On the United Front – Part 2

By Stephen Kerr, November 24th 2020

Classconscious.org exists to promote debate on important questions of revolutionary theory and practice. Over the last month we have published an ongoing debate between Davey Heller and Stephen Kerr on the class character of trade unions, the role of rank and file committees and whether Trotsky’s strategy of the United Front retains any relevance in the struggle against Trump and the threat of fascism in the US today.

The previous parts of the debate are:
 March separately, but strike together! For a united front against fascism in the US! General Strike now!.  October 13th by Davey Heller.

United, but with Whom? An Open Letter to Comrade Heller.  November 1st by Stephen Kerr

A defence of the United Front Strategy against fascism in the US – a reply to comrade Stephen Kerr, November 6th by Davey Heller

Below is Stephen Kerr’s latest reply.

Dear comrade,

You have set out both the problem we disagree about, and also our points of disagreement about how to approach that problem, in the series of pertinent questions you pose at the outset of your response to my criticisms of your position on the united front. You ask,

1. What are the consequences of the absence of mass working class parties of either a reformist or revolutionary character?

2. What position should revolutionaries’ [adopt to] working with, or within, trade unions whose leadership is politically subordinate to the Democrat Party and hostile to socialism?

3. Is joint work permissible, or must revolutionaries strive to establish entirely new bodies of working-class power on their own?

4. What is the correct strategy for fighting the rising fascist threat?

5. Is Trotsky’s strategy United Front tactic still relevant in the current context?  If so, with whom is it permissible to work?

I’m going to briefly state my position on each of these, and I will try not to be ‘long-winded.’

1. What are the consequences of the absence of mass working class parties of either a reformist or revolutionary character?

The ‘mass’ element and the class character of the party in question is the key to the whole problem. Whether the party is ‘revolutionary’ or ‘reformist’ is secondary.

What use are tiny, middle-class rump parties to revolutionary Marxists? The United Front strategy was about winning over the workers who were members of, and who supported such mass workers’ parties, in order to move the working class into a position where it could first defeat fascism, then take back the political initiative from the fascists and stage a revolution.

To resort to a metaphor, the working class is like a boulder, which if moved can crush the fascist threat. The mass reformist party is like a lever, the crisis the fulcrum, and the force of revolutionary leadership must be applied to the lever and fulcrum in the right way, in order to move the boulder.

But a key element is missing from your ‘United Front’ mechanism – the lever. The parties to whom you have appealed for a ‘United Front’ such as the IMT, Socialist Alternative, the DSA, The Greens are neither mass parties, nor are they objectively speaking, working class parties, either by virtue of their politics (which is anti-working class) or their membership, which is middle class.

So, we can contrast the strategy of the United Front in 1933 for revolutionaries to work with, and politically lead coalitions together with mass working class parties, with the ‘United Front’ strategy you propose, for revolutionaries to work with tiny rump parties of demoralized former revolutionaries and middle-class elements. What kind of lever is this? What ‘boulder’ can it hope to move?

The heart and soul of my argument is that no alliance of the middle-class pseudo-left rump and some sections of the US trade union movement can smash a fascist threat. It’s the working class. THAT is where the power resides, and nowhere else.

My argument with your position is that you propose to exert revolutionary influence on various middle-class groups who have no influence on the working class, and trade unions who are in fact agencies of the ruling class.

And so the tactics you propose simply do not have the political significance of the united front as imagined by Trotsky. One can call it a ‘United Front’ if one likes. But without the lever of the mass working class party, your strategy and tactics cannot produce the desired outcome.

Further, because the parties involved in this united front are not even in fact working class organizations, the net effect of your project is that of a cross-class alliance dressed up as a front of working people.

Though you are explicit in your statement that your call is NOT one for any kind of electoral or other tactical alliance with the US Democrats, it cannot do anything other than give a left cover to them. I was careful to draw that distinction between what you stated explicitly and my interpretation of the implications of your political position in my critique, but you responded to it as if I had not done so, essentially an accusation of intellectual dishonesty.

