The method of the united front todayLeave a comment
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First Published: May 1996.
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In Defence of Marxism, Number 4 (May 1996)
THE HERITAGE OF THE COMINTERN
First developed as an international tactic at the third congress of the Communist International, the united front had a clear precedent in the policy of the Bolsheviks at the time of the Kornilov coup in September 1917. At a more general level, the united front is rooted in the work of Marx and Engels in the First International, when they attempted to achieve maximum practical unity in struggle against the class enemy. Indeed, it could be said to be implicit in their famous statement in the Communist Manifesto that the communists have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. 
The immediate forerunner of the Comintern’s development of the united front was the Open Letter of the KPD, addressed to all workers’ parties and trade unions in January 1921. It called on them to unite their forces against the capitalist offensive in defence of workers’ vital interests. It proposed a programme of joint struggle around a number of demands including:
higher pensions for disabled war veterans; elimination of unemployment; the improvement of the country’s finances at the expense of the monopolies; the introduction of workers’ control over food supplies, raw materials and fuel; reopening of all closed enterprises; control over sowing, harvesting and marketing of farm produce by peasants’ councils and farm labourers’ organisations; the immediate disarming of all bourgeois militarised organisations; the establishment of workers’ self-defence; amnesty for political prisoners; and the immediate re-establishment of trade and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia. 
Lenin addressing the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921.
The third congress of the Comintern met in July 1921 under the banner ‘To the masses!’ and under the impact of the failed March Action in Germany. The prevalence of adventurist and putschist tendencies within the KPD (urged on in part by Zinoviev) was only addressed in general terms, and a compromise was struck with the KPD leftists. However, the emphasis of the resolution On Tactics on the need for the Communists to strive for the maximum unity in action, to take up the struggle for immediate demands, and to fight for the leadership of non-proletarian oppressed strata marked a new maturity. Lenin intervened at the Congress to praise the Open Letter as ‘a model political step’. 
In December 1921, the ECCI, recognising that the experiences of the working class since the war had left it weakened, disunited and on the defensive, issued the Directives on the United Front. The united front was not conceived as a mutual amnesty. In calling for the CPs to propose fighting agreements to the reformists and centrists around the vital questions of the hour, the ECCI stressed that the communists must ‘retain the unconditional right and the possibility of expressing their opinion of the policy of all working class organisations without exception, not only before and after action has been taken but also, if necessary, during its course’.
Between early 1922 and the autumn of 1923, the KPD employed the united front with considerable success, winning a sympathetic response from reformist workers and greatly strengthening its base in the unions. This was to be heavily undercut by the debacle of October 1923, and the role of the leftist leadership of Fischer and Maslow, which had never accepted the united front in the first place.
The context in which the Comintern proposed the united front was the ebb of the post-war revolutionary wave, the stabilisation of the major imperialist powers, and the resurgence of the mass reformist parties. This gave rise to two related problems – firstly, how to relate to the workers organised in the mass reformist parties, which in most countries were still larger than the fledgling Communist parties; secondly, how to organise united class resistance to the bourgeoisie’s counter-offensive.
The debate on the united front saw a further round of struggle against sectarian prejudices, following on from the disputes over parliamentarianism with the ultra-lefts like the KAPD  and the struggle within reformist trade unions at the second congress. Significant opposition was encountered from the Italian, French and Spanish parties. Replying to those who accused the Comintern leadership of conciliation towards the reformists, Trotsky had this to say:
If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form. 
From the outset, the united front was conceived as a mass tactic. For this reason, Trotsky stressed that:
In cases where the Communist Party remains an organisation of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organisational significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership of the old organisations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role. 
The CPGB, for instance, with only 2-3,000 members could not propose a viable party-to-party united front to the Labour Party. Consequently, it was urged to seek affiliation to Labour, to take advantage of individual membership and influence through trade union delegates, and to supplement this with related tactics which would bring it into common struggle with reformist workers – the Minority Movement in the unions, the unemployed movement, the tactic of critical electoral support and of demands placed upon the Labour leadership.
