Our past should inform our present

September 4, 2013

SocialistWorker.org editor Alan Maass contributes to the debate about the united front.

I WANT to add some comments to the discussion about the united front that has taken place at SocialistWorker.org and on the Internet about Paul D'Amato's article "Understanding the united front". Specifically, I want to disagree with an idea that seems common to many contributions--that while it might be useful as a matter of history to learn about the united front tactic developed by revolutionaries in the 1920s and '30s, socialists can take little from that history to apply to their current situations.

Obviously to anyone who has followed it, this debate is tied up with questions about the August 24 March on Washington and, in particular, how the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the publisher of this website, related to it. In the first Readers' View of the discussion ("Limitations of the united front"), M.B. asked whether Paul's article was "intended...to be part of the debate about the ISO's role" in the March. If so, M.B. wrote, it would have been "more productive to explicitly reference the March on Washington. Otherwise, the article has the feel of weighing in without actually addressing" specific questions about how the March was organized and what socialists should do in relation to it.

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Even contributions that differed with aspects of M.B.'s conclusions about the March seemed to me to accept that discussing the united front was of, at best, limited use in relation to the contemporary world.

First of all, as editor of this website, I would point out that we devoted a lot of articles to addressing the specific issues surrounding the March, including the politics of its liberal initiators and how they differed from our own. We published editorials, speeches, commentaries, historical articles and reports of local organizing that all, in varying degrees, referred to these questions.

So if we weren't avoiding a discussion of the specifics of the March elsewhere, then I have a question: What's so bad about reading an article about the development of the united front tactic in the last century with a mind to how its tenets might apply to today?

AS PAUL pointed out in that article, the united front tactic was one product of the high point of the international socialist movement so far--the early years of the Communist International in the 1920s, when it reflected the experiences of not only the successful Russian Revolution, but mass struggles in Europe and beyond that shook capitalism to its core.

Especially important is the fact that the united front was meant to guide the actions of revolutionaries outside the specific circumstances of Russia before 1917--to develop a method of organizing for socialists in countries with bourgeois democratic systems, established trade unions and mass reformist political parties, in contrast to the autocratic police state of the Tsar.

Everyone involved in the current discussion recognizes the obvious--that we live in different times today. The level of the class struggle is a fraction of what existed then, there are no mass revolutionary parties, and the parties of reformism that once stood for a different vision of socialism but ended up defending capitalism no longer have even the traces of their socialist origins.

But Paul argued, and I very much agree, that understanding the methodology of the united front is still invaluable for socialists. His article is a summary of some of the insights of revolutionaries--particularly Leon Trotsky--about how to, and how not to, apply the united front tactic. We of course have to adjust for the very large differences in concrete conditions, but the methods of the united front have a lot to teach us.

As Paul wrote in response to M.B. ("The ongoing relevance of the united front"), the March on Washington is not the only contemporary question where knowing this history is useful. He cites the example of how Greek revolutionary socialists operate within the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA. We have an enormous amount to learn--despite the very different conditions of the struggle in Greece and the U.S.--from how the comrades of the Internationalist Workers Left have acted within SYRIZA in unity alongside political forces with which they have significant differences, while not merging into those forces.

Likewise, there's value in thinking about the challenges facing Egyptian revolutionaries with the 90-year-old experiences of the united front tactic in mind. Members of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt have referred specifically to the united front in describing their practical efforts--as a small organization, but with a significant profile among the forces of the revolution--to advance the struggle.

But I also think socialists can think about the united front method in circumstances more commonplace in the U.S.--including understanding how to relate to an event like the March on Washington last month.

Obviously, there are elements of the tactic that don't fit. The organized socialists in the ISO, however energetic, are too small to initiate a formal united front with organizations that represent much larger numbers, like the NAACP. Organizing a one-day national demonstration is different from what Trotsky and the European revolutionaries understood to be ongoing action campaigns involving militant workers.

But Paul, in his response to M.B., gave an example of one insight of the united front method with clear relevance--that hesitating to participate in activity with other political forces because of the conservatism of the leaders of those forces "[perpetuates] an order of things wherein the Communists and reformists each retain their own rigidly demarcated spheres of influence," as Trotsky wrote. In other words, we lose an opportunity to talk to the people who are influenced by those leaders.

