The united front: adoption and application
The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922–1923,
By Mike Taber
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018, 796 pp., US$50.
By John Riddell
July 2, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary — The newest volume of the Comintern Publishing Project, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, presents a wealth of documentation and debate portraying the world movement’s dynamics at a time of fateful choices concerning its future path.
Three major conferences of the enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) were held in 1922-23, along with a major world congress – evidence of the world movement’s vitality and its culture of intense discussion. The Crossroads volume contains the full text of debate at the three ECCI gatherings, translated from transcripts of 25 days of deliberations.
Mike Taber’s detailed annotation provides a rich panorama of the world Communist movement a century ago.
Eighth Volume of Comintern Publishing Project
The overall Comintern Publishing Project now includes eight major published volumes, with two more in production. Taber has had a hand in them all, maintaining exemplary standards of Marxist insight and scholarly accuracy. Comprehensive explanatory annotation is supplemented by extensive biographies, bibliography, and chronology.
Comintern President Grigorii Zinoviev later termed these enlarged ECCI gatherings “small world congresses,” a tribute to the broad scope of the events. Up to a hundred delegates attended from dozens of countries. Most were from Europe, with fewer participants from colonized and dependant regions, and there was little debate on their liberation struggles. Anti-colonial struggles were extensively discussed in the Second (1920) and Fourth (1922) World Congresses as well as at the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920.
The central theme of this book is how the Comintern elaborated its united-front policy, a topic with rich relevance to us today.
The main issue before the first two enlarged ECCI gatherings, held in 1922, was the Comintern’s December 1921 call for a “united front” of workers’ organizations – including those hostile to Communism – to defend workers’ most immediate and urgent needs against capitalist reaction. This theme was further developed in the Third Enlarged Plenum, held the next year, which applied united-front policy to the threat of fascism.
To form a coherent picture of Comintern policy, however, the ECCI plenums must be assessed together with the two world congresses held in 1921 and 1922 (see table of early Comintern conferences). Both world congresses focused on the need for united workers’ action, but neither included a debate on united-front policy as such. This debate took placed in the ECCI plenums. Taber’s introduction to the Crossroads volume knits these exchanges into the context of the Comintern’s overall history during that period.
Origin of the United Front
When united-front policy was adopted in December 1921, united action by ideologically disparate working-class currents already had a long pedigree. This history, however, was presented in three different ways in the Comintern discussions.
Lenin saw the united front as prefigured by the long history of Bolshevik efforts to unite in action with the rival Menshevik current of Russian Social Democracy, including in joining to defeat the Kornilov right-wing putsch attempt in 1917. It was on Lenin’s request that this record was summarized in point 19 of the Theses on the United Front adopted by the ECCI in December.
In the First Enlarged ECCI Plenum, two other interpretations were expressed regarding the united front’s origins. Comintern President Grigorii Zinoviev traced united-front policy back to Lenin’s call in 1920 for British Communists to give critical support to the British Labour Party and also to the Comintern’s response to a setback of the entire workers’ movement, including in Russia, after the Soviet Red Army’s defeat during its march on Warsaw in 1920. (Crossroads, 104–7)
Two days after Zinoviev spoke, German Communist leader August Thalheimer proposed yet another pedigree, tracing the origin of the united front to initiatives by the working-class ranks in Germany. In particular, he cited the massively successful general strike of the German working-class that defeated a rightist coup attempt in March 1920. (Crossroads, 140–42)
Zinoviev presented the united-front policy as conjunctural, tactical, and short-term, while Lenin and Thalheimer, in different ways, saw it as strategic and long-term. Zinoviev’s approach dominated the First ECCI Enlarged Plenum’s discussions; later a more strategic approach prevailed.
