The Communist International, founded 100 years ago, was the scene of rich debates about how socialists can work in common struggle with other parties, writes Lachlan Marshall
The Liberals’ re-election poses the challenge of resisting new attacks on unions and continuing to demand action on climate change and refugees.
How can radicals and revolutionaries reach out and work alongside others, while maintaining their own radical principles? The experience of the Communist International, established out of the wave of revolutions and mass struggles following the First World War, holds invaluable lessons.
The key policy it developed on this was the united front. There were extensive debates as it tried to put the idea into practice.
Its aim was to unite working class and oppressed people to combat a common threat, whether it be racism, employers or state power.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in March 1922 that, “the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it.”
The united front was designed to mobilise the working class in struggle, not simply unite groups in an election pact or broad cross-class alliances.
It advocated the, “greatest possible unity of all workers’ organisations in every practical action against the united capitalists.”
At the same time it was conceived as a way to win workers away from reformist leaders towards revolutionary politics, through demonstrating that revolutionary socialists were the most effective builders of the struggle.
So revolutionary socialists should maintain “absolute autonomy” and “freedom in presenting their point of view.”
The Comintern grouped together revolutionary socialist parties, many of them hundreds of thousands strong, that had sprung up rapidly as the working class radicalised following the war.
The united front was debated at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921. It was a response to a problem for the new radical movement.
By 1920 the immediate prospects of revolution had receded. The working class movement was now divided between the reformist parties of the Second International who had supported the war and new parties formed through splits—either the Communist parties of the Third International, or “centrist” parties that stood apart from both.
The Communist Parties, despite a mass membership of often hundreds of thousands, remained a minority inside the working class.
The betrayal of the reformist leaders, the equivalent of today’s Labor Party, who had backed their respective ruling classes and sent millions of workers into the slaughter of the First World War was still fresh.
Yet the leaders of the Comintern argued that the new Communist Parties had to seek unity in action with the reformists, using the united front.
Trotsky explained that, “If the [Communist] party embraces one-third or one-half of the proletarian vanguard, then the remaining half or two-thirds are organised by the reformists or centrists. It is perfectly obvious, however, that even those workers who still support the reformists and the centrists are vitally interested in maintaining the highest material standards of living and the greatest possible freedom for struggle… the party must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles.
“Only in this way will the party draw closer to those two-thirds who do not as yet follow its leadership, who do not as yet trust the party because they do not understand it.”
This approach was attacked by ultra-left delegates at the congress. The Italian, French and Spanish Communist parties rejected the united front.
But Trotsky also made it clear that entering a united front did not mean that revolutionaries should sacrifice their ability to break with the reformist leaders and act independently:
“In entering into agreements with other organisations, we naturally obligate ourselves to a certain discipline in action. But this discipline cannot be absolute in character.
“In the event that the reformists begin putting brakes on the struggle to the obvious detriment of the movement and act counter to the situation and the moods of the masses, we as an independent organisation always reserve the right to lead the struggle to the end, and this without our temporary semi-allies.”
Such an approach would allow the Communist Parties to win over larger numbers of workers to revolutionary politics.
The German Communists
The United Front policy was put to the test in the German revolution.
In November 1918, revolution toppled the German Kaiser, ending the First World War. The role of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in restoring capitalist order prompted revolutionaries to split and set up the German Communist Party (KPD).
Deep enmity existed between the KPD and the SPD. In January 1919 the SPD government ordered the murder of communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. But despite this crime, communist unity with the social democrats remained necessary.
Reformism, expressed in support for the SPD, was much more deeply rooted in Germany than it had been in Russia, where workers took power in the socialist revolution of October 1917.
As the revolutionary struggle subsided, there was an attempted military coup in March 1920 known as the Kapp Putsch.
The coup was defeated through a series of general strikes uniting revolutionary and reformist workers in joint actions.
A KPD member described events in Stuttgart: “We did not then have any theory of united front, comrades. But our party organisation, that of the old Spartacus League, instinctively applied this policy when there was a demonstration against inflation and a strike against a 10 per cent deduction from wages.”
This fighting unity forged out of the struggle against the Kapp Putsch strengthened the revolutionary left. In late 1920 a majority of the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) merged with the KPD, resulting in a Communist Party 400,000 strong.
In January 1921 the KPD addressed an open letter to the leaders of the workers’ parties (primarily the SPD and USPD) and trade unions. It called for united action to fight for the preservation of working class living standards, to demand, “the minimum that the proletariat must have now in order not to perish.”
All the leaders rejected the proposal, but there was a groundswell of support from rank and file party members for the communist initiative.
In 1922 the Comintern’s Fourth Congress supported the KPD’s approach in the open letter as an example of the united front.
However, this progress was squandered. An ultra-left faction of the KPD developed a “theory of the offensive,” which aimed for the immediate seizure of state power. This faction became increasingly influential in the party.
In March 1921, following a government provocation, the KPD called for an insurrectionary general strike. A tiny minority of workers responded to it, and the strike was crushed. In the wake of this fiasco the KPD lost half its membership.
A decade later it was the failure of the communists to apply the united front that allowed the Nazis to take power. A united front of social democratic and communist workers opposing the Nazis could have stopped Hitler.
However, by the 1930s the Comintern had become a tool for Russian foreign policy. The KPD, like other Communist parties, followed “Third Period” policy, which labelled social democrats as “social fascists.” This ruled out any possibility of unity against the common threat of fascism.
When the Nazis took power they murdered and imprisoned communist and social democratic workers alike.
Workers in Italy faced a similar threat. The years 1919 and 1920 are known as the Two Red Years in Italy. During this time Italy teetered on the edge of revolution, with workers in the industrial north involved in strikes, factory occupations and in some cases workers’ councils.
With this breakdown in capitalist order, sections of the ruling class decided to wage a violent assault on the organisations of the working class. Benito Mussolini’s fascists offered themselves as the force capable of destroying the threat of revolution and protecting the bosses’ system.
The fascist threat demanded a united response from the left and the working class. As the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin warned, “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’.”
Anti-fascist defence guards composed of workers emerged to fight off violent attacks by fascists, but the ultra-left Italian Communist Party refused to unite with other sections of the working class.
With the workers divided, the fascists were able to take control of the streets, smash workers’ organisations and ultimately seize state power.
The King appointed Mussolini prime minister of Italy in 1922 and the workers’ movement was suppressed for the next two decades.
Today the Australian left does not confront an organised fascist movement on the scale of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. But for revolutionary activists involved in building struggle the underlying approach of the united front retains all its relevance.
There is a desperate need to build a united front to combat the racist policies of the Liberal government, to fight for climate action and win the right to strike.
Trotsky saw the united front as applicable in a broad range of contexts: “Just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power.”
Most workers still hold to reformist ideas and organisations, as expressed in the vote for Labor by unionists. But in order to successfully challenge the re-elected Liberal government, we need campaigns that involve Greens and Labor voters as well as revolutionaries.
Revolutionaries can only convince large numbers workers of the need to overthrow capitalism by fighting alongside them in united fronts.