Building the Revolutionary Party and United-front Tactics

by Bill Logan

"A centrist swears readily by the policy of the united front, emptying it of its revolutionary content and transforming it from a tactical method into a supreme principle."
--Trotsky, "Centrism & the Fourth International", 1934

Originally Published in May 1989 by

Permanent Revolution Group
New Zealand


Important events occurring now in Russia and China will have political effects around the world. We are entering a new period of opportunities for Bolshevism and for movement towards the rebirth of the Fourth International.

With the split in the Labour party this month and the setting up of a new and more left-wing social-democratic workers' party in New Zealand, the left here has entered a time of changed political alignments and the possibilities for regroupment. It is timely to publish a pamphlet on the relationship between Bolshevism and reformism, and on the tactics of Bolsheviks.

The original draft of this pamphlet was written in May 1987 as discussion notes for comrades working in the Socialist Alliance. The discussions of which it formed a part led to the formation of the Permanent Revolution Group (PRG). However as an account of the development of the Leninist conceptions of the revolutionary party and its strategy and tactics, its usefulness is wider than its original purpose. We are therefore making it available to the broader workers' movement.

The Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance was formed in late 1986 on the basis of a self description which left ambiguous whether it was a united front or a political tendency intending to take up the tasks of a revolutionary party. There is a temptation while groups are very small to attempt to bloc several together--without thought to programmatic cohesion--so as to make a more visible platform from which to be seen by the workers' movement, and to create the illusion, or perhaps the selfdelusion, of the possibility of simply bypassing the existing misleadership of the class.

The initiative for the formation of this propaganda bloc came jointly from two small groups espousing different forms of Trotskyism: the Revolutionary Communist League (a Christchurch group supporting the politics of the majority tendency in the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) and the Communist Left (an Auckland group which, with some criticisms, supports the general line of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain).

The Wellington members of the Socialist Alliance were a heterogeneous grouping of mostly inexperienced people who were subjectively revolutionary.

Two enthusiastic and key members of the Socialist Alliance in Wellington had some months before been expelled from the Young Socialists, the youth group of the Socialist Action League.[1] After their sojourn in the Young Socialists these two comrades had formed a study group with three other comrades who had been co-thinkers for some years.

Those three comrades decided to go through the experience of the Socialist Alliance with their two partners in the study group, with the intention of clarifying the character of the Socialist Alliance and winning the largest possible part of it to the perspective of building a revolutionary party.

Unity is a precious thing in politics, but unity without clarity of purpose is necessarily unstable--and the Socialist Alliance was united without clarity of purpose. If a federation of different leftist groups, such as the Socialist Alliance, were agreed on a programme--that is, on a view of what has to be done-then they should become a single organisation. If they are capable of giving the leadership of a revolutionary party, then they should clearly fuse and become that party. If they are not agreed on a programme, if they are not capable of giving the leadership of a revolutionary party, then they must give priority to the struggle to reach that agreement and to build that party.

The Permanent Revolution Group

The original draft of this pamphlet was part of that process of attempting to get political clarity in the Socialist Alliance. Its writing and the discussion around it in the Wellington Branch of the Socialist Alliance led to the establishment of the Permanent Revolution Group as a tendency in the Socialist Alliance. The Permanent Revolution Group fought for the Socialist Alliance to declare that it had the perspective of moving towards becoming the nucleus of the revolutionary party.

When a Socialist Alliance Conference at Labour Weekend 1987 rejected this perspective the Permanent Revolution Group declared itself a public political tendency. Since that time the PRG has been engaged in programmatic clarification, initial cadretraining, a modest amount of united-front activity, especially around questions of unemployment and women's rights, and the preparation of modest international initiatives aimed at the rebirth of the Fourth International.

The Permanent Revolution Group has to this point remained in the Socialist Alliance, which is a rather peculiar federation having a very different character in each of the three cities in which it has a presence. The Socialist Alliance is not a political tendency, and has no strategy capable of solving any major social problem, but it is a valuable arena for political discussion on the far left in new Zealand, and can sometimes also be the vehicle for limited agreements on united actions.

Around the middle of 1987, the PRG proposed discussions to explore the possibility of fusion with the Revolutionary Communist League and the Communist Left. Predictably, the Revolutionary Communist League avoided such talks, but the Communist Left has taken our approach seriously. Although programmatic and methodological differences remain on an important range of questions (including questions discussed in this pamphlet), we remain hopeful of progress in these talks between the Communist Left and the PRG.

Permanent Revolution Group
May 1989

In August 1990 the Permanent Revolution Group became the New Zealand section of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT).

Permanent Revolution Group
February 1992


Very early on, a small revolutionary group faces difficult questions of whether to enter various kinds of blocs with other political forces, and in what circumstances. This pamphlet looks at some of the experience of the revolutionary movement relevant to those questions.

The revolutionary party has to be the embodiment of the highest level of consciousness of the working class, consciousness of the needs of the class and the ways in which those needs can be fulfilled. An understanding of the past political struggles of the class, and the programmatic, strategic and tactical arguments which surrounded those struggles is indispensable for the advance of socialism. There can be no proletarian revolution without a party imbued with an understanding of the central lessons of the building of the Third International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky in the first six years or so following the Russian Revolution, and an understanding of the building of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International during the 1930s.

It is not a matter of learning some set of rules. Although every new situation has its analogues in the past, the point is not the simple repetition of old formulas. There are always many possible courses of action, and deciding among them is an art which must be learnt, in part, through our own experience. But many traps can be avoided by also learning from the experience of our predecessors.

Nor is it a matter of quotation-mongering. The words of historic leaders of the revolutionary movement are not infallible. But they are seldom stupid. We must attempt to understand the words of Lenin, Trotsky and the rest in their historical context. These notes are above all a call for comrades to steep themselves in this history, and to establish their continuity with it.

1. The Party of the Whole Class

Marxist politics has always been about how the consciousness of the working class could and would be transformed from the nonrevolutionary, nonsocialist, non-Marxist, reformist, bourgeois or otherwise inadequate consciousness of a class in itself, to the consciousness which is necessary for the class to make a revolution, the consciousness of a class for itself. Marxists have traditionally understood nonrevolutionary consciousness as being maintained in the working class by a vast array of mechanisms--not only religion, gin, the family and suchlike, but also simply the patterns of daily life under capitalism.

But of course Marxists have also seen the working class as having an objective interest in revolution, and early Marxists believed that the historical development of capitalism would reach a point where it inevitably counteracted and overcame the mechanisms which maintain nonrevolutionary consciousness.

Before Lenin, Marxists believed that the continuing influence of the mechanisms of bourgeois consciousness resulted from the incompleteness of the process of proletarianisation. Many workers were still semi-peasants, just arrived from the countryside; some could go back if they didn't make it in the city, and still others at least believed they could go back. Some could supplement their wages with freelance work, petty trading or small-scale production. Others weren't far removed from the life of independent artisans. So it was believed that as capitalism-and the proletariat with it--became more highly developed, the material basis for nonrevolutionary consciousness in the working class would disappear.

It wasn't quite that the pre-Leninist Marxists thought that inadequate consciousness would automatically disappear when its material basis did, but more that Marxists would then have little difficulty in carrying out their job; which was, by way of the workers' party, to finally replace that inadequate, nonrevolutionary consciousness with scientific revolutionary consciousness.

The Second International

Pre-Leninist Marxism, that is Marxism in the period of the First[2] and Second[3] Internationals right through to the time of the First World War, saw no need for a separate Marxist revolutionary party. The attempt was to build a party which united all political tendencies in the workers' movement--a unitary party of the whole class, or at least of all elements interested in political opposition to the parties of the bourgeoisie. The pre-Leninist programme was for a party which was a kind of permanent soviet or united front of the whole working class, and the workers' parties which were built included in them reformists, opportunists, utopians and so on.

Marx and his successors had important polemics with such tendencies as Proudhonism, Bakuninism, Lasalleanism, Bernsteinism and so on. However, they did not see these tendencies as being organic to the working class under capitalism; rather they were seen as expressions of backwardness, representing at a political level the immaturity of the class and the closeness of some of its elements to the artisanry and the peasantry.

The pre-Leninists thought that as the working class grew and became centralised through the development of capitalism, and as it became more distant from its precapitalist origins, then the ideological expressions of class backwardness inside the workers' party would disappear. The party of the whole class, and the whole class itself, would then easily come over to a revolutionary perspective.

