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International Socialism, Winter 2002


Nick McKerrell*

The united front today


From International Socialism 2:97, Winter 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What is the united front?

To the present day the only successful socialist revolution led by the working class in history has been the Russian Revolution in October 1917. Guided by the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Marxist Bolshevik Party attempted to create a workers’ state.

The October Revolution came only nine months after the first revolution in Russian history which overthrew the corrupt Tsarist regime. At the time of this uprising the Bolsheviks were a fairly small force with most of their leaders exiled across Europe, including Lenin.

How then did this Marxist force emerge from this situation to become a mass force which could successfully lead and direct a socialist revolution? Or, to pose it another way, how can Marxists succeed in winning large sections of working class people to their programme? This is the essence of the united front in the traditional Marxist sense.

The first revolution in February established workers’ and peasants’ councils across the whole of Russia – these became known as soviets. Delegates were elected through factories, towns and villages. Different political parties had representation within them, and in some cases individuals with no specific political identity.

In essence the soviets were the early form of the socialist state – they could not coexist with the capitalist state of Russia, and a socialist revolution was necessary. Lenin, after his return from exile, in particular realised this, and argued the Bolsheviks should adopt the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’.

However, for the vast majority of 1917 the Bolsheviks were in the minority of the soviets. They were dominated by the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, a peasant-based party. Essentially these parties wanted to maintain the capitalist state and argue for reforms.

This was a reflection of the different political attitudes among the working class and peasantry. In these organisations the Bolsheviks respected the discipline of the soviet while patiently arguing their case and building their own forces. So in 1917 the Bolsheviks worked with other parties who had support among the working class even though they fundamentally disagreed with their policies.

By doing this and maintaining their own political line and organisation they eventually gained the support of the majority. In the revolutionary situation of 1917 Russia this meant that socialist revolution was on the agenda. For this reason Trotsky labelled the soviet the ‘highest organ of the united front’.

International united fronts

The October Revolution sent shockwaves across the world. Socialist revolution was a possibility across the whole of Europe. As the First World War began to collapse, revolutionary movements inspired by the events in Russia sprang up all over the continent. New Communist parties were established and grew massively. Seizing state power and establishing socialist states was the order of the day. This was central to the Bolsheviks’ – who were internationalists – policies. The Communist International (Third International) was established, and argued for revolution in other countries to defend and strengthen the young Soviet state in Russia.

However, revolutions were defeated in Hungary, Italy and critically Germany in the years 1917–1921, which meant revolutionary Russia remained isolated. The ebbing of the revolutionary tide – in many ways the moment had passed – meant the Third International had to redirect its strategy for international revolution.

The Fourth Congress of the Communist International met in 1922 to consider this, among other issues. In many instances the socialist revolutions had been betrayed by reformist leaders of workers’ parties and trade unions. This was particularly true in Germany, where the heroic Marxists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered on the orders of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the first workers’ parties to be established anywhere in the globe.

In the Fourth Congress’s theses on tactics it was argued that the immediate goal was to build up the newly formed Communist parties or form them where this had not been done, and to take their message ‘to the masses’. To do this there was ‘an obvious need for the united front tactic’. [1] Again using the experience of the Russian Revolution, this meant working with other workers regardless of their political leanings. In some instances it could even involve working with the ‘scab’ leaders of reformism, including the murderers of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

Why was this done? One quotation from the Fourth Congress summarises this nicely: ‘The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups, and all unaligned workers, in a common struggle to defend the immediate basic needs of the working class against the bourgeoisie.’ [2]

Thus by struggling with working people the influence and strength of Marxism would grow and people would break with the ideas of reformism. Of course there needed to be organisational independence, reflected in one of Trotsky’s slogans of the united front: ‘March separately but strike together!’ [3]

The German lesson

When studying the united front issue much reference is made to Trotsky’s writings on Germany prior to the coming to power of Hitler in 1933. As explained previously, this was not the first time the united front tactic was proposed. Indeed, it was central to the whole Russian Revolution and the growth of international socialism. Yet Trotsky’s writings on Germany are vital to an understanding of the concept.

Trotsky analysed every aspect of the united front in this period. He labelled the discussions ‘interminable’. The reason for this was the policy of the Communist International – now under the leadership of Stalin and his acolytes – and the German Communist Party (KPD) towards other workers’ parties and trade unions in the struggle against Nazism.

In summary, the KPD refused to work with the SPD and other forces to combat Hitler and his Nazi forces. In fact it went further and labelled the SPD as ‘social fascist’, meaning they were really the same as Hitler and the policies were only a question of degree. The Central Committee of the German Communist Party in 1931 stated, ‘It is impossible to defeat fascism without first defeating the Social Democracy.’ [4] This meant that the rank and file of the KPD were prevented from even confronting the Nazis on the ground.

This division left the working class immobilised and split the movement so the Nazis could come to power in 1933 ‘without breaking a pane of glass’, in Hitler’s own words.