When the First Enlarged Plenum convened, two months after the ECCI adopted united-front policy, the new course faced significant opposition in most of the Comintern’s largest parties outside the Soviet Republic, including by majorities of Comintern sections in Italy, France, Spain, and Norway, and also a large minority in Germany. Taber’s introduction explains that at the First Plenum a number of delegates from these leftist currents called for a “united front from below” in place of what they called a proposed “united front from above,” suggesting there was no cause to have dealings with leaders of other currents in the workers’ movement. “The Comintern leadership rejected such a dichotomy,” Taber explains, pointing out that these two notions 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 organizations, then there would be no need for united fronts at all. Communists could simply call for united action in their own name. (Crossroads, p. 15)
A report by Willi Münzenberg on international workers’ solidarity aid to Soviet Russia, where many regions were hard hit by famine, portrayed what was the Comintern’s first successful internationally coordinated united-front campaign. The effort was driven forward in large measure by the affiliated Communist Women’s Movement.
After protracted debate, the plenum approved the concept of challenging rightist workers’ leaderships to join in united action, against the opposition of delegates from Italy, France, and Spain.
The new policy was applied in the historic encounter on April 2–5, 1921, of leadership delegations from the Comintern, the Second International (“Labour and Socialist International”) and the Two-and-a-Half International (“Vienna Union”). Two months later, the Second Enlarged ECCI Plenum assessed the outcome of this meeting and the process of applying the new policy, with special attention to France, Norway, and Czechoslovakia.
Fourth World Congress
The one-year interval before the Third ECCI Enlarged Plenum was highlighted by a massive and authoritative world gathering, the Fourth World Congress. One of its central themes was to consider united-front policy as not merely a short-term tactical maneuver but as a strategic perspective. This involved a shift of perspective, as Comintern leader Karl 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.
The congress also adopted the slogan “for a workers’ government,” as a transitional demand leading toward the establishment of a working-class state on the model of Soviet Russia. The congress also extended the united-front perspective to embrace an “anti-imperialist united front” in the colonial and semi-colonial world, an approach crucially important to subsequent colonial freedom struggles.
Why a Crossroads?
The Fourth Congress, marked by broad consensus and ideological consolidation, was followed 18 months later by a world congress that carried out a sharp strategical shift, reverting to the “united front from below” approach advocated by the Comintern’s ultra-leftist forces in 1921. Thereafter, Comintern policy on working-class unity went through two decades of repeated radical reversals.
It is thus only logical to view the Third ECCI Enlarged Plenum, occurring half-way between the Fourth and Fifth world congresses in mid-1923, as a transition or, more precisely, as a nodal point from which divergent paths were possible. In that sense, the Third Enlarged Plenum was a “crossroads,” a concept from which the title of this book is taken.
The Third Enlarged Plenum was the first major Comintern gathering that did not benefit from Lenin’s participation or guidance; he had been incapacitated by illness since March 1923. Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky, an influential figure in earlier gatherings, did not speak – perhaps because he was now challenged by increasing dissension within the Russian Communist Party leadership.
According to Taber, the third plenum “was in several ways a contradictory meeting – more so for what it did not discuss than for what it did” (p. 18).
The internal problems of the movement in Russia, which had been addressed in the Third Congress (1921) and the First ECCI Enlarged Plenum (1922), were not taken up at the 1923 gathering. In addition, the social and political crisis in Germany, which reached its climax a few months later, was addressed only in a very limited way, through a discussion of German nationalism.
Another topic largely passed over was Comintern policy in China, where the newly formed Soviet Union had in January signed an alliance with a bourgeois nationalist government headed by Sun Yatsen. In January 1923, the ECCI had confirmed that Communists should join Sun’s party, the Guomindang. The Comintern’s China policy was soon to go disastrously awry. (See “Fruits and Perils of the Bloc Within” on this blog.)
Despite some weaknesses, Taber comments, the Third ECCI 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.”
The plenum achieved a balanced synthesis on the united front question, expressed as follows by Radek:
We should not negotiate with leaders of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals at any cost, but rather negotiate in cases when we can achieve solid results in this field. And where we do this, we will achieve penetrations into the front of our opponent. Where this policy is not possible, we must carry out frontal attacks, but always through the method of the united front, by pressing to the fore the minimum demands that can attract the masses. (Crossroads, p. 285)
The Third Enlarged Plenum also adopted the slogan for a workers’ and peasants’ government, which pointed to the class alliances necessary for the proletariat in its fight for power.
