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The United Front: March Separately Strike Together

(October 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 69, October 1984.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Leon Trotsky’s writings for the last fifteen years of his life were dominated by trying to come to terms with the rise of Stalinism and by one theoretical concept – that of the united front. He wrote against a background of the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain, and of the world moving closer to the barbarism of a second imperialist war. His writings were aimed at the millions of workers who looked to the Communist Parties and the Communist International, and who had the power, even at this stage, to change the course of history, to defeat fascism and to unite to take on the capitalist class.

But the theory of the united front wasn’t just about fighting fascism. It was an attempt to try to bridge the gap between the revolutionary party and the working class. It was a recognition that conscious, organised revolutionaries are a minority inside capitalist society. Yet if workers are to make a revolution they need revolutionary Marxist ideas and organisation. If that contradiction is to be overcome, the minority of revolutionaries need to find ways of getting their ideas across to, and organising with much larger groups of workers.

It was also a recognition that revolutionaries attempt to do two things at the same time. They aim to break workers from the old ideas and organisations and win them towards a revolutionary party. At the same time, they try to involve themselves in the day to day class struggle. This means working with people who have a range of different political ideas, many of whom may be hostile to revolutionary ideas but who are willing to unite round specific, often defensive demands. The theory of the united front was in response to these problems.

The theory was first developed by the Communist International in the years after the Russian Revolution. The Theses on Comintern Tactics of 1922 described it as follows:

‘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 interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Every action, for even the most trivial everyday demand, can lead to revolutionary awareness and revolutionary education; it is the experience of struggle that will convince workers of the inevitability of revolution and the historic importance of communism.’

To understand why this tactic was adopted, and why Trotsky put such emphasis on it in the 1920s and 1930s, we need to look at the background against which it was proposed.

The events of the previous ten years had rent apart any idea of a united socialist movement. The outbreak of the first world war in 1914 brought to the surface the massive crisis which had been bubbling for a few years. The support of the overwhelming majority of socialist party leaders for their own ruling classes and for the carnage of war smashed the illusion of a mass Socialist International. The principled revolutionaries who opposed the war amounted to only a handful in most countries.

Gradually that changed. The suffering of the war itself – whether you were a worker in the munitions factory, a soldier at the front, families trying to cope with price increases – meant that dissatisfaction grew. It developed in all countries into massive protests, and in some into full blooded revolutions.

These revolutionary battles – although unsuccessful for more than a short period everywhere but Russia – demonstrated to hundreds of thousands of workers in practice the need to break with the old reformist leaders and their parties. These workers joined the new Communist Parties, which sprang up in the wake of the Russian Revolution and which were clearly committed to workers’ power as the road to revolutionary socialism.

They consciously rejected the old politics and the old political organisations. They split from these parties not on minor tactical questions but on questions of principle: could the old capitalist state be reformed out of the crisis? Could parliament be used to bring workers’ power, or did workers councils need to be built as separate organs of power?

But although the questions of principle remained valid, it became clear that the revolutionary onslaught of the early post war years had not been successful in establishing workers’ states anywhere but Russia. Not only had the workers’ offensives not been successful, the ruling classes now felt confident in many situations to go onto the offensive themselves. As the Comintern theses on the united front put it in 1921:

‘The world economic crisis is worsening; unemployment is growing; in almost every country international capital has gone over to a systematic offensive against the workers, the main evidence of which is the capitalists’ cynical and open attempts to reduce wages and lower the workers’ general standard of living.’

The capitalist class had managed to re-establish itself intact. The task of making socialist revolution clearly wasn’t going to be one of a sharp, rapid offensive. Workers would have to engage in defensive struggles, think out tactical manoeuvres, regroup their forces and so on. This would require united action, which many workers were in any case looking for. As Trotsky put it:

‘Under the influence of the mounting capitalist attack, there is a new mood among the workers – a spontaneous striving towards unity’.

Trotsky repeatedly stressed that the united front stemmed from that objective need of the working class to unite in order to fight capitalism.

