Many Leftists in the US--myself included--have been closely following the developments in Greece. It's impossible to feel the excitement of a possible SYRIZA victory and not think: "what does the success of the anti-austerity Left in Greece say about the prospects of the Left--particularly the anti-capitalist Left--here at home?" Given that we (in the US) are about to be thrown into the suffocating spectacle of presidential campaigning--with all of the apolitical bile, lesser-evilist calculation, and wishful thinking that accompanies these corporate-driven media events--this question is especially pressing.
It seems to me that there are two pitfalls awaiting the Left here. On the one hand, there is the danger of opportunism. On the other, there is the problem of abstentionism. Let's examine each in turn.
Opportunism means diluting one's political principles in certain circumstances for the sake of winning credibility with mainstream forces. Often the motivation for opportunism is to draw larger numbers of people into one's orbit at any cost. This can take many concrete forms. Imagine, for example, a socialist group who, although committed to anti-capitalist politics, pitched their arguments in terms of the concepts, language, and politics characteristic of mainstream Democrats. Or, imagine a group which, though ostensibly socialist, refused to publicly defend socialist politics for fear of alienating people, preferring instead to defend the line toed by mainstream Democratic candidates for office because this appears to have a certain credibility in "respectable" circles. This is "tailism" pure and simple: such an approach is inherently conservative because it leaves things as they are and encourages accommodation rather than resistance or struggle. But, pace CPUSA and other organizations who pursue this conservative line, the job of socialists isn't to respect the status quo as it is and allow themselves to be tossed to and fro by the ephemeral swells of mainstream opinion. The job of socialists is to change the world, to push struggles forward, and to participate in movements with an eye to increase their self-confidence and move them left.
But if the shoals of opportunism are to be avoided, so too must socialists avoid the reefs of abstentionism and the fetishization of abstract political purity. Abstentionism--or, if you like, ultra-leftism--is the pitfall opposite opportunism. In an overcompensating effort to avoid merely tailing the mainstream forces already in motion, ultra-left abstentionism recommends an abstract rejection of all things mainstream. Ultra-leftism comes in many flavors, but the basic mistake common to all its permutations is a misunderstanding of objective conditions and the need to assess them in a concrete way. "Insurrectionists" make just this mistake when they ignore the balance of forces and objective conditions (levels of struggle, consciousness, economic forces, etc.) on the ground and, abstractly, propose tactics and strategies appropriate to a revolutionary situation. So, too, do many "revolutionaries" who, abstractly, oppose all trade unions--their rank and file included--on "principle" alone. Both ignore objective conditions and propose a purely subjective "solution" to the perils of opportunism: abstain from mainstream struggles and reject the need to build mass movements, the better to maintain "purity" on the fringes of society.
To forge a way forward, socialists have to navigate these--interrelated and dialectically intertwined--political pitfalls. Neither of these errors is primarily a matter of their immediate political content--ultra leftism and opportunism look different in different contexts. Both errors have the form of responding badly to actual conditions--whatever they may be. In different conditions, the same tactic--participation in parliamentary elections, say--could be ultra-left in one case and opportunist in another. Only a "concrete analysis of a concrete situation" can decide the matter.
The need to discuss and avoid these pitfalls is hardly unprecedented. In fact, socialists were faced with many of the same exact problems in the early 20th century. Obviously, conditions have changed considerably, so analogies between then and now must be drawn carefully. Nonetheless, I think there is something really important about understanding the debates around the "united front" tactic in the Third International in the 1920s. Understanding what was at stake in those debates, I think, helps us get a lot of clarity about the situation in Greece and, for that matter, in the US.
What is the "united front" tactic? No one has summarized it more concisely than Duncan Hallas:
The united front tactic is more frequently misunderstood than almost any other element of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It is a method of struggle for influence and support in a defensive situation and it presupposes the organisational and political independence of the revolutionary organisation. The tactic starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organisations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organisations, which it can do under favourable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organisations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind.There's a lot packed into this paragraph, so its worth pulling apart for a moment. First of all, a united front is a broad alliance of working-class organizations and groups. It is not a proposal for collaboration with ruling-class organizations or parties.
Second, the united front is a coalition built on the need to secure unity in action around a set of concrete demands--it is not a call for programmatic or ideological unity around basic political principles. Thus, a united front presupposes the political and organizational independence of the coalition members--it is not a proposal to dissolve revolutionary groups into a reformist melting pot.
Third, it is a tactic appropriate only to certain conditions, mainly in developed capitalist societies in which a majority of working people aren't already revolutionaries--the coalitions that form in the course of anti-colonial and national liberation struggles often require a slightly different analysis. From this it follows that in a properly revolutionary situation it would be downright reactionary to advocate a united front of revolutionary and non-revolutionary forces.