However, in countries such as Germany, France and Italy, where mass Communist Parties competed directly with social democracy for the allegiance of workers, the united front was placed on the order of the day. However, it met with considerable resistance from leaderships which had been placing the main emphasis of their propaganda and agitation on the treachery of the reformist leaders.
The Fourth Congress of November 1922 supplemented the work on the united front in a number of related programmatic areas – the workers’ government, trade union unity and the development of transitional demands. However, the Comintern of Lenin and Trotsky only sketched the problem of the united front in general terms. Aside from the need to concretise demands appropriate to, different national conditions (which the Comintern recognised), many detailed problems relating to the united front were not elaborated.
The forgotten Fifth Comintern Congress: Bridge between Lenin and Stalin. The first four congresses (1919-1922) of the Communist International (Comintern) have won attention as events shaped by Lenin and his policies; the sixth congress (1928) is famous as the event marking the triumph of Stalinism. But the fifth congress of the Communist International (1924) is a largely forgotten event in revolutionary history.
Moreover, the task of making a balance sheet of the Comintern and the united front in the 1920s is similar to that identified by Gandhi, who when asked what he thought of British civilisation, is supposed to have replied that it would be a good idea. Less than three years elapsed between the Third Congress and the death of Lenin, by which time the Comintern was already being ‘Zinovievised’. The combination of resistance on the part of Comintern sections and outright rejection by the reformists allowed for few practical tests of the united front. Between the ultra-leftism of the Fifth Congress and the opportunism which followed it, the entire question was obscured. Zinoviev’s purge of the Comintern sections and the subsequent Stalinisation of the International buried the healthy evolution of Comintern policy. The ultra-left slogan of the ‘united front from below’, made infamous by the ‘Third Period’, appeared first under Zinoviev. On the other hand, for all the ‘leftism’ of the Fifth Congress, it ushered in the period of the rotten bloc with the British TUC – a move which substituted diplomacy for struggle and shielded the reformist bureaucrats who were to betray the 1926 General Strike.
Only the rising danger of fascism in Germany and the suicidal policy of the KPD placed the united front back on the agenda, with Trotsky’s increasingly urgent posing of the question after 1930. Even then, the correctness of the Left Opposition’s critique of the Stalinist ‘Third Period’ was in the main only be proved negatively, although German Trotskyists were able to intervene successfully in some local areas. 
The German debacle, however, imprinted itself on the consciousness of European workers, in spite of the Comintern’s refusal to make any critical assessment of the events leading up to the Nazis’ victory. Between March 1933 and July 1935 (when the Seventh and last Congress of the Comintern met) Stalinism uneasily manoeuvred away from the Third Period and towards the Popular Front. The desire of the masses for a fighting unity of the working class ran well ahead of their own organisations. When thousands of armed royalists and fascists took to the streets of Paris on February 6, 1934, a spontaneous wave of unity swept the working class which briefly imposed itself upon both the reformists and the Stalinists, before the bureaucratic leaders were able to derail this mood in the direction of the Popular Front. The CGT, supported by the SFIO, called a general strike on February 12. The PCF, under pressure from its own rank and file, was obliged to change its ‘social fascist’ line at the last moment, and support the action, which attracted over one million workers in the Paris region alone. In June, 1934, the PCF congress proposed an anti-fascist united front to the SFIO.
This however proved to be only a prelude to the enlargement of the ‘front’ to include ‘anti-fascist’ bourgeois parties on an international scale – the Radical Party in France, bourgeois republican and Catalan nationalist parties in Spain, ‘progressive’ Tories, Liberals and churchmen in Britain etc. The purpose of the Popular Front was diametrically opposed to the tasks outlined by the early Comintern for the united front. In place of a fighting unity of the class, centred around its most vital and immediate class interests, the Popular Front subordinated class demands to the interests of the supposedly ‘anti-fascist’ wing of the bourgeoisie, in the interests of Stalin’s counter-revolutionary foreign policy. Thus, in Spain, the Popular Front was a vehicle for reversing and destroying the mighty social revolution unleashed in July 1936, which had proceeded spontaneously along the lines of the united front. In France, the Popular Front Blum government, which took office in the midst of the huge strike wave of June 1936, proceeded to roll back workers’ gains, and defuse their militancy, before vacating the stage to the right wing Radical Chautemps.
