Kerry Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Tom Kerry

Some Comments On Party Policy And Tactics In The Antiwar Movement

From SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 26 #12, October 1967, Transcribed & marked up by D. Walters and John Leslie for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The following is an excerpt from Tom Kerry’s answer to an article by David Fender entitled “Remarks on the Antiwar Movement,” which appeared in Discussion Bulletin Volume 26 Number 9, October 1967.

*   *   *

Just what is the character of the formation that has arisen in the course of development of the antiwar movement and what is our relation to it? It can be said at the outset that even if we grant there is nothing unique about some aspects of the antiwar movement, the formation itself is decidedly unique; i.e., nothing like it has been seen before in this country. When comrades cast about to find some analogous experience in the history of the party they find none to serve as a secure mooring upon which to anchor our tactical approach.

Obviously, the so-called “classical” form under which the united front tactic was applied in the past does not appear relevant to the existent formation. If not a united front then what is it? A coalition, a bloc, an alliance, a confederation, or some combination of these, just what is it? Unfortunately, like with some other things, language does not keep pace with the historical development. There just is no new word, that I know of, to adequately define this new phenomenon, it would certainly simplify matters if there were, terminology-wise (in Madison Avenue jargon) if not otherwise.

For the simon-pure sectarian this poses no problem. Looking back in history, he “discovers” that the united front tactic as projected by the Bolsheviks was intended to apply to agreements between mass organizations. Finding no replica of the past in present day reality he washes his hands of the whole mess and takes refuge in the limbo of infantile leftism there to await the day when history finally catches up with doctrinaire prescription. A prime example of this type of sectarian approach is Gerry Healy, general secretary of the British Socialist Labour League.

Writing a series of two lengthy articles in The Newsletter , Jan. 7 and Feb. 11, 1967, under the general title: “The Real Meaning of the United Front,” Healy explains why the SLL will have no part of any “united front” antiwar movement in Great Britain. “The united front tactic,” he affirms, “was developed in order to deal with a situation where you had a mass communist party and a mass reformist organization,” Here we have stated the alleged “classical” formula for the united front tactic. (I say “alleged” because it is an extremely oversimplified definition, but let it pass for the moment.)

Healy then proceeds to elaborate on this theme. The united front, he avers, “was essentially conceived of as a tactic governing relations between mass organizations and not groups or small parties who did not represent the mass of the working class,” As the Labor Party, which includes the trade unions, is the only mass working class organization in Great Britain, you can readily see how this effectively rules out any “united front” antiwar action. A rather dreary outlook. But hold, there is yet hope! In a second article in The Newsletter , under the title: “How NOT to Defend the Vietnamese Revolution,” (a very appropriate title, I thought) Healy offers a straw to cling to:

“If,” he blandly assures his constituents, “the Socialist Labour League was a mass organization it would endeavour to involve the Labour Party in a joint campaign against the war in Vietnam, but this is not the case.” And in the meantime?

“The Socialist Labour League,” he concludes, “is, therefore, forced to confine itself to a propaganda political preparation for the struggle in defence of the Vietnamese people.” If everyone will just be patient enough to mark time until Healy’s SLL develops into a mass communist party so that he could then enter into a united front pact with the mass reformist Labor Party the whole problem will be neatly solved. What tripe! We expect the Vietnam war to go on for a long time --but not THAT long!

Meanwhile, the British working class is not reconciled to waiting for Healy’s “mass communist party” to materialize. Their impatience was expressed at the recent Labor Party conference, voting a resolution, 2,752,000 to 2,633,000, calling upon the Labor Government to “dissociate itself completely,” from U.S. policy in Vietnam. The N.Y. Times, Oct. 7, reports that: “The audience cheered a number of highly critical speeches on Vietnam. Alan Campbell McLean, a Scottish delegate, compared the United States action in Vietnam to the German bombing of Stalingrad in World War II. He said that American troops had ‘no legal or political or moral right’ to be in Vietnam.”

The vote is indicative, but not truly representative of the feelings of the British working class who, in their overwhelming number support the sentiment expressed by the majority resolution voted by their representatives at the Labor Party conference. This is good so far as it goes. True, it is no substitute for effective action. But it does present the antiwar forces in Great Britain with an opening to press for implementing actions by the trade unions and Labor Party constituency groups. And it is at least one thousand times more effective “propaganda” than all of Healy’s ultraleftist gibberish.

