Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Party

United front tactics are an essential tool of the proletarian party – Part 1

’To the Masses!’–The Call of the Third Congress of the CI

First Published:The Workers’ Advocate Vol. 13, No. 2, March 10, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the last issue of The Workers’ Advocate, we announced the beginning of a series of articles on united front tactics. We pointed out that this series of articles would deal with, among other things, the valuable experience of the Communist International. The Communist or Third International was formed to unite the workers of all countries for revolutionary action in the situation where the social-democratic Second International had gone over to the side of the world bourgeoisie and imperialism. It was the Comintern that, faced with the split in the working class movement caused by the treachery of the sold-out social-democratic parties, refined the general Marxist tactics on the united action of the working class and put the slogan of the united front into general use.

In particular, it was the Third Congress of the CI in 1921 that set forth the militant slogan of “Build up a united proletarian front” in “A Call to New Work and New Struggles, Addressed to the Proletariat of All Countries,” July 17, 1921. In this article, we discuss the basic lessons on communist tactics set forth by the Third Congress. The Third Congress laid a strong foundation, and the later Congresses of the CI refined these basic theses further and took up the more detailed discussion of various aspects of united front policy.

Thus the Third Congress did not discuss the more detailed questions of the united front policy, but concentrated mainly on the basic Leninist theses concerning the relationship of the communist party to the masses. These ideas are especially summed up in its ‥Theses on Tactics” and the resolution on “The Organizational Construction of the Communist Parties and the Methods and Scope of Their Activity.” The points of particular interest to us in this article may be grouped under five categories.

First of all, the watchword of the Third Congress was “To the masses!” The communist parties must not turn in on themselves and be content solely with work among the most advanced elements, but must link themselves with the masses. The communists must learn to gauge carefully the mood and political inclinations of the working masses and to lead them into revolutionary struggle. They must strive to win the support of the majority of the working class for communism, and the Third Congress stressed that the sympathy of the majority of the working people is needed for the victory of the proletarian revolution.

Second, the Third Congress insisted that the communist parties must be parties of action, parties that don’t restrict themselves simply to preaching about the necessity of a future revolution, but which lead the masses in struggle. The parties must take up the struggle for the vital interests and immediate demands of the working class. The Third Congress stressed that communists must lead the masses into struggle on the various burning economic and political issues and unite these struggles into the raging flood of the socialist revolution; this is the heart of the famous question of partial demands and partial struggles dealt with at this Congress. The Congress also highlighted the relationship of this to the method of fighting the social-democratic and centrist parties; the communist parties must not restrict themselves to showing that the opportunist leaders are wrong in their general principles, but must utilize the concrete acts and treacheries of the opportunist parties and leaders to expose their alliance with the bourgeoisie in the eyes of the masses of workers.

Third, the Congress showed how, in the situation then prevailing in Western Europe and America and other places, where most of the active proletarians were organized into one or the other party or trade union, it was necessary to use united front tactics to win over the masses. The communist parties must work untiringly to win over the sections of the workers that are still under the influence of the reformist class traitors and lead them into the class war. The struggle for the united action of the proletariat in support of its immediate demands was endorsed as a practical and essential method for winning the masses to the side of the communist parties. The Third Congress also endorsed in particular the “Open Letter” of the United Communist Party of Germany to the reformist, centrist and semi-anarchist parties and trade unions as an example of application of these tactics.

Fourth, the Third Congress denounced the social-democratic Second International and the centrist Two and One-Half International as bulwarks of capitalism. The Congress sketched the history of the counter-revolutionary acts of these Internationals and showed how the opportunist leaders were staining their hands with the blood of the militant workers. The policy of the united proletarian front did not signify a reconciliation with reformism and centrism, but was put forward as the most effective way to win the masses away from the reformists and centrists.

And finally, the Third Congress spoke against various rightist interpretations of the united front tactics. The heart of the tactics advocated by the Third Congress was the burning conviction that it was only communism that provides the basis for reestablishing the unity of the proletariat. The Congress repudiated the idea that the united front meant persuading the diehard opportunist leaders to be revolutionaries. It also warned that there still existed reformist tendencies in various parties in the CL And it continued the work of keeping the Cl free of centrist influence by expelling the Socialist Party of Italy for its failure to expel the reformist wing of the party.

