Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

6. The Third Period 1928-34

‘No, comrades ... the pace must not be slackened. On the contrary we must quicken it as much as is within our powers and possibilities ... We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must close this gap in ten years. Either we shall do it, or they will crush us.’
Stalin, Speech to Industrial managers, 1931.

BY 1928 the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Russia was entering its final crisis. The oppositions inside the CPSU had been crushed. Trotsky, Zinoviev and a host of others had been thrown out of the party, and many were in jail or administrative exile. The last remnants of inner-party democracy had been destroyed.

The bureaucracy had allied itself with the forces of petty-capitalism in Russia against the oppositions and against the danger of working class revival – that was the essence of the Bukharin-Stalin bloc.

Now, in the moment of its triumph, it was faced with a kulak offensive, the ‘grain strike’ of late 1927. The kulaks, the prosperous minority among the peasantry, controlled practically all the marketable grain in Russia, the surplus over and above peasant consumption. They attempted to force prices up by withholding it from sale. “The grain collection in the autumn of 1927, which should have been the best months, yielded less than half the quantities of 1926.’ [1] In a country which was still overwhelmingly agrarian, this was catastrophe.

The bureaucracy was driven to resort to forced requisitioning of grain in spring 1928. This undermined the fundamental basis of NEP, provoking massive peasant resistance. It led in turn to the forced collectivisation of agriculture and to the adoption by Stalin of the opposition’s industrialisation programme, in an extravagantly exaggerated form. The first Five-Year Plan was launched.

And it was launched by Stalin. For the section of the bureaucracy around Bukharin shrank from the massive coercion which was inseparable from the Five-Year Plans. It was, over time, eliminated from power. So too was a section of Stalin’s own faction. Stalin became now no longer the spokesman of the bureaucracy, but its master, a despot who ‘became ever more capricious, irritable and brutal’, as his successor, Khrushchev, was to say in 1956.

The USSR was transformed. The last remnants of what Lenin had called in 1920 ‘a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations’ were swept away. The bureaucracy became a self-conscious ruling class. Bureaucratic state capitalism was firmly established – its ideology being, of course, ‘Socialism in One Country’.

The original Five-Year Plan had assumed that 20 per cent of grain-producing peasant households would be collectivised by 1934. In fact by March 1930, 55 per cent overall were collectivised. Then came a temporary halt, signalled by Stalin’s ‘dizzy with success’ speech which blamed ‘excesses’ on local officials. The extent of the coercion involved is indicated by the official (post-Stalin) admission that in the three months following Stalin’s speech the proportion of households collectivised fell to 23 per cent. Then came the second offensive, accompanied by mass deportations of both real kulaks and masses of far poorer peasants. By 1934, 71.5 per cent of the households and 87.5 per cent of the crop area were collectivised. [2]

The result was a decline in the grain harvest from 73.5 million tons in 1928 to 67.5 million tons in 1934, in spite of substantial investment in agriculture. Not until the second half of the 1930s was average grain output back to the levels of the late 1920s. With livestock, which was slaughtered on a huge scale by desperate peasant owners, the situation was far worse. On the official figures (published post-Stalin) the number of cattle was 70.5 million in 1928 and 42.5 million in 1934. Bread rationing was reintroduced in the towns and lasted until 1936.

What is relevant here is not the economic irrationality of the process but the fact that it was only possible through a reign of terror. A vast network of forced labour camps was created, populated in the first instance largely by deported peasants. Their numbers were soon to be supplemented by an influx of workers, technicians, officials and all manner of people accused of ‘sabotage’, pilfering, and opposition of any kind. By the second half of the 1930s, forced labour – modern slavery – was an important sector of the economy and a most powerful deterrent against any kind of resistance to the new despotism. The sheer scale of this slavery at the height of the Stalinist period – estimates range from a minimum of five million to a maximum of fifteen million – enormously enhanced the rule of the GPU, the political police, and with it the general brutality of the regime.