So in the meantime tendencies representing bourgeois ideology in the working class should be included in this big, unitary workers' party. The political debates with them were seen merely as an historically necessary means of easing the process of development of class consciousness which Marxists thought would in any case continue inevitably.

Lenin Before Leninism

Lenin's break from this theory of the unitary workers' party and development of the theory of the vanguard party developed over a number of years. What Is to Be Done?,[4] dating from 1902, is his first, rather than his last, word on the subject. It was written before the Menshevik/Bolshevik split, in collaboration with the future leaders of Menshevism, and drew heavily on the arguments of the leading German Marxists. Lenin is still, with all the other Marxists of the day, a social democrat.

What Is to Be Done? puts Lenin on the left of the Second International and on the first step towards Leninism; it was a polemic against depending on any objective process of development which could lead the proletariat to Marxist consciousness without the intervention of the party.

"All those who talk about 'overrating the importance of ideology', about exaggerating the role of the conscious element, etc, imagine that the labour movement pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers 'wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders'. But this is a profound mistake. ...
"Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is--either bourgeois or socialist ideology. ... There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology .... Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy."[5]

But the argument of What Is to Be Done? was not meant to justify a political split in the unitary party and the establishment of a programmatically-based vanguard party; it was meant merely to tighten up, professionalise and politicise the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). For Lenin at this time the social-democratic party should still be a party of all tendencies.

In fact it often proved impossible for Lenin to work side by side with all elements of the workers' movement and the Bolshevik section of the ostensibly unitary party was often organisationally separated from the Mensheviks. Bolshevism crystallised in political struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903; initially this was around questions of professionalism and commitment.[6]

However, despite several periods of a split party in Russia, up until 1914 this was always justified on the grounds that Lenin's opponents, the Mensheviks, were not really workers and/or that they disrupted the decisions of the party. So during this period the basis of Lenin's position on the party remained the theory of the party of the whole class.

As a representative of the left faction of a unitary workers' party, Lenin's idea of the kind of political discipline required of members of the party was much looser than his later Third Internationalist position. For Lenin at this time, disciplined unity was required in action. But a member of the party had the right to publicly criticise the party or its programme. The title of a brief article of the time neatly summarises his position: "Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action".[7] From the perspective of developed Leninism this formulation is more appropriate to the discipline of a united front of different workers' organisations than to the Third Internationalist revolutionary party.

2. The Bolshevik-type Party

It wasn't until after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that Lenin openly called for an organisational split in the workers' movement, based on programme.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were very deeply shocked when, contrary to the programme of Marxism, contrary to the numerous proclamations of the Second International and contrary to the basic, elemental needs of the working class, each of the national unitary parties of the working class supported "its own" bourgeoisie in the war. Under the slogan of "Defence of the Fatherland!", each section of the Second International encouraged its own working class to kill and be killed on the bourgeoisie's behalf in the interimperialist slaughter, Germans against French and so on.

The betrayal of the Second International in 1914 resulted in the Bolsheviks calling for a split, to build a new party and a new international.

"The crisis created by the great war has torn away all coverings, swept away conventions, exposed an abscess that has long come to a head, and has revealed opportunism in its true role of ally of the bourgeoisie. The complete organisational severance of this element from the workers' parties has become imperative. The epoch of imperialism cannot permit the existence, in a single party, of the revolutionary proletariat's vanguard and the semipetty-bourgeois aristocracy of the working class, who enjoy morsels of the privileges of their 'own' nation's 'Great Power' status. The old theory that opportunism is a 'legitimate shade' in a single party that knows no 'extremes' has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement."[8]

The programmatic degeneration of the various parties of the Second International was clearly demonstrated by their support for the imperialist war. However, for Lenin to give a proper theoretical justification for a split in the workers' party he had to do more than merely demonstrate programmatic degeneration, because, after all, Marxists knew that the workers' party would inevitably reflect the backwardness of the class.

What was necessary was to show that this backwardness or degeneration was an expression of new mechanisms which blocked the processes by which Marxists had traditionally seen the class, and its party, moving towards a Marxist consciousness.

The Maintenance of Nonrevolutionary Consciousness

The theoretical basis of the call for a split was established with Lenin's new understanding of imperialism. Lenin's analysis of world capitalism in its imperialist phase, worked out in close collaboration with Grigory Zinoviev, showed that mechanisms were now at work which superseded the objective tendency for the whole working class to come over to the perspective of revolution. Some of the superprofits derived from the oppression of the colonial world are, in the imperialist epoch, passed on to sections of the working class, allowing the development of a kind of aristocracy within the working class which has considerable privileges. An important part of the working-class aristocracy is the labour bureaucracy, the network of officials of trade unions and of the reformist parties based on them.

Thus Lenin showed how, with the emergence of imperialism, reformism had established an enduring material base in the working class; it was now placed in a unique position to offer its misleadership of sellouts and class-collaboration. Not only was there nothing inevitable about the development of socialist consciousness, but there were fundamental continuing impediments to its development, and those impediments constituted the leadership of social democracy.[9]

Lenin and Zinoviev's analysis should not be taken to mean that the privileges of the labour aristocracy and the union bureaucracy in some crude and direct way "cause" the whole range of political-ideological expressions of bourgeois or nonrevolutionary consciousness in the working class. Lenin and Zinoviev explained the great underlying social forces which allow nonrevolutionary consciousness to be maintained in the workers' movement despite the objective development of the proletariat; but they did not pretend to explain either how nonrevolutionary consciousness is created or all the different mechanisms by which it is maintained.

The party must understand the whole variety of means by which the bourgeoisie keeps its position of ideological hegemony over the working class--the media, sport, entertainment, religion, war, political leadership, the processes of character formation in the nuclear family, racial and gender divisions, the pressures of everyday life, and so on. The theory of the labour bureaucracy in the epoch of imperialism doesn't discount any of them; it merely explains why they all continue to have their capacity to inculcate bourgeois ideology in the face of the continuing development of capitalism, and why an organised struggle for revolutionary consciousness is necessary.

The Leninist Vanguard Party

It was the growth of imperialism which required abandoning the notion of a party of the whole working class, with whatever politics. With the growth of imperialism it is no longer sufficient to have a party reflecting all the strands of political consciousness in the working class. The programme of reform dominates in the established mass parties of the working class, and the struggle against it must be organised as the conscious and tightly organised struggle for a clearly articulated revolutionary programme. That can mean nothing other than that the struggle against reformism must be organised as a separate party, a party of a new type in the workers' movement, with a new function, and a new kind of structure and discipline. The Leninist vanguard party, based on a clear and unambiguous revolutionary socialist programme, must separate itself from the class and its existing but less-than-revolutionary organisations, because only by separating is it possible to fight adequately for the programme of revolution.

Later on, during his polemics on the fight against fascism in Germany, Trotsky was to explain it in this way:

"The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party.
"The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious. To say that 'the class stands higher than the party', is to assert that the class in the raw stands higher than the class which is on the road to class consciousness. Not only is this incorrect; it is reactionary."[10]

Intransigent political struggle against the reformists so as to win the masses they lead towards a revolutionary perspective will ultimately, in the process of revolution, unite the working class in struggle against the bourgeoisie.

Bolshevism's new split perspective was a consistent application of the methodology prefigured by the argument of What Is to Be Done? While for the social democrats the objective dynamic of capitalism essentially sufficed to bring about revolution, for the Bolsheviks the key was the subjective dynamic: the role of consciousness and the revolutionary party. The function of this new type of party is thus to convince the proletariat of its programme's validity by struggling for it against other programmes; it is therefore improper for members to publicly criticise the party programme. The right of party members to freedom of criticism is restricted to criticism expressed internally. This is the core of Leninist democratic-centralism.

The other side of this ban on public criticism of the programme is the necessity for clarity of understanding among party members about the precise character of the revolutionary programme. This requires full, frank and critical programmatic discussion inside the party at all possible times and at all levels.

Leninism in Our Time

It is sometimes said that the Bolshevik-type party was suited to the conditions of Tsarist Russia, but not to those of a modern Western country. However the reasons that underlie Leninism--that is, the development of imperialism and consequent development of layers of labour aristocrats and bureaucrats--were at their very earliest stages of development in Tsarist Russia.

