(fwd from Shance Hopkinson) United Fronts by SSP

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Fri Sep 27 08:58:43 MDT 2002


[ sent on Tuesday ]


Dear MM

I thought this was useful background to the Labour party and Socialist
Alliance debates.

Shane


-- The united front today

>From Frontline 8 the bi-monthly journal of the International Socialist
Movement, A Marxist Platform in the Scottish Socialist Party.
http://www.redflag.org.uk/frontline/eight/08contents.html

An important question for Marxists in the 20th century and now the 21st
is the role of the "united front" in strengthening and building the
forces of socialism. In a capitalist society where people who ascribe to
Marxist ideas are in a minority how do you spread the ideas of socialism
and enlarge the number of people who ascribe to the same ideas? This
question is very relevant for members of the Scottish Socialist Party.
Comrades in the Socialist Workers Platform - now in membership of the
party for over a year - speak often of their "united front" tactic. In
this article Nick McKerrell seeks to explore the history of the united
front in the movement for socialism and attempts to define what it
means. Then the question will be explored over the use of the united
front in this period in Scotland and specifically what the role of the
Scottish Socialist Party should be in this.

What is the United Front?

To the present day the only successful socialist revolution led by the
working class in history has been the Russian Revolution in October
1917. Guided by the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky the Marxist
Bolshevik Party attempted to create a workers' state.

The October Revolution came only 9 months after the first revolution in
Russian history which overthrew the corrupt Tsarist regime. At the time
of this uprising the Bolsheviks were a fairly small force with most of
their leaders exiled across Europe including Lenin.

How then did this Marxist force emerge from this situation to become a
mass force which could successfully lead and direct a socialist
revolution? Or to pose it another way how can Marxists succeed in
winning large sections of working class people to their programme? This
is the essence of the united front in the traditional Marxist sense.

The first March Revolution established workers and peasants' councils
across the whole of Russia, these became known as soviets. Delegates
were elected through factories, towns and villages. Different political
parties had representation within them and in some cases individuals
with no specific political identity.

In essence the soviets were the early form of the socialist state they
could not coexist with the capitalist state of Russia and a socialist
revolution was necessary. Lenin, after his return from exile, in
particular realised this and argued the Bolsheviks should adopt the
slogan "All power to the Soviets".

However for the vast majority of 1917 the Bolsheviks were in the
minority of the Soviets. They were dominated by the Mensheviks and the
Social Revolutionaries, a peasant based party. Essentially these parties
wanted to maintain the capitalist state and argue for reforms.

This was a reflection of the different political attitudes amongst the
working class and peasantry. In these organisations the Bolsheviks
respected the discipline of the soviet whilst patiently arguing their
case and building their own forces. So in 1917 the Bolsheviks worked
with other parties who had support amongst the working class even though
they fundamentally disagreed with their policies.

By doing this and maintaining their own political line and organisation
they eventually gained support of the majority. In the revolutionary
situation of 1917 Russia this meant that socialist revolution was on the
agenda. For this reason Trotsky labelled the soviet the "highest organ
of the united front".

International United Fronts

The October revolution sent shock waves across the world. Socialist
revolution was a possibility across the whole of Europe. As the First
World War began to collapse revolutionary movements inspired by the
events in Russia sprang up all over the continent. New Communist Parties
were established and grew massively.

Seizing state power and establishing socialist states was the order of
the day. This was central to the Bolsheviks' policies who were
internationalists. The Communist International was established (the
Third International) and argued for revolution in other countries to
defend and strengthen the young Soviet state in Russia.

However revolutions were defeated in Hungary, Italy and critically
Germany in the years 1917-21 which meant revolutionary Russia remained
isolated. The ebbing of the revolutionary tide - in many ways the moment
had passed - meant the Third International had to redirect its strategy
for international revolution.

The Fourth Congress of the Communist International met in 1922 to
consider this amongst other issues. In many instances the socialist
revolutions had been betrayed by reformist leaders of workers' parties
and trade unions. This was particularly true in Germany where the heroic
Marxists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered on the orders
of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, one of the first workers'
parties to be established anywhere in the globe.

