Since the days of the Russian Revolution, communists have debated how to win over the majority of the working class to revolutionary socialism and its political organizations. After the Russian Revolution, Trotsky and his fellow communists found that the main opposition towards this goal came not from liberalism or the political forces of capitalism, but instead from other socialists, the reformists of the Second International.
While the Second International had been founded in part by Friedrich Engels and been extremely successful in its growth, its parties over time capitulated to reformism and had completely sold out their class interests by supporting the imperialist first World War. While this led Lenin, Trotsky and many other revolutionaries to break away from the Second International and ultimately found the Third International (also called the Comintern) the betrayal didn’t actually break the working class away from reformist politics.
At that time, the majority of the working class in many countries still supported these reformist parties, despite their having openly voted for imperialist war only a few years prior. Even though the Third International had succeeded in winning over the left of most Second International parties and forming their own revolutionary Communist Parties, many of these were still smaller than the organizations they had split from. Indeed in many places the new Communist Parties had much less influence in trade unions then the reformists.
Thus, the communists were facing a situation in which they had large political organizations but still were dwarfed by supporters of the reformist parties among the working class. This made it much harder for the revolutionary socialists to help organize the working class to fight back against the forces of capitalism in a unified way. Without ongoing examples revolutionaries in action, it was easy for the reformists and trade union leaders to dismiss revolutionary socialists as ultra-left political hacks who were detached from the working class and did not actually fight for working people.
This is why the Third International developed the United Front tactic. The revolutionaries would maintain their organizations and politics separate from the reformists, but work together to carry out campaigns, strikes and activities in the interests of the whole of the working class. This tactic of “striking together but marching separately” allowed communists to organize unified working class actions and demonstrate their seriousness in action. In this report, sent by Trotsky to the leaders of the French Communist Party he explains the basics of the United Front and how the French communists should use the tactic.
While the United Front was developed for this particular historical context, it still maintains relevance today as the revolutionary section of the working class is smaller than the reformist parties. With the idea of the United Front habitually abused and misunderstood by many on the left, Trotsky’s early writings on the subject provide important clarity for revolutionaries today.
On the United Front
by Leon Trotsky, 1922
General Considerations on the United Front
The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution. In order to summon the proletariat for the direct conquest of power and to achieve it the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class.
So long as it does not hold this majority, the party must fight to win it.
The party can achieve this only by remaining an absolutely independent organization with a clear program and strict internal discipline. That is the reason why the party was bound to break ideologically and organizationally with the reformists and the centrists who do not strive for the proletarian revolution, who possess neither the capacity nor the desire to prepare the masses for revolution, and who by their entire conduct thwart this work.
Any members of the Communist Party who bemoan the split with the centrists in the name of “unity of forces” or “unity of front” thereby demonstrate that they do not understand the ABC of Communism and that they themselves happen to be in the Communist Party only by accident.
After assuring itself of the complete independence and ideological homogeneity of its ranks, the Communist Party fights for influence over the majority of the working class. This struggle can be accelerated or retarded depending upon objective circumstances and the expediency of the tactics employed.
But it is perfectly self-evident that the class life of the proletariat is not suspended during this period preparatory to the revolution. Clashes with industrialists, with the bourgeoisie, with the state power, on the initiative of one side or the other, run their due course.
In these clashes – insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section – the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers.
Consequently the question of the united front is not at all, either in point of origin or substance, a question of the reciprocal relations between the Communist parliamentary fraction and that of the Socialists… The problem of the united front – despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organizations basing themselves on the working class – 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.
In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organization of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organizational significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership of the old organizations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role.
Similarly the problem of the united front does not arise in countries where – as in Bulgaria, for example – the Communist Party is the sole leading organization of the toiling masses.
But wherever the Communist Party already constitutes a big, organized, political force, but not the decisive magnitude: wherever the party embraces organizationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organized proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness.
If the party embraces one-third or one-half of the proletarian vanguard, then the remaining half or two-thirds are organized by the reformists or centrists. It is perfectly obvious, however, that even those workers who still support the reformists and the centrists are vitally interested in maintaining the highest material standards of living and the greatest possible freedom for struggle. We must consequently so devise our tactic as to prevent the Communist Party, which will on the morrow embrace the entire three-thirds of the working class, from turning into – and all the more so, from actually being – an organizational obstacle in the way of the current struggle of the proletariat.
Still more, the party must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles. Only in this way will the party draw closer to those two-thirds who do not as yet follow its leadership, who do not as yet trust the party because they do not understand it. Only in this way can the party win them over.
If the Communist Party had not broken drastically and irrevocably with the Social Democrats, it would not have become the party of the proletarian revolution. It could not have taken the first serious steps on the road to revolution. It would have for ever 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 organizational avenues to the end that at every given moment joint, co-ordinated action between the Communist and the non-Communist (including the 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 organizational discipline, it is necessary that this organization 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.
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. Today the organized portion of the working class is broken up into three formations.
One of them, the Communist, strives toward the social revolution and precisely because of this supports concurrently every movement, however partial, of the toilers against the exploiters and against the bourgeois state.