Since Lenin's time imperialism has continued to develop, and its superprofits have allowed the more complex layering of the working class and the multiplication of material obstacles to its unity. Increasingly, certain elements of the class with special roles or skills or training or professional status have become materially privileged and correspondingly conscious of themselves--falsely--as separate from the working class and having interests in maintaining the stability of the capitalist order. The superexploitation of women and racial groupings (already present in Lenin's day) has become more and more entwined with this complex layering. The result is that, although in the imperialist countries the working class is a vastly larger proportion of the population than it was in Lenin's day, increasing sections of it have developed interests in nonproletarian ideologies such as professional elitism, feminism and nationalism.

There is less possibility than ever of the development of capitalism and the working class leading in some almost automatic way to the class in itself becoming a class for itself. There is no organic, gradual, natural movement of the class which can result in the fulfilment of its political needs. A political struggle between tendencies is more necessary than ever, a political struggle in which the revolutionary current is carefully organised against nonrevolutionary currents. Tactics may differ, but strategically a Leninist party is more necessary for us than it was for Lenin.

3. Reformist Parties and the United Front

There are still, of course, in many countries, parties of the whole working class of the old type, social-democratic labour parties. The question remains as to what they are. It is quite clear to us, as it was to Lenin, that they are the greatest obstacles to revolutionary consciousness in the working class, to the building of mass revolutionary parties and to revolution itself. But if an obstacle is to be cleared away it is first necessary to understand its nature.

Bourgeois-Workers' Parties

Although as time goes on it is becoming less true, these parties are organisationally rooted in the trade unions and in an important sense are constituted of workers organised as a class. Psychologically they are seen by much of the working class as being there to represent the class against the recognised parties of the bourgeoisie. For these reasons we must approach them as workers' parties, occupying a terrain distinct from that of the overt representatives of the capitalist class. But this proletarian component lies in glaring contradiction to the thoroughly bourgeois nature of the programme of social democracy, and the petty-bourgeois nature of its leadership, made up of individuals who have acquired considerable privileges under capitalism and are themselves tied to more substantial privileged layers of the working class.

These labour parties emerged from class splits in previous (ostensibly transclass) liberal-bourgeois parties, parties like the old British or New Zealand Liberal parties, or like the American Democrats still are. Marxists supported such splits, recognising the proletarian element emerging from them as highly significant political expressions of working-class struggle. The establishment of workers' parties based on the trade unions, organised on the principle that the working class has its own interests as a class opposed to those of the bourgeoisie, was seen by Marxists as an historic advance--even if the precise definition of those specific interests as a class was inadequate.

These new parties were originally seen as constituting a political territory more or less independent of the parties of the bourgeoisie, a territory in which various political tendencies of the working class, all more or less claiming to oppose the bourgeoisie, would be able to argue and to educate the class, while the class gradually selected for itself a leadership from among the tendencies.

The new Leninist theory of the labour bureaucracy changed some of that older understanding, but not all. It was now clear that these parties could not be transformed into instruments of revolution. But they could still be seen as territorial gains representing some elemental consciousness of independent class interests.

The labour parties, then, contain a contradiction. There is a conflict between on the one hand a programme and leadership which is tightly tied to capitalism, and on the other hand a workingclass base and organisational independence which provides a framework for extending the class struggle and setting it in political context. Hence we call these parties "bourgeois workers' parties".

Such a set of contradictions does not exist in, say, the Democratic Party of the United States, despite some similarities with a labour party. There is no sense in which the basis of the Democrats lies in representing workers as a class against another class; nobody believes that it is their real job to do so. We would support a split among the Democrats, along class lines, as the process would create opportunities for partisans of consistent (that is, revolutionary) class struggle to argue their programme. Even if the labour party, when it emerged, proved to be bourgeois in programme, the fact that the programme would be justified with attempts to show that it served working-class interests would be a good start.

However, although they are a good start, the real historical interests of the working class are secured by tearing the bourgeois-workers' parties apart through programmatic struggle for consistent class politics, setting the proletarian base against the petty-bourgeoisified top, and creating out of the struggle a communist workers' party.

The Comintern's United Front

The Russian Revolution of 1917 marked the beginning of a new period. The intensity of international class struggle saw a realignment within the workers' movement that depended only in part on the programmatic pronouncements of the Third Internationalists. A level of revolutionary turbulence and of political struggle around the world, at its most intense for only a couple of years, resulted in considerable forces being split off from the old social-democratic labour parties. The Bolsheviks put together the core of an international party, programmatically defined by the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

However by 1920 there was a considerable downturn in the tempo of revolutionary developments internationally; things settled back to a stability in which the old social-democratic labour parties were still essentially hegemonic within the working classes of the world. As Trotsky remarked at the Third Congress of the Communist International (CI):

"Now for the first time we see and feel that we are not so immediately near to the goal, to the conquest of power, to the world revolution. At that time, in 1919, we said to ourselves, 'It is a question of months.' Now we say 'It is perhaps a question of years.'"[11]

The prospects for further growth in the influence of the revolutionary programme weren't great if the International's policy were to be mere continuance of simply standing apart from the old parties of the working class and calling for a split.

Lenin's Left-Wing Communism--An Infantile Disorder was published in June 1920 as the primer in Bolshevik tactics in this renewed period of relative bourgeois stability. Its publication was for the purpose of preparing a turn in the line of the Third International.

As Lenin said:

"The chief thing ... has already been achieved: the vanguard of the working class has been won over .... "... [But] Victory cannot be won with a vanguard alone."[12]

The point now was to bring layers of the masses behind the vanguard, layers which remained for the time being behind the social democrats.

Now although the old Second Internationalist programme of the party of the whole class had placed impossible obstacles in the way of revolutionaries organising against bourgeois ideology and the labour bureaucracy, it did have one kind of advantage--it had organised the masses side by side with the revolutionaries, creating innumerable openings for communication with them.

In the new period it had become necessary to find a way of regaining this advantage of the Second Internationalist framework without dissolving the communist party. The tactic of the united front was developed in this period to supplement the central principle of Leninism, the principle of the programmatically defined communist vanguard party separate from the nonrevolutionary mass organisations of the working class. The united front is a way of approaching the masses at the base of the nonrevolutionary workers' parties without in any way liquidating that vanguard revolutionary party.

Variants of the united front, developed at around the same time under different names, were critical support by a revolutionary party for a nonrevolutionary workers' party and entrism by a revolutionary party into a nonrevolutionary workers' party.

The new international had so far been recruited by the simple policy of split, and so naturally there was at first considerable misunderstanding and opposition to this turn towards the nonrevolutionary bourgeois-workers' parties, opposition from the left among comrades who saw it as an opportunist dissolving of the party. Left-Wing Communism was a polemic against this opposition in the Communist International which wanted to avoid entering joint activities with the social-democratic labour parties, giving them critical electoral support or entering them to fight in a disciplined way for communist politics.

The principles of Left-Wing Communism were extended and developed in the discussions and decisions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International on the question of the united front.

Liquidationism and Centrism

Subsequently united-front tactics have often been misunderstood and distorted by the right wing of the workers' movement, including those passing themselves off as Leninists. Such misuse of the united-front tactic is a liquidation of the Bolshevik party--it amounts to a return to some version of the Second Internationalist party of the whole class.

There are obviously a great many pressures and prejudices stacked up against the Leninist project of splitting the workers' movement along programmatic lines. Bolshevism has always been unpopular--and this unpopularity is maintained most importantly by the bourgeois interest in its defeat.

However there are also mechanisms internal to the working class which make Leninism unpopular. Clearly the existing reformist leadership of the labour movement doesn't find the Leninist project of exposing them as class traitors to be too attractive. What's more, Leninism's violation--or its apparent violation--of the elemental class need for unity against the bosses, together with its disrespect for the pre-Bolshevik Second Internationalist norms of unity, do not help its image.

Bolsheviks must make it clear, in word and deed, that they are always for unity against the bosses, and that it is the reformists who betray that unity. Indeed the reformists seek unity with the bosses, through compacts between trade unions and the government or through their participation in popular fronts and bourgeois governments, for example. Ultimately, but very directly, they are against workers' unity.

A political split and a Bolshevik party are the necessary condition of unity, which, except on a very temporary basis, can only be revolutionary unity. Bolsheviks must not allow the unpopularity of a political split to result in a drawing back from it, a smoothing over or hiding of that split, or any pretence that it is not important. There must be no blurring of the distinction between the revolutionary party and the reformists.

Centrism[13] misuses revolutionary tactics such as the united front for the precise purpose of blurring the distinction between the revolutionary party and the reformists. Centrists may call for a united front for propaganda, or even a united front for socialism. They may call for eternal entry in a labour party, or for eternal critical support for one. Or, attempting united action in perfectly correct and useful situations with spontaneously upsurging social-democratic militants, may use the united-front call to herald their intended bloc partners as some kind of new revolutionary vanguard force.

