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The anti-imperialist united front, its applications, possibilities and limitations

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Simon Hardy examines the united front tactic against imperialism and how it can be used for revolutionary goals

Capitalism causes wars. This fact must be understood from the beginning; war is not just a policy of governments, it is an inherent feature of the system. Workers and youth are not indifferent to the question of wars since they are sent to fight and die in them. Women suffer the full horrors of war, often as victims. Although socialists condemn the violence of capitalism in the form of wars, not all wars are the same. Scientific socialism allows us to understand the different forms of war, and especially to what end they are being fought. Crucially it allows us to understand how wars relate to the class struggle and the role that class plays in any conflict.

Whether a socialist organisation adopts the right policy and attitude towards war is not simply a matter of academic or theoretical interest, but one which can determine the fate of a nation, even the fate of the revolution for generations to come. The slaughter of the two World Wars and the struggles of third world nations against imperialist occupation have all acted as litmus tests for communists and whether they held true to a revolutionary position in the face of enormous, at times almost overwhelming, forces. Unfortunately, the history of our movement is one that is cluttered with the wreckage of workers’ parties that failed this test.

Perhaps the most infamous of these occurred in 1914 when the national sections of the Second International supported the war efforts of their own governments. As a result of this betrayal of internationalist principle, socialists had to break from such parties and build new revolutionary parties. These new parties, the Communist Parties, however, despite their origins, did not escape the degeneration of the Soviet Union and were led into equally unprincipled alliances. In the Second World War, they sided with “their” imperialisms wherever these were allied to the Soviet Union.

This article, however, is not concerned with the question of the correct tactics for revolutionaries within the imperialist states. Instead, it deals with tactics and strategy in the struggles of third world nations against imperialist domination. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Bush doctrine, with its “war on terror” and “regime change”, these struggles have, once again, moved to centre stage in world politics. There has been a return to the traditional imperialist methods of military attack, occupation and the creation of puppet governments. This development (historically, a regression) was heralded by the attack on Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1991 but, nonetheless, reflects the long term decline of US. The world’s sole “super power” was driven to bolster its global position by ever more aggressive policies both economically and militarily

Inevitably, movements emerged in opposition to this aggression. In particular, in the Middle East, these have been raised to the level of all-out wars. In Afghanistan and Iraq, resistance movements wage war against direct imperialist occupation. Elsewhere, there are mobilisations, political and military, against imperialism’s puppet regimes and regional gendarmes. Yet, because of the past policies of the parties of the Second and Third Internationals, these wholly justified struggles are everywhere led by political currents which, in every other respect, can only be regarded as reactionary. It is with the undoubtedly complex questions raised by such situations, and how communists should intervene in them, that this article deals.

The world order

The best model that Marxists have developed to understand the world system comes from Lenin's writings on imperialism and Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development. Lenin described imperialism as an epoch of capitalism with qualitatively new features that differentiated it from the “free market” capitalism of the 19th century. Its main feature was the emergence of “monopoly capitalism” in the most economically advanced capitalist nations. There, huge corporations that fused together industrial and financial power not only dominated the national economy but demanded increasing control of the global economy to ensure the safety of their international investments. As a result, a handful of imperialist nations vied with each other to dominate the world politically and economically through various mechanisms and instruments.

This remains an essentially correct analysis of the world today. Most countries in what is now called the “third world”, or the “global South”, are semi-colonies of the imperialists, formally independent and sovereign but, in reality, politically and economically tied to the imperialist nations. Before the Second World War, many were direct colonies but this changed as the old empires of Britain and France were dismantled after 1945. However, the imperialists reserved the right to intervene militarily and economically (as well as through various coups and 'regime changes') in order to preserve their right to exploit the resources and people of the semi colonial world.

Trotsky's framework added an extra dimension to this model, theorising the relationship between the imperialist (developed) nations and the semi-colonial nations. This relationship is a dynamic one, marked by an intrinsic interconnectedness which explains how some countries not only suffer overall from a retarded development but, in some regions or economic sectors, may, nonetheless, display cutting edge technologies and pockets of concentrated wealth. Where Trotsky could point to modern industry alongside essentially feudal agriculture in early 20th century Russia, we can point to, for example, nuclear power stations alongside traditional village handicrafts in modern India.

As Trotsky wrote: “Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development - by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.”

This theory was roundly attacked by the Stalinists – for good reason, it was the theoretical basis for the strategy of permanent revolution that recognised that the struggle against domestic reaction and against imperialism could, given communist leadership of the working class, lead to the political and economic overthrow of capitalism in the so-called “backward countries”.

Imperialism is the most reactionary force on the planet. The imperialist states are driven to enforce their hegemony over the world by the dynamics of their own economies. Within their own borders it is completely impossible for them to generate profits on the scale necessary to sustain their businesses. Imperialism is a system of super exploitation which traps billions of people in generational cycles of poverty, subjecting them to brutal military force if they resist or dare to become “rogue states”. Reactionary states and dictatorships who are willing to serve the interests of the imperialists are propped up with weapons and money. The unequal power relations are defended and augmented by the international institutions like the IMF, World Bank and World Economic Forum, as well as the United Nations, all of which act in the interests of the dominant powers. Because of the competition between the imperialist states, no country in the world is safe from them. That is why the class struggle in each country has to be understood, and fought, in its relationship to imperialism.

