Birth of a tactic
John Riddell spoke to Communist University 2020 about the struggle of communist parties to win over the majority of workers
In the Communist manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels stated that communists ally with “every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” - that is, with bourgeois forces acting in a revolutionary way and also working class forces inclined to socialism:
The communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class ... But they never cease … to instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat.1
Here we have it: the logic of what later came to be called the ‘united front’.
But that term was introduced only 70 years later to describe initiatives in a different environment, where unity seemed distant. The united front’s gestation took place in the early Communist International between 1920 and 1923.
Before recounting this intricate story, I am going to suggest four leading questions to help you stay on track:
- Are initiatives coming more from the leaders in the national communist parties or from the working-class base?
- On the international level, do initiatives come more from Comintern’s Moscow-based executive committee or national parties?
- Is policy developed in a democratic fashion or from the top down?
- Does the communist movement show a capacity to correct its errors?
Split in socialism
Our story starts in the Second International. Launched in 1889, it drew together nearly all socialist and labour parties in Europe and North America. But that unity was shattered by the impact of World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution.
When the Communist International or Comintern was founded in 1919, the world socialist movement was split into three mutually hostile camps: first, the discredited forces that had backed the war; second, revolutionary socialists who identified with the Russian Soviet republic; and, third, forces critical of both sides, termed ‘centrists’.
In late 1918 and 1919 a tide of revolution swept across Europe, inspiring communists with hope that workers’ power would quickly spread westward across Europe. By late 1920, however, capitalist rule had been restabilised, at least for the moment. Outside Russia, social democratic leaders committed to the defence of capitalism still enjoyed majority support among workers. These forces blocked not only socialist revolution, but effective defence of workers’ living conditions.
The Communist International adopted the united front policy as a way to reopen the road to united working class action. Its core idea was that the communist parties should approach the social democratic movements at both leadership and membership levels, seeking united action around basic demands supported by the entire workers’ movement. Communists pledged to loyally apply the decisions of united front bodies, while reserving the right to advance their own point of view.
Proclaimed in December 1921, the policy had evolved over several years in a process marked by dissension, ambiguities and many false steps. It was driven forward mainly by the thinking and initiatives of the working class ranks, especially in Germany.
United front policy was rooted in Bolshevik initiatives toward their Menshevik rivals before the October Revolution. The soviets of 1917 were also a type of united front. The October revolution was organised by a soviet united-front sub-committee and led to a coalition government of Bolsheviks along with the peasant-based Left Socialist Revolutionary Party.
There was a similar pre-history in central Europe, where united workers’ and soldiers’ councils led the revolutionary overthrow of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires in November 1918. This unity was soon shattered by the armed assault against German workers’ councils organised by the ‘official’ Social Democrats in the months that followed. The first step to heal the breach came in Hungary, and it was initiated, paradoxically, by social democratic forces.
In a country shaken by war, economic collapse and revolution, in March 1919 the Hungarian social democrats called upon the newly formed Communist Party to join them in forming a government and, moreover, to seal the pact through an organic fusion of their two parties.
The Hungarian communists agreed. They dominated the joint government, based on workers’ councils, that ruled for four months, until its overthrow by invading capitalist armies. Comintern writers criticised the unprepared top-down fusion of the communist and social democratic forces, which had eliminated the communists as an independent force, while leaving the regime vulnerable to betrayal. But were communists wrong to consider a governmental alliance with the social democrats? That vital question got little attention.
The most explicit comment came from Comintern leader Karl Radek. A coalition government of this type was appropriate under some circumstances, he said, but communists should not give up their separate organisation.
Against a coup
During the months that followed, the Comintern focused its attention on unifying truly revolutionary forces and gave little attention to alliances. In March 1920, however, the need for a coalition of workers’ forces was posed again, first on a trade union and then at governmental level. Both times the initiative came, once again, from the social democratic side.
