By Neil Harris
APART from the “official” Comintern tactics, there were two other techniques of working: “entryism” and the “front” and although both became associated with communism’s enemies, both began life with the Comintern.
After the breach between Trotsky and Stalin, the underground Trotskyite factions found it increasingly difficult to operate inside communist parties and eventually left to create independent parties. When these failed to gain any following, “entryism” (The French Turn) into the parties of social democracy was used as a technique to try to connect with the working class. On occasions Trotskyite parties would split in two with one wing working as an open party while the other operated as a secret faction inside social democracy, as in Britain.
Entryism was always going to fail, either because the Trotskyites were forced to hide so deeply inside social democracy that their revolutionary politics were suffocated, or because over time they just turned out to be closet reformists themselves. Their problem was that wherever entryism became a long-term tactic, it exposed both Trotsky’s origins as a Menshevik as well as his followers’ inherent Menshevism. It fostered the illusion that a secret revolutionary faction could win power through bourgeois elections by using social democracy as a Trojan horse. The real attraction of entryism was always the seductive appeal of reformism: the time for establishing an independent revolutionary party never came.
In any event, if ever they got close to power, the intelligence agencies simply exposed their activities and this gave the social democratic leadership the opportunity to expel them – as with the “Workers Revolutionary Party” or “Militant” in the British Labour Party.
It may surprise New Worker readers to learn that entryism was not a tactic invented by Trotsky, it was already in use by the Comintern in the 1930s. In Britain for example, the Young Communist League (YCL) put cadres into The Labour League of Youth to win the League over to the Third International. When that failed there was a pre-planned mass defection of members to the YCL. These included the writer Ted Willis and Jack Gaster, who later became a prominent communist lawyer. This influx boosted the YCL briefly but at that time it was militant and growing rapidly anyway. It is unclear what long term benefit the tactic produced and it was never used by the CPGB again.
In countries like Germany and Italy, where Fascism had seized power, Comintern policy was for underground communists to enter fascist organisations designed to control the working class, in order to subvert them and to provide much needed cover for comrades whose lives were constantly at risk.
The final tactic was the use of independent non-party organisations as a means of mobilising non-communist political activists to a single issue cause the party supported. During the 1920s and 1930s, the “front” was very successful in mobilising people to progressive causes like famine relief in the young Soviet Union, Republican Spain, or anti-fascism. In Britain, drawing from that international experience, the CPGB set up numerous autonomous organisations, of which the National Council for Civil Liberties (which became “Liberty”), Tribune newspaper and the Left Book Club are just a few of the more famous examples. Plainly Britain was a better place for the work that these organisations did, but it is unclear what long term benefit such use of cadres’ energy brought either the party or the class.
Ironically the “Front” was to be enthusiastically adopted by enemies of progress like the US State Department, who still funnel money into separate organisations under their control, which in turn are used to finance another layer of apparently “independent” non-governmental organisations which just happen to support US foreign policy. The difference is that while communists never hid their involvement in the organisations they supported, for the State Department it was always about subterfuge.
While critics like to pretend that the International’s tactics failed, that is not the case. Certainly applying the same thesis throughout the world simultaneously exposed weaknesses, while the democratic structure of the organisation slowed its ability to change course in a dynamic, rapidly changing era. However, throughout the life of the Third International communism was a growing force. It was the parliamentary era of the 1950s onwards that saw the decline and eventual liquidation of European communist parties.
The parties of the International were ideologically stronger, bigger and more influential after 1924 during the united front policy than they were in 1919 in the midst of the revolutions, when they were led by Lenin.
The “third period” policy was also a positive development; when it ended in 1935 the communist parties, although numerically smaller in some cases, were ideologically and organisationally stronger than in 1924 – these were now truly Bolshevik parties.
Likewise they rapidly grew in numbers and influence in the years of the popular front; in 1939 they were larger and stronger than they had been at any time before. Even in those countries where fascism took power, communism had an underground presence and an influence that extended far beyond its membership.
By the end of the war many European communist parties had been through illegality, armed action and even the “dual power” that Lenin described in the Russian revolution. But all that experience was to be wasted after the war. From the “[‘British Road to Socialism]” to the Italian “Salerno Turn”, most European parties adopted the parliamentary road and soon fell from the position of ideological and organisational strength they had had in 1939.
It’s no coincidence that this decline began not long after the dissolution of the Comintern, when most communist parties had adopted forms of left social democracy. That strategy was always doomed to fail; the working class simply decided that if they were going to vote for social democracy they might as well vote for the real thing. It was the “socialist” parties of the second international that prospered, while the “parliamentary” communist parties dwindled.
