100 years after the foundation of the Communist International: What lessons can we draw for future combats? (part three)

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Baku Congress, 1920: "support for colonial revolutions" really meant grave concessions to nationalism by the Comintern

In the previous parts of this article, we began by identifying the conditions in which the Third or Communist International was formed in March 1919. In a very complicated context, the revolutionaries of that time did not manage to clarify all the new questions and challenges facing the proletariat.

Furthermore, the process of regroupment of revolutionary forces was marked by the lack of a firm attitude to revolutionary principles at the foundation of the International. This is one of the lessons which the Italian Fraction of the communist left grouped around the review Bilan, and then above all by the Gauche Communiste de France (Internationalisme) drew from the experience of the CI: “the ‘broad’ method, with its concern above all to rally the greatest possible numbers straight away at the expense of precise principles and programme, led to the formation of mass parties, real giants with feet of clay, which were to fall under the sway of opportunism”[1].

While the founding Congress was a real step forward in the unification of the world proletariat, the evolution of the CI in the years that followed was marked essentially by regressions which disarmed the revolution in the face of the counter-revolutionary forces which were more and more gaining ground. The rampant opportunism within the ranks of the party was not eliminated as Lenin and the Bolsheviks envisaged. On the contrary, with the degeneration of the revolution, it ended up taking a preponderant place and hastened the end of the CI as a class party. This opportunist dynamic, already visible by the Second Congress, only deepened after that, both on the programmatic and organisational levels, as we will try to show in this article.

1920-21: The retreat of the revolutionary wave

Following the Third Congress of the CI[2], revolutionaries were beginning to understand that the revolution would be more difficult than they had thought. A few days after the end of the Congress, Trotsky analysed the situation thus:

“The Third Congress took note of the further falling apart of the economic foundations of bourgeois rule. But it has at the same time forcibly warned the advanced workers against any naive conceptions that this will lead automatically to the death of the bourgeoisie through an uninterrupted offensive by the proletariat. Never before has the bourgeoisie’s class instinct of self-preservation been armed with such multiform methods of defence and attack as today. The economic preconditions for the victory of the working class are at hand. Failing this victory, and moreover unless this victory comes in the more or less near future, all civilisation is menaced with decline and degeneration. But this victory can be gained only by the skilled conduct of battles and, above all, by first conquering the majority of the working class. This is the main lesson of the Third Congress.”[3]

This is far removed from the overweening enthusiasm of the Founding Congress, where, in his closing speech, Lenin asserted that “the victory of the proletarian revolution on a world scale is assured. The founding of an international Soviet republic is on the way”. In the intervening period, the assaults launched by the proletariat in a number of countries had come up against the riposte of the bourgeoisie. And in particular we saw the failure of the attempt to take power in Germany in 1919, whose significance was underestimated by revolutionaries.

As the great majority in the ranks of the CI saw it, the crisis of capitalism and its fall into decadence could only hurl the masses onto the road of revolution. However, a consciousness of the scale of the goal to be attained and the means to reach it was well below the level required. This situation was particularly visible after the Second Congress, marked by a series of difficulties which were further isolating the proletariat in Russia:

  • In western Europe, workers’ struggles had not achieved the hoped-for victories. In Italy the bourgeoisie had succeeded in channelling and sterilising the movement. In Germany, the adventurist action of March 1921[4], piloted by the KPD with the support of the CI, ended in a crushing and demoralising failure;
  • On the military level, the offensive of the Red Army in Poland ended in defeat and the retreat from Warsaw, preventing the establishment of a bridge between the working class in Russia and the working class in western Europe;
  • In Russia itself, the civil war had given rise to serious food shortages and a dramatic economic and social situation which made it necessary to put an end to the war economy and its nationalisations and restore a certain level of commodity exchange. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was adopted in March 1921;
  • At the same moment, the repression of the uprising of the Kronstadt sailors took place. An error which had disastrous consequences for the relations between the masses and the Communist Party in Russia.

