The united front in theory and practice

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Capitalism continually forces workers to fight — whether to defend conditions, challenge racism or take on the whole system. But how do revolutionaries ensure that they mobilise the widest possible forces, without compromising their politics? Tom Kay looks at the historical lessons for today.

The Tories’ onslaught continues. Whether the war in Syria, the attempted imposition of an unsafe contract on junior doctors, vicious racism towards refugees and Muslims or the many other attacks, it’s clear that the need for a broad, united fight back could barely be greater. Yet the question remains — how can we build a movement, both in the streets and the workplaces, which can halt, beat back and break this government?

A huge variety of organisations have been involved in resistance to the Tories — the Labour Party, the Greens, the SNP, the far left, religious organisations, NGOs, trade unions, environmental campaigners, feminist groups, anarchist groups and, no less importantly, individuals with no organisational links. This reflects the diversity in ideas that exists among those who want to fight — different political perspectives and strategies fighting for different visions of change.

In every movement the question emerges of what kind of change we need and how we get it. After all, not everyone is a revolutionary. Most of the time most workers are not — instead they hold reformist ideas. They hope that capitalism can be modified, that its excesses — war, austerity, racism, and so on — can be curtailed through incremental change, delivered by parliament. This idea is reinforced by the “common sense” of capitalist society. How can revolutionaries — armed with a systemic analysis of the world — relate on both a theoretical and practical basis to the millions who want to see change, without cutting off those who are not yet convinced that we need a revolution? This is the question that the theory of the united front tries to answer.

The theory emerged in the Marxist tradition out of some of the most important battles of the 20th century. The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s is one such example. Much is made of Adolf Hitler’s “irresistible rise”, yet this is far from the truth. The Nazis could have been beaten before they came to power, but they were not opposed in an organised manner. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), a huge reformist organisation with millions of members; and the Communist Party (KPD), a revolutionary organisation with 300,000 members, clearly had the ability to stop the Nazis if they called people onto the streets to oppose them.

The leadership of the SPD had built a massive fighting organisation, the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold. This brought together hundreds of thousands of workers into units tasked with the armed defence of the republic. But they were never properly mobilised. SPD leaders believed that the “sanctity” of the German constitution would save them from the heel of Hitler’s boot.

The Communist leaders, too, had mass organisations willing to physically confront the Nazis on the streets. But the two were never mobilised together. During the German Revolution of 1918-1923 the SPD leadership had been crucial to curtailing the revolution and had been complicit in the massacre of revolutionaries — including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leading members of the KPD. This fact, alongside the guidance coming from Stalin’s Russia, led the KPD to identify the SPD as “social fascists”. They saw the SPD as the other side of the coin to the Nazis —both wanted to crush revolutions and rescue capitalism from itself. This disastrous sectarianism led to the destruction of the left — both wings of it.

Leon Trotsky, leading figure of the Russian Revolution, wrote from exile a series of letters calling on the communists to form a “united front” with social democrats against fascism. This was not an endorsement of the SPD leaders. Trotsky didn’t argue for ideological unity with the SPD, but for practical unity against the fascists. In this way the communists could mobilise far greater numbers against the Nazis — and seek to influence the millions of workers who looked to reformist leaders.

The same process exists today. Unite Against Fascism has mobilised thousands against the fascists in Britain, from the BNP to the rump of the EDL. Revolutionaries have fought to get Labour MPs and major trade unions on board around this one issue — even while fighting them over other issues. This has allowed the united front to win wider support than would be possible if revolutionaries tried to fight alone.

The fight against Hitler was not the first time Trotsky had argued for unity between revolutionaries and reformists. In August 1917, in the tumult of revolutionary Russia, an army general, Kornilov, decided to march on Petrograd — the capital of the revolution — in order to crush the workers’ revolt. In response, the Bolsheviks called for workers and peasants — whether revolutionaries or otherwise and regardless of their organisation — to unite in struggle to defend the revolution. At the same time, they argued for revolutionary solutions to the crisis in Russia — for workers’ control, an end to Russia’s involvement in the First World War, and for redistribution of land to poor peasants.

