The Comintern debates the United Front
Introduction by Mike Taber
July 7, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary Blog — Below are excerpts from the February 1922 debate on the united front that took place at an enlarged meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). The speakers include Grigorii Zinoviev, Karl Radek, and Leon Trotsky.
The excerpts are reprinted from The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923. That book, edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, will be appear in a paperback edition this summer by Haymarket books. (A hardback edition was published last year by Brill.)
It is the seventh volume in the series on the Communist International in Lenin’s time, which was launched in 1983 under the editorship of John Riddell.
While the broad concept of the proletarian united front is rooted in a long tradition going back to the Communist Manifesto of 1847, its adoption by the Communist International began with an initiative by the Communist Party of Germany in January 1921, issuing an Open Letter to all German workers’ organizations calling for united action against the capitalist offensive.
Although that initiative was greeted at the time with hostility by many in the world Communist movement, Lenin endorsed it and urged Communist parties around the world to emulate it. The Comintern’s Third Congress in the summer of 1921 endorsed the Open Letter’s approach.
In December 1921 the Comintern Executive Committee went a step further, laying out the need for Communist parties around the world to immediately initiate a campaign for the united front. The Executive Committee’s proposal to seek unity in action with Social Democratic parties was met by perplexity and resistance by many Comintern members.
To debate out these differences, an enlarged plenum of the Executive Committee was held two months later, to which each party sent a broader delegation.
The following excerpts from the report and debate on the united front at this plenum present the main contending positions. After extensive debate (see pp. 103–181 of Communist Movement at a Crossroads), the plenum adopted the proposed policy, against the votes of its parties in France, Spain, and Italy.
Communist Movement at a Crossroads will be published in paperback in June by Haymarket Books: https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1312-the-communist-movement-at-a-crossroads
Report on the United Front
Gregory Zinoviev: . . . In 1919 we were all full of hope that we would conquer the bourgeoisie within a very few years. That did not take place, above all because the subjective factor was lacking. Conditions were ripe or, as Comrade [Clara] Zetkin put it, overripe, but the working class lacked the necessary organisation. The Social Democracy was a negative factor, because at the decisive moment it fought on the side of the bourgeoisie. We did not see this immediately, and we continued to speak and write during the entire next year as if the goal were very close.
In the present stage of building the Communist parties, entirely new and interesting developments in the depths of the working class are coming into view. The masses long for rest and for bread. For us, as conscious revolutionaries, it is not always pleasant that the working masses, whom we so often glorify and idealise, are not always crowding up to the barricades. Yet after four years of hunger and breakdown, the working class has need for a respite and does not want to plunge into new dangers. That was the mood of the masses, and to some extent it still is. As Communists, we foresaw the war, the economic collapse, and the crisis. But we could not foresee this mood.
Given this situation, reformism has begun to flourish, to some degree, among the broad masses of the working class. This is not the reformism of a Bernstein, not a movement that is clear and purposeful, but rather a mood that opens new paths for reformism. This phenomenon was perceptible in 1920 and throughout almost all of 1921. That is the source of the muffled displeasure against Communists who were calling for struggle and did not understand this need for a respite. These are consequences of the imperialist World War and of how it was ended.
This development could have been very dangerous, were capitalism anything other than capitalism. As capitalism observed this need in the working class and saw that reformism was once again winning a portion of the backward workers, it began its offensive. There were also underlying economic factors at work here. The capitalist offensive started everywhere in the form of lengthening the working day, reducing real wages, and so on. This brought about a new turn in the workers’ movement, a new mood in the working class: initially as a muffled mistrust of the reformists. The ordinary worker now sees again that he will not achieve any respite unless he struggles. All the promises of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals remain unfulfilled, and the living conditions of the working class are deteriorating.
The working masses that previously were striving for a respite now begin to comprehend that there is no way forward without struggle. But to win in this struggle, they must act in unity. When ordinary workers seek to explain the basis for the betrayal during the war, they come to a simple conclusion: It was because the working class was not united, because the Social Democracy split the working class. And now they want unity.
