Revolution and socialist construction are daunting tasks for revolutionaries to face, no matter their ideological tendency. Be we Anarchists or Maoists, we all have the same goal and face the same tribulations. We are all working class and advocates for the liberation of all working people. This is why we must build a united front in order to tackle the daunting tasks we face in the revolution. Some questions arise from this, such as: How should this united front function? Who shall lead it? Will it work? These are all reasonable questions and the answers to many of them have not been revealed enough yet to satisfy some but, what we can take from history should be enough to prove the use of united fronts as a sound revolutionary tactic. It is sound because of its ability to unify all revolutionary elements in society. It allows for the construction of true socialist society as all revolutionary elements are taken into account during the process.
Now before we delve into the actual argument, some semantic issues should be cleared up. Many comrades like to distinguish a difference between “united fronts” and “popular fronts”. Where this “difference” originates is in Trotskyist discourse before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War. The Comintern had encouraged popular fronts to fight against the growing tide of fascism. These fronts would include all anti-fascist elements in society, as fascism was seen as a common threat to all. Trotsky and his followers argued that this did not allow for true revolutionary action and would allow for the revolutionary parties to be dictated to by mainstream liberal politicians. However, Trotsky missed the point of popular fronts. Popular fronts were temporary measures meant to combat the threat of fascism. They were never meant as means of revolution. We will delve further into broad united fronts and Trotsky’s point later, as he does raise a good one. For the sake of this essay, we will use the term “united front” as a broad term for any grouping of progressive and revolutionary elements in society. This will avoid confusion from those that wish to play semantics.
Let us begin with the application of united fronts in socialist revolution. As should be obvious to all comrades reading this, socialism is a system meant to elevate all of the proletarian masses. This should be inclusive of a variety of viewpoints and ideas. The forced alienation of other revolutionary elements in society will lead to discontent among them, this discontent could lead to collaboration with the enemy. Even with a lack of mass support, these groups can pose a threat if left to try and sabotage socialist construction. It would be a folly of ignorance if the dominant group allows such sabotage through ideological alienation. This being said, the dominant group cannot concede the main goal of socialism or other major concessions. The path to socialism must be maintained and if groups within the front cannot agree to this, they have to exit the front. There is no room for roaders and opportunists who wish to destroy the victories of socialism. While it is important to not concede the main goal, the front and dominant group must be able to take criticisms from other revolutionary elements both inside and outside the front. Even if the criticism is not principled or true, we must listen as it could have some value. This does not mean to let reactionaries criticise and dictate based on their backward lines, they are not worth much bother if they are not willing to learn. An important component of the construction of a mass movement is taking the grievances of the masses into account, for revolutionary power stems from them. What must be practised is a form of criticism and self-criticism explained by Mao Zedong. This allows for the party and front to be transparent with the masses and able to take their needs fully into account. Relations with the masses must be guided by the Maoist motto of ‘Serve the People’. This allows for the revolutionary movement to entrench itself in the masses and build the popular movement. These principles will ensure a strong and united revolutionary front. The front must also be able to combat reaction wherever it arises within the revolution and construction of socialism. The means that the ability to purge counter-revolutionaries must be properly functioning. This requires extensive education in revolutionary theory on behalf of those in the party bodies. Through the principles of Marxism, a system of checks and balances can be established to effectively keep the revolution on track. This system in a united front is inherently democratic and takes into account all of the members in defining what is counter-revolutionary. A democratic united front based on these principles has the greatest chance of succeeding.
The term “dominant group” is mentioned previously and it should be expanded upon. From this, the actual inner-workings of the front can be explained. The “dominant group” can be defined as the party that formed the united front and has taken main leadership of the revolution. This could be an Anarchist, Syndicalist, or Marxist group. The same rules apply for all. What would be ideal is a Marxist group that is able to apply the organisational tactics described earlier. While a dominant group is larger than the others, that does not entitle it to supreme authority. All groups are equal in the front and in government but, the dominant party holds a leadership role and spearheads the movement. Ideally, it would gain this leadership from the masses through democratic consensus. If it were to lose this role, it must relent to the democratic decision. The losing of this role does not change the goal of the front to construct socialist revolution, it merely changes the leadership. This is all governed by the principle of democratic centralism: “Freedom of discussion. Unity in action”. In all matters, the minority must relent to the majority but, that does not mean that the minority opinion is useless or is to be ignored. All are equal in an open forum of revolutionaries. One may question the actual efficiency of this system. It can be pointed out that this could lead to chaos in government. While this is certainly possible and to say it is not would be wrong, history proves both viewpoints as true in different ways. Also, we are looking at an ideal situation, not that this isn’t based on Marxist analysis but, it is merely a basic outline with no specific conditions applied to it. The specifics are for individual revolutionaries to determine.
