The Communist Manifesto, the United Front, the Labour Party and History: Some Reflections
IN THIS 150TH anniversary year of the Communist Manifesto, it is surely worth labour movement activists stopping to examine whether their political activity is in any way derived from this founding document. I would like to set out a few arguments which I see as following up themes that I have touched on in previous issues of What Next?
The emergence of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) rightly provoked arguments for and against since What Next? No.1 came out. In No.7, Bob Pitt ("Recomposition in Britain: A Reply to Dave Osler") replies to an article from the previous issue in which Dave Osler described his negative experience in the SLP, after his initial enthusiasm, and his move on to yet another "recomposition" project to challenge the Labour Party ("Recomposition and the British Left"). I would associate myself with the thrust of Bob’s argument, particularly his asking of Dave Osler whether it isn’t time "to learn some lessons".
Ian Dudley, on the other hand, who travelled the same route as Dave Osler, in and out of the SLP, undertaking presumably a somewhat different project, an "entrist intervention", together with his comrades, intends to "draw and consolidate the lessons of this experience" in the next period ("The Socialist Labour Party: From Opportunity to Obstacle", What Next? No.7). Though judging by the article it all seems to stem from Arthur Scargill’s political inadequacies, as he only turned out to be a "left social democrat". Well, a lot of us did point out, at the time, that the SLP was set up not as a movement of a section of the working class but more as an ultimatum due to Arthur’s frustration over New Labour. The object was clearly to set up a pole of attraction for the many thousands of socialist activists who would leave the Labour Party in disillusion over the direction of New Labour. Otherwise they would drift off into passivity and be lost to the labour movement. The SLP was Arthur’s property from the start, a "gather round me" project, and Bob is undoubtedly correct when he argues that the SLP’s bureaucratic regime resulted, not from Scargill’s malevolence, but from the absence of a sizeable sector of workers leaving Labour to join the SLP. As Ian Dudley’s article makes clear, a variety of sects got involved in the SLP for the usual reason of recruiting to their own outfit. Being at a loose end, and with not much happening elsewhere, they saw the emergence of the SLP as a godsend, but Scargill knew that a good proportion of sectarians would descend on his party like flies attracted to a turd and give it the kiss of death, so he took steps to neutralise them.
One has to put the question: what did the groups that went into the SLP think they were doing? In my experience, few of the groups rooted in Trotskyism operate according to any long-term perspective, but only engage in get-rich-quick schemes, go from "turn" to "turn" looking for recruits, selling papers and raising money, all aiming towards "building the party" (a sect in reality). For example, the Mandelite Fourth International, the Healyite SLL/WRP, the Cliffite SWP, and now the Taaffites, having dumped Ted Grant, have adopted the method. Ian Dudley, for his part, sees the LP as "splintering" and "the beginning of a process of working class forces" breaking away from the "traitorous" LP. Here we see a throwback to the worst sort of sectarian terminology – not just the leadership but the whole LP is "traitorous". For Ian Dudley and Co, the "task of Marxists in this period is to seek to split working people away from it, and to build an alternative to it". But surely, if the LP is "traitorous", shouldn’t one employ the whole Third Period arsenal against it?
The united front
It is necessary to remind the comrades who expend so much time and energy splitting, flitting from one project to another, and building barren sects, that factionalism, splits over doctrinal disputes and resolutions – as opposed to deeds – have always been alien to the mass labour movement organisations, and although such methods have always been with us, became a more systematic and widespread phenomenon with the emergence of the Comintern and then later with Trotsky’s efforts to set up a rival International, since becoming so widespread and a source of humour among political opponents, neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever foresaw a situation where rival labour movements would, on a long-term basis, compete for the loyalty of the working class.
