The periphery pushes back

Policy initiatives from below in Lenin’s International

IN NOVEMBER 1922, 350 delegates from 61 countries gathered in Moscow for the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern)—the last such gathering attended by Lenin. Skilled stenographers took down the debate verbatim in several languages. The 500,000-word transcript, to be published later this year by Haymarket Books, gives us a unique window into the functioning of a democratically organized global revolutionary movement.1

This record will lead many of us to modify our conception of Lenin’s International. Certainly, that was my experience as I translated the proceedings of this month-long congress.

Until recently, I shared a widely held opinion that the Bolshevik Party of Russia towered above other members of the early Communist International as a source of fruitful political initiatives. Certainly, there is much evidence of the Bolsheviks’ creative role in this congress. However, on a number of weighty strategic issues before the congress, front-line parties, especially the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), played a decisive role in revising Executive Committee proposals and shaping the Congress’s outcome.

When I translated the first page of this congress, I was not far distant from the view of British socialist Tony Cliff, who, referring to the 1921–22 period, wrote in 1979 of the “extreme comparative backwardness of communist leaders outside Russia.” They had an “uncritical attitude towards the Russian party,” which stood as “a giant among dwarfs.”2

Another British historian of the Comintern, Duncan Hallas, wrote in 1985 of its failure “to emancipate the pupil from excessive dependence on the teacher.”3 A similar view is advanced by historians hostile to the Comintern tradition, although they regard Bolshevik influence as not helpful but calamitous.

In recent years, a new generation of historians has focused attention on the dynamics of Comintern member parties, stressing the influence of their worker ranks and the parties’ relative autonomy. Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew present the view, widely held among these historians, that “strategy was defined in Moscow, but tactics, to a certain extent, could be elaborated on the ground by the parties themselves.”4 However, the record of the Fourth Congress suggests that at least in 1922, the influence of front-line parties was felt in determining not only national tactics but international strategy.

I will review five questions on which this influence is evident:

  • Resistance to fascism
  • Transitional demands
  • Workers’ and farmers’ government
  • United front policy as a whole
  • The anti-imperialist united front

Resisting fascism
On October 31, 1922, five days before the congress began, fascist chief Benito Mussolini took power in Italy, after a two-year rampage of state-encouraged fascist violence against the workers’ movement. Fascism was something new, but right-wing violence was a familiar threat. Workers in Italy built a promising national movement of defense guards to fend it off, called the Arditi del Populo (People’s Commandos). Unfortunately, both the Communist and Socialist parties in Italy denounced the Arditi and banned their members from taking part. The Italian Communists opposed in principle taking part in defense guards not organized by their own party.

In Moscow, Nikolai Bukharin persuaded the Comintern Executive to write the Italian comrades calling for participation in the Arditi. The Italian party brushed off this advice, however, and Executive dropped the matter. At the Fourth Congress, leading Bolsheviks said nothing about the need to resist fascist attacks, while Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev hailed the Italian party’s conduct as worthy of “the most important chapter” in a “policy manual for Communist parties.”5

It was the German Communist party that took the initiative at the Fourth Congress to correct this error. Two days before the opening session, it adopted a motion instructing its delegation to “urge an international campaign against fascism, in its different forms.” This need was raised during the congress proceedings by a number of delegates from Germany, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia. Yet the discussion was not joined in plenary or commission sessions. It was not until seven minutes before the end of his summary on the Italian question that Zinoviev suddenly changed course, accusing the Italian party of “gross errors” with regard to fascism.6 “We must become a vanguard of the entire anti-fascist struggle” and get involved with “confused forces” such as the Arditi, he said. Zinoviev stopped short of endorsing an anti-fascist united front, but the Executive adopted and implemented such a policy soon after the congress.

In summary, the two contending positions on anti-fascist defense were advanced by the Italian and German Communists; the Executive vacillated between one and the other.

Transitional demands
Our second example of front-line party influence, revolving around the concept of transitional demands, dominated the congress discussion of the program. Transitional demands, as Leon Trotsky later explained, aimed to “help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution.” The concept was adopted by the Comintern Third Congress in 1921, on the grounds that Communists must offer “more than the bare program of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Typical transitional demands, in the German context, were for a workers’ government and workers’ control of production.7

In mid-1922, the Comintern executive began work to develop a program for the International. Bukharin opposed including transitional demands in the program on the grounds that they concerned merely tactical matters. Czech leader Bohumir Šmeral and Clara Zetkin of the German party argued for their inclusion, and the debate was referred to the Fourth Congress.

