Revolution at the crossroads

Reading the Comintern's Fourth Congress

“We are all fond of prophesying the future course of the revolution. But the fact is that the only thing we can predict is that our prophecies will not hit the mark. The revolution will very likely take place in quite another manner than we imagine.”
— Gregory Zinoviev

“But we must take advantage of every moment of respite from fighting, from war, to study and to study from scratch.”
— Vladimir Lenin

WHEN READING history, there is a frequent tendency to pass retrospective judgment and attempt to draw clear lessons for our times. This is particularly true for those of us who wish to follow Marx’s injunction to understand the world in order to change it. This exercise, however, runs into some immediate difficulties. The most central, perhaps, is that history does not neatly repeat itself, giving us the chance to try it again with all the “right” answers. At the same time, there are those who argue that conditions are so different today that revolutionaries have little to learn from those who organized in contexts very different from our own.

I would suggest a different approach—one that treats history, especially revolutionary history, as neither political primer nor mere historical artifact. Instead, we should attempt to assimilate the experience of those who came before us by appreciating that experience in its own context. In painstakingly transcribing and synthesizing multiple translations of the proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, John Riddell has given us the opportunity to do precisely this. Here, in 1,300 pages, are the ideas of revolutionaries living through both hopeful and dangerous times.

In the space of five short years, many of them had lived through revolutions, including one that had succeeded in Russia, and they had developed an immense faith in the capacity of the masses of ordinary people to struggle. At the same time, they had also witnessed the betrayal of internationalism by the largest and most revered parties of socialism—parties to which many of them had belonged. And they had seen the initial revolutionary wave recede and could see the dark forces of reaction threatening to destroy all that they had fought for. Balanced between an old order attempting to reconstitute itself and a future struggling to be born, these revolutionaries faced enormous challenges.

It may seem daunting to immerse oneself in these debates. They are frequently contentious, almost always long, and populated by an almost dizzying cast of characters. But by providing an accessible introduction, clarifying annotations and very helpful biographical notes on the speakers, John Riddell has provided us with a roadmap to this conference. And I promise that if you spend some time with these men and women, learn their world, and grapple alongside them with the questions they faced, you will find our own world illuminated in new ways. You may not find the answers to the questions, challenges, and debates we face today. But you will likely approach them with new insight and renewed conviction.

A review cannot possibly do justice to the full range of discussion taken up in this volume, and it is certainly no substitute for reading it in its entirety. This is a task that I would highly recommend readers take up. Here I simply aim to outline some of the main threads of discussion that took place at the Congress. One of the most striking features of the proceedings is the open and extensive clash of ideas. Three hundred and fifty delegates attended the conference from sixty-one different countries. These delegates frequently included representatives of minority factions within the individual parties, as well as invited guests. The discussions lasted for thirty days and involved extended plenary sessions, as well as individual commissions devoted to areas of work and issues in particular countries. Presentations ranged from forty-five minutes to two hours and individual contributions from fifteen to forty-five minutes. At one point, a speaker from France requested, and received, forty-five minutes to present his dissenting viewpoint. Frequently, interjections from the audience would either compel a speaker to finish or appeal to the chairperson for more time. This reflected the seriousness and urgency with which all participants approached these debates.

Revolution at the crossroads
Two factors formed the backdrop to the proceedings. On the one hand, the Russian Revolution had opened up a revolutionary process with reverberations that were felt everywhere that people faced exploitation and oppression. So, in addition to the immediate revolutionary wave that swept through Europe, there were anti-colonial revolts in Africa and Asia that gave rise to newly formed Communist parties. With a reputation for an uncompromising opposition to imperialism and colonialism, the Comintern became a reference point for oppressed people. So, for example, the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, explained that he felt compelled to speak at the conference because, “The Communist International is for the emancipation of all workers of the world without distinction of race or color. And this stand of the Communist International is not just written on paper, as is the Fifteenth Amendment of the United States of America, it is something real.” Thus, the Fourth Congress was facing the question of how to build genuinely mass parties in which the working class could lead all the exploited, oppressed, and dispossessed in a struggle for liberation.