‘The proletariat moves towards revolutionary consciousness not by passing grades in school but by passing through the class struggle, which abhors interruptions. To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts, within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such “national” political battles as the one to repel fascism. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial – a cunning manouevre – not at all; it originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat.’

A second factor was also clear to those who discussed the united front tactic. The new revolutionary Communist Parties usually had the allegiance of a minority of the working classes in the various countries. Often they were mass parties nonetheless. But millions of workers still looked to the old reformist parties, or to the newer centrist formations (those who vacillated between reform and revolution), rather than to the revolutionaries.

The Communists recognised that for the most part the mass of these workers would only break from their old leaders through their own experience in other words through activity and struggle which in practice would show what was the correct way of fighting and which political parties were prepared to organise that struggle rather than just talk about it. This argument could not be won by preaching to those workers, but by constantly trying to propose action which could lead to that activity.

The united front tactic therefore recognised the objective need for a workers’ movement which could unite to defend its gains in the face of the employers’ offensive. This corresponded to a genuine feeling for unity among the most militant workers, and so helped the revolutionaries to work with others, to overcome their isolation and thereby to begin to bridge the gap between the revolutionary party and the class.

The united front was conceived of as a way of organising round a demand or demands – however limited or small – which could unite workers in struggle and thereby do two things. Firstly, mount a campaign (usually defensive) over a particular issue which, because it involved more forces than those of a single party, had a better chance of success. Secondly, because the united front was based on activity, it could show in practice that the revolutionaries’ arguments were correct, and that the reformists (or at least their leaders) weren’t serious about fighting round the particular issue.

‘The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade union bureaus ... On the contrary, we are ... interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses. With a correct tactic we can only stand to gain from this.’ (Trotsky in the First Five Years of the Comintern)

The theory seems a straightforward one. Yet its application was much more complicated. There were all sorts of problems – and a few pitfalls – in implementing the tactic. And despite the fact that the 1920s and 1930s provided major and urgent opportunities for this sort of unity – in particular the rise of fascism – the policy of the Communist Parties increasingly moved away from the sort of united front that Trotsky advocated.

So of necessity, Trotsky spent a great deal of time spelling out exactly what was – and what wasn’t – meant by the united front. In particular at first he talked of the dangers involved from the old reformist parties. One obvious danger of unity was that far from breaking workers from the old leaders it could foster illusions in them. That could have disastrous consequences for the workers’ movement. After all, the revolutionaries had broken from the reformists for very good reasons only a few years before. The reformist leaders certainly hadn’t changed their counter-revolutionary colours. How was this problem to be avoided? Trotsky stressed a number of guidelines.

He talked at some length about the need of revolutionaries to maintain their political independence. They must have the freedom to criticise at all times those they were uniting with, to produce their own publications and propaganda, and if necessary to act independently of them. To Trotsky the relationship between party and class could be demonstrated with great effect through the united front. But this obviously demanded party organisation in the first place. In the First Five Years of the Comintern, he explains:

‘If the Communist Party had not broken drastically and irrevocably with the Social Democrats ... it could not have taken the first steps on the road to revolution. It would have forever remained a parliamentary safety valve attached to the bourgeois state.

‘Whoever does not understand this, does not know the first letter of the ABC of Communism.

‘If the Communist Party did not seek for organisational avenues to ... joint, coordinated action ... it would have thereby laid bare its own incapacity to win over – on the basis of mass action – the majority of the working class. It would degenerate into a Communist propaganda society but never develop into a party for the conquest of power.

‘It is not enough to possess the sword, one must give it an edge; it is not enough to give the sword an edge, one must know how to wield it.

‘After separating the Communists from the reformists, it is not enough to fuse the Communists together by means of organisational discipline; it is necessary that this organisation should learn how to guide all the collective activities of the proletariat in all spheres of its living struggle.

‘This is the second letter of the alphabet of Communism.’