At the congress, Bukharin reiterated his view. A second report, by German Communist August Thalheimer, argued for inclusion of transitional demands in the program. He stressed the dangers of a “separation of tactical principles from goals,” a characteristic of the Second International “that opened the door to their descent into opportunism.”8 A few days later, Bolshevik leaders endorsed Thalheimer’s position, as did the congress, with Italian delegates dissenting.

German party leaders had obtained an open repudiation of the position of a leading Bolshevik on a principled issue.

Workers’ government
I’ve written elsewhere of the workers’ government demand, so I’ll restrict myself here to how it figured in Fourth Congress debates.9 Going into the congress, two interpretations of this demand were advanced. One, defended by Zinoviev, the Italian leadership, and a minority in the German party headed by Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow, held that the term “workers’ government” was merely a pseudonym for a dictatorship of the proletariat similar to that in Soviet Russia. The other, advanced by Comintern leader Karl Radek, the Germany party majority, and its allies in neighboring parties, saw a workers’ government as “one of the possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat,” whose tasks could include “arming the proletariat … introducing [workers’] control of production, shifting the main burden of taxation to the shoulders of the rich,” and so on.10

A parallel debate concerned Zinoviev’s notion that a Labour Party in Britain would constitute a workers’ government. The German delegation introduced an amendment that sought to refute illusions on this score.

The portion of the Theses on Tactics dealing with these issues was the most frequently and thoroughly rewritten text in the congress resolutions. The ultimately adopted draft, which has until now not been available in English, reflected the views of the German party majority on the disputed points.11

United front policy as a whole
A similar alignment of forces took shape around differences on how to apply the united front policy that the Comintern had adopted a year earlier. The German party majority favored engaging in negotiations, when appropriate, with leaders of the Social Democratic parties and unions. The German minority and its allies were critical of such efforts and stressed the need to build the united front “from below.” The Italian, Czechoslovak, Polish, French, British, and US parties were actively involved in the debate. Once again, Radek stood with the German majority; Zinoviev was closer to the minority’s views. The final resolution took an intermediate position, acknowledging points made by both sides.

The anti-imperialist united front
The Fourth Congress also adopted a call for an anti-imperialist united front in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, aimed at “the mobilization of all revolutionary forces,” including those based outside the working class, in “an extended, lengthy struggle against world imperialism.”12

The term was new, but the concept had been endorsed at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920, with its call for support of national-revolutionary forces in the colonies. It was given life at the subsequent Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, which responded to moves by national revolutionaries across Asia to link up with the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia.

At the Fourth Congress, the need for an anti-imperialist united front was first voiced by the Indian delegate M.N. Roy. Tan Malaka, from the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), recounted his party’s success in forging such an alliance with Islamic anti-imperialists, and called for the Comintern to endorse engagement with pan-Islamic forces. This call was echoed by Tahar Boudengha of Tunisia, who also denounced the chauvinism of the French party’s members in Algeria. Two black Communists from the US, Claude McKay and Otto Huiswoud, called for the building of a revolutionary movement among blacks in every continent. Many delegates from Asia denounced the inadequate attention to colonial liberation in the metropolitan parties and the Comintern congress itself.

The response of Bolshevik delegates was not uniform. G.I. Safarov, a leader of Comintern work in Asia, protested the “passivity” displayed on this question by a “considerable sector” of the congress, while Radek dismissed complaints of insufficient discussion, saying, “interest in parties is tied to their deeds.”13

Congress resolutions incorporated proposals from colonial delegates on several key points.

An alternative interpretation
The facts I have related can be interpreted differently, with Bolshevik leaders seen as the central actors. After all, Bolsheviks gave the main congress reports; Zinoviev and Radek dominated the proceedings. The congress resounded with calls for more centralism and for more authority to the Moscow Executive.

Certainly, in all the main discussions, we see an interplay between Bolshevik leaders and spokespersons of front-line parties. Here are four reasons, however, to consider the front-line parties as the more dynamic force in this partnership.

Comintern leaders rarely refer to Bolshevik experience or quote from Bolshevik leaders in debating political policy. Even when there are obvious precedents for a policy in Bolshevik history, this is rarely mentioned.

