German workers and the birth of the united front

This article is based in part on discussions at the Socialism educational conferences in 2009 and 2010, as well as exchanges with Charles Peterson, Todd Chretien, and Ashley Smith. John Riddell ( is editor of seven volumes of documents on the Communist movement in Lenin’s time, one of which, Toward the United Front, will be published by Haymarket in 2012. He is an active member of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly.

Armed revolutionary workers in Germany, November 1918

THE POLICY of the united front is among the most effective tools for working-class action inherited from the era of V. I. Lenin and the Russian Revolution. As originally formulated by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) in December 1921, united front policy called for the “greatest possible unity of all workers’ organizations in every practical action against the united capitalists,” while assuring revolutionary socialists and other participating currents “absolute autonomy” and “freedom in presenting their point of view.”1

Initiatives to build unity in action with diverse currents in the workers’ movement can be traced back to the First International and its efforts to build bridges in action to British trade unionists and the followers of Auguste Blanqui and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France, as well as to initiatives by the Bolshevik party in Russia before 1917. The December 1921 Comintern policy statement cited Bolshevik precedent but was framed as a response to current needs, in the context of an ebb in revolutionary struggle. Over the ensuing decades, revolutionary socialists have utilized united front tactics in very different circumstances, including—in recent years—to oppose imperialist wars, support liberation struggles, and meet threats of violence from fascist groups.

The evolution of united front policy was marked by ambiguities, false steps, and corrections. The main driving force in its formulation was the thinking and the initiatives of the working-class ranks and the urgency of their struggle for immediate needs and essential human rights. This impulse was conveyed to the Comintern by member parties in countries where these struggles were most intense: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, Britain, and above all Germany, site of the most intense revolutionary battles in the years after 1918.

A united front struggle is a step on the road to revolution and simultaneously an effective instrument to win an immediate reform. Many critics of revolutionary socialism have seized on this fact to declare united front policy inherently contradictory or even dishonest, claiming that revolutionary socialists always sacrifice the interests of united front allies for partisan purposes. In addition, some socialists scorn united fronts, refusing to join with pro-capitalist labor officials or politicians. Others put an antirevolutionary spin on the united front, seeing its culmination in parliamentary combinations or coalition governments with bourgeois forces.

All these positions were argued when united front policy was first formulated, and the debate has continued through the decades. But to understand how revolutionary socialists of Lenin’s time acted to promote unity of the working-class movement, we must first review how this movement came to be divided.

The split in world socialism
The Comintern’s united front policy sought to address a profound, intractable split in the world socialist movement. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the majority leaderships of the main socialist parties—in Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary—supported the war efforts of their respective capitalist ruling classes, thus bringing about the collapse of the Socialist or Second International. An antiwar current soon took shape in the working class, and its influence was reflected in mass demonstrations, strikes, mutinies, and insurrections.

Pro-war “socialists” joined or supported governments that repressed worker and soldier protests. Most of these “social-patriots” also opposed the October 1917 revolution that established the Russian Soviet government, and many backed the counterrevolutionary armies in the Russian civil war. Revolutionary socialists took their places on the opposite side of the battle lines, supporting worker and soldier resistance and antiwar protests and actively defending the Soviet republic.

In November 1918, a workers’ and soldiers’ uprising overturned the German government, bringing the world war to an abrupt end. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)—now the dominant force in Germany’s provisional government—helped organize the brutal repression that restabilized capitalist rule. SPD leaders were complicit in the January 1919 murder of the best-known revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In the victorious Allied countries, right-wing “socialists”—now commonly called social democrats—backed the draconian “peace” terms imposed by their governments, while revolutionary socialists sought to overturn these treaties. Right-wing social democrats backed continued colonial rule over subject peoples in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, while revolutionary forces actively supported the rising colonial revolution.

By the war’s end, the world socialist movement, proudly united only half a decade earlier, was splitting into warring camps: on one side, the discredited pro-war forces, generally termed the Second International; on the other, a revolutionary socialist minority, which organized in March 1919 as the Communist or Third International. Caught in the middle were forces critical of both sides, often called “centrists.” They were loosely allied in the Vienna Union, which Communists derisively termed the Two-and-a-Half International.

In late 1918 and 1919, a tide of revolution swept across Europe, inspiring Communists with hope that the workers’ victory in Russia would quickly be duplicated in major countries of Western and Central Europe. Communist parties in these countries grew to embrace tens or hundreds of thousands of members. By late 1920, however, it was clear that capitalist rule had restabilized, at least for the moment. Social democratic and labor leaders committed to defense of capitalism (“reformists” or “opportunists”) still enjoyed the support of a majority of workers. Their strength posed a massive obstacle not only to socialist revolution, but to effective defense of wages and working conditions against the employers’ onslaught.

The united front policy aimed to overcome this obstacle to united working-class action.

The Hungarian Soviet republic
The first attempt to overcome the division in workers’ ranks took place, quite unexpectedly, in Hungary, only two weeks after the Comintern’s formation. In a country shaken by war, economic collapse, and revolution, the head of state (a pro-capitalist aristocrat) asked the Socialists, a nonrevolutionary party aligned with the Second International, to form a government. Fearing Communist influence among workers in the capital, the Socialists asked the newly formed Communist Party to join in a coalition government—and, moreover, to seal the pact through an organic fusion of the two parties.

The Hungarian Communists agreed to the fusion. They played the leading role in a government based on workers’ councils that ruled for the next four months, before its violent overthrow by the armed forces of the Allied or Entente powers. Subsequent Comintern analysis highlighted the damage done by an unprepared top-down fusion of the Communist and Socialist forces, which eliminated the Communists as an independent force while leaving the regime vulnerable to Socialist vacillation and betrayal.2

But were Communists wrong to consider a governmental alliance with the Socialists? Later Comintern discussion barely touched on this point. The most explicit comment came from Karl Radek, a leader of both the Comintern and the Russian Bolshevik party who had long experience in the German working-class movement. The Hungarian example, he wrote, showed that “the course of events could place Communists anywhere before the necessity of forming a [governmental] coalition” of this type, but they should not give up their separate organization. In February 1922, Hungarian Communist Mátyás Rákosi referred to the 1919 alliance, without elaboration, as a “united front,” but this notion remained unexplored in subsequent Comintern united front debates.3

Unity against a military coup
During the months after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet government, the Comintern focused its attention on drawing together genuinely revolutionary forces in Communist parties, and the question of alliances received little attention. In March 1920, however, the possibility of a coalition government of workers’ parties was once again posed, as Radek had predicted, and once again the initiative came from the social democratic side. It was this event that launched the Comintern’s united front debate.

During the first postwar years, Germany’s capitalist republic was shaken by severe class battles in a ruined economy whose recovery was blocked by the demands of the Entente powers for reparations payments. Despite the defeat of revolutionary workers in early 1919, their movement remained strong, while rightist and proto-fascist forces plotted to thrust aside the SPD-led government and resume direct control.

