Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Party

United front tactics are an essential tool of the proletarian party

The Third World Congress of the CI Opposed Rightist Interpretations of United Front Tactics

First Published:The Workers’ Advocate Vol. 13, No. 8, December 15, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is the fifth in a series of articles on united front tactics. An examination of the profound teachings and rich experience of the Communist International is an indispensable part of any study of the question of the united front. It was the Third World Congress of the CI in mid-1921 that first put forward the slogan of “building up a united proletarian front.” The last three articles in this series have dealt with the lessons of the Third Congress. They divided the views of the Third Congress into five main parts, the first four of which were:

I. Winning the Majority of the Working Class for Communism

II. The Communist Parties Must Be Parties of Action

III. The United Front

IV. The Reformist and Centrist Parties Are Bulwarks of Capitalism

This article concludes the discussion of the Third Congress of the CI by taking up the fifth point.

V. Vigilance Against Rightist Interpretations of United Front Tactics

The Third Congress spoke against various rightist interpretations of united front tactics. It warned that:

“...there are still remnants of reformist tendencies in various parties although the latter had excluded the reformists from their ranks, and that these parties, while not working for the reconciliation with the enemy, are nevertheless not sufficiently energetic in their propaganda against capitalism, and for the revolutionizing of the masses.” (from “A Call to New Work and New Struggles Addressed to the Proletariat of All Countries by the Executive Committee of the CI”) The Third Congress had not the slightest illusion that the adoption of the united front slogan meant that a magic formula for easy, painless progress had been found that avoided the hard work of party-building and of step by step raising the organizational and political level of the masses. On the contrary, it connected the use of united front tactics with the strengthening of the political and organizational work of the communist parties and the strengthening of the struggle against opportunism. As we have seen, it repudiated such ideas as that united front tactics mean persuading the diehard opportunist leaders to be revolutionaries.

Only Communism Can Bring the Unity of the Working Class

The Leninist united front tactics advocated by the Third Congress were based firmly on the idea that only communism can bring unity to the workers’ movement. As we have seen, the Third Congress denounced the reformist and centrist trends as bulwarks of capitalism that were responsible for splitting the working class movement. Only the communist policies of class struggle, only the policy of breaking the opportunist coalition with the bourgeoisie, can provide the basis for reestablishing the unity of the proletariat.

Thus the Third Congress stressed the role of communism as the decisive unifying factor for the working class. It pointed out:

“The communist parties have arisen from the breaking up of the old social-democratic parties. This breakup resulted from the fact that these parties have betrayed the interests of the proletariat in the war and have continued the betrayal after the war, by alliances with the bourgeoisie or by conducting a tame policy and shirking the fight. The fundamentals of the Communist Party form the only basis upon which the working masses can reunite, because they express the necessities of the proletarian struggle. It is because of this fact that the social-democratic parties and tendencies seek the splitting up and division of the proletariat – while the communist parties are a uniting force.... The Communist Parties thus become the standard-bearers of the unifying process of the proletariat, on the basis of the struggle for its interests. From the consciousness of their role they will draw and gather new forces.” (from Point 3. The Important Task of the Present, of the “Theses on Tactics”)

The success or failure of united front tactics depends, among other things, on whether the communist activists firmly keep this fundamental point in mind. The success of united front tactics is not measured by the number of agreements obtained with the opportunists or the number of official positions gained. It is measured by the growth of revolutionary consciousness and organization among the working masses. The use of united front tactics does not detract from the importance of the communist parties as the mobilizing force of the working class. On the contrary, the purpose of united front tactics is to keep the communist vanguard in the midst of the struggle, to strengthen its ties to the masses, and to enhance the role of communism.

Dangers of the United Front

But what would happen if the communist parties lost sight of the decisive role of communism as the unifying factor for the workers’ movement or began to believe that the putting forward of the united front slogan meant that one had left behind the necessity for party-building and militant ideology and instead entered the heaven of philistine politics agreeable to the reformist and centrist marsh? Then a liquidationist tendency could arise under the banner of “united front tactics.” The “Theses on the United Front” of December 1921 urge the need of vigilance against such an occurrence. Point 21, Dangers of the United Front, states that:

“In putting forward the plan indicated [united front tactics – ed.], the Executive Committee of the Communist International warns all fraternal parties of the dangers which, under certain conditions, may be involved. Not all Communist Parties are sufficiently strong and homogeneous, not all have completely broken with centrist and semi-centrist ideology. Cases are possible where the advantage would go to the other side; tendencies are possible which in fact would signify the submergence and dissolution of the Communist Parties and groups into a shapeless united bloc. In order to carry out the indicated policy successfully for cause of Communism, it is necessary that the Communist Parties which adopt the policy should themselves be strong and firmly welded together, and that their leadership should be distinguished by clear-cut thinking.” (emphasis added)

