The Limits of a “People’s Movement”

By Kurt Unmack

The election of Donald Trump in the United States, coupled with the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and One Nation in the Australian parliament is yet another wake-up call for working people and those who see themselves as part of the political left. Although Trump and Hanson are not explicitly fascist themselves, neo-Nazi elements which are attracted to this far-right populism form a part of their support base. All such elements need to be counteracted by a serious fightback from the left. But how?

It should be noted that Trump, aside from the standard right wing political positions, tapped into sections of the disenfranchised working class abandoned by Obama, Clinton and the Democrats. To a lesser extent, One Nation taps into the disenfranchised working class which was long ago abandoned by Labor in Australia. In throwing their electoral backing behind the far-right, these sections of the working class are unconsciously rebelling against the encroachments of capital – but doing so in a way which further strengthens capital’s hold over them. The collapse of living standards, unemployment, the decimation of social services, crumbling infrastructure – all of these things and more are identified with a political system which ignores their suffering.

“People’s Movement” ?

In response, some left parties, as well as significant sections of the Union bureaucracy, attempt to apply a universal tactic – a “people’s movement”. There are other labels for this tactic, such as a “broad front”, “unity of left and progressive forces”, “broad left alliance” , “people power”, “democratic front”, “popular front” and on and on it goes. In practice, it usually boils down to the same thing – the unity of all political forces apart from the right. It all sounds harmless, and like “common sense”. Simply “unite” everyone together and that’s how we can win against the right. Unfortunately, politics simply does not work like this – especially socialist politics.

A “people’s movement” which is not based on the working class, very quickly becomes a tool in the hands of the “left” wing of the ruling class, and their representatives. Almost immediately the politics of the “people’s movement” becomes subordinated to those with the most conservative political positions. In an alliance between left and right wing forces, the right wing wins every time, and the workers lose every time. In such circumstances, the “people’s movement” becomes politically powerless. It cannot achieve serious reforms which benefit working people, let alone win lasting gains. Revolution becomes impossible – but then, this is the aim of the more conservative forces of the “people’s movement”.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) is one left party which explicitly calls for a people’s movement. Before we comment on this, we should note that it is highly ironic for the CPA to be calling for a people’s movement. The CPA is known to be barely active at all. It rarely involves itself in any political actions where conservative Trade Union officials do not appear. The CPA’s hermit like abstention from whole spheres of political activity means that we have to take its prescriptions with a pinch of salt.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that the CPA would actually take part in a people’s movement if one arose. What politics would such a movement have, if working people were to take up the CPA’s calls?

An article from the CPA’s Guardian of November 16, 2016, lays out its ideas. The article states:

“Every aspect of life on the planet is falling prey to imperialism. Workers, small farmers, agricultural workers and an immense range of social strata, interest groups and NGOs are being forced to confront the big transnational corporations as those forces intensify their exploitation of the world’s people and resources.”[1]

We can wholeheartedly agree with the first sentence. However, the next sentence gives a clear indication of who the CPA believes should comprise a “people’s movement”.  Not only the working class, but small farmers, an “immense range of social strata”, and NGOs (!?!) automatically become a key part of the “people’s movement”. Working people with an elementary level of class consciousness would be able to immediately identify a problem here.

Small farmers, despite perhaps not being part of corporate agribusiness, nevertheless are not proletarian working people. They own their own means of production, even if a relatively small parcel of land, and the implements to work them. No doubt they experience difficult conditions and experience being shafted by big capital. Yet they still have an alien class position vis-à-vis the working class. A working class movement can seek to win such small proprietors to the side of the workers, but it would be impermissible to work in a “broad front” with those with capitalist aspirations.

So-called Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) are to a large degree the capitalist state outsourcing itself. True, there may be some which are independent of governments, but in the main the NGOs play the part of the very government that enforces the oppression of working people. The CPA should be aware of the role regime change NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Avaaz, Amnesty International and co played in being the most outspoken propaganda voice calling for the overthrow of the Syrian Arab Republic at the behest of the US and Saudi Arabia.  Closer to home, government funded “NGOs” such as the Multicultural Development Association (MDA) are one of the most conservative advocates of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.  The often diametrical opposition that NGOs have to even the most basic social justice movements means that  any substantial political alliance with them effectively derails or prevents the militant action required to win gains.


The Socialist Alliance is another left party which has long practiced what it believes is a “people’s movement”. They stood candidates at the last federal election explicitly calling for one.[2]  It is one of their core beliefs – the broadest possible movement is the only one which will have a chance of succeeding. The “unite” organisation, despite splitting from the Socialist Alliance in 2016, puts forward its own form of a “people’s movement” by strongly emphasising the role of “communities” and “community” organising in social justice movements.  While they take supportable positions opposing drastic corporate overdevelopment, they imagine that “community” organising is the key strategy. Commenting on the controversial Toondah Harbour development, they state:

“If we want to actually have a say in how our community looks and functions – to have democratic development, then it is up to us get involved in our communities, to oppose these development plans and put forth alternative visions that actually reflect the desires of the community.”[3]

The subject of the role and function of “community” campaigns in relation to the struggles of working people requires its own study. Suffice to say, that EVERYONE, regardless of class, social standing, accumulated wealth and so on, regard themselves as part of the “community”. If  employers, capitalists, corporate developers , corporate politicians and so on, are part of the “community” then for working people it’s all over before we even start.  Working and oppressed people in  the same movement, working alongside the small and big capitalists- or their representatives – which common position is going to be agreed on here?

