The Communist movement at a crossroads: 1922-23

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Introduction by John Riddell

May 24, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary — Posted here is the introduction to The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923. Edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, the book is published by the Historical Materialism Book Series, and is available from Haymarket Books.

This volume is the latest in a series begun in 1983 under the general editorship of John Riddell. The aim of this series has been to present, in its own words, the record of the Communist International (Comintern) under Lenin, chronicling the development of this dynamic revolutionary undertaking and showing it as a vibrant and living movement embracing millions around the world.[1]

This latest volume is noteworthy in showing the Comintern taking up several questions of contemporary relevancy, among them the united front and fascism. For this reason, the book will be of special interest both to those studying the history of the world Communist movement as well as to activists seeking to examine key strategic questions that remain on the agenda today.

Mike Taber’s Introduction provides a good summary not only of the book but of the issues raised within it and the Comintern’s evolution in the period under study.

Introduction to The Communist Movement at a Crossroads

By Mike Taber.

First and Second Enlarged Plenums (Feb.–Mar. and June 1922)

On 1 January 1922, the Communist International (Comintern) issued an appeal to ‘working men and women of all countries’ calling for the creation of a workers’ united front to fight the ravages of capitalism. It stated:

The Communist International calls … on all upstanding workers around the world to come together … as a family of working people who will respond to all the distress of our time by standing together against capital. Create a firm spirit of proletarian unity against which every attempt to divide proletarians will break down, no matter where it originates. Only if you proletarians come together in this way, in the workplace and the economy, will all parties based on the proletariat and seeking to win a hearing from it find that joining together in a common defensive struggle against capitalism is necessary.[2]

This appeal for united action also summoned the Comintern’s member parties to send representatives to a special conference: an ‘enlarged plenum’ of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). Such conferences – Grigorii Zinoviev would label them ‘small world congresses’ – thereafter became regular Comintern events.[3]

The Communist Movement at a Crossroads contains the proceedings and resolutions of the three enlarged plenums that took place while Lenin was still alive. For any study of the Communist International, these plenums are close in importance to the four Lenin-era world congresses that took place between 1919 and 1922.[4] Many of the Comintern’s main decisions in those years were taken by these plenums, making important contributions to the Communist International’s political legacy.

This introduction aims to review each of these three conferences, putting them in context and highlighting their main discussions and decisions.

World Situation in 1922–3 

Capitalist Contradictions

In the first three years following the end of World War I, the capitalist rulers of Europe faced a real threat of proletarian revolution, which was inspired by the Russian Revolution and driven by the explosion of class tensions that had been accumulating over the course of the war. The main efforts of the rulers in these years were geared to ensuring the very survival of their system. By late 1920, however, it had become clear that world capitalism had withstood the initial onslaught and was achieving a tenuous stabilisation.

Nevertheless, by early 1922 contradictions within the world imperialist system were sharpening.

Through the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and related treaties, the war’s victors had sought to impose on the vanquished powers a new world order: redrawing borders, creating new nation-states, and re-dividing the world into new spheres of influence. But rather than ensuring a stable and lasting order, the Versailles system had the opposite effect.

The most immediate cause of this instability was Germany’s inability to pay the massive war reparations imposed by the Versailles Treaty. Numerous financial conferences and meetings were held during these years to work out new payment plans. When none of these worked, the victorious powers resorted to outright theft. In early 1921 French troops were sent to occupy the Ruhr region – Germany’s main coal-producing district – in an attempt to seize this valuable resource. In January 1923, a larger invasion and occupation of the Ruhr was undertaken.

In leading governmental circles, the threat of renewed imperialist war was openly discussed, generating an arms race. In his report to the Third Enlarged Plenum on the world political situation, Karl Radek quoted a perceptive bourgeois observer: ‘It was said by idealists, that this war [World War I] would end all wars; but it seems as though it had merely sown the seeds of further wars’, giving rise to a ‘mad race in armaments which they are still pursuing’.[5]

During these years, capitalist governments held various conferences in a vain effort to reconcile their competing interests – in Genoa, Lausanne, Paris, The Hague, Washington, and other cities. All of these conferences merely served to demonstrate the irreconcilability of rival interests, as well as the vulnerabilities of the imperialist world order as a whole.

Soviet Russia 

The Russian Soviet republic was a major factor in this picture.

During the Soviet regime’s first three years after its establishment in October 1917, no capitalist power sought significant diplomatic or economic relations with it, banking instead on the overthrow of Soviet power. During the Russian Civil War the leading capitalist states armed and supported the Russian counterrevolutionary armies. Not satisfied with that, over a dozen of these states – including Britain, France, Japan, and the United States – actively intervened by sending troops.

But by the end of 1920, the Red Army had beaten back the counterrevolutionary forces militarily, leading some capitalist governments to change their approach. Thinking they could utilise Soviet Russia to improve their positions vis-à-vis rivals, some powers began seeking economic and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, hoping that the Soviets would in return abandon their revolutionary perspectives.

In 1922, Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Rapallo Treaty, normalising relations between the two countries. Britain, too, had signed the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement the previous year, as a way of counterbalancing its rivalry with France.

For the first time, Soviet Russia even started to receive invitations to participate in governmental conferences.

As a general principle, Soviet Russia expressed a willingness to negotiate and enter into relations with all capitalist governments. But the Bolshevik leadership rejected out of hand calls to abandon its support for world proletarian revolution, as well as for the struggles of the colonial peoples against imperialist subjugation.

As these contradictions within the capitalist world deepened, the class struggle was intensifying in a number of European countries, above all in Germany. Alongside this picture, an upheaval in the colonial world was also taking place.

Colonial World in Revolt 

The October 1917 revolution in Russia gave a major boost to the developing movement for freedom and national liberation in the colonial and semicolonial countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Revolutionary explosions were felt in every corner of the world: China, Korea, the Dutch East Indies, British India, predominantly Islamic countries of southwestern Asia and north Africa, as well as Latin American countries such as Mexico and Cuba.

Not only did the Communist International pledge its full support to the struggle of the colonial peoples, but it also gave major attention to building Communist parties in these countries. For the first time, a genuine worldwide revolutionary movement began to take shape – not limited to Europe and North America, as had been the case with the First and Second Internationals.

To advance this perspective, the Comintern took important initiatives. It organised the 1920 Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East and the 1922 Congress of the Toilers of the Far East.[6] As more permanent bodies, it organised a Central Asian Bureau and a Far Eastern Secretariat.

In addition to support from the Communist International, the movement for national liberation of the colonial and semi-colonial world received the full support of Soviet Russia itself. During the period covered by the present volume, the Soviet republic began establishing ties of support and collaboration with independent states such as Turkey and China, countries that were engaged in struggles to break free from imperialist control.

The Communist International’s 1921 Turn 

The revolutionary wave that swept Europe following the end of the First World War was so powerful that in two places – Hungary and Bavaria – Communist parties were swept into power without having a clear understanding of what was happening or what to do next. In other countries (Italy, Germany), workers were close to victory.

During these years, the Third, Communist International was formed and held its first two congresses. Based on the experiences of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the Bolshevik leadership aimed to transform the Communist movement – composed of disparate revolutionary forces – into centralised and politically competent parties. To make this possible, the first two congresses focused on setting down the programme and basic perspectives of the new world movement.

The young and inexperienced Communist forces, however, were unable to take advantage of the revolutionary wave in Europe. Between 1918 and 1920 promising revolutionary movements went down to defeat, one after another.

By late 1920, it had become clear that the revolutionary wave was receding. That fact was recognised by the Comintern’s Third Congress in June–July 1921. In doing so, the congress affirmed the goal of winning a working-class majority, registered in its watchword of ‘To the masses!’

The world situation at the time was summed up by Leon Trotsky in his report to the Third Congress:

[T]he situation has become more complicated, but it remains favourable from a revolutionary point of view. … But the revolution is not so obedient and tame that it can be led around on a leash, as we once thought. It has its ups and downs, its crises and its booms, determined by objective conditions but also by internal stratification in working-class attitudes.[7]

In line with this analysis, the congress stressed the importance of strategy and manoeuvre, adopting the general perspective of the workers’ united front.

The Communist International’s turn of 1921 posed a number of strategic and tactical questions that came up for discussion and debate at the three enlarged ECCI plenums that met in Moscow in 1922 and 1923.

A Crossroads 

The three enlarged plenums recorded in this volume show the world Communist movement at a crossroads:

– While the Comintern was formed in 1919 during a period of revolutionary advance in Europe, the Communist movement by 1922–3 had entered a new conjuncture. It was a period that required a mature strategic outlook and the ability to manoeuvre in order to advance the Comintern’s perspective of world proletarian revolution. In this context, the fight for a working-class united front moved to the centre of its strategic orientation.

– While confronting growing opportunities for building Communist parties, by 1923 the international Communist movement stood on the verge of a struggle over whether it would remain a revolutionary working-class movement, or instead become subordinated to the narrow interests of a bureaucratic caste in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Under the thumb of an ever- more-powerful Comintern apparatus in Moscow, by the 1930s Communist parties around the world would be fully transformed from independent-minded revolutionary vanguards into monolithic agencies promoting the shifting policies of the Soviet bureaucracy.

To fully appreciate this crossroads, a review of the proceedings and resolutions of the first three enlarged ECCI plenums is necessary.

First Enlarged Plenum (February–March 1922)

Adoption of United-Front Policy

While the idea of a workers’ united front has antecedents in the history of the socialist movement going back to the First International led by Marx and Engels and to the Bolshevik Party of Russia, the immediate roots of the Comintern’s united-front policy of 1921–2 can be found in Germany.

The German workers’ movement at the time was sharply divided between three main parties: the reformist Social-Democratic Party (SPD), the centrist Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD), and the Communist Party (KPD).

In the face of an escalating capitalist offensive – with attacks on wages and working conditions, growing unemployment, and the beginnings of the hyperinflation crisis – by late 1920 powerful sentiment had developed within the ranks of the German working class in favour of a united fight by all currents within it.

