First Published: Scientific Socialism, No. 1, 1973
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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References not otherwise attributed are to the Communist Unity Organisation’s “Broad Fronts and United Fronts”.
What is the purpose of re-examining the concept of the united front? From a position of primary concern for the creation of the revolutionary party, we should answer: firstly, to strip myth from reality, to arrive at the principles that have governed successful communist parties in their dealings with non-communist parties and non-proletarian classes, and to embody (and if necessary elaborate) these principles in the strategy of the revolutionary party in Britain; secondly, to strengthen the Marxist-Leninist movement by eradicating from it that tendency which, under cover of the front, perpetuates spontaneism, subservience to bourgeois ideology, and obstructs the building of the party.
In a half-hearted way, the Communist Unity Organisation would probably agree with this. Why, then, is its own analysis or “Broad Fronts and United Fronts” so deficient in a unified theoretical perspective that it draws no conclusions whatever of strategic significance, but confines itself to a series of positions stated and points asserted? Is it because the CUO believes in a Marxist-Leninist unity arising out of some mystic synthesis of “stated positions”? Is it because the CUO believes that only “questions at present dividing Marxist-Leninists” are those which need to be settled, that the party develops its strategy by consensus? Is this why the CUO’s approach to the “front” question is notable less for what it says than for what it does not say, its uncritical assumptions?
Its analysis, says the CUO is “very necessary for defeating sectarianism and right opportunism on this matter”. In fact, the main concern of the CUO is with “sectarianism”, which apparently lurks under every stone. However, let us assume for now that the CUO is equally concerned with combatting deviations in either “direction”, and further that, in general, either is equally dangerous. Even so, at a time when economism, revisionist hangovers of various types, spontaneism and opposition to the creation of the party, contempt for theory – all undeniably deviations to the right – predominate in the Marxist-Leninist movement, is it not perverse, to say the least, to deduce from the fact that these lines are perpetrated by a relatively large number of relatively small groups that “sectarianism”, i.e. a “left” deviation and at present a purely organisational one, is of equal importance? Does not such a position in present conditions amount to centrism, a shield for the principal danger from the right?
We shall see. This particular production by the CUO singles out for attack the “London Alliance in Defence of Workers’ Rights”. Good. The London Alliance stands for the “spontaneous mass movement” in opposition to the party, for the ideological retardation of the working class, unyielding refusal to look beyond the end of its nose to the real problems of revolutionary strategy, and total neglect of theory except where it can drag up a quotation or two in support of a tactic it has drifted into. One “theory” it uses extensively for this purpose is Dimitrov’s “united front against fascism and war”. To expose this particular malpractice of the London Alliance would go a long way towards undermining its effectiveness as a vehicle of bourgeois ideology.
The CUO, after due discussion of the “anti-fascist front”, concludes that the London Alliance set up the anti-fascist front incorrectly: Not, note, that it set up the anti-fascist front as an alternative to the party; not that the “theory” of the anti-fascist front was substituted for the theory of the revolutionary party; but that the front, once established, tried to give itself the aims of a party instead of setting up a “proper front against the danger of fascism”.
The real point about the London Alliance is quite separate from its formative bickerings: it is that it took over the theory of the anti-fascist front in toto from Dimitrov, and used it to oppose the line of party-building. Now the CUO also takes over the theory of the anti-fascist front, without question, from Dimitrov, and on this basis criticises the London Alliance for being confused, for inconsistency in its opportunism, and ignores the opportunist essence of the London Alliance summed up in the theory of the anti-fascist front itself, not in any given organisational manifestation of it.
Should this not make us think twice about Dimitrov and the “united front against fascism and war”? What about the fact that it did not prevent war and nowhere hindered the development of fascism?
Despite these elementary considerations, the CUO takes the formulation by Dimitrov of the “united front against fascism and war“ as the foundation of whatever revolutionary strategy it is proposing.
