Ian Birchall on Fourth Congress: ‘Grappling with the united front’
The following review takes up the recently published proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, held in 1922. Ian Birchall is a Marxist historian and longtime member of the British Socialist Workers Party. The review first appeared in International Socialism #135 (June 2012) under the title, “Grappling with the United Front,” and is reprinted by permission. Subheadings have been added. – JR
By Ian Birchall. A review of John Riddell (ed), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Brill, 2012); publication pending by Haymarket Books.
Why, 90 years on, study the detailed proceedings of the Communist International (often known as the Comintern)?1 Many years ago, when I was young, it was common to find orthodox Trotskyists who claimed they based their politics on “the first four congresses of the Comintern”. (You can probably still find such people in the remoter reaches of the Trotskyist blogosphere.) A position that made some sense in the 1930s, when Trotskyists were insisting that there was a clear break between Lenin and Stalin, became less and less relevant as both capitalism and the working class went through enormous changes.
But if such a scriptural approach to the Comintern is misguided, so too is the opposite position, summed up in George Galloway’s famous warning that we should stop talking about “dead Russians”. The years following the Russian Revolution represented the highest level of working class struggle and organisation yet seen, and if we study them carefully, without trying to read off simple slogans or directives, they can be of great value.
So we should be very grateful to John Riddell and his team of collaborators for making available, for the first time in a full English version, the minutes of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern.2 Probably few people, other than dedicated reviewers, will read this volume cover to cover—it’s a bit like reading the collected scripts of a soap opera with a bewilderingly large cast. But for anyone seeking to understand the history of the 20th century it will be an invaluable work of reference, and no library with pretensions to serious historical coverage should be without it.3
The Fourth Congress took place from 5 November to 5 December 1922. To understand its wide-ranging and sometimes heated debates it is necessary to place them in historical context.4 The International had been founded in 1919, amid hopes that the Russian Revolution would spread rapidly to other countries in Europe. But short-lived Communist regimes in Hungary and Bavaria were crushed, and capitalism was beginning to stabilise itself. The failure to seize revolutionary opportunities was beginning to exact a heavy price. As RH Tawney pointed out, onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw. And if you do try to pull a tiger’s claws out, it gets very angry indeed.
So by 1922 the ruling class was on the offensive. It wanted to reverse the gains made in the preceding years and, even more important, to reassert its political hegemony and to frighten the working class into subjection. In Yugoslavia Communist publications were banned and Communists jailed; French strikers were shot down in Le Havre. In Germany employers were determined to extend the working day from eight to ten hours (reversing the one real gain of the 1918 Revolution). Just days before the congress Mussolini had become Italian prime minister after the March on Rome. France, having imposed an intolerable burden of reparations on the defeated Germany, was preparing to occupy the Ruhr region.
So the delegates who assembled in Moscow (after an opening ceremony in Petrograd to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution) faced a grim prospect, but one that was not without hope. Capitalism was still in deep crisis and it seemed as though revolutionary hopes had merely been temporarily postponed.
There is much about the congress that can appear very remote—the long set speeches, often employing a rather abstract rhetoric that belongs to a different age. But this was not a wholly stage-managed conference, as is clear from various clashes and confrontations. Minority positions within various parties were put before the congress. And there is a familiar feel to the way the chairs were constantly trying to keep to the agenda and prevent speakers going on beyond their time limit. When told that his time was up, the delegate from the Dutch Indies (Indonesia), Tan Malaka, simply replied, “I come from the Indies; I travelled for 40 days,” and went on speaking.5
Challenge of bold action
Sometimes the optimism of the delegates seems excessive, as when Zinoviev (the Comintern’s president) declared, “What we are now experiencing is not one of capitalism’s periodic crises but the crisis of capitalism, its twilight, its disintegration”.6 But we should beware of the “condescension of posterity”. These delegates were tough women and men who had lived through an exceptionally demanding decade. If they believed that success was still within their grasp, then we should not let our retrospective knowledge of impending defeat make us dismiss that testimony.