I'll suggest another. Trotsky wrote that revolutionaries propose united fronts with reformists because "[w]e are, apart from all other considerations"--meaning apart from the very practical consideration that we want to see struggles and movements that are large and united enough to be effective--"interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses."

The excellent (in my opinion!) reports at SocialistWorker.org on organizing leading up to the March and on the March itself showed that many people who mobilized for Washington are part of other struggles against racism and for justice--protesting the Zimmerman acquittal and the New Jim Crow, challenging educational apartheid or environmental racism, being active in their union. Mobilizing for Washington was an opportunity to engage with people who are politically active, but who have likely been shaped by political ideas other than ours, and to advance a discussion about what socialists say.

Moreover, the event itself raises questions about the political leaders who initiated it, which we should call attention to. Rev. Al Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network and keynote speaker at the March, has spent the last few years criticizing any Black figure who dared to ask why Barack Obama has done nothing on any question critical to the Black community. We want to know whether those who organized and marched alongside us think Sharpton was right when he was attacking Cornel West and Tavis Smiley--or when he was speaking out against the federal government's inaction as millions of people, disproportionately Black, became victims of the mortgage crisis.

But isn't all this common sense? Don't socialists always want to talk about our ideas with as many people as possible, regardless of what Trotsky wrote 90 years ago? Aren't we always vying for influence? Maybe so. But wouldn't it also seem like common sense to be suspicious of a national protest sponsored by organizations that defend Obama and the Democrats? What do we do when the "common sense" reactions conflict?

I'll just say that as someone who has written my share of SW editorials and articles about demonstrations and political movements in the U.S., I find it extremely helpful to think through such questions in light of the lessons of the united front.

THE LATEST contribution to this discussion from Adam Turl ("Marches, Marxism and the united front") starts by distinguishing between liberalism in the U.S. today and the reformist political forces that existed when the tactic of the united front was developed.

He's right, though I also think we shouldn't be overly rigid on this point. The U.S. doesn't have a history of mass reformist parties, but it obviously does have a history of struggle and organization among workers and the oppressed, with many of the leaders and political currents that emerged from them formally committed to liberalism rather than social democracy. I think many of the lessons of the united front method can still be applied, with all the regular provisos about recognizing different circumstances.

But most of Adam's article isn't about the united front debate at all, but another discussion--about whether the ISO, in committing to mobilizing for the March on Washington, was "seeing every mass demonstration as necessarily/automatically 'transformative' of the political situation; [and] considering criticism of an event to be inimical to effectively building it," to quote a Readers' View by Shaun Joseph ("The contradictions of August 24") that Adam cites.

Adam himself never characterizes the ISO's attitude to the March in these terms, though he seems to bolster Shaun's assertions with a wide-ranging critique of the political perspectives and organizational priorities of...well, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, first and foremost, but also the ISO, it seems.

I won't take up any of this. Whatever truth there may be in Adam's point about the problems of revolutionary socialist groups having an exaggerated perspective, the discussion needs more than one-sentence assertions that link together Tony Cliff on gender oppression, the ascendency of post-modernism, the restructuring of the working class, etc.

What I will dispute is the idea that SocialistWorker.org promised the March on Washington would be "necessarily/automatically transformative of the political situation" or that we buried criticisms of the March and its organizers. I'd like to see the evidence on either of those points.

Here's what we did "promise" in an editorial for the August edition of Socialist Worker: "Organizing for the August 24 anniversary events in Washington and elsewhere can be another step toward focusing that anger and discontent [evident in the response to the Zimmerman verdict]. Those who want to follow in the footsteps of the civil rights movement today should use this opportunity to deepen the connections between the people who are beginning the work of challenging the many faces of racism and injustice in the U.S. today."

This isn't to say that Socialist Worker and the ISO have never made a mistake in assessing political situations. We have--though I also remember trying to be sober and realistic, and to correct whatever mistakes we made.

But as for last month's demonstration, our expectation seems on the mark in retrospect--maybe even too modest. The March on Washington was the largest anti-racist mobilization of the Obama years, and many more before that. It brought at least 100,000 people to Washington to send a clear message of opposition to racism. Among the crowd were thousands upon thousands of people involved in many different struggles in many different corners of the country.

It would have been a shame for socialists not to make every effort to mobilize to be there.

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