Unity in diversity

How does the concept of the united front fit into the struggle for a Communist Party? Mike Macnair continues his examination of strategy

In the last article in this series we were concerned with the strategic split between communists and socialists. In this article we have to address the problem of unity which the split posed.

With the creation of the Comintern the national split which the 1914-18 war had caused in the broad, united socialist movement was replaced by an organisational-ideological split which affected the workers' parties in most countries. But with this split the problem of working class political unity in action did not go away, because it is deeply rooted in the nature of the movement. The policy or 'tactic' of the united class front was the Comintern's effort to tackle this problem.

Down to 1920 the Comintern's leaders were struggling for a clear and unambiguous split in the workers' movement. This split was necessary in order to escape the domination of the movement by the right and the fudges of the centre, which supported the domination of the right. But as soon as the split came about the working class's objective need for unity reasserted itself. The Comintern was now forced to try to find a way of addressing that need for unity without again subordinating the movement to the right.

British Labour

The starting point of the united front policy, before it was even expressed as such, was the Comintern's advice to the British communists on the Labour Party. The groups which formed the CPGB were divided on the question, some favouring and some opposing affiliation to Labour. The 1920 2nd Congress of the Comintern debated the question and resolved that the Communist Party then in process of formation should affiliate. The proposal was quite clearly made on the basis that communists would have full freedom of agitation and organisation within the Labour Party.

Lenin argued that "... the Labour Party has let the British Socialist Party into its ranks, permitting it to have its own press organs, in which members of the selfsame Labour Party can freely and openly declare that the party leaders are social-traitors ... This shows that a party affiliated to the Labour Party is able not only to severely criticise but openly and specifically to mention the old leaders by name, and call them social-traitors. This is a very original situation ...

"In a private talk, comrade Pankhurst said to me: 'If we are real revolutionaries and join the Labour Party, these gentlemen will expel us.' But that would not be bad at all. Our resolution says that we favour affiliation insofar as the Labour Party permits sufficient freedom of criticism. On that point we are absolutely consistent."

As a matter of judgment of the evolution of the Labour Party, these arguments are problematic. From its 1918 conference, the Labour Party was in process of transforming itself from a loose confederation into a party which combined affiliations with individual membership based on a political platform. In reality, the CP was not allowed to affiliate and individual communists' membership in the Labour Party was from a very early stage semi-legal.

The argument nonetheless shows that even at a time that the Comintern's leadership was still mainly concerned to complete the split with the centrists, they were willing to fight for participation of communists in a broader unity of the workers' movement - provided that the communists retained liberty of agitation.

The united front turn

The united front turn more generally was animated by the fact that over the course of 1921 it became clear that the split had not purged the movement, but, on the contrary, the social democrats of the right and centre retained mass support in the working class.

In Italy the January 1921 split of the left from the right and centre of the Partito Socialista Italiano - urged on by the Comintern leadership - left the communists as a small minority.

In March 1921 the German United Communist Party (VKPD) had endeavoured to trigger the revolution artificially in the 'March action'. The attempt was a categorical failure and only emphasised the fact that the right-dominated SPD had majority support in the German working class.

At the Tours Congress in December 1920 the SFIO (French Section of the Workers' International, the Socialist Party) split. A three-quarters majority accepted the '21 conditions' and adhered to the Comintern as the Parti Communiste Franà§ais (PCF). A minority split to reconstitute the SFIO.

But of the SFIO's 69 parliamentary deputies only 13 joined the PCF, 56 going with the SFIO, and the SFIO also took the large majority of the local councillors. Over 1921 it also became clear that the SFIO had majority support in the trade unions, which expelled a communist-supported minority in December. By late 1921 it was evident that in spite of the numbers at Tours the SFIO actually had the majority in the broader workers' movement; and the SFIO was engaged in constructing the Cartel des Gauches left electoral bloc with the left bourgeois Radical Party (for the May 1922 local and 1924 general elections). This policy allowed them to present the communists as splitters of the unity of the left.

In this context the executive committee of the Comintern in December 1921 adopted the 'Theses on the united front'. They begin (theses 1-2) with the reassertion of the 'actuality of the revolution' in the form of a foreshortened perspective of economic crisis and war.

They then assert (theses 3-4) that, while a section of the most advanced workers had been won to place confidence in the communists, the advance of the class struggle had brought more backward layers into activity, and these were the source of the instinctive demand for unity.