The impulse behind such a programme is the hope that the "excesses" of political struggle can be avoided and that some other force can play the role of the revolutionary party. The methodology is to depend on objective forces, outside the revolutionary party, to lead towards revolution. The effect is to liquidate potential revolutionary parties.

Burnham on the United Front

James Burnham, a brilliant American Trotskyist propagandist, who was in fact to desert revolutionary politics soon afterwards, wrote a pamphlet published by the Socialist Workers Party in 1937 containing a useful description of a united front:

"The united front consists in an agreement between two or more parties and organizations, which have different programs, for joint action on specific issues. In this agreement there is absolutely no question of a common political program. Each organization retains intact its entire program; retains the right to put it forward; retains the right to criticize the other organizations in the united-front agreement. Thus, in the united front each organization guards its full independence; while at the same time the widest possible unity can be achieved for carrying through some action accepted as desirable by all of the constituent organizations of the united front.
"The united front is possible because various organizations differing in complete program or in final social aim may nevertheless all be in favor of some specific action or set of actions. For example, united fronts are readily possible on such issues as defense cases, support of a strike, resistance to attack on civil liberties and other democratic rights, breaking of injunctions, holding of demonstrations, etc. At more advanced stages of social crisis, they must be formed on such issues as the building of a workers' militia, defense against fascist gangs, the founding of workers' and peasants' and soldiers' committees. The united front on such issues is in fact not merely possible but indispensable for successful struggle. Through it the widest possible forces are organized; and at the same time the masses are given a chance to compare in action the worth and dependability of the ideas and methods of the various organizations and parties which strive for their allegiance."[14]

The united front has never been seen by communists as some sort of simple answer to every question of working-class politics, or something to be advanced as a matter of principle on every occasion. It's no grand strategy. It's simply one tactic to be used episodically by the revolutionary party, allowing mass resistance to the onslaught of capitalism, or unity in the offensive against it. The united front may sometimes be absolutely necessary to defend basic class interests--and revolutionary socialists obviously always defend basic class interests--but the united front is not in itself a way of fighting for socialism.

Independence in the United Front

As the Executive Committee of the Comintern stressed in its material on the united front, revolutionaries always preserve their capacity to make independent public comment on events:

"While accepting the need for discipline in action, Communists must at the same time retain both the right and the opportunity to voice, not only before and after but if necessary during actions, their opinion on the politics of all the organisations of the working class without exception."[15]

In their public propaganda during the united-front activity the revolutionary party explains the ideas of revolutionary socialism, either directly and blatantly, or if necessary with tactical care. The revolutionary party, in its placards, leaflets and chants, doesn't carry only the agreed demands of the united front but also carries other demands which advance the struggle towards socialist revolution. Indeed one way of looking at the purpose of joining the united front is that it is to supplement the united-front demands with transitional demands leading towards revolutionary action and consciousness.[16]

Even when the demands of a united front are very basic, very defensive, a revolutionary organisation can, depending on the relationship of forces, be effective in putting the socialist solution forward to nonsocialists. The demand of a united front about unemployment might be little more than "Jobs for All!", but the revolutionary party might well go to its demonstration carrying placards about "Thirty Hours Work for Forty Hours Pay!, "Resist Redundancies with Militant Strikes!, "Picket Lines Against Layoffs!, "No Import Controls!, "Oust the Union Bureaucracy!, "Expropriate Industry Under Workers' Control!, "Open the Books!, and so on. Leaflets and discussions would centre on how these demands can both achieve the aims of the united front and necessarily tend to lead the struggle in the direction of socialism.

Prerequisite of Political Clarity

The united front and its variants were viable tactics for the Communist International precisely because of the previous period of soviet revolution and of open argument for a split from the old parties, and the ideological clarity produced by that period. It was completely clear to the Comintern leadership that a politically cohesive body of revolutionaries was a prerequisite for the united-front tactic:

"If the use of this tactic [of the united front] is to advance the cause of Communism, the actual Communist Parties carrying it out must be strong, united and under an ideologically clear leadership."[17]

This was a concern to be echoed by Trotsky in the context of the struggle against fascism in Germany a decade later:

"But the policy of the united front has its dangers. Only an experienced and a tested revolutionary party can carry on this policy successfully."[18]

Ending United Fronts

Ultimately the reformists will betray the needs of the working class in struggle. It is crucial for revolutionaries to give maximum exposure to such a betrayal, while at the same time preventing the betrayal from damaging the interests of the class.

The purpose of a united front is to split forces away from nonrevolutionary leaderships. This requires frequent and open calls to members of the working class under nonrevolutionary leaderships to break from those leaderships and join the revolutionary party. This may on occasion require the ending of a united front before the completion of the proposed common actions. The timing of ending a united front, or an attempt to build a united front, or a period of united fronts, is one of the most sensitive and important facets of revolutionary tactics. There can be no rules on the subject, but a feeling for the history of twentieth-century class struggle is an essential aid.

In Britain the Communist International's post-Lenin united front with the labour bureaucracy was for some time based on an agreement signed in May 1925 between the leaders of Russian and British trade unions. At first this was a principled tactic to hold the bureaucrats to left-wing positions and to defence of the Soviet Union.

A year later, however, the British working class was fighting a general strike, and the labour bureaucrats who had negotiated the united front were betraying that general strike, preventing it going forward towards revolution. Much of their authority derived from the agreement they had signed with the representatives of communism.

In a period of intensifying class conflict leading to a general strike and a prerevolutionary situation, it was inevitable that the British labour reformist bureaucrats would go back to the defence of the capitalist order. The Communist International failed to break decisively from their reformist labourbureaucratic united-front partners and to put forward a revolutionary policy against those partners at the point when the possibilities of revolution depended on such a break. Instead they maintained their bloc and lent the prestige of the Bolshevik Revolution to the labour bureaucrats who sold out the real possibility of a revolutionary outcome to the 1926 General Strike. If it were not for that error we could today live in a very different and far better world.

This was a case in which the united-front tactic was continued long after it had ceased to be useful, and a reaction against this by the best elements of the degenerating Third International was one of the formative influences in the development of the world Trotskyist movement.[19]

4. The United Front: Variations and Perversions

As might be expected, the old parties of the Second International did not uniformly or even generally accept united-front proposals from the Communist International. But the essential purpose of the tactic is to expose the reformists--in many cases the mere call for united action and the labour bureaucrats' refusal had its effect. After some time a method was devised to hammer in the point that it was the reformists who were the obstacle to unity in action.

United Front from Below

An extension of the united-front tactic was developed for use when recalcitrant labour bureaucrats had over a long period publicly and repeatedly refused to participate in united-front action. This was to call directly on the workers in reformist organisations to ignore their leaders and to join the "united front from below".

This, of course, is not quite a united front at all, but a direct call to start breaking from the reformists. It certainly won't mobilise as many workers from the reformist camp as a united call by revolutionary and reformist leaders, but it can in certain circumstances be an extremely useful extension of the united front tactic.

With the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution there was an equivalent process of degeneration in the leadership of the Communist International, proceeding very rapidly from the beginning of 1924. The whole purpose of the work of the Communist International changed. No longer meant to lead world revolution, the Comintern was now supposed to build and orchestrate proletarian pressure groups in the capitalist countries to aid the foreign policy of the bureaucratic caste now running Russia. The Communist International was subordinated to the theory of "socialism in one country". The splitting of the labour parties was no longer necessary and so all the tactics worked out in the Leninist period were now bent to purposes alien to their original intentions.

By the time of the Fifth Congress, which was held in the middle of 1924, the useful occasional supplementary tactic of the united front from below had become central--the "fight for the international united front under Comintern leadership".[20] This strategy forgets the very purpose of the original united-front conception--approaching workers who still follow the noncommunist leaderships. It simply turns away from them.

Later, during what the Stalinised Communist International called the "Third Period" (1928-1934), this mode of replacing the united-front tactic with calls for the working class to accept the leadership of Communist parties was further deepened under the rubric of the united front from below. The old Second Internationalist parties were called "social fascist", while the supporters of these parties were called on to join the "united front against fascism". Obviously such tactics don't work very well, and they did not allow sufficient unity to stop the Nazis. The united front from below, from being a useful tactic to supplement the united front, had been transformed into a means of avoiding united fronts and the means through which the Stalinised Communist International allowed Hitler to take power.[21]

United Front for Socialism?