As we have seen, the Third Congress warned of the existence of reformist tendencies still existing in various parties. The “Theses on the United Front” of December 1921 connected this problem to the question of wrong interpretations of united front tactics. It points out that the rightist and centrist tendencies, the “communist right wing,” welcomes the united front policy but understands it in the social-democratic sense. The theses state, in section 22, The Communist Right Wing, that:

“Certain elements have in point of fact not yet completely broken with the ideology and methods of the Second International, they still cherish veneration for the former numerical strength of that organization, and consciously or unconsciously seek means of agreeing with many of the Second International ideas, and consequently with bourgeois society.”

The theses pointed to a particular difficulty that came up in combating this rightist tendency. This is that these elements sometimes ended up apparently mixed up with other comrades who took up united front tactics with the motive of propagating communism among the masses but who had gone too far to the right in over-reaction to the errors of the merely formal radicalism of semi-anarchist tendencies. The tempestuous development of the parties, which have been learning communist organization and tactics at breakneck speed, “has occasionally thrust both apparently into the same camp....”

How can the rightist tendencies be overcome? The theses go on to point out that the vigorous development of the united front tactics and the revolutionary work of the communist parties among the masses will bring out the true features of the reformist elements and help to educate the parties. Thus the way to overcome the dangers involved in united front tactics is not to be found in shelving these tactics, but by using the experience gained from these tactics to help educate the “impatient Left Wing elements” and to expose the remnants of reformist and social-democratic ideas. Provided the communists continue to pay close attention to party building and the militant Leninist principles underlying all truly communist activity, then the experience of the united front tactics will help provide profound material to further steel and temper the parties.

Thus the theses state:

“By carrying out the methods already mentioned [united front tactics – ed.], which are designed to provide a prop for communist agitation in the united mass actions of the proletariat, all really reformist tendencies will be brought to light. The correct application of these tactics will greatly facilitate the internal revolutionary consolidation of the Communist Parties, both by educating the impatient and sectarian elements through experience, as well as by ridding the parties of reformist ballast.” (Ibid., Point 22)

The process of eliminating social-democratic traditions and deviations in the sphere of organization, tactics and politics proved to be a protracted one. The rightist trends were especially fostered by the receding of the post-World War I revolutionary wave and the ensuing temporary partial stabilization of capitalism.

The Fifth Congress of the CI, in 1924, while continuing the fight against various ultra-left or sectarian tendencies, devoted its major attention to the fight against rightist deviations. It paid great attention to rightist distortions of the united front slogan, pointing to “...the danger of the ’right’ aberrations, which were revealed in the application of the tactics of the united front to a far larger extent than could be anticipated....” (from Point 5 of the “Resolution on the Report of the Executive Committee of the CI”)

Today, in the U.S., the prevailing conditions underline the danger of rightist and renegade distortions of the united front slogan. There is the long tradition of the liberal-labor politics of the revisionist class traitor Browder, who stood for merging the communist and workers’ movements with the Democratic Party swamp. There are the strong positions occupied by the Democratic Party machine and the trade union bureaucrats. There is the decline of the powerful revolutionary upsurge of the 1960’s and part of the 1970’s. In these conditions, our Party has had to wage a stern, incessant struggle against the liquidationist version of the “united front,” that is, against the liquidationist alliance with the capitalist parties.

At the same time, our Party has not shelved united front tactics in the struggle against liquidationist distortions of the united front slogan. On the contrary, following the tradition of the CI, our Party has combined the unyielding fight against liquidationism with a most effective use of united front tactics. This is one of the important reasons for the successes of our struggle against opportunism. For example, our struggle against the liquidationist policy of merger with the labor bureaucracy, a merger alleged to be “united front tactics,” has only gained from our consistent use of Leninist united front tactics in strikes and the economic struggle generally. Or again, our use of united front tactics to help put anti-imperialism in the forefront of the anti-war movement has been a most effective way of fighting the liquidationist support for the Democratic Party hacks.

Continuing the Struggle Against Centrism

As we have seen in previous articles in this series, the Third Congress had to fight against a certain “exaggeration of the struggle against centrism.” This exaggeration did not consist of fighting too hard against the centrist political trend or leaders. It consisted of replacing serious discussion of tactical and political questions with denouncing anything that didn’t sound “left” enough as centrism.