Of course the collapse of the Second International during the 1914-18 war, along with misunderstandings over the crisis of capitalism (common to all claiming adherence to Marxism at the time) and over the nature of the reformist parties and their real roots in society, among other things, gave cause to believe that the Comintern/Profintern would become the leading force in the international labour movement, but it was not to be, and once the revolutionary unrest had subsided the Communists found themselves in a minority in most countries. They were faced with the task of struggling to win a majority and finding the appropriate tactics to achieve that. They were opposed by reformist and/or centrist mass parties that needed to be displaced. Those comrades so eager to abandon or split from the Labour Party never get around to facing up to the latter problem of how to displace the existing mis-leadership, even if they do ponder over the former one of how to win a majority.The Comintern Executive (ECCI) adopted the united front tactic at the December 1921 session. In The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Volume 3, E.H. Carr quotes Zinoviev speaking at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International (CI) explaining why the united front tactic had been adopted: it was "an expression of our consciousness, first, that we have not yet a majority in the working class, secondly, that social democracy is still very strong, thirdly, that we occupy defensive positions and the enemy is attacking ..., fourthly, that the decisive battles are still not yet on the immediate agenda".
Carr points out that the united front, "like so much else in Comintern policy, was directly inspired by German conditions and German precedents. United front tactics had first been successfully applied by Brandler in Saxony at the time of the Kapp putsch, and had been generalised in the open letter of January 1921".3 Describing the German Communist Party (KPD) response to the Kapp putsch, Carr contrasts the action of the Chemnitz KPD led by Brandler to the initially sectarian "neutrality" of the Berlin party centre, and argues that "these first experiments in the history of the Comintern in what were afterwards known as united front tactics ... were made in response, not to any decision of policy in Moscow or Berlin, but to the hard logic of events".4 Moreover, Carr believes that "in practice, the only countries where serious attempts were made to apply the united front were Germany, Czechoslovakia and Great Britain".5
In What Next? No.7 ("Introduction to ’Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?’"), I explained how the Open Letter had emerged, being based on the Stuttgart Demands that were adopted at a general assembly of metalworkers on 2 December 1920 in Stuttgart, and subsequently spread throughout the metalworkers’ union and then to other unions and factories. In his Lenin’s Moscow, Alfred Rosmer quotes an "excellent exposition of the meaning and origin" of the united front, from an article Radek wrote at the time. Of the Open Letter, he wrote: "Like any tactical turn by a great party, this one was not born out of the theoretical meditations of a few men. When the central committee of the Party proposed it to a meeting of representatives from the branches, it turned out that a considerable number of provincial bodies were already working in this direction. The tactic was born from the practical needs of the German movement."6
The Communist Manifesto
Writing to Italian Socialist Party leader Turati on 26 January 1984, Engels advised him: "Ever since 1848 the tactics that have brought the Socialists the greatest successes were those set forth in the Communist Manifesto: ’In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie had to pass through, they [the communists] always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole ... The communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.’"7
Similarly, writing to Florence Kelly-Wischnewetzky on 28 December 1886, Engels criticises the Socialist Labor Party in the USA for "pooh-poohing" the Knights of Labour from without instead of trying to revolutionise it from within. The Germans (i.e. the SLP) had made a dogma out of their imported theory, whereas Engels insisted that "Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases", and what the Germans had to do was to act "as we did in 1845 and 1848 – to go in for any real genuine working class movement, accept its faktische [actual] starting point as such, and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme: they ought, in the words of the Kommunistischen Manifest: in der Gegenwart der Bewegung die Zukunft der Bewegung zu repräsentieren [to represent in the present movement the future of the movement]". Engels goes on to say that "a million or two of working men’s votes ... for a bona fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform".8 The extracts from those two letters set out quite clearly how the Manifesto authors approached the mass labour movement then.
In What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, written in 1932, one of the brochures on the united front considered as some of his best writing, Trotsky explains: "To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such ’national’ political battles as the one to repel fascism. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial – a cunning manoeuvre – not at all; it originates entirely and wholly in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat. The words in the Communist Manifesto which state that the Communists are not to be opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, carry with them the meaning that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of the workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks."9 Of course, the Manifesto goes further than that and insists that the "Communists do not form a separate party conflicting with other working class parties" and "they do not put forward any sectarian principles with which they wish to mould the proletarian movement".
The Labour Party
What are all the many sects, some masquerading as parties, up to in setting themselves up against the LP? There are so many of them that one can’t wholly generalise, but one can be safe in saying that they do not work according to the method set out by either Engels or Trotsky above. They do oppose themselves to the existing movement and separate themselves from it rather than accepting its actual starting point and working it up to the required level by participating in it. Some consciously set out to split the labour movement on the basis, not of a genuine movement of advanced workers, but of their own impatience or requirements.
