Issue 262 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

United front

UNITY IN DIVERSITY

The movement against neoliberalism and war must be built, says Alex Callinicos, but so too must the revolutionary Marxist current within it

The campaign against pit closures in the early 1990s helped shift British society to the left
The campaign against pit closures in the early 1990s helped shift British society to the left

The 2000s are proving to be a new era of mass movements. This is most spectacularly reflected in the international campaigns against global capitalism and against the 'war on terrorism'. Of necessity, these movements unite a wide range of political forces in common action. The anti-capitalist movement prides itself on its unity in diversity. The second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre brought together a very wide spectrum that extended from French and Brazilian social democrats to revolutionary socialists and autonomists. The Stop the War Coalition in Britain unites Labour MPs, Asian community organisations and the Socialist Workers Party.

The same pattern is to be found in many different countries. The Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe brings together liberals, trade unionists, civil rights campaigners and revolutionary socialists who are united by their opposition to the Mugabe regime. The Genoa Social Forum that organised the great protests against the G8 summit last July has become the model for a movement that has spread across the whole of Italy. The relationship between the Social Forums and the existing left parties--the left-reformist Party of Communist Refoundation, which has strongly identified with the movement, and the Blairite Democratic Left--is a burning issue in Italy.

Underlying this debate is the larger question of the role that political parties should play in the broader movement. Many activists, burned by negative experiences of the big social democratic parties--and also sometimes of sectarian far left groups--reject the party-form altogether. The difficulty here is that it's easier to ban parties in name than in reality. The WSF formally excludes parties, but the Brazilian Workers Party, which runs Porto Alegre, was very much a presence within it. The very character of the contemporary mass movements--which, as I argue below, embody a generalised challenge to the system--makes it hard to escape from what parties do, which is to present a relatively comprehensive programme for how society should be run.

Perhaps for that reason some leaders of the anti-capitalist movement--for example, Vittorio Agnoletto of the Genoa Social Forum--are prepared to envisage the possibility of the movement itself becoming a party at some stage. But how could such a broad party contain different political tendencies within it? Given these questions, it may be useful to consider how the revolutionary Marxist tradition has addressed the problem of how to unite and build politically diverse mass movements in the past and what relevance this experience has today.

After the formation of the Communist International (Comintern) in the wake of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the leadership of the Bolshevik Party formulated the theory and practice of what they called the united front. This was to a large extent a formalisation of the tactics they had developed in Russia, but it addressed a radically different context. Communist Parties (CPs) were springing up all over Europe and the rest of the world. These represented a reaffirmation of the revolutionary Marxist tradition in the face of the social democratic parties' capitulation to the First World War. Questions of fundamental principle--above all that of reform and revolution--thus separated the Communist Third International from the old Second International.

But, even where they were, as in Germany and France, mass organisations, the CPs represented only a minority of the working class. At the Third Congress of the Comintern in June and July 1921, Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders argued that the CPs were in danger of becoming sects that concentrated on denouncing the social democratic leaders as traitors while making no effort to win over the large numbers of workers still influenced by reformist ideas. It was essential that Communists find ways of fighting alongside reformist workers around specific issues such as wages, hours and the defence of trade union organisation that could unite the entire class.

Trotsky wrote about the united front in 1922
Trotsky wrote about the united front in 1922

Writing in 1922, Trotsky explained the rationale of the united front tactic:

Trotsky made it clear that united fronts could only work if they involved at least a section of the reformist leadership: 'If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our immediate practical slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, 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.'

By bringing revolutionaries and reformists together into a common struggle, Communists could demonstrate to the social democratic rank and file, in practice rather than words, the superiority of their politics. The united front thus had two aspects: (1) it united revolutionaries and reformists in a common struggle around issues of concern to the working class as a whole; and (2) it involved a struggle for political influence over the masses between revolutionaries and reformists.

It was therefore essential that revolutionaries maintained their political and organisational independence within the united front and reserve the right to take their own initiatives. Trotsky wrote: 'This may give rise to a new sharpening of the struggle between us and the reformists. But it will no longer involve a simple repetition of one and the same set of ideas within a shut-in circle but will signify--if our tactic is correct--the extension of our influence over new, fresh groups of the proletariat.'

By the mid-1920s the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR and the consequent degeneration of the Comintern had made the united front a dead letter. In the early 1930s Trotsky argued in vain from exile for the German Communist and Social Democratic parties to unite to stop Hitler. But the united front tactic remains a vital weapon in the armoury of revolutionary strategy. The question that I want to address in the rest of this article, in the light mainly of recent British experience, is the relevance of the united front today. In a period of rising struggle such as the present one cannot assume that the united front should simply take its classic form. New movements may require new forms of united front.