On March 13, 1920, a rightist military detachment occupied Berlin, the capital, and drove the government into flight. The putsch, led by Wolfgang Kapp and General Walther von Lüttwitz, was countered that evening by a call from the SPD-led trade unions (ADGB) for a general strike to defend the republic. By March 14, the strike was solid across the country. Workers formed local strike committees, demonstrated, and formed militias and armed detachments. In Berlin, there were two separate strike committees, one led by the SPD, the other by the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD)—the latter with participation of the German Communist Party (KPD). In the important Chemnitz industrial region, by contrast, Communists succeeded in uniting all workers’ organizations in a structure of workers’ councils, which led the struggle there. Armed resistance spread across the country, and on March 17 the putschists capitulated and fled.4

The general strike continued, however, as workers demanded a new government and decisive action against the rightist, militarist threat. Carl Legien, chair of the union confederation, responded by proposing that the SPD’s coalition with bourgeois parties be replaced by a workers’ government formed by the SPD, the USPD, and the trade unions. The KPD leadership expressed support for this proposal, stating that “formation of a socialist government, free of the slightest bourgeois or capitalist element, would create extremely favorable conditions for vigorous action by the proletarian masses,” and promised, subject to certain conditions, to act toward such a government as a “loyal opposition.”5 The USPD, however, refused to participate in such a government, effectively killing the proposal. Legien then obtained promises of pro-worker reforms from the existing government. The strike gradually died away, and the government and army reestablished control.

The KPD’s “loyal opposition” statement came under strong criticism from party leaders of many viewpoints. Many viewed the purely socialist government envisaged in this statement as similar to the joint SPD-USPD regime in place immediately after the November 1918 revolution, which had assured the restoration of capitalist power, and which the KPD had opposed. The party central committee rejected, by a twelve to eight vote, the notion that such a regime could play a progressive role.

A supporter of the minority viewpoint (M. J. Braun) drew a parallel with the Bolsheviks’ call, shortly before the October 1917 revolution, for Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to break with the bourgeoisie and form a government based on the Soviets. Radek, the Comintern Executive’s liaison with the German party, wrote that the Russian example did not apply because the relationship of forces in Germany was more unfavorable. In Radek’s view, the “loyal opposition” position reflected the emergence of a “possibilist” (that is, reformist) current in the KPD. Lenin, however, while criticizing the KPD statement for erroneous formulations, judged it to be “quite correct both in its basic premises and in its practical conclusions” and affirmed that the Bolsheviks’ approach in 1917 was indeed relevant to the German discussion. Lenin’s comments had sufficient authority to close the discussion, but the disagreement remained unresolved.6

Early united front initiatives 
The prevalence of action committees uniting all workers’ parties during the Kapp struggle aroused little comment in the subsequent KPD debate. However, the Hungarian Communist Béla Kun, a leading spokesperson for an ultraleft current in the Comintern, branded the “‘unity’ ideal” expressed in the Kapp actions as “counterrevolutionary.” Communists should not try to persuade centrist parties to join in united action but rather act alone, Kun said.7 Kun’s viewpoint was far from isolated in the International; many examples of ultraleft errors were taken up by Lenin that spring in a celebrated pamphlet on the errors of “left-wing” communism.8 Lenin did not comment specifically on united fronts, but his pamphlet did recommend that British Communists give electoral support to Labour Party candidates and apply for affiliation to the party. This policy had been previously practiced by the British Socialist Party, a Comintern affiliate, which secured its adoption at the International’s Second Congress in July 1920. Later, in February 1922, Gregory Zinoviev, president of the Comintern, said that in these proposals by Lenin “we already find the entire united front policy, adapted to British circumstances.”9

The as-yet-unformulated united front approach was tested in an international campaign against a Polish government invasion of Soviet Russia in April 1920. Polish armies, supported by the French and other Entente governments, captured Kiev, capital of Soviet Ukraine, on May 7. In response, worker solidarity actions began halting arms shipments to Poland in Britain, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig. When the British government decided in July to send war materiel to Poland, the Labour Party and British unions threatened a general strike, forcing cancellation of the shipment. Everywhere, the blockade of Poland owed its success to workers’ unity in action. In Germany, the Social Democratic and union leaderships formed joint committees to lead the actions in which Communists were able to participate on a local level.10

Another arena for united action opened up after 1917 with the spread of liberation struggles among the oppressed Asian peoples within the old tsarist empire. The left wings of these movements viewed the Soviet government as their peoples’ best defense against religious, national, and racial oppression and formed alliances with the Bolshevik party. The Second Comintern Congress, held in July–August 1920, proclaimed the need for such alliances across the colonial world, pledging the International’s support for “the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights.” In September, the Comintern convened the First Congress of the Peoples of the East—a gathering in Baku, Azerbaijan, of almost 2,000 delegates from across Asia. The Congress acclaimed the call “Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite!”—an expanded version of the Communist Manifesto’s historic appeal. The Baku Congress manifesto proclaimed a “holy war for the liberation of the peoples of the East.”11

Stuttgart workers take the lead
As capitalist attacks intensified in the summer of 1920, efforts began to re-create the fighting unity of the Kapp days. Two years later, KPD leader Edwin Hoernle recalled events in the industrial region of Stuttgart: “We did not then have any theory of united front, comrades. But our party organization, that of the old Spartacus League, instinctively applied this policy when there was a demonstration against inflation and a strike against a 10 percent deduction from wages.”12

The successful resistance to the Kapp putsch increased the confidence of working people in Germany, giving the revolutionary left new energy. A majority of the USPD voted in October to join the Comintern and fused with the KPD in December, creating a united party with more than 300,000 members. The right-wing minority broke away and retained the name USPD. German capitalists had failed to stabilize the economy, and working people faced falling living standards and desperate poverty. Still, among workers voting for socialist parties, the united KPD enjoyed the support of fewer than a fifth, and the hostility between the three workers’ parties remained a formidable barrier to effective action.13

In November 1920, a promising initiative to break this deadlock was taken by the ranks of the KPD in Stuttgart. The leading role of Stuttgart workers was not unprecedented. Socialist workers of this city had been in the vanguard of the pre-1914 SPD left; it was they who convinced Karl Liebknecht, when he visited the city on September 21, 1914, to cast his historic parliamentary vote against credits for the imperialist world war.14 Stuttgart was also the home base of Clara Zetkin, among the KPD’s most influential leaders.

The KPD district committee in Stuttgart decided in November, in consultation with the Berlin party leadership, to launch a campaign for workers’ unity in action. The Stuttgart Communists made a proposal in the local metalworkers’ union, which was chaired by KPD member Erich Melcher, to petition the union’s national leadership and the ADGB unions for united action. Acting on this initiative, the leadership of the 26,000 Stuttgart metalworkers adopted five demands reflecting workers’ most urgent needs, demands “held in common by all workers”:

  • Reduce prices for necessities of life.
  • Produce at full capacity and increase unemployment benefits.
  • Reduce taxes paid by workers and raise taxes on the great private fortunes.
  • Establish workers’ control of supply and distribution of raw materials and foodstuffs.
  • Disarm reactionary gangs and arm the workers.15

The demands were placed before a general assembly of Stuttgart metalworkers, with the participation of Robert Dissmann, a leader of the rump USPD and the metalworkers’ national chairman. Overwhelmingly adopted, the demands then went out to metalworkers’ locals across the country. The national KPD declared its support for the initiative on December 2. Radek endorsed it, remarking, tellingly: “If I had been in Moscow, the idea would not even have crossed my mind.”16

Leading bodies of the ADGB, USPD, and SPD at first ignored the Stuttgart initiative. But in the local union bodies, it found a warm welcome, and soon, according to the trade union editor of the KPD’s Rote Fahne, “resolutions of support were piling up in our office by the hundreds.”17 Forced to speak out, the SPD declared the demands to be unrealistic, while the USPD regretted that they did not include nationalization of the mines and heavy industry.18Dissmann, under heavy pressure from the union ranks, tried a novel stratagem, asking locals that adopted the five points to explain how they proposed to implement them. When they responded that formulating a plan for implementation was the job not of base units but of the union’s national executive, Dissmann declared triumphantly that since no one had proposals for implementation, the demands were unacceptable.19

The “Open Letter” 
Impressed by the strong response to the Stuttgart initiative, the KPD central leadership (Zentrale) decided on December 29 to initiate a generalized movement for united working-class action. Although it was supported by Radek, many members of the Zentrale opposed the decision, particularly those members coming from the former USPD left wing. The objections, reminiscent of Béla Kun’s arguments earlier in the year, focused on the need for the newly united party to take initiatives in action on its own account, without trying to rope in the Social Democratic leaders. But when the proposal for a united-action campaign was laid before a conference of district secretaries on January 7, 1921, it was approved almost unanimously. Delegates from the Rhineland-Westphalia region, which included the Ruhr industrial heartland, reported that they had already taken such an initiative on their own.