You state:

“Frankly, such a characterization betrays a fundamental failure on your part to understand the tactic of a united front between a revolutionary Marxist party, and reformist tendencies. Let’s be clear: by that definition, Trotsky’s call out for a united front in 1930’s Germany in the face of the Nazi threat, between the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD) by definition, involved joint action with “hostile class forces”!”

You have completely misunderstood, and thoroughly mis-stated my position, in addition to mis-stating what the united front is. The United Front is NOT between ‘a revolutionary Marxist party and reformist tendencies.’ This construction, ‘reformist tendencies’ politically excuses a dalliance with the pseudo-left. You also equate the class character of the Democrats with that of the SPD by your formulation.

The SPD and KPD were working class parties, however misguided or deformed, however bad their leadership. The US Democrats are a ruling class party! The KPD and SPD were NOT forces under the control of a class hostile to the working class. But if one examines the class composition of the IMT or the Greens, or the Progressive Party for example, one will find very few workers involved. These parties are thoroughly middle class political formations, consisting mostly of professors, middle class professionals, students and youth.

If one were to apply any force to these twigs, perhaps one might stir up some dust.

2. What position should revolutionaries’ [adopt to] working with, or within, trade unions whose leadership is politically subordinate to the Democrat Party and hostile to socialism?

The trade unions now constitute ‘hostile class forces’ not because of the politics of trade union leaders, but because of their role in the process of exploitation of waged labour. They operate as agencies not of the working class, but of the ruling class. It’s not just the leadership which is politically subordinate, but the entire social form which is subordinated, politically and economically to the ruling class, and to its need to extract surplus value from wage labour under conditions of class peace.

Yet some still imagine that unions can become instruments of class warfare for the working class. This stands the last 40 years on its head.

Of course the trade unions did not suddenly transform themselves in 1989. Rather, 1989 signaled the collapse of Stalinism and opened up a political space into which the hostility to the class struggle  – not just of the trade union leadership itself – but of the trade union as a form of social organization, became its dominant social expression. That process was already well advanced by 1989.

I referred to the outcome of this development in my discussion of AFSCME’s representations before the US Supreme Court. The AFSCME lawyers explicitly argued before that court that the role of their union was to supress strikes.

The hostility of the trade unions to the class struggle arises from their very earliest origins, in the political collapse of the revolutionary Chartist movement. David North points this out in his essay, ‘Why are the Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?’ In the interests of brevity, I’m not going to re-excavate that material, but take it as a given.

The trade unions also arose on a purely nationalist basis. The inherent nationalism underlying the trade unions as a form of social organization shapes their essentially opportunistic character, and places them at the service of the national ruling capitalist class.

The globalization of the economy has undermined all national projects and ‘national solutions’ for the working class especially so. Thus the trade unions have taken on an ever more feckless and treacherous character over the past four decades, as the economic crisis of the national state has deepened, and as its obsolete nature has been exposed by the development of capitalism. So many of the reformist and opportunist illusions of the unions arise from this mistaken hope that somehow, the national state can be ‘made to work’ for the working class, while at the same time allowing the extraction of ever more surplus value from their labour. Corporatism is at the very heart of contemporary trade union practice.

This inherent structural hostility to the class struggle was and is at the same time, also subordinated to the objective conditions of the class struggle. While the Soviet Union existed, while the whole world was divided between the imperialists on the one hand, and the degenerated workers’ state on the other, the trade unions had to pay, at least lip service to the class struggle, and even sometimes to concepts such as socialism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union constituted a fundamental shift in the objective conditions of the class struggle and initiated a marked shift of trade union politics to the right, as the ruling class offensive against the working class intensified. The whole of the ruling class moved to the right. The unions moved along with them. The objective process of economic development transformed them into agencies of the ruling class.

Today the trade unions are busy cooperating with the capitalists and governments they were originally developed to fight against.

Millions of unionized workers know from the bitter experience of union betrayal of their struggles that the claim of the union to represent the interests of the workers is a mere pretense. Why don’t most ‘Marxists’ know the same thing?

