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Arne Swabeck

The Real Meaning of the United Front

(October 1935)

From New International, vol.2 No.6, October 1935, pp.180-182.
Transcribed &marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DIMITROFF’S declaration to the Seventh Congress of the CI in support of “united front governments”, we are informed, was greeted by a stormy ovation from the assembled delegates. Speaking for a “bold and determined course toward a united front of the working class”, the “helmsman of the Comintern” gave an unequivocal answer to the question he posed in his report:

“If we Communists are asked,” he said, “whether we advocate the united front only in the struggle for partial demands, or whether we are prepared to share the responsibility even when it will be a question of forming a government on the basis of the united front, then we say with a full sense of our responsibility: yes, we recognize that a situation may arise in which the formation of a government of the proletarian united front, or of the anti-Fascist People’s Front, will become not only possible but necessary in the interest of the proletariat. And in that case we shall declare for the formation of such a government without the slightest hesitation.”

Dimitroff laid down one condition, which he considered essential for the support of such a “united front government” posed by him concretely for France: namely, that it will “carry on a real struggle against French. Fascism – not in word but in deed – will carry out the program of demands of the anti-Fascist People’s Front.” (Emphasis mine – A.S.)

What we have presented here is not the slogan of the workers’ government as a consequence of the united front policy in a revolutionary situation. It is not the idea of Soviets as the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the stage of struggle for power. No! What we have presented here is the idea of support of coalition governments. Dimitroff understood it in that sense; all the delegates to the Seventh Congress understood it in that sense, and support of coalition government has now become the declared policy of the Comintern. Wherein does this differ in content from the social democratic concept of coalition governments, aside from its form of presentation? Now it is called a “bold and determined course toward the united front of the working class”.

What could then be more natural than for Dimitroff to declare also that “the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat and the success of the proletarian revolution make it imperative that there be a single party of the proletariat in each country”? Only yesterday we were told by the same authors that social democracy is the main enemy, in fact it is social-Fascism; today, the success of the proletarian revolution depends on the extension of the united front into organic unity between the two Centrist parties of Stalinism and of social democracy.

Taking his cue from the report of the “helmsman”, and carrying the treacherous opportunism of the Seventh Congress to its extreme absurdity, Earl Browder found an answer to the question of welding together a “broad people’s movement” in the United States. It is to extend far indeed. His only fear was that “the bourgeoisie, the top AF of L bureaucracy, the Right wing socialists, many liberal bourgeois politicians, not to speak of the Hearsts, Coughlins and Longs, will do everything possible to exclude the communists from such a movement”. But casting all caution aside, Browder went on to explain this new line for the United States.

“We must say clearly,” he exclaimed in a vigorous outburst of his own inner conviction and enthusiasm, “yes, we will fight together with all those in the united front, for a majority in all elec-ive bodies, local, state and national. We will support such a party whenever and wherever it wins a majority, in taking over administrative powers, so long as it really uses these powers to protect and extend democratic liberties and advance the demands of the masses. But the masses will ask us : What will be your role ? Will you stand aside as critics, preaching merely for a Soviet power, for which we are not ready to fight ? We answer: The communists are even prepared to participate in such a government.” (Emphasis mine – A.S.)

All that now remains to be done by Browder’s chimerical “American People’s Front” is to furnish the mandate.

And what sort of a “broad people’s party” does Browder propose to create? Dimitroff assures us that it will be “neither socialist nor communist”. Of that we never had any doubt. But then, what will it be? Browder gives us his definition as a “lasting coalition of workers, farmers, and city middle classes, to fight against threatening economic catastrophe, against political reaction and Fascism, and against the threatening war”. To be sure, this is expecting a lot from a “people’s party”.

Such are the estimates of the tasks of the communists, outlined by both the “helmsmen”, for the present conditions of threatening economic catastrophe, political reaction. Fascism and war: Support of coalition governments and the welding together in the United States of a “broad people’s party ... a lasting coalition of workers, fanners and city middle classes”. Dimitroff described these to the Seventh Congress as “cardinal questions of the united front”. Cardinal questions indeed, not, however, of the united front but of the opportunist degeneracy and decomposition of the Comintern.

