Lenin the unifier: The Comintern compromise of 1921
By John Riddell. In 1921, a time of declining mass struggles, the Communist International (Comintern) was thrown off course by insistent demands at every level of the organization for the young movement to launch confrontational actions, even if Communists must fight almost alone. In mid-1921, the Comintern’s Third Congress turned decisively away from this policy. Under the slogan “To the masses,” it adopted, on Lenin’s insistence, the strategy of unifying working people in struggle that was codified six months later as the “united front.”
Nonetheless, the Third Congress has been much criticized for its handling of such ultraleft errors. Marxist writer Tony Cliff branded the congress “the great cover-up.” The publication this year of my edition of the congress proceedings (To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921) has now provided a basis to reassess this verdict.
British Marxist Ian Birchall, the first to assess this new work, provides an incisive synopsis of the evidence. Here is a summary of Birchall’s verdict, followed by my own assessment, reprinted from the introduction to the Third Congress proceedings.
The record speaks powerfully regarding Lenin’s role as a defender of principled revolutionary unity.
The charge of “cover-up” is not sustained by the evidence assembled in To the Masses, Birchall states. “The [Third Congress] debate was extensive and thorough-going, with a range of positions being vigorously presented. All the dirty linen was piled up on the Congress floor.” But if there was no cover-up, he adds, “there certainly was a compromise.” Lenin himself said as much: “It is, of course, no secret that our theses are a compromise.” (TTM, p. 465)
The essence of this compromise, Birchall says, was to not condemn the March Action – the Communist Party’s adventurist fiasco in Germany whose shadow dominated the congress – but to reject the “theory of the offensive” developed to justify it.
An outright condemnation of the Action could have sparked a disastrous split. What was important “was to make sure that nobody, in Germany or elsewhere, saw the March Action as a model to be imitated. Hence the importance of condemning the theoretical justifications for it, and a clear explanation of the need to avoid such adventurist tactics,” Birchall says.
“I would thus in general go along with Riddell’s assessment of the compromise,” Birchall continues, quoting from my introduction:
While leaving some issues undiscussed or postponed for later clarification, [the compromise] served a necessary goal – too often neglected in the socialist movement – of preserving the unity of revolutionary forces that was indispensable for further steps forward and providing a principled and broadly agreed basis for their further united action and discussion. (TTM, p. 39)
Silence on the Executive Committee’s role
But my introduction to the Third Congress volume takes up another, more troubling side to the Comintern’s 1921 compromise. The introduction says, in part,
In a congress notable for candour and controversy almost nothing was said in criticism of the record of the Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI), including in discussion of the ECCI report (sessions 4–9)….
The unanimously adopted resolution on the ECCI report gave the ECCI’s actions – including with regard to Germany – unqualified approval….
The failure to assess the role of the ECCI emissaries in the March Action, while perhaps an unavoidable component of the compromise with which the congress concluded, had negative results. The focusing of criticism on the German party leadership, while the ECCI envoys’ role was passed over in silence, suggested that leadership accountability was not being dealt with in an even-handed manner and, even, that the ECCI itself was above criticism. (TTM, pp. 38-9)
True, there was no evidence that the ECCI was directly involved in launching the fateful March Action. Moreover, my introduction also cites several occasions on which the misconduct of ECCI envoys was indeed raised on the congress floor.
The introduction also records Lenin’s anger at the ECCI’s conduct: “You will spoil everything,” he wrote Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev. “We must wage a decisive struggle!” Lenin told the Congress. “Otherwise the Communist International is lost.”
Yet Lenin and Trotsky held back from an open break with Zinoviev and the Comintern’s other Russian central leaders (Karl Radek and Nikolai Bukharin).
It was a grim and threatening moment for the Russian revolution, then recovering from perhaps its greatest crisis, symbolized by the Kronstadt rebellion three months before the congress. The party leadership’s unity had been deeply shaken by a year of harsh internal disputes. It seems likely that the internal dynamics of the Bolshevik central leadership made Lenin’s compromise with Zinoviev unavoidable.