The whole point of a united front is to allow revolutionaries to work side-by-side with nonrevolutionaries, and to convince them, in argument and in action, of the validity of the revolutionary programme. Because its purpose is precisely to work alongside nonrevolutionaries, the demands around which a united front are called will be nonrevolutionary demands. The Communist International was very clear on this when approaching reformists for united action:

"... the CI does not expect the parties of the Second International, the Vienna Labour Union and the Amsterdam trade-union leaders to fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which was and is our goal."[22]

Any attempt to build a united front for socialism is a liquidation, in principle, of the Leninist party. It is a misleading pretence that the level of unity and clarity of a united front is sufficient for revolutionary tasks. It is a return to the Second International, which was, almost precisely, a united front for socialism. It is a spreading of the illusion that a Leninist party is not necessary for socialist revolution, but that instead a cosy united front will do, where we all forget our sectarian differences and pitch in together.

Before all else, it is the duty of Bolsheviks to inculcate an understanding of the centrality of the revolutionary party and the need to construct it. There is no natural movement of the class towards that party--it can be built only in conscious struggle.

"The Strategic United Front"

The united front is a tactic, not a strategy. Elevating it to the position of permanent policy can only mean a rejection of the Leninist conception of the need to split the working class organisationally. The programme of the united front as a strategy is thus another method of liquidating the revolutionary party.

The working class can at times achieve a tactical and temporary unity around its immediate day-to-day needs. But the only strategic unity of the working class is a unity based on its historic class interests, and is therefore of necessity under the leadership not of a united front but of a revolutionary party.

One form of the strategic united front, espoused by centrists in some countries, is to bemoan the split among the reformists, between social democrats and Stalinists, and call on them to make a united front. In the absence of a Trotskyist party capable of intersecting the united action, this amounts to calling on the working class to place trust in the leadership of the reformists-it suggests that they can roughly approximate a revolutionary vanguard role. This is an abdication as revolutionists, a cancelling out of the role of the revolutionary vanguard.

A "united front" without a substantial communist component is not a united front at all. Where revolutionaries are so hopelessly outnumbered by reformists that there is little chance of using the situation to have a substantial impact then fundamentally you have merely a bloc of reformists. They might under pressure fight for some useful reforms, and, whether or not such a bloc is established, we as revolutionaries will obviously demand that the reformists do in fact fight for the interests of the class.

But we know how unusual it would be if they actually did so. It is not our job to build illusions in a bloc of different reformist organisations any more than to build illusions in the reformists one by one. We are certainly not going to be calling for such a bloc as if it were something that could consistently serve the interests of the working class.

Centrists looking for excuses for the strategic united front usually like to cite as authority Trotsky's call for a united front between the Social Democrats and the Communist Party against fascism in Germany in the 1930s. They forget that this was before Stalinism had clearly revealed its fundamentally counterrevolutionary character. At this time the Trotskyists believed that the Communist Party still had a revolutionary potential and therefore characterised their own organisation, the International Left Opposition, as merely a faction of the Comintern.

The Trotskyist campaign for the Stalinists to join a united front at this time was, in part, a campaign to pressure them into returning to the revolutionary path. It was their failure to do so, and their allowing Hitler to take power in 1933, which made their essential incapacity to play a revolutionary role absolutely clear.[23] To expect the Stalinists half a century later to play a revolutionary role is to wind history backwards. It is not part of the Trotskyist programme to teach the masses to rely on unity of the reformists.

Mass Organisations as United Fronts

Trade unions are a special kind of united front, insofar as revolutionaries have a presence in them. If the programme of revolution is ascendant in them, trade unions can also, in an auxiliary manner, play a revolutionary role. Otherwise they integrate the class struggle within the framework of the bourgeois state.[24]

Another mass form which is a special form of united front is the soviet; but just as with all other forms of united front, soviets are not to be fetishised. Ostensible revolutionists sometimes call for soviets at times when they would not be supported by a high level of class combativity or when there was no real possibility of the soviets becoming vehicles of revolutionary leadership. Soviets in such situations are not useful. As Trotsky explained, in the context of his call for a united front in Germany:

"Verbal genuflections before the soviets are equally fashionable in the 'left' circles as the misconception of their historical function. Most often the soviets are defined as the organs of struggle for power, as the organs of dictatorship. Formally these definitions are correct. But they do not explain why, in the struggle for power, precisely the soviets are necessary.
The answer to this question is: just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power.
"The soviet itself possesses no miraculous powers. It is the class representation of the proletariat, with all of the latter's strong and weak points. But precisely and only because of this does the soviet afford to the workers of diverse political trends the organizational opportunity to unite their efforts in the revolutionary struggle for power."[25]

The condition for the soviets conquering power is the ascendancy of the revolutionary programme, and therefore the revolutionary party, in the soviets.

Critical Support

Critical electoral support for mass reformist parties such as the Labour Party or the New Labour Party is a special form of the united front. Entry into such parties--"entrism"--is another. These are both means of standing with the working class in the base of the mass organisations of reformism, in order to be in a position to set that base in political struggle against the petty-bourgeoisified leadership and its bourgeois programme.

Revolutionaries can extend critical support to reformist-party candidates in an election when some sections of the more advanced workers who will be voting for the reformists see it as having a responsibility to represent the working class. They are therefore voting for the idea that the working class has its own interests distinct from those of the bourgeoisie and that those interests need to be represented by its own independent organisation. So in this situation, with reference of course to the specific policies and politicians of the day, revolutionaries say something like this to the class:

"Vote for the reformists, and we will vote for them too. Our vote is not for the leadership of this party, or its programme, or even its candidates. The reformists say they will look after the working class--but when they are elected they will instead look after capitalism in the interests of the bosses. They will betray the working class.
"But there is no real party standing which is adequate; and at least the reformists get their support in the working class on the basis that they represent the class as a class. And when they are elected and show that it was a lie, that they really represent the bourgeoisie, then it will be easier to show them up, and to build the revolutionary party. So our vote cast for the reformist party is for the principle that the working class needs a party to represent its interests against the bourgeoisie. Vote for the reformist party! Oust the reformist leaders! Fight for revolutionary politics!"

The whole point of extending critical support is to withdraw it, to tear layers of the working class away from its cynical, sellout misleadership. A permanent critical-support posture is just another version of the liquidationist "strategic united front".

Exactly when to extend critical support and when to withdraw it is often a matter of historical judgment. There are many circumstances in which whether or not to apply critical support is a merely tactical decision. But there are few circumstances in which it would be a betrayal to deny critical support-although there are of course circumstances in which denying critical support would be stupid.

Withdrawing critical support is also often a question of tactics. But there are a number of circumstances in which critical support must be withdrawn. Critical support must be withdrawn when the reformists in power expose themselves by open and active class betrayals, as for example when they use the armed forces of the bourgeois state to suppress workers' struggles. Support must be withdrawn when they back world-historic attacks on the class such as imperialist wars. And critical support must also be withdrawn in those periods when, as recently, the reformist (or postreformist?) leaders have openly and explicitly repudiated any responsibility to represent the workers as a class, and seek openly and only to make capitalism more efficient for the bourgeoisie.

The critical-support tactic is obviously only useful at times when the reformist workers' parties actually embody, in some sense, the organisational independence of the working class as a class with its own interests. If a reformist workers' party is standing in a bloc with a bourgeois party, that is, in a popular front, then there is nothing to vote for, even if their programme is superficially very left-wing.


The principled considerations behind entrism are the same as those behind critical support. Entrism is when the revolutionary party, or part of it, carries the political struggle into a mass reformist party for a short time so as to more effectively propagate a political split from it.

The entry into the British Labour Party proposed by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism in the 1920s didn't come off; consequently the classic Bolshevik entry was seen in the 1930s and was executed by Trotskyists. During the period leading towards the founding of the Fourth International in 1938, layers of the working class under the leadership of social-democratic organisations in various countries were moving leftwards. The Trotskyist movement decided on a tactical turn in an attempt to intersect this movement and win new forces. Originally put into operation in France and best documented in that example,[26] this entry is known in the Trotskyist history as the "French Turn"-although the policy was most successful in the United States, where the Workers Party entered the Socialist Party for a year or so (1936-37) and doubled their forces.[27]

Centrists are good at remembering the battle Trotsky had to get his French supporters to overcome purist scruples and enter the social-democratic party (the SFIO) so as to try and split it. Centrists are not so good, however, at remembering the far more difficult struggle to pull his supporters out again, to actually effect the split.

