RCIT-Theses on the United Front Tactic (Part I)

I. The Nature and Principles of the United Front Tactic


1.             The basic principles of the united front are simple. Their goal is to enable communists to extend their influence in the working class and among the oppressed – or to express it in the words of the Communist International “towards the Masses.” The basic principles of the united front apply to all agreements for delimited, practical, common actions which the revolutionary party proposes to, or undertakes with, other organizations based on the proletariat, on other exploited classes, or on groups of socially or nationally oppressed. These principles can be summed up in the military metaphor “march separately, strike together.” This means political and organizational independence of the revolutionary proletarian forces combined with unity of action against a common enemy. The aim of the united front tactic is (a) to establish the maximum unity of workers and oppressed in the struggle against the ruling class and imperialism and (b) to break the domination of non-revolutionary leaderships and win the workers and oppressed over to the struggle led by the revolutionary party.

2.             These are the principles which govern the relations between the revolutionary vanguard and other organizations of the exploited and the oppressed in the struggle against capitalism, imperialism and all forms of reaction. They have various spheres of application. Primarily, they aim at joint actions with mass organizations of the working class and, secondly, with mass organizations of other oppressed and exploited classes and layers (e.g., poor peasants, urban poor). Under exceptional circumstances, the united front can include sectors of the bourgeoisie where it possesses mass influence and through objective circumstances is forced to fight against imperialist aggression, national oppression, etc.

3.             The united front, bloc, or alliance, can potentially pass through the following phases: an appeal to form it, negotiations between organizations, the striking of an agreement, its active implementation, and eventually its breakup or dissolution. However, only in a minority of cases will it pass through all of these stages.

4.             As an alliance which must be actively initiated, the united front should be distinguished from all episodic, co-incidental actions where no agreement on a common immediate goal or coordinated tactics is involved. Such coincidental actions, for example a fascist trade union supporting a justified workers’ strike, imply no advocacy of a bloc whatsoever. Similarly, the united front must be distinguished from mere participation in a mass demonstration whose political basis and leadership the revolutionary organization opposes, and for which it takes no responsibility. Here, the revolutionary party is not in a bloc with the leadership, gives no support to their slogans, criticizes them openly, and makes propaganda and agitation for its own slogans. In short, a united front must be formally struck between those organizations for the revolutionary proletariat to form temporary agreements for common actions.

5.             Yet another distinction must be made between joint political actions and an exclusively military bloc, i.e., an agreement simply to coordinate fighting forces against a common enemy. Such agreements can be struck with bourgeois forces in a situation of war, without in any sense constituting a united front. However, in other circumstances, a military bloc – the formation of an anti-fascist workers militia or alliances during a civil war – may have a clearly-defined united front character. Mere military means are not the decisive issue, since war is the continuation of politics by other means. The question is what is the bloc for and with whom is it struck? More problematically, in some languages and national traditions, a distinction has been made between the united front proper, which is conceived of as a longer-term formal agreement involving a campaign, and common or united actions which are limited to a single event. Whatever the virtues of these terms one thing is clear: the basic principles of the united front apply to each and every one of them.

6.             Thus, the united front is at its heart about establishing as close a relationship as possible between the revolutionary party and primarily the working class masses, and secondly with other oppressed layers. While such relationships between the party and the masses must be permanent, they must also constantly be changing since the class struggle itself is both permanent and changing in form. The united front is thus a ubiquitous tactic; a tactic that is repeatedly being deployed in one arena or another. However, no one form of the united front is a permanently-deployed part of the revolutionary party’s strategy. The united front itself is not a strategy, but a tactic. Indeed, it involves a range of tactics set within the overall strategy of the proletariat. In pursuing any one form of the united front, revolutionaries must always keep before their eyes the overall goal: the seizure of state power by workers’ and peasants’ councils and militias and the establishment of a world communist society by means of proletarian revolution. To realize this in practice an independent revolutionary Bolshevik-Communist party is an indispensable necessity. Only such a party can embody full class independence from the bourgeoisie and lead the proletariat in the struggle to establish its own dictatorship.