Healy’s defense of the “classical” form of the united front against “revisionist” corruption is a prime expression of the tendency of infantile leftism to use the cover of “Marxist nomenclature” to cloak a policy of abstention from the real struggle. Or, as Lenin put it: “The surest way of discrediting and damaging a new political (and not only political) idea is to reduce it to absurdity on the plea of defending it.” This is precisely what Healy does to the idea of the United Front.

Let us examine the idea of the united front from the viewpoint of “terminology” or “nomenclature” if you will. It may come as a surprise to many comrades to learn that the “nomenclature” came some time after the idea had been long in practice. In a speech to the Executive Committee of the Communist International held in November 1922, Zinoviev pointed out that: “The slogan of the United Front [was] first formulated by our Executive in December, 1921,” when a united front campaign was launched on an international scale.

The theses on the united front were formally adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. (Comrades will find the text of the theses, which were drafted by Trotsky for consideration by the Feb. 1922 plenum of the ECCI, on page 91 in volume 2 of The First Five Years of the Communist International .) But, as pointed out above, the idea of the united front had been part of the tactical arsenal of Bolshevism for some time before.

Lenin’s important treatise on communist (Bolshevik) tactics, Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder , published in 1920, never once employs the term, united front. Yet, in this classical polemic against the disease of ultraleftism, is contained a rich exposition of the united front idea as applied throughout the whole history of Bolshevism dating back to its very inception at the turn of the century. Consistent with his whole method, Lenin pinpoints those social, class and political divisions which capitalism engenders, which make necessary the application of the united front tactic, although he does not call it that:

“Capitalism would not be capitalism if the ‘pure’ proletariat were not surrounded by a large number of exceedingly motley types intermediate between the proletarian and the semiproletarian (who earns his livelihood in part by the sale of his labor power), between the semiproletarian and the small peasant (and petty artisan, handicraft worker and small master in general), between the small peasant and the middle peasant, and so on, and if the proletariat itself were not divided into more developed and less developed strata, if it were not divided according to territorial origin, trade, sometimes according to religion, and so on. And from all this fol1ow the necessity, the absolute necessity, for the vanguard of the proletariat, for its class-conscious section, for the Communist Party, to resort to manoeuvres, agreements and compromises with the various groups of proletarians, with the various parties of the workers and small masters.

“The whole point lies in knowing how to apply these tactics in order to raise, and not lower, the general level of proletarian class consciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win, Incidentally, it should be noted that the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks demanded the tactics of manoeuvres, agreements and compromises not only before but also after the October Revolution of 1917, but such manoeuvres and compromises, of course, as would assist, accelerate, consolidate and strengthen the Bolsheviks at the expense of the Mensheviks. The petty-bourgeois democrats (including the Mensheviks) inevitably vacillate between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between bourgeois democracy and the Soviet system, between reformism and revolutionism, between love-for-the-workers and fear of the proletarian dictatorship, etc. The proper tactics for the Communists must be to utilize these vacillations, not to ignore them; and utilizing them calls for concessions to those elements which are turning toward the proletariat—whenever and to the extent that they turn towards the proletariat- in addition to fighting those who turn toward the bourgeoisie. The result of the application of correct tactics is that Menshevism has disintegrated, and is disintegrating more and more in our country, that the stubbornly opportunist leaders are being isolated and that the best elements among the petty-bourgeois democrats are being brought into our camp.” (All emphasis by author.)

In another section, Lenin declares that “the whole history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of manoeuvring, making agreements and compromises with other parties, bourgeois parties included.

“To carry on a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, a war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted and complicated than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states, and to refuse beforehand to manoeuvre, to utilize the conflict of interests (even though temporary) among one’s enemies, to refuse to agree and compromise with possible (even though temporary, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies is not this ridiculous in the extreme?” (Emphasis by author.)

Lenin uses the terms bloc, alliance, agreements, etc., interchangeably throughout his work, in content synonymous with the tactic of the united front, though the latter term had not yet come into common usage. And nowhere does he suggest that the tactic was intended to apply only where there existed rival mass communist and mass reformist parties. In fact, prior to 1917, there were no such mass formations in Russia. Further, even in the early 1920’s, after the first spontaneous revolutionary surge in Western Europe failed to conquer power and the Comintern, under the prodding of Lenin and Trotsky, was constrained to sound the call for a temporary retreat, such mass formations existed in only a few countries.