The united front tactic doesn’t really apply to such small groups as they don’t represent any real sector of workers, so how should Marxists operate? The ECCI theses on the united front adopted in December 1921, referring to Britain, noted that the LP had rejected Communist Party affiliation, but also noted that "as a result of peculiar circumstances the English Labour Party is a kind of general workers’ association for the entire country". It was therefore "the task of the English Communists to begin a vigorous campaign for their acceptance by the Labour Party".10
Some are of the opinion that the CPGB application for LP affiliation was drafted in a sectarian fashion in order to guarantee rejection. Whether that was the case or not, it seems to me that one should have gone a very long way to attain affiliation, especially as capitalism was not in its death agony, bourgeois society was not that unstable and, significantly, the working class was not shifting from Labourism to Communism, as the ultra-lefts claimed, but from Liberalism, Irish nationalism, etc, to Labourism. In fact, in view of those circumstances, one could say that the CPGB had been set up prematurely, although it was not merely a national entity but a section of a world party. The latter point tended to obscure the fact that most CI sections lacked the necessary leadership qualities, a theoretical arsenal or theoreticians, and acknowledgment of their leading role by the working class – key factors in explaining the Russian dominance right from the early years, as it was often requested rather than imposed. Therefore, with hindsight, it seems to me that one should not have set up a separate party as a rival to the LP, but operated as long as necessary as a current of opinion, something looser than a rigid faction. In that way, one could have won good people over in the course of the events, and thus would have worked more in the manner as indicated by Engels in the letters above.13
In What Next? No.7, introducing the "Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin?" article by August Thalheimer, I quoted from Paul Frölich’s biography of Luxemburg where he wrote that "Rosa concerned herself more with the historical process as a whole and derived her political decisions from it, while Lenin’s eye was more concentrated on the final aim and sought the means to bring it about. For her the decisive element was the mass; for him it was the party, which he wanted to forge into the spearhead of the whole movement". She looked for a "total spiritual transformation in the masses", whereby the majority consciously desired, and would struggle for, the socialist society, and she tried to develop tactics for that.
The Spartakus leadership, many local leaders and ordinary members, shared that outlook, hence the role of Brandler in Chemnitz during the Kapp Putsch, the offer of a "loyal opposition" to a workers’ government should one come about as a result of the efforts of union leader Karl Legien, the Stuttgart initiative and similar ones referred to by Radek, whereby a united front approach was adopted without instructions from the top, not to speak of the ECCI.14 Though it seems to me that, Lenin excepted to some degree, the CI tended towards a rigid and at times sectarian understanding of the united front. Rosmer tells of how he tried to stop Zinoviev peppering ECCI missives with talk of "yellow" unions whose leaders he insulted, as such an approach would only have a negative effect, but in general a study of the German experience leads me to conclude that the united front was treated, not as something integral to Communist work, but rather as "something accidental, artificial – a cunning manoeuvre".
