Learning from the rich debates of the past

Submitted by Matthew on 25 September, 2019 - 9:18 Author: Paul Hampton

The Communist International (Comintern), founded in the aftermath of the October 1917 Russian revolution, was the greatest forum for Marxist strategic debate so far.

The first five years of the Comintern, between 1919 and 1923 were a school for learning and discussing how revolutionary parties should be built, how to assess the situation and orientate, and how to win a majority of workers to socialism.

The publication of The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923, edited by Mike Taber, is extremely valuable. This volume is the eighth in the series begun by John Riddell. These books deserve a place on every socialist’s bookshelf – and this new volume is a welcome addition.

Taber’s book covers the last period of the Comintern’s high point, when there was still a clash of ideas and a striving for clarity. From 1924 the Communist Parties were drummed into being “monolithic” and increasingly became a tail of Stalinist foreign policy. From 1928 they were strong-armed into bureaucratically ultra-left policies.

Stalin formally wound up the Comintern in 1943. This volume contains three Comintern executive (ECCI) discussions. The most valuable were on the united front and fighting fascism.

After the 1917 revolution the Bolsheviks worked to rally the best militants to form Communist Parties.

A direct assault on power seemed possible, especially in 1919. However, by 1920-1, capitalism had stabilised at least temporarily, governments re-established their legitimacy, and the Social Democratic parties and union leaders restored their hegemony.

The Comintern recognised that, even where the Communist Parties were mass organisations, as in Germany, they were a minority. The task was to win a majority of workers for revolution. The Comintern had to reorientate those Communists who believed they could simply proclaim themselves the leadership of the working class.

They had to face down those who wanted to ignore vital sites of struggle, such as reformist trade unions and parliaments.

They had to convince the Communist Parties, often very new, often dominated by ultra-impatient young activists, to fight from within the mass movement for workers’ interests.

The united front tactic was developed to tackle these unavoidable obstacles. It arose in response to concrete developments in the class struggle – generalising from German conditions. The discussion shows how Marxist theory can develop in response to the needs of working class battles.

At the First Enlarged ECCI Plenum (21 February-4 March 1922), around a hundred communists discussed the situation. Two contributions from the German communist (KPD) leader August Thalheimer described how he and his comrades had started discussing ideas like the united front.

On 13-17 March 1920, right-wingers attempted to seize power in Germany in the “Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch”. This military coup failed due to a general strike declared by reformist union leader Carl Legien.

The initial response of the German KPD leaders was to refuse to “lift a finger” for the Weimar Republic, the parliamentary regime dominated by the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) which had come out of the first wave of revolutionary upheaval in Germany, in 1918-19. However KPD leader Paul Levi and much of the membership supported the general strike and pursued Legien’s call for a “workers’ government”.

The central leaders of the SPD and of the USPD (a party midway between the SPD and the KPD) rejected any alliance, but the putsch stimulated a discussion on how communists should seek to work with other workers’ parties (including their leaders) on common actions.

At Comintern level, articles by the Polish Comintern functionary Miechislaw Bronski (writing as Spartakus) and the veteran German socialist Clara Zetkin in the Communist International magazine used the term “united front” (Einheitsfront) to describe how the KPD could work sincerely alongside other workers’ organisations for limited goals.

These views were supported by Lenin and Trotsky from the Russian Bolsheviks, but at first opposed by many other Communists and Bolsheviks.

Lenin wrote one of his most important pamphlets, Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder on this issue.

The method of fighting alongside reformist workers and convincing them by common experiences of Marxist politics was debated at the Second Comintern Congress in July-August 1920, though the expression “united front” was not yet used.

In December 1920 the Stuttgart metalworkers, led by Communists, made an official call for joint struggle by the unions for the immediate needs of the working class. On 8 January 1921, Levi broadened this approach to the national level with an “Open Letter” to other labour movement bodies to fight on a programme of common demands.

In February 1921 the Comintern presidium debated the Open Letter. Lenin, Trotsky and Radek supported it. At the Third Comintern Congress (July 1921), the Theses on Tactics and Strategy explicitly endorsed the Open Letter, stating that it could “serve as a model of a starting point for campaigns”. Trotsky’s manifesto explicitly called for a united front.

The KPD (now led by Ernst Meyer) pursued various united front initiatives around taxation and paramilitary assassinations. In Saxony and Thuringia, the KPD faced the question of propping up SPD-USPD local governments – and the party decided to lend support.

The KPD’s Zentrale meeting on 16-17 November 1921 carried a “Resolution on the Political Situation and the Policies of the KPD”, calling on the working class to build a united front against the bourgeoisie.

In December 1921 ECCI theses summed up the united front policy. They endorsed KPD support for “a unified workers’ government that is willing to mount a reasonably serious challenge to capitalist power”. It also instructed the British Communists to “launch a vigorous campaign for their admission into the Labour Party”. In January 1922 the ECCI issued an appeal to “march together for a common fighting front”.