If the international bourgeoisie did not succeed in totally annihilating the proletarian revolution at this point, it was nevertheless the case that the heart of the revolution, Russia of the Soviets, was particularly isolated. Although Lenin described the situation as “a state of equilibrium which, although highly unstable and precarious, enables the Socialist Republic to exist—not for long, of course—within the capitalist encirclement[5], with hindsight we can affirm that the multiple failures and difficulties which appeared between 1920 and 1921 already heralded the defeat of the revolutionary wave. It is in this particularly difficult context that we propose to analyse the policies of the CI. Policies which, on a number of points, expressed an increasingly opportunist retreat.

  1. The disastrous consequences of support for “national liberation movements”

A. A question that had not yet been settled in the workers’ movement

The national question was one of the unresolved questions in the revolutionary movement at the time the CI was constituted. While it is true that during the ascendant period of capitalism revolutionaries had sometimes supported national struggles, this was not a matter of principle. The debate had arisen again in the years preceding the First World War. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first to understand that the entry of capitalism into its phase of decadence also meant that every nation state had an imperialist nature. Consequently, the struggle of one nation to liberate itself from another aimed only at defending the interests of one bourgeoisie against another and in no way the interests of the working class.

The Bolsheviks adopted a position which was that of the social democratic centre, since the right of peoples to self-determination had appeared in the 1903 programme. “The tenaciousness with which the Bolsheviks clung to this position, despite opposition from without and from within, is best explained by the fact that Tsarist Russia was the perpetrator of national oppression par excellence (‘the prison-house of nations’) and that as a mainly ‘Great Russian’ party in geographical terms the Bolsheviks considered that granting nations oppressed by Russia the right to secede as the best way of winning the confidence of the masses in these countries. This position, though it proved to be erroneous, was based on a working class perspective. In a period in which the Social Imperialists of Germany, Russia, and elsewhere were arguing against the right of peoples oppressed by German or Russian imperialism to struggle for national liberation, the slogan of national self-determination was put forward by the Bolsheviks as a way of undermining Russian and other imperialisms and of creating the conditions for a future unification of the workers in both oppressing and oppressed nations.”[6]. While Lenin considered that the “right of nations to self-determination” had become an obsolete demand in the western countries, the situation was different in the colonies where the blossoming of national liberation movements was part of the formation of an independent capitalism which contributed to the appearance of a proletariat. In these conditions, national self-determination remained a progressive demand in the eyes of Lenin and the majority of the Bolshevik party.

Understanding that imperialism was not simply a form of pillage perpetrated by the developed countries at the expense of backward nations but the expression of the totality of capitalist relations on a global scale, Rosa Luxemburg was able to develop the most lucid critique of national liberation struggles in general and the position of the Bolsheviks in particular. In opposition to the fragmented vision of the Bolsheviks which considered that the proletariat could have different tasks in a given geographic location, Rosa Luxemburg adopted an approach which described a global process, in the context of a world market which would increasingly come up against insurmountable obstacles: “In this context it was impossible for any new nation state to enter into the world market on an independent basis, or to undergo the process of primitive accumulation outside this barbaric global chessboard”[7]. Consequently, “In the contemporary imperialist milieu there can be no wars of national defence[8]

This ability to grasp the fact that any national bourgeoisie could only operate inside the imperialist system led her to criticise the national policy of the Bolsheviks after 1917, when the Soviets accepted the independence of Ukraine, Finland, Lithuania, etc, in order to “win over the masses”. The following lines admirably prophesy the consequences of the national policy of the CI in the 1920s: “One after another, these ‘nations’ used the freshly granted freedoms to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself.”[9]

B. The Baku Congress

The national question was raised for the first time in the CI during the Second World Congress. Beginning from the erroneous conception of imperialism held by the Bolsheviks in particular, the Congress considered that “a policy must be pursued that will achieve the closest alliance, with Soviet Russia, of all the national and colonial liberation movements. The form of this alliance should be determined by the degree of development of the communist movement in the proletariat of each country, or of the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement of the workers and peasants in backward countries or among backward nationalities.”[10].