The working class was transformed. It grew from 11 million, including office staffs, in 1928 to 23 million in 1932. As a vast flood of ex-peasants was drawn into the towns and into the rapidly-expanding workforce, all residual trade union rights disappeared. The unions became, in fact though not in form, state agencies for disciplining the workforce and speeding up output. This fast-growing workforce was atomised by vicious repression. But not only that. Layers of experienced workers were drawn into management and administration, and a little later, extensive bonus schemes established huge differentials within the workforce itself. Average real wages were cut severely. The official (post-Stalin) statistics show a fall of 12 per cent between 1928 and 1932 and this is certainly a gross underestimate. But a ‘labour aristocracy’ was created with incomes much larger in relation to the average than in any of the advanced industrial countries. As a political force the working class no longer existed. The bureaucratic state capitalist totalitarian regime was consolidated.

By these means Russia was partly industrialised. Steel output, 4 million tons in 1927-8, had risen to 6 million tons in 1932. Coal output grew faster, from 35 million tons to 64 million tons in the same period. Other sectors also showed substantial growth.

The Comintern now existed, for Moscow, as a subsidiary agency for the defence of this process of industrialisation and of the bureaucracy which directed it. Any external upheaval, any upset in international relations, anything which might have adverse effects on the foreign trade of the USSR – for the first Five-Year Plan assumed a substantial increase in foreign trade – was out. The ferocious ‘leftism’ of the Comintern’s ‘Third Period’ had, paradoxically, the desired effect.

Paradoxically, because a leftist policy might have been expected to throw the communist parties outside Russia into conflict with the governments of their respective countries. The leftism of the Third Period was so extreme, however, that it effectively isolated these communist parties from the working-class movements, making them abstentionist and passive. They therefore posed no threat to their ruling classes – and no danger to USSR foreign policy. This was especially true of Germany, where Stalinist foreign policy was based largely on attempts at rapprochement with the Weimar Republic, including its army chiefs – who were given military facilities in Russia which enabled them to evade the restrictions on re-armament imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

The leftism of this period was not imposed by the Comintern consciously in order to isolate the communist parties. The leftist policies in fact developed from struggles inside the USSR, where the bureaucracy was now fighting against the right wing around Bukharin. But the result was favourable ... the cap fitted, so the Comintern wore it.

The new line

‘Just as social democracy is evolving through social imperialism to social-fascism, joining the vanguard of the contemporary capitalist state ... the social-fascist trade union bureaucracy is, during the period of sharpening economic battles, completely going over to the side of the big bourgeoisie ... transforming the reformist trade union apparatus into a strike-breaking organisation. In this process of the rapid fascistization of the reformist trade union apparatus and of its fusion with the bourgeois state, a particularly harmful role is played by the so-called ‘left’ wing of the Amsterdam International (Cook, Finmen, etc.) who, under the cloak of opposition to the reactionary leaders of the Amsterdam International, are trying to conceal from the workers the real significance of the process and are forming an active and constituent part (and by far not the least important) in the system of social-fascism.’
Resolution of the tenth plenum of the Comintern executive, July 1929.

THE NEW Comintern line appeared with the sixth world congress in July-August 1928, which proclaimed the end of capitalist stabilisation (‘the second period’) and the arrival of ‘the third period ... a period of intense development of the contradictions in the world economy ... of the general crisis of capitalism ... a fresh era of imperialist wars amongst the imperialist states themselves; wars of the imperialist states against the USSR; wars of national liberation against imperialism; wars of imperialist intervention and gigantic class battles.’ [3]

No very clear conclusions were yet drawn from this apocalyptic prospect, perhaps because the supporters of Bukharin were still fighting a rearguard action – Bukharin’s last appearance in the Comintern was at this congress. But this shortcoming was corrected at the tenth plenum of the Comintern executive in July 1929:

‘In this situation of growing imperialist contradiction and sharpening of the class struggle, fascism becomes more and more the dominant method of bourgeois rule. In countries where there are strong social-democratic parties, fascism assumes the particular form of social-fascism, which to an ever-increasing extent serves the bourgeoisie as an instrument for paralysing the masses in struggle against the regime of fascist dictatorship.’ [4]

What this farrago of nonsense meant on the ground was the rejection of the united front, not honestly, of course, but by way of again proposing united front action ‘only from below’. The social democrats were now the main enemy, not the actual fascists. The absurdity of the ‘social-fascist’ analysis has already been demonstrated. As to the question of who is the main enemy, this cannot of course be answered with any timeless generalisations. It depends entirely on the situation. At the point where this ‘new line’ really mattered, in Germany at the time of the rise of Hitler, the main enemy was clearly the fascists of the Nazi Party, not the social democrats of the SPD.