This analysis makes the problem correspond to the situation in Russia in February 1917: the Bolsheviks had obtained a majority of the existing organised workers, but the outbreak of revolution brought onto the stage broad masses for whom Menshevik ideas were more attractive. The same dynamic was visible in Portugal in 1974-75: the Communist Party had been the majority in the repressed workers' movement under the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship, but the advance of the mass movement allowed rapid and dramatic growth of the Socialist Party.

However, as an analysis of the situation in 1921 it was false: neither in Germany nor in Italy had the communists won a majority in the existing organised movement, and 1921 showed that in France the apparent majority of the existing organised movement won at Tours was in fact illusory.

The theses then assert that the split was necessary in order that the communists should "win freedom of agitation and propaganda" (thesis 5); that the communists are now fighting for unity of the workers in action, which the reformists reject (thesis 6); and that the reformists are using the slogan of unity to draw the workers into support for class collaboration (thesis 7). Hence the conclusion: "The overall interests of the communist movement require that the communist parties and the Communist International as a whole support the slogan of a united workers' front and take the initiative on this question into their own hands" (thesis 8).

Theses 9-16 attempt to concretise the idea in a series of individual countries, while thesis 17 calls on other communist parties to do likewise. Thesis 18 asserts a fundamental point:

"The executive committee of the Communist International considers that the chief and categorical condition, the same for all communist parties, is: the absolute autonomy and complete independence of every Communist Party entering into any agreement with the parties of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals, and its freedom to present its own views and its criticisms of those who oppose the communists. While accepting the need for discipline in action, communists must at the same time retain both the right and the opportunity to voice, not only before and after but if necessary during actions, their opinion on the politics of all the organisations of the working class without exception. The waiving of this condition is not permissible in any circumstances. Whilst supporting the slogan of maximum unity of all workers' organisations in every practical action against the capitalist front, communists cannot in any circumstances refrain from putting forward their views, which are the only consistent expression of the interests of the working class as a whole."

The remaining theses discuss a series of discrete points (the Bolshevik experience, initiatives of the Comintern as a whole, problems of centrism within the communist parties, that unity in action of the working class must include the anarchists and syndicalists).

4th Comintern Congress

The Comintern returned to the question at its 4th Congress in December 1922. Thesis 10 of the 'Theses on Comintern tactics' reaffirmed the executive committee's December 1921 theses, although the compression of the argument makes the text less fully transparent:

"At present the reformists need a split, while the communists are interested in uniting all the forces of the working class against capital. Using the united front tactic means that the communist vanguard is at the forefront of the day-to-day struggle of the broad masses for their most vital interests. For the sake of this struggle communists are even prepared to negotiate with the scab leaders of the social democrats and the Amsterdam International. Any attempt by the Second International to interpret the united front as an organisational fusion of all the 'workers' parties' must of course be categorically repudiated ...

"The existence of independent communist parties and their complete freedom of action in relation to the bourgeoisie and counterrevolutionary social democracy is the most important historical achievement of the proletariat, and one which the communists will in no circumstances renounce. Only the communist parties stand for the overall interests of the whole proletariat.

"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 main aim of the united front tactic is to unify the working masses through agitation and organisation. The real success of the united front tactic depends on a movement 'from below', from the rank and file of the working masses. Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which communists must not refuse to have talks with the leaders of the hostile workers' parties, providing the masses are always kept fully informed of the course of these talks. During negotiations with these leaders the independence of the Communist Party and its agitation must not be circumscribed."


We can draw from these texts (and others, such as Trotsky's March 1922 report, 'On the united front', in specific relation to France) a clear understanding of the Comintern leadership's conception of the united front idea.

(1) The question is posed because the right wing still lead broad masses. The united front is not a permanent concept, but a road to a higher form of unity, in which the unity of the class is expressed in the Communist Party and Comintern.

(2) The idea is of the workers' united front. This has two aspects: (a) It is for the unity of the working class as a whole, in action for elementary common interests - ie, including the anarchists, etc; it is not merely an electoral or parliamentary combination of communists and socialists (ECCI thesis 23). (b) It is counterposed to the 'left unity' that includes liberal parties of the Cartel des Gauches and to the SPD's post-war coalition policy.

(3) It is the "chief and categorical condition" that the Communist Party must retain autonomy and independence and "its freedom to present its own views and its criticisms of those who oppose the communists" (emphasis added).

(4) It is a precondition for the application of this policy that the Communists should have a party (theses 5-6). The EC theses warn of the danger that the united front policy will be used as a basis for a reversion to an unorganised left in a broader fudged unity (theses 21-22). Equally, as Trotsky put it, "In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organisation of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organisational significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership of the old organisations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role" (point 3).