Comrades who now oppose our course of action cannot deny this reality. The workers seek unity; they want to struggle together against the bourgeoisie. If Communists do not take this mood into account, they will become sectarians, that is, they will be serving the interests of the Social Democracy.
During the Third Congress we did not fully understand this. The Third Congress was generally aware that a turn had taken place, but we were not yet fully alert to the strong spontaneous impulse for unity. Now it is necessary to take a further step. We must state that the Communist parties have the role of unifying the working class and leading it forward. The party is not the class; it is the head of the class. We will never enter into forming a united party with the Social Democrats. That would be equivalent to betrayal. We must not forget that the party’s role consists in pointing the way forward for the class.
We must never give way to this mood among the masses. To the degree that this mood arises from the muddled idea of uniting with everybody and becoming one single party, to that extent it is incorrect and reactionary. But in this mood there is nonetheless something else that is essentially healthy, and that is the striving to go forward together against the bourgeoisie. This factor may well be decisive for the entire future course of the revolution. If we succeed now in utilising this mood in a correct fashion, we will achieve not only clarity in the Communist Party but also a great mass movement.
Only now have we achieved the two great preconditions for the struggle. In 1920 the mass movement was perhaps bigger, but the party was lacking. Then we began to build up the party, but the pressure from the masses was lacking. Now we are entering a period where both factors are present and where we must succeed in combining them. From this it flows that we must keep our focus on the united front not only with the Social Democrats, the parties of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals, but also with the anarchists, syndicalists, non-party workers, and Christian workers….
We say: join with us right now in the railway workers’ strike. Don’t betray the British miners. Join with us in the small everyday struggles. We do not need your resolutions on a general strike. Rather, we propose that you join in fighting shoulder to shoulder with us for immediate daily demands.
That is what is new, what we did not have until now. The comrades who are resisting the united-front policy do not realise that to a certain extent we have actually already won the campaign in real life. It is no longer possible to present Communists as professional splitters, and that is an enormous initial gain. They used to describe us as professional splitters, and objective conditions made it easier for these people to do so. Between 1914 and 1921 we carried out about a dozen splits, and this engendered a certain annoyance in the working class. But we had to split the old traitorous Social Democracy in order to safeguard the workers’ interests. We had to create a Communist Party, and it had to have elbow room. That’s how it happened that, because of Social Democracy, we were presented as professional splitters. Capitalism tried during these years to build up ill-feeling against splits and make this a factor working against communism. We must now succeed in overcoming this ill-feeling in an appropriate way, showing that we split the working class in order to unite it against the bourgeoisie.
The irritation of the working class regarding splits is only too understandable. The aspiration for unity is very often – indeed, 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. Its opposition to splits is an entirely understandable and justified sentiment. But we cannot always give way to this sentiment, because the Social Democracy has utilised it in the interests of the bourgeoisie. We had to split. But now we have to reverse roles: It is now the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals – not us – that will stand before the working class as splitters.
We are now approaching a new rise of the working class. Many comrades misunderstand the united-front slogan, thinking it arises from despair at the failure of the Russian Revolution. The opposite is true. Without this new rise of the workers’ movement, the entire united front would have no foundation. As we wrote in our theses about this new rise, even in Germany our best comrades said that this new rise, for the present, is only perceptible in Moscow and not elsewhere. But consider the wave of strikes that we see everywhere. We have now become accustomed to strikes that embrace a million and a half workers. The united front is not a policy of despair; on the contrary, it is a policy for a new rise, which begins around economic issues but will move onto the political terrain.
Indisputably, this policy has dangers. We referred to that in our initial theses. Our policies often entail dangers. Do you think that there are no dangers in parliamentary participation? Nonetheless, we accept them. The united-front policy entails considerable dangers, and only serious Communist parties can accept them. But no one will be able to show that this policy is dreamed up out of thin air, or that some other feeling is dominant among the masses….