Defence of a semi colonial or colonial country

War is part of imperialism, it is a necessary continuation of imperialist politics by other means. In the development of our policies with regard to colonial and semi-colonial countries, we take as our starting point the positions of Lenin on the Irish Rebellion of 1916, the Communist International in its healthy phase and Trotsky and the Fourth International.

These Marxists recognised that it would be wrong to draw an equals sign between every country and the tasks of communists in each. In the imperialist world order, some wars between nations are inherently reactionary and others are inherently progressive. We say inherently because in the act of fighting they advance either the drive of the imperialists to dominate the world or the struggle of the semi-colonial world to be free from such oppression. It is the historical epoch in which we live that determines the question of which war is just and which is unjust.

Lenin wrote:

“National wars waged by colonies and semi colonies in the imperialist war are not only probable they are inevitable. About 1,000 million people or over half of the worlds population live in the colonies and semi colonies, (China, Turkey, Persia). The National Liberation movements there are either already very strong or are growing and maturing... The continuation of the growth of national liberation politics in the colonies will inevitably take the form of national wars against imperialism.” (Lenin On Just and Unjust Wars p42)

Further on he argued:

“National wars against the imperialist powers are not only possible and probable they are inevitable and progressive and revolutionary though of course, to be successful, they require either the concerted efforts of huge numbers of people in the oppressed countries (hundreds of millions in the case of India and China), or a particularly favourable conjuncture of international conditions or the simultaneous uprising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in one of the big powers.” (Lenin On Just and Unjust Wars p45)

He reiterated the point that it is possible to have progressive wars waged by a semi-colonial (third world) bourgeoisie: “In China, Persia and India and other dependent countries on the contrary, we have seen in the past decades a policy of rousing tens and hundreds of millions of people to a national life, of their liberation from the reactionary “Great Powers” oppression. A war waged on such a historical basis can even today be a bourgeois-progressive war of national liberation” (Lenin Socialism and War chapter 1)

Note that Lenin wrote this whilst waging a struggle against the traitors in the workers’ movement who had gone over to the slogan of “defence of the fatherland”. Was Lenin playing with fire here? Was he in danger of pushing the working class of the colonial nations into the arms of the nationalists? Not at all. He recognised that, although the masses were organised and led by the nationalist forces, even so their struggle was a progressive and just one. Lenin made no preconditions of support based on the programme of the leadership of the resistance movement, he did not refuse to offer support to the Catholic influenced Irish.

The defence of the fatherland slogan is certainly a reactionary slogan when it is used in the imperialist nations because it demands the defence of the privileges and domination of the imperialist nation over the rest of the world. This is why Lenin and the Bolsheviks opposed it and fought against it. Of course for them, in the imperialist countries, it was a split issue when the Second International parties took up the slogan (championed by renegades like Plekhanov) and they drew the only possible conclusion, it was necessary to build a new party and a new international.

However, in case there was any doubt about the use of such a slogan in the colonial world against the imperialists, Lenin wrote in 1916:

“A war against imperialist i.e. oppressing powers by oppressed (for example a colonial people) nations is a genuine national war. It is possible today, too. “Defence of the fatherland” in a war waged by an oppressed nation against a foreign oppressor is not a deception. Socialists are not opposed to defence of the fatherland in such a war.
National self-determination is the same as the struggle for complete national liberation, for complete independence, against annexation, and socialists cannot – without ceasing to be socialists – reject such a struggle in whatever form, down to an uprising or war.” (Lenin A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism)

Lenin's position came directly from the arguments in the early part of the 20th century about self determination for oppressed nations. Despite the claims of some, such as Rosa Luxemburg, that national liberation struggles were a thing of the past, Lenin argued that they were absolutely central within the imperialist world order and attached a clear label to them as 'progressive' wars.

Lenin was writing from the point of view of a Russian Social Democrat, resisting the chauvinism of Great Russia (the prison house of nations as it was called) and therefore had to emphasise again and again the importance of giving nations the right to determine who governed them. This was a basic democratic right under capitalism, something that had been theorised as far back as Kant and was to enter the bourgeois mainstream with Woodrow Wilson's 14 points. In fact, it was the promise of such a legal democratic right and its subsequent betrayal that spurred on so many national liberation movements after the war in Turkey, China, India etc.

As Lenin wrote in What is to be done? Communists must make the best fighters for democratic demands even though, and in fact precisely because, they can only really be guaranteed under socialism. Supporting democratic rights for women, homosexuals, peasants, youth, oppressed nations, any section which suffers under the bourgeois order, was a necessary and progressive fight to wage.

The Comintern also outlined its understanding of the importance of the working class joining the struggles and fighting for the only 'consistent line' of anti imperialism, that is a socialist revolution. In 1922, it produced the Theses on the Eastern Question to relate to the growing struggles against imperialist domination and expansionism after the war. This is one of the most important programmatic documents on the communist relationship to the struggles in “the East”, as India, China, the Middle East and so on, were then called, today it would be called “the Global South”.

