The Strategic Role of the United Front Approach

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
Unfortunately, there are some who regard themselves as Marxists who insist on squandering these opportunities. They argue that all such struggles must be linked to the goal of socialism on the grounds that any working class gains within the framework of capitalism are simply illusory reforms — they will eventually be eroded by the capitalist […]

(Originally published November 10, 2010; re-published May 14, 2012) 

What distinguished Marx from all his contemporaries who professed revolutionary aspirations was his identification of the revolutionary agent: “The emancipation of the working classes [of every country] must be conquered by the working classes themselves….” [Karl Marx: “Provisional Rules of the Association,” in The General Council of the First International, 1864-1866] And: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” [Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Manifesto of the Communist Party]. In other words, socialist revolution will not be achieved by moral-minded capitalists nor by a small, elite revolutionary band.  Only the working class can liberate itself, and it will accomplish this as a conscious, deliberate choice.

Consequently, Marxist revolutionaries around the world confront the challenge of starting with their own working class, as they exist at a particular point in history in a relatively fragmented and disjointed state, and helping them to develop into a conscious, revolutionary class, capable of collectively defending and advancing their own interests. When workers attain full class consciousness, they understand that they belong to the working class with diametrically opposed interests to those who belong to the capitalist class. The united front, which is sometimes referred to as a tactic, is so indispensable throughout this process that its status also takes on strategic importance. The working class cannot be united and act self-consciously with a single purpose without recourse to the united front during its period of development. A tactic, on the other hand, is dictated directly by the concrete circumstances of the struggle; it may be appropriate in some work places or in some countries, but not in others.

At the beginning of its transformation into a revolutionary agent, the working class is a class only “in itself,” meaning that one is a member of the working class because of objective criteria (one’s role in the economy). For the vast majority of workers at this beginning stage there is no consciousness of such membership. Workers for the most part operate as individuals with widely divergent understandings of their objective situation. Accordingly, they belong to a broad spectrum of political organizations, many of which are reformist or even reactionary. 

Yet because they belong to the working class, these individuals experience, in the most general terms, a similar fate. They suffer under the unrelenting pressure of the bosses to lower their wages, reduce their benefits, speed up the work process, and submit passively to commands. And, of course, within this general framework, there are variations: some workers suffer far more than others and at different times than others. Some periods of history produce widespread suffering, bringing the experiences of workers closer together. At other times, when the oppressive forces subside, the differences among sectors of the working class can achieve more prominence, and divisions appear. At the beginning of the road to class consciousness, most workers experience their suffering, not as members of a class, but as individuals.

During periods of history when workers are resigned to their position and do not entertain the possibility of putting up a fight, there is little that Marxists can do to move them in a revolutionary direction. These are periods when Marxists can immerse themselves in theory, engage in propaganda, and recruit the ones and twos to a revolutionary perspective. They can attempt to inspire their coworkers to resist exploitation, but without a positive response, there are no struggles to lead.

However, other periods in history bring intolerable oppressive forces to the surface, where workers want to put up a fight. This can occur at a single work place, but it might cut across work sites, as, for example, when workers protest a war or particular legislation. These are the periods in which Marxists can rise to the occasion, lead struggles and help advance workers to a higher level of class consciousness. Without these periods there can be no significant advance of the working class, since consciousness does not develop first and foremost from reading revolutionary literature but from one’s own experiences. Engaging in class struggle educates the working class and provides invaluable opportunities. 

Unfortunately, there are some who regard themselves as Marxists who insist on squandering these opportunities. They argue that all such struggles must be linked to the goal of socialism on the grounds that any working class gains within the framework of capitalism are simply illusory reforms — they will eventually be eroded by the capitalist system in its unrelenting push to maximize profits. A few even refuse to work within the trade unions, because of their limited economic goals, while others refuse to work with the reformist trade union officials. While there is a grain of truth in these beliefs, the insistence on linking the struggle to socialism will ensure that most workers will refuse to participate, since they have not yet arrived at the conviction that socialism will deliver them from their suffering. And the refusal to work in and with the trade unions further isolates those who consider themselves Marxists because, in these early stages, the workers overwhelmingly look to their unions for leadership and protection, and unionized workers as a rule represent the most class conscious segment of the working class.