Classic united fronts

This is not to say that united fronts of the classical type do not exist today. The best example is the Stop the War Coalition (StWC). As already noted, this brings together people of diverse politics around a very clearly defined set of issues--opposition to the 'war on terrorism' and to the associated attacks on civil liberties and on ethnic minorities. The very success of the StWC is a consequence of this narrowness of focus. Its initiators on both the revolutionary and the reformist left quite rightly resisted attempts to broaden it out or to divert it into other issues--for example, opposition to Islamist terrorism--that would have divided and paralysed the coalition.

The weakness of the anti-war movement in France, which has been hamstrung by the tendency of large sections of the French left even-handedly to condemn US imperialism and radical Islamism, underlines how right this approach has been. There have been attempts to get the StWC to broaden its programme by, for example, campaigning against the danger of war between India and Pakistan. Any such move would split the Coalition wide open, since many of its Asian supporters take different positions on the Kashmir question. It should therefore be strongly resisted.

ANL(top) and Socialist Alliance

The Anti Nazi League is another example of a classic united front. Its enormous success since its inception in 1977 has lain in the ANL's single-minded focus on mass mobilisation against organised fascists. Attempts to transform it into a broad campaign against racism that, for example, opposes all immigration controls have always been rejected. Such a change would cut the ANL off from the very large numbers of people who believe, wrongly, that non-racist immigration controls are both possible and desirable but who are willing to fight the Nazis. An ANL with a broader anti-racist platform would have a much narrower base. Deprived of its focus on mass action against the Nazis, it would in all likelihood degenerate into yet another talking shop of the type that already litters the anti-racist scene in Britain.

Nevertheless, there has been an important political shift in the past decade. Britain during the first half of the 1990s saw a series of massive single-issue campaigns--against the poll tax, pit closures, the Nazis, and the Criminal Justice Bill. These reflected a broad anti-Tory consciousness that did not go beyond, for most of those involved, supporting the election of a Labour government.

The situation today is, by contrast, characterised by a much higher level of political generalisation that embraces a substantial minority of the British population. So, paradoxically, although the StWC has a narrow focus, its mobilisations have brought into activity large numbers of people who are generalising far beyond the war in Afghanistan. They link up Bush's war drive to the gross injustices being committed against the Palestinian people, and understand what the French Marxist Claude Serfati calls 'armed globalisation'--the links binding corporate globalisation to the Pentagon's military power. It has been the anti-war movement that has brought the people inspired by Seattle and Genoa onto the streets of Britain.

United fronts of a new type

This development is a consequence of the process of political radicalisation that has been under way internationally since the Seattle protests of November 1999. One facet of this process has been the emergence of new kinds of united front. In Britain the most important examples are the Socialist Alliance and Globalise Resistance. While these coalitions bring together revolutionaries and reformists, their political platform is much broader than some relatively narrowly defined campaigning issue.

Most obviously, the programme of the Socialist Alliance, while it leaves open the decisive strategic question of reform or revolution, is an explicitly socialist one that demands the comprehensive transformation of British society. Similarly, according to GR's website, 'Globalise Resistance brings together individuals and groups opposed to the global growth of corporate power.' This is clearly not a straightforward single issue campaign. At the same time, like the Socialist Alliance, Globalise Resistance involves activists with quite diverse political viewpoints.

It is important to see that this is not simply a British development. The global anti-capitalist movement is what the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein calls an 'anti-systemic movement'--it does not simply agitate over specific grievances but challenges the logic of the capitalist system itself. At the same time, it leaves open the questions of how the system will be changed and what the 'Other World' it is fighting for would be like.

Attac in France might seem like a conventional united front. It started out around a single issue--the demand for the imposition of the Tobin Tax on international financial speculation--and it has both reformists of various kinds and revolutionaries in its leadership. But Attac is about more than just the Tobin Tax. The 'Call of the Social Movements' adopted at Porto Alegre by Attac among others explicitly targets both the capitalist system and war.

The Socialist Alliance takes as its starting point a more specific facet of this broader political radicalisation. It is clear that the Blair government, far from overcoming the long-running crisis of Labourism, has simply accentuated it. A series of elections, most notably the Scottish parliamentary elections in 1999, the Greater London Assembly elections in 2000 and the UK-wide general election last June, saw a significant number of working class voters break with Labour and support socialist candidates.

