I. Summary of the Nature of the United Front Tactic
The goal of the united front tactic is to assist communists in deepening their relations and influence among the working class and the oppressed. The Communist International summarized this goal at its Third World Congress in 1921 in the slogan “Towards the Masses.” In order to achieve this, communists must be able to work together as closely as possible with workers who, for now at least, do not share their opinions. This is in order to establish the greatest possible unity with all workers and oppressed in our common struggle against the ruling class and imperialism.
At the same time, communists must use this joint experience of fighting side by side with non-revolutionary workers and oppressed in order to raise political consciousness of the latter since – as the father of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, so poignantly formulated – “the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists is the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat.” Using the own experiences of the workers and oppressed, communists must help them to better understand the failure and betrayal of their traditional leaders, and convince them of the superiority of the revolutionary party.
The principles of the united front tactic can be summarized in the military metaphor “march separately, strike together.” This means that revolutionaries join forces with other non-revolutionary organizations in order to organize practical, common actions for specific goals against a specific enemy. However, while doing so, communists retain their full political and organizational independence. In other words, the revolutionary organization disseminates its own propaganda and agitation, which may differ significantly from the respective points of views of the various forces with whom they are allied in the united front. Such propaganda and agitation may, under dire situations, even include important warnings about, or criticism or denunciations of these same allies, for example when the latter are about to betray the struggle for the jointly agreed-upon goals. In short, communists should use the united front tactic to achieve unity of action against a common enemy with other forces, while always maintaining their own political and organizational independence. For this reason, communists should not undertake the production of joint propaganda with non-revolutionary forces with whom they are allied in a united front. The only common publications which communists can contribute to must specifically be associated with the united front activities (e.g., strike committee bulletins, preparing leaflets to announce demonstrations, etc.), and these should only focus on agitating for the united front demands and objectives.
At the same time, unlimited freedom of propaganda for revolutionaries (as well as for all forces participating in the united front) must be agreed upon in advance. As implied in what we wrote above, this freedom must include the right to criticize, if necessary, reformist and populist leaders participating in the common action.
The united front should be based on concrete and precise demands. Revolutionaries oppose self-indulgent political declarations or joint propaganda for long-term goals. The latter only serve to obscure the real purpose of the united front and can readily create the mistaken impression that revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries are in agreement about a common, long-range political agenda.
In general, as the first priority communists direct the united front tactic to mass organizations which have a base inside the working class; but they also approach groups with roots among other oppressed layers and classes (e.g., the peasantry, the urban poor, oppressed nations, migrants). Usually these are reformist (social democratic or Stalinist) or petty-bourgeois-populist forces (e.g., Castro-Chavista organizations in Latin America, various Islamist-populist organizations in the Middle East and Asia, petty-bourgeois nationalists of oppressed nations, etc.) which are at times objectively clashing with or confronting reactionary forces (e.g., ruling class, imperialist powers, racist or fascist forces). Naturally, the role of petty-bourgeois populist forces in the class struggle among oppressed classes and layers is much more important in the semi-colonial world than in the imperialist countries. (More on this issue below.)
Under exceptional circumstances the united front tactic can also be directed towards bourgeois forces in the semi-colonial world – e.g., when the latter is fighting against an imperialist invasion in a semi-colonial country.
In this context it is important to emphasize that the difference between a legitimate united front and an illegitimate popular front is not in itself the open participation of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces, but rather the political subordination by the proletariat to the platform of the bourgeoisie. In other words, an illegitimate popular front is a bloc between bourgeois forces and workers organizations in which the latter accept programs that restrict the workers within the limits set by private property and which protect the bourgeois state.
History has demonstrated numerous times that such a popular front is a death trap for the working class and the oppressed. It results in the official reformist or populist leaderships’ defense of the capitalist social system and thereby only strengthens the bourgeoisie, not the working class. The political subordination of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie weakens the former and allows the ruling class or even fascist forces to crush the resistance of the working class and the oppressed. Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973, and Greece in 2015 are just a few examples of the devastating consequences of the popular front strategy for the proletariat.