During the conflict with Pabloism in the Trotskyist movement in the 1950s, the Bolshevik application of this tactic came to be known as "shallow" entrism. "Pabloism" was from the first associated with a form of liquidation of the party which they called entrism sui generis, or entrism of its own special type. Applied at first to the Stalinist parties, what was special about this was simply that it called for long-term "deep" entry, on the basis that the Stalinists could be pressured leftwards by Trotskyists and would then be able to approximate a revolutionary path.[28]

5. The Popular Front

It is simply muddling to apply the label "popular front" to all reformist campaigns, or bourgeois-workers' formations, or even all political blocs which include bourgeois elements. Rather, a popular front is an agreement between a workers' party or parties and some party or open political representative of the bourgeoisie for continuing work together for governmental office or for joint political work for some fundamental programme of social change. In essence the popular front is the negation of the united front in that it violates the fighting unity of the working class and suppresses the contradiction in the reformist workers' party between its bourgeois programme and its class independence.

A popular front is one of many ways of diverting workers' struggles into acceptance of the bourgeois order. In normal times an ordinary bourgeois-workers' party can usually do the job. A popular front is, however, particularly effective when the class struggle has reached an intensity such that the bureaucracy needs help to keep it within the bounds of the bourgeois order. The popular front attempts to include under its umbrella the most militant elements of the working class in order to stem their militancy. The results are often particularly bloody, and can set the workers' movement back by generations.

As long as a reformist party is in a popular front the demands of the proletariat under its leadership can be severely limited, on the grounds that to fight for them endangers the continuance of the front. Allende in Chile was able to say to the working class: "Don't fight too much. Don't alienate our liberal friends. That would bring down my government." The bourgeois element is thus a tool with which to control the masses and the guarantor that the class struggle will not endanger bourgeois property.

Popular Fronts Before the Popular Front

The "Popular Front" slogan was developed by the Stalinised Comintern in the mid-1930s; it came as an abrupt policy shift in the wake of its previous ultraleft abstentionism from the fight against fascism and of the brutal defeats to which that had led. But before the 1930s, the Leninist position of resolute opposition to popular frontism had been verified, both positively and negatively, in the events of 1917 and in the Stalinengineered massacres in China in 1927.

The historic example of an effective revolutionary struggle against a popular front was that of the Bolsheviks towards the 1917 Provisional Government, a combination of socialists and liberals which was set up as the official power in Russia after the overthrow of the Tsar in the February Revolution. Sharing power unofficially with the Provisional Government were workers' councils, soviets.

For a time after the February Revolution there was a period of such mass confidence in the Provisional Government that even the Bolsheviks, the hard left of the Russian workers' movement, were shuffling their feet and offering to support it "in so far as" it defended the revolutionary gains to date. Only a bitter struggle by Lenin upon his return to Petrograd in April won the Bolsheviks to political opposition to the Provisional Government, to the position of no confidence in it. The Leninist strategy was one of clear political opposition to the Provisional Government, and of demanding the replacement of the government by the soviets.

However at a certain point this political opposition to the Provisional Government involved simultaneously the military defence of that government against right-wing, antidemocratic forces. The central figure in the Provisional Government was (increasingly over the course of time) the Social Revolutionary romantic, Kerensky. Slowly it became apparent that in fact Kerensky and his Provisional Government had little concrete to offer the masses. Gradually and inevitably a widespread disaffection with Kerensky resulted in growing support for the right, and, because they had constituted themselves a left-wing opposition to Kerensky, also for the Bolsheviks.

By September the populace was sufficiently disillusioned in the Kerensky government that the right wing believed that the time for a successful counterrevolution was right. The attempt was organised behind one General Kornilov. The Bolshevik response to Kerensky's frightened pleas for assistance and for "unity" was to bloc militarily with the Provisional Government against Kornilov.

But in no way did the Bolsheviks suggest there was anything good about what the Kerensky government was doing, and in no way did the Bolsheviks suggest it should continue to be the government of Russia. Indeed, they made it quite clear that it was Kerensky who prepared the way for Kornilov. The Bolsheviks agreed to bloc with Kerensky, not in support of his government, but in the interests of maintaining the democratic right of working-class and revolutionary organisation, a right which would have disappeared with the victory of Kornilov.

Kornilov was defeated because the Bolsheviks had gathered the core of the proletariat around a revolutionary political programme appealing to their needs. The revolutionary mobilisation of the masses was possible only because of the revolutionary opposition of the Bolsheviks to Kerensky's popularfront-type government. Without intransigent political opposition to Kerensky it would have been impossible to mobilise sufficient forces to defeat Kornilov.

It was only a short time from the defeat of Kornilov to the Bolsheviks winning majorities in the soviets of the vital cities in September and from there to organising the October seizure of power.

The Mensheviks from the time of the February Revolution supported the "left" government of Kerensky, just as more recent Mensheviks have supported the government of Allende in Chile, for example, and, indeed, as most of the international fake left would have urged them to do, and urged the Bolsheviks to do. However, if the Bolsheviks had hidden their programme, suppressed their struggle for soviet power and supported the "left" government of Kerensky they would not only have failed to take power themselves, but they would have allowed the Kornilovite right to topple Kerensky.

With a dark and monotonous regularity this century, latter-day Kerenskys have, in the absence of a consistent Bolshevik opposition to their class-collaborationist governments, met bloody defeat at the hands of the right. Most importantly, they have taken hundreds of thousands of militant workers with them in the slaughter. For revolutionaries to hide their programme until after the defeat of the right ensures the latter's victory. Defeat of the right requires the revolutionary mobilisation of masses. As so often, the Russian Revolution expresses in concentrated form the main lessons for our epoch.[29]

The combination of political opposition and military defence of popular-front governments against the right has been called for repeatedly by the history of the twentieth century. The tragic consequences of failure to carry through a revolutionary policy on the popular front, the proof of the Bolshevik position by negative example, was also developed before the phrase "popular front". Stalin used the same Menshevik policy to tie the Chinese communists into an alliance of this kind with the Kuomintang, the party of Chinese bourgeois-nationalism; at one point arranging for the working class to hand over its arms in the interests of maintaining unity with these bourgeois "allies", Stalin thereby laid the basis for the massacre of communists in Shanghai in April 1927. Being made an honorary member of the Comintern's Executive Committee by Stalin had evidently not convinced KMT leader, Chiang Kai Shek, that the irreconcilable conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had been overcome.[30]

Trotskyism and the Popular Front

The Stalinist popular-front policy found its classic expression internationally in the 1930s, following the fascist rise to power in Germany. The Stalinist showpiece was the popular-front bloc with the Republican bourgeoisie against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, so Trotsky's "Spanish writings" are of great value on this subject.

The Trotskyists had insignificant forces in Spain, but a Trotskyist policy would have placed no confidence in the Republican government, whilst blocking with it militarily. Trotsky argued for a programme which included expropriation of industry, land to the peasants and the establishment of soviets. However, popular-frontist politics maintained a hegemony over the Spanish working class and the struggle was thereby limited within a capitalist framework. The oppressed and exploited masses could not get sufficiently enthusiastic about the capitalist policies of the Republican government to ensure its victory. Fascism was thereby enabled to win.[31]

Subsequent governments of a popular-front type included those in Western Europe after the Second World War, in which the authority of ministers from workers' parties was used to disarm workers coming out of the Resistance. The Communist Party of Indonesia's bloc with Sukarno allowed the military to prepare a bloodbath in which half a million people were killed in 1965 and a brutal dictatorship established. The Chilean Unidad Popular under Allende in the 1970s kept the struggles of the working class limited for a time until they were sufficiently demoralised, and the forces of reaction sufficiently prepared, that Pinochet could mount a bloody coup, resulting in many thousands of workers and leftists being shot. The popular front is not a small matter.

Between 1957 and 1964 the Lanka Sama Samaja Party of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a mass working-class party coming out of the Trotskyist tradition, gradually and deliberately engineered a popular-front government with Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The "International Secretariat" and the "United Secretariat", the Pabloist leaderships of degenerated pieces of the Fourth International, resisted this move in only the most incomplete manner. A small grouping from within the LSSP did resist their party's course, however, and on 3 December 1964 Edmund Sammarakkody and Meryl Fernando, Trotskyist members of the Ceylonese parliament, cast principled votes against the speech from the throne and brought the popular-front government down.

