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Tactics, strategy, and the ‘united front’

July 24, 2017

A response to Mario C. Plaza’s “How Lenin uses the term “tactics,” plus his subsequent comment.

By John Riddell. In his stimulating contribution, “How Lenin uses the term “tactics,” Mario C. Plaza arrives at the conclusion:

Lenin normally uses the term “tactics” (not strategy) in a broad sense that includes what we now normally call strategy.

Mario’s careful reading of Lenin has led him to the view regarding the use of the word tactics that I myself reached in translating documents of the early Communist International (Comintern).

The question is not purely terminological; it can have implications for practical work. It is relevant, for example, to the Marxist position on seeking a “united front” of working people against capitalist attacks.

‘Tactics’ in Comintern source documents.

With regard to the use of the term “tactics” in Comintern documents, here is what I wrote in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921:

In the 1920s, the German Taktik carried a broader range of meanings than its current English cognate, sometimes encompassing what we now call ‘strategy’. On occasion, the meanings of Taktik and Strategie are the reverse of current usage. In this text, Taktik is translated according to context, sometimes as “tactics and strategy”, sometimes as “course of action”. (p. 50)

This interpretation, very close to Mario’s conclusion, seems to me the only way to make sense of the Comintern source documents in German and Russian.

Yet it is not supported by the standard dictionaries I have seen from that period, which restrict these terms to the realm of military science.

For example, the 1893 edition of Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, a widely used reference work in the early 20th century, tells us that Strategie is “the art of generalship; teachings on leading the troops up to the battlefield,” while Taktik is “teachings on leading and positioning troops on the battlefield.”

Since that time, the usage of both terms in many languages has expanded to include not only military science but many spheres of endeavor. Thus Dictionary.com defines “tactics” as “any mode of procedure for gaining advantage or success” and “strategy” as “a plan or method to achieve a particular goal.” The terms are here defined so loosely as to merge and lose most of their meaning.

In Marxist usage, the terms have also evolved, but in a different direction. They now encompass the political as well as the military realm, and they remain sharply counterposed. Leon Trotsky summed up the current Marxist understanding aptly in 1928:

The conception of revolutionary strategy took root only in the post-war years, and in the beginning undoubtedly under the influence of military terminology. But it did not by any means take root accidentally. Prior to the war we spoke only of the tactics of the proletarian party…. By the conception of tactics is understood the system of measures that serves a single current task or a single branch of the class struggle.

Revolutionary strategy on the contrary embraces a combined system of actions which by their association, consistency, and growth must lead the proletariat to the concept of power. (The Draft Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals, part 2, section 1)

In Trotsky’s view, revolutionary strategy was formulated in the epoch of the First International. Then, in the period of the Second International (1889-1914), “the strategical task disappeared, becoming dissolved in the day-to-day movement.” The Communist International, founded in 1919,  “reestablished the rights of the revolutionary strategy of communism and completely subordinated the tactical methods to it.”

‘Tactics’ in Lenin’s writings

Surely Trotsky here is underestimating the strategic contribution of the Second International, which produced Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform and Revolution (1900), Lenin’s Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905), and Karl Kautsky’s The Road to Power (1909), all of which discuss the path that will lead working people to political power.

Lenin’s pamphlet, written in the heat of Russia’s first revolution, defines “tactics” as follows:

By the Party’s tactics we mean the Party’s political conduct, or the character, the direction and methods of its political activity. Tactical resolutions are adopted by Party congresses in order precisely to define the political conduct of the Party as a whole with regard to new tasks, or in view of a new political situation. (Chapter 1, para. 3)

Note Lenin’s emphasis here on the party’s conduct as a whole. The passage confirms Mario C. Plaza’s conclusion that Lenin often used the word “tactics” where today we would speak of “strategy” or “strategy and tactics.”

The united front: tactic or strategy?

To see how this question carried forward into the Comintern era, consider its approach toward forging a united front of the working masses against the capitalist class.

In 1922, the Comintern published the proceedings of a broad ten-day conference of its enlarged Executive Committee under the title, “The Communist International’s Tactics [Taktik] against the Capitalist Offensive.” (The text is translated in a forthcoming Haymarket Books volume edited by Mike Taber, The Communist International at a Crossroads.)

The word Taktik is here used to embrace Comintern policy as a whole, during a specific historical period, a policy centered on efforts to achieve a united front.

The conference approved a Comintern appeal to other currents in the workers’ movement (social-democratic, centrist, or anarcho-syndicalist) to join in united action to resist attacks of the employing class, including through the holding of a world congress of all major workers’ organizations to plan such a campaign.

The appeal specified that this “united front tactic” grew out of an “unusual transitional period” of deepening capitalist economic crisis, widespread “reformist illusions” among the masses, and a “spontaneous striving for unity” in their ranks. These conditions define the united front as conjunctural and short-term – possibly, in today’s terminology, a “tactic.”(For the text of this appeal and other relevant documents, see my Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress, Haymarket Books)

Understood in this way, the “Taktik” might appear to justify an occasionally heard belittling remark: “After all, the united front is not a strategy; it’s just a tactic.”