The divisions in the Comintern do not relate to any perceptible differentiation within the Bolshevik party.

In almost every major debate, the Bolshevik leaders assigned to the Comintern are divided. Moreover, their alignments are not consistent; they shift over time and according to the issue.

The actions of the Moscow Executive, on many of the issues we have discussed, display what Jean-François Fayet has called “persistent ambiguity.”14

Much depends on how we interpret Radek’s role. Here Fayet, his biographer, sums up his role aptly: Radek defended the authority of the Executive, but politically he upheld the united-front policy developed in collaboration with Paul Levi. As Radek himself said, after Stuttgart workers gave the united front its first formulation, “If I had been in Moscow, the idea would not even have crossed my mind.”15

German Communist Clara Zetkin made much the same point a month later in a well-known letter to Lenin. The Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) was “far too cut off” to do more than “recognise the broad lines of development,” she said. It “cannot possibly survey all the concrete circumstances that must be considered.”16

Surely the conflicting views, for and against the united front, could only have been developed in the heat of the struggle.

A broader pattern
Disagreements on the united front and related issues can be traced back to 1920, the year that the Comintern truly began to function. During this year, the postwar revolutionary upsurge in Europe began to ebb. Many communist workers believed that a renewed offensive, with greater audacity, could carry the day. This mood was first articulated by Béla Kun and other Hungarian exiles. Others, with Paul Levi in the lead, sought to counter with a strategy that could enable Communists to win the mass support needed for victory. These currents, both endogenous to the workers’ movement outside Russia, provided the impulse for the ideas debated in Moscow.

Interestingly, the main proponents of united front policy in Germany—Levi, Zetkin, Heinrich Brandler, Ernst Meyer, August Thalheimer, Edwin Hoernle, Fritz Heckert, Erich Melcher—had all been comrades of Rosa Luxemburg in the wartime Spartacus League. Their record suggests that, even after the expulsion of Levi in 1921, the concern of Luxemburg and the Spartacists to strengthen ties with the broad masses of workers remained a creative force within the Comintern.

Overall, the Fourth Comintern Congress—with all its shortcomings—illustrates what a revolutionary movement of working people can achieve through a rich culture of discussion and conversation. The congress displays a pattern of linkages in decision making, reaching both up and down, between members on the front lines of struggle and the world congress. Through this mechanism, however imperfectly, the experiences and insights of the ranks contributed to shaping decisions on a global level.

John Riddell has edited seven documentary volumes on the world revolutionary movement in Lenin’s time. His latest, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, will be published this year by Haymarket Books. For his articles on related topics, go to johnriddell.wordpress.com. This article was first presented to the Eighth Historical Materialism Annual Conference in London, England, on November 10, 2011.


  1. John Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012). The introduction to Toward the United Front discusses and documents in more detail the issues raised in this article. Hereafter referred to as TUF.
  2. Tony Cliff, Lenin: Volume 4: The Bolsheviks and World Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1979), 4, 54–7.
  3. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985), 71.
  4. Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew, The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 24–26.
  5. TUF, 105–8.
  6. TUF, 103–4.
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 75; Comintern, Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1921), 475–6; Alan Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London: Ink Links, 1980), 286.
  8. TUF, 479–80, 497–8 (Bukharin); 510–15 (Thalheimer).
  9. John Riddell, “A ‘Workers’ Government’ as a step toward socialism,” 2012 at http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/a-workers-government-as-a-step-toward-socialism/. See also John Riddell, “German workers and the birth of the united front,” International Socialist Review, Sept.-Oct. 2011.
  10. Comintern, Bericht über die Tätigkeit des Präsidiums und der Exekutive der Kommunistischen International für die Zeit vom 6. März bis 11. Juni 1922 (Hamburg: Carl Hoym Nachf, 1922), 123 (Zinoviev); TUF, 167 (Radek), 1159–62 (resolution).
  11. See John Riddell, “The Comintern’s unknown decision on workers’ governments,” 2011, http://tinyurl.com/8a39pqr.
  12. TUF, 1187.
  13. TUF, 720, 735.
  14. Jean-François Fayet, Karl Radek (1885–1939): Biographie politique (Bern: P. Lang, 2004), 352.
  15. Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 469.
  16. Ruth Stoljarowa and Peter Schmalfuss (eds.), Briefe Deutscher an Lenin, 1917–1923 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1990), 215.