The Socialist Alliance has responded to the decay of Labourism by seeking to provide an alternative to New Labour, especially, though not exclusively, at elections, in England and Wales, and thereby to offer disaffected Labour Party members and supporters a new political home. This latter objective is crucial. Despite Blair's attempts to transform it into a US style Democratic Party, the Labour Party continues to depend on the political (and financial) support of the organised working class. A mass socialist party can only emerge in Britain by winning over far larger numbers of Labour supporters than either the Socialist Alliance or the Scottish Socialist Party have so far succeeded in doing.

A new party?

This explains the peculiarly hybrid character of the Socialist Alliance. It is hybrid programmatically in the sense that it leaves open the issue of reform and revolution. To adopt an explicitly revolutionary programme, as some groups within the Alliance argue, would be to slam the door on Labour Party supporters who have rejected Blairism but who have yet to break with reformism. Keeping left social democrats out of the alliance for the sake of revolutionary purity would leave potentially hundreds of thousands of disaffected Labour supporters to drift around waiting for the next revival of the Labour left, or (perhaps more likely) to withdraw into cynical apathy. Far better to draw them into common activity with revolutionaries within the Socialist Alliance, where they are much more likely to be won away from reformism.

The Socialist Alliance is also hybrid organisationally. It does some of the things that parties normally do. Most obviously it contests elections but the Socialist Alliance is also developing a broader campaigning profile. At the same time, though the constitution adopted by the Socialist Alliance last December has established it as a membership organisation with a properly elected leadership, the affiliated far left organisations maintain their own independent structures and activities and still provide the bulk of its active members.

Now some within the Socialist Alliance are impatient with what they regard as an anomalous situation and propose that it should rapidly transform itself into a full-blooded party. The most frequently cited model is the Scottish Socialist Party. This is a left socialist party initiated and led by activists mainly (though not exclusively) from a background in the Militant Tendency, from whose sectarianism they have sought to break comprehensively. It has a broad socialist programme that you don't have to be a revolutionary to sign up to, but it includes organised political tendencies ('platforms') that are required to subordinate their activities to the interests of the SSP as a whole. Thus, for example, SSP members are required to sell only Scottish Socialist Voice publicly.

The SSP has undoubtedly been a remarkable success in its three years of existence. It has carved out a space for itself in the new Scottish political arena created by devolution, and won impressive votes in the 2001 Westminster elections. It has also succeeded in uniting the bulk of the Scottish far left under the same roof. Supporters of the Socialist Worker Platform have, since joining the SSP in May 2001, established themselves as active and loyal members of the party. These are real achievements, but it does not follow that the SSP is the only, or even the most desirable, model for party building elsewhere.

In the case of the Socialist Alliance there is an obvious difficulty, namely the enormous imbalance in resources and members between the Socialist Workers Party and the other political currents within the Socialist Alliance. This is already a source of some tension and is one reason why some SA members advocate the creation of a new party. But such a move would not abolish the imbalance but transfer it to a new terrain--if a broad socialist party were declared in England and Wales tomorrow the Socialist Worker Platform would still more than outgun all the others put together.

This state of affairs is a reflection of the fact that the Socialist Alliance has only just started the process of winning over disgruntled Labour supporters. A large-scale influx of working class activists would radically transform the character of the Socialist Alliance and make the relationship between its different affiliated organisations much more of a side issue. Turning the Socialist Alliance into a party now would foreclose this process and deny the substantial numbers of Labour supporters who can be won to a socialist alternative of the opportunity to participate in defining the nature of this alternative.

Sometimes behind advocacy of the Socialist Alliance becoming a party in the short term lies a model according to which involvement in a centrist party is a necessary stage in the process of creating a mass revolutionary party. Centrist parties that systematically blurred the distinction between reform and revolution were an important feature of the political scene after the First World War. For example, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which broke away from the German Social-Democratic Party because of the latter's pro-war stance but included leading reformists such as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, became after the revolution of November 1918 a rallying point for millions of workers radicalised by the experience of massive social, political and economic crisis.

For many of these workers the USPD proved to be a temporary stopping off point only. Their ultimate destination was the German Communist Party (KPD). Reflecting the pull of the Russian Revolution, the Halle congress of the USPD voted in October 1920 to affiliate to the Communist International. After a right wing minority had broken away, the result was a united mass Communist Party half a million strong. This experience shows that the development of a mass revolutionary party is not simply a process of quantitative growth through which a small Marxist group eventually becomes a party by gradually recruiting more and more members. Mass parties emerge through a process that includes crises and splits in big reformist and centrist organisations.

