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The united front is a form of struggle that may be pursued by revolutionaries. The basic theory of the united front tactic was first developed by the Comintern, an international socialist organisation created by revolutionaries in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

According to the theses of the 1921 Comintern congress: “The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.”[1 ] The united front allowed workers committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism to struggle alongside non-revolutionary workers. Through these common struggles revolutionaries sought to win other workers to revolutionary socialism. The united front perspective is also used in contemporary and non-Leninist perspectives.[2]


According to Leon Trotsky the roots of the united front go back to the practice of the Bolshevik Party in the 1917 Russian Revolution.[3] The Comintern generalised this experience among the fledgling Communist parties that were established or grew significantly during the years following 1917. The theory of the united front was elaborated at the third and fourth congresses of the Comintern, held in 1921 and 1922.

Revolutionary socialists represented a minority in the working class, and the united front offered a method of working with large numbers of non-revolutionary workers, while simultaneously winning them to revolutionary politics. The united front strategy came to the fore in the period after the initial revolutionary tide following 1917 began to ebb. According to leaders of the Comintern, the shift from offensive to defensive struggles by workers strengthened the desire for united action within the working class. It was hoped that the united front would allow the revolutionaries to win a majority inside the class: "The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution. In order to summon the proletariat for the direct conquest of power and to achieve it the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class... So long as it does not hold this majority, the party must fight to win it."[4]

The these argued that unity was not to be achieved at any price—revolutionaries should not subordinate themselves within the united front, or sacrifice their independence: "The existence of independent Communist Parties and their complete freedom of action in relation to the bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionary social democracy... In the same way the united front tactic has nothing to do with the so-called ‘electoral combinations’ of leaders in pursuit of one or another parliamentary aim. The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie."[1 ]

However, revolutionaries could not simply go over the heads of the leaders of reformist organisations. They should approach these leaders demanding unity on the bases of a united front. This would pose a dilemma for the reformist leaders: refuse the invitation and be seen by their followers as an obstacle to unity, or accept the invitation and have to operate on the terrain of mass struggle (strikes, protests, etc) on which the revolutionaries would be proved to have superior ideas and methods.[4]

The method was put into practice in Germany in 1922-1923, and for a time proved effective in winning workers to revolutionary socialism.[5]

As Stalinism came to dominate the Comintern the united front strategy was dropped. In the period preceding Adolf Hitler's victory in Germany, the Stalinised Comintern argued that the social democrats were "social fascists" and that they, rather than the Nazis, represented the real danger. Following Hitler's victory, the Comintern argued for popular fronts drawing in forces far beyond the working class movement. Leon Trotsky, now exiled from Stalin's USSR, argued that the first policy was disastrous because it prevented unity against the far right, and that the second was disastrous because the terms of the struggle would be dictated by mainstream liberal parties, and that Communists would have to subordinate their politics within the alliance. Trotsky continued to argue for a workers' united front against fascism.[6]

Trotsky argued that the united front could have great appeal to workers who wished to fight fascism: “The programme of action must be strictly practical, strictly objective, to the point, without any of those artificial ‘claims’, without any reservations, so that every average Social Democratic worker can say to himself: what the Communists propose is completely indispensable for the struggle against fascism. On this basis we must pull the Social Democratic workers along with us by our example, and criticize their leaders who will inevitably serve as a check and a break.” [7]

In Chinese history, the First United Front (1924-27) was a period when the Communists worked closely with the KMT. There was also a Second United Front (1937-43) to fight the Japanese during World War II. During the Vietnam War, the National Liberation Front (1960-77) was organized as a united front for the Vietcong.[8] However, Trotsky and Trotskyists, such as Harold Isaacs, in his The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution would argue that these were Popular Fronts, not united fronts, based upon the model employed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and afterwards. This "First" so-called "United Front" with the Kuomintang was one in which the Chinese Communists were instructed by Stalin to hand over their weapons to the KMT and subordinate themselves to it. The KMT replied by massacring the now unarmed Communists![9]


See also



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