A school of revolutionary strategy

The Comintern’s Third Congress

Introductory note
Shortly after the conclusion of the Communist International’s Third Congress, Leon Trotsky termed the 1921 gathering a “school of revolutionary strategy.”1To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International—to be published in paperback by Haymarket Books in February 2016—shows the accuracy of Trotsky’s assessment.

Strategic demands have a long history within the revolutionary workers movement. The basic Marxist approach was first presented in the Communist Manifesto, which outlined revolutionary measures that communists were putting forward on the eve of the revolutions of 1848. Marx and Engels returned to this perspective in later years, as well.2

In the decades surrounding the dawn of the twentieth century, world capitalism was in full ascendancy. Within the socialist movement during these years, prospects for revolution seemed remote to many. In this context a gap developed between the declared goals of the socialist movement—the taking of political power by the proletariat—and the strategy and tactics needed to get there.3 This gap eventually widened to the point that, with the onset of World War I, a definitive split took place between revolutionary and opportunist forces, as the Second International’s leadership rejected revolutionary change even as a far-off goal. 

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks helped revive the Marxist tradition on this question, exemplified by Lenin’s “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It.”4 That document set forth a number of transitional demands in the situation facing the working class of Russia on the eve of the October Revolution.

Following the Russian revolutionary victory and the end of World War I, a powerful revolutionary wave swept over Europe and much of the world. The force of this wave was such that in two places—Hungary and Bavaria—the working class was briefly swept into power without the communist forces having a clear conception of how they got there or what they should be doing.

In the midst of this upsurge, the Communist International held its foundation congress in Moscow in March 1919, raising the banner of the worldwide fight for soviet power. A year later, the Comintern’s Second Congress set forth the new International’s basic program and outlined the type of party the working class needed. At the time, prospects still appeared bright for imminent revolutionary victory.

Within months after the Second Congress, however, it became clear that the revolutionary wave was receding. No longer would it be possible for any communist to realistically conceive of the working class winning power without a strategic vision and tactical knowhow. For that reason this question of strategy was at the center of the Communist International’s Third Congress in mid-1921. As Leon Trotsky explained shortly after the gathering ended:

The art of tactics and strategy, the art of revolutionary struggle can be mastered only through experience, through criticism and self-criticism. At the Third World Congress we told the young Communists: “Comrades, we desire not only heroic struggle, we desire first of all victory…. Of course, every struggle does not lead to victory. Defeats are inescapable. But these defeats must not come through the fault of our party. Yet we have seen many manifestations and methods of struggle, which do not and cannot lead to victory, for they are dictated time and time again by revolutionary impatience and not by political sagacity.5

At the Third Congress, the question of strategy and tactics was sharply posed by several events in the class struggle in Europe. One of the most significant was the March Action in Germany—an attempt by Communists there to turn a defensive proletarian battle into a general strike and revolutionary uprising through the determined efforts of a working-class minority. The adventure failed and the German proletariat and communist movement suffered a major defeat.

What was especially dangerous for the communist movement internationally was the effort by the March Action’s supporters to generalize that experience into a “theory of the revolutionary offensive.” The heart of this conception was the belief that a dedicated minority, through its own initiatives, could spark the working class into revolutionary action.

At the congress Lenin and Trotsky led a fight against this theory and the assumptions underlying it, eventually winning the congress over to their view. In the process, the Third Congress was compelled to grapple with the question of strategy and the transitional method, making a lasting contribution to revolutionary socialist practice. The full record of this discussion and the resolutions coming out of it can be found in the recently published edition of the congress proceedings.

Excerpts from “Resolution on Tactics and Strategy,” and the report to the congress on it by Karl Radek appear below.6

The question of transitional strategy and demands was also taken up and expanded upon at the Comintern’s Fourth Congress in November 1922.7 But at the Fifth Congress in 1924—the congress marking the beginning of the Comintern’s degeneration and Stalinization—the perspective of transitional strategy was largely abandoned.8 Subsequently, the strategic contributions of the early Comintern were upheld and defended by the International Left Opposition and Fourth International, codified in the Transitional Program drafted by Trotsky in 1938.