Recognising this sentiment, in early January 1921 the German Communist Party issued what became known as the Open Letter. This was a document addressed to all major German workers’ organisations calling for united action to defend the life-and-death interests of the German proletariat. While the Open Letter stirred initial opposition within the world Communist movement – including within the Russian CP leadership – its basic approach received Lenin’s strong support.[8]

The Comintern’s Third Congress endorsed the German Open Letter, calling for the same approach to be adopted by Communist parties internationally:

… Communist parties are obliged to attempt, by mustering their strength in the trade unions and increasing their pressure on other parties based on the working masses, to enable the proletariat’s struggle for its immediate interests to unfold on a unified basis. If the non-Communist parties are forced to join the struggle, the Communists have the task of preparing the working masses from the start for the possibility of betrayal by these parties in a subsequent stage of struggle. Communists should seek to intensify the conflict and drive it forward. The VKPD’s Open Letter can serve as a model of a starting point for campaigns.[9]

That perspective was codified five months later, when the Comintern Executive Committee adopted a set of theses formulating the new policy. The perspective of the December 1921 theses was premised on the working class internationally being forced onto the defensive, but with an increasing willingness to fight back.

[U]nder the impact of the mounting capitalist attack, a spontaneous striving for unity has awakened among the workers, which literally cannot be restrained. It is accompanied by the gradual growth of confidence among the broad working masses in the Communists. …

But at the same time, they have not yet given up their belief in the reformists. Significant layers still support the parties of the Second and Amsterdam Internationals. These working masses do not formulate their plans and strivings all that precisely, but by and large their new mood can be traced to a desire to establish a united front, attempting to bring the parties and organisations of the Second and Amsterdam Internationals into struggle together with the Communists against the capitalist attacks.

The theses also stressed that Communist parties must ‘maintain absolute autonomy and complete independence’ when engaged in united-front activity. ‘While supporting the slogan of the greatest possible unity of all workers’ organisations in every practical action against the united capitalists,’ the theses declared, ‘the Communists must not abstain from putting forward their views, which are the only consistent expression of defence of the interests of the working class as a whole.’

The new policy was not without possible dangers, however:

Not every Communist Party is sufficiently developed and consolidated. They have not all broken completely with centrist and semi-centrist ideology. There are instances where it may be possible to go too far, tendencies that would genuinely mean the dissolution of Communist parties and groups into a formless united bloc.[10]

Not everyone in the Communist movement supported the new approach, however. The policy evoked strong objections from the leaderships of the Communist parties of France, Italy, and Spain, whose representatives expressed their disagreements at the First Enlarged Plenum two months later.

Plenum Debate on United Front 

In his report on the united front to the plenum, Zinoviev went over the motivations for the new policy. During the revolutionary wave of 1918–20, he explained, prospects seemed to indicate that workers were on the road to rapidly taking power and rejecting their Social-Democratic misleaders. Driving through a split with them quickly, Zinoviev asserted, was the central task for Communist forces during these years.

In the wake of the defeat of the postwar revolutionary wave, however, ‘after four years of hunger and breakdown, the working class has need for a respite.’ But the capitalists, in their quest for profits, will not give that to them.

The working masses that previously were striving for a respite now begin to comprehend that there is no way forward without struggle. … [But] 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.[11]

It was this mood within the working class that gave rise to the united-front policy, which Zinoviev described as a ‘tactical manoeuvre’.[12]

Zinoviev’s report was followed by counter-reports given by Daniel Renoult of France and by Riccardo Roberto and Umberto Terracini of Italy.

In his counter-report, Renoult objected to ‘concluding partial and temporary agreements with the discredited leaders of Social Democracy or the reformist syndicalists’.

Terracini’s counter-report went even further:

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.[13]

Terracini also drew a distinction between trade unions and political parties. A united front, he argued, was suitable for unions but not parties. ‘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.’

Roberto echoed this view: ‘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.’

During the debate, delegates spoke for and against the united-front policy. In his remarks, Trotsky responded to the objections raised against the policy:

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.[14]

Following the debate, which lasted for seven sessions, the united-front perspective was adopted by majority vote, over the opposition of the Italian, French, and Spanish delegations. Those opposing the decision nevertheless pledged to carry out the new policy.

Discussion on Soviet Russia 

Another noteworthy feature of the First Enlarged ECCI Plenum was its attention to developments in Soviet Russia.

It was considered fully appropriate for Comintern congresses and leadership meetings to discuss, debate, and issue judgments on important issues that arose in the Soviet republic. This norm – standard procedure in the early Comintern – contrasted sharply with the Stalin-led Comintern of the 1930s, in which the policies of the Soviet CP were viewed as sacrosanct.

The First Enlarged Plenum examined:

– A set of theses presented by Grigorii Y. Sokolnikov on the implementation of the New Economic Policy.[15] The NEP comprised a series of measures introduced in Soviet Russia in March 1921 and subsequently, aiming to restore economic relations between city and countryside. The NEP permitted peasants to freely market their grain, restored freedom of commerce, provided scope for small-scale capitalist enterprises, and subjected state-owned enterprises and administration to budgetary controls.

– An appeal from the Workers’ Opposition. This was a group within the Russian CP, formed in 1920, that called for trade-union control of industrial production and greater autonomy for CP fractions in the unions. Its appeal to the plenum raised criticisms related to the introduction of the NEP, and growing bureaucratisation within the Communist Party. The Russian Communist Party Central Committee issued a written response to this appeal.[16] A commission was assigned to investigate, which prepared a resolution that was approved by the plenum.

– A report by Willi Müinzenberg on the international relief campaign for victims of the famine in Russia, which killed several million people in 1921–2.[17] This campaign was undertaken as a broad workers’ movement reaching out to all political tendencies. As Münzenberg reported, it was an ‘attempt to unify all workers in the campaign, whatever their party or trade-union affiliation’, an ‘attempt to realise the united front in practice’.

Other Topics Discussed 

Other topics discussed at the First Enlarged Plenum included: – The trade-union question. The plenum heard reports by S.A. Lozovsky and Heinrich Brandler on the progress of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU, or Profintern, based on its Russian initials) and on Communists’ tasks in the unions.

The RILU had been formed the previous year at a congress in Moscow as a revolutionary class-struggle trade-union pole, consisting of both Communists and revolutionary syndicalists. It was openly counterposed to the Social- Democratic-led International Federation of Trade Unions, also known as the Amsterdam International. Despite its opposition to the right-wing Amsterdam leadership, the Profintern’s perspective was not to split the unions. Its goal was instead to transform the existing unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle. Wherever unions remained affiliated to Amsterdam, the RILU sought to act as loyal and disciplined minorities within them. The Amsterdam leaders, however, did not share this interest in trade-union unity. When the social-democratic union heads felt their control to be threatened by Communists and revolutionary syndicalists, they would often simply expel the offending unions and unionists.[18]

– Youth. The plenum heard a report from a leader of the Communist Youth International that focused on the situation of young workers and outlined a programme of demands for Communist parties to use in their work among them.[19]

– The war danger. The plenum heard a report by Clara Zetkin on the renewed danger of imperialist war. ‘After the World War ended, the cry went up: “Never again war”,’ Zetkin told the meeting, ‘But today we face new dangers of war. The world is loaded with explosive material that at any moment could set off new and even worse wars.’ United-front action was required to combat this danger, she pointed out, ultimately posing the need for revolutionary change:

Against the threat of world war we must establish a solid united front of the proletariat for the struggle against war and imperialism. The struggle against the dangers of war and armaments must be a step forward toward winning political power of the proletariat. Only the overthrow of capitalism can lead humankind to world peace.[20]

Second Enlarged Plenum, June 1922 

Conference of the Three Internationals 

At the First Enlarged Plenum, there had been discussion about plans for an upcoming international conference of the three international working-class organisations, which would be held in April 1922. The First Plenum had viewed such a conference as a battleground in the campaign for a united front. Drawing a balance sheet of this whole experience was one of the central reasons for convening the Second Enlarged Plenum of June 1922.

The background of this conference helps explain why it generated considerable interest among the working-class public at the time.

The international workers’ movement in 1922 was divided into three main international currents: the Second International, the centrist ‘Two-and-a-Half International’ (formally the International Working Union of Socialist Parties), and the Third, Communist International.[21]

In February 1922, the Comintern had been approached by the leadership of the Two-and-a-Half International proposing a world conference of the three Internationals to discuss the need to combat the capitalist offensive and the threat of war.

Despite its political opposition to the Social-Democratic and centrist world bodies, the Comintern leadership responded positively to the proposal, based on its support for united working-class action. Out of this initiative came the Conference of the Three Internationals, which took place in Berlin in early April 1922. The stated objective of this conference was to convene a world congress of labour that would include the major tendencies in the workers’ movement.

Among those who viewed the Berlin Conference with the greatest interest was Lenin. Recognising its importance for organising united proletarian action, Lenin attempted to assist in the Comintern’s participation, giving practical advice to its delegation. Among Lenin’s suggestions was to minimise unnecessary obstacles – including in the language used. Referring to a resolution of the First Enlarged Plenum on participation in the Berlin Conference, Lenin wrote:

My chief amendment is aimed at deleting the passage which calls the leaders of the II and II ½ Internationals accomplices of the world bourgeoisie. You might as well call a man a ‘jackass’. It is absolutely unreasonable to risk wrecking an affair of tremendous practical importance for the sake of giving oneself the extra pleasure of scolding scoundrels, whom we shall be scolding a thousand times at another place and time.[22]

As Lenin saw it, the meeting would result either in concrete proletarian action, or in exposing reformist and centrist opposition to such action. In either case, he believed, the result would be advantageous to the Communist movement.

The Comintern delegation to the Berlin Conference was headed by Radek, Bukharin, and Zetkin, who each addressed the gathering.[23]

In the course of the meeting, the Communist delegation made various concessions in the interests of common action. At the same time, they were able to use the platform of the conference to publicly explain to the world working class why they supported united action with the very same forces who had betrayed the working class during the First World War and subsequently.

Out of the Berlin Conference came a common declaration, which called for the formation of a Committee of Nine (with three representatives from each International), charged with organising the projected world congress of labour.[24]

At the conference, as well as afterward, the representatives from the Second International made clear their opposition to holding such a congress. In face of this opposition, and the Two-and-a-Half International’s refusal to force the issue, the Committee of Nine broke apart at its first and only meeting on 23 May 1922.

