The united front

Issue: 117

Joseph Choonara

The “united front” is a strategy. It is the answer revolutionaries give to a very general question: how should workers committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism relate to those who believe that the system can be reformed and does not need to be overthrown? For most of the past century the consciousness of most workers has been reformist rather than revolutionary; organisations committed to reform, rather than revolution, have dominated the workers’ movement. Because of this the strategic problem of the united front has been posed again and again. But because it is posed in a wide range of contexts and periods, the precise form taken by the united front varies.

In his biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff highlights the distinction between strategy and tactics:

The concept of tactics applies to measures that serve a single task or a single branch of the class struggle. Hence Lenin speaks about the tactics needed, say, during the January days of 1905… He also speaks about trade union tactics, parliamentary tactics, and so on. Revolutionary strategy encompasses a combination of tactics which by their association and growth lead to the working class conquest of power.1

Those who view the united front as just a tactic, as a specific form of organisation that can simply be applied to any given situation, are likely to go astray when trying to understand what connects the united front in different historical or geographical contexts. The forms assumed by the united front flow from the context—the key tasks facing the working class, its consciousness, the balance of forces between reformist and revolutionary organisations, and so on.

For Leon Trotsky, whose name, more than any other, is associated with the united front, the broad strategy could encompass a huge range of possible forms:

Just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power.2

I will return to the question of the soviet as a form of united front. What is of interest here is what soviets, trade unions and contemporary united fronts such as the Stop the War Coalition might have in common. The basic characteristics of the united front are as follows:

  • It draws together workers—revolutionary and non-revolutionary—in common struggle. These struggles can range from the basic defence of workers’ conditions under capitalism (trade unions) to the creation of a workers’ state from below (soviets).

  • It represents a set of demands acceptable to both revolutionaries and sections of the working class who are not yet revolutionary.

  • The forces involved remain independent forces. Revolutionaries are able to pursue goals independent of the united front, and articulate their wider political vision.

  • It is also a site of struggle—within the united front reformist and revolutionary currents can argue about strategy and tactics. Indeed, there will always be a battle of ideas, and debate over strategy and tactics, within the united front.

  • The superior ideas and methods of struggle put forward by the revolutionaries should allow them to win some of the reformist workers involved in the united front to revolutionary politics.

The clearest theory of the united front was developed by the generation of Marxists, including Trotsky, Lenin and Antonio Gramsci, who took part in the revolutionary upsurge that followed the First World War. This was a period in which mass revolutionary organisations had to operate alongside mass reformist organisations. After the initial upsurge of struggle ended in the early 1920s, the revolutionaries were forced to deal with a period of defensive struggle. Because the working class was on the defensive, the question of working class unity, and hence of the united front, was posed extremely sharply.


Trotsky justified the united front strategy by quoting no less an authority than Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s Communist Manifesto:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole… The Communists…are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.3

These passages, written before the emergence of mass reformist parties, capture the essence of the task faced by revolutionaries. They must advance the wider interests that unite the working class, and do so as the most resolute and advanced section of that class. In practice Marx and Engels engaged in a range of organisations—from the embryonic Communist League, with a few hundred members, which took part in the wave of European revolutions in 1848, through to the First International, which drew in everything from British trade unions to secret socialist societies.4

Towards the end of their lives Marx and Engels were to argue against the emergence of what they saw as “anti-proletarian” currents of thought in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest workers’ party of their day:

It is representatives of the petty bourgeoisie who are here making themselves heard, full of anxiety that the proletariat, under pressure of its revolutionary position, may “go too far”. Instead of determined political opposition, general mediation; instead of struggle against government and the bourgeoisie, an attempt to win them over and persuade them.5

Here their argument was against “alien influences” within essentially healthy bodies, and Marx and Engels continued to stress the need for united workers’ parties drawing in and representing the whole working class. It was in Russia that this conception of the workers’ party would be challenged.

