‘Toward the United Front’: Recovering revolutionary memory for 21st century socialism (+ video)

 Part 1.

February 16, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – On February 3, 120 socialists took part in a Toronto meeting to celebrate publication of Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, available in paperback from Haymarket Books. This 1300-page volume is the seventh book of documents on the world revolutionary movement in Lenin’s time edited by John Riddell. Riddell’s address to the Toronto meeting, below, explains the purpose of the book and the publishing project. The video of the event, filmed by Left Streamed, begins above and continues below. It was moderated by Abbie Bakan, with additional commentary by David McNally, Greg Albo, Suzanne Weiss and Paul Kellogg.

[For more articles by John Riddell, click HERE; for more on the Communist International, click HERE.]

By John Riddell

Thirty years ago, after finishing my shift in a Bramalea machine shop, I received a visit from two representatives of the New York-based socialist publisher Pathfinder Press. They asked me to head up a project to translate and edit the record of world revolutionary movement in Lenin’s time – principally by publishing the congresses of the Communist International or Comintern. They promised to commit substantial resources for a project that would last many years. I had no background in historical research or written translation, but they thought I could do the job, and so did I.

At each of these world congresses, a team of stenographers took down a record of the proceedings, and by 1921 they were publishing this material within 10 days. Think of it as a Comintern version of YouTube. Thousands of pages of published debates, with more in the archives.

What was it that attracted Pathfinder to this publishing venture? First of all, the Communist International’s early years marked a high point of revolutionary Marxism as a global force. After Lenin’s death, the Comintern fell under the influence of Stalinism and degenerated. Still, in the view of Stalin’s leading opponent, Leon Trotsky, the first four Comintern congresses – those held in Lenin’s lifetime – mapped out a revolutionary strategy for an epoch.

Suppression of memory

Yet in the early 1980s, very little of the Comintern record was available in English. We had Lenin’s speeches at Comintern congresses and also those by Trotsky, but almost nothing else; indeed the experience had been largely forgotten. Or more accurately, as our Hispanic compañeros say, it had been disappeared – indeed, violently suppressed.

Each time I publish a Comintern congress, I take a census of the fate of participants who were within Stalin’s reach in the 1930s. Each time, I find that 65% or more were murdered by Stalinist repression. What is more, the Comintern archives were locked down, and its published records were no longer distributed. Its original leaders were denounced as fascists and enemies of the people and executed; their writings were locked away. This was destruction of memory on a massive scale.

There were two other elements in this suppression. First, the works of Lenin were spared and made available in isolation, shorn of their context and elevated to infallible gospel. Second, a compulsory interpretation of Lenin was supplied by official ideologues. Revolutionary history itself disappeared from view.

Here in the North America, Stalinism could exert no monopoly over historical study. But perhaps inevitably, we who opposed Stalinism were also restricted in our outlook. Our scant resources were devoted mostly to publishing the works of Trotsky. And as the anti-Stalinist movement fractured, each of its currents had its own authorised and fixed interpretation of history, written into its ideological foundations and taught to its supporters. We, too, had little access to the record of the Comintern experience. We, too, suffered from a loss of historic memory.

Why is this memory important to revolutionaries? Revolutionary memory provides the language we use in projecting a social alternative. Memory is the map of our imagination. It is the factual basis for developing and testing policy. As best we can, we try to pass on and, where necessary, rediscover this memory and make it available for a new generation to weigh and assess. My work aimed to do this for a small but significant fragment of our heritage.

Encounter with history

When I started work in 1983, I established policies aimed at achieving this goal. I tried to eliminate the barrier of an authorised interpreter and make possible for readers a direct encounter with revolutionary history. My key decisions were these:

The books would speak, as much as possible, not in the voice of an interpreter but in that of the Comintern itself.

  • Each volume attempted to embrace an entire experience, including views of participants of every viewpoint.
  • Editorial comment aimed to provide context but to avoid, as much as possible, imposing a point of view.
  • Texts were translated with care into today’s idiom and diction.
  • Annotation sought to make content accessible for non-specialist readers, including worker activists.

With that agreed, I set about building a team. Pathfinder was linked with a political group, the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had more than a thousand members, whom I could ask for help. But almost none of them had a base in a university; very few had experience in research, translation or historical writing.

Translation for the project was from German and, secondarily, French and Russian. Other languages played a role, principally Serbo-Croatian, Czech and Dutch. I acquired at least some knowledge of all the concerned languages, but I had no intention of doing the foreign-language work all on my own. I assembled and trained a team to do the initial translations; I edited the texts, comparing originals in all available languages, and I wrote or edited the annotation. Most of the time, I had two full-time assistants, and we assembled a massive library of source materials. I got useful editorial advice from Mike Taber and other Pathfinder staffers.

Part 2.

The first volume covered the time of the collapse of the Second International and Zimmerwald movement, 1907-16; the second took up the German revolution of 1918. The next instalments were proceedings of the First Congress; a two-volume edition of Second Congress, and the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East. There were many detours, diversions and false starts, and for some years I carried responsibility for editorial direction of Pathfinder as a whole. Nonetheless, in 10 years six volumes were published, totalling just over 3000 pages. They are still in print, and some copies are available on our book table today.