The result was an open letter from the KPD to the USPD, SPD, KAPD (Communist Workers Party, an ultraleft splinter from the KPD), and four trade union federations, calling on them to come together in actions to fend off the bosses’ offensive against workers, in order to demand “the minimum that the proletariat must have now in order not to perish.”

The Open Letter’s proposed demands, published on January 8 in the KPD’s Rote Fahne, were an elaborated version of the Stuttgart Five Points:

  1. United wage struggles to defend all workers and employees.
  2. Increased pensions.
  3. Reorganization and increases in unemployment allowances.
  4. Government provision of food ration cards at reduced cost.
  5. Seizure of housing space for the homeless.
  6. Measures to provide food and other necessities under the control of factory councils.
  7. Disarmament and dissolution of armed bourgeois detachments and formation of workers’ self-defense organizations.
  8. Amnesty for political prisoners.
  9. Immediate establishment of trade and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia.20

The Open Letter pointed out that the listed demands would not end workers’ poverty. However, “without giving up for a moment our propaganda amongst the masses for a struggle for the dictatorship [that is, a workers’ state similar to the Soviet republic]” the party “is ready for common action with the workers’ parties to win the above-mentioned demands.”21

Drafted jointly by KPD central leader Paul Levi and Radek, the letter was the Communists’ first attempt to engage with the Social Democratic parties not just in a given factory or locality, but on a national level. However, the response from national leaderships was negative. On the very day of the Open Letter’s publication, the SPD published a reply, affirming its willingness to negotiate while condemning the letter for its “absurd demands” and its “foolish and ludicrous procedure.” The following day, in an over-hasty response, the KPD interpreted this statement as a rejection and appealed to the SPD ranks. The SPD executive thereupon declared (January 10, 1921) that the KPD had withdrawn its offer and that the matter was closed.

The USPD’s official rejection followed on January 13, claiming that the Open Letter represented merely an insincere attempt by the Communists to break out of their isolation. The ADGB accused the Communists of trying to “destroy the unions” and threatened to expel local organizations that endorsed the letter. Even the KAPD rebuffed the Open Letter as “opportunist, demagogic, and misleading.” Yet these negative responses failed to stem a wave of support from rank-and-file union and Social Democratic organizations. Rote Fahne provided daily reports of favorable resolutions, and at the beginning of March, the KPD estimated that more than two million workers were on record as favoring the Open Letter demands.22

Soon there were signs of motion in the Social Democratic camp. The SPD newspaper Vorwärts printed appeals for struggle to aid destitute unemployed workers. This call was taken up by a Berlin assembly of factory council representatives, which called for a united action. Emil Barth, the USPD head of the councils, opened negotiations with all parties and unions. He asked the KPD if it was prepared to:

  1. Carry out unified agitation and cease incitement against fraternal organizations.
  2. Submit to the strict discipline of the united action’s leadership.
  3. Cease calling for unions to affiliate to the Red International of Trade Unions, a Comintern affiliate.
  4. Not carry out actions on its own.
  5. Not demand an escalation of the slogans.

The KPD responded that it could not agree to #3, and that the response to #5 would depend on the strength of the action. However, it accepted points 1, 2, and 4—a major step toward overcoming the prejudices of Social Democratic workers. This particular action did not come to be, but the Berlin factory councils went for a bigger prize, opening up negotiations with the ADGB leadership for national action to counter unemployment. On February 26, 1921, the ADGB executive published ten demands “to combat unemployment,” including emergency work projects, increased payments to the jobless, and the mandated rehiring of unemployed in the factories at the employers’ expense. The KPD criticized the ADGB’s “ten demands” as inadequate, but declared it would do everything possible to support them and help achieve their victory. For the moment, therefore, it set aside the Open Letter program.23

This discussion led to gains for the idea of united action and for the KPD as a party. But no major joint actions resulted.

For the Social Democratic bureaucracy, united initiatives were a loser, shifting focus to the terrain of mass action where the bureaucracy could be rapidly bypassed. The KPD’s united front initiatives resulted in a draining away of SPD support to the Communists, regardless of whether or not the SPD joined in united actions. This was particularly true in the unions, where Communist influence was now rapidly increasing.24 The SPD leadership viewed the united front campaign as partisan, an attempt to shift the relationship of forces in the KPD’s favor. There was a kernel of truth in this: only by radically increasing its influence in unions and the working class could the KPD exert the pressure needed to force the Social Democratic parties and ADGB into united action and, ultimately, to create the preconditions for revolutionary victory.

To work through these contradictions required time, and in March 1921, time suddenly ran out.

March 1921: a setback for unity
Even as the German Communists’ campaign for workers’ unity scored gains, there were increasing calls in the KPD for the party to take bolder initiatives in struggle—on its own, if necessary. The strain between these two approaches reflected divisions within the German working class as a whole. After the defeat suffered by revolutionary workers in early 1919, the class struggle remained deadlocked for four years: the objective conditions cried out for revolution, but the working class was unable to break through.

Among German workers, a vanguard was frustrated and impatient to act, but the majority was pessimistic and relatively passive. In the words of Clara Zetkin, the workers were “almost desperate” yet “unwilling to struggle.” A member of the left opposition within her party later commented: “Everything was bogged down. We faced a wall of passivity. We had to break through it, whatever the cost.” In a discussion with Zetkin, Lenin referred to “discontented, suffering workers who feel revolutionary but are politically raw and confused…. World history does not seem to hurry, but the discontented workers think that your party leaders don’t want it to hurry.”25

Calls for a bolder course were also fed by the tangible progress of the Communist movement, whose members—after the fusion with the left USPD in December 1920—now numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The unification convention adopted a manifesto, drafted by Radek, which declared that a party that “has an audience of millions must recruit mainly by what it does. The VKPD [the fused party] is strong enough to go alone into action when events permit and demand this.”26 In the KPD’s last pre-fusion convention, Radek had phrased this concept as a sharp criticism of Levi, accusing him of “wanting to do nothing but educate Communists until the Party has white hairs on its super-intelligent head.” There is much evidence that Radek encouraged left-wing critics of the party leadership during this period.27

In late 1920, the decline of the postwar revolutionary upsurge was not yet apparent, and in the International, an impatience for action was widespread. In the Moscow leadership, Zinoviev and Bukharin were sympathetic to this view, which was promoted by Kun and other leftist-inclined Hungarian leaders, many of whom had now been incorporated into the Comintern general staff. Radek’s role was ambiguous, defending the united front initiatives in Germany even as he undercut the authority of its chief proponents. It soon proved impossible to conduct these two policies simultaneously.

