The Communist International and the united front
From International Socialism (1st series), No.74, January 1975, pp.12-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
In the most critical year for the bourgeoisie, the year 1919, the proletariat of Europe could have undoubtedly have conquered state power with minimum sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organisation, setting forth clear aims and capably pursuing them, i.e. a strong Communist Party. But there was none ... During the last three years the workers have fought a great deal and have suffered many sacrifices. But they have not won power. As a result the working masses have become more cautious than they were in 1919-20.
(Trotsky, The Main Lesson of the Third Congress, 1921)
WHAT SHOULD a revolutionary party do in a non-revolutionary situation? In 1919 this was not an issue. By 1921 it was central. As the Theses on the World Situation’, adopted by the Third World Congress in 1921, put it:
During the year that has passed between the second and third congresses of the Communist International, a series of working-class risings and struggles have ended in partial defeat (the advance of the Red Army on Warsaw in August 1920, the movement of the Italian proletariat in September 1920, the rising of the German workers in March 1921).
The first period of the post-war revolutionary movement, distinguished by the spontaneous character of its assaults, by the marked imprecision of its aims and methods, and by the extreme panic which it aroused amongst the ruling classes, seems in essentials to be over. The self-confidence of the bourgeoisie as a class, and the outward stability of their state organs, have undeniably been strengthened... The leaders of the bourgeoisie are even boasting of the power of their state machines and have gone over to an offensive against the workers in all countries both on the economic and or, the political front. 
The recovery of capitalism was shaky and uneven. 1921 saw the onset of a serious, if shortlived, economic crisis. Nevertheless the receding of the revolutionary wave of 19 19-20 meant that the immediate perspective of which Zinoviev had spoken in 1920, “the World Congress of Soviet Republics”, was now unreal. Revolutionary opportunities could, and indeed did, arise in the next few years. But the international movement as a whole had to come to terms with a new situation.
In Russia the year 1921 saw the abandonment of “War Communism” and the adoption of the “New Economic Policy”, a policy which Lenin described as “a strategical retreat”. “We said, in effect,” he wrote, “’Before we are completely routed, let us retreat and reorganise everything, but on a firmer basis.’ If Communists deliberately examine the question of the New Economic Policy there cannot be the slightest doubt that we have sustained a very severe defeat on the economic front.” 
On the international field a corresponding turn was essential. This was not at all a question of an automatic reflection of events in Russia. The changed situation in the world, above all in Europe, was one of the two main factors forcing the retreat to the NEP.
That changed situation put the choice squarely before European communists (and communism was still, in 1921, essentially a European movement); find ways and means of making revolutionary politics meaningful and important to workers in a (for the time being) non-revolutionary situation, or face relegation to the position of revolutionary sects without serious influence on the course of events.
From the day of its foundation – declared the Third World Congress’s Theses on Tactics – the Communist International has clearly and unambiguously made its goal the formation not of small communist sects, trying by propaganda and agitation only to establish their influence over the working masses, but participation in the struggle of the working masses, the direction of this struggle in a Communist spirit, and the creation in the course of this struggle of experienced, large, revolutionary, mass communist parties. 
How was this to be done in the new situation? On the basis of what the Theses on Tactics called “partial struggles and partial demands”, that is, demands about wages, conditions, unemployment and so on.
After stating that there was no permanent solution to any of the problems facing the working class on a reformist basis, after re-affirming that the destruction of capitalism remained the “guiding aim and immediate mission”, the Theses argued:
But to carry out this mission the communist parties must put forward demands whose fulfilment is an immediate and urgent working class need, and they must fight for these demands in mass struggle, regardless of whether they are compatible with the profit economy of the capitalist class or not [i.e. even if they are compatible, are “reformist” demands – DH] ... The task of the communist parties is to extend, to deepen, and to unify this struggle for concrete demands:.. Every objection to the putting forward of such partial demands, every charge of reformism on this account, is on emanation of the same inability to grasp the essential conditions of revolutionary action as was expressed in the hostility of some revolutionary groups to participation in the trade unions or to making use of parliament. It is not a question of proclaiming the final goal to the proletariat, but of intensifying the practical struggle which is the only way of leading the proletariat to the struggle for the final goal ... 