Mike Taber and John Riddell

From “Resolution on Tactics and Strategy”
The Communist parties can develop only through struggle. Even the smallest Communist parties cannot limit themselves to mere propaganda and agitation. In all the proletariat’s mass organisations they must be a vanguard that, by pressing for struggle for all the proletariat’s vital necessities, demonstrates how the struggle should be carried out, thus exposing the traitorous character of the non-Communist parties. Only if the Communists are able to take the lead in and promote all the proletariat’s practical struggles will they be able to actually win broad masses of the proletariat for a struggle for its dictatorship. 

All the Communist parties’ agitation and propaganda, indeed all their work, must be imbued with the consciousness that no enduring improvement in the conditions of the masses is possible in a capitalist framework. Steps to improve working-class conditions and to reconstruct an economy devastated by capitalism can be taken only by overthrowing the bourgeoisie and smashing the capitalist state. But this insight must not lead to any postponement of the struggle for the proletariat’s immediate and urgent necessities of life until the time when it is capable of erecting its dictatorship. 

The present period is one of capitalist decay and collapse, a time when capitalism is no longer capable of assuring workers of even the life of a well-fed slave. The Social Democracy advances the old Social Democratic program of peaceful reforms, carried out on the basis and in the framework of bankrupt capitalism, through peaceful means. This is conscious deception of the working masses. Not only is decaying capitalism incapable of providing the workers with relatively humane living conditions, but the Social Democrats and reformists show every day, in every country, that they do not intend to conduct any type of struggle for even the most modest reforms contained in their programme. 

The demand for socialisation or nationalisation of the most important industries, advanced by the centrist parties,10 is equally deceptive. The centrists mislead the masses by seeking to convince them that all the most important branches of industry can be torn out of the grip of capitalism without the defeat of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, they seek to divert the workers from the real, living struggle for their immediate needs through hope that branches of industry can be taken over, one after another, ultimately creating the basis for “planned” economic construction.

In this fashion, they go back to the Social Democratic minimum program for reforming capitalism, which has been transformed into an obvious counterrevolutionary fraud. Some of the centrists advance a program to nationalise the coal industry, for example, in part as an expression of [Ferdinand] Lassalle’s concept that all the proletariat’s energies should be focused on a single demand, in order to convert it into a lever for revolutionary action, whose progress would lead to a struggle for power. What we have here is empty schematism. The working class in all the capitalist states suffers today from so many and such terrible scourges that it is impossible to concentrate the struggle against all these oppressive burdens that weigh it down by focusing on some formula dreamed up in doctrinaire fashion. 

The task, by contrast, is to take all the masses’ interests as the starting point for revolutionary struggles that only in their unity form the mighty river of revolution. The Communist parties do not propose a minimum programme for these struggles, one designed to reinforce and improve the rickety structure of capitalism. Instead, destruction of this structure remains their guiding goal and their immediate task. But to achieve this task, the Communist parties have to advance demands whose achievement meets an immediate, urgent need of the working class, and fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the capitalist profit system.

Communist parties direct their concern not to the viability and competiveness of capitalist industry or the resilience of capitalist finance but to the dimensions of a deprivation that the proletariat cannot bear and should not have to bear. Demands should express the needs experienced by broad proletarian masses, such that they are convinced they cannot survive unless these demands are achieved. If that is the case, the struggles for these demands will become starting points for the struggle for power. 

In place of the minimum program of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the specific demands of the proletariat, as part of a system of demands that, in their totality, undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat, and mark out the different stages of the struggle for proletarian dictatorship. Each of these demands gives expression to the needs of the broad masses, even when they do not yet consciously take a stand for proletarian dictatorship.

