Gregory Zinoviev at his best
A review by John Riddell of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle, edited by Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih.(1)
The Thrilla in Halle! A ringside seat, just for you, as Gregory Zinoviev (in the red trunks) and Julius Martov (his are pale pink) duke it out before delegates of the 700,000-member Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). The stakes: should the USPD join the Communist International (Comintern)? Here at last, after 92 years, the full text of their historic speeches to the October 1920 USPD congress in Halle, Germany, translated and edited by Ben Lewis and Lars Lih.
Zinoviev’s four-hour speech provides a unique view of how the Comintern, founded the previous year, explained its character and purpose to a sceptical audience. In addition, it helps us understand Zinoviev himself, a little-studied and much-criticised figure who was the Comintern’s central leader from 1919 to 1926. The speech captivated not only his supporters but his opponents, one of whom wrote that it showed Zinoviev to be “the first orator of our century.” His efforts contributed to convincing a majority of delegates to affiliate to the Comintern. As the congress ended, the anti-Comintern minority broke away, retaining the name USPD.
Lewis and Lih round out the Zinoviev-Martov exchange with three analytic essays, two other documents by Zinoviev, the text of the Comintern’s Conditions for Admission, an extensive glossary, and an index.
Taken as a whole, the thrust of Head to Head in Halle is to rehabilitate Zinoviev’s reputation. To be sure, the editors cite Zinoviev’s flaws as a political thinker: “He lacks the depth, nuance, and sophistication of a Trotsky or a Lenin” (Lewis); Zinoviev’s writings display “anti-charisma,” “tactical errors,” and “an inability to present his views in organised form” (Lih). Still, the torrent of criticism – “no one seems to have a kind word to say about him” – seems overwrought; Lewis and Lih note evidence of Zinoviev’s high reputation among his contemporaries.
The book’s dedication to the United Opposition calls to mind Zinoviev’s role in 1926–27, together with Lev Kamenev and Leon Trotsky, in leading this bold initiative, the broadest and most concerted attempt by Bolsheviks to halt the party’s Stalinist degeneration. This effort marked the three leaders and the many thousands of Bolsheviks who supported them for execution during the years of Stalin’s frame-up purges.
James P. Cannon, a prominent leader of U.S. Communism in the 1920s, thus had good reason to comment, “I have always been outraged by the impudent pretensions of so many little people to deprecate Zinoviev, and I feel that he deserves justification before history.”(2)
More than minions
In Lewis’s view, the negative assessment of Zinoviev is rooted in a “great leader” approach to the Bolshevik party that views its leaders – apart from Lenin and perhaps Trotsky – as “mere minions.”
Specifically, Lih refutes charges that Zinoviev was “intellectually and political inconsistent.” Quite the contrary, Lih says; Zinoviev’s writings from 1918 to 1925 display a “striking and demonstrable consistency.” Zinoviev was “under the spell of the Leninist drama of hegemony, but with a decidedly populist bent.”
By “hegemony,” Lih is referring to the process through which the Bolshevik party aimed to achieve leadership over the working class as a whole and that of the working class, in turn, over the peasantry who then made up a large majority of Russia’s population.
Lih uses the word populist “in its American sense” to signify “someone who has a genuine concern for the problems of ordinary people, who has a simplistic tendency to blame those problems on the machinations of elites, and who sees full democratisation as the ultimate solution to all issues.”
Lih’s analysis is stimulating and persuasive, providing many insights not only into Zinoviev’s role but regarding key issues in early Soviet politics. Rather than pursue these questions, however, I wish to subject Zinoviev’s speech in Halle to Lih’s test of consistency: how does its content relate to Zinoviev’s narrative of Communist and working-class hegemony?
The many points made by Zinoviev at the Halle congress can be ordered into three categories: (1) Founding principles of the Comintern; (2) extensions of the Bolshevik hegemony strategy; and (3) the struggle against “Menshevism” in Germany.
Zinoviev told USPD delegates at the Halle congress that “if a split comes about [in their party], then it will be because you do not agree with us on the questions of world revolution, democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Regarding “world revolution,” Zinoviev argued that despite some setbacks, there were still good prospects for workers to win power in major European states in the near future. By “democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat,” Zinoviev referred to defence of the workers’ state in Soviet Russia and the advocacy of the example it provided for workers’ struggle in other countries.