7.             But to reach this stage we have to transform revolutionary nuclei into mass parties which have won the confidence of the broadest layers of the exploited masses. However, today, the great majority of the workers in the world support non-revolutionary and even counter-revolutionary organizations. Revolutionaries must expose the nature of these organizations and deprive them of their leadership, or rather misleaderships, over the proletariat and oppressed. On its own, propagandistic exposure of their errors and crimes is insufficient to achieve this. It is necessary to demonstrate in practice that the reformist, petty-bourgeois-populist, or centrist cannot adequately defend or fight for working class and oppressed interests. The revolutionary party has to deploy a range of tactics which prove to the masses in the course of the class struggle that only it is the consistent working class party. The party, in turn, must learn how to lead actual mass struggles, to demonstrate its capacity as an alternative leadership. In this process it must demonstrate both its independent initiative and its ability to co-ordinate its forces loyally with other mass organizations of the working class and oppressed. The mass of the working class and the oppressed, not yet won over to the revolutionary leadership, must come to trust the communists in daily battles and compare them favorable with their treacherous reformist and petty-bourgeois-populist leaders. In fact, it is in the very defining of the arena in which such comparisons will be made that the united front tactic plays such a vital role in the building of the revolutionary party.

8.             By extension, the enduring gain of a correct united front policy is the exposure of the limitations of reformism, petty-bourgeois populism, Islamism, anarchism, syndicalism, centrism, and various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologies and programs within the working class, and the eventual replacement of all vacillating and inconsistent leaderships with a revolutionary communist one. Therefore, at every stage, the united front policy should be used to strengthen the revolutionary organization by increasing recruitment and deepening its roots within mass organizations.

9.             However, the united front is not exclusively and solely a means to build the revolutionary party. Rather, it is a tactic in the ongoing class struggle which seeks to establish the broadest possible fighting unity for the exploited and oppressed masses regardless of their present political differentiation. The purpose of this unity is to repulse the attacks of the bosses and bourgeois governments and to secure better economic, social and political conditions for the working class and its allies in a way that brings nearer the goal of overthrowing capitalism. In this sense, the united front arises in the first place from the needs of the class struggle. For this very reason, revolutionaries do not simply respond to calls for common action against the class enemy but are the first to initiate the call whenever the class struggle demands united action.

10.          As a consequence, on the one hand, united front tactics presuppose the maintenance of an independently organized revolutionary organization based on a transitional programme for the seizure of state power and the overthrow of capitalism. This party must participate as an independent detachment and not dissolve itself in the united front. On the other hand, the necessity of the united front presupposes the existence of broad non-revolutionary masses under the sway of other political forces.

11.          The united front cannot be regarded as an uninterrupted series of actions with the same partner up to and including the seizure of power. Its repeated use constitutes only a series of tactics within the framework of the overall strategy of the proletarian vanguard party. This strategy by necessity includes the independent actions of the party. In widely different forms, the united front is constantly being struck and broken. It must never be turned into a systematic subordination of the proletarian vanguard to any limited platform of demands which are acceptable to various non-revolutionary leaders of mass organizations. This would be to relegate the revolutionary programme itself to passive propaganda and restrict agitation solely to immediate or, at best, transitional demands.


Ultra-Left and Opportunist Dangers


12.          The united front is a differentiated unity. It is common action for clearly limited and prescribed goals; it is also entails sharpest criticism of the united front partners. Without the former, capitalist attacks cannot be repelled or new gains won; without the latter gains cannot be consolidated nor the revolution advanced. All mistakes in the application of the united front begin when this differentiated unity is replaced by a formal identity between the tasks of the revolutionary organization and the limited and immediate tasks of the class.

13.          Ultra-leftism invariably begins when the revolutionary program is advanced in contradiction to the demands essential to the immediate tasks facing the mass of the working class. For the ultra-leftist, the united front is intentionally proposed as an ultimatum, deliberately courting its rejection by reformist and centrist leaders in the vain belief that this exposes them. However, such “exposure” is, in reality, purely rhetorical in nature. Reformist leaders are not exposed because they fail to carry out revolutionary tactics or strategy but precisely because they fail to fight for the immediate interests of the masses. The sectarians, who limit themselves exclusively to denunciations, avoid being measured on the practical terrain of the class struggle, fearing that they will succumb to opportunist temptations.

