Home > Uncategorized > Valences of the united front (II): Discourse on method

Valences of the united front (II): Discourse on method

In the first installment of this essay, I introduced the topics of discussion and proceeded to an assessment of the recent March on Washington and the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) intervention in it. For this installment, which covers “the (ir)relevance of the united front tactic or ‘method’ in the present day,” I will assume that you have read the introduction, but not the subsequent material, since it has no bearing on the present matter at hand.

Which is interesting, isn’t it? How did my August 6 letter on the March, which never mentioned the united front, somehow–more than two weeks later and largely after the March was over–spur a theoretical debate on the united front? The point of departure is Paul D’Amato’s article on the united front, published on August 13. This article is almost entirely historical, save for a very brief concluding note on the ongoing relevance of the “methodology outlined by Trotsky.” But its real impact was brilliantly laid bare by MB’s letter of August 21:

I wonder if Paul intended the article to be a part of the recent debate about the ISO’s role in the March on Washington…. I initially read it that way, as I imagine many readers did, given the debate that has been taking place in SocialistWorker.org and in other places online, and because International Socialist Organization training and analysis would lead most members to say that we should participate in the March as part of a united front strategy.

If this is the case, I would like to suggest that it would be more productive to explicitly reference the March on Washington. Otherwise, the article has the feel of weighing in without actually addressing comrades’ concerns about the March. The article risks stifling a still-forming debate by invoking a core political idea–with all the authority that such an idea carries in the organization–without digging into the particular arguments and analysis that comrades have brought up in this particular debate.

In his reply to MB, D’Amato denies that this was his intention, saying, “I wanted my article to be something other than a direct intervention in a specific debate about the March on Washington, and more of an opening up of a discussion about our approach and method to organizing–in the hopes that the history of the united front in the 1920s would provide a useful grounding for such a discussion.” I believe that this is true; nevertheless it is the case that, regardless of intent, what MB warned of is exactly what actually happened. My letter never received a direct reply from anyone in SW or any other forum (of which I’m aware) with the exception of some brief comments online. Indeed, over a month after the March, the ISO has not, to my knowledge, produced a full national assessment of the event. (Elizabeth Schulte’s report of August 26 was fine political journalism, but not an assessment.)

(It should be noted that in his reply to MB, D’Amato admits that he “did have in mind a criticism that has been raised, mostly informally, as to why we would want to have anything to do with a demonstration organized by apologists for the Democratic Party.” But if this criticism had been raised mostly informally, then it must have been raised somewhere formally, and could have been cited. It was not. The effect, intentional or otherwise, is to amalgamate my arguments about how to mobilize for the March with the argument not to mobilize for it at all, since the only formal criticism of the March in ISO circles was due to me. That comrades actually did commit this error is proved by Sofia Arias’s article of August 5, which she admitted was directed at me, albeit not entirely.)

The popular front disco

Having examined the curious and troubling path by which comrades arrived at the debate on the united front, let’s try regardless to engage the question on its merits. Let’s start with the contribution that asserts most “unproblematically” the relevance of the united front: Keith Rosenthal’s letter of August 27. He writes:

The united front–as I see it–is not a dogma, but merely an insight into the ways in which we can relate to liberals and liberal organizations around us in such a way as to unite with them around basic demands and points of action, while retaining our own independent profile, criticisms and line of march.

As I explained to the author before he submitted his letter–to no effect, alas–the united front was never intended as a tactic to apply to liberals and liberal organizations, but rather to workers’ organizations and parties. Adam Turl spells it out in his reply to Rosenthal:

In the early 1920s, there were mass reformist (genuinely reformist) socialist parties in Europe as well as large centrist parties (containing both reformists and revolutionaries). The united front tactic was designed to do two dialectically related things: expose the reformist leaders and mobilize a united working class.

Similarly, the united front, proposed as a tactic to stop fascism in the 1930s, would have done the same thing: unite reformists and revolutionaries in an objectively revolutionary struggle….

In neither case was the united front a proposal to unite with liberals–liberals who were largely on the wrong side of the barricades in the 1920s in both Europe and the United States….

It is important to understand that liberalism is a different phenomenon than socialist reformism. This is not to say one should never work with liberals, or that in recent decades the narrowing of American liberalism and European social democracy has not been part of the same process.

Nevertheless, their historic and ideological origins (and organizational nature) are different. Liberalism’s origins are as a bourgeois ideology. Social democracy’s origins, as we know, are tied directly to the working-class movement, however contradictorily. It behooves us to be more suspicious of liberals as agents of the bourgeoisie for this very fact.