At the same time, the Fourth Congress took place in a period in which the ruling class had seized back the initiative. The initial revolutionary wave had ebbed and the working class had experienced bitter defeats. One delegate after another described the impact of counterrevolution. There are haunting appeals for support for hundreds of comrades imprisoned and facing execution, and vivid descriptions of the rise of fascist gangs in Italy. And, of course, Russia had emerged from a period of civil war victorious, but with the working class battered and exhausted. All of this had an impact on the working class and on the revolutionaries themselves. A German delegate, Karl Becker, described the party as having a “depreciated morale.” This mood was, in turn, a reflection of broad layers of workers having lost confidence.

Karl Radek, a Russian Marxist active in the Polish and German socialist movements, summed up the problem quite aptly: “What characterizes the world we now live in is that although world capitalism has not overcome its crisis, and the question of power is still objectively the core of every question, the broadest masses of the proletariat have lost the belief that they can conquer power in the foreseeable future. They have been forced onto the defensive.” The united front policy, which constituted the bulk of the discussion and debate at the Congress, grew out of the recognition of this reality. While workers did not have the confidence to engage in offensive battles, there were defensive struggles that they needed to fight in order to maintain even minimal living standards and democratic rights. The ability to wage these fights was hampered by the fact that the working class was politically divided. The previous period had seen bitter divisions between the reformist social-democratic parties, which had sided with the counterrevolution and played a critical role in saving capitalism, and the revolutionary parties—formed initially as breakaways from the social-democratic parties—that believed workers must seize power. While the revolutionary parties had grown rapidly, the traditional reformist parties still retained the allegiance of the majority of workers. Despite these divisions, most workers instinctively felt a desire for unity in action.

Toward the united front
The united-front policy was aimed at achieving this unity in action while maintaining the political independence of the revolutionaries. In his introduction, John Riddell traces the origins of the united-front policy not to Russia, but to the struggles of the most advanced sections of the working class in Germany. The tactic had first, and successfully, been used to fight against a right-wing military coup (the Kapp Putsch) in the spring of 1920, when all the leading parties of the left called upon the working class to engage in mass strikes, demonstrations, and armed action to put down the coup. Later that year, metalworkers in Stuttgart, influenced by the German Communist party (the KPD), called on the leadership of their union to carry out a joint struggle for an improvement in living conditions. The KPD campaigned vigorously in support of this proposal and won wide support and credibility as a result. The KPD then built on this experience to generalize the call for united action in an “open letter” to all workers’ organizations.

The Fourth Congress was dedicated to generalizing and elaborating this policy throughout all the parties of the Comintern. In a meeting of the executive committee in preparation for the Fourth Congress, Trotsky prepared a report on the united front that remains to this day one of the best distillations of the policy. Though Trotsky himself played a minimal role in the Fourth Congress itself, it is worth reviewing what he wrote, as it offers an exceptionally clear framework for assessing the debates at the Congress. In his report, Trotsky laid out several guidelines that must be conceived as interdependent and inseparable parts.

First, he recognized that the primary goal is to win the majority of the working class: “The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution. In order to summon the proletariat for the direct conquest of power and to achieve it the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class. So long as it does not hold this majority, the party must fight to win it.”

This cannot be achieved by dissolving into the other working-class organizations. In order to win influence, the revolutionaries had to first form their own party. “Any members of the Communist Party who bemoan the split with the centrists in the name of “unity of forces” or “unity of front” thereby demonstrate that they do not understand the ABC of Communism and that they themselves happen to be in the Communist Party only by accident.”

However, having successfully split with the nonrevolutionary organizations, the question remained of how to influence the mass of workers who still looked to those organizations for leadership. In the partial and immediate struggles for reforms, the revolutionaries must take the initiative and must be the most vigorous in attempting to secure unity of working-class forces in these fights.

The working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers. The problem of the united front—despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organizations basing themselves on the working class—grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism. For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organization for mass action.

This means making temporary alliances with other organizations and leaders within the working class for joint action. These efforts must be sincere. They are not a maneuver to “expose” the reformist leaders, but a genuine attempt to unify the fighting ranks of the working-class in order to best develop its strength and confidence. Trotsky explains that this must mean entering into negotiations with the leaders of reformist parties.

Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders? The very posing of this question is a product of misunderstanding. If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organizations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form. The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organizations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organizations and join us.

Unity of the front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of reformist organizations, to the extent to which the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat.

Revolutionaries have only to gain from such initiatives:

The greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self-confidence rises, all the more self-confident will that mass movement be and all the more resolutely will it be capable of marching forward, however modest may be the initial slogans of struggle. And this means that the growth of the mass aspects of the movement tends to radicalize it, and creates much more favorable conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle, and, in general, the leading role of the Communist Party.