Lenin, operating under conditions of repression and illegality, hit upon a very different form of organisation. His Bolshevik Party was not a party of the whole working class, but of the most advanced revolutionary workers. These workers could form a homogenous force, and the centralised organisation of the Bolsheviks gave them considerable ability to fight for a strategy within the wider working class. However, even for Lenin this was a form of organisation appropriate only to Tsarist Russia. Until 1914 few Marxists seriously challenged the general applicability of the broad socialist party model.

Two things changed this. First, the leaders of socialist organisations across Europe rushed to support their own national ruling classes when the First World War broke out. This betrayal, especially by the German SPD, stunned even Lenin. The SPD continued to use Marxist rhetoric, but in practice it had developed in a different direction, stressing a gradual awakening of working class consciousness and a slow, piecemeal transition to socialism. It had developed a range of institutions, along with layers of functionaries and parliamentarians, which sought to negotiate with capitalism, rather than overthrow it. The second factor was the victory of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, which provided the clearest insights into the advantages of the Leninist revolutionary party and the need for the united front.

The united front in 1917

Russia did not have the kind of mass reformist parties that were developing in Germany, Britain and elsewhere. However, reformist consciousness remained dominant in the working class. Any working class compelled to sell its labour power, dictated to in the workplace by bosses and managers, will contain a mixture of ideas—some based on struggle and solidarity, some based on resignation and acceptance of ruling class ideas. Not only this, but because the specific experiences of individual workers differ, the consciousness of the class will contain great unevenness.

Lenin’s concept of the party is the beginning of the solution to this problem. It draws together the workers with the most advanced ideas and arms them with the theoretical tools, arguments, strategies and tactics to lead other workers. The united front is the other crucial element of the solution.

The Russian Revolution began, as revolutions do, with an explosion of popular anger. The “spontaneous” February 1917 Revolution was in contrast to the “conscious” insurrection carried through in October that year:

The February insurrection is called spontaneous… In February nobody laid out the road in advance, nobody voted in the factories and barracks on the question of revolution, nobody summoned the masses from above to insurrection. The indignation accumulated for years broke to the surface unexpectedly, to a considerable degree, even to the masses themselves. It was quite otherwise in October. For eight months the masses had been living an intense political life. They had not only been creating events, but learning to understand their connections. After each action they had critically weighed its results.6

During the prolonged revolutionary period stretching from February to October the working class learned from numerous advances and retreats. One episode is of crucial importance. From July onwards Alexander Kerensky headed the provisional government, the “official” state power in Russia, with the support of the moderate left parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. His government sought to ride out the revolutionary wave while continuing the slaughter of the First World War and attempting to restore capitalist stability to Russia. Above all this meant destroying the influence of the soviets—mass democratic organs of workers’ power that had sprung up in February. This policy also meant imprisoning or driving underground the leaders of the Bolshevik Party. At first Kerensky worked in alliance with the right wing commander in chief of the army, Lavr Kornilov, but in late August Kornilov broke with Kerensky and moved against the stronghold of the revolution, the city of Petrograd. His aim was to overthrow Kerensky and establish himself as Russia’s “strongman”. Trotsky explains how the Bolsheviks responded:

What course did the Bolshevik Party take? Not for an instant did it hesitate to conclude a practical alliance to fight against Kornilov with its jailers… Everywhere committees for revolutionary defence were organised, into which the Bolsheviks entered as a minority. This did not hinder the Bolsheviks from assuming the leading role: in agreements projected for revolutionary mass action, the most thoroughgoing and boldest revolutionary party stands to gain always. 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. Their representative came to the Kresty Prison for an interview with Trotsky, who was jailed there, and they asked: “Why not arrest Kerensky?” But they put the query half in jest: the sailors understood that it was necessary first to smash Kornilov and after that to attend to Kerensky.7