Those theoretical formulations of Marxism which have been associated with overall advances of the world revolutionary process are rightly regarded as valid developments of Marxist theory, and as the foundation of revolutionary practice (for it is never possible to divorce the application of theory from the development of theory). On these grounds no Marxist could afford to reject or ignore, for instance, the theory of the vanguard party, the theory of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism, the theory of the continuation of the class struggle in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
There are no such successes as the October Revolution or the Cultural Revolution which can be associated with the implementation of the policy which received its final formulation at the 7th Comintern Congress – that is the dual policy of the “united front” with the social-democratic parties and the “popular front” with “non-proletarian” parties opposed to (supposedly) monopoly capitalism. The United Front Policy (by which term we shall from now on refer to the policy formulated, by Dimitrov in 1935) was in no sense a theory “validated by success”, nor was it based on any theoretical development arising from the class struggles of the inter-war period; on the contrary, it was born out of failure – the failure in particular of the KPD. Nor do even its closest adherents dare to claim any theoretical advance either underlying or resulting from the UFP, as indeed they could hardly do in view of the fact, which we have already mentioned, that it failed in both of its major objectives.
Of course, since both success and failure depend on an ideological view of history, it is possible to dispute these contentions. At a suitable time we will attempt to review the history of this period in detail. For the moment, however, we rely on nothing which is not historically self-evident.
Two further points may be considered in assessing the prima facia usefulness of the UFP to the strategic tasks of Marxist-Leninists.
Firstly, it is never revolutionary practice to take theory as “given”: there are differences, however, in the methodology of the criticism to which specific theories are subjected. In the case of theories which have been “validated by success”, the main purpose of criticism is to sift the universal from the specific, to isolate the theoretical content of a given policy as the prerequisite to its application in a new set of conditions. The complexity of this work depends upon the extent to which this work of “crystallisation” has already been done; that is, on how far the theoretical, i.e. universally-applicable, content of a policy has been separated out from the analytical, i.e. dependent upon the specific features of the application under consideration.
Now Dimitrov’s formulation of the UFP is very specific, both in time (which Dimitrov perhaps realised more than his subsequent disciples) and in certain other respects involving national peculiarities of which Dimitrov was perhaps not sufficiently aware. However this may be, it cannot be denied that the theoretical content of the UFP in Dimitrov’s formulation is heavily overlaid and disguised: a great deal of “crystallisation” needs to be done before this theoretical content can be extracted from its specific context and be cast into a useful form, even assuming that this theoretical content is valid. None of the Marxist-Leninist organisations seeking justification from Dimitrov has attempted a theoretical critique at this level.
Secondly, if we remove the assumption of the validity of the underlying theory, we pose ourselves the further theoretical task of validating independently this theoretical nucleus, practically (in terms of independent analysis and practice), theoretically (by testing it against other theoretical propositions of Marxism), and ideologically (does it embody the proletarian class outlook? does it accord with the dialectical laws of natural development, and is it formulated in terms of these laws?). The protagonists of the UFP have not done this either, or they would not in the face of historical experience jumped so readily to the assumption of its theoretical validity.
We are left with eclecticism, the antithesis of theoretical critique and theoretical development: a spontaneism reinforced by dogmatism that, however much it claims to be providing “theoretical foundations” contributes no more to the theoretical foundations of the revolutionary movement than it has hitherto to its practice.
We have established so far that the present instigators of the united front policy, insofar as they are dependent on Dimitrov’s formulation, are misusing theory, fail to understand the nature and purpose of theory and its importance for the revolutionary movement in general as well as in our particular conditions, and are in fact impeding the advance of this movement by substituting eclecticism for theoretical development. It is the general approach to theory that is the issue, not in this instance the content of any particular theory. However, the example of the UFP is particularly instructive in that some of its more undesirable consequences are immediately apparent.