The sections of the International Left Opposition confronting this rapidly changing situation were faced not only with new opportunities but with numerous problems. Inevitable difficulties attended the transition from propaganda circles to the mass work which the situation demanded. The turn from fighting as a public faction of the Comintern towards the construction of a new International posed the Trotskyists with the problem of how (if at all) they could apply the united front tactic.
In most countries, the left oppositionists were too small to propose the tactic directly to the far larger reformist and Stalinist parties. Hence the ‘French turn’ – an application of ‘the united front from within’ as Trotsky called it to the mass reformist parties, which was carried out with varying degrees of success in a number of countries. In Vietnam – one of the few countries where the Trotskyists had a mass base – they took part in the La Lutte ‘united front’ group with the Stalinists between 1933 and 1936. The fragmentary nature of the accounts of this period, however, make any definitive judgement on its merits difficult. Although a truce was maintained between the two tendencies in the joint paper and joint candidates stood in elections, the Trotskyists maintained an independent underground organisation, and circulated pamphlets attacking the line of the Stalinists. As a result, the Trotskyists became for a period the dominant force in the workers’ movement.
In Ceylon, the LSSP emerged from the petty bourgeois Suriya Mal movement, and was won to Trotskyism as a result of the role within it of the ‘T Group’. Since the Ceylonese bourgeoisie was too weak and too compromised to produce a significant bourgeois nationalist movement, the LSSP assumed the leadership not only of the working class, but of the anti-imperialist movement. Although the party was, even by the 1950s, deeply infected by parliamentary reformism, its leadership of the ‘21 Demands’ movement in 1963 showed the potential for the combination of political and industrial united front action. However, this promise was undercut by the manoeuvring of the leadership in the run-up to the infamous coalition government of 1964.
In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, although only a small organisation, played a prominent role in organising against the fascist German-American Bund and Father Coughlin’s supporters, who held a rally at Madison Square Gardens in February, 1939. Despite the hostility of the Jewish establishment, the socialist-Zionists and the Stalinists, 50,000 joined the counter-demonstration, including many members of Jewish organisations, Garveyites and rank and file CPers.
Because Trotskyists have only commanded a mass following in a few countries and in certain periods – Ceylon, Argentina, Vietnam, China and Bolivia – and because none of these countries is an imperialist country with the kind of workers’ organisations the Comintern was primarily concerned with in the early 1920s, there exists no blueprint for applying the united front tactic in today’s class struggle. Essentially, most of the experiences (would-be) revolutionaries have made in recent decades lie in the field of applications of tactics derived from the united front, rather than the united front itself.
PROBLEMS OF UNITED FRONT POLICY
The workers’ movement, particularly in the imperialist countries, has been placed firmly on the defensive. With the collapse of Stalinism, processes which were already at work for a number of years have been accelerated – the decay of the traditional workers’ organisations, falling levels of membership, chronic unemployment, a general (although by no means uniform) decline in strikes, the offensive of transnational capital and neo-liberal governments, and last, but by no means least, the absence in all countries of mass revolutionary parties.
In order to prepare for the revival of class struggle, revolutionaries are unavoidably faced with the challenge of developing tactics which will enable them to gain a hearing from workers, so as to win their confidence. Small groups, whether of a few dozen or even a few hundred, cannot, under most circumstances, pose as a direct and immediate alternative to the mass reformist or Stalinist parties, except to small numbers of the most advanced militants. Still less are they in a position to propose party-to-party united fronts.