The term “community” is thrown in to all kinds of movements, especially by those wealthy and powerful interests that wish to create the impression that they themselves are popular and harmless and almost universally supported. Deliberately, the “community” tag has no class basis at all, and further ingrains the myth that working people reside in a community in which all residents are equals. The “unite” organisation would scoff at such a suggestion that all residents of a nation have common interests, yet they appear to believe that all members of a “community” have common interests.

For a United Front of Working People

As convivial and harmless as a “community” movement sounds, not to mention a “broad front” ,  “left and progressive alliance”,  “people’s movement”  etc, such a grouping actually produces the very political forces it is set up to oppose. That is, in the end it produces fascism. How can this be?

Firstly, the very combination of political forces regardless of class, renders such a formation a plaything in the hands of the more conservative political forces. This is the case even if the majority of the “broad front” are nominally left wing, and only a minority are right wing. In order to keep the numerically small conservative forces on board, the left wing has to accommodate, or moderate, or even refuse to raise what it stands for. This is while the conservative right wing does not have to change their backward views whatsoever. The right wing effectively control the politics of the movement, without even a challenge from the “left” of the “people’s movement”.

Secondly, the broad front or “people’s movement” rarely achieve serious gains, if at all, due to the political limitations of the movement. The “left and progressive alliance”  very quickly becomes a toothless tiger irrespective of the numbers of people who mobilise behind it. It tends to become a lobby group, begging for crumbs from the powers that be. In fact, often its spokespersons clearly state that it “is trying to send a message” – that is, to the politicians and the “powers that be”. As long as such a movement issues political appeals to the establishment, it remains a political vassal of the establishment.

Thirdly, because the broad “people’s movement” is virtually politically powerless, and achieves very little, working people quickly become disenchanted and begin to look for other avenues to address the problems facing them. In especially acute economic times such as today’s recession, some working people will turn to the right, seeking some action – or at least the promise that a certain group will fight the establishment, rather than humbly beg before the establishment for things which never come.  Further, if the amorphous “people’s movement” – which achieves almost nothing – is seen by working people to be what passes as the “left”, it is then no wonder that some working people seek answers from the political right – even fascism. This is not at all because working people are inclined towards fascism, but because they are so desperate for solutions to their political problems.

To prevent working people from turning to fascism, the left and workers forces must break from a “people’s movement” and seek to build a movement in the interests of working people. This movement should be led by the Unions, but the crippling obstacle here are the conservative and often ideologically pro-capitalist Union officials and leaders.  It is up to the left parties and their supporters, such as they exist, to both challenge the conservative Union leaders and push forward with demands that the working class desperately needs. Such demands could include things like:

  • A 30 hour week with no loss in pay
  • Public housing for those who cannot afford to rent or buy
  • Free, or subsidised, public transport
  • Free health care
  • Free education
  • A livable pension at 60 years of age


A strong working class movement, fighting for these or similar demands, drawing in Unions,  the unemployed, the homeless, rural and regional working people and others, is not only the way to revitalise a weakened Union movement. It would have the power to undermine,  if not extinguish, the appeal of the far right – be it Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson and One Nation, the Party for Freedom etc.  Those from alien class backgrounds, such as the petty bourgeoisie, could join the movement, but only on the condition that they fight for workers’ demands. This way, the politics cannot be subordinated to the middle and upper classes – and in reality – the ruling class.

A cross class “community” or “broad” movement against the right – a popular front – lays the path for the politically disenchanted workers to return to the arms of the right. Crucially, it also destroys the possibility of the emergence of what is perhaps most desperately needed – a workers’ vanguard party. If in “popular” movement all ostensibly “left” political forces are equal partners, even the beginnings of a vanguard party cannot get off the ground. If the “socialist” parties are equal partners in a “broad” movement with openly pro-capitalist formations such as the Labor Party, NGOs, the Greens and so on, why even bother arguing for socialism? In fact, why not join the Labor Party – why waste time building any other organisation?

The workers need their own working class movement so that a workers vanguard party, can begin to be formed out of the leadership of such a movement. A “broad” or “popular” i.e. cross-class, movement works directly against achieving that which working people need. It also permanently stifles the formation of a workers’ party which is the precondition for not only leading the workers in struggle, but for achieving their own workers government. Further, it even limits the demands which can be put forward. Trump and Hanson are concerns, there is no doubt.  But they cannot be combatted without a working class movement, and a working class party. This is the urgent task of our times.










[1] (04-12-16)

[2] (07-12-16)

[3] (07-12-16)

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