In 1919 the Communist International was born. Throughout Europe and beyond new Communist Parties were founded, generally by splits in mass reformist parties. As anyone who has been through a split knows, the process left behind enormous political and personal bitterness. Yet within a couple of years the Communist International was urging its members to form united fronts with the reformist parties.
Many Communists were confused. Why should they unite with those they had so recently denounced as traitors? The reason was simple. The revolutionary wave had subsided, and the employers were on the offensive, trying to restore their profit levels. A defensive strategy meant the involvement of the broadest possible movement. As the Comintern's manifesto of January 1922 put it, "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."
The Communists were not abandoning their revolutionary aims. But there was no point proclaiming revolution if they could not deliver in the day to day struggle. Workers who could not defend their own jobs were scarcely likely to take state power.
Ten years later Hitler was gaining strength. But German workers were deeply divided between Communists and Social Democrats. The Communists described the Social Democrats as "social fascists", which had a certain plausibility (Berlin police controlled by the Social Democrats had killed some 30 workers on May Day 1929), but it meant rank and file Social Democrats were unlikely to cooperate.
The Social Democrats were almost equally sectarian. As Trotsky warned "Worker communists!… If fascism comes to power it will ride like a terrific tank over your skulls and spines. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. Only a fighting unity with Social Democratic workers can bring victory." Unity, Trotsky urged, should include even the devil and his grandmother.
Ultimately Trotsky's warning was not heard. Millions paid the price. These historical experiences deserve to be studied carefully. Unless there is actually a revolution going on, revolutionaries will be in a small minority. If they want to achieve anything, they have to unite with non-revolutionaries. The united front is always central to revolutionary strategy.
But much has changed over the past 70 years, and nothing will be achieved by repeating slogans from a different situation. Trotsky would have ridiculed anyone who thought the problems of the 21st century could be solved by quoting writings from the 1930s.
The mass workers' parties of pre-war days are gone. The Labour Party has a passive and declining membership. Those who want to fight and change the world often turn to single-issue campaigns, especially on environmental issues. The revolutionary left is far too small to propose united action to the Labour Party on a national level. Yet in local campaigns we can often mobilise more activists than Labour.
One good example of a united front from a more recent period is the Anti Nazi League (ANL). In the mid-1970s, with rising unemployment and a rightward moving Labour government, the fascist National Front (NF) was winning widespread support. The launch of the ANL, with two massive carnivals and many local activities, turned the tide; within two years NF votes were falling and they were unable to mobilise demonstrations.
It is no secret that the ANL was founded on the initiative of SWP members. But from the outset every effort was made to make the organisation as broad as possible. Although Labour was in government, and so part of the problem, the Labour Party was not neglected. Many Labour MPs were involved. The ANL worked hard to win trade union support. The lecturers' union NATFHE (forerunner of UCU) conference overturned an executive ruling by a two thirds majority in order to affiliate.
But at the same time the united front was extended much further. Musicians like The Clash, sporting personalities, writers and many others helped to draw mass support behind the ANL.
To do this it was necessary for the ANL to set itself a limited and specific target. For example, the SWP was firmly opposed to all immigration controls. But if the ANL had opposed immigration controls, it would have confined itself to the small circles of the revolutionary left. On the contrary, it aimed to draw together all who opposed the racism and fascist potential of the NF. As SWP founder Tony Cliff used to say, people who oppose the NF but support immigration controls are inconsistent, but that is their problem, not ours.
Of course, the SWP in its own name continued to oppose immigration controls. At the first big ANL carnival SWP members sold a pamphlet arguing the case. But there's no point defending principles if there isn't an audience.
Some people have accused the ANL of being a "popular front". This shows gross ignorance of history. The popular fronts of the 1930s involved an alliance between Communists and openly anti-socialist political parties. As Trotsky predicted, these led to massive defeats in France and Spain. The odd individual Tory, and quite a few rich musicians, may have turned up at ANL demos. But there was no alliance with anti working class parties.
As the world economic crisis deepens, we shall need the united front more and more. We have to combine the basic principles with the most imaginative approach to particular forms of organisation. As revolutionaries we always seek to combine the broadest possible unity with political clarity. Getting the balance right can be difficult - it's like walking a tightrope. But if we get it wrong, it's a long way to fall.
- Lenin's Moscow by Alfred Rosmer
- The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star (Trotsky, vol 4) by Tony Cliff
- When We Touched the Sky by Dave Renton