Fighting Trump and the far right: The need for a united front mass action orientation
Following the election of Donald Trump as President of the US, many on the left are calling for the building of a United Front (UF) to oppose his reactionary agenda. Unfortunately, the UF is honored more often in a rhetorical sense, as groups scramble to build themselves instead of building the unity-in-action necessary for a true mass United Front to emerge.
The UF, in its original sense, was conceived by the Communist International as alliances of action between mass working class parties, as well as the unions, in order to advance the interests of the working class. This was considered necessary because of the split in the socialist movement following the First World War. These United Fronts were considered to be temporary, and based on a limited program — with the various organizations involved keeping their own apparatus, press, and freedom to put forward ideas. Independence from ruling class parties and institutions is a paramount consideration in the construction of the UF.
The purpose of the UF is to shift the balance of class forces in favor of the oppressed and exploited. Today, the UF – building the greatest possible unity in action — offers us the opportunity to turn the defensive struggles we are fighting into a counter-offensive against the one-sided class war being waged against working people. The UF isn’t a permanent alliance or an electoral bloc, but something best understood in the context of a mass action orientation. Mass action, a working class method of struggle, is one of the tools in the fight against capitalism. By putting people into motion, mass action helps people understand their potential power.
Strategy and tactics defined
Why do strategy and tactics matter? We are faced with the best-organized and most ruthless capitalist class in the world. The state, which is an institution of the rule of the capitalist class, cannot simply be taken over by the working class and its allies and used against the bosses. In this context, socialists need to think strategically.
Strategy and tactics are traditionally military terms. Strategy is an overall plan of attack, in other words our road map guiding us through the struggle. Tactics are the methods we use to negotiate the path put forward in a strategic plan. As socialists, we understand that no struggle proceeds in a straight line. We need to avoid rigid conceptions and must remain flexible in how we apply our overall political ideas.
It’s in this sense that we should understand the United Front as a tactic with strategic implications. The US left is weak and atomized. There are no mass workers parties such as ones that exist in other countries. Of course, many of the mass working class parties overseas have lost much of their base as workers are alienated by the adaptation of these parties to neo-liberal austerity programs. Here in the US, considering the lack of a mass working class party, it is necessary to build coalitions that include the broadest possible social and political forces. These coalitions must necessarily focus on drawing the mass organizations of the working class, the unions, into the struggle.
The United Front is counterposed to the Popular Front, a reformist strategy that depends on electoral alliances between working class and bourgeois parties. Popular Fronts, and other cross-class alliances, have been a disaster for working people. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The Unidad Popular was a multi-class electoral coalition that brought the moderate socialist Allende to power. As the far right, in collusion with the US government, destabilized the country in preparation for a strike, Allende was faced with two choices; He could either arm the working class and organize a mass defense of his government or he could rely on bourgeois legalism. Unwilling to break with his liberal allies, Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup and assassinated. A long night of military dictatorship and repression followed.
Otherwise, there is a danger of the left capturing themselves in “left” coalitions and a continued isolation based on left sectarianism and substitutionism. The notion that United Fronts can be built without including the unions or “reformist” organizations is a dangerous detour away from mass politics.
It is important that United Front coalitions are democratic, with decision making under the control of a representative united front committee composed of representatives of the participating organizations. So many organizations on the left pay lip-service to the united front, but they’re far closer to the Third Period “united front from below”, which is a contradiction in terms. They want to “build the united front” by recruiting to their organization. Other organizations initiate “united fronts” that are nothing more than party fronts. Control must be given to a committee of constituent organizations if the broadest possible forces are to be mobilized for mass action struggle. Without that, the “united front” merely remains a party front or asset, the preservation of a sect.
Past examples of the United Front
One of the best examples of the necessity of the UF is the struggle against fascism in Germany. As the fascists propelled themselves to power, dissident communists, like Leon Trotsky, opposed the dangerous ultraleft turn of the Stalinist parties, which considered the Social Democratic parties to be “Social Fascists” and no better than the Nazis. They refused to make common cause with the Socialists to resist Hitler helping pave the way for Hitler’s rise to power.
Revolutionaries have advocated use of the united front method to build unity-in-action against fascist mobilizations, during the Boston busing fight in defense of school desegregation (70’s), in solidarity with the Central American revolutions in the 80s, and in defense of a woman’s right to choose by building mass marches in Washington, DC.
In 1930’s Britain, a rising fascist movement, The British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Sir Oswald Mosley, mobilized a corp of Blackshirts that were comparable to Hitler’s Brownshirts in Germany. This British fascist movement had as many as 40,000 members at its height.
With support from a section of capitalists and Tory politicians, the BUF and Blackshirts began to mobilize themselves for a struggle for power. Dressed in military-style uniforms, the fascists marched in working class and Jewish neighborhoods. Jewish businesses were attacked while fascist goons attacked workers and immigrants. These provocations were answered by mass counter-demonstrations by working class organizations.
This situation culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. As fascists threatened to march through London’s East End, under police protection, a united front of union members, Communists, Trotskyists, Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party mobilized a counter-demonstration of more than half a million workers. Chanting, “they shall not pass” the workers blocked the fascists and engaged in a street battle with cops and fascists. The fascists were dealt a resounding defeat from which they never recovered.
