From the Spring 2000 issue of Labor Standard (formerly Bulletin in Defense of Marxism) It’s part of a Basics of Marxism series written by Paul LeBlanc. This is a particularly useful exploration of strategy and tactics for socialists.
Tactics and Strategy
by Paul Le Blanc
In previous columns, we have seen that the capitalist economy is destructive of some of the best qualities and possibilities in human nature. We have noted that human nature provides a basis for a democratic and cooperative form of economy — socialism. We have indicated that the diverse working-class majority has both the interest and potential power to bring about a transition from capitalism to socialism. We have seen how different socialist perspectives (some gradualist, some authoritarian, some revolutionary-democratic) influence different socialist groups today.
In our last column we suggested that certain revolutionary principles are necessary to orient those in the working-class movement who seek to create a socialist future: (1) working-class solidarity, (2) working-class internationalism, (3) working-class independence (especially political independence from pro-capitalist parties), (4) working-class honesty, and (5) working-class democracy. At the same time, we concluded that an adequate orientation in our complex world cannot simply be reduced to a handful of revolutionary principles. It is necessary to analyze the specific reality that we are part of, and on the basis of this to develop a strategic orientation of how to get from our current reality to our socialist goal, a strategy which in turn involves the use offlexible tactics that can advance that strategy amid complex and shifting realities.
Logically, it would seem to make sense to move from a grand analysis to a tough-minded strategy, and then to a shrewd choice of tactics that would help to carry out the strategy. But often labor and socialist activists evolve in the opposite direction — we get involved in very specific struggles and activities around one or another issue, then try to think through how this connects to “the bigger picture.” Let’s follow that evolution here. In the present column we will discuss tactics and strategy. In our next column we will take up the question of broader political-economic-social analysis.
In order to get anywhere politically, it is necessary to win people to the struggle against various injustices that are part of capitalist society. One tactic to achieve this would be the writing and distribution of an educational leaflet about that injustice, and holding a meeting or forum about the injustice. Another tactic — on a higher level — would be the organization of a large demonstration to protest against the injustice, calling for a modest reform (change for the better) that would alleviate the injustice.
In some cases, the injustice (or set of injustices) might be concentrated in a workplace, and tactics would involve:
- pulling the workers there together into an organization — a union — seeking improvements (higher wages, a shorter workday, better working conditions, etc.),
- leading the organized workers into demanding a negotiating session with the employer to discuss such improvements,
- putting out leaflets and holding meetings to facilitate workers discussing the problems,
- eventually leading workers off the job in a strike to pressure the employer to make the improvements,
- setting up a picket line to keep scabs from stealing the strikers’ jobs,
- carrying out educational work to build support for the strike among other workers, and organizing solidarity activities (demonstrations, teach-ins, sit-ins, etc.) in order to maximize pressure on the employers to agree to the workers’ demands.
All of these bulleted items are tactics designed to build a union whose purpose is to help workers improve their situation. But for revolutionary socialists, workers’ struggles for such improvements in the here-and-now are also tactics. They help workers develop the consciousness, the experience, and the organizational strength that will be necessary in order to carry out a more far-reaching strategy for socialist transformation. One of the architects of the Minneapolis general strike of 1934, Vincent Raymond Dunne, explained: “Our policy was to organize and build strong unions so workers could have something to say about their own lives and assist in changing the present order into a socialist society.”
The United Front Tactic
In some ways an even more complex tactic is that of the united front. As the name implies, it is designed to create unity among diverse forces in order to achieve a common goal. Workers in a factory, students on a campus, people in a community might have different outlooks and affiliations — some might be liberals, some more conservative, some socialists, some religious, some not religious, etc., with different views on many things — but all might be opposed to a wage cut in the factory, a tuition hike on the campus, the elimination of services to a community. Or perhaps many people from all of these places might be opposed to a military dictatorship or to racist policies or to a war being initiated by pro-capitalist politicians. Whatever the specific struggle, they would “agree to disagree” on many things in order to stand together and struggle effectively around the issue or issues of common concern. Through such united fronts majorities are forged that are capable of winning victories.