It’s not just a matter of the united front. What’s at stake is the unity of the working masses themselves, and for that we may have to struggle for months, perhaps years. And when this becomes a reality, then the social revolution will have begun. It will not be achieved in a month, but it is the only correct path to get to our goal. Our conference must take a clear position on this question. And if a few party comrades have not yet overcome their infantile disorders, they will be healthy again within a few months. We must make it clear to the masses why we split: to achieve freedom for propaganda and agitation. But now we are calling on you to unite against the bourgeoisie. And by taking this path, victory becomes absolutely certain.
Daniel Renoult (France): … We have just been told that application of the Third Congress decisions means summoning the masses to precisely defined actions, advancing immediate demands, and explaining to even the most uninformed workers what their duty is to the class. And then we are told that at some point in the future we will be concluding partial and temporary agreements with the discredited leaders of Social Democracy or the reformist syndicalists. Comrade Zinoviev says that drawing this distinction between appeals to the masses and agreements with the Social-Democratic and reformist syndicalist leaders does not constitute a weighty argument. For our part, we consider this agreement to be the most difficult aspect of the problem. I am expressing here not my personal opinion, but that of French Communists; it is the possibility of such an agreement that has generated so great an uproar.
That sums up the position of the Communist Party of France in a few words. The party is introducing minority theses on the united front, theses that reject the Executive Committee’s proposals….
If you tell us that united-front policy means calling for the eight-hour day and struggling against withholding taxes from wages, then we are in complete agreement with the united front and recognise that the French Communist Party called for it long ago. In this sense, we most decidedly support the united front and have been applying it for a considerable time. In France, we call this a revolutionary bloc. Whenever favourable circumstances arise, we take pains to achieve this revolutionary bloc with the anarchists, the revolutionary syndicalists, and the non-party workers, to the degree that they are open to our appeals. For example, when the danger of war was pressing, when the occupation of the Ruhr was on the agenda, we formed action committees with the revolutionary syndicalists and the anarchists and were able to carry out mass agitation that surely did not fail to exert an influence on the decision taken by the government….
We believe that the application of the united front, which entails everywhere a rapprochement and an agreement with the reformist leaders, entails dangers not only for France but, in a general sense, for all sections of the International and the International itself….
Riccardo Roberto (Italy): … Comrade Zinoviev says that we need the united-front policy in order to go with the masses and not in order to expose the leaders. But that alone will not do. In my opinion, we must add to this something that Comrade Zinoviev does not mention. We must do more than merely strive to expose the leaders; we must also give assistance to the masses. We must assist the proletariat, which today does not see anything other than the economic questions.
Here I must ask a question: Do we perhaps think that the Social-Democratic leaders are a gang of complete fools? Do we think that the Social-Democratic leaders will look on gaping while we expose them? Of course not. We’re dealing here with people who are alert and know how to defend themselves. It is too simple to announce this in advance and then struggle with the means proposed by Comrade Zinoviev….
We Italian Communists say that this unity does exist in our country, that it grows stronger day by day, and that the united front can be established without approaching the leaders, whom we accused of betrayal and whom we are combating every day. How is this to be done? Through the organisations? We have these organisations. Communist groups and cells are raising their voices in both the trade unions and the labour halls, demanding the united front, and forcing the Social Democrats to expose themselves. We must loudly declare that every Communist Party has the duty to establish a united front not with the leaders but with the masses organised in trade unions, who will carry the Social Democrats and the leaders along with them and expose them. That is our position.
Umberto Terracini (Italy): The question now before us is posed as follows: Should we, in order to win the masses, abandon precisely the principles that have enabled us to acquire strength? In our view, the methods proposed to us by the Executive Committee may indeed enable us to win the masses, but we will then no longer be Communist parties, but rather the spitting image of Social-Democratic parties….
Comrade Zinoviev spoke of an agreement with the parties and explained that it was necessary both to make such agreements with the leaders and simultaneously to combat these leaders. He added that we must negotiate with the leaders even as we speak directly to the masses. In a gathering like this one, we don’t just speak to the parties affiliated to the Communist International in generalities. We must say frankly what is to be done. Moreover, specific boundaries must be laid down, within which negotiations will take place.