Trotsky captures the essence of the united front. The strategy of working with the masses, while winning them away from reformist ideas, meant the Bolsheviks proving in practice that it was they who could most consistently defend the revolution from Kornilov. They achieved this through forming joint organisations with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Lenin, writing in the midst of the battle to defend the revolution, stressed the other aspect, the need for the Bolsheviks to maintain their independence within this united front, and the continued need for ideological struggle:

Even at the present time, we are not duty bound to support the Kerensky government. That would be unprincipled. It is asked: then we are not to fight against Kornilov? Of course we are. But that is not one and the same thing. There is a limit to this; it is being transgressed by many Bolsheviks who fall into “conciliationism” and allow themselves to be driven by the current of events. We shall fight, 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).8

It was in the struggle against Kornilov that the Bolsheviks won over the bulk of Russian workers. The struggle to defend the conciliators had exposed the conciliators. This allowed the Bolsheviks eventually to win a majority in the soviets, previously dominated by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But even at the high point of the revolution, the October insurrection, the united front remained crucial. Trotsky describes the relationship of the party and the soviet:

Whereas the soviets in revolutionary conditions—and apart from the revolution they are impossible—comprise the whole class with the exception of its altogether backward, inert or demoralised strata, the revolutionary party represents the brain of the class. The question of conquering the power can be solved only by a definite combination of party with soviets—or with other mass organisations more or less equivalent to soviets.9

As Russia moved towards the completion of the revolution, a very sharp question arose: who would lead the insurrection? Should it be organised through the soviets or through the Bolshevik Party? Initially Lenin argued that the Bolshevik central committee should call the insurrection.10 Although the Bolshevik Party played a central role in carrying through the insurrection, Trotsky was clear that it had to be called by the military revolutionary committee—an elected body of the soviet—rather than the party alone:

Would it not have been simpler…to summon the insurrection directly in the name of the party? This form of action undoubtedly has weighty advantages. But its disadvantages are hardly less obvious. In those millions upon whom the party legitimately counted it is necessary to distinguish three layers: one which was already with the Bolsheviks on all conditions; another, more numerous, which supported the Bolsheviks in so far as they acted through the soviets; a third which followed the soviets in spite of the fact that they were dominated by Bolsheviks.11

The revolution was carried to completion by a united front. The Bolsheviks had to forge an alliance with non-Bolshevik workers, soldiers and peasants, including those who followed the soviets despite the Bolsheviks. Trotsky continues:

Those standing for the Bolsheviks as a party were above all industrial workers, with the hereditary proletarians of Petrograd in the front rank. Those standing for the Bolsheviks in so far as they had a legal soviet cover were a majority of the soldiers. Those standing for the soviets, independently and regardless of the fact that…Bolsheviks dominated them were the more conservative groups of workers—former Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who dreaded to break away from the rest of the masses—the more conservative parts of the army even including the Cossacks, and the peasants who had freed themselves from the leadership of the Social Revolutionary party and were adhering to its left flank.12

Trotsky’s argument was based on a careful assessment of the consciousness of the masses:

According to the report of Ensign Berezin, at an October military conference of the Bolsheviks in Moscow the delegates were saying: “It is hard to know whether the troops will come out at the summons of the Moscow committee of the Bolsheviks. At the summons of the Soviet they might all come out.”… At a conference of 16 October in Petrograd, Boky made this report in the name of the party committee: In the Moscow district “they will come out at the summons of the Soviet, but not of the party”; in the Nevsky district “all will follow the Soviet”. Volodarsky thereupon summarised the state of mind in Petrograd in the following words: “The general impression is that nobody is eager to go into the streets, but all will appear at the call of the Soviet.” Olga Ravich corrected him: “Some say also at the call of the party.”… Attempts to lead the insurrection directly through the party nowhere produced results.13

Based on his assessment, Trotsky draws conclusions about the forces that can be brought into action by a united front:

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.14

The Comintern: generalising the experience

The Third International, formed in March 1919 and known as the Comintern, was the child of the 1917 Revolution. It was formed as revolts that accompanied the end of the First World War convulsed much of Europe. Initially it was made up of a handful of small parties. But a series of splits in reformist organisations meant that “by early 1921, parties affiliated to the Comintern had the support of the majority of politically conscious European workers in six countries (France, Italy, Norway, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) and of a substantial minority in others (Germany, Sweden and Poland)”.15 Unfortunately, by this time the revolutionary tide was ebbing.

