Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Unity Organization

Sooner or Later

Questions & Answers on War, Peace & the United Front

Appendix: Is the United Front Against Hegemonism a Strategy or a Tactic?

We have included a correspondence between a reader of a draft of the pamphlet and one of the authors. The initial letter is a criticism of the use of tactical as the proper way to view the united front against hegemonism. The reply accepts the criticism and discusses some of the problems involved in applying Marxist strategy and tactics.

* * *

There is some confusion and, I feel, a wrong evaluation on the question of strategy and tactics. The whole question of a united front against hegemony is presented as a tactical question for the left, since it is assumed that the strategy of the working class is defined by the age we live in – the age of imperialism – and that the single central goal is to carry out proletarian revolution to overthrow imperialism. I believe such a concept of strategy sees it so broadly as to make it practically meaningless. It is like coming out against sin.

Revolutionaries oppose capitalism and imperialism, period. This is their strategy. It seems to me this could be called the ultimate aim of revolution in this age but not the strategy. If an ultimate aim is called strategy and everything else is called tactics, then how can the various stages of the struggle against imperialism on a world scale be distinguished? Even though this is the age of imperialism, imperialisms develop unevenly and at one time one imperialism becomes the main enemy, at another time another, while at a third time some combination of lesser imperialisms is the enemy. At one stage there is no great socialist state involved in the struggle, at another time there is not only a socialist state but a socialist camp. At still another time a great socialist state becomes an imperialist state and the socialist camp led by it becomes a set of client states manipulated by it. It seems to me that these big shifts must be called strategic shifts. Tactics deal with the ebb and flow of struggle within a given strategic period. Specifically, I think strategy is defined by the principal contradiction on a global scale. A given principal contradiction creates a whole set of circumstances and relationships which are unique and peculiar to that stage in history. The principal contradiction does not shift back and forth quickly or in a short time span, but usually takes years, even decades, to develop and be resolved. This time span becomes a strategic period with certain unifying characteristics. When the principal contradiction is resolved and a new one takes its place, one enters a new strategic period on a world scale, with a new set of circumstances and a new set of unifying characteristics requiring a new set of responses.

I think it is important, from a dialectical point of view, to see the matter this way. Neither strategy nor tactics are fixed and immutable. To define strategy as you do, as a sort of fixed goal, good for the whole age, lends a rigidity to thinking that is unproductive and negative. It stands in the way of seeing things clearly and solving problems effectively.

I think defining strategy in terms of a response to the principal contradiction also has very practical consequences when it comes to building united fronts and mobilizing people. Seeing the united front against hegemony simply as a tactic, downgrades its importance, turns it to a certain extent into a gimmick, and makes the allies who are being urged to unite nervous and uneasy. It tends to degenerate into a case of ends justifying means, when in fact the situation is much more solid than that. The various forces that come together in any united front have an objective unity of interest that is satisfied by their cooperation. It is not a case of one class using another, or one group using another. They join together at a certain level because their interests coincide, and they stick together until those interests diverge. There is no trick, no manipulation involved, and there is nothing hidden. All the cards can be laid out on the table. And this is because the issues are strategies and relate to survival, the survival of the people, the survival of the nation.

When faced with a hegemonic threat, it does little good, and is really quite foolish for one class to say to another, “We really want to do you in, but temporarily there is this other fellow interfering, so let’s get together to knock him off, then we can get on with the business of destroying you.” What they are really contesting for is the right to lead the nation and determine its social relations. When the very existence of the nation is threatened they have to unite to defend it, otherwise the whole question becomes academic. There is no nation to contend for, perhaps no people to do the contending. In this circumstance, does one stress doing the other side in, or does one stress the common stake in the survival of the nation? To call the whole thing tactics tends to stress the former. To recognize that this is strategy tends to stress the latter.

Maybe a lot of this is a question of semantics. No matter how I define strategy it may seem to you like tactics, but I think there are some real differences in approach here that have to do with objectivity and with the mature handling of real problems in a real world. It seems to me that by calling such questions tactics you may be trying to demonstrate that even though you advocate some joint action with imperialists, you are really not abandoning revolution and are still very militant, etc. But a mature approach to these questions requires no such posturing.

A serious study of history shows that there are times when the working class must unite with the bourgeoisie to confront external danger. Those who start with a firm commitment to the interests of the working class and all its allies among the common people analyze what has to be done to protect those interests, then set about to do those things. They don’t have to prove militancy by constantly pointing out that “This is only temporary”, “This is only a tactic”, “I really hate these bastards but I have to work with them”, etc. What is, in fact, going on on the left is a sort of guilt tripping of bourgeois intellectuals who are unsure of themselves and easily give in to the necessity of having constantly to prove their “proletarian” purity and militancy. Their strategy is always and everywhere to confront imperialism, even if in the present situation they have to use one imperialism against another, a “clever” tactic. This gets the super-revolutionaries off their backs.