From its original concept, the united front as a means of proletarian unity at any given moment in the struggle against capitalism, has been perverted by the present Comintern leadership into a means of an opportunist coalition with the bourgeoisie. This is the cardinal difference between the united front policy as formulated by the Bolsheviks during the period covered by the first four Congresses and the interpretation given to it at the Seventh Congress. Fundamentally it represents a cardinal difference between the Comintern of Lenin and the Comintern of Stalin.

Not the communist parties but social democracy will be the real beneficiaries of this 180 degree turn. An enormous contribution has been made toward its further rehabilitation. What stands now in the way of the justification of all its policies and all its betrayals? Nothing so far as the Comintern is concerned. Drawing their comfort from the slogan of organic unity the leaders of the socialist parties may now appear before their own working class following as fully vindicated in all their charges against the “communist splitters”. For Bolsheviks, however, the question of unity or splits is subordinated to political policy. Bolsheviks do not fight only for ideas and programs. They also draw organizational conclusions from their policy. Had not the communist party under the leadership of Lenin broken definitely and irrevocably with social democracy it could never have become the party of proletarian revolution. This was the cardinal difference with social democracy. For the revolutionary party this difference remains in full force today, only it is necessary to add, that it applies with equal potency to the Comintern of Stalin.

Nevertheless the united front policy remains as valid today as when first formulated. It takes as its point of departure the fact that in the every-day struggle against capitalism, and in so far as the vital interests of the working class are concerned, the masses realize the need for united action. If their political consciousness would develop on an even and uniform scale there would be far less difficulty in solving the problem of unity. Unfortunately that is not the case. The class itself is not homogeneous. In the course of the class struggle, political consciousness develops unevenly; large working class sections support the bourgeois political parties, support the social democracy, or remain politically indifferent. While the revolutionary party has no interests separate and apart from the class as a whole, it can fulfill its tasks only by maintaining correct relations within the class. From this flows its duty to provide the means whereby, at each given moment, joint action against the common enemy may be made possible.

These simple objective facts present the premise for the united front policy. In no sense can it be considered a mere manoeuvre that is not meant seriously or honestly, or that is to serve as a cloak under which the party snatches leadership over masses not otherwise merited by its accomplishments. .Reprehensible as this would appear, it has nevertheless been the practise of the little American Stalinists. Creation, artificially, of “rank and file committees” to give the appearance of speaking officially for the trade unions in support of the party’s aims was not at all beneath them. But even more despicable and more futile – if it is possible – were their many attempts to palm off as a genuine united front a mere combination of the communist party and its auxiliary organizations, most of which represented absolutely nobody not already directly under its influence. Such practises could never win over the majority of the working class; they did not win anybody at all.

So long as the revolutionary party and its direct supporters remain a minority force within the class, even if a substantial one, the party faces the problem of connecting itself with the masses. It must turn not only to the masses but also to their organizations – especially the trade unions. Any attempts to ignore the mass organizations are ludicrous. The united front, if it is to have real meaning, must extend from organization to organization. Only agreements, mutually arrived at between the organizations, can guarantee the necessary organizational points of support and make united action possible at any given moment. Mutual agreements in struggle for specific aims presuppose also equal rights and common duties. By their very nature these aims are of a limited character for the reasons that the various organizations involved have different political programs. But they must, of course, be in accord with the historical development of the proletariat. With a correct tactic the revolutionary party has everything to gain from the united front policy. Its possibilities to win over to its side the majority of the working class become greater.

From the Stalinist zig-zags on the united front we have witnessed the exact opposite both in theory and practise, and with disastrous consequences to the working class. Most outstanding are the lessons of the terrible German debacle, that is, for those who have the capacity to learn. As lessons they are equally devastating to the impotent theoreticians who were then, and still are today, the real “helmsmen” of the Comintern, regardless of which one of the henchmen holds the official title. In its deadly crisis the working class was told that the united front, although permissible before, had now become counter-revolutionary. “A bloc, or even an alliance, or even a temporary joint operation in individual actions between the communist party and the social democratic party in Germany against National-Socialism”, the CP leaders declared to be impermissible, for had not the social democrats been pronounced to be “social-Fascists”? Stalin’s definition of social democracy they held to be “unexcelled in its exactness and incisiveness”. Stalin had declared to the Comintern:

“The social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of Fascism. These organizations do not negate one another, but rather supplement each other. They are not antipodes but twins.”