However, revolutionaries can draw upon the range of tactics derived from the united front by raising demands upon the mass organisations and their leaders, initiating common actions (eg against racists and fascists), fighting for principled trade union unity, developing campaigns of critical electoral support, operating ‘the lever of a small group’ through the united front from within, etc – in short, applying the broad scope of what can collectively be termed united front policy. Party building, if it is not to be reduced to a sectarian caricature, must undergo a further period of preparatory work, in which the arsenal of revolutionary tactics must be renewed and relearned.
The ingrained tendency of a large proportion of the left to substitute either pseudo-revolutionary phrase-mongering or chronic opportunism in place of serious, patient and genuinely revolutionary work must be firmly rejected. This in turn requires the clarification of a wide range of misconceptions.
Is any common action a united front?
Wrenched out of context, some of Trotsky’s statements in his German writings would appear to justify such a position (i.e. that the united front arises from the simplest joint action). However, Trotsky was not discussing the question in general, but joint action between two mass parties – the largest social democratic party and the largest communist party in Europe.
The danger of applying the term united front to, for instance, common actions between several small revolutionary or centrist groups is precisely that this mass aspect is forgotten, and those involved short-circuit the struggle for influence over the mass organisations of the class, while believing they have paid their revolutionary respects to the united front.
There will, of course, be many occasions in which only relatively small numbers of leftists will rally to a given campaign or struggle around fighting demands (e.g. the campaign against the Gulf War). To avoid the term united front does not in any way detract from the principled character of such campaigns, which should be seen as one of the variants of common action. However, under such conditions, revolutionaries seek to broaden the struggle beyond the confines of small-circle politics, and carry the fight into the mass organisations of the class.
Common actions, again of a principled nature, are possible even with sections of the bourgeoisie around questions of democratic rights such as freedom of the press, opposition to repressive legislation, equal rights for women, gays, lesbians etc. Thus, while it is conceivable to imagine a demonstration involving both workers’ parties and a liberal bourgeois party, it is would be wholly wrong to term such an action a united front.
Is the united front a workers-only united front?
The term workers united front was frequently used by the Comintem, and in the 1920s was used very largely around the axis of the inter-relations between mass workers’ parties, and to a lesser extent their influence over unorganised sections of workers. However, this does not exhaust the question, since the problem remains of how the tactic relates to other non-proletarian and semi-proletarian oppressed strata of modem capitalism. To answer the question requires, first of all, to think concretely. If, for instance, a student union, an organisation of small shopkeepers or an ethnic minority community organisation wished to affiliate to an anti-fascist committee alongside representatives of the major social democratic party, smaller leftist groups and the trade unions, and accepted its discipline, then only the sheerest formalist would oppose it joining, on the grounds that it was not a bona fide workers’ organisation. In this case, the affiliation would signify that a section of the oppressed petty bourgeoisie had accepted the leadership of the working class. Similar considerations apply to small farmers in some countries.
If however representatives of an openly bourgeois party joined such a committee in order to subvert it, break up its fighting capacity and subordinate it to a programme of capitalist law and order and reliance on the state, then its character as a united front would have been destroyed. There will of course be intermediate situations between these two poles. But, in one way or another, the question will be answered on the plane of action. It cannot be answered solely in terms of sociology, but rather by determining which class interests are ultimately served.
The United Front – Tactic or Strategy?
Since it is impossible for the revolutionary party to take power except through the support of the majority of politically conscious workers, the distinction between strategy and tactics is clearly not absolute. Without correct tactics, strategic questions will not be posed concretely.
Yet, the united front is frequently referred to as ‘merely’ a tactic. Aside from the fact that workers will not be won over by something which looks simply like a manoeuvre and not a serious commitment to united action, a larger issue concerns the means by which the working class takes power.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks defeated Kornilov by means of joint action with Mensheviks and SRs, took power on the mandate of the soviets, and formed a coalition government with the Left SRs. All three phases were examples of the united front. In What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, Trotsky calls for the struggle ‘through the united front – to the soviets as the highest organs of the united front’.