The reformist leaders are afraid of the mass struggle because it has the power to get out of their hands. They are above all committed to stability and peaceful means to secure gains for the working class within the limits of existing society. Therefore, they seek electoral alliances and union negotiations. By seeking to engage them in a united front, revolutionaries can test the different methods of struggle.

The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade-union bureau, the arbitration boards, the ministerial antechambers. . . . We are, apart from all other considerations, interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses. With a correct tactic we stand only to gain from this. A Communist who doubts or fears this resembles a swimmer who has approved the theses on the best method of swimming but dares not plunge into the water.

These efforts do not mean that unity in action will always be achieved: “But it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilability but to the lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists.”

Problems and debates around the united front
However clear Trotsky’s guidelines, in real life this process entailed many difficulties and much confusion. Within the Comintern, there did not yet exist tempered organizations with the combination of patience and dynamism necessary to successfully pursue such a policy. The Comintern was trying to create such organizations in an extremely compressed time frame. The experience of revolution had created many competing trends within the working class as it tried to find its way forward. Perhaps the biggest difficulty was that there was significant opposition based among a layer of impatient revolutionary workers who fiercely resisted compromise and negotiations. These “ultraleftists” represented a significant trend within the workers’ movement and one that exerted a significant pull on many of the party leaders; these revolutionary workers needed to be patiently argued with and won. By the time the Fourth Congress met in 1922, most though not all, agreed in theory with the idea of the united front. What this meant in practice, however, was subject to wide interpretation, and even within the leadership there existed different emphases.

At the start of the Congress, Zinoviev, a leading Russian Bolshevik and the president of the Comintern, declared that, “We can say without any exaggeration that the most urgent task of our time, and perhaps of our entire epoch, is to defeat Social Democracy, which is the most important factor in international counter-revolution and a barrier to the victorious advance of the international working class. It is on this task that our Communist parties, newly appeared on the stage, must focus their attention above all.” But in a short written greeting read during the same session, Lenin laid a very different emphasis, arguing that, “The main goal is still to win over the majority of workers.”

In an abstract sense, both of these statements are true and they reflect different aspects of the same question. But what one emphasizes in any given situation can influence how effectively the policy is pursued. In a situation in which fascism is beginning to mobilize its forces, Zinoviev’s emphasis on the dangers of social democracy can easily provide political cover for those comrades who want to abstain from a united front with the social democrats or who would equate social democracy and fascism. Again and again, delegates throughout the conference wrestled with how to get the balance right. At other points, Zinoviev himself displays an immense capacity to articulate the demands of the working class and the need for the revolutionary party to be sensitive and responsive to those. At one point he responds to a delegate who argues that they must abstain from strikes and save their strength for propaganda and revolution:

Anyone who has a feel for the working class, whose devotion to it is not merely subjective but based on some understanding of its life, who has worked in this class and with it, will reject such childishness. Precisely because we wish to struggle for proletarian revolution, we must take part in every strike, leading the way and fighting for every partial demand. We are revolutionaries. That does not mean that we are ignorant of the need to better working class conditions, be it only to the extent of a drop of milk for the children. We are against reformism, but not against bettering the lives of the working class. . . . In this sense, we view the united-front tactic as not merely a momentary occurrence, an episode, but as something that, under the given conditions of capitalism, will endure for an entire period.

Here, Zinoviev is arguing that revolutionaries must be consistent in their attempts to carry out the united-front tactic. It is not simply a set-piece demand meant to expose the reformist leaders, but a genuine policy of striving for unity in action. And yet, as you read the proceedings you can almost palpably feel the frustration of many of the delegates with the tempo of struggle and a reluctance to carry out the patient and systematic work necessary. There is a fear of getting bogged down in negotiations with the leadership of the other parties and losing the initiative. Thus, some of the delegates stress the need to create a united front “from below” and to work directly with the masses.

Ruth Fischer, a leader of the left current within the German KPD, expresses this worry in her comments: “The first error is to place too much emphasis on these sacred negotiations at the top. What is the real reason for this exaggerated emphasis, this worship of negotiations and working together with the leaders? This harbors a very dangers illusion, an illusion whose consequences lead to revision of communism and the revolution.” She worried that if the Communists spent too much time in negotiations they would lose touch with the more radical sections of the working class and miss an opportunity to propel the struggle forward. So, for example, when the social democrats (the SPD) cut off negotiations, Fischer considered this a good thing that led directly to the formation of factory councils and a more offensive phase of the struggle. For her, then, the united-front tactic is a necessary evil that should be passed through as quickly as possible.