The Congress of the Peoples of the East, held in Baku between the 1st and the 8th of September 1920, was given the task of putting into practice the orientations of the Second World Congress which had finished a few weeks earlier. Nearly 1900 delegates, coming mainly from the Near East and Asia, met together. While nearly two thirds of the organisations represented proclaimed themselves to be communist, their adherence was extremely superficial. “The national elites were more attracted to the organisation and effectiveness of the modes of action proposed by the Bolsheviks than by communist ideology”[11]. This is why the assembly was a grand bazaar made up of multiple classes and social strata, coming for all sorts of reasons, but very few with the firm intention of working consciously for the development of the world proletarian revolution. The description of the composition of the Congress given by Zinoviev to the Executive Committee of the CI after his return from Baku needs no comment: “The Baku Congress was composed of a communist fraction and a much bigger non-party fraction. The latter was in turn divided into two groups: one effectively made up of non-party elements, including the representatives of the peasants and the semi-proletarian population of the towns, the other formed by people who defined themselves as non-party but in fact belonged to bourgeois parties”[12].

For a number of delegations, the building of a revolutionary communist movement in the East was secondary and even of no interest. For many of them, it was a question of ensuring the aid of Soviet Russia in order to kick out British colonialism and realise their own dreams of national sovereignty.

What was the attitude of the representatives of the CI towards these evidently bourgeois demands? Instead of defending proletarian internationalism with the greatest firmness, the CI delegation insisted on its support for bourgeois nationalist movements, and called on the peoples of the East to join “the first truly Holy war, under the red banner of the Communist International”, in order to wage a crusade against “the common enemy, British imperialism”.

The important concessions accorded to the nationalist parties and the whole policy carried out at Baku was already dictated by the need to defend the Soviet Republic rather than by the interests of the world revolution.  This central position of the CI, established at the Second Congress, showed how far the opportunist tendency had gained ground. There were of course criticisms of these attempts to reconcile nationalism and proletarian internationalism: Lenin warned against “painting nationalism red”, and John Reed, who had been present at Baku, also objected to “this demagogy and this parade”, but “such responses failed to address the roots of the opportunist course being followed, remaining instead on a centrist terrain of conciliation with more open expression of opportunism, and hiding behind the Theses of the Second Congress, which, to say the least, covered a multitude of sins in the revolutionary movement[13]

C. Little by little, the CI becomes an instrument of Russian imperialism

The retreat of the revolution in western Europe and the isolation of the proletariat in Russia in the most dramatic conditions gradually led the CI to become an instrument of Bolshevik foreign policy – the Bolsheviks themselves, as the years passed, turning into the administrators of Russian capital[14]. While this fatal evolution was partly linked to the Bolsheviks’ erroneous ideas about the relationship between class, party and state in the period of transition, the main reason lay in the irreversible degeneration of the revolution from the 1920s on.[15]

It was first and foremost in the name of the defence of the Soviet State that the Bolsheviks and the CI would make alliances with or directly support national liberation movements. From 1920, the world party gave its support to the movement of Kemal Atatürk , whose interests were very far from the policies of the International, as Zinoviev admitted. But this alliance was a means to push the British out of the region. Even though this nationalist movement would shortly execute the leaders of the Communist Party of Turkey, the CI continued to see potential in it, and maintained its alliance with a country whose geographical position was strategically important to the Russian state. This didn’t stop Kemal from turning on his ally and making an alliance with the Entente in 1923.

If the policy of support for national liberation movements was, for a certain period, an erroneous position within the workers’ movement, by the end of the 1920s it had become the imperialist strategy of a capitalist power like all the others. The CI’s support for the Kuomintang nationalists in China which led to the massacre of the workers of Shanghai in 1927 was a decisive episode in this process of degeneration. Before that, the CI had supported the nationalist movement led by Abd El-Krim in the war of the Rif (1921-26) and the Druze in Syria in 1926. Consequently “such overt acts of treason demonstrated that the Stalinist faction, which had by then won almost complete dominion over the CI and its parties, was no longer an opportunist current within the workers’ movement but a direct expression of the capitalist counter-revolution”[16]

