Paul Hampton begins a review article looking at the main documents and themes in John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Haymarket 2012).
Toward the United Front is a tremendous work of scholarship in the tradition of David Riazanov. Its 1,300 pages repay reading — it is a manual for revolutionary socialist strategy, in the words of many of its finest representatives.
The Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern), which took place in Russia in November-December 1922, was perhaps the greatest gathering of Marxists ever to assemble. Present were Lenin, Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, Preobrazhensky, Krupskaya, Marchlewski, Bukharin and others from the Russian Communist party. They debated with Zetkin, Gramsci, Rosmer, Serge, Souvarine, Meyer, Nin, Thalheimer, Tresso, Eberlein and Murphy from European Communist parties, Cannon and Swabeck from the US, as well as Asian Marxists such as Katayama Sen, Chen Duxiu, Tan Malaka, Liu Renjing and MN Roy. The clash of ideas was evident throughout, with “left” criticism from Bela Kun, Varga, Bordiga, Fischer and Urbahns. In total, 350 delegates from parties in 61 countries met for a month to hammer out global socialist strategy.
The African-American poet Claude McKay confessed with too much hyperbole that he feared speaking to “such an intellectually developed and critically minded world audience” more than facing a lynch-mob. In his closing speech, Zinoviev said that it was the first time the Comintern had met as “a genuinely international world party” and that the congress was “a great university for us all”. Arguably the Fourth Congress was the most important Comintern meeting, with the greatest relevance to today’s socialists, because it discussed strategy and tactics in circumstances of retreat but before the Comintern itself was ossified and cauterised by Stalinism.
Riddell’s volume contains for the first time in English all the speeches and resolutions from the main proceedings. These texts are particularly important for the Marxist tradition developed by Workers’ Liberty. Our forerunners published translations of parts of the congress record in the 1970s, when the texts were hard to find in English, in an effort to learn from the experiences of these revolutionaries. Reading the volume helps understand why we use terms like transitional demands, the united front and the workers’ government.
The watchword of the congress was, in the words of Clara Zetkin, “Clarity, clarity and again clarity!” The sentiment was echoed by the youth leader Richard Schüller, who recalled the old slogan: “First clarity, then majority”. Their underlining conception of hegemony was clear: Communist Parties sought to win the majority of the organised labour movement to their ideas as part of a strategy to win the majority of workers to self-liberation. But Communists did not stop at that: the intention was to win the leadership of all struggles against oppression and for democracy; they discussed the role of peasants, women’s liberation, anti-imperialism, racism and the national question.
There were a number of areas where the congress refined important Marxist ideas.
Delegates elucidated the meaning of perspectives in terms of the global political-economic situation, the balance of class forces and the conjuncture they found themselves in. From this assessment of reality, in which large and sometimes mass Communist parties had been formed but nowhere outside Russia did they represent more than a minority of workers, they elaborated strategies to win the majority of workers, as well as other oppressed groups.
A further field of development was the Marxist “holy trinity”, of the programme (including transitional demands), the united front and the crowning demand for a workers’ government. These informed assessments of fascism, of relations with other workers’ parties as well as work in the trade unions.
The discussion of the international political situation at the Fourth Congress took place on the same ground as laid down by the Third Comintern Congress in June-July 1921. The basic assessment, made by Leon Trotsky, was that the post-war revolutionary wave had ebbed, capitalism had temporarily stabilised, the working class was on the defensive and the Communist parties were in a minority. At the Fourth Congress, Trotsky expressed it in the following way: “An Italian journalist once asked me how we assess the world situation at present. I gave the following banal answer: ‘Capitalism is no longer capable of ruling... The working class is not yet capable of taking power, that is the distinctive feature of our time’”.
Karl Radek shared this assessment. He said: “What characterises the world we live in is that although world capitalism has not overcome its crisis, and the question of power is still objectively the core of every question, the broadest masses of the proletariat have lost the belief that they can conquer political power in the foreseeable future.” Tersely, he told the congress: “The conquest of power is not on the agenda as an immediate task”.
In his report of the Comintern executive committee, Gregorii Zinoviev proposed that “the Fourth Congress merely confirm the theses of Trotsky and Varga at the Third Congress on the economic situation”.