What is clear is that Lenin, in his relations with the Russian Comintern leaders, as with the ultraleft-inclined leaders and ranks in Central Europe, sought to maintain unity on a principled basis among divergent forces. This role is consistent with Lenin’s achievements in crafting the great fusions that created victorious Bolshevism in 1917 and the Communist International in 1919-20.
Here, then, is the portion of my Third Congress introduction taking up the issues discussed here.
From the Editorial Introduction to John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, pp. 37-9, Leiden: Brill, 2014.
The political convergence in the congress resolutions was incomplete. Significant disagreements persisted, within the ECCI and among congress delegates as in the International as a whole. Sponsors of the leftist amendments on strategy and tactics made clear by their statement repudiating Trotsky’s closing remarks on this topic that they were far from convinced of the Lenin-Trotsky position in its entirety. This attitude carried over to the VKPD’s August 1921 convention at Jena, which endorsed the leftist statement in Moscow of dissociation from Trotsky’s summary remarks.
Under these conditions, the congress decisions represented an inevitable compromise, dissatisfying some delegates on both sides of the debate. Its resolutions affirmed a strategic course that rejected the leftist positions, but they left some things unsaid and some issues unresolved. The compromise sought to set out a principled basis on which divergent Communist forces could work together and broaden their area of agreement through further experience and discussion. Zetkin portrayed its dynamics by recounting her initial discussion with Lenin (appendix 3i), quoting him as follows:
Now don’t give me that puzzled and reproachful look. You and your friends will have to accept a compromise. You must rest content with taking home the lion’s share of the congress laurels. Your fundamental political line will triumph, and triumph brilliantly….
The congress will wring the neck of the celebrated theory of the offensive and will adopt a course of action corresponding to your ideas. In return, however, [the congress] must grant the supporters of the offensive theory some crumbs of consolation. To do this, in passing judgement on the March Action, we will focus attention on the way that proletarians, provoked, fought back against the lackeys of the bourgeoisie. Beyond that, we let a somewhat fatherly leniency prevail.
There was another aspect to the compromise, as Zetkin noted during the congress in a letter to Levi. ‘The Executive wants the German question to be dealt with, as much as possible, as dirty laundry within the German delegation’, she wrote (see appendix 3j). Her statement suggests that assenting to silence on the ECCI’s role was an element in the compromise that ultimately unified the congress around common positions.
The congress decisions represented a turn away from the course of the ECCI in the months prior to the congress. The adopted resolutions implicitly broke from the ECCI’s previously exclusive emphasis on defeating the ‘right danger’, modified its wholesale rejection of the Italian Socialist Party, called off its drive to condemn the Šmeral leadership in Czechoslovakia, and repudiated the ‘offensive’ strategy pursued by its envoys in Germany before, during, and after the March Action. Yet in a congress notable for candour and controversy, almost nothing was said in criticism of the ECCI’s record, including in discussion of the ECCI report (sessions 4–9). Radek assured delegates that the ECCI was not responsible for the March Action. The unanimously adopted resolution on the ECCI report gave the ECCI’s actions – including with regard to Germany – unqualified approval.
Nonetheless, the ECCI envoys’ role was raised several times. Zetkin alluded to it on three occasions during the congress, the most explicit of which was her jab at Die Rote Fahne for ‘publishing appeals and articles whose un-German mode of expression enabled opponents to say, “Not made in Germany”’ – obviously a reference to the role of the Hungarian and Polish ECCI emissaries. VKPD leader Fritz Heckert also made a veiled reference to the rebellion of Die Rote Fahne’s staffers against the ECCI group’s unilateral impositions, while Friesland spoke of the resulting dissension in the Zentrale. Loriot presented the French delegation’s request for a special commission on the March Action, discussion of which he regarded as necessarily confidential. The commission could, he said, ‘discuss why the Executive was led to act as it did.’ In another context, Zetkin reviewed Rákosi’s controversial actions as ECCI envoy in January–February 1921 in Italy and Germany.
In addition to the issue of ECCI envoys, two other aspects of its record were of concern to some delegates: the encouragement given by ECCI leaders prior to February 1921 to leftist opposition forces in the German party and the overall leftist bias of its Small Bureau in the months preceding the conference. These topics did not come up for discussion.
