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International Socialism, January 1978


Peter Goodwin

The United Front


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 17–20.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


How can revolutionary socialists join other workers in common action while preserving their political independence? Pete Goodwin looks at the history of united fronts between revolutionaries and reformists, and shows how this history is still relevant today.

In June 1977 the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party sent an Open Letter to the Political Committee of the Communist Party. In this Appeal for United Left Action we proposed joint action between our parties to encourage wage claims outside the limits of the Social Contract, support for key individual disputes, the defence of the right to picket effectively and to drive the fascists off the streets.

This appeal was an example of a tactic with a long tradition in the revolutionary movement: the tactic of the United Front. This article aims to examine that tradition and to discuss how the United Front applies to our current situation.

The practice of the United Front – joint action between a revolutionary organisation and a reformist one for definite objectives – played a major role in the Russian Revolution. It was particularly important in the defence of Petrograd in August 1917 against the offensive mounted by the counter-revolutionary general Kornilov. However, the term itself first appeared in 1921 at the Third Congress of the Communist International.

The Communist International (Comintern) had been founded in March 1919. This was the year when Soviet Governments briefly held power in Bavaria and Hungary. In Italy it was the first of the ‘Two Red Years’. Even in Britain it was the year in which the police went on strike and Cabinet ministers nervously discussed which army regiments were reliable enough to use against the workers. Trotsky later summed up the situation:

‘In the most critical year for the bourgeoisie, the year 1919, the proletariat of Europe could have undoubtedly conquered state power with the minimum of sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organisation, setting forth clear aims and capable of pursuing them, i.e. a strong Communist Party’. [1]

In 1919 such parties did not exist. The task of the Comintern during its first two years was to build them. The human material was there – hundreds of thousands of predominantly young workers fed up with the carnage of the war. They were disgusted by the treachery of their old social-democratic leaders and the chaos and misery of post-war Europe. They found inspiration in the Russian Revolution. The Comintern had to give them direction. The invitation to the First Congress said:

‘The task of the proletariat is to seize State power immediately. The seizure of State power means the destruction of the State apparatus of the bourgeoisie, and the organisation of a new proletarian apparatus of power’. [2]

The Comintern had to turn this mood into organisation – to split the best workers from the reformist parties and organise them into mass fighting communist parties.

The tide was flowing with the Comintern, but it was also washing along with it some of the reformist leaders. They wanted to proclaim themselves communists while sticking to their old parliamentary habits. These were the ‘centrists’ who, in some countries, had a big following in the working class. The Second Congress of the Comintern, in the mid-1920s, directed its attention to these people. It adopted the 21 Conditions for Admission to the Communist International. These were designed to make sure that the new Communist Parties did not include any wavering elements, particularly in their leaderships.

By early 1921 the Comintern had gone a long way towards its goal. In Germany and France there were parties with some hundreds of thousands of members. In other countries they were smaller but still numbered tens of thousands.

However, the objective situation had changed in the meantime. The post-war revolutionary crisis had not led to the conquest of power by the working class in any country other than Russia. With the assistance of the trade union bureaucracy and the social-democratic parties, the European bourgeoisie had succeeded in defeating the revolutionary challenges which did develop, for example in Germany. The Comintern was forced to recognise that the revolutionary tide had receded and that capitalism had undergone a stabilisation that was no less real for being temporary. The problem, then, was that of how the Communist Parties should relate to the majority of workers, who remained loyal to their traditional reformist leaders, in a situation that was no longer revolutionary. This problem was compounded by certain political tendencies which the new Communist Parties had developed. In order to build these parties it had been necessary constantly to repeat the revolutionary goal of Communism and to denounce the reformists and centrists. Not surprisingly, many of the enthusiastic young communists saw these tactics as the sum total of the work of a communist party. They developed ‘the theory of the offensive’. This ‘theory’ could be summed up thus: ‘we are in the epoch of capitalist decay and revolution, so the communist minority must go on the offensive, rousing the workers from their apathy by a remorseless series of strikes, insurrections and uprisings, leading uninterruptedly to the revolution.’ The advocates of this theory were particularly strong in Germany, and in March 1921 they put it into practice ina campaign known as the March Action.

The police had taken over the Mansfield coal mines in Saxony and militant miners responded violently. The Communist Party called a General Strike and organised armed actions against the state. When this call gained little support they organised unemployed workers to take over the factories fighting with those who worked there. They exploded bombs to galvanise workers in action. These tactics, of course led to the isolation of the Communist Party. Its membership fell by half and it suffered savage repression.

