Workers’ unity in Scotland: lessons from history

Paul Inglis, co-ordinator of the RSP’s working group on relationships with mass organisations, considers the history of the ‘united front’. A glossary and recommended reading list are included at the end of the article.

Separated from us as it is by the heaped debris of failed revolutions, world war, cold war and neoliberalism, the fraught life and death of the Communist International (Comintern for short) from its formation in 1919 to its dissolution in 1943 can seem like rather outdated and irrelevant ground for modern socialists to retread – that is, if names like Zinoviev and Brandler, or terms like “March Action” and “Third Period” are even remembered at all. Some might ask: ‘What use could yet another string of long-dead martyrs and their deeds serve when we’re still puzzling out how Marx and the other big names are applicable to the world of today?’

Well, far from being outdated or irrelevant, I believe that the problems and controversies of the Comintern are still very much alive in many of the key issues we face as socialists today. How could it be otherwise, when the communist parties that made up the ranks of the Comintern were grappling with questions that for the most part still haven’t been solved? To take two examples of particular importance for the work of Scottish socialists, there is firstly the key question that faced communist parties like that of Germany. How do socialists operating in industrialised nations outmanoeuvre the reformist organisations that hold such sway among the working class, and build a socialist organisation from a small group into a mass party able to bring about a revolution? Secondly, there is the experience of the Chinese and Polish communists. What attitude do socialists take to their own country’s national question? Can socialists participate in national struggles without being subsumed by the forces of the nationalist bourgeoisie/middle class? Can an autonomous, militant, working class force come to lead the struggle for self-determination? I think it is very safe to say, reflecting on the years since 2014, that the Scottish left has not yet found adequate solutions to either of these pressing areas of concern.

It is on issues like these that the old German, Chinese and Polish comrades have many lessons to teach us – lessons born of both limited successes and hard failures in building revolutionary parties. It is for this reason that I am disappointed that the experience and legacy of the Comintern is such a neglected part of the left’s history, when really we should be making better use of it, even if only as a means of avoiding certain pitfalls that have already befallen our ancestors. We may live in a world transformed beyond the expectations of the original communists, but the situations we face still depend, at their roots, on quite classic questions of tactics and strategy: how to build unity among socialists that actually works, when and where to make alliances, how to reach and collect together the most militant and politically active sections of the working class, how to outwit and outpace the reformists and bureaucrats of the labour movement, how to make principled interventions within national-democratic and civil rights struggles, and so on. In these essentials the Scottish left is still playing the same game that the German Communist Party did a century ago, even if we often seem to be in denial about it.

Given my wish to see more discussion of this varied and interesting legacy, I was therefore happy to see mention and endorsement of the old Comintern tactic of the united front towards the end of Chris Bambery’s recent Conter article on Gramsci and the Scottish Question1. Taken as a potential starting-gun for a much needed discussion of, and perhaps even revival of, the historical lessons of the Communist International, Bambery’s article should be welcomed. This does not mean that I do not have criticisms of the way in which Bambery broached the subject, however. Indeed, I feel that his treatment of the subject is rather weak. My problem with Bambery’s article is that it references the need for a united front, but does not actually go into detail about what this would entail, in Scotland or anywhere else. Of course, Bambery’s article is chiefly a case for the utility of Gramsci’s ideas and their relevance to Scotland, not just an exposition on the united front itself, but even so I feel that if a particular tactical approach taken by the historical communist movement is to be advocated for in an article, then it must be explained clearly. Vagueness only serves to mystify the subject, and the united front approach really does not benefit from mystification.

What is the united front?

The problem with being vague about the united front is that it is an easily misunderstood and misapplied tactical approach, one that in practice can be quite tricky to keep right. It descends from an understandable impulse towards the unity of the working class that all socialists surely hope to see, but it aims at the achievement of (or attempts to achieve) this unity in a very specific way. There are a number of classic explanations of the united front tactic that could be drawn on to describe it, and for the purposes of this article I will summarise the one that appears in C. L. R. James’ history of the Comintern, World Revolution2.