The notion that the trade union bureaucracy was ‘social-fascist’ led logically to the notion of splitting the unions, to the establishment of separate ‘red’ unions. But this was not formally argued – because of Lenin’s explicit condemnation of ‘dual unionism’. Instead, ultra-left and adventurist policies were pursued which enabled the trade union bureaucracies to drive out the left, which is what happened in Germany, Britain and the USA, or to isolate the left unions, which is what happened in France and Czechoslovakia. The effect was to strengthen the right in every case.

There was plenty of provocation from the social democrats, plenty of gross class-collaboration and heart-breaking sell-outs. To take the British case as an example, it is certainly true that after 1926 the TUC leaders acted as ‘a strike-breaking organisation’ for many years. So the establishment in 1929-30 of the United Clothing Workers as a breakaway from the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, and the United Mineworkers of Scotland as a breakaway from the Miners Federation of Great Britain (now the NUM), was in part a response to the outrageous treachery by right-wing officials. The Communist Party militants who promoted the breakaway unions had an audience, had real if minority support.

But politically it was entirely wrong. The British Communist Party and its Comintern masters not only failed to argue hard, as Lenin had done in 1920, against ultra-leftist illusions in ‘red unions’; they encouraged them. The real indictment of the ‘third period’ line of the Comintern on the struggle against the union bureaucracies is that it actually helped the bureaucrats, that it failed to take advantage of such splits between left and right that did occur in the union bureaucracies, that it isolated the militants and their immediate periphery from the mass of trade union members.

The swing to ultra-leftism owed something to the need to weaken the impact in the communist parties outside Russia of the opposition criticisms of the previous period’s rightist policies, especially after their disastrous outcome in Britain and China. But more important was the need to remove Bukharin’s supporters from positions of influence in various communist parties. ‘The main danger is from the right,’ it was proclaimed, and the by now well-established techniques of bureaucratically eliminating inconveniently independent party members, pioneered by Zinoviev and developed by Bukharin, were now used ruthlessly against the latter’s supporters.

Genuine leftists purged during Bukharin’s reign were not, however, reinstated. Instead ‘leaders of a new type’ were promoted and then made the objects of a personality cult mirroring that which now centred on Stalin himself in Russia. Prompt and unquestioning obedience and uncritical worship of Stalin and all his works: these were now the requirements.

Ernst Thalmann of the KPD is a good example of the ‘new type’. ‘An authentic worker, Thalmann made a good figurehead and enjoyed personal popularity. His other gifts were not outstanding. ‘ [5] But he was unfailingly obedient – and that made him leader of the world’s largest communist party outside the USSR.

At the Moscow centre, Molotov, Stalin’s office-boy, took over. He had played no part at all in Comintern affairs until 1928.

There was a difference between the ‘leftism’ of the Third Period and that of 1924-25. Then, in spite of the stupidities committed, the Comintern still sought to play a revolutionary role. In 1928-34 this was not so. Extreme verbal radicalism went hand in hand with practical passivity. The communist parties isolated themselves, then shouted furiously from the sidelines.

This suited Stalin well. He still needed these parties, but mainly as propaganda agencies for the USSR. An active policy, for example an approach to the Social Democrats for an aggressive united front against Hitler, carried the risk of creating political upheavals. This was the last thing Stalin wanted. His policy was conservative: avoid foreign entanglements and so avoid the risk of foreign intervention. The ultra-leftism of the Third Period fitted very well with this aim. The Comintern had now ceased to be a revolutionary organisation.

Stalin’s motives are clear and in the USSR his word was now law. So why did the Comintern parties accept the new line? Most important was the prestige, inherited by Stalin, of the Russian revolution – still a fairly recent event. The Soviet Republic was a symbol of hope for communist militants. Defeats in the world outside Russia only strengthened it. The harder the going in other countries, the more important was the myth (as it had now become) of workers’ power in Russia, and the prestige of Stalin, ‘the Lenin of today’ as the Stalinist slogan had it. ‘The darker the night, the brighter the star.’

Then in 1930 came a real and dramatic change in the world situation. When the new line was adopted in the summer of 1928 the world economy was in the full surge of the late 1920s boom, and that boom continued for the first fifteen months of the Third Period. In 1930, following the Wall Street crash of October 1929, a devastating slump developed. Output fell and unemployment rocketed around the world. But in the USSR, the first Five-Year Plan was going forward, output was rising fast, and unemployment, which had been heavy during the NEP period, disappeared. This contrast enormously reinforced the Russian myth and hence Stalin’s authority over the Comintern parties.