Further, where is the working class? The rate of unionization of labour in the United States has been in decline for 70 years. Almost nobody belongs to the unions any longer!

Based on simple numbers alone, a ‘United Front’ strategy to resist a fascist takeover of the USA which relies on the trade unions can call upon, at most, a total of 12% of the US working class, and that’s assuming that such a United Front could relate to 100% of unionized workers in the USA.

Your United Front strategy provides no structure to relate to 88% of the US working class. And as we have noted, there is no ‘mass party’ of the working class which could take up this slack.

If you’re proposing that non-unionized workers should look to the trade unions for leadership, then this position is no different from that of the pseudo-left parties, and leads workers straight into the reformist and reactionary nationalist, ruling class politics I described above. The ‘Marxists’ who refuse to acknowledge the objective development of the unions end up providing the unions a left cover.

The transformation of the class character of the trade unions is written into the history of major strikes in the US.

Over the same period, social inequality escalated sharply, as the suppression of working-class struggle led to a dramatic increase in the rate of exploitation. While this was going on, the salaries of the trade union officialdom rose substantially, while the wages of the workers they represent declined.

The top union officials in the United States are now in the top 3% of income earners, with many earning more than $300,000 USD year. Many are now millionaires. These officials manage billions of dollars in investments, which grow along with the stock market. Their material interests are those of the ruling class, and so they are members of the ruling class, and they act as such. To speak about the trade union leadership as ‘labour bureaucrats’ is entirely outdated, and panders to the illusion that they are still members of the working class. They are not just ‘too far from the tools’ by virtue of their ‘bureaucratic role’ as managers but rather firmly on the OTHER SIDE of the process of exploitation of wage labour.

As Jerry White writes: “There are 189,217 union officers and staff employees with a reported total compensation of $3.6 billion. Workers pay $8.5 billion in annual dues, often deducted automatically from their paychecks, for the privilege of being sold out by these organizations.”

In 2018, the social powder keg the trade unions were sitting on finally exploded, thanks to a worldwide revolt of teachers which began in West Virginia, when teachers staged wildcat strikes in defiance of their trade union. The global teacher’s strike wave was extensively documented by the wsws and the ICFI, which actively participated in organizing and supporting rank and file committees of unionized teachers. These strikes were not organized by the unions, but by rank and file teachers, using social media to go around their own trade union organizations. This tactic was not invented by the wsws, but by the teachers!

What was the role of the American Federation of Teachers, of the United Education Association? They shut down the strikes as soon as they got hold of them, in West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Colorado, Kentucky and Arizona. Los Angeles teachers were fed a concession contract by United Teachers, despite the fact that most LA teachers voted against it. The Union simply ignored them and their democratic vote. The US Teamsters did the same to UPS workers.

The teacher’s revolt developed into a global upsurge of the working class in 2018-2019, which saw mass protests and strikes develop in many countries. Extremely exploited workers in Matamoros Mexico revolted, in total defiance of their unions. The wsws once again was at the forefront of reporting on, and supporting their struggle. The unions were brought in, together with the whole political apparatus of the Mexican government of AMLO, to repress the strike and punish the workers who led it.

What happened when 400,000 US Federal government workers were furloughed by Donald Trump’s government shutdown in 2019? The unions led no struggle against it. They did however advise the workers where they could find a food bank.

In France, the class struggle assumed the form of the Yellow Vest movement, who staged weekly mass demonstrations against austerity and waged bitter battles with the police. The unions attempted to stop the movement, attempting to step in and negotiate between the workers and the government. In January 2020 the largest and longest strike in France since 1968 was completely shut down by the unions and the pseudo-left – the same political combination you’ve proposed.

Finally, how has the mass opposition of teachers and students to the back to work and back to school drive been mobilized, in the face of the COVID19 pandemic? Have the unions led the fight against that drive? No! They’ve lent their assistance to the campaign to push teachers back into unsafe schools, ‘working with other stakeholders’ – the government and corporations behind the back to work drive. The resistance to pushing teachers and students back into unsafe schools has been organized on Facebook and other social media, by the teachers and students themselves. The same is true in the meatpacking and auto industries, where rank and file safety committees have led the struggle to shut down unsafe workplaces.