Authorities such as E.H. Carr and Jane Degras, among others, have described the united front as advanced by the CI as contradictory and unworkable, circumscribed as it was with so many contradictions. In Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic, Ben Fowkes argues also that "the limits of united front activities were always narrowly circumscribed in the minds of the leading Russians", and quotes from a letter from the ECCI to the KPD of 10 January 1922 to illustrate that. The united front "did not signify a compromise among socialist parties", it stated. Fowkes concludes: "Hence the campaigns were supposed to show results, not in terms of success for the agitation, but in terms of an accretion of Communist influence."15
That outlook surely originates in the focus on the centrality of the party, as opposed to the mass, as noted by Frölich in Leninism, even if Lenin himself was more flexible. In "Left Wing" Communism, for example, in Chapter 4, where he flays those who rule out compromises on principle, and points out that "one must be able to analyse the situation and the concrete conditions of each compromise, or of each variety of compromise", and gives numerous examples. One "must know how to distinguish concrete cases when compromises are inadmissible" and vigorously oppose them, but not allow the misleaders to get off the hook by "disquisitions on ‘compromises in general’". Also in Chapter 8, where he quotes Engels: "The German Communists are Communists because through all the intermediate stations and compromises, not created by them, but by the course of historical development, they clearly perceive and constantly pursue the final aim, the classless society."16
In his book on Angelo Tasca, In Stalin’s Shadow, Alexander J. de Grand quotes from a joint statement by Tasca and Thalheimer on the Draft Programme of the CI (prior to their expulsions in the aftermath of the Sixth Congress, both were on the Programme Commission), in which it says: "In our opinion the united front is a permanent tactical option until the party brings it about within its own ranks and its own sphere of influence."17
Trotsky’s writings on the united front in the early 1930s seem to me far superior to the CI materials of a decade earlier. That sectarian rigidity is largely absent. Even in the 1920s, one can see on Trotsky’s part a different attitude from that of the CI. For while the CI evaluated the KPD united front campaign over the murder of Walter Rathenau (24 June 1922) negatively, Trotsky was very positive.18 One can contrast the view of Zinoviev and the ECCI as expressed in a number of quotes set out by Fowkes, which point to the Rathenau campaign as a total failure, with Trotsky quoting to the French party Zetkin’s report of how the KPD had both increased its influence over the working class and initiated the establishment of assorted rank-and-file bodies, including the paramilitary Proletarian Hundreds. He talks of "the unquestionable political successes of the united front policy ... as ... attested by the report of comrade Klara Zetkin".19
However, in the same brochure by Trotsky in which he paraphrases the Communist Manifesto (What Next? Vital Questions ...) he falls into a sectarian posture. Polemicising against the Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei (SAP) in Chapter 9, he rejects the position upheld by the SAP, the KPD(O) and the Leninbund, of a common candidate for the presidential elections by the workers’ organisations. He castigates the author of an article in the organ of his German followers for upholding the position of a single workers’ candidate and insists that they must support Ernst Thälmann, chairman of the KPD and its candidate.20 This was in the face of the rise of fascism facilitated by Hindenburg’s re-election and subsequent appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. Trotsky’s position runs counter to the sentiment expressed in the Manifesto which he paraphrases, about the Communists having no separate interests from, and not coming into conflict with, the needs of the workers for unity in their ranks. Thus, in a brochure dedicated to the united front, Trotsky opposes it in relation to the specific question of the presidential election.
Whereas "on the occasion of the presidential election in April 1925, the ECCI presidium recommended to the KPD leadership that it approach the leadership of the SPD and the General German Trade Union Confederation (ADGB) with the offer of nominating a joint candidate and thereby hindering the election of a militarist or an outspoken monarchist. The sectarian forces in the KPD leadership rejected this proposal and thereby allowed the SPD Executive, which did not present a candidate in the second round of the election, to ally with the Catholic Zentrum and thus capitulate before clericalism. After the election of the Prussian-German militarist Paul von Hindenburg, which was a clear expression of the rightward development in Germany, the ECCI underlined, in an appeal issued on 27 April 1925: ’The monarchist danger is present in Germany. The workers and the Communists must clearly recognise this. The Communists cannot adopt the standpoint that it is of no concern of ours whether there is a monarchy or a bourgeois republic. The Communists cannot remain unconcerned in the face of this question, but place themselves at the head of the real struggle against the monarchist danger’".21 The failure to adopt a united front position towards the presidential election contributed to the downfall of that sectarian KPD Central Committee. The failure to present a common workers’ candidate led, in both cases, to Hindenburg’s election, to the advance of the reaction, and, finally, to the elevation of Hitler into the chancellorship, so the cause of Trotsky’s posture is worthy of examination.22
Some concluding remarks
Today there is no international Communist movement, neither is there any alternative international current. The various Fourth International centres are fraudulent caricatures representing no real sector of workers, lacking any theoretical novelties, and falsely claiming to be the leadership in spite of not being acknowledged as such by the advanced workers – they are self-perpetuating cliques outside of the real movement. In the real movement there are no left-centrist, centrist, and barely any left-reformist or even reformist currents remaining at present, so the "entry tactic" has no relevance, as entrism is about guiding and capturing a movement on the move towards revolutionary positions, in order both to establish a revolutionary party but also to demolish the mis-leadership. So whether we like it or not, the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions are the only arena available. Marxists must recognise that fact and take it as their starting point and work there. Sectarian trends and interventions by assorted sects and fake Internationals are only a damned past. In recognition of the situation in the labour movement, reflecting the collapse of "really existing socialism" on a world scale, those wishing to operate as Marxists in the real movement should stop carrying on in a knee-jerk fashion as if nothing has changed and instead subject their own past to a thorough evaluation, draw up a balance-sheet and learn some lessons, and, while not giving up activity, organise in a looser current around a journal, in which they can discuss their own experiences, as well as history and any theoretical problems they have discovered, throw off the mental chains fitted by the tyrants and charlatans who often run the assorted sects, and begin to study afresh the classics of Marxism. They should compare whatever they were engaged in previously with the approach set out in the classics – and why not, this year, start with the Communist Manifesto?