Powerful tendencies in a number of important communist parties rejected this approach. For them, the struggle for “partial and immediate demands” smacked of reformism. A set of ultra-leftist amendments to the Thesis on Tactics were submitted by the German, Austrian and Italian parties.
Lenin wrote later: “At that Third Congress I was on the extreme right flank. I am convinced that it was the only correct stand to take.” 
Ultra-leftist ideas had gained sustenance in the course of the struggle against centrism, a struggle that was far from ended in 1921-although the centrists were now a lesser danger than the ultra-lefts. Indeed the two trends reinforced each other to some extent as can be seen from the contrasting examples of Italy and Germany. The debacle into which the centrist leadership of the Italian party had led the working class in the autumn of 1920 encouraged the ultra-leftist adventurism of the theory of the offensive in Germany.
The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes either the conquest of political power by the revolutionary proletariat ... or a tremendous reaction by the capitalists and the governing caste. Every kind of violence will be used to subjugate the agricultural and industrial working class.
(Gramsci writing in L’Ordine Nuovo, May 1920)
ITALY EMERGED from the war as the weakest of the “victors”. Its rulers had very little to show for the half a million dead and the huge war debt. The cost of living had risen sixfold since before the war and was still climbing. “The Italian liberal state was rapidly disintegrating, there was widespread sedition in the army and inflation was rampant.” 
At the Second World Congress (1920), Serrati, leader of the centrist majority of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), had declared: “Thus the political and economic conditions in Italy are such that they inevitably drive towards revolution. The party is so powerful that it may be said that the Italian proletariat is almost ready to seize power.” 
The PSI had, however, no plan of action for any such thing. As has been noted, Serrati and his associates had earlier refused to support the considerable land-seizure movements of peasants and agricultural labourers on the grounds that it was “demagogic and petty-bourgeois”.
At the end of August 1920 a wage dispute in the Milan engineering industry led to a national lock-out and a massive wave of factory occupations involving 600,000 workers. This was no ordinary dispute. Social tensions were extreme. There had already been a general strike in Turin in April. “Several workers were killed during the May Day celebrations, and later conflicts between the workers and the police or army were frequent and bloody.” 
Factory councils controlled the occupied plants. “Red Guards” were set up in them. A new land seizure movement got underway in the south, notably in backward Sicily.
The PSI leadership encouraged all these movements, using the most extreme language. “Everything written in Avanti [the party’s daily – DH] and everything uttered by the spokesmen of the Socialist Party was taken by the masses as a summons to the proletarian revolution. And this propaganda struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the working class, awakened their will and called forth the September events,” said Trotsky. “... the PSI verbally conducted a revolutionary policy, without ever taking into account any of its consequences. Everybody knows that during the September events no other organisation so lost its head and became so paralysed by fear as the PSI which had itself paved the way for these events.” 
For the PSI majority had, literally, no consistent policy. Its revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding, it had agreed early in September with the trade union federation (CGL), whose leaders were party members, to confine the struggle to the original economic demands. Yet it still spoke the language of insurrection. It provoked, indeed terrified, the ruling class and at the same time remained politically passive, giving no concrete lead at all to the hundreds of thousands of workers under its influence and the millions they in turn influenced.
Late in August the executive of the International sent a letter to the PSI signed by Bukharin, Lenin and Zinoviev. “In Italy there are at hand all the most important conditions for a genuinely popular, great proletarian revolution ... Every day brings news of disturbances. All eye-witnesses – including the Italian delegates – assert and reiterate that the situation in Italy is profoundly revolutionary. Nevertheless in many cases the party stands aside, without attempting to generalise the movement, to give it slogans ... to turn it into a decisive offensive against the bourgeois state. 