But the example of the USPD also indicates that the development of a mass revolutionary party doesn't necessarily depend on revolutionaries building centrist organisations. The KPD was an independent revolutionary party from its formation in December 1918. As a result of its influence and that of the Comintern--and, above all, the concrete experience of revolution and counter-revolution in Germany--hundreds of thousands of workers moved in the space of two years from reformism, via centrism, to revolutionary politics.

We are of course a long way from the convulsive struggles that polarised Europe at the end of the First World War. Nevertheless the case of the USPD illustrates that there is no single pattern through which mass revolutionary parties develop. The transformation of the Socialist Alliance into a party with substantial working class support is one possible scenario, but by no means the only one.

The role of revolutionaries

There are a number of different united fronts each with its own distinct political constituency
There are a number of different united fronts each with its own distinct political constituency

The concrete situation is in any case one where there are a number of different united fronts, each with its own distinct political constituencies. This is very obvious in the case of Globalise Resistance and the Socialist Alliance. GR supporters tend to be young, and often do not regard themselves as socialists. This reflects the novelty of the anti-capitalist movement, and the combination of radicalism and ideological ambiguity that is characteristic of it. The national anti-war demonstrations, which have been striking for their youth, are an expression of this same milieu. In contrast, the Socialist Alliance tends to be dominated by labour movement activists, and can reflect both their strengths and their weaknesses, which can be summed up in one word--experience.

In the longer term this division needs to be overcome. Anti-capitalists need to be won to a socialist world view, and the Socialist Alliance must become a lot younger, blacker and more female. But the contrast between these two coalitions' constituencies is a real one. It arises from how the present radicalisation has developed--the way in which anti-capitalist consciousness emerged in an ideological climate where the traditional left had been weakened as a result of the defeats of the 1980s and the confusion caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It is not the product of some artificial organisational device and therefore cannot be overcome by one.

There are two forces working against the obvious danger of fragmentation in this situation. First, a substantial minority are generalising against the system. Secondly, revolutionaries working together in a united party can, through their involvement in the different movements, reinforce this process of generalisation. As we have seen, united fronts have classically performed a double function: (1) to create the maximum possible unity in action around relevant issues; and (2) to increase the influence of revolutionary politics and organisation.

Revolutionaries from the orthodox Trotskyist tradition have tended in practice to exaggerate one of these functions at the expense of the other. They either abstain from united activity or (which amounts to the same thing) use it as a vehicle for denouncing everyone else or they involve themselves so deeply in a particular movement that their own distinctively revolutionary profile disappears. The latter error is much more attractive than the former but it is still an error. Behind it lies the feeling that it is 'sectarian' to engage in party-building while involved in a united front.

In fact, there is no contradiction between the two functions of the united front. On the contrary, they should mutually reinforce each other. Because (in theory at any rate) revolutionaries possess ideological clarity and organisational cohesion, they should be the most effective force in building the broader movement. The Stop the War Coalition is a good example--the SWP has indisputably been the dynamic force both maintaining the coalition's unity and driving it forward through mass activity.

The important role that revolutionaries play within united fronts in no sense compromises the autonomy of the different movements. It is essential to the wellbeing of coalitions such as the StWC, Socialist Alliance, Globalise Resistance, and the Anti Nazi League that they possess their own democratic structures and that these allow the different political forces involved to participate in both policy making and activity. 'Fronts' in the old Stalinist sense which are manipulated from behind the scenes are worse than useless in an era of expansive movements driven by powerful democratic aspirations.

But no movement can be ideologically autonomous in the sense of escaping the influence of any concrete political programme. After all the domination of capital is expressed, among other things, in the way in which its conception of the world permeates society and impedes the formation of rival conceptions. Reformism represents an ideological compromise between capitalist and revolutionary world-views. Every united front is, consequently, among other things, an arena for ideological and political struggle. The existence of a strong revolutionary pole within the movement is essential to ensuring the defeat of ideas that, directly or indirectly, reflect the influence of capitalist ideology and the articulation of a strategy that can achieve victory.

There is therefore no contradiction between building revolutionary organisation and building the broader movements. On the contrary, party building of the right type will strengthen the movement. Getting this combination right--building the movement and building an organised revolutionary Marxist current within it--is easier said than done. But it is no less indispensable.


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