Indeed, if you want the real truth, Trotsky himself lambasted the idea of a “united front” between revolutionaries and liberals, a tactic developed by the Stalin-era Comintern under the label popular front. For example, in a 1937 article on Spain, Trotsky writes:

The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: “Communists” plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant prove equal to zero.

A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralyzing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.

In fairness we should concede that Rosenthal may not be talking about the united front as elaborated by the revolutionary Communist International of Lenin’s time; rather he may be discussing the united front “as he sees it.” But then we are moving from the “methodology of Trotsky” to the methodology of Rosenthal, about which I neither claim nor desire any knowledge.

Marx’s Trotskyism

So what is the “methodology of Trotsky”? That is easy to answer: it is the Marxist method, the method of historical materialism. And as a good historical materialist, Trotsky knew that no tactic was trans-historical; each could only be instantiated under certain conditions. He was even excellent enough to state some of them in his classic “On the United Front”:

In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organization of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organizational significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership of the old organizations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role.

It is therefore obvious that the “classical” united front as articulated by Trotsky does not apply anywhere. Even where there are large left-wing parties, such as SYRIZA in Greece, they are not “Communist Parties” in the sense meant by Trotsky.

We can learn even more about preconditions for the united front if we investigate Trotsky’s statements about when it does apply:

[W]herever the party embraces organizationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organized proletarian vanguard [emphasis added], it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness.

If the party embraces one-third or one-half of the proletarian vanguard, then the remaining half or two-thirds are organized by the reformists or centrists….

Today the organized portion of the working class is broken up into three formations.

One of them, the Communist, strives toward the social revolution and precisely because of this supports concurrently every movement, however partial, of the toilers against the exploiters and against the bourgeois state.

Another grouping, the reformist, strives toward conciliation with the bourgeoisie. But in order not to lose their influence over the workers reformists are compelled, against the innermost desires of their own leaders, to support the partial movements of the exploited against the exploiters.

Finally, there is a third grouping, the centrist, which constantly vacillates between the other two, and which has no independent significance.

The circumstances thus make wholly possible joint action on a whole number of vital issues between the workers united in these three respective organizations and the unorganized masses adhering to them.

That is to say, Trotsky takes as given that the working class possesses a mass leading layer of organized socialist militants. That was perfectly legitimate to assume, in the most decisive countries anyway, in 1922–and it’s got nothing to do with the modern day. Thus the classical united front isn’t inapplicable simply because communist organizations are “numerically insignificant,” but rather because the entire political coordinates have changed. It’s like the difference between not being able to play football because the field isn’t big enough, versus being unable to play because the field is itself shaped like a football: in the first case, some modest adjustments may suffice; in the second, you should probably try another game entirely.

Attempts to assert the relevance of the united front or “united front method” in a radically different political reality resolve, in my experience, into one or both of the following strategies: the blanching of the tactic into the most general statements against sectarianism; or the highly dubious substitution of “liberalism” for “reformism.” Into the former category fall D’Amato’s original article and reply to MB, as well as Alan Maass’s reply to Turl. Here, for instance, is the essence of the united front method per D’Amato:

[A]s, in the vast majority of cases, a minority force in these political, social, and trade union struggles, socialists must seek allies willing to take the fight a certain distance. We must be willing to form temporary alliances, both formally and informally, with reformist organizations and leaders, for the purposes of struggle, though we retain our independent organization, publications and so on.

Any other policy cuts us off from the very struggle that radicalizes people and draws them closer to anti-capitalist conclusions.

There’s hardly anything here to which one can object–but if this is the united front method, it implies that Marx and Engels were its practitioners some seventy years before Trotsky. It means that the First International used the united front method before it was developed by the Third. In other words, it strips away the historical specificity of the united front tactic, and turns it into an anachronism.

Bourgeois hegemony “from below”

Alternately, one can preserve the relevance of the united front by treating “liberalism” and “reformism” as somehow homologous. Rosenthal’s letter is a particularly guileless example of this strategy; a more sophisticated try is made by Todd Chretien in his reply to Turl. He writes:

[L]iberalism is not the same as social democracy. But I think it’s helpful to consider “Liberalism from Above” and “Liberalism from Below” as two related, but distinct ideological and social trends, as I’ve suggested elsewhere.

In essence, we ought to treat Liberalism from Below in the U.S. as something akin to European social democracy, even if the parallel is not exact.

