Toronto rally welcomes ‘Toward the United Front’
By Sarah Berliner. Toward the United Front, John Riddell’s edition of the Communist International’s Fourth Congress, is “an outstanding achievement in the recuperation of pivotal historical experiences for the revolutionary left of today and the future,” Marxist author David McNally told an enthusiastic gathering of 120 people in Toronto, March 3.
The Fourth Congress proceedings, 1,300 pages long, make up the seventh installment in a series of documentary volumes edited by Riddell, which present a record of the world revolutionary movement in Lenin’s time. The soft-cover edition has just been published by Haymarket Books.
Riddell explained the purpose, character, and present stage of this project in the main presentation, which is published separately as “Translations for the Twenty-First Century.”
The meeting was sponsored by the Toronto wing of Historical Materialism, publisher of the hardcover edition, and organized by Ideas Left Out, an independent forum in Toronto providing space for non-sectarian, anti-imperialist, and open discussion.
Another member of the February 3 panel, Suzanne Weiss noted that Riddell’s book thanks no less than 62 people in 16 countries who assisted in translation and research on the Fourth Congress. Research languages included Serbo-Croatian, Farsi, Turkish, Norwegian, Chinese, and Bulgarian.
The audience at the February 3 celebration, spanning three generations, spurned the Super Bowl broadcast to pay tribute to Riddell and his achievements. Those present, Weiss said, made up “part of a supportive community deeply involved in social struggles and experiences that made the old Comintern texts come alive for us.” Riddell, in his remarks, stressed that without this community of friends and collaborators, the book could not have been published. Five participants in this effort commented on the book and on Riddell’s remarks from the platform.\
Chairing the meeting, Abbie Bakan, head of the Department of Gender Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, observed that Riddell’s translation of proceedings of the Comintern is “an effort to bring to life activists of Lenin’s time and their lessons, both positive and negative, for a new generation.”
Referring to Riddell’s dedication as an activist in the Toronto left, Bakan noted that, “he listens, he learns, he reflects on things and he changes his mind. For people of John’s generation, stature, and gender, these are remarkable traits.”
Riddell opened his remarks by suggesting that the Comintern record was being resurrected from a long burial. It had “largely been forgotten. Or more accurately, as our Hispanic compañeros say, it had been disappeared — indeed violently suppressed.”
Recovering historic memory
Each time he publishes a congress, Riddell said, “I take a census of the fate of participants who were within Stalin’s reach in the 1930s, and I find that 65% or more were murdered by Stalinist repression. What is more, the Comintern archives were locked down, and its published records were no longer distributed. Its original leaders were denounced as Fascists and enemies of the people and executed; their writings were locked away. This was destruction of memory on a massive scale.”
This memory is indispensable to us, Riddell said. “Revolutionary memory provides the language we use in projecting a social alternative. Memory is the map of our imagination,” he explained. “It is the factual basis for developing and testing policy. As best we can, we try to pass on and, where necessary, rediscover this memory and make available for anew generation to weigh and assess.” His work, he said, “aimed to do this for a small but significant fragment of our heritage.”
McNally, an author and professor at York University, highlighted the Fourth Congress discussion of the united front, which is “amazing for its complexity, depth, and the differences that come out.” The text conveys “a sense that you are part of a living movement,” he said. McNally pointed to examples of delegates at the congress who pose issues of racist chauvinism and to their efforts “for the movement to break out of its European core.”
The book shows, McNally said, how movements of that time “learned the art of political translation, based on different traditions and situations.” It is important, David stressed, that we to examine how do our own intellectual translation, in order to “make these texts living documents relevant to our era.”
Toward the United Front is “a remarkable accomplishment of scholarship and politics,” said Greg Albo, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University. “The volume is filled with ideas and debates that are fascinating and allows us to communicate not only across time but through so many languages.” Of particular interest are the debates on workers’ government, national self-determination, and “the beginnings of what has been a century-long debate on understanding hegemony,” which are “very rich in this volume.”
Albo also cited the remarks by Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin suggesting that there are many roads to socialism. Bukharin told the congress that “the specific characteristics of capitalism in each country will find expression in specific forms of the socialist productive economy. The first stage will see varying forms of production.”
Story of the working class itself
Similarly, Albo continued, “In the volume one finds many forms of Leninism, many forms of politics. It is a volume that therefore speaks not just to our past but to our future.”
Paul Kellogg, Assistant Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies at Athabasca University, Alberta, reminded us of the urgency of Comintern discussions of the united front. “It is sobering today because 30,000 fascists marched yesterday in Athens,” he said. “The united front was not Lenin or Trotsky’s idea. This profound policy comes from the working class itself … It was amplified by Clara Zetkin and a cadre of Rosa Luxemburgists and it comes into the Fourth Congress in a very proud way. This is a story not of individuals but of the working class itself.”
Riddell closed by inviting all present to participate in discussing the Comintern Fourth Congress. “My website will try to provide a home for comment and debate.” (www.johnriddell.wordpress.com)
Let us all “join in publishing, reading, and discussing the early Comintern records as well as that of our broader heritage of global liberation struggles.”
John is at present working on the proceedings of the Third Congress and hopes to have it published in 2014
Twenty copies of Toward the United Front were sold and another dozen were ordered. Toward the United Front can be ordered from Haymarket Press, Amazon, or through Resistance Press Bookroom (416-972-6391).
- See LeftStreamed for video record of meeting.
- “Translations for the Twenty-First Century,” John Riddell’s speech at the Toronto book launch.
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