The Limitations of the United Front

by Scott Jay on March 21, 2014

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.

Scott Jay is a writer and activist living in Oakland, CA. His writing about politics and culture have appeared in CounterPunch, International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker and Truthout.
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  • Jacob Richter

    “Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;

    That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end — the abolition of classes.”

    Class Politics 101 above discusses a single political party, not a front / plurality of non-reformist left organizations. That’s one bankruptcy of the United Front. Another bankruptcy is posed by the possibility of a non-communist but explicitly non-reformist and pro-class rule party of the class, which the SPD certainly was towards at least the early 1900s, and which the “centrist” USPD was during the German revolution.

  • Samuel Barlow

    One tires eventually of the prissy, didactic tone of leftist declarations in the “classical Marxist” (or so-called Leninist, frequently Trotskyite) mold, particularly when the message, as in this case, is not only that the “United Front” does not apply, but really (however subliminally) that the Left does not–and cannot–apply in the United States.
    What is “developing the independent self-activity of the working class?” Sawant won an election through the kind of organizing that usually wins elections–i.e., committees to elect, leafleting, mailing lists, knocking on doors, etc. Was all of this accomplished by the independent self-acttivity of the working class? Nonsense. It was a full-on petty-bourgeois activity with, perhaps, a working class component.

    Participating in, and winning, an american election–or a series of american elections–if the event can be replicated (and it should be)–necessarily leads to a form of fluid and transitional coalition politics, whether it fits one of Trotsky’s molds or not.

    The difference in this case is that the equivalent of socialist or (to use a justly discredited word) communist organizing can only occur once the fundamental concepts of socialism have been justified by the winning of a few elections as well as by other means, including the traditional mass marches and demonstrations.

    The effect of capitalist propaganda and the transcendental individualist moralism with which all Americans are imbued from birth is to prevent genuine socialism from even being truly conceivable, let alone an option. These “mental chains” to paraphrase Blake are perhaps a bit eroded by the continuing slow decline of capitalism, but they have yet to be broken. They will never be broken by precept alone, but only by precept combined with concrete example–for example (though by no means exclusively), by the election of one, two, many honest-to-god socialist Socialists.

    It is vitally important that examples of socialist success be visible to the workers in an age where everything that used to be called socialism is on the run everywhere in the world. I am not suggesting that socialist “actuation” can be achieved from the top down, but it seems perfectly clear that if this happens at all it will happen through a kind of crystalline change of state beginning with a new legitimation in the public eye of basic socialist concepts.

    Thus political organizing around not only around elections, strikes, mass demonstrations, and everything that has succeeded against all odds in the present environment, however temporarily, must reach a limit beyond which the self-actuation of the people’s demands for social justice, together with the people’s awareness of and forceful exercise of political power will come to the fore and overtly take over the leading role that, in reality, it has always latently had.

    We should not forget that as recently as the nineteen-seventies it was common wisdom on the new left that the American working class was not a revolutionary class. This was certainly true during the Richard Nixon/Archie bunker era. The monolithic solidarity of the Right among workers has been severely damaged, but it is still in place in a fragmented form, and still represents a bar to any form of “socialist self-actuation.”

    If the critical point is reached where the political consciousness of the workers, if that is still the appropriate term, begins truly to form, that formation will proceed with a power of its own while some form of transitional coalition politics continues. In the end, we must believe, the people united will take charge and will determine the decisive and final phases of the struggle.

    But until the critical point is reached–that is, the point at which concrete successes of “socialism” are present to legitimize the fundamental concepts of socialism–the most eclectic forms of transitional coalition politics represent the only path available to the Left in this country. This is true precisely because Trotsky’s conditions for a United Front are–as the author justly points out–not present, and not in spite of that fact.

  • Aaron Aarons

    Apparently, Scott Jay, along with Jacob Richter and Samuel Barlow, think it’s possible to talk about the issues of socialism and working-class consciousness in the world’s dominant imperialist power without mentioning imperialism! This willful avoidance allows leftists who would certainly claim to oppose imperialism to discuss, for example, the situation of Boeing workers without even mentioning that among the main things these workers produce are machines with which their ruling class and its clients can and do kill workers, peasants and others in other countries, and that stopping, or at least obstructing, such production is a more important task for genuine socialists than is improving the conditions of those workers.

