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United Front: Elaboration and Implementation

August 2, 2020

‘Long Live the Communist International’

The Comintern’s Initial Formulations: Part 3

The Communist International’s early presentations of united front policy are scattered through many texts written over a two-year period. I am posting seven of the most important such explanations in three parts. Here is Part Three: “Elaboration and Application.”


Part 1: Leon Trotsky’s Overview

Part 2: Introducing the Policy

Part 3: Elaboration and Implementation

  1. Unity in the Ranks and Leadership Negotiations, by Karl Radek, November 15, 1922. 1150 words.
  2. Unite All Working-Class Forces Against Capitalism,” from the Fourth World Congress Theses on Tactics. 630 words.
  3. For a Workers’ Government,” from the Fourth World Congress Theses on Tactics. 1030 words.
  4. The United Front Against Fascism, by Clara Zetkin. 770 words.

4. Leadership Negotiations and Unity in the Ranks

Speech to Fourth World Congress discussion of the Theses on Tactics, November 15, 1922.

By Karl Radek: … [T]he idea of a struggle for power is for the moment not present among the broadest worker masses. Rather the entire situation has forced them backwards, and the great majority of the working class feels powerless. Given these facts, the conquest of power is not on the agenda as an immediate task. That is a historical fact. And if Communists answer every question, even that of state administration of dentistry, by saying that only under the dictatorship of the proletariat will teeth be extracted without pain, (Laughter) well, repeating that may possibly have propagandistic value, but it does not alter the fact that our own comrades, Communist workers, are convinced that the struggle for power is not possible at this time – even though we know that, sooner than some suppose, many states will tremble before a struggle for proletarian dictatorship.

From this it flows that – even leaving aside the question of the united front tactic – if we are going to pose only the political tasks that tie us to the broadest worker masses, we must above all conduct a struggle around questions that have the greatest immediate relevance to the broad working masses: questions of wages, hours of work, housing, defence against White danger, against the war danger, and all the issues of working people’s daily life. Communism does not consist of sticking one’s head in the sand and saying that it is not appropriate for such a good Communist as me to bother with things like this. Simply in order to hold to the banner of communism the workers we have already won, we must concentrate our struggle around these questions. Only in the broadening, deepening, and heightening of these struggles will a struggle for [proletarian] dictatorship arise.

The worker sees in the factory and in every strike that he cannot struggle for the most immediate and vital goals unless he does this together with the other workers.

And not just that. He sees that workers in their masses are united on these questions, without regard to their party affiliation. And because that is so, the Communist Party’s politics must explain how to deal with the fact that the workers put forward the same demands but are politically divided. Comrades, if we do not succeed in speaking to the masses as supporters of the conception of a proletarian united front, we will shrink down to a little handful. What gives our workers the strength to stay with the Communist Party in this period, indeed to draw new masses around them, is not merely our goal, not only the growing understanding of their most advanced layers that a proletarian dictatorship is necessary, but also the feeling that we are the unifying force in the working class. Never did I feel that more strongly than at the end of 1920, when I attended the unity convention in Berlin and spoke to comrades there. We split off all the forces from the Social Democracy that were prepared on the basis of their previous experience of revolution to embrace the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers who could not take that step perceived only the split. Meanwhile, the entire situation had temporarily driven our final goals into the background of the masses’ consciousness. Given this, our comrades believed that propaganda regarding the final goals and the split, no matter how indispensable and vital, cannot win over new and broad masses of workers.

They believed that they had to talk to workers about what the workers are thinking and feeling, how they are oppressed by unemployment and lack of food, indeed how they go hungry even when they are working. For the working masses, the idea of a united front means gathering the working class for a struggle against the suffering inflicted on them by capitalism in its disintegration.

The second question was, given the need for a united front, how was it to be implemented? Should it be by addressing the broadest masses of the proletariat with the call: Struggle with us under the banner of communism? Should we tell the workers that we reject all negotiations with the trade unions and leadership bodies?

It takes little thought to see that the idea of trying to achieve a united front in this manner is total nonsense. The Social Democratic workers know that their party is against the dictatorship [of the proletariat]. But they believe that the Social Democratic Party defends their interests, and that is why they still belong to it. Given that these workers are convinced that [Social Democratic leaders] Scheidemann, Grassmann, Renaudel, and Jouhaux want to fight for the eight-hour day, they will say to us: Yes, quite right, we must fight together, but have you talked about this with Scheidemann, Renaudel, and Henderson?