The struggle for these demands to meet the masses’ essentials of life needs to embrace and mobilise broader and broader numbers. It must be counterposed to defence of the essentials of life for capitalist society. To the extent that this is done, the working class will become aware that for it to live, capitalism must die. This awareness provides the basis for a determination to struggle for [proletarian] dictatorship. Communist parties have the task of broadening, deepening, and unifying the struggles that develop around such specific demands.

Every partial action undertaken by the working masses in order to achieve a partial demand, every significant economic strike, also mobilises the entire bourgeoisie, which comes down as a class on the side of the threatened group of employers, aiming to render impossible even a limited victory by the proletariat (“Emergency Technical Assistance,”11 bourgeois strikebreakers in the British railway workers’ strike, Fascists). The bourgeoisie mobilises the entire state apparatus for the struggle against the workers (militarisation of the workers in France and Poland, state of emergency during the miners’ strike in Britain). The workers who are struggling for partial demands will be automatically forced into a struggle against the bourgeoisie as a whole and its state apparatus.

To the extent that struggles for partial demands and partial struggles by specific groups of workers broaden into an overall working-class struggle against capitalism, the Communist Party must escalate its slogans and generalise them to the point of calling for the enemy’s immediate overthrow. In advancing such partial demands, the Communist parties must take care that these slogans, anchored in the needs of the broad masses, do not merely lead them into struggle but are also inherently demands that organise the masses. 

All specific slogans that arise from the economic needs of the working masses must be steered toward a struggle for control of production—not as a scheme for bureaucratic organisation of the economy under capitalism, but as a struggle against capitalism through factory councils and revolutionary trade unions. Building such organisations and linking them according to branches and centers of industry is the only way to organisationally unify the struggle of the working masses and resist the splitting of the masses by Social Democracy and the trade-union leaders. The factory councils can carry out these tasks only if they arise from struggle for economic goals shared by the broadest masses of workers, only if they create links among all revolutionary sectors of the proletariat—between the Communist parties, the revolutionary workers, and the trade unions that are evolving in a revolutionary direction.

Objections against raising such partial demands and accusations of reformism based on partial struggles express the same incapacity to grasp the living conditions for revolutionary action. This weakness was also expressed when certain Communist groups opposed participation in the trade unions and parliamentary activity. The task is not to summon the proletariat for the final struggle but to intensify the actual struggle, the only factor that can lead the proletariat to the struggle for the final goal. The objections to partial demands are groundless and alien to the requirements of revolutionary activity. This is demonstrated conclusively by the fact that even small organisations formed by the so-called Left Communists as places of refuge for their pure teachings have been required to advance partial slogans in an attempt to attract larger numbers of workers into the struggle than those immediately around them or to take part in the struggle of broader masses in the hopes of influencing them. 

The revolutionary essence of the present period consists precisely in the fact that even the most modest subsistence needs of the working masses are incompatible with the existence of capitalist society. It follows that even the struggle for quite modest demands expands into a struggle for communism.

From “Report on Tactics and Strategy” by Karl Radek
Comrades, I am not able to take up here all the questions that are outlined briefly in the theses, questions that you will be able to develop critically and pursue further in the discussion. Allow me to turn, in this last portion of my report, to the slogans for partial struggle, for actions that are approaching and that we will work for—the slogans we will utilise in working through these struggles. That is a field where we need only formulate what we have very often said in our theoretical discussions and our activity. The task here is to work out clearly the differences between the minimum programme of the Social Democracy, the action program of the centrists, and the slogans of the Communist International.

Comrades, you all remember very well the old program of the Social Democracy. It counted on capitalism existing for a long time. It worked out a system of demands for this period that was to improve the lot of the working class and protect it against capitalism’s tendency to drive it downwards. Rosa Luxemburg once characterised the true function of the Social Democratic programme in a polemic with Sombart by saying, “Actually, we are only struggling to ensure that labour power, as a commodity, is sold for its real price, and that the worker receives a wage permitting him to reproduce his labour power.” Karl Marx put it this way in his “Critique of the Gotha Programme”:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Now the [Gotha] program deals neither with this nor with the future state of communist society.

