Marxists and the British
The Communist International and the United Front
When nearly all the parties of the Second International supported their own national ruling class in the First World War, with for instance the German Social Democrats supporting the German ruling class’s war effort, and the French Socialist Party supporting the French ruling class’s war effort, this created an enormous crisis for the workers’ movement and genuine Marxists.
The fact that in most countries in 1914 the Second International leaders supported their 'own' ruling class's imperialist aims showed that these social democratic parties originally created to change society had become obstacles to socialism.
Lenin and Trotsky, who were soon to lead the Russian Revolution, and a few others, were forced to break from the Second International. After the Russian Revolution of October 1917, Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party helped found the Third ‘Communist’ International in 1919, with a call to arms to the revolutionary workers of the world. The most politically advanced workers established Communist Parties across the globe.
The Communist International was established because it was necessary to build new workers’ organisations dedicated to fighting capitalism and changing society.
This was a life and death matter for the Russian Revolution. The end of the First World War saw a wave of revolutions sweep Europe, especially in Germany and Italy. Yet in Germany it was the leaders of the Social Democratic Party like Noske who saved capitalism by crushing workers’ struggles in blood in 1919 and 1920. In Italy the Socialist Party leaders were incapable of using the revolutionary mass factory occupations in 1920 as the basis for a socialist revolution, thereby allowing Mussolini’s fascists to seize the initiative.
Lenin and Trotsky understood that, unless the working class of the advanced capitalist countries of the West in particular, developed a genuinely internationalist Marxist leadership which could successfully overthrow capitalism in Europe and worldwide, the Russian revolution could not survive. The leaders of the parties of the Second International were now a conscious barrier to socialism.
However Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International did not turn its back on the ordinary members and supporters of the parties of the Second International. They understood that many workers would initially retain a loyally to the old organisations that they had built and that the supporters of the Communist International had to be able win these workers to the new parties that genuinely were fighting for socialism.
In policies declared most clearly at the Third Congress of the Communist International, the Communist International developed conscious policy of developing joint campaigning work and struggles with the ordinary members of the Second International, called the policy of the United Front.
While conducting joint United Front work with the ordinary members of these parties the Communists openly declared their opposition to the leaders of the reformist parties. They had a duty to clearly and fraternally explain the mistaken leadership of those parties to the working class.
This policy has to be distinguished from the Stalinist distortion of this policy that developed in the mid-1920s and was, from the 1930s onwards, often called the ‘Popular Front’ tactic adopted by the Communist Parties, which made unprincipled deals and alliances with the leadership of other parties (including capitalist ones), usually holding back workers’ struggles so that their alliances would not be threatened and justified participating in capitalist governments on the grounds that they were ‘progressive’.