Should we reply by telling them that Scheidemann is a traitor? If they agreed with us in this judgment of Scheidemann, we would not have to preach to them about that, they would be with us. But this judgment is precisely what divides us. That is why, despite this opinion, if we want a united front we must negotiate with the leaders of the Second International. The difference between the Second and the Communist International does not lie in the fact that we are for the dictatorship of the proletariat, while they are determined to fight for socialism with the methods of democracy. No, it is that they do not want to fight at all, not even for a crust of bread. When they have compromised themselves, when we have shown the masses in life that they do not want to fight and why they do not want to fight, then the road to the united front will be open.

Many comrades will say at this point that since we know this, we should avoid strengthening the illusions of the proletariat if it is only in order to then refute them. But this is not a matter of strengthening illusions, but rather of refuting them. They must be refuted not with words but with deeds. There are some odd birds in our party that are afraid the Social Democrats will not allow themselves to be exposed, but will perhaps struggle. I do not think there is anyone of sound mind that would not welcome it if the Social Democrats wanted to struggle. And when the Social Democrats reproach us, saying: ‘You come to us hiding a dagger. You want to embrace us in order to crush us’, we reply, ‘That depends on you. Show that you want to fight, and then we will travel at least a part of the road with you’. We do not fear that in the least.

Excerpted from John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International, Leiden: Brill, 2011, pp. 393-5.

5. ‘Unite All Working-Class Forces Against Capitalism’

The following text is Point 10 of the Fourth World Congress Theses on Tactics, adopted on 5 December 1922.

The Third Congress slogan, ‘To the masses’, is now more valid than ever. In a considerable number of countries, the struggle to build the proletarian united front is only now beginning. Only now are we beginning to overcome the difficulties associated with this tactic. France serves here as the best example: the course of events has convinced even those who were recently opposed on principle to this tactic that it absolutely must be applied. The Comintern instructs all Communist parties and groups to adhere strictly to the united front tactic, because in present circumstances it offers Communists the only sure road to winning the majority of working people.

The reformists now need a split. The Communists have a stake in uniting all working-class forces against capitalism.

Using the united front tactic enables the Communist vanguard to lead the immediate struggles of the working masses for their most vital interests. In this struggle the Communists are ready to negotiate even with the traitorous leaders of the Social Democracy and the Amsterdam leaders. The attempts of the Second International to present the united front as an organisational fusion of all ‘workers’ parties’ must of course be decisively rejected. The attempts of the Second International to utilise the concept of united front to absorb the workers’ organisations to its left (fusion of the Social-Democratic Party and the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany) signify in reality merely an opportunity for the Social Democratic leaders to deliver new layers of the working masses over to the bourgeoisie.

The existence of independent Communist parties and their complete freedom of action with respect to the bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionary Social Democracy is a crucially important historical achievement of the proletariat, one that Communists will not under any circumstances abandon. Only the Communist parties defend the interests of the proletariat as a whole.

By no means does the united front tactic mean so-called electoral alliances at the leadership level, in pursuit of one or another parliamentary goal. The united front tactic is an initiative for united struggle of the Communists with all workers who belong to other parties and groups, with all unaligned workers, to defend the most basic vital interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Every struggle for the most limited immediate demand is a source of revolutionary education, for it is the experiences of struggle that will convince working people of the inevitability of revolution and the significance of communism.

A particularly important task in implementing the united front is to achieve results not just in agitation but in organisation. Not a single opportunity should be missed to create organisational footholds among the working masses themselves: factory councils, workers’ control commissions including workers of all parties and the unaligned, action committees, and so forth.

The key element in the united front tactic is and remains to bring the working masses together through agitation and organisation. The real success of the united front tactic arises from ‘below’, from the depths of the working masses themselves. However, in this process, the Communists cannot abstain from negotiating, under certain circumstances, with the leaders of opponent workers’ parties. The masses must be given ongoing and complete information on the course of these negotiations. During negotiations on a leadership level, the Communist Party’s freedom of agitation must not be compromised in any way.