In the Fourth Congress' theses on tactics it was argued that the
immediate goal was to build up the newly formed Communist Parties or
form them where this had not been done and to take their message "to the
masses".

To do this there was "an obvious need for the united front tactic". 1
Again using the experience of the Russian revolution this meant working
with other workers regardless of their political leanings. In some
instances it could even involve working with the "scab" leaders of
reformism, including the murderers of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

Why was this done? One quotation from the Fourth Congress summarises
this nicely: "the united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby
the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other
parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to
defend the immediate basic needs of the working class against the
bourgeoisie". 2

Thus by struggling with working people the influence and strength of
Marxism would grow and people would break with the ideas of reformism.
Of course there needed to be organisational independence reflected in
one of Trotsky's slogans of the united front: "march separately but
strike together!" 3

The German Lesson

When studying the United Front issue much reference is made to Trotsky's
writings on Germany prior to the coming to power of Hitler in 1933. As
explained previously this was not the first time the united front tactic
was proposed indeed it was central to the whole Russian Revolution and
the growth of international socialism. Yet Trotsky's writings on Germany
are vital to an understanding of the concept.

Trotsky analysed every aspect of the united front in this period. He
labelled the discussions "interminable". The reason for this was the
policy of the Communist International - now under the leadership of
Stalin and his acolytes - and the German Communist Party (the KPD)
towards other workers' parties and trade unions in the struggle against
Nazism.

In summary the KPD refused to work with the Social Democratic party
(SPD) and other forces to combat Hitler and his Nazi forces. In fact it
went further and labelled the SPD as "social fascist" meaning they were
really the same as Hitler and the policies were only a question of
degree.

The Central Committee of the German Communist Party in 1931 stated "it
is impossible to defeat fascism without first defeating the Social
democracy". 4 This meant that the rank and file of the KPD were
preventing from even confronting the Nazis on the ground.

This division left the working class immobilised and split the movement
so the Nazis could come to power in 1933 "without breaking a pane of
glass" - in Hitler's own words.

The defeat of the strongest working class in Europe had immense
significance for the movement for a socialist world. As a result of this
Trotsky concluded that the Stalinist Communist International could not
be reformed and established the Fourth International.

Clearly the KPD and the Comintern were turning Marxist history on its
head by adopting such a suicidal policy. The KPD believed it was gaining
in strength and indeed it did have the support of millions of workers
and that a Hitler regime would be unstable allowing them to seize state
power.

Trotsky consistently argued that a united front was vital in the
struggle against Hitler. Even as late as February 1933 a few weeks after
Hitler came to power he argued that such a front be established. That is
that the Communist Party and its affiliated groups establish a front
with the Social Democrats and the trade unions, who still also had the
support of millions of workers. Organisational independence would be
maintained but they would unite to confront and defeat fascism.

The Stalinist leadership rejected this on the grounds that the Social
Democratic Party leaders were bourgeois politicians who represented the
same economic system as Hitler. Thus in contradiction to the Bolsheviks
in 1917 they were ignoring the different levels of consciousness amongst
the working class, particularly the Social Democratic workers and
pursuing their own interests.

The KPD established a group called the Red United Front but specifically
excluded the SPD and anyone who did not support the KPD's position on
the Social Democratic leadership. Such sectarianism had fatal
consequences as history shows but concretely it was also a reversal of
the Marxist method that had been so successful in Russia. It meant "the
Social Democratic Workers remained with their leaders and the Communist
workers lost faith in themselves and in their leaders". 5

Trotsky in his polemics used the historical examples of 1917 and how the
Bolsheviks operated in the Soviets. However he gave a more precise
parallel with the role of the Bolshevik party in the so-called Kornilov
revolt of August 1917.

Kornilov was a Russian General who attempted to overthrow the
Provisional Government which had come to power after the March
revolution that had kicked out the Tsar. This government was led by
capitalist politicians in particular Kerensky of the Social
Revolutionaries (SRs).

The Bolsheviks at this time were facing great repression by the
Provisional Government. Many of their leaders, including Trotsky, were
jailed or in hiding like Lenin their printing presses were attacked and
so on.