United Front Against Fascism
The plenum’s greatest single accomplishment was to develop a viable policy on resisting fascism, an area where previous Comintern discussions had been limited in scope. This achievement is taken up in “Clara Zetkin and the Struggle Against Fascism,” by John Riddell and Mike Taber, and in the short book of Zetkin’s writings, Fighting Fascism, published by Haymarket Books.
Yet the plenum’s trenchant analysis had a weak side: The plenum decisions understated fascism’s commitment, most blatantly in Germany, to racist, colonialist, and anti-Jewish extremism.
The decision of the plenum on fascism was applied, in part, through an effort to engage in discussion with working people attracted to fascism. This topic was raised in Karl Radek’s “Schlageter speech,” honouring the memory of a convinced fascist Leo Schlageter, “a courageous soldier of the counterrevolution” executed for resistance to French troops occupying the German Ruhr district.
Taber’s introduction provides an incisive and balanced assessment of Radek’s “somewhat lyrical attempt,” considering it as “not a flight of fancy” but as a reasoned attempt to drive a wedge between nationalist-minded masses and their reactionary capitalist leaders. (Crossroads, pp. 24-7).
Reports from Communist Women
These overwhelmingly male gatherings heard two extremely brief reports on the “woman question.” The first, given by Alexandra Kollontai at the First Enlarged Plenum, itemized the main arenas of the Communist Women’s Movement rapidly expanding work, noting in particular its organization of “International Women’s Day events in every country” and the women’s “very active role in the famine relief campaign.” (Crossroads, p. 101)
The second report, given by Zetkin to the Third Plenum on behalf of the Plenum’s commission on women, began:
I must say that there is not a single country where the decisions of both the International Women’s Conference and the Third World Congress on the woman question has been fully carried out. (Crossroads, p. 689).
Forewarnings of Bureaucratism?
Only a year after the Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum, the Comintern became infected by a sickness of bureaucratic centralism, in which national leaderships were to be frequently overturned or their decisions cancelled by a diktat from above. Were initial signs of this disease evident in the 1923 gathering?
Looking over the Crossroads table of contents, one’s eye is drawn to a report by Nikolai Bukharin at the 1923 Third Plenum on “The Limits of Centralism in the Comintern.” The focus of this agenda item, which took up two days of debates, was the Comintern’s relationship with its Norwegian section, a mass organization still marked by its origins as an all-inclusive labour party. At the Third Plenum, the ECCI insisted, not for the first time, that the Norwegian party conform to the organizational principles of the Comintern Statutes and Conditions for Admission.
During the discussion, some speakers argued that the relationship of the ECCI to the national leaderships was simply one of command. No reference was made to the passages in the Comintern Statutes and Conditions for Admission stressing the importance of national leadership autonomy. Taber assesses the discussion as follows:
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, 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. (Crossroads, pp. 36-37)
Respect for Autonomy
Developments in two other countries, Italy and Bulgaria, provided further evidence regarding the ECCI’s respect for autonomy of national sections.
Italy: The 1922 Fourth World Congress had approved the Communist Party of Italy’s fusion with the Italian Socialist Party, long a Comintern supporter but social democratic in tradition. After the congress, as both organizations reeled from the onslaught of Italy’s newly established fascist government, the Socialist Party voted to reject the fusion proposal.
Some months later, at its Third Enlarged Plenum, the ECCI maintained that the Italian Communist leadership, which had opposed the fusion from the start, had sabotaged the agreement. The plenum then voted to recompose the national leadership, granting the pro-fusion minority in the Italian party the right to minority representation in the day-to-day party leadership but leaving the elected majority, still skeptical of the fusion, in charge.
The ECCI’s intervention in the Italian section leadership’s composition was a precedent for the Comintern. Nonetheless, it was done in a way that left in place the section’s elected majority leadership.
Bulgaria: On the eve of the Third ECCI Enlarged Plenum, a right-wing coup in Bulgaria overthrew the government of a radical peasant party, sparking armed resistance by its supporters. The Bulgarian Communist Party, with its mass support and an impressive apparatus, which had earned it praise as a model for the Comintern, refused to join the peasant movement in resisting the murderous attack of the right-wing military, declaring its “neutrality” In the struggle.