And in most of these, there was a justifiable revulsion against the excesses of the right turn and its outcome. It was, in general, a revulsion on behalf of a minority, but it gave the Comintern executive, now Stalin’s agents, a lever against ‘rightist’ leaderships. Thus the British Communist Party was ‘turned’ with the aid of a leftist opposition centred on the London and Newcastle districts and the Young Communist League.

In most cases though, not much pressure was needed. The big parties – in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia – had suffered successive purges of rightists, real and alleged, by 1925, then of ‘leftists’, genuine and otherwise, in 1925-27. The survivors in the leaderships had developed supple spines and adapted to the new line and to ‘leaders of a new type’ without too much difficulty. They had successively denounced Trotsky and Zinoviev; now it was Bukharin’s turn.

There were exceptions. It proved necessary to expel the rightist majority of the leadership of the American Communist Party by Comintern edict. Those expelled failed to carry the bulk of the membership with them. In Sweden, however, a similar operation against the Kilbom leadership resulted in the secession with Kilbom of the majority of members (about 18,000 in 1928). But in most cases rightist leaders, however prominent, were expelled without taking more than a few of their followers with them.

Membership did fall heavily in many instances. In France, the PCF’s claimed membership dropped from 52,526 in 1928 to 39,000 in May 1930, and further to 30,000 in March 1932. The Czechoslovak party, which had claimed 150,000 in 1928, was down to 35,000 in 1931. [6] The British Communist Party had 5,526 registered in March 1928; by late 1929 it claimed 3,500. The Norwegian party, which was a smallish but still significant workers’ party in 1928, was reduced to an isolated sect by 1932.

Again, there were exceptions. The South African party had been a small declining, white-led organisation in the late 1920s. With the new line and a new, partly-black leadership, it was able to lead a number of strikes of black workers and to gain an influence in spite of repression. Similarly, in Australia, the party was a small propaganda group in the late 1920s. Because the slump hit Australia very hard – one worker in every three was unemployed in 1932 – and because the Labour Party was in power and leading the attack on working-class living standards, the ultra-left line fitted in with a mood of desperation amongst sections of the working class. The CPA grew from 249 members in 1928 to 2,824 in 1934, laying the basis for its future influence in the unions. [7]

But the most important case by far was that of the KPD.

‘From a fairly steady total of 125,000 in the late nineteen-twenties, its membership rose to 170,000 in 1930, to 240,000 in 1931, and to 360,000 at the end of 1932 on the eve of catastrophe.’ [8]

Trotsky, in 1931, called Germany ‘the key to the international situation’. And it was in Germany that the new line was tested in practice by a mass party in a situation of deep and worsening social crisis.

‘After Hitler, our turn’

‘Herr Brüning has expressed it very clearly; once they (the Nazis) are in power, the united front of the proletariat will emerge and make a clean sweep of everything ... We are not afraid of the fascists. They will shoot their bolt quicker than any other government.’
Remmele, KPD leader, speaking in the Reichstag, October 1931.

IN THE GERMAN federal election of May 1928, the SPD gained 29 per cent of the vote, over nine million votes, a gain of more than 1.3 million over the election of December 1924. The KPD got 10.6 per cent of the poll, 3.2 million votes, a gain of half a million, though well short of its May 1924 figure of 12.6 per cent of the poll. The Nazis got only 810,000 votes, 2.6 per cent of the total. The outcome was a new ‘great coalition’ government of the SPD, the Catholic centre party, the liberal democrats and the right-wing German People’s Party, headed by the SPD leader, Hermann Müller.

The new government soon demonstrated its conservative character. It went ahead with the building of the pocket battleship Deutschland, although the SPD had vehemently opposed this project during the election campaign. It supported the steel bosses during their lock-out in the autumn of 1928. And it pursued a vigorous ‘law and order’ policy, the most notorious example of which was the May Day of 1929.

Zörgiebel, an SPD member and police president of Berlin, forbade demonstrations on May Day. The KPD called one as usual, and it was big, with many SPD members participating. Zörgiebel’s police fired on the workers, killing 25 and severely wounding another 36. Zörgiebel then defended the police, claiming that the demonstrators had fired first: ‘Fourteen butts of police rifles had been shattered or pierced by shots from the crowd, though, fortunately, the police suffered no casualties.’ [9] Zörgiebel was not repudiated by the SPD ministers.