“The Communist International, though well aware that in different historical circumstances fighters for national political independence can be very different kinds of people, gives its support to any national revolutionary movement against imperialism. However, it still remains convinced that the oppressed masses can only be led to victory by a consistent revolutionary line that is designed to draw the broadest masses into active struggle and that constitutes a complete break with all who support conciliation with imperialism in the interests of their own class rule.” (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Communist International p411)

The Fourth international after 1933 sought to defend the Leninist position on imperialist war and colonial resistance in the face of Stalinist degeneration. One of the first programmatic documents that the International Secretariat of the Fourth International produced was the Manifesto War and the Fourth International, drafted by Trotsky and adopted in May 1934. In it Trotsky wrote that:

“Their [the countries of the East] struggle is doubly progressive: tearing the backward peoples from Asiatism, sectionalism and foreign bondage, they strike powerful blows at the imperialist states.” (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34 p306)

A clearer exposition of the attitude of Trotsky towards the struggle of colonial nations against the imperialist powers comes from his analysis of the Sino-Japanese war, which was of course a prelude to the Second World War. First he defends the classical Bolshevik tradition, “Lenin wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the colonial and semi-colonial nations which comprise the great majority of humanity. To speak of "revolutionary defeatism" in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of the imperialists.”

Referring to the leader of the national resistance movement in China, Trotsky argues “But Chiang Kai-shek? We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China, just as Marx and Engels had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling. Only cowards, scoundrels, or complete imbeciles can refuse to participate in that struggle.”

He goes on to define the relationship of revolutionaries to the anti-imperialist struggle as being a united front approach. As in a strike, communists participate even if (especially if!) it is led by reactionary, reformist leaders. This is the same for the military struggle in the semi-colonial and colonial world. “Let us imagine, for an instant, a worker saying to himself: "I do not want to participate in the strike because the leaders are agents of capital." This doctrine of this ultraleft imbecile would serve to brand him by his real name: a strikebreaker. The case of the Sino-Japanese War is, from this point of view, entirely analogous. If Japan is an imperialist country and if China is the victim of imperialism, we favour China. Japanese patriotism is the hideous mask of worldwide robbery. Chinese patriotism is legitimate and progressive. To place the two on the same plane and to speak of "social patriotism" can be done only by those who have read nothing of Lenin, who have understood nothing of the attitude of the Bolsheviks during the imperialist war, and who can but compromise and prostitute the teachings of Marxism. The Eiffelites have heard that the social patriots accuse the internationalists of being the agents of the enemy and they tell us: "You are doing the same thing." In a war between two imperialist countries, it is a question neither of democracy nor of national independence, but of the oppression of backward non-imperialist peoples. In such a war, the two countries find themselves on the same historical plane. The revolutionaries in both armies are defeatists. But Japan and China are not on the same historical plane. The victory of Japan will signify the enslavement of China, the end of her economic and social development, and the terrible strengthening of Japanese imperialism. The victory of China will signify, on the contrary, the social revolution in Japan and the free development, that is to say unhindered by external oppression, of the class struggle in China.”

Finally, recognising that Chiang Kai-Shek is the leader of the national struggle, he argues that communists must fight to gain influence in the resistance movement through active participation. “We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against the foreign invasion and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, and the internal betrayal. At a certain point, which we cannot fix in advance, this political opposition can and must be transformed into armed conflict, since the civil war, like war generally, is nothing more than the continuation of the political struggle. It is necessary, however, to know when and how to transform political opposition into armed insurrection.”

This passage is important because it undermines the argument that the revolutionaries were blind to the reality of the anti-imperialist struggle, that the bourgeois and petty bourgeois leaderships of the movement would act against the working class and against the communists. It is clear from his advice to the Chinese Trotskyists to join the armed resistance to the Japanese that, rather than a “third camp”, Trotsky advocated turning the anti-imperialist struggle into a class struggle through the united front tactic.

Trotsky goes one step further and uses an example in 1938 designed to shock 'democrats'. In an interview with Mateo Fossa he says: “ In Brazil there now reigns a semi-fascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict the working class would be? I will answer for myself personally – in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio De Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil, on the other hand, should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.” (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40 p34)

Can we not see this theoretical example echoed today in reality in Iraq and Afghanistan? The wars on these countries, waged by “democratic” imperialisms supposedly to free them from religious fanaticism and undemocratic dictatorship, have resulted in regimes that enshrine Sharia law in the constitution (Iraq and Afghanistan) make strike action illegal (Iraq), legalise rape in marriage (Afghanistan) and conduct totally fraudulent and corrupt elections, as in Afghanistan in 2009. Moreover, the proletariat in Iraq, for example, now does not just have to overthrow a terrible dictator like Saddam Hussein, but a new puppet government backed up by the military strength of the US marine corp. For the working class, in Iraq and internationally, what was gained by these invasions and subsequent occupations?

The role of the working class in the national liberation movements: The strategy of Permanent Revolution

What is needed, however, is a further level of elaboration of the communist programme, not just to support national liberation struggles but to take it forward to socialism. Without this deeper level of tactical and strategic intervention one is potentially left at the Stalinist distortion of the 'stages' theory of revolution, first national democracy, then socialism. It was Leon Trotsky who explained the importance of the working class not only supporting such struggles from a democratic standpoint but fighting to lead them and to transform the struggle for national rights into a struggle for socialism. Marx and Engels had argued for such a strategy as far back as 1850 when Marx emphasised the need for the working class to build its own independent political party and concluded that, “their slogan must be, the permanent revolution!”

