The Fourth Comintern Congress: ‘A way to claim victory’
Introduction to Greek edition of Fourth Congress debates and theses
Here is a translation of the introduction by Antonis Davanellos to The United Front: Debates and Theses of the Third International’s Fourth Congress. The text is followed by an explanatory comment by International Socialist Review, which is publishing Davanellos’s article in its next issue. Footnotes are by ISR. See also Greek socialists publish Fourth Comintern Congress debate on united front. – JR
By Antonis Davanellos. In the context of the deep crisis of world capitalism, where any way forward shaped by the ruling classes represents some version of barbarism, we need to look back at our history and traditions.
There are important analogies between the times we are living in and the period during which the Fourth Congress of the Third Communist International (Comintern) was organized. That period (1922) was defined by the persistence of capitalist crisis internationally, the retreat of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the October Revolution, the retreat of the generalized will of the working class to smash through the barriers of capitalism, the birth of reactionary and extremely dangerous political currents (fascism, Nazism, warmongering, and nationalism).
But there are also important differences between that period and today. In 1922, despite the retreat of the revolutionary mood, the very existence of the Russian Soviet Republic served as a beacon for the international working class. This provided a clear ideological orientation, defining the tactics and policies of the revolutionary parties. Despite the retreat of workers struggles from the level reached in the peak years of 1917–21, these struggles remained at a far higher pitch than what we experience internationally today.
Despite the successive betrayals of social democratic parties, the working-class parties of that time were far more working class (in terms of their close bonds with huge sections of the class) and far more parties than the shambles of today’s social democracy and the limited forces of today’s communist Left.
Lastly, the very existence of the Comintern made a crucial difference: It provided an international center for the revolutionary movement of that time; a center where there was a potential for an in-depth, honest, direct, free, and democratic discussion on crucial issues of strategy and tactics. The proceedings of the first four Congresses of the Third International serve as proof for that.
Despite the similarities between these two periods, it is precisely because there are important differences that the discussion on the history of the revolutionary movement cannot provide us with ready-made solutions. We cannot look back for detailed directions on the way to confront the problems we face today. To complete this task, we still need to analyze the specific situation, which means we still need to build the contemporary movement and the contemporary revolutionary Left in the twenty-first century.
Even so, we do find something precious in the history of our movement: namely, the criteria and logic used by revolutionaries of the past. Those are extremely crucial in our current effort to work our way through the dark center of the crisis.
This is the reason why John Riddell—an active Marxist, historian, and political activist in Canada and the US—took on the task of providing us with all the debates, sessions, proceedings, and documents of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, emphasizing the relevance of the united front tactic and the workers’ government slogan for the global Left today. Riddell’s work can be found in a volume of 1,300 pages, Toward the United Front, available in English from Haymarket Books, Chicago.
While we consider this entire work precious—and we highly recommend to English-speaking readers—it was impossible for us to publish it all in Greek, because of the cost, time, and effort required. The book that you are reading here today contains a small part of this work, but aims to provide the reader with its overall essence.
A new, revolutionary International
During its first (1919) and second (1920) Congresses, the Comintern consolidated and reinforced the rupture between the revolutionary and reformist currents that had existed inside the Second International, the organization of socialist and labor parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889. Established after the victorious Russian Revolution, the Comintern brought together those who had stood against the imperialist war and who now supported the new workers’ government in Russia.
The social democratic parties had stood patriotically behind their own bourgeois governments at the outbreak of the World War I, had taken the lead in defeating the revolution in Germany, and were complicit in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The emergence of the Comintern coincided with a wave of revolutionary struggle throughout Europe in response to the success of the Russian Revolution, a wave Comintern leaders hoped to organize and harness to create workers’ states beyond Russia’s borders.
But what was to be done by the sections of the International, the young and relatively inexperienced Communist Parties, if the objective situation was reversed? What if the revolutionary wave receded and stabilization paved the way to a capitalist counteroffensive? This turn in the objective conditions was already perceptible in 1921 and, the following year, was an established fact. The Third Congress (June–July 1921) worked on dealing with this crucial question. The Fourth Congress (November–December 1922) concluded this work. And the main pillar of the response was the united front tactic.