The defeat of the strongest working class in Europe had immense significance for the movement for a socialist world. As a result of this Trotsky concluded that the Stalinist Communist International could not be reformed and established the Fourth International.

Clearly the KPD and the Comintern were turning Marxist history on its head by adopting such a suicidal policy. The KPD believed it was gaining in strength – and indeed it did have the support of millions of workers – and that a Hitler regime would be unstable, allowing them to seize state power.

Trotsky consistently argued that a united front was vital in the struggle against Hitler. Even as late as February 1933, a few weeks after Hitler came to power, he argued that such a front be established – that is, that the Communist Party and its affiliated groups establish a front with the Social Democrats and the trade unions, who still also had the support of millions of workers. Organisational independence would be maintained but they would unite to confront and defeat fascism.

The Stalinist leadership rejected this on the grounds that the SPD leaders were bourgeois politicians who represented the same economic system as Hitler. Thus in contradiction to the Bolsheviks in 1917 they were ignoring the different levels of consciousness among the working class, particularly the Social Democratic workers, and pursuing their own interests.

The KPD established a group called the Red United Front but specifically excluded the SPD and anyone who did not support the KPD’s position on the Social Democratic leadership. Such sectarianism had fatal consequences, as history shows, but concretely it was also a reversal of the Marxist method that had been so successful in Russia. It meant that ‘the Social Democratic workers remained with their leaders, and the Communist workers lost faith in themselves and in their leaders’. [5]

Trotsky in his polemics used the historical examples of 1917 and how the Bolsheviks operated in the soviets. However, he gave a more precise parallel with the role of the Bolshevik Party in the so called Kornilov revolt of August 1917.

Kornilov was a Russian general who attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government which had come to power after the revolution in February that had kicked out the Tsar. This government was led by capitalist politicians, in particular Kerensky of the Social Revolutionaries (SRs). The Bolsheviks at this time were facing great repression by the Provisional Government. Many of their leaders, including Trotsky, were jailed or in hiding like Lenin, their printing presses were attacked, and so on. Despite this repression the Bolsheviks proposed a united front with other parties to prevent the military coup. Trotsky often spoke of the true scenario where he was released from prison and immediately went to a meeting of this united front with leaders of the Mensheviks and SRs who had been responsible for his jailing!

This mobilisation of the working class meant that Kornilov was prevented from seizing Petrograd and was defeated. The Bolsheviks played a leading role and gained much respect from the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants. The revolt and the Bolsheviks’ tactics had a critical impact on the success of the Russian Revolution in October. Again this provides a consummate example of the benefits of the united front in practice. Another point though is that both Kornilov and Kerensky stood for the same system. Trotsky labelled Kerensky ‘three quarters a confederate of Kornilov’. This did not prevent the joint struggle, but the need to smash Kornilov and the correct tactics of the Bolshevik leaders meant that Kerensky himself could be overthrown two months later.

The united front today

Does this discussion of the united front have more than historical significance for Marxists today?

Clearly at the present time socialist revolution is not on the immediate agenda as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. The Communist parties across the world have more or less collapsed following the defeat of Stalinism and its satellite states in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The so called Social Democratic or Labour parties in the developed world led by Blair and New Labour have become openly capitalist parties. Although many working people still passively support these parties, this is much more fluid than it was in the early 20th century, and that support can transfer to other political forces.

So the classical position of a united front equalling a coming together of two or more mass workers’ parties over a specific issue – as in Germany in the 1930s or Russia in 1917 – is not really appropriate today.

However, this does not negate the idea of a united front in a broader sense. Trotsky once said that the united front ‘is imposed by the dialectics of the class struggle’. [6] That is, once as a Marxist you are involved in any broad political activity like a strike, community campaign or demonstration, you will by necessity be working with others who are not of the same viewpoint as you. If you did not work together on this basis then no successes would be possible. That is common sense for anyone that has been involved in a struggle.

The Scottish experience

Recent Scottish socialist history only confirms this. The heroic anti poll tax campaign which galvanised millions of non-payers and defeated Thatcher’s flagship was a model of how a united front should operate in a modern context. Led by the Anti Poll Tax Federation, local anti poll tax unions came together to organise non-payment in their communities, among their work colleagues and with their fellow students. Thus people from all sorts of political backgrounds and many from none came together to defeat the poll tax. The united front had a coherence on the policy of non-payment but did not demand any other political allegiances. Policy was decided at regular conferences and open meetings of the anti poll tax unions.

After the poll tax was defeated in 1991 Scottish Militant Labour (SML) was launched as an open political party. The respect and admiration gained by Tommy Sheridan, chair of the Anti Poll Tax Federation, and other leaders of the anti poll tax struggle in local communities who were members and leaders of SML meant that in a very difficult period for socialists local citadels of socialist support could be built in areas of Scotland. Thus by fighting alongside others in organising demonstrations and public meetings, and defending people from sheriff officers, Scottish Militant Labour won people to its position.

In an important sense this was a real precursor to the current success of the Scottish Socialist Party. SML, along with other socialist forces, proposed a Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1995, most of which agreed to form the SSP in 1998.