The argument of the reformist communists in private, and increasingly in public, was that they were being held back by the “undemocratic” image of the Soviet Union. The Eurocommunists felt that no one would accept their democratic credentials while they retained a connection with the Soviets. Actually what they really feared was that anyone would confuse them with being a revolutionary party. Ironically when the Soviets collapsed it wasn’t long before the euro communist parties followed them into oblivion.
The most important lesson from all this is one that should have been learnt long ago – communists can never compete with reformism, the reformists are much better qualified to make opportunistic compromises with the class enemy. Working people can see this and choose reformist parties because in normal times they want reformist solutions. They turn to revolutionary parties when there is a revolutionary situation; as Lenin said: “when they cannot go on living in the old way”. This is why the size of a communist party is not important, only the strength of its ideology and its militancy.
Revolutionaries should stick to what they are meant to be doing – fighting the class struggle, making revolution. And of course Lenin never imagined that being in a bourgeois parliament could bring about socialism – he only supported the tactic as a means of propaganda, a platform from which to address the working class. Of all the successful revolutionaries: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Kim Il Sung and Fidel – none of them were ever candidates in bourgeois elections. For Lenin it was always the politics of the “deed” that mattered.
If the only strategy is revolution, what are the tactics?
The mistake made by those who cannot escape from the past is that they cannot benefit from the experiences of that past. To associate tactics only with those whose names have become attached to them is to lose the chance to use techniques that work. To adopt one tactic and stick with only that until the bitter end is to adopt the attitude of a first world war general repeatedly sending his troops to their deaths, even if it is being done in the name of Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky.
While Lenin’s revolutionary policy during the “first period” of workers’ revolutions following the First World War was a failure, there were two reasons for this: the communist parties were still too small and isolated to succeed but more importantly the revolutionary situation had passed before those parties were ready to take advantage of it. Because revolutionary situations are an objective condition the policy could never have succeeded, even with Lenin’s leadership. It is only with hindsight that we can see this now, therefore we should salute the courage of those who sought to make revolution at that time.
Crucially for communists, in 1919 Lenin set out 21 requirements for admission to the Comintern which were designed to exclude reformists and still do so very effectively whenever they are applied.
Where two conditions apply there are also times when Lenin’s “revolutionary period” policy or the later “third period” thesis are the right policies for communists to take in relation to social democracy.
Those conditions are that firstly there is an imminent revolutionary situation and secondly that the leadership of social democracy is trying to portray itself as [the] champion of socialism to maintain its leadership of the class. In the past social democracy put policies before the working class that promised “socialism” without the need for revolution, such as: subsidised social housing, nationalisation of unprofitable industries, progressive taxation to reduce inequality, free healthcare, education and social welfare.
These policies weren’t their choice; they were forced into adopting them by the strength of working class consciousness at home and by their fear of the Soviet Union abroad – the working class under arms. There was never any intention of threatening the real basis of capitalism – the private ownership of the means of production. These were empty promises forced onto them because they were competing with communists for the same radicalised working class. In such situations the communist party’s task is to ruthlessly expose the opportunism of social democracy’s leaders, their treachery and their class collaboration, in order to win the workers over to the communist party and revolution.
Today the situation is very different. By the 1950s, social democracy had given up pretending to be either revolutionary or Marxist, it no longer needed to do so to win workers votes. By the 1980s it had stopped pretending to stand for socialism. Today, social democratic leaders are even trying to distance themselves from any association with the working class at all.
In these changed circumstances there is no danger of working people being misled into believing that there is anything revolutionary about social democracy and it would be a strange and very ignorant worker who ever imagined that Labour had any connection with socialism. There is more danger from those who seek to create a new workers’ party – to the left of labour. This project would just be a more left-wing version of the same reformist social democracy, in the form of an illusion that has yet to be discredited.
But times can quickly change and a working class that is defeated and demoralised will one day be radicalised again. It is the nature of unprincipled opportunism that social democratic ideologues would then start courting those radicalised workers with revolutionary sounding phrases. Whether those ideologues come from right or left social democracy, it is at such a time that communist policy towards social democracy must become one of merciless opposition, to destroy it as a rival and a diversion. In such a “third period” it is to third period policies we need to turn.
However today, when defeated and demoralised workers divide their votes between social democracy and liberalism it is because their aspirations are limited to winning small benefits – mere crumbs from the capitalists’ table. At these times the leadership of social democracy is an irrelevance and our tactic can only be that of the united front from below, by-passing the leadership altogether to create an alliance between revolutionary and social democratic workers. These social democratic workers are not our enemies; no revolution could succeed without the working class making it happen. Right now when the majority of workers are reformists, we need to find ways of working with them without either losing our revolutionary principles or hiding them. The real enemy within the labour movement is always the leadership of social democracy.
