Newspapers report that Labour Party members conspiring to end Gordon Brown’s leadership have taken to quoting the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s phrase – “March separately, strike together”.
Trotsky was stating the principle of the united front: that working class people from a variety of organisations and political tendencies should join together to achieve a common goal – often a single issue.
This principle is something that those at the top of the Labour Party clearly do not understand, and are misusing.
Unity in working class struggle is very different from corrupt politicians gathering together to save their own skins, and much more powerful.
Many people may not even realise that they are involved in a united front as they come together in a campaign around a shared demand – such as beating back the fascists, defending public services or fighting against job cuts and unemployment.
The Stop the War Coalition is a united front, as is Unite Against Fascism (UAF). So are many local campaigns over a number of issues.
A united front is an attempt – often initiated by revolutionaries – to bridge the political gap between themselves and others in the labour movement to fight alongside one another in campaigns.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) believes that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is the only way to bring socialism.
For most of the past two centuries the majority of people in the working class movement have not shared this view. Various versions of “reformism” have dominated.
Reformists either believe that social transformation can be achieved by reforming the system or that striving for anything beyond what capitalism is willing to give is utopian dreaming.
The united front strategy enables revolutionaries to work alongside and influence the ideas of those who do not fully agree with them.
It is not a trick used by revolutionaries to convert reformists to their ideas. It is a vital tactic in struggle, and every victory is a real move forward for the working class.
It also allows strategy and tactics to be tested. When the course of action revolutionaries argued for wins a struggle, it convinces people in practice of that political strategy.
The united front comes from an acknowledgement that there are constant fights going on in capitalism, whether or not a revolutionary situation exists. There are strikes, lay-offs, state violence, wars and a host of other important conflicts where the outcome matters for the interests of workers.
Historically, the united front is usually most closely associated with arguments about how to fight against the rise of fascism.
In Germany at the beginning of the 1930s the Communist Party took the disastrous position that the Social Democrats, the mass reformist party, equivalent to the British Labour Party, were no better than the growing Nazi party.
Communists did confront and take on the fascists, but they were held back by their leaders’ refusal to unite with the reformist organisations that had influence on the majority of workers.
The unity that could have beaten back Hitler never occurred.
The Communists were left isolated from the wider working class movement. Social Democratic workers could have been won to taking on and beating the fascists, but the Communists made no attempt to do so.
This policy, combined with the failure of the Social Democratic leadership to fight the Nazis, meant that in 1933 Hitler was able to take power and exact a terrible revenge on the German working class.
A decade earlier the situation in Germany had been very different – the leaders of the Communist Party appealed to the Social Democrats for unity against far right forces.
They linked the question of defending workers against the far right with calls for unity on other questions, such as action against inflation and other economic demands.
While the leadership of the Social Democrats ignored these calls, the Communists made appeals directly to the party’s grassroots and drew them into local organisations.
This unity gave the Communists significant influence on those they were working with.
Between the middle of 1921 and late 1922, they gained around 40,000 members with the Social Democrats, losing roughly the same number.
Clearly engaging with the reformist workers showed in practice that the Communists were the most consistent and effective campaigners. It was able to win these workers because it was actively engaged in united struggle.
When those who claim to be socialists do not engage in united fronts there is a danger of sectarianism, where groups or individuals isolate themselves from struggle.
Revolutionaries cannot merely stand aside in disputes declaring their ideological purity.
Leon Trotsky, the man most closely associated with the strategy, said that socialists that do not engage in united fronts are “only a propaganda society and not an organisation for mass action”.
Trotsky saw the united front as a crucial part of the activity of any revolutionary organisation. He said it is essential that revolutionaries engage in united front work in circumstances where they are not the overwhelming majority.
Often Trotsky was arguing with people who had been betrayed by reformist parties and those who had recently broken with them. He had to make clear the necessity of uniting with them.
He did not see united fronts simply as a means of winning a single battle. They are tools for “dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses”.
He argued that, “with a correct tactic we stand only to gain from this. A Communist who doubts or fears this resembles a swimmer who has approved the theses on the best method of swimming but dares not plunge into the water.”
The second danger of united struggle is the temptation to abandon political independence or principles and argue for unity with anyone who agrees on an issue at all costs.
In Germany it would have been equally impossible to win the support of reformists had the Communists not maintained independence.
A united front cannot involve either dissolving revolutionary organisation or subordinating it to the reformist coalition. Rather it involves a constant argument over tactics, demands and direction.
It is only through maintaining its independence that a revolutionary group can argue effectively for its strategies and ideas and show in practice that these are the most effective.
United fronts should not be merely “let’s forget our differences and unite”.
For example, had the SWP followed the popular argument that only a Labour vote could beat the Nazi British National Party (BNP) it would have been disastrous for two reasons.
Firstly, it would have divided the movement against the BNP, alienating the many workers and unions who are breaking with the Labour Party.
Secondly, it would have left us without the freedom to criticise the policies that have contributed to the growth of the fascists – such as blaming immigration for the loss of jobs.
Further arguments will arise should the fascists start marching in the streets and we need to confront them.
In united fronts there will always be great pressures on revolutionaries to compromise for the sake of unity.
Certainly the sectarian mistakes of the early 1930s Germany should be avoided, but so should an attitude of unity at any cost.
By engaging in united fronts revolutionaries embed themselves in the movements of the working class, and make it far easier to provide leadership.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued, “the capacity to lead the class is related, not only to the fact that the party ‘proclaims’ itself its revolutionary organ, but to the fact that it ‘really’ succeeds, as part of the working class, in linking itself with all the sections of that class”.
Without engaging in campaigns revolutionaries will become isolated from the workers they wish to convince.
The united front remains a vitally important strategy for us today. Whether it is fighting for jobs and against unemployment, beating back the fascist BNP or opposing imperialist war it is essential that we continue to work, and argue, with those who disagree with us.
- Fascism: What it is and how to fight it – Leon Trotsky
- The first five years of the Communist International – Leon Trotsky