With the launch of Coalition of Resistance, a united front against the recession, Alex Snowdon explores the history of united fronts and their relevance to activists today.

The Communist International – also known as the Third International or the Comintern – was a grouping of socialist organisations, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, founded in 1919. It sought to spread the revolution in Russia, where working class people overthrew the old order and began to create a democratic, equal society based on co-operation and human need instead of competition and the pursuit of profit.

The Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, had become the leading force in the revolutionary process in Russia during 1917. After October 1917 the new communist government, headed by Lenin, recognised that revolutionary parties needed to be built in other countries if the fledgling democratic workers’ state in Russia was not going to be isolated and defeated by hostile forces.

Many socialist activists outside Russia, especially in Europe, were determined to challenge the capitalist order – and the poverty, war and oppression it brought – through mass working class action. They stood for socialism from below and social transformation, rather than settling merely for parliamentary representation and limited reforms.

The Communist parties these activists formed were thoroughly internationalist. They recognised that ‘socialism in one country’ was impossible. The Russian revolution needed to spread, especially to the major capitalist economies (with large working classes), in much of Europe. Otherwise it would be strangled by counter-revolutionary forces (the old ruling elite) inside Russia and imperialist aggression from abroad.

They also recognised that the international socialist movement had previously collapsed, due to the pro-war stance adopted by almost all European left-wing parties at the outbreak of World War One in 1914. This effectively ended the Second International, which had been founded a quarter of a century earlier, as a credible body.

The same terrible error – of sacrificing principled internationalism and being swept up in patriotic fervour – must never be repeated. It was precisely the horrors of the war that generated such strong and widespread desire for radical change across Europe by 1917 or 1918.

There were revolutionary upheavals in several countries in 1918/19, including in Germany where for a time the working class seriously threatened the old order. A victorious revolution in Germany would have drastically altered the balance of forces for the whole international movement, and have inspired further and bolder anti-capitalist struggle elsewhere.

The Comintern flourished between 1919 and 1922, after which it began to be fatally compromised – and eventually became utterly hollowed out – because of the rise of Stalinism (the Fifth Congress, in 1924, retained many of earlier strengths but also contained elements of future decay). It tragically became merely the tool for Moscow’s foreign policy, as Stalin built up his power and the bureaucracy he headed secured its grip on Russian politics.

Exciting discussions and debates took place during the years after the 1917 Revolution, especially at the four major Congresses – between 1919 and 1922 – which brought together delegates from across the international movement, and also at the ‘Congress of the Peoples of the East’ in 1920.

With the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, however, came a major shift for the worse. Stalin’s doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ replaced the call for international revolution.

This was closely linked to developments inside Russia, where the increasingly privileged and unaccountable elite sought to oversee rapid development of industry in order to compete economically with the West. The undemocratic command economy was a caricature of the democratic, grassroots workers’ councils (or soviets) of 1917; inequality grew and the socialist hopes of the revolutionary period faded.

The degeneration of the Comintern was also shaped by a period of retreat for working class movements in many Western countries, as the ruling elites recovered from the trauma of having their power and wealth threatened and consolidated their power. Revolution was no longer on the immediate horizon.

During the 1919-22 period Communist activists outside Russia faced many obstacles and dilemmas. A critical question was how revolutionaries, who formed a minority inside the workers’ movement, could achieve wider social change despite the great majority of people accepting reformist ideas. And how could revolutionaries spread their ideas at the same time as working with non-revolutionary workers in common struggle against particular aspects of the system?

The united front was the central answer to these questions. It is a strategic approach, developed and theorised in these years, which combines the existence of a minority core of organised revolutionaries with broader, bigger movements for social and political change. Revolutionaries unite with other campaigners, trade unionists, etc, who don’t share all their ideas – and who typically subscribe to one variant or other of reformist ideology – in order to resist specific attacks by the ruling class, or to campaign for partial reforms.

