The search for working class unity
by Erna Bennett
A recent short letter to The Guardian, published under the title "Time for Unity", draws our attention once again to a question of the utmost importance. Working class unity is one of the most urgent problems of our time, and it calls for serious and thorough examination. The divisions which paralyse the left are not just tragic — they are historically devastating. But we cannot avoid asking, "with what forces can unity that will serve the interests of the working class be established?"
The comrade who writes to The Guardian fails to ask this question. Commenting on a recent article on the US-led NATO air raids on Yugoslavia published in the Australian Marxist Review1 which observed that many of the NATO states participating in that aggression have social democratic or labour governments and that their betrayal of the working class forfeits their role in history, he argues that the article fails to see a social democratic left developing. He cites as a hopeful sign of change the French and Italian Governments whose "hands were forced" by what he describes as "mass protests led by communists" to object to the daylight bombing of the bridges of Belgrade". He quotes this as an indication that social democracy is on the mend, or at least mendable. But if he wants to see change in the right direction he is looking in the wrong place.
Social democracy's leaders are the last from whom to expect any leftward shift. Neither the French nor the Italian Government, in their opposition to daylight bombing of bridges in Belgrade, seem to harbour any major moral or political scruple about bombing them at night — and from Italian bases which, with a single courageous decision, could have been closed to NATO bombing missions.
As for the "mass protests led by communists" to which he refers, it is a pity he was not aware of the massive continent-wide anti-war protests that swept of Europe during the US-NATO attacks — from their first day, and not belatedly after weeks of bombing. They were composed not only of communists but of broad, united, elements of the whole working class population — workers, teachers, students, housewives, public servants, shop assistants, professionals, intellectuals — communists and non-communists together, in demonstrations that were organised by communist and non- communist organisations, but not by social democrats.
Here was real and significant working class unity against the war, with much greater claim to our respect than any ambiguous left that might "develop, if not openly", as the writer to The Guardian puts it, among the rag-tag, bob-tail and thoroughly demoralised leadership of social democracy that, in the midst of an inhuman war, runs true to form by quibbling not whether, but how it should be fought.
Prior to one such anti-war protest, when bridges in numerous Italian cities were symbolically occupied by torch-bearing columns of the young and old, hundreds of thousands strong, in one town in which the Communist Party had once been powerful and greatly respected before it was dragged into the shameful morass of social democratic opportunism, the marchers gathered in Piazza della Pace (Peace Square), where party rooms of the once communist but now social democratic Party of the Democratic Left (PDS) are located. For all too brief a spell, as the demonstrators gathered, old comrades fraternised. But as the march moved off, the former comrades who had chosen to follow rather than renounce the social democratic path prepared for them by their opportunist leaders, slunk back into their party rooms where, who knows, perhaps they drowned their shame.
No! Social democracy, the chosen form of what Lenin described as "national- liberal labour parties"2 is neither on the mend nor mendable. Whether in NATO, the EU, or Australia, by whatever name, new or old, it now chooses to make itself known, social democracy remains the class collaborationist force it always has been, its real character merely confirmed rather than denied by the few but slowly increasing number of its members who have the courage to move out and join ranks with a broad working class alliance that is struggling for change — beyond the comfortable boundaries of conformity.
The AMR article on Kosovo referred to much more substantial differences in the bosom of social democracy, as represented by the Labour and social democratic member states of the NATO alliance, than such simple matters as the time of day that is suitable for bombing civilian populations.
But none of them, that I know of, are such as to encourage much hope of their "return" to socialism, because social democrats — and the third section of the Communist Manifesto explained why 150 years ago — have never understood, never been able to understand, and probably never wanted to understand socialism as anything other than an invention of this or that enlightened mind.
Are we expected to believe that to criticise social democracy undermines left unity? Are we being asked to believe that social democracy is the voice of the working class?
But how many workers are social democrats? Lenin, reiterating a problem raised by Engels, asks a similar question.3 At best, a minority. Of those who vote for social democratic parties only a few are committed adherents. Most are only workers and citizens who, for want of better alternatives, or often — as in the case of the Australian Labor Party voters from a loyalty that spans generations, hope only, often desperately, that their vote will help realise at least a first step not towards socialism, but at least better working and living conditions — and are repeatedly disillusioned by betrayal.