It is a matter of infinite regret that in their later isolation these honest, subjectively revolutionary centrists came to regret their vote, and continued to give critical support to the LSSP, despite its involvement in the popular front. Had they maintained an intransigent stance they might have become a pole of attraction during the developments around the guerrillaist JVP youth uprising of 1971 which passed them by and which, having no Marxist or even experienced leadership, went down in bloody defeat.[32]

A popular-front government is usually associated with considerable militant rhetoric and considerable working-class aspirations. It is usual for centrists to wish to give critical support to at least the worker component in the popular front. There is no way in which this can aid in the development of class independence or in the building of the communist vanguard. Revolutionaries must be prepared for a time of isolation in exposing the popular front's treachery.

The centrist "United Secretariat of the Fourth International"-even its more left-wing adherents--have habitually given critical support to the workers' parties in popular fronts. Thus they share responsibility for the outcome in Sri Lanka and for the massacre of workers and leftists in Chile. They have also, for example, in election after election, called for a vote for the "Union of the Left" popular front in France. It is on the question of the popular front that the left wing of the United Secretariat most crucially falls short of the requirements of a revolutionary party.

The principled basis of the tactic of critical support is that reformists may at certain points at least say that they stand for the interests of the working class as a class, and express that by standing on the platform of an independent workers' party. If the reformists enter into electoral blocs with the bourgeoisie, then they make it clear that the proletariat's need for political independence is for them superseded by some programmatic common ground with the capitalist class. There is therefore no basis for any support to them whatsoever.

Nongovernmental Popular Fronts

A popular front does not necessarily have to be for governmental purposes. There are many movements for broad programmes of social liberation which, if they are to be completed and successful, will require a struggle which goes beyond the bourgeois order.

To confine within the bounds of capitalism a campaign struggling against some fundamental aspect of that system--imperialist war, or racial or sexual oppression, for example--is to defuse that struggle. Giving political representatives of the bourgeoisie a veto power over the programmatic development of such a movement obviously precludes developments which go beyond the confines of the capitalist order.

Popular-frontist leftists seeking the broadest possible coalitions try to attract liberal-bourgeois types, and thus limit the demands of their movement to that end. So we get minipopular-fronts--or at least popular fronts in intent--for peace, gay rights or women's liberation. We must stand thoroughly opposed to such movements.

But very often the character of small front-type formations is for a time unclear, or even indeterminate. We must oppose their tendency towards popular frontism, and support their tendency towards a proletarian or united-front character. Precisely for the reason that they are unclear, they may be valuable arenas in which Bolshevik intervention can teach some revolutionary lessons.

In any case revolutionaries certainly don't turn down opportunities to go to popular-front meetings and demonstrations to expose the dangers they are leading the working class towards. But we would never take responsibility for such a formation, sponsor it, call on anyone to support it, or stand for a position in its leadership.

United Actions with Bourgeois Elements

Our irreconcilable opposition to popular fronts is not meant to be a license for a witchhunt against individual bourgeois types who through some misunderstanding support united-front activities of workers' parties, such as strike-support work, the defence of the civil liberties of leftists or the fight for some limited reform. As long as the demands of such actions are determined by the needs of the working class the bourgeoisie will generally exclude itself where that is necessary.

A revolutionary organisation will often be involved in activity around defence and reform issues which do not in any immediate or direct way require a programme which gets to the heart of capitalism, and liberal-bourgeois elements can play their part in such actions and (usually short-term) campaigns. Actions against the Security Intelligence Service or against specific acts or policies of racial discrimination are likely possibilities in the present New Zealand context. Campaigns for specific reforms, such as changes in abortion laws, are another possibility.

The working class has an interest in fighting against all oppression, and communists seek to be tribunes of the people. This will at times lead us to join united actions initiated by bourgeois liberals. The discussions in the Second International around the Dreyfus case (1894-1906), concerning the framing of a Jewish officer in the French army, provide the classic arguments.[33]

The other type of bloc with bourgeois-liberal elements is the military bloc without political confidence which is entered into against antidemocratic right-wing forces of the Kornilov or fascist type.

6. Building a Revolutionary Nucleus

The Communist International did not view the united-front tactic, in the mass form in which it envisaged it, as being appropriate to small communist groups. As Trotsky said in his Comintern material on the united front:

"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."[34]

Any suggestion that we can in any real sense lead a mass united front is either mere demagogy, or based on some version of the conception of the strategic united front. However, even while we are very small we will participate in any mass activities to further the interests of the working class, and we will on occasion try to precipitate them. But such large-scale mass activities, in the absence of a revolutionary party, are rather different from classical united fronts, although the work of small revolutionary groups in them are guided by similar principles. The important thing is that we enter into them with full awareness of the implications of the problems of a flea trying to make love to an elephant. We will neither be misguided by the belief that we can for very long play a leadership role in mass activities while we are very small, nor spread the illusion that the reformists who do lead them can be relied upon.

Leaving aside united fronts which engage huge numbers of people, there are also possibilities for united fronts on a small scale. These can be extremely useful for our kind of revolutionary group today. The united fronts which are appropriate to a small revolutionary nucleus are not mass united fronts but more limited actions, perhaps in support of strikes, in the defence of revolutionary developments overseas, for limited reforms, or to protect victimised leftists. And it is likely that most of our bloc partners in such actions will be from among the leftist groups or trade unionists temporarily mobilised on a local basis.

The political level of the demands of a united front depends on the needs of the revolutionary organisation at the time and the manner in which those needs intersect with the needs and the movement of different layers of the broader workers' movement.

At times a small revolutionary organisation will put considerable energy into quite basic issues, at other times it might try to organise a small campaign around a quite unpopular issue. In the present circumstances it would do the revolutionary movement well to seek opportunities for the broadest possible united front against unemployment, even recognising that it might conceivably achieve such a mass status that, in the absence of a significant revolutionary organisation, its united-front status was virtually undermined by the revolutionary component being rendered irrelevant. However, a very different and unfortunately much smaller kind of united front would also do us well when a situation presents itself, a united front for the military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialism. This could be a means of putting forward and explaining a crucial, characteristic and unpopular aspect of our programme.

The principles for small-scale united fronts are very similar to those for mass united fronts. They can be seen as both a means by which small groups can have a modest impact on the struggle, actually helping create the conditions for limited improvements in the material and political conditions of the working class, and also as a way of getting close to other small groups and individual activists, in order to carry out the intense discussions preliminary to revolutionary regroupment in the far left.

Sectarian Formalism

It is important that a small revolutionary nucleus harden itself in principled politics, and it is far to be preferred that in its early days it bends in the direction of trenchant criticism of inadequate politics than that it merges its forces with every grouping which promises "united action".

In a small Bolshevik political formation there is a legitimate spectrum of opinion from a left wing which is suspicious of joining united-front-type formations on basic class issues where the organisation will be capable of having only a limited impact, through to a right wing which is more sensitive to opportunities for embedding the organisation in the masses. The common ground of legitimacy of these two extremes is that both must support themselves on arguments as to which policy in the particular case furthers the growth of the programme of revolution as embodied in the party, for without the party even the class is ultimately destroyed.

While much of our understanding of revolutionary politics derives from the international Spartacist tendency, increasingly through the 1970s we saw their still-revolutionary work somewhat flawed by the use of formalistic objections for the purpose of avoiding joint work with other left organisations. They thereby seriously damaging their ability to have any impact on the world, or to spread their influence and programme, or to recruit.[35]

We will usually have criticisms of a united front and of the work of its constituents, but we will not use such criticisms as excuses for noninvolvement. It is perfectly possible for a small revolutionary grouping to participate critically but constructively in a vast array of blocs, with the result of both furthering some important aspects of its programme and recruiting to its forces. The valid constraints are often constraints of time rather than constraints of principle.

For example, we believe the slogan "Free All Political Prisoners!" to be a very bad formulation. We don't want fascist thugs or concentration-camp mass murderers to be freed. But it would often be silly to exclude ourselves from a campaign fought ostensibly to "Free All Political Prisoners!". It often turns out that the real content of the campaign is in fact to free the victims of capitalism. We would wish to join such a campaign, while making our criticism of the inadequacy of this slogan clear. We would split, of course, if the campaign actually did try to mobilise support for freeing Rudolph Hess. It is a matter of what the real content of the bloc is.