A communist party, James writes, will at most moments only comprise a militant minority among the organised workers. The great majority of the working class instead typically follow the reformist leadership of the trade unions and social-democratic parties. Winning the respect and support of the rest of the workers not only necessitates activism by members of the communist party within the trade unions, but also offers of organisational co-operation to the leadership of the social-democratic parties to fight together for shared goals like the eight-hour day and wage increases. When the reformist leaders inevitably compromise with the bourgeoisie, the communist party will be able to publicly hold them to account for failing to fight for the goals they agreed on, thus exposing the social democrats in full view of the working class and showing the communist party as the correct choice. Key to all of this is that, despite performing joint work with the reformists for common goals, the communist party consistently maintains organisational autonomy and the right to criticism of its allies at all times. This, ideally, stops the communist party from falling under the influence of the social democrats, leaving them free to act for their own revolutionary aims.

This is a tactic that prizes organisational autonomy, and that aims to ensure a revolutionary organisation can make limited alliances where necessary without losing its freedom to seize the initiative should a revolutionary situation arise. It is not an advocacy of uncritical, permanent unity with reformists, and this is important to keep in mind. An alliance for a specific goal can rapidly become useless or even damaging if it is held onto long after the reformists have compromised themselves, and indeed such an alliance can even be used by reformists to give themselves some radical cover for their opportunism, compromises and deals with the bourgeoisie. By this the communist minority current effectively becomes the patsy and pawn of the reformists. For similar reasons, the united front approach was never intended to be about class collaborationist alliances/electoral pacts with bourgeois liberal parties. The aim was always the autonomy and unity of the working class, with a revolutionary purpose. So, as can be seen, the united front is not just about making alliances, but, crucially, knowing who to make them with, and when to break them off. This is why it’s so important to be precise when advocating for it. Without clarity about what concrete measures are actually being called for, a united front approach can collapse into helping reformists get away with opportunism.

Does Bambery’s discussion of the united front explicitly advocate for such an unprincipled approach to tactics? Thankfully no, but unfortunately what he has written about the united front is so vague as to lack the “what” and “how” of the matter entirely. Bambery states:

“The construction of ideological hegemony mattered to Gramsci, because he was interested in the strategies and organisational forms necessary to break it down, by generalising the ideas of a militant minority of workers. Until that minority can achieve that working class counter-hegemony, the minority needs to find ways to mobilise and work with the majority who remain under the influence of ‘common sense’. The Prison Notebooks are in part a defence of this so-called united front approach against the narrow sectarianism then developing is [sic] the socialist movement – with some arguing that the minority should strike out alone, with disastrous consequences including the isolation of radicals and the rise of fascism.”

What ways must be found to mobilise and work with the majority who remain under the influence of ‘common sense’? As has been discussed, the methods advanced by the Comintern were quite clear and particular. But none of that comes through in Bambery’s writing, despite his reference to the united front approach.

Further, for an article that suggests Scottish leftists turn to Gramsci’s ideas for guidance, Bambery does not really discuss what the united front approach would mean in Scotland. Something of this is perhaps suggested, but only lightly, when Bambery writes: “In 2014 we saw the development of initiative like Radical Independence which saw to unite militant elements with broader opinion in a way that shifted the terms of debate.” However, what groups these militant elements represented, what these militant elements concretely did to unite with “broader opinion”, what the terms of unity were, what “broader opinion” meant in terms of parties, tendencies, groups and movements, to what extend the terms of debate were shifted, and what the organisational result of all this was, are not expanded on.

The united front in today’s Scotland

This is a shame, as the question of applicability of the united front approach to the current Scottish political scene is quite an interesting one. As I think it best to temper theoretical elaboration with tactical-strategic recommendations and conclusions, I would like to conclude by offering some of my own thoughts on the matter. Understood classically, I think the original purpose of the united front, to win workers away from social democracy to a communist banner, is fairly outdated in the Scotland of today. If Scottish Labour ever genuinely leads the majority of the working class ever again, it won’t be any time soon. Social democracy is not a particularly meaningful force in Scotland, a conclusion which, I am sure, will not shock any of you.

So, is there any use for the old united front here? I do think so, but my position is a fairly qualified one. Firstly, we are in a period of ferment and regroupment on the Scottish left, of which the Republican Socialist Platform is just one manifestation. At current moment I would say that the united front approach is only partially relevant to the crucial task of uniting revolutionary socialists across the country and patching up our weak and broken socialist movement. Some elements of the united front approach that would certainly be of use here are the focus on organisational autonomy and on concrete, limited alliances for specific goals. These could inform a sort of rough-and-ready conduct for groups to work out provisional agreements about immediate campaigns on an honest, principled basis while a more lasting unity is carefully talked out. This could perhaps help avoid groups hurriedly dissolving their platforms into barely thought-out unity parties for expediency’s sake.