On 22 September the ECCI sent another urgent call to the party leaders. “You cannot win by the seizure of factories and workshops alone ... the scope of this movement must be extended, generalised, the question raised to a general political level, in other words the movement broadened into a general uprising with the object of overthrowing the bourgeoisie by the seizure of power by the working class ... This is the only way to salvation; otherwise the disintegration and collapse of the mighty and magnificent movement that has begun is inevitable ...” 
None of this had any effect. The PSI failed to give the mass movement an overall political direction, failed to direct it towards the seizure of power, failed to make technical preparations for an insurrection. It drifted. The crisis passed. Inevitably, the predicted “disintegration and collapse” set in.
The outcome was disastrous. The thoroughly frightened ruling class began to turn to fascism. “Mussolini’s movement, weak and negligible before September 1920, grew with extraordinary rapidity in the last three months of the year.” 
The September crisis proved that the PSI, affiliated to Communist International since 1919, was in fact not a communist party at all. It was symptomatic that the Serrati leadership had persistently refused to expel its right wing led by the unreconstructed reformist Turati in spite of the Second World Congress decision and repeated demands by the ECCI.
At the PSI’s Congress held at Livorno in January 1921, the International forced a split. But unlike the splits at Halle and Tours the previous year, the left did not succeed in winning the bulk of the membership away from the centrists. The card vote showed 14,695 votes for Turatti’s right wing, 58,785 for the left and 98,028 for Serrati’s centre group. The left seceded.
This relationship of forces would not have been so bad if the left, now the Italian Communist Party (PCI), had had an aggressive but flexible strategy for winning the workers who followed Serrati. It had no such strategy. It was dominated by the sterile ultra-leftism of Amadeo Bordiga and his group. Not until the middle-twenties was the hold of the ultra-lefts in the PCI finally broken. By then it was too late. Fascism had triumphed.
The crux of the matter is that Levi in many respects is right politically. Unfortunately he is guilty of a number of breaches of discipline for which the party expelled him. Thalheimer’s and Bela Kun’s theses are politically utterly fallacious. Mere phases and playing at Leftism.
(Lenin, Letter to Zinoviev, 6 June 1921)
IN ITALY in the second half of 1920 a genuine mass revolutionary movement, a movement that could have led to the destruction of the Italian bourgeois state, to a soviet Italy, and so to a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Europe, was mined by the spinelessness of a centrist party leadership.
In Germany in March 1921, in the absence of a nationwide mass revolutionary movement, a party leadership tried to force the pace, to substitute the party militants for the mass movement. The result was a severe defeat. Not, indeed, a disaster on the Italian scale, but a serious defeat nonetheless, a defeat that was to have a profound and unfavourable influence on the German workers’ movement.
There was a connection between the two events. On the surface it concerned the leadership of the German Party (KPD). Paul Levi, the outstanding KPD leader, had attended the Congress of Livorno. After the Congress he had criticised the tactical clumsiness of the International’s representatives. They were Kristo Kabakchiev, a Bulgarian who Trotsky described as “a lifeless doctrinaire” and Matyas Rakosi, a Hungarian “organisation man”, an “apparatchnik” without a serious political idea in his head who much later (1944-56) became the Stalinist boss of Hungary.
Levi’s criticisms, which may have been broadly speaking correct, led Rakosi to demand an endorsement of his actions and a condemnation of Levi from the German party leadership. He gained his point (by 28 votes to 23). Levi, Clara Zetkin (the outstanding women’s leader of the KPD, and previously of the SPD), Ernst Däumig (a prominent leader of the Berlin shop stewards’ movement during the war and now head of the KPD’s “military apparatus”) and two other members of the right wing of the party leadership resigned in protest. The left gained a majority.
This shift in the political balance in the “general staff” had important consequences. It gave temporary dominance to a groups of lefts – Maslow, Fischer, Thalheimer, Frölich and others – who believed in the “theory of the offensive”, the view that “the working class could be moved only when set in motion by a series of offensive acts” as Ruth Fischer put it. 