Naturally this does not mean that we should fetishise soviets – or, worse still, imitation soviets – under conditions where other forms of working class organisation arise. Nor does it mean that every united front struggle poses the question of power directly. However, the more developed the struggle, the greater its collective consciousness, the more it moves onto the offensive – the more directly united front tactics are invested with strategic implications.
However, it is also true that those (eg the Lambertists) who have emphasised the united front as an over-arching strategy have frequently given it an opportunist thrust, to the extent that it becomes a form of organic unity with social democracy. The united front with reformists and Stalinists becomes meaningless when they sabotage action and disorganise the class. The failure to call things by their real names under such conditions (eg the Anglo-Russian Committee after the British General Strike) and to break if necessary from the united front amounts to covering the backs of the bureaucracy.
Is entrism a form of the united front?
In 1934, Trotsky urged the French Trotskyists of the Communist League to concretise their propaganda for the united front by entering the Socialist Party (the ‘French turn’). He wrote:
This programme [of the reformist and Stalinist bureaucrats] can be realised practically only because the League remains isolated from the masses. The attempt to skim over this isolation through an exchange of diplomatic notes with the Central Committee or through attendance at the sessions of the Socialist National Council is nothing but diplomatic horseplay that aims to conceal the unfavourable relationship of forces. That is not at all worthy of us. The relationship of forces has to be changed, not concealed. It is necessary to go to the masses. It is necessary to find a place for oneself within the framework of the united front, ie, within the framework of one of the two parties of which it is composed. In actual practice, that means within the framework of the SFIO. 
The League must take an organic place in the ranks of the united front. It is too weak to claim an independent place. That is as much to say that it must immediately take a place in one of the two parties that have negotiated the agreement. 
Naturally, this does not mean that any work in a reformist, centrist or Stalinist milieu constitutes revolutionary united front activity. Routine, adaptationist work of the type which the USec has carried out in a number of countries over the years, frequently serves only to strengthen the left reformist wing of the bureaucracy. Only by linking propaganda wherever possible with deeds, only by linking immediate tasks with transitional demands, can this form of united front policy avoid such pitfalls. In this way, revolutionaries seek, within the framework of a single party, to put the reformist bureaucrats beyond what is ‘possible’, and ‘catch them in the crossfire’ when they fail to deliver.
Is it permissible for revolutionaries to ‘tactically’ enter popular fronts?
The Popular (or People’s) Front is a particular from of class collaboration. Popular Fronts – at least those that attain any significance – aim to create a cross-class coalition government, in which the interests of the working class are subordinated to the ‘progressive’ / ‘democratic’ / ‘anti-fascist’ / ‘anti-imperialist’ bourgeoisie. Because such formations are fundamentally opposed to working class independence, revolutionaries cannot place any confidence in, or endorse their aims.
But this general principle does not exhaust the question of revolutionary tactics, particularly where a popular front gains hegemony over the working class and its organisations. Indeed, it is typical, that where a popular front gains mass support (eg France and Spain 1936, the UDF in South Africa), its footsoldiers are predominantly, or overwhelmingly, proletarian.
Trotsky’s response to such a situation was not to advocate dead-end boycott, but to seek to alter the balance of forces in the direction of the united front:
For the moment, the People’s Front is a fact (not for long). Our slogan must be something like: ‘Bourgeois politicians out of the People’s Front! The popular masses have nothing to learn from the capitulator Daladier! Down with the Radical betrayers of the popular masses,’ etc., etc., All the possible variants. Perhaps a formulation like this could be used: ‘To turn the People’s Front against the bourgeoisie, it is necessary to get the bourgeoisie out of the People’s Front.’
He also advocated practical methods of counterposing the base to the leadership:
Each two hundred, five hundred, or one thousand citizens adhering to the People’s Front in a given city, district, factory, barrack, and village should in time of fighting actions elect their representative to the local committee of action. All the participants in the struggle are bound by its discipline.