During November, the Comintern Executive (ECCI) voted to give status as a sympathizing party to the KAPD, which had broken with the KPD in part over objections to its course during the Kapp events. This move, which the ECCI hoped would lead to the KAPD’s reintegration into the official section, was strongly and unanimously protested by the KPD Zentrale.

The KAPD’s opposition to the Open Letter was echoed within the KPD by a new “leftist” opposition, headed by Ruth Fischer, Arkadi Maslow, and Ernst Friesland (Reuter), which led the Berlin-area regional organization. They charged the Zentrale with “exaggerated centralism” for having presented the Open Letter policy for approval to the party’s regional secretaries, without having previously laid it before the Central Committee.28

Their views found strong support in the Comintern Executive. A meeting of its Small Bureau in February heard assertions that the Open Letter showed an “alarming wavering toward opportunist tendencies and an element of passivity”; a majority seemed ready to condemn it. This view was echoed in the full ECCI meeting by Bukharin and Zinoviev, while Radek defended the Open Letter. Lenin sent a message terming the KPD’s tactic “absolutely correct,” and this prevented its condemnation. The ECCI referred the issue to the coming Third Comintern Congress, while unanimously criticizing the German party for “inadequate activity on many issues.”29

A seemingly unrelated issue brought tensions in the German party to a head. On January 21, 1921, the left wing of the Italian Socialist Party, a Comintern affiliate, split away, with strong encouragement from ECCI representatives, and founded a Communist party. The German majority leadership held that the split had been mishandled, unnecessarily leaving many Comintern supporters outside the newly formed party. The minority disagreed, and posed the issue as a question of confidence in the Comintern leadership. At a February 22 meeting of the German party’s Central Committee, ECCI emissary Mátyás Rákosi forced the issue. Rákosi was a Hungarian colleague of Béla Kun; he had represented the ECCI the previous month in Italy. He strongly attacked the German majority leadership, suggesting that the KPD as well would benefit from a split. A motion endorsing the Italian split, narrowly adopted, had the effect of withdrawing confidence from the Levi leadership. Levi, Zetkin, and three supporters resigned from the Zentrale.

The new leadership that took the helm was made up of those favoring what was now becoming known as the “theory of the offensive”—that is, the notion that Communists, even with only minority support among workers, should launch an all-out assault on capitalist power. In Moscow, Zinoviev and Radek both reacted favorably to the changes. The Open Letter policy was effectively overturned.

In March, the policy of offensive action was put to the test in Germany. In conditions of great social tension, the party geared up for a showdown. Three ECCI emissaries arrived from Moscow—Béla Kun and two others sympathetic to his ultraleft views. There is no evidence that Kun had specific instructions from the ECCI, but given his well-known opinions, it came as no surprise that he threw his full authority behind the drive for a revolutionary offensive. The government offered a provocation: an order for police in the state of Saxony to occupy workers’ strongholds and disarm workers’ detachments. The KPD responded with what was essentially a call for an insurrectional general strike. Across Germany, worker ranks were deeply divided, and only a minority followed the KPD call. In many cases, Communist activists seeking to enforce a strike clashed with workers trying to enter their factories. In Berlin, where a few weeks earlier Communists had mustered 200,000 votes, a KPD-KAPD demonstration drew only 4,000 participants. The government quickly crushed worker resistance. Thousands of workers were jailed, and tens of thousands fired and blacklisted. In a few weeks, the KPD lost more than half its membership, and its ties to the worker ranks were greatly weakened.

Levi sharply attacked the party’s conduct in the “March Action” as “the greatest Bakuninist putsch in history.”30 He published his views as a pamphlet, an action that resulted in his expulsion for indiscipline. When the Third Comintern Congress convened in June, Clara Zetkin led a minority of KPD delegates defending Levi’s viewpoint. The KPD majority stood by its record in the March Action, and initially at least they seemed likely to have majority support in the Comintern congress.31

First steps to recovery
On March 30, 1921, the KPD’s Rote Fahne claimed that blame for bloodshed during the March Action rested with the individual members of the Social Democratic parties: “Shame and disgrace on those workers.”32 The Open Letter seemed truly dead and buried. Yet only two weeks later, on April 15, 1921, a circular of the KPD Zentrale, while proclaiming the need to continue March Action policies, also stated that the demands of the Open Letter—that is, immediate demands—provided a platform for common struggle against the capitalist offensive. The KPD’s May Day appeal went further, calling for support of the ADGB’s ten demands. The appeal had been drafted by the party’s trade union commission, most of whom had been opponents of the March Action. The ADGB leaders rebuffed this overture, but the Communists swung into action on a local level and achieved many united actions. In Rhineland-Westphalia, party leaders continued to formally endorse the theory of the offensive while implementing a diametrically opposed policy. By mid-June, as the Third Congress convened, the KPD had rebuilt some of its mass influence and was once again able to initiate mass demonstrations. While the world congress debated the March Action, the party ranks had begun to implement the opposite course—the policy charted by the Levi leadership before its ouster.33

Early in 1921, the KPD also initiated broad-based committees for defense of working-class political prisoners, which joined in June to form the Red Aid of Germany, chaired by Zetkin.34 It was the forerunner of International Red Aid (Russian acronym: MOPR), founded during the Fourth Comintern Congress in November 1922, which achieved impressive scope and reputation, notably in its defense of the framed-up U.S. anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

“To the masses”
The Comintern’s Third World Congress (June 23–July 12, 1921) was dominated by debate on issues arising from the March Action. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky later wrote that at the start of the congress, the prevailing mood was to generalize the KPD’s March policy, an “attempt to create a revolutionary situation artificially—to ‘galvanize the proletariat,’ as one of the German comrades put it.”35 This view was argued by the German leadership majority, with initial support from Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek. The opposition to this course was led by Lenin and Trotsky, in the Russian delegation, and Zetkin in that of the KPD. The congress’s decision, which sought to quell ultraleft impulses, was summarized in a sentence of its “Theses on Tactics”: “At the present moment the most important task of the Communist International is to win a dominant influence over the majority of the working class and involve the more active workers in direct struggle”—a strategy summed up in the slogan “To the Masses.”36

With regard to the March Action dispute, the congress adopted a compromise decision, which noted errors by the KPD leadership, but termed the experience “a step forward” and passed over the ECCI’s role in silence. Levi’s expulsion was endorsed. The majority of Levi’s associates in the KPD leadership subsequently followed him out of the party, while most of the March Action leaders resumed the Open Letter policies Levi had helped initiate. Fischer and Maslow stayed in opposition, at the helm of an ultraleft faction based in the Berlin region.37

Two aspects of the Third Congress decisions prefigured the united front policy adopted by the International six months later. First, a passage in the Theses on Tactics concerning the need for Communists to lead the masses into struggle endorsed the KPD’s Open Letter as an “excellent example” of this policy.38

Second, the Theses articulated a new conception of the type of program that Communists should advance in a period of preparation for a struggle for power. The heart of this approach was summarized in a single sentence: “In place of the minimum program of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International proposes a struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands that, in their totality, undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat, and mark out stages in the struggle for its dictatorship; each of these demands gives expression to the needs of the broadest masses, even if they do not yet consciously set the goal of proletarian dictatorship.”39 This strategic vision, although prefigured in Bolshevik experience, was most likely articulated on the basis of German experience. Pierre Broué tells us that the notion of transitional slogans was “a favorite idea of [KPD leader Heinrich] Brandler.”40