The united front
During the Fourth Congress, Lenin (already seriously ill) and Leon Trotsky participated actively in directing the Bolshevik delegation, along with Gregory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Karl Radek. This delegation intervened in the discussion freely and not at all “monolithically”—encouraging in this way the expression of the varied opinions held within the various sections of the International. But the delegation united when the time for decisions arrived.
Lenin and Trotsky—who had previously championed the formation of an independent communist current against social democracy, waged a political battle during the Fourth Congress to clarify the tactics of the united front and to persuade the Comintern to adopt this tactic.
They confronted supporters of an “ultra-left” policy, both inside the Bolshevik party (Zinoviev and Bukharin) and in the other sections of the International (the German minority led by Ruth Fisher and Arkadi Maslow, the Italian delegation led by Bordiga, and others). They had the support of the German majority, which, faced with disastrous mistakes of the previous period (the abortive 1921 “March Action” guided by the theory of the “offensive”) had reoriented itself to the logic of the united front.
The essence of the united front policy was that the communist parties, in a situation in which an immediate struggle for power was not in the cards, and when the larger part of the working class still remained in the ranks of the old social democratic reformist parties, must not artificially counterpose itself to working-class unity. Rather, it must propose alliances with Social Democratic parties—while retaining its independence and right to criticize the limits of the reformists—for the purposes of securing immediate economic and political demands. As Trotsky posed it in 1992:
“The problem of the united front—despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organizations basing themselves on the working class—grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism.”
The Fourth Congress rounded out the assessment of the international situation, which was defined by the capitalist offensive and the retreat of the revolutionary struggle of the working class. In this situation, the Congress considered a call for unity of the workers’ parties in action to be a priority and precondition for success in the defensive struggle of the workers’ movement. On this basis, the Congress clarified some disagreements on the united front raised after the Third Congress, specifically:
- The united front must be supported by the Communist parties as an honest choice and not as a hypocritical tactical move aimed mostly in gaining members from the reformists, the social democratic parties.
- The united front, while taking up specific economic and trade union struggles of our class, is not confined to these issues. It can and should be extended to the overall political struggle.
- The united front probably begins with specific current issues, but it is a mistake to place a time limit on it. It is a policy for “a whole period, even a whole era.”
- The united front should be supported by the “transitional demands” approach: specific demands which, enjoying the support of the majority of the workers, can support immediate unitary struggles.
- The united front should be pursued mostly “from below,” but the refusal to support it “from above” and the aversion towards “negotiations between leaderships” must be rejected as “childish immaturity.”
- The united front is a policy for a defensive battle, a policy to support a war to defend “every inch of the land.” Such a policy presupposes the abandonment of sectarian-propagandist passivity. At the same time it aims to help the working class really understand the differences between reformists and revolutionaries, through the live experience of the struggles.
It was clear to all those who took part in this debate that the political line of the united front entails serious dangers of succumbing or adjusting to reformism. To avoid this pitfall, Lenin and Trotsky insisted on two points:
- A detailed and clear explanation of the united front tactic, which is never presented by the Comintern as a method for a peaceful and parliamentary transition to socialism. It is presented rather as the possible method for the organization of the working-class’s defensive struggle, and the fastest possible transition to a counterattack.
- The inviolable principle of maintaining the independence of the revolutionary forces—the refusal of the Communist parties to dissolve themselves in the political formations of the reformists or the more left-wing “centrists.”
Based on this logic of the united front—namely, the effort to rally the largest forces possible in the struggle to overturn the capitalist offensive—the Fourth Congress took decisions on a series of crucial political issues posed by the situation. It laid the groundwork for a concerted, massive resistance to fascism, disapproving of the “ultra-left” underestimation of this threat (Amadeo Bordiga) and the tactic of equal opposition to both the fascists and the social democratic parties.
The congress laid the groundwork for a effective and large-scale work on women’s liberation by recognizing the importance of Clara Zetkin’s views, which had been derided in the past, and by defining specific tasks for the sections of the International.