At the time of the Second Congress of the CI, the danger had become acute that various centrist forces would simply paint themselves as communist without actually giving up their social-democratic policies and methods of organization. Lenin stated that:

Parties and groups only recently affiliated to the Second International are more and more frequently applying for membership in the Third International, though they have not become really Communist.... Aware that the Second International is beyond hope, the intermediate parties and groups of the are trying to lean on the Communist International, which is steadily gaining in strength. At the same time, however, they hope to retain a degree of ’autonomy’ that will enable them to pursue their previous opportunist or ’Centrist’ policies.” (“The Terms of Admission into the Cl,” Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 206)

The Second Congress opposed the danger of centrist corruption of the CI by adopting the famous 21 conditions of admission. These conditions, and the ensuing struggle to implement them, ensured that the parties affiliating to the CI would set with enthusiasm on the path of transforming themselves into revolutionary proletarian parties of the new type. Thus the main centrist forces were excluded from the CI.

At the Third Congress other tasks came to the fore. The Cl had to discuss and decide serious organizational and tactical issues that confronted the parties in their work to become truly communist parties. It had to correct various erroneous and semi-anarchist conceptions that had a certain currency. It had to examine the experience of the struggle. As we have seen in the earlier articles, Lenin pointed out that to replace these tasks by playing at leftism would be to make a game out of the struggle against centrism.

But this didn’t mean that the struggle against centrism and to implement the 21 conditions had come to an end. For one thing, the united front tactics set forth at the Third Congress were, as we have seen, designed to sharpen the struggle against the reformist and centrist trends outside the CI. But at the moment we are discussing especially the struggle against centrist influences inside the CI. This struggle continued as well at the Third Congress. True, it did not come to the fore as the focal point of the work of the Congress. But this by no means signified that this struggle was over and done with. To lose vigilance against centrism would be to risk losing the fruits of the former victories of the struggle against centrism. To hold that the adoption of the united front slogan meant that the struggle against centrism was over, that it was an aberration of the “pre-united front days,” would be a gross liquidationist distortion of united front tactics.

The most dramatic struggle at the Third Congress against centrist influences inside the CI was the expulsion of the Socialist Party of Italy (SPI). Serrati and the centrist leaders of the SPI claimed that they supported the dictatorship of the proletariat and the CI. But they refused to expel the notorious reformist wing of the SPI, that dominated the trade union leadership and the SPI parliamentary group, on the grounds that how could a few such individuals sabotage the work of the whole party or the process of the revolution of the entire working class?

The refusal of the centrist leadership of the SPI to purge the party of reformism had already, by the time of the Third Congress of the CI, given rise to a split in the SPI. First the reformists, having just sabotaged the nationwide factory occupations of September, met in conference in Reggio Emilia on October 10-11, 1920. Here they railed against the line of the CI and demanded “national autonomy” so that they would not have to truly apply the 21 conditions. Then the 17th Congress of the SPI was held in Livorno (also called Leghorn) in January 1921. The communist wing of the SPI, which had delegates representing 58,000 SPI members, called for the party to break with the reformists. Serrati, leading delegates representing 98,000 SPI members, united with the reformist wing, whose delegates held 14,000 votes, to oppose the left. After six days of struggle, the left wing walked out and founded the Communist Party of Italy.

Thus the CI was faced with two sections in Italy, one of which, the SPI, insisted on unity with the reformists and on only “conditional” acceptance of the 21 conditions. The Third Congress held to the line of struggle against centrist corrosion of the CI and endorsed the expulsion of the SPI. It stated:

“The Communist International Congress confirms the expulsion of the Italian Socialist Party until the latter severs all connection with the reformists and expels them from its ranks. By this decision the Congress expresses its belief that the Communist International cannot harbor in its ranks reformists (whose object is not the proletarian revolution, but reconciliation with the bourgeois and the latters’ reform), if it is to lead millions of workers into the revolutionary struggle. Armies which tolerate leaders who contemplate reconciliation with the enemy are always sold and betrayed to their enemy by these very leaders.” (“A Call to New Work and New Struggles”)

What was this party that the Third Congress expelled? If one looked only at superficial surface aspects of the SPI, it appeared to be a big, militant party. It had not supported Italian entry into World War I. It had already had one split with the reformists in 1912, when it had expelled an ultra-reformist group. Its party leadership swore their allegiance to the maximum program up and down so much that the party was nicknamed in Italy “the maximalists.” It had affiliated to the CI.