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s Party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands, which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been implemented. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.

What Marx says here with regard to the Gotha programme applies to all Social Democratic programs. Of course, certain characteristic features are unique to the Gotha program, but basically this applies to every minimum program of Social Democracy. It advanced demands that could be realised within capitalist society. Their revolutionary effect arose from the fact that even these demands, which were realisable and essential to the working class, were rejected again and again by capitalist society. 

Social Democracy today still rests on the foundation of this program. It is poking about in the ruins of the capitalist world economy, while the forces that push the proletariat toward the abyss, threatening every day to shove it over the edge, are trying to awaken the impression that they are working diligently to shore up this collapsing shack. The German historian Dahlmann once said, in his history of the English Revolution, that the reform of a collapsing house is its collapse.12But the Social Democracy is deliberately trying to trick the proletariat with its game about reforms. The German Social Democracy tries to sanctify all its betrayals and deceit through clauses of its program, just as the German general staff uses clauses of its regulations to sanctify the horrors of war.

The centrists try to create the impression that they do not accept the Social Democratic approach to program, and so far they have not proposed a minimum program anywhere. They claim to stand for social revolution and to advance only action demands that can be achieved in the process of social revolution. What is the centrists’ real position? This can best be seen in two countries, Germany and Britain—in Germany, through the action program of the Independents [Independent Social Democratic Party], and in Britain, through the stand of the ILP [Independent Labour Party] on the question of the mines. Here is what these two parties proposed.

In the sixties, Lassalle told the proletariat, “You should concentrate your energies on a single point of attack. Do not look left or right, but rather ask every party and every individual where they stand regarding universal suffrage.”13 Now the centrists tell us that democracy has been achieved, that the issue is not the universal right to vote, for the burning issues are now economic in character. The question is how we can tear the factories and mines out of the capitalists’ hands. Now they tell us that the most important area is heavy industry, which in turn is based on the question of coal. And so they draft a seemingly revolutionary plan to concentrate proletarian action on nationalising the British coalmines and on socialization in Germany. This plan specifies how the proletariat can win support from layers of the petty bourgeoisie that suffer from the rising price of coal and even from the manufacturing industry that suffers from the private monopoly in coal production. They plan how the proletariat will launch the struggle to socialise the coal­mines. They say that if this struggle leads to major clashes, these clashes will be the starting point for revolution. 

You can find this silliness in Rudolf Hilferding’s pamphlet,14 and of course the USPD press talks about it interminably. Considering this proposal, we find that it involves nothing other than fleeing from the genuine struggles into the blessed land of well-laid plans. Why was Lassalle able to focus workers’ energy on the issue of universal suffrage? The working class was gagged, and the first thing that could help release it from these restraints was the right to vote. Whether they were beaten by policemen, mistreated by judges, or exploited by capitalists, the right to vote provided a lever with which to better their condition. Lassalle linked this question to issues affecting workers’ stomachs and with the financing of cooperatives, which, it was then supposed, would be the salvation of the petty-bourgeois proletariat. Today the working class is bleeding from a thousand wounds. It is completely utopian to think that the proletariat can be focused on a struggle for socialization—in reality, the nationalisation—of the coal industry, even if only for a few months. The example of Britain shows how impossible this is.

In 1919 the British coal miners’ union, led by Smillie, carried out an excellently conducted large-scale campaign to draw the attention of the British working class and British public opinion to this issue. Let me remind you of the coal commission’s public hearings in which Smillie conducted a war against the coal barons—a war before a commission of inquiry, aimed at teaching the British working class the basic concepts of political economy.15 Let me remind you that the coal miners’ union carried out an agitational campaign in exemplary fashion, and even so it was not possible to keep workers, assailed as they are by a thousand other issues, focused on this campaign. The struggle for nationalisation in Britain has now retreated to the background of political struggle. It did not play the same role in the big strike that it had in 1919. The centrists pretend to be planning the organisation of the revolution, but in reality they are setting up a screen behind which they bring in the old Social Democratic program.

