The United Front, as described by Leon Trotsky (among others) during the early years of the Communist International, is one of the key strategies employed by the Leninist left. At heart, it seems so simple as to be almost intuitive — revolutionaries should build temporary alliances with those they have disagreements (reformists) in order to organize mass action, while maintaining open criticism of reformist tactics in order to win workers over to revolutionary politics in practice.
In fact, the concept can seem so intuitive that the problems with this strategy are often left unexamined by its practitioners, especially when there is little self-awareness of the potential pitfalls that may ensue.
The United Front was developed as a strategy for a specific historical period, and even then it was not meant to apply in all circumstances. Trotsky’s 1922 report “On the United Front” describes just which circumstances it was supposed to apply to:
In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organization of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organizational significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership of the old organizations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role. . . But wherever the Communist Party already constitutes a big, organized, political force, but not the decisive magnitude: wherever the party embraces organizationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organized proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness.
If the party embraces one-third or one-half of the proletarian vanguard, then the remaining half or two-thirds are organized by the reformists or centrists. . . Still more, the party must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles. Only in this way will the party draw closer to those two-thirds who do not as yet follow its leadership, who do not as yet trust the party because they do not understand it. Only in this way can the party win them over.
We need not be too mathematically precise — but we don’t have to. Trotsky suggests that the United Front applies in those cases where the Communist Party is embraced by something like one-fourth of the radicalized working-class within its ranks. There is nothing like this anywhere in the United States and there will not be for the foreseeable future.
He also points out that this assumes “the remaining half or two-thirds are organized by the reformists or centrists” — again, this is completely alien to our current circumstances.
What do all these fractions really add up to? The point here is not to launch into Trotskyist heresy hunting by exposing those who do not conform to his every word, attacking them with a mathematical shibboleth. Rather the point is that the United Front was meant to apply in situations where a revolutionary party is a mass — even if minority — party, while the majority of militant workers are under the leadership of mass reformist parties. This is so far from our current situation that we have to ask if this strategy has any relevance at all.
The purpose of the United Front is to battle the forces of capital and the state in imposing austerity and repression over the lives of working-class people — it is meant to be a weapon in the class struggle. “It is not enough to possess the sword,” Trotsky says in this same article, “one must give it an edge; it is not enough to give the sword an edge, one must know how to wield it.” On this line of thinking, the United Front could be considered a sharp sword which we unfortunately cannot use at the moment or any time soon. However, if it is our primary weapon, it has a distorting impact on the role of revolutionaries in building social movements
The primary purpose of the United Front is not to prove a point or win an argument — although that will be a result of varying forces struggling alongside each other. The two classic examples of the United Front — defending the Kerensky government against a military coup in Russia in 1917, and uniting the German Social Democrats and Communists against the Nazis in the 1930s — were moments of all-out class warfare. Yes, there was a point to be made in each case, but that was secondary, or even tertiary. To discuss either of these two events in the same breath as discussing how a point can be proven by its participants almost seems ludicrous — the “point” is that these were literally life and death struggles. The results can shift the balance of forces, but that is not the same as winning an argument.
Liberal forces often organize mass protests not for the aims of stoking class struggle but for the sole purpose of putting themselves at the head of a march, and secondarily to head off some “messy” spontaneous activity, which might lead to a riot or other activities embarrassing to mainstream figureheads. Al Sharpton, for example, has been known to call for “peace” in the face of anger over police killings — while working inside the Democratic Party machine to keep dissent safe and manageable. Which is not to say that everything he does should always be boycotted from here on out, but it is to say that the role of radicals should be to organize with awareness of what he is trying to do and instead to build resistance which is neither “safe” nor “manageable” by the powers that be. If we do not have some clarity about that, it is not clear what we are doing at all.
When the United Front is employed in the building of a symbolic protest, which does not even claim to threaten anybody with power or provide any ability to resist some reactionary maneuver by the ruling class, especially when the weight of the liberal and reformist forces provide little space for much smaller groups of revolutionaries to shape it, we have gone quite far afield. It should also go without saying that you cannot not have a United Front with somebody who does not even know that you exist. Unfortunately, it does need to be said.
And when liberal Democrats are placed at the front of a symbolic protest in the name of the United Front, we are beginning to play toy bolshevism. At some point, we are no longer building a revolutionary alternative but simply enabling opportunism, helping precisely those forces whose job it is to legitimize the likes of Obama and Clinton, even if we do have access to an audience for revolutionary ideas. Giving them the stage and then criticizing them in a leaflet that almost nobody in the audience will have a chance to read is hardly the same as exposing their treachery. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Building an audience and building class struggle are not the same thing. They do not need to contradict each other, but they certainly can. Pretending that these protests are somehow a harbinger of something larger, even when they are clearly top-down and stage managed to ensure their own powerlessness, may make it easier to engage this new audience, but also does this audience a disservice — until they inevitably realize how powerless the whole charade really is.
Some Leninists will go on endlessly about the “opportunities” posed by United Fronts. Yes there are opportunities, but again the real opportunity — if there is an opportunity at all — is to push forward the class struggle, or at least to push the envelope on what sort of activism is possible. The opportunity to find an audience is not that much of an opportunity. Furthermore, what some may not realize is that it is precisely from the word “opportunity” that we have derived the word “opportunism.” It is literally the same word.
Completely ignoring the pull of opportunism, some advocates of the United Front seek to build a socialist “pole of attraction.” Sometimes, the failure to do so — that is, the failure to raise clear criticisms of the reformist and liberal forces — is described as “accommodationism.” This, however, is a misdiagnosis of the problem. The real problem is opportunism, not accommodationism.