Trotsky first developed what became the strategy of permanent revolution with regard to Russia before and after the 1905 revolution. He argued that the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois revolution could only be completed by the working class taking power. For him, the crucial question was not the particular stage of development within Russia, where the working class was numerically small, but the balance of class forces internationally. Even though Russia was a minor imperialist power, its position within the world system of states was such that it was an incredibly backward country with a weak bourgeois class. It was only in the late 1920s, in the light of subsequent events, particularly in China, that Trotsky developed the permanent revolution as a strategy with more general applicability for the semi-colonial or colonial worlds.

Permanent Revolution is a policy of the communists, it is not an automatic process. Workers and peasants do not automatically become communists because of national oppression. Quite the opposite, they are more likely to gravitate spontaneously towards the political programmes of the nationalists or populists, since these represent the ruling ideas of the ruling class struggle against direct imperialist control. Therefore, only a communist party, armed with the correct orientation and programme, can carry out the policy of Permanent Revolution. This is why the creation of such an organisation is a necessary step in the working class struggle for emancipation.

The working class is an active agent of social change, not merely a passive observer of 'politics' as it happens to other people somewhere else. The working class must act as the tribune of the people, raising itself to the level of the ruling class by drawing in the peasants and middle classes behind them in a revolutionary struggle that aims to resolve the national question through fighting directly for socialism. Trotsky, writing in 1932, outlined the importance of working class participation in such struggles and the role of communists in mobilising the great mass of workers not only to support but to intervene and make the direct connections of international solidarity that only the working class can truly realise:

“What characterises Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude towards the oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only as the object but also as the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognising their “right” to self-determination and to parliamentary protest against the trampling upon this right. Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in the capitalist countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus, or Arabs in the art of insurrection and it assumes full responsibility for this work in the face of the civilised executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin; that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over this boundary remains centrism.” (Leon Trotsky The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat Jan 1932 pp180-81 London 1975)

If Permanent Revolution is a strategy of the party then what are the tactics through which it can be implemented? As with most communist strategies, the path through which it is achieved typically involves a series of united fronts. Just as united fronts with reformist workers and their leaders are an essential tactic in strengthening the revolutionary forces to the point where they can lead a direct revolutionary assault on power, so also they can be utilised to bring revolutionaries to the leadership of nationalist and anti-imperialist struggles.

At the heart of this “anti-imperialist united front” was the recognition of the need for workers and communists in semi-colonial or colonial countries to strike alliances with bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces. The aim of this united front was to:

1) Provide the broadest possible resistance movement to imperialism, mobilising the greatest number of people
2) Winning democratic and economic demands, for land, for universal suffrage, for weapons training, etc
3) Exposing the bourgeois and petty bourgeois political leaders as inconsistent fighters for liberation, as opposed to the communist and working class, the only force which could guarantee liberation from imperialism
4) To win the masses from their already existing leaderships towards the communists, and to the revolution against capitalism.

Two errors are possible with the anti-imperialist united front, errors that are common to all united front initiatives.

The first would be an accommodation to united front allies, supporting their struggles uncritically, or criticising them in a superficial way whilst ultimately supporting their goals and struggle unconditionally. This can result simply from an opportunist method, or from a theorised approach such as the bloc of four classes, championed by Stalin during the second revolution in China, 1925-27, and developed further by Mao Zedong during the anti-Japanese war. As against the Stalinists, Trotskyists argue that there is no strategic alliance with the bourgeoisie. That is to say there is no place reserved in the united front for them. The demands and objectives of the working class are not limited in order to ensure the participation of the bourgeoisie. We demand that the national bourgeois class break from the imperialists and wage a struggle against the occupation. If, or when, the national bourgeois class does not fight then this creates more space for the working class forces to become the leaders of the national resistance movement.

The second error is sectarian abstention from the actually existing struggle as it emerges from the fight against imperialism, preferring denunciation over a practical united front policy. This policy, a common one amongst socialists in the Middle East, instead of arming them politically, disarms them in the face of a national liberation movement. The Hekmatists in Iraq, who shot at both the occupation forces and the Islamists, ended up isolated from the national liberation movement, they remained isolated and weak. Only through a united front policy and active attempts to participate in the struggle against imperialism directly can communists go from a tiny minority to the decisive force. Applying the united front is no guarantee of success, but without it there is no chance of taking the necessary steps forward.

A concrete and correct policy is therefore not just a matter of life and death for the communists’ own cadres but also for the revolutionary struggle across the world. A careful consideration of the arguments for and against is necessary to explain our position.

On united fronts in general

In order to understand the Anti-Imperialist United Front it is necessary to understand the united front in general. A factory in a semi-colonial country could often have several different political organisations and trade unions organising the workers within it. In Latin America, class struggle trade unions compete with Catholic unions and anarchist inspired syndicates. In Lebanon, the work force will be split between Sunnis, Shias, Druze and Christians, each supporting different parties and each in different trade unions linked to those parties. In Sri Lanka, the pro-Sinhala chauvinist JVP will organise workers alongside Trotskyists and bourgeois trade unions, affiliated with the UNP or SLFP.

In each instance the capitalist mechanics of crisis will at some point intervene, job losses or wage cuts will be threatened. What happens next? Communists would propose a united front of all workers to defend their jobs. Regardless of political affiliation, race, gender or any other dividing factor, we propose united fronts of struggle around key questions in order to achieve maximum unity in action.

