LEON TROTSKY’S theory of the united front grew out of a need to win workers to revolutionary socialism in a nonrevolutionary period. When Trotsky wrote the following piece, the revolutionary wave that spread through Europe in 1918–19 had subsided. Russian revolutionaries had been forced to retreat in the wake of a bloody and costly civil war. In Europe, the factory occupations and workers’ councils that had brought Germany and Italy to the brink of successful revolution, by 1920, had given way to a restabilization of the capitalist system.
When Trotsky wrote “On the United Front” in 1922, the working-class movement was on the defensive. The First World War brought a split between revolutionaries who opposed victory for any imperialist nation and reformists who lined up behind their own national ruling classes. This split deepened in the years that followed, when revolutionaries faced off against reformist parties that time and again intervened to quell revolutionary struggle and aid the ruling classes in restoring order.
The restabilization of bourgeois rule in Germany and Italy exposed the reformists. Yet, the defeat and ebb of the revolutionary wave meant that the reformist parties still retained at least the passive support of the majority of workers. Although large compared to socialist organizations today, the revolutionary communist parties that made up the Communist International (Comintern) were still too small to offer a successful alternative to reformism, and, as events would show, still politically immature.
Frustrated with reformist betrayal and impatient with the pace of struggle, many young militants of the revolutionary left wanted to leap ahead. The worst case was in Germany, where the Communist Party (CP) tried to “galvanize” workers into revolutionary struggle by provoking a fight with the government without the support of the majority of German workers. Instead of leading a successful workers’ insurrection, the German communists cut themselves off from the workers’ movement. Throughout Europe, the communist movement ran the risk of isolating itself from the vast majority of workers who followed the reformists’ lead.
The German disaster revealed a pressing need for a strategy that could advance the workers’ movement and win a broader audience for revolutionary ideas within it. Trotsky’s theory of the united front aimed to win wider layers of workers to revolutionary politics by waging mass, united fights for concrete gains in the here and now. The united front rests on two fundamental points. First, in order to build the largest united workers’ movement to take on any given fight, revolutionaries have to make temporary alliances with reformist organizations that have a much broader following inside the working class. However, Trotsky was very clear that revolutionary organizations must maintain political independence throughout. To simply collapse into reformist organizations would mean abandoning the very politics that could win real gains for workers and thus could ultimately betray the workers’ movement. Secondly, in the process of united struggle, workers can see for themselves that revolutionary politics offer a way forward as opposed to the dead end of reformism.
Nothing showed the urgency of the united front more than the rise of fascism in Germany. Before Hitler’s rise to power, Trotsky hammered away at the idea that the German CP must propose to the Social Democrats a joint struggle against Hitler and that Hitler’s victory would herald the complete smashing of the workers’ movement. A united struggle could, if timely, not only destroy Hitler’s chances for success, but prepare the working class for a direct struggle for power. Yet, Stalin, who had taken control of the international communist movement by this point, directed the Communist Parties across Europe to aim their fire at the reformist parties rather than to build a united fightback against the Nazis. The German CP called the reformists “social-fascists” and, on the eve of Hitler’s victory, raised the absurd slogan, “After Hitler, Our Turn.” (Trotsky writings on the struggle against fascism in Germany can be found here.)
To this day, revolutionaries around the world use the method Trotsky developed not only to fight the right wing, but to fight for reforms that can both improve people’s lives in the here and now and win wider layers of workers to socialism. Trotsky’s theory of the united front remains one of his greatest contributions to the workers’ movement and a model for all those who stand for workers’ struggle from below.
1.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.
The party can achieve this only by remaining an absolutely independent organization with a clear program and strict internal discipline. That is the reason why the party was bound to break ideologically and organizationally with the reformists and the centrists who do not strive for the proletarian revolution, who possess neither the capacity nor the desire to prepare the masses for revolution, and who by their entire conduct thwart this work.
Any members of the Communist Party who bemoan the split with the centrists in the name of “unity of forces” or “unity of front” thereby demonstrate that they do not understand the ABC of Communism and that they themselves happen to be in the Communist Party only by accident.
2. After assuring itself of the complete independence and ideological homogeneity of its ranks, the Communist Party fights for influence over the majority of the working class. This struggle can be accelerated or retarded depending upon objective circumstances and the expediency of the tactics employed.
But it is perfectly self-evident that the class life of the proletariat is not suspended during this period preparatory to the revolution. Clashes with industrialists, with the bourgeoisie, with the state power on the initiative of one side or the other, run their due course.
In these clashes—insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section—the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers.
Consequently the question of the united front is not at all, either in point of origin or substance, a question of the reciprocal relations between the Communist parliamentary fraction and that of the Socialists, or between the Central Committee of the two parties, or between l’Humanité and Le Populaire.1 The problem of the united front—despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organizations basing themselves on the working class—grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism.
For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organization for mass action.
3. 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.
Similarly the problem of the united front does not arise in countries where—as in Bulgaria, for example—the Communist Party is the sole leading organization of the toiling masses.
But wherever the Communist Party already constitutes a big, organized, political force, but not the decisive magnitude; wherever the party embraces organizationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organized proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness.