Germany’s newly formed capitalist republic was under attack from rightist plotters. On March 13 1920, they mounted a coup, led by Wolfgang Kapp, which drove the government into flight. That same day, the SPD-led trade unions called for a general strike to defend the republic. The Communist Party, amazingly, declined to rally to support the strike. There was no point in opposing the Kapp putsch, they said, because the real struggle was for workers’ power, and that lay in the future.
As workers across Germany rallied to the general strike, the communists quickly corrected their error and soon played a leading role in joint workers’ strike committees. Still, the pre-war social democracy would not have made that error. Somehow, the principle of defending democratic rights - so fundamental to the Second International - had slipped from view.
The strike was solid across the country. Workers’ armed resistance spread, sometimes led by unified workers’ councils, and after four days the putschists fled.
But the general strike continued. Strikers demanded a new government and decisive action against the rightist militarist threat. Carl Legien, chair of the union confederation, proposed that the SPD’s coalition with bourgeois parties be replaced by a workers’ government, formed by the SPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) and the trade unions. The leadership of the Communist Party (KPD) expressed support for this proposal, promising to act towards such a government as a “loyal opposition”. But the centrist USPD refused to take part, killing the proposal. The strike gradually died away, and the government and army brutally re-established control.
The KPD’s “loyal opposition” statement came under strong criticism from many party leaders and was rejected by the party central committee in a 12:8 vote. One of the minority comrades pointed out that the workers’ government concept was similar to the Bolsheviks’ call, shortly before the October 1917 revolution, for Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to break with the bourgeoisie and form a government based on the soviets. Radek denied that the Russian example was relevant. Lenin, however, judged the KPD statement to be “quite correct both in its basic premises and in its practical conclusions” and affirmed that the Bolsheviks’ approach in 1917 was indeed relevant to the German discussion.2 Lenin’s comments had sufficient authority to end the discussion, but the disagreement remained unresolved.
Meanwhile, the prominence of united action committees during the Kapp struggle drew criticism from Comintern leader Béla Kun, former head of the short-lived Hungarian soviet government and well-known for his ultra-leftist views. The “unity ideal” expressed in the Kapp actions was “counterrevolutionary”, Kun said;3 communists should act alone. Others shared Kun’s viewpoint.
In 1920 Lenin wrote a celebrated pamphlet on the errors of “leftwing” communism.4 He did not comment specifically on united fronts, but his pamphlet did recommend that British communists give electoral support to Labour candidates and apply for affiliation to the party. Two years later, Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev said that in these proposals by Lenin “we already find the entire united front policy, adapted to British circumstances”.
The united front approach was tested when the Polish government invaded Soviet Ukraine in April 1920. In response, pro-Soviet solidarity actions across Europe halted arms shipments to Poland. In Germany, the social democratic and union leaderships formed joint committees to lead the actions, in which communists were able to participate at a local level.
Another arena for united action opened up after 1917 with the spread of liberation struggles among the oppressed Asian peoples within the old tsarist empire. The left wing of these movements viewed the soviet government as their peoples’ best defence against religious, national and racial oppression, and sought alliances with the communists. The Second Comintern congress, held in July-August 1920, proclaimed the need for such coalitions across the colonial world, pledging the International’s support for “the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights”.
In September, the Comintern convened the First Congress of the Peoples of the East - a gathering of 2,000 delegates from across Asia in Baku, Azerbaijan. The congress acclaimed the call “Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite!” - an expanded version of the Communist manifesto’s historic appeal. The Baku congress manifesto proclaimed a “holy war for the liberation of the peoples of the east”.
At a conference on the Far East two years later, Comintern leader GF Safarov summarised the communist attitude to the nationalist movement in China, led by Sun Yat-sen:
We support your struggle in so far as it is a matter of a nationalistic and democratic uprising for national emancipation. But at the same time we shall independently carry on our communist work of organising the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses of China.5
In the summer of 1920, the German comrades began efforts to recreate the fighting unity of the Kapp days. Workers in Stuttgart took the lead. “We did not then have any theory of united front,” one communist later recalled. “But [we] instinctively applied this policy whenever there was a demonstration against inflation and [wage-cutting].”6
The successful resistance to the Kapp putsch gave the revolutionary left new energy. A majority of the centrist USPD voted in October to join the Comintern and fused with the KPD in December, creating a united party with more than 300,000 members. Even so, the KPD enjoyed the support of less than a fifth of the working class.