The united front tactic should be applied in numerous fields and to all issues related to the class struggle. It should direct the work of revolutionaries with and inside trade unions, other mass organizations of the working class and the oppressed, as well as towards parties (including “entry work” within such parties). It is a crucial tactic in the daily struggle for economic demands, for democratic demands, against imperialist or national oppressions, etc. These various issues give rise to the different forms of the united front (workers’ united fronts, democratic or anti-imperialist united fronts). However, all these forms are basically subject to the same principles of the general united front tactic.
The united front tactic can, under specific circumstances, also be extended to the electoral field. Communists should utilize election periods – which usually are periods of heightened political interest among the popular masses – in order to address those class-conscious workers and oppressed who still have illusions in reformist workers’ parties or populist parties. In contrast to the claims of sectarians, these sectors of the working class are usually much larger than the numbers of the workers and oppressed who have already overcome such illusions and have moved on to a higher, more left-wing class consciousness. When revolutionaries are too weak to put forth candidates of their own, they should deploy the Leninist tactic of critical electoral support for reformist workers’ parties (usually these are social democratic or Stalinist parties). Revolutionaries can even legitimately apply critical electoral support to petty-bourgeois populist parties with a strong base among militant workers and oppressed when social democratic or Stalinist parties do not exist at all, they merely constitute a numerically insignificant phenomena, or where they have are already been thoroughly bourgeoisified.
Naturally, there are important exceptions or limitations to the application of critical electoral support. As we stated in the Theses: “In situations, when a bourgeois workers party (usually as a governmental party) acts as whip or executioner of serious attacks on the working class – austerity programs, imperialist wars, racist hatred, attack on democratic rights, etc. – it is necessary that revolutionaries do not call for electoral support for such a party in order to help the vanguard workers to break with it.”
The united front tactic was also extended by Lenin and Trotsky to the adoption of slogans about the government to be called for. Where large sectors of class-conscious workers and militant oppressed layers still have illusions in the “parties of petty bourgeois democracy” (Trotsky) – i.e., social democrats, Stalinists, petty-bourgeois populists – communists should call on them to break with the bourgeoisie and respectively struggle for “a workers’ and peasants’ government” (in a semi-colonial country) or a workers’ government (in most imperialist countries). Furthermore, the adopted slogans should demand that such governments take decisive actions to expropriate and disarm the bourgeoisie, to nationalize the key sectors of the economy under workers’ control, to expropriate the big landowners and give the land to the poor peasants, etc. Such a government is an authentic workers’ government allied with poor peasants and the urban poor if it is based on workers’ and popular councils and militias and if it implements a program that opens the road to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Otherwise, it is merely a reformist, and in the final analysis, bourgeois “workers’ and peasants’” government which will invariably constitute an objective obstacle for the working class struggle, and which will ultimately defend the capitalist system.
Finally, under certain circumstances revolutionaries will also have to apply the united front tactic to the field of party building. Naturally, the central goal of communists is the construction of a World Party of Socialist Revolution with national sections in each country. However, in light of the numerical weakness of revolutionaries, and given the fact that in many countries even bourgeois workers’ parties do not exist (and in those countries where they do exist they are often thoroughly bourgeoisified), revolutionaries have to apply the united front tactic in the way that they call upon the trade unions and other mass organizations of the working class to build a New Workers Party (or Labor Party). Such parties would, in the beginning, involve not only revolutionary workers and oppressed but also many non-revolutionaries. In fact, revolutionaries would most likely constitute only a small minority of the party when first founded. However, they would openly argue for their program, i.e., a revolutionary and not a reformist program. But they would not necessarily leave such a new workers’ party if they fail to win a majority of the members for their point of view, but would continue to fight for a revolutionary program from within.
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