And we certainly do not expect every united front in which we participate to be fighting for the "perfect reform". We call for "Free Quality Abortion on Demand!", but if there is a campaign which is fighting for some part of that, then we would wish to participate. We would want to be part of any real campaign for more abortion clinics, or for legalised abortion where it is illegal, or a partial relaxation of limitations on abortion. Of course we would raise plenty of other demands, and argue for our "perfect reform", but we would not make acceptance of it a condition of our participation. To do so, while it might appear to some people as an example of revolutionary intransigence, would in fact be the adoption of a kind of utopian reformist ideology.

The Propaganda Group

The perspectives of a revolutionary organisation have to start with a hardheaded assessment of its forces and its possibilities. For us the task of winning the initial core or nucleus of the vanguard revolutionary party has hardly been begun. We must gather together and train a cadre grouping. We must define the revolutionary programme. We must give priority to explaining the basic politics of our movement to the relatively few people who are ready for them. These are the tasks of propaganda. Lenin, in Left-Wing Communism, said:

"As long as it was (and inasmuch as it still is) a question of winning the proletariat's vanguard over to the side of communism, priority went and still goes to propaganda work; even propaganda circles, with all their parochial limitations, are useful under these conditions, and produce good results. But when it is a question of practical action by the masses, of the disposition, if one may put it so, of vast armies, of the alignment of all the class forces in a given society for the final and decisive battle, then propagandist methods alone, the mere repetition of the truths of pure communism are of no avail. In these circumstances, one must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses. In these circumstances one must count in millions and tens of millions."[36]

Our perspectives must be based on the sober acceptance that we do not yet count in even tens or hundreds. Our central tasks are in the meantime the tasks of propaganda. If we are to transcend those tasks and to be capable of mobilising the masses, we must first constitute ourselves as an effective propaganda group. The united front for us must be subordinated to the needs of a propaganda group.

This is not to say that at times in the unusual circumstances of New Zealand at the end of the 1980s we cannot have some limited mass role; but it is to admit the truth that this will be episodic and that insofar as we are successful the existing misleadership of the working class will soon find a way to displace us. They will be able to displace us until we are able to displace them as the leaders of the mass organisations of the class. We cannot go around them.


1. The document which caused their expulsion from the Young Socialists is published in Permanent Revolution: Yesterday & Today, Permanent Revolution Group, Wellington, 1988.

2. The First International ("The International Workingmen's Association", 1864-76): led by Marx and Engels, it reached its zenith with the Paris Commune (1871), and came to an end after an internal struggle with anarchism in the period of reaction which followed the defeat of the Commune.

3. The Second International (1889-1914): founded under considerable influence from Engels and led by its German section, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Communists date its demise at its failure to resist the outbreak of the First World War. In fact it continued to exist as a "stinking corpse", and it's still around--as a few old bones.

4. V. I. Lenin, What Is to Be Done? [1902], Collected Works, Progress, Moscow, 1966, v. 5.

5. Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, p 384-85.

6. See V. I. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back [1904], Collected Works, v. 7.

7. V. I. Lenin, "Freedom to Criticise and Unity of Action" [20 May 1906], Collected Works, v. 10, p 442.

8. V. I. Lenin, "The Collapse of the Second International" [June 1915], Collected Works, v. 21, p 257.

9. See V. I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism [1916], Collected Works, v. 22; and Grigory Zinoviev, "The Social Roots of Opportunism", extracts published in New International, v. 1, n 2, Winter 1983-84.

10. Leon Trotsky, "What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat" [27 January 1932], The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, ed George Breitman & Merry Maisel, Pathfinder, New York, 1971, p 163.

11. Quoted in W. Angress, Stillborn Revolution, Princeton, NJ, 1963, p 187.

12. V. I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism--An Infantile Disorder [1920], Collected Works, v. 31, p 92-93.

13. "Centrism": The ideology of those unstable currents moving in one direction or the other between reformism and revolutionary politics. Centrists claim to be revolutionary--and they are often completely honest in their subjective revolutionism--but they have either not yet made it to politics which are actually capable of leading a revolution, or they have departed from those politics. Centrists tend to devalue theory or to be muddled in their theory, to seek political and organisational shortcuts, and to be "antisectarian", by which they mean hostile to concern about questions of principle, clarity, or consistency. Centrism presents revolutionaries both with an opportunity (for many of them can be won to Marxism) and a danger (as they present the most sophisticated opposition to the struggle for revolutionary consciousness).

14. James Burnham, The People's Front: The New Betrayal, Pioneer, New York, 1937, p 12-13.

15. "Theses on the United Front", Executive Committee of the Communist International, December 1921, later endorsed by the Fourth Congress, in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, London, 1980, p 406.

16. Although it is not a principle that revolutionaries must always and everywhere argue loudly for the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is our purpose, our reason for existence, and when we forbear it is in order that we will get a better hearing when the time comes that we do argue for those politics. And in general there are not too many points to be gained by being too forbearing.

17. "Theses on the United Front", p 408.

18. Trotsky, "What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat", p 200.

19. See, for example, Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, Pioneer, New York, 1936, p 126 and following.

20. "Resolution on Fascism", Fifth Congress of the Communist International, July 1924; quoted in Robert Black, Fascism in Germany, Steyne, London, 1975, p 508.

21. See Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.

22. "Open Letter to the Second International and the Vienna Labour Union, to the Trade Unions of All Countries and to the Hague Trade Union and Cooperative Congress" [4 December 1922]; quoted in Black, Fascism in Germany, p 507.

23. It was the Stalinists' criminal role in the rise of Hitler which proved to Trotskyists the need to change their orientation from that of an expelled faction of the Third International to that of setting out to build the Fourth International (FI). The founding conference of the FI was in September 1938, and it adopted the Transitional Programme , which remains a central guide to revolutionary politics.

24. See Leon Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on the Trade Unions, Pathfinder, New York, 1975.

25. Trotsky, "What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat", p 193-94.

26. See: Leon Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on France, ed David Salner, Monad, New York, 1979; Leon Trotsky, The Crisis of the French Section [1935-36], ed Naomi Allen & George Breitman, Pathfinder, New York, 1977; Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1934-35], ed George Breitman & Bev Scott, Pathfinder, New York, 1974; Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement [1934-40], ed George Breitman, Pathfinder, New York, 1979.

27. See James P Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism [1944], Pathfinder, New York, 1972.

28. "Pabloism": After the Second World War, during which the Fourth International suffered crippling casualties, the Trotskyist movement faced a series of new questions in a period of considerable reaction. During this time Michel Pablo was a leading figure in the Fourth International and was the spokesperson for an attempt to revise the politics of the movement by devaluing the conscious, subjective factor in history and stressing objective developments instead. This led to a political fight and in 1953 to a split in the Fourth International and its destruction as a revolutionary international organisation. There was partial reunification of Pabloites and former anti-Pabloites in 1963 with the establishment of the "United Secretariat of the Fourth International", on the political basis of the objectivist programme of Pabloism and an organisational basis which left constituents with an independence belying its claim to be an international party. For a brief account see "Genesis of Pabloism", Spartacist, n 21, Fall 1972. For a selection of contemporary documents see Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, New Park, 1974, v. 1-2. For an apparently full record see Towards a History of the Fourth International, a number of bulletins issued as part of the "Education for Socialists" series of the Socialist Workers Party, New York.

29. See Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution [1932-33], Gollancz, London, 1965.

30. See Leon Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on China, ed Les Evans & Russell Block, Monad, New York, 1976; also Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution [1938], Stanford University, Stanford, 1961.

31. See Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), ed Naomi Allen & George Breitman, Pathfinder, New York, 1973.

32. See Edmund Samarakkody, "The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon", Spartacist, n 22, Winter 1973-74.

33. For a brief article on defending non proletarian victims of oppression, including reference to the "Dreyfusiad", see V. I. Lenin, "Political Agitation and 'The Class Point of View'" [1902], Collected Works, v. 5.

34. Leon Trotsky, "On the United Front", The First Five Years of the Communist International, Pathfinder, New York, 1972, v. 2, p 92.

35. The Spartacists carried a revolutionary line from the time of their emergence at the beginning of the 1960s in the United States in a struggle against Pabloism until the early 1980s. However, beginning in the late 1970s they began to gravitate towards a cultish form of leadership, a more extreme sectarian formalism, and a variety of important programmatic departures from Marxism including softness on parts of the Soviet bureaucracy and an apparent predisposition when under pressure to accommodate to American social-chauvinist positions.

36. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism--An Infantile Disorder, p 93-9.

Posted: 14 October 2007