Lenin criticised some of the concessions the Comintern delegation had made at the Berlin Conference. But he did not back down from his support for the Communist International’s participation, and he recognised some of the positive achievements that came out of this participation. Highlighting the Communists’ success in propagandising their views, Lenin asserted that ‘we have made some breach in the premises that were closed to us,’ adding:

Communists must not stew in their own juice, but must learn to penetrate into prohibited premises where the representatives of the bourgeoisie are influencing the workers; and in this they must not shrink from making certain sacrifices and not be afraid of making mistakes, which, at first, are inevitable in every new and difficult undertaking.[25]

In Radek’s report to the Second Enlarged Plenum drawing an overall positive assessment of the experience, he made the observation that through its participation and clear-cut stance at the Conference of the Three Internationals, the Comintern was earning a reputation within the working class as the force most in favour of united proletarian action. This reputation was to play an important part in the Comintern’s successes over the next year in the trade unions and other areas.

Advancing the United-Front Campaign 

One of the other aims of the Second Enlarged Plenum was to draw an initial balance sheet of Communist parties’ united-front experiences, as well as to overcome hesitation by several of the parties that had opposed the policy and were still reluctant to carry it out, despite having promised to do so. Radek’s report spoke to this point, as did supplemental remarks by Zinoviev.

In the process, Comintern leaders also made two important political observations about the united front:

  1. In their opposition to the united front, a number of leftist delegates had counterposed a ‘united front from below’ to a ‘united front from above’. The Comintern leadership rejected such a dichotomy, pointing out that the two things could not be separated. Indeed the idea of a ‘united front from below’ was a negation of the very concept. If it were possible to achieve united proletarian action over the heads of the existing working-class organisations, then there would be no need for united fronts at all. Communists could simply call for united action in their own name.Radek spoke to this point at the Second Enlarged Plenum in June 1922. ‘A genuine united front will come into being when it leads the masses into struggle’, he explained. ‘Now the question is: How do we go to the masses? Anyone who now says, “united front from below” misunderstands the situation.’[26]
  1. The united front was envisioned as a tool for action in defence of working-class interests; it was not seen as an attempt to achieve a broader ‘organic unity’ of the participating organisations. As Lenin had pointed out, referring to the Conference of the Three Internationals, united fronts should be seen exclusively ‘for the sake of achieving possible practical unity of direct action.’[27]

Three Parties Spotlighted 

Months earlier, the First Enlarged Plenum had organised a separate agenda point on the problems of the French Communist Party. The Second Enlarged Plenum did so too, along with agenda points on the Czechoslovak and Norwegian parties. These three parties had all come to the Communist International directly out of the Second International, and were each saddled with many Social-Democratic traditions.

France: The majority of the old French Socialist Party had voted to join the Comintern at its December 1920 congress in Tours, deciding to change its name to Communist Party. A minority (known as the ‘Dissidents’) split off and retained the old party name. While becoming a Communist Party in name, however, the new party in many respects still retained the traditions and structures of the old Socialist Party.

The French CP was divided into factions: a centre majority, led by the party’s leader Frossard, a left wing that was generally closer to Comintern positions, and a right wing.

The Second Enlarged Plenum heard a report on the French party given by Trotsky. Trotsky also drafted a resolution on the French CP that was adopted.[28]

Norway. The Norwegian Labour Party was one of the first parties to affiliate to the Comintern in 1919, although it never changed its name. The NLP was the leading party of the working class in Norway, and had come directly out of the Second International. Organisationally, however, it was unique. It combined individual party membership with group affiliations through trade unions and other workers’ organisations. Within the Comintern, the NLP fought to maintain its basic traditions, agreeing to transform itself into a genuine Communist party but stalling on implementation of that decision. During 1922 and 1923, moreover, the party was embroiled in a faction fight between the party majority, led by Martin Tranmael, and a minority favouring closer ties with the Comintern, which was also in the leadership of the youth organisation.

– Czechoslovakia. The majority of the old Social-Democratic Party in Czechoslovakia had voted to join the Comintern in early 1921, with a Social-Democratic minority splitting off. But the new Communist Party remained divided by nationality within the new country of Czechoslovakia. With the Comintern’s help, these nationally divided Communist organisations united into a single party in late 1921. The united party was nevertheless embroiled in a factional struggle, paralysing much of its work. The Second Enlarged Plenum heard reports from the leaders of the two main factions, Bohumir Šmeral and Bohumil Jílek.[29]

Other Topics Discussed

Other matters were also taken up at the Second Enlarged Plenum:

– The trial of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries. The plenum heard a report by Zinoviev on the trial that had just begun in Moscow of 47 members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, charged with maintaining ties with Anglo-French imperialism and being involved in armed counterrevolutionary attacks in Russia during the Civil War. The trial was being utilised by the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals in their campaign against Soviet Russia, and they raised it prominently at the Berlin Conference. As a result, the Communist delegation at Berlin announced that no death sentences would come out of the trial, and agreed to allow the Social Democrats to have open access to the trials, including functioning as defence counsels. At the same time, the plenum outlined a political campaign that Communist parties were urged to wage around the trial, which was to stress the Social Democrats’ support for armed counterrevolutionary acts committed against Soviet Russia.[30]

– In preparation for the Fourth World Congress, scheduled to be held four months later, the Second Enlarged Plenum elected a commission to prepare a programme for the Comintern.

Fourth World Congress

In November–December 1922, the Comintern held its Fourth Congress. One of the main themes of that congress was the united front.

In addition to approving the perspective adopted at the First and Second Enlarged ECCI Plenums, the congress discussed the united-front policy in a strategic framework. As Radek told the congress:

[T]he application of the united-front tactic today seems to me to be somewhat different in character from what it was earlier. At first, the united-front tactic was a way to cover the broad retreat of the proletariat. Now, it seems to me that the united-front tactic is a protection for gathering and deploying our forces and for preparing a new advance.[31]

At the Fourth Congress, the Comintern’s united-front perspective was broadened strategically in another way, with the call for an ‘anti-imperialist united front’ in the colonial and semi-colonial world. Such a front, a congress resolution stated, would ‘promote the development of a revolutionary will and of class consciousness among the working masses, placing them in the front ranks of fighters not only against imperialism but also against survivals of feudalism’. And it added that ‘just as the slogan of proletarian united front in the West contributes to exposing Social-Democratic betrayal of proletarian interests, so too the slogan of anti-imperialist united front serves to expose the vacillation of different bourgeois-nationalist currents.’[32]

An additional application of the united front proposed at the Fourth Congress concerned the fight against fascism. The call for an anti-fascist united front originated from Fourth Congress delegates who were dissatisfied with the lack of a perspective by the ECCI leadership to combat the fascist rise. Swiss delegate Franz Welti told the congress that it ‘must demand of the parties of West and Central Europe that they undertake a coordinated effort on the basis of a proletarian united front, utilising both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary methods, in order to erect a wall against fascism’.[33] This idea, acknowledged toward the end of the Fourth Congress,[34] would be at the centre of the discussion on fascism at the Third Enlarged Plenum.

The Fourth Congress also recognised the limits of the united-front slogan. It rejected seeing united fronts as electoral blocs or coalitions. As a resolution of the Fourth World Congress stated, ‘By no means does the united-front tactic mean so-called electoral alliances at the leadership level, in pursuit of one or another parliamentary goal.’[35]

Nevertheless, congress delegates frequently expressed different interpretations of the united front, with disagreements and reservations on its usefulness and applicability.[36]

Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum (June 1922) 

The Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum of 12–23 June 1923 was in several ways a contradictory meeting – more so for what it did not discuss than for what it did.

Three months earlier, Lenin had suffered a devastating stroke that left him incapacitated and ended his political life. Indeed, by mid-1923 elements of the post-Lenin Stalinist degeneration had already begun to appear in the Soviet Union. As will be described later in this introduction, this question was not discussed at the plenum, which also largely passed over the approaching revolutionary crisis in Germany.

Despite these negative signs, however, the Third Enlarged Plenum was nevertheless in general continuity with the first four Comintern congresses and the first two enlarged plenums, making important contributions to the Comintern’s political legacy in several key areas. For these reasons, the Third Enlarged Plenum deserves to be categorised as a legitimate part of the Lenin-era Comintern.

Political Background 

Growth of Communist Movement

By June 1923, the Comintern’s united-front efforts had resulted in substantial gains for the Communist movement in several countries, above all Germany. This progress was reflected in a relative decline in the strength of its Social- Democratic opponents.

The centrist Two-and-a-Half International, which had initiated the Berlin Conference discussed earlier, had been formed in February 1921 as an alternative to the Communist International, and had garnered a significant amount of support from proletarian militants who were discouraged by the split in the workers’ movement and desired unity. Among these layers, the Comintern’s united-front efforts had made a significant impact, undercutting support for the Two-and-a-Half International. As a result, the centrist International was left with little alternative but to reunite with the reformist Second International. It did so at a May 1923 congress in Hamburg, Germany, held several weeks prior to the Third Enlarged Plenum.

The declining attraction of Social Democracy among working-class activists was paralleled by a growing appreciation for the Communist movement, which was increasingly seen as the champion of proletarian unity.

But gains from the united-front policy were perhaps felt most strongly in the trade-union movement. Working-class sentiment for united action to fight the capitalist offensive was such that two of the Amsterdam International’s union federations felt pressured to respond favourably to the united-front initiatives of the Red International of Labour Unions. In May 1923 united-front agreements were reached between Communist-led union forces and the Amsterdam International’s metalworkers and transport workers’ federations.

World Political Situation 

The world political situation that confronted the Third Enlarged Plenum in June 1923 was one of intensifying crisis.

On 11 January 1923, the Ruhr region in Germany was invaded by sixty thousand French and Belgian troops, who occupied the area in an attempt to exact war reparations. That invasion and occupation exacerbated the social crisis within Germany.

The Ruhr invasion also increased tensions among the imperialist powers, particularly the rivalry between Britain and France. ‘What has taken place in the last six months in the Ruhr,’ Radek reported to the Third Enlarged Plenum, ‘shows not only that the international bourgeoisie is incapable of rebuilding the capitalist world economy, but the bourgeoisies of the individual countries are incapable of subordinating their specific interests to the common interests they all share.’[37]

Another theme of Radek’s world political situation report was the danger facing Soviet Russia. A month earlier, the British government had sent an ultimatum to the Soviet republic signed by its foreign secretary, Lord Curzon. The ultimatum demanded that the Soviets recall their diplomatic representatives from Iran and Afghanistan, apologise for anti-British acts, reduce maritime limits around its borders, and other things. The note threatened to cancel the British-Soviet trade agreement of 1921 unless these demands were met, with an implicit threat of war.