All in all, it was a rich and fruitful experience. Pathfinder deserves credit for its publishing achievement. Dozens of volunteers played a part, including dedicated translators such as Bob Cantrick, Robert Dees, Rachel Gomme and Sonja Franeta.

The books won a good response from academic reviewers, including leading Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, and were widely used by socialists, including those opposed to the views of Pathfinder. Study classes were held in various parts of the world, including, as I just learned, in Iran. The books are still in print and available from Amazon and Pathfinder.

End of a collaboration

By 1993, the project had run out of steam. I left Pathfinder and returned to Toronto. But nine years later, Pathfinder asked me to resume work on the next Comintern volume, which was the 1300-page proceedings of the Third Congress, held in 1921. A rough-draft translation was in hand. I set about the work in my spare time, and by early 2004 the project was close to completion. Early that year, however, because of a political disagreement, Pathfinder ended its relationship with me. I gave Pathfinder my Third Congress manuscript, for which they held copyright.

Part 3.

Yet that event proved to be not an end but a beginning. Ian Angus, who has advised me throughout this process, took the first step, by introducing me to Abigail Bakan. As it happened, she lived just a few blocks from me. She invited me to an International Socialists conference, and this proved to be a joyful reunion with socialist politics. Suzanne and I began to relive our youth as movement activists. Abbie, seconded by Paul Kellogg, Greg Albo, Ian and others, kept asking me to resume work on the Comintern volumes, but I felt the road was blocked by the Third Congress manuscript held by Pathfinder, which they might publish at any moment.

In 2008, Paul, seconded by Abbie and Sebastian Budgen of Historical Materialism, came up with a solution. They proposed that I skip the troubled Third Congress and do the subsequent Comintern gathering, the Fourth Congress of 1922. Historical Materialism Book Series offered to publish a library edition; Haymarket Books would do the paperback. I agreed, and I got to work – on my own this time. There were many interruptions, but even so, in calendar time, the work did not take longer than when I had full-time assistants. Moreover, I was aided by a team of consultants, advisers, and well wishers. They include the speakers on our platform, plus Jeff White, Mike Taber, Hans Modlich, Ernie Tate, Jess Mackenzie, and many others. Sebastian and Historical Materialism gave strong back-up. Without this supportive community the work would have been impossible. I take this occasion to thank you all.

The surprising Fourth Congress

It’s now your turn to read, utilise and comment on the book. I believe you will find it surprising and even contradictory. Here are nine features that startled me as I read through the congress for the first time.

1. Far from directing the congress, the Bolshevik leaders are divided. For example, regarding transitional demands, one Bolshevik leader, Karl Radek, sides with the German delegation against the Bolshevik reporter, Nikolai Bukharin. In the end the German position carries.

2. On many issues, the congress concludes in a different spot than where it began. Thus Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev began by insisting that the term “workers’ government” was merely a synonym for soviet rule, but by the end, he had adopted a broader view.

3. Often the decisive impulse came not from the Comintern executive but from front-line delegates. Here’s one instance. Fascism had just taken power in Italy. Opening reports to the congress praised the record of Italian Communists, who had rejected united action against Fascist attacks. But seven delegates from the floor called for a united front against fascism, and that position won acceptance just as the congress closed.

4. Delegates argued not so much from doctrine or from the Bolshevik example as from their own experience. For example, the celebrated categorisation of forms of workers’ governments in the congress resolution was not exhaustive, as Zinoviev explained; it merely surveyed the forms expressed in political life at that moment.

5. Sometimes, the congress is indecisive. Thus, regarding workers’ governments once again, it published, without explanation, no less than three different versions of its resolution.

6. Key issues are left unresolved. Is the purpose of a united front to expose and discredit rival workers’ leaders or to join with them in constructive action? Both, one might say. But in the congress, some leaders emphasised one approach and some the other, while the resolution stuck to the middle of the road.

7. On some issues, the Comintern was visibly conflicted. Consider the discussion on colonialism. Many delegates criticised chauvinist attitudes among communists in the imperialist countries. But in addition, no less than seven different delegates assailed the Fourth Congress itself for insufficient attention to the colonial question. They were backed up by a collective protest by thirteen delegations.

8. In another conflicted area, the oppression of women, the congress accepted ambiguity. It pledged support to the Comintern’s network for work among women, which was defined as merely an area of work to be carried out by both women and men. Yet the women leaders habitually called these structures the “Communist Women’s Movement”, called their journal The Communist Women’s International and acted accordingly.

9. The greatest gains recorded by the Congress took place in peripheral fields of work, such as sending material aid to Soviet Russia, defending political prisoners, campaigning for colonial liberation, organising revolutionary women and youth. All these fields that all relate to the Comintern’s task of winning broad social hegemony. It was here, not in its declared goal of revolutionary party building, that the Comintern scored its most enduring successes.

