‘On the United Front’ by Leon Trotsky from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 2 No. 21. March 17, 1922.
The function of a Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution. In order to call upon the proletariat to seize power directly and in order that this may be realized, the Communist Party must be supported by the overwhelming majority of the working class.
But as long as it has not such a majority at its command, it must fight to win over the majority.
It can accomplish this only if it is an absolutely independent organization with a definite program and a rigid discipline. For this reason it must sever all ideological and organizational connections with the reformists and the centrists, who are not striving for the proletarian revolution, who neither want nor are able to prepare the masses for the revolution, and who through their attitude and action are only hindering such work. Those members of a Communist Party, who in the name of the “United Front” regret its severance from the Centrists, only betray themselves by showing that they have not even as much as mastered the Communist alphabet, and that their presence in the Communist Party is purely accidental.
After the Communist Party has gained its independence and achieved the ideological homogeneity of its membership, it struggles for influence among the majority of the working-class. In this struggle a quicker or slower tempo may be adopted according to the objective circumstances and the expediency of this or that tactical move.
It is self-evident that during this period of preparation the class struggles of the proletariat do not cease. Various conflicts with the employers, with the bourgeoisie and with the government take place, in which the initiative is sometimes assumed by the workers, and sometimes by their enemies. The working masses perceive the necessity for united action, be it unity in defence against the capitalist attacks or unity in attacking their enemy, only to the degree that such conflicts touch or affect the life interests of the working class as a whole or of the majority or of one of its parts. The party which deliberately opposes this necessity for unity of action on the part of the working class will inevitably be condemned by the workers. Hence the question of the united front is in its origin and essence not a question of mutual relations between the Socialist and Communist Parliamentary fractions or between the Executive Committees of these parties at all. The problem of the united front arises out of the necessity of enabling the workers to organize a united front in their struggle against capital, in spite of the splits, which in the present epoch are inevitably taking place in the political organizations of the working class. To those who do not comprehend this task the party is a mere propaganda association, and not an organization of mass action.
Where the Communist Party is as yet only an organization of an insignificant minority, the question of its attitude towards the united mass front can be of no great importance or any practical organizational significance. In such cases the mass actions are directed and led by old organizations which, thanks to their mighty traditions, still play the decisive role.
Again, in those countries where the Communist Party is the only leading organization of the workers, as in Bulgaria, for instance, there can also be no question or problem of a united front.
But in those countries where the Communist Party has already reached the stage of a large political organization which has not as yet however become the deciding factor, that is, where it has succeeded in organizing one-fourth or one-third of the class-conscious proletarian vanguard, the problem of the united front will loom up in all its importance!
When the party consists of one-third or one half of the proletarian vanguard, it means that the other half or the other two-thirds is organized by the reformists and centrists. It is clear, however that those workers who are still supporting the reformists and centrists are also interested in bettering the conditions of their material existence and in their greater freedom of struggle. It is therefore necessary to adopt such tactics as would not make the Communist Party, which on the morrow is to incorporate all three-thirds of the working-class, an organized obstacle in the course of the proletarian struggles.
But what is still more: the Communist Party must itself seize the initiative in effecting and maintaining unity in the course of these struggles. It is only in this way that it can possibly attract and approach the other two-thirds that do not as yet follow it, since they neither understand it nor confide in it.
Without effecting a radical and final breach with the Social Democrats, the Communist Party would never have become the party of the proletarian revolution, nor would it have been able to take the first serious step towards the revolution. It would have remained the Parliamentary safety-valve of the bourgeois state forever.
Whoever fails to grasp this, does not know the first letter of the Communist alphabet.
Had the Communist Party not followed the path which at every given moment enables it to undertake common actions of the Communist and non-Communist masses (Social Democratic workers included), it would only have betrayed its inability to win over the majority of the working class to the road of mass action. It would then have degenerated to a Communist propaganda society, it would never have developed into a party of the proletarian revolution.
It does not suffice to gain a weapon; the weapon must be sharp. It does not suffice to whet the sword; we must know how to use it.
It does not at all suffice merely to unite the Communists under organizational discipline, after we have separated them from the reformist chaff. It is necessary that this organization be capable of leading all the united actions of the proletariat on every field of its life struggle.
This is the second letter in the Communist alphabet.
Does the united front apply to the working masses alone or does its also hold for the opportunistic leaders?
This way of putting the question is the result of a misunderstanding.
Of course, it would be better if we could simply rally the working masses about our flag and our practical slogans of the day, without the reformist, political, as well as trade-union organizations. But were such the possibility, the problem of the united front would never have come up in the form it now assumes.
The very raison d’être for this problem is that certain, very considerable parts of the working class belong to and support these reformist organisations. U;p to the present it seems that they have not had enough experience to justify their withdrawal from these reformist organizations and their joining ours. But judging by the mass actions that are facing the proletariat, the circumstances in this respect will eventually change. We are striving to accomplish this. We are on the way but not quite so far. At the present time the organized part of the working-class is divided into three groups.