In November 1920, the Stuttgart ranks took a promising initiative to break this deadlock. Communists in the local metalworkers’ union petitioned the union’s leadership for united action. The leadership of 26,000 Stuttgart metal workers responded by adopting five demands “held in common by all workers”:
- 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.
- Disarm reactionary gangs and arm the workers.
The demands were overwhelmingly adopted by a general assembly of Stuttgart metalworkers. Radek remarked, tellingly: “If I had been in Moscow, the idea would not even have crossed my mind.”7
Leading bodies of the unions, the USPD and the SPD at first ignored the Stuttgart initiative. In local union bodies, however, it found a warm welcome. Soon, according to the trade union editor of the KPD’s leading newspaper, “resolutions of support were piling up in our office by the hundreds”.8 But the SPD and USPD found pretexts not to support the initiative.
Impressed by the strong response to the Stuttgart initiative, the KPD central leadership (the Zentrale) decided on December 29 to initiate a generalised movement for united working class action. Although supported by Radek, the decision was opposed by many members of the party leadership, on the grounds that the newly united party needed to focus on its own initiatives rather than searching for allies. The decisive Ruhr region, however, responded that they had already taken such a united initiative.
The outcome was an open letter of the KPD to other workers’ parties and four trade union federations, calling on them to come together in actions to fend off the bosses’ offensive against workers for demands similar to those in the Stuttgart appeal, in order to achieve “the minimum that the proletariat must have now in order not to perish”.9
Once again, the response from national leaderships was negative. Yet this did not stem the wave of support from rank-and-file union and social democratic organisations, and the KPD soon reported that more than two million workers were on record as favouring the open-letter demands.
Soon there was motion in the social democratic camp. The SPD appealed for aid to destitute unemployed workers. A Berlin assembly of factory council representatives called for a united national action to counter unemployment. On February 26 1921 the unions’ executive published 10 demands to “combat unemployment”. The KPD, while criticising the union demands, declared it would do everything possible to support them and help achieve their victory.
No major action resulted. The SPD leadership viewed the united-front campaign as partisan, an attempt to shift the relationship of forces in the KPD’s favour. There was a kernel of truth in this: only by radically increasing its influence in unions and the working class could the KPD gain the leverage to achieve united action and create the conditions for revolutionary victory.
To work through these contradictions required time, and in March 1921 time suddenly ran out.
Even as the German communists’ campaign for unity scored gains, there were increasing calls in the KPD for the party to take bolder initiatives in struggle - on its own, if necessary. The strain between these two approaches reflected divisions within the German working class as a whole. After the defeat suffered by revolutionary workers in early 1919, the class struggle had remained deadlocked for four years: the objective conditions cried out for revolution, but the working class was unable to break through.
In the words of Clara Zetkin, the workers were “almost desperate”, yet “unwilling to struggle”.10 A member of the left opposition within her party later commented: “Everything was bogged down. We faced a wall of passivity. We had to break through it, whatever the cost.”11 In a discussion with Zetkin, Lenin referred to “discontented, suffering workers who feel revolutionary, but are politically raw and confused … World history does not seem to hurry, but the discontented workers think that your party leaders don’t want it to hurry.”12
In the Moscow leadership, Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin were sympathetic to those impatient for a breakthrough - a view also promoted by Kun and other left-inclined Hungarian leaders who had been incorporated into the Comintern general staff.
Kun’s concerns were also shared by a new ‘left’ opposition in the KPD, dominant in the decisive Berlin-area region, which opposed the ‘open letter’ policy. Their views found support on the Comintern executive, where there was talk of the KPD’s “alarming wavering towards opportunist tendencies and an element of passivity”.13 Bukharin and Zinoviev articulated these views, while Radek defended the open letter. Lenin sent a message, terming the KPD’s tactic “absolutely correct”14 - which prevented its condemnation, but resolved nothing.