14.          The opportunist starts not from the platform of struggle, or even a single demand dictated by the objective needs of the class struggle, but rather by what the present consciousness of the masses is deemed to be or, worse, what their leaders can be expected to accept. In comparison, the scope of the proposals put forward by revolutionaries for a united front, while likely to be less than the “full program” is also likely to be considerably greater than the timid proposals of the reformist leaders, and even ahead of the social-general consciousness of the masses. At the same time, the slogans proposed for the united front must relate to the current consciousness of the advanced workers, both to win them over to the joint struggle as well as to exert pressure of the reformist leaders. The aim of the united front must be to link the present consciousness of the masses (and especially its advanced sections) to the urgent tasks of the day, as specifically dictated by the nature of the enemies’ attacks. The slogans of the united front must enable the revolutionary vanguard to lead the masses into the struggle.

15.          Because the united front is not a strategy, there is no such thing as a “united front program” that extends from today’s struggle to the seizure of power. The revolutionary organization advances those parts of its program that appear necessary to unite broader forces in a practical fight. Having determined the nature of the attack and the balance of class forces, the revolutionary organization raises concrete demands that, taken together, can create the basis for a united fight against this present attack, in order to repel it, or by extension secure new advances.

16.          The character of the demands to be fought for in the united front does not fall into any schematic categorization. The demands must be specific, precise and avoid all extraneous and artificial demands or ideological dressing that does not pertain to the achievement of the common goal. Any concrete united front proposal may consist of only a single demand; but can also be composed of a single type of demands; e.g., immediate economic demands, democratic demands, or transitional demands. Finally, the proposal for a united front can be put forward or forged as a platform of several demands tied together in a series of actions designed to meet a particular crisis. Thus it follows that a united front can involve a single action – e.g., a strike or an armed action – or it can incorporate a longer campaign of various actions. The only valid criticism of a united front proposal would be that it entirely excludes an essential demand for action; action to which the masses can be won over and which exposes their leaders if the proposal is refused. Therefore, the absence of numerous revolutionary demands from a united front platform cannot be taken as a valid criticism; indeed, the presence of such demands in a non-revolutionary situation is a sure sign of passive propagandism, scholasticism and sectarianism. However, this is not the case when there is a mass upswing in the class struggle signaling the development of a revolutionary situation. In such a situation it becomes indispensable to fight for such multiple revolutionary demands as the best expression of the united front.

17.          The demands must be associated with clear and precise methods of struggle (e.g., demonstrations, strikes, defense squads, armed militias) and forms of organization (e.g., strike committees, mobilization committee, soviets). The united front can thus vary in form and duration depending on the nature of the attack it seeks to repel. Committees which exist to co-ordinate a series of diverse or repeated actions aimed at achieving the objective are united front organizations; in this sense the united front is more than the action itself (e.g., a demonstration); rather it embraces the organizational preparation in advance of the action as well as its post festum evaluation.


The United Front Tactic, the Working Class, and Other Oppressed Layers and Classes


18.          With which types of forces is it permissible to form a united front, or a bloc based on united front principles? There is no one answer to this question. Rather it depends on the situation, the character of the country (imperialist, semi-colonial or degenerated workers state), the objectives of the struggle, the class forces involved, and the degree of class differentiation. As a general guideline, revolutionaries initiate proposals for a united front tactic towards forces which have a mass base inside the working class and other oppressed layers and classes (usually these are reformist or petty-bourgeois-populist organizations). In exceptional circumstances, these can also be bourgeois and sometimes even centrist organizations which are objectively in a confrontation with reactionary forces (e.g., ruling class, imperialist powers, racist or fascist forces).

19.          By contrast, the 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. Thus, what distinguishes a popular front from a united front is not the participation of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces in itself, but rather the political subordination of the proletariat to the platform of the bourgeoisie in a popular front.

20.          A popular front can also be very dangerous when it involves very weak bourgeois forces (the “shadow of the bourgeoisie”). Workers’ parties which have undertaken such ostensible united fronts with weak bourgeois forces “in defense of democracy,” for example, can find themselves defending the bourgeoisie and capitalism against the proletariat (as happened in Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973, and Greece in 2015). Whichever way it’s reached, wittingly or unwittingly, the popular front is, as Trotsky said, a noose around the neck of the proletariat.