The first phase of the German Revolution, which broke out in November 1918, had been brought to an end as the SPD and the German high command crushed the newly formed Communist Party in Berlin, and then moved against workers’ and soldiers’ councils that had been established in an echo of events in Russia. The great wave of struggle known as the biennio rosso (two red years) in Italy had also been halted. In April 1920 the most advanced section of the working class, in the city of Turin, were left to fight alone by the reformist dominated Italian Socialist Party (PSI). In September, amid a growing wave of factory occupations, the PSI again stood by and allowed the revolutionary moment to pass. Victory in either Italy or Germany would have altered the balance of class forces across the whole of Europe. Defeat meant a shift in the interests of the old ruling classes.

This formed the context for the third congress of the Comintern in summer 1921. Already that year the gap between the strategic needs of the moment and the practices of the fledgling Communist Parties had been highlighted by events in Germany. Here the leadership of the party, ill_advised by impatient advisers from the half-formed international, misjudged the situation completely and tried to turn a localised strike movement into an unprepared and disastrous rising in March 1921. “The inevitable collapse of the adventure was followed by savage repression. The KPD [the German Communist Party] was outlawed. Membership fell catastrophically to 150,000 or less and thousands of militants were imprisoned”.16

Surveying the situation—and critical of the advice given to the German Communists—Lenin and Trotsky decided it was necessary to educate the Communist Parties in the art of retreat, and that the united front was the key tool for the task. This process began at the third congress and was continued through to the fourth, held in November and December 1922. Faced with the shift in the balance of class forces, workers could feel the urgency of demands for unity. The strategy of the united front, if correctly applied, could forge that unity, while simultaneously winning workers away from reformism and preparing for a new wave of struggle.

Trotsky spelt out most clearly what was required in his report “On the United Front”, written in early 1922 and aimed at the French Communists:

If the Communist Party had not broken drastically and irrevocably with the [reformist] social democrats, it would not have become the party of the proletarian revolution. It would have forever remained a parliamentary safety-valve attached to the bourgeois state. Whoever does not understand this, does not know the first letter of the ABC of Communism. If the Communist Party did not seek for organisational avenues to the end that at every given moment joint, coordinated action between the Communist and the non-Communist (including social democratic) working masses were made possible, it would have thereby laid bare its own incapacity to win over—on the basis of mass action—the majority of the working class. It would degenerate into a Communist propaganda society but never develop into a party for the conquest of power.

It is not enough to possess the sword, one must give it an edge; it is not enough to give the sword an edge, one must know how to wield it. After separating the Communists from the reformists it is not enough to fuse the Communists together by means of organisational discipline; it is necessary that this organisation should learn how to guide all the collective activities of the proletariat in all spheres of its living struggle. This is the second letter of the alphabet of Communism.17

Separation of the revolutionaries from the reformists is merely the starting point. The revolutionaries must enter into struggle alongside reformists in order to win a majority in the working class. But should the united front extend only to reformist workers, or should it include reformist leaders too? “The very posing of this question,” argued Trotsky, “is a product of misunderstanding”:

If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form. The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organisations and join us.18

The approach to the reformist leaders poses a dilemma for them. “The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade union bureaus, the arbitration boards, the ministerial ante-chambers”.19 This places revolutionaries at a distinct advantage if the reformists accept the appeal for unity, allowing them to win previously reformist workers towards revolution. But if the reformist leaders refuse unity it will expose those leaders’ lack of seriousness in defending the interests of workers.

