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Revolution at the crossroads: Reading the Comintern’s Fourth Congress

April 9, 2014

By Jennifer Roesch. Review of Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Haymarket Books, 2012. Reprinted from International Socialist Review #89.

“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….

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