Obviously, the united front tactic should be applied in different ways, depending on the specific circumstances in different countries. But in the most important capitalist countries, where the objective conditions for socialist revolution are ripe and where the Social Democratic parties, with their counter-revolutionary leadership, are consciously working to split the working class, the united front tactic will be decisive in importance for a whole period.

Source: John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front, pp. 1157–9.

6. For a Workers’ Government

The following text made up Point #11 of the “Theses on Tactics,” adopted by the Fourth World Congress on 5 December 1922. This thesis applies the united-front concept to the task of taking governmental power.

As a general propagandistic slogan, the workers’ government (or workers’ and peasants’ government) can be used almost everywhere. As an immediate political slogan, however, the workers’ government is most important in countries where bourgeois society is particularly unstable, where the relationship of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the agenda as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. In these countries, the slogan of the workers’ government flows unavoidably from the entire united front tactic.

The parties of the Second International attempt to ‘rescue’ the situation in these countries by advocating and achieving a coalition of the Social Democrats with bourgeois forces. Recently, some parties of the Second International (for example, in Germany) have attempted to reject open participation in such a coalition government while carrying it out in disguised form. This is simply an attempt to appease the indignant masses, a subtle betrayal of the working masses. Instead of a bourgeois-Social Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised, Communists propose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers’ parties, in both the economic and political arena, to struggle against the power of the bourgeoisie and ultimately to overthrow it. Through united struggle of all workers against the bourgeoisie, the entire state apparatus can pass over into the hands of the workers’ government, thus strengthening the power of the working class.

The most basic tasks of a workers’ government must consist of arming the proletariat, disarming the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, introducing [workers’] control of production, shifting the main burden of taxation to the shoulders of the rich, and breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Such a workers’ government is possible only if it is born from the struggles of the masses themselves and is supported by militant workers’ organisations created by the most oppressed layers of the working masses. Even a workers’ government that arises from a purely parliamentary combination, that is, one that is purely parliamentary in origin, can provide the occasion for a revival of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Obviously, the birth and continued existence of a genuine workers’ government, one that pursues revolutionary policies, must result in a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie, and possibly a civil war. Even an attempt by the proletariat to form such a workers’ government will encounter from the outset most determined resistance from the bourgeoisie. The slogan of the workers’ government thus has the potential of uniting the proletariat and unleashing revolutionary struggle.

Under certain circumstances, Communists must state their readiness to form a workers’ government with non-Communist workers’ parties and workers’ organisations. However, they should do so only if there are guarantees that the workers’ government will carry out a genuine struggle against the bourgeoisie along the lines described above. There are obvious conditions for the participation by Communists in such a government, including:

  1. Participation in a workers’ government can take place only with the agreement of the Communist International.
  2. Communist participants in such a government must be subject to the strictest supervision of their party.
  3. The Communists participating in this workers’ government must be in very close contact with the revolutionary organisations of the masses.
  4. The Communist Party must unconditionally maintain its own public identity and complete independence in agitation.

For all its great advantages, the slogan of a workers’ government also has its dangers, as does the whole united front tactic. To head off these dangers, the Communist parties must keep in mind that although every bourgeois government is also a capitalist government, not every workers’ government is truly proletarian, that is, a revolutionary instrument of proletarian power.

The Communist International must consider the following possibilities.

A: Illusory workers’ governments
1. A liberal workers’ government, such as existed in Australia and may exist in Britain in the foreseeable future.
2. A Social Democratic workers’ government (Germany).

Genuine workers’ governments
3. Government of workers and the poorer peasants. Such a possibility exists in the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, and so on.4.
4. A workers’ government with Communist participation.
5. A genuinely proletarian workers’ government, which in its pure form can be embodied only in the Communist Party.

Communists stand ready to march with the workers who have not yet recognised the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Communists are also ready, under certain conditions and with certain guarantees, to support a workers’ government that is not purely Communist, indeed even a merely illusory workers’ government – of course, only to the degree that it defends the workers’ interests. However, the Communists state just as plainly to the working class that without a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie, a true workers’ government can neither be achieved nor maintained. The only type of government that can be considered a genuine workers’ government is one that is determined to take up a resolute struggle at least to achieve the workers’ most important immediate demands against the bourgeoisie. That is the only type of workers’ government in which Communists can participate.