This conception was, in fact, very rapidly abandoned. The socialists, including their lefts, proved unwilling to enter into agreements for common action with the communists on these terms. The initial result was the creation of unity with elements of the left socialists and trade unionists on the basis of self-censorship of the communists in order to fudge the political differences between them.

The clearest instance was the case of the relationship between the British communists and the trade union 'official lefts,' and that between the Soviet trade unionists and the general council of the TUC, in the run-up to and during the 1926 General Strike. Criticism of the official lefts which would have been sufficiently sharp to warn their followers of the role they would play in the 1926 General Strike would have broken the bloc; so the criticism was not forthcoming. A range of similar failures at the same period are discussed in Trotsky's The Third International after Lenin (1928).

The late 1920s saw an abrupt shift to the 'left' in the Soviet Union (the turn to 'class struggle in the countryside' and forced collectivisation) and in the Comintern: in place of the united front policy, the task of the communist parties was now mainly to fight against the socialists. Trotsky called it the "third period of the Comintern's errors", and the expression, "third period", as a description of dead-end sectarian isolationism has stuck. The new policy continued until, in 1933, it met with the utter disaster of the Nazi coup in Germany.

In response to the Nazi coup, the Comintern shifted again onto the terrain of unity through self-censorship. Dimitrov's speech to the 1935 7th Congress of the Comintern introducing the new perspective contains a striking passage:

"'The communists attack us,' say others. But listen, we have repeatedly declared: We shall not attack anyone, whether persons, organisations or parties, standing for the united front of the working class against the class enemy. But at the same time it is our duty, in the interests of the proletariat and its cause, to criticise those persons, organisations and parties that hinder unity of action by the workers."

In fact, the Comintern went beyond unity through self-censorship and fudges to the concept of the 'anti-fascist people's front'. In doing so, they had decisively abandoned the early Comintern's concept in which the united workers front was opposed to the coalitionism of the German SPD and the French Cartel des Gauches. They had, indeed, begun to situate themselves on the terrain of the coalitionist strategy of the old right wing of the Second International. They had, indeed, begun to abandon the whole strategic line of Marxism as such: that is, that the only road to socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class as a class.


In retrospect, Trotsky and the Trotskyists analysed these shifts as driven by the evolution of the policy - in particularly foreign policy - of the Soviet bureaucracy and carried into effect by top-down bureaucratic control in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Comintern. However, since 1945, we have seen repeated examples of Trotskyist organisations performing the same flip-flops between unity on the basis of self-censorship, followed by a sudden 'leftist' shift into 'third period' denunciations of the right wing of the workers' movement as purely bourgeois and sectarian isolation. Sectarian isolation can equally be followed by a sudden shift into fudged unity on the basis of self-censorship: the evolution of the British Socialist Workers Party since 2000 has been a striking example.

The truth is that the dynamic was not driven by the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalinism as a particular caste-political form, but by internal contradictions in the early Comintern policy. The key contradiction is between the 'united front' struggle for unity on the basis of freedom of criticism and of party/factional organisation in the class movement as a whole, and the 1921 rejection of unity on the basis of freedom of criticism and of factions in the Communist Party as such (discussed in more length in the last article in this series - Weekly Worker May 4). To see why, it is necessary to go a level deeper into the theoretical grounds for supposing that the united class front is necessary.

The problem of unity

The working class objectively needs united action and united organisations. This flows from its underlying nature as a class. We saw this point already in the second article in this series. The proletariat is the whole class dependent on the wage fund, not the workers who happen to be currently employed (let alone any particular sector, such as 'industrial workers'). Lacking property in the major means of production, workers need to organise collective action in order to defend their interests. That 'unity is strength' is therefore the elemental and indispensable basis of workers' organisation.

But this need encounters two contradictions. The first is that both capital and the working class are international in character. A central statement in the 1864 'Inaugural address' of the First International is still unqualifiedly true today: "Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts."

However, there are within the workers' movement nationalist socialists loyal to the existing individual nation-states. The result is that there is a contradiction between unity of the working class as an international class and unity in any one country between nationalists and internationalists. The point is well made in Lenin and Zinoviev's Socialism and war: "Unity with the opportunists actually means today subordinating the working class to 'its' national bourgeoisie, alliance with it for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for great-power privileges; it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat in all countries."