Crucially, however, the Bolsheviks didn’t just appeal to the base of other organisations; they also appealed to the leadership. Kerensky, the leader of the Mensheviks and the Provisional Government, had collaborated with General Kornilov — suppressing the Bolsheviks — until the latter decided to go after Kerensky too. The Bolsheviks recognised that the majority of workers and peasants, though they supported the revolution, hadn’t broken entirely with reformist ideas — for example, that parliament is where real change takes place. So the Bolsheviks appealed for practical unity with the leadership and the base of the Mensheviks and of the other organisations of workers and peasants in Russia. They said to the leaderships, let’s fight together to defend the revolution, but you have to stop repressing us, give us the right to publish our newspaper and to meet and to criticise you.

The reformist leaders were under pressure to show to their supporters that they were serious about defending the revolution and would fight alongside the Bolsheviks. Thus a united campaign could be fought, during which the Bolsheviks gained a much larger audience for their political strategies. It was through this process of united struggle against Kornilov that the Bolsheviks won the trust of the majority of the Russian working class, and a majority on the workers’ councils, putting them in a position to lead the October Revolution.

In 1921, at the Third Congress of the Communist International — an international body of communist parties — Trotsky and Lenin sought to spread the lessons of 1917 to revolutionaries around the world. For revolution, they argued, communists must win the majority of the working class, and, “so long as it does not hold this majority, it must fight to win it…it can only achieve this by remaining an absolutely independent organisation…ideologically and organisationally”. The need for a united front — “despite the fact that a split is inevitable…between the various political organisations basing themselves on the working class — grows out of the urgent need” for working class unity in the struggle against capitalism. Communists “must assume the initiative in securing unity” and must seek “at every given moment joint, co-ordinated actions” between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries.

They should seek unity with both the leadership and the base of these organisations, dragging the reformist leaders “from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the…struggling masses”. If other leaders attempt to put brakes on the fightback, revolutionaries should act independently — but only after fighting tooth and nail for unity. Finally, any united front that restricts the ability of revolutionaries to act independently or to criticise the words and actions of reformist leaders should not be pursued.

Any agreement between revolutionaries with non-revolutionaries over concrete tasks is a united front, and offers an opportunity for discussion and debate about the way forward. In fact, the specific form that a united front takes is a product of the conditions in which they are formed, and the tasks facing ordinary people at any given moment.

Anti-racism is one area in which the united front is crucial. Capitalism continually fosters the conditions in which fascism can grow — despair. Thus every time fascists show their faces, socialists must unite with other forces to the right of them to confront them. Long-running united front organisations such as Unite Against Fascism allow these forces to be ready and waiting as and when they are needed.

But other faces of racism may require mobilising different forces. Stand Up To UKIP was formed in the run up to the last general election to challenge Nigel Farage’s attacks on migrants and refugees. UKIP is racist, but not a fascist organisation, so the arguments and tactics could not be the same as UAF’s. And some of those forces who support anti-Nazi campaigns were not so keen to challenge the “softer” racism of UKIP. Thus revolutionaries had to mobilise overlapping but distinct layers of activists.

Today the refugee crisis is foremost. Tens of thousands have marched, millions have donated, and thousands are meeting to discuss what we can do to help people fleeing wars and poverty. In such changed circumstances revolutionaries must not restrict their audience to those we have previously worked with in campaigns against the BNP or UKIP. Stand Up to Racism is a broader united front than those already mentioned, which has been able to mobilise people in support of refugees — but has also brought in the sharper issues of state racism, police violence and Islamophobia.

We in the SWP fight to preserve the breadth of these separate yet related united fronts, but within that, as open revolutionaries, we also argue for a world without border controls, and in which fascism is starved of oxygen. In order to do this, we organise as a party capable of both ideological clarity — in order to understand the nature of racism today — and of organisational unity with all those who want to fight back against such oppression. It is through this process of joint struggle and argument that a revolutionary minority can win greater numbers to the need for a fundamental transformation of society.