If the party embraces one-third or one-half of the proletarian vanguard, then the remaining half or two-thirds are organized by the reformists or centrists. It is perfectly obvious, however, that even those workers who still support the reformists and the centrists are vitally interested in maintaining the highest material standards of living and the greatest possible freedom for struggle. We must consequently so devise our tactic as to prevent the Communist Party, which will on the morrow embrace the entire three-thirds of the working class, from turning into—and all the more so, from actually being—an organizational obstacle in the way of the current struggle of the proletariat.
Still more, the party must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles. Only in this way will the party draw closer to those two-thirds who do not as yet follow its leadership, who do not as yet trust the party because they do not understand it. Only in this way can the party win them over.
4. If the Communist Party had not broken drastically and irrevocably with the Social Democrats, it would not have become the party of the proletarian revolution. It could not have taken the first serious steps on the road to revolution. It would have forever remained a parliamentary safety valve attached to the bourgeois state.
Whoever does not understand this, does not know the first letter of the ABC of Communism.
If the Communist Party did not seek for organizational avenues to the end that at every given moment joint, coordinated action between the Communist and non-Communist (including the Social-Democratic) working masses were made possible, it would have thereby laid bare its own incapacity to win over—on the basis of mass action—the majority of the working class. It would degenerate into a Communist propaganda society but never develop into a party for the conquest of power.
It is not enough to possess the sword, one must give it an edge; it is not enough to give the sword an edge, one must know how to wield it.
After separating the Communists from the reformists it is not enough to fuse the Communists together by means of organizational discipline; it is necessary that this organization should learn how to guide all the collective activities of the proletariat in all spheres of its living struggle.
This is the second letter of the alphabet of Communism.
5. Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders?
The very posing of this question is a product of misunderstanding.
If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organizations, 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.
The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organizations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organizations and join us. It may be precisely after engaging in those mass activities, which are on the order of the day, that a major change will take place in this connection. That is just what we are striving for. But that is not how matters stand at present. Today the organized portion of the working class is broken up into three formations.
One of them, the Communist, strives toward the social revolution and precisely because of this supports concurrently every movement, however partial, of the toilers against the exploiters and against the bourgeois state.
Another grouping, the reformists, strives toward conciliation with the bourgeoisie. But in order not to lose their influence over the workers reformists are compelled, against the innermost desires of their own leaders, to support the partial movements of the exploited against the exploiters.
Finally, there is a third grouping, the centrist, which constantly vacillates between the other two, and which has no independent significance.
The circumstances thus make wholly possible joint action on a whole number of vital issues between the workers united in these three respective organizations and the unorganized masses adhering to them.
The Communists, as has been said, must not oppose such actions but on the contrary must also assume the initiative for them, precisely for the reason that the greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self-confidence rises, all the more self-confident will that mass movement be and all the more resolutely will it be capable of marching forward, however modest may be the initial slogans of struggle. And this means that the growth of the mass aspects of the movement tends to radicalize it, and creates much more favorable conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle, and, in general, the leading role of the Communist Party.
The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade-union bureaus, the arbitration boards, the ministerial ante-chambers.
On the contrary, we are, apart from all other considerations, interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses. With a correct tactic we stand only to gain from this. A Communist who doubts or fears this resembles a swimmer who has approved the theses on the best method of swimming but dares not plunge into the water.
6. Unity of front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of reformist organizations, to the extent to which the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat.
But, after all, didn’t we split with them? Yes, because we disagree with them on fundamental questions of the working-class movement.
And yet we seek agreement with them? Yes, in all those cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in joint struggle together with the masses that follow us and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of this struggle.
But won’t they say that after splitting with them we still need them? Yes, their blabbermouths may say this. Here and there somebody in our own ranks may take fright at it. But as regards the broad working masses—even those who do not follow us and who do not as yet understand our goals but who do see two or three labor organizations leading a parallel existence—these masses will draw from our conduct this conclusion, that despite the split we are doing everything in our power to facilitate unity in action for the masses.
7. A policy aimed to secure the united front does not of course contain automatic guarantees that unity in action will actually be attained in all instances. On the contrary, in many cases and perhaps even the majority of cases, organizational agreements will be only half-attained or perhaps not at all. But it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilability but to the lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists.
In entering into agreements with other organizations, we naturally obligate ourselves to a certain discipline in action. But this discipline cannot be absolute in character. In the event that the reformists begin putting brakes on the struggle to the obvious detriment of the movement and act counter to the situation and the moods of the masses, we as an independent organization always reserve the right to lead the struggle to the end, and this without our temporary semi-allies.
This may give rise to a new sharpening of the struggle between us and the reformists. But it will no longer involve a simple repetition of one and the same set of ideas within a shut-in circle but will signify—provided our tactic is correct—the extension of our influence over new, fresh groups of the proletariat.
8. It is possible to see in this policy a rapprochement with the reformists only from the standpoint of a journalist who believes that he rids himself of reformism by ritualistically criticizing it without ever leaving his editorial office but who is fearful of clashing with the reformists before the eyes of the working masses and giving the latter an opportunity to appraise the Communist and the reformist on the equal plane of the mass struggle. Behind this seeming revolutionary fear of “rapprochement” there really lurks a political passivity which seeks to perpetuate an order of things wherein the Communists and reformists each retain their own rigidly demarcated spheres of influence, their own audiences at meetings, their own press, and all this together creates an illusion of serious political struggle.
9. We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticizing perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the halfway spirit in the labor movement. For this reason any sort of organizational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us. We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute. In this way, we shall bring closer the hour of the united revolutionary front under the undisputed Communist leadership.