This means that revolutionaries don’t simply preach propaganda about the evils of capitalism and the desirability of socialism, though of course the battle of ideas and raising of a socialist vision are always essential. They don’t live in glorious isolation, maintaining their ‘purity’ by avoiding political contact with reformists. The united front method offers an alternative to these dangers of abstract propagandism and sectarianism.

The united front opens up the possibility of revolutionaries, despite being a minority (often a tiny minority), playing a dynamic role in larger movements for change. This can apply to a wide range of economic and political issues; it can be essentially defensive, e.g. resistance to the threat posed by fascists, or more offensive and pro-active.

It also means that revolutionaries can prove themselves the best, most consistent and unwavering, fighters for reforms. Often this will win them trust and respect, as reformist leaders often betray people’s hopes and make compromises. It creates the context in which revolutionary socialists can achieve greater influence, win respect from many non-revolutionaries they march or strike alongside, and find an audience for socialist ideas.

It can be argued that examples of united front approaches pre-date the Comintern, but it was during the post-1917 era that the united front was explicitly formulated as socialist strategy. It was a time when Communist parties urgently sought ways to shape the direction of often mass working class struggles involving hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people. So they would be victorious, yes, but at the same time to increase the prospects for a revolutionary transformation of society.

Lenin and Trotsky argued passionately for the united front inside the Comintern debates, and this broad strategic perspective influenced numerous individual tactical decisions. On a number of critical occasions the choices made by Communists in the European countries shaken by upheavals made a profound difference to the outcome of events, the strength of the movement, and the standing of revolutionaries.

The Comintern was, in effect, a school of revolutionary strategy and tactics. The events of those years posed immense challenges; choices about strategy and tactics were tested in the crucible of mass working class resistance. Duncan Hallas, in his book ‘The Comintern’ (1985), writes about the successes and mistakes of the time.

What happened when Communists made mistakes and failed to establish the correct approach to working with reformist forces? The lack of united front strategy can, in some circumstances, lead to revolutionaries merely tail-ending political forces to their right. This is because they have no effective mechanism for changing the balance of forces in favour of revolutionaries.

But they can also be vulnerable to sectarianism. This is also due to the absence of a united front. Revolutionaries may attempt, in such circumstances, to substitute for a wider movement, thinking they can bring about change despite the lack of a real movement alongside them.

In reality these two errors often co-exist. Revolutionaries end up vacillating between two poles: conservative accommodation and ultra-left sectarianism. One approach fails to deliver results, so they swing to the opposite pole. That fails to achieve results, hence a swing back to the other pole.

What is missing is a systematic approach to class unity – the united front – and consequently revolutionaries’ capacity for shaping events. What’s needed is the unity of building an independent vanguard party with the need for working class solidarity (irrespective of party affiliation or ideological differences) in the united front.

Hallas writes about the formulation of the united front strategy, by Trotsky and others, in the debates of the Comintern’s international Congresses and in a number of writings of the time. But he also analyses the grave errors made, at critical times, by Communists in Italy and Germany. He accurately connects their mistakes with a failure to grasp and implement a united front approach to working class political action.

We don’t live in times as dramatic and cataclysmic as Italy and Germany in the early 1920s. But we may well do again. And we do face the same challenges and potential pitfalls on a smaller scale. It is vital we learn from the rich tradition of revolutionary theory and practice of the Comintern era – concerning the united front – and from an understanding of the errors sometimes made, why they had serious consequences and how things might have happened differently.

The ruling Stalinists used the stabilisation of European politics – following the revolutionary wave of 1918 until 1923, when the German working class suffered a severe defeat – to justify a retreat from internationalism. It abandoned authentic revolutionary socialism, developing a Realpolitik rooted in the economic and imperialist interests of the Soviet state. The Congresses became less frequent and more authoritarian.

The persecution of Trotsky illustrates the degeneration: removed from the ruling Politburo in 1926, expelled from the Russian Communist Party in 1927, and finally expelled from the Soviet Union altogether in 1929. Many other prinicpled socialists, but less well known than Trotsky, suffered in these years. The genuine tradition of Marxism – internationalist and democratic – also suffered.

Alex Snowdon writes for the popular blog Luna 17.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).