The united front is a proposal to the mass forces of the working class and progressive forces, often bigger than ourselves, to take action – in the west these are often levelled at trade unions and trade union leaders; “defend your members’ jobs” we demand. The aim of the united front is always to allow a dialogue between the communists and the reformist workers (or whatever their political background) to demonstrate in action that we make the best fighters for their interests. We do not only demand that the established leaders take the necessary action but also argue for the workers to be prepared to take action independently should the trade union leaders refuse. Through such a policy we aim to win away the mass of workers (even the workers in one factory) from their existing leaders and towards the revolutionaries.

This is the policy of the united front as the Bolsheviks practised it and as the Communist International elaborated it. Many subsequent theoretical debates have focussed on this question and the importance of defending the correct policy from attack by the right (opportunist political subordination of the working class to alien class forces) and from the left (ultra-left sectarian abstention from united fronts with “traitors” such as social democracy or the semi-colonial bourgeois class).

The Bolsheviks applied the policy of the united front in August/September 1917 to defend the Kerensky government from General Kornilov's attempted coup. Although the Bolsheviks mobilised their own supporters and the wider working class movement against Kornilov’s forces, they gave no political support whatsoever to Kerensky. On the contrary, they denounced his compromised and vacillating government even as they demanded that it arm the workers’ organisations. They certainly intended to overthrow Kerensky themselves, but first they defended democracy and the gains of the February revolution. Through positioning themselves as the best fighters, they won a majority of support in the Soviets and the October revolution moved from programmatic ideal to political reality.

It is our assertion that the united front in the semi-colonial/colonial world against imperialism is simply a variation on this same method. In fact, it is indispensable as a tactic in winning the support of the masses away from their bourgeois leaders and towards the struggle of the communists.

The physiognomy of resistance movements

In the event of an imperialist attack on a country a resistance movement usually develops. Whilst many of the bourgeoisie will go over to the imperialists, offering themselves as willing quisling puppets for their new masters, some bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces usually move into a struggle against the imperialists. Where these seek to mobilise the masses in a fight for 'national independence' or 'in defence of the nation' they can put themselves at the head of serious forces.

These forces are important because they represent a vanguard, the most dedicated and brave fighters of the resistance to imperialism. However, there is a problem. Those that want to resist the occupation will nearly always be swept up by the nationalists or other ideologically bourgeois forces in the initial stages of the resistance. The reason for this is simple; in the first instance, the nationalist ideology is the one that appears to correspond most closely to the immediate aim, to free the nation from imperialist occupation. The second factor which determines such a development is that, initially, the bourgeois and middle class forces often command more resources and exercise greater influence over the working class and populist layers, because of their wealth or their positions as 'community leaders' or religious figures.

Lenin wrote in 1915:
“The bourgeoisie, which naturally assumes the leadership at the start of every national movement, says that support for all national aspirations is practical. However, the proletariat’s policy in the national question (as in all others) supports the bourgeoisie only in a certain direction, but it never coincides with the bourgeoisie’s policy. The working class supports the bourgeoisie only in order to secure national peace (which the bourgeoisie cannot bring about completely and which can be achieved only with complete democracy), in order to secure equal rights and to create the best conditions for the class struggle.”
[“Complete democracy” in this case means socialism or social democracy as it was often referred to.]

So, many national liberation movements are at first led by bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces, some of them deeply reactionary (Taliban) others with a more progressive socialistic or liberal veneer. The Comintern referred to such movements as “national revolutionary” formations.

Obviously, in a country where the bourgeois class reneges on its national-revolutionary tasks and willingly submits to imperialism, as was the case, for example, in Ceylon, the path is open for the socialists to lead the anti-imperialist resistance unopposed. In such cases, the united front simply takes the form of mobilising the peasants behind bourgeois democratic tasks, such as redistribution of the land, and allying them with the working class struggle for socialism in order to achieve such a goal (encapsulated in the slogan “Bread, peace and land”).

But such examples are rare. In country after country, from India to Algeria, Zimbabwe to Argentina, the anti imperialist democratic impulse of the people has been co-opted by bourgeois figures (Chávez in Venezuela is an excellent example). Gandhi and Congress were the main beneficiary of the struggle against the British, helped of course by their political servants in the Indian Communist Party.

A) In Algeria, it was two bourgeois forces which commanded the resistance movement against French occupation

B) In Kenya, the Mau Mau led the resistance against British occupation

C) In Zimbabwe, the nationalist popular frontist Zanu-PF

D) In Iraq, today, the resistance movement is led by Islamists, Ba’athists and other assorted nationalist forces.

E) In Afghanistan, the resistance is led by the “Taliban” and various warlords in a shifting and complicated system of alliances.

For many supposed national leaders this anti-imperialist line is, of course, mere rhetoric. The reality of their policy is one of compromise and conciliation to the imperialists. Most national resistance movements end up selling out to imperialist “peace process” deals and arrive in government as a neutered, safe, bourgeois democratic force, the IRA in Ireland and the ANC in South Africa fit into this gallery of traitors.