The congress laid the groundwork for an effective and large-scale engagement with the anti-imperialist, anticolonial struggles, recognizing that the “peoples of the East” are valuable allies to the working-class struggle for social emancipation.
Seen in that way, overall, the Fourth Congress of the Comintern was a major “moment” of maturity that tried to orient the international revolutionary Left toward an active approach, leaving behind the passivity represented by the so-called “revolutionary patience” of waiting until better days arrive.
This applied to the specific struggles in countries where the Comintern forces were present. It concerned the broadening of the workers’ front, extending it to the issues of oppression (democratic rights, women’s liberation, etc). It concerned the issues of political struggle (position on fascism, position on governmental power). It concerned the global struggle, with the positions adopted on war and anti-colonial revolutions.
Finally, it provided a pattern of transitional politics that started from the need to organize united defensive struggles, mapped out the fastest possible transition to a counter-offensive, and kept alive the prospect of socialist emancipation.
The workers’ government
During the Fourth Congress, the debate on the united front was focused on the issue of the workers’ government, meaning the possibility of a government supported by the left-wing workers’ parties, arising in the context of capitalism, through a combination of massive struggles from below and a parliamentary crisis.
Despite strong objections, the slogan for a workers’ government was approved, as “a result of the logic of united front.” It was approved as suitable for general propaganda everywhere, and as an immediate political prospect in those countries where the crisis of the bourgeois parties created the potential for the formation of a workers’ government, while the conditions for actual workers’ power did not yet exist.
A “typology” of variations of the workers’ government was also approved. This classification resulted in different tasks for the Communist parties depending on the situation: vote, tolerate, critically support, or participate under certain conditions.
This direction was in no way an acceptance of “parliamentary cretinism.” On the contrary, the Comintern approved the concept of the workers’ government as “a possible way of transition” toward workers power, foreseeing that under certain conditions and under certain political premises, it could lead to an “escalation and acceleration of the class struggle.”
Leon Trotsky, the theorist of permanent revolution, wrote some years later:
The aim of the united front can be only a government of the united front, i.e., a Socialist-Communist government, a Blum-Cachin ministry. This must be said openly. If the united front takes itself seriously—and it is only on this condition that the popular masses will take it seriously—it cannot divest itself of the slogan of conquest of power. By what means? By every means which leads to that end. The united front does not renounce parliamentary struggle…
The emphasis during the Fourth Congress on the workers’ government debate provides an approach to the political position of the communist Left, when faced with the central issue of governmental power in times of sharp sociopolitical crisis, but when the force of the working class is not mature enough to pose the question of workers’ power immediately.
The proposal of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern describes a transitional process from one situation to the next. Since then, many have claimed that this debate was an unfortunate lapse by the International, that the interventions of Lenin, Trotsky, Zetkin and others described a hypothetical scenario that has never been tested in practice. And yet, in contemporary history, the Left was tested many times on this question, and it paid a heavy cost for this vacuum in its strategy and tactics.
In Chile, in the beginning of the seventies, the electoral victory of Unidad Popular, despite the intentions of Salvador Allende and the Communist Party of Chile, triggered a sharp escalation of class struggle. This led to a tragic defeat because none of the mass parties of the Left had a clear direction on the character of a left-wing government, and the only road to victory, which was the transitional fight for socialist emancipation. The Left was again confronted by the prospect of governmental power as a crucial step towards the socialist rupture in Portugal in 1974 and in Italy in the mid-seventies.
The Greek experience
But the biggest example, one that reopens this discussion on a massive scale, is the contemporary Greek experience. The outbreak of the crisis in 2010 demolished, almost instantly, a big part of the conquests the working class and the popular classes achieved during the twentieth century. It also demolished, again almost instantly, the massive influence of social democracy.
In the decisive struggles that followed, the demand to overthrow the government, the demand “to get rid of them now”—and, as a result, the issue of governmental power—were posed as a precondition for the defense of workers and social rights. What else could be the meaning of the gigantic general strikes, demonstrations, and the successive sieges of the parliamentary building by hundreds of thousands of protestors?