21.          No popular front has ever opened the road to socialism. On the contrary, they have repeatedly opened the road to anti-working class counter-revolution. Genuine Trotskyists always fight against popular fronts. They are in favor of working class unity and for the independence from and not unity with the bourgeoisie. We place demands on all the workers’ parties and unions, whose leaders have taken them down the road of the popular front and, consequently, class collaboration and insist that they break with the capitalist parties, defend workers’ rights, and take up the fight for workers’ power. Such demands to break with the bourgeoisie are similarly directed to petty-bourgeois populist forces which have a mass base among the workers and oppressed, as the Bolsheviks did it towards the Social-Revolutionaries in Russia until 1917 (e.g., Castro-Chavista organizations in Latin America, certain Islamist-populist organizations in the Middle East).

22.          Naturally there are certain differences in the application of the united front tactic in imperialist as opposed to semi-colonial countries, as well as between different countries within each such category. In Western Europe, Canada, and Australia bourgeois workers’ parties play an important role within the working class. However, at the same time they are undergoing massive bourgeoisification. In other imperialist countries, either no bourgeois workers’ parties exist (the US, China, Russia) or only very weak ones do (Japan). In the countries of the South (where nowadays ¾ of the world proletariat live) there are no or only weak bourgeois workers’ parties (important exceptions are India and South Africa). At the same time radical (petty-)bourgeois-populist formations often do play an influential role among the working class and the oppressed in these countries. Petty-bourgeois-populist formations also play an increasingly influential role among migrants – a growing sector of the working class – within imperialist countries. Under certain circumstances, new petty-bourgeois-populist forces can possess an influential role among sectors of the workers and youth in imperialist countries (e.g., the Occupy Movement in the US; PODEMOS in Spain)

23.          Given the conditions in colonies and semi-colonies, even the national bourgeoisie, or sectors of it, can at times be forced to form alliances with oppressed classes against reactionary forces. This is also true for bourgeois forces among oppressed layers in the imperialist countries (e.g., migrants, oppressed nations). The national bourgeoisie can suddenly find itself crushed and exploited by imperialist big capital, discriminated against via national oppression, or oppressed by imperialist armed intervention or by local military forces acting for imperialism. Under such pressure, bourgeois nationalist parties not only resort to anti-imperialist rhetoric but, on rare occasions, may also enter into a real struggle with the imperialists or their local agents.

24.          Normally, under such conditions, it is the radical petty-bourgeoisie which engages inconsistently in such struggles and with whom the proletariat can form a democratic or anti-imperialist united front. But we cannot exclude the possibility that a bourgeois party, with a mass plebeian following, might also do so. Under such conditions, it too might be included in the proposal for a democratic or anti-imperialist united front. This is possible, of course, on the condition that the proletariat’s hands are not tied, nor is it forced to renounce the struggle for power – let alone any promised political support for a bourgeois government; such a united front would not be a popular front.

25.          In semi-colonies (and even under certain very specific circumstances in imperialist countries and degenerated workers states), politically bourgeois forces which have a mass plebeian following, or even a working class following, and which suffer from systematic social oppression (e.g., ethnic and national minorities, women) could participate in actions based on united front principles without this transforming such a bloc into a popular front. Clearly, the actions would be defensive and limited in scope and duration.

26.          The key question would then be whether the demands which such a bloc would fight for are sufficient for, or even necessary, for the workers’ own struggle at this particular conjuncture. Bourgeois parties of the nationally oppressed, or bourgeois women’s organizations, might be drawn into united actions or campaigns, especially where their leaders hold the allegiance of large sectors of the oppressed, particularly of the oppressed workers. For the revolutionary party, the aim of such a united front, other than maximizing opposition to bourgeois reaction, would be to break away the proletariat elements from the bourgeois leadership of the oppressed. Towards this goal, joint action would contribute by exposing the character of this leadership in the course of the struggle.


The United Front Tactic and the Non-Revolutionary Leaderships of the Workers and Oppressed


27.          The permissibility or non-permissibility of any united front does not depend upon the past record of the leaders of the other parties in the bloc. If the formation of a united front becomes necessary with mass workers’ organizations led by today’s versions of Kerensky, Noske, Zorgiebel or Stalin – all of whom, in their original incarnation, were responsible for the murder of revolutionary workers – we cannot nevertheless rule out forming a united front with them. Forming a united front with counter-revolutionary leaders is a necessary evil, hence the famous dictum that the united front might get struck with “the devil and his grandmother.” That’s to say that the offer of forming a united front does not constitute a vote of confidence for counter-revolutionary leadership to whom it is proposed.

