Lessons of the Comintern experience, by Helen Scott, John Riddell and Lars Lih

May 12, 2012 -- LeftStreamed, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Three presentations from the Historical Materialism conference in Toronto on May 11–13.

Presentations by:

  • Helen Scott, University of Vermont – "Rebuilding the International: Rosa Luxemburg and the Comintern";
  • John Riddell, "The Workers' Government: Fiction, Pseudonym or Transition";
  • Lars T. Lih, "From 'Party of an Old Type' to 'Party of a New Type'".

Excerpt from "New voices and new views on revolutionary history":

Leading off the second session on revolutionary history, Helen Scott (University of Vermont) challenged the “perennial orthodoxy that [Rosa] Luxemburg’s political legacy is antithetical to that of Lenin and in extension the Bolsheviks”.

A “textbook interpretation” based on “sexist assumptions” caricatures Luxemburg: “where Lenin is hard, intellectual, and singular; Luxemburg is soft, emotional, and complex.” Supposedly, Luxemburg “worships spontaneity”, while Lenin builds the party.

In fact, said Scott, both Luxemburg and Lenin spent their lives building socialist organistions. They looked to the model of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) following adoption of the 1891 Erfurt program and then, during the 1914–1918 World War, broke with the SPD and set out to build a new International. “Throughout their lives they often disagreed”, on some issues “consistently and fiercely. But they were on the same side of many more battles”, Scott noted. Moreover, their debates are “testimony to their commitment as Marxists to democratic open debate”.

Luxemburg’s response to the Russian Revolution has been generally misunderstood, Scott maintained. Luxemburg saw the faults of Bolshevik policy mainly as “symptomatic of the daunting conditions facing a national revolution that had not internationalized”. Thus, in a letter to Polish communist Adolf Warski in 1918, she termed land distribution to Russian peasants as “the most dangerous aspect … of the Russian revolution” but drew from this the conclusion that “even the greatest revolution can accomplish only that which has ripened as a result of [historical] development".

In this letter, Luxemburg summed up her attitude to the Russian October revolution as “enthusiasm combined with critical thought”. Surely, Scott concluded, “this would have been [her] continued attitude towards the Comintern, had she not been murdered on January 18 [1919]”.

‘Parties of a new type’

Lars Lih’s presentation to this session challenged received notions about the Comintern’s formation from a different angle. It is commonly held, he said, that the Bolsheviks built a “party of a new type” and that the Comintern extended this model to a world scale. In fact, neither Lenin nor the Comintern used the term “party of a new type”. It originates with Stalin in 1938, whose “Short Course” history of Bolshevism claimed its originality to lie in its dedication to “relentlessly purging itself of ‘the filth of opportunism’”.

In reality, Lih said, the party of a new type was the German SPD in the years after it adopted the Erfurt program (1891), with its policy of a “permanent campaign” and of “building an alternative culture”. The Bolsheviks sought to build a party like the SPD and found new ways of applying the SPD’s tactics under tsarist rule. Lih has argued this view extensively in the “1912 debate”.

“The Comintern did not reject this type of party; indeed, they are responsible for its survival”, Lih said. As the Comintern moved in 1921–22 to adopt the united front policy and to fight for support from a majority of workers, “we see the old forms, the permanent campaign”, in a new context of “trying to be a revolutionary party in non-revolutionary times”.

Transition to workers’ power

I was next up, for a presentation on the discussion at the Fourth Comintern Congress of the demand for a “workers’ government”. To start off, I cited the present situation in Greece. The largest left party, Syriza, is calling for a “left government”, which many Marxists say would be nothing more than a continuation of capitalist rule in new guise. Meanwhile, a coalition of far-left groups, Antarsya, is calling for a revolution to achieve workers’ power. Leaving aside the question where this assessment of Syriza is accurate, I asked whether there was any transitional approach that, as proposed in the Comintern’s Third Congress, could provide a bridge between present struggles and the socialist program of the revolution. The Fourth Congress call for a workers’ government aimed to provide such a bridge.

The substance of my paper is available HERE and needs no summary in this article. In conclusion, I said, “The Comintern decisions should not be imposed on today’s vastly different reality, whether in Greece or elsewhere. The value of its call for a workers’ government lies rather in awakening us to the fact that, even when there is no revolution and no soviet-type network of workers’ councils, workers can still find a way to initiate the struggle for governmental power.”