United Front: Beyond the Politics of Liberal Consensus and Leftwing Infantilism

Pothik Ghosh

First, an axiomatic assertion: the communist conception of the United Front is by no means meant to enable the politics of liberal consensus to come into its own.  If anything, it is meant to extinguish the condition of possibility for such politics. The United Front – at least in the realm of revolutionary communist theory – has always been envisaged as a programmatic concept of advance-through-generalisation for the capital-unraveling politics of the proletariat, even as it steers clear of the trap of substituting overgeneralised sectarianism for real, essential unity among concretely varied working-class locations.

This essence of the communist concept and practice of the United Front is most at stake in the ongoing polemical exchanges between the New Socialist Initiative (NSI)-led University Community for Democracy (UCD) and the Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS). Yet, unfortunately, it is precisely this politico-theoretical essence that has been lost in the fog of those polemics.  The NSI, which has to all intents and purposes been the key organising and driving force behind the UCD, clearly envisages socialist United Front politics, discernible in its defence of the current shape and directionality of the UCD, as one of consensus between various social blocs and classes in their ostensibly common struggle against the manoeuvres of dominant politico-economic and socio-political forms of capitalism in the specific location of the university and its neighbourhood. On the other hand, the KYS has, its intentions to the contrary notwithstanding, failed to free the revolutionary impulse – which underpins its otherwise absolutely valid criticism of the UCD as a material embodiment of the politics and ideology of liberal consensus (essentially integral to the hegemony of capitalism) – from the fetish of the historical specificity of its own experience. As a consequence, its otherwise legitimate polemic against the UCD and the NSI has failed to overcome its sectarian tenor and ignite a substantive debate.

At the heart of the NSI’s programmatic error on that score lies its unwillingness and/or inability to grasp the fact that a communist-led United Front cannot be distinguished from a liberal rainbow coalition at a phenomenological level, where they are similar, but that the fundamental distinction between them stems from the two completely different logics or trajectories of formation they are respectively products of. While a consensus-based rainbow coalition is expressly produced as an aggregative unity of various socio-economic and socio-occupational blocs or groups (really sociological entities), a communist group/party-led United Front is envisaged as a constellational, essential unity of multiple social subject positions embodying the universal proletarian tendency of decimation of value creation in their determinate specificity of those historically given diverse socio-economic and/or socio-occupational blocs.

Therefore, rainbow coalition is a body while a communist-led United Front is, as Antonio Gramsci correctly characterised it, an “agitational terrain”. It is, however, the similarity in appearance of both these entities that has often been the reason for the gap in the programmatic conception of the United Front and its actual, empirical practice, wherein the constitutive essence of the United Front has been conflated and confused with its appearance, which by itself is no different from that of a rainbow coalition. This grave error has been particularly unavoidable in moments of institutionalisation and fetishisation of communist groups and parties concomitant with the periodic, though inevitable, ebb in the proletarian movement, whose generalised advance those groups or parties have been constitutive of. That error of confusion and conflation has, needless to say, been the historical bane of communist formations that have been in a hurry to seize and control power without really bothering to make that desire of theirs an inextricable part of the larger communist strategy of changing the class basis and configuration of such power. The Eurocommunist drift of the Communist Party of Italy after World War II is, by far, the most ‘celebrated’ example of this communist propensity for historical blunder. The NSI is, to that extent, merely the latest entrant into this hall of liberal ‘communist’ infamy.

In such circumstances where utter confusion prevails, the least one can do is to attempt rescuing the politico-theoretical essence of the United Front from the cul de sac of counterproductive polemicising.

The communist conception of the United Front is, historically speaking, necessitated by two objective conditions:

1. The base of the communist party, in case there is only one such party, is not widely pervasive and is restricted to only a few localities or sections of the working class. Or, in case of there being more than one communist formation, the working-class base is heavily fragmented.

2. The institutional socio-political and politico-economic forms of big capital are striving hard and perhaps successfully to establish their dominance over the rest of social totality, which includes not merely the working class but also various sections of the petty-bourgeoisie and other intermediate classes, particularly the urban middle classes. In such a situation, the unity of the working masses qua the unity of the working class, petty commodity producers (artisans, small peasants, etc.) and other sociological groups constituting the intermediate-class strata becomes necessary and unavoidable to render the struggle against such domination effective.