The first two types, the illusory workers’ governments (liberal and Social Democratic), are not revolutionary governments but can, under certain circumstances, speed up the decomposition of bourgeois power. The next two types of workers’ government (workers’ and peasants’ government; Social Democratic-Communist government) do not yet signify the dictatorship of the proletariat and are not even a historically inevitable transitional stage to this dictatorship. Rather, wherever they come into being, they are an important starting point for a struggle for this dictatorship. Only the genuine workers’ government consisting of Communists (#5), represents the fully achieved dictatorship of the proletariat.

Excerpted from John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front, pp. 1159–62. For a comparison of the wording in different drafts of this resolution, see “The Comintern’s unknown decision on workers’ governments on this blog.”

7. The United Front Against Fascism 

The following is the conclusion of Clara Zetkin’s celebrated address on unity against fascism, given on 20 June 1923 to the Third Enlarged Plenum of the Comintern Executive Committee.

By Clara Zetkin. Thus the struggle against fascism lays on us a rich array of new tasks. Every single section of the Communist International has the duty of taking up these tasks and carrying them out in a manner corresponding to the specific conditions in their country.

And we must be aware that overcoming fascism ideologically and politically is not in itself sufficient to protect the struggling proletariat from the malice and violence of this enemy.

At present the proletariat has urgent need for self-defence against fascism, and this self-protection against fascist terror must not be neglected for a single moment. At stake is the proletarians’ personal safety and very existence; at stake is the survival of their organisations. Proletarian self-defence is the need of the hour.

We must not combat fascism in the way of the reformists in Italy, who beseeched them to ‘leave me alone, and then I’ll leave you alone’. On the contrary! Meet violence with violence. But not violence in the form of individual terror – that will surely fail. But rather violence as the power of the revolutionary organised proletarian class struggle.

We have already made a start here in Germany toward the organised self-protection of the working class against fascism by forming the factory detachments.[1] These self-defence units need to be expanded and imitated in other countries as a basis for international success against fascism. But proletarian struggle and self-defence against fascism requires the proletarian united front.

Fascism does not ask if the worker in the factory has a soul painted in the white and blue colours of Bavaria; or is inspired by the black, red, and gold colours of the bourgeois republic or by the red banner with a hammer and sickle. It does not ask whether the worker wants to restore the Wittelsbach dynasty [of Bavaria], is an enthusiastic fan of Ebert, or would prefer to see our friend Brandler as president of the German Soviet republic.

All that matters to fascism is that they encounter a class-conscious proletarian, and then they club him to the ground. That is why workers must come together for struggle without distinctions of party or trade-union affiliation.

Proletarian self-defence against fascism is one of the strongest forces driving to establish and strengthen the proletarian united front. Without the united front it is impossible for the proletariat to carry out self-defence successfully. It is therefore necessary to expand our agitation in the factories and deepen it. Our efforts must overcome above all the indifference and the lack of class consciousness and solidarity in the soul of the workers who say, ‘Let the others struggle and take action; it’s not my business.’ We must pound into every proletarian the conviction that it is their business. ‘Don’t leave me out. I must be there. Victory is in sight.’

Every single proletarian must feel like more than a mere wage slave, a plaything of the winds and storms of capitalism and of the powers that be. Proletarians must feel and understand themselves to be part of the revolutionary class, which will reforge the old state of the propertied into the new state of the soviet system. Only when we arouse revolutionary class consciousness in every worker and light the flame of class determination can we succeed in preparing and carrying out militarily the necessary overthrow of fascism.

However brutal the offensive of world capital against the world proletariat may be for a time, however strongly it may rage, the proletariat will fight its way through to victory in the end. Despite fascism, we see the capitalist economy, the bourgeois state, and class rule at the end of their tether. Symptoms of fascist decay and disintegration in bourgeois society speak to us loudly and piercingly of coming victory, provided that the proletariat struggles with knowledge and will in a united front. That’s what must be!

Above the chaos of present conditions, the giant form of the proletariat will rear up with the cry: ‘I have the will! I have the power! I am the struggle and the victory! The future belongs to me!’

(Enthusiastic and prolonged applause. The assembly rises and sings ‘The Internationale’.)

Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, pp. 605–6.

[1]. A reference to the Proletarische Hundertschaften (sometimes translated as ‘proletarian hundreds’), which were workers’ militias for self-defence against the threat of rightist paramilitary attacks and assassinations.

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