Marches, Marxism and the united front

September 3, 2013

I WAS happy to read Keith Rosenthal's contribution ("Liberalism and the united front") to the ongoing discussion/debate about the united front. While I agreed with much of what Keith wrote, I must disagree with some of his formulations around liberalism (see below), although that is a relatively minor point.

Because my summary of Lenin's Left-Wing Communism ("Disorders of the left kind") was invoked in Rosenthal's letter, I felt compelled to write a response to this discussion in general--a discussion that I suspect is only tangentially about the united front.

As Paul D'Amato and others have outlined, the united front was a tactic developed by Leon Trotsky and the Comintern at a particular moment in history. While the overall socialist methodology behind it still applies, the actual conditions today are very different.

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.

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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. Too few in number, Trotskyists could not mobilize a genuine united front. It was largely propaganda.

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 (although it played out differently in the U.S. because of the lack of a labor or social democratic party).

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.

Of course, the united front tactic remains objectively correct in certain circumstances and the method behind it remains generally valid. And there should be introductory articles about the united front and its history on websites like But I don't necessarily believe the core of this argument is about the united front.

THE MOST important issue in this debate is not what revolutionaries say about one particular 90-year-old socialist tactic. The most important questions are those of perspectives (first) and organization (second).

This debate really began with questions raised by Shaun Joseph on his blog and in a letter to ("The contradictions of August 24") about the character of the march on Washington and what attitude to take to its liberal leadership. Shaun's concerns were, in my opinion, mostly valid--although I might have raised them somewhat differently.

As most everyone on the far left knows, the International Socialist (IS) tradition is undergoing a fairly thorough self-examination after the recent implosion of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Part of that is reflecting on what had been a consistently exaggerated sense of perspectives related to struggle over the past two decades. This exaggeration held that this or that struggle, protest, event, etc. would become some sort of turning point--implying or explicitly stating that a new era of struggle or politics was around the corner.

This tended to create a hothouse atmosphere and undermined democratic functioning. After all, no one wants to be the comrade that gets in the way of the next 1968. No one wants to be Kamenev or Zinoviev leaking plans for the insurrection. No one wants to be the workerist Trot ignoring the civil rights movement.

But by framing too many things in the context of turning points, new movements and historic openings, the result was inevitability to curtail political discussion of the actual content and context of those events.

This hothouse atmosphere also contributed to the loss of revolutionary socialists and cadre. This is one of the reasons (but not the only one) for the "glass ceiling" problem: Why it is that revolutionary organizations can't seem to break, in various countries, membership levels of 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000, etc. The hothouse atmosphere was also related to a tendency in the IS tradition to be overly hostile to insights from certain non-party Marxists, academics and theorists of oppression.

To be sure, many of these theorists made big mistakes (retreating from the actuality of revolutionary politics was chief among them), but they also had very important insights into changes in the world economy, cultural changes to the working class, the nature of gender oppression, etc. The British SWP led the way in this myopia, but none of us were immune.

This sectarian method was part and parcel of the exaggerated sense of activity, a democratic centralism that was more centralist than democratic, and a sense that a major turn in class struggle was just around the corner (when in hindsight it very clearly wasn't).

The feeling could pervade in the revolutionary group that an explosion of struggle was about to take place and that our politics would be its secret weapon. The truth was, of course, very different. For example:

-- 1. Gender oppression was a lot more complicated than Tony Cliff et al. would have had us believe.

2. There was a material basis for the ascendancy of post-modernism (and related ideas) in the academy. It wasn't simply crazy academic clap-trap.

3. The working class was completely restructured in such a way that it profoundly retarded class struggle and altered the nature of mixed consciousness.

4. Under neoliberalism, reformism was made increasingly unlikely (in Europe and the U.S., but not Latin America), but this did not lead to a corresponding rise of revolutionary consciousness.

5. The expanded reproduction of capital was actually possible in what was considered the economic periphery.

6. A series of assumptions about Leninism have been proven largely wrong--apparently having more to do with their articulation by the generation of 1968 than the generation of 1917.

Of course, there were many things our tradition got right.

And certainly the ISO did better on many of these questions than the British SWP--which is why we were thrown out of the International Socialist Tendency (along with comrades in Australia, Canada, Greece and elsewhere). One simply cannot paint the current ISO leadership with the same brush as the shameless leadership of the SWP. Most importantly, the ISO helped (along with other groups and tendencies in the Trotskyist tradition) keep working-class revolutionary politics alive.

But none of this changes what we got wrong, or that we (the revolutionary left generally) are still getting our heads around the dynamics of this historical moment. That is why it seems to me that this discussion about the united front is acting as a somewhat confusing stand-in for these other, frankly more important, conversations.

To its credit, the ISO is having an open discussion on these matters. I wish comrades nothing but the best in helping figure these things out: most importantly, the questions of the character of the current era (neoliberalism after the crash of 2008) and the related questions of democracy on the revolutionary left, the question of leadership slates, the nature of democratic centralism, etc.

There is a historic tendency among Trotskyists to be unnecessarily polemical. This comes from Trotsky's Fourth International mistakes, but also from our repeatedly embattled origins. The truth is that it is only now, with the left all but destroyed, that we are actually a serious ideological contender. We are an ideological contender standing in the ruins of the 20th century left. Reality must be confronted, but in a comradely manner. To paraphrase Trotsky it can be all too easy to lose a sense of scale and proportion.

Raising too much rhetorical heat over one demonstration is an echo of ingrained past mistakes, when International Socialists placed too much emphasis on glitter and not enough on gold.

Hopefully those days are over.
Adam Turl, Carbondale, Ill.

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