History points to the effectiveness of united fronts in the governing of socialist construction and the most successful example is the coalition government in China under Mao Zedong. This United Front is different from the Anti-Japanese one of the Second World War. This United Front is the coalition government of revolutionary parties formed to combat the reactionary Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War following the defeat of the Japanese. While it can be said that modern China is not socialist in any aspect and the democratic systems established during the Mao era have become shells of their former selves, the base system is sound. The Chinese system operated on the principle that the Communist Party of China has the leading role and all other revolutionary parties took a “fellow traveller” stance. What this means is that, while maintaining independence from the CPC, the parties are subservient to them as they are the majority. This is key to democratic centralism. How it was originally envisioned was that the party of which the masses of the Chinese people supported would take the leadership role of the front and government. Through work and dedication, Mao made this party the CPC but, it could theoretically be any party. As previously mentioned, just because the party has the leadership role, does not exempt it from criticism. Criticism of the leading group is critical to the development of socialism being inclusive of all revolutionary elements. Where the Chinese system fails is that the original ideas it was founded on are no longer present today. This can mostly be blamed on Deng Xiaoping’s coup in the 1980s that effectively wiped out much of the democratic institutions in China. What is critical to united fronts is the fact that socialism is always the goal. In China this is enshrined in the first article of the constitution: “The socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China. Disruption of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited”. This article is key to the keeping of democratic centralism. Parties or groups that do not represent working class interests cannot be allowed to govern. Mao also talks about united fronts in his work On Coalition Government where he calls for the “abolition of the Kuomintang one-party dictatorship and the establishment of a democratic coalition government…”. Mao also describes party policy on coalition stating it was the main way to unify the diverse people of China. Mao knew it was necessary to unite all revolutionary elements to combat the reactionaries and establish socialism in China. This holds true today and we must take the lessons of China seriously.
Earlier, we mentioned the “difference” between “popular fronts” and “united fronts” brought up by Trotsky. Trotsky’s main criticism of the Comintern “popular fronts” was that they united with non-revolutionary, bourgeois elements such as liberals. Trotsky claimed that this would not be effective in building revolution and he is somewhat correct. Where he misses the point is that the “popular fronts” were not meant as revolutionary fronts, they were in response to fascism. They were also used in an attempt to elevate communists in the political landscape of certain countries but, this had varying success. Unity with non-revolutionary elements in the name of anti-fascism is tactically sound and not incorrect. What must be maintained, however, is the revolutionary nature of the leftist groups in the front. Trotsky said that with these broad anti-fascist united fronts, the revolutionary movement leaves itself open to being dictated by bourgeois liberal groups. This is a legitimate concern and the problem can be rectified in a number of ways. The first and most obvious method is strict party discipline for revolutionary parties in the front. This will ensure the members are revolutionaries and prevent the rise of liberal opportunists or roaders. With this system, it is possible to keep the revolutionary message alive and the ideology consistent. Entering into a front with non-revolutionaries does not automatically mean capitulation to them. Capitulation is certainly a possibility but, as long as the party stays strong, it will prevail as revolutionary. Another method that ties in with the previous is the maintaining of the party’s independence within the front. It must always be asserted that the party while being in the front, is independent of it and on equal footing with all other members. To admit complete subservience to bourgeois groups is complete capitulation. It must also be assured that these fronts are democratic, based on the consent of members, and that all members having an equal footing. This will ensure the ability of revolutionary parties to still act independently. A part of maintaining independence is to continue to build effective mass relations as a separate entity. The party must continue to Serve the People and if in a revolutionary war scenario, put into place socialist policies and sow the seeds for socialist development. It is these methods of organisation that somewhat show Trotsky’s problem solvable but, he can be somewhat excused for this. Trotsky made the assertion at a time before many of the major developments in organising were conceptualised. All that existed was the extremely flawed Soviet system that, as we know, led to capitalist restoration and capitulation. This proves true also for the Soviet party model as it was implemented in the countries it was forced upon. What cannot be excused is the continued use of Trotsky’s and others’ outdated analyses to discredit revolutionary organisers. This is counter-revolutionary and anti-Marxist.