In other words the point of a revolutionary party is to develop its own theories and activities, but not as an end in itself. These then need to be used to try to win others who have the same goal but who are trying to approach it through other paths.

A second point about the united front was that it was to be organised round specifics. This follows on from the need to maintain organisational independence and political clarity. The different parties could not have unity around the whole of their political programmes without submerging their differences. For the minority of revolutionaries, the likelihood would be that their politics would be submerged to the more dominant ones of the reformists. This was exactly what Trotsky and the leaders of the Communist International wanted to avoid. In fact they wanted the opposite. The revolutionaries had to be quite open about their differences so that they could unite around areas where they did agree.

So unity had to be round very specific and limited areas. This had another side to it as well. It meant that the revolutionaries did not demand full political agreement from those workers who wanted to fight. Trotsky explained the danger of ultimatism in What Next:

‘Instead of issuing a one-sided ultimatum, which irritates and insults the workers, the party should submit a definite programme for joint action: that is the surest way of achieving leadership in reality.

‘Ultimatism is an attempt to rape the working class after failing to convince it.’

By ‘ultimatism’, Trotsky meant the tendency of revolutionaries simply to demand that the working class should adhere to its programme, without trying to win workers through struggle to these ideas.

It is the unity around specific demands and action which enables the revolutionaries to avoid the danger of ultimatism. In proposing unity you are by definition proposing a demand or demands around which many workers can agree. For example, many workers are against the Tory anti-union laws. If we propose action against these laws, we should propose the sort of action, not that sets us apart from them, but that they will agree with. The key is not in this situation how we differentiate but how we lead action which can implement the demands which unite large groups of workers.

The third point Trotsky stressed was the need for the united front to be between organisations of comparable size. Why was this? Not because Trotsky was in principle against tiny organisations linking up with giant ones, but because the united front is not a trick or a manoeuvre. That means it has to contain real forces who are able to deliver at least something, however small.

So for example, there would be no point in an organisation like the SWP going into a united front with an organisation of 200 or so members, because there would be no real new forces involved. That means both that no real campaign can be built, nor are there any people who can be won in practice through struggle. Again, the reverse is true. The SWP’s 4,000 members could not try to engage in a united front with the whole of the Labour Party. The disparity in size is so great as to make the tactic meaningless. Most Labour Party members would not notice it. We could only have a united front with a minority of the Labour Party – for example certain sections of the Labour left.

Trotsky time and again refers to a situation where the Communists are a third or a quarter of the organised working class in a particular country. Today in Britain we are talking about much smaller and less significant forces all round. But the same sort of idea applies. The tactic can only work if both sides have something they can bring to it.

None of these guidelines meant very much, of course, unless the united front could be put into practice. Here it is important to understand that the agreement for the united front is not simply an agreement between the leaderships of different organisations.

‘The question of the united front is not at all a question of the reciprocal relations between the Communist parliamentary fraction and that of the Socialists or between the Central Committee of the two parties.’

The united front is a united front on the ground. The tactic springs from the needs of the class struggle, from the need of workers to unite to defeat fascism, unemployment or whatever. Therefore it has to be built in individual workplaces, to take on concrete organisational forms and has to be about workers uniting in struggle. Trotsky refers to the Soviets, the workers’ councils established in Russia in 1917, as the highest forms of united front.

That doesn’t mean at all that those proposing the united front can ignore the question of the reformist leaders:

‘All talk to the effect that we should accept a united front with the masses but not with the leaders is sheer scholasticism. It is impossible to summon the organised masses to a united struggle without entering into negotiations with those whom a particular section of the mass has made its plenipotentiaries.’

Trotsky’s aim is not to win over or re-educate the old leaders – a task he believes impossible – but to expose them in the eyes of the mass of workers. The united front is proposed to the leaders because the workers look to them in any case:

‘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.’

For Trotsky all these points were important if the united front was to be implemented correctly. He argued that within these guidelines there had to be a great deal of flexibility, depending on local circumstances. He also didn’t believe that the united front tactic was applicable at all times, in all conditions.