Does this mean that a revolutionary organisation should therefore join a popular front? It should go without saying that as revolutionary Marxists we do not endorse class collaboration, whether in the form of affiliation, signing a declaration of aims, or in any other way which signifies an endorsement in principle of the aims of popular fronts. However, since we do not turn our backs on the working class when it is misled, we do not leave mass organisations which are affiliated to popular fronts (eg workers’ parties, trade unions, community organisations etc) – unless, of course, we have mass support. Instead, we argue for class politics within the structures of the alliance, and use them wherever possible as a tribune to reorient the mass following of the popular front. Nor do we withhold critical electoral support from workers’ parties in popular fronts. Rather, we seek by means of agitation around critical support to force the leaders to break with the bourgeoisie.
Revolutionaries do not politically support under any conditions a popular front government, although they may critically support individual measures it takes (eg nationalisation). They would, however, defend a popular front against attempts to remove it by right-wing reaction.
In relation to campaigns which are not governmental-style popular fronts, but which nevertheless employ a popular frontist methodology – for example, Stalinist-inspired ‘peace’ movements – we seek to intervene, where relevant, without dropping our intransigent opposition to cross-class unity.
Is the United Front possible with a non-proletarian party?
Such a scenario is only possible in relatively few circumstances – normally where a petty bourgeois or bourgeois nationalist party has a mass base in the working class, and particularly where it has the allegiance of the trade unions. Even so, it will only be applicable in certain cases – for instance, where such a party has a base in soviets or workers’ councils (eg the SRs in September 1917); or where the proletarian rank and file is directly threatened by reactionary violence (eg local units of the ANC during the township wars; republicans in the north of Ireland.) A further possibility is where a petty bourgeois radical party such as the Greens in West Germany in the early 1980s attracts significant working class support by outflanking the traditional bourgeois workers’ party to the left.
No ready-made recipe exists in such situations. The acid test is whether the petty bourgeois party is prepared (temporarily and in spite of itself!) to fight in practice for demands which assist the struggle of the working class.
Does the United Front defend democracy?
Bourgeois democracy, military dictatorship and fascism are all forms of capitalist rule. Marxists, unlike reformists and Stalinists, do not draw absolute distinctions between these different forms, but rather show their interconnectedness – how one prepares for another. But, since the form of rule can vitally affect the interests of the working class and its organisations, this does not signify indifference either. Replying to the question whether he defended the Weimar Republic, Trotsky distinguished between its various components: the president (who had called the fascists to power); the government (already headed by Hitler); the Reichstag (with a majority of reactionaries); and the ‘elements of proletarian democracy’ – the workers’ political, trade union and cultural organisations – which had grown up within bourgeois democracy. It was the latter genuine communists defended, but ‘as we do not yet have the strength to establish the soviet system, we place ourselves on the terrain of bourgeois democracy’, without having any illusions in it.
If this seems rather arcane, a clearer example is provided by the Kapp Putsch in March 1920. The KPD, dominated, in the absence of Levi, by the left headed by Thalheimer, issued a proclamation which stated that workers ‘will not move a finger for the democratic Republic’; the party was prepared to fight militarism, but ‘this moment has not yet come’.
But the mass of the working class and even big sections of the middle class responded to the call from SPD-led trade unions, backed by the SPD, the USPD and the Democratic Party, for a general strike against the militarist threat. The KPD, after a day’s delay, was forced to change its line, and support the call – or risk political oblivion. The first demand of workers after the putsch had collapsed was removal of Noske – the head of the government they had just ‘defended’ – and two other ministers also known to have collaborated with the Freikorps.
The lesson to be drawn is clear. In ‘defending’ bourgeois democracy, the working class does not defend the state which oppresses it; nor does it place confidence in the system of capitalist exploitation, whatever its coloration. Where it does have a direct interest is in defending its own democratic rights, which exist within the bourgeois-democratic framework, but which would be immediately threatened by militarist or fascist counter-revolution. Abstentionism on this score will always prove disastrous. Having defeated the main and immediate enemy, it resumes the struggle against the bourgeois republic. Moreover, even in the heat of such ‘defensive’ actions, revolutionaries fight for the political independence of their class, rather than its subordination to bourgeois democracy. The working class must intervene as an independent detachment, prepared to take the struggle beyond the confines the bourgeois democrats seek to place upon it.