One other feature of the world situation in 1923 that clearly showed the unfolding crisis was the growth of rightist movements throughout Europe. In line with this, one of the biggest contributions of the Third Enlarged Plenum was its discussion of fascism.


Italian fascism arose as a reaction to the rising proletarian movement in Italy, and to that movement’s inability to utilise the country’s social crisis to lead the working class toward the seizure of power. The achievement of proletarian rule in Italy had in fact been sharply posed during a September 1920 wave of factory occupations that had rocked the country. But that promising revolutionary opportunity was lost when the Italian Socialist Party – then a member of the Comintern – and the main trade union federation under its influence refused to see this month-long movement as anything more than a simple trade-union battle. In the wake of this failure, fascist forces led by Benito Mussolini escalated their attacks on the working class and its organisations, receiving increasing backing from Italian capitalists. At the end of October 1922, the fascists were able to take power, with Mussolini becoming prime minister of Italy.

Fascist movements were on the rise in other European countries, too, the strongest being in Germany. Fascist-type formations also sprang up in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and elsewhere.

The Fourth World Congress had heard a report on fascism by Italian CP leader Amadeo Bordiga. While that report included some useful observations about the fascist movement in Italy, its attempt to analyse the fascist phenomenon in general was nonetheless inadequate and schematic. In essence, Bordiga stated, there was little substantive difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy, and he predicted that fascism was unlikely to last long. Moreover, Bordiga provided little perspective on how the working class could conduct a struggle against fascism. That deficiency was not Bordiga’s alone; the fight against fascism received scant attention in Zinoviev’s main report to the Fourth Congress.

Only on the second-to-last day of the congress did Zinoviev say that Communists should unite with non-Communist forces in the struggle against fascism.[38]

It was an important first step, nevertheless. On 3 January 1923, the ECCI issued an appeal calling for an international united front against fascism. In line with this, an International Provisional Committee against Fascism was formed, chaired by Clara Zetkin.

Zetkin Report and Resolution 

Given the inadequacy of the Fourth Congress analysis of fascism, the clarity of Clara Zetkin’s report to the Third Enlarged Plenum is all the more remarkable. In fact, this plenum should be recognised as the site of the first major discussion in the international Marxist movement on the causes and nature of fascism.

Zetkin’s analysis included the following key elements:

– Fascism’s emergence is inextricably tied to the crisis of capitalism and the decline of its institutions. This crisis is characterised by escalating attacks on the working class, and by middle layers of society being increasingly squeezed and driven down into the proletariat.

– The rise of fascism is based on the proletariat’s failure to resolve capitalism’s social crisis by taking power and beginning to reorganise society. This failure breeds demoralisation among workers and among the forces within society that had looked to the proletariat and socialism as a way out of the crisis.

  • Fascism possesses a mass character, with special appeal to petty-bourgeois layers threatened by the decline of the capitalist social order. To win support from these layers, fascism makes use of anti-capitalist demagogy.
  • Fascist ideology elevates nation and state above all class contradictions and class interests.
  • A major characteristic of fascism is the use of organised violence by antiworking- class shock troops, aiming to crush all independent proletarian organisation.
  • At a certain point important sections of the capitalist class begin to support and finance the fascist movement, seeing it as a way to counter the threat of proletarian revolution.
  • Once in power, fascism tends to become bureaucratised, and moves away from its demagogic appeals, leading to a resurgence of class contradictions and class struggle.
  • Workers’ self-defence is crucial in order to confront the fascist terror campaign. Above all, this includes organised workers’ defence guards to combat fascist attacks.
  • United-front action to combat fascism is essential, involving all working-class organisations and currents, regardless of political differences.
  • In addition to combating fascism physically when necessary to defend itself, the working class needs to combat fascism’s mass appeal politically, making special efforts among middle-class layers.

These basic ideas can all be found in Trotsky’s later writings on the rise of fascism in Germany, which are better known. While Trotsky has been widely credited with being the originator of a Marxist theory of fascism,[39] many of the points he raised can be found in this 1923 discussion.

Zetkin’s report and resolution also contrasts sharply with the analysis of fascism put forward subsequently by the Comintern under Stalin. There were two such Stalinist approaches, equally erroneous:

  1. ‘Social Fascism’

Adopted during the Comintern’s ultraleft ‘Third Period’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the thrust of this view was to equate Social Democracy and fascism, thereby justifying the German Communist Party’s refusal to seek a united front with the powerful Social-Democratic Party in the fight against the Nazis. Had such a united front been organised, it would have had the support of the overwhelming majority of working people in Germany and would almost certainly have been powerful enough to counter the Nazis. The adamant refusal to seek such united action by both the KPD and the SPD leaderships can rightly be said to have opened the road to Hitler’s assumption of power.

  1. ‘Popular Frontism’

This view was first fully presented in a report by Georgy Dimitrov to the Seventh Congress of the by-then fully Stalinised Comintern in 1935. Fascism, Dimitrov stated, was ‘the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital’. It ‘acts in the interests of the extreme imperialists’, ‘the most reactionary circles of the bourgeoisie’.[40]

Based on this analysis, the task of Communists was to form blocs – ‘popular fronts’ – with supposedly less reactionary, less chauvinistic, and less imperialist sections of the bourgeoisie – its ‘anti-fascist wing’ – and to subordinate independent working-class struggle and political action to this objective. In practice such an approach meant that Stalinist parties opposed all independent proletarian revolutionary action in general, seeing this as an obstacle to the projected popular front.[41] Such a perspective also became the justification for giving back-handed support to ‘anti-fascist’ capitalist politicians such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US, under the guise that his Republican opposition represented ‘the chief menace of fascism’.[42]

The ‘Schlageter Speech’ 

To the extent that the discussion on fascism at the Third Enlarged Plenum has been studied, much of the attention centres not on Zetkin’s report or the resolution she authored, but on Karl Radek’s ‘Schlageter speech’ given during the discussion.[43]

Albert Leo Schlageter was a member of the right-wing Freikorps troops involved in carrying out sabotage actions against French occupation forces in the Ruhr. Captured by French troops and charged with blowing up the railway near Düsseldorf, he was executed on 26 May 1923. The Nazis and other rightist forces treated him as a martyr.

Characterising Schlageter as ‘our class opponent’ and a ‘courageous soldier of the counterrevolution’, Karl Radek’s speech to the plenum was a somewhat lyrical attempt to discuss the motives that led Schlageter to join the fascist forces. By doing so, Radek pointed to fascism’s nationalist appeal to the petty-bourgeois masses, as well as to sections of the working class.

[W]e believe that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not in the camp of the capitalists but in that of the workers. We want to find the road to these masses, and we will do so. We will do everything in our power to make men like Schlageter … not spill their eager, unselfish blood for the profit of the coal and iron barons, but in the cause of the great toiling German people, which is a member of the family of peoples fighting for their emancipation.

Radek’s speech was not an individual flight of fancy. As he reported to the Comintern’s Fifth Congress a year later, he had been assigned to deliver it by the ECCI leadership. ‘The Schlageter speech’, he said, ‘was given at the [Third] Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee with the agreement – not just silent but written – of the chairman of the Executive Committee [Zinoviev].’[44]

Following the speech, it was widely claimed that Radek was proposing a rapprochement with fascism. The Social-Democratic Party was especially insistent about this claim. Its central organ Vorwärts published an article entitled ‘The New National Hero: Radek Extols Schlageter’.[45] The Social Democrats spoke of the ‘collusion of the Communist and fascist leaders’. Even Ruth Fischer, a leader of the leftist faction in the KPD at the time, subsequently accepted this interpretation, stating that Radek had ‘openly proposed a united front’ with the German nationalists.[46]

Radek decisively rejected this claim, however. In an article printed in Inprecorr, he reminded readers that he had specifically referred to the Nazis as the workers’ ‘class opponent’. He then spoke of the underlying reason for the speech:

Fascism is a political movement embracing wide masses of the proletarianised petty bourgeoisie. And if we are to combat it, we must combat it politically. It is only possible to combat fascism politically, by first opening the eyes of the broad, suffering masses of the petty bourgeoisie to the fact that their justifiable feelings are being taken advantage of by capital, which is to blame, not only for their economic misery but also for the national misery of Germany. … The Communist Party must be capable of awakening in the petty bourgeois masses the great and holy faith in the possibility of overcoming misery, of awakening the conviction that petty bourgeoisie and working class in cooperation are able to overcome misery, and to create the foundations for a new life in Germany.[47]

KPD’s ‘Schlageter Line’

Coming out of the Third Enlarged Plenum, the German Communist Party organised a campaign of joint discussion meetings and public debates with fascist and Nazi forces, which took place over the course of July and August 1923.

Communist speakers addressed nationalist audiences in meetings held at universities.[48] In her memoirs, then-KPD leader Ruth Fischer stated that ‘Communists built up small groups in which nationalists and socialists met to discuss the necessity of a united German front against France.’ Fischer recounted that in one such meeting Hermann Remmele, a Communist Reichstag deputy, spoke at a meeting in Stuttgart and, according to a report in Die Rote Fahne, ‘was greeted by “enthusiastic applause from fascists and workers”. Communist speakers declared, “The time is not far off when the Völkische [Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi newspaper] and the Communists will be united.”’[49]

According to Pierre Broué, ‘Communist orators sometimes let themselves get carried away in their desire to please their audiences and made dangerous concessions to them.’ The Social Democrats even accused the KPD of having made anti-Semitic statements, referring specifically to Fischer.[50] No convincing evidence for this assertion has been provided, Broué insists. Fischer herself vociferously denied the charge.[51]

Despite claims that the Schlageter line aimed to achieve a united front of Communists and Nationalists,[52] no credible evidence has been supplied that such a goal was ever a serious aim of the KPD leadership at the time.

This assertion could possibly be made with a view toward the subsequent de-facto bloc of the by-then Stalinised Communist Party with the Nazis in the so-called ‘Red Referendum’ of 1931.[53] But no convincing evidence has been provided of any effort at a ‘united front’ between the Communists and Nazis in 1923.