“The World Socialist Web Site Autoworker Newsletter has been steadily receiving reports of the violation of basic safety protocols by management with the collusion of the UAW and the systematic cover-up of infections and deaths.” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/11/21/auto-n21.html

And these same organizations which are in fact organizing the deaths of workers, are supposed to suddenly transform themselves into the defenders of the working class against a fascist coup?

If the trade union as a form of social organization remained, as Lenin described it in ‘Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder’ “an indispensable school of Communism, a preparatory school that trains proletarians to exercise their dictatorship, an indispensable organization of the workers for the gradual transfer of the management of the whole of the economic life of the country to the working class…” then of course my argument would be impossible to support. But the fact is that the situation has changed so much since Lenin wrote those words 100 years ago that the two historical situations cannot possibly be compared one to the other. The facts support my position. And so too does Lenin’s thought.

No work of Lenin’s is perhaps more mis-understood and misquoted than “Left Wing Communism.” I want to examine Lenin’s ideas in the chapter entitled “Should Revolutionaries Work Inside Reactionary Trade Unions.”

Lenin was writing in 1920, at the peak of the influence of the Third International over the workers movement, at the head of the first revolutionary socialist worker’s state. His essay needs to be taken in historical context.

In Lenin’s time there was a massive growth in trade union membership. And so Lenin writes: “You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry out agitation and propaganda systematically, preserveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations – even the most reactionary – in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found. The trade unions and the worker’s cooperatives are the very organizations in which the masses are to be found.”

Lenin then goes on to cite the sharp increase in the memberships of industrial trade unions in Great Britain, France and Germany. Lenin further writes “Millions of workers in Great Britain, France and Germany are for the first time passing from a complete lack of organization to the elementary, lowest, simplest and (to those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois democratic prejudices) most easily comprehensible form of organization, the trade unions; yet the revolutionary but imprudent Left Communists stand by, crying out “the masses”, “the masses!” but refusing to work within the trade unions, on the pretext that they are “reactionary”, and invent a brand new, immaculate little “Worker’s Union” which is guiltless of bourgeois democratic prejudices and innocent of craft or narrow minded craft union sins..”

To simply uncritically paste onto the situation faced by revolutionary socialists of 2020 Lenin’s admonition to revolutionary socialists of1920 is to simply ignore the heart of Lenin’s argument – that we should address ourselves to the working class at all times.

Firstly, 90% of today’s US working class is exploited outside of the unions.

Second, my position is not that we should not work within the trade unions because they are ‘reactionary’ – the position Lenin was criticizing – but because they are no longer objectively working-class organizations.

Third, I do not propose the creation of an ‘immaculate little worker’s union’ but rather, just as Lenin demanded that “we must begin to build socialism, not with abstract human material, or with human material specially prepared by us, but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.”

If anyone is arguing that socialists work with ‘abstract human material’ it’s those who argue that we must work inside trade unions, while ignoring the reality of their transformation into the tools of the capitalist class.

Fourth, one must contemplate just HOW revolutionary work was done in 1920, and how it is done today.

Until the turn of the 21st century one intervened as a revolutionary Marxist in a workplace in person, armed with the latest edition of the revolutionary newspaper, in print, which one had read thoroughly, and whose arguments one had mastered. To work ‘within the union’ and have the opportunity to talk to the workers, many socialists took up jobs in factories and other enterprises. Face to face arguments with working people, and sometimes talks before groups of workers, either won the day, or did not. I myself have participated in many such paper sales, street interventions, and workplace leafletings.

The development of the internet and of digital social media have revolutionized the means of communication. Thus, socialists and the workers themselves can talk over the heads of reactionary trade union leaders. One can easily influence trade union members without having to join a trade union. The wsws alone has fully leveraged this technological revolution, while various pseudo-left organizations are stuck in the past.