The KPD, therefore, had excellent opportunities to influence and win SPD workers. It proceeded to minimise these opportunities by hysterical ranting about ‘social fascism’, by calling SPD members ‘little Zörgiebels’, and by a total failure to relate to the left-wing opposition in the SPD – which they called the ‘left social-fascists’.

Then came the slump.

‘From 1929 onwards unemployment increased steadily until it reached and passed the six million mark in January 1933. That was the official figure of registered unemployed. Actually, between eight and nine million wage and salary earners were out of work. At the same time, wages and salaries were reduced, unemployment benefit was cut and, owing to the rapid decline of the workers’ purchasing power, millions of small shop-keepers, tradesmen, artisans and peasants were ruined ... A radical solution, never mind of what sort so long as it was sufficiently radical and effective – that was what an increasing number of Germans wanted in those years until the phrase “so kann es nicht weitergehen” (things can’t go on like this) was as current as “guten Tag”.’ [10]

In this situation, the KPD needed concrete slogans, effective partial demands with which to influence more and more workers beyond its ranks. Instead, the KPD fed its supporters a diet of talk about ‘ascending revolutionary struggles’, deepening crisis (which everyone could see anyway), the glorious victories of the Five-Year Plan and the menace of social fascism. It was politically passive, notwithstanding its furious propaganda campaigns.

The ‘great coalition’ fell apart at the end of March 1930, the SPD being driven into reluctant opposition because even its right wing could not accept the further cuts in wages and benefits demanded by big business.

Now was the ideal time for the KPD to launch a sustained united front campaign, to put the united front at the centre of its political orientation. Against the stupidities of the thesis of ‘social-fascism’, Trotsky patiently explained:

‘The Social-Democracy, which is today the chief representative of the parliamentary-bourgeois regime, derives its support from the workers. Fascism is supported by the petty-bourgeoisie. The Social-Democracy without mass organisations of the workers can have no influence. Fascism cannot entrench itself in power without annihilating the workers’ organisations ...

‘For the monopolistic bourgeoisie, the parliamentary and fascist regimes represent only different vehicles of domination ... But for both the Social-Democracy and fascism, the choice of one or the other vehicle ... is a question of political life or death ...

‘When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini’s ... but it means primarily and above all that the workers’ organisations are annihilated: that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state: and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallisation of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism.’ [11]

Thus there was an objective basis for a united front against fascism, a genuine common interest in preserving independent working-class organisations. Not that Trotsky had any illusions that the SPD and ADGB leaders, left to themselves, would recognise this. Far from it. But a substantial and growing section of their supporters could and would if the KPD made this central to its politics. And, in order to win SPD-influenced workers, it was necessary not only to address them directly, but also to address their leaders, repeatedly and with concrete proposals at each new turn in the struggle, ignoring rebuffs, precisely to influence the ranks and so to force at least sections of the SPD/ADGB apparatus into a united front. But the Stalinised KPD pursued exactly the opposite policy.

After the collapse of the ‘great coalition’, Brüning, the centre party leader, took over, ruling by decree as the Weimar constitution allowed, because he lacked a parliamentary majority.

In September 1930 elections were held. For two years, following the theory of ‘social-fascism’, the KPD had concentrated its fire on the SPD. Now it made electoral gains at the SPD’s expense. The KPD got 4,592,100 votes, or 13.1 per cent of the total. The SPD’s vote was 8,577,700 compared to 9,153,000 in 1928 – a fall from 29.8 per cent to 24.5 per cent. But at the same time the Nazis made a spectacular advance, multiplying their 1928 vote by eight times to 6,409,600 or 18.3 per cent. Moreover the total vote for workers’ parties was down from 40.4 per cent to 37.6 per cent. Brüning still lacked a majority but was sustained in office by the ‘toleration’ of the SPD, which never voted against the government on a matter of confidence.

The KPD leaders were jubilant. They now had 77 deputies in the Reichstag instead of 54. They made light of the Nazis’ advance. ‘14th September was the high point of the National-Socialist movement in Germany ... what comes after can be only decline and fall,’ declared the KPD’s daily newspaper in Berlin. [12] As to the danger of fascism coming to power: ‘The fascist dictatorship is no longer a threat, it is already here,’ [13] it said, meaning that the Brüning regime was fascist, just as its social-democratic-led predecessor had been.