Fischer was part of the Lefts in the German Communist Party leadership who—prodded by Karl Radek, Bela Kun, Zinoviev, and other Comintern leaders—had supported the “theory of the offensive” in 1921, a policy designed to, according to Kun, “force the development of the revolution.” In late March 1921, the German party leadership directed its members to provoke an uprising of the German working class. The majority of workers failed to heed the party’s call. CP workers tried to use force to get workers to come out on strike, calling workers who refused to support them “scabs.” Tens of thousands of workers quit the party. The theory of the united front was in part a response to the disaster of what came to be called the March Action.

Many of Fischer’s German comrades responded effectively to different aspects of her criticisms of the united front policy. Ernst Meyer argued that negotiations at the top and unity at the bottom cannot be counterposed. “Fears have been voiced that our cause has been harmed by negotiations at the top, substituting for a process carried out by the workers as a whole. Lost from view here is the fact that negotiations at the top should have no aim apart from making possible the action of the workers as a whole. . . . In many cities and districts, common work—common struggle—was made possible only when the leaderships came together to negotiate and discuss.” He argued that the factory council movement that Fischer wanted to elevate above the united-front negotiations was, in fact, only made possible as a result of that tactic: “We would never have seen a factory-council movement of this scope if we had not consistently applied the united-front tactic in order to grow closer and closer to the masses and if we had not driven ever deeper into the factories and unions and the working class masses as a whole.”

What many of the delegates insisted upon was a levelheaded and honest admission that the revolutionary forces had been weakened, that the SPD leaders still held the allegiance of large numbers of workers, and that these leaders must therefore be engaged with. Thus Karl Becker, another German delegate, pointed out that comrades were too quick to want to break off negotiations:

After an action, after any major betrayal by the Social-Democratic leaders in some united-front action, tendencies are immediately evident among entirely good comrades who say that this common action, these negotiations with the Social-Democratic leaders must be the last. From now on, we will carry out the united front only from below, they say. . . . But, so long as the leaders have masses organized behind them, we will have to continue to negotiate. We have applied these methods successfully in the factory-council movement and simultaneously organized the united front among masses.

Karl Radek put the question even more starkly:

We now know one thing in general: we are the weaker side. We face great barriers on the road to the masses; Social Democracy seeks to isolate us from its workers. When the pressure from the masses is great enough, they must negotiate with us. And, when they negotiate, we have an interest in breaking this off only at the point when we have compelled them to set the largest possible masses in motion or when it has already been clearly established for everyone that they do not want any action.

The rise of fascism
The necessity of fighting for united action was heightened by the rise of fascism in Italy. The Congress proceedings show the delegates attempting to analyze this new phenomenon. The delegate Amadeo Bordiga—the leader of the Italian Communist Party at the time—described how the fascists systematically and violently smashed all organs of working-class defense. He explained how, once these organizations were physically broken up, “the peasants and proletarian forces were now terrorized and knew that if they dared mount any kind of campaign against this group, the Fascists would repeat their expedition with much stronger forces against which no resistance was possible.”

Other speakers attempted to politically analyze what this new development represented. Nikolai Bukharin, a leading Russian Marxist theoretician, emphatically argued that fascism must be recognized as a unique development that must not be underestimated. “Fascism is not merely an organizational form that the bourgeois had in the past,” he said. “It is a newly discovered form that is adapted to the new movement by drawing in the masses. Among other things the bourgeoisie understands that it too requires a mass party. . . . It is an entirely new organizational form.” Radek attempted to develop this point by explaining how fascism’s victory rests on a new social base. It must seek out forces that “are different from those that the high ruling class can find in its own social milieu. This is achieved by turning to the layers of the middle class. . . . It recruited forces from the layers that are closest to the proletariat among those discontented because of the War.”

The fascists’ ability to mobilize a mass base, capitalize on the weakness of the socialist Left, and offer a solution, however illusory, to an exhausted and demoralized population was what led Bukharin to describe it as the greatest defeat for socialism. Many of the ideas that Trotsky was later to elaborate in his analysis of fascism in the 1930’s can be found in their initial stages in the Fourth Congress. Tragically, however, some of the worst aspects of the Stalinist response to that same period can also be found in the comments of delegates at the Congress—in particular, those of the Italian leader Bordiga.