Summarizing the congress’s outcome, Zinoviev wrote that the Comintern had “adapted its policies to new conditions.” The Communist parties were much stronger than in 1919, he stated, but “the factor of spontaneity in mass struggles…has grown weaker; the enemy has become strong.” The Comintern was traversing a “period of preparation” leading toward decisive struggles, in which Communists must “take part in all the proletariat’s minor daily struggles.” The world working class was traversing an epoch between two revolutionary waves. “The revolution is not over; the opening of new struggles is not distant.”41

The KPD embraces the united front 
The compromise decisions of the Third Congress did not end the conflict within the German party. A strengthened ultraleft opposition launched a campaign against those who had shared Levi’s criticisms of the party’s conduct, securing Zetkin’s exclusion from the Zentrale. The ECCI too remained divided; an article by Radek echoing some of the German ultralefts’ charges was publicly rebuked by Lenin.42

The KPD’s August 22–26 congress in Jena accepted the Third Congress’s “Theses on Tactics” and its criticisms of the March Action, but voted to criticize Trotsky’s Third Congress report on the world situation, which had envisaged the possibility of temporary periods of capitalist expansion. Echoes of the “theory of the offensive” were heard in the ultraleft’s concept of an absolute limit to capitalist accumulation. Yet the congress also adopted a twelve-point program for a “struggle against hunger and poverty” as a basis for efforts toward united action both nationally and locally. It restored Zetkin to the Zentrale, now made up entirely of supporters of the Third Congress decisions.43

Hours after the Jena congress closed, an ultraright organization assassinated a leading German bourgeois politician, Matthias Erzberger, whom rightists reviled as a signatory to the armistice ending the First World War. The KPD’s Rote Fahne immediately called for united action, including with the Christian trade unions linked with Erzberger’s pro-Catholic Centre party. In Berlin, all three workers’ parties called for a united demonstration, although the SPD later withdrew from the joint committee. The murder, one of a series by rightist extremists, was widely seen as part of a concerted attempt to undo the work of the November 1918 revolution and install a reactionary dictatorship.

On August 31, half a million people marched in the Berlin demonstration. Marches and strikes across Germany embraced about five million protesters, and many workers utilized the occasion to press their wage demands. The KPD failed to achieve a united national committee to lead this movement, but almost everywhere it was able to take its place in united protest actions.

During the Erzberger protests, Rote Fahne declared that, “only the working class can defend the republic from reaction.… The working class has the right and duty to undertake [this task].” Objections to this statement were raised in the KPD and also the ECCI; the party’s task, critics argued, was not to defend the bourgeois republic but to overthrow it. The issue, which had implications for the struggle against fascism, was left unresolved.44

During the months that followed, the KPD resumed fully the course of the Open Letter, and its initiatives for united action made encouraging headway. Among the most successful initiatives was the launching of an international campaign for aid to Soviet Russia, launched by the ECCI on July 27, 1921, in response to a widespread and severe famine in war-torn Soviet Russia. When a united campaign with Social Democratic parties proved impossible, the Comintern founded the International Workers’ Aid Society, which enlisted the support of many non-Communist intellectuals and workers. Soon its aid was directly supporting 200,000 Soviet citizens.

Workers’ government: three variants
What kind of government should Communists advocate for the achievement of the demands in their united-action program? Debate on this question raged in the KPD during the final months of 1921. The party was pledged to establish a proletarian republic based on workers’ councils similar to the Russian soviets. But in 1921, such councils did not exist in Germany or elsewhere in Europe west of the Soviet border. The KPD’s majority leadership, in collaboration with Radek and the ECCI, sought to formulate a governmental demand that related to Germany’s existing political institutions while pointing toward the goal of workers’ power. Reaching back to the concept that emerged during the Kapp struggle, they called for a “workers’ government.” According to Radek, the workers’ government demand was “the only practical and real means of winning the majority of the working class to the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat.”45

But what was a workers’ government? Three different conceptions emerged in the Comintern discussions:

  1. A pro-capitalist “workers’ government.” Labour Party governments in Australia, while carrying out some reforms, had functioned as pliant instruments of capitalist rule. The Comintern anticipated that a future Labour Party regime in Britain would have this character, at least initially. Zinoviev used the adjective “liberal” to describe such a pro-capitalist government by workers’ parties; the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, held in 1922, called this a “fictitious workers’ government.” In his 1920 pamphlet, “Left-Wing” Communism, Lenin had advocated that Communists give critical support to British workers’ efforts to put Labour in office, so that workers could learn from their own experience the need to take a revolutionary course. In Germany, this approach implied calling on the SPD to break its alliance with bourgeois parties and seek to form a government of workers’ parties.46
  2. “Workers’ government” as a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The minority led by Fischer and Maslow in the KPD held that the term “workers’ government” could be used only as a popular way to present the concept of workers’ rule—that is, as a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Zinoviev advanced this view in 1922 and again in 1924, stating that “the workers’ government is a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Supporters of this view maintained that there could not be any transitional stage between bourgeois and workers’ rule.
  3. “Workers’ government” as a component of a transitional program.This interpretation, advocated by the KPD majority leadership and Radek, placed the workers’ government in the framework of the Third Congress call, already discussed, for a set of demands that “undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat, and mark out stages in the struggle for its dictatorship.” Such a government, while possibly constituted by parliamentary means, would rest on the workers’ mass movement and take measures to dismantle the bourgeois state. In the German context, it was linked with demands that included workers’ control of production, confiscatory taxation of capitalist property, disarming of right-wing militias, and arming of the proletariat.

The Comintern’s position on a workers’ government emerged from the experiences of the German working class and can be traced through a series of decisions by the KPD.

  • In November 1920, elections in the German state of Saxony produced a narrow majority for the three workers’ parties, with KPD deputies holding the balance. The KPD refused to join a Social Democratic–led government. Instead, the Communists supported an SPD-USPD regime, subject to conditions, and continued this support even when its conditions were not met.
  • In July 1921, at the height of controversy over the “theory of the offensive,” the SPD-USPD government of Saxony proposed taxation changes that would raise workers’ rents. The KPD opposed the measure, but nonetheless voted with the Social Democrats in parliament, in order to prevent the government’s overthrow by rightist parties.
  • Subsequently, the KPD supported SPD-USPD governments in the states of Thuringia and Brunswick. During these experiences, the KPD refused to bloc with rightist parties to oust the government, seeking instead to counter reactionary government measures through independent working-class action.
  • On October 9, after extensive discussions with KPD leaders, the ECCI recommended that the German party pledge support for a workers’ government on condition that it act decisively to arm the proletariat and confiscatory taxation of capitalist property (“confiscation of real values”). The KPD applied this position in the German governmental crisis that broke out in Germany on December 22, but stopped short of declaring its readiness to join such a government.
  • After consultation by German leaders and Radek with Lenin, the KPD leadership declared on December 8 that “the drive for a united front must find political expression in a socialist workers’ government, which should be counterposed to a coalition regime [with bourgeois parties].” The KPD undertook to use every means to promote the formation of such a government, “and also join such a government, if a guarantee exists that it will act against the bourgeoisie to defend workers’ interests and demands, such as confiscation of real values, prosecution of the Kapp criminals, liberation of jailed revolutionary workers, and so on.”47

Discussion among Bolshevik leadership 
Recalling two years later the 1921 united front discussions in the Comintern leadership, Zinoviev said, “Actually, I too had misgivings then. Much was not yet entirely clear.… It was a difficult transition, and we went through an intense inner struggle.”48

