On 7 January 1921, the German Communist Party addressed an unprecedented appeal to the country’s working class, political parties and trade unions.
The communists’ Open Letter, modelled on an initiative by the party’s rank and file in Stuttgart, called for united action to defend workers’ living standards, organise self-defence against right wing gangs, free political prisoners, and promote open trade with the Russian soviet republic.
The main target of this challenge was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), whose leadership had since 1918 overseen the reconstruction of Germany’s capitalist state and helped organise a murderous assault on the working class.
Yet the Open Letter’s proposal spoke to an urgent problem. Although the Communist Party numbered in the hundreds of thousands, most workers still backed the SPD. How could the communists win their support?
The Communist International’s Third Congress, held later in 1921, witnessed a vigorous debate over this question.
Its Theses on Tactics stated that the task “is not to establish small communist sects aiming to influence the working masses purely through agitation and propaganda, but to participate directly in the struggle of the working masses” and win leadership of the struggle.
Social Democrats are “daily demonstrating” their “inability to fight even for the most modest demands”, the theses stated.
Communists, by contrast, raise demands reflecting “the immediate needs of the broad proletarian masses”. These demands “in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie” and “organise the proletariat in the struggle for workers power”.
To put this approach into action, over the next year the International developed a policy – modelled on the Open Letter initiative – that called for a “united front” of workers’ organisations.
“The working masses sense the need of unity in action” whether in “resisting the onslaught of capitalism” or in “taking the offensive against it”, Comintern leader Leon Trotsky explained in March 1922. Therefore, the communist parties “must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles”.
The united front policy consists of specific initiatives aimed at winning the working class to support unity in struggle. But to that end, communists are “prepared to negotiate with the scab leaders” and, in Trotsky’s words, “correlate in practice our actions with those of the reformist organisations” and “obligate ourselves to a certain discipline in action”.
A united front is possible only when based on the communist parties’ independence, which had been achieved in the period of the International’s foundation. Communists participating in a united front retained this independence and freedom to act and present their views.
Negotiations with reformist leaders must be fully reported to the ranks, whose pressure is decisive in bringing a united front into existence, the International stated.
This orientation came under heavy fire from ultra-left currents in the International, who were so strong at the Third Congress that Lenin stood, as he later commented, “on the extreme right flank”.
But the united front policy was also opposed by right wing leaders, who – as Trotsky noted – struck a pose of intransigence as a cover for their passivity.
Parties in France, Spain, and Italy rejected the united front, and in Italy this led to a historic tragedy. As the Fascists’ violent attacks began in 1921-22 to destroy the workers’ movement, the Italian Communist Party rejected anti-fascist unity with other working class currents.
Even when this unity surged up from below in the form of united anti-fascist defence guards, the party held aloof. Fascism’s triumph in 1922 crushed the Italian workers’ movement for two decades.
In Germany, by contrast, the communists’ appeal for unity against right wing violence won a broad response.
When the capitalist politician Walter Rathenau was murdered by right wing army officers in 1922, communists drew the social democratic parties and trade unions into mass actions for a purge of right wingers from the army, an amnesty for jailed worker militants, and suppression of the right wing gangs.
Meanwhile, communists built united front action committees in many fields – defence guards, unemployed committees, housewives’ committees, as well as factory councils, which became an effective left wing force in the labour movement.
Did the united front tactic relate in any way to the struggle for governmental power? The communists called for a republic of workers’ councils (soviets), and the councils that sprang up in Russia (1917) and Germany (1918) encompassed all workers’ parties.
The demand “all power to the soviets” was thus set in a framework of working class unity.
But in Germany in 1920 the question of power was posed in a context that demanded a different response. A right wing military coup (the “Kapp putsch”) sparked a massive general strike.
The rebel generals soon fled, but the strike continued. Most workers did not call for a republic of workers’ councils, but they did demand action against right wing violence. To defuse the crisis, the head of Germany’s trade unions called for a “workers’ government” made up of workers’ parties plus the unions.
The Communist Party responded that the formation of such a government would promote working class mass action and progress toward workers’ power. It pledged to tolerate such a government as a “loyal opposition” while freely advancing its revolutionary programme.
This statement evoked intense discussion in the International, drawing from Lenin a comment that while poorly formulated, it was “quite correct both in its basic premise and its practical conclusions”.
The “workers’ government” discussion that followed lacked precision. The core idea, however, was expressed in a 1922 resolution of the International’s Fourth Congress as an application of the united front tactic.
When the question of government is urgently posed for solution, the congress stated, and reformists strive for “a bourgeois/social democratic coalition”, communists propose an alliance of all workers’ parties “around economic and political issues, which will fight and finally overthrow bourgeois power”.
Such an alliance’s victory could lead to a “workers’ government” whose tasks are “to arm the proletariat… bring in control over production, shift the burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie”.
Such a government, the theses concluded, can be “an important starting point” for the establishment of full workers’ democracy.
For congress resolutions, see Theses, Resolutions, and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International edited by Alan Adler, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848, » www.bookmarks.uk.com. For works by Lenin and Comintern resolutions, go to » www.marxists.org