28.          Thus, the freedom to criticize these leaders throughout the common action is an essential principle of the united front. Such criticism must be directed at the vacillations of the bloc partners in carrying out the objectives of the united front, as well as their broader political failings. There should be no common propaganda, as this can only be done at the cost of placing aside important – even decisive – differences between revolution and reformism. The only common publications which are permissible are those specifically associated with the united front (e.g., strike committee bulletins, leaflets for mobilizing demonstrations) and which are designed only to agitate for the united front demands and objectives. The precise balance between common action and criticism cannot be established by some predetermined formula. We reserve the right to criticize our partners before, during, and after the common action. When, and in what form, we exercise that right depends on concrete judgments made in specific circumstances. But it is obligatory that such criticism be made.

29.          The united front must be addressed to the rank and file as well as to its leadership. However, we reject the notion of coalescing a united front from below, only because it is a self-defeating and ultra-left trap. If the workers could indeed be persuaded to abandon their leadership by such a direct and unilateral appeal, there would be no need for the united front in the first place. The purpose of directing the united front appeal to the leaders is to draw the latter into action. It is in this way, rather than by means of declamatory exposure, that we can prove to the masses how fatal the limitations of their leaders actually are.

30.          In the great majority of cases, the proposal for a united front will remain just that, and no practical agreement will be reached with the reformist, populist, and other leaders to whom it is addressed. In such conditions, the proposal will remain part of an agitational and popular propaganda campaign aimed at the rank and file members of the non-revolutionary organizations.

31.          Even when some success has been achieved in breaking away radicalized workers from their non-revolutionary leadership, the united front continues to retain its full validity and force for those who remain behind. In such cases, implementing the united front from below may indeed bear fruit, after the non-revolutionary leaders have refused to act in concert with the revolutionaries. As an extension of what we wrote above (see Thesis 29), at this point it is necessary to combine denunciations of the leaders with proposals for action aimed at the rank and file or individuals under revolutionary leadership. But even here part of the aim of this tactic is to generate pressure from within the organization upon its leaders to act. If successful, this can only have the effect of drawing even more layers into action.

32.          Dissolving the united front can be as important as forming it. When the united front has served its purpose, and its goal has been either achieved or lost, the united front needs to be redefined or dismantled and the appropriate lessons drawn for the forces involved. The following circumstances may necessitate the dissolution of the united front: (1) When it is maintained only as diplomatic or literary exercise and entails no obligation on the part of bloc partners to act; (2) When bloc partners are actually sabotaging or undermining the aims of the united front either by not implementing it or by compromising with the class enemy; (3) When the partners of the united front refuse to take seriously its extension to other mass forces, and instead restrict membership in the bloc to sect like proportions. Where such circumstances necessitate dissolution of the united front, at the same time revolutionaries must still attempt, as far as possible, to continue the united struggle with the informal leaders of the rank and file, encouraging them to split with the organization’s formal leadership and establish their own, while winning over to their own ranks the best elements from their respective non-revolutionary organizations.

33.          Short-term blocs with centrist organizations without mass influence can be legitimate for the purpose of organizing practical actions. They are subject to the same principles as those for the examples of the united front discussed above. However, they cannot, as Trotsky repeatedly emphasized, really be considered as united fronts given the lack of influence of these organizations among the working class and the oppressed. For small communist pre-party organizations, such short-term blocs should only play a secondary role in comparison with proposals for cooperation directed to the mass organizations.

34.          While adhering to the above considerations is a necessary condition if the united front is to be principled, it is not sufficient in itself to guarantee either its principled nature or its success. Only a concrete analysis of a situation can determine what the correct basis for a united front proposal is. Leadership and experience, accumulated over years through involvement in the class struggle, is required to determine what united front demands are permissible and necessary and to which forces these demands may be addressed. However, by understanding the basic purpose and principles of the united front, revolutionaries can prevent many unnecessary basic errors.