But as the Comintern gained experience with the united front approach, it applied it more broadly to an expanded range of contexts and drew broader strategic conclusions from it. Only a few months later, Trotsky’s theses “On the United Front” argued that the united front approach applied broadly to all situations during the struggle for workers’ power where the “proletarian vanguard” – that is, the Communist movement – constitutes “one quarter, one third, or even more” of the working class. It was thus relevant to periods of working-class offensive as well as those of retreat.

Thus, resistance to General Kornilov’s right-wing coup attempt in September 1917 has been cited by Trotsky and many others as an example of a united front. The October Revolution itself, which was opposed by reformist workers’ parties, was a united-front action carried out through the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd soviet.

An indication of this evolution within the early Comintern discussions is that sometimes contradictory things get said. Trotsky’s theses, for example, suggest that the united front does not apply in Bulgaria, given that the Communists there were “the sole leading organization of the toiling masses.” But the Bulgarian comrades themselves, speaking in the same debate to which Trotsky’s theses were submitted, insisted that they had utilized the united-front approach with great success.

And there are also many cases where revolutionary organizations without mass influence, like the Spartacus group of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, took initiatives that helped bring together large numbers of workers in common struggle.

The quest for unity in struggle among workers’ organization with contrasting viewpoints – the essential concept of the united front – has become a permanent concern of revolutionary socialism, even if usually not in the form these efforts took in early 1922.

In summary, the Comintern’s use of the word “tactic” to describe the “united front tactic” in 1921-23 confirms Mario C. Plaza’s finding, with respect to Lenin’s works, that Marxist documents in that era sometimes use the words “tactic” or “tactics” were we would be more inclined to speak of a “strategy.”

A strategic system

But the united front can be both a strategy and a tactic. For example, during the Vietnam war, the united front guided revolutionary socialists’ overall approach to winning self-determination for the Vietnamese, and also found expression tactically in countless specific initiatives for action.

Moreover, the strategic dimension of the united front is better viewed not a strategy in itself, but part of a strategy. The call for a united front needs to be linked to presentation of the program around which it unfolds and the road to its the goal of workers’ power.

And indeed, during the 1921-23 period when united front policy was developed, the Comintern also advanced the concept of a “transitional program” to guide the united front’s demands and of a “workers’ government” or “workers’ and farmers’ government” to suggest a goal. In addition, the early Comintern mapped out policies for the struggle against racial, colonial, and sexist oppression, for unity with working-class youth, and for other related goals.

These and other concepts combined what Trotsky called “a combined system of actions” – or a strategic system – leading toward workers’ power. I have developed this notion on this blog in “The Comintern as a School of Socialist Strategy.”

It is in this framework that the strategic significance of the “united front tactic” can be best explained.

A comment by Mario C. Plaza:

Mario C. Plaza has permitted me to post here the following informal comment he sent me regarding my reply presented above.–JR

As for the generic use of “tactics” in Lenin’s works: it’s a term that includes both tactics and strategy, as we use them today. I recall a speech that Lenin gave in 1921 where he said, roughly, “as for our tactics, or if you prefer, the revolutionary strategy….”

It would be interesting to know how the German socialists of the 1890s used the term, because I think it’s a part of their jargon. I have the impression that Lenin inherited that jargon, and then in the 20s there were some Communists that started talking about “strategy,” so he “adopted” the term.

As for the united front: I agree with your conclusions. I would say that it has a strategic and a tactical aspect. The strategic aspect, or the “permanent concern,” has to do with the fact that the united front aimed to form a particular kind of working class, a united one, with experiences of struggle of the whole class, with a revolutionary outlook, etc. For the communist parties it involves the need to think in terms of the whole class, of becoming an actual mass party, going “to the masses,” assuming how they are at first, and working on that basis, etc.

This aspect thus touches on strategic issues: it has to do with the fundamental strategic actors, or social classes involved in the struggle. But it also had a tactical side: the actual and concrete relationship needed between the communist party with other workers parties, and working-class institutions.

For example if in some country the Social-Democratic party lost its mass support, or simply disappeared, you still had to think and act in terms of unity in struggle among the working class, but not with that particular force. I think part of the difficulty lies in the fact that you can never have a case of “pure” strategy or “pure” tactics.

You always have the two elements mixed, because you can never propose a tactic without a strategic outlook. And vice versa, a strategy without tactical implications for the day to day politics it’s a blind policy.

With thanks to Mike Taber for suggestions utilized in this text.

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One Comment
  1. Jeff White permalink

    The Lenin speech that Mario C. Plaza refers to in the first paragraph of his comment above was given on October 29, 1921. It is reproduced here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/oct/29.htm

    Lenin’s aim was to explain the necessity for the New Economic Policy. In introducing his subject, he refers to “the tactics, or, if one may so express it, the revolutionary strategy we have adopted in connection with our change of policy.”

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