Even if all who vote for social democratic parties and their candidates were, in fact, active members of the labour or social democratic movement, they amount, on an average that is almost monotonous, to about 50 per cent of all voters. Many, if not most of the other 50 per cent, on average, give their vote to other, often conservative parties. Are we not to criticise these parties, either, so as not to estrange their working class supporters and so further undermine working class unity?
This, clearly, is not the way to working class unity. Our task in the search for unity is to demonstrate to the working class valid alternatives to social democratic and labour party opportunism and the arrogance of a ruling class with which, all too inevitably, social democracy has allied itself in a search for the sharing of political power. The alternatives that need to be presented demand not stirring, beautiful and empty words but very substantial deeds. All too often, pious calls for working class unity that overlook this necessity turn out to be part and parcel of the mindless baggage that comes with the adoption of compromising but easy options.
In 1875, the German Social Democratic Workers' Party was founded by the merging of the Marxist and social democratic wings of the German working class movement at the so-called unity congress at Gotha. Marx severely criticised its proposed program.4
His critique, contained in detailed notes sent to one of the Marxist "Eisenach" wing, caused "consternation" at the time, and it remained unpublished for many years because — it was believed "it would prevent unity". But the Gotha congress saw "working-class unity formalised". The party born of that fusion, weakened by the compromises out of which it was born, fell apart under the opportunistic and chauvinistic pressures of the First World War. When Marx's analysis of the Gotha program was eventually published, the revelation of its earlier suppression created a storm and that suppression was fiercely criticised. His devastating critique of the Gotha program demands our attention today.
In his 1891 preface to Marx's critique, Engels hoped that "the relentless vigour with which the proposed platform is analysed, and the inexorableness with which the results arrived at are pronounced and the platform's weak points exposed, all this can no longer offend now, after fifteen years." Is it possible that he was wrong? Is it possible, perhaps, that Marx's sharp and penetrating attack on the political opportunism of the social democrats and those who were prepared to compromise with them, and dress their loyalty to the working class in the plausible phrases of social democracy, still finds some who are offended — even after 125 years?
Times and conditions, of course, change and, in turn, impose changes on working class tactics and politics.
Led by its motley prophets, the Second International quickly collapsed in the face of the tide of chauvinism stirred up by the First World War. This, as Lenin observed, "was most strikingly expressed in the flagrant betrayal of convictions and the solemn resolutions of Stuttgart and Basle" to oppose imperialist war. The outcome, he adds, implies a "complete victory of opportunism [and] the transformation of social democratic parties into national-liberal labour parties." (loc.cit, p.218)
Still true to form in spite of the deep contradictions within the NATO imperialist alliance that have been exposed by the US-led attack on Yugoslavia, the bourgeois labour parties, when it comes to the crunch, yield to the bidding of their bourgeois masters. And so, too, clothed in the respectable dress of social democracy, former communist parties, once respected the world over, have joined the chorus of the abject.
But what about the united front, cry some — we need a united front. Yes, indeed we do, but waving Dimitrov's name like a little flag at a football match clarifies nothing and resolves nothing. Even here — no! particularly here — we need to be quite clear about what we mean by unity and a united front.
Let us look at what Dimitrov said. In the first place, he did not hesitate to criticise the social democratic parties.5 Neither did the delegates to the Congress of the Communist International at which he delivered his renowned unity appeal. He asks, were not social democrats in government in Germany, in Austria and in Spain? "Did the participation of social-democratic parties in the bourgeois governments of these countries prevent fascism from attacking the proletariat? It did not. It is as clear as daylight that the participation of social-democratic ministers in bourgeois governments is not a barrier to fascism."6
Again and again, in the rising tide of repression in Europe in the 1930s, communists made every effort to seek common ground with social democracy. Again and again, communists proposed to social democrats, reported Wilhelm Pieck to the Seventh Congress, "the establishment of a united front for the purpose of combatting the capitalist offensive". In 1933, 1934 and again in 1935, "our proposals were rejected"7 and those social democrats who participated in meetings convened by the Communist Parties, including that at Amsterdam in 1932, were threatened with expulsion, as is increasingly happening today.