Aspects of Zinoviev’s presentation on these points displayed both realism and flexibility:
- Zinoviev was blunt regarding conditions in Soviet Russia, which was only beginning to recover from invasion and civil war. “It really is looking bad in Russia,” he said. “There is not enough bread. In the cities, the heating and housing situation is bad.”
- Zinoviev forthrightly rejected charges that the Comintern was commanding its German supporters to take revolutionary initiatives in order to aid the Soviet state (a notion that USPD right-wingers called the “Moscow diktat”). “Do not help us, help yourselves,” Zinoviev said. “In the first instance, take care of the working classes of your own countries.”
- He also told German workers not to copy unthinkingly the forms of workers’ rule established in Russia. “Should the German working class create a different form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, then we will gladly welcome it. We have always said that things do not have to be like in Russia.”
Strategy for hegemony
Other aspects of Zinoviev’s speech present extensions of what Lih identifies as the central theme of his activity in Russia: a strategy for revolutionary leadership of all exploited and oppressed social layers. For example, Zinoviev rejected charges from the right-wing forces in the USPD that the Comintern promises too much to the peasantry. He defended land distribution to peasants and insisted on the need to form peasants’ councils. He contrasted the failure of the more inflexible policies of the short-lived revolutionary government of Hungary in 1919: “At the head of the revolution stands Béla Kun and the proletarian government. But the peasant has received nothing and hasn’t noticed that anything has changed.”
The most eloquent passages of Zinoviev’s speech take up the Comintern’s support for liberation struggles of oppressed peoples in Asia, a support that provoked sarcastic criticism from the USPD Right. Zinoviev dismissed this opposition as reflecting merely “the narrowness, the old small-mindedness, the old prejudices of the bourgeoisie which we have absorbed with our mother’s milk.” To “thunderous applause on the left,” Zinoviev presented an amended version of Marx and Engels’ celebrated appeal: “Oppressed peoples of the whole world and proletarians of all countries, unite against your exploiters!”(3)
It was in this context that Zinoviev made very brief reference to the oppression of women.
On a small and seemingly secondary point, Zinoviev extended this approach to Germany in a manner that prefigured the Comintern’s later policy of the united front. German Communists had come under attack from the USPD right-wing for favouring the recruitment to workers’ councils of members of Christian trade unions. “We definitely need to have such elements in the councils,” Zinoviev stated. “In the soviets we have the opportunity to teach them better.” This inclusive approach, he said, went hand in hand with firm opposition to the Christian union leaders’ pro-employer policies.
The struggle against German ‘Menshevism’
Yet Zinoviev rejected calls for workers’ organizations “to join together in one front against the bourgeoisie.” That would be “very good and desirable,” he said, “Yet unfortunately that is still impossible.” The barrier to unity, in his view, was the strength of German “Menshevism.” By this he meant the current within the German workers’ movement that was defending and fortifying the bourgeois state: the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the pro-SPD union leaderships, and the right wing of the USPD. He termed the trade-union component of these forces “the only real weapon that the bourgeoisie still possesses against us.”
How then was German Menshevism to be destroyed? For Zinoviev, the answer lay in drawing together in a single party all the genuine revolutionaries: those in the Communist Party (KPD), the left wing of the USPD, and the “best element” in the ultra-left Communist German Workers’ Party (KAPD), while driving out the Menshevik misleaders. With characteristic optimism, he projected winning 90% of the USPD members and most of those in the KAPD; in fact, the united Communist party created by the Halle congress included only a third of the USPD members and very few from the KAPD.
Lessons of the Kapp Putsch
Yet even had the revolutionary unification succeeded to the degree projected by Zinoviev, the resulting party would initially have been weaker than the SPD in membership, trade-union influence, and electoral support. How could it overcome the entrenched strength of SPD reformism? This question was not addressed in Zinoviev’s speech or in the Halle congress as a whole. Perhaps engaging with this issue was simply impossible. How could Zinoviev advocate a united front with the right USPD forces while helping to drive through a split in the party? Perhaps the revolutionary forces had to break away first, establish their own party, and only then consider the policies necessary to achieve workers’ unity in struggle.