Secondly, a ‘sort-of’ united front approach could be of use to the revolutionary left in their relations with the grassroots independence movement, particularly in its latest umbrella grouping, YesAlba (rename pending at time of writing). At YesAlba’s founding assembly, members of our platform argued for and achieved agreement that the umbrella organisation’s constitution would be amended to “provide for the right of existing national organisations, like the Radical Independence Campaign [of which the Republican Socialist Platform is a part], to affiliate.”3 This amendment to the constitution is a powerful one, because it means independence-supporting socialist groups can take part in YesAlba and put forward socialist points of view to the broader independence grassroots without having to dissolve their organisation into the broader umbrella grouping. As opposed to taking part in YesAlba with their banner and ideas masked, the programmes and positions of affiliated groups will be open and clear for all to see. This would allow for joint-work between currents within YesAlba on a more honest and principled basis, and would help independence-supporting socialist groups to maintain their autonomy and freedom of manoeuvre as the independence struggle develops. This autonomy could help to promote a more robust democratic culture in situations where debate might otherwise be bureaucratically suppressed. Were the YesAlba leadership to attempt to shut down a debate on questions of strategy, affiliates could appeal to the membership from a more organisationally strong position than if they did so as dispersed individual members. None of this is to say such a thing will happen in YesAlba, simply that when it comes to safeguarding internal democracy, it’s better to trust to established rights and frameworks of action than wishful thinking.

These two possible applications of united front ideas are not the only, nor the definitive ones for Scotland, and I would never want to suggest otherwise. Indeed, there is still the much larger question of how the tactics discussed in this article would apply to the SNP and our relationship with it as socialists. This is a very complex question in its own right that would of necessity also have to draw on research and analysis into socialist participation in national independence movements throughout history, work beyond the scope of this short article. What I have written is simply an attempt at showing some ways forward, an initial contribution to a necessary process of theoretical, and, I hope, practical experimentation with the tools that the Comintern left behind. On that note, I hope this article inspires further interest in the ideas, debates and history of the Communist International, both within the Republican Socialist Platform and across the broader Scottish left. We may be a long way from seeing a mass revolutionary party in Scotland, but that’s precisely why we should be learning from the attempts of the past.


[1] Chris Bambery, Gramsci and the Scottish Question (2020) [accessed 06 January 2021].
[2] The explanation can be found in full in C. L. R. James, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, ed. by Christian Høgsbjerg (London: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 197-200.
[3] Connor Beaton, Report: AUOB Assembly 22/11/20 (2020) [accessed 08 January 2021].

Glossary and Named Figures

Heinrich Brandler (1881-1967): Founding member of the German Communist Party in December 1918 and one of its leading figures until the failed uprising of 1923. Thereafter a leader of the party’s right wing until his expulsion in 1929. Then leader in a splinter party, the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition). Escaped to France after the Nazi takeover.

Communist International/Comintern (1919–1943): Also known as the Third International, this was an international association formed in 1919 to co-ordinate the revolutionary activities of communist parties all across the world during the wave of uprisings that followed the end of the First World War. It was formed in direct opposition to the Socialist, or Second, International, which had been compromised during the war through the failure of its member parties to mount a united opposition to their own countries’ imperialist war efforts.

Hegemony: A term from the works of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Hegemony refers to how the ruling class maintain control over society by using cultural, moral and ideological institutions such as the media, schools and churches to achieve consent from the population they rule over. Distinct from the ruling class’ coercive power, which is embodied in the military and the police.

March Action: A failed uprising led by the German Communist Party and the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany in 1921.

Reformism: A general term referring to politics that aims solely to change capitalism gradually through reforms passed by parliaments. Reformist political groups do not aim to overturn the capitalism system as a whole via working-class revolution.

Third Period: A term arising from an analysis developed within the Comintern in the late 1920’s and adopted at its sixth world congress in 1928, that recent history since the end of the First World War could be divided into periods. The first marked the revolutionary wave from 1918 to the early 1920’s, the second marked the recovery and development of capitalism from the early 1920’s until 1928, and the third marked a period of economic collapse and working class radicalisation ripe for revolution. Third Period politics also involved a particular hostility to social democratic parties, with social democracy being seen by communist parties as another wing of fascism, so-called “social-fascism”. As a result, previous attempts at united front work were largely abandoned, a decision that would have disastrous results in Germany as the Nazis moved closer to power in the early 1930’s. Following the Nazi takeover the Third Period policy was dropped and officially replaced with the Popular Front policy at the seventh world congress in 1935.

Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936): Leading member of the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s close collaborator during the First World War. Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet from 13th December 1917 to 26th March 1926, and Chairman of the Communist International from 2nd March 1919 to 22nd November 1926. United with Stalin and Kamenev against Trotsky in the leadership battles following Lenin’s final illness and death from 1923-1924, broke with Stalin and sided with Trotsky from 1926 to 1927, capitulated to Stalin thereafter. Executed in Stalin’s Purges.

Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Communist International and the united front tactic, here are some good books that have informed my thinking and which I highly recommend.

C. L. R. James, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, ed. by Christian Høgsbjerg (London: Duke University Press, 2017) – A classic account of the Communist International by the great Trinidadian socialist and pan-Africanist C. L. R. James.

Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985) – A concise, readable analysis of the Comintern from a Trotskyist perspective.

Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow (London: Bookmarks, 1971) – An eyewitness account of the Comintern from the years 1920 to 1924 by a leading figure of the early French Communist Party.

Leon Trotsky, Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front (London: Bookmarks, 1989) – Trotsky’s analysis of the Nazi rise to power in Germany and the failures of the German Communist Party and Social Democratic Party to work together against the fascist takeover.

Revolutionary History, Volume 5 Issue 2: Germany 1918–23: From the November Revolution to the Failed October, (1994) – An issue of Revolutionary History journal focusing on Germany’s revolutionary years from 1918 to 1923. Contains fascinating and useful reflections on communist organising and united front work from important early German Communist Party figures like Paul Levi and August Thalheimer. This is available online.

4 thoughts on “Workers’ unity in Scotland: lessons from history

  1. Food for thought, and good to see CLR James getting a mention. As I am oft to say: more power to your writing elbow.

    How do you distinguish a reformist from a revolutionary? And at what point does a reformist become a revolutionary or revolutionary become a reformist? Is it not easy to be the most left wing person in the room, and as a consequence of such purity- how does that impact on the fighting spirit of the bewildering here and now? Gramsci for me has some good stuff to say on this issue. Chris Bambery talked a good talk but what of his walk? The SWP a baleful case in point.

    IF calling for reforms, fighting for reforms, then for me I would proudly embrace the pejorative form ‘reformist’. And yet I would call myself a republican and Scottish republican at that….
    I think these are vital questions, so well done for deftly laying out some of the key themes around this issue. TBC.

  2. Hi Paul.
    A really useful article which I think covers the essential points regarding a principled, practical approach to the united front tactic. Most importantly you highlight the importance of organisational autonomy and class independence whilst steering clear of sectarianism and engaging with mass movements as they arise. We will need to keep all this in mind as we negotiate the current political landscape in Scotland and worldwide. On a practical point I personally think that we can make limited united fronts with the SNP and Labour as social democratic parties but not with the Tories. I would strongly argue for united front work within RIC and Yes Alba. Responding to George I would say that revolutionaries have always fought for reforms e.g the 8 hour day, universal suffrage etc. What separates us form reformists is method (by all means necessary) and an understanding that the capitalist class will not allow us to reform it away. They will attack and we must be prepared to defend ourselves effectively and also turn defence into attack. ‘Peacefully if we may, forcefully if we must’ as the Chartists said. May the debate continue.

  3. Very interesting article. I thought the Bambery article on Gramsci and Scotland was disappointing. As someone who sees Gramsci as a key thinker for the left in our times, I think he has more to offer in terms of how the Unionist hegemony has broken down in Scotland than is in Bambery’s piece.
    I think Paul is right to focus on the concept of a United Front. For the Comintern in the 1920s it was a tactic, due to the ebbing of the revolutionary tide and the victory of Fascism in Italy. In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci developed it further into a strategic concept.
    That strategic approach in Scotland now means finding a way that the working class can become hegemonic in the winning of independence and beyond into what sort of Scotland the new state becomes.
    AUOB/Yes Alba has a large working class support. The SNP has many people who call themselves socialists in its membership, many working class members and a mass working class electoral base. A estimated 3 in 5 trade unionists votes SNP. Working in a non-sectarian way for unity in the Yes movement whilst arguing for a left programme is how we build a United Front and attempt to make pro-working class dominant in the indy movement. Independence achieved on the lefts terms rather then those of Andrew Wilson and the SNP’s neo-liberal right.

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