Unity of action: the promise and peril of a united front against white supremacy

In our current, fractured state, we are wholly unprepared to protect and defend one another. The battle lines are everywhere, when they should be squarely in front of us — between us and the fascists who would destroy us.

Kelly Hayes

There is a renewed interest in the united front. This is driven by the resurgence of organized white supremacy, a White House and Republican Party filled with sympathizers and fellow travelers, and a growing fear of the danger this combination poses to wide swaths of the population. The race riot in Charlottesville crystallized this threat and brought us to a new stage of crisis and struggle. It is impossible to tell how stable this stage is or how long it will last. January 2018 feels different from a year ago.

But the return of fanatical nationalism across the Euro-American world only six decades after the second world war cannot be ignored. The ebbs and flows across weeks and months should not distract us from the fact that global demographic shifts are generating potentially dangerous political shifts at the national land local scales. History has taught us that in moments like this there is a need for immediate, robust, short term responses to the emerging crisis, and for an escalation of the longer term struggle against structural oppression.

The united front may be the right response at the right time for integrating these tasks in practice and in the popular imagination. Bringing together groups and individuals quickly for the purpose of a singular focus on the threat posed by homegrown fascism makes intuitive and historical sense (1). We’ve seen the costs of waiting too long, and have to push back hard against those who think it hasn’t gotten that bad yet — for them. Borrowing from Kelly Hayes, for some the call for a united front now is a call for survival. And it can be a spark for building a mass movement against the white supremacist foundations from which fascism and other forms of authoritarianism grow.

But it is not an approach without dangers of its own, particularly in a society where the left is politically and culturally marginal, with shallow — if any — roots in much of the country. While we as a country are accustomed to right wing extremism and violence, even mild confrontational tactics by a self-identified left creates shock waves. So while it may be clear that a united front makes sense, how to do it most effectively is less obvious.

What is the united front?

My own understanding of the united front is limited and my goal here isn’t to provide anything comprehensive, but to contribute to emerging discussions and actions. What I do know about the united front is drawn primarily from some study of how it has been in play in other times and places: early 20th century Europe, the revolutionary struggle in the Philippines, the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, and period of the Black Panther Party/Third World Liberation Front in the US.

What I say here draws on that study and some familiarity with the left and Marxist writings on the subject. This is partly a disclaimer that I don’t necessarily have anything new to offer here, and am interested in working through my own questions on the united front and how to put the principle into practice. I’m also most interested in the united front in the context building a broader left movement. I welcome corrections and criticisms.

The united front (UF) is a tactic of temporary alliance between groups that have different — even conflicting — interests in the long term but face an immediate collective threat in the present. It is not a strategy for liberation in the long run. We can think of these groups as actual organizations (particular unions, or faith organizations, or student groups, for example) and as sectors (labor, students, progressive Democrats, etc.). Usually, those working to build a united front identify key sectors to build with and then the organizations within them that make sense to approach. These efforts often begin with groups that have some organizing experience but at other times circumstances draw different groups out against a specific threat, and from that longer term working relationships are formed.

The UF can bring together individuals and existing groups that don’t see themselves as having any particular political interests, and new groups that form explicitly to confront the current threat but have no history or politics beyond that. Temporary can — and usually does — mean years. To be effective, these alliances require trust building between groups that may share interests but have not worked together before, and across the different interest groups with no preexisting relationships.

The UF approach grew out of a realization by communists, socialists, and anarchists in Europe in the 1930s that fascism represented an existential threat separate from but related to the general threat posed by capitalism. And from a clear-headed assessment by these groups that they were not powerful enough to confront the threat alone.

A quick note: in the classic formulation, delivered by Georgi Dimitrov in a report to the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the UF refers to a front of workers parties, unions, and other labor organizations, including reform oriented and liberal ones. In the language of the time, the UF was the unity of proletarian/worker organizations against fascism and capitalism. The way the term united front is being used today, and how I am using it, is what Dimitrov called an anti-fascist people’s front or, more generally, the popular front. The relationships worked like this: the anti-fascist people’s front sought to bring together as many forces as possible to combat the immediate and mortal threat of fascism. But its political leadership would come from the united front of workers’ organizations, whose leadership would come from the communists, who fought fascism as part of a broader struggle against capitalism.