In late February, tensions in the German party came to a head. A new leadership took the helm, formed of those favouring what was now becoming known as the “theory of the offensive” - that is, the notion that communists - even with only minority support among workers - should launch an all-out assault on capitalist power. Less than two months after its adoption, the open letter was dumped.
In March the policy of the offensive was put to the test in Germany. In conditions of great social tension, the party geared up for a showdown. Comintern’s executive committee intervened. Three EC emissaries arrived from Moscow - Béla Kun and two others sympathetic to his ultra-left views. They threw their full authority behind the drive for a revolutionary offensive. The government staged a provocation: an attack on workers’ strongholds in Saxony. The KPD responded with a call for an insurrectional general strike.
Across Germany worker ranks were deeply divided, and only a minority followed the KPD call. In some cases, communist activists seeking to enforce a strike clashed with workers trying to enter their factories. The strike failed. When the dust cleared, the KPD had lost more than half its membership, and its ties to the ranks of workers were greatly weakened.
When the 3rd Congress of Comintern convened in June 1921, supporters of the March action seemed likely to win a majority. Clara Zetkin led a minority of KPD delegates in opposition.
Steps to recovery
Yet, even as the KPD majority pressed for backing from the 3rd Congress, the trade union base of the party pulled it back onto the ‘open letter’ course. On April 15 1921, a circular from the KPD Zentrale, while defending March Action policies, also upheld the demands of the open letter as a platform for common struggle against the capitalist offensive.
The KPD’s ‘May Day appeal’ went further, calling for support for the ‘10 demands’. The union leaders rebuffed this overture, but the communists swung into action on a local level and achieved many united actions. Many party leaders continued to nod in the direction of the theory of the offensive, while implementing a diametrically opposed policy. By mid-June, as the 3rd Congress convened, the KPD had rebuilt some of its influence and was once again able to initiate united mass demonstrations.
Early in 1921, the KPD also initiated a broadly based committee for defence of working class political prisoners, chaired by Zetkin. It was the forerunner of International Red Aid (Russian acronym: MOPR), founded during the 4th Comintern congress in November 1922 - which achieved impressive scope and reputation, notably in its defence of the framed US anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. It was among the Comintern’s most successful united front initiatives.
Comintern’s 3rd Congress (June 23 - July 12 1921) was dominated by debate on issues arising from the March Action. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky later wrote that at the start of the congress the prevailing mood was to generalise the KPD’s March policy, an “attempt to create a revolutionary situation artificially - to ‘galvanise the proletariat’, as one of the German comrades put it”.15
This view was argued by the German leadership majority, with initial support from Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek. The opposition to this course was led by Lenin and Trotsky in the Russian delegation, and Zetkin in the KPD. The congress decision, which sought to quell ultra-left impulses, was summarised in a sentence of its ‘Theses on tactics’: “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 workers in direct struggle” - a strategy summed up in the slogan, “To the masses”.16
Two aspects of the 3rd Congress decisions prefigured the united front policy adopted by the Communist International six months later:
- First, the Theses on tactics endorsed the KPD’s open letter as an “excellent example” of its strategy.
- Second, the theses articulated a new conception of the type of programme that communists should advance in a period of preparation for a struggle for power. The heart of this approach was summarised in a single sentence:
In place of the minimum programme of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International proposes a struggle 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 [rule].17
This strategic vision came to be known as a programme of ‘transitional demands’.
The 3rd Congress did not end the conflict within the German party and the Comintern leadership. Yet the KPD congress in August adopted a 12-point programme for a “struggle against hunger and poverty” as a basis for efforts towards united action both nationally and locally.
Hours after the congress closed, an ultra-right organisation assassinated a leading German bourgeois politician, Matthias Erzberger, whom they hated for having signed the armistice ending World War I. The KPD’s Rote Fahne immediately called for united action, including with the Christian trade unions linked with Erzberger’s pro-Catholic Centre Party. In Berlin all three workers’ parties called for a united demonstration, which drew half a million participants. Marches and strikes across Germany embraced about five million protestors.