However, by itself such a coalition is not really a United Front in the classical communist sense but is actually no more than an aggregative unity of various social blocs into a kind of rainbow coalition. Such an alliance, even as it poses an effective challenge to the growing domination and advance of the big bourgeoisie and its politico-economic and socio-political institutional forms, is not counter-hegemonic. In fact, the ideological orientation of such an entente, precisely because of its formational logic of unity of disparate social forces ranged in a competitive struggle against the advance and manoeuvres of the big bourgeoisie, only serves to reinforce the hegemony of capital, which is not to be mistaken for this or that entity or form but is a grammar or ensemble of competitive social relations.

Capitalism is inherently and constitutively contradictory. It, as a matter of fact, thrives on contradiction and competition. To that extent, struggles against dominant and dominating forms of capital are, by themselves, no more than competitive manoeuvres. They are either directed as resistance against dominant capitalist forms and entities by subordinate locations to maintain their concrete historical positions against the advancing encroachment of those big-capitalist forms and entities on certain materially mediate conditions that give those subordinate positions their historically concrete specificity by underpinning and constituting them; or they are battles by those subordinate locations to wrench more such materially embedded conditions from the dominant and dominating capitalist forms and entities to enhance their position in the systemic hierarchy called capitalism. To that extent, those competitive struggles are no more, or less, than petty bourgeois struggles against the marauding, monopolistic movement of big capital. To say that such struggles, thanks to their competitive impulse and orientation, are articulated by and within the hegemonic logic of capital would not amount to an overstatement. The practice of United Front, contrary to its continual abuse by various left and communist outfits, cannot be an endorsement of such struggles. And yet no communist formation can afford to ignore those struggles of petty-bourgeois anti-capitalism because they constitute for revolutionary proletarian politics the determinate ground for critique of political economy. Unless such politics is embedded or refounded in the determinate specificity of historically given contradictions it would be neither revolutionary nor proletarian.

Clearly, the ideological leadership and subjective orientation of a United Front of communist vintage must, as its sine qua non, be proletarian. Without such ideological orientation, which would actually derive from the logic of its constitutivity, it would amount to giving normative communist sanction to what is for all practical purposes a hegemonic politics of liberal consensus.

In any case, the petty bourgeois, not unlike the proletariat, is a tendency that manifests itself in, as and through various sociological entities in the process of struggle and contradiction with dominant and dominating social forms and identities of capital specific to those historically concrete junctures or moments of contradiction. These sociological entities, depending on whether they express the mutually antagonistic petty-bourgeois or proletarian tendencies, become social ontologies or subjectivities of the petty-bourgeoisie or the proletariat in the junctural and conjunctural specificity of contradictions. We would, however, do well to realise that while the two mutually antagonistic tendencies can be grasped only in and as sociological forms, which as social ontologies and agencies of critique and transformation respectively are provisional because they are determinate, the petty bourgeois and the proletariat cannot be sociologised.

And that is because the same socio-historical locus of antithesis against the dominant thetic form of capital in a juncture or moment of historically given contradiction or class struggle can and often is both the locus of petty-bourgeois and proletarian tendency. For the former the struggle is delimited by its will to resolve the questions posed by the contours of the specific, determinate form and the fulfillment of demands that underpin those questions as if they were immediate issues of their struggle. For the latter, on the other hand, the issues and demands constituted by the historical form specific to the contradiction mediate the question of the configuration of (capitalist) class power of differential distribution and hierarchy that it seeks to transform in struggling to fulfil the demands and resolve the issues constituted by the empirically concrete historical formation of the juncture of contradiction. So, while the petty bourgeois tendency of a socio-historical locus of antithesis would be content with the fulfillment of its immediate demands, the proletarian tendency would see in the fulfillment of those immediate demands, which for it actually mediate the question of changing the differential configuration of capitalist class power, the need to displace the struggle beyond that locality of contradiction that has been further actually subsumed within capital through a change in the regime of regulation/distribution in its favour.

In such circumstances, a communist-led United Front is meant to be a type of intervention in various historically concrete loci of antithetical struggle against dominant thetic forms or identities so that this polarisation between the localist petty-bourgeois and the local-becoming-universal proletarian tendencies can be successfully effected. Thus the antithesis is as such an identity discursively embedded within the logical horizon of capitalism, but it is also, by virtue of its antithetical position, the determinate terrain for discerning and expressing the counter-discursive and transvaluatory counter-capitalist synthesis. The United Front must, above all, be seen as a revolutionary gambit that seeks to constantly fracture identities, seemingly cohesive in the commonality of their struggles against dominant, big capitalist forms, into polarised terrains of struggles over how or why those first struggles are/were being waged.