The only thing that held this situation back from becoming an immediate revolutionary situation was the low level of strength of working-class organizations and the hesitation of the masses of workers when they faced the naked violence of the state deployed in the streets. In this situation, SYRIZA—despite starting from a lower starting position than the Communist Party in terms of strength, replied by raising the slogan: “For a left-wing government!”
The Communist Party and ANTARSYA replied by propagandizing various programs, which included positions on all issues except the crucial one: How were we to confront the current urgent situation? The outcome of the comparison between these two approaches is well known today, but this is not that important, since we still do not know the final outcome of a struggle that has already started. In our view, the discussion on the Fourth Congress of the Comintern indicates a way to claim victory. And it indicates different tasks for the different sections of the Left. For the left-wing forces that are inside SYRIZA, it provides the criteria on what is and what isn’t a left-wing government:
- The criteria for its program must be bound—mostly or exclusively—to the needs of the working class and the popular classes and not to some cross-class vague concepts such as “the country” or the “productive reconstruction of the economy.”
- The criteria on its alliances must be confined to workers’ parties and organizations, and not extend to broad alliances that sacrifice the clear sociopolitical orientation for the sake of parliamentary efficiency.
- The criteria on the prospects of a left-wing government must be understood as a transitional step towards socialist rupture and not as a final destination that will “save the country.”
But the discussion in the Fourth Congress also poses some important questions to the left-wing forces that are outside SYRIZA. These forces should stop treating the left-wing government as a “pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat.” They should take their position on the existing political confrontations here and now, putting their weight on the left side of the scales.
From Zinoviev to Dimitrov
These criteria were abandoned in the succeeding years after the Fourth Congress. The triumph of Stalinism in the USSR transformed the Russian delegation to the Comintern into a battering ram to demolish the traditions of the first four congresses.
During the International’s Fifth Congress (1924), led superficially by Zinoviev, and the Sixth Congress (1928), the ultra-left attack on social democracy decapitated the united front policy and culminated to the suicidal policy of the “Third Period” and “social-fascism” that equated the German Social Democracy with Hitler.
From the Seventh Congress (1935) onwards, the Stalinist leadership of the International reversed the united front completely, adopting the “stagist strategy” and the Popular Front, meaning the acceptance of collaboration even with the democratic bourgeois parties. This opened the way for the defeat of the revolution in Spain, the defeat of the Popular Front in France, the implementation of the agreements of Yalta (1945), and the national unity governments in France and Italy in 1945. Through the subjugation to the “international center” of Moscow, the Comintern itself took the path of shameful self-dissolution (1943), while the hell of World War II was raging.
But this is a different story.
Antonis Davanellos is a journalist, unionist, and member of Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), a member group of the Greek radical left coalition Syriza.
The political context of the Greek Comintern edition
From International Socialist Review. The foregoing is an introduction to the publication in Greece of selected material from Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, edited by John Riddell (Haymarket Books, 2012). The questions dealt with at the Fourth Congress, in particular the discussions on the united front and on the workers’ government, are of great relevance to socialists in Greece today, where a broad left party, SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), has the potential to win the upcoming Greek presidential elections.
SYRIZA formed in 2001 as a political project of left-wing parties and organizations in Greece, bringing together both reformist and revolutionary forces. One of the participating revolutionary organizations is DEA (Internationalist Workers’ Left), of which the author of this article, Antonis Davanellos, is a member. In the spring of 2012, SYRIZA nearly won two national elections with its uncompromising opposition to austerity.
SYRIZA placed first in the May 2014 Greek voting for the European parliament, with 26.5 percent of votes cast, and became the largest opposition party in the Greek parliament. SYRIZA’s parliamentary leader is Alexis Tsipras, formerly president of Synaspismós, a left reformist organization that is the largest group in the coalition. From 2013 the coalition became a unitary party, although it retained its name with the addition of “United Social Front.”
Two other prominent left formations, the Communist Party (KKE) and ANTARSYA (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow), a coalition of left forces that includes far left organizations and the KKE, have criticized the proposal for a government of left parties, and both refuse to join SYRIZA. But ANTARSYA’S electoral votes are much smaller than SYRIZA’s.