Any repetition of this sort of thing would mean disaster. By 1921 workers were more cautious than they had been in the head days of 1919, and the ruling class had regained a lot of its confidence. In order to go forward, the Communist Parties had to win over the masses, even in those countries where they were big. But even after the failure of the March Action, the theorists of the offensive proposed to do this by one revolutionary action after another.

The minority of the Communist International gave a different answer; the tactic of the United Front. This was summed up in the Theses on Tactics adopted, after much vigorous debate, at the Third Congress.

The Theses on Tactics argued that the most important task of the communists was to win the majority of the working class. Propaganda – arguing with people and spreading your ideas – was one way of doing this, but it was not enough on its own. The majority could only be fully won over by taking part in class struggle. The Theses argued: ‘Communist parties can develop only in struggle. Even the smallest parties should not restrict themselves to propaganda and agitation.’ [3]

So far, there was agreement with the theorists of the offensive, but the Theses put forward a very different idea of the nature of those struggles. A whole section was devoted to ‘partial struggles and partial demands’. The Communists should put forward ‘practical proposals for struggle, urging on the struggle for all the daily needs of the proletariat, (showing) how the struggle should be waged’. In this way they would demonstrate the inadequacy of the reformist parties:

‘All the work of the communist parties must be informed with the consciousness that no lasting improvement in the position of the proletarian masses is possible on a capitalist basis ... (but they should be) ... putting forward demands whose fulfilment is an immediate and urgent working-class need ... fighting for these demands in mass struggle, regardless of whether they are compatible with the profit economy of the capitalist class or not.’

The Comintern was aware that some of its wilder elements would accuse it of reformism for this emphasis on the practical struggles of the workers. It replied to them in this way: ‘It is not a question of proclaiming the final goal to the proletariat, but of intensifying the practical struggle which is the only way of leading the proletariat to the final goal.’

The tactic of the United Front flows directly from the struggle for the immediate interests of the workers. In Western Europe and America the majority of workers were organised into pro-capitalist parties and reformist trade unions, so their struggles would be through those organisations. The task of the communists was to ‘try, by exerting their influence in the unions, by increasing their pressure on other parties supported by the working masses, to get joint action in the struggle for the immediate interests of the proletariat.’

This is the essence of the United Front: recognising that the majority of the workers support reformist organisations, we try to draw them into struggle by making concrete proposals for action over immediate issues to those organisations.

However, at the same time as it put forward the tactic, the Comintern issued two very important warnings.

First, that even when communists are fighting alongside reformists, they must keep up their criticisms, warning of a possible sellout ‘... should the non-communist parties be forced into struggle the communists must warn the working masses from the outset of the possibility of treachery by the non-communist parties at a subsequent stage of the struggle.’

Second, if the reformists turn down the offer of joint action, then it is the responsibility of the communists to try to organise the struggle alone: ‘If the communist party pressure in the unions and the press does not suffice to get the proletariat into a united front in the struggle, it is the duty of the communist party to try on its own to lead large sections of the working masses into struggle.’

The Third Congress laid the basis for this tactic, but it was still necessary to argue it out in detail. One of the best examples of this was the report which Trotsky wrote on the French Party in March 1922. He started off from the position that it was the task of the Communist Parties to win the support of the majority of the working class. In their day-to-day struggles the working class ‘sense the need for unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or taking the offensive against it’. [4] Feeling this, the workers are bound to condemn any party which sets itself up against this desire for unity; from this flows the United Front tactic.

Trotsky argued that the problem is not a key one when the communist party is very small compared to the reformists, but it is decisive where it ‘embraces organisationally, let us say one fourth, one third or an even higher proportion of the proletarian vanguard.’ The rest are organised by the reformists and ‘even those workers ... are vitally interested in maintaining the highest material living standards and the greatest possible freedom of struggle’. Therefore ‘the party must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles. Only in this way will the party draw closer to those two-thirds who do not as yet follow its leadership and who do not as yet trust the party because they do not understand it. Only in this was can the party win them over.’