Radek’s Schlageter speech and the KPD’s ‘Schlageter line’ were meant to open the eyes of the Communist movement to fascism’s appeal to the petty bourgeoisie, and to sections of the working class. To that extent, the line involved no violation of Communist principle and fulfilled a political need.[54] Nor could there be a principled objection, in and of itself, to debating with these forces and appealing to their supporters. Moreover, the initiative was taken at a time of significant uncertainty and vacillation in the nationalist ranks.

The experience of the anti-fascist struggle over the last century, however, raises two important considerations concerning the suitability of such initiatives in the future:

  1. The real and significant danger of political adaptation to rightist and fascist forces cannot be ignored, including the prospect of individuals and currents in the working-class movement crossing over entirely to the class enemy. Such was the case in Italy – with Mussolini himself as well as other forces in the Communist movement (Nicola Bombacci). The same phenomena took place in Germany, where one wing of the National Bolshevik tendency within the leftist Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD) wound up in the camp of the Nazi movement. Experience has shown that the anti-capitalist and often anti-Semitic demagogy of fascist and ultra-right forces can become attractive to sectors of the workers’ movement.[55]
  2. The most effective way for the working class to educate and win over those attracted to fascism is not primarily through political appeals to its supporters or attempts to debate them, but rather by showing the proletariat’s absolute determination to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie and resolve capitalism’s social crisis. In doing so, organised countermobilisation and self-defence by the working class and its allies in response to fascist threats can be seen as an effective educational tool.

Workers’ Government 

In the Comintern’s discussions of 1922 and 1923, the united front was seen as integrally tied to the demand for a workers’ government. As stated by a resolution of the Fourth Congress: ‘The slogan of the workers’ government flows unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic.’[56]

The issue of the workers’ government, which originally arose out of the experience of the German workers’ movement, was a key point of discussion at the Fourth Congress.[57] It was also an important theme of Zinoviev’s main report to the Third Enlarged Plenum, focusing on two aspects:

1. The Centrality of the Governmental Question 

One of the contributions of the Comintern in 1922 and 1923 was on the central place of the governmental demand in a Communist party’s programme. ‘The slogan of the workers’ government,’ Zinoviev reported to the plenum, ‘serves as a link between our programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the small demands around which we can now mobilise the masses.’[58]

Along these lines, Zinoviev’s report to the Third Enlarged Plenum pointed to how the Communists’ governmental demand separated them from the Social- Democratic tradition.

In order to understand the psychological essence of the [Communist] parties … you must take into account that these parties do not yet feel themselves to be striving to win the majority in their countries. They are not yet parties struggling for power and for leadership of the state. So far, most of our parties still have the psychology of merely an oppositional workers’ party in the framework of bourgeois society, a party that does not feel itself to be a leading force, the bearer of hegemony, which has set out to win the majority of the people, to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and to replace it in a leadership role. …

We must awaken the will to power in our parties. We must make them into parties aware in their every move of their task to overcome the bourgeoisie. Our parties are the vanguard of the working class. Imbued with the will to power, this vanguard will transmit this commitment to the broad layers of workers in their millions. And when millions and millions of proletarians are imbued with this will to power, victory will no longer be so difficult.[59]

The ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ Slogan

The Fourth Congress had raised the possibility of a ‘government of workers and the poorer peasants’ in ‘the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, and so on’.[60] The Third Enlarged Plenum applied this concept more broadly, reformulating the workers’ government slogan into that of a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’, pointing to the class alliances necessary for the proletariat in its fight for power.

Speakers in the discussion referred to the experience of the Bolsheviks in the years prior to the 1917 revolution, in which Lenin had outlined the class alliances necessary for the coming revolution, presenting an algebraic formula based on this necessary alliance, since, as Lenin said, ‘politics is more like algebra than arithmetic.’[61] In line with this perspective, the Third Enlarged Plenum’s resolution on the workers’ and peasants’ government stated:

The ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan is a propagandistic formula that enables us to express arithmetically what was previously expressed only algebraically. As such, it can be universally helpful.[62]

As Radek told the plenum, ‘The Bolshevik Party was very early in orienting to the peasants, but only in the slogan of the 1905 revolution, for a coalition with the peasants, did this assume great significance.’

Mention was made of how following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had made an alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries – a party based on peasant support, which was part of the government that had held power in Soviet Russia until mid-1918. As Trotsky put it at the Fourth Congress, the Left SRs ‘represented the peasantry in the workers’ government’.[63]

The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan also figured prominently in the discussion on fascism at the Third Enlarged Plenum, where it was presented as a way to combat fascism’s mass appeal to petty-bourgeois layers. And it played a prominent part in the plenum’s assessment of events in Bulgaria.[64]

Bulgaria Coup 

On the eve of the June 1923 Enlarged Plenum, a right-wing coup in Bulgaria overthrew the government headed by radical Peasant Party leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski, sparking armed resistance by Peasant Party supporters.

The Communist Party of Bulgaria had the support of the overwhelming majority of the working class of the country, dwarfing the Social-Democratic party, with dominance in the trade unions and among working-class deputies in parliament. Within the Comintern, the Bulgarian CP had often been pointed to as a model party.

But during the coup, the party failed the test. Rather than opposing the rightwing governmental seizure and seeing it as an attack on the working class and peasantry as a whole, the CP took a neutral stance, presenting the coup as an internecine struggle within the bourgeoisie that workers had no stake in. During the days of the coup, the Bulgarian party repeatedly defended this stance of neutrality.

The coup and the CP’s failure was the subject of a report by Radek given to the last session of the Third Enlarged Plenum. Radek’s report subjected the Bulgarian CP and its leadership to withering criticism, focusing on ‘the absence of a will to struggle’ within the party going back years. ‘It accomplished wonders in the sphere of propaganda and organisation, but at a historic moment it was not able to carry out the transition from agitation and opposition to the deed, to action.’ Much of the report was centred on the question of the Executive Committee’s degree of responsibility, given Radek’s description of the longstanding nature of the Bulgarian CP’s problems. Radek denied any ECCI responsibility for the Bulgarian party’s stance.

In contrast to the approach of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Radek cited the example of the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the attempted coup by General Lavr Kornilov against the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky. Although the Bolsheviks were opponents of Kerensky, who had persecuted them fiercely, they nevertheless helped organise the successful resistance to Kornilov.

After Radek’s report, the meeting adopted an appeal that urged Bulgarian toilers to ‘Unite in struggle against the white putsch not only with the broad peasant masses but with the surviving leaders of the Peasant Party.’ And it called for ‘a common struggle for a workers’ and peasants’ government’.[65]

National Question in Germany

Prior to 1871 Germany was divided into more than a score of independent states and principalities, with feudal remnants abounding. In that context the developing revolutionary workers’ movement supported the fight for German unification as part of an advancing democratic revolution, which it viewed as a prelude to the fight for socialism.

When German unification was largely achieved in 1871, however, power was in the hands of the dynastic Prussian regime of Otto von Bismarck, laying the groundwork for a modern bourgeois and imperialist state. For the German Social-Democratic Party, German unification then ceased being a burning question. The unification left outside the country a large German population in Austria-Hungary plus small minorities elsewhere.

During World War I, Germany had been at the head of one of the rival groups of imperialist powers. Even though the German government and other supporters of the war publicly declared that it was being waged in defence of Germany’s national interests, Lenin had dismissed this claim in his attack on the German Social Democracy’s support for the war. This same basic stance guided the position of the early Comintern toward the ‘national question’ in advanced capitalist countries.

In the context of the Versailles Treaty’s demands on Germany and the occupation of the Ruhr, however, the national question began to find a deep resonance in German society that could not simply be ignored by the Communist movement.

In his ECCI report to the Third Enlarged Plenum, Zinoviev stated that ‘we Communists are against the bourgeois fatherland, but if we achieve a socialist government, we will defend this socialist fatherland.’ This view was echoed by Radek in the discussion, presenting the perspective that ‘salvation is to be found only through the Communists. We represent today the only road forward. Strong emphasis on the nation in Germany today is a revolutionary act.’[66]

This question became the subject of debate between the rival factions in the KPD. The debate originated around an article written by August Thalheimer, a leader of the party majority, which stated:

The German bourgeoisie, however counterrevolutionary it is in its essence, has been brought by the cowardice of the petty-bourgeois democracy (above all the Social Democrats) into a situation where it can act externally in an objectively revolutionary fashion. It is externally revolutionary (at least for a time) against its own will, as was the case with Bismarck from 1864 to 1870, and for analogous historical reasons.[67]

The leftist faction in the KPD vociferously opposed this view. At the Third Enlarged Plenum, Alois Neurath, a leader of the Czechoslovak party who supported the KPD minority, criticised Thalheimer’s viewpoint as a concession to social patriotism. The ‘broad masses of petty-bourgeois proletarian layers’, he stated, will not be won ‘if we try to compete with the German nationalists. Instead, we must always emphasise in this critical situation our intransigent internationalism.’[68]

While not endorsing all of Thalheimer’s conclusions and formulations, Radek responded to Neurath’s argument:

Comrade Neurath says that Germany is being flooded by a tide of nationalism, which we must combat rather than adapting to it. The party has not adapted in the slightest; it sharply combats nationalism. The German party has not overlooked an important fact neglected by Comrade Neurath, namely the difference between nationalism and the revolutionary national interests of Germany, which at present coincide with the revolutionary national interests of the proletariat.[69]

‘Limits of Centralism’ 

Another point on the agenda at the Third Enlarged Plenum was a report by Bukharin on ‘the limits of centralism in the Comintern’.

The Comintern and Centralism 

The question of centralism was not a new one for the Communist International.

The Second International had never claimed to be centralist in nature, functioning largely as a ‘mailbox’, as it was characterised by the Comintern’s Second Congress.[70] The resolutions adopted at the Second International’s congresses had only moral weight, with no mechanism to assure their implementation by the different parties.[71]

The consequences of that type of functioning were brought into sharp relief during the First World War. Despite all the resolutions passed at earlier international congresses to oppose imperialist war and support the struggle against it, the main parties of the Second International lined up, one after another, to support the war efforts of their respective capitalist classes.

The hypocrisy of international Social Democracy left a deep mark on revolutionary- minded workers and youth. What these militants aspired to was something completely different: an international movement that did what it said it would do, with no gap between word and deed.