Yet, when the Comintern launched its campaign for application of the united front tactic, it was specifically designated as an “international campaign.” For example, in the above mentioned speech by Zinoviev to the Nov. 22, 1922 meeting of the ECCI, he declared: “The United Front was really the first international campaign which the International attempted on a large scale.” As such it was to be applied in consonance with the relationship of forces in each country, taking all subjective and objective factors into consideration.

Tactics are always concrete. Or, as Lenin observes in his work on “Left Wing” Communism: “Tactics must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces of the particular state (and of the states surrounding it, and of all states the world over) as well as of the experience of revolutionary movements.” (Emphasis in original.)

So much for Healyite historiography. To return for a moment to our young critic from afar. He is upset no end about the interchangeable application of the terms “coalition, united front and bloc,” and what is worse, of “even combining them- ‘broad united front type coalition’ (!).” (The parenthetical bang is his, not mine.) He considers it highly improper to take such liberties with “traditional” Marxist nomenclature. The word “coalition,” we are scolded, is “traditionally” applied exclusively to “coalition politics.” Does this mean that we are no longer opposed to coalition politics? Or as he puts it with another of his loaded “questions”: “Is it still proper for us to denounce coalition politics?” Off hand, 1 would say yes, it is. For, if memory serves me, it seems that The Militant does just that in almost every issue and no one, to my knowledge, has yet registered an objection.

Where is it written that the word “coalition” must be expunged from our political lexicon unless it applies exclusively to “coalition politics?” Why this ritual genuflection to linguistic dogma? According to my copy of Webster’s Collegiate dictionary,, the word coalition is defined as, “a temporary alliance for joint action.” The same can be said of our “traditional concept,” the united front. It seems to me that the word “coalition” as defined by Webster, an acknowledged authority on such matters, is quite appropriate.

I am afraid that our critic suffers from the affliction that Trotsky once diagnosed as “philological scholasticism.” What a dismal method, this juggling of words, this twisting and distorting of words, phrases and sentences to laboriously set up spurious straw men to serve as a substitute target for the real thing; this use of the loaded question which is no real question but is designed to absolve the questioner of responsibility for an affirmative statement; etc., etc., etc. And all in the name of “clarity, precision and firmness.”

Which of these terms shall we employ in defining our tactic within the antiwar movement? Any and all, either separately or in combination, interchangeably or together, so long as we are certain that our objective appraisal of the phenomenon is correct. The forms it assumes are complex because the movement is unique. There does not exist in this country a mass communist party and a mass reformist party so the so-called “classical” form of the united front tactic obviously does not apply. That is, it is not based on formal agreement between formally constituted organizations, mass or otherwise.

The antiwar formation is composed of diverse organizations, groups and individuals, always shifting, rarely the same, knit together at moments of action in a temporary coalition for a limited objective. After each major action the centrifugal tendency inherent in so heterogeneous a formation threatens to make it fly apart. The cement that holds it together is common opposition to U.S. administration policy in. the Vietnam war. How long it will endure in its present form is anyone’s guess.

Neither of the two “major” contending working class tendencies, Stalinism and Trotskyism, are in a position to establish their unchallenged hegemony over the movement. The organized Social Democrats remain outside and hostile. It is this “stalemate” which permits accidental figures with little or no organization following or support to play so prominent a part in the leadership of the movement. What is amazing about this patchwork formation is that it is held together at all. I believe that the SWP-YSA can claim a large part of the credit for this achievement. For despite the meagerness of our forces, our influence has exercised an important and often a decisive role in holding it together. And I speak of our influence not only in the organization but in the political sense, which is testimony to the correctness of our general line, both as regards slogans advanced, single issue character, and thrust toward massive national demonstration actions in the streets.

And so far as tactics are concerned, it is our concept of the united front tactic that has prevailed, as against those who sought to narrow and cripple the movement by imposing a programmatic character upon it. For when it comes to that question there is no one with whom we can come to agreement outside of a narrow circle of our sympathizers and supporters. The correctness of our line has been abundantly confirmed by experience. There is no reason to alter it in any of its basic essentials- let along throwing it overboard as our philological critic exhorts us to do And I have not a single doubt that we will have the necessary tactical flexibility to meet whatever exigencies may arise in the future.

New York City October 16, 1967

Kerry Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated: 8 November 2008