One of my articles on the congress, which you’ll find on my website, is entitled “The periphery pushes back[also at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal]. It expresses my impression that the driving force behind the congress debates was not so much the Comintern executive but the working-class vanguard in capitalist Europe, which was divided between a layer impatient for a quick revolutionary success and a layer seeking to achieve workers’ unity in action. That view contradicts the mainstream view of Comintern historiography. My introduction is thus more ambitious than in my Pathfinder days: it assembles evidence for a reinterpretation. When you read the book, see if you agree.

Next stage of the project

But what about the missing Third Congress? Pathfinder has given no sign that it intends to publish this work. I wrote Pathfinder offering to help. I wrote again, offering to arrange purchase of the manuscript. Three different publishing houses wrote offering to purchase the manuscript. Pathfinder did not answer any inquiries. In 2011, I reassessed. Pathfinder had been sitting on the manuscript for seven years. It seemed obvious that Pathfinder had abandoned the project, and my window of opportunity to do this book was closing fast. I gave Pathfinder a deadline, after which I would begin work on retranslating the congress from scratch. Again, there was no reply. I started work.

Consider how you feel when you write a text and then lose it when the computer crashes. It is dismaying, but the second attempt is usually an improvement. Recreating the Third Congress manuscript is rather like that – except that in this case the text is 3 million-keystrokes long. I have reassembled the sources and am working without reference to the previous version. With help from Mike Taber and Jeff White, the work is moving right along. The main problem in the Third Congress proceedings is that crucial facts regarding the events discussed are not stated, and some way must be found to fill this in. So we are adding 100 pages of appendices to provide context. Among them are a speech by Lenin and another by Trotsky that have apparently not been published before. The book will also be an encounter with Clara Zetkin, who stands together with Trotsky as the Congress’ outstanding intellectual figure.

My introduction will offer evidence that I believe suggests the need to reinterpret the Comintern executive’s role in the 1921 March Action, a catastrophic attempt to launch an insurrectional workers’ uprising in Germany. My view will be new, at least for those who read their history in English. The Third Congress will come to about 1300 pages – the same length as the just-published book. The manuscript should be essentially finished by the end of this year.

Mike Taber and I have also started assembling materials for a ninth and final volume, which Mike will co-edit. It will present conferences of the Comintern Executive Committee, with a focus on the year 1923. It will bring the finished length of the project to 6400 pages.

Uses of the Comintern

Let me conclude with a few thoughts on the meaning of the early Comintern record to us today. As Abbie remarked at the Historical Materialism conference in Toronto last May, there are many issues on which the Fourth Congress and early Comintern outlook now seems dated or simply wrong; we should not regard it as a textbook. Sometimes its value lies not so much in the answer it provides as the questions it poses. Yet there is something about the early Comintern that brings out the best in us and inspires us to a better understanding of what we face today.

The early Comintern congresses were Eurocentric and male-dominated. But both these facts were vigorously protested by Asian and women delegates, and it is their contestation that inspires us in a struggle for the soul of Marxism that still continues today.

The Comintern was formed at a moment of revolutionary hope quite different from conditions today. Yet beginning in 1920, the Comintern tried to chart a course for revolutionary socialists in non-revolutionary times. In that sense, it lies on our side of the historical divide separating us from the time of the Russian revolution.

The Comintern is also separated from us by its composition: it was made up of mass revolutionary parties closely linked to an even broader layer of revolutionary-minded workers. It had wide support among oppressed and alienated layers outside the proletariat. To borrow a phrase from Abbie, it was marked by a close interrelationship between the party and the surrounding movement and class. Most of the time, its parties were divided into factions reflecting different outlooks within the working class as a whole. It had a good record of resolving such divisions through debate that took place before the working class as a whole and through a democratic process. By and large, it kept revolutionary forces joined in a single movement, united against the divisive forces of national rivalry.

How different this is from what we know! We have none of this today. But surely, for socialism to go forward, we must develop these capacities.

Consider the early Comintern’s engagement with the interlocked issues of unity in action, revolutionary program, support of movements of the oppressed, and efforts to establish a workers’ government. Its decisions on these questions provoke strong objections from many Marxist groups today, who do not accept transitional demands or anti-imperialist alliances or struggles for governmental power, and so on. These questions are highly relevant to our time, as we see in Greece, Venezuela, and elsewhere. I have argued that the Comintern approach on these issues retains its validity. Granted, the Comintern record should not be viewed as scripture. Let us renew discussion of these issues, therefore, in a spirit of informed engagement with the opinions advanced and the decisions made by the Comintern.

The Comintern’s proposal for workers’ unity formed part of a strategy for victory over capitalism. Socialist concern with strategy was strong through the 1970s but then receded in the heyday of neoliberalism. Today, the wind seems to be changing. Note Socialist Register’s timely new book, The Question of Strategy. You do not have to agree with every aspect of the Comintern’s proposed line of march to be stimulated by its example of an overarching strategic concept.

Recovering revolutionary memory is not achieved by publishing books alone – it requires the attention and activity of a community. I therefore hope you will join me in reading and discussing the Comintern Fourth Congress. My website will try to provide a home for comment and debate.

In that spirit, let us all join in publishing, reading and discussing the early Comintern record as well as that of our broader heritage of global liberation struggles.

[A version of this speech also appeared on the MRZine site.]