Trotsky posed himself a question he knew was sure to be asked by many revolutionaries: ‘Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders?’ For him, they were false alternatives. Many workers support reformist organisations, whose leaders are of course class-collaborationists, ‘but in order not to lose their influence over the workers the reformists are compelled, against their innermost desires of their own leaders, to support partial movements of the exploited against the exploiters’. It is precisely in such movements that we can win over the rank and file of the reformist organisations. Therefore it is in our interests to ‘drag the reformists out of their asylums and place them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses.’

That is why we seek agreement with them ‘in all those cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in a joint struggle together with the masses that follow us, and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of that struggle.’

But at the same time Trotsky has a sharp word of warning about such agreements:

‘In the event that the reformists begin putting brakes on the struggle to the obvious detriment of the movement and act counter to the situation and the mood of the masses, we as an independent organisation always reserve the right to lead the struggle to the end, and this without our temporary semi-allies.’

The Communist International never managed to work out the practical consequences of the United Front. From 1924 onwards it was increasingly an instrument of Russian foreign policy rather than an international revolutionary movement. In the next years all of its basic ideas, including the United Front, were to be distorted beyond recognition.

Germany between 1928 and 1933 provided a classic testing ground for the united front. A large Communist Party, the KPD, faced a labour movement dominated by the reformists of the SPD. At the same time, the vital question for the whole of the labour movement was the growing strength of the Nazis. If ever there was a situation in which a united front was possible, then Germany was it.

But the Communist International had adopted the line of the ‘Third Period’, which argued that the Social Democratic organisations had become ‘Social Fascist’ and that any collaboration with them was impossible. The furthest the KPD was prepared to go was to propose a mock ‘united front’ to the SPD membership on the condition that they accepted the leadership and all the ideas of the KPD. On occasions, even this was too much and the KPD joined the Nazis in attacking the SPD. A former KPD militant described what this meant:

‘In the spring of 1931 the socialist Transport Workers Union had called in Bremen a conference of ship and dock delegates from all of the major ports of Western Germany ... It was public and the workers were invited to listen to the proceedings. The Communist Party sent a courier to the headquarters of the Nazi Party with a request for co-operation in the blasting of the trade union conference. The Hitlerites agreed as they always had in these cases. When the conference opened the galleries were packed with two or three hundred communists and Nazis. I was in charge of operations of the Communist Party and Storm Troop leader Walter Ticow for the Nazis. In less than two minutes we had agreed on a plan of action. As soon as the conference of the social democrats was underway I got up and launched a harangue from the gallery. In another part of the hall Ticow did the same ... the chairman gave the order to eject the two troublemakers from the building ... As soon as the first trade union delegate touched one of us our followers rose and bedlam started. The furniture was smashed, the participants beaten, the hall turned into a shambles ... The next day both the Nazi and our own Party press brought out front page accounts of how socialist workers incensed over the “treachery” of their own corrupt leaders had given them a thorough “proletarian rub down”.’ [5]

Given these tactics, it is hardly surprising that the KPD failed to win over any significant sections of the workers influenced by the SPD.

Virtually the only voice raised against this was Trotsky, who was by now expelled from the International and in exile. In a series of articles, he argued for a genuine united front against the Nazis. As he put it, the Communists should argue with the Social Democrats thus:

‘You put your stakes on democracy: we believe that the only way out lies in revolution. Yet we cannot and do not want to make the revolution without you. Hitler is now the common foe. After the victory over him we shall draw up the balance together with you and see where the road actually leads.’ [6]

The response of the Comintern was to label Trotsky a ‘left social fascist’ and continue with their policy of a ‘red united front’.

Hitler’s victory in 1933 was to prove Trotsky right and the Comintern tragically wrong. It took a whole year for the International to recognise the scale of the defeat it had suffered in Germany. Its response was to move towards the policy of the ‘Popular Front’. This took from the past the idea of united action but extended it from the workers parties to include ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie like the Liberal Party in Britain.