During the months that followed, the KPD fully resumed the course of the open letter, and its initiatives for united action made encouraging headway. Among the most successful was an international campaign for aid to war-torn Soviet Russia, launched on July 27 1921 in response to a widespread famine. A wide range of non-communist intellectuals and workers rallied to support this effort.
A leading role in this work was played by the Communist Women’s Movement, led by Clara Zetkin. The Comintern women scored similar successes in building broad support for International Women’s Day and campaigns for women’s political and reproductive rights.18
Recalling, two years later, the 1921 united front discussions in the Comintern leadership, Zinoviev said: “Actually, I too had misgivings then. Much was not yet entirely clear … It was a difficult transition, and we went through an intense inner struggle.”19
No record is available of how the Bolshevik leaders came to an agreement. However, at the end of November 1921, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin proposed to the Bolshevik political bureau that the Russian party support extension of the German united-action policy to Comintern as a whole. The bureau’s motion, drafted by Lenin, approved this course and also directed Bukharin to write up the Bolsheviks’ pre-1917 experience of blocs with the Mensheviks; it appears in the executive committee united front resolution adopted later that month. Bukharin’s write-up evoked little discussion, and the Bolsheviks’ united front experience in the revolutionary year of 1917 remained unexamined.
On December 4, Zinoviev recommended to the Comintern the adoption of the united front. Theses on the united front, presented for vote on December 18, bore the mark of Zinoviev’s thinking. The united front was motivated on the basis of the current conjuncture. The workers’ government slogan was endorsed, although only for Germany. The KPD’s experiences in pressing for united action were not dealt with.
Hardly a mention was made during the united front discussion of the rising fascist movement then terrorising and destroying workers’ organisations across Italy. The question did come up, however, at the December 4 executive committee meeting. Italian delegate Egidio Gennari argued that there was no basis for a united front policy in his country. Bukharin responded:
In a country where fascists are shooting down the workers, where the entire land is burning, the mere existence of the fascist organisation is enough for us to say to workers, ‘Let us unite to strike down this riffraff.’20
Bukharin’s suggestion fell on stony soil. The Italian communists, then led by Amadeo Bordiga, held to their view that communists should conduct anti-fascist resistance on their own, without alliance with workers’ groups outside their ranks. When workers spontaneously formed anti-fascist combat groups, the Communists opposed them. The passage on Italy in the executive committee’s united front resolution of December 18 did not mention fascism and praised the Italian CP for its implementation of a policy to which it was in fact strongly opposed.
Bukharin took up this failing in a subsequent letter to the Italian party. But there was no follow-up from the executive committee. The Italian CP’s failure to carry out united anti-fascist resistance contributed decisively to Mussolini’s triumph in November 1922. At Comintern’s 4th Congress that convened later that month, the need for an anti-fascist united front was raised - not by the Italian CP, not by the Comintern executive committee, but by communists from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Switzerland, who secured adoption of their position as the congress ended - too late for inclusion in the resolutions.
Six months after Mussolini’s triumph in Italy, a celebrated address by Clara Zetkin21 finally provided Comintern with a clear stand for unity against fascism.
Comintern’s new united front policy encountered far more opposition in the member-parties than it had in the executive committee. One of the most frequently voiced objections was that the united front should be built ‘from below’ rather than ‘from above’: that is, social democratic workers should be recruited directly to communist campaigns, without reference to their organisations. EC leaders responded that it was precisely the impossibility of forging effective unity in this way that made a formal approach to the social democratic leaderships necessary.
When an expanded plenum of the executive committee met in Moscow, from February 24 to March 4 1922, the united front was the main agenda item. One hundred and five delegates attended, from 36 countries. Among the five most influential Comintern sections outside Russia, the French and Italian parties opposed the united front and the Norwegian majority believed it did not apply to their country. In Czechoslovakia and Germany significant minorities resisted the policy. Opinion was similarly divided in smaller parties.
