As the Rudd government backs big business rather than taking action on climate change, entrenches the NT Intervention, and maintains much of the Howard agenda the need to build big, strong movements capable of forcing change only grows in importance. The idea of the united front has much to contribute to the debates inside campaigns about how best to mobilise.
It shows how a minority of radical, grassroots activists can relate to and draw into struggle people only just beginning to see the necessity of far-reaching change.
The theory of the united front, as developed out of the Bolsheviks’ experience in the Russian revolution, was about alliances between mass workers’ organisations, revolutionary and reformist. Today mass revolutionary organisations like the Communist Parties of the 1920s do not exist. But the need to balance maintaining a revolutionary organisation and outlook with the need for alliance building is just as crucial—whether in the workers’ movement or inside campaigns around racism and climate change.
Basic characteristics of the united front
The united front is a strategy, not just a tactic. It is a methodology that informs the general approach of revolutionaries to building alliances and joint work with other organisations and individuals. It is designed to allow revolutionary organisations to reach workers with reformist consciousness—those who do not yet see the need for radical, thoroughgoing change. Revolutionaries term this division, between those who have already reached revolutionary conclusions and others who have not, the problem of “uneven consciousness” within the working class.
A united front is a temporary formation—an alliance between revolutionary and non-revolutionary organisations in a common struggle for a particular aim. This can be anything from the fight for workers’ wages and conditions (such as the fight against WorkChoices) to the fight against fascism in Germany in the 1930s.
The type of demands around which to build common campaigns is a topic of controversy in many social movements. This united front specifies that common struggles must be around an aim that is acceptable to both revolutionary and non-revolutionary workers. This means that there must be an effort made to find common ground.
But it also means avoiding vague, general demands which are acceptable to everyone, but put no pressure on the government to deliver change. For example, demands like “Action on climate change now” are not acceptable to revolutionaries. They mean avoiding any confrontation with the government, and so contain no ability to radicalise those who are drawn into struggle.
But neither do revolutionaries propose demands that only other revolutionaries could accept, like forced nationalisation of polluting industries. In relation to climate change, there may be common demands around themes like “making the polluters pay” and “government support for renewables”.
United around a common aim, the revolutionary and reformist organisations necessarily retain political independence. The united front, given its combination of reformist and revolutionary workers, is a site of struggle. There will always be a debate about the tactics and strategy for a particular movement. In the struggle revolutionaries have, as Marx and Engels put it, “the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, and are therefore well placed to win over reformist workers.
The July Days
One of the best examples of the application of the united front is found in the Russian Revolution.
The July Days of the Revolution in 1917 raised the question for Lenin and the Bolsheviks of how to relate to reformist organisations as the movement came under attack from the right. The Bolsheviks were engaged in a bitter struggle with the Provisional Government headed by Aleksandr Kerensky, who had jailed many Bolshevik leaders. At the same time, Kerensky’s government faced a coup attempt led by General Lavr Kornilov.
Trotsky, in The History of the Russian Revolution, explains the approach Lenin took, “Not for an instant did (the Bolshevik party) hesitate to conclude a practical alliance to fight against Kornilov with its jailers… The Bolsheviks were in the front ranks; they smashed down the barriers blocking them from the Menshevik workers and especially the Social Revolutionary soldiers, and carried them in their wake… In the midst of Kornilov’s campaign, Kerensky appealed to the sailors of the cruiser Aurora, begging them to assume the defence of the Winter Palace. These sailors were, without exception, Bolsheviks. They hated Kerensky. Their hatred did not prevent them from vigilantly guarding the Winter Palace.”
Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood the importance of uniting with Kerensky and his supporters in order to beat off the challenge from Kornilov. Without defeating this challenge, there was no possibility of advancing the revolution and eventually defeating the Provisional Government.
Lenin stressed the importance of political independence within the united front in order to maintain their criticism of Kerensky and, crucially, in order to fight for the tactics necessary to defeat Kornilov.
As he explained, “We are fighting against Kornilov, but we do not support Kerensky; we are uncovering his weaknesses…we are varying the forms of struggle against Kerensky…by explaining the weaknesses and vacillations of Kerensky to the people (who are fighting against Kornilov).”
This willingness to defend Kerensky was crucial to the Bolsheviks winning an audience with the mass of workers who still had reformist consciousness. Their understanding that they were not defending Kerensky, but rather defending the revolution, is what allowed them to consolidate leadership of a larger base of workers.
The October Revolution
The art of maintaining the balance between commonality and independence was further tested as the culmination of the revolution neared in October. The central question debated by Lenin and Trotsky was who should lead the insurrection: the Bolshevik party or the soviets?
Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should call the insurrection rather than wait for the approval of the soviets. Trotsky argued that no one but the soviet should call it. This was an argument about the way to most effectively mobilise the mass of workers in support of the revolution.
Trotsky said of the October Revolution, “The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels—a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme—you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses—omitting the medium sized wheel of the soviets—would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion.”
Ultimately, it was the soviets that organised the insurrection that led to workers taking power in the October Revolution. The arguments made by the Bolsheviks within the Soviets were crucial—as was their orientation to winning over the mass of workers within them.
Germany, Trotsky and resisting the Nazis
Most famously, Trotsky applied the theory of the united front in his pleas to the German left as it faced the rise of fascism.
In July 1929 the Comintern decreed that social democratic parties were the same as fascists, terming them “social fascists”. This led the German Communist leaders to make light of the real fascist threat of the Nazis, treating them as no greater a danger than the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Trotsky argued against this saying, “Today the social democracy as a whole, with all its internal antagonisms, is forced into sharp conflict with the fascists. It is our task to take advantage of this conflict and not to unite the antagonists against us… It is necessary to show by deeds a complete readiness to make a bloc with the social democrats against the fascists in all cases in which they will accept a bloc… The overwhelming majority of social democratic workers will fight against the fascists, but—for the present at least—only together with their organisations.”
Trotsky understood that the revolutionaries in Germany could not themselves mobilise the mass of reformist workers. They needed an alliance with the SPD—the same organisation that the Stalinist Comintern termed “social fascists”.
The fact that Trotsky’s advice was ignored meant that not only did the SPD leaders refused to fight—the leadership of the Communists failed to exercise the power that they had to force them to do so. As a result the Nazis took power in 1933 and began one of the most brutal reigns imaginable.
Reviving the united front
The united front methodology is crucial for revolutionaries today. The smaller the revolutionary organisation, the more obvious the need to unite with broader reformist forces in order to fight the attacks of the ruling class. Whilst revolutionary organisations like Solidarity are too small to form a united front with a whole organisation like the Labor Party, a united front strategy informs our approach in campaigns of trying to involve reformist forces.
However, it remains crucial that revolutionaries assert their political analysis and strategy for the movements. It is not hubris to recognise that because of their understanding of capitalism, revolutionaries are best able to understand how to fight for reforms.
Fighting for a revolutionary strategy in campaigns and through publications like Solidarity is a crucial contribution that revolutionaries can make to the struggle.
The united front strategy is as important today as it was in Russia in 1917—even if getting the balance between unity in action and political independence remains an art.