Nonetheless, the question of workers’ unity in struggle had already been posed in life, seven months before the Halle congress, in the events surrounding the Kapp Putsch, an attempt by right-wing forces to impose a military dictatorship. In Germany, the debate on workers’ unity was already under way.
Zinoviev’s description of German Social Democracy as the main buttress of bourgeois rule applied fully to the initial months after the German November Revolution of 1918, when the authority of the bourgeois state had been shattered. It was the SPD, assisted by the USPD, that rebuilt the fundaments of bourgeois rule: the army, the police, the state administration, through a brutal war against revolutionary workers.
But in the process, the bourgeoisie acquired some buttresses of its own and grew less reliant on the SPD. In March 1920, rightist forces in the German army revolted against the government and seized the capital. The army high command folded its arms, refusing to oppose the coup. The Social Democratic trade-union leadership headed by Carl Legien called a general strike, which was massively effective. Workers seized control in strategic areas. The coup was quickly overturned. Workers’ unity then broke down, and the rightists regained much of the ground they had lost.
Following the Kapp events, a debate broke out within the Comintern as to their meaning. Béla Kun and his co-thinkers considered the unity of Social Democratic and revolutionary organisations during the Kapp events to have been a weakness; KPD leader Paul Levi and his co-thinkers viewed it as a strength. (See my “The Origins of United Front Policy”)
In his Halle speech, Zinoviev made only one passing reference to the Kapp events, as follows: “Who saved the bourgeoisie during the Kapp putsch, when all the working class parties failed? Was it not the trade union leaders led by Legien?” Zinoviev’s comment was both misleading and enigmatic, and he did not develop it further. On the face of it, his words suggested a tilt to Béla Kun’s viewpoint.
After the Halle congress, the USPD Left and the KPD joined to form the United Communist Party (VKPD). Lack of clarity on the lessons of the Kapp experience came back to haunt the new party. Supporters of Béla Kun’s adventurist views, with encouragement from Zinoviev, took the leadership of the VKPD. In March 1921, they led the party to a disastrous defeat that destroyed much of what had been gained through the fusion.
Zinoviev’s adaptation to an ultraleft course in 1920-21 seems to me to be inconsistent with the commitment to the “Leninist drama of hegemony” identified by Lih. In fact, none of the main figures in the Comintern executive at that time show evidence of shaping their actions in the light of Bolshevik experience. Zinoviev and his colleagues seem rather to be responding to stimuli from the front lines of struggle in Central Europe. The Bolsheviks’ rich experience in working for working-class unity in struggle, which Zinoviev knew so well, was not brought into play – not until the intervention of Lenin and Trotsky at the Comintern’s Third World Congress in July-August 1921, by which time the damage could no longer be made good.
In summary, it is a many-sided Zinoviev that we encounter at the Halle congress: often brilliant, sometimes superficial, occasionally misleading. Although flawed, his role at the Halle congress was among his finest achievements. Publication of Head to Head in Halle is thus an important step toward gaining a balanced view of the Comintern’s first president.
As Ben Lewis suggests, a better knowledge of Zinoviev helps us understand the Bolshevik Party as a whole and “its role in developing articulate, dedicated leaders.” Large-scaled in both their abilities and their weaknesses, the Bolshevik leaders, including Zinoviev, complemented each other as part of an effective team, whose collective capacity to unleash the creative power of working people still inspires us today.
This article was first printed in the June 21, 2012, issue of the Weekly Worker, a publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Related Articles on This Website
- The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back
- The Origins of the United Front Policy
- Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front
- Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih,, eds., Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle, London: November Publications, 2011, 229 pp., £ 14.
- James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973, pp. 186–87. Also available at Marxists.org.
- Zinoviev was repeating comments in his summary speech to the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, held the previous month. See John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1993. The slogan originated in the Soviet publication Narody Vostoka (Peoples of the East). For Lenin’s endorsement of it, see V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow: Progress, 1960-71, vol. 31, pp. 453, or go to “Lenin Speech at a Meeting of Activists December 6 1920.”