Finally, Trotsky warns the Communists:

Any sort of organisational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us. We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute.20

Experience of the united front

By 1922 the German Communist Party had begun to heal some of the wounds inflicted by the disastrous adventure of March 1921. The strategy of the united front was key to the recovery. As Pierre Broué records in his monumental history of the German Revolution, during discussions between the reformist SPD and the Communist KPD “the SPD presented itself as the most obstinate in refusing joint activity, and the KPD as the most determined in seeking agreements”.21 While the appeals to the leadership of the reformist organisations met with resistance, they paid off in the workplace, where factory councils began to re-emerge as a powerful force in 1922. “By the autumn of 1922, the Communists had won sufficient influence in several thousand factory councils to be able to hold and politically dominate a national congress of the factory councils that November”.22 The Communists were also able to win influence during a railway strike in spring that year, during which the government sought to ban public sector strikes. The Communists appealed to the reformist parties and trade union federations to support action against the ban. The failure of the reformist organisations to support the action established the Communists as the most serious class fighters in the eyes of many workers.

The German Communists also pressed for united action on directly political issues, the most serious of which was the rise of the far right. On 24 June 1922 a government minister, Walter Rathenau, was assassinated by right wing former army officers:

The murder produced a huge uprising of working class anger. The social democrats could no longer ignore the Communist calls for unity. All over Germany their members were marching alongside Communists against the far right. They would tear up their party cards unless their leaders made some gesture towards unity.23

For a while there was formal agreement between the SPD and the Communists to oppose the far right. Then, with the SPD rank and file appeased, the leadership broke off negotiations:

The rebuff did not prevent the Communists again and again raising the question of united action—usually linking the question of self-defence against the far right with united action against inflation, demanding the seizure of industrial property by the state and under the control of factory councils. The KPD’s appeals were addressed to the leaders of the social democratic organisations, but they were intended also for the ears of the SPD rank and file. The Communist organisations in the localities set about drawing these into the joint activity that the SPD leaders refused.24

These tactics saw the German Communists grow by about 40,000 members from mid-1921 to late 1922 to reach a total of around 220,000. In the same period the SPD lost a similar number of members. But the lessons were learnt in a one-sided manner. The German Communists showed none of the tactical flexibility—the ability to read the mood of the masses and balance of class forces, and respond with appropriate changes of direction—that Lenin raised to the level of an art.25 The leaders of the party had reacted violently against the ultraleft madness of the “March action”, but now swung the other way, giving “the united front approach a distinctly rightist slant”.26

The year 1923 saw an intense political crisis as French troops occupied the Rhineland, a deep economic crisis marked by unparalleled inflation and an upsurge in workers’ struggles, giving new life to the factory councils, which formed an approximation to the Russian soviets. By June that year the Communists had gained a further 70,000 members through the united front approach, and managed to polarise the SPD into a left and a right wing. The situation was rapidly becoming revolutionary. But the Communist leadership was unable to shift from its defensive posture to begin to test the balance of forces by coordinating an offensive thrust. It was taken by surprise when a general strike, to a large extent led by Communist shop stewards, brought down the right wing Cuno government in August 1923. At that point they agreed in principle with the need to make a revolution, but had no sense of how to connect the day to day struggles of workers with the prospect of insurrection. What preparations happened were technical and military, rather than politically preparing workers for an uprising.

The pace of events was forced when General Müller moved against Saxony, where the militancy of the workers’ movement had produced a government of the socialist left including revolutionary Communist ministers. The Communists relied on the leaders of the left of the SPD to support a call for a new general strike, which everyone knew had insurrectionary implications. The left SPD leaders, still committed to reformism, refused to do so and the expected German-wide revolution was aborted. The German bourgeoisie seized the opportunity to restabilise its rule, even if only for a few years, and politics in Europe as a whole shifted further to the right.27