The first one, the Communist group, is striving for the Social Revolution. That is the reason why it supports every movement of the workers against the exploiters and the bourgeois state, even though it be a mere partial movement.
The second one, the Reformist group, is knitting the cloak of reconciliation with the bourgeoisie. But in order not to lose its influence over the workers, it is compelled to support the partial actions of the exploited against the exploiters, against the real wishes of the leaders of this group.
The third group, that of the Centrists, is continually vacillating between the two first groups and has no backbone or significance of its own.
It is thus that the existing conditions make possible the uniting of the workers in these three sorts of organizations and of the unorganized masses influenced by these organizations for common action in a number of proletarian life-questions.
We repeat that not only are the Communists not to oppose such common actions, but they are to assume the initiative for the following reasons. First of all, the greater the masses drawn into the movement, no matter how limited the initial issues of struggle may be, the greater will their self-consciousness and self-confidence be, and the more determined and ready will these masses be to advance. This means that the increase of the mass-character of the movement revolutionizes it and in this way created the conditions favorable for the slogans, methods of struggle and the Communist Party’s role of leadership
What the reformists dread is the potential revolutionary spirit of the mass movement. Their pet arenas are Parliaments, trade-union councils, arbitration boards, and ministerial anterooms.
But what we are first of all interested in is to drag the reformists out of their holes. Any Communist who doubts or fears such a step is like the “swimmer” who has read and approved the best handbook on the art of swimming, but who does not dare to go into the water.
Hence the united front is a presumptive of our willingness and readiness to make our actions correspond in practise to the attitude of the reformist organizations, only, in certain definite questions and within certain definite limits, and only insofar as such organizations still express the will of considerable parts of the fighting proletariat
But have we not severed our connections with them? Yes, because we did not agree in the basic questions of the labor movement.
Are we nevertheless to seek an understanding with them? Yes, in all cases where the working masses that follow them and those that follow us are willing to fight together, and where the reformists are more or less compelled to become the instruments of such struggles.
Will they, however, not claim that although we broke away from them, we nevertheless need them? Yes, indeed, their tattlers can say it. In our own ranks, some comrades will fear it. But the great working masses – even those masses which do not as yet follow us or understand our aims, but who see and observe two or three simultaneously existing labor organizations – will, upon observing our attitude, come to the conclusion that in spite of the split, we are energetically working for an united proletarian front
Of course, the policy adopted for the united front does not guarantee an actual united front in all cases. On the contrary; in many, yes, in the majority of cases an agreement will be achieved only partially or not at all. But it is necessary that the fighting masses are always given the opportunity to convince themselves that the failure to effect unity of action in any particular case is not due to our irreconcilability but directly to the lack of inclination on the part of the reformists actually to fight.
Since we enter into certain agreements with the other organisations, it is self-evident that we must institute a definite discipline. But this discipline cannot be absolute. In cases where the reformists proceed to obstruct the struggle to the detriment of the movement and against the trend of circumstances and the will and spirit of the masses, we always retain the right to proceed as an independent organization and to carry on the struggle to the bitter end without our provisional half-allies.
This may of course result in an intensified struggle between us and the reformists. But in such a case it will not be the mere monotonous and barren repetition of one and the same idea in a closed circle but if our tactics prove right, it will mean the extension of our influence among new proletarian masses.
Only a journalist who thinks he is warding off the reformists by always criticizing them with the very same expressions and epithets, without as much as leaving his editor’s desk, only he who actually fears a collision with the reformists in the presence of the masses, who also fears lest the working masses get the opportunity to compare the Communists with the Reformists under varying conditions of the class struggle, only such a journalist can interpret this policy in terms of an approach towards the reformists or reformism. Under this veil of revolutionary fear of “approach” we find hidden – political passivity. It is passivity that wishes for the continuation of that condition that permits of strictly separated and limited fields of activity, of distinct meeting audiences and press, both for the Communists and reformists.
We have broken with the reformists and with the centrists in order to have unlimited freedom to criticize betrayals, deceptions, indecision and division in the labor movement. For this reason we cannot possibly accept any agreement which in any way limits our freedom of criticism and agitation. We participate in the united front; but not for a moment do we dissolve in it. We take part in it as an independent unit. For it is in the struggle that the broad masses will convince themselves that we fight better than others; they will see that we fight with more determination, self-consciousness and cleverness. In this manner we accelerate the formation of the united revolutionary front under an undisputed Communist leadership.
International Press Correspondence, widely known as”Inprecorr” was published by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) regularly in German and English, occasionally in many other languages, beginning in 1921 and lasting in English until 1938. Inprecorr’s role was to supply translated articles to the English-speaking press of the International from the Comintern’s different sections, as well as news and statements from the ECCI. Many ‘Daily Worker’ and ‘Communist’ articles originated in Inprecorr, and it also published articles by American comrades for use in other countries. It was published at least weekly, and often thrice weekly.
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