At first sight, these basic issues may appear, especially to someone versed in the fashionable opportunist literature of our time, to be somewhat removed from the nitty gritty of united front tactics. The liquidators of today have created a mystique about the term “united front.” The liquidators, so-called because they renounce and fight against (seek to liquidate) any independent class organization of the proletariat in favor of merging with the bourgeois liberals, the trade union hacks and the ‥left” fringe of the Democratic Party generally, naturally do their best to confuse what united front tactics are. They distort the idea of the proletarian united front in order to give a fancy cover to their class collaborationist schemes. They want to slur over the basic principles. Instead, to give legitimacy to their treachery, they rummage through the history of the working class movement and pull out this or that example of united action at random, independent of time or place or context. Out of this jumble, they hope to leave their followers with the simple impression: “if all this was acceptable in the past, then anything goes today.” From their standpoint, the basic stands of the Third Congress have little relevance to the “real” work of united front building or, at most, can be acknowledged with a knowing smile all the better to pigeonhole them.

But in fact the lessons taught by the Third Congress are at the base of any correct application of united front tactics. If the communist activists do not have the burning conviction that it is communism that will unite the proletariat, then united front tactics degenerate into simple liquidation into whatever is currently fashionable. If the parties are not built as parties of action, and are not capable of championing the demands of the proletariat and denouncing the concrete treacheries of the reformists and centrists, then there is no way that these parties can utilize united front tactics. Even if some fancy deal or tactic is decided on, the parties will have no way to utilize these tactics in favor of the proletariat. On the other hand, once a communist party sets itself on the path of striving to lead the masses in revolutionary struggle, of striving to win over the masses temporarily under the influence of the bourgeois and reformist currents, of irreconcilably opposing the opportunists, and so forth, such a party is led step by step to the utilization of united front tactics and such a party can and will step by step develop powerful and creative tactics in tune with the concrete conditions of the struggle.

Thus study of the theses of the Third Congress help demystify the idea of the united front. The fundamental issues are brought to the fore. When these issues are grasped, it is then easier to keep one’s bearing in the study of the application of the united front tactics to particular situations.

The Role of the Third Congress in the History of the CI

The basic lessons on communist tactics outlined by the Third Congress were already implicit in the whole work of the First and Second Congresses of the CI. The Third Congress itself pointed out:

“From the very first day of its establishment, the Communist International distinctly and clearly devoted itself to the purpose of participating in the struggle of the laboring masses, of conducting this struggle on a Communist basis, and of erecting, during the struggle, great, revolutionary communist mass parties. It did not aim to establish small Communist sects which would attempt to influence the masses solely by propaganda and agitation. In the very first year of its existence, the Communist International disavowed all sectarian tendencies....At its Second Congress, the Communist International publicly repudiated sectarian tendencies, by the resolutions it adopted on the questions of trade unionism and the utilization of parliamentarism.” (from Point #3 of the Theses on Tactics)

In this regard, special mention should be made of Lenin’s work for the Second Congress of the CI. His famous book “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder develops many of the fundamental ideas of communist tactics and contains in embryo many of the later theses on the united front. Our Party is studying this valuable work as part of our study of the question of united front tactics.

But different tasks came to the fore at the various congresses of the CI. The Third Congress took place at a time when the main task was to review the basic ideas of communist tactics, to expound them systematically, to further refine their application to the current situation, to sharpen the tactical abilities of the communist parties and to ensure that all the work of the parties was recast on the Leninist basis.

Lenin described the role of the first three congresses of the CI as follows:

In my opinion, the tactical and organizational resolutions of the Third Congress of the Communist International mark a great step forward. Every effort must be exerted to really put both resolutions into effect. This is a difficult matter, but it can and should be done.

First, the Communists had to proclaim their principles to the world. That was done at the First Congress. It was the first step.

The second step was to give the Communist International organizational form and to draw up conditions for affiliation to it – conditions making for real separation from the Centrists, from the direct and indirect agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class movement. That was done at the Second Congress.

At the Third Congress, it was necessary to start practical, constructive work, to determine concretely, taking account of the practical experience of the communist struggle already begun, exactly what the line of further activity should be in respect of tactics and of organization. We have taken this third step. We have an army of Communists all over the world. It is still poorly trained and poorly organized. It would be extremely harmful to forget this truth or be afraid of admitting it. Submitting ourselves to a most careful and rigorous test, and studying the experience of our own movement, we must train this army efficiently; we must organize it properly, and test it in all sorts of maneuvers, all sorts of battles, in attack and in retreat. We cannot win without this long and hard schooling.” (“A Letter to the German Communists,” Collected Works, Vol. 32, pp. 519-520, August 14, 1921)

This constructive work was hindered by various erroneous and semi-anarchist conceptions that had gained a certain currency. These conceptions were upheld by certain semi-anarchist elements that had allied to the CL But more importantly, such conceptions were also upheld by some of “the best and most loyal elements, without whom the formation of the Communist International would, perhaps, have been impossible.” (Lenin, Ibid., p. 520) These comrades came to these wrong ideas through inexperience and through a one-sided summation of the struggle against social-democratic treachery.