Once workers want to put up a fight, the united front becomes the indispensable approach. It is a form of struggle in which working people, with disparate levels of class consciousness, or none at all, and different political allegiances, come together because they want to wage a struggle over immediate demands. These demands might be incredibly modest, for example, if they just target a higher wage at a single work place, but they can also reflect a more sophisticated level of class consciousness when the goal, for example, is to defend Social Security, demand that the government create jobs at Wall Street’s expense, or even bring down a government. In any case, these demands must reflect the level of consciousness of those workers who want to fight in defense of their interests. If the demands are too advanced, they will divide and weaken the movement, since only a minority will be prepared to embrace them. If they are not strong enough, they will inspire no one. One must possess a correct understanding of the level of consciousness of these workers to formulate the correct demands, and additionally, one must have an accurate grasp of the balance of forces between the classes in order to determine which demands fall within the realm of attainability. 

Here is how Trotsky identified the united front with class struggle:

The problem of the united front…grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism. For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organization for mass action.
– Trotsky: “What Next?” in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany

In other words, Trotsky tied the united front directly to engaging in mass action.  And several pages later he added:

And so, ten years ago, the Comintern [Communist International] explained that the gist of the united front policy was in the following:  the Communist Party proves to the masses and their organizations its readiness in action to wage battle in common with them for aims, no matter how modest, so long as they lie on the road of the historical development of the proletariat; it turns not only to the masses but also to those organizations whose leadership is recognized by the masses; it confronts the reformist organizations before the eyes of the masses with the real problems of the class struggle. [Ibid.]

The united front, then, is the necessary approach that workers use to unite themselves, as members of the same class, in order to put up a fight. It lies at the heart of class struggle. Here, workers put their political differences aside and come together because of their common grievances over a single or a few immediate issues, based on their common class membership and the economic oppression it entails. Their political perspectives are too divergent to unite them at this early stage. The necessity of the united front flows from the fact that the economy is the most fundamental determining factor in people’s lives; political perspectives ultimately are based on this economic foundation, but not as a simple, mechanical reflection.

The united front must also be distinguished from the popular front.  Within the united front, workers’ organizations maintain their political independence from one another, but work together on limited points of agreement. With popular fronts, on the other hand, workers’ organizations are required to subordinate their political program to the program of some capitalist party. Historical examples include the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) in Spain during the Civil War, Allende’s Popular Front government in Chile in the early 1970s, and the alliance of many U.S. trade unions with the Democratic Party. The united front guarantees political independence of the working class; the popular front sacrifices it. Historically, popular fronts have proved disastrous for working class parties.

The results of engaging in a united front struggle are invaluable in the ascent of the working class towards revolutionary class consciousness. In the course of a struggle, the workers have the same experiences and their consciousness begins to converge. They organize themselves, rely on one another, develop camaraderie, witness how treacherous the bosses are, watch the so-called neutral state come to the aid of the bosses, and so on. And when these struggles are successful, they inspire other workers also to put up a fight, because these latter workers realize that they, too, might succeed in improving their oppressive conditions. So the united front helps unite the working class as a whole so that it can acquire a single collective vision, which, Marx argued, is a necessary condition for revolution. When class consciousness fully emerges, the working class becomes a class “for itself.” And the united front unleashes the potential for the unfolding of a logical succession of events: as more workers join the struggle, the prospects for success grow; each new success breeds greater successes. And then, with the proliferation of struggles, the advantages of bringing isolated struggles together into a single, massive, united movement appear so compelling that in the final analysis the movement achieves revolutionary potential.

There is another side to the united front that contributes to the development of class consciousness. Union officials, especially during periods of long, relative calm in the class struggle, often form collaborative relations with the bosses, where they are prepared to sacrifice the interests of their members in order to keep profits high.  They enjoy the privileges of officialdom with the bloated salaries, the trappings of power, and the pretences of being someone of significance. They have settled into a comfortable alliance with the bosses and are quick to subordinate the interests of the rank and file in order to assure that their own position remains secure. The last thing they want to do is rock the boat and endanger their positions of privilege. Yet despite all this, the membership, before it has attained class consciousness, invariably looks to these officials for leadership. Workers are quick to accept the officials as honest servants of the union, as they claim to be. 

