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Martin Abern

Problems of the United Front

The Jobless Movement and Political Parties

(June 1933)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 29, 3 June 1933, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The condition of the millions of unemployed in the United States is more miserable and critical than ever before. Such resources as they may have had themselves or through friends, relatives, etc., are wholly exhausted. Dependence upon organs of charity and governmental assistance is greater than at any time hitherto. Yet at this moment, governmental relief of the cities and other agencies is being either sharply or entirely cut in numerous communities, such as New York. The “New Deal” of the Roosevelt administration has failed thus far to touch to any noticeable degree the misery involving the unemployed millions. All these factors tend today, as much or more than hitherto, to give a strong impetus to the growth of a militant and broad movement on behalf of the unemployed.

Of a positive and beneficial character is the growth of tendencies which aim for a merging of the various unemployed movements into a single, national organization on a united front basis. But as a consequence, in part, of this forward direction, resulting essentially from the objective conditions and demands of the unemployed, other questions have again come sharply to the front. These questions must be decisively revolved soon; they involve the growth or crack-up of the unemployment movement, and particularly its development in a class conscious direction.

The numerous conferences of the unemployed, especially the Conference held recently in Chicago which brought together various political tendencies, reveal that certain basic requirements still confront the movement on behalf of the unemployed. Some of the more important ones are:

Basic Requirements

  1. Working out ways and means for cooperation and joint action of the employed and unemployed.
  2. Drawing the trade and labor unions, particularly of the American Federation of Labor, into the movement of the Unemployed, for reciprocal results and benefits.
  3. Developing a political consciousness among the mass of workers, in this instance, the movement of the unemployed.

Various movements of the unemployed arose in the past years in the hope that through mass pressure and organization, the miserable lot of the unemployed millions can be partially alleviated. These are necessary and immediate objectives that must be sincerely and militantly fought for by all forces taking part in the unemployed movement. For Communists, this is elemental, or ought to be. As in other fields of daily class struggle, so in the unemployed movement, we put forward immediate demands in themselves of greater or lesser importance. These have been more or less accurately worked out and need no repetition here. We present immediate demands because as living and not sterile revolutionaries, we fight for the interests of the workers today. At the same time we set forth our ultimate program for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by the rule of the working class.

But, if we forget for one instant our basic class approach, namely, our need and task to revolutionize the workers; if we allow ourselves to get lost in a maze of immediate demands and become absorbed, howsoever militantly, solely in the struggle for these demands, little or nothing will be gained for the working class. What we reap will be illusions among the workers, the growth of opportunism and the chance for opportunists and fakers to deceive the workers. In short, it will be a case of “sowing dragons’ teeth and reaping flies.”

Today, very clearly and sharply, opportunistic and even reactionary views are being put forth in the movement of the unemployed, not alone by the known labor fakers of the A.F. of L. and the charlatans of the socialist party – from them that is to be expected – but also among so-called Communist elements. We cannot here deal with them all; we take only those concepts brought out by the representatives of the Lovestone, Eight wing Communist, group.

Movements of the unemployed have been organized in a large measure through the instrumentality of various political parties and tendencies in the labor movement: among these are the official Communist party (Stalinists), the Socialist Party, the CPLA (Musteites), Lovestone (Right Communist Opposition) and others.

These movements of the unemployed take, or should take on, the organizational expression of the united front of all organizations ready to take part in the movement of the unemployed. A correct objective must be the merging of the now existing various unemployed movements into a single and broad United Front on a national scale. For the immediate demands themselves of the unemployed movement can be fought for successfully only on a planned, national scale. Such a united front must work out a Common, minimum program of action (immediate demands) which binds all those adhering to the movement, to work for its achievement, irrespective of other political, economic, racial, etc., differences that exist in the movement. This should be accepted as elemental.

The False Views of the Lovestonites

But what does not appear to be accepted as elemental is who shall make up the constituent parts of the united front unemployed movement. Other issues exist, but unless this question is given a clear answer, the movement of the unemployed can easily disintegrate and founder. Under the best of conditions, an unemployed movement is the most difficult of all movements to hold together because of the natural looseness of organization, state of employment, etc., that conditions its existence.

The first question that must be answered is the political question: the matter of organic participation of the political parties and groups of the working class in the united front movement of the unemployed.

At the national conference of unemployed movement groups in Chicago and at local conferences in New York, representatives of the Lovestone group came out for non-participation organizationally of the political parties or groups in the unemployed movement. In essence, their position was that the interests of the unemployed can best be served if the united front is made up organizationally only of the various organizations of the unemployed: Unemployed Councils, Association of the Unemployed, Workers Leagues, etc. The political parties and groups must be kept out and also, even labor unions should be represented only fraternally in the united front.