If Lenin were handed a technological megaphone which had allowed him to speak directly to the working class without the intermediary of the ‘reactionary’ trade union organization, do you not think he would have used it? But he did NOT have access to such a technology. Developments such as broadcast radio were in their infancy. In 1920 the trade union institution stood between the revolutionary party and the working class. Lenin’s strategy and tactics were all about dealing with the concrete situation he faced – getting to the workers by going through the trade unions which stood in the way.

Today that situation no longer exists, but some pretend that it remains, out of a religious sense of devotion to the Bible as written by Lenin. The Lenin I read abhorred all such cant, would have been horrified that his ideas have been embalmed and worshiped as holy gospel, as an excuse to turn away from objective reality. Lenin would have investigated the real conditions faced by the working class, in order to work out a strategy for socialists to influence the workers.

The ICFI has conceived such a strategy, based on an analysis of the objective development of the capitalist system. They worked out – 20+ years ago – that the class struggle would develop outside of, and in defiance of, the trade unions. That prediction has come to pass.

3. Is joint work permissible, or must revolutionaries strive to establish entirely new bodies of working-class power on their own?

Joint work with whom? This my question to you.

You would have it that my ‘central thesis’ is that “is impermissible for revolutionaries to work with reformist forces in defence of the interests of the working class against the existential danger of fascist attack.”

That’s NOT my central thesis. My thesis is that it’s impermissible for Marxists to lead workers in an alliance with middle and ruling class forces. We differ about the class character of the forces to which you have appealed.

I maintain that the pseudo-left parties are middle class parties, composed of middle class people preaching middle class ideology. Further, I have demonstrated here that the US trade unions are no longer working class organizations, and that the locus of the class struggle is no longer contained within them.

You write: “You fail to identify where in my call out I call for the political subordination of the working class to these forces. You have constructed a classic strawman argument for the purpose of accusing me of justifying the liquidation of the Trotskyist movement into an alien class milieu.”

Your whole political position implies the political subordination of the working class.

For the record, I have NOT constructed a ‘classic strawman argument.’ You have rather completely misrepresented what I wrote to arrive at that conclusion.  

Just because you fail to explicitly call for the political subordination of the working class to the pseudo-left and the unions, doesn’t mean that such is not the net effect of your political position. Further, just because you do say explicitly that you’re not calling for such an alliance, also doesn’t mean that the opposite of what you claim explicitly is not, in fact the truth.

To point that out is not to set up any kind of ‘straw man’ but rather to expose the unexamined content of the arguments you make.

I qualified my statements in my original critique and made it quite clear that I recognized the difference between what you were professing openly and the unstated implications of your argument, which you would not acknowledge.

I wrote: “You qualify yourself with the statement that your call “is not a call to support any form of electoral alliance with the Democrat Party or a vote for Biden.”

But it is a call to support workers illusions in the very forces which are herding workers behind the Democrats, smothering strikes, and confusing the working class with various flavours of pseudo-leftism and identity politics. You write as if the ‘political independence of the working class’ was merely a mechanical function of a formal organizational break with the Democratic Party!”

That remains my analysis.

4. What is the correct strategy for fighting the rising fascist threat?

Address oneself to the working class. Expose for all to see the class character of those organizations with whom you propose to reach a modus vivendi. I think the wsws and the SEP have the correct approach.

To the trade unions, Lenin, from “Left Wing Communism”: “This struggle must be waged ruthlessly, and it must be unfailingly be brought – as we brought it – to a point when all the incorrigible leaders of opportunism and social chauvinism are completely discredited and driven out of the trade unions.”

We no longer need to work within or with the trade union organizations to do that. In fact, working with them hinders such exposure.

We need to talk over the heads of all of the discredited middle-class parties and over the heads of the trade union leaders.

5. Is Trotsky’s strategy United Front tactic still relevant in the current context?  If so, with whom is it permissible to work?

No, it’s not, for reasons I set out in my first article, and now here. If I thought otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

Permissible for whom? People are free to work with whomever they chose, to whatever purpose. A united front with between who and whom remains the question. Marxists should address themselves to the working class and its organizations, not to organizations under the control of the middle or ruling classes.

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