Bordiga rejected the idea that fascism represented any new kind of organizational form. Not only did he not distinguish the program of fascism from the regular workings of bourgeois democracy, but he also said it is no more dangerous a variant of bourgeois rule than Social Democracy. He argues that their program has “merely repeated the banal themes of democracy and Social Democracy.” He underestimates the danger that fascism poses to basic democratic rights, arguing that, “It is by no means compelled to destroy the democratic institutions” and dismissively referring to democracy as “only a collection of deceptive guarantees.”

This analysis is then used to justify a somewhat stunning passivity coupled with a refusal to build any kind of united fight against the fascists. In his introduction, John Riddell describes the full magnitude of the Italian Left’s failure to mount a resistance:

Neither the CP nor the SP attempted to build a broad and effective defense against the Fascist rampage. The CP was focused on the contest with its Socialist rival, while the SP relied on the formal protections promised by a state apparatus that was, in fact, complicit in Fascist violence.

He describes how an antifascist organization, Arditi del Popolo (People’s Squads), developed independently of the parties, eventually grew to 20,000 members, and scored important successes. The Communist leadership not only refused to work with this organization but banned its members from joining, thus missing an important opportunity to build a united front. This failure is all the more shocking when one reads the description of how the Communist forces were already being attacked.

Bordiga described a moment when 100,000 fascists held Rome under occupation and the party print shop was raided. While all the editors escaped out a side door, the editor in chief was “quickly put up against the wall, in order to be shot, while Fascists drove back the crowd. Our comrade only escaped thanks to the fact that the Fascists got news that the other editors had fled over the roof and rushed up to capture them.” And yet, after this report, Bordiga told the conference that “Our party is in pretty good shape,” and reported that a leading worker believed that “we will now be able to work better than was the case before.”

Radek was forceful in his advice to the Italian CP: “It will have to mobilize the proletarian and petty-bourgeois masses against Fascism. Theoretical resolutions on the united front and reflections on Fascism are not enough. Yes, even the heroism of a small band of Communists is not enough. We must be the masses’ cry for liberation.” Tragically, this advice went unheeded and instead his stern warning turned prophetic: “If our Italian Communist friends want to have a small, pure party, I must tell them frankly that a small, pure party can be readily accommodated in prison.”

It is devastating to read these debates with historical hindsight and to know the consequences when united action wasn’t pursued. However, in 1922 the future was still balanced between revolution and counterrevolution, and there were places where Communists were scoring important successes. In Germany, where the united-front policy was most consistently pursued, the KPD was able to translate some defensive victories into a renewed working-class militancy. The balance of forces tilted back in a favorable direction as workers began to regain a sense of confidence and raise more offensive demands.

The workers’ government debate
This success posed new challenges and opportunities for the revolutionaries as they attempted to broaden and accelerate the struggle. It is in this context that the slogan of the workers’ government, a question that dominated the conference, first arose. In Germany, the development of the struggle had led to electoral successes for the social-democratic parties. But it had not yet led to the reappearance of workers’ councils (which had first emerged in 1918, but had then disappeared). The KPD faced the question of whether it would be willing to join a coalition government made up exclusively of workers’ parties. Supporters of this policy saw it as an opportunity to pursue the united front at a governmental level.

At the start of the Congress, there was widespread agreement with raising the slogan of a workers’ government. But there were both difficult tactical questions involved, particularly in Germany, as well as multiple interpretations of what the slogan even meant. Zinoviev argued that, “The workers’ government slogan is a specific and concrete application of the united front tactic under specific conditions.” But his initial formulation of the workers’ government slogan defined it as “the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a pseudonym for a soviet government. It is more comfortable for an ordinary worker, and that’s why we want to use this formula.”

This unfortunate formulation failed to satisfy anyone. The “Lefts” saw it as a pacifying slogan that sowed illusions that a parliamentary road to socialism might be possible. On the other side of the debate, the slogan’s strongest advocates believed that the “pseudonym” formulation was inadequate. They argued that a workers’ government should be distinguished both from the traditional social-democratic parliamentary approach and from the dictatorship of the proletariat (defined as a government based on soviets, or workers’ councils). Instead, they proposed that under certain circumstances a workers’ government could carry out an anticapitalist program that could become a point of departure for a mass struggle for a proletarian dictatorship.