It was a combination of blindness, ultra-left bombast and parliamentary cretinism.

Trotsky’s sober and accurate criticism was written that same September of 1930:

‘From the viewpoint of “normal” parliamentary mechanics, the gain of 1,300,000 votes is considerable, even if we take into consideration the rise in the number of voters. But the gain of the party pales completely beside the leap of fascism from 800,000 to 6,400,000. Of no less significance for evaluating the elections is the fact that the social-democracy, in spite of substantial losses, retained its basic cadres and still received a considerably greater number of workers’ votes than the KPD.

‘Meanwhile, if we should ask ourselves what combination of international and domestic circumstances could be capable of turning the working class towards communism with greater velocity, we could not find an example of more favourable circumstances for such a turn than the situation in present-day Germany ... If the KPD, in spite of the exceptionally favourable circumstances, has proved powerless to seriously shake the structure of social-democracy with the aid of the formula of ‘social-fascism’, then real fascism now threatens this structure ...

‘No matter how true it is that the social-democracy prepared this blossoming of fascism by its whole policy, it is no less true that fascism comes forward as a deadly threat to that social-democracy ... There can be no doubt that, at the crucial moment, the leaders of social-democracy will prefer the triumph of fascism to the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. But precisely the approach of such a choice creates exceptional difficulties for the social-democratic leaders among their own workers. The policy of the united front of the workers against fascism flows from this whole situation. It opens up tremendous possibilities for the KPD. A condition for success, however, is the rejection of the theory and practice of “social-fascism”, the harm of which becomes a positive menace under the present circumstances.’ [14]

This, however, was precisely what the KPD leaders could not do. Stalin had decreed the theory of social fascism, and only he could scrap it. There were indeed certain shifts in emphasis in the line. In January 1931, the slogan of a ‘people’s revolution’ was advanced as the ‘chief strategic slogan of the party’ – an attempt to outbid the Nazis in nationalist demagoguery. The slogan ‘strike at social fascism, then you will hit national fascism’ was declared ‘too simple’ in May, and so on and so forth. But the central thrust of the line was maintained – the SPD is the main enemy.

Thus when the Nazis promoted a referendum to dismiss the Social Democratic provincial government in Prussia in the summer of 1931, the KPD supported the move, called it the ‘red referendum’ and did its best (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to destroy the government in circumstances in which the only alternative government was a Nazi-conservative coalition. In 1932 the KPD found itself in a bloc with the Nazis in support of an unofficial transport workers’ strike in Berlin. ‘Street collections were organised for strike funds, and in some districts of Berlin the unique spectacle could be observed of a Communist and a Nazi standing arm in arm and shouting in an agreed rhythm, while they were shaking their collection boxes: “For the strike fund of the NSBO (Nazi union fraction), For the strike fund of the RGO (Red trade union opposition)”. The sight of this perverted united front was so repulsive to most ordinary trade unionists that the initial sympathy for the strikers turned into disgust and hostility.’ [15] As a result the strike quickly collapsed and the isolation of the KPD from the mass of social-democratic workers was massively reinforced. Thälmann, as late as September 1932, four months before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, repeated obediently:

‘The Trotskyists put forward the slogan of unity of the SPD with the KPD to divert the desire for unity among the masses into fake political channels ... precisely at the present stage in Germany the two [the SPD and the Nazis] appear in their true colours as “twin brothers”, as Comrade Stalin acutely emphasised ... our party has of late been combatting with great success all tendencies to weaken the struggle in principle against social democracy and has fought with all severity against all conceptions that the main offensive within the working class ought no longer to be directed against social democracy.’ [16]

In fact the KPD’s policies strengthened the position of the SPD leadership among SPD-influenced workers. But the line was pursued to the bitter end. As has been noted, the KPD continued to grow; but its social weight did not increase. The proportion of factory workers among its membership, as reported by the Comintern’s organisational director in 1932, declined as follows: 1928, 62.3 per cent of the membership; 1929, 51.6 per cent; 1930, 32.2 per cent; 1931, 20.22 per cent. [17] Part of this was the inevitable result of the slump, but much of it was not. The party was increasingly a party of the unemployed and the declassed. Its vote continued to grow also. In the last free elections (November 1932), it got 5,980,000 votes (16.9 per cent) to the SPD’s 7,248,000 (20.4 per cent), and the Nazis’ 11,737,000 (33.1 per cent).