The delegates were well aware of the seriousness of the situation, and that their decisions could make all the difference between victory and catastrophic defeat. There was no place for either fatalism or voluntarism. As Clara Zetkin reminded them, the Bolshevik conquest of power in 1917 had been based on a wager, with no guarantee of success. So she urged them, “Weigh the situation carefully, to be sure, but, in the process of weighing, do not forget to wager. Weighing must be the basis and preparation for wagering”.7
And in a later speech she anticipated chaos theory in urging the delegates to see what bold action could achieve:
Society is objectively ripe, indeed overripe, for capitalism to be swept away and overthrown… But, sisters and brothers, this historical situation is like a landscape in the Alps, where great masses of snow lie stored on high peaks, which have defied all storms for centuries and seem ready to defy the influence of sun, rain, and tempests for several hundred years to come. Yet, despite all appearances, they are hollowed out, brittle and “ripe” to come cascading down.
It may be enough for a little bird to move its pinions and touch these snows with the tip of its wings, to bring the avalanche into motion and bury the valleys down below.8
The congress brought together around 350 delegates from 61 countries, an indication of how the movement had grown in the five years after 1917. That the congress was politically dominated by the Russians is scarcely surprising—they were the only ones who had successfully made and maintained a revolution, though Zinoviev was perhaps excessively confident of his ability to pronounce on all aspects of the Comintern’s work. Many delegates confined themselves to what they knew, their own local situation, and thus failed to address the questions of overall strategy that confronted the movement.
‘Accumulating experience and capacity for judgement’
But there were delegates who showed that the movement was accumulating experience and a capacity for judgement. Alfred Rosmer from France (who would be expelled from the French Communist Party two years later) spoke with passion moderated by sober realism. Clara Zetkin showed herself to be the most level-headed member of the young and divided German party.9 The Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay attended and spoke, and Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, contributed thoughts on methods of agitation. Antonio Gramsci was present, but unfortunately, given some of the confusion about the Italian situation,10 did not speak. He was a member of a commission on Egypt, and was elected to the Comintern’s new Executive Committee.
There is one notable absentee—JV Stalin. It may seem surprising that in this bulky volume of over 1,200 pages there are just two references to Stalin. But Stalin always despised the International and took little or no part in its activities.11
The congress covered a range of topics, among them economic perspectives, the impact of the Versailles Treaty, the oppression of women, black workers in the US, cooperation with Muslims and attitudes to Pan-Islamism, trade union work and the internal difficulties of the French and Czechoslovak parties. The Comintern was still largely limited to Europe, and it had only just begun to develop organisations in Africa and Asia, still largely subjected to European colonialism. The advance of Communism was not assisted by the fact that in North Africa Communist organisation tended to be dominated by settlers of European origin who at times espoused openly racist positions.
Thus a Tunisian postal worker, Tahar Boudengha, quoted at some length from a resolution adopted by a settler-dominated Communist conference in North Africa, which stated:
The native population of North Africa can only be liberated by the revolution in France. The native masses have been subjugated for centuries in a status of half-slavery. They are fanatical and fatalistic, patient and resigned, oppressed and imbued with religious prejudices. At this time, they still cannot imagine their liberation… It is entirely unnecessary to publish calls to rebellion in our press or distribute Arabic-language leaflets.12
United front: ‘central theme of the congress’
But the central theme of the congress, which recurred under various headings, was the united front. Since it had become clear that the first revolutionary wave would not lead to victory, the Comintern had recognised the need for a more defensive strategy. And that meant unity in action with the reformist organisations that still retained the loyalty of the majority of workers in most countries.
The united front was not spun out of the skulls of the Comintern’s leaders. It was born of the experience of workers in Germany: in late 1920 Stuttgart metal-workers had formulated defensive demands taken up in early 1921 in the “Open Letter” of the German Communist Party to other workers’ organisations.13 Already the Third Congress in 1921 had begun the turn towards the united front strategy with the slogan “To the masses”, and later that year the Comintern Executive had adopted the policy of the united front.