In many ways the Scottish Socialist Alliance sounds like a united front – most of the major left groups (although the Socialist Workers Party never joined the SSA) coming together on a common platform and agreeing to disagree on some issues. However, the fact that a political party emerged from the alliance shows that it transcended the traditional united front. One of the reasons for the emergence of the SSP was that there was an incredible amount of agreement on policy. It was more than just a pact of convenience over elections or some specific campaign.

Since 1998 the priority for socialists in Scotland has been the building of the SSP, which has been done to tremendous effect, with the message of red-blooded socialism being promoted the length and breadth of the country. Thousands of people have joined the party, a weekly paper was launched and maintained, and there has been constant campaigning. Electorally, opinion polls suggest that a major breakthrough could be made in 2003.

In this context it would seem strange to describe the SSP itself as a united front. The nature of the SSP and the unity within its ranks would make the idea of ‘striking together and marching separately’ crazy. However, this approach has been hinted at by the Socialist Workers Party international leadership.

In a recent letter to the Australian section of the Socialist Workers Party’s international the party’s leading theoretician is uncompromising in his promotion of the united front as the correct tactic internationally at the current time. Alex Callinicos outlines a list of six ‘united fronts’ that the Socialist Workers Party now operate in: ‘the Socialist Alliance, the Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance, the Anti Nazi League, Defend Council Housing, and the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers’.

It is an open question whether all of these groups are really united fronts. If the English Socialist Alliance is following the same path as the SSA did in the 1990s and there is agreement on most aspects of policy, it would probably be inaccurate to describe it as a united front. Single-issue campaigns can be united fronts – indeed, to be successful they probably have to be. But it is important to note that united fronts cannot be unilaterally declared by one group – they have to be a genuine coming together of different forces with specific clear political objectives.

The SSP obviously involves itself with genuine united fronts. The movement to abolish warrant sales and to introduce free school meals was initiated by Tommy Sheridan as our MSP, but a joint campaign was initiated with other political forces including SNP and Labour MSPs, anti-poverty groups and charities. This approach was important even though most of the work at grassroots – collecting petitions and organising public meetings – was done by the local SSP branches. The anti-war movement and anti-capitalist actions have also seen full participation by the SSP.

However, Callinicos goes further in his analysis of the united front. In a document on the realignment of the revolutionary left he argues, ‘Participation in a broad range of united fronts is an essential feature of the present period.’ This is particularly true, he argues, because of the international anti-globalisation movement. Is he correct?

It has to be said that it is a misreading of the current situation to say that the role of Marxists is to participate in united fronts when attempting to recruit to its own smaller forces. In Scotland the decision was taken within the Scottish Socialist Alliance that what was needed was a unified socialist party that would fill the void created by the transformation of Labour into a party of big business and the move to the right by the SNP which in the early 1990s had attempted to portray itself as a left wing party. That strategy was essential for the growth of socialism and Marxism in Scotland. It does not preclude participating in united fronts where necessary, but the main task has been the building and strengthening of the SSP across the whole of Scotland.

Indeed, by listing six different united fronts that the English SWP are involved in, Callinicos contradicts his own argument. If all these campaigns attract broad support, how much stronger would it be if a unified pluralist socialist party could take up these issues across England the way that has been done in Scotland?

Or, to put it another way, how strong would the forces of socialism be now if the leadership of SML had undertaken a similar strategy to the one Callinicos proposes in 1998? The SSP would not exist and SML would be spreading itself in various single-issue campaigns. There would be no political representative of socialism in parliament, and whole areas of Scotland still would not have branches of a socialist party. Socialism would have been in an immeasurably weaker position.

The realignment of the Marxist left internationally in the last decade and the transformation of the reformist Labour parties into openly capitalist organisations has meant the role of Marxists has changed in the current period. It is not enough to participate in and initiate united front campaigns, although that is still necessary over certain issues, and recruit to your own Marxist organisation. That in essence is what Callinicos proposes and is echoed, ironically, by the leadership of the Committee for a Workers International, who opposed the formation of the SSP in 1998.

The historical role for Marxists today is to form new unified pluralist socialist parties which will act as a beacon to the working class and youth politicised by the anti-globalisation movement. This has been done with a remarkable degree of success in Scotland. However, recent elections in other countries in Europe have also seen hard left parties grow in support – in France, Italy and Holland.

Marxist writings on the united front are a treasure trove of information and can provide real direction to socialists. The tactic is a vital part of spreading the ideas of Marxism within a capitalist society. However, we need to relate the ideas behind the united front to the current period if we are to maintain the rise of socialism in Scotland.


* This article was first published in Frontline 8 (September/October 2002). Nick McKerrell is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.

1. Theses on Comintern Tactics, Fourth Congress, 1922.

2. Ibid., point 10.

3. L. Trotsky, For a Workers’ United Front against Fascism, March 1932.

4. Ibid.

5. L. Trotsky, The German Catastrophe: The Responsibility of the Leadership, May 1933.

6. Ibid.

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