Thoughts on a united front

Posted on January 2, 2015


The debate has opened in South Africa and a beginning has been made to establish a united front, with talk of the move toward a “socialist movement”. This is a contribution to the debate.

Strategically, and from a democratic viewpoint, principled unity is the only unity that should matter. It may be tactically advisable for any principled group to unite with others on a single, common issue, but only if principle is not forsaken. So a truly egalitarian and socialist group could — and should — join, for example, an anti-racist campaign that may even include homophobes, sexists and those opposing a woman’s right to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy.

At the same time, should such issues arise during the single issue campaign the arguments should be joined. Those who plead for unity “on the basis of what unites us” while burying those often crucial issues that divide groups and individuals, create, in their supposed unity, an intellectual and ideological swamp in which principles putrefy.

What is required in a principled united front is clarity of purpose. This means knowing what the front is for and that should define what it is against. Groups and individuals that submerge themselves in a united front only on the basis of broad-based opposition, contribute to the creation of an ideological sludge that can readily be stirred and manipulated, but which remains fundamentally stagnant and directionless. And when the tenuous walls of unprincipled unity crack or collapse, the groups forming this swamp tend to spill forth and dissipate.

Unfortunately, in the absence of any principled alternative that advocates a clear, broadly-based programme in which contending tactical considerations can compete, a swamp will emerge. The question then arises: does such a programme exist to provide the basis for a principled, democratically organised united front?

It does, in the Bill of Rights. This egalitarian document can be summarised as advocating that every individual should have the right to do exactly as they please provided that, in the exercise of that right, they do not impinge on the rights of anyone else. Here is the basis for a true united front that would, of course, exclude those who do not agree with this fundamental, democratic principle.

Adherence to such a programme means that it is not possible to remain part of such a front while campaigning for sexism, for homo and xeno phobia or while supporting the death penalty or opposing the right of women to choose regarding pregnancy. Such a programme proposes, in broad terms, what the united front is for and that, in turn, makes it evident what it is, again in broad terms, against.

Of course, there will be many differing views about how best to achieve the various goals necessary to attain a truly egalitarian and democratic society. So such debates must be as widespread and democratic as possible. This means avoiding one of the fundamental problems of the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s where membership — and voting power — was given to organisations. So a cultural club with 100 members, for example, would be on the same footing as a trade union with 10 000 members. This is clearly undemocratic and also encourages groups to set up front organisations to increase their voting power.

Thirty or so years ago, such a structure might have been necessary. It no longer is. Courtesy of modern communications technology — notably the cell phone, but also internet connectivity — it is possible to communicate instantly with individuals and groups almost everywhere. United Front units formed in factories, neighbourhoods, streets and elsewhere could register their memberships, using ID numbers. This means that a UF member registered in a factory unit, for example, could not vote again in another unit.

Within such an environment various political strands, traditions and political ideas should flourish, framed by the egalitarian principles of the Bill of Rights. Units, coming together perhaps on a constituency or ward basis, could elect representatives who would be wholly answerable to, and recallable by, their electors. Such a development would be a real alternative and not just another repetition of the same, stale processes of the past.

Posted in: Commentary