When the Communist International was formed in 1919, the new movement made a sharp break with the decentralised structure of the Second International. Instead, it set out to build an instrument to fight the centralised power of the bourgeoisie, making this a key part of its Statutes: The Communist International knows that in order to achieve victory more rapidly, the international workers’ association that fights to destroy capitalism and create communism must have a strictly centralised organisation.

The Communist International must be, truly and in fact, a united Communist party of the whole world. The parties that work in each country are only its individual sections. The organisational apparatus of the Communist International must guarantee the workers of every country that at any given moment they will receive maximum assistance from the organised proletarians of other countries.[72]

To carry out this centralisation, the Comintern created a leadership body – the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). The Statutes defined the ECCI’s functions as follows:

[The Executive Committee directs all the activities of the Communist International from one congress to the next, publishes the central organ of the Communist International (the magazine Communist International) in at least four languages, issues in the name of the Communist International such appeals as are required, and issues directives binding on all organisations and parties belonging to the Communist International. The Executive Committee of the Communist International has the authority to demand of its member parties the expulsion of groups or individuals that breach international discipline, as well as the authority to expel from the Communist International any party that contravenes the resolutions of the world congress. Such parties have the right to appeal to the world congress. As necessary, the Executive Committee organises in different countries technical and other auxiliary bureaus, which are strictly subordinate to the Executive Committee. Executive Committee representatives discharge their political duties in the closest possible communication with the party leaderships of their respective countries.[73]

Nevertheless, in outlining international centralism, the Twenty-One Conditions for Admission to the Comintern adopted by the Second Congress made a point of stating international centralism’s limits:

[I]n all their activity, the Communist International and its Executive Committee must take into account the diverse conditions under which each party has to struggle and work, adopting universally binding decisions only on questions in which such decisions are possible.[74]

Respect for the specific conditions facing each party was the general practice in the Communist International’s first years. During this time, the ECCI was judicious about issuing directives and orders, focusing on political collaboration with the Comintern’s national sections. Zinoviev referred to this general practice at the Third World Congress in 1921:

An attempt has been made to claim that we impose a dreadful pressure, a dreadful centralism. The opposite is true. Our organisation has been far too loose. We are well aware that many important questions are of such a nature that they must be resolved by the parties directly concerned, in the framework of national conditions. We have thoughtlessly proposed slogans to resolve on an international level issues that are inherently capable of resolution only on a national level.

However, there are issues where international guidelines must be established. We must have a much more centralised organisation, and we must build connections that are much tighter and more effective than has previously been the case.[75]

Returning to this question at the Third Enlarged Plenum, Zinoviev stated:

[T]he Communist International is really beginning to become a unified Communist world party. What does that mean – a world party? It absolutely does not mean, as a few scattered comrades suppose, the liquidation of our national parties. No, it means only that at moments when history demands truly international action … the Communist International will bring its parties together and direct their energies in a manner consistent with the demands of the international struggle.

ECCI’s Role 

At the Third Enlarged Plenum, there was some discussion of the ECCI’s role and its collaboration with individual sections.

Much of the ECCI’s work in the 1919–23 period was devoted to providing collaborative advice and assistance to individual member parties. As mentioned at the Third Enlarged Plenum, such collaboration included:

  • Coordinating international campaigns. These included actions in support of Soviet Russia, the defence of political prisoners, and the united-front effort.
  • Working for unification of Communist forces (US, Austria, Italy, etc.).
  • Convincing parties to fight for legalisation (US, Japan).
  • Helping parties to ease inner-party conflicts and restore collaborative relations between warring factions (Germany, Denmark, etc.).
  • Encouraging small parties’ involvement in working-class struggles (Britain, Switzerland, etc.).

One of the activities of the ECCI that engendered occasional criticism from Communist parties concerned the practice of sending envoys to the various sections.

Many ECCI emissaries provided valuable and universally welcomed assistance, particularly in facilitating the unification of Communist groups and currents and in winning forces from the Social Democracy to Communism. Among the most outstanding examples of such efforts was Zinoviev’s October 1920 trip to Germany, during which he helped win the majority of the German USPD to the Comintern, in the process creating a mass Communist party. Similarly, Zetkin’s December 1920 trip to France to attend the congress of the French Socialist Party, at which she helped convince the majority of that party to join the Comintern, was widely praised.[76]

The impact of other emissaries, however, was not as positive. Negative outcomes of such missions were a special risk in cases where envoys sought to impose tactical policies, based on insufficient knowledge of the local situation and compounded by their own lack of political experience and judgment. The most notorious example was that of the Comintern envoys sent to Germany in March 1921, who helped instigate the March Action of 1921.[77]

Norwegian Question 

The agenda point on centralism at the Third Enlarged Plenum centred on Norway. It focused on the Norwegian Labour Party’s explicit rejection of any degree of centralism within the Communist International, asserting their party’s virtual autonomy. This rejection was part of a move by the Norwegian party’s majority away from communism, which would culminate in its open break from the Comintern by the end of 1923.

The Third Enlarged Plenum sought to hold on to the NLP and win it to the perspective of transforming itself into a Communist party. During the debate, the Norwegian party majority received support from within the Swedish CP, while a strong minority in the Norwegian party supported the line of the Comintern.

The complete identification of the ‘international centralism’ agenda point with the Norwegian question is illustrated by the fact that the commission assigned to take up this issue was referred to interchangeably as the ‘Norwegian Commission’, the ‘Scandinavian Commission’, and the ‘Commission on the Centralism Question’.

While some of the discussion on centralism at the plenum went in the direction of calling for increased ECCI involvement in parties’ local activity and tactics, and denying any ‘limits’ to centralism,[78] the resolution ultimately adopted was careful not to encroach on the authority of the Norwegian party leadership in local matters. Its proposals for changes to NLP policy and structure were made in the form of recommendations.[79]

Other Questions Discussed 

The Third Enlarged Plenum took up a number of other issues. Among these were:

  • Trade unions. In his report to Session 11, Solomon A. Lozovsky took up three main issues related to the work of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU, or Profintern): the significance of the gains made through united-front efforts in creating a left wing within the Amsterdam International; the fight for trade-union unity to oppose the Amsterdam leadership’s expulsion of Communist-led unions; and the importance of the fight for union federations and individual unions to affiliate to the Profintern. A second trade-union report was given by Jakob Walcher.
  • Religion. Prior to the enlarged plenum Swedish Communist leader Zeth Höglund – a defender of the Norwegian Labour Party – had asserted that religion was a private matter, both with relation to the state and to the Communist Party. In response, Comintern leaders initiated a discussion at the Third Enlarged Plenum on how from a Marxist viewpoint religion is indeed a private matter vis-à-vis the state, but it is not a private matter within the party, referring to the writings of Lenin on this question.[80] While the party does not exclude religiously minded workers from joining the party and treats their beliefs with sensitivity, Comintern leaders stated, it nonetheless maintains and defends a materialist and atheist worldview, and is particularly insistent that party leaders uphold this perspective.
  • The programme of the Comintern. The Fourth World Congress had initiated a discussion around the need for a written programme for the Communist International. That debate was continued at the Third Enlarged Plenum with a report by Bukharin, who proposed that it be resolved the following year at the Fifth Comintern Congress.

There were also brief discussions on the cooperative movement, the Communist Women’s Movement, the Communist Youth Movement, and of concrete problems of several national parties that special commissions had been organised to investigate.

A Sharp Break; An Ongoing Legacy

Two Questions Not Discussed 

Two decisive questions, however, were not specifically addressed at the Third Enlarged Plenum although they nevertheless remained constantly in the background:

1. The Revolutionary Situation in Germany 

As the Third Enlarged Plenum was meeting in June 1923, a revolutionary crisis in Germany was unfolding. The situation was rooted in the profound crisis of German capitalism and its devastating impact on the proletariat, peasantry, and middle classes, with two overriding political and economic contributing factors:

a) In January 1923 the Ruhr region in Germany, the country’s leading coal-producing area, was invaded by 60,000 French and Belgian troops, who occupied the region in an attempt to exact war reparations. While the German capitalist government called for ‘passive resistance’ to the French occupation but did nothing to organise it, the working class took the lead on the industrial front, with strikes and demonstrations. Right-wing forces were also present, waging armed resistance against the occupiers.

b) Germany in 1923 was undergoing a catastrophic hyperinflation, caused primarily by the massive printing of paper money in order to make the reparations payments imposed on Germany by the victorious Allied powers. Whereas the exchange rate of the mark to the dollar was some 4-to-1 in 1914 and 8-to-1 in 1918, it exploded in 1922 and 1923, reaching over 4- trillion-to-1 by late 1923. The impact on the working class, peasantry, and middle classes was devastating. Members of the middle class lost their life savings and were ruined, while large sections of the toilers were pauperised. Broad masses of the population saw no way out under the capitalist system, and were open to a revolutionary solution.

From early June 1923, Germany was rocked by strikes and mass street demonstrations. Communist-led trade unions and factory councils played a major role in these battles. This wave culminated in a spontaneous general strike that rocked the entire country in early August. Facing what the capitalist rulers feared was an approaching insurrection, Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno resigned, in an attempt to assuage the growing rebellion.

Despite the clear revolutionary character of these mobilisations, neither the German CP – either of its two main factions – or the Comintern leadership saw the crisis at that time as anything other than an opportunity to win members and influence, and to forge a united front with wings of the Social-Democratic Party.

While the Third Plenum spoke in general terms about the approaching revolution in Germany, it failed to recognise the concrete revolutionary situation that was developing in real life.[81]

The Struggle in the Russian Communist Party

In the background at the Third Enlarged Plenum was the still-developing struggle in the Russian Communist Party that was to publicly explode in October and November 1923.

From late 1922 on, Lenin had initiated a broad fight within the Soviet leadership around a number of issues, including the national question, defence of the monopoly of foreign trade, and the alliance with the peasantry. At the root of many of these questions was the growing bureaucratisation of the Communist Party, whose general secretary was Joseph Stalin.

To wage this fight, Lenin had formed a bloc with Trotsky, urging him to champion their common positions on these questions within the party leadership,[82] and he had called for Stalin to be removed as general secretary. But Lenin’s plans were derailed on 10 March, when Lenin suffered an incapacitating stroke that ended his political life.