Gramsci and the united front

Against this background Antonio Gramsci, the most outstanding leader of the Italian Communist Party, sought to apply the idea of the united front in the Italian context. His Lyons Theses, written early in 1926, three and a half years after Mussolini’s seizure of power, argued:

With its strategy and tactics, the party “leads the working class”…the principle that the party leads the working class must not be interpreted in a mechanical manner. It is not necessary to believe that the party can lead the working class through an external imposition of authority…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… The “united front” of anti-fascist and anti-capitalist struggle which the communists are striving to create must aim at being an organised united front, ie at being based on bodies around which the masses as a whole can regroup and find a form… In Italy, the united front tactic must continue to be utilised by the party, insofar as it is still far from having won a decisive influence over the majority of the working class and the working population.28

There was little opportunity to put this into practice. By autumn that year Gramsci had been arrested. But the theme of the united front resonates through his famous Prison Notebooks. For instance, his concept of contradictory consciousness reflects this preoccupation:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.29

The working class have elements of passivity and acceptance of the status quo, but also elements of solidarity and struggle. The revolutionary party has to forge unity with workers, despite this contradictory consciousness, to draw out the positive element through “practical transformation of the real world”.

Trotsky and resisting the Nazis

One very important by-product of the defeat of the revolutionary wave in Western Europe was the rise of Stalinism in an isolated Russia. That in turn led to the imposition on the Western Communist Parties of policies that bore little connection to the realities of the class struggle.30 From 1928 to 1934 this meant the policies of the notorious “third period”, involving the revival of the worst “ultra-left” positions. The Comintern executive decreed in July 1929, “In countries where there are strong social democratic parties, fascism assumes the particular form of ‘social-fascism’”.31 Such an analysis 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 SPD. Communist militants did fight the Nazis heroically in cities such as Berlin, but their leaders’ policies meant they did so in isolation from the wider working class movement.

Trotsky was almost as cut off from mass struggle as Gramsci, though through exile rather than imprisonment. Nonetheless he wrote a series of brilliant analyses of the struggles against fascism across Europe. Here are to be found some of his sharpest articles on the united front. With increasing urgency he attacked the notion that the social democrats were the main enemy:

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. The front must now be directed against fascism… 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.32

The advice was ignored. In 1933 the Nazis took power, defeating the most powerful Communist Party in the world and exacting a terrible revenge on one of the most militant working classes in the world. The defeat had two causes: the social democratic leadership refused to fight and the Communists failed to force the SPD to form a bloc against the right. In the wake of the 1933 defeat the Communists did call, unsuccessfully, for a general strike. But for three years they had told workers that the SPD was the main enemy, and that the fascists were not a threat. Even now the Communists and the Comintern remained trapped in their theory. So after Hitler’s seizure of power the Comintern leadership could still argue that the “current calm after the victory of fascism is temporary. Inevitably, despite the fascist terror, the revolutionary tide will grow”.33

The popular front

If Germany showed the danger of not fighting for unity, the late 1930s would show a different danger—the wrong kind of unity. In 1934 the mood of Socialist and Communist militants, horrified by the victory of the Nazis in Germany the year before, forced their leaders into united action against attempts to bring far right governments to office in France and Spain. There were huge demonstrations on the streets of Paris in February and a rising in Asturias in Spain in October. But at this point a new line emerged from Stalin in Moscow, that of the “popular front”. This meant Communists seeking alliances not just with the social democrats, but also with “liberal” mainstream capitalist parties. Any notion of political struggle was subordinated to Moscow’s foreign policy goal—the formation of a military alliance with French imperialism, and hopefully British imperialism as well.