II Winning the masses at the expense of principles

  1. The formation of “mass” Communist Parties in the West

As we showed in the first part of this study[17], only a handful of properly constituted Communist Parties were present at the Founding Congress of the CI in March 1919. In the weeks that followed, the International undertook a whole work aimed at forming Communist Parties: “The Communist International does not aim to form small communist sects seeking to exert influence on the working masses through propaganda and agitationRather, from the earliest days after its formation, it has clearly and unambiguously pursued the goal of taking part in the struggles of the working masses, leading these struggles in a communist direction, and, through the struggle, forming large, tested, mass revolutionary Communist Parties”.[18] This orientation was based on the conviction that there would be a rapid extension of the revolution in western Europe, and consequently that there was a pressing need to equip the working class in different countries with parties that would make it possible to guide the revolutionary action of the masses.

Thus the Bolsheviks pushed not only for the formation of mass Communist Parties as quickly as possible, but also on the basis of a compromise between the left wing of the workers’ movement and the centrist current which had not broken with the views and weaknesses of the Second International. In the majority of cases, these parties were not engendered out of nothing but emerged from a decantation within the Socialist Parties of the Second International. This was notably the case with the Communist Party of Italy, formed at the Livorno Congress of January 1921, or of the French Communist Party which saw the light of day at the Tours Congress of December 1920. Thus, from their inception, the parties carried within themselves a whole series of organisational detritus and weaknesses which could only further compromise the capacity of these organisations to give a clear orientation to the masses. While Lenin and the main animators of the International were fully aware of these concessions being made and the danger this could represent, they counted on the capacity of the parties to fight against them. In reality, Lenin seriously underestimated the danger. The adoption of the 21 conditions for joining the CI at the Second World Congress, which was rightly considered a step forward in the struggle against reformism, was not really followed up. Lenin’s whole approach was based on the idea that the march towards the revolution could not be interrupted, that the development of the CI at the expense of the Second International and the Two and Half International was more or less an accomplished fact[19] .

In a situation where the masses were not yet ready to take power, “the Communist Parties’ current task consists not in accelerating the revolution, but in intensifying the preparation of the proletariat.”[20]. For these reasons, one of the orientations of the Second Congress was to “unite the scattered Communist forces, to form a single Communist Party in every country (or to reinforce or renovate the already existing Party) in order to increase tenfold the work of preparing the proletariat for the conquest of political power—political power, moreover, in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The ordinary socialist work conducted by groups and parties which recognise the dictatorship of the proletariat has by no means undergone that fundamental reorganisation, that fundamental renovation, which is essential before this work can be considered communist work and adequate to the tasks to be accomplished on the eve of proletarian dictatorship.”[21] A correct orientation but based on an erroneous practice.

This explains the aberration of the fusion between the USPD[22] and the KPD at the Halles Congress of 12 October 1920. The most significant example is probably the creation of the French Communist Party (PCF). The latter was formed in December 1920 following a split with the SFIO (Socialist Party) whose main leaders had rallied to the “Union Sacrée” during the First World war. Its birth was the result of a compromise, encouraged by the CI, between the left (a weak minority) and a centrist current which was strongly in the majority. As we have shown in our pamphlet How the PCF passed over to the service of capital[23], “this tactic was a disaster because membership was not – unlike all the other European CPs – based on the Twenty One conditions for joining the CI, which demanded in particular a complete and definitive break with the opportunist policy of centrism towards reformism, social patriotism and pacifism, but on much less selective criteria. The objective of this tactic of the CI was to draw the majority to separate from the right wing of social democracy, an openly patriotic party which had participated in capitalist governments…The centrist majority of the new party was infested with opportunists, who had more or less ‘repented’ of having joined the Union Sacrée… At the same time, the party was also joined by another important component, saturated with anarchist-type federalism (represented in particular by the Federation of the Seine), which on every occasion, on the organisational level, lined up with the centre against the left to oppose international centralisation and above all the orientations of the CI towards the young French party”. Gangrened by opportunism, the PCF would submit fully to the degeneration of the CI, which began to weigh heavily at the Third Congress. It was to become one of the principal agents of Stalinism[24]. It was the same in Italy since, following a split with the Socialist Party of Italy at the Livorno Congress, the CP of Italy was made up of a marxist, communist left wing resolutely committed to the struggle against opportunism in the CI, and a centre led by Gramsci and Togliatti, incapable of understanding the political role of the soviets as centralised organs of power, and underestimating the political role of the party. The centre of the party was then to act as the support for the CI in the exclusion of the left during the period of “Bolshevisation”.

