Duncan Hallas

On the United Front Tactic
Some Preliminary Notes

(January 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.85, January 1976.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“The united front tactic is defensive but undertaken with the perspective of going over to the offensive on the basis of a successful struggle for immediate demands ... It follows that a united front can never be a bloc for propaganda, but only for certain concrete aims. The more general the slogans (e.g. For a Labour Government with Socialist Policies) the easier for centrists and reformists to avoid confrontation. The more specific and limited the slogans (e.g. Labour Councils refuse to charge for school milk) the harder for them to evade it without abandoning their left postures.” (IS Conference Resolution: On Unity, 1972)

The sharp lurch to the right by the Labour government, the rise of mass unemployment, the temporarily successful imposition of a near-statutory wage cutting policy, the assault on the “social wage” by expenditure cuts, the capitulation of the TUC “lefts” in the face of all this and the right wing successes in the AUEW, EEPTU, NUT, CPSA and other unions; all these bring to the fore the problem of left wing unity to defeat the developing right wing offensive.

How can it be achieved? On what political basis? Around which issues? Clearly there is no possibility of an organic unity, a fusion into a single organisation, of the various oppositional trends, the Labour party left wing, the remaining trade union lefts, the Communist party and the revolutionary left. The differences as to ends and means, objectives and tactics, methods and traditions are far too deep and far too great and deep-rooted for organic unity to be a realistic objective.

But the yearning for unity among the radicalised minority of workers is real enough, will inevitably grow and is, at bottom, a healthy yearning. The left must achieve a degree of unity in action if disastrous defeats for the working class are to be avoided. In this situation the united front tactic is of central importance.

Its basis is a struggle to unite workers and workers organisations in a defensive fight for definite and limited aims, e.g., the right to work, free collective bargaining, defence of the health service and so on, on which there is at least formal agreement on the left, irrespective of the profound political differences that exist on other issues. In particular, its basis is the uniting of revolutionaries and reformists in defence of the gains workers have already made and which are now threatened. It is immensely important to achieve this: it is also difficult and, like most tactical operations, full of pitfalls for the unwary.

What the United Front Tactic is Not

“The Communist International has always demanded that workers who stand for the proletarian dictatorship and for soviets should form their own independent parties. It does not withdraw a single word of what it said to justify the formation of independent communist parties; it is sure that each day that passes will convince growing numbers how right it was to act as it did. But, regardless of everything that separates us, it says: Proletarians of all countries! Close the ranks for the struggle for what unites you, for what you all recognise as your common goal.

“No worker, whether communist or social-democratic or syndicalist, or even a member of the christian or liberal trade unions, wants his wages further reduced. None wants to work longer hours. And therefore all must unite in a common front against the employers offensive ... They all fear being thrown on the scrap heap, and therefore they must join in the fight against everything which increases unemployment.” (Manifesto of the Executive of the Communist International, January 1922)

It is not a substitute for a revolutionary party. The united front tactic can never, under any circumstances, mean the subordination of revolutionary politics and organisation to reformist politics and organisation. It presupposes the existence and independence of a revolutionary force. The bigger that force, the greater the united front possibilities.

It is not a “let’s forget our differences and unite” approach. On the contrary; the united front tactic always and inevitably involves a political struggle to compel reformists and centrists to to live up to their own pretensions, to break some of their ties with the capitalist establishment (both direct and through the trade union bureaucracy) and to engage in a fight, alongside revolutionaries, for objectives they themselves profess to support.

It is not a union of revolutionary groups. The whole point is to involve workers and workers’ organisations who accept the immediate objectives but not, at present, revolutionary politics as a whole. Without participation by at least some sections of these any “united front” is a fiction.

It is not a trick. The limited aims involved in the attempt to operate a united front operation (e.g. the right to work) are aims that are sincerely supported by the revolutionary organisation. Neither is it simply a propaganda operation. Its aim is above all to generate united action around partial and immediate demands, to raise the confidence and combativity of the working class.

Is the Question Relevant Today?

“Since Britain came late into the recession output was still falling until recently. It fell by a further five per cent in the spring and early summer of this year and is probably now stagnant. Because of the well established delayed action effect of falling output, there is certainly a good deal of unemployment still in the pipeline. The estimate of 1.5 million unemployed is probably right even if the economy is picking up by then. And a boomlet on the scale estimated is unlikely to take unemployment significantly below 1 million in 1977 ... It could well be worse than this, depending on the outcome of the struggle over the size of the state defect. Unemployment on a considerable scale therefore, is the prospect for the foreseeable future.” (Economic and Political Perspectives adopted by IS National Council, December 1975)

The united front tactic demands that the revolutionary organisation disposes of real forces of its own. This has naturally, to be taken in relation to the area of struggle and to the size of the reformist or centrist struggles and to the size of the reformist or centrist currents and organisations. It also has to be tested in practice.

One area in which the needs of situation calls for such a test is very obviously the struggle against unemployment. The Tribunites claim to stand for full employment. So does the Communist Party. So do we. Ken Gill and Eric Heffer are on record in favour of it. So, for that matter have been Jack Jones and Michael Foot in the recent past! Practically all unions have “deplored” rising unemployment.

Therefore, this is an issue around which we as revolutionaries can and must try to force the widest possible united action alongside everyone in the working class movement who takes the demand for that right to work seriously.

This does not mean that IS should wait for others to act, or for the outcome of lengthy negotiations. Not at all. We support with all our power the right to work campaign sponsored by the National Rank and File Organising Committee. We want to draw in every possible support behind it, to win united support for it. At the same time we are not organisational sectarians. If useful initiatives arise independently of the NRFOC we will support them with vigour, whilst trying all the time to achieve one united campaign. We shall try to reach agreement with the Communist Party, in particular, (but not of course exclusively) along these lines.

The relevance and possibilities of united front work at the present time are not confined to the right to work. But the whole situation makes it central, the key field on which attempts and unity in action must be concentrated.



Last updated on 19.10.2006