purpose of the "workers united front" is to win over the base of the reformist party. However, a secondary purpose is to win petty bourgeois and those particularly backward workers still tied to bourgeois parties. Such political elements must be permitted to participate in a united front under their own organizational banners, not merely as atomized individuals.

The American Question

The "workers united front" presupposes both the existence of a mass reformist party and of a communist vanguard strong enough to materially affect the outcome of labor conflicts. Neither of these conditions are met in the U.S. today. The political class alignment in the U.S. resembles that of Western Europe before the emergence of mass workers parties. The closest parallel is late nineteenth century Britain where a strong union movement supported the Liberal Party, while the would-be revolutionary socialists existed as propaganda groups. The "workers united front" is a demand that the mass reformist organizations break with class collaboration and struggle for the workers' interests in alliance with the communist vanguard. A literal transposition of the "workers united front" to the U.S. would be a demand that the AFL-CIO break with the Democratic Party and form a series of fighting alliances with the Spartacist League. Once the question is posed that way, the inapplicability of the tactic is obvious.

This does not mean that the underlying conception behind the "workers united front"—the counterposition to class collaboration of unity in struggle with the communists—is inapplicable in the U.S. Rather the principal tactical form of that counterposition cannot be the united front. The American equivalent of the tactic known as the "workers united front" is the labor party—a party formed through the trade unions breaking from the bourgeois parties and open to the program and cadre of the communist vanguard.

In sharpening our line against Wohlforth, we have asserted that a labor party (of any sort) is only a historical possibility and not a necessary stage in constructing a mass revolutionary party. In other words we do not preclude, at this time, the linear development of the SL into the mass party of the American workers through direct conflict with the Democratic Party. A fixation with the united front or its proper American analogue, the labor party, tends toward a two-stage theory of party building since embodied in these concepts is a mass workers party not led by communists.

There is a notion put forth, for example, by Harry Turner of what might be termed the "exemplary united front of the workers"--a united front of ostensibly revolutionary propaganda groups symbolically representing proletarian unity. Such a formation is based on a series of programmatic demands (usually culled from the Transitional Program) which exclude not only bourgeois elements, but the trade unions as well. As a concept, the united front for propaganda elevates the united front above the party as a kind of higher political organization. In practice, it often is a device whereby a small propaganda group seeks to overcome its numerical inferiority by dissolving larger organizations into a common public face.

While it is possible to exclude bourgeois elements from united fronts that we organize, it is impossible for us to exclude them from the major struggles of the American workers. Organizations involving bourgeois support for labor struggles are not "popular fronts," which we refuse on principle to enter. Thus, we played an active role in the Farmworker support committees despite the prominent presence of Ted Kennedy, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, etc. To apply one tactic and one tactic only in dealing with bourgeois presence in labor struggles—demanding their immediate and unconditional exclusion—would be stupid ultimatism, would be an obstacle to our struggle for leadership over the class. Our party must know how to use the united front tactic to expose and discredit friend-of-labor politicians.

—Mid-April 1974

Posted: 04 May 2005