To counter the efforts of Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin had succeeded in forging an alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev. This ‘troika’ was a secret faction within the Soviet Politburo that was waging an underground struggle to undercut Trotsky’s influence at every step.

Conscious of this struggle against him, with Lenin out of the picture Trotsky sought to avoid a showdown at the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923. The same reason may also explain why Trotsky did not take the floor at the June 1923 Third Enlarged Plenum.

These two questions – the German events of 1923 and the struggle in Soviet Russia – although beyond the scope of the present volume, were to be decisive in the Comintern’s political break from the Lenin era. This break was registered at the Communist International’s Fifth World Congress.

Fifth Congress Break with Leninism

A year after the Third Enlarged Plenum, the Comintern’s Fifth Congress of June–July 1924 registered a decisive reversal of Lenin’s course. The congress took place less than six months after Lenin’s death in January 1924.

With Lenin dead and Trotsky marginalised, Comintern president Grigorii Zinoviev – then part of the ‘troika’ with Stalin – now assumed the role of principal political leader. As such, he mapped out a series of major policy changes that reversed the Comintern’s adopted positions on the united front and the workers’ government. Karl Radek, who had previously been the other main Russian CP leader assigned to day-to-day Comintern work, had supported Trotsky in the Russian discussion and was attacked repeatedly at the congress.

During the debate at the congress, Radek and Zetkin defended the previous Comintern positions, but their arguments were rejected.[83]

The international analysis made by the Fifth Congress was shaped by the German defeat of the previous year.

Rather than facing up to this defeat and drawing the lessons from it, however, the congress insisted that the German revolution was still on the rise. While doing so, it sought to scapegoat individual leaders for whatever failures had occurred in Germany – above all putting the blame on the KPD’s Heinrich Brandler and Comintern leader Karl Radek around secondary issues. The Comintern leadership as a whole was exempted from any criticism.

To help gloss over the German defeat, the congress determined that the centre of the world class struggle had shifted to Britain in the wake of the inauguration of a Labour Party government in January 1924. While the British election was certainly an important development, the Comintern’s characterisation can reasonably be considered a transparent attempt to shift the focus off the German failure.

This strategic error was summarised by Trotsky four years later:

The fundamental tasks of the Fifth Congress were: first, to call this defeat [in Germany] clearly and relentlessly by its name, and to lay bare its ‘subjective’ cause, allowing no one to hide behind the pretext of objective conditions; secondly, to establish the beginning of a new stage during which the masses would temporarily drift away, the social democracy grow, and the communist party lose in influence; thirdly to prepare the Comintern for all this so that it would not be caught unawares and to equip it with the necessary methods of defensive struggle and organisational consolidation until the arrival of a new change in the situation. But in all these questions the congress adopted a directly opposite attitude.[84]

Highlighting the Fifth Congress reversal of course, was the open rejection of key programmatic decisions of the Lenin-era Comintern on three central issues:

  1. The united front. Zinoviev’s report to the Fifth Congress on behalf of the ECCI endorsed the view presented by a minority at earlier Comintern meetings of a supposed dichotomy between the united front from above and from below.[85] ‘Regarding this issue, we can therefore assert the following,’ Zinoviev stated, ‘United front from below – almost always. United front from below combined with from above – quite often, with all the necessary guarantees, as a tactic for the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses. United front from above by itself – never!’[86] As mentioned earlier, the Second Enlarged Plenum had argued specifically against such a dichotomy, seeing it as a negation of the very idea of a united front. Zinoviev also disparaged the 1921 Open Letter initiative of the German CP that Lenin had wholeheartedly endorsed, and essentially rejected any attempts to reach concrete agreements with the Social-Democratic Party for common action:

Unfortunately, in practice our most frequently applied method was the following: draft an open letter to the Social Democrats followed by long and boring negotiations with the leadership over creation of a ‘joint programme’. This was the line of least resistance.[87]

  1. The workers’ government. At the Fourth World Congress in November 1922, Zinoviev had at first presented the view that the ‘workers’ government’ slogan was merely a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. A number of delegates objected to this view, pointing to the slogan’s value as a transitional demand. As a result of these objections, Zinoviev himself withdrew the ‘pseudonym’ view in his summary to the Fourth Congress.[88] But in Zinoviev’s main report to the Fifth Congress, he returned to the ‘pseudonym’ view that he had discarded. ‘The workers’ government slogan’, he stated, ‘is for us the most attractive, accessible, and popular way of winning the masses for the proletarian dictatorship.’[89]
  1. Fascism. In sharp contrast to the analysis of fascism by Zetkin at the Third Enlarged Plenum, Zinoviev presented the Fifth Congress with the view of a supposed identity between Social Democracy and fascism. ‘The Social-Democratic Party has become a wing of fascism,’ he declared. ‘The fascists are the right hand and the Social Democrats the left hand of the bourgeoisie.’[90]

These policy reversals illustrate the Fifth Congress’s status as the dividing line between the Lenin-era Comintern and its subsequent degeneration.

Along these lines, a centrepiece of the Fifth Congress was to line the Comintern up in the struggle within the Soviet CP against the Left Opposition, condemning ‘Trotskyism’ and taking initial organisational measures against its supporters in Communist parties around the world.[91] For the first time, ‘monolithism’ became the stated goal of the Comintern.[92]

Lining up the Communist International behind the anti-Trotsky struggle was done under the rubric of ‘bolshevisation’, which became a theme of the congress.[93] The significance of this term was described later by Trotsky:

The ‘bolshevisation’ of 1924 assumed completely the character of a caricature. A revolver was held at the temples of the leading organs of the communist parties with the demand that they adopt immediately a final position on the internal disputes in the CPSU without any information and any discussion.[94]

In the years after the Fifth Congress, the Comintern became completely subordinated to the interests of the Soviet bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin. The radical zigzags it became known for over the coming years reflected the shifting needs of this caste. By the time of the Comintern’s formal dissolution in 1943 as a favour by Stalin to his wartime US and British allies, it had long since ceased being a revolutionary working-class international organisation.

The profound chasm between the Lenin-era and Stalin-era Comintern was highlighted in the late 1930s, when Stalin’s purges led to the wholesale murder of most early Comintern leaders who were then living in the Soviet Union. A look at the biographical sketches contained in the glossary to this volume strikingly illustrates this fact.

The Comintern’s Legacy Today 

The delegates participating in the Communist International’s leadership meetings were all profoundly influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

They had seen working people overthrow their oppressors, take political power, and begin to build a new society. Having witnessed this in real life, they were absolutely convinced that world revolution was a realistic prospect.

In their view, Communists were living through the beginning of the epoch of workers ‘storming the heavens’, as Marx had described the Paris Commune of 1871.[95] Rather than the objects of history – the customary role of working people for millennia – workers had suddenly become the conscious makers of history.

To meet this historic opportunity, revolutionaries sought to create an international movement of action, of deeds. They rejected the model of the Second International, whose grandiloquent verbiage masked a gap between word and deed – a gap that grew into a chasm during the bloodbath of World War I, when the Second International’s main sections supported the war efforts of their respective capitalist classes.

Counterposed to the Social-Democratic model, the young Communist cadres sought to build something entirely new: an international working-class movement that would eliminate the gap between word and deed and act in a unified manner. ‘The Communist International is an International of the deed,’ Communist youth leader Lazar Shatskin proudly told the Third Enlarged Plenum.[96]

What comes across from the proceedings of the first three enlarged plenums, above all, is a picture of the Communist International as a living movement, one that showed itself capable of always moving forward, although sometimes in fits and starts and along winding roads. But even when it took a misstep, the early Communist movement was able to recover its footing and keep advancing. With whatever errors and false starts, the Lenin-era Comintern was a movement deeply involved in working-class struggles, showing itself able to learn from them.

Indeed, most of the major policies adopted in 1922–3 came out of the movement’s concrete experiences in these battles. Such was the case with the positions that the first three enlarged plenums are best known for: those on the united front, the workers’ government, and fascism.

Contrary to many standard narratives of the Communist International, the Comintern under Lenin was not based on directives and orders from Moscow. Its decisions were largely collaborative and not imposed, as a careful reading of the proceedings of this volume shows.

The Comintern’s congresses and conferences were working meetings, where debates evolved and conclusions were not foreordained. Whatever one may think about the policies that the Comintern adopted, free debate and an open exchange of views were an integral part of its meetings.

**    **    **

Why study the early Communist International today, almost a century later?

While the world of the twenty-first century is obviously different in many ways from that facing the early Communist cadres, the similarities are both striking and relevant.

Those attending the three enlarged plenums of the Comintern in 1922 and 1923 faced a world of deepening inter-imperialist rivalries and the threat of new wars. They encountered a growing international capitalist offensive on workers’ wages, working conditions, and basic livelihoods. Joblessness was rampant and growing, especially among youth. Peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were beginning to rise up and assert their humanity as they sought to free themselves from imperialist and colonial bondage. Women were being increasingly drawn into capitalist production, beginning to break down some of the gender roles that had existed in society for millennia. And the basic social fabric seemed to be coming apart at the seams, leading to a growing appeal for emerging rightist movements around the world.

Much of this picture will sound familiar to contemporary readers confronting twenty-first-century capitalism. Even the deepening ecological crisis that casts a shadow over the world today simply reproduces in a new form the permanent contradiction between capitalist property relations and social progress, a contradiction addressed frequently by the early Communist movement.

As growing numbers take up the fight against this system, some will seek to link up with traditions of struggle by earlier generations. As they do so, many will find the lessons and example of the Communist International under Lenin to be of lasting value.

Those who do so will find much to learn from its discussions of programme, strategy and tactics, revolutionary experiences, and problems of organisation.

In an increasingly interconnected world – with ever-expanding economic, cultural, and informational ties among the world’s population – many militant workers, revolutionary-minded youth, and fighters for social change will find especially attractive the early Comintern’s perspective of international collaboration around a common programme to fight for a society built around human needs and human values.

Many of these activists and fighters will become convinced, through their own experiences, of the Comintern’s firm belief that the only road to lasting social progress lies in working people taking political power out of the hands of the billionaire ruling families through revolutionary struggle.

And many of them will be inspired by the early Comintern’s revolutionary promise, potential, and clarity of vision, summed up in the ringing words of Clara Zetkin at the Third Enlarged Plenum:

Symptoms of fascist decay and disintegration in bourgeois society speak to us loudly and piercingly of coming victory, provided that the proletariat struggles with knowledge and will in a united front. That’s what must be!