But it was not an easy turn to make. Many Communist parties had come into being only a couple of years earlier from splits in mass reformist organisations. Such splits had of necessity often been lively and acrimonious affairs. It was not always easy to convince militants who had just been through such a split that they should seek united action with those they had so recently been denouncing. There were obvious dangers of opportunism on the one side and sectarianism on the other; as the German delegate Edwin Hoernle put it, “I would like to compare the united front with a narrow mountain ridge. I tell you that it is slippery and the way is narrow”.14
Hence there were many opponents of the united front strategy—on the one hand ultra-lefts for whom proclamation of the Communist ideal was all that was needed, but on the other right wing elements who had their own factional reasons.15 As Richard Schüller of the youth international pointed out, there was an old slogan in the movement: “First clarity, then majority”.16 Some Communists were reluctant to abandon this principle and move on to the task of winning the masses.
So the congress was still grappling with the problem of the united front. It is this that makes some of the debates so interesting: the strategy was not encapsulated in a neat formulation, but was rather a matter of experience to be approached through trial and error.
Some basic principles stand out very clearly. The united front depended on the close interaction of economic and political struggle. As Radek had put it in 1921, workers must “unite at least for the struggle for bare existence, for a crust of bread”.17
‘Not purely from below’
Although unity at the grass roots was paramount, a united front could not be purely from below. Many, if not all, members of reformist parties stayed in those organisations because they still had some degree of confidence in their leaders. So no approach to rank and file reformist workers could succeed without some form of dialogue with their leaders. As Radek explained, rank and file Social Democratic workers, who still had some faith in their leaders, would ask why the Communists were not talking to them:
Should we reply by telling them that Scheidemann is a traitor? If they agreed with us in this judgement of Scheidemann, we would not have to preach to them about that; they would be with us. But this judgement is precisely what divides us. That is why, despite this opinion, if we want a united front, we must negotiate with the leaders of the Second International.18
Yet here too there were difficulties. Some of the congress statements seemed to undermine this principle. Zinoviev declared fiercely that “reformism is our main enemy”,19 and even that:
The ideology of Fascist syndicalism…is a petty-bourgeois ideology that is actually not as far removed from that of Social Democracy as is sometimes thought. The ideology is fundamentally the same, but in a different form… It is no accident that the [Italian] reformists…ally themselves with the Fascists.20
One can see his point. The betrayal by the Second International at the outbreak of war in 1914 and the complicity of the German Social Democratic leaders in the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were still fresh in the minds of delegates. Nonetheless some of Zinoviev’s formulations are all too reminiscent of the language of the German Communist Party before Hitler’s seizure of power, when Social Democrats were labelled “social fascists”. There was a slippery slope here, and it is not clear that Zinoviev was fully aware of the dangers.
There were more difficulties with another implication of the united front—the question of the so-called “workers’ government”. What attitude should Communists take if governments composed of (reformist) workers’ parties were elected? This was a new problem for the movement—apart from some Labour governments in Australia there was no experience of reformism in power.21 (Nowadays we have all too much.)
There was considerable confusion about the question at the congress. Some delegates stated openly that they were unclear about what was being argued. And it was made clear that a workers’ government was only one of a number of possible ways in which a revolutionary situation could develop; in Radek’s words, “The workers’ government is not inevitable, but possible”.22
Government: ‘the key question – mass involvement’
The essential problem was what could be demanded of a government which might claim to represent the working class, but which was working within the framework of the existing state.23 Quite rightly the congress resolution argued that the key question was mass involvement—nothing could be expected from a workers’ government without mass struggle on the ground, and mass struggle, not the particular form of a government, was always the determining factor:
A workers’ government is possible only if it is born from the struggles of the masses themselves and is supported by militant workers’ organisations created by the most oppressed layers of the working masses. Even a workers’ government that arises from a purely parliamentary combination, that is, one that is purely parliamentary in origin, can provide the occasion for a revival of the revolutionary workers’ movement… Even an attempt by the proletariat to form such a workers’ government will encounter from the outset most determined resistance from the bourgeoisie. The slogan of the workers’ government thus has the potential of uniting the proletariat and unleashing revolutionary struggle.24
Obviously there are echoes here of situations in our own world and there is much to be learnt from a study of these debates. But I remain sceptical as to whether detailed formulations from 1922 can be applied to the world of the 21st century.25
The other major question that flowed from the debate on the united front was that of fascism, already taking power in Italy. And the congress recognised that “the danger of fascism now exists in many countries: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, almost all the Balkan countries, Poland, Germany (Bavaria), Austria, the United States, and even in countries like Norway”.26
Yet there was no clear understanding of the enormity of the danger. Ever since the massacre of workers in the overthrow of the Paris Commune in 1871 the socialist movement had faced violent repression; the fact that fascism was something qualitatively different would take time to understand. Bukharin was moving towards a recognition of this when he said, “Fascism is not merely an organisational form that the bourgeois had in the past; it is a newly discovered form that is adapted to the new movement by drawing in the masses”.27 But Italian Communist leader Bordiga still insisted, “Fascism does not represent any new political doctrine”.28 Perhaps he learned something of its novelty in 1926 when he found himself in one of Mussolini’s jails.