This is because, no matter how fiery their denunciatory proclamations against the imperialists in Washington may be, they are tied to imperial capital through the thousands of threads connecting the imperialists’ world to the semi-colonial world, and often rely on it for their strength. For all of his political bombast, Chávez is the head of a state that relies on Western oil companies for the exploitation of its main natural resource. A serious clash with imperialism and the withdrawal of imperialist companies from his country would either ruin the economy or force him to expropriate the industries, something that he does not want to do, because he is not a socialist. Similarly the Theocratic regime in Iran relies heavily on investment from Europe, mainly France, to provide capital for its economy. This is done through highly controlled turn-key style projects which are then handed over to the Iranian state afterwards.

Nonetheless, those bourgeois forces that do fight are normally well placed to command the initial resistance forces against the occupation. Socialists should be under no illusion that, simply because we know that most bourgeois figures will sell out, that this is known to the wider layers of people who want to resist imperialism arms in hand. The role of Moqtada Al-Sadr in Iraq was one of compromise, peace deals, ceasefires and manoeuvres into peaceful loyal opposition in the government. But he still commanded thousands of armed followers in Baghdad (the area he controlled, Sadr City, was named after his father) and across the country. They had illusions that he was leading a consistent fight. They excused his conciliation as a pragmatic response to the difficulties posed by the occupiers.

Therefore, whilst it is not a law of history per se, that resistance movements are always led by bourgeois forces, it is a general feature of resistance movements against imperialism, borne out by historical analysis. The question is what to do about this?

Before we explain the correct method, let us be willing to spend some time on the errors, in order to clarify where to go next. Some on the Left argue that an alliance with non -proletarian forces is a betrayal of communist principles, that it only serves to help the class enemy. Such arguments can sound very radical compared to the Leninist policy which sounds too confusing or dangerous to some people. They think that Lenin's method runs the risk, as the Stalinists have shown in practice, of mixing the communists in with the nationalists to such an extent that they cannot be told apart. This is precisely the mixing of banners that the Comintern warned against. Such communists often argue for something called a “Third camp” as an alternative. What is this policy?

“The third camp”

They argue that the working class should act as a “third force” between the imperialists and the bourgeois-led national liberation movements and that this force must be independent of all national movement struggles.

The fundamental error in this argument is that it equates the two sides of the nationalist struggle, seeing in imperialism no greater an enemy than domestic reaction. Viewed from the standpoint of the international working class and the oppressed of the world, this is itself a “national-centred” illusion. In reality, to abstain from participation in the struggle against imperialism, anywhere, is, objectively, to side with imperialism. To advise the working class, the youth, the women of an oppressed nation that they should not participate in the fight against imperialism because it is led by socially reactionary forces ensures two things; first, that it is easier for the imperialists to win, second, that the nationalist struggle will remain under socially reactionary leadership.

Indeed, since sympathy for the nationalist struggle is virtually certain, such a policy actually strengthens reaction and isolates the “Left” from the masses that they want to lead in a progressive struggle. If the resistance movement is defeated, then they will blame those that disrupted the unity of the struggle, no matter what theoretical principles held them back from that struggle.

Whilst communists always maintain their independence from the bourgeois forces politically, a stark question confronts them in the case of resistance to an occupation. If there is a communist militia in a city, along with many other militias (nationalists, Islamists, etc) and the imperialists are mobilising to attack the city – what policy should it follow? A real third camp position in a city like Fallujah in 2004 would see the communists stay at home in their basements, refusing to join the Ba’athists and Islamists as they fought to defend the city. This “plague on both your houses” policy would only hasten the destruction of the city by the guns and bombs of the imperialists. Alternatively, if the nationalists won, then the revolutionaries would, at the very least, be further isolated if they had not done their share of the fighting.

Emerging into the daylight after the battle was finished, these communists might feel themselves vindicated, pure of spirit; they had refused a united front with the reactionary Islamists and could carry on with their communist work as before, amongst the ruins of the city. But they would soon be faced with the anger of the ordinary citizens, asking them what they did during the battle to stop the slaughter and the destruction. The communists would be forced to explain themselves “we stayed away from the fighting.” “Why?” “Because we refused to unite with the Islamists and Stalinists and Nationalists and other enemies of the working class.”

Such an answer would be no justification for inactivity at the very moment when unity was required. The desire to find a “third camp” when confronted with such a scenario leads directly to the grave, or to the dustbin of history. The Third Camp is a fiction in a battle, it is an excuse for abstention and passivity in the face of conflict. The third camp looks more and more like a graveyard for communists who adopted an ultra left attitude to the actually existing national liberation movements in their country.

The issue is more serious than simply prestige or the practical requirements of national defence. There is a question of realpolitik which must be addressed. The fact is that whoever leads the resistance movement to imperialist domination and successfully drives the occupation forces from the country will be the force best placed to form the next government. Almost every example in the last hundred years points to this as a general truth of anti-imperialist struggles, rooted not in a metaphysical argument but in the facts on the ground; who has the most guns? Who commands the most fighters? Who dominates the most territory?

If the communists have not sought to win over the majority of fighters through practical and consistent united front work, which is approached with flexibility and careful consideration of those that they are working with then, as soon as the occupation is defeated, although usually before, the bourgeois forces will move against the communists.