The First Enlarged ECCI heard a report from Zinoviev on the united front. He argued that the aspiration for unity was “almost always a revolutionary factor”. The power of the working class “consists in the fact that it embraces millions. It is a power arising from numbers”.

The united front was “not a policy of despair [but]… a policy for a new rise, which begins around economic issues but will move onto the political terrain”. He explained that the Bolsheviks had utilised united fronts, even if they did not use the phrase.

Clara Zetkin reported on the German railworkers’ strike, where the KPD deepened its united front policy. Radek explained that because the situation differed from one country to another, the demands of the united front had to be adapted to national and local conditions. In his pithy phrase, “The International never gave you a gramophone record”.

The united front was opposed by delegates from the characteristically “leftist” Italian Communist Party — and from the French Communist Party, which was much “softer” and less intransigent politically, but thought it could deal with the French Socialist Party by ignoring it.

Umberto Terracini from Italy said the united front tactic authorised “the participation by Communist parties in government under bourgeois rule” and “opened the door to collaboration with the powers-that-be”. Daniel Renoult from France said the Communist Party should “retain its purity, its irreconcilability, and its revolutionary firmness”.

In response Zinoviev argued that the united front was strictly a matter of workers’ unity against the bourgeoisie. The resolution said “the united front… in no way dulls our antagonism to reformism”.

The resolution described the British Labour Party as “a political amalgamation of the trade unions. It encompasses various political currents in the workers’ movement”. Reprising Lenin's argument from 1920, the ECCI requested that the British CP “seek to join the Labour Party”. (The major component of the British CP, the British Socialist Party, had been an affiliate of the Labour Party; but many leaders of the new CP opposed the idea).

“Preparations are needed to unite the working class around a common programme. In order to carry out this programme, the workers’ movement must unite in the effort to achieve a Labour government in the next general election. If the Labour Party goes to the masses with such a programme it will be successful, by creating a united front of the working class that will assure victory in this elections.”

The united front discussion continued at the Second Enlarged ECCI plenum (June 1922). Radek gave a particularly clear exposition of its scope and limitations. The united front involved “forming a political bloc with specific goals”, or rather making “specific demands related to the specific situation”.

Those who could only support a “united front from below” had missed the point: to get to the masses of social-democratic workers meant dealing with their leaders. If it were possible to achieve united workers’ action by bypassing existing working-class organisations, then there would be no need for united fronts at all.

Zinoviev’s remarks were not always coherent. In one contribution he described the united front slogan of a workers’ government as “a link between the two phases: grey partial demands and the sun of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, and yet he appeared to reject the KPD’s stance towards the Saxony government.

A few days later Zinoviev erroneously said that “the workers’ government is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a pseudonym for a soviet government: one that sits more easily with the ordinary worker. That is why we want to use this formula”. This confusion was only cleared away at the Fourth Comintern Congress (November-December 1922).

The Third Enlarged ECCI plenum (June 1923) was the site of the first major discussion in the international Marxist movement on the nature of fascism.

Zetkin’s report anticipated many of the themes found in Trotsky’s later writings on the struggle to stop the Nazis coming to power in Germany.

Many other Comintern leaders were less clear. In 1924 Zinoviev and others would describe Germany as already fascist, and the SPD as “a fascist Social Democracy”.

Zetkin located the social roots of fascism “in the dissolution of the capitalist economy and the bourgeois state” and in particular “the proletarianisation of bourgeois layers”. Fascism was “an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned”.

But fascism was also the result of labour movement failures. It was “punishment because the proletariat has not carried and driven forward the revolution that began in Russia”. It resulted from the “betrayal by the reformist leaders of the workers’ movement”.

Zetkin dissected the rise of fascism in Italy and the opportunities to stop it – notably the failed general strike on 1 August 1922.

Zetkin attempted to rouse communists to anti-fascist activity. She had organised the Frankfurt anti-fascist united front conference (17-20 March 1923). The worst thing was passivity, “inactivity, toward waiting, or toward the postponement of arming ourselves and struggling against fascism”.

Zetkin demanded urgent self-defence against fascism. At stake was “the proletarians’ personal safety and very existence; at stake is the survival of their organisations”. Proletarian self-defence against fascism was “one of the strongest forces driving to establish and strengthen the proletarian united front”.

Without the united front it was “impossible for the proletariat to carry out self-defence successfully”. But Zetkin was clear that “military means alone” cannot vanquish fascism. It also had to be “wrestled to the ground politically and ideologically”.

Voicing the attitudes of the ruling class at the time, British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon called the Communist International “an organisation that foments mischief”.

For socialist activists today who still want to foment mischief, the first five years of the Comintern remain an irreplaceable reference.

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