Thank you for your notes on our pamphlet. They have been extremely helpful to us in clarifying our views, and we’re very appreciative that you took the time to write them up.

We agree with your basic argument and think you were right and we were wrong in our formulation of the question of strategy and tactics. The united front against hegemonism is not a transitory organizational form corresponding to a temporary correlation of forces, an ebb or flow in the class struggle, a “zig-zag”. Alliance with the United States, while certainly not permanent or “epochal”, is of a long-term nature and not a matter of deploying forces in one moment or conjuncture of a struggle. It is a strategy for what we can agree to call a whole “stage” in the epoch of imperialism, an epoch which has already lasted many decades and could last many many more. We agree that to restrict the question of strategy to the general strategy of the imperialist epoch is to reduce strategy to the status of a slogan – a slogan which lacks any concrete orientation for our struggle.

The root of our error on this question was not, however, an attempt to protect our anti-imperialist credentials and to indulge in super-revolutionary “posturing” so as to lure our comrades into agreement. Strategy and tactics are scientific terms which cannot be adjusted in order to stress a point. I think our error was primarily due to a failure to see our way clearly through a series of complex issues. We saw that the question was complex and did not wish to run the risk that the discussion of the UFAF be diverted into a sterile debate about definitions of strategy and tactics such as characterized the movement’s discussions of the united front against imperialism versus the united front against fascism a few years back. So we chose the “safer” course of sticking to the original formulations of Lenin, Stalin and the Comintern and fell into dogmatism. What looks like posturing did involve some “looking over our left shoulder”, but that was because we were unclear in our analysis of some complex questions. What I’d like to do here is raise some of these complexities and suggest a better resolution of them that your notes have helped me to conceive.

Marxist-Leninist writings are not unambiguous on the question of whether the united front against fascism of 1935-45 and the united front against imperialism of the ’60s are strategies or tactics. Nor are they unambiguously clear as to the related question of the stages of the anti-imperialist struggle. Dimitrov and the Resolutions of the Vllth Congress of the CI call the UFAF a “new tactical line” for the communist movement. Lenin and Stalin (especially in the Foundations of Leninism) speak of a strategy for the imperialist epoch. This is not just an “ultimate aim”, for it identifies the “main forces” (the proletariat in the advanced capitalist – imperialist – countries and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the U.S.S.R.), the “reserves” (the peasantry and the oppressed nations), a plan for the disposition of these forces (“a common revolutionary front”), a series of enemies (imperialism, the chauvinists and opportunists), a “direction of the main blow”, etc. (cf. Foundations of Leninism, Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1975, pp. 87-8). Within this general strategy the Comintern seemed to conceive of various “tactical periods” without any change in overall strategy. Thus there were the “first”, “second” and ”third periods”, the latter ending in 1934. The UFAF was originally considered a “fourth period” much like the first three. The first three tactical periods were determined by the “ebb and flow” of the struggle, the relative strength and weakness of imperialism and the anti-imperialist movement. The UFAF was a “tactical line” due to a new correlation of forces, just as the “second period” resulted from a “relative stabilization of capaitalism” beginning in 1923 or so.

Of course, the “fourth period” turned out to be much longer and quite different from the earlier ones. But so has the imperialist “stage” turned out to be much longer than Lenin seemed to expect – at least in 1914-22. I think this is the basic reason why we must now understand Lenin’s ”strategy for the imperialist epoch” as only a general strategic line, one which must be supplemented and applied through particular strategies for definite stages of imperialism, such as the stage of the UFAF and the stage of the UFAI and the UFAF.

With the benefit of hindsight and the Theory of the Three Worlds we can now perceive differences in Lenin’s and Stalin’s conception of the imperialist epoch and that of Mao Zedong (and I think this is part of what makes MZD Thought the “Marxism-Leninism of our time”). Lenin and Stalin thought in terms of “world proletarian revolution” breaking out successively in one of a number of “weak links” in the imperialist “chain”. These outbreaks could occur in an oppressed nation like India or in an imperialist country like Germany (cf. Foundations, pp. 29-30). Moreover, the proletariat in the imperialist countries was the “main force” while the oppressed nations constituted a “reserve”. In the theory of the Three Worlds things are somewhat different. The Third World has become the main force while the proletariat in the imperialist countries are reserves. The Third World is the “storm center” of world revolution while the proletariat is in the stage of “accumulating strength”. The struggle against opportunism, which Lenin and Stalin originally identify with a more or less direct and immediate struggle against mainly the Second International, has become in Mao’s thought a struggle which could last, metaphorically, “a thousand years”. MZD suggests a much more protracted struggle against imperialism than does Lenin, at least up until his very last writings (e.g., “Better Fewer But Better”).