There was eventually, however, some honest accounting about the failures of the Italian Communists in relation to the anti-fascist struggle. When a mass campaign against fascism had developed in the form of the Arditi del Popolo (a non-aligned organisation),29 the Italian Communists had stood aside in a sectarian fashion, not willing to take part in a united front of which they themselves were not at the centre. As Zinoviev mocked:
It was said: “Should we really get involved with such confused people? They have not even read the third volume of Marx’s Capital.” That is very true. Perhaps they had not even seen the first volume, let alone read it. But, nonetheless, these were people who were ready to fight against Fascism.30
The Fourth Congress was Lenin’s last. He was too ill to make more than one intervention, but he was received with evident affection and enthusiasm. Whether anyone was actually listening to what he said is less obvious. Referring to the resolution on organisation carried at the Third Congress, he savagely attacked the mentality according to which the Russian experience could be applied mechanically in different circumstances:
The resolution is too Russian; it reflects Russian experience. That is why it is quite unintelligible to foreigners, and they cannot be content with hanging it in a corner like an icon and praying to it. Nothing will be achieved that way. They must assimilate part of the Russian experience. Just how that will be done, I do not know.31
And he appealed to the delegates to “study…in order that they may really understand the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary work”.32 Lenin clearly saw that, just as he had had to rethink basic principles in order to seize the opportunity offered in 1917, so now new thinking was again required to face new problems.
Clearly some delegates had been busy with something else during this speech. Presenting a report on the reorganisation of the Comintern Executive, Eberlein promised a “strictly centralised world party” and “much stricter discipline”.33 And by 1924, freed from Lenin’s watchful eye as the latter’s health declined, Zinoviev launched the so-called “Bolshevisation” of the parties of the Comintern—in effect a purging of many of the best revolutionaries, a mechanical reorganisation, and a process which paved the way for the total subjection of the Comintern to Moscow control a few years later.34
There was much that was positive in the Fourth Congress and the delegates’ hopes were not unrealistic. But they did not prevail. Capitalism was stabilising itself and getting much more vicious in the process. At the same time, as yet unremarked by most, the revolution was degenerating from within. Riddell’s excellent “Biographical Notes” show the subsequent fates of the participants in the congress: acquiescence in Stalinism by many, isolation, demoralisation and even betrayal by others, and for those who remained true to their principles, persecution and sometimes death. Of the five Russian leaders who gave reports to the Congress (Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin), only Lenin died in his bed.
As Lenin urged, study this congress, but study it in historical context.
1: A (relatively) cheaper paperback edition will be published later this year by Haymarket Books at $55. References in brackets are to this book.
2: Riddell has previously published a number of volumes on the roots and development of the Comintern, in particular the proceedings of the First and Second Congresses-Riddell, 1987; Riddell, 1991. The publication of the proceedings of the Third Congress has unfortunately been delayed “for technical reasons beyond our control” (p58), but hopefully they will be available soon. Riddell’s work is based on high standards of scholarship, but his interest is not purely historical; he is an activist historian, as can be seen from his website (https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/) which contains many pieces relating the experiences of the Comintern to current situations, notably in Latin America.
3: Unfortunately more and more institutions of higher education are abandoning such pretensions by dropping the study of history. Any culture that fails to study the past is doomed to misunderstand the present-a point neatly summed up in a Doonesbury cartoon a few years back. Two US soldiers in Afghanistan are talking. The older one remarks that the situation is becoming more and more like Vietnam, to which the younger responds: “I don’t know; we didn’t do history at my college.”