The fate of the German working class, however, depended at that crucial hour on the ability of the workers’ organizations to hammer together a united front of defense against Fascism. Social democracy was still the largest working class party; it also exerted the decisive influence in the trade unions. Of course, its leadership had betrayed the workers. But to the workers, who followed them, this had not yet been made sufficiently clear, nor were they ready to entrust their fate to the communist party leadership. With its criminal attitude and viciously false policies, how could this be expected? The ultimatistic demands by the latter, that the workers desert their organizations and accept in advance the communist party leadership, which was put forward as a substitute for the united front by mutual agreement, only made matters worse. It had in no way demonstrated its right to leadership. And thus, to the betrayals of the social democratic leaders, it could only add its own criminal capitulation to Fascism – an equally dastardly betrayal.

The role of social democracy and of its leadership was perfectly well known when the united front policy was formulated. It was taken into account in a very direct sense. But the accredited officials of the various workers’ organizations, whether reformist or outright reactionaries, cannot be ignored or excluded at will so long that they are recognized by the masses as their leaders. Were it possible simply to unite the masses around the banner of the revolutionary party, regardless of their organizations and without their leaders, there would be no need of presenting the united front in this form. But that is not possible; and the revolutionary party must therefore turn also to the leaders in order to confront them with the real issues of the class struggle. Even negotiations with them become obligatory. To bring them out into the open and oppose them under equal conditions of the struggle before the eyes of the masses is one important purpose of the united front. Given a correct tactic, all the advantages belong to the revolutionary party. A movement in action affords the best possibilities to reveal to the masses, by their own experience, the real character and the downright sabotage of the struggle by the reactionary leaders.

Such an attitude was called counter-revolutionary during the crucial hours in Germany. A few years before, the Stalinist bureaucrats had burned their fingers on the Anglo-Russian Committee, which they palmed off as a united front. Secretly it was conceived as a lasting coalition, which would guarantee peaceful relations with British imperialism while building socialism in the Soviet Union. Thus falsely motivated, on purely pacifist grounds, it could not serve as means to confront the leaders of the British Trade Union Congress with the real problems of imperialist aggression. It turned out to be a bloc pure and simple with the top leaders and not with the mass organizations, the trade unions, for they were engaged in a general strike and betrayed by their leaders. The mutual agreement in the bloc served to bolster up these leaders acting as agents of the British government against the masses. The British Trade Union Congress could turn its weapons with redoubled force against the general strike. But the discipline and “unity” of the bloc remained after the betrayal. Therein lay its real crime.

The united front, when correctly carried out, imposes, of course, a certain discipline of action on the revolutionists. But woe to them if this discipline takes on an absolute character. It is always essential for the revolutionary party to maintain its political and organizational independence. It must reserve for itself the right of criticism and freedom of action which must be mutually guaranteed for all participants in the united front.

For social democrats this problem resolves itself into non-aggression pacts, that is when they cannot escape the pressure for united action. Otherwise they have consistently rejected the idea of fighting alongside of revolutionary workers, for the sake of maintaining their coalition with the bourgeoisie. Non-aggression pacts they construe to mean cessation of all attacks upon their position and actions. In reality such a concept flies in the face of the very principle of mutual rights of criticism and freedom of action. It becomes a cheap subterfuge for the united front under cover of which they aim to keep the revolutionists within certain bounds while they may continue unhampered their deception of the masses. Revolutionists cannot bind themselves to such agreements. Moreover, once the united front is established and any of its participants, especially the reactionary leaders, take a position detrimental to the movement or its objectives and contrary to the desires of the masses, the revolutionary party can no longer consider itself bound by its discipline. In that event it reserves for itself the right to break off all relations and carry the struggle to its conclusion regardless of these participants. The failure to break off relations with the British trade union leaders in the Anglo-Russian Committee, after the general strike betrayal, was the cardinal mistake of the Stalinists in this episode.