The German delegates, who were dealing with this question in the most concrete form, were the most articulate in developing this conception and debating its nuances. Ernst Meyer made the case for the workers’ government slogan as a means to bridge the gap between a defensive common struggle of the working class and an offensive struggle for working-class power. He argues that “if this slogan is taken up and adopted by the majority of the working class, and if they launch a real struggle for this slogan, it will soon become clear that the attempt to achieve a workers’ government. . .will lead either directly to the dictatorship of the proletariat or to an extended period of very sharp class struggles”

Radek echoed this point and added that this approach was particularly necessary in the advanced countries of Europe where social-democratic traditions are much stronger. He notes that the workers’ government is not “a historic necessity but a historic possibility,” one that is “based in the fact that the worker masses in the West are not politically amorphous and unstructured, as they were in the East. They are structured in parties, and they cling to those parties.” Here, Radek recognized the challenges faced by revolutionary parties in countries where bourgeois democratic traditions had deeper roots, and where reformist parties maintained real credibility among a majority of workers. This produced a different set of problems for revolutionaries organizing in that context.

Nonetheless, Radek and others emphasize, it is important to guard against the temptation to downplay the necessity of revolutionary struggle. He argues that we can “banish this danger through the character of our agitation,” but that it would be “nonsense to reject in doctrinaire fashion the possibility of such a situation.” Nonetheless, the Comintern delegates were operating in unchartered territory when discussing this possibility. And it is clear, even from the discussion that took place, that there is much room for confusion. As Riddell points out, the debate was unfortunately complicated by the executive committee’s description of pro-capitalist governments run by workers’ parties (such as the Labour government in Britain) as a workers’ government.

However, many of the most cogent advocates of the workers’ government slogan took pains to distinguish these two conceptions. Meyer argued that, “The workers’ government differs fundamentally from a Social-Democratic government, in that it does not merely carry the label of a socialist policy but actually carried out a socialist-communist policy in life. A workers’ government will, therefore, not be parliamentary in character, or will be parliamentary only in a subordinate sense. Rather, it must be carried out by the broad masses.” In this scenario, a workers’ government would come into sharp conflict with the ruling class and a period of intensifying contradictions and struggles would ensue.

The discussion of this question was complex and contradictory and resulted in numerous revisions to the resolution on it. The final resolution incorporated a criticism of “false” or “illusory” workers’ governments, emphasized the necessity of mass struggle to underpin any workers’ government and stressed its transitional character in opening up a process of revolutionary struggle. Nonetheless, the discussion retained a degree of ambiguity. In many ways, though, this ambiguity was inherent in the situation; the Comintern delegates were responding to rapidly evolving conditions with flexibility and creativity. The Polish delegate Michalkowski (Adolf Warszawski) made a valuable contribution when he observed that:

If the Executive has not yet been able to come up with a finished formulation of this slogan, in my opinion that is because two different things are being confused. We are trying both to advance the slogan and at the same time give it a form, which is quite impossible, because the form will depend on revolutionary conditions that permit it to find a broader foundation than is possible today.

In other words, the Comintern was attempting to respond to rapidly evolving conditions while still absorbing the lessons of the previous wave of revolutionary activity. It was an enormously difficult task and the seriousness of the debates that took place at the Congress reflected this.

Tribune of the oppressed
Lenin once wrote (in What Is To Be Done?) that the revolutionary party should aim to be the tribune of the oppressed, and it is in this regard that the Comintern really broke new ground. Where the social-democratic parties of the Second International had capitulated to imperialism and national chauvinism, the Comintern retained an implacable opposition to colonialism and a defense of national democratic rights. Because of this, they won a hearing with all the world’s oppressed peoples. The challenge for the new Communist parties was to prove that they could play a leadership role in the fight for all of the exploited and oppressed. This would require serious attention and systematic work around these issues, a compelling strategy for liberation, and a sensitivity to and collaboration with existing struggles. They were not always successful in these aims, but the attempt is inspiring and far-reaching. It gives a glimpse of the possibilities that are opened up in a period of revolutionary upheaval.

Discussions at the Congress focused on women, peasants, youth, the Black struggle in the United States, and the anticolonial struggle in the East. It would be impossible to describe all of the issues taken up in these discussions. I will limit myself here to one general point and a few comments on the discussion of women’s work and the anticolonial struggle.