But the mere posing of the issue by the Lovestone Right Wing is sufficient reason for taking up the matter of relations of political forces to the unemployed, or for that matter of any other movement of labor. It has to be said plainly that Lovestonite proposal, howsoever intended, is an outright reactionary one, completely in line with the proposals and objectives of the A.F. of L. and other fakers in the labor movement.

This is a politically functioning age, as never before. Every group, one could almost say each individual, whether stupidly or intelligently, solves its problem in terms of class and government – that is, class interest and class power. The political question enters, and rightly so, into every step and action of the workers. It has been and is the aim of all capitalist politicians, and their lieutenants in the ranks of labor – the Greens, Wolls, Lewises, etc. – to keep the working class out of politics, that is, working class politics and action. These frauds and deceivers have said to the workers: look only to your bread and butter, the economic side; and the not very far-seeing IWW and syndicalist echo the admonitions of the bourgeois liberal and working class opportunists to evade or keep away from the decisive, the political question.

The Communist Position

Every movement of the working class is bound to have impressed upon it a political ideology. That outlook is determined essentially by the general conditions and outlook prevailing within society; within the labor movement itself, it is largely determined by the political force that most intelligently and consciously makes its class outlook and program felt upon the workers.

Communists take it for granted that every movement of the workers must be penetrated and fractions organized therein: trade unions, cooperatives, fraternal organizations, etc. Why exempt the organizations of the unemployed?

What justification or reason can there be for the formal exclusion of the forces that really determine, for good or bad, the functioning and outcome, within limits of the objective situation, of the united front of the unemployed movement? Who is being fooled, what is being gained by the exclusion of the intelligence, the political force, the class expression of any movement? Nobody; least of all, the unemployed. Not maneuvers, but plain, direct, speech and direction to the unemployed, on the immediate and ultimate class solution of unemployment is the way to advance the cause of the workers. Direct participation of the Communist party, the Communist League of America (Opposition), the socialist party, etc., is a test for all the tendencies within the labor movement.

Moreover, this can and must be done while maintaining the discipline of action of the united front.

A united front movement is organized to achieve certain immediate objectives. In the case of Mooney and Billings to achieve the freedom of Mooney and Billings; in the case of the Scottsboro defendants, to free the Scottsboro boys; and likewise, with the objects of each united front movement that is built.

Shall the political parties, for instance, be excluded from direct participation in the Mooney United Front movement? The revolutionary would say, no. The capitalist politicians say, yes, for many reasons. And then these latter, at a proper moment, find ways and means for a Jimmy Walker to step in and represent himself as Mooney’s and labor’s savior.

Stalinist Errors

And certainly in the case of the unemployed, of far greater significance than the Mooney issue, the possibilities for educating and winning the workers to a class viewpoint are at hand. Nothing is to be gained in such instances by “hiding the face” of the movement. The official Communist party (Stalinists) has gone in for that also a great deal lately, and in each instance the Stalinists have been wrong. Their outstanding error and crime is their formal effacement from the leadership of the struggle against imperialist war and for the defense of the Soviet Union. What needs to be remembered is: the political party joins the unemployed United Front. The Unemployed Council or group does not join the party.

The Unemployed movements will assort themselves politically. Witness Seattle and other places. The point is, shall the opportunists and fakers take over the political and class direction of the unemployed? This must not be.

The next logical step of those who would exclude the political parties from direct organizational part in the unemployed united front is to exclude the trade and labor unions. And the Lovestone group proposes exactly this!

Yet the failure of the labor unions to rally behind a united front of the unemployed is a basic Cause of the movement’s weakness today. The unions and the unemployed must be linked organizationally for the objectives of the united front. Moreover, such a correct relation within the united front should be an excellent means for organizing the unorganized unemployed, which moans (he overwhelming bulk, into the unions. An unemployed worker is no less a worker because he is unemployed, and there is not less, but more need to organize him into a labor union in his interest as well as in the interest of the employed worker to preserve and better working conditions.

Lastly, from a fundamental view, why do the Communists bring all possible support on behalf of the unemployed? Because we must develop, in whatever way is permitted, their political, their class consciousness. Otherwise, the actions and aims of the unemployed will prove valueless in a lasting sense. The class question must be raised, even as in the trade unions, or the really worth-while and positive side of the unemployed movement will be dissipated and disappear, and hard work will have gone to naught.

We have to develop class conscious and revolutionary workers in the unemployed movement, while at the same time working militantly to achieve the immediate demands of the united front. All elements can try their hand at the task. But the Communist is the historical instrument for that task, functioning through his party or group. This is the standpoint of the Left Opposition.

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