Liberalism and the united front

August 27, 2013

THE DEBATE over tactics for revolutionary socialists in general, and the united front in particular, which has been addressed in a recent letter by M.B. ("Limitations of the united front"), is an important one.

First of all, I want to state that I think M.B.'s piece is a thoughtful and important contribution. With that said, I want to raise some counter-arguments for consideration, which can hopefully sharpen things.

I, for one, do not fully understand the implications of what is being argued viz a viz those who are critical of the supposed over-reliance of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) on the united front tactic.

In Boston, for instance, our branch of the ISO actually established relations with the local chapter of the NAACP in organizing for the March on Washington. Likewise with other local liberal groups in our previous organizing around the killing of Trayvon Martin. In these circumstances, the united front has proved a useful way to engage in struggle with broader layers of people.

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It would appear that the ISO in Texas, to point to another example, recently navigated the deeply inspiring "People's Filibuster" of anti-abortion legislation, alongside groups like Planned Parenthood and others affiliated to the Democratic Party, by making recourse to lessons offered by the united front.

The united front--as I see it--is not a dogma, but merely an insight into the ways in which we can relate to liberals and liberal organizations around us in such a way as to unite with them around basic demands and points of action, while retaining our own independent profile, criticisms and line of march.

But perhaps the debate is less about the tactic per se and more about political perspectives. That is, that the united front is no longer desirable (if applicable) because liberal organizations in the U.S. today are categorically all part of the problem, and thus cannot (and should not) be united with on any basis.

This seems to be what M.B. is speaking to when they write, "It's also not clear that every march is a form of struggle that actually has the potential to radicalize people. I suspect that large, hierarchical national marches may leave people feeling disempowered and eventually uninterested in collective struggle just as often as they radicalize people."

If so, then I think this is a gravely mistaken and excessively static view of the world. It takes a one-sided snapshot of the specific conditions and balance of forces at a given moment and then extends them immutably into the future.

For instance, looking at the recent growth of environmental activism, of which the liberal writer and activist Bill McKibben has played a significant role, it's worth remembering that just four short years ago, McKibben was an outspoken supporter of Obama. More recently, McKibben has been organizing protests against Obama's environmental policies.

The point is that people change. Even liberals change. Their overall ideologies might not, but their tactics and politics can.

McKibben is not going to lead a movement to end capitalism, which is of course what is ultimately required to save the planet. But insofar as McKibben moves people generally in a direction which advances struggle and political consciousness, we should support and take full advantage of that, while nonetheless voicing our own independent politics, criticisms, etc., about what it will ultimately take to end climate change. This includes trying to win people to understand the inability of all bourgeois politics and bourgeois society as a whole to provide satisfactory answers to these questions.

None of this is to say that we as socialists should never engage in any activity unless we can get liberal groups to do so alongside of us. Far from it.

But the fact is that liberals and liberalism have proven to be flexible, resilient and powerful creatures throughout the history of capitalism. And we simply cannot end capitalism without engaging with this phenomenon. This means that we, too, need to be flexible and resilient in our relations with liberalism (as frustrating as it can oftentimes be) if we are to supersede this whole rotten order.

Finally, for further relevant reading, I would suggest people (re)visit the perhaps unfortunately titled, yet eminently insightful work by the Russian revolutionary, V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. (Excellently summarized in "Disorders of the left kind," by Adam Turl in the International Socialist Review).
Keith Rosenthal, Boston

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