The French Communists now pressed for a “People’s Front” to contest elections. This alliance did not simply include the working class parties; it also included the Radicals, a party of the bourgeoisie that straddled the centre-right as well as the centre-left. Trotsky, with increasing urgency, argued that it was the Radicals who held the whip hand:

The “People’s Front” represents the coalition of the proletariat with the imperialist bourgeoisie, in the shape of the Radical Party and smaller tripe of the same sort… The majority of Radical voters do not participate in the struggle of the toilers and consequently in the People’s Front. Yet the Radical Party occupies in this front not only an equal but a privileged position; the workers’ parties are compelled to restrict their activity to the programme of the Radical Party.34

The popular front was popular, precisely because it drew on the thirst for unity against the growing threat of the right. It won the elections in June 1936 overwhelmingly and the social democrat leader, Leon Blum, formed a government. There were no Communist ministers in the government; the Communist Party accepted its exclusion for fear of scaring the French ruling class.

The limitations of the popular front soon became evident. The election was followed by a sharp upturn in class struggle in France. There was an explosion of strikes and occupations, involving more than six million workers. Trotsky, in exile in Norway, was inspired to write an essay entitled “The French Revolution has Begun”.35 The ruling class was forced to make concessions to maintain control, but this alone was not enough. Blum put pressure on Maurice Thorez, leader of the rapidly expanding Communist Party, to end the strike. The Communists’ “new authority was used not to develop, but to end the movement. ‘It is necessary to know when to end a strike,’ declared Thorez”.36

The squandered opportunity led to further moves to the right, with the Communists calling for the transition from a “People’s Front” to a French Front, including right wing nationalists. The Communists backed a succession of increasingly conservative governments as the workers’ movement went into decline, until deputies elected on the popular front ticket voted to ban the party. Finally in June 1940 parliament, with a popular front majority, voted “to install the quasi-fascist regime of Pétain and Laval”.37 There was a similar pattern of popular front, concessions to the right and defeat in even more dramatic circumstances in the Spanish Civil War.38 In both cases the Communists under Moscow’s influence had tied the fate of workers to sections of the ruling class, allowing revolutionary moments and mass struggles to burn out, and the right to triumph.

Reviving the united front

As it grew into a serious, if small, revolutionary organisation in the early 1970s, the International Socialists in Britain, forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, sought to apply the legacy of the Comintern before its corruption by Stalinism. Duncan Hallas, writing in this journal as the Wilson government of the mid-1970s presided over a sharp rise in unemployment, cuts in real wages and attacks on the welfare state, spelt out the need for a united front of opposition: “All these bring to the fore the problem of left wing unity to defeat the developing right wing offensive.” Possible allies in this united front included “the Labour left wing, the remaining trade union lefts, the Communist Party and the revolutionary left”.

He also spelt out what the united front wasn’t:

It is not a substitute for a revolutionary party. The united front tactic can never, under any circumstances, mean the subordination of revolutionary politics and organisation to reformist politics and organisation. It presupposes the existence and independence of a revolutionary force. The bigger that force, the greater the united front possibilities. It is not a “let’s forget our differences and unite” approach. On the contrary; the united front tactic always and inevitably involves a political struggle to compel reformists and centrists to live up to their own pretensions, to break some of their ties with the capitalist establishment (both direct and through the trade union bureaucracy) and to engage in a fight, alongside revolutionaries, for objectives they themselves profess to support. It is not a union of revolutionary groups. The whole point is to involve workers and workers’ organisations who accept the immediate objectives but not, at present, revolutionary politics as a whole.39

It is this method of pushing for unity that underlay the approach of the Socialist Workers Party to the Anti Nazi League, the miners’ support groups and, more recently, the Stop the War Coalition. In each case it meant a preparedness to work with leading figures in reformist organisations and tendencies. But it also meant maintaining our own arguments, our own capacity to agitate independently, and our own press and organisation. That is the approach we put forward today in relation to Respect and to other united fronts such as Unite Against Fascism and Defend Council Housing.40


1: Cliff, 1986, pp253-254.

2: Trotsky, 1989, p132 (Trotsky’s emphasis).

3: Marx and Engels, 1977a.

4: For a brilliant summary of Marx and Engels’s attitudes to the party, see Molyneux, 1978.

5: Marx and Engels, 1977b.