There have been important and effective united front efforts that have had an impact on U.S. history — winning victories for the working class through union struggles, through the civil rights movement, through the women’s rights movement, and through the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam. Effective struggles against the powers-that-be not only improve the lives of masses of people, but they can powerfully stimulate the critical thinking and imaginations, and radicalize the consciousness, of many thousands and eventually millions of people.
But the united front tactic, as developed by revolutionary Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky, also has another very important aspect — one involving not simply cooperation but at the very same time competition between groups in the united front. In many cases workers or others who are engaged in a common struggle belong to different organizations, and in a united front these different groups — while maintaining the specific identities and their divergent outlooks — would agree to “march separately but strike together” on the issue where there is agreement. They would be free to disagree with each other and criticize each other while at the same time working together. The members of each group, plus others in the united-front struggle who belong to neither, would have an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the various groups who were joined in the common struggle.
Some might belong to non-revolutionary organizations — perhaps a liberal party or a social-democratic party that believes the gradual accumulation of reforms, combined with many far-reaching compromises with capitalist employers, will solve all problems. The leaders of such parties might hope to increase their own influence and authority through the united front struggle. Others might belong to a revolutionary socialist party believing the working class and all oppressed people must rely on their own independent strength to push back and finally overthrow capitalist injustice, replacing it with a socialist democracy. The revolutionaries would want to use the united front to help persuade increasing numbers of workers that they can have the power to bring about major changes, and also that it is the revolutionary perspective, not a policy of reformist compromises, which makes sense. By advancing their views persuasively while conducting themselves well (through building the struggle most effectively), the revolutionaries would win more and more influence among all workers.
Another tactic pursued by revolutionary parties might be to run candidates in political elections. This is not because they believe socialism can be brought about by winning elections — they know that the capitalists have always resorted to massive force and violence whenever their wealth and power is “democratically” challenged. Only a politically conscious and powerfully-organized working class — based in workplaces and communities (with broad educational, cultural, social, and self-defense components) — will be able to overcome such capitalist violence. But if intelligently utilized, electoral activity and even electoral victories can help to create such a conscious and well-organized movement.
A related tactic that might make sense in certain contexts is to help organize a broad labor party capable of winning growing sectors of the working class to a commitment to political independence from the capitalists. Within this framework of creating genuine, practical working-class political effectiveness it would be possible to win more people to a belief in the relevance of the revolutionary principles we’ve discussed earlier.
Obviously, a serious electoral orientation by revolutionary socialists would involve an attempt to mobilize the masses of workers and their allies — not simply in the voting booth but also and especially in the streets, workplaces and communities — to place political power in the hands of the working-class majority. An electoral tactic that would not make sense is some kind of bogus “united front” to join workers’ parties with pro-capitalist parties in an allegedly “progressive” coalition government committed to preserving capitalism. For revolutionary socialists, united front tactics and electoral tactics make sense only if they advance the revolutionary socialist goal. Tactics must be consistent with one’s larger strategy.
In some ways the most influential strategies in the labor movement over the years have been marked by one or another variety of class collaboration. This involves a far-reaching form of cooperation between workers and capitalists that dilutes or even rejects the notion of class conflict and is generally based on an acceptance of capitalism. One form of this has involved the “business unionism” dominant in the U.S. trade union movement through most of the 20th century, focusing on the improvement of wages, hours and working conditions for (predominantly white male) union members while largely ignoring the bulk of the working class and adhering to the view expressed by AFL-CIO president George Meany: “I stand for the profit system. I believe in the profit system. I believe it is a wonderful incentive. I believe in the free enterprise system completely.”
Reformist-oriented socialists believe that the evils of capitalism can gradually be reformed out of existence and often end up in a similar place. In the early 1950s Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas (definitively reversing the old revolutionary position represented by Eugene V. Debs) exulted over “the degree to which our nation still rejecting socialism is nevertheless obliged to act on quasi-socialist principles,” approvingly contrasting what he called “democracy, with all its human and capitalist imperfections” to the “totalitarian despotism” of Communism under Stalin. Not surprisingly, those sharing this outlook found their place in the liberal wing of the pro-capitalist Democratic Party.