But beneath this apparently glittering exterior, the SPI was rotting at its core and was afflicted with utter social-democratic paralysis. Its stand against World War I was not from the point of view of revolutionary struggle, but from a social-pacifist position. The “maximalist” party leadership allowed the reformist wing to control the trade union bureaucrats and the parliamentary work of the Party. The Party was scared of the revolutionary fervor of the workers: it didn’t know what to do with mass strikes, which it left to the tender mercies of the reformist trade union hacks; it worked to smash the factory council movement of the proletariat of the industrial city of Turin and to isolate the local section of the SPI that led this movement; and it opposed the armed actions of the workers against fascist terror. As to the peasants, the “maximalist” leadership openly theorized against the possibility of an alliance between the workers and the working peasantry.

In fact, the party always found itself paralyzed by the reformists at all crucial times. After World War I, Italy was in a turbulent and revolutionary period. The old system was in utter ruins. The “maximalist” leadership of the SPI hadn’t the slightest idea of how to deal with this. At the 1 crucial moment, when the workers went out on a powerful nationwide factory occupation in September 1920, the “maximalist” leadership could think of nothing better to do than to hand the leadership over to the reformist union hacks for them to negotiate a class collaborationist pact. This was one of the crucial turning points in post-war Italy.

The SPI hid its paralysis and liberal-labor nature with its vows in favor of the maximum program and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the CI was not in favor of mere verbal revolutionarism, but of real revolutionary work. The Third Congress therefore stressed:

“In Italy the attitude of Serrati [the head of the maximalist leadership – ed.] and his group immediately after the Second World Congress showed that they did not take the resolutions of the World Congress and the Communist International seriously. Specially the role played by these leaders during the September. struggle [the nationwide factory occupations – ed.] its conduct in Livorno [the unity with the reformists against the left at the 17th Party Congress – ed.] and still more its policy since that time, have clearly proved that Serrati and his colleagues only wish to use Communism as a shield for their opportunist policy. The split was inevitable under such conditions. The Congress... sanctions the resolution of the Executive Committee which at the time recognized the Communist Party of Italy to be the only Communist section of that country....

“The Socialist Party of Italy cannot remain within the ranks of the Communist International so long as the participants of the reformist-conference at Reggio-Emilia and their supporters have not been expelled from the party.

“After this...will have been fulfilled the Executive [of the CI – ed.] is to take the necessary steps to bring about a union between the Socialist Party in Italy, after the latter will have purified itself from all reformist and centrist elements, and the Communist Party of Italy, and combine both organizations into a unified section of the Communist International.” (from Point J of the “Report of the Executive Committee”)

The wisdom of this decision by the CI was immediately verified by a striking political event. Within a month after the Third Congress, that expelled the SPI, the SPI parliamentarians signed a conciliation or pacification pact with the Italian fascists.

At this time, the fascists were launching one terrorist attack after another on the organizations of the workers and peasants. They were burning down trade union headquarters and SPI newspaper offices. The proletariat was anxious to offer armed resistance to the fascist bandits and spontaneously began organizing combat groups.

The SPI condemned the fighting groups of the workers, advocated a policy of non-resistance, and trusted in their “conciliation pact” with the fascists. This was class collaboration taken to its most absurd extreme. The SPI distrusted the workers and put its faith in the benevolence of the fascists. Naturally, the conciliation pact proved to be worthless; it did nothing to stop the fascists and only served to disarm the proletariat.

The conciliation pact with the fascists is a vivid example of the necessity of struggle against centrism. It shows that the Third Congress was right in insisting that the SPI had to apply the 21 conditions of admission to the CI and to purge itself of the reformist misleaders. And it verifies the observation of the Third Congress that:

“In Italy the tactics of the centrists, of Serrati and D’Aragona [leader of the Italian trade union federation and a member of the reformist wing of the SPI – ed.], the policy of avoiding any struggle, has revived the courage of the bourgeoisie and enabled it to control the life of Italy by means of its White Fascisti Guards.” (from Point 11 of the “Theses on Tactics”)

Following the Third Congress of the CI, a complicated evolution continued in the SPI. In October 1922 the SPI split and the reformist wing formed a separate party. The SPI began negotiations for fusion with the CPI. However, an anti-communist leadership gained control of the SPI. Eventually, it split again, and a section of the SPI, the “Third Internationalists,” went over to the CPI. Serrati himself, possibly the maximalist leader most loved by the SPI rank and file, abandoned centrism for communism and joined the CPI. But his hesitations had cost the proletarian movement a major price. At the Livorno Congress of January 1921 he could have brought over a huge mass of the SPI rank and file to communism. Instead he spearheaded the split. Later he led a much smaller section of the SPI, and the unity between the “Third Internationalists” and the CPI took place after much precious time had been lost, time that the proletarian movement did not have to spare in the fast-moving events in Italy.

This concludes the part of our study on united front tactics that deals with the lessons of the Third Congress of the CI.