No record is available of how the Bolshevik leaders came to agreement. However, at the end of November 1921, Zinoviev, Radek, and Bukharin proposed to the Bolshevik party’s Political Bureau that the Russian party support extension of the German united-action policy to the Comintern as a whole. The Bureau’s motion, drafted by Lenin, approved this course and also directed Bukharin to write up the Bolsheviks’ pre-1917 experience of blocs with the Menshevik party. A page-long passage on this topic was included in the ECCI united front resolution adopted later that month. This passage evoked little discussion, and Bolshevik experience in the revolutionary year of 1917 remained mostly unexamined.49

Bolshevik leaders continued their discussion at a party conference that opened December 19. According to Russian historian Alexander Watlin, a difference in emphasis was evident. Zinoviev and Bukharin presented united front policy as short term and stressed its role in exposing Social Democratic parties. Trotsky, however, warned against “fatalistic conceptions” that Europe was experiencing the final run-up to the establishment of workers’ rule. Notably absent from Watlin’s summary of the discussion is any hint that the specific diplomatic or political needs of the Soviet state were a factor motivating the Bolsheviks to support united front policy. Instead, Bolshevik leaders’ attention was focused on the prospects for workers’ struggle outside Russia.50

The Comintern adopts the united front policy
On December 4, 1921, a report to the ECCI by Zinoviev recommended adoption of the united front as Comintern policy, referring both to the positive experience of Communist parties that had taken united action initiatives and the widespread longing for unity among workers. The discussion was notable chiefly for a debate on whether transitional demands should be included in the Comintern program; Radek argued in favor, and Bukharin against. The committee voted for the preparation of united front theses along these lines, which were presented to a subsequent meeting on December 18.51

The theses bore the mark of Zinoviev’s thinking, motivating the united front on the basis of the current conjuncture—“an unusual transitional period”—marked by worsening capitalist economic crisis, a shift to the left among the masses, and “a spontaneous striving for unity” among workers. The theses proposed that the Communist parties “strive everywhere to achieve unity…in practical action” and “take the initiative on this question.” The workers’ government slogan was endorsed, although only for Germany. The KPD’s experiences in pressing for united action were not mentioned. “Communists should accept the discipline required for [united] action,” the theses stated, but must not “relinquish the right and the capacity to express…their opinion regarding the policies of all working-class organizations,” including while an action is under way.52

The challenge of fascism
Hardly a mention was made during the united front discussion of the rising fascist movement then terrorizing and destroying workers’ organizations across Italy. The question did come up, however, at the December 4 ECCI meeting. In response to the Italian delegate Egidio Gennari, who had argued that there was no objective basis for united front policy in his country, Bukharin said:

In a country where fascists are shooting down the workers, where the entire land is burning, the mere existence of the fascist organization is enough for us to say to workers: “Let us unite to strike down this riffraff.”53

Bukharin’s suggestion did not fall on fertile soil. The Italian Communists, then led by Amadeo Bordiga, held to their view that Communists should conduct antifascist resistance on their own, without any alliance with workers outside their ranks. When workers spontaneously formed broad antifascist combat groups, the Communists opposed them. The passage on Italy in the ECCI’s united front resolution of December 18 did not mention fascism and praised the Italian CP for its implementation of a policy to which it was in fact opposed.

Bukharin raised his point again in an ECCI discussion on January 24, 1922, and he subsequently wrote a letter along these lines to the Italian party.54 But there was no follow-up from the ECCI, and the Italian CP’s failure to carry out united antifascist resistance contributed to Mussolini’s triumph in November 1922. At the Fourth World Congress that convened later that month, the need for an antifascist united front was raised not by the Italian CP, and not by the ECCI, but rather by Communists from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Switzerland, who secured adoption of their position as the congress ended.

Anti-imperialist unity
The ECCI’s united front discussion focused on Europe and the United States and did not take up tasks in the colonial world. However, a parallel process, building on the work of the Second and Baku Congresses on colonial liberation as well as practical experience especially in what is now Indonesia, led to the convening in Moscow, on January 21, 1922, of the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East, with 136 delegates from ten countries. Included in the congress were guest delegates of the Kuomintang, a bourgeois-led national revolutionary movement in China. G. I. Safarov, a Russian Communist representing the ECCI, expressed to the Kuomintang delegates the essence of the Comintern’s policy for unity in national-revolutionary struggles:

We are supporting and will continue to support your struggle insofar as it is a matter of a nationalistic and democratic uprising for national emancipation. But at the same time we shall independently carry on our Communist work of organizing the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses of China.55

The anti-imperialist united front was integrated into overall Comintern policy at its Fourth Congress in November–December 1922.

International debate and ratification 
The Comintern’s new united front policy encountered far more opposition in the member parties than it had in the initial ECCI discussion. One of the most frequently voiced objections was that the united front should be built “from below” rather than “from above”—that is, Social Democratic workers should be recruited directly to Communist campaigns, without reference to their organizations. ECCI leaders responded that it was precisely the impossibility of forging effective unity in this way that made a formal approach to the social democratic leaderships necessary. In a January 10, 1922, letter to the KPD, the ECCI stressed the need to make clear to the masses “that we are prepared to sit down together with the Social Democrats, despite all their disgraceful deeds,” in order to help clear away the obstacles these leaders were erecting to workers’ unity.56

When an expanded plenum of the ECCI met in Moscow from February 24 to March 4, 1922, the united front was the main agenda item. One hundred and five delegates attended, from thirty-six countries. Among the five most influential Comintern sections outside Russia, the French and Italian parties were opposed to the united front policy, and the Norwegian majority believed it did not apply to their country. In Czechoslovakia and Germany, significant minorities resisted the policy. Opinion was similarly divided in smaller parties.

Since the adoption of united front policy in December, two developments had altered the context for this discussion. First, the centrist Vienna Union issued an appeal in January to the Second and Third Internationals to join it in an international conference to consider the economic situation in Europe and workers’ defensive struggle against reaction. Second, on January 6, the Entente powers invited Soviet Russia to participate in a broad international con?ference, which was to convene on March 8 in Genoa, Italy, to consider economic conditions in Europe and, specifically, relations between Russia and the capitalist states.

For the Comintern, the proposed world workers’ conference had the potential to establish a united alternative to the capitalist attacks on workers and the Soviet republic that the Entente powers intended to promote at the Genoa Conference. United front policy now had an overriding, urgent goal. It was at this moment—not, as some claim, at the time of the Kronstadt uprising and the onset of famine in Russia in 1921—that the immediate diplomatic interests of the Soviet state became interlocked, for several months, to a major Comintern policy.

Opponents of the united front outside the Comintern seized on this fact, claiming that the new policy was being imposed on workers in the West in order to serve the narrow needs of Soviet diplomacy. This charge also echoed through the debates at the ECCI conference. Bolshevik leaders indignantly protested that the interests of the Soviet state were identical to those of workers in the West. No “sacrifice” was involved. “Often comrades say sincerely, ‘We must save the Soviet Republic!’” said Zinoviev. “Comrades, don’t save us, save yourselves. Save the working class of your country.”

At the close of the conference, the united front policy was adopted by a vote of 46 to 10.57 The ECCI made no attempt to force member parties to apply this policy. However, through a succession of discussions and experiences in the national sections, acceptance of the united front policy widened. At the Fourth World Congress, in November–December 1922, debate focused on how, not whether, to apply it.

Berlin and Moscow
Despite the gains made through the united front policy, the KPD did not succeed in rallying German workers in a struggle for power. When Germany fell into total economic and social crisis in 1923, the workers—and the KPD—were defeated, ending the wave of revolutionary struggles in postwar Germany.