There was however some difference of emphasis among the Bolsheviks about the time-scale of these perspectives. Zinoviev argued that “what we are now experiencing is not one of capitalism’s periodic crises but the crisis of capitalism, its twilight, its disintegration”. The resolution On the Tactics of the Comintern stated that “What capitalism is experiencing today is nothing other than its downfall. The collapse of capitalism is inevitable”. However, Trotsky warned that “if the capitalist world lasts another several decades, well, that would be a sentence of death for socialist Russia” and Radek stated that the policies of the Communist International “embrace a perspective for an entire epoch, but must still be cut to the shape of the next immediate period”.
Another aspect of assessing the global capitalist system at the congress was the comments about imperialism.
The Second Congress in 1920 had largely adopted a Leninist analysis of imperialism, dividing the world mostly into oppressor imperial states and oppressed colonies. What was noticeable at the Fourth Congress was the virtual absence of references to Lenin’s views, even though his pamphlet Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism had been published in German and French in 1920 (it was first published in English in 1928).
Instead, most contributions appear to have been influenced by Rosa Luxemburg’s very different theory of imperialism. Willem van Ravesteyn, the main reporter on the “Eastern Question”, made this connection explicit: “Comrades, our unforgettable pioneer and theoretician Rosa Luxemburg provided proof in her greatest and best theoretical work that the process of capital accumulation cannot take place without a surrounding non-capitalist territory, on which it acts destructively. In other words, without older, precapitalist modes of production that it destroys”. He added later: “Because the liberation of the Islamic and other Eastern peoples signifies that their tribute to European capitalism immediately ceases. The accumulation of capital cannot proceed without this tribute”.
Similarly, August Thalheimer quoted Luxemburg and criticised Kautsky, Hilferding and Lenin on imperialism. Even Nikolai Bukharin, who had criticised Luxemburg’s book on imperialism, argued that the growth of capitalism was based “essentially on bourgeoisie’s colonial policy and the flowering of industry on the European continent was rooted mainly in the exploitation of the colonial peoples”.
Some of these conceptions were also articulated in the supplementary theses at the Second Congress in 1920. The author of those theses was the Indian Communist MN Roy. However at the Fourth Congress he introduced some dissent. He argued: “Imperialism is right now making the attempt to save itself through the development of industry in colonial countries... India... was during the war permitted adequate industrial development… Of course we can raise the objection that this cannot happen, because it is in imperialism’s interests to keep the colonial countries backward in order to absorb all goods produced in the dominant countries. Well and good, but that is a very mechanical way to view the question”.
This rebuke is an important counter to dependency-type theories of imperialism that have carried over to today. Capitalism has been able to develop without colonies since World War Two and capitalist development has not been confined to core European and North American states. To deny capitalist development across the globe, or that many states are not really politically independent, that they remain neo-colonies are both theoretically wrong in the present but also effectively arguments used to justify workers’ subordination to nationalist forces.
A somewhat underdeveloped assessment was made of the nature of fascism. The discussion was highly prescient. A month before the gathering, Mussolini had organised his march on Rome and had come to power in Italy. Getting to grips with this development was vital for the whole international.
A number of comments at the Fourth Congress indicated that a specific analysis of fascism was still lacking. Amadeo Bordiga, leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), argued that “fascism does not represent any new political doctrine” and that “our analysis leads to the conclusion that fascism has added nothing to the traditional ideology and programme of bourgeois politics”. In his opening report, Zinoviev gave unstinting praise to the Italian party despite the defeat it had suffered: “If we were to develop a policy manual for Communist parties, then Italy will provide the most important chapter, the most important example” .
However, this line was contested. Two days before the opening session, the German Communist party (KPD) adopted a motion instructing its delegation to urge an international campaign against fascism. Delegates from Germany, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia raised the issue during the congress proceedings. Bukharin argued that “fascism is not merely an organisational form that the bourgeois had in the past; it is a newly discovered form that is adapted to the new movement by drawing in the masses”. Similarly, Radek said that the fascists represented bourgeois counter-revolution, were wreckers of workers’ organisations who maintained the power of the bourgeoisie. He said: “I believe Mussolini is something different [from other bourgeois politicians]... and his distinctive character is extremely important”.
By the time it came to the debate on Italy, Zinoviev had changed his tune and adopted the main points of his adversaries. He criticised the PCI for making “gross errors” such as failing to work with the Arditi del Popolo to form workers’ defence guards. Instead he said the united front against fascism was needed. However, Zinoviev still managed to equate social democracy with fascism, in terms that would be adopted disastrously by Stalin’s third period during the rise of Hitler.
Although some progress had been made, it was still a long way from Trotsky’s more sophisticated assessment in the early 1930s.