The Comintern went even further in its argument against those that abstain from the national liberation movements;

“The refusal of Communists in the colonies to take part in the fight against imperialist tyranny, on the pretext of their supposed ‘defence’ of independent class interests, is the worst kind of opportunism and can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East. No less harmful, it must also be recognised, is the attempt to remain aloof from the struggle for the immediate everyday demands of the working class in the interests of ‘national unity’ or ‘civil peace’ with the bourgeois democrats. A dual task faces the Communist and workers’ parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries: on the one hand, they are fighting for a more radical answer to the demands of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, directed towards the winning of national political independence; on the other hand, they are organising the masses of workers and peasants to fight for their own class interests, making good use of all the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp. By putting forward social demands, Communists will stimulate and release revolutionary energy which can find no outlet in liberal bourgeois demands. The working class of the colonies and semi-colonies must be firmly convinced that it is only the overall intensification of the struggle against Great-Power imperialist oppression that can promote it to revolutionary leadership. On the other hand, it is only the political and economic organisation and the political education of the working class and the semi-proletarian layers that can increase the revolutionary scope of the anti-imperialist struggle.”
(Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the first four congresses of the Communist International p414-15)

The problem is that whilst we know the historical legacy and have a programme rooted in scientific socialism, most workers do not know these things! Instead of simply telling the workers that we are better than the bourgeois class we must explain our line. We say clearly that we do not believe that the bourgeois and petty bourgeois political forces can lead the anti-imperialist struggle in a consistent way. We say that they are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they support a socio-economic system (capitalism) which, even if the occupation forces were driven out, would see the country dominated by foreign capital and suffering under the super exploitative heel of the imperialists. This is because the communists do not only fight for national liberation (an end to the immediate occupation) but also for the liberation of all of humanity from capitalism and imperialism, from all forms of social oppression.

That is why revolutionary methods of resistance are, ultimately, superior. However, this does not mean that they will have immediate or automatic mass support. To expect that would be to concede a lot of ground to a spontaneous view of political consciousness, an anarchist deviation from Marxism. Of course, those workers and youth who are attracted automatically to communist militias and the revolutionary communist party must be recruited, trained and maintained in our organisations. But the great majority, who will initially be mobilised under other political forces, must be won through the tried and tested method of the united front.

The Anti Imperialist United Front in practice

The precondition of an anti-imperialist united front is a working class party or a pre-party formation. Without such a guiding force the working class simply enters the resistance as atomised individuals, influenced more by nationalism than by class politics. There must be no mixing of banners, that is, political programmes, and the demand all the way through the struggle is for total political independence of the working class communist forces from the parties of the bourgeoisie.

The demand of the anti-imperialist petty bourgeois or bourgeois forces is for a fight to 'free the nation' (“defend the fatherland”). Socialists take up this demand and pursue it to its limits. We demand that a real, nation wide resistance be mobilised to oppose the occupation; every man and woman able and willing to fight should be given guns and the training to use them. This demand, placed on the bourgeois forces, is the demand to arm the working class, to train the working class in the use of weapons.

Meetings should be called across the country to democratically organise the mass resistance to the occupation. The socialists would argue not only for armed resistance but also for specifically working class resistance; strikes, demonstrations, occupations of factories and key industries. As against the nationalists, who would argue for “national unity” as short hand for stopping strikes and preventing unrest, the socialists would argue for land to the peasants, more democratic rights to form trade unions and freedom of speech.

In other words, the AIUF is a vehicle for placing demands on the bourgeois class and petty bourgeois forces. “If you really want to defend the nation then do this...” We know that they would not do such things, or would only do them under significant revolutionary pressure from below. The demands would play a role in activating the class consciousness of the working class and peasants, encouraging and enabling them to take their destiny into their own hands.

What if the bourgeois stabs you in the back?

Such a question is in fact a naïve one. As Trotsky explained in relation to the Sino-Japanese war, the question is not “if” but “when”. The anti-imperialist united front offers no illusions in the bourgeoisie of a semi-colony or a colony, it places no hopes on their honesty or decency as principled fighters against imperialism. Quite the contrary, the national bourgeois class engaged in resistance can be the most brutally undemocratic force imaginable – the example of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, the “Tamil Tigers”) will suffice to demonstrate this point. They arose to become the undisputed leaders of the resistance moment against Sinhala chauvinist oppression simply because they eliminated their more progressive rivals in the Tamil movement.

The example of Turkey is another concrete case in which the bourgeois class, fighting the occupation of their country after the First World War under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (“Ataturk”) rewarded the communist leaders, who had also been fighting in the resistance, by executing them in the Black Sea. We must be clear on the errors that the Comintern made in this case. Leaders, such as Radek, who excused the “persecution of the communists” because Turkey was playing “a revolutionary role”, were simply wrong. The accommodation to Kemal was a political mistake of gross opportunism by some communist leaders, desperate as they were for an ally on their southern border when everyone else had turned against them.

However, it was not the anti-imperialist united front that killed the Turkish leaders, it was the bullets of the nationalists – the two do not automatically follow each other. The fact that the communist leaders were killed was not an inevitable result of the united front, but of a certain naïve trust of the communist leaders in the Kemalists, the existence of violent anti-communist feeling amongst the local commanders, and a Machiavellian plot by the Ankara government to crush soviet revolution in Turkey in order to ensure the continuation of material aid from Soviet Russia. The Comintern, for its part, accepted the Kemalists’ story that the deaths in the Black Sea had been the result of a tragic maritime accident. No doubt the desperation of the Soviets at that time, caused by the civil war, made it expedient to quash any doubts or concerns that Comintern leaders may have had about Kemal.