The united front is usually connected with defensive struggles. It makes sense where because of the ruling class offensive the reformist leaders are under pressure to fight, however minimally and however reluctantly. In such a situation – for example in defending union rights – the minimum demands of revolutionaries can coincide with the maximum demands of the reformist leaders, thus creating the possibility of united action.

To judge when united action is possible revolutionaries had to weigh up the balance of class forces, to decide the issues around which workers could unite, to decide whether indeed it was possible to build a united front on an issue. But perhaps the most important thing that runs through all Trotsky’s writings is the need to avoid two dangers, when using the united front. The dangers are of a sectarian abstention from workers’ struggles on the one hand, and of liquidationism on the other. Tragically the history of the Communist movement in the late 1920s and 1930s was repeatedly one of an abandonment of the genuine united front and a zigzagging between these two dangers.

The German Communist Party refused to unite around the very important specific of fighting Hitler and fascism. Instead they demanded that the SPD (the German socialists) rank and file break politically from their old leaders. In other words they virtually said: if you want to fight fascism you can only do so under the leadership of the Communist Party. They refused to approach the SPD leadership for unity, arguing that rank and file members had to accept Communist Party leadership to fight fascism. They adopted precisely the ultimatist approach that Trotsky had warned against.

All this had the effect of creating a barrier between the revolutionaries – who, however misdirected, wanted to smash capitalism – and the rank and file of the reformist organisations, many of whom could have been won to a similar perspective if they could have been broken in practice from their leaders. The lack of unity in this situation had disastrous consequences. When the fascists came to power, they made no distinction between revolutionary organisations and reformist ones, or between left and right union leaders.

Today the theory of the united front can often seem remote. It seems to deal with such massive historic events – the defeat of revolutions, the growth of fascism, the rise of Stalinism. Yet the lessons that Trotsky drew out in his writings are ones which are central to those trying to build in the revolutionary tradition today. The united front is about strategy and tactics, about how socialists operate not according to their political principles alone, but according to the sorts of numbers they can influence, to the balance of class forces and to many other factors.

Our circumstances are very different today from those that Trotsky faced. Socialists in Britain are not in a position to build genuine, united fronts of the sorts that he described. We do not at present have the decisive influence on the class struggle that many of the Communist Parties had in the 1920s and 1930s.

Much of the time, in fact, it is not possible to even begin to raise the united front. The tactic is only applicable in certain circumstances. Obviously when workers are on the offensive and revolutionaries are able to lead mass struggles, a defensive united front may not be needed.

Equally there are times when workers are on the defensive, but such is the nature of the period that neither they nor their leaders see the need for, or the possibility of unity. The situation of -the past few years was like that. It was not in general possible for revolutionaries to build round defensive campaigns and struggles because they barely existed for the most part. When the political situation is stagnant, there are few opportunities for united work. The past year has seen important changes in that respect. The generalised offensive by the ruling class has provoked a number of defensive but nonetheless very large responses. These range from the NGA at Warrington to the fight against the union ban at GCHQ to the present miners’ strike. Such issues give revolutionaries far more opportunities to get their ideas across to those outside the party.

In that situation, the guidelines put forward by Trotsky are very useful, even though the level of these campaigns is far lower than that of a genuine united front.

The importance of uniting round specifics, the importance of uniting with those of a comparable size and the importance of maintaining political independence while involved in campaigns, can all be useful lessons to us when we operate in the trade unions, in miners’ support committees or in local campaigns.

But although there is a much larger audience for socialist ideas than there was a couple of years ago, the gap between, for example passive support for the miners and the much smaller number who are willing to collect money on the street or go on a demonstration is still very great.

There can still be a massive gap between calls for unity from the left union leaders and what happens on the ground. Socialists should not sit back and bemoan this gap. Instead we should use some of the lessons from Trotsky to work with those other socialists and trade union militants already active in support of the miners, and on other issues, to try to draw more people into activity and hopefully into struggle – even if we’re not talking about united fronts on the scale that Trotsky did.

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