4: For a short overview of the Comintern see Hallas, 1985; there is a vivid account by a participant in Rosmer, 1971. The best history of the Comintern, showing the strengths of its early years while not glossing over its weaknesses, is Broué, 1997. Hopefully this will be available in English before too long.
5: Riddell, 2012, p264.
6: Riddell, 2012, p120.
7: Riddell, 2012, p311.
8: Riddell, 2012, p851.
9: Nowadays Zetkin tends to be remembered only for her important work on the organisation of women. But her contribution was far broader than this. It is hoped that a future issue of Revolutionary History will be devoted to the full range of Zetkin’s contribution.
10: As Zinoviev put it, “Among the Italian comrades, there is now a debate on what has happened in Italy: a coup d’état or a farce. It could possibly be both”-Riddell, 2012, p106.
11: Marie, 2001, p457.
12: Riddell, 2012, p703. On this see also the response by Robert Louzon, who had launched the first Arabic language Communist daily paper, which was promptly banned-Louzon, 2012.
13: Broué, 2005, pp468-473, and Riddell, 2011a.
14: Riddell, 2012, p457.
15: Rosmer, 1971, pp229-232, gives an account of opposition to the united front in the French party.
16: Riddell, 2012, p784.
17: Riddell, 2012, p146.
18: Riddell, 2012, p394. Scheidemann was right wing leader of the German Social Democratic Party.
19: Riddell, 2012, p1047. Of course, things are different when the reformists are in power. During the Iraq War Tony Blair was indeed the “main enemy”, though it would have been inaccurate and stupid to call him a fascist.
20: Riddell, 2012, p1052.
21: A (minority) British Labour government was formed a year later, from January to November 1924.
22: Riddell, 2012, p399.
23: For a discussion of the whole question see Harman and Potter, 1977. They point out that the Comintern’s position must be radically rethought in the light of subsequent experience: “Unfortunately, 55 years of bitter experience have shown that reformist governments without the participation of the bourgeoisie are quite possible without capitalism crumbling, and have often been used to strengthen its rule.”
24: Riddell, 2012, p1160.
25: See for example the discussion of Bolivia in Riddell, 2011b, Riddell, 2011c, and Webber, 2012.
26: Riddell, 2012, p1154. If this seems melodramatic, it should be remembered that 20 years later all these countries except the US had pro-Nazi regimes.
27: Riddell, 2012, p212.
28: Riddell, 2012, p413.
29: See Behan, 2003.
30: Riddell, 2012, pp1053-1054.
31: Riddell, 2012, pp304-305.
32: Riddell, 2012, p305.
33: Riddell, 2012, pp925-926.
34: In Pierre Broué’s words, by 1924 the Comintern had “a single, centralised and disciplined apparatus of professional militants, reproduced on the model of the Soviet party, led from Moscow and in conformity with Soviet foreign policy”-Broué, 1997, pp384-385.
Behan, Tom, 2003, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini (Bookmarks).
Broué, Pierre, 1997, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste (Fayard).
Broué, Pierre, 2005, The German Revolution 1917-1923 (Brill).
Hallas, Duncan, 1985, The Comintern (Bookmarks).
Harman, Chris, and Tim Potter, 1977, “The Workers’ Government”, International Discussion Bulletin (Socialist Workers Party), http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1977/xx/workersgov.htm
Louzon, Robert, 2012, “A Disgrace”, Revolutionary History 10/4 (2012).
Marie, Jean-Jacques, 2001, Staline (Fayard).
Riddell, John, 1987, Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress – March 1919 (Pathfinder).
Riddell, John, 1991, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples Unite! : Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (Pathfinder).
Riddell, John, 2011a, “The Origins of the United Front Policy”, International Socialism 130 (spring).
Riddell, John, 2011b, “Progress in Bolivia: A Reply to Jeff Webber”, Bullet (9 May).
Riddell, John, 2011c, “How Clara Zetkin Helps us to Understand Evo Morales”
Riddell, John (ed), 2012, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922 (Haymarket).
Rosmer, Alfred, 1971, Lenin’s Moscow (Pluto).
Webber, Jeffery R, 2012, “Revolution against ‘progress’: the TIPNIS struggle and class contradictions in Bolivia”, International Socialism 133 (winter),