“The defeat at Cable Street in 1936 dealt a severe blow to Mosley. Afraid of the organised might of the working class so militantly demonstrated, the East End fascist movement declined. The spectacle of the workers in action gave the fascists reason to pause. It induced widespread despondency and demoralization in their ranks; their victory over the fascists imbued the working class with confidence. This united action of the workers at Cable Street demonstrated anew the lesson: only vigorous counter-action hinders the growth of the menace of fascism.” Ted Grant, The Menace of Fascism, What it is and how to fight it
Perhaps, the most notable recent use of the United Front mass action orientation was during the US imperialist war in Vietnam. Socialists worked day and night to build the largest mass mobilizations against the war that were possible — representing the broadest layers of society.
How did socialists see the antiwar struggle at the time?
“There does not exist in this country a mass communist party and a mass reformist party so the so-called “classical” form of the united front tactic obviously does not apply. That is, it is not based on formal agreement between formally constituted organizations, mass or otherwise.
“The antiwar formation is composed of diverse organizations, groups and individuals, always shifting, rarely the same, knit together at moments of action in a temporary coalition for a limited objective. After each major action the centrifugal tendency inherent in so heterogeneous a formation threatens to make it fly apart. The cement that holds it together is common opposition to U.S. administration policy in. the Vietnam War. How long it will endure in its present form is anyone’s guess.” Tom Kerry Some Comments On Party Policy And Tactics In The Antiwar Movement
The Vietnam antiwar movement mobilized millions of people and helped shift public perception of the imperialist war. The mass mobilizations at home, coupled with the military successes of the Vietnamese people, created the political space for GI resistance to the war paving the way for returning, and active-duty, soldiers to play a major role in the movement. The destabilization of the US military in this situation made the withdrawal from Vietnam a necessity for a ruling class that feared losing control of the ranks of the military.
Similarly, mass action coalitions were built prior to the first and second Iraq wars and in opposition to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the movement against the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan lost focus as liberals, and some leftists, consciously demobilized the movement in order to elect Democrats who had no intention of ending these conflicts.
Today, the antiwar movement is in disarray, with competing coalitions unable or unwilling to work together. Inability to agree on US imperialist policy in Syria is one obstacle. Illusions in the Democratic Party remains another.
Unity in action against the Trump regime
While election campaigns can be effective, in the day to day struggles for justice there is no substitute for independent mass mobilization. Building united front coalitions, to oppose the Trump agenda and the growth of the far right, will require involving the broadest possible social and political forces, especially the organizations of the working class.
The mobilizations against the Trump inauguration are an opportunity for unity-in-action. Some organizations called for counter-inaugural demonstrations early. Unfortunately, there were few calls to build a coalition or united opposition. A meeting to establish an ad hoc committee for the inaugural and write a joint call to action would have had an energizing effect. Instead, we are presented with an assortment of competing mobilizations and meetings in DC and around the country on the weekend of the 20th.
Socialists should be advocating for a unified approach to building both the counter-inaugural protests and the national women’s march the next day. The defense of women’s reproductive rights and the democratic rights gained by women and the LGBT community is an urgent task. In this sense, inauguration weekend needs to be seen as a weekend of resistance.
A recent statement by Socialist Alternative is a good beginning, “We seek maximum unity of all forces who want to fight the right while continuing the debate about how to win victories and change society.”
Similarly, the Boston Socialist Unity Project and Philly Socialists have issued a call for unity in action:
“Socialist unity in action can help build towards a powerful united front capable of resisting both Trump and the system that created him. Socialists understand that capitalism and imperialism seek to pit sections of the working class against each other and our perspective can help overcome this tendency to divide and conquer that Trump relies on. Socialists also understand the need for mass actions in the streets in concert with other progressives, especially in the coming weeks leading up to the inauguration. Socialists also understand that a united front must collaborate broadly and strategically with all democratic forces to build the working class movement, whether engaged in community work, public protests, or electoral activities.”
These statements sum up the united front method very well. Activists on the left and in the labor movement should be arguing for unity in action going forward. As Trump’s first hundred days loom ahead, we need to be prepared to fight attacks on social programs, workers’ rights, LGBT rights, Social Security and Medicare, immigrant communities and all of the other targets of Trump and his reactionary allies. We also need to be prepared to defend the right to organize, protest and speak from attacks by the far right.
Saying “Dump Trump” is not enough – a better world is possible
Simply saying “Dump Trump” isn’t enough. The problems we face are systemic. Driving one politician from office isn’t enough. While elections can and must be part of our arsenal, we should understand that the situation won’t wait until the next election cycle. Certainly, there should be no question of diverting mass movements into into the graveyard of social movements that is the Democratic Party, as was the case in Wisconsin following the union busting attacks by the Scott Walker regime.
There are dangers in saying “Dump Trump” or focusing single-mindedly on Trump. Saying a “united front against Trump” isn’t exactly right. We need a UF against his agenda as it plays out. This means taking the UF method into several different movements and situations, not a single overarching United Front.
As the left builds broad action coalitions, we must also work to articulate a common vision of a future without racism, sexism, exploitation, environmental disaster, and war.