Finally, the most caricatural example was perhaps that of the CP of Czechoslovakia, formed around the Šmeral tendency which had supported the Hapsburg monarchy during the imperialist war of 1914-18.

How can we explain such compromises? How can we explain that the Bolsheviks, who for years had waged a hard battle to preserve intransigent principles, came to accept such concessions? The Communist Left of Italy attentively examined this episode and put forward an initial response: “It is evident that this was not a sudden conversion of the Bolsheviks to another approach towards the formation of Communist Parties, but essentially based on a historic perspective which envisaged the possibility of avoiding the difficult path that led to the foundation of the Bolshevik Party. In 1918-20, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were counting on the immediate outbreak of the world revolution and, because of this, saw the foundation of Communist Parties in different countries as so many support bases for the revolutionary action of the Russian state, which seemed to them to be the essential element in the overthrow of the capitalist world”[25].

Undoubtedly, the halt in the advance of the revolution during this period and the desperate efforts to deal with it led Lenin and the Bolsheviks to lower their guard on the defence of principles and so to fall into opportunism. But it was also the persistence of errors on the tasks of the party and its relationship to the class which contributed to forcing the formation of CPs on a totally confused basis in a period marked by the first retreats of the proletariat.

B. The creation of “phantom” Communist Parties in the East

The opportunist method through which its member parties were formed found its ultimate expression in the birth of Communist Parties in the colonial world.

After the Baku Congress, the Executive of the CI set up a central bureau for Asia, in charge of work towards the Middle East and as far as India. This organ, composed of Sokolnikov, Grefor Safarov and MN Roy, was installed in Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Then in January 1921, a CI secretariat of the Far East was set up in Irkutsk. Thus, faced with the retreat of the revolution in western Europe, the CI wanted to give itself the means to “accelerate” the revolution in the East. With this objective, between 1919 and 1923, in the East and the Far East, Communist Parties were formed on extremely fragile theoretical and political bases.

Before this period, CPs had arisen in Turkey, Iran, Palestine and Egypt, but as the Trotskyist historian Pierre Broué observed, “There was no lack of problems between the International and these Communist Parties who knew nothing about communism and represented countries where properly proletarian strata were insignificant. Which didn’t prevent their leaders from claiming a doctrinal purity and a rigorously workerist schema for the revolution which they believed to be at hand[26].

In India, the elements who were moving towards the International all had a nationalist past. The best know was MN Roy. The CI ordered the group formed around the latter to enter into the nationalist Congress Party led by Gandhi, initially by making an alliance with the so-called “revolutionary” and “communist” left wing, then with all the factions opposed to Gandhi following the violent clashes that took place on 4 February 1922 during a campaign of civil disobedience launched by Gandhi himself[27]. Roy was led to defend an openly opportunist programme within the Congress Party: national independence, universal suffrage, abolition of large landed property, nationalisation of public services. What’s more, the goal was not to get its programme adopted but to provoke its rejection by the leadership of the party which would thus “unmask” itself. This enterprise ended in utter failure. Roy’s programme didn’t receive any favourable echo and the life of the “communist” group very quickly degenerated into internal quarrels. After that the communists were very harshly repressed. They were arrested and then convicted of conspiracy, which put an end to the policies of the CI in India[28].