Another grouping, the reformist, strives toward conciliation with the bourgeoisie. But in order not to lose their influence over the workers reformists are compelled, against the innermost desires of their own leaders, to support the partial movements of the exploited against the exploiters.
Finally, there is a third grouping, the centrist, which constantly vacillates between the other two, and which has no independent significance.
The circumstances thus make wholly possible joint action on a whole number of vital issues between the workers united in these three respective organizations and the unorganized masses adhering to them.
The Communists, as has been said, must not oppose such actions but on the contrary must also assume the initiative for them, precisely for the reason that the greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self-confidence rises, all the more self-confident will that mass movement be and all the more resolutely will it be capable of marching forward, however modest may be the initial slogans of struggle. And this means that the growth of the mass aspects of the movement tends to radicalize it, and creates much more favourable conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle, and, in general, the leading role of the Communist Party.
The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade-union bureaux, the arbitration boards, the ministerial antechambers.
On the contrary, we are, apart from all other considerations, interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses. With a correct tactic we stand only to gain from this. A Communist who doubts or fears this resembles a swimmer who has approved the theses on the best method of swimming but dares not plunge into the water.
Unity of front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of reformist organizations, to the extent to which the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat.
But, after all, didn’t we split with them? Yes, because we disagree with them on fundamental questions of the working-class movement.
And yet we seek agreement with them? Yes, in all those cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in joint struggle together with the masses that follow us and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of this struggle.
But won’t they say that after splitting with them we still need them? Yes, their blabbermouths may say this. Here and there somebody in our own ranks may take fright at it. But as regards the broad working masses – even those who do not follow us and who do not as yet understand our goals but who do see two or three labour organizations leading a parallel existence – these masses will draw from our conduct this conclusion, that despite the split we are doing everything in our power to facilitate unity in action for the masses.
A policy aimed to secure the united front does not of course contain automatic guarantees that unity in action will actually be attained in all instances. On the contrary, in many cases and perhaps even the majority of cases, organizational agreements will be only half-attained or perhaps not at all. But it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilability but to the lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists.
In entering into agreements with other organizations, we naturally obligate ourselves to a certain discipline in action. But this discipline cannot be absolute in character. In the event that the reformists begin putting brakes on the struggle to the obvious detriment of the movement and act counter to the situation and the moods of the masses, we as an independent organization always reserve the right to lead the struggle to the end, and this without our temporary semi-allies.
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 – provided our tactic is correct – the extension of our influence over new, fresh groups of the proletariat.
It is possible to see in this policy a rapprochement with the reformists only from the standpoint of a journalist who believes that he rids himself of reformism by ritualistically criticizing it without ever leaving his editorial office but who is fearful of clashing with the reformists before the eyes of the working masses and giving the latter an opportunity to appraise the Communist and the reformist on the equal plane of the mass struggle. Behind this seeming revolutionary fear of “rapprochement” there really lurks a political passivity which seeks to perpetuate an order of things wherein the Communists and reformists each retain their own rigidly demarcated spheres of influence, their own audiences at meetings, their own press, and all this together creates an illusion of serious political struggle.
We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticizing perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the half-way spirit in the labour movement. For this reason any sort of organizational 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. In this way, we shall bring closer the hour of the united revolutionary front under the undisputed Communist leadership.
Internal Tasks of the Communist Party
The foregoing policy presupposes, naturally, complete organizational independence, ideological clarity and revolutionary firmness of the Communist Party itself…
Those who seek to use the idea of the united front for agitating in favour of unification with the reformists… must be mercilessly ejected from our party, inasmuch as they serve as the agency of the [reformists] in our ranks and are deceiving the workers concerning the reasons for the split and who is really responsible for it. Instead of correctly posing the question of the possibility of this or that co-ordinated, practical action with the [reformists], despite their petty-bourgeois and essentially counter-revolutionary character, they are demanding that our own party renounce its Communist program and revolutionary methods. The ejection of such elements, mercilessly and in disgrace, will best demonstrate that the tactic of the workers’ united front in no way resembles capitulation to or reconciliation with the reformists. The tactic of the united front demands from the party complete freedom in manoeuvring, flexibility and resoluteness. To make this possible, the party must clearly and specifically declare at every given moment just what its wishes are, just what it is striving for, and it must comment authoritatively, before the eyes of the masses, on its own steps and proposals.
Hence flows the complete inadmissibility for individual party members to issue on their own responsibility and risk political publications in which they counterpose their own slogans, methods of action and proposals to the slogans, methods of action and proposals of the party. Under the cover of the Communist Party and consequently also inside that milieu which is influenced by a Communist cover, i.e., in a workers’ milieu, they spread from day to day ideas hostile to us, or they sow confusion and scepticism which are even more pernicious than avowedly hostile ideologies. Periodicals of this type, together with their editors, must once and for all be placed outside the party and the entire working-class France must learn about this from articles which mercilessly expose the petty-bourgeois smugglers who operate under a Communist flag.