As Communists, our position on slogans is different from what it was in 1918. I recall the speech of Rosa Luxemburg on program at the founding convention of the [German] Communist Party. Here is what she said: 

Comrades, that is the general foundation for the programme that we are adopting officially today and whose draft you have of course read in the pamphlet “What the Spartacus League Wants.” It is deliberately counterposed to the conception that underlay the old Erfurt Program,16 that is, the division between immediate, so-called minimum demands for political and economic struggle and, on the other hand, the ultimate goal of socialism as the maximum program. In deliberate contrast to that, we are settling accounts with the last seventy years of development, and of the World War’s immediate outcome in particular, when we say we no longer have a minimum and maximum programme. Socialism is both at the same time—it is the minimum that we have to accomplish today.17

And what did Rosa Luxemburg propose as a minimum? All power to the workers’ councils, arm the proletariat, cancel state debts, seize ownership of the factories, and so on.

What was the situation when this programme was adopted? The workers’ councils were the supreme power in Germany. Formally speaking, the working class held power. The task of the Spartacus League consisted precisely in telling the workers’ councils what the nature is of working-class power—nothing more than that.

Obviously we are not in such a situation today. The bourgeoisie holds power. The first onslaught of the working class, during the period of demobilising the army, was beaten off. The proletarian revolution is only now growing again. And we cannot promote this proletarian revolution, we cannot organise it, if we advance only the bare program of the dictatorship of the proletariat. When workers are striking, because they have nothing with which to feed themselves tomorrow, we cannot come and tell them, “Take the factories.” If they were able to do that, they would already be engaged in a struggle for power. We have to point out to them, of course, that they cannot gain any lasting improvement in their situation unless we win power and take possession of the factories. But we must link up with what they are struggling for right now.

Here we must say that the Communist International is not capable of adopting a program whose various clauses speak to all these needs. The Communist International can only give its parties the following thoughts on method, which they must then translate into demands, based on their specific situation. The first of these thoughts is that when we say that there can be no enduring improvement in working-class conditions without the taking of power, it is absurd to counterpose this to the actual struggles of the proletariat. 

In response to our Open Letter,18 the KAPD writes: “You lame brains! First you sit down at a table with scoundrels like Scheidemann, and then you advance reformist slogans. Do you not know that even if workers now earn forty to fifty marks, the prices will rise again tomorrow? You are deliberately raising unrealisable demands.” 

Our answer to this is: “You can never win a single worker for communism in this fashion. If the worker is able to give his children a little piece of meat tomorrow, or the next day, because his wages have been raised by five marks, then we must fight together with him for these five marks. Rather than worrying that we may be reforming the capitalist state, we should focus instead on the fact that we are helping the worker in this struggle, and we will lead him beyond this struggle to other, heightened struggles.”

Here is our second point: of course we have many demands that we try to achieve when conditions are favourable, and around which we group all our other demands. These are demands that the working class advances in struggle in order to organize and stimulate this struggle. First of all, we must seek to lead all these struggles around wage increases, working hours, and unemployment toward the intermediate goal of control of production. By this we do not mean the system of production control that the government has introduced through a law setting down that from now on the proletariat must take care that the capitalist does not steal, and the capitalist must take care that the worker works.19 Control of production means educating through proletarian struggle, establishing elected factory councils, and linking them in struggle locally and regionally by industry. 

If we succeed in seeing to it that the working class forms such organisations in these struggles in an autonomous, independent fashion, or transforms the bogus organizations granted them by the government, it becomes possible to unite the workers organizationally for major struggles. Those who wish to restrict the organizations only to workers who are already conscious and revolutionary are quite mistaken. When the need is posed to end capitalist sabotage and to get an entire industry functioning again, such slogans can unite broad masses that are not Communists, whom we need, and whom we will lead, through this unity, to further struggles. 