6: Trotsky, 1977, p1126.

7: Trotsky, 1989, pp121-122 (note that Trotsky here refers to himself in the third person).

8: Quoted in Trotsky, 1975, p108.

9: Trotsky, 1977, p1126.

10: Bone, 1974, p101.

11: Trotsky, 1977, p1127. I am grateful to Colin Barker for drawing this quote to my attention.

12: Trotsky, 1977, p1127.

13: Trotsky, 1977, pp1128-1129.

14: Trotsky, 1977, p1130.

15: Hallas, 1985, p33.

16: Hallas, 1985, p64.

17: Trotsky, 1974a, p93.

18: Trotsky, 1974a, pp93-94.

19: Trotsky, 1974a, p94.

20: Trotsky, 1974a, p96.

21: Broué, 2006, p607.

22: Broué, 2006, pp609-610.

23: Harman, 1997, p236.

24: Harman, 1997, p236.

25: This flexibility in strategy and tactics is the main theme of Tony Cliff’s, Lenin: Building the Party (1986), which is due to be reprinted later in 2008 and deserves to be read by a new generation of Marxists.

26: Hallas, 1985, p91.

27: For a detailed account of the “German October” see chapter 13 of Harman, 1997.

28: Gramsci, 1990, pp367-373.

29: Quoted in Harman, 2007, pp109-110.

30: For the degeneration of the Soviet Union see Binns, Cliff and Harman, 1987; Cliff, 1974. For the degeneration of the Comintern see Hallas, 1985, chapters 5, 6 and 7.

31: Quoted in Hallas, 1985, p127.

32: Trotsky, 1975, pp104-105.

33: Quoted in Harman, 1989, p256.

34: Trotsky, 1974b, pp99-100.

35: Trotsky, 1974c.

36: Hallas, 1985, p146.

37: Hallas, 1985, p147.

38: For the story of the Spanish Popular Front, see Durgan, 2007, and Hallas, 1985, pp148-155.

39: Hallas, 1976.

40: For more on Respect and the Socialist Alliance that preceded it as applications of the united front strategy, see Chris Harman’s article in this journal; Rees, 2001; and Rees 2002.


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Bone, Ann (translator), The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Central Committee Minutes of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918 (Pluto).

Broué, Pierre, 2006, The German Revolution 19171923 (Merlin).

Cliff, Tony, 1974, State Capitalism in Russia (Pluto),

Cliff, Tony, 1986 [1975], Lenin: Building the Party (Bookmarks).

Durgan, Andy, 2007, The Spanish Civil War (Palgrave).

Gramsci, Antonio, 1990, Selections from Political Writings 19211926 (University of Minnesota),

Hallas, Duncan, 1976, “On the United Front”, International Socialism (first series), number 85, January 1976,

Hallas, Duncan, 1985, The Comintern (Bookmarks),

Harman, Chris, 1989, introduction to part four of Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front (Bookmarks).

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Harman, Chris, 2007, “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and Philosophy”, International Socialism 114 (spring 2007),

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Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1977b [1879], “Circular Letter to the Leaders of the SPD”, in David McLellan (ed), Karl Marx Selected Writings (Oxford University),

Molyneux, John, 1978, Marxism and the Party (Pluto).

Rees, John, 2001, “Anti-capitalism, Reformism and Socialism”, International Socialism 90 (spring 2001),

Rees, John, 2002, “The Broad Party, the Revolutionary Party and the United Front”, International Socialism 97 (winter 2002),

Trotsky, Leon, 1974a [1924], The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume two (New Park),

Trotsky, Leon, 1974b [1935], “Committees of Action—not People’s Front”, in Whither France? (New Park),

Trotsky, Leon, 1974c [1936], “The French Revolution has Begun”, in Whither France? (New Park),

Trotsky, Leon, 1975, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pelican).

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Trotsky, Leon, 1989 [1931], “What next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat”, in Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front (Bookmarks),