In east Asia, the CI more or less adopted the same irresponsible approach. The structuring of a communist movement in China was led by the Far Eastern Bureau through making contact with intellectuals and students who had been won over to “Bolshevism”. The Communist Party of China was constituted at a conference held in Shanghai in July 1921. Made up of a few dozen militants it then went through a significant phase of growth, reaching nearly 20,000 members in 1927. While this numerical reinforcement did express the revolutionary spirit which animated the Chinese working class in a period of intense social struggles, it nevertheless remained the case that militants joined the party on very superficial theoretical and political bases. Again, the same irresponsible method opened the door to the disarming of the party faced with the opportunist policy of the CI towards the Kuomintang. In January 1922, the Conference of the Peoples of the East held in Moscow laid the bases for class collaboration through an “anti-imperialist bloc”. At the instigation of the CI’s Executive, the Chinese CP launched the slogan of a the “anti-imperialist united front with the Kuomintang” and called for communists to join the latter as individuals. This policy of class collaboration was the result of secret negotiations between the USSR and the Kuomintang. In June 1923 the Third Congress of the Chinese CP voted for its members to join the Kuomintang. At first this policy of subordinating itself to a bourgeois party met with opposition from within the young party, and this included part of its leadership[29]. But the political fragility and inexperience of this opposition rendered it incapable of effectively combating the erroneous and suicidal directives of the International. And so “this policy had disastrous consequences for the working class movement in China. While strike movements and demonstrations arose spontaneously and impetuously, the Communist Party, merged with the Kuomintang, was incapable of orientating the working class, of putting forward independent class politics, despite the incontestable heroism of the communist militants who were frequently found in the front ranks of the workers’ struggles. Equally bereft of unitary organisations of political struggle, such as the workers’ councils, at the demand of the CPC itself the working class put its confidence in the Kuomintang, in other words in the bourgeoisie.”[30]

We could give many more examples of Communist Parties formed in backward countries where the working class was very weak and which, in the wake of defeats, very quickly became bourgeois organisations. For now it’s necessary to insist that the formation of “mass parties”, in the West as well as the East, was a factor aggravating the difficulties of the proletariat to face up to the reflux of the revolutionary wave, making it impossible to conduct a retreat in good order.

C. The policy of the United Front

At its Third Congress, the CI adopted the policy of the “Workers’ United Front”[31]. This involved making alliances with the organisations of social democracy, carrying out common actions with similar demands, with the idea that this would unmask the counter-revolutionary role of these organisations in the eyes of the masses.

This orientation was fully concretised at the Fourth Congress and marked a complete about-turn with regard to the founding Congress, in which the new International announced its clear determination to fight against all the forces of the social democratic current, inviting “the workers of all countries to struggle energetically against the Yellow International and protect the broad masses from this lying and fraudulent organisation[32]. What was it that, only two years later, pushed the CI to adopt a policy of alliances with parties which had been turned into the most effective agents of the counter-revolution?

Had they made an honourable amends and repented of their former crimes? Quite obviously not. Here again it was a question of “not cutting ourselves off from the masses”: “The argument of the CI to justify the necessity for the United Front was based mainly on the fact that the reflux had reinforced the weight of social democracy, and that, to fight against it, it was necessary not to cut yourself off from the masses who were prisoners of this mystification. It was necessary to work towards a denunciation of social democracy via alliances with it, in the case of the strongest Communist Parties (In Germany, the CP came out in favour of a unified proletarian front and recognised the possibility of supporting a united workers’ government), or via entrism for the weaker parties (‘The British Communists must launch a vigorous campaign for their admittance to the Labour Party, as it said in the Theses on the United Front from the Fourth Congress)”[33].