Finally, the basic goal of a united front is for revolutionaries to connect and engage with the rank-and-file workers involved in reformist unions and workers organizations--it is not primarily an effort to win over the existing leadership of those groups. In fact, the whole point is to force tepid, reformist leaders to commit to concrete demands--e.g. an immediate end to austerity, say--so that if they fail to secure them they are compelled to out themselves as incapable of fighting for the interests of their own members. Moments such as these can only help radicals by bringing political clarity to complex situations--surely the rise of SYRIZA and the sharp decline of PASOK is an example of this sort.
This last point--regarding the use of the united front as a way of pushing the struggle forward and winning workers to a radical perspective--was put well in an argument advanced by the Comintern in 1922 when it called for:
...the establishment of a united front of all parties supported by the proletariat, regardless of the differences separating them, so long as they are anxious to wage a common fight for the immediate and urgent needs of the proletariat ... No worker, whether communist or social-democrat or syndicalist or even a member of the Christian or liberal trade unions, wants his wages further reduced. None wants to work longer hours ... And therefore all must unite in a common front against the employers’ offensive...In short, the united front tactic is a "determined attempt to force the leaderships of the reformist and centrist organisations into limited co-operation on concrete issues by winning their followers for unity in action." The goal of winning the followers of reformist organizations through struggle is key--this distinguishes the united front tactic from opportunistic, class-collaborationist strategies such as the "popular front" which do nothing to advance working class self-activity or facilitate radicalization. (As a side note, I don't think the "popular front" was originally intended to do anything of the sort--it was rather a self-serving policy designed to benefit the ruling group around Stalin).
In order to be effective in doing this, revolutionaries have to be independently organized and settled on a shared set of politics with their comrades. Otherwise, the pressures and disorienting messiness of coalitions are likely to tempt socialists into opportunistic accommodation or dilution of their political principles. This is why the united front presupposes an independent, politically developed group of revolutionaries, who participate in it as open revolutionaries. Without this, revolutionaries will have little hope of either pushing the coalition leftward or of winning new workers to a radical perspective.
The key is that the united front is built around concrete demands--not ideological unity--so that revolutionaries aren't forced to renounce their basic politics and dissolve themselves into the mediocrity of reformism. The idea is that, in a non-revolutionary situation, the fight for concrete demands can serve both as training ground for workers in struggle and as a way of improving their immediate life conditions. A small victory can, by showing that it is possible to fight and win, be a part of an extended dialectical process of radicalization for large groups of people.
Within a united front, revolutionaries have to do more than simply propagandize and project their political perspective discursively. They have to also show others through action that they are committed to doing the hard work that it takes to organize a movement capable of winning. They must organize and fight alongside all of the most dedicated activists in the movement to win their respect in practice. People's ideas change in response to political dialogue and argument. But they change more rapidly in the course of struggle--so active participation in the movement is just as central as putting forward a clear political perspective to attract newly radicalizing people.
Abstentionist-minded ultra-leftists are likely to oppose united front tactics because they confuse them for opportunism. But this is a grave error. As Trotsky once put the point:
Unity of front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of the reformist organisations, to the extent that the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat. ‘But 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 cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in a 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 struggle ... in many cases and perhaps even in the majority of cases, organisational 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 real lack of will to struggle on the part of the reformists.Trotsky hits the nail on the head here. Revolutionaries must avoid the "formalistic irreconcilability" that is sure to accompany ultra-left mistakes. But they must be just as determined to avoid opportunism by keeping in mind that they do, at the end of the day, disagree with reformists on "all of the fundamental questions of the working class movement".
There is no question that a lot depends on the concrete demands that get adopted as the basis for unity. Some demands, no doubt, cannot serve as a basis for recruiting reformist organizations--e.g. the immediate overthrow of the system. By the same token, some demands, though supported by reformists, might be too conservative for revolutionaries to sign on to. A racist or xenophobic demand, for example, or one that defended imperialism in any form, would never, under any circumstances, be one that revolutionaries could endorse. The question of which demands make the most sense is only one that can be answered with respect to a specific balance of forces.
It seems to me clear that this discussion of the united front has a lot of relevance to contemporary struggles. But it is no blueprint. As Hallas once put it: "There are enormous practical difficulties in applying this approach in any actual appropriate situation. Each such situation is different; each has, inevitably, unique factors. There is no substitute for the ‘knowledge, experience and ... political flair’ of which Lenin wrote, in solving complex political problems. The simple reiteration of the formulae will not suffice."