Lars Lih: ‘To the Masses’ is ‘A triumphant climax’ to an ‘epic scholarly venture’
Lars Lih, a noted historian of Russian Marxism, here assesses the newly published proceedings of the Communist International’s Third Congress (1921), placing it in the context of a 33-year project to publish the records of the revolutionary socialist movement in the era of the great Russian revolution. – JR
By Lars T. Lih. The publication of To the Masses brings to a triumphant climax one of the epic scholarly ventures of our time: John Riddell’s series entitled The Communist International in Lenin’s Time. The first volume in the series appeared in 1985 and the seventh final volume in 2015 – over 5,500 pages in all that cover the tumultuous period from 1907 to 1922. In these books we hear the authentic voice of a revolutionary epoch, as activists from all over the globe talk, fight, speechify, and search together for the elusive path to socialist revolution.
The series kicks off in 1907 with Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International that begins with debates within the Comintern’s predecessor, the Second Socialist International, over the issue of colonialism, and ends with the collapse of the Second International during the First World War.
When I purchased the second volume – The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power – the store clerk told me that although it was a documentary collection, it reads like a cliffhanger novel. He was right.
Founding the Communist International covers the first congress of the Comintern: a small isolated group that nevertheless felt a massive tide of world revolution was moving it forward.
The bulky title of the volume for the second congress – Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! – points to the revolutionary hopes and the global scope of the first really representative Comintern congress. The fifth entry in the series, To See the Dawn, switches from the Comintern proper to the Congress of the Peoples of the East that took place in Baku in late 1920. Although this volume is the shortest in the series, it also adumbrates the shift of the center of gravity of communist revolution from Western Europe to the global “East.”
To the Masses presents the proceedings of the 1921 Congress (owing to the vagaries of publishing, this penultimate volume is the last to be made available). The Comintern faces a new and even existential challenge, since revolutions in Western Europe are no longer on the immediate agenda. What is the future role of an institution that was created to function specifically in the now receding era of revolutions?
The search for a new role continued in 1922 in the last congress Lenin was able to attend. The title of this final volume – Toward the United Front – shows that in some ways the Comintern has come full circle. An organization that was born out of a desire to separate from the “opportunists” in the most energetic way possible now tries to find some sort of common ground with them.
To the Masses exhibits all the qualities that mark the other entries in the series – qualities that turn what is potentially a daunting reading experience (a 1,300-page record of congress proceedings!) into something gripping and dramatic. First, like they say, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard – and Riddell provides a scorecard in the form of a superb scholarly apparatus that lets us know who everybody is and what their political agendas are. Next, he provides a guide to the main debates of the congress, traces their roots in the past, and explains why they were important for the future. Finally, he proposes an interpretation of the historical significance of the congress and its contemporary relevance that orients our reading, even if we end up disagreeing with him.
The main reason that the Third Congress documented by To the Masses is so dramatic is the Märzaktion – the botched uprising carried out by the German Communist Party in March 1921, just a month or two before the Congress opened in Moscow. The fight over the meaning of the Märzaktion at the Congress was so charged and intense because, underneath the immediate issues of blame and counter-blame, it brought up a profound question of basic identity for the newly formed International: did the failure of the Marzaktion signal the end of the “era of war and revolutions” that commenced in 1914? If so, then what was the continuing role of an institution that had defined itself from its inception precisely in terms of imminent revolutionary struggle?
To the Masses also has some unique features – in particular, a series of appendices that reveals the infighting over the German question by means of previously unpublished and fascinating documents. The clashing agendas of the top Russian leaders – most prominently, Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek, and Bukharin – are displayed as never before, along with the reaction of German, Italian and other communists, who were by no means passive pawns awaiting orders. The challenge to prevailing stereotypes contained in the appendices will take a long time to assimilate fully.
Congratulations to John Riddell and the Historical Materialism Book Series for a volume that will fascinate anyone interested not only in the history, but also in the human feel and the continuing relevance, of the great revolutionary era – a volume that will rapidly become an oft-quoted and oft-analyzed standard source.