This tactic seemed, on the face of it, to get better results, but in the end it led to disaster as surely as the earlier ‘ultra-leftism’ had. The most horrible example was in Spain. In early 1936 a Popular Front government was elected. Within a few months an attempt was made to overthrow it by a military coup. It was met by a workers’ and peasants’ uprising which checked it in most of Spain. Even the pro-Stalin historian Maidanik was forced to admit that:

‘Local authority passed, in practice, into the hands of the armed proletariat. Also into their hands, anti to a lesser extent into those of the peasants, passed all the instruments and means of production belonging to the capitalists and landowners.’ [7]

The Spanish Civil War began with a revolution. But according to the theory of the Popular Front, this was the worst thing that could happen, for that would frighten away the friendly capitalists that the Comintern and Russia were trying to win. So, with considerable support from Russia, the Spanish Communist Party set about trying to reverse the revolution that had stopped Franco’s well-planned coup. With a campaign ranging from manoeuvre to outright murder it succeeded in restoring the land to the landlords, factories to their owners and rebuilding a hierarchical army and police force, the best of which was used, not to fight the Fascists but to coerce workers. [8]

All this was done in the name of ‘unity against fascism’ but, in doing so, the communists- destroyed many of the moral and political weapons that could have beaten Franco. In 1939, the fascist armies marched into Madrid.

The purpose of the united front tactic had been to draw wide groups of workers into struggle for concrete demands. As the Comintern had said in 1921: ‘The task of the communist parties is to extend, to deepen and to unify this struggle for concrete demands’. [9] The ‘popular front’ was the exact reverse of this. In a desperate search for ever more dubious allies, workers’ struggles were dampened down. The same principle underlies the strategy and tactics of today’s Communist Parties. In order to build a ‘broad democratic alliance’, criticism must be muted and struggles restrained so as not to offend union bureaucrats, left MPs or churchmen. It is a policy that has nothing in common with the united front tactic.

It is only in the last few years that the United Front has become a real possibility for revolutionaries. For many years we were isolated from any real contact with the working class, and in these conditions it was only possible to say what we would have done if we had the chance seriously to propose a united front it is essential to have significant forces of one’s own. If revolutionaries do not have such forces ‘then no reformist workers are going to see the necessity of a united front with the revolutionaries. In that case the reformist leaders are going to feel no pressure from their own base for unity with the revolutionaries. But the reformist leaders are not going to want a united front independently of that pressure ...’ [10]

This lack of any real base has led many revolutionaries into two fresh mistakes on the united front. While accepting all of Trotsky’s criticisms of the Comintern, they have tended to pick out and overemphasise two elements of the argument at the expense of the whole case.

The first of these concerns the reformist leaders. Trotsky had, from the start, recognised that agreement with these people would be difficult to achieve, but: ‘... it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to formalistic irreconcilability but to lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists’. [11] In other words, if the reformists turned down the proposals for joint action, then they would stand exposed in front of their supporters.

Now this will only work when revolutionary organisations have some weight in the working class, so that their proposals will be felt immediately by the reformist supporters, although even here it is second best to actually achieving unity in action. When revolutionary groups have no weight in the working class, then they cannot force a united front on the reformists, so the whole object of the exercise becomes the ‘exposure’ of the reformist leaders. Consequently there has developed the bad habit of ‘making demands’ on reformist leaders.

As the only purpose of these demands is ‘exposure’, then it is logical to make the exposure all the sharper by upping the demands into a full-blooded programme for workers’ power. We thus end up with the spectacle of groups calling on the Labour Government to ‘disband the standing army and set up a workers’ militia’, among other fine things.

At the very best this is rather bad propaganda for socialism. It has nothing in common with the united front tactic rooted in the day-to-say struggles of the working class.

The second mistake involves the question of ‘workers’ governments’. When the united front was first discussed, it was argued that it should include proposals for a joint socialist-communist government, or workers’ government’. The debate on these problems was very confused, but even so the Comintern made it clear that such a government was ‘only possible if it is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers’ bodies that are capable to fighting ...’ and that ‘it must lead to a bitter struggle, and eventually to civil war with the bourgeoisie’. [12] ‘The overriding task of the workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, to disarm the bourgeois counterrevolutionary organisations, to introduce the control of production, to transfer the main burden of taxation to the rich, and to break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.’

The Comintern made it clear that such a government had to be distinguished from the ‘liberal workers government’ expected in Britain, and the Social-democratic government in Germany. These were ‘coalition governments the bourgeoisie and anti-revolutionary labour leaders’. Revolutionaries should have no truck with these.

With the experience of over fifty years of governments by reformist parties throughout the world, we can see that the type of revolutionary workers government proposed by the Comintern is a very rare case. But some revolutionaries have taken every old reformist government as a potential workers’ government and have therefore made them the target of demands of the ‘Labour to power on a socialist programme’ type. Once again, the only possible justification has been ‘exposure’, and once again all this amounts to is poor and rhetorical propaganda for socialism. But here it also has the serious side effect of creating illusions in reformist organisations.