Another social-democratic spokesman, William Bohn of the New Leader, said of U.S. capitalism that — although “there are some who are too rich while others are obviously too poor” — nonetheless “the system is flexible. We have changed it. We are changing it. We shall continue to change it. That is why it works and will continue to work.” Such perspectives continue to guide the Socialist Party’s primary descendants, Democratic Socialists of America and Social Democrats USA. Michael Harrington explained that the liberal-labor wing of the Democratic Party was actually — although “invisibly” — a force for socialism and that the actual “progressive” social policies of pro-capitalist union leaders like George Meany added up to creating “socialist definitions of capitalism.”
From the mid-1930s onward the Communist Party — with somewhat different motivations — had a similar orientation. In that period, the world Communist movement headed by the Stalin dictatorship advanced a strategy of the people’s front (also known as the “popular front,” the “democratic front,” etc.) which stated that the choice facing workers throughout the world was not between capitalism and socialism, but instead, in the words of Communist leader Georgi Dimitroff, “between bourgeois democracy [that is, capitalist democracy] and fascism.” The primary goal of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union was to establish friendly and peaceful relations with liberal capitalist governments, and in various countries to help create such governments.
For U.S. Communists this meant support for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Their leader Earl Browder explained: “Roosevelt’s programmatic utterances of 1937, when combined with the legislative program of the C.I.O. (his main labor support), provides a People’s Front program of an advanced type.” In 1949 prominent Communist William Z. Foster projected the goal of helping rebuild “the Roosevelt coalition” which could elect a “democratic government based on…a coalition of workers, farmers, Negroes, professionals, small business men and other elements willing to fight against monopoly, fascism, and war.”
As U.S. Communist leader Gus Hall later explained in 1972, despite his party’s periodic lip-service to the idea of independent electoral action, for many years “the one operating leg would be the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.” The primary difference between the U.S. Communists and the so-called “Norman Thomas socialists” was that the former were against the foreign policy of Cold War anti-Communism and the latter were in favor of that policy. Now that the Cold War is over and the world Communist movement is only a memory, both the moderate-Socialist and the Communist traditions tend to merge into a shared political orientation.
Revolutionary Strategy — United Fronts, Not “People’s Fronts”
In contrast to this, revolutionary socialists have insisted that there is a fundamental difference between the united front tactic and the strategy of class collaboration represented by the People’s Front. The strategy of revolutionary Marxism calls for the working class leading struggles for greater democracy, for economic reforms, in opposition to war and militarism in a manner that increases the power, the influence, and the political independence of the working class. As the working class successfully organizes and struggles along these lines, it will become able “to win the battle of democracy” (as Marx and Engels put it) by taking political power, initiating a socialist reconstruction of the economy. The united front tactic is designed to help advance this strategy.
The People’s Front, on the other hand, is not simply a tactic but represents a completely different strategy. Instead of being designed to bring the working class to power, it is designed to mobilize working-class support for far-reaching coalitions with liberal capitalist parties and reform-minded but explicitly pro-capitalist governments. In a future column we will explore the adequacy of the two strategic orientations in relation to the world we live in today — which involves the development of revolutionary socialist analysis.
William Bohn, I Remember America (New York: Macmillan Co., 1962)
Earl Browder, The People’s Front (New York: International Publishers, 1938)
Paul Buhle, Mari Jo Buhle, Dan Georgakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)
William Z. Foster, In Defense of the Communist Party (New York: New Century Publishers, 1949)
Gus Hall, A Lame Duck in Turbulent Waters (New York: New Outlook Publishers, 1972)
Michael Harrington, Socialism (New York: Bantam Books, 1972)
Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1996)
Paul Le Blanc, A Short History of the U.S. Working Class (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999)
Norman Thomas, A Socialist’s Faith (New York: W.W. Norton, 1951)