In 1971 there emanated from the theoretical headquarters of modern revisionism (the Institute of “Marxism-Leninism” of the CPSU) a book (“Outline History of the Communist International”) which clearly reveals the overwhelming dependence of modern revisionism on the line of the 7th Comintern Congress. The principal purposes of this book are: first, to provide “theoretical respectability” for social-imperialism by presenting it as a continuing application of the line of the 7th Congress, itself presented as “permeated with the ideas of Lenin”; second, to contrast the policy of the 7th Congress, as a “final development” of the Comintern, with the “ultra-left” and “sectarian errors” of earlier phases of the Comintern’s history, in particular those supposedly the responsibility of Stalin; third – and here is its real purpose – having established this respectability in theory (though not, as is claimed, the theory of Lenin) and in ideology (though not the ideology of the proletariat), to oppose the strategic line of the “united front” and the “popular front” to the “leftist adventurist policy” of the “Mao Tsetung group”.
This is not to say, on these grounds alone, that the policy formulated by Dimitrov was incorrect, or consciously revisionist, or that its theoretical content is of no validity. It may be, as the CUO claims, that revisionism consists, not in the UFP itself, but in how it is carried out.
The point is that, even if this is the case, the close association of the UFP with modern revisionism will not be severed on the level of “how it is carried out”; the theoretical critique is the only possible approach. The point is that at the present juncture – “sectarianism ” notwithstanding – the task still remains of drawing the ideological and theoretical lines of demarcation between revolutionary Marxism-Leninism and revisionism. If these lines are not drawn at the theoretical level – which means, in the present case, subjecting the UFP to the kind of theoretical critique discussed above – they will never be drawn at the practical level. The CUO must reflect carefully how it is to avoid singing the same tune as modern revisionism, which its diatribes against “sectarianism” and “ultra-leftism” recall at least superficially, when it is seen to be reading from the same score.
One difference between the UFP in 1935 and the same policy as now advocated by modern revisionism, it has been maintained, is that what was a tactical reorientation in 1933-5 has been elevated to a strategy for world revolution (op. cit. p. 399). It is certainly true that for modern revisionism the UFP is a strategic principle. What was it for Dimitrov? And what is it for the CUO?
Although the CUO speaks of the UFP as a “dual tactic” for exposing social-democracy and isolating fascism, in general it is regarded as a strategy. Indeed, the CUO is distinguished from such outfits as the London Alliance by the fact that it attempts from time to time to think out the strategic implications of its work.
Thus the UFP is said to “sum up the main aspects of a communist party’s struggle against the bourgeoisie”; the CUO makes “the united front against fascism a link in achieving the socialist revolution”. This is certainly a strategic viewpoint. Again, the CUO speaks of errors in carrying out the UFP after the war, strongly implying that they view it as a permanent component of the whole period of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat in all circumstances. There are no grounds to suppose that the CUO’s view of the UFP differs from that of modern revisionism in this respect at least.
What then of the united front policy itself?
In pointing out that the evocation of the decisions of the 7th Congress in support of any Marxist-Leninist strategy at the present stage is not only undesirable, because of the association of these decisions with modern revisionism, but al8o impossible, because of the specific, conditional and untheoretical form in which they are cast, we have done what we wish to do for the moment by way of pointing the dangers of the theoretical eclecticism favoured by much of that section of the Marxist-Leninist movement which admits the need for any theoretical work. It still remains to subject the whole policy of the united front and popular front to a theoretical critique. However, we may here point out the principal theoretical props on which the Dimitrov formulation rests, at least on the most obvious level:
First, the UFP demands that Lenin’s theory of the relationship between struggle for democratic ends and struggle for socialist ends, which was formulated specifically for countries in which the bourgeois-democratic revolution was not yet complete, is equally applicable to countries in which the bourgeois revolution is indisputably complete.
Second, the UFP presupposes the possibility, if not the inevitability, of a transitional form of “democratic” government between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that this is not the same as the theory of the “transitional state” which was refuted by Stalin on the basis of the Marxist theory of the state.