The proceedings of the Congress bring to life the voices of those who have been historically marginalized in the discussion of the early Communist movement. These are men and women who had great confidence in the potential of the Comintern and believed that Marxism provided the best hope for liberation. But they could also be fierce in their criticisms, confident that they brought unique insight and knowledge to the discussion, and insistent on the need for greater theoretical clarity and attention to issues of oppression. The clash of ideas and the range of experiences is sometimes dizzying, occasionally frustrating, but always hopeful. The sense of something new being born is palpable in some of these sessions.

The discussion of women’s work lasted one day, was limited to presentations without discussion, and, in many ways, feels anachronistic in today’s world. And yet, the emphasis on the need for special attention on how to bring women into the revolutionary movement retains relevance today. Clara Zetkin presented the opening speech. While she took pains to be clear that the Women’s Secretariat was not an independent organization, she did argue that attention must be paid to the specific issues facing women and that this work was most effectively carried out by women themselves:

However much Communist work among women must be firmly linked ideologically and organically to the life of the party, we nonetheless need special bodies to carry out this work. . . . There is no getting around the historical fact that the broad masses of women today still live and work under special social conditions. . . . Just as we must reckon with the specific psychology of the masses of poor peasants. . .so we must also reckon with the specific psychology of the broad masses of women.

This approach, however, encountered real resistance within the Comintern. Many felt that it was enough to involve women in the general work of the party and that special bodies were not necessary to encourage this. So, for example, the Polish party “considered it enough that the most effective women fight in the rank and file and that women be present in the mass movements and strikes.” But there were also examples of pioneering work being carried out under immensely difficult conditions. Varsenika Kasparova, a Russian delegate who was in charge of women’s work in the East, described the headway that had been made in organizing women who suffered particularly oppressive subjugation. Interestingly, she argues that where there is a broad national-liberation movement, the Communists must involve themselves in this and engage with women’s rights groups currently influenced by bourgeois nationalist leaders.

Like the comrades leading the sessions on women’s work, delegates from the East felt that they had to fight for time and attention to their issues. Thus, Manabendra Roy of India took the Congress to task for not already having taken up the Eastern question. He argued that the question “should have been taken up in connection with the capitalist offensive, for when you speak of this offensive, you should not ignore the reserves on which capitalism is based.”

The contributions of Roy, in particular, and the other delegates from the colonial and semicolonial countries, are impressive for the depth, clarity, and concreteness they lend to the discussion. While the Second Congress had affirmed the necessity of supporting the national-liberation movements against colonialism, the contributions in this discussion lent substance to this resolution and explored the complexities of the question. Roy’s comments challenge the Comintern delegates to understand the distinctions encompassed in the term “colonial and semi-colonial countries.” He insists that it is not enough simply to support the national-liberation movements, but that attention must be paid to the class character of the different struggles, the development of the national bourgeoisie, and the conflicts within its different sections, and the relationship between imperialism and an incipient local capitalism. And he foregrounds the necessity of developing the independent capacity of the working-class forces within the broader national struggle, arguing, “The time will come when these people,” refering to the bourgeois maximalists, “will surely betray the movement and become a counter-revolutionary force. We must educate the other social force, which is objectively more revolutionary, in such a way that in can shove aside the others and take the leadership.”

Many of the observations offered in these sessions anticipate future developments and these speeches deserve to be read carefully. Beyond their inherent analytical value, they show the potential for the Comintern’s understanding to be enriched by the interplay between the different parties, especially that between those of the oppressor and oppressed nations.

Assessing the Comintern
Riddell notes in his introduction that two-thirds of the Communists present at the Fourth Congress were killed in Stalin’s purges. The Fourth Congress was the last in which such a democratic exchange of views took place. Over the next decade, the Comintern would be transformed into an instrument of Stalinist foreign policy. This reality has led many to retrospectively conclude that the attempt to build a “centralized world party of revolution” was doomed to failure. But while the proceedings of the Fourth Congress painfully illustrate the difficulties involved in such an attempt, they also resist this interpretation.

Many of the central leaders of the Comintern recognized the difficulties entailed in the project. Zinoviev, speaking of the need for an “International of action, a centralized international world party” admitted that “It will take years and years to achieve this in life.” Lenin repeatedly worried that the Russian party, which had scored the greatest victories, had not learned “how to present our Russian experience to foreigners.” He spoke again and again of the need to study, to assimilate the experience of the Russian Revolution—and he understood that this could not be easily or quickly done.