If there is a policy that is full of danger for European communists then it is the “popular front”, the belief that there can be some progressive alliance with social democracy in a bourgeois parliament.
After the Second World War the entry of communist parties into coalition governments allowed European bourgeois states to survive the immediate post-war crisis. When that threat had passed the national bourgeoisie quickly made an alliance with American imperialism and the social democrats fell over themselves to join in. Their communist allies became an overnight embarrassment.
The result was that under the popular front all the concessions were made by the revolutionaries while all the advantages went to social democracy. And yet in the 1930s, the “Devils Decade”, a united working class was needed to defeat fascism. The sacrifices made were undoubtedly correct, Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal showed how long-lived a ruthless dictatorship can be. The problems with the popular front did not lie in the principle of forging alliances to defeat fascism; it lay in a series of errors:
Firstly, the popular front in parliament became a permanent fixture rather than a short-term emergency measure. Once agreed, it could never be ended without creating the split in the working class that the bourgeoisie were working for. The communist party’s desire to keep the class united meant the party was trapped – only the social democrats were free to break the alliance.
Secondly, the only reason to have such an alliance should be to defeat fascism, no other reason could justify the compromise. But after the war communist parties entered into alliances simply because they were on offer. The effect was to prop up a weakened capitalist state and a defeated bourgeoisie until the crisis was over and outside help arrived.
Thirdly, once there was a parliamentary alliance with social democracy, it demonstrated to the workers that there was little real difference between the right wing of social democracy and the left wing, which now just happened to be in the form of an external communist party rather than a left wing inside social democracy as it had been before 1919.
Fourth, the popular front transferred the battleground from the streets and workplaces (the battlegrounds of choice for workers) to parliament – the form which the bourgeois dictatorship takes in the modern era.
Fifth, while the popular front was apparently at its most successful (when it was in government) it made the communist party reliant on the bourgeois state to take action against fascism on its behalf. This would only happen if it suited the bourgeoisie to do so. If the workers got too strong, the army and police, unaffected by the popular front, would simply take control themselves or allow the fascists to take power instead. The popular front may have been in government but it didn’t hold state power.
Sixth, this was the opposite of “dual power”, as Lenin understood it. That was the defining moment in a revolutionary situation when the formal state held by the bourgeoisie no longer had the ability to rule alone; the workers, armed and organised were gaining authority and control separate to the bourgeois state. That situation, for example, began to appear in our General Strike, when road hauliers had to apply to the workers Councils of Action for permission to move fuel and foodstuffs. It was clearly the situation in Northern Italy in 1944 before Togliatti returned and disarmed the partisans.
For all these reasons we would not chose the parliamentary popular front as the means to fight fascism and fascism is the only emergency that could ever justify such an alliance. This is one reason why our position has always been that communists have no place in bourgeois parliaments and we oppose standing candidates in bourgeois elections.
When fascism is a threat again, and it is always available to the bourgeoisie as an option, there certainly needs to be a working class alliance – ideally between reformist social democrats inside parliament and fighting militant communists on the outside. That is the only form of “popular front” that would work and leave the party unaffected by the reformism and opportunism fostered by Parliament and government. The reality is that the possibility of any such alliance between militant, revolutionary communists and the leadership of social democracy is zero and always will be.
The united front from below, in the form of an alliance between revolutionary and reformist rank and file workers, remains the only viable policy until a revolutionary situation develops. The failure of this policy has always been in the way it was misused.
For Trotskyites it was only ever a cynical means to try to expose the leadership of social democracy. They would propose an alliance as an ultimatum – follow our lead or be discredited in the eyes of the workers. Unfortunately for them, the social democratic workers always chose to follow their social democratic leaders.
On the other hand, the “parliamentary” communists only ever proposed the united front as a way of achieving a popular front in disguise – they actually always worked for an alliance with the leadership of social democracy because they were social democrats themselves.
For us what is important is finding an honest and open way of working with social democratic workers while remaining revolutionaries clearly separating our party from reformism. What we can offer is a fighting unity in the class struggle where it matters: in the workplaces, unions, on the streets and in the estates.
The simplest example would be our work in the unions, normally used by left groups as a battleground not for ideas and action but as a platform for election to the lucrative full-time posts that so often are the extent of their ambition. At one swoop the frontline of the class struggle is converted to a mere electoral struggle (administered by the liberals of the Electoral Reform Society) for the well-paid jobs, pensions and plush offices of a reformist trades union movement.
A fighting militant democratic union of active members is far more valuable than any inactive, undemocratic union even if it is led by well paid “left-wing” full-time officers.
Social democrat workers need to see that the party is always to be found where the battle is at its hardest, committed to a fighting working class unity in the class struggle while at the same time being a beacon pointing to the revolutionary seizure of state power rather than election to bourgeois parliaments.