From what has been said, it likewise follows that it is completely inadmissible for the leading party publications to carry side by side with articles defending the basic concepts of Communism, other articles disputing these concepts or denying them. Absolutely impermissible is a continuation of a régime in the party press under which the mass of worker-readers find, in the guise of editorials in leading Communist periodicals, articles which try to turn us back to positions of tearful pacifism and which propagate among workers a debilitating hostility toward revolutionary violence in the face of the triumphant violence of the bourgeoisie. Under the guise of a struggle against militarism, a struggle is thus being conducted against the ideas of revolution…
An objection might, however, be raised that so long as the work of cleansing the party of ancient prejudices and of attaining internal cohesion remains uncompleted, it would be dangerous to place the party in situations where it would come into close proximity with reformists and nationalists. But such a point of view is false. Naturally it is undeniable that a transition from broad propagandist activity to direct participation in the mass movement carries with it new difficulties and therefore dangers for the Communist Party. But it is completely wrong to suppose that the party can be prepared for all tests without directly participating in struggles, without directly coming in contact with enemies and adversaries. On the contrary, only in this way can a genuine, non-fictitious internal cleaning and fusing of the party be achieved. It is quite possible that some elements in the party and in the trade-union bureaucracy will feel themselves drawn more closely to the reformists, from whom they have accidentally split than toward us. The loss of such camp-followers will not be a liability but an asset, and it will be compensated a hundredfold by the influx of those working men and women who still follow the reformists today. The party will in consequence become more homogeneous, more resolute and more proletarian.
Party Tasks in the Trade Union Movement
Absolute clarity on the trade-union question is a task of first-rate importance, surpassing by far all the other tasks before the Communist Party of France.
Naturally the legend spread by the reformists that Plans are afoot to subordinate the trade unions organizationally to the party must be unconditionally denounced and exposed. Trade unions embrace workers of different political shadings as well as non-party men, atheists as well as believers, whereas the party unites political co-thinkers on the basis of a definite program. The party has not and cannot have any instrumentalities and methods for subjecting the trade unions to itself from the outside.
The party can gain influence in the life of the trade unions only to the extent that its members work in the trade unions and carry out the party point of view there. The influence of party members in the trade unions naturally depends on their numerical strength and especially on the degree to which they are able to apply party principles correctly, consistently and expediently to the needs of the trade-union movement.
The party has the right and the duty to aim to conquer, along the road above outlined, the decisive influence in the trade-union organization. It can achieve this goal only provided the work of the Communists in the trade unions is wholly and exclusively harmonized with the principles of the party and is invariably conducted under its control.
The minds of all Communists must therefore be completely purged of reformist prejudices, in accordance with which the party is regarded as a political parliamentary organization of the proletariat, and nothing more. The Communist Party is the organization of the proletarian vanguard for the ideological fructification of the labour movement and the assumption of leadership in all spheres – first and foremost in the trade unions. While the trade unions are not subordinate to the party but wholly autonomous organizations, the Communists inside the trade unions, on the other hand, cannot pretend to any kind of autonomy in their trade-union activity but must act as the transmitters of their party’s program and tactics. To be most severely condemned is the conduct of those Communists who not only fail to fight inside the trade unions for the influence of party ideas but actually counteract such a struggle in the name of a principle of “autonomy” which they apply absolutely falsely. As a matter of fact, they thus pave the way for the decisive influence in the trade unions of individuals, groups and cliques, bound neither by a definite program nor by party organization, and who utilize the formlessness of ideological groupings and relations in order to keep the organizational apparatus in their own hands and secure the independence of their own clique from any actual control by the workers’ vanguard.
While the party, in its activity inside the trade unions, must show the greatest attentiveness and caution toward the non-party masses and their conscientious and honest representatives; while the party must, on the basis of joint work, systematically and tactically draw closer to the best elements of the trade-union movement – including the revolutionary anarchists who are capable of learning – the party can, on the contrary, no longer tolerate in its midst those pseudo-Communists who utilize the status of party membership only in order all the more confidently to promote anti-party influences in the trade unions.
The party through its own press, through its own propagandists and its members in the trade unions must submit to constant and systematic criticism the shortcomings of revolutionary syndicalism for solving the basic tasks of the proletariat. The party must tirelessly and persistently criticize the weak theoretical and practical sides of syndicalism, explaining at the same time to its best elements that the only correct road for securing the revolutionary influence on the trade unions and on the labour movement as a whole is the entry of revolutionary syndicalists into the Communist Party: their participation in working out all the basic questions of the movement, in drawing the balance sheet of experience, in defining new tasks, in cleansing the Communist Party itself and strengthening its ties with the working masses.
It is absolutely indispensable to take a census of all the members of the French Communist Party in order to determine their social status (workers, civil employees, peasants, intellectuals, etc.); their relations with the trade-union movement (do they belong to trade unions – do they participate in meetings of Communist and revolutionary syndicalists? do they carry out at these meetings the decisions of the party on the trade unions? etc.); their attitude toward the party press (what party publications do they read?), and so on.
You can find the full text of “On the United Front” here, courtesy of the Marxist Internet Archive
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