Third, the UFP is nonsense unless it is also conceded that there exist fundamental contradictions within the bourgeoisie of every country even under conditions of the most advanced state monopoly capitalism.
That these theoretical postulates are fundamental to Dimitrov’s formulation of the UFP may be verified by the most superficial theoretical reading or Dimitrov’s 1935 speeches. Whether or not they are compatible with Marxism-Leninism we leave to another occasion. On the basis of these, however, it is clear that whether or not the UFP was presented and intended as a purely tactical reorientation, from the very nature of its underlying theory it could not exist other than as a strategy.
In addition, the UFP relied on the following analytical postulates:
First, that fascism is qualitatively distinct from other forms of bourgeois rule, the distinction consisting chiefly in the degree of direct terrorism employed by the fascist state.
Second, that social-democracy somewhere between 1929 and 1933 underwent or started to undergo a change in its essential class nature, its “left” at least becoming proletarianised.
Third, and more or less contradicting the first that a new imperialist war had by 1935 ceased to be inevitable.
These are the analytical assumptions which are inevitably taken over in any attempt to apply the UFP uncritically to present conditions.
”Fronts against increased attacks on the working class’ organisations or living standards should be set up, but they must be set up properly and have a correct relation to party building tasks.”
What is this “correct relation” of front organisations to party building? Unfortunately the CUO cannot tell us, since in the absence of a principled and planned view of the tasks of party-building it cannot move beyond generalisations about the “anti-fascist front” in which the party must “have the initiative”.
True, if a (formally-declared) united front is a correct tactic in a given situation (leaving aside for the moment the utter confusion woven around the whole concept of the “anti-fascist front”, which is a particular form of the united front), and if a revolutionary party is in a position to assert its leadership, then the party can organise the united front and, as the example of Chinese revolution shows, must retain the initiative of policy within it. But this tells us nothing about our present tasks. What may be possible for the working class given the leadership of an effective party is political (and conceivably more than political) suicide in the absence of such a party. Without the party the “front” – and here we mean any organised movement based on formal agreement, however limited, between communists and non-communists – is in the hands of the class enemy, first ideologically and then, inevitably, politically and organisationally, as soon as it displays the possibility of effectiveness. And suppose (since this is a time for wishful thinking) that a front, a small one, broad, united or both, should by accident or manipulation achieve its limited aims – what then, without a party, without a programme, in a strategic impasse? Or are we secretly to believe, in the noblest tradition of trotskyism, that it is no function of a front to achieve its aims, and that defeat at the hands of the bourgeoisie is a better educator of the working class than victory under the leadership of the proletarian party?
We do not argue with the CUO when it says, a propos of the spontaneist London Alliance that “those who wish to fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat would do best by laying emphasis on the formation of such a party”. What we ask of the CUO is that it takes its own advice, gear its strategy to this task, and cease smokescreen for the propagandists of social-democrat – i.e. bourgeois, ideology within the Marxist-Leninist movement by its centrist insistence on “uniting the movement” at a time when unity means capitulation.
“The primary tasks for Marxist-Leninists today are the theoretical tasks necessary for uniting the movement on definite principles,” says the CUO. Theoretical tasks, yes. But if correct ideas do not drop from the skies, neither do they ferment in the hot air of “...conferences, debates, and the upholding of unity whilst persevering in principle.” A little more upholding of principle, and a little more caution where unity is concerned, and we are nearer correct approach do not reject “unity” out of hand; but it is not our major objective, and it is still for the CUO and the other “upholders of unity” to show that it is feasible as a means to the party.
The CUO has split from the Communist Federation of Britain organisationally, but has yet to overcome its “theory”, in particular regarding party-building. It is not for the sake of sloganising that we view the theoretical tasks of the Marxist-Leninist movement as a struggle for theory.