At the close of the plenum, the united front policy was adopted by a 46:10 vote. The executive committee made no attempt to force member-parties to apply the policy. However, through a succession of discussions and experiences in national sections, acceptance of the united front policy widened.
At the 4th Congress, in November-December 1922, debate focused on how to utilise it. The congress moved to apply the united front concept to a broader range of situations: not just during a working class retreat, but also during its forward march to power; not just immediate, but also transitional demands, which put in question capitalist property rights; not just by placing demands on the regime, but by replacing it with a workers’ government.
Here the Comintern grasped the concept of a workers’ government, raised in Germany during resistance to the Kapp putsch. Such a government would rest on the mass movement of working people and act to meet their needs. It could be based on workers’ councils, as in Russia, but winning a parliamentary majority could also play a role in its establishment. In any case, it would be a transitional government, striking blows at capitalist power and seeking to open the road to socialism.
A year later, in 1923, the Comintern broadened the formula to encompass possible workers’ and farmers’ governments.
The Comintern thus tied together united front, transitional demands and workers’ government in a single strategic arc, reaching from today’s movements to a struggle for power.
During the years following its adoption, the united front policy continued to encounter resistance within the Comintern, particularly from the leftist current in Germany led by Ruth Fischer. In 1924, Comintern’s congress withdrew the proposal to discuss common actions with leaders of non-communist formations. The policy was thus reduced to an appeal for the working class ranks to support communist initiatives, which meant essentially no united front policy at all. There were two further reversals, of course, later in the 1930s.
During the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Comintern rejected an anti-fascist alliance with the social democrats, thus repeating the error committed a decade earlier in Italy, with the same disastrous results. In 1935, Comintern switched to what it called a ‘people’s front’ policy, which involved unity not only with other workers’ parties, but with a wing of the imperialist bourgeoisie - violating a basic principle of Comintern in Lenin’s time.
Given this confused legacy, we need to seek guidance from the original presentation of the united front in Lenin’s time. I have pulled together relevant short readings on my blog under the title, ‘First formulations of the united front’.22
What was it that made the united front concept so problematic for the communist movement during Lenin’s time? Yes, we can point to serious errors of leadership. But in my opinion, during these years, events were shaped by two underlying factors: first, the widespread impatience for action among the most militant workers, and also among many communists; and, second, sectarianism - that is, an impulse to place the party’s perceived short-run interests above those of the working class as a whole.
John Riddell - a veteran socialist activist based in Toronto - is chief editor and translator of the first eight volumes of the Communist Publishing Project.
He blogs at johnriddell.com, where a more detailed 2011 version of this text is available, titled ‘The origins of the united front policy’.23
VI Lenin CW Moscow 1971, Vol 31, pp109 and 166.↩︎
B Kun, ‘Die Ereignisse in Deutschland’ (1920) Kommunismus No11-15 (March-April), pp349, 441.↩︎
Comintern The First Congress of the toilers of the Far East London 1970, pp193-94.↩︎
Comintern Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale 1923, p384.↩︎
P Broué The German Revolution 1917-1923 Leiden 2006, p469.↩︎
A Reisberg An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik 1971, p51.↩︎
C Zetkin, ‘Die Lehren des deutschen Eisenbahnerstreiks’ Kommunistische Internationale No20, 1922.↩︎
Quoted by Trotsky in the Third World Congress: Protokoll des III Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale 1921, pp642-43.↩︎
C Zetkin Reminiscences of Lenin International Publishers.1934, p38.↩︎
A Reisberg An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik 1971, pp82, 84.↩︎
VI Lenin CW Moscow 1971, Vol 45, pp124-25.↩︎
L Trotsky The Stalin school of falsification (1937), London 1971, p33.↩︎
Comintern Thesen und Resolutionen des III Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale 1921, p47.↩︎
Documents on this process make up the ninth major volume of the Comintern Publishing Project, which will appear next year.↩︎
Comintern Die Tätigkeit der Exekutive und des Präsidiums des EK der Kommunistischen Internationale vom 13 Juli 1921 bis 1 Februar 1922 pp12-13.↩︎