The story of German workers’ attempt to carry out a socialist revolution is told with care and insight in Pierre Broué’s The German Revolution 1917–1923. The main issues posed in Broué’s account are discussed in expert fashion by Todd Chretien in a two-part article in the International Socialist Review.58

A strength of Chretien’s account is his stress on the KPD’s failure to develop an authoritative, cohesive leadership. Its initial central leaders—Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Leo Jogiches—were assassinated in 1919. A year later, after fusion with the left USPD, a new team took the helm, but “six of twelve of its elected leaders, including its two co-chairmen, were gone entirely from the [fused] party or its leadership soon after its founding.” Increasingly, the Comintern leadership intervened into the KPD by “bureaucratic fiat,” Chretien says. “The KPD leadership was not strong enough to stand up to this…and was easily picked apart.” There were also internal causes of the leadership collapse in 1921, but the fact remains that Comintern intervention left a wound that did not heal. The third generation of KPD leaders, who took the helm that year, failed to find a path through the social crisis that broke over Germany two years later.

Broué’s account provides ample evidence of German Communists’ initiative and independence. Yet he, too, concedes that ultimately, in the revolutionary crisis of 1923, their party fell victim to a “congenital weakness” of its leadership: “The men who controlled the policy of the KPD were not in Berlin, but in Moscow,” he states.59

Nonetheless, the degeneration that gripped Communist parties in both Germany and Russia, beginning in late 1923, should not blind us to their enduring achievements. The German party continued to be the most prominent force in developing united front policies into 1923, including with regard to transitional demands, the concept of a workers’ government, and the application of the united front to resistance against fascism.60

The impulse for unity in action came fundamentally from the ranks of revolutionary workers in Germany and neighboring countries. However, it required leaders who could respond to this pressure by formulating appropriate policies. Even after the departure of Levi and most of his associates, such leaders were present. Moreover, the KPD’s main proponents of united front policy—Brandler, Zetkin, Ernst Meyer, August Thalheimer, Edwin Hoernle, and Fritz Heckert—had all been, like Erich Melcher in Stuttgart and the expelled Levi, comrades of Luxemburg in the wartime Spartacus League. Their record suggests that, even after the split with Levi, the concern of Luxemburg and the Spartacists to strengthen ties with the broad masses of workers remained a creative force within the Comintern.

Even in defeat, the German party’s experience in struggle for a united front is a fruitful legacy for working people today.

A window into Lenin’s Comintern
The story of how united front policy evolved provides insight into how the Communist International functioned in Lenin’s time, one that refutes assertions that the world movement was run from the top down or manipulated by the Russian party. This story also shows that the united front was conceived not only as a defensive mechanism against capitalist attack but as a tool that could help forge the unity needed to achieve workers’ power.

Several characteristics of this process stand out:

  • United front policy originated in massive working-class struggles in capitalist Europe and in the longing of rank-and-file workers for unity in action.
  • Ultraleft resistance to this policy arose out of the very same struggles, reflecting the impatience and inexperience of many advanced revolutionary fighters.
  • These two policies were codified and developed primarily by leaders of the parties immediately engaged in the main anticapitalist struggles: for united front policy, the German party; for the ultraleft alternative, the Hungarian emigrants, the German left opposition, and the Italian party.
  • Members of the Comintern’s central leadership, including the Bolsheviks assigned to it, diverged in their responses, some more sympathetic to united front initiatives, some more critical.
  • The Comintern Executive responded inconsistently, sometimes destructively (during the run-up to the 1921 March Action) and sometimes playing a far-sighted and indispensable role (during the run-up to the December 1921 united front decision).
  • Despite all these contradictions, the International’s mechanism of world discussion and world gatherings served as a constructive arena for exchange of experiences. Notwithstanding shortcomings and errors of judgment, the Communist movement as a whole was able to advance beyond the level of understanding that any of its components could have achieved on their own.

The potential of internationalism 
Fifty years ago, a U.S. Communist leader of the early days, James Cannon, wrote that during the decades following the First World War “revolutionary national parties in every country have had to look to the Russian revolution and its authentic leaders. That’s where the ideas are.”61

There is a great truth in this statement, if rightly understood. The experience of the Russian Revolution was in itself an inadequate basis for a world movement. The lessons of struggle around the world in postwar conditions had to be absorbed and understood. The leading Bolsheviks headed the process, but they acquired that knowledge not by introspection but by listening and by absorbing new ideas. In the process, they shared in the insights, uncertainties, follies, and divisions of the world movement’s components. Strategy and tactics emerged from the interplay between living forces inside and outside the Soviet republics.

The experience of the early Comintern suggests that in a healthy international, seeking unity in the service of workers’ struggles, the model of a single centralized world party led from Moscow was unrealizable. The Executive was remote from the struggle, learning of events after delays of days or weeks. As Zetkin pointed out in a January 25, 1921, letter to Lenin, the ECCI was “far too cut-off” to do more than “recognise the broad lines of development and deduce basic conclusions.” The ECCI “cannot possibly survey all the concrete circumstances that must be considered in carrying out the guidelines.” This limitation “is understandable, but it leads to errors.”62

The decisive conflicts remained, as they are today, national in framework: a contest for power against national ruling classes. Only in these struggles could Communist leaderships win the confidence of the party ranks and the broader working class. Imperious interventions from afar, such as in Germany during the lead-up to the March 1921 battles, could not endow Communist parties with such authority—rather they tended to undermine party leaderships.

The goal of centralism could be realized only in the sense of uniting the movement around a common goal and line of march. Thus understood, centralism in the early Comintern could be based only on an ongoing conversation among all the movement’s components, in every country and at every level. To a significant degree, that goal was realized in the early Comintern.

Comintern activity in the united front field was marked by many ambiguities and missteps; the leadership in Moscow was often indecisive, divided, or simply wrong. Yet the influence of rank-and-file activists was strong enough, and the democratic structures functioned sufficiently well that the International found its way forward. The Comintern managed to develop an understanding that integrated the experiences of its different national sections, including their minority currents. Its leadership succeeded in setting aside previous strategy, overcoming its own divisions, and responding to the initiatives and needs of its working-class base.

To be sure, the process through which the Comintern developed policy was flawed. But without the Comintern, there would have been no process at all. It was the International that brought together experience and innovation, leadership and base, geographical breadth—the factors needed for policy development.

With the onset of Stalinism in the middle 1920s, the Comintern entered a period of decline, in which the policies for united workers’ action developed during its first years were distorted and eventually abandoned. Nonetheless, the position on united fronts hammered out during the Comintern’s first three years remains one of the essential foundations for action by social and political movements for revolutionary change in the very different circumstances of our time. Moreover, the process through which united front policy emerged testifies to the potential of a workers’ international, both then and now, to contribute to the liberation struggle of humankind.