I think this had something to do with the CPs conception of the UFAF as a tactic. They seemed to have seen it as a zig-zag in the world revolutionary struggle against imperialism, one which would culminate sooner rather than later. It was just a “period” like the earlier (first-second) periods. When we discussed this in our group back in 1975 we became dissatisfied with this view of UFAF as a tactic. It was longer than a period and it involved a new principal contradiction. It was not just a “part” of the anti-imperialist struggle, it was also a “whole” characterized by a distinct principle contradiction which influenced all the others.

In his “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War”, Mao says that strategy relates to the laws governing the whole, tactics to those governing the part (Selected Military Writings, p. 81). So we can speak of a general strategy for the whole of the imperialist epoch. But Mao also says that “what is universal in one context becomes particular in another” (“On Contradiction”, Selected Readings, p. 107). The “fourth period”, the UFAF, turned out to be much more protracted than envisioned. In “Problems of Strategy in the Guerrilla War”, Mao has an observation which could be applied here. He speaks of how guerrilla war, in the context of the War of Resistance against Japan, acquires a protracted character. While generally questions of guerrilla war are tactical ones, because of its special role and duration in the war against Japan, “Guerrilla warfare against Japan has broken out of the bounds of tactics to knock at the gates of strategy” (SMW, p. 154). Tactics and strategy are opposites which “interpenetrate”. A part, in a certain context, can become a whole. We tentatively concluded back then that the UFAF while being a part, like tactical periods 1-3, of the whole struggle vs. imperialism, was also a whole: its duration, the basic change in the alignment of forces, the change of position of the contradictions and the emergence of a new principal contradiction, lent this “period” the characteristics of a “strategic stage”. Thus for example the direction of the main blow had to be altered. The main blow was now directed against the “aggressive imperialist countries”, the fascist countries, and not at each and all imperialist countries. This meant that the question of friends and enemies had to be reassessed, etc.

This relates to the dispute as to the character of World War II (Beijing Review, #41, 1979). Did it become anti-fascist only with the invasion of Russia, having been anti-imperialist before then, or was it always anti-fascist? Was the UFAF just a tactic on a par with the tactical agreement with Germany embodied in the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact? Some would argue that only with the abrogation of that pact and the attack on Russia did the UFAF go back into effect. Others (apparently including Stalin in his “Speech to the Moscow Electoral District” in 1946), including myself, would see 1935-45 as an integral stage in which the main danger was fascism. Within this there was a temporary tactical agreement with Germany, but this was part of the strategy of UFAF – it actually helped to realize the UFAF.

After reading your notes and reviewing our discussions of the UFAF four years ago, I am now convinced that the UFAF was not a “tactical period” but a “big shift”, a “shift in world politics” as the Commentator put it regarding the UFAH. I’m not sure we’ll be able to clarify this point sufficiently in revising our pamphlet (we’ll certainly drop the language about tactics though), but you’ve convinced me that it does need to be clarified. I hope this at least explains why we’re confused about the question. Thanks for helping us to clear it up.

There is another problem about whether to call these “big shifts” as you term them “stages” as you suggest. Here again proletarian theory is not as clear and straight-forward on this point as some of us want it to be – perhaps unrealistically or undialectically. Again, instead of applying and creatively interpreting, my literal-mindedness got me into trouble. But let me explain the problems.

First of all there was the problem that imperialism itself is quite clearly characterized, correctly characterized, by Lenin as & stage of capitalism, the highest, last stage. The revisionists are always trying to create within this “stages of imperialism” so as to justify peaceinfluenced by the fundamental contradiction, some become intensified, some are temporarily or partially resolved, and some new ones emerge; hence the process is marked by stages.” (p. 102). Here it appears that the fundamental contradiction remains the same through all the different stages.

And this is not a matter of the distinction between the “fundamental” and a “principal” contradiction. For later Mao says:

... in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions such as those between ... the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies are all determined or influenced by the principal contradiction, (p. 110)

Thus it would seem that the principal contradiction remains the same despite the emergence of a new stage of capitalism, that of imperialism, and despite the emergence of fascism as a stage in the struggle against the bourgeoisie.

Moreover, in the more “complicated picture” of the struggle in the semi-colonial countries, “the fundamental contradiction in the process as a whole, i.e., in the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, democratic revolutionary nature of the process,” undergoes “no change” even as “this process has passed through several stages of development” (p. 103). Yet a few pages later, referring to the same process, “the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction” while the contradiction with feudalism is relegated “to a secondary and subordinate position” (p. 110).