Remember, this was 1935. The European continent was still recovering from the bloodiest conflict in human history, when European workers marched under different national banners to butcher each other. The specter of another European fratricide loomed on the horizon. Fascists represented the vanguard of those pushing Europe to war again, and their primary recruits were the working classes already in the grip of the Euro-American Depression — created by capitalism and nationalism. The danger of workers from different European nations at each other’s throats once again was very real. A practical approach to unity, even if it meant putting aside for the moment the long term goal of overthrowing capitalism, made a lot of sense to even the most die-hard partisans of the class struggle. At the same time, the communists and anarchists saw fascism as an outgrowth of nationalist capitalism and were not going to abandon the political/ideological field completely. The defeat of fascism would for many in the anti-fascist people’s front — and even in the united front of worker’s organizations — mean they could go home, job done! But for the left, for communists and anarchists, this would represent just one particularly horrific crisis averted (though in this case it wasn’t averted) in the longer fight to end the horrors of capitalism at home and imperialism/colonialism abroad.

I’ll kick the can down the road on the importance of terminology and the distinction between united and anti-fascist people’s front but will return to the issue of political/ideological leadership below. For now, I use UF to refer to the broad alliance of organizations and groups against fascism, neo-Nazism, and white supremacist nationalism.

Unity of action over ideology

The nature of the unity in the united front is best captured in Dimitrov’s phrase, unity of action. It speaks to both the immediacy of the crisis and the urgency of response. The UF is not intended at its core to be about long term movement building, developing deep analysis, and putting out programs and platforms. Many united fronts did these things but the theory of the UF is rooted in a non-ideological practice and concrete actions to reverse the advance and consolidation of fascist movements. It can’t be a movement much beyond this specific task because, by definition, it brings together groups which otherwise have mutually exclusive interests and groups that would need to spend significant time and resources to build relationships and deeper political unity with each other. That’s why the principle of unity of action is key.

The emphasis on action makes clear that the united front is not primarily a space to debate politics, grand strategy, or long term alliance and coalition building, but to decide and act on tactical responses to organizing by and the public presence of authoritarian groups. It is a tactic for disorganizing the enemy. Members of the UF may have many sharp political disagreements but when a fascist rolls up they link arms and advance towards the common threat until that threat is no more. In the wake of Charlottesville, this is probably easiest for us to understand in the urgency of putting aside differences, reaching out to groups we may not even talk to under normal circumstances, and mobilizing a collective response when events demand it.

By placing less emphasis on politics and ideology, a focus on unity of action makes space for creative, spontaneous, militant actions at a scale that is hard to achieve quickly otherwise. Big and important questions are swept off the table or put aside for later, not because they are not big and important but because they don’t need to be answered in order to confront the challenge immediately in front of us.

There will still be plenty to discuss and debate, from modes of organization to specific tactics. Currently in the US there are ongoing disagreements about the role of physical confrontation, the difference between free speech and speech as violence, etc. but the nature of the UF is such that it places very clear constraints on what should be primary topics of discussion and what the aim of the front is in the first place: to deny fascists the ability to organize and propagandize.

This means left individuals and groups will have to make concessions. These include defending liberal democratic rights in practice even as we critique them in principle. Dimitrov, for example, argued that it was incumbent upon communists to defend “bourgeois-democratic liberties” because it was in the interest of workers and workers’ struggles to do so in the face of assaults by fascism and by capitalism more broadly. These rights are limited and inherently flawed but they provide material protections in the moment that matter to those in the crosshairs.

For all parties the UF means not publicly taking a stand against groups engaged in tactics they disagree with and affirming solidarity with these groups (in word and deed), even if they debate these tactics in UF spaces. Here the highest level of coordination and trust should be sought through integrating unity of action and divergence of tactics.