Unity in diversity

The second contradiction is a little more difficult to explain. We can take it at a high level of abstraction or much more concretely. In abstraction, a workers' organisation - whether trade union, party or whatever - is not an unconscious 'organic unity' like family, clan or peasant village. It is a consciously created unity which grows out of and negates/preserves the individualism of modern capitalist society. In this aspect it foreshadows the future freely associated producers of socialism. But to be a consciously created unity it must inherently be a unity in diversity, an agreement to unite for partial common ends, while recognising the diverse individual opinions and wills. It is, indeed, the partial convergence of the individual opinions and wills which forms the basis of the possibility of consciously created unity.

This dialectic of individual and consciously created collective necessarily entails the possibility of collectives within the collective where - as is inevitable - there come to be disagreements within the larger collective.

At the level of the concrete, a workers' organisation of any size and geographical extent cannot run under capitalism on the basis of a pure distribution of tasks from meeting to meeting among members who do them in their free time. In the first place, the capitalists simply do not give workers enough free time, except in the form of pauperising and demoralising unemployment. In the second place, though we seek to make everyone a worker-leader, worker-manager or worker-intellectual (synonyms; call it what you will), in fact our ability under capitalism to overcome the petty-proprietor intelligentsia's monopoly of education and managerial and administrative skills is limited.

In practice we have to have full-timers, and these are either members of the intelligentsia/managerial middle class (petty proprietors of intellectual property) by background, or, if they originate as workers, become intelligentsia by training as full-timers. Full-time office itself can, moreover, be a type of property in the form of privileged access to information.

Any workers' organisation under capitalism therefore inherently entails a class contradiction between the proletarian ranks and the pretty-proprietor officials. The anarchist 'solution' of dispensing with the full-timers is no solution at all: it either means no organisation or an organisation more completely dominated by members of the intelligentsia by background. The problem - which we already encountered in the third article in this series as an unsolved problem identified by the anarchists - is to find a road to subordinating the full-timers to the membership.

There are several potential elements of such a road. But the main point is that it is utterly indispensable if the working class ranks are to subordinate the middle class officials to themselves that the ranks must have freedom to organise without the say-so of the officials. We have already seen that organisation is indispensable to the working class pursuing its interests; this is just as true within the organisations that the working class itself creates, as it is in the larger society.

This leads to the same conclusion as the first and more abstract point. To retain its character as an effective instrument of the proletariat as a class, a workers' organisation must have freedom to organise factions within its ranks. Indeed, the struggle of trends, platforms and factions is a normal and essential means by which its differences are collectivised and a unity created out of them. It must be a unity in diversity.

Unity in diversity can be denied to the movement in three ways. Bureaucratic suppression or exclusion of dissenting factions is an obvious one. Equally obvious is ultimatist refusal of unity for limited common action where that is possible, on the basis that there is insufficient agreement on other tasks.

The third and less obvious, but equally common, way is to fudge differences by diplomatic agreement to windy generalities, or to self-censor and thereby pretend that there is more agreement than there actually is. It was this last course of action which Marx and Engels attacked in their critiques of the 1875 Gotha programme.

Any of these courses of action denies the ranks of the workers' movement the possibility of choosing between opposing views, and is therefore antithetical to a real, effective unity of the movement.

Bureaucratic centralism versus the united front

In effect, the policy of the united front was a struggle for unity in diversity. But a deep grasp of this character eluded the Comintern: both the history of the split and the 1921 adoption of the ban on factions precluded it.

The history of the split meant that half the justification offered for the split was to 'purge' the workers' movement of opportunism: this justification is obviously opposed to any form of unity, even partial, and found its true expression in the 'third period'.

The ban on factions was itself a direct denial of the need for unity in diversity in the communist parties and Comintern. The effect of this ban was that the communist parties came to replicate the secret Bakuninist dictatorial conspiracy of 1870-71. This character was perfectly visible to left socialists - some of them ex-communists like Paul Levi - from 1921 onwards.

The Comintern leaders had quite properly asserted that the united front was not a permanent policy, but a road to the reunification of the workers' movement on a higher level, represented by the communist parties and International. But the character of the communist parties under the post-1921 regime meant that they could not express the proletariat's class need for unity in diversity. On the contrary, the bureaucratic dictatorship of the socialist right was now paralleled by a more ferocious bureaucratic dictatorship of the Communist Party apparatuses with its head in Moscow.

Once the communist parties had taken this form, the natural inference was that real unity in diversity was actually impossible. Unity in the party could not be unity in diversity: therefore, neither could broader unity. This left the only choices available as radical separation ('third period') or 'fudging' or diplomatic unity, in which the communists self-censored to conceal the actual differences between themselves and the left socialist or trade unionist leaders.

