“Unity” is a tricky slogan.
Every trade unionist knows that the foundation for a successful strike is unity in the ranks. If a majority supports the strike, all workers, no matter how they voted, must honor the picket line and not cross. That’s a pretty clear-cut case where unity advances the struggle.
But depending on who is using the term, and for what purpose, “unity” doesn’t always mean the same thing.
As the 2016 presidential election draws near, for example, the drumbeat message of “The left must unite around Hillary to beat Trump” is going to pound stronger and stronger. This will certainly “advance” Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election, as former Sanders voters are browbeaten into voting for the candidate they voted against in the primaries. But what struggle, what movement and whose interests will be advanced by backing the mainstream Democrat in the November election?
Calls for “unity” are as often used to squelch dissent or compel conformity as they are to strengthen social struggles. As the Russian socialist Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1914, “Nothing is easier than to write the word ‘unity’ in yard-long letters, to promise it and to ‘proclaim’ oneself an advocate of unity.” Frederick Engels noted that some of those who cry loudest for “unity” aim “to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew” — or, “consciously or unconsciously…to adulterate the movement.”
There is a difference, then, between the unity of five fingers that makes a fist and the unity of disparate ingredients that creates a “nondescript brew.” The question for socialists is: Unity between whom and to what end? Is it a unity that weakens or strengthens the cause? And how is that to be determined?
There is an obvious way in which the term “unity” is abused — when it is used to create a false unity among classes and individuals with competing interests. When bosses talk about “unity,” “togetherness” and “cooperation,” they are attempting cover up the antagonistic interests between capitalists and workers with the old slogan “we’re all in the same boat!” But in reality, someone is in a mahogany-paneled suite in first class sipping champagne, while someone else is in the boiler room shoveling coal.
The appeal of politicians for “national unity” has the same purpose — to create a false sense of unity between exploiters and exploited based on accidents of geography and birth. The purpose of patriotism is to chloroform you while certain other “patriots” pick your pockets or pack you off to war — and to convince you that the workers on the other side of your gun are your enemy.
The apparent simplicity of the idea of unity can be deceptive. For example, it’s not uncommon for environmentalists to call for all humanity to unite in order to solve the climate crisis. The position has an impeccable logic to it: The climate crisis affects us all, so naturally all of us should be able to come up with a plan to solve it. Surely the fact that the disaster is global is a strong enough incentive for a unified response.
But this is only true if you abstract from the very real economic and class interests that dominate our capitalist world — interests that contradict the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants.
The world’s rulers are not equipped to solve the climate crisis because their interests depend on a system that is bent toward relentless profit-making and thus depends on the environment continuing to be destroyed. This explains the string of international conferences that each time fails to devise a workable plan to deal with climate change, even though the resources and the know-how exist.
Cries of unity and disunity have been used historically among the broadly defined left in not dissimilar ways.
During the period beginning in the mid-1930s through the aftermath of the Second World War, Communist Parties around the world were directed by Joseph Stalin, former leader of the USSR, to support “anti-fascist” alliances with bourgeois parties and governments. After Hitler’s defeat, the CPs used their influence to squelch potentially revolutionary mass action from below.
The policy of the “united front” promoted by the Comintern in the early 1920s — essentially, proposals for joint struggles uniting revolutionary and reformist workers organizations around commonly agreed upon demands, but without burying fundamental differences — was transformed into the “people’s front,” that is, calls for a permanent electoral alliances with capitalist parties.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky noted that the so-called “people’s front” in Spain was based on a spurious unity between forces that had opposing class interests:
The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: “Communists” plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the result proves equal to zero…
[A] political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralyzing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.
Popular front-style politics are still around. For example, in the current U.S. elections, the Communist Party USA is predictably backing the Democratic Party, which it views as part of “building a unity of a broad left-center, multi-class, multi-racial, male-female, multi-generational alliance of forces” in order to “defeat the extreme right and GOP, its oligarchic backers, defend the presidency and break the GOP grip on Congress, statehouse and governorships.”
Note that “multi-class” — which means unity of exploiters and exploited — is thrown in as if it is not different from calling for multiracial unity!
According to the CPUSA, Hillary Clinton “carries a lot of historic baggage including her ties to Wall Street, hawkishness on foreign policy, etc.” Nevertheless, “On all the major democratic issues and demands, i.e. collective bargaining rights, racial and gender equity, climate change, immigration reform, etc., Clinton is on the right side.”
One can only wonder how a hawkish candidate tied to Wall Street could possibly be “on the right side” of any of the issues they list.
Regarding Sanders, the CPUSA writes: “Building such a multi-class alliance that includes the Democratic Party establishment or corporate wing will be a greater challenge if Sanders is nominated, but not impossible.” The statement’s authors are heartened by the fact that Bernie “appreciates the right danger and will be part of the anti-right coalition even if he loses.”
The easiest way to avoid such false unity — that is, unity between heterogeneous forces working at cross-purposes — is to reject all unity. Certainly that is the road taken by sectarians, who operate on the principle that they will only unite with those who already agree with them.
For revolutionaries, this is also a recipe for cutting yourself off from people and groups who are beginning to seek ways to change society, but haven’t yet reached revolutionary conclusions. For some radical activists, this attitude is a way of maintaining moral purism in the movement — a kind of political policing or gatekeeping — that forgets they themselves didn’t “get it” all at once and had to go through a process of radicalization.