As a result, the working class-as-proletariat becomes a horizon of perpetual formation constituted through the constant dialectic between petty embourgeoisement and proletarian revolutionisation generated in the struggles of concrete antithetical social locations against equally concrete thetic forms or identities. Clearly, the only communist task then is the location and expression of the capital-unravelling, proletarian tendency in the determinate, mediate specificity of diverse levels of concrete historical forms of the class struggle. This is what Marx called revolutionary generalisation. And this becomes necessary for the unfolding of the proletarian line because capital, which is inherently uneven due to its constitutively contradictory character, continuously produces and reproduces the working class as an intrinsically segmented and stratified space of heterogeneously concrete and mutually competitive labour-forms. In the absence of this programmatic vision of generalisation, communist parties and/or groups would be condemned to become the fetish of experiences of certain limited but not all sections of the working class. That, in turn, would mean communist politics becomes the competitive sectarianism and/or the overgeneralised imposition of certain localities and/or moments of experience of working-class struggle on its remaining localities or moments. That, as far as the advance of the revolutionary proletarian line is concerned, is neither feasible nor desirable. In a concrete situation of bourgeois hegemony, such overgeneralisation does not help constitute counter-hegemony as the fetishised and sectionalist experiences embodied by communist groups are either unacceptable to one another or to those sections or localities of the working class that lie beyond the politico-ideological purview of the communist parties and/or groups in question. Besides, such overgeneralised imposition of sectionalist experiences, even when it is possible, is from a revolutionary-proletarian perspective undesirable because it spells differential dualisation and alienation, which in turn are constitutive symptoms of the restoration of capitalism and its regime of exchange values and value creation.

This is perhaps not the place to run through the historical narrative of the communist idea of the United Front, in both its chequered theory and practice starting from the days of the Dimitrov Theses in the Comintern. What, however, might be germane to our immediate concerns, which has led us to try and grasp the communist conception of the United Front as a vehicle of revolutionary generalisation, is Gramsci’s reflections on the same as a committed Italian militant of the Third International. That is so because the PCd’I’s theorisation and practice of the United Front amid the ascendancy of Fascism and till the emergence of Eurocommunism – which was a complete bowdlerisation of the revolutionary idea of the United Front into a social democratic, class-collaborationist shibboleth by Togliatti – provides us with the most politically productive and relevant example of the same.

Gramsci, for starters, was clear about the pertinence and effectiveness of the United Front as a programme of determinate, as opposed to abstract, schematic, intervention. In 1924, when the PCd’I adopted the policy of the United Front in its Third Congress, he wrote: “In the peripheral countries (of Europe) there is posed the problem of what I have called the intermediate phase…. In the other countries, Czechoslovakia and France included, it seems to me that the problem is still one of political preparation. For all capitalist countries a fundamental problem is posed, that of the passage from the tactic of the united front, understood in a general sense, to a determinate tactic, which poses the concrete problems of national life and works on the base of popular forces as they are historically determined.” (Emphasis added) It was precisely such a conceptual understanding of the United Front on Gramsci’s part that doubtless propelled the PCd’I to modify the Comintern’s United Front scheme into what it called “United Front from below”. This theorisation, if it is read together with its historical context, clearly indicates the will of its PCd’I proponents to distinguish it from the dominant praxis of the United Front (from above) as, what one has characterised before, an aggregative unity of various socio-economic and socio-occupational blocs or groups (really sociological entities) against the monopolistic and dominant tendencies of capitalism embodied and expressed by the regime or regimes of fascism. The United Front from below, on the other hand, was envisaged as a constellational, essential unity of multiple social subject positions embodying the universal proletarian tendency in the determinate specificity of those historically given diverse socio-economic and/or socio-occupational blocs. That meant fracturing those social blocs, groups and/or identities, seemingly cohesive in the commonality of their antithetical struggles against dominant capitalist (fascist) forms, into polarised terrains of struggles between the petty bourgeois and the proletarian tendencies over how or why those antithetical struggles are being waged in the first place.