Taking diplomatic unity with the right of the workers' movement seriously meant, necessarily, fudging over the difference between, on the one hand, the right's coalitionist politics and, on the other, the politics of class independence. When the Comintern leadership fully accepted this, the result was the politics of the people's front.

Trotskyists and the united front

Trotsky was intimately involved in the creation of the Comintern policy of the united front. A great deal of his political struggle after he lost out in the battle for the leadership of the Russian Communist Party was focussed on it. His writings on Britain and China in the 1920s attacked the Comintern's diplomatic unity policy. Between 1928 and 1933 he battled in print against 'third period' sectarianism. In 1934-38 he counterposed the workers' united front to the Comintern's people's front policy, and at the same time battled against the diplomatic, fudging unity approach of the 'London bureau' of left socialist parties and of many of his own co-thinkers in the International Left Opposition and its successor organisations.

But Trotsky - in spite of participating in the Russian left's 1920s criticisms of the party regime - never escaped from the contradiction between the united front policy and the 1920 and 1921 theses on the organisational character of the communist parties. He internalised firmly the idea that before 1917 Lenin was right and he was wrong on the party question, and clung to the policies of the first four Congresses of the Comintern as an anchor in the shifting seas of the politics of the grouplets outside the mainstream of the socialist and communist parties.

The Trotskyists started with micro-groups. When they got bigger, they tended to 'Bolshevise' their parties, creating an overt or covert dictatorship of their petty bureaucracies. To such organisations a real commitment to unity in diversity of the workers' movement was as inconceivable as it was to the Stalinists. Unity had to be diplomatic: the alternative was sectarian self-isolation.

But the history of Trotsky's struggle for the united front policy meant that even in sectarian self-isolation the Trotskyists tended both (a) to attach themselves to sections of the mass movement, while self-censoring and hiding their own banner (as in Labour Party entry and similar tactics), and (b) to create 'fronts' which purported to be 'united fronts' of the left, but were in fact bureaucratically controlled by particular Trotskyist organisations: the Healyites' 'All Trade Union Alliance', the International Socialists/Socialist Workers' Party's 'Rank and File Movements', the Lambertistes' 'Parti des Travailleurs' ('Workers' Party') and so on and on ...

The Mandelites actually constructed a theory which justifies diplomatic unity: Bensaid/Jebrac's dialectique d'unité et débordement (dialectic of unity and overflowing, or outflanking). This theory was plagiarised by both John Ross and Tony Cliff and thereby found its way into the common sense of the British far left.

In this theory, the united front is a tactic and one applicable by a small group, rather than a policy for the whole of the working class. (Diplomatic) unity with the reformists, or a section of them, makes it possible to set the masses in motion in a particular struggle. The Trotskyists then demonstrate to these masses that they are better fighters for this particular struggle, and/or that they will not draw back from carrying this particular struggle to the end. As a result, the mobilised masses then turn to the Trotskyists.

The theory justifies diplomatic unity because the masses break with the reformists "in action, not in ideas": with the implication that they do so in relation to their particular struggles. Unity with the reformists is essential to set the masses in motion; and on the particular struggles it is unnecessary for the Trotskyists to offer sharp criticism of the reformists, which might prevent unity: the mass struggle will find the reformists out.

Numerous Trotskyist groups endeavour to practise this 'theory of the united front' which has very little in common with the Comintern's policy. The SWP, for example, has used it to justify its policies in the Anti-Nazi League, the Socialist Alliance, the anti-globalisation movement and Respect.

The underlying problem is that it is a variant of the sub-Bakuninist mass strike strategy discussed in the third article in this series. Once the masses, or even quite small layers of newly radicalising militants, actually begin to enter the political stage, they demand of the left not 'good fighters' on the particular struggle, but an alternative political authority. At once, this poses the question of a party in (at least) the Kautskyian sense. This requires addressing the full range of questions affecting the society as a whole.

Followers of the Bensaid/Jebrac version of the 'united front' are inherently obsessed with 'action' as the road to overcoming the reformists, and therefore debar themselves from offering such answers. They also hold back militants who wish to go beyond the narrow aims of the particular struggle. The result is that, far from turning to the Trotskyists, these militants turn to parties which are prepared to offer broader policies.


The split between communists, loyal to the working class as an international class, and coalitionist socialists, loyal to the nation-state, will never be 'healed' as long as communists insist on organising to fight for their ideas. The policy of the united workers' front is therefore an essential element of strategy in the fight for workers' power.

But this policy can only make sense as part of a larger struggle for unity in diversity. And this struggle is a struggle against - among other things - the Trotskyists' concept of the united front.