Either way, this sectarian attitude isn’t a way to build up bigger forces on the left, but to hive off from that potential. Small elites don’t change the world — masses in movement do.
So what’s the answer?
Karl Marx famously wrote that “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” Compressed into this statement was a whole approach to human liberation that set itself sharply apart from other concepts of radical change.
It declared that the alteration of society depended on the self-activity of the mass of exploited and oppressed, rather than the actions of an enlightened few — whether the enlightened few were utopians devising blueprints for a better world or a band of conspirators aiming to hoist themselves into power on behalf of the masses.
To paraphrase Marx, only a revolution involving masses of workers can succeed in overthrowing capitalism, and only in and through the process of such a revolution can ordinary people become conscious that another world is possible, that it is within their grasp, and that they have the capacity to run it.
When struggle is at its lowest point, labor competition and the division and discord deliberately sown among workers and the oppressed exert their greatest influence on the working class. But as struggle mounts, the conditions are created for overcoming disunity and building solidarity.
This concept guides the way that socialists approach all struggles. The success of any struggle, be it a strike or social movement, a small, local battle or nationwide revolution, depends on many things, but the starting point must be a movement that brings enough people into united collective action around a goal or a set of common goals.
But this raises a number of questions. The first is: How can such unity be achieved? And secondly, on what basis should it be established?
As pointed out above, we know from experience that appeals to “national unity” or stopping the “greater evil” by voting for the “lesser evil” are invariably used as a means to conceal divergent class, social and political interests, and to subordinate those interests to those of the ruling class or classes.
Moreover, the reality is that workers and oppressed people are not united most of the time. Achieving unity in struggle is not an automatic process. As Trotsky wrote:
The progress of a class toward class consciousness…is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilizes those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politically. The problem of the united front — which arises during certain periods most sharply — originates therein.
The differences and unevenness among working people only resolve in and through struggle — and because of the episodic nature of such struggles, the process is halting and episodic itself.
The key question, therefore, is to find a way to identify and organize those in each struggle who are drawing more radical, far-reaching conclusions from their experiences, so they can participate in the project of influencing wider layers of a socialist perspective.
Any serious commitment to this approach rejects the idea that the “pure” or the most “radical” should stand aside from movements, struggles or even individuals who are not yet “radical enough.” But there can be no ignoring or setting aside the differences that do exist.
The aim for socialists is always to create the maximum unity of forces toward the goal of the struggle, while attempting to move it in a more militant, effective direction. We don’t counterpose our more radical goals for the wider socialist struggle with the more limited aims of the current fight.
Seeking broader alliances based on agreement on limited demands is crucial to winning. Socialists in unions, for example, don’t demand as a condition of their involvement that the union support the overthrow of capitalism. We seek ways of advancing the self-activity, organization and militancy of workers by pushing each labor struggle as far as it can go in the context of a united fight.
But this is not the same as arguing that unity must be based on the lowest common denominator, or that bringing in other issues — like insisting on the necessity of combatting sexism or racism to win a strike, for example — is “divisive.”
The claim that anti-racist or anti-sexist demands or initiatives are “divisive” is actually saying that they might alienate some men or some whites, while ignoring their importance to the oppressed. Indeed, not supporting demands that improve the conditions and defend the rights of the oppressed is divisive — this accepts the divisions and oppressions already foisted on the working class by the system. Combatting oppression is combatting division, which is the precondition for a higher unity of the working class.
I remember clearly a meeting the Occupy Wall Street movement in Washington, D.C., where one liberal activist argued that the unity of the movement around the question of economic inequality — the 1 Percent versus the 99 Percent — meant that the movement shouldn’t take up issues of racial oppression.
But clearly a movement that links economic inequality with racial inequality would unite larger forces on a stronger basis of solidarity — this was certainly one key to the success of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, where the union organized not just around its own demands, but to fight for education justice.
Any refusal to champion the demands of the oppressed — and the failure to challenge the prejudices of those who fail to support them — reinforces the divisions among workers and weakens their solidarity and class unity.
Forging unity in struggle doesn’t mean forging a uniformity of ideas or burying political differences.
Every social movement will involve more or less definite arguments — sometimes several contending ones — about the best way forward. How one defines the “best way forward” is intimately connected with the purported aim of the struggle and who is defining it. Unity is advanced not by hiding differences, but by encouraging a culture of rigorous debate, so that the issues and differences can be clarified and tested in practice.
Lenin on more than one occasion criticized conciliating or concealing differences on the grounds that disagreement creates disunity. Unity on this basis is a passive unity that prevents ideas from being tested in practice.
In such cases, Lenin argued, you can’t have genuine fighting unity — whether unity of purpose for limited objectives or unity on a more programmatic, long-term basis — unless there are clearly drawn lines of demarcation based on a willingness to debate and test different ideas and proposals.
For Lenin, conciliatory unity was crippling because its results were, at best, a lack of clarity about aims, and, at worst, an organization working at cross-purposes. As he wrote:
If they do not agree on carrying out a common policy, that policy must be interpreted in such a way as to be acceptable to all. Live and let live. This is philistine “conciliation,” which inevitably leads to sectarian diplomacy. To “stop up” the sources of disagreement, to keep silent about them, to “adjust” “conflicts” at all costs, to neutralize the conflicting trends — it is to this that the main attention of such “conciliation” is directed.
For revolutionaries, unity therefore doesn’t mean: Let’s unite and forget our differences. It means: Let’s unite and argue those differences through, as well. Time and struggle will show who’s right and who’s wrong.