The Seventh Congress policy, submitted in the name of the united front, is similar in its pacifist motivation to that of the Anglo-Russian Committee, but much more full blown in its social democratic objective consequences. Let us consider the proposals for a “lasting coalition of workers, farmers and city middle classes” in a “People’s Front” party, and of one single proletarian party for each country. Assuming that the one single party of the proletariat is established, what will be the need of the “broad people’s party”? What duty is it to perform? We are not informed at all by the authors of the proposals. For revolutionists these two kinds of parties would be mutually exclusive. Granting the possibility of the former, there would be no need of the latter. But to the authors of the proposals they evidently mean the same thing; not a united front, not a revolutionary party at all, but a complete dissolution into one “broad people’s party”. Social democracy, even in its palmiest days, could go no further along the road of opportunism.

A united front of correct relations with the middle class for specific and limited aims can, of course, not be ruled out in advance. It is possible and necessary under certain conditions; but it can advance the interests of the working class, and the interests of humanity, only when the proletarian foundation is guaranteed and its leadership made possible. Between the two decisive classes in bourgeois society the petty bourgeoisie vacillates and is unable to play an independent role. At best it swings, according to its own economic fortunes, to the support of the one or the other. Naturally it constitutes a reservoir of potential proletarian allies, especially as its economic rations, due to the decline of capitalism, get reduced to the proletarian level. But this also presupposes the condition of a firm leadership given by the proletariat in showing the petty bourgeoisie the socialist way out of its dilemma.

A united front with the petty bourgeoisie on any other basis would be a grotesque absurdity, if not actually disastrous in objective consequence.

Is this absurdity to be repeated on a grander scale in the projected “broad people’s movement” in the United States – a purely Third party movement? If so, and no other construction can be put upon it, we repeat it will have far more disastrous consequences to the American working class. In its further advance to revolutionary consciousness, aided by the maturing of capitalist contradictions, it will face the Third party as an obstacle, whose historic role can be none other than to pacify, to deceive and to disintegrate the advancing working class movement.

Nothing need now stand in the way of organic unity between the two Centrist parties of Stalinism and social democracy. Fundamentally their position is the same. But what new possibilities would this offer to the working class, if any ? This is the essential question. Of course, a revolutionary basis of unification between two Centrist parties is precluded in advance. The mere unification solves nothing and carries rather the danger of stifling and crushing a very promising Leftward development under the juggernaut of the combined bureaucracies.

At the present moment this question is presented concretely in France where it runs through the “People’s Front” to the proposed coalition government so vociferously acclaimed in Moscow. Essentially all rests on the same foundation. Its foundation is not distinguishable by a hair’s-breadth from that of social democracy on its fatal August 4, 1914. That day is marked in the pages of working class history in bold letters – betrayal. With the crucial hour nearing, the hour of Fascism and war, which puts all political groups and parties to their supreme test, the question of policy pursued becomes the basic consideration. And while Fascism is marshalling its forces, the Stalinists, in harmony with the social democratic leaders, are preparing to cement a united front, not of the working class, but with the bourgeois political state in the form of a coalition government. The position of both parties is “civil peace”; not “battles between Frenchmen”, but the “union of France”; not the struggle for the death against Fascism, which means the struggle for power, but “national recovery”. This, in essence, is already the program of the “People’s Front”, which the Seventh Congress insisted be the condition for support of a coalition government in France. Such are the fruits of Stalinism today: misleading, disorienting, disarming and paralyzing the working masses.

Neither party finds the enemy in its own country. Both are committed to the policy of national defense, the defense of French imperialism, as summed up in the Franco-Soviet pact. On the occasion of affixing the signatures to the pact, l’Humanité wrote: “What could be more natural than the fact that our comrade Stalin, upon the request of Laval, should have declared his approval of France’s military measures?” This is Stalin’s political solidarization with the brigands of imperialism. And upon this basis organic unity is to be consummated and is to find its synthesis in the projected coalition government.

From its original concept, the united front, as a means of proletarian unity at any given moment in its struggle against capitalism, has been perverted by the degenerate policy of Stalinism into a coalition with the bourgeoisie.


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