By Paul LeBlanc
Source: NSG, Socialist Ideas in Action
For serious and effective activism, it is necessary to analyse the specific reality of which we are a part, and on the basis of this to develop a strategic orientation of how to get from our current reality to our goal. Such strategies must involve the use of flexible tactics suitable for complex and shifting realities.
One of the most important tactics for revolutionary socialists is that of the united front. As the name implies, it is designed to create unity among diverse forces in order to achieve a common goal. Workers in a factory, students on a campus and people in a community might have different outlooks and affiliations – some might be liberals, some more conservative, some socialists, some religious, some not religious, etc., with different views on many things – but all might be opposed to a wage cut in the factory, a tuition hike on the campus, the elimination of services to a community. Or perhaps many people from all of these places might be opposed to a military dictatorship or to racist policies or to a war being initiated by pro-capitalist politicians. Whatever the specific struggle, they would “agree to disagree” on many things in order to stand together and struggle effectively around the issue or issues of common concern. Through such united fronts majorities are forged that are capable of winning victories.
In fact, the failure to form a united front – the primary example being the refusal during the early 1930s of the massive Social-Democratic and Communist parties in Germany to join together for the purpose of confronting and smashing the Nazi upsurge – can result in disaster.
There have been important and effective united front efforts that have had an impact on history, winning victories for the working class through union struggles, through the women’s rights movement, through anti-racist struggles, through lesbian and gay rights struggles, through anti-war and anti-imperialist struggles, and international solidarity struggles. Effective struggles against the powers-that-be not only improve the lives of masses of people, but they can powerfully stimulate the critical thinking and imaginations, and radicalise the consciousness, of many thousands and eventually millions of people. Powerful protests against IMF/WTO/World Bank “globalisation” have been made possible through united fronts. For many activists, the concept of “united front” means the same as the word “coalition”, which are essential for effective protests and serious politics.
But the united front tactic, as developed by revolutionary Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky (especially in the earliest years of the Communist International, the world-wide movement of revolutionary socialists set up after the Russian Revolution), also has another very important aspect involving not simply co-operation but also competition between groups in the united front. In many cases, workers or others who are engaged in a common struggle belong to different organisations. In a united front these different groups maintain their specific identities and their divergent outlooks but agree to “march separately but strike together”. They would be free to disagree with each other and to criticise each other while at the same time working together. The members of each group and other people in the united front would have an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the various groups who were joined in the common struggle.
Some political organisations – such as social democratic parties – argue that the gradual accumulation of reforms combined with many far-reaching compromises with capitalist employers will solve all problems. The leaders of such parties might hope to increase their own influence and authority through the united front struggle. Other activists might belong to a revolutionary socialist party, believing that the working class and all oppressed people must rely on their own independent strength to push back and finally overthrow capitalist injustice, replacing it with a socialist democracy. The revolutionaries on the other hand would want to use the united front to help persuade an increasing number of workers that it is militant struggle and revolutionary change and not reformist compromises that will give them the power to advance their interests. By arguing their views persuasively while most effectively building the struggle, the revolutionaries would win more and more influence among all workers.
There has been, however, a very different use of the coalition concept. In fact, the most influential strategies in the labour movement over the years have been marked by class collaboration. This involves a far-reaching form of co-operation between workers and capitalists that dilutes or even rejects the notion of class conflict and is generally based on an acceptance of capitalism. The “business unionism” so influential in the U.S. labour movement is a primary example. A number of reformist-oriented socialists believing that the evils of capitalism could be gradually reformed out of existence who have ended up in a similar place.
From the mid-1930s onward, Communist parties – with somewhat different motivations – had a similar class-collaborationist orientation. In 1935 the world Communist movement, headed by Stalin, advanced a strategy of the popular front. This movement believed that the choice facing workers was not between capitalism and socialism, but instead, in the words of Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov, “between bourgeois democracy [that is, capitalist democracy] and fascism.” The primary goal of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union was to establish friendly and peaceful relations with liberal capitalist governments, and in various countries to help create such governments.
The popular front is not simply a tactical alternative to the united front; it represents a completely different strategy for effecting social change. Instead of being designed to bring the working class to power, it is designed to mobilise working-class support for far-reaching coalitions with liberal capitalist parties and reform-minded but explicitly pro-capitalist governments. The primary difference between the Communists and the moderate reform-socialists was that the former were against the foreign policy of Cold War anti-Communism and the latter were in favour of that policy. Now that the Cold War is over and the world Communist movement is only a memory, both the social democratic and the Stalinist traditions tend to merge into a shared political orientation. Often people influenced by these traditions attempt to steer coalitions into far-reaching collaboration with “progressive” pro-capitalist political forces.
In contrast to this, revolutionary socialists have insisted that there is a fundamental difference between the united front tactic and the strategy of class collaboration represented by the popular front. The strategy of revolutionary Marxism calls for the working class to lead struggles for greater democracy, for economic reforms, and to oppose war and militarism in a manner that increases its power, influence, and political independence. As the working class successfully organises and struggles along these lines, it will be able “to win the battle of democracy” (as Marx and Engels put it) by taking political power and by initiating a socialist reconstruction of society. The united front tactic is designed to help advance this strategy.