These points have a particular resonance now, when a tepid defense of anti-fascist organizing by some liberal — and even conservative voices — following Charlottesville quickly gave way to a vicious counter-attack, led by liberal opinion makers, media outlets, and elected officials. These guardians of order have called for ripping away civil liberties where antifa organizing is concerned and deploying the police against some of the most committed members of the resistance. These calls, if they take root, will do so on the fertile ground provided by a chorus of official and self-appointed spokespeople who identify themselves as allies in the struggle against the Trump regime. A united front may provide some protection from this treachery.

Recent confrontations between fascists and anti-fascists provide some good examples. After the August 2017 events in Berkeley, the National Lawyers Guild demonstrated what solidarity looks like. While many prominent liberal and even so-called left voices rushed to condemn antifa tactics, NLG publicly and without equivocation defended antifa.

This campaign to recast antifa as a violent, leftist suppression of speech is a dangerous effort eerily reminiscent of the left-baiting that accompanied the Nazi rise to power. The National Lawyers Guild won’t stand by as fascists and white supremacists seek to take power in the streets and halls of government. We stand in solidarity with all who fight hatred. We will continue to show up, to defend activists who challenge fascism, and we call on all people of conscience to do the same.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of counterexamples. Prominent liberal gatekepeers lined up to repeat essentially the same line that Trump spun after Charlottesville: that there is violence on both sides and plenty of blame to go around. Nancy Pelosi and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin went so far as to call for police repression of people engaged in antifa organizing. The good mayor suggested antifa be labeled a gang, apparently unconcerned with or ignorant of the history of abuse this approach has left us with. Giving police the power to profile leftists as criminals or even terrorists is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, and these regimes can always count on some support from moderates and liberals.

Liberal equivocation in circumstances like those we now face may be historical givens. What was more surprising to some was the very public denouncement by a handful of well-known leftists, most notably Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges. Whatever the substance of their critiques, the fact that they would make them in the way they did and at the time they did suggests neither man really conceives of himself as part of a movement whose members face repression by right wing terror groups and the state itself. Instead, they speak as though they stand outside the actual politics of the moment and are buffered from the possible consequences of their positions. In effect, they join establishment Democrats as the liberal flank of an anti-left united front.

United front and the left

This alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essential an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other.

George Orwell

Having just made the case that a united front requires that we put aside big, divisive political questions, I want to make somewhat of a counter argument. Orwell’s observation of the popular front in Spain is a jarring one. While it is not neatly transferred to the present case in the US, it challenges us by focusing our attention on some historical realities. I do not see the united front — as I use the term here — as essentially an alliance of enemies. At the same time, within the left, between the left and liberal forces, and between these and conservative anti-fascist forces, there are more than enough differences to split and wreck any attempts at unity.

It may not be true that one partner must always swallow the other, but Orwell’s warning forces us to confront the question of difference and develop a strategy for managing it. As the saying goes, the only space that abhors a vacuum more than nature is politics. Someone’s politics will prevail.

All else being equal, what this means is that the politics of the broader political mainstream — the politics that passively and actively allowed fascist tendencies to grow in the first place — will shape the politics and actions of the UF, unless there is a conscious effort to push back. On the other side, there is also the danger of small sectarian left formations making bids for power that, typically, undermine unity. For the left, there is a recognized need to engage with ideological differences that exist in the UF and move the entire formation in a more anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal direction.

There are at least three closely related issues to consider here. First, there is a danger that some forces or organizations within the UF turn against others. Given the broader political climate this usually means that, especially under pressure, moderate forces will turn on left forces; for example, when they are offered a compromise by the state. These attacks can sabotage the possibility of effective and unified responses to the threat. Building up and rallying people to an explicitly left bloc within the UF can provide some inoculation against this, as well as a space for organizing if it does happen.