United fronts are obviously based on the unity of all revolutionary (or anti-fascist) elements in society. What or who these “revolutionary elements” are is subject to the situation but, formulating a general rule can be attempted. In true revolutionary united fronts, these elements must be wholly anti-capitalist. Capitalism is the enemy and socialism is the goal. Anyone who does not wish for the destruction of capitalism is not revolutionary hence, they cannot be in the front. Where the situation becomes somewhat more complex is with the question of non-Marxist or non-Marxist-Leninist groups. These elements should be welcomed into the front as comrades in the struggle. The front must encourage open dialogue between revolutionaries and take all into account, what is key to this is the defeat of sectarianism. Just because someone has a different model of socialism does not mean to shun them, we must embrace their difference. From differing opinions and constructive discourse, it is possible to build a socialist system for all. The same goes for during a revolution, all must be united in the struggle for revolution and sectarian squabbling will not lead to unity in action. Democratic Centralism is based on the free discourse of all in a group. The lack of this open discourse is part of the problems that led to the collapse of socialism in the USSR and China. We must not repeat these mistakes. It is also important to remember that united fronts are consensual partnerships. All members are free to leave if their disagreements are too great. This should be discouraged of course and compromise should be attempted in order to reconcile differences, without capitulating to counter-revolution. Building a system of democratic cooperation that allows for all revolutionary voices to be heard is key to successful revolution and socialist construction. This is all too often forgotten by those who should know better.
Non-revolutionary united fronts (i.e. anti-fascist or anti-imperialist) are a different situation than revolutionary fronts. Participation in these broad fronts may require cooperation with some bourgeois or anti-Communist elements. This is fine, as long as the independence of the party is maintained but, is there a limit to who we should work with? The answer to that is, it depends on the situation. In anti-fascist struggles, this will not be much of a problem. Most people who are militant anti-fascists are also revolutionary so this will not lead to as much tension as some other situations. Anti-imperialist or fronts for national liberation are more complex. As communists, we must support all legitimate rights to self-determination. We do not have to necessarily agree with who is leading the struggle and can definitely be critical to some extent but, we must generally support their right to freedom. There is a sort of imperialist attitude among those who say that they will only support struggles if they form socialist states. This is to combated. Under no circumstances should communists enter into any front led by fascists. This is counter-revolutionary and equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot. For these liberation fronts the same rules stated previously apply but, leadership of the revolutionary party must be maintained, ideally. While a non-revolutionary party having leadership is perfectly acceptable, if we have leadership it is necessary to keep it. This does not mean to purge other groups from the front but, to engage with the masses and build the mass support needed to have popular support. Even better than this is to spearhead and form the front, this will most likely ensure support from the masses and a preference towards revolutionary leadership of the front. Again, all this maintained under the same democratic methods explained previously. It should be said that, this is a very broad and loose description. All struggles have their own material conditions and vary vastly, national liberation struggles especially. Many of the minor details are for revolutionaries to hammer out for themselves.
What is a great shame is that there are many comrades who seem to view united fronts as ineffective or a pipe-dream. These comrades tend to be either misguided or sectarians, the latter deserve little time if they maintain their dogmatism. Many will point to Spain and the failure of the Front Popular. This is a solid criticism but, like Trotsky’s analysis, to say Spain was the nail in the coffin of left unity is outdated. There are plenty of examples of united fronts working to build genuine socialism and achieve liberation. Be it in China with the United Front and the coalition government or in Cuba and Nicaragua where there were united fronts of revolutionaries committed to the same goal and succeeding. To go into detail on all the examples would be an immense task that could not be tackled in the medium of an essay. What can be concluded from this exposition is the tactical soundness and the necessity of an inclusive, democratic, and united front in order to facilitate socialist revolution. No one knew this better than Mao Zedong:
The unification of our country, the unity of our people, and the unity of our various nationalities – these are the basic guarantees of the sure triumph of our cause.
– Mao Zedong
On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People (February 17, 1957), 1st Pocket ed., pp. 1-2