Operating mostly online, a mixed bunch of fascist types including the Ku Klux Klan set out to hold a series of “White Lives Matter” demonstrations across the U.S. on April 11. These rallies went bust, thanks largely to publicly advertised counter-protests. (See “White Lives Matter” rallies shut down and shouted down.)
So, can the victims and opponents of fascism relax? Not in the least. The more savvy ultra-rightists have a long-range strategy based on forming new alliances, shoring up their supporters’ confidence, and uniting various factions in common action, like the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
The strategy to counter them is the united front.
An approach to common action. For socialists, specifically Trotskyists, united fronts are vehicles for defending workers and the oppressed. Organizations with different ideologies come together to fight for an agreed-upon cause.
Each group retains the right to carry its own banner, both literally and figuratively. The front is democratically run and open to all who agree with its aims, but uncompromisingly working-class leadership is necessary to keep it true to these goals.
In the 1920s and early ’30s, Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky popularized the united front concept as he pushed for the two main socialist tendencies to fight as one against the rise of fascism in Europe. These groupings were the social democrats, or reform socialists, and the communists loyal to the Soviet Union, which had degenerated politically under Stalin.
In a series of articles addressed to rank-and-file socialists and in letters to individual leaders, Trotsky argued that only a radical mass movement of the working class had the capacity to stop the jackboots before they could come to power.
How to organize this movement? By the social democrats and communists working in concert. But the leaders who could have exerted their influence and rallied their comrades rejected this advice, with tragic results on a historic scale. Trotsky’s writings from this period are collected in the book The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.
The strategy applied. United fronts have been mounted in the U.S. over the decades, some to great success. Several took place in the 1920s and ’30s around union strikes and defense of class-war prisoners, with James P. Cannon, a co-founder of U.S. Trotskyism, playing a leading role. (See more at marxists.org.)
A more recent example is the United Front Against Fascism (UFAF), active during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Calling itself “a broad-based coalition of groups and individuals united in opposition to racism and bigotry, and the organized groups that promote them,” UFAF formed to thwart white-supremacist plans to form an “Aryan homeland” in the Pacific Northwest.
The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women co-founded UFAF together with Black and gay movement activists. Its initiators built it through grassroots organizing that brought together representatives from the labor, left, feminist, people of color, Roma (Gypsy) and LGBTQ+ movements.
UFAF educated about the neo-Nazi menace and demonstrated the best way to fight it — with vigorous counter-protests. It was key to defeating the fascists’ attempt to recruit and grow in that period and it gave people confidence that the brownshirts could be beaten back.
Obstacles to be overcome. Activists who have tried to organize united fronts, or similar broad, democratic coalitions, know that there are multiple difficulties involved.
First of all, the powers-that-be have made significant headway in dividing people on the basis of skin color, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Joining people together in a serious common pursuit means building relationships on the basis of reciprocal solidarity and directly tackling problems like sexism and racism within the groups when they arise.
Second, promoters of these fronts too rarely get support from leaders of the labor, feminist, people of color, and other movements. Established figures who claim to represent the interests of workers and oppressed people are often guardians of the status quo in reality, and the prospect of radical action makes them break out in hives. One way to address this is by appealing straight to rank-and-file unionists and social-change activists. They have the power to move mountains — and bureaucrats!
A third hurdle is sectarianism, that is, caring more about the status of one’s own group than about the fate of the working class as a whole. It was a main issue keeping social democrats and communists apart in the post-World War I era, and unfortunately it is no less prevalent on the Left today.
An essential task in defanging the fascists is overcoming these roadblocks standing in the way of forging united fronts. Every step taken in building relationships among activists and organizing jointly is an important one.
Persistent threat under capitalism. As long as capitalism exists, the possibility of fascism will exist too, as the profit system’s last card to play when it’s in crisis.
The stormtroopers’ first targets are groups whose rights or position in society are already precarious, like Jews, “foreigners,” socialists, unionists, LGBTQ+ folks, and people with disabilities. Today people of color, immigrants, and Muslims are very much in the crosshairs. But, as Trotsky explained in 1934, the ultimate aim of fascism is as broad as it gets: “The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties.”
Fortunately, the drive toward fascism is not as advanced currently as it was during the period Trotsky was writing. There is time for proponents of the united front to explain what it is, why it’s needed, and how to build it. But there isn’t infinite time, especially since capitalism is in another deep crisis now.
So let’s get started.
Send questions and comments about united fronts to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.