How can socialists mobilise the type of mass action required for social change? The Counterfire steering committee presents the following article for discussion at our annual conference
Socialists operate in a situation where the ruling ideas inside capitalist society are those of the ruling class. This means their ideas are only held by a minority within the working class. The existence of mainstream Labour and Socialist parties represent a partial rejection of the capitalist system by large sections of workers, but at the same time a feeling that they are powerless to fundamentally change things. How in these circumstances can socialists extend their influence, crucially among sections of these parties and the organised trade unions?
The major tactic which has been developed to bridge this gap is the united front. It starts from the assumption that working class people will instinctively want to unite under the threat of attack from employers, government or fascist and far right parties, but that there are many barriers to doing so, especially the organisational fragmentation of the left and working class parties. To overcome this, there have to be specific campaigns and demands put forward by revolutionaries which can unite people from across different organisations and none around specific and limited issues.
This involves agreement to campaign on specifics - against fascism, war, austerity - despite disagreements on other issues, or despite a history of conflicts around other questions. If successful, the work organised through the united front helps both to defeat the immediate enemy and advances the cause of socialism, through building confidence inside the working class movement and demonstrating the importance of unity in practice.
Revolutionaries in Russia and elsewhere developed the tactic in the years after the 1917 revolution. They understood that even in years of revolutionary upheaval, the test for socialists was whether they could give a practical and political lead to the large numbers of workers still influenced by reformist ideas. For Leon Trotsky, the theory of the united front was of even greater importance as the world moved towards fascism and war in the 1930s. His writings on Germany as Hitler came to power are some of the most prescient and useful in informing our practice today.
The united front today
The united front should be and sometimes is an uncontroversial strategy on much of left. When it is going well, such as in 2002 and 2003, when Stop the War was mobilising millions onto the streets, there were few arguments raised against it as a strategy. However, in periods when, for whatever reason, building an effective united front appears more difficult, arguments have emerged against the very idea of united front work. Remarkably, this is true today when some argue against it as a response to austerity, despite the obvious threats to working class living standards from government austerity measures.
So it has been argued that building a united front is an attempt to find a ‘short cut’ to building the revolutionary party; that it is voluntarist and/or substitutionist, putting the activity of revolutionaries in place of activity of the class; or that it involves too many compromises to reformism, leading revolutionaries to dissolve themselves into reformist organisations rather than advancing a revolutionary programme.
The existence of these arguments is an indication of the disarray of some on this question. While there are a number of organisations purporting to be united fronts against cuts, many are little more than party fronts, with very little involvement from forces outside the party which founded them. At the same time, the fact that the response of the trade unions remains critical to the fight back against the government’s austerity agenda leads some to make a theoretical opposition between building a united front against austerity and a response which centres on supporting strike action, and putting pressure on the TUC for a general strike.
The problem with a strategy which relies on the trade unions to act first is that much of the trade union leadership can usually be expected to be unwilling to spearhead radical action for any length of time, as a result of links with the Labour Party and a preference for pressure and negotiation over concerted action. This is not true of all trade union leaders, but against the background of a low level of industrial action, even the best can lack confidence that they will be able to win sufficient support for a sustained fight.
A bold political response from the unions can therefore best be achieved with pressure on the leadership, both from their own membership and from the wider movement, which can drive the more unwilling and reassure the more left-wing leaders that they have the support they need. The TUC anti-austerity demonstration on 20th October was called in part as a result of work by the Coalition of Resistance to get an anti-austerity demo backed by the unions. Discussions of the Coalition of Resistance and the trade unions on occasion either represent trade union involvement in anti-cuts campaigning as the automatic solution to all ills, or CoR as too reliant on the trade union leadership and committed to moving at their pace. Neither is correct, and the 20th October demonstration shows the relationship between the strength of the movement and the TUC’s action.
Fighting for reforms
Recognising the ambivalent position of the trade union leadership is only half the battle, however. It is also necessary to understand how pressure on that leadership should best be exerted. Raising the slogan ‘General Strike Now’, whether on an anti-cuts demonstration or outside Congress House is to fall to the level of abstract propaganda.
What is needed here is an understanding of the united front not as a luxury that revolutionaries should ditch in difficult circumstances, or as a compromise with non-revolutionary forces to be abandoned in favour of radical sloganeering, but as an essential way in which the revolutionary party can relate to the class and build the movement. The strength of the movement is where the reality of revolution will come. United front work is not simply a matter of giving comrades something to do until the revolution, nor is it only a fertile recruiting ground. Fighting for the reformist goals of the united front is to advance the cause of the revolution directly, and not just as an epiphenomenon of its ability to build the party. Although the goals of the united front, such as defence of the welfare state, are not themselves revolutionary, campaigning for them can in practice lead the movement into a head-on confrontation with the state.
A strong united front not only creates the context which pressurises the union leadership into action, but also helps union members feel that continued strike action against austerity is worthwhile. Lacking this, the willingness to undertake repeated one-day strike action can be limited, as seen with the recent UCU strike ballot defeat. This means that the work that revolutionaries do in their unions to build confidence and willingness to take industrial action is vital, but that it is also vital to continue to build CoR as the national response to austerity. The fight against austerity is political and so the response must also be political; a response which locates the struggle solely in economic struggle workplace by workplace is not encompassing the scale of the fight needed.
United front work and working in trade unions, for revolutionaries mean that we work with those to our right, in a process by which we can pull the whole debate to the left and win many of those in the middle to our ideas. This engagement with the mass of the class who are not revolutionaries is vital, and refusing to participate in it is the error, whether it takes the form of holding aloof from united front work or imagining that splitting the left from the union is the way to deal with the problems of the right-wing union leadership, as in the recent calls for a new left union in opposition to the NUS.
The importance of united front work cannot be overestimated. More and more people are
experiencing the effects of the government’s austerity agenda, and the success of efforts like the 20th October demonstration shows that there are large numbers who want an opportunity to fight back. This needs to be focused and organised, which means building the united front. Building the Coalition of Resistance and Stop the War are central to the tasks for Counterfire in the year ahead.
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