1. Arthur Rosenberg, "Kommunismus und Kommunistische Gewerkschaften", in Internationales Handbuch für das Gewerkschaftswesen, Berlin, 1932, pp.979-984.
2. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Vol.3, London, 1966, p.420.
3. Ibid, p.409.
4. Ibid, pp.177-8.
5. Ibid, p.419.
6. Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, London, 1971, pp.146-8.
7. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1934, pp.444-5.
8. Ibid, pp.376-7.
9. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Harmondsworth, 1975, p.136.
10. Jane Degras, ed, The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents, Vol.1, London, 1955, p.313.
11. M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, London, 1975.
12. Revolutionary History, Vol.5, No.2, contains an account of the united front as pursued by the KPD in the early 1920s, by August Thalheimer, translated by me. German readers should see Dirk Hernje-Oltmanns, Arbeiterbewegung und Einheitsfront (Zur Diskussion der Einheitsfronttaktik in der KPD 1920-1), Berlin 1973, and Arnold Reisberg, An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik. Der Kampf der KPD um die Aktionseinheit in Deutschland 1921-1922, 2 vols, Berlin (East), 1971, and numerous essays by Reisberg.
13. My view is set out in "Die Labour Party und der Marxismus", in Wladislaw Hedeler, Mario Kessler and Gert Schäfer, eds, Ausblicke auf das vergangene Jahrhundert, Hamburg, 1996, pp.229-50.
14. See Dokumente und Materialen zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Vol.VII – Part 1, Berlin (East), 1966, for the relevant texts from the Kapp Putsch, including the first, sectarian, KPD CC statement, the statement from the Erzgebirge-Vogtland (Chemnitz) District headed by Brandler, the position on the Workers’ Government, the Stuttgart Demands and the Open Letter.
15. Ben Fowkes, Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic, London, 1984, p.80.
16. Engels, "Programme of the Blanquist Communards", in Der Volksstaat, No.73, 1874 (Volksstaat was the organ of the Eisenacher social democrat party, edited by Wilhelm Liebknecht in Leipzig).
17. Alexander J. de Grand, In Stalin’s Shadow: Angelo Tasca and the Crisis of the Left in Italy and France 1910-1945, DeKalb, Illinois, 1986, p.56.
18. Trotsky, "Letter to the Congress of the French Communist Party", in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.2, London, 1953, pp.162ff. Zetkin’s report is appended to the letter.
19. Ibid, p.170.
20. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, pp.182-3.
21. Gisela Jähn, Horst Köpstein and Erwin Lewin, "Zum Wechselverhältnis von demokratischen und sozialistischen Forderungen im Kampf der Kommunistischen Internationale gegen Imperialismus und Faschismus", in Gisela Jähn, Erwin Lewin and Horst Schumacher, eds, Studien zur Geschichte der Kommunistischen Internationale, Berlin (East) 1974, pp.71-2.
22. Although outside the framework of this article, for what it is worth, in my opinion Trotsky built, first an international faction, and then an International opposed to the CI, based on his own positions in the factional dispute inside the Soviet party. It could only produce a very narrow grouping. In some ways his whole approach was a throwback to the pre-1917 Bolshevism that he had vigorously opposed, and which, when he adhered to it in the summer of 1917, he thought it had abandoned. The violent polemics, the constant splitting, the sectarianism that often engulfed the groupings, was not just a result of the times, the isolation, but can often be traced to Trotsky himself and his approach. That doesn’t mean that his positions or deeds weren’t correct on a whole number of issues both great and small.