This opportunist line was combated and sharply denounced by the groups on the left of the CI. The KAPD began the struggle at the Third Congress prior to being expelled from the CI shortly afterwards. The left of the CP of Italy followed it at the Fourth Congress, declaring that the party would not accept “being part of organisms made up of different political organisations…it would thus avoid participating in joint declarations with political parties when these declarations contradicted its programme and are presented to the proletariat as the result of negotiations aiming at finding a common line of action” [34] Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group also rejected the United Front. In its Manifesto it defended a position towards the parties of the Second International that was clearly in conformity with the interests of the revolution: “It will not be the United Front with the Second International or the Two and a Half International which will lead to the victory of the revolution, but the war against them. That is the slogan of the future world social revolution”. History would confirm the foresight and intransigence of the groups of the left. With the inversion of the balance of forces, the dominant ideology regained its hold over the masses. In these circumstances, the role of the party was not to follow the direction of the class but to defend the revolutionary programme and principles within it. In the period of the decadence of capitalism, the return to a “minimum programme”, even on a temporary basis, had become impossible. This was another lesson drawn later on by the Communist Left of Italy: “In 1921, the change in the situation did not alter the fundamental characteristic of the epoch as the revolutionary turbulence of 1923, 1925, 1927 and 1934 (to name only the most important) was to fully confirm… Such a change in the situation would obviously have consequences for the Communist Parties. But the problem was the following: was it necessary to modify the substance of the politics of the Communist Parties, or to deduce from the unfavourable circumstances the need to call on the masses to come together around partial struggles while remaining oriented to a revolutionary outcome[35], once the defeats suffered made it impossible to call directly for the insurrection? The Third Congress, the Enlarged Executive of 1921 and more overtly the Fourth Congress gave a solution to this problem which was prejudicial to the interests of the cause. This was above all through the question of the United Front”[36]


As we have just seen, the period from the Second to that after the Third Congress was marked by a significant penetration of opportunism into the ranks of the Comintern. This was the direct consequence of the erroneous policy of “conquering the masses” at the price of compromises and concessions: support for national liberation struggles, alliance with the traitor parties of the IInd International, participation in parliament and the trade unions, formation of mass parties…The CI was turning its back on what had been the strength of the left fractions within the IInd International: the intransigent defence of communist principles and programme. This is what Herman Gorter pointed out to Lenin in 1920: “Now you are working in the Third International differently from the time when you were the party of maximalism. The latter was kept very ‘pure’ and perhaps it still is. Whereas according to you we must now welcome into the International all those who are half, quarter, maybe even one eighth communists…The Russian revolution triumphed through ‘purity’, through the firmness of its principles… Instead of now applying this proven tactic to all the other countries, and thus strengthening the Third International from within, now you are making a volte-face and just like social democracy of yesterday, are going over to opportunism. This is what we are now told to enter: the unions, the Independents, the French centre, a portion of the Labour Party”[37].

The fundamental error of the Communist International was to consider that, merely by its own efforts, it was possible to “conquer” the working masses, to free them from the influence of social democracy and thus raise their level of consciousness and lead them to communism.

From this flowed the policy of the United Front to unmask and denounce social democracy; participation in parliament to make use of the divisions among the bourgeois parties; work in trade unions in order to bring them back to the proletarian camp and the side of the revolution[38]. None of the attempts had the hoped-for results. On the contrary, they only precipitated the CI towards betraying the proletarian camp. Instead of raising class consciousness, these tactics simply spread confusion and disorientation among the masses, rendering them more vulnerable to the traps of the bourgeoisie. Although the groups on the left of the CI never managed to unite, they all agreed on the suicidal nature of this policy which they saw as leading to the defeat of the workers’ movement and the death of the revolution. At root these groups defended a very different vision of the relationship between party and class[39]. The role of the party was not to fuel the illusions in the class and still less to embroil it in dubious and dangerous tactics but rather to raise its level of consciousness through a defence of proletarian principles and to ensure that no concessions were made on matters of principle. This was the only real compass that could point in the direction of revolution at a time when the wave unleashed by October 1917 in Russia was going through its first retreats. (to be continued)

Najek, 16 June 2020

[1] Internationalisme no 7, 1945. ‘The left fraction, method for forming the party’, International Review 162

[2] This Congress took place between June 21 and the beginning of July 1921.

[3] “The main lessons of the Third Congress”, July 1921. The idea of winning over the majority of the working class, in the context of the day, already contained the germs of the idea of conquering the masses at the expense of principles, as we aim to show in this article.

[4] “The March Action 1921: the danger of petty bourgeois impatience”, International Review 93

[5] “Theses for a report on the tactics of the RCP”, presented to the Third Congress of the CI

[6] ICC pamphlet, Nation or Class?