In our theses we lay out the following guiding principle: Every party must set down a number of issues suitable for engaging all workers, issues relating to the economic situation and to political and military reaction. This proposal is to be directed solely to the national trade unions and not to the political parties. Moreover, when possible it should be sent not by the Communist Party but through the Central Committee of each trade-union organisation. It should also be sent to a committee established by the trade unions in a special assembly. The party pledges to commit all its organised forces to carry out the action led by this committee. The other parties should do the same.
When we raised this question for the first time, the trade unions did not respond. They did so, however, after the Communist cells in the trade unions had gotten to work and had won a majority on this question in all the assemblies. This will come much more easily when Communist groups raise the same question day after day in all the trade-union assemblies. This will lead slowly but very surely to the exposure of the leaders.
When we speak of ‘leaders’, we are not referring only to the Serratis, Levis, Renaudels, and Scheidemanns. The parties as a whole are responsible for the workers’ defeats, and it is therefore not right to always counterpose the leaders of the Social-Democratic parties to their adherents. The Social-Democratic leaders are strong only because thousands of supporters have stayed in these parties. With regard to Germany, specifically, Communists there are supposed to join with the Social Democrats in forming a common government in order to resolve the reparations question in a manner acceptable to the working class.
Are you sure that the Social-Democratic leaders will accept your proposal? There is no country in which the Social Democrats will ever conclude such an agreement, because they know only too well that they will never be in a position to abide by its stipulations. They are experienced enough to know that it is not diplomatically appropriate to accept something publicly today and then be forced tomorrow to reject it.
However clearly and precisely the united-front question was formulated within the Executive Committee, it unleashed great confusion in the local sections. We had to go to the sections and explain there that it is not proposed to make agreements with our enemies of yesterday and to abandon our irreconcilable stance. Rather, the goal is to create a basis for future work. It has often been noted, for example in municipal elections, that the moment Communists and Social Democrats conclude an electoral agreement, petty-bourgeois layers withdraw their support from this bloc. The same thing happens in the trade unions. When Social Democrats and Communists propose a joint slate, the non-party workers immediately propose their own candidates. The result of a policy of agreements at the political-parliamentary level is that many supporters fall away from united action. The agreement may win us a hundred thousand workers, but in the process we will lose at least a thousand Communists. I would prefer to have this thousand stay with us….
Let us go with the masses, through unified general action, and not with the betrayers’ parties, through formal and fruitless unity. We ask only that the question be posed clearly and precisely without demagogy and without efforts to make a good impression.
From the Debate
Karl Radek: … What is the difference between the present situation and that of 1919? Then the masses were in revolt, in Austria, in Hungary, in Germany. We were carrying on a struggle for power; the question was [proletarian] dictatorship or so-called democracy. This initial period of direct struggle is over, for now. The fact is that the initial onslaught was defeated by the capitalists, and workers in every country are engaged in struggles for partial demands. Here is what is at stake today in these struggles: The eight-hour day – yes or no? Higher wages – yes or no? So we as the Communist International have the task of showing the masses how in these practical struggles, we differ from all the other forces. We want to struggle and the others do not – not even for reforms. Our friends fear that this course of action would lead to a rapprochement with the Social Democrats. Let me remind you how the SPD and USPD reacted when we applied this policy in Germany in 1921. They yowled, because they knew we would unmask them before the masses.
Some of the comrades put it this way: The united front can be created only through struggle. That is their first argument. The second is that we want to unite the masses and drive away the leaders. Terracini wants to unite with the masses and Zinoviev wants to unite with Scheidemann and Renaudel. Granted, it is certainly a contradiction if I unite with Scheidemann today and then write tomorrow in the press that Scheidemann is a traitor. Well, we will resolve this contradiction at the expense of the Scheidemann people through actions in which their betrayal is made clear to the masses as well.
Terracini says that at the outset you must unite without the leaders. But in that case, Serrati’s supporters among the workers will be against you. If, however, it becomes clear during discussions with Serrati that he does not want to struggle together with us, Terracini can tell the workers, ‘Come and unite with us against your leaders.’ Then there is the argument that the united front can come into being only through struggle. Well, obviously. But the question is what promotes this struggle and what obstructs it.