That this was, according to Gramsci, the key impulse behind the adoption of the United Front policy by the PCd’I at its Third Congress in Commo in 1924, is clear from a paper he presented to the executive of the party at its meeting of August 2-3, 1926. The first of the “three basic factors” in the contemporary Italian political situation which he highlighted was “The positive, revolutionary factor, i.e. the progress achieved by the united front tactic. The current situation in the organization of Committees of Proletarian Unity and the tasks of the communist factions in these committees”. His emphasis on Committees of Proletarian Unity and the necessary presence of communist factions in these committees was in opposition to the line of Tasca and others close to the trade unions that insisted on concentrating on protecting established labour organisations and working through them. This reveal that while Gramsci was not willing to reify the social democratic gains of a section of the working class into revolutionary proletarian politics, he was not content with forging merely a political unity of all anti-capitalist social forces either. His stress on building Committees of Proletarian Unity through the presence of “communist factions” in them prove that for him essential unity among various proletarian-working class locations was possible only through polarisation of petty bourgeois and proletarian tendencies on every determinate terrain of anti-capitalist struggle. The communist factions within those committees, which were really anti-capitalist or antithetical blocs, were meant to precisely embody and drive that polarisation in the determinateness of their respective localities from the proletarian side. Gramsci is quite accurate in showing how the United Front tactics of the PCd’I produced such antagonistic class polarisations:

“In practical terms, the question can be framed like this: in all parties, especially in democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational structure is very loose, there are three layers. The numerically very restricted upper layer, that is usually made up of parliamentary deputies and intellectuals, often closely linked to the ruling class. The bottom layer, made up of workers and peasants and members of the urban petite bourgeoisie, which provides the mass of Party members or the mass of those influenced by the Party. And an intermediate layer, which in the present situation is even more important than it is in normal circumstances, in that it often represents the only active and politically ‘live’ layer of these parties. It is this intermediate layer that maintains the link between the leading group at the top and the mass of members and sympathizers. It is on the solidity of this middle layer that the Party leaders are counting for a future renewal of the various parties and a reconstruction of these parties on a broad basis.

“Now, it is precisely on a significant section of these middle layers of the various popular parties that the influence of the movement in favour of a united front is making itself felt. It is within this middle layer that we are seeing this capillary phenomenon of disintegration of the old ideologies and political programmes and the first stirrings of a new political formation on the terrain of the united front…. These are the kind of elements over which our Party exercises an ever increasing influence and whose political spokesmen are a sure index of movements at a grass roots level that are often more radical than may appear from these individual shifts.” (Emphasis added)

Gramsci’s description of these middle layers of popular parties is a clear indication that they are subjective embodiments of social democracy and such other types of bourgeois and petty bourgeois democratic ideology in various historically diverse moments of the class struggle. That he should set such great store by their transformation is, therefore, hardly surprising. The “capillary phenomenon of disintegration of the old ideologies and political programmes and the first stirrings of a new political formation on the terrain of the united front” implies a transformation of those various bourgeois democratic ideological subjectivities, mired in sectionalist struggles to get their historically concrete and specific grievances redressed, into a counter-ideological subjectivity that grasps the objective essence of their respective historically constituted conditions as specific mediate forms of the dualising and differential configuration of capitalist class power. The recognition of this necessity transformed their struggles over their specific historical issues and demands into a determinate, and therefore transformative, critique of capitalism.

It is fairly clear that Gramsci, the Leninist, did not confuse the building of a logical or constellational unity among historically diverse social subject positions of the counter-hegemonic proletarian tendency to effect revolutionary generalization with the expansion of the Communist Party through its progressive massification into an aggregate of disparate, anti-Fascist social blocs and groups that were hubs of class collaboration. That it was the former and not the latter purpose the United Front tactics were meant to serve is evident from Gramsci’s elaboration on the United Front tactics: “It is obvious that the Party cannot go in for fusion with other political groups or for recruiting new members on the basis of the united front. The purpose of the united front is to foster unity of action on the part of the working class and the alliance between workers and peasants; it cannot be a basis for party formation.” The latter approach would have transformed the PCd’I’s contemporary politics of communist antagonism to capitalism as a systemic social whole into a benign liberal, rainbow coalition-type competitive opposition to the monopolistic tendency of capital that was then embodied by fascism.

In our day, this monopolistic tendency of big capital is represented by various governmental and non-governmental politico-economic forms of neoliberalism driven by their will to absolute domination of the social whole. Thus the indispensability of the United Front tactics in our struggle against them cannot be overstated. And that is precisely the reason we must be particularly attentive to the ethos and import of Gramsci’s theory and under him the PCd’I’s practice of the same. After all, we cannot afford to squander the opportunity, objectively present in this moment, to unravel and overcome capitalism by lapsing into some kind of liberal consensual politics of laissez-faire and anti-capitalism. That would merely serve to aesthetically enchant our radical souls even as we, under the spell of such ‘revolutionary’ enchantment, entrench our positions and politics ever more firmly within the logical horizon of capitalism and its hegemony. And such damnation one would not wish even for the comrades of NSI.