Now one must say right away that this “parallel” is not merely inexact, but really rather crazy. European social democracy is historically a political party distinct from and competing against European liberalism; American “Liberalism from Below” has always been inextricable from the American liberal capitalist party and, so long as it remains liberalism, always supports it in the final instance (which is why it cuts such a pathetic figure even against the very shabbiest of the European labor parties). The decline and collapse of social democracy into something like “Liberalism from Below” is why the European left uses the term social-liberal to describe the former social-democratic parties; far from being “akin,” European social democracy needed renaming as it began to ape American liberalism.

But even leaving that aside, Chretien’s concept suggests something quite wrong about liberalism in general. To anyone in the International Socialist tradition, Chretien’s terms will evoke Hal Draper’s classic The Two Souls of Socialism, in which the author argues that “[t]hroughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below.” For Draper, however, this “from-above-” or “from-below-ness” referred to the nature of the ideas themselves, not to their adherents.

Trotskyism, for instance, has always been far more of an intelligentsia-based movement than Stalinism, which in its heyday really was quite proletarian in composition. Nevertheless Draper characterized the former as Socialism-from-Below and the latter as Socialism-from-Above (quite rightly). Yet from this perspective, talking about liberalism “from below” is ludicrous, because liberalism intrinsically accepts the rule of capital. If, on the other hand, one is talking about adherents, then why not talk about “Rightism from Below,” since there are many millions of workers on the right? And wouldn’t this “Rightism from Below” be, by a completely exact analogy, a “distinct ideological and social trend” from “Rightism from Above”? The absurdity of the proposition indicts Chretien’s whole framework.

Return to materialism

Rosenthal says in his letter that he “for one, do[es] not fully understand the implications of what is being argued viz a viz [sic] those who are critical of the supposed over-reliance of the [ISO] on the united front tactic.” I for one do not fully understand the implications of the comrade’s grammar, but I think he is asking something like: what’s the harm in trying to apply the united front today? This is, in fact, an inversion of the correct burden of proof: a proposed tactic ought to be shown to be helpful in order to be used, rather than being used by default until someone discredits it. Still, it’s a good question.

Of course if the united front (method) is redefined to mean “don’t be a sectarian,” then it’s always a good idea. But then all the concreteness of the tactic–and all the richness of the thinking behind it–is lost. What you gain in return is a two-word abbreviation for two sentences worth of ideas…or, more “usefully,” a venerable slogan to bark at someone who isn’t convinced that you’re doing the right thing.

There is the danger that, if the united front tactic is ripped from its context, it becomes a kind of abstract unity-mongering alien to revolutionary politics. Chretien wanders rather close to this when he declares that “we need a permanent political practice of united fronts and alliances which will eventually build up to a United Front.” What’s this? A permanent practice of united fronts to achieve a united-front-in-capitals? I don’t think Marxism is teleological; but it if is, I would hope the telos is rather better than that.

A method that prioritizes unity with existing forces over and against allies that are currently less-organized but potentially more powerful can be a huge blunder. This very plainly occurred with the ISO’s intervention in the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), where the ISO protected the presence of apologists for the Iranian regime against political challenges from Iranian leftists, a strategic and moral failure brilliantly analyzed by Manijeh Nasrabadi. A year later, with Ahmadinejad apologism predictably morphing into support for Qaddafi  and Assad, the ISO has quietly slunk out of UNAC–a move utterly foreign to the “united front method” under any interpretation.

The methodology of Trotsky was historical materialism. Trotsky’s genius was to describe the united front tactic–not to originate it. The initial creation of the united front was achieved by communist workers and leaders in a number of countries, Germany first and foremost. Trotsky, as a top member of the Communist International, “merely” helped to generalize the experiences of the revolutionary workers into revolutionary tactics. He was guided, of course, by Marxist theory–but his material was the struggle of his time, not the protocols of the preceding Internationals. A study of the united front tactic can teach you how to think; it can no longer tell you what to think.

So if we don’t know what to think, let’s at least conclude with something to think about. Class struggle today is at a very low level, but there are a handful of forms that we have seen strikingly repeated–for better or worse–in those struggles that have broken out since the onset of the global slump. I am speaking, of course, of the popular uprisings knows variously as the indignados, the “movement of the squares,” and/or Occupy. I have been sharply critical of the “anti-power” aspects of Occupy, especially as it played into the fiasco of the Egyptian coup, but this should not be interpreted as a failure to be impressed and intrigued by its reach and resonance.

What is it in Occupy (in the international sense) that spoke to “how we live now”? To what in the modern condition did it respond? Why does it seem to be reproducible only spontaneously–and can this be overcome? How exactly are issues of class, oppression, and democracy tied in? Which political ideas are found attractive and why? These are, I’m sure, only a small subset of the important questions. And the united front, I’m afraid, has nothing to tell us about any of it.

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  1. October 12, 2013 at 8:28 am

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