Both of these mistakes have a common factor: they have wrenched the idea of the united front away from its context of the practical struggles of the working class. The SWP has always rejected this sort of ‘death by a thousand demands’ approach to the united front.

But have we grown sufficiently to be able to use the lever of the united front tactic effectively? At first sight the answer would seem to be: no. With less than five thousand members, we are dwarfed by the Labour Party. A united front appeal would fall on utterly deaf years as they are, quite simply, in a different league to us.

A closer look at the class struggle in Britain today gives us a rather different picture. The crucial issues – the fight against wage restraint, unemployment and the National Front are taken up, often in a feeble and token way, by the Broad Left. At the centre of the Broad Left lies the British Communist Party. They have 25,000 members, many of them inactive. Our membership, less than one fifth of that, is much more active. They have much influence in the trade union machine, while our influence is much less and mostly confined to the shop floor. We are much smaller than them, but we do have sufficient weight to exert some pressure on them. The evidence for this is the increasing amount of (generally hostile) attention that they give to us.

We are in a situation where it is both necessary and possible to apply the united front tactic. What, then, does it involve?

First, a word on what it does not involve. It does not mean that we must give up our criticisms of the CP. It does not mean that we must wait until we have forced the CP to move before we take up a fight. We are interested in the united front as a way of strengthening the struggle, but the struggle must go on regardless of whether we reach agreements with others. Thus, when we felt that the CP-dominated Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions was going into cold storage we initiated the National Rank and File Organising Committee. When the Broad Left would not take up a vigorous campaign against unemployment, we initiated the Right to Work Campaign. Our activities over the last three years have strengthened our position inside the labour movement, and undoubtedly they provide us with a stronger lever to force united front activity today.

The proposals we outlined at the start of the article set out guidelines for winning united action, but we must not sit back and think that because the CP leadership rejected them that the matter is closed. The united front is not a one-off operation. The proposals we made in June undoubtedly had some response in the CP. Several branches sent letters or resolutions urging acceptance. They also created a slight ripple amongst militants who, although not members of the CP, generally look to it for a lead. But memories in the workers movement are short and the modest results achieved by our proposals last summer will be lost unless we continue to press for joint action. This can be done by making further proposals from our Central Committee to the CP leadership for joint activity over the issues of the moment. But these will be wasted unless the groundwork is done elsewhere. Above all, this means approaching rank-and-file CP members and branches in the workplace and locality.

The possibilities for joint action are numerous: pushing for a particular wage claim, organising a coach to a picket, taking action against the local Nazis, etc. etc. ...

The united front can also be taken up through the trade union. Already, the bodies in which we have influence, the National Rank and File Organising Committee and the Right to Work campaign, have made a number of approaches to CP dominated bodies like the Liaison Committee and the National Assembly against Unemployment. The same can be done at local level, a union branch or shop stewards’ committee in which we have influence proposing joint action to one dominated by the CP or Broad Left.

These are ways to show that united action pays dividends and to ensure that our next initiative at leadership level can less easily be dismissed as a ‘manoeuvre’. The immediate results may be very small, but then the united front tactic, like the rest of the revolutionary heritage, requires a lot of hard graft to live again.


1. L. Trotsky, The Main Lessons of the Third Congress of the Communist International, June 1921, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. I, p. 294.

2. Invitation to the First Congress of the Comintern, January 1919, in J. Degras, The Communist International: Documents, vol. I. p. 2.

3. All quotes in this section from the Theses of Tactics adopted by the Third Comintern Congress, July 1921, Degras, op. cit., pp. 241–56.

4. All quotes in this section are from Trotsky, On the United Front (Material for a report on the question of French Communism), March 1922, in Trotsky, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 91–109.

5. Krebs, quoted in R. Black, Fascism in Germany, vol. II, pp. 769–70.

6. L. Trotsky, The Only Road, September 1932, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pelican edition), p. 282.

7. Quoted in F. Claudin, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, p. 224.

8. See, for example, George Orwell’s description of the Assault Guards’ equipment and training when they were sent to take over Barcelona in Homage to Catalonia.

9. Degras, op. cit., vol. I, p. 249.

10. A. Callinicos, The United Front, in SWP International Discussion Bulletin, no. 4, p. 12.

11. Trotsky, op. cit., First Five Years ..., vol. II, p. 95.

12. Quotes in this section from Degras, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 425–7.

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