The second slogan that we should always keep in mind and that we should try to realize in every crisis is arming the proletariat and disarming the bourgeoisie. We do not mean arming the proletariat only in a secret combat organisation of a small minority. In every field where we are active, we need to urge the masses to demand disarmament of the white bands. We must instil in the masses a determination to have arms. We must pose this demand to the government in every struggle. 

We could name many such slogans. I will not do that; they arise from the struggle itself. What I am saying and what we propose as a slogan and a general guideline is that in all the struggles of the proletariat we must not counterpose ourselves in doctrinaire fashion to what the masses are fighting for. Rather we must make the struggles of the masses for their immediate needs more acute and broaden them, teaching the workers to develop a greater need—the need to take possession of power. 

Comrades, we realize that the parties need to compare what they are doing in this field and exchange their experiences. So far, this has not been done. So far, the parties have not forwarded their programs to the Communist International, and the exchange of agitational and organizational experiences among us has been quite limited. When this exchange takes place, this will enable us to create a specific system of actions and transitional demands. Their characteristic feature is that they aim not at refashioning capitalism but at heightening the struggle against capitalism. This is not the minimum program of the social patriots. Nor is it a specific program regarding what our dictatorship will do on the day of its victory. It comprises all the demands that mobilize the broad masses for the struggle for this dictatorship.

  1.  Trotsky, “A School of Revolutionary Strategy.” From The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume 2. On Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky....
  2.  See “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany” in chapter two of the Communist Manifesto. Available on Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo.... For a later example by Marx and Engels, see “Critique of the Gotha Program,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  3.  On this question see August Thalheimer’s report on program to the Communist International’s Fourth Congress. In Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 510.
  4.  In Lenin Collected Works, vol. 25, 323-69. Available on Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/w....
  5.  Trotsky, “A School of Revolutionary Strategy.”
  6.  To the Masses, 935-39; 436-42. Karl Radek was one of the central leaders of the Russian Communist Party assigned to work in the Comintern.
  7.  See the debate on the Comintern’s program, in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 479-527.
  8.  The proceedings of the Comintern’s Fifth Congress can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/126289858/1924.... See in particular Zinoviev’s report from the Executive Committee in session 3.
  9.  The text of the Transitional Program can be found at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky....
  10.  At the time, centrist parties had broken from the openly reformist organizations of the Second International and formed a body that became known derisively as the “Two-and-a-Half International.”
  11.  Emergency Technical Assistance (Technische Nothilfe) was an organisation of strikebreakers formed by the German government in September 1919.
  12.  A reference to The History of the English Revolution by the German liberal historian, Friedrich Dahlmann. 
  13.  Ferdinand Lassalle was a champion of universal manhood suffrage at a time when German liberals preferred a limited, property-based suffrage that excluded the working class. 
  14.  Hilferding, Der Weg zum Sozialismus, 1919.
  15.  In September 1919 the British miners’ union secured the near-unanimous backing of the Trades Union Congress for a mass campaign to fight for nationalization of the coalmines. 
  16.  The Erfurt Program, adopted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1891, was viewed as a model for parties of the Second International. For the text, see: www.marxists.org/history/international/s...
  17.  . A version of this speech, “Our Program and the Political Situation,” can be found at https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxembu.... Luxemburg’s speech was given the month following the German Revolution of November 1918 that had overthrown the monarchy and created a national system of workers’ councils.
  18.  On 8 January 1921 the German Communist Party issued an open letter to other German workers’ organizations, calling for united action around the immediate demands of the workers’ movement. The text can be found in To the Masses, 1061-3. At the end of 1921, the Comintern codified this approach in the perspective of the united front.
  19.  In March 1919 the Social Democratic-led German government had adopted a law calling for the socialization of certain industries. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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