I realize that MZD is using examples to illustrate various aspects of the problem of contradiction. It is wrong to expect them to be perfectly consistent, as though Marxist theory was a glossary or a dictionary of self-contained definitions. The thing is to use it as a guide to action, not as a book of formulae. Yet these internal inconsistencies and the movement’s tendency to treat theory precisely as a series of dogmatic prescriptions made us shy away from provoking a big discussion of these questions. We were wrong because we were being dogmatic and would have only created greater confusion by not clarifying that the UFAF is a stage, with a principal contradiction, etc. But our motive was that, while we recognized weaknesses with our formulation, we did not want to invite a debate on these issues such as we have “undergone” around UFAI and UFAF – i.e., a sterile academic and diversionary exercise in talmudic one-upmanship. But we will have to confront this, as you have made me see.

What I would say now is that while there is a general strategic line for the whole imperialist epoch (here we may disagree), there [text missing in the original–EROL] ful transition to socialism (state monopoly capitalism is thus a special stage gradually merging into socialism). Moreover, to speak of the UFAF, UFAI and UFAH as “stages” of imperialism and thus requiring separate strategies (since as Stalin says, strategies relate to stages, tactics to periods) seemed inconsistent with Lenin’s and Stalin’s own treatment. For in them the bourgeois-democratic stage is an inevitable one, a definite part of an historical process. Thus stages were things which could be defined in advance and had to be passed through. The view of UFAH as a stage seemed inconsistent with this. There is nothing inevitable about it. The restoration of capitalism in the U.S.S.R. and its conversion into an imperialist power and the main danger to the peoples of the world was hardly inevitable. It was the result of a (lost) class struggle. It represented a “zig-zag” in history, hence a period not a stage.

Your comments and the re-reading of MZD which they stimulated have made me see that this was mechanical reasoning. Mao’s use of the term “stage” is much more flexible and dialectical. He even speaks of “stages” of the Chinese bourgeois-democratic revolution. That has “several distinct stages” and “in particular the revolution in its period of bourgeois leadership and the revolution in its period of proletarian leadership represent two vastly different historical stages” (”On Contradiction”, SR, p. 103). While it may be argued that these stages were foreseeable and even inevitable, this is not the case of the Japanese invasion, also a stage in the new-democratic revolution. This again related to our group’s previous discussion of the UFAF. There we saw that the victory of fascism in Germany was certainly not inevitable, but that the struggle against it represented a stage – with a new principal contradiction, alignment of forces, main blow, etc. Not to recognize this as a separate stage would be to merge the struggle against fascism with the struggle for socialism. A victorious struggle against fascism, history has shown, need not culminate in socialist revolution but might merely restore bourgeois democracy.

It appears that the main thing to grasp is the point that you emphasize: “A strategy is defined by the principal contradiction on a global scale” (your notes) and that “at every stage in the development of a process, there is only one principal contradiction which plays the leading role” (“On Contradiction”: p. 111). Yet even here doubts can arise. Mao’s “On Contradiction” is not unambiguous on this point. Earlier he says, “The fundamental contradiction in the process of development of a thing ... will not disappear until the process is completed; but in a lengthy process the conditions usually differ at each stage ... the fundamental contradiction becomes more and more intensified as it passes from one stage to another in the lengthy process. In addition, among the numerous major and minor contradictions which are determined or are also particular strategies for what it is best to call stages in the anti-imperialist struggle. These stages are parts of a whole but they are also wholes with parts, parts requiring tactical alliances, specific organizational forms and forms of struggle within the strategic united front (UFAF, UFAI, UFAH). We need tactics for carrying out our strategy of the United Front Against Hegemonism, but we also must recognize that this is a strategy, a particular strategy not a general one. It is a particular application of Lenin’s general strategic line for the epoch.

One last point before I give us both a rest. I don’t agree that calling something a tactic means turning it into a “gimmick, trick or manipulation”. The question of how strategic as well as tactical alliances are presented is a separate question. I don’t think we should call it a strategic alliance in order to tranquilize and reassure allies who are long-term enemies. Deng Xiaoping refused to “learn lessons from Phan van Dong” and tell the Thai government that he would stop supporting revolution in Thailand because of the alliance against hegemonism. He said honesty is the best policy. Neither our strategic nor our tactical allies should think we are manipulating them because in both strategic and tactical united fronts there is “an objective unity of interests that is satisfied by their co-operation” (your letter). When Lenin proposed the tactical united front with the Second International in 1921, it wasn’t a gimmick. It was a front to achieve a common purpose in the interests of both participants. I think if we begin to regard strategic united fronts as “honest” and tactical united fronts as “gimmicks”, then we fall into the very infantilism we’re struggling against. Furthermore, the bourgeoisie is not going to regard the proletariat (the Third World, China, communists, etc.) as permanent allies anyway. The thing is to convince them of our long or short term (as the case may be) convergence of interests – and to convince ourselves as well. To pretend that it is otherwise seems to me to be a course that will only raise suspicions, not allay them.