On the final day of the plenum, Karl Radek subjected the Bulgarian party’s abstention to withering criticism, focusing on “the absence of a will to struggle,” which he said had been evident for several years. Although the report was a devastating blow to the authority of the Bulgarian party’s leaders, the ECCI made no move to secure their replacement.
Default of Leadership
Unmentioned in the 1923 Enlarged ECCI Plenum discussions, however, was an underlying strategic error that opened the door to defeat in both Italy and Bulgaria. In both cases, in the period before the defeat, Communist parties had failed to apply the united-front policy in an effort to unify resistance by working people. The persistent division in the workers’ ranks was not addressed, opening the door to the triumph of rightist reaction.
In Italy, the Communist Party leadership had decisively weakened workers’ unity against fascism by refusing to unite in action with anti-fascist forces outside its ranks. The ECCI had been complicit in this error and had failed to clarify the issue at the Fourth Congress, just a few months before the Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum.
Essentially the same issue had been posed in Bulgaria, where the Communist Party had initially defended the radical peasant-based regime against rightist plotters but later shifted toward a fully hostile stance. The issue was posed in the Fourth Congress, which had affirmed the possibility of a workers’ and peasants’ government in Bulgaria. Yet there was no indication, in the ECCI’s reports on this question, that it had ever explained to the Bulgarian party the need for a united front approach to the Bulgarian peasant party – the obvious first step toward such a revolutionary government.
In both cases, the ECCI’s conduct was formally correct in terms of respecting the section’s right to choose its leadership. But the ECCI acted in a self-serving manner by avoiding the question of united-front policy, discussion of which would have revealed the ECCI’s share of responsibility for the errors of both these national sections.
The issue was not new. After the disastrous 1921 “March Action” setback in Germany, where ECCI representatives has been complicit in a catastrophic leadership failure, the ECCI had blocked an objective balance-sheet of its own involvement. A stern judge of others’ errors, the ECCI forgave and concealed its own failings.
At the time of the Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum, the ECCI’s self-serving conduct was beginning to become a pattern, one that tended to place the Moscow-based day-to-day leadership beyond criticism and democratic control. A year later, in 1924, this commandist trend in the Comintern found expression in initiatives by the ECCI leaders in Moscow to drive out forces in the International who criticized the policies of the dominant faction of Russian Communism, then led by Zinoviev. As a result of this process, a self-serving bureaucratic layer increasingly in command of the Russian Communist Party came to exert increasing influence in the world movement.
This process was evident at the Fifth World Congress in 1924, which marked the beginning of the Comintern’s retreat from the policies pursued in Lenin’s lifetime.
While this evolution was not foreseeable at the 1923 plenum, the need to reaffirm the Moscow leadership’s political accountability was certainly posed. It is above all in that sense that the Third Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI in 1923 represented a crossroads for the global Communist movement.
Mike Taber’s compelling documentary collection, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, not only effectively portrays many of the world movement’s strengths and achievements during its early years but also presents a record offering many clues as to why the world movement evolved in a negative direction in the years following Lenin’s death.
 See Crossroads, p. 17 and Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress, 1922, Leyden and Chicago, Brill and Haymarket Books, p. 452.
 Crossroads, pp. 16-17.
 Extensive reports and discussion on Communist work among women can be found in the Third and Fourth congress proceedings; see To the Masses! and Toward the United Front. A documentary volume on the Communist Women’s Movement, edited by Mike Taber and Daria Dyakonova, is in preparation.
 During the Fourth Congress discussion of the demand for a workers’ government, the senior Bulgarian delegate, Vasil Kolarov specified that the workers’ government was not posed in agrarian regions in the Balkans – i.e., not in Bulgaria. In apparent response, the congress amended its resolution on the workers’ government to highlight the possibility of a “government of workers and the poorer peasants” in regions such as the Balkans. Riddell, Toward the United Front, pp. 24, 243 (Kolarov), and p. 1161 (Amendment).
 See “Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den” and the introduction to Riddell, ed., “Introduction to the Third World Congress,” scheduled for publication on this website in August 2020.