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The origins of the united front policy

May 4, 2011
The policy of the united front is among the most effective tools for working class action inherited from the era of VI Lenin and the Russian revolution.

As originally formulated by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) in December 1921, united front policy called for the “greatest possible unity of all workers’ organisations in every practical action against the united capitalists”, while assuring revolutionary socialists and other participating currents “absolute autonomy” and “freedom in presenting their point of view”.1

Initiatives to build unity in action with diverse currents in the workers’ movement can be traced back to the First International and its efforts to build bridges to British trade unionists and the followers of August Blanqui and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France, as well as to initiatives by the Bolshevik Party in Russia before 1917. The December 1921 Comintern policy statement cited Bolshevik precedent but was framed as a response to current needs, in the context of an ebb in revolutionary struggle. In the ensuing decades revolutionary socialists have utilised united front tactics in very different circumstances, including—in recent years—to oppose imperialist wars, support liberation struggles and meet threats of violence from fascist groups.

The evolution of united front policy was marked by ambiguities, false steps and corrections. The main driving force in its formulation was the thinking and the initiatives of the working class ranks and the urgency of their struggle for immediate needs and essential human rights.

A united front struggle is a step on the road to revolution, and yet simultaneously an effective instrument to win an immediate reform. Many critics of revolutionary socialism have seized on this fact to declare united front policy inherently contradictory or even dishonest, claiming that revolutionary socialists always sacrifice the interests of united front allies for partisan purposes. In addition, some socialists scorn united fronts, refusing to join with pro-capitalist labour officials or politicians. Others put an anti-revolutionary spin on the united front, seeing its culmination in parliamentary combinations or coalition governments with bourgeois forces.

All these positions were argued when united front policy was first formulated, and the debate has continued through the decades. But to understand how revolutionary socialists of Lenin’s time acted to promote unity of the working class movement, we must first review how this movement came to be divided.

The split in world socialism

The Comintern’s united front policy sought to address a profound, intractable split in the world socialist movement. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the majority leaderships of the main socialist parties—inBritain,France,GermanyandAustria-Hungary—supported the war efforts of their respective capitalist ruling classes, thus bringing about the collapse of the Socialist or Second International. An anti-war current soon took shape in the working class, and its influence was reflected in mass demonstrations, strikes, mutinies and insurrections.

Pro-war “socialists” joined or supported governments that repressed worker and soldier protests. Most of these “social patriots” also opposed the October 1917 Revolution that established the Russian Soviet government, and many backed the counter-revolutionary armies in the Russian Civil War. Revolutionary socialists took their places on the opposite side of the battle lines, supporting worker and soldier resistance and anti-war protests and actively defending the Soviet republic.

In November 1918 a workers’ and soldiers’ uprising overturned the German government, bringing the First World War to an abrupt end. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)—now the dominant force in Germany’s provisional government—helped organise the brutal repression that restabilised capitalist rule. SPD leaders were complicit in the January 1919 murder of the best-known revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In the victorious Allied countries, right wing “socialists”—now commonly called social democrats—backed the draconian “peace” terms imposed by their governments, while revolutionary socialists sought to overturn these treaties. Right wing social democrats backed continued colonial rule over subject peoples in Africa,Asiaand elsewhere, while revolutionary forces actively supported the rising colonial revolution.

By the war’s end, the world socialist movement, proudly united only half a decade earlier, was splitting into warring camps: on one side, the discredited pro-war forces, generally termed the Second International; on the other, a revolutionary socialist minority, which organised in March 1919 as the Communist or Third International. Caught in the middle were forces critical of both sides, often termed “centrists”. They were loosely allied in the Vienna Union, which Communists derisively termed the “Two-and-a-Half International”.

In late 1918 and 1919 a tide of revolution swept across Europe, inspiring Communists with hope that the workers’ victory in Russia would quickly be duplicated in major countries of Western and Central Europe. Communist parties in these countries grew to embrace tens or hundreds of thousands of members. By late 1920, however, it was clear that capitalist rule had restabilised, at least for the moment. Social democratic and labour leaders committed to defence of capitalism (“reformists” or “opportunists”) still enjoyed the support of a majority of workers. Their strength posed a massive obstacle not only to socialist revolution but to effective defence of wages and working conditions against the employers’ onslaught.

The united front policy aimed to overcome this obstacle to united working class action.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic

The first attempt to overcome the division in workers’ ranks took place, quite unexpectedly, inHungary, only two weeks after the Comintern’s formation. In a country shaken by war, economic collapse and revolution, the head of state (a pro-capitalist aristocrat) asked the Socialists, a non-revolutionary party aligned with the Second International, to form a government. Fearing Communist influence among workers in the capital, the Socialists asked the newly formed Communist Party (CP) to join in a coalition government—and, moreover, to seal the pact through an organic fusion of the two parties….

For the rest of the text of this article, see International Socialism #131. First published in International Socialism, April 5, 2011. 


1: Translated from Comintern, 1923b, for the English edition of proceedings of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, to be published by Brill Academic Publishers, 2011. For another translation of this text, see Adler, 1980, p406.

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