"What," he asks, "does the Second International want?" It still seeks to lead the masses to reformism, but "the situation in the capitalist countries ... shows that a new rise of reformism is impossible. It is true that in individual countries social-democratic parties may be able to strengthen themselves for a brief period ... but this would no longer be because the masses still cherish the illusion that this will lead to socialism, but because the masses do not feel strong enough to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie."8
Social democracy is in the throes of a profound crisis, the crisis of reformism, the end of an era. That it still survives at all is thanks to active support from the bourgeoisie — hence the apparently incongruous support of the bourgeois press for social democratic parties in parliamentary elections, and hence the extraordinary sight of a summit of EU and NATO heads of state in Florence last November, presided by the President of the United States, proclaiming themselves as "the new progressives".
In the capitalist countries, says Dimitov, most political parties, however heterogeneous, are reformist and are still under the influence of the bourgeoisie. Control remains in the hands of the agents of big capital. Nevertheless, we have a duty to approach all organisations that are under bourgeois influence and to try to win them — or their members — to the side of the working class. But, "our tactics must, under all circumstances, (the emphasis is Dimitrov's) be directed towards drawing [elements] among their members into the anti-fascist people's front."9
"Communists cannot, and must not for a moment," he declares, "abandon their own independent work of communist education, organisation and mobilisation of the masses, striving both for short-term and long-term agreements for joint action with the social-democratic parties, reformist trade unions and other workers' organisations", laying the chief stress on developing mass action locally, "to be carried out by local organisations through local agreements."10
"What," asks Dimitrov, "is and ought to be the basic content of the united front at the present stage?" And he answers, "the defence of the immediate economic and political interests of the working class."11
"Social-democratic government is an instrument of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie in the interests of preserving capitalist order, a united front government is an instrument of collaboration between a revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat and all other anti-fascist parties in the interests of the entire working population.... There is a radical difference between these two things."12 We must, he insists, recognise the difference between the two different camps of social democracy — between the reactionary camp, and the growing number of left social democratic workers who are becoming revolutionary.
Since the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s and the 1940s and the epic, but immeasurably costly victories of popular broadly-based and generally communist-led resistance and liberation movements, a vast reserve of revolutionary experience has been accumulated, adding a new dimension to our knowledge.13 Socialism has been planted in many former colonies. Societies have been transformed beyond recognition under conditions in which a working class often barely yet existed and where a successful struggle was possible only through united popular alliances under communist leadership.
In eastern Europe and the Balkans, in Cuba, Chile, in many former colonies in Africa and Asia, in China, Vietnam and Afghanistan, popular unity was an essential element of revolutionary success just as lack of it was the seed of its defeat. In all these countries, as in Soviet Russia in the 1920s, imperialist intrigue and armed intervention have been used to break that unity and substitute popular power with compliant social democratic regimes.
Today, the confrontation with capitalism has assumed global dimensions, and is intensifying rather than diminishing. Working class and popular unity, with communist leadership, is important as never before — and, as the NATO attack on what is left of socialist Yugoslavia so starkly demonstrates, social democracy has displayed the extent of its hostility to socialism and its indifference to the interests of the working class by providing world imperialism with the brute force it needs to demolish, once again, socialism's hard-won achieve-ments.14
It is indeed time to study Dimitrov's United Front against Fascism and War seriously, as the comrade who writes to The Guardian says. But this can only be done successfully in serious and informed debate that draws on the more than a century of experience that is now available to us, and not in a superficial, casual or dogmatic way. On the basis of that long experience, the search for working class unity shares no common ground whatever with the opportunism of those who have repeatedly sold out those working class forces on whose loyalty they have relied to be carried to power, only to betray them, who will betray them again, and who have repeatedly shown themselves to be enemies and not friends. It must lead to common action not with the reformist leadership of social democracy, but with the revolutionary rank and file, whose working class vision will mature as their involvement in the struggle intensifies.