Despite this repression the Bolsheviks proposed a united front with
other parties to prevent the military coup. Trotsky often spoke of the
true scenario where he was released from prison and immediately went to
a meeting of this united front with leaders of the Mensheviks and SRs
who had been responsible for his jailing!

By mobilising the working class Kornilov was prevented in seizing
Petrograd and was defeated. The Bolsheviks played a leading role and
gained much respect from the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants. The
revolt and the Bolsheviks' tactics had a critical impact on the success
of the Russian revolution in October. Again this provides a consummate
example of the benefits of the united front in practice.

Another point though is that both Kornilov and Kerensky stood for the
same system. Trotsky labelled Kerensky "three quarters a confederate of
Kornilov". This did not prevent the joint struggle but the need to smash
Kornilov and the correct tactics of the Bolshevik leaders meant that
Kerensky himself could be overthrown two months later.

The United Front today.

Does this discussion of the united front have more than historical
significance for Marxists today?

Clearly at the present time socialist revolution is not on the immediate
agenda as it was in the 1920s and 30s. The Communist Parties across the
world have more or less collapsed following the defeat of Stalinism and
its satellite states in the late 1980s and early 90s.

The so-called Social Democratic or Labour parties in the developed world
led by Blair and New Labour have become openly capitalist parties.
Although many working people still passively support these parties this
is much more fluid than it was in the early twentieth century and that
can transfer to other political forces.

So the classical position of a united front equalling a coming together
of two or more mass workers' parties over a specific issue - as in
Germany in the 30s or Russia in 1917 - is not really appropriate today.

However this does not negate the idea of a united front in a broader
sense. Trotsky once said that the united front "is imposed by the
dialectics of the class struggle". 6 That is once as a Marxist you are
involved in any broad political activity like a strike, community
campaign or demonstration you will by necessity be working with others
who are not of the same viewpoint as you.

If you did not work together on this basis then no successes would be
possible. That is common sense for anyone that has been involved in a
struggle.

The Scottish Experience

Recent Scottish socialist history only confirms this. The heroic
anti-poll tax campaign which galvanised millions of non-payers and
defeated Thatcher's flagship was a model of how a united front should
operate in a modern context.

Led by the Anti Poll Tax Federation local anti poll tax unions came
together to organise non-payment in their communities, amongst their
work colleagues, with their fellow students.

Thus people from all sorts of political background and many from none
came together to defeat the poll tax. The united front had a coherence
on the policy of non-payment but did not demand any other political
allegiances. Policy was decided at regular conferences and open meetings
of the anti-poll tax unions.

After the poll tax was defeated in 1991 Scottish Militant Labour was
launched as an open political party. The respect and admiration gained
by Tommy Sheridan, Chair of the Anti Poll Tax Federation, and other
leaders of the anti-poll tax struggle in local communities who were
members and leaders of SML meant that in a very difficult period for
socialists local citadels of socialist support could be built in areas
of Scotland.

Thus by fighting alongside others in organising demonstrations, public
meetings, defending people from sheriff officers Scottish Militant
Labour won people to its position.

In an important sense this was a real precursor to the current success
of the Scottish Socialist Party. SML along with other socialist forces
proposed a Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1995 most of which in 1998
agreed to form the SSP.

In many ways the Scottish Socialist Alliance sounds like a united front
- most of the major left groups - although the Socialist Workers' Party
never joined the SSA - coming together on a common platform and agreeing
to disagree on some issues.

However the fact that a political party emerged from the alliance shows
that it transcended the traditional united front. One of the reasons for
the emergence of the SSP was that there was an incredible amount of
agreement on policy. It was more than just a pact of convenience over
elections or some specific campaign.

Since 1998 the priority for socialists in Scotland has been the building
of the SSP which has been done to tremendous effect with the message of
red-blooded socialism being promoted the length and breadth of the
country. Thousands of people have joined the party, a weekly paper was
launched and maintained and there has been constant campaigning.
Electorally opinion polls suggest that a major breakthrough could be
made in 2003.

In this context it would seem strange to describe the SSP itself as a
united front. The nature of the SSP and the unity within its ranks would
make the idea of "striking together and marching separately" crazy.
However this approach has been hinted at by the Socialist Workers' Party
international leadership.

