The ongoing relevance of the united front

August 22, 2013

Paul D’Amato responds to a discussion about how socialists organize.

I DISAGREE with many of the points raised in a response by M.B. ("Limitations of the united front") to my article on the united front ("Understanding the united front").

But before going into those, I want to take issue with the speculative nature of the response. If M.B. wants to weigh in directly on the debate about the August 24 March on Washington, that's fine. Instead, M.B. interpreted my article to be about things I didn't say, and then debated non-points I didn't raise.

M.B. then says I could be "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." I was not aware that invoking "core political ideas" stifled debate; I was under the impression that they helped shape and inform such debates. I fail to see how reference to our core politics in order to develop a methodology and approach to various contemporary questions "stifles" anything--unless, of course, what is being objected to is our "core political ideas."

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If anyone is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, it isn't me. It may be worth debating whether "top-down" demonstrations don't attract or radicalize people, whereas "non-hierarchical" movements do. But I didn't write about this. If M.B. wants to make the case that we should not mobilize for the August 24 demonstration in Washington, then M.B. should make that case clearly and forthrightly, rather than merely suggestively, and under the cloak of a criticism of an article that is primarily about history.

M.B. was also speculative about what my article "would lead" readers to conclude (that we should use the united front policy in relation to the August 24 demonstration, for example). Anyone who concludes from what I wrote that the ISO is in a position nationally to enter into formal alliances with mass reformist organizations that dwarf us in size didn't read it clearly. Nor do they understand the difference between a formal united front involving revolutionaries and reformists, and the united front method that can guide socialists in the formal and informal alliances we make locally for the purposes of advancing particular movements and struggles.

MY ARTICLE was largely a historical-theoretical piece (and a brief one at that), which attempted to explain the development of the concept of the united front in its historical context. It then only peripherally posed the question of the value in the concept today, concluding that since the conditions we operate in are fundamentally different, the "classical" united front does not really apply. I did conclude, however, that the method that informs the united front is still relevant. I did not elaborate on this point, given space constraints, and had planned to revisit this question in more detail in a future article.

I certainly do not accept M.B.'s dismissal of the united front as an "ossified and decades-old analytical tool," any more than I consider Marx core conceptions in Capital or the idea of the "self-emancipation of the working class" to be such, even though these ideas are even older.

Too often, this kind of argumentation is used to smuggle in ideas that are no newer or fresher than the ones being attacked. What does it mean to say that an idea is "ossified"? Is our interpretation of it ossified? Is it outmoded? If so, what is it that is outmoded? Is it that there is no mass working-class party that could apply the united front, or are we saying that the united front is wrong in all circumstances? If so, what should replace it? M.B. doesn't explore any of these avenues.

M.B. also says that I failed to "expand my range of examples...[W]hen we are talking about strategy, tactics, and analysis of current political situations, we tend to default to models from revolutionary Russia, rather than seeking to apply possible lessons from the civil rights movement, the second-wave feminist movement, the anti-globalization movement or any number of other social movements."

A cursory search on (or my book, the Meaning of Marxism, for that matter) would quickly inform any reader that neither nor myself draws lessons only from the 19th and early 20th century revolutionary movements in Europe.

It's true that in writing about the united front, I 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 I also had other questions in mind--for example, the efforts of the Greek socialist organization Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) operating inside of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). The left of SYRIZA, including DEA, is currently battling against efforts by SYRIZA's more moderate leadership to, under the cloak of "unity," deny the right of revolutionary groups to operate independently. If we consider SYRIZA to be an electoral united front, then the approach outlined by Trotsky--form a unified front, but maintain one's own independent organization--remains quite relevant.

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. Obviously, learning from history does not consist of looking only at what the Bolsheviks or other revolutionaries did in 1917 or 1921, and then applying it in cookie-cutter fashion. If we operated that way, we would not be Marxists, and we would not be relevant.

Yet there is much in the debate that remains freshly relevant despite the span of time and differing circumstances. Trotsky's comment, for example, that behind the fear of associating with reformism "lurks a political passivity which seeks to perpetuate an order of things wherein the Communists and reformists each retain their own rigidly demarcated spheres of influence," seems to me still hold relevance. Those who today, for example, argue that we should not mobilize for August 24 because it is a liberal, "top-down" affair leave the field open to reformists and their ideas to dominate unchallenged.

To fully grasp the character of modern capitalism, one must do more than read Marx's Capital. But one cannot develop a profound understanding of the nature of capitalism without first grappling with that text.

Likewise, studying and absorbing the lesson of the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Communist International are by no means a sufficient basis for operating as a revolutionary today. There are profound objective and subjective differences, as well as subsequent historical experiences and lessons that must be studied and absorbed. But a revolutionary who dismisses the importance of these revolutionary lessons on the grounds that they are "outdated" is either misunderstanding those lessons or belittling one of the most important parts of our revolutionary tradition.

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