Socialist Education: The theory of the United Front
Irish Trade Unions have been engaged in a decades long sell out deal, known as Social Partnership, with the Irish employers and the State which has exposed the bureaucracy as failing to bear even the slightest semblance of a fighting defensive leadership. This abject betrayal has expressed itself in the first Croke Park deal and is now continuing its work in the second round of the deal. While this has been taking place, the Labour Party, posing as a party of the organised working class, has been part of the coalition government that is imposing this injury on the mass of working people.
The Left, fragmented and weak, have been publicly attacked by the leadership of ICTU, the United left Alliance has fragmented and the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes has been denounced by the leading union officials. It is beyond question that what resources that are available should be thrown together in order to fight back against this assault, but what sort of ‘alliance’ do we need to build?
For Leon Trotsky the most powerful practical argument for the United Front was its central importance. He expressed this first in 1917, while fighting to defeat the white Russian Kornilov’s revolt. He continuously returned to the issues surrounding alliances in the 20s and 30s in response to the defeat of the German revolution, and again as he sought to overcome the sectarian madness of Stalin’s Third Period leftism which caused the German Communist party to refuse to work with the Social Democrats, branding them “Social Fascists”.
In the context of pre-war France and the Spanish Civil war Trotsky spoke of the united front as the only practical way in which organisations which did not have leadership of the vast majority of the working class could work with social democracy in order to defeat fascism and advance the cause of the working class.
While the united front was originally conceived as a mass tactic, and no such luxury as a mass party exists in present conditions, there are still lessons to be learned from the application of united front theory to present day struggles. Chief among these is the fact that Trotsky nowhere mentions the organisational imperatives of the united front without pointing out also that those imperatives are for the sole purpose of organising action. Action in the defence of working class gains.
Unity with non revolutionary forces is not a long term goal, it must be entered into for specific “concrete” reasons, Trotsky repeatedly returns to this point, there must be a “programme of action”, unity must be “strictly practical”, it must be to assist in “actual” struggle. Neither is it enough for left groups to combine in joint actions for selfish sectarian reasons, for recruitment or electoral purposes for example, while forgetting that the purpose of that unity is to assist workers in an “actual” struggle with capitalism. Trotsky writes that “Election agreements, parliamentary compromises concluded between the revolutionary party and the Social Democracy serve, as a rule, to the advantage of the Social Democracy. Practical agreements for mass action, for purposes of struggle, are always useful to the revolutionary party.”
The other unshakable condition of the united front is the commitment by revolutionaries entering any alliance with reformists or centrists not to “bind ones hands”, to call things by their proper names and avoid opportunistically making excuses for or refusing to expose the leadership of reformism, such as the leadership of ICTU, for some perceived short term gain. Beyond this, however, an alliance can be established with “the devil himself” if it is agreed to;
“March separately but strike together, agree only how to strike, whom to strike and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother”.
When the united front is formed for a specific fighting purpose, clearly in the interests of the working class, then placing ultimatums on the participation of those who want to fight against the capitalist assault simply because their fight is only partial or is not consciously revolutionary is formalistic. If we did not need to join with non revolutionaries in defence of the wider working class we would not need a united front in the first place, the revolutionaries would be at the head of a mass socialist organisation leading the majority of the working class. Trotsky writes;
“If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form.”
On the other hand, it is not a feature of a principled united front that it suppresses criticisms or conceals revolutionary politics in order to opportunistically keep an alliance together. To do so means in practice to become a left face for the bureaucracy or for reformism. Trotsky writes that the united front is not a “non-aggression pact” and differences must be fought out unrelentingly.
Speaking hypothetically to a social democratic worker of reformist criticisms of the Communist Party he agrees that
“its first duty is to open the eyes of the workers to the faults, crimes, and “betrayals” of the latter. How could it be other-wise?”
How could it be otherwise indeed?
Today Irish socialists have fragmented. Insofar as collaboration is being discussed it is largely around the electoral framework that Trotsky warned against. The socialists find themselves in understandings with left bureaucrats that blunt any critique of the leadership’s betrayal. At the same time there is a moral panic about non-socialist activists such as TD Mick Wallace and declaration that we should never work with him or those who cooperate with him.
All of this is the opposite of Trotsky’s view - with the devil himself, but always in action, always in defence of the working class.