Note: the names of specific groups have been changed to prevent unnecessary drama. Not that anyone reads this blog but still…

Recently, in my political group, Group A, we discussed the tactics of the United Front and its slightly deranged cousin, the Popular Front. A United Front is defined as an alliance of similarly-thinking groups, which excludes capitalist or non-working class groups and parties, to obtain a common goal. Groups who may disagree on a host of other issues are then able to work together. A central advantage of this tactic for smaller groups is that they gain greater access to the masses by allying with the larger groups.

A Popular Front, by contrast, is a such a group which includes those capitalist and non-working class groups in an attempt (seemingly) to widen the struggle and obtain greater success. Anticapitalists working alongside capitalist political parties like Democrats or Libertarians (which often comprise the largest group) have repeatedly, throughout history, led to the undermining of the revolutionary movement either because, a) the non-working class capitalist parties weren’t willing to go beyond the original common goal and seek the destruction of their own social system upon which their comfortable existence is dependent, or, according to Group A and most every other Trotskyist group, b) Stalinism brought about the dilution of the revolutionary fervor by coercion, co-optation, or basically selling out to pro-capitalist forces.

The three most common examples of a United Front gone Popular—and leading to the subsequent undermining of the otherwise imminent revolution—is Germany in the 1920s and France and Spain in the 1930s. In all of these cases, reactionary behavior on the part of the capitalists or Stalinism (or both) is to blame. In the case of Spain, the anarchists embraced the Popular Front put forth by the USSR under Stalin, in order to continue receiving Soviet weapons in exchange for Spanish gold. So there is an example in which the USSR’s military superiority allowed it to degrade the revolutionary potential of another country in order to maintain that country within its sphere of influence, rather than allowing it grow and develop as its own socialist country.

Obviously, this account depicts the USSR in a very negative light, an imperialistic light. I know of several folks who would defend the USSR and counter that Trotsky and his various supporters have done more to undermine the cause of communism/socialism throughout the world simply by facilitating the vilification of the USSR and communism in general through obstreperous critique. They see such rhetoric as counterrevolutionary. I’m not here to contribute my “take” on this issue, and frankly I’m not even sure how relevant it is to the revolution today.

What I would like to ask is, why is United Front seemingly held up as a main tactic by the organized radical Left today, when it has failed so many times in history to succeed? It has created the conditions BY WHICH “Stalinists” or whatever class enemies exist to co-opt and undermine any revolutionary potential. The United Front is corrupted and replaced with the Popular Front. It has happened again and again. Maybe there are great examples that I am missing but it sure seems like every time it’s the same old story: “We had a great United Front going and then, ALL OF A SUDDEN, it was corrupted and turned into a Popular Front! WHAT THE HELL MAN?!”

The whole idea of creating a “Front” is to widen the struggle, increase the number of people involved, and strengthen resolve around one or two main issues or goals, which is important because socialist groups tend to be fixated only on the goal of “socialism,” which in their estimation is the answer to everything and whose lack is the cause of all of society’s ills (which I actually largely agree with). Being against everything in society (as I also am, basically) sometimes makes their struggle seem and feel unfocused in terms of its material objectives. So a United Front, organized around one issue like war, racism, labor difficulties, or police brutality is undoubtedly useful.

But what happens when we join hands with people with whom we ideologically disagree? The best example I can think of is Group A working with the (much larger) Group B on issues like antiwar. Group B has endorsed Democrats. It has supported figures in Asia and the Middle East that Group A would never support. It is essentially an ideological adversary of Group A. When the theoretical “revolution comes,” Group A and Group B will be fighting each other for dominance of their ideology, and guess which side will win? The currently 65-member Group A, or 700+ member Group B? And what will happen to the great, wonderful United Front that brought us to this highly theoretical point? It will (from Group A’s perspective) be “corrupted,” because Group B is bigger, has more resources, and has more international allies (like some of those Asian and Middle Eastern figures).

Even now, the larger demonstrations that Group B organizes, and which Group A endorses as part of the United Front, often produce friction between the two groups. Group B folks hold up pictures of Bashar al Assad, while Group A and plenty of other groups would never endorse such a divisive figure. It is my opinion that Group B is so much larger partly because it provides black-or-white, for-or-against (“you’re pro-Assad or you’re pro-imperialism, you’re pro-North Korea/China/Iran/etc, or you’re pro-imperialism”) positions for people to take, which are more appealing to your “average” revolutionary than “middle of the road” approaches such as Group A’s, largely because such positions are more actionable. To be fair, from this perspective, Group B is more effective—“gets more shit done,” in its own words—because of these less idealistic positions.

I’m not saying there is no validity to supporting Syria, China, et cetera to some degree, nor should popular hyperbolic anti-Stalin or anti-USSR rhetoric be accepted without question. Indeed, Group A is a big fan of Lenin, as is Group B. Again, my goal is not to critique Group A or Group B in particular. It is draw attention to the intrinsic flaw of the United Front as a tactic, one for which it needn’t necessarily be abandoned but for which it must be critiqued: it creates the material conditions by which it completely fucks itself over. We can’t expect groups who only agree on abstractions (“Socialism yes! Capitalism no!”) to work effectively or sustainably together when they disagree on so many particulars. Can we?

So what is the answer? To not work together? Small groups like Group A risk complete irrelevance if they eschew the types of large-scale demonstrations and actions that Group B puts together. On the other hand, Group B is irrelevant compared to the Democratic Party or similar reformist (read: massive) groups like Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. So how does Group B maintain any relevance or appeal, except by working with pro-capitalist groups and espousing harsh for-or-against binaries?

The radical Left has been asking the same question for some time: by what means do we maintain relevance? Is it the labor movement? The Black Lives Matter movement? The antiwar movement? The student struggle? But “relevance” is the wrong question. The question should be, how do we help people? Whom are we helping, and do they WANT our help? Is our “help” based on an understanding of the class dynamics in place, the material conditions? What good is an understanding of dialectics if we continue to work against other “socialists”?

On a deeper level, though we would accuse another group of fighting to preserve the current system, does our fight depend on preserving a system of perceived resistance that is flawed, oppressive, and counterrevolutionary (I’m talking about unions now)? Is it, again, a situation in which we feel we must defend whatever nominally or symbolically socialist groups and structures that are in place, no matter how flawed they are, because “they’re the best we’ve got”?

To be honest, I don’t know. But a new paradigm is needed. The consumeristic march forward continues unabated. Anti-union and austerity measures are on the rise. Voter turnout is low: 40 to 50% of Americans either do not care enough about the outcome of elections, or don’t feel any candidate sufficiently represents their interests, to take part in them. Ignorance and apathy are two sides of the same coin, much like Democrats and Republicans. And as long as people can get a new iPhone, car, or huge-screen TV, there is just not enough hardship for them to rise up against; no amount of talking about the oppression of Palestinians, the murder of young Black men, or oil wars in the Middle East will change that. They are hardened, they are calcified, they are determined. It’s a cynical viewpoint but there is some realism to it.

But I’ll admit, maybe it’s just me. I’m feeling a little lost these days.

Maybe there is no need for an entirely new paradigm. Maybe the current one just needs to be reimagined. I guess I’ll talk to a few people and get to work on that.