[7] Ibid. The rise of China as a major imperialist contender at the end of the 20th century does not overturn this overall analysis: first because it arose in the specific circumstances brought about by capitalist decomposition, and secondly because its emergence as a highly militarised and expansionist state has no progressive content whatever.

[8]Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet, 1915.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1918

[10] “Theses on the national and colonial question”, Second Congress of the CI

[11] Edith Chabrier, “Les delégués du premier Congrès des peuples d’Orient (Bakou, 1er-8 septembre 1920)” in Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, vol 26, no. 1, January March 1985, pp21-42

[12] ibid

[13] “Communists and the National Question, part three”, International Review 42

[14] ibid

[15] See “The degeneration of the Russian revolution” in International Review 3

[16] “Communists and the National Question, part three”, International Review 42

[17] “100 years after the foundation of the Communist International: What lessons can we draw for future combats?”, International Review 162

[18] Theses on Tactics, Third Congress of the CI

[19] “The parties of the Communist International will become mass revolutionary parties only when they overcome the remnants and traditions of opportunism in their ranks. This can be done by seeking close ties with the struggling masses of workers, deducing their tasks from the proletariat’s ongoing struggles, rejecting the opportunist policy of covering up and concealing the unbridgeable antagonisms, and also avoiding revolutionary verbiage that obstructs insight into the real relationship of forces and overlooks the difficulties of the struggle.” “Theses on Tactics”, Third Congress of the CI

[20] “The fundamental tasks of the Communist International”, Second Congress of the CI, July 1920

[21] ibid

[22] Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, the majority of which had not broken from reformism and in fact rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat and organisation in workers’ councils.

[23] Comment le PCF est passé au service du capital, ICC pamphlet in French

[24] For more details see our pamphlet on the history of the PCF

[25] « En marge d’un anniversaire », Bilan n°4, February 1934.

[26] Pierre Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, 1919-1943, Fayard, 1997

[27] Although Roy himself was opposed to this tactic

[28] Op Cit Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste

[29] One of the founding members of the party, Chen Duxiu made a lucid critique of this orientation. “The main reason for our opposition was this: entering the Kuomintang brought confusion into the class organisation, obstructed our politics and meant subordinating it to those of the Kuomintang. The CI delegate literally told us that ‘the present period is one in which communists have to do coolie work for the Kuomintang’. From that point on, the party was no longer the party of the proletariat. It transformed itself into the extreme left of the bourgeoisie and began to descend into opportunism” (Chen Duxiu, “Letter to all the comrades of the Chinese CP”, 10 December 1929, in Broué , op cit

[30] “China’s ‘revolution’ of 1949: a link in the chain of imperialist war”, International Review 81

[31] The “open Letter” of 7 January 1921 addressed by the KPD Centrale to other organisations (SPD, USPD, KAPD), calling for common action among the masses and the struggles to come, was one of the premises of this policy.

[32] “Attitude towards the Socialist currents and the Berne Conference”, First CI Congress

[33] “Front unique, front anti-prolétarien”, Révolution Internationale no 45, January 1978

[34] Intervention of the delegation of the CP of Italy at the Fourth Comintern Congress, in our book The Italian Communist Left

[35] Given that the conditions for the extension of the revolution were becoming less favourable, it would have been more pertinent to talk about “partial struggles…oriented to a revolutionary perspective

[36] Bilan, April 1934

[37] Herman Gorter, Reply to comrade Lenin on Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, 1920

[38] The union question was already examined in the first part of this series so we won’t return to it here. Let’s recall however that whereas the First Congress had registered the bankruptcy of the unions as well as of social democracy (although the debate on the class nature of the unions in the wake of the First World War was not closed), the CI reversed its position and advocated the regeneration of the unions by fighting within them, in order to banish their leadership and win the masses to communism. This illusory tactic was put forward at the Third Congress with the call for the formation of the Red International of Trade Unions. It was opposed by certain left groups (particularly the German left), who rightly considered that the unions were no longer organs of proletarian struggle.

[39] Despite the fact that a large part of the German and Dutch left later on moved towards denying the need for the party, forming the councilist current.


History of the revolutionary movement