In a recent letter to the Australian section of the Socialist Workers'
international the Party's leading theoretician is uncompromising in his
promotion of the united front as the correct tactic internationally at
the current time. He outlines a list of six "united fronts" that the
Socialist Workers Party now operate in "the Socialist Alliance, the Stop
the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance, the Anti-Nazi League, Defend
Council Housing, and the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers."

It is an open question whether all of these groups are really united
fronts. If the English Socialist Alliance is following the same path as
the SSA did in the 1990s and there is agreement on most aspects of
policy it would probably be inaccurate to describe it as a united front.

Single issue campaigns can be united fronts indeed to be successful they
probably have to be. But it is important to note that united fronts
cannot be unilaterally declared by one group they have to be a genuine
coming together of different forces with a specific clear political
objectives.

The SSP obviously involves itself with genuine united fronts. The
movement to abolish warrant sales and to introduce free school meals was
initiated by Tommy Sheridan as our MSP but a joint campaign was
initiated with other political forces including SNP and Labour MSPs,
anti-poverty groups and charities. This approach was important even
though most of the work at grass roots: collecting petitions and
organising public meetings was done by the local SSP branches. The
anti-war movement and anti- capitalist actions have also seen full
participation by the SSP.

However Callinicos goes further in his analysis of the united front. In
a document on the realignment of the revolutionary left he argues:
"Participation in a broad range of united fronts is an essential feature
of the present period". This is particularly true, he argues, because of
the international anti-globalisation movement. Is he correct?

It has to be said that it is a misreading of the current situation to
say that the role of Marxists is to participate in united fronts when
attempting to recruit to its own smaller forces. In Scotland the
decision within the Scottish Socialist Alliance was taken that what was
needed was a unified socialist party that would fill the void created by
the transforming of Labour into a party of big business and the move to
right by the SNP who in the early nineties had attempted to portray
themselves as a left wing party.

That strategy was essential for the growth of socialism and Marxism in
Scotland. It does not preclude participating in united fronts where
necessary but the main task has been the building and strengthening of
the SSP across the whole of Scotland.

Indeed by listing 6 different united fronts that the English SWP are
involved in Callinicos contradicts his own argument. If all these
campaigns attract broad support how much stronger would it be if a
unified pluralist socialist party could take up these issues across
England the way that has been done in Scotland.

Or to put it another way how strong would the forces of socialism be now
if the leadership of SML had undertaken a similar strategy to the one
Callinicos proposes in 1998? The SSP would not exist and SML would be
spreading itself in various single issue campaigns. There would be no
political representative of socialism in Parliament and whole areas of
Scotland still would not have branches of a socialist party. Socialism
would have been in an immeasurably weaker position.

The realignment of the Marxist left internationally in the last decade
and the transformation of the reformist Labour parties into openly
capitalist organisations has meant the role of Marxists has changed in
the current period.

It is not enough to participate and initiate united front campaigns,
although that is still necessary over certain issues, and recruit for
your own Marxist organisation. That in essence is what Callinicos
proposes and is echoed, ironically, by the leadership of the Committee
for a Workers International who opposed the formation of the SSP in
1998.

The historical role for Marxists today is to form new unified pluralist
socialist parties which will act as a beacon to the working class and
youth politicised by the anti-globalisation movement. This has been done
with a remarkable degree of success in Scotland. However recent
elections in other countries in Europe have also seen hard left parties
grow in support: France, Italy and Holland.

Marxist writings on the united front are a treasure-trove of information
and can provide real direction to socialists. The tactic is a vital part
of spreading the ideas of Marxism within a capitalist society. However
we need to relate the ideas behind the united front to the current
period if we are to maintain the rise of socialism in Scotland.

Notes

  1.Theses on Comintern tactics, Fourth Congress 1922.
  2.ibid, point 10
  3.Trotsky, For a Workers United Front against Fascism, March 1932
  4.ibid.
  5.Trotsky, The German Catastrophe: The Responsibility of the
Leadership, May 1933.
  6.ibid. May 1933.


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