Clearly, if the anti-imperialist united front were a means by which the nationalists always and everywhere out manoeuvred the communists and shot them dead, then the Comintern would not have elaborated such a tactic! Indeed, to argue that that is the inevitable outcome of the tactic is to argue that the revolutionary Comintern was guilty of proposing a tactic that guaranteed the defeat of revolutions. Such an assessment would force us to conclude that the Comintern was already corrupted under Lenin and Trotsky's leadership, before Stalin, and therefore we must pulp most of our books and begin again.

The anti-imperialist united front in reverse

The policy of the anti-imperialist united front has been confirmed in recent history, unfortunately for the working class, from the negative side. There have been instances when the Left (Stalinists in these cases) joined the resistance movement and were subsequently absorbed into the other forces fighting. Was this because of the AIUF? No, it was because of the Stalinists’ errors in the implementation of the AIUF! In Lebanon, the Communist Party (LCP) was once the dominant force in the south of the country and its militia formed part of the national resistance movement to Israeli attacks.

However, in 1990, at the end of the Lebanese civil war, the LCP disbanded its militia in favour of an emphasis on peaceful, parliamentary politics. What happened? When Israel attacked again, Hizbullah, the nationalist Islamist movement, applied the anti-imperialist united front! They called on all forces wishing to resist the occupation to join them, the true fighters for national liberation. Many of the LCP fighters responded positively to this and joined the Islamist militias. At the same time, Hizbullah, while welcoming support from any quarter, including its secular opponents, the LCP, did not surrender its Islamist programme for a moment and, as a result, it was Islamism which benefited most from the successful campaign against the Israeli invasion.

Similarly, when the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and Fatah retreated from the principle of opposition to the existence of the Zionist state and, in Fatah's case, began acting as a proxy agent for imperialism in the Palestinian camp, who benefited? Hamas did. They were the ones still fighting, they were the ones still sacrificing their lives to the struggle, they were the ones who really opposed Israel (although for Islamic reasons). Many young fighters joined them, not because these youth were Islamists but because they wanted to fight for their land. No doubt Hamas has since made them Islamists, but this is the result of the failure of the Left to take up the call for national liberation in a militant and revolutionary way. In this sense, the current growth of Islamism and other non-working class ideologies is a punishment for the errors of the Left, whether opportunist or sectarian.

From national resistance to permanent revolution

Socialists do not simply act as cheerleaders for national resistance movements, nor do they act as uncritical supporters of any nationalist leader who, for whatever reason, takes it upon themselves to raise anti-imperialist slogans or comes into conflict with imperialist interests. Our goal is the destruction of bourgeois rule in the third world just as much as it is in the imperialist heartlands. Every element of our programme pushes in this direction, towards the dictatorship of the proletariat across the world, a world revolution.

We defend organisations like Hizbullah and support their struggle against Israel in as much as they wage it weapons in hand. We defend the right of the Taliban and any other Afghan forces as they fight to free Afghanistan from imperialist occupation. We defend the struggle of any national liberation force in its fight against imperialism.

This, however, does not make us deaf and blind to the horrors of the political programmes which such movements advocate. The political programme of the LTTE was thoroughly reactionary, bourgeois, undemocratic and would have ended up creating an impoverished statelet totally subordinated to imperialist rule and rife with poverty and misery. We had no illusions on this score, but we defended the LTTE against the Sinhala state and, in as much as the war that they waged was for the liberation of the Tamil people from Sinhala oppression, it was progressive.

As socialists, we want to isolate the bourgeoisie and their political leaders, to win the masses from them and for our party and our revolution. This cannot simply be done through denunciation or a political critique of their manifesto, however, – politics is not so easy. If it were, the socialist revolution would by now be a memory and capitalism left behind long ago.

The anti-imperialist united front must be operated like any other; its aim is to win the struggle and, in the process, to make itself obsolete. It becomes obsolete when the communists are the majority and can pursue the struggle for national freedom under a clear revolutionary banner. Before then, all kinds of political work are necessary; publications, press, demonstrations, meetings, strikes, militias and armed resistance. At times, united fronts will be necessary with different forces, these may be episodic agreements, for a strike or a demonstration, or a military bloc to defend a city or defeat an enemy offensive. The political aim at every turn is to win the masses to the communists.

If this proves to be impossible, if the other factions within the resistance movement prove to be too reactionary and undemocratic, then the united front is impossible. Even then, there can be propaganda gains to be won by having posed the need for a united front. Only the communists can pose as the real defenders of the nation, demanding unity in action. In defending the nation we raise to the front of the struggle the working class, the only truly democratic and progressive class. Our aim is to sublimate the bourgeois revolution into the proletarian revolution through active intervention and a non sectarian approach to these movements.

A working class party, armed with a revolutionary programme as part of a revolutionary international is an essential tool in realising these goals. Where such a party does not exist, the task of communists is to gather together the nucleus of the future party by winning comrades to the principles, strategy and tactics, in a word, the programme, upon which that party can be built. Moreover, it is the task of communists everywhere to contribute to that work. To end the cycle of poverty, oppression and dictatorships in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, across Africa and South America, a revolutionary international party must be built – this is the central task of any socialist today.