Second, the threat of authoritarianism can bring together a wide range of people, organizations, and sectors “naturally” but this is often when the threat has become uncontainable. Many of those who see the danger at this point will have ignored or misread the early warning signs and calls to action, and are only mobilizing now, when the threat is substantial. Arguably, the rise of the Trump regime is an example of this, as the threat had been building for years under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Dimitrov writes, [B]efore the establishment of a fascist dictatorship, bourgeois [liberal] governments usually pass through a number of preliminary stages and adopt a number of reactionary measures which directly facilitate the accession to power of fascism. Whoever does not fight the reactionary measures of the bourgeoisie and the growth of fascism at these preparatory stages is not in a position to prevent the victory of fascism, but, on the contrary, facilitates that victory.

A proactive approach to politics within the UF makes it more likely that it can recognize and act against the incremental changes in conditions that allow fascism to transform from scattered expressions into to a solidified movement.

Effective responses to incrementalism require some shared analysis within the UF of how authoritarians inside and outside of the state maneuver within the law, the limits of legal protest, and the role that some liberals will play in attacking and even criminalizing effective resistance. By the time these become obvious, many of the legal and institutional changes to government — as well as broader cultural normalization — that a dictatorship will rely upon have already happened. The UF needs to see itself as mobilized to preclude this outcome.

Finally, the UF should be seen as an important step in the direction of a longer term, mass-based move against the intersecting structures of race, class, and gender oppression that underpin modern nationalism. Fascism is still with us because these are still with us. The historical evidence tells us that left forces, not liberal ones, must lead here. Today in the US, most major labor unions, many civil rights organizations, and the Democratic Party — which, taken together, constitute the liberal establishment — support capitalism and the institutions of liberal democracy that prop it up, including the police and the military (2). We need to struggle over these issues as part of building the UF because abstaining only raises the likelihood of a temporary defeat of fascist and authoritarian forces that only prunes the weeds.

The UF should be a place within which the left struggles for political leadership and prepares to lead beyond the struggle against particular expressions of authoritarianism. Creating a unified left bloc within the UF allows us to a) make the case for this longer term struggle once the immediate threat is addressed (since the tendency for many will be to pack up and go home), b) create an organizational infrastructure that can actually wage this struggle, and c) push back against the culture of nationalistic militarism that has spread leftward from conservatives into the mainstream and underwrites the rise of the militaristic cults that we now have to deal with.

For all of these reasons, I would argue that the left has no choice but to raise its banner within the UF and UF-like coalitions, and rally other forces (individuals, organizations, and sectors) around it. There is no blueprint or set of rules to follow for how to do this, and the actual application of this is dependent upon close a close reading of the local political terrain, existing relationships, and so on. One important lesson in my view is to do this work openly. It’s destructive to trust-building and solidarity if different factions are secretly recruiting or moving their political/organizational agendas under the cover of building a UF.

In closing, the principle of the united front is one that in practice has to be very flexible, but that flexibility needs to be grounded in an understanding of the historical moment. If not, united front formations can easily become directionless and end up looking like the more common short-term, reform-oriented coalitions that we see all the time. While not without value, these coalitions tend to be defensive and reactive; they are not built to nurture and sustain long term transformative movements that fight for, consolidate, and expand our political spaces. But this is absolutely what the historical moment demands.

We also have to know when to walk away from a particular UF formation. Just because the times demand we build them does not mean they will all be worth maintaining. It will probably take some trial and error at the local, regional, and national level to build powerful, deep, and sustainable united front formations, and knowing when to fold or leave one and start another is essential to advancing the UF project and the broader left political movement that we clearly need.

Oppressive forces often become most irrational and destructive when they sense their time is drawing to an end. Evidence all around us suggests we are entering just such a period. The resurgence of nationalist populism across the Euro-American world represents a political shift in response to the historical and demographic shifts of a world as Edward Said put it, stitched together by colonialism. The united front can be an effective instrument in our response. It gives form to the clearly expressed desire by many to consciously engage with the broad sweep of history and to bend the moral arc of the universe toward a world stitched together by justice.

(1) My working definition of fascism: a movement for state power and social domination that a) organizes around the idea of a national identity defined by racial and/or ethnic purity and b) organizes through violence, the threat of violence, and exclusion.

(2) By liberal democracy I mean governments and related political cultures that institutionalize individual political freedoms and downplay or ignore social and economic freedoms.

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