Above the chaos of present conditions, the giant form of the proletariat will rear up with the cry: ‘I have the will! I have the power! I am the struggle and the victory! The future belongs to me!’[97]

Mike Taber, January 2017


[1] Other volumes in the series are: Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents 1907–1916, The Preparatory Years; The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents 1918–1919, Preparing the Founding Congress; Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (divided into two parts); To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East; To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921; and Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922.  The latter two titles are available from Haymarket Books. The earlier ones are available from Pathfinder Press.

[2] See p. 59.

[3] Zinoviev, in Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 97.

The ECCI was elected following each world congress, with a membership generally around thirty. This number was expanded at ‘enlarged plenums’ by inviting parties to send additional representatives.

[4] The proceedings and resolutions of these four congresses have been published in English in a series edited by John Riddell. The volumes include: Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919 (hereafter 1WC) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987); Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress (hereafter 2WC) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991); To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (hereafter 3WC) (Leiden: Brill, 2015); and Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (hereafter 4WC) (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[5] See p. 504.

[6] The First Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in Baku 31 August–7 September 1920; for the proceedings, see Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1993). The First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East was held in Moscow and Petrograd, 21 January–2 February 1922; for the proceedings, see John Sexton, Alliance of Adversaries: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[7] In Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, pp. 131–2.

[8] For the Open Letter and the ECCI debate on it, see Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, pp. 1061–9. For Lenin’s position, see pp. 1086–7 and 1098–9.

[9] Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, pp. 939–40.

[10] For the December 1921 theses on the united front, see pp. 254–64 of this volume.

[11] See p. 107–8.

[12] See p. 106.

[13] See pp. 119 and 128.

[14] See p. 149.

[15] See pp. 201–5.

[16] See pp. 181–2 and 183.

[17] See pp. 198–201.

[18] See pp. 185–97.

[19] See pp. 207–9.

[20] See pp. 217 and 219.

[21] The Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals merged in May 1923. An additional international current at the time was that of the anarcho-syndicalist forces. In late 1922 these groups formed the ‘International Working Men’s Association’.

[22] See pp. 372.

[23] For the list of the entire Comintern delegation, see p. 366.

[24] For the text of this common declaration, see pp. 367–8.

[25] For Lenin’s assessment of the results of the Berlin Conference, see pp. 374–7.

[26] See pp. 284.

[27] See pp. 371.

[28] See pp. 310–9 and 351–8.

[29] See pp. 296–300.

[30] See pp. 269–71.

[31] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 452.

[32] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1187.

[33] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 476.

[34] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 20, 1154.

[35] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1158.

[36] See Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 9, as well as Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), vol. 2, p. 92.

[37] See p. 489.

[38] For Bordiga’s report at the Fourth Congress, see Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 403–23. For Zinoviev’s comments on Italy, see ibid., pp. 1032–55.

An indication of the Fourth Congress deficiency on fascism was the lack of a resolution on the question; its Resolution on the Italian Question (4WC, pp. 1138–42) failed to even address the rise of fascism in that country, aside from a passing reference.

[39] See for example Ernest Mandel’s introduction to Trotsky, The Struggle  against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971).

[40] Dimitrov’s report is contained in VII Congress of the Communist International: Abridged Report of Proceedings (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1939), pp. 124–93. It can also be found online at Marxists Internet Archive.

[41] Leon Trotsky and other Marxist leaders pointed out how this approach led to the defeat of the Spanish revolution and civil war of the late 1930s. See for example Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), and Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).

[42] The Communist, no. 6, June 1936, p. 489.

[43] See pp. 613–8 of this volume.

[44] Protokoll Funfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Carl Hoym Nachf, 1924), p. 713 (hereafter Protokoll 1924).

[45] ‘Der neue Nationalheld. Radek feiert Schlageter’.

[46] See Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948), p. 268.

[47] Karl Radek, ‘Fascism, Ourselves and the German Social-Democrats’, in Inprecorr, no. 30, 12 July 1923.

[48] Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 728–9.

[49] Fischer 1948, pp. 282–3.

[50] Vorwärts, 22 August 1923.

[51] Broué 2005, pp. 729–30. Fischer stated: ‘At a meeting of Berlin University students organised by the Berlin party branch, I was the speaker. The attitude of the nationalists against capitalism was discussed, and I was obliged to answer some anti-Semitic remarks. I said that Communism was for fighting Jewish capitalists only if all capitalists, Jewish and Gentile, were the object of the same attack. This episode has been cited and distorted over and over again in publications on German Communism.’ In Fischer 1948, p. 283.

[52] See for example E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1923 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966) v. 4, p. 193.

[53] The ‘red referendum’ was a name given by the German CP to a 1931 referendum in which the CP was allied with the Nazis in supporting a vote to oust the coalition government in Prussia headed by the Social Democrats. See ‘Against National Communism (Lessons of the “Red Referendum”)’, in Trotsky 1971, pp. 93–114.

[54] Broué 2005, p. 730, asserts that the Schlageter line ‘corresponded to the needs of the time – and history has proved this to be correct – even if its application went awry at times’.

[55] One recent example is that of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation in the United States, which evolved in the 1970s from a left-wing sect into a proto-fascist cult.

[56] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1159.

[57] For an analysis of this discussion, see the introduction to Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 20–7.

[58] See p. 289 of this volume.

[59] See pp. 411 and 423.

[60] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1161.

[61] Lenin, ‘Left-Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder’, Lenin, Collected Works (hereafter LCW), vol. 31, p. 102.

The Bolsheviks’ algebraic slogan was for a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’.

[62] See p. 654.

[63] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1003.

[64] The slogan was also subsequently given an opportunistic interpretation, justifying Communists’ participation in the formation of multiclass peasant parties. See for example Thomas Dombal, ‘The Peasants’ International’ in Pravda, 19 June 1923 and Inprecorr, 26 June 1923.

[65] For the report and resolution, see pp. 637–49.

The June 1923 failure in Bulgaria had a sorry epilogue. Three months later, in September, as if to atone for their failure to combat the coup, the Bulgarian CP helped initiate an ill-prepared uprising against the new regime with the goal of setting up a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’. The uprising was quickly crushed. According to Alfred Rosmer, a leader of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow at the time, the adventure was directly instigated by Zinoviev (Rosmer, Moscow Under Lenin, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, pp. 203, 208).

[66] See pp. 445–6.

[67] See p. 509.

[68] See p. 512.

[69] See p. 524.

[70] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 1, pp. 294–5.

[71] By contrast, the Third Comintern Congress discussed how a form of ‘bureaucratic centralism’ existed within most of the Second International’s parties, in which leaders did what they pleased, not bound by membership decisions. See Koenen’s report on the organisational question in Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, p. 811.

[72] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 2, p. 696.

[73] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 2, p. 698.

[74] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 2, p. 770.

[75] Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, p. 234. For the discussion at the Fourth Congress, see Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 41–5.

[76] See Ben Lewis and Lars Lih, eds., Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (London: November Publications, 2011), and 18e congrès nationale tenu à Tours. Compte rendu sténographique (Paris: Parti Socialiste, 1921).

[77] For the Comintern envoys to Germany in March 1921 (Béla Kun, Józef Pogány, and August Guralsky), see introduction to Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, pp. 16–18.

[78] For example, Arthur Ewert from Germany stated, ‘In our view, centralism in the Comintern is far from being sufficiently developed. It is true that a general staff capable of intervening authoritatively regarding the policies, tactics, and tasks of the individual parties cannot be created overnight. It will be constituted only over a lengthy period of development.’ See p. 439.

[79] One binding decision on a party that the Third Enlarged Plenum did make involved the Italian CP, then locked in a bitter factional dispute. The plenum adopted a proposal to select a new mixed central leadership body, with three members from the majority and two from the minority, maintaining the existing factional balance. That decision was opposed by the party majority. See Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano (Turin: Einaudi, 1967), vol. 1, pp. 283–5.

[80] Particularly ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion’, in LCW, vol. 15, pp. 402–13, and ‘Socialism and Religion’ in LCW, vol. 10, pp. 85–6.

[81] The August general strike finally convinced Zinoviev and other ECCI leaders that a revolutionary situation existed in Germany. Summoning the German CP leadership to Moscow, the Comintern leaders convinced the KPD of the need to move toward organising an insurrection. With Soviet support and encouragement, hasty technical preparations for an insurrectional struggle were made over the next two months, with the insurrection scheduled for October. But while thousands of KPD cadres responded enthusiastically to these efforts with discipline and heroism, the preparations were too little and too late. In the end, the plans for an insurrection had to be called off. The ‘German October’ ended in failure.

[82] Lenin’s writings on these questions are scattered over his Collected Works. One collection that assembles them together and groups them thematically is Fyson, ed., Lenin’s Final Fight: Speeches and Writings 1922–23 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1995). For Lenin’s proposals to Trotsky, see LCW, 45, p. 607, and Trotsky, My Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), pp. 478–80.

[83] For the main speeches by Radek and Zetkin at the Fifth Congress, see Protokoll 1924, pp. 162–90 and 320–39, respectively.

[84] See Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1996), p. 117.

[85] See for example Ruth Fischer’s comments in Riddell 2012, 4WC, p. 146.

[86] Protokoll 1924, p. 81.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Zinoviev had raised the ‘pseudonym’ view earlier at the Second Enlarged ECCI Plenum (see p. 350 of this volume). His remarks to the Fourth Congress withdrawing the idea can be found in Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 266.

[89] Protokoll 1924, p. 90

[90] Protokoll 1924, pp. 66–7.

[91] Accepting a proposal made by the Fifth Congress, an enlarged ECCI meeting held immediately after the congress voted to expel French CP leader Boris Souvarine, who had voiced support for the Russian Opposition. See Protokoll 1924, pp. 1032–4.

[92] From Zinoviev’s embrace of monolithism at the Fifth Congress, see Protokoll 1924, p. 507.

[93] The perspective of ‘bolshevisation’ was laid out in Zinoviev’s summary to his main report to the Fifth Congress. See Protokoll 1924, pp. 508–9.

[94] Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, p. 169.

[95] Karl Marx letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 12 April 1871, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 44, p. 132.

[96] See p. 438 of this volume.

[97] See p. 606.