For example, the social-democrats renounced the revolution under the cover of loud shouting about their alleged concern for the immediate conditions of the workers. The centrists shouted their loyalty to the revolution, but in practice told the workers to restrict themselves to fighting for partial demands along the same lines as the outright reformist parties did. Hence various communists drew the conclusion that partial demands and partial struggles were inherently tainted with social-democratic opportunism. They didn’t understand how to utilize partial demands and partial struggles in a way that favors the revolution and cuts against the reformists and centrists.

Or again, the social-democratic parties cursed the very thought of the workers going on an offensive against the bourgeoisie. The centrist parties occasionally engaged in loud shouting, but when it came time to act always discovered that it was time to be on the defensive and that struggle was adventurous. Together the outright reformist and the centrist parties fought against the workers who dared to rise up in revolution. Hence various communists drew the conclusion that the working class must only engage in offensive struggles and that all defensive struggles were inherently tainted with opportunism. This was the “theory of the offensive.” It held that if talk about defensive struggles wasn’t outright reformism, it was certainly a sign of flabby centrism. These communists didn’t understand the need for the communist parties to master all forms of struggle, both offensive struggles and defensive struggles, both advances and retreats, and to learn to find the proper moment to launch the revolutionary uprising.

The tasks of the Third Congress could not be accomplished without defending the tactical ideas of the Cl from these semi-anarchist misconceptions. Lenin called this one-sided summation of the errors of social-democracy “exaggeration of the struggle against centrism.” After describing the constructive tasks of the Third Congress in the passage we quoted above, Lenin went on to explain:

The ’crux’ of the situation in the international communist movement in the summer of 1921 was that some of the best and most influential sections of the Communist International did not quite properly understand this task; they exaggerated the ’struggle against Centrism’ ever so slightly, they wentever so slightly beyond the border line at which this struggle turns into a pastime and revolutionary Marxism begins to be compromised.

That was the ’crux’ of the Third Congress.

The exaggeration was a slight one; but the danger arising out of it was enormous....

Exaggeration, if not corrected, was sure to kill the Communist International.’’ (Ibid., p. 520, emphasis as in the original)

In a sense, it could be said that various of the communists at the Third Congress at first failed to understand the change in the way the fight against reformism and centrism had to be conducted. Previously, all the attention had beep riveted on separating the communists from the centrists. The centrists had claimed to agree with the communist formulas about the revolution, while actually continuing in practice to implement all the practices of the outright reformists. Centrism posed the insidious danger of reducing the struggle against reformism to a meaningless change of signboards. Hence the foremost task was to set up truly communist parties independent of both the outright reformists and the centrists.

Now, however, attention had to focus on grounding the parties in the Leninist tactics and methods of organization. To lose sight of this meant to reduce the struggle against centrism to empty phrasemongering and to lead the new communist parties into disastrous dead ends. To recast the work of the parties on the Leninist basis meant to follow up the historic achievement of the establishment of independent communist parties with a real struggle to win the workers under the influence of the reformist and centrist parties over to communism.

Of course, in considering the tasks that came to the fore at the different congresses of the Cl, one must not lose sight of the continuity of the orientation given by the Cl.The success in setting up the communist parties in the various countries depended, right from the start, on how much of the Leninist methods they grasped. As we have seen, the Cl tried to help them with this right from the outset. And the struggle against centrist trends trying to hide themselves inside the parties or under the banner of the Cl continued at the Third Congress. Lenin’s “Speech on the Italian Question” at the Third Congress is a model of the fight against centrism. As if he were addressing the liquidators of today, who try to plead the excuse of clever united front tactics for their flagrant opportunism, Lenin addressed the delegation of the centrist Socialist Party of Italy with the words:

The mark of true communism is a break with opportunism. We shall be quite frank and open with those Communists who subscribe to this and, boldly, in the conviction that we are right, will tell them: ’Don’t do anything stupid; be clever and skillful.’ But we shall speak in this way only with Communists who have broken with the opportunists, something that cannot yet be said about you.

In the next article in this series we will proceed to discuss in more detail the lessons about communist tactics taught by the Third Congress that we have outlined above.