SYRIZA’S spectacular growth can only be understood in the context of sharpening class struggle in Greece, which has brought more than 29 one- and two-day general strikes; building occupations; the “ingidnados” movement occupying the central square in Athens; and struggles against unjust taxes and tolls. And yet these struggles have failed to reverse the government’s deep austerity policies. SYRIZA positioned itself as a supporter of these struggles and has called for left unity around the call for a left government that rejects austerity.
The majority in SYRIZA around Synaspismos envisons a left government based purely on an electoral strategy. “That is why,” writes DEA member Sotiris Martalis, “it adapts to the pressure of ‘realism’ and tries to win votes by approaching social democratic political forces—or more precisely, those originating from a social-liberal politics.”
The far left forces inside SYRIZA have formed a Left Platform, which has the support of almost a third of the party, which aims, again quoting Martalis, at “conducting a clear, transparent and loyal opposition” to the moderate tendencies of the majority. DEA is a section of the RProject, a grouping inside the Left Platform, that “is trying to build an alliance of forces sufficient to constitute an obstacle to the adaptations and oscillations of the reformist-oriented leadership of Syriza,” writes Martalis.
The Rproject demands, among other things, that Syriza include in its program a rejection of all austerity memorandums with Europe, a demand for the nationalization of the banks and big public enterprises, and for increases in wages and pensions.
Notes (by International Socialist Review)
. The “theory of the offensive,” a policy supported by Russian Bolsheviks leaders Zinoviev and Bukharin, and by Comintern representatives Bela Kuhn and Karl Radek, stipulated that instead of waiting “passively” for a revolutionary situation, communist parties should force the pace of events by engaging in offensive, armed actions that would awaken or impel the masses into motion. The policy was applied by the German Communist Party (KPD) in the infamous 1921 March Action: In response to a provocation against workers in central Germany, the party called for a general strike and for workers to arm themselves, and denouncing as scabs all workers who failed to support their call. The results were disastrous, as communist workers clashed with other workers who refused to support them, and the general strike failed. Within a week, the party lost 200,000 people—half its membership.
. Leon Trotsky, “On the United Front (Material for a Report on the Question of French Communism),” March 2, 1922.
. Amadeo Bordiga (1889–1970), leader the Socialist Party left wing and founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1920. He opposed participation by revolutionaries in parliament, or any reform movements that “might render the bourgeois regime more tolerable and hence longer lasting.” Revolution, he argued, was the work of the party, and the party only; its task was to wait for the propitious moment to call for revolution, meanwhile preserving the party’s revolutionary integrity. He consequently rejected any alliances with the SP to resist Italian fascism in the early 1920s, a policy initially also supported by Antonio Gramsci. Bordiga argued that fascism was a form of violent capitalist rule that signaled its immanent collapse. The party considered the PSI, if not worse than fascism, then as bad, and it was therefore indifferent as to whether there be a fascist or a social-democratic government. Bordiga considered Mussolini’s march on Rome a mere change of administrations. As a result, “no political action,” Gramsci would later write in critical retrospection, “was carried out to prevent fascism from coming to power.”
. Clara Zetkin (1857–1933)— German Marxist theorist, activist, and advocate for women’s rights. Part of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), she rejected the party’s growing reformism and stood against the party leaders’ support for World War I, along with Karl Leibkhecht and Rosa Luxemburg, with whom she was closely associated. She was a founding member of the Spartacus League in 1916, which later became the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1918. From the late 1800s on, Zetkin sought to challenge the German party and the Second International to take practical steps in the way of organizing women workers and encouraging women’s role in the socialist movement. Editor of the SPD’s women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit (Equality) for 25 years, she organized the first International Women’s Day in 1911.
. The distinction being made here is between a left government based upon working-class support, but which continues to utilize the existing bourgeois parliamentary institutions, and a workers’ state that rests upon new organs of state power based on direct, democratic institutions (such as workers’ councils), and which is backed by the armed power of the working class.