  1. Translated from Communist International (hereafter Comintern), Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistichen Internationale (hereafter VKI), 1923), the English edition of proceedings of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, forthcoming from Haymarket Books in 2012. For another translation of this text, see Alan Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London: Ink Links, 1980), 406.
  2. See V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (hereafter LCW) (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960–71), 30:354–55; John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991), 162, 296–97.
  3. Karl Radek, “Die Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands während der Kapptage,” Die Kommunistische Internationale 12 (1920): 59; Rákosi in Comintern, Die Taktik der Kommunistischen Internationale gegen die Offensive des Kapitals (Hamburg: Carl Hoym Nachf., 1922), 94.
  4. For an account of the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch and other events in the German revolution of 1918–23, see Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006) and Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–23 (London: Bookmarks, 1982).
  5. Broué, German Revolution, 369.
  6. M. J. Braun (“Spartakus”), “Der Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch,” Kommunistische Internationale 10 (1920): 167; Radek, “Die Kommunistische Partei,” 170–75. Both writers had in mind Lenin’s article “On Compromises,” in LCW, 25:309–14. For Lenin’s comments, see LCW, 31:109, 166.
  7. Béla Kun, “Die Ereignisse in Deutschland,” Kommunismus 11–15 (1920): 349, 441.
  8. See V. I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism—an Infantile Disorder, in LCW, vol. 31, 17–118.
  9. See Comintern, Die Taktik der Kommunistischen Internationale gegen die Offensive des Kapitals (Hamburg: Carl Hoym Nachf, 1922), 37; Riddell, Workers of the World, 36–37, 50–51, 156–57, 760–61.
  10. See Milo Hájek and Hana Mejdrová, Die Entstehung der III. Internationale (Bremen: Temmen, 1997), 251; Thalheimer in Comintern, Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale (Moscow: VKI, 1921), 71.
  11. See Riddell, Workers of the World, 286; John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920—First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1993), 219, 231. On the origin of the “workers and oppressed peoples’” call, see LCW, 31:453.
  12. Comintern, Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale(Hamburg: VKI, 1923), 384.
  13. The estimate of KPD support is based on the February 1921 elections in Prussia, which included the majority of Germany’s population. The SPD won 26.3 percent of the vote; the KPD, 7.4 percent; and the anti-Comintern USPD minority (which retained the name), 6.6 percent. See “Landtagswahlen Freistaat Preußen” in “Wahlen in Deutschland,” August 12, 2011:
  14. John Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International 1907–1916 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1984), 173.
  15. Arnold Reisberg, An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1971), 50.
  16. Broué, German Revolution, 469.
  17. Reisberg, Quellen, 51.
  18. The USPD focused on the nationalization demand as the spearhead of its own united front efforts in 1921 and 1922. The KPD supported nationalization but did not prioritize it in its action program, which focused on immediate workers’ mobilization, and “was contemptuous of attempts to squeeze socialism out of the existing capitalist order.” David W. Morgan, The Socialist Left and the German Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 392.
  19. Reisberg, Quellen, 52.
  20. Reisberg, Quellen, 54.
  21. Broué, German Revolution, 470.
  22. Reisberg, Quellen, 57–65.
  23. Reisberg, Quellen, 66.
  24. Larry Peterson, German Communism, Workers’ Protest, and Labor Unions (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1993), 405.
  25. Clara Zetkin, “Die Lehren des deutschen Eisenbahnerstreiks,” Kommunistische Internationale 20 (1922): 1; an unnamed KPD member quoted by Trotsky in the Third World Congress, Protokoll des III Kongresses, 642–43; Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1934), 38.
  26. Broué, German Revolution, 465. From the December 1920 fusion until August 1921, the German Communists took the name VKPD—United Communist Party of Germany.
  27. Broué, German Revolution, 464. Regarding Radek’s ambiguous role in KPD politics, see Jean-François Fayet, Karl Radek (1885–1939) (Bern: Peter Lang, 2004), 352–53, 369–70, 389–93.
  28. Reisberg, Quellen, 69-70.
  29. Reisberg, Quellen, 82, 84. Lenin expressed his view two months later in a letter to Levi and Zetkin; see LCW, 45:124–25.
  30. Paul Levi, “Our Path: Against Putschism,” Historical Materialism 17, no. 3. (2009): 132. M. A. Bakunin was a nineteenth-century anarchist theorist and opponent of Marxism.
  31. For fuller accounts of the overturn in the KPD leadership and the March Action, see Broué, German Revolution, 475–525; Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985), 61–64; and Harman, Lost Revolution, 191–220.
  32. Levi, “Our Path,” 133.
  33. Reisberg, Quellen, 138–40; Peterson, German Communism, 82–84.
  34. Heinz Sommer, “Clara Zetkin und die Rote Hilfe,” in Clara Zetkin in ihrer Zeit, Ulla Plener, ed. (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 2008), 107.
  35. Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1936), 33. See also Leon Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification (New York: Pathfinder, 1971), 87–91.
  36. Adler, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, 277.
  37. For more on the Third Congress, see Broué, German Revolution, 527–52; Harman, Lost Revolution, 210–16; and E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3 (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1966), 381–93. For its verdict on the March Action, see Adler, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, 1980, 290–91.
  38. Adler, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, 289. In February 1922, Radek claimed, with some exaggeration, that the entirety of the united front policy was contained in this passage. See Comintern, Taktik, 66–67.
  39. Comintern, Thesen und Resolutionen des III. Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg: VKI, 1921), 47. For a different translation based on a Russian text, see Adler, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, 286.
  40. Broué, German Revolution, 649.
  41. Gregory Zinoviev, “Die Taktik der Kommunistischen Internationale,” Die Kommunistische Internationale, 18 (1921), 3–4, 7–8, 16–17.
  42. Reisberg, Quellen, 210; LCW, 32:515–16.
  43. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International (New York: Monad Press, 1972), 1:238–61; Reisberg, Quellen, 220, 225, 227; Milo Hájek, Storia dell’Internazionale comunista (1921–1935): La politica del fronte unico (Roma: Riuniti, 1969), 26–28.
  44. See Reisberg, Quellen, 234; and Radek’s remarks in the Fourth World Congress, Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses, 99.
  45. Radek’s letter of November 7, 1921, quoted in Pierre Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale communiste 1919–1943 (Paris: Fayard, 1997), 262.
  46. Comintern, Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses, 1015–17; LCW, 31:84–85.
  47. Reisberg, Quellen, 296–97.
  48. Comintern, Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses, 12–13.
  49. See LCW, 42:367 (Politburo decision); LCW, 36:552–54 (letter to Bukharin); Adler, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, 406–407 (ECCI on Bolshevik history).
  50. Alexander Watlin, “Die Geburt der Einheitsfronttaktik: Die russische Dimension,” in Die Komintern 1919–1929: Historische Studien (Mainz: Decaton, 1993), 48.
  51. Comintern, 1922b, Die Tätigkeit der Exekutive und des Präsidiums des E.K. der Kommunistischen Internationale (Petrograd: VKI, 1922), 301–19. Debate on transitional demands continued in November 1922 at the Fourth World Congress, which resolved to incorporate them into a future Comintern program.
  52. Comintern, Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses, 1019–28; compare Adler, 1980, 400–409.
  53. Comintern, Tätigkeit, 317–18.
  54. Comintern, Tätigkeit, 393–94; Tom Behan, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini (London: Bookmarks, 2003), 107–108.
  55. Comintern, The First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East (London: Hammersmith Books, 1970), 193–94. For a 1922 report on the Indonesian experience, which served to some extent as a model for the Comintern’s intervention in China, see “Communism and Islam,” in Marxists Internet Archive,
  56. Trotsky, First Five Years, 2:93–95; Comintern, Tätigkeit, 384.
  57. For conference proceedings, see Comintern, Taktik.
  58. For Chretien’s review, see “Classics of Marxism: The German Revolution 1917–1923,” review of The German Revolution, 1917–1923 by Pierre Broué, International Socialist Review 50 (November–December 2006) and 52 (March–April 2007), and
  59. Broué, German Revolution, 906–907.
  60. See Riddell, “The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back,” scheduled for publication in Historical Materialism in 2012.
  61. James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 333.
  62. Ruth Stoljarowa and Peter Schmalfuss, eds., Briefe Deutscher an Lenin, 1917–1923, (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1990), 215.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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