ECCI spokespersons repeatedly called for criticism and deplored its absence. Thus the Yugoslav leader Sima Marković, an ally of Levi, was given a special extension to present his criticisms of the ECCI, which he did not do. The two delegates who explicitly questioned the ECCI’s record, Zetkin and Loriot, were subject to no condemnation or reprisals.
The delegates’ reticence may have been due to the continued dissension among the Executive’s most prominent members. This fact, evident in the differing content of their speeches, was also reflected in the Russian Politburo’s special motion giving instructions regarding their interventions, the flare-up of disagreement between Trotsky, Radek, and Zinoviev at the close of the tactics and strategy debate, and Lenin’s public chastisement of Radek, a few weeks after the congress, for rupturing the Moscow ‘peace agreement’ regarding the German party.
The hands-off attitude toward the ECCI’s record was also reflected in the membership of the day-to-day leadership (the Small Bureau or Presidium) chosen as the congress closed. In addition to Boris Souvarine from the French party, it was composed of Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin, Gennari, Heckert, Kun, all of whom had been identified to varying degrees with the Executive’s previous support of leftist currents.
The failure to assess the role of the ECCI emissaries in the March Action, while perhaps an unavoidable component of the compromise with which the congress concluded, had negative results. The focusing of criticism on the German party leadership, while the ECCI envoys’ role was passed over in silence, suggested that leadership accountability was not being dealt with in an even-handed manner and, even, that the ECCI itself was above criticism. Ongoing friction over the ECCI’s role figured in two splits from the German party in the subsequent year. However, in the period following the Third Congress, there was no further destructive intervention by an ECCI emissary similar to the Béla Kun mission to Berlin, and ECCI representatives played a useful role in promoting Communist unity in many parties.
Quite apart from the handling of the ECCI’s record, the broader political compromise at the congress served a necessary purpose. It achieved the central goal of rejecting leftist adventurism and carrying out an agreed-on strategic turn expressed in its slogan ‘To the masses’. While leaving some issues undiscussed or postponed for later clarification, it served a necessary goal – too often neglected in the socialist movement – of preserving the unity of revolutionary forces that was indispensable for further steps forward and providing a principled and broadly agreed basis for their further united action and discussion.
Copyright (c) 2014 John Riddell.
Other Articles on the Third Congress on this Website
- Ian Birchall: ‘An essential resource on communism’s early years’
- Clara Zetkin in the lion’s den
- Why did Paul Levi lose out in the German Communist leadership?
. Tony Cliff, Lenin volume IV, London, 1979, p. 110-21 – a whole chapter is entitled “The Great Cover-Up”.
. John Riddell, ed. 2014, To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, Leiden: Brill; hereinafter TTM. A paperback edition will be published by Haymarket Books early in 2016.
. See To the Masses (TTM), p. 1140.
. See TTM, p. 1150.
. See TTM, pp. 388 (Radek), 392–3 (scope of resolution), 921–3 (resolution).
. See pp. 298 (Zetkin on Béla Kun article), 296–8 (other Zetkin references), 312 and 488–9 (Heckert), 523 (Friesland), 387 (Loriot), 292–3 (Zetkin on Rákosi).
. See pp. 267 (Radek), 395 (Zinoviev), 275–81 (Marković), 296–8 (Zetkin), 387 (Loriot).
. Háyek and Mejdrová 1997, Die Entstehung der III. Internationale, p. 310; TTM, pp. 1153–5; Lenin, Collected Works, 32, p. 516.
. Comintern 1922a, p. 7; Fayet 2008, “Paul Levi and the Turning Point of 1921,” in Bolshevism, Stalinism, and the Comintern, ed. Norman LaPorte et al., pp. 119–20.
. On the post-congress record of the ECCI, see Riddell (ed.) 2011b, Toward the United Front, pp. 41–5 and passim. Pogány, sent by the ECCI to the US in 1922, organised a faction and took over effective leadership of the US party, but there is no evidence of ECCI involvement in this exploit; see Toward the United Front, p. 42, n. 111.