Is a military bloc the same as the united front?
The scope for a military bloc ‘with the devil and his grandmother’ is considerably wider than the criteria of the united front. A military bloc does not presuppose the ability of the ‘partner’ of the working class to defend workers’ interests, even to a limited extent. It merely amounts to an agreement to fire in the same direction against a common enemy. In the case of an attempted coup, such an agreement could be concluded with sections of the bourgeoisie, or even with ‘loyal’ army units. But to talk of a ‘united front’ with such forces would be ridiculous.
Along such lines we have argued that, while a military bloc with Yeltsin and his supporters would have been appropriate had the August Coup developed into a civil war, there could have been no united front with a restorationist government bent on the destruction of the workers’ state. Even to pose the question of joint struggle to defend wages, jobs etc to such a government reveals its lack of realism.
Must reformism be moving to the left for the united front to be posed?
This ‘condition’ placed on critical electoral support – and therefore on the united front – by groups such as the RKL (Austria) and the Spartacists is in fact a means of excluding a united front policy. The desire for class unity – on which the united front is based – normally arises when workers are under attack and thrust on to the defensive. It is the contradiction between the desire of the reformist rank and file to defend itself and the unwillingness of the reformist leaders to fight which gives the united front its leverage. Therefore to apply the united front only in periods when reformism is ‘naturally’ and ‘organically’ evolving to the left means in practice to block any means for the mass of the class to move from the defensive on to the offensive.
Least of all can such ultimatism be applied by small groups:
Let us for a moment transfer the problem to Great Britain, where the Communist Party (as a consequence of the ruinous mistakes of Stalinist bureaucracy) still comprises an insignificant portion of the proletariat. If one accepts the theory that every type of the united front, except the Communist, is ‘counter-revolutionary’, then obviously the British proletariat must put off its revolutionary struggle until that time when the Communist Party is able to come to the fore. But the Communist Party cannot come to the front of the class except on the basis of its own revolutionary experience. However, its experience cannot take on a revolutionary character in any other way than by drawing mass millions into the struggle. Yet non-Communist masses, the more so if organised, cannot be drawn into the struggle except through the policy of the united front. We fall into a vicious circle, from which there is no way out by means of bureaucratic ultimatism. Leon Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat (1932).
AGAINST SECTARIANISM AND OPPORTUNISM!
Ultimatist versions of the united front are invariably linked to voluntarist notions of party building – the urge to command the masses without participating in their struggles. Such a method can only build a smaller or larger sect, and ultimately breed cynicism or demoralisation when workers fail to respond.
Opportunist versions of the united front on the other hand avoid at all costs clear criticism of their reformist or Stalinist partners in the interests of unity. In this way, not a few ‘Trotskyists’ have ended up as bag carriers for left reformists, building a small centrist periphery, which acts as a ready- made audience and support group. This is a recipe for a propaganda bloc on reformism’s terms.
Between, on the one hand, a haughty contempt for the working class, its concerns and the inner life of its organisations, and on the other, a cringing attempt to become the most consistent reformists, united front policy must be re-established as a crucial weapon in the Trotskyist arsenal.
LTT, 10 April 1995
1. K. Marx and F. Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, Collected Works, Vol. 6, Lawrence and Wishart, 1976. p. 497.
2. Revolutionary History Vol. 2, No. 3, Autumn 1989, p. 4.
3. Ibid, p. 4.
4. See N. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, any edition.
5. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, New Park, 1973, pp. 93-4.
6. Ibid, p. 92.
7. See O. Hippe, And Red is the Colour of Our Flag, Index, 1991, chapter 9.
8. L. Trotsky, ‘The League Faced with a Decisive Turn’, in Writings 1934-35, Pathfinder, 1971, p. 35-6.
9. Ibid, p. 42.