And yet, reading the proceedings, one senses how linked the problems in the various countries were. The capitalist offensive, the rise of fascism, the need to build united fronts—these questions dominated the parties throughout the Comintern even if they varied in their specifics. And there were lessons being drawn rapidly that needed to be generalized. There is an urgency that, in defiance of retrospective assessment, runs through all the proceedings. Reading these discussions takes the reader back to a moment when history was still being made.

There has been much discussion of the dominance of the Russian party within the Comintern, and whether that distorted the development of the individual parties and their ability to respond to local conditions. It seems indisputable that the Bolshevik leaders enjoyed a disproportionate influence and prestige. This, however, was not the result of any arbitrary organizational power. Instead, it flowed from the success that they had achieved in leading the Russian Revolution and their ability to transmit that experience. In a wonderful passage, Clara Zetkin attributes this success to the Bolsheviks’ ability to achieve an “intimate organic connection” between themselves and the broadest masses of the population. She highlights the dynamism of this process:

This organic unity of party and masses does not consist in the rigid application of a highly mechanical schema. It is not a power imposed on the proletariat from outside. No, it is a life that pours out of the masses themselves. . .Life and activity flow in a rich alternating current from below out of the masses to the party and through a thousand visible and invisible channels back from the Party to the masses.

When Lenin urges the Congress delegates to study carefully the Russian experience, I believe it is this process that he is asking them to assimilate.

Undoubtedly, most delegates were eager to learn from this experience and were likely to give more weight to the opinions of the Russian party. At the same time, it is hardly the case that the Bolshevik leaders enjoyed uncontested authority. One of the great pleasures of reading the Congress proceedings is being introduced to some of the formidable and talented leaders who helped to shape revolutionary theory and policy in that period.

On substantive theoretical questions, there existed multiple perspectives that enjoyed influence. So, for example, it is striking that Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism seemed to be more influential for many delegates than Lenin and Bukharin’s. In the discussions of the colonial and semicolonial countries, the delegates frequently referred to her book, The Accumulation of Capital. The Dutch delegate Ravesteyn referenced how “our unforgettable pioneer and theoretician, Rosa Luxemburg provided proof in her greatest and best theoretical work that the process of capital accumulation cannot take place without a surrounding non-capitalist territory, on which it acts destructively.” The German delegate Thalheimer again argued for the centrality of Luxemburg’s theory in the debate on a program for the Comintern.

This debate over what type of program to adopt is another example of other parties challenging the leadership of the Russians. The Russian party put forward a short and more general program, whereas the Germans argued for one that was more specific both in its analysis of social democracy and an outline of potential transitional demands and stages. The German proposal seemed to enjoy widespread support, although the entire discussion was tabled at Lenin’s suggestion that more study was necessary. As mentioned previously, Roy articulated a sharp and developed analysis of the struggle in the colonial countries. The guests and delegates from the United States took the lead on developing an analysis of the role of the Black struggle. The exchange of ideas and level of debate is sharp but invigorating.

Nonetheless, for all the initiative and acumen displayed by the various representatives, it is impossible not to be struck by a certain dependence on the Russians and the Comintern Executive Committee. The presence of different factions at the Congress, and the extensive debate carried by different party representatives, is in one sense exciting. It reflects parties that are rooted in the workers’ movements in their respective countries and the various pulls that this inevitably produces. At the same time, the inability of these parties to independently assess their experiences and overcome their divisions is a sign of weakness. It is notable how often delegates speaking at the Congress seem to be appealing to the Comintern executive for approval of their views. It is clear that these are parties trying to forge new leaderships under very challenging conditions. The pressures this creates were immense and the mistakes many and, in some cases, tragic.

Ultimately, though, the Comintern project was, in Zetkin’s wonderful words, “a wager.” It was a time when, despite all defeats, people had reason to believe that history could be made by masses of ordinary people. Speaking about the Russian Revolution, Zetkin reminded delegates that, “Despite all preparations, the answer to the question, ‘victory or defeat,’ was not given in advance. The wager could not and should not have been avoided.” The same could be said about what the revolutionaries who assembled in 1922 were trying to do. By making the debates and discussions of those men and women available to us, Riddell has given us the opportunity to learn from their experiences in the hope that, given the chance, we may help tilt the balance towards victory. 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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