But votes were not decisive. The KPD’s practical passivity, the rubbish of ‘social fascism’, the blindness to reality; these were decisive. In 1930, 1931, even 1932, a vigorous united front policy could have defeated Hitler. Stalin’s Comintern ensured that such a policy was not pursued.

Why? It was certainly not in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR that the Nazis should come to power, smash the KPD as well as the SPD and the unions, undertake a massive re-armament programme and then set out, consciously and deliberately, to break the power of Britain and France in Europe and to dominate and exploit the continent. This would inevitably involve an attack on the USSR itself – which it did in 1941. Moreover, this programme was set out openly in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, written as early as 1923. So how could Stalin be so blind?

There are two reasons. The first is simple ignorance. Stalin, immensely shrewd and ruthless as a machine politician, understood little of the realities of the class struggle outside Russia. His notorious aphorism of 1924, twice referred to already, is worth quoting in full here: ‘Fascism is the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie buttressed on the active support of social democracy. Social democracy is effectively the moderate wing of fascism.’ [18] Hence ‘they are not antipodes but twins.’

Of course there were those, even at the centre of the Comintern apparatus, who recognised this for the garbage that it was. Thus Togliatti, a former disciple of Gramsci and later to be leader of the Italian Communist Party in the period after the Second World War, had given an excellent analysis of the relationship and fundamental conflict of interest between social democracy and fascism as late as the sixth world congress of the Comintern in 1928, when the ultra-left line was already ascendant.

Togliatti was a man of great ability but, like Gramsci, he could not conceive of a policy independent of the Russian leadership. Hence he ‘made haste to prove that, precious as truth was to him, Molotov was more precious, and ... he wrote a report in defence of the theory of social-fascism. “The Italian Social-Democracy,” he announced in February 1930, “turns fascist with the greatest readiness.” Alas, the functionaries of official communism turned flunkies even more readily,’ wrote Trotsky. [19] Indeed, purged and purged again by 1929, most of them had turned flunkey long before.

The second and more important reason was the desperate anxiety of all sections of the bureaucracy, including those less than enthusiastic about Stalin’s rule, concerning their isolation from any other section of Russian society. They could not fail to recognise, in principle, that the mass of the population – workers as well as peasants – were violently hostile to the immense privations imposed upon them by the first Five-Year Plan. The regime was far, far more isolated than it had been in 1919. Foreign intervention now might be fatal, since it might draw this so far largely passive hostility together. So any upheaval abroad was unwelcome – and the Russian bureaucracy still saw Britain and France, who had sent troops to Russia during the civil war after the revolution, as the main enemies.

Thus Pravda rejoiced after the elections in Germany in 1930 that the Nazi successes created ‘not a few difficulties for French imperialism.’ [20] The desperate hope that an extreme right-wing government in Germany would be principally anti-French dominated their thinking.

So passivity was forced on the KPD. A challenge to Thälmann’s authority as early as the summer of 1928 by the majority of the KPD central commitee, no less, was overruled by the Comintern executive. (This was the Wittorf affair: various close associates of Thälmann had been involved in theft of party funds and he had covered up for them.) Later, in 1931-2, Neumann and Remmele, who had been elevated to the top leadership of the KPD by Moscow, were eliminated in their turn. They had, within the framework of the ‘new line’, fought for too active a policy by the KPD. And an active policy of any kind was anathema to Moscow. So Thälmann, Stalin’s mouthpiece, had to be upheld.

So Hitler came to power without resistance in January 1933. True, his first cabinet contained only a minority of Nazis, his party had only about one-third of the votes at the previous election in November 1932. But all this was irrelevant. Once in power and confident that the workers, deeply divided between the SPD and the KPD, would not actively unite against him, he proceeded to outlaw first the KPD, then the SPD, then the unions. There was no effective resistance to the reign of terror unleashed by his Nazi stormtroopers. After eliminating the workers’ parties, he got the rump of the Reichstag to elect him dictator.

What followed was not ‘our turn’, but our destruction: the workers’ movement was smashed and the class atomised. Trotsky summed up the experience a few days after Hitler became