When Marxists call for the formation of the united front in order to put up a fight, if these union officials have the trust of the membership, they should be included in the invitation. If they are not included, many workers will refuse to join, because the Marxists have not yet won their trust, and the movement will be fatally weakened. If the officials reject the invitation, then the rank and file will have a reason to question their dedication to protecting the membership. And in such a case, workers might take a step in transferring their loyalty to the Marxists who are eager to lead the fight. But there is also the possibility that the officials will accept the invitation because they feel tremendous pressure from their own membership to do exactly what they are being paid to do, and, if there is any democracy in the union, they fear being voted out of office. If they join the struggle, the prospects of success will be all the greater, since their presence will signify a significant step forward in uniting the working class. Regardless of whether the union officials join or reject the united front, the rank and file gain a clearer understanding of where they stand.

Trotsky argued in favor of including reformist leaders in this way:

Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders? The very posing of this question 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 organizations, 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 organizations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organizations and join us. It may be precisely after engaging in those mass activities, which are on the order of the day, that a major change will take place in this connection. That is just what we are striving for. But that is not how matters stand at present.
–Trotsky: “On the United Front,” in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 2

Class struggle is consequently waged by means of the united front. As the class struggle progresses, workers begin to see themselves as belonging to the same class with identical interests where they stand united in opposition to the bosses. And because of this rising class consciousness that the united front promotes, the disparate political perspectives of workers slowly begin to converge. This is why political agreement cannot be a condition for united action but why revolutionaries must make recourse to the united front as a means of developing political agreement. James P. Cannon, a leader of the American Socialist Workers Party, explained the relationship in this way:

We do not demand that the Socialists [i.e., reformist] workers leave their own organizations as a condition for common action with us. We do not demand that they cease to be Socialists in order to make the united front with communists. We do not demand that our leadership be recognized beforehand, and we do not repeat the insane gibberish about the ‘united front from below’ [i.e., uniting trade union members without the reformist official leadership].… We hope to convince the workers, in the course of common action, of the inadequacy of reformism and the necessity for revolutionary policy and leadership. But we do not demand that they be convinced of this in advance.
–Cannon: All Out to Madison Square on May Day,” April 28,1934, The Militant.

Accordingly, the united front is a reflection of the fact that the economy constitutes the more basic infrastructure while consciousness and politics are relegated to a secondary, superstructural status [“The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” — Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution of the Critique of Political Economy] In this respect, the united front emanates from the foundation of Marxist philosophy. It addresses the plight of workers as the victims of class exploitation. And because it lies at the heart of class struggle and it forms the basis on which class consciousness develops, the united front attains strategic significance. Trotsky argued in this way:

Most often the Soviets are defined as the organs of struggle for power, as the organs of insurrection, and finally, as the organs of dictatorship. Formally these definitions are correct. But they do not at all exhaust the historical function of the Soviets. First of all they do not explain why, in the struggle for power, precisely the Soviets are necessary. The answer to this question is: 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.

The soviet in itself possesses no miraculous powers. It is the class representation of the proletariat, with all of the latter’s strong and weak points. But precisely and only because of this does the soviet afford to the workers of divers political trends the organizational opportunity to unite their efforts in the revolutionary struggle for power. In the present prerevolutionary environment it is the duty of the most advanced German workers to understand most clearly the historical function of the soviets as the organs of the united front.

Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of the workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets. But historical experience bears witness to the fact that there is no basis whatever for the expectation that in any single country — in countries with an old capitalist culture even less than the backward ones — the Communist Party can succeed in occupying such an undisputed and absolutely commanding position in the workers ranks, prior to the proletarian overturn.
–“What Next?” in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany

The united front is no mere tactic.  It lies at the center of Marxist revolutionary strategy. As Trotsky argued:  “…the matter [of the united front] does not concern questions of conjuncture; but, as the text itself puts it, of the ABC of Marxism.”

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About Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

View all posts by Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.