    Overall, any political movement aiming to win majority support in the United States, or in almost any subdivision of that monstrosity, will inevitably water down whatever internationalist politics it claims to adhere to. And even if it should at some point be possible to win over a majority of the waged working class in the U.S. to genuine internationalist, socialist/communist politics, that would still be far from enough to win elections in anything more than at most a few Congressional districts.

    Part of the conclusion to be drawn from this is that our participation in elections should not be aimed at winning them, except in the rare cases when one can elect a genuinely anti-imperialist candidate to a legislative body in order to use that position to more loudly propagandize and agitate against aspects of the ruling ideology and in support of extra-parliamentary action by subversive minorities.

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  • bob montgomery

    This article is the one I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. Although Scott doesn’t say it explicitly I think he’s correctly relativizing, or historicising, the United Front. In brief, it’s a tactic: not a strategic orientation. Pretty much all Marxist formations elevate it from a tactic to a general strategy. What revolutionary Marxists need to understand is if the united front is seen as a strategy, as opposed to a simple tactical orientation, it must be as a class front. Today we have an increasingly fragmented class in-itself, as Marx put it, that is increasingly fragmented. A class front would seek to unite the employed and the unemployed; the organized and the unorganized; the full-time (benefited) workers with the increasing mass of part-time (unbenefited) workers; the retirees and those actively in the labor force; the straight and the LGBT, etc etc. And a key to this is to unite the working class with its natural social allies– all the oppressed who don’t fit neatly into schematic categories of “the class.” The Sawant campaign was an excellent example of this. I think Socialist Alternative is on the right track in stressing that the campaign used a program of transitional demands to forge a class front– at least an embryonic one! Those who accuse the campaign of raising demands “any liberal democrat could support” are missing the whole point. SA ran under its own name and Sawant was sworn into office as the first real socialist (Bernie Sanders never ran as a socialist and never acted as one) since whenever (?).

  • Jacob Richter

    I’m the most consistent opponent of sectarianism, so quotation marks are in order for the word “sectarian” down below.

    Over the years, whenever I’ve written about whether a left reform is something worth supporting, I’ve always asked:

    1) Does this reform facilitate the issuance of either intermediate demands or demands on the threshold? Does it diminish the chances of further gains and/or limit progressive overhaul in other areas, or does it make further progress more likely and facilitate progressive overhaul in other areas also?

    2) Does it keep class struggle, “socialist production [...] beyond the framework of existing production” and cross-border politics (inter-nationalism at minimum, transnationalism preferrably) “consciously in view,” to quote Kautsky, so that politics do not seem “to move forever in a circle”?

    Because of the recent chatter about “basic income” (two more arguments against it being that it may not eliminate “precarity” and does not address the employability prospects of the long-term unemployed), I fear that this humble and supposedly very simple framework might not be enough to put forward a hard-nosed left opposition.

    Earlier, I suggested that such left reforms “should, at a very dynamic ‘minimum,’ coincide with the ‘maximum demands’ of modern ‘left social-democrats.'” However, what exactly were those demands historically?

    Is the state of political education on the broad left deficient enough to validate the anti-Blairite statement of one Sunder Katwala about being “willing to offer a free internet-based phD certificate in comparative social democracy to anybody who can do that”? This would basically mean hard-nosed research on identifying the main areas of left-social-democratic policy (i.e., fiscal, monetary, labour, agriculture, etc.) in each western European and Scandinavian country during the immediate post-WWII era, and identifying the “best” ones implemented on a country-vs-country basis that can also be applicable to “post-industrial” economies. Hopefully, there would be enough of them to make a political laundry list.

    Naturally, this laundry list, having arisen from left-social-democratic policy development, would combine those that satisfy both of the two main questions above with those that satisfy only the first one. This is left-social-democratic policy development we’re talking about here, not non-participatory “democratic-socialist” policy development.

    The “sectarian” approach involves presenting this laundry list as a total ultimatum or “red line” for any sort of front-based work with left-reformists, safeguarding against opportunistic tendencies towards reform coalitionism. Basically, “We don’t want to even talk politics with you, let alone work with you, unless you support every bullet point on the list!”

    Is this needed?

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