If your socialist group fails to build a pole of attraction, that is your problem. You might even be exhibiting this “error” while contributing practically and productively to actual struggle, to which the rest of us will say, “Thank you very much for your service.” It is nobody else’s concern but yours if you build a pole of attraction. Opportunism, on the other hand, is our problem. It means that you enabled the forces of liberalism, or you put yourself next to somebody and legitimized them so that you could build an audience for yourself. If you did not sufficiently provide a revolutionary critique of these opportunists in practice, then you are an opportunist yourself. You have built up a movement and delivered it to the very people who want to destroy it. Nobody will care about your inability distinguish yourself — but everybody will care about your having helped misdirect the movement.
The point of this “you” and “us” language is not to insist that advocates of the United Front cannot be allowed in a movement or cannot play a productive role. The point is to show how the interests of Leninist organizations are not necessarily the same as the interests of the movement as a whole, not to mention the interests of the most militant working-class activists. On the contrary, these interests can be quite counterposed, even when Leninists advocate unity amongst the largest number.
The problem with the United Front is not just that it advocates what you should do but also — especially when it is understood ahistorically — argues what you should not do. The crude, universalist application of the United Front argues that radicals should not go it alone — revolutionaries should not simply organize under their own banner and politics and should not act without some liberal or reformist ally.
What happens, though, when reformists are in decline and not leading struggles? If you are left looking for some ally to cooperate with you might end up floundering. You might be left running around looking for anything to latch onto, when the role of Marxists ought to be to help build up the independent self-organization of the working class. By avoiding this difficult, time consuming and thankless task, the forces of revolutionaries will remain weak and disparate, simply putting off (possibly indefinitely) the time when revolutionaries can legitimately challenge reformists for leadership in mass struggle on the basis of really organized forces.
One attempted solution to this problem was the United Front of a Special Type, previously advocated by the British Socialist Workers Party. This formulation was developed in order to explain the long-term alliances between the SWP and ex-members of the Labour Party to build an electoral platform. The problem with this situation — the long-term alliance — is that it presumes that criticisms will be kept to a minimum. If you build a long-term alliance, you assume your allies are not going to either betray you or the alliance. On the other hand, if they do and you go around attacking the people with whom you are building an alliance, it should be no surprise that the alliance soon comes to an end. The pressure in this situation will be to keep criticisms quiet — in which case you are helping to build a platform for reformists without building the forces of radicals that can challenge them — or you are seen as being the group that does not want unity because of your criticisms. In either case, the United Front of a Special Type does not solve the problems of the United Front, it merely avoids them until disaster strikes — as it did for the SWP in the RESPECT Party.
In fact, an electoral campaign need not be based on the United Front at all. The successful campaign by Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative is one of the most visible victories of a socialist group in the United States in some time. Interestingly, an assessment of this campaign by her organization has nothing to say about the United Front, although it does prominently discuss the Transitional Method — another formulation by Trotsky later in his life. This method can be used to develop empty programs with no connection to real struggles but, as SA advocates here — at least in this document — it also “entails linking demands for basic improvements in workers’ day-to-day lives with the need for a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in society along socialist lines.” That is, raising demands that are radical but also “organizable,” pushing struggle and consciousness toward confronting the system, not toward minimal demands with broad support simply for the sake of building an alliance. In this way, SA did not wait for the unions to support a socialist campaign, otherwise we would all still be waiting. Instead, they chose to take action themselves — or so it seems from afar — and drag the unions into supporting them along the way. The point is not that we should have nothing to do with reformists — the point is to drag them along with us and not the other way around. And, in the more likely scenario that they ignore this organizing entirely, we can judge our efforts based on their own merits — whether we are empowering working-class people to win real concessions — and not on whether it has anybody’s official stamp of approval. The logic of the United Front is often quite the opposite — building alliances around what is “possible” while restricting the perceived opportunities to do something more explicitly radical.
High profile electoral victories may not always be easily attainable — certainly no more than every two years, but even then, not every election provides the space for this sort of a campaign. And not even electing an open socialist necessarily guarantees anything in the class struggle either. While Boeing workers were fighting for a contract, Sawant declared that they should be prepared to occupy their factories if the company decided to move. This was an excellent response — but it had no effect on workers who were intimidated into accepting concessions anyway. We can say that broad fronts, elections and statements by well placed radicals can play an important role, but at some point we have to realize that the impact of these things is limited. Without an actual militant struggle from below, these maneuvers from above will have little impact. Positioning ourselves to speak to a broad audience is great, but we cannot continue to insist that seeking out these opportunities will have some real impact on struggle when we have a real example of it failing to do so. Unfortunately, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of Trotskyism.
The alternative to the United Front should be obvious — so obvious that Trotsky did not bother to mention it. Revolutionary socialists can organize smaller struggles among workers, the poor, people of color, tenants, the current and formerly incarcerated and others who are resisting the state and capital in various ways (which should not preclude these groups from being radical activists themselves). This alternative is so obvious, in fact, that it takes a 100-year-old theory propounded by Trotsky to obscure it. These small struggles are the future of mass radical movements much more so than mass marches led by important people with no strategy for anything beyond having another march.
It is far too easy for radicals to build mass marches, not all the time but every few years anyway, then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, only left to wonder why these movements are unsustainable and do not go anywhere. The problem right now is not that there are too few United Fronts but that there is too little explicitly radical activity from below.
Developing the independent self-activity of the working class and the oppressed is the only path that can challenge our current system. Broad fronts may create an audience or a platform, but they will never be a substitute for actual struggle.