Comrades, the questions are so simple that to make them complicated is like a hen inside a circle that does not dare step beyond it. The difference is simply that the hen did not draw the circle around itself; Terracini, however, helped to craft the formula that he cannot get beyond. The Italian comrades are against the united front because they are a minority; the French, because they are a majority.
The French comrades are suffering from an optical illusion. They confuse the proletariat with the old French Socialist Party, of which we now hold a majority. But the Socialist Party is not the French proletariat. In 1919, there was not a push for unity among the masses. At that time, the masses divided over the question of dictatorship or democracy. Now the capitalist offensive is creating the push for unity among the masses. Anyone who lacks a feel for that has no feel for what is taking place in the working class….
Leon Trotsky: … Comrade Terracini says, ‘Of course we are for mass action and for winning over the masses.’ To be sure, but we are in a more advanced stage now. We’re discussing now the methods that we will use to win them over and take action. At the Third Congress we resisted tendencies that could result in premature actions. Today we see the same tendencies, but they find expression in a different form, namely in the danger of a negative stance. At the Third Congress we determined that we are at the beginning of a new stage. The bourgeoisie has not regained its equilibrium and stability, but it has achieved sort of a pretence of stability. After the years 1919–20 the revolutionary mood of the broad masses was changed into one of expectation. We must now concern ourselves above all with how we can win the masses. Looked at from this point of view, the parties are divided into three groups.
The first group includes parties of countries where the Communist parties must still fight to win a place in the proletarian front, namely, Britain and Belgium. Second, by contrast, Bulgaria, where the Communist Party already has absolute dominance. Clearly in such a situation the question of a united front is almost non-existent. Third, between these two extremes, we find the vast majority of parties. And it is precisely in the countries where the Communist Party is a wing of the proletariat’s organised vanguard that the question of the united front arises.
We do not know when the moment for the conquest of power will come. Perhaps in six months, perhaps in six years. I ask Comrades Terracini and Renoult: Is the proletariat’s struggle supposed to stand still until the moment when the Communist Party will be in a position to take power? No, the struggle goes forward. Workers outside our party do not understand why we split from the Socialists. They think, ‘These groups or sects should give us an opportunity to struggle for our daily necessities.’ We cannot simply tell them, ‘We split in order to prepare for your great day after tomorrow.’
But the Communist Party comes to them and says, ‘Friends, the Communists, syndicalists, reformists, and revolutionary syndicalists all have their separate organisations, but we Communists are proposing an immediate action for your daily bread.’ That is fully in step with the psychology of the masses. I understand entirely that for a journalist who perhaps worked with [French Socialist Party leader Jean] Longuet in L’Humanité, the prospect of having to turn once again to Longuet is psychological and moral torture. But the French workers really are indifferent to such considerations….
Right now, Comrade Terracini says, there are no great events, and we have no reason for a united front. And the French comrades say that if no great events come, then we must initiate them through our own actions. I must tell you that one of the most significant barriers to the unfolding of these events is that several political and trade-union organisations are arrayed side by side, and the masses do not understand the differences among them. We propose a specific action to an organisation of this type. I maintain that the unaffiliated workers, those who are most downcast and sluggish, will be swept into the stream at a moment of acute revolutionary crisis….
For more information on The Communist International at a Crossroads, go to Haymarket Books.
 The term ‘Two-and-a-Half International’ referred to the centrist International Working Union of Socialist Parties, or Vienna Union, founded at a congress in Vienna, 22–27 February 1921. It was established in opposition to both the reformist Second International and the Communist Third International. The Two-and-a-Half International fused with the Second International in May 1923.
. The first French occupation of the Ruhr Valley occurred in March 1921, when the French army, with 130,000 troops, occupied the Rhineland cities of Düsseldorf, Duisburg, and Ruhrort, after Germany failed to meet an ultimatum on reparations payments. They withdrew in September. The Ruhr was reoccupied by French troops in January 1923.
 A reference to G. M. Serrati, leader of the Italian Socialist Party; Paul Levi, who had been expelled from the German CP in 1921; Pierre Renaudel, of the French Socialist Party, and Philipp Scheidemann of the German Social Democratic Party.