According to Fischer,
In the months preceding the Kronstadt revolt, March 1921, an action in Germany to divert the Russian workers from their own troubles bad been concocted by a caucus of the Russian party centring around Zinoviev and Bela Kun. 
This is an excuse, a justification after the event. The fact is that amongst the ex-members of the USPD who had been won to the Communist International after the Congress of Halle (300,000 to 350,000 of them), there was a strong sentiment for immediate revolutionary action. The lefts gave expression to this impatience, developed a theoretical justification for it and used it to overthrow their factional opponents in the leadership. These, the Levi group, were already attempting to direct the party along the lines that Lenin and Trotsky were to direct the whole International after the Third World Congress. But Levi lacked the authority, the patience and the tactical skill for this task.
It is true enough that Zinoviev (and Bukharin) were toying with the half-Blanquist notion that the German workers might be “galvanised” by an “offensive” by party militants and that they were guilty of the gross irresponsibility of sending Bela Kun to Germany as Comintern representative with undefined powers.
Kun, “my dear Bela”, as Lenin said of him, “who also belongs to a poetically gifted nation and considers himself obliged to be constantly more left than the left” , was an ardent advocate of the “offensive at all costs”. But the ECCI had not ordered the “offensive”. Kun acted on his own responsibility and the truth is that his adventurist tendencies met a ready response from the new German leadership. Even without Kun, even without Zinoviev’s equivocal encouragement, they would probably have acted no differently; Fischer’s subsequent excuses notwithstanding. It was a case of “success has a thousand fathers; failure is always an orphan”.
On 16 March 1921 the Social-Democratic Oberpräsident of Saxony, Otto Horsing, ordered his police to occupy the Mansfeld copper mines, a communist stronghold, and a number of factories on the pretext that “robbery and looting” were rife. This was almost certainly a calculated provocation. The police and the Social-Democratic leaden were well aware that the “offensive” was coming and Horsing preferred to deal with it at a time of his own choosing. 
The immediate outcome was indeed a rising of sorts, a series of armed clashes between workers and police and soldiers in the Mansfeld region and at the Leuna chemical plants near Halle. Aside from the resources of the party’s military apparatus, the workers had quantities of arms left over from 1919. For a brief period red guards, led by the anarchist guerrilla leader Max Holz, dominated the Mansfeld area. But the action was extremely localised.
This type of situation would have been a difficult one for the most sober party leadership. As in the July Days in Petrograd in 1917, the workers in one centre were moving to armed insurrection whilst the mass of the working class was far from any such thought. The problem was to check the most advanced sections, to organise a retreat whilst minimising losses – an extremely hard and tricky operation.
The left leaders of the KPD, intoxicated with romantic notions, pursued the opposite course. They called for a general strike and armed actions against the state. The party’s military units were ordered to “provoke” the authorities and so “galvanise” the workers. “Several bombs were exploded in Breslau and Halle; several other bombings planned for Berlin did not materialise.”  When the strike call fell on deaf ears – as, in general, it did – the party militants were ordered to force the workers out.
“The Friederich-Albert-Hütte in Rheinhausen, owned by Krupp, was the scene of heavy fighting on Thursday,” said one party report quoted by Levi, “between communists who occupied the plant and workers who wanted to go to work. Finally the workers attacked the communists with clubs and forced their way into the plant. Eight men were wounded.”  There were big clashes in the Hamburg shipyards between social-democratic and communist workers. In Berlin the party attempted to organise the unemployed to seize the plants and keep the workers out! Everywhere, outside a limited area in central Germany where there was real support, a minority of communist influenced workers acted without, and often against, the mass of the working class.
The inevitable collapse of the adventure was followed by a savage repression. The party suffered a massive haemorrhage, membership fell catastrophically (to 150,000 or less) and thousands of militants were in prison.
The most important question before the Communist International today is to win predominating influence over the majority of the working class, and to bring its decisive strata into the struggle. For despite the objectively revolutionary situation ... the majority of workers are still not under communist influence.
(Resolution of the Third World Congress 1921)
THE MOVEMENT originated out of the split in the working class movement in 1914 and grew in the course of the struggle against the centrist leaders in 1919-20, a struggle leading to further splits.
Perhaps inevitably, hostility and contempt for the reformist and centrist leaders tended to spill over into a dangerous lack of regard for the workers who still followed these leaders. The lunacy of the March Action was the danger signal. A sharp turn “to the right” was essential if the International was to avoid increased isolation from the class it was trying to lead.
Trotsky later claimed: “At the Third World Congress the overwhelming majority called to order those elements in the International whose views involved the danger that the vanguard might, by precipitate action, be tattered against the passivity and immaturity of the working masses, and against the strength of the capitalist state. That was the greatest danger.” 
In fact the majority was anything but overwhelming. Certainly the Theses on Tactics are an implicit condemnation of putschism and adventurism as well as of the passive, propagandist variant of ultra-leftism. But it was a hard fight to get them adopted.
And on the March Action itself, Lenin’s “extreme right flank” had to be content with an equivocal resolution which declared:
The action of last March was forced on the KPD by the government attack on the workers of central Germany ... The KPD committed a number of errors of which the chief one was that it did not clearly understand the defensive nature of the struggle ... The Congress considers the March Action of the KPD as a step forward ... the KPD must in future better adapt its battle cry to the actual situation. 
This unsatisfactory compromise was, in part, the result of Paul Levi’s public attack on the KPD, an attack which led to his expulsion. Levy published a pamphlet, Our Course Against Putschism, which contained an essentially correct, if exaggerated, criticism of the party leaders, written in extremely violent terms (“the greatest Bakunist Putsch in history”) and which gave the authorities valuable evidence against the party. But the main factor was the continuing strength of the lefts. Not until after the Congress did the ECCI feel strong enough to draw the logical conclusions of the new line and address itself to formally spelling out its consequences.
In December it declared: “the ECCI is of the opinion that the slogan of the Third World Congress of the Communist International ‘To the Masses’, and the interests of the communist movement generally, require the communist panics and the Communist International as a whole to support the slogan of the united front of the workers and to take the initiative in this matter.”  (The emphasis is in the original.) This, it was made clear, meant a determined attempt to force the Ieaderships of the reformist and centrist organisations into limited co-operation on concrete issues by winning their followers for unity in action, not merely an attempt to draw those followers into action behind the communist parties.
In January 1922 the ECCI called publicly for “the establishment of a united front of all parties supported by the proletariat, regardless of the differences separating them, so long as they are anxious to wage a common fight for the immediate and urgent needs of the proletariat ... No worker, whether communist or social-democrat or syndicalist or even a member of the Christian or liberal trade unions, wants his wages further reduced. None wants to work longer hours ... And therefore all must unite in a common front against the employers’ offensive ...” 
This was an enormous retreat from the positions of 1919-20. Yet it was essential in the new conditions. The new line itself was fraught with difficulties and dangers, above all the danger of the communist parties losing their revolutionary elan and ability to shift rapidly to the left when the tide turned again. It was to be tested in revolutionary crises in Bulgaria and Germany in 1923.
1. Degras, The Communist International 1919-43, Vol.1, p.230.
2. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.33, p.63.
3. Degras, Vol.1, p.243.
4. Degras, Vol.1, p.249-50.
5. Lenin, CW, Vol.33, p.208.
6. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, p.69.
7. Degras, Vol.1, p.188
8. Cammett, p.111.
9. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.1,p.262.
10. Degras, Vol.1, p.190.
11. Degras, Vol.1, p.193.
12. Cammett, p.133
13. Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, p.176.
14. Fischer, p.174-5.
15. Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, quoted from Gruber, International Communism in the Era of Lenin, p.306.
16. Borkenau, World Communism, p.214.
17. Fischer, p.175.
18. Borkenau, p.216.
19. Degras, p.225.
20. Decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International, p.18.
21. Degras, Vol.1, p.311.
22. Degras, Vol.1, p.317-9.
Last updated on 19.10.2006