Socialists and the United Front

The task of socialists is to organize with people whose ideas are still changing.

March 16, 2012
Originally posted here

ONE OF the most important questions for socialists is how to relate their ideas to a larger audience and win wider layers of people to socialism.

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COLUMNIST: PAUL D’AMATO

Paul D'Amato
Paul D’Amato is managing editor of theInternational Socialist Review and author ofThe Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted atpdamato@isreview.org.

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The question for revolutionaries–that is, for those whom experience has already taught the need to overturn capitalism and replace it with a more equitable society–is how to relate to the much larger forces that are resisting, but have yet to embrace a socialist alternative.

None of this matters for those who think that revolution is made by a select minority in isolation from or on behalf of the masses, or even against their will; or those who are content to struggle for immediate gains, but for whom socialism is only a mildly pleasant utopian dream.

Marxists, on the other hand, are committed to the proposition that socialism can only be achieved by the actions of millions of workers, through their own struggles.

Propaganda–putting out socialist ideas to a wider audience–is a vitally important part of the equation. A working-class movement that isn’t aware of its own history and traditions, of its past mistakes and victories, and whose knowledge never moves beyond immediate experience, will be unable to accomplish such a monumental task as a socialist revolution.

But only a very static conception of how consciousness changes could accept that propaganda is sufficient, in and of itself, to spread socialist ideas. People are not empty vessels waiting to be filled; they possess views of the world that are contradictory, some that reinforce the status quo (sexist, anti-immigrant, for example), and others that go against it (we can achieve a better life only if we unite).

Struggle is the most effective way to change consciousness. But consciousness doesn’t change uniformly. Some radicalize faster than others. There are sections of the working class that are in the vanguard, some that are in the rear, and others in between–and all are in constantly shifting patterns.

The tasks of socialist militants are to engage in struggle alongside those whose consciousness is shifting, and use the experience of struggle to convince them to adopt a fully consistent, working-class, socialist point of view.

Part of this same process involves winning the newly converted not to run ahead of events and assume that everyone else is, or should be, at the same state of political realization as they are.

A radicalizing minority, in any struggle or organization, whether it be a trade union or an antiwar committee, has a duty to make connections to wider layers of people who are not as “left” as they are–rather than turn from them because they are “insufficiently” radical.

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WHEN LENIN wrote his pamphlet Left-Wing Communism, he addressed himself to a similar problem–young socialist radicals, in Germany in particular, who felt that socialists could dispense with work in trade unions or elections because these forms of struggle were “obsolete.”

The “ultralefts,” as Lenin called them, forgot that while trade unions and parliaments were “obsolete” for them, they were not obsolete for the majority of the working class.

Lenin pointed out to these radicals that they were mistaking their desire for actual fact, when what they should have been doing is working inside the trade unions and the German parliament in order to win workers over to the revolutionary standpoint through their own experience.

Leon Trotsky developed a related theme in his 1922 article On the United Front in relationship to the question of the fight for reforms. He wrote:

The task of the communist party is to lead the proletarian revolution. In order to summon the proletariat for the direct conquest of power and to achieve it, the communist party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class. So long as it does not hold this majority, the party must fight to win it.

Winning over the majority can’t be achieved, Trotsky argued, if the communists turned their backs on non-revolutionary workers and the reformist organizations they adhere to–or if the communists relied solely on propaganda.

The party must participate directly in the struggle for immediate reforms and for the defense of the interests of the working class as a whole; indeed, it must propose united fronts, joint initiatives with reformist organizations to fight for specific, limited goals.

Why? Because, Trotsky wrote, “the greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self-confidence rises, all the more self-confident will that mass movement be and all the more resolutely will it be capable of marching forward, however modest may be the initial slogans of struggle.”

The reformists always dread the potential for mass struggle to “get out of hand,” whereas socialists welcome every mass initiative and want it to go as far as possible. Such struggles will tend therefore to radicalize the working class, creating “much more favorable conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle and, in general, the leading role of the communist party.”

Trotsky summarized the united front this way:

Unity of front…presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of reformist organizations, to the extent to which the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat.

Yet the united front did not mean simply mean “getting along” with reformists. Wrote Trotsky:

We participate in a united front, but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that the broad masses must learn that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute.”

First published in the September 14, 2007, issue of Socialist Worker.

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