How German revolutionary workers wrote the “united front”

Submitted by Matthew on 21 March, 2013 - 11:13

In this second part of a review article looking at the themes of John Riddell’s new book of documents from the early communist movement Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Haymarket, 2012), Paul Hampton discusses the concepts of transitional demands and the united front.


The first three congresses of the post-Russian revolution Communist International (Comintern) had not elaborated a programme of demands, although they had issued manifestos and declarations.

Previous Marxist programmes had included the Communist Manifesto (1848), the Erfurt Programme (1891), various versions of the Russian Social Democratic programme, and the Spartacus programme (1918). A weakness of previous programmes was elaborating a link between the minimum, immediate demands for reform and the maximum goal of socialism — that is to say, a lack of “transitional” demands.

The debate was particularly important in Germany, where the German communists (the KPD) sought to grapple with its strategic responsibilities. For example, as the Marxist historian Pierre Broué has pointed out, transitional slogans were a favourite idea of KPD leader Heinrich Brandler. In mid-1922, the Comintern executive began to develop a programme for the International. However disagreements emerged about what should be included. At the Third Congress in 1921, the resolution “On Tactics” summed up what became the conception of transitional demands:

“In place of the minimum programme of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International proposes a struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands that, in their totality, undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, and mark out stages in the struggle for its dictatorship; each of these demands gives expression to the needs of the broadest masses, even if they do not yet consciously set the goal of proletarian dictatorship.”

Although the Fourth Congress did not adopt a formal programme and all sides agreed it was premature to do so, the discussion revealed important differences of interpretation.

The main reporter, Bukharin, disagreed with having tactical issues in the programme. He said: “Questions and slogans like the united front of the workers’ government or the seizure of material assets are slogans founded on a very fluid basis, one of a certain decline in the workers’ movement.” On 18 November he warned: “I will fight against that in every possible way. We will never permit such concepts to be built in to the programme”.

He was opposed by Thalheimer from the German party, who along with Brandler had been utilising transitional demands to build united fronts between the KPD and other workers’ organisations. Thalheimer confessed that he had “a sharp disagreement with Comrade Bukharin... [over] the question of transitional demands, demands for stages, and the minimum programme”. He said that “the specific disagreement between us and the reform-socialists is not the fact that we put demands for reforms, demands for a stage, [but that we have] demands and slogans very tightly [linked] with our principles and goals. This linkage is, of course, no guarantee in itself, any more than having a good map guarantees that I will not lose my way”.

The matter was discussed at a meeting of five Russian Communist party central committee members (Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin) on 20 November 1922 and concluded in favour of Thalheimer’s proposal. Bukharin was given the unenviable task of moving a resolution at the Congress against the perspective he had himself taken just two days previously. The resolution vindicated the use of transitional slogans and was adopted unanimously. It stated:

“3. The programmes of the national sections must motivate clearly and decisively the need to struggle for transitional demands, with the appropriate proviso that these demands are derived from the specific conditions of place and time;

“4. The overall programme must definitely provide a theoretical framework for all transitional and immediate demands. At the same time, the Fourth Congress strongly condemns efforts to portray as opportunism the inclusion of transitional demands in the programme”.

But this conception was never further developed within the Comintern. Although Thalheimer continued to defend transitional demands, Bukharin had had his way by the time of the sixth congress in 1928. The programme adopted at that congress eschewed the transitional approach.

It was Leon Trotsky who rooted out this crucial flaw in the Stalinised Comintern’s programme and went on to develop the conception, notably in his Action Programme for France (1934) and the Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (1938). Despite the misuse of transitional demands by many post-Trotsky Trotskyists, it is part of a priceless heritage from the early Comintern which, applied and adapted to current realities, retains its vitality for our politics.

The united front is one of the most common expressions in the Marxist lexicon today. It concerns the way in which revolutionary socialists work with and alongside reformist workers for action around specific goals.

It is premised on the fact that revolutionaries are in the minority, but can fight for reforms alongside other workers in order to develop the class struggle in a socialist direction.

The Fourth Comintern Congress was the largest meeting to discuss how to implement the united front tactic. However, the idea of the united front did not originate with the Comintern. It was the product of the actual experience of revolutionary workers, particularly in Germany, working out how to operate in the post-war circumstances.

The once million-strong German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had once contained all socialist tendencies before 1914, had shattered under pressure from the war. In 1916 the left and centre formed the Independent USPD. After the creation of workers’ councils, the SPD and USPD formed a government in November 1918. The Spartacus group around Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches formed the KPD. However, the party was severely repressed and many of its leaders killed.

In November 1920, KPD activists in Stuttgart, notably including Clara Zetkin, decided to launch a campaign for workers’ unity in action. They proposed in a local metal workers’ union that the union should petition their national leadership and other unions for united action. The Stuttgart metal workers adopted five demands reflecting workers’ most urgent needs: reduce prices for necessities of life; produce at full capacity and increase unemployment benefits; reduce taxes paid by workers and raise taxes on the great private fortunes; establish workers’ control of supply and distribution of raw materials and foodstuffs; and disarm reactionary gangs and arm the workers. Karl Radek’s comment on the initiative: “If I had been in Moscow, the idea would not even have crossed my mind”.

On 29 December 1920 the KPD leadership decided to initiate a wider movement for united working class action.

Paul Levi and Radek drafted an open letter, published 8 January 1921. The demands were:

1. United wage struggles to defend all workers and employees.

2. Increased pensions.

3. Reorganisation and increases in unemployment allowances.

4. Government provision of food ration cards at reduced cost.

5. Seizure of housing space for the homeless.

6. Measures to provide food and other necessities under the control of factory councils.

7. Disarmament and dissolution of armed bourgeois detachments and formation of workers’ self-defence organisations.

8. Amnesty for political prisoners.

9. Immediate establishment of trade and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia.

Although the KPD initiative was rebuffed by the SPD and USPD, the idea was further developed at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921.

The resolution “On Tactics” stated: “At the present moment the most important task of the Communist International is to win a dominant influence over the majority of the working class and involve the more active workers in direct struggle”— a strategy summed up in the slogan, “To the masses”.

At the end of November 1921, the Bolshevik Party’s political bureau decided to support the extension of the German united-action policy to the Comintern as a whole.

On 4 December 1921, a Comintern executive (ECCI) formally adopted the united front as policy. Riddell argues that the theses bore the mark of Zinoviev’s thinking, motivating the united front on the basis of the current conjuncture — “an unusual transitional period” — marked by worsening capitalist economic crisis, a shift to the left among the masses and “a spontaneous striving for unity” among workers. The theses proposed that the Communist parties “strive everywhere to achieve unity…in practical action” and “take the initiative on this question”.

A slogan focused on the idea of a “workers’ government” [a projected outcome of the united front tactic] was endorsed, although only for Germany. The discussion also included a debate on whether transitional demands should be included in the Comintern programme between Radek (yes) and Bukharin (no).

The new policy continued to provoke debate. And Russian communists continued their discussion at a party conference. Zinoviev and Bukharin presented united front policy as short term and stressed its role in exposing social democratic parties.

Trotsky, however, warned against “fatalistic conceptions” that Europe was experiencing the final run-up to the establishment of workers’ rule.

Within the Comintern, the French and Italian parties opposed the united front policy and the Norwegian majority believed it did not apply to their country. In Czechoslovakia and Germany significant minorities resisted the policy.

The Comintern executive did not force member parties to apply the policy. However, through a succession of discussions and experiences in the national sections, acceptance of the united front policy was widened.

At the Fourth Congress, debate focused on how, not whether, to apply it. Zinoviev explained the meanting of the united front in his executive report at the beginning of the congress. He said that “the united front is established by the overall situation of capitalism, by its economic and world political situation, and by the situation inside the workers’ movement”. The united front tactic was “the most effective means to win this majority of the working class. It must be stated clearly that the united front tactic is no mere episode in our struggle. It is a tactic that will endure for an entire period, perhaps an entire epoch”. He added: “We are against reformism, but not against bettering the lives of the working class… We can only organise the working class if we fight for its partial demands”.

Radek argued that workers must “unite at least for the struggle for bare existence, for a crust of bread”.

Communists should “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... Only by broadening, deepening and heightening these struggles will a struggle for [proletarian] dictatorship arise”.

But Bordiga continued to oppose the tactic, arguing that “the danger exists of the united front degenerating into a Communist revisionism”.

Edwin Hoernle compared the united front with “a narrow mountain ridge”: it is “slippery and the way is narrow”. But “when we stay put, merely philosophising as to whether we have reservations or run risks, we do not advance. In order to learn anything at all about applying the united-front tactic, we must take steps”.

Radek also explained what it meant in practice. He told the congress that the Communist Party of Great Britain would apply its united front tactic by seeking to affiliate to the Labour Party, and in the next election: “Vote for it and prepare for struggle against it”.

Zinoviev warned that the desire for unity had great attractive power in the ranks of the working class because “the working masses need unity as we need the air”. However, he warned against an attitude of “the more the better” in any situation, on the wrong demands and without action, which turned unity into a fetish and an idol.

Today, when the number of Marxists is tiny and largely in small groups, it would be aridly sectarian to refuse to work alongside other workers and in specific campaigns where action can be organised around clear but limited goals. The united front is not a trick or a deception: it is an honest attempt to tackle the problem of heterogeneity within the working class. The activity of Marxists is vital to galvanising and directing these struggles, as a lever seeking to transform the wider organised labour movement.

This “minimal” application of the method of the united front applies to the trade union movement, on the political front and in specific campaigns around feminism, climate change, wars and international solidarity.

But we should not deny the ambition of the early Comintern — as long as class-conscious Marxists do not have the support of a majority of workers, the united front is a burning necessity.

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