Limitations of the united front

August 21, 2013

PAUL D'AMATO'S recent article on the united front is a useful synopsis of the use of the united front strategy in revolutionary Russia and Germany ("Understanding the united front"). I have two concerns about the article, though.

First, I wonder if Paul intended the article to be a part of the recent debate about the ISO's role in the March on Washington ("The contradictions of August 24"). I initially read it that way, as I imagine many readers did, given the debate that has been taking place in and in other places online, and because International Socialist Organization training and analysis would lead most members to say that we should participate in the March as part of a united front strategy.

If this is the case, I would like to suggest that it would be more productive to explicitly reference the March on Washington. Otherwise, the article has the feel of weighing in without actually addressing comrades' concerns about the March. The article risks stifling a still-forming debate by invoking a core political idea--with all the authority that such an idea carries in the organization--without digging into the particular arguments and analysis that comrades have brought up in this particular debate.

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Second, regardless of whether the article is intended to weigh in on the debate, I want to argue against the invocation of the united front here. Despite D'Amato's head-nod to the fact that today's historical circumstances differ considerably from those in revolutionary Russia or Germany, the article does not really analyze or take seriously any of those differences.

In our organization, we have a tendency to look to events in revolutionary Germany and Russia for guidance. But we should, I think, expand our range of examples. For instance, analyses of recent events in the United States might give us better context for thinking through the nature of the National Action Network and our possibilities for relating to the March. (We need better analysis and models for thinking about the nature of environmental non-profit groups, unions that defer to the Democrats, or any number of other kinds of liberal groups as well.)

And while we reference the civil rights movement and Black power movement often enough in talks and writing, it seems to me that when we are talking about strategy, tactics and analysis of current political situations, we tend to default to models from revolutionary Russia, rather than seeking to apply possible lessons from the civil rights movement, the second-wave feminist movement, the anti-globalization movement or any number of other social movements that might illuminate contemporary situations, regardless of whether they were revolutionary.

In general and in the case of the March, falling back on the united front seems to me to be mashing a square peg into a round hole. We should reason inductively instead of deductively: rather than create epicycles to force the March on Washington (or any other contemporary protest) into an ossified and decades-old analytical tool, let's start by thinking through and describing the March, and then use our knowledge of history--American history as well as Russian and German--to better understand the situation.

I suspect that pretty much all of us in the organization agree that we do not want to cut ourselves off from struggle. But it's not clear, for instance, what it means for us to "form an alliance" with reform organizations if the organizations are likely to either be unaware of us or view us as an annoyance.

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, in fact. (It's no wonder that many activists draw the conclusion that "protest doesn't work" when so many protests in recent decades have been entirely top-down, orchestrated events designed to mollify people rather than foment struggle.)

Lastly, for all its failings, I have no doubts that Occupy was a radicalizing experience for many, many people, and that it had a greater impact on the overall political situation in the U.S. than any protest in a generation. Consensus was no doubt a cause of Occupy's downfall--but I think we should pay attention to the fact that large numbers of people who had previously had little interest in activism turned out to Occupy in part because of its non-hierarchical structure. We should pay attention to the fact that many people apparently want to play an active role in genuinely democratic collective struggle, but do not turn out to the traditional top-down marches.

How do we help create contexts for different kinds of struggle? What different kinds of roles can we play at national marches? Is it sometimes more effective to forego national marches in favor of building grassroots struggles? While understanding revolutionary Russian history provides us with crucial analytical tools, American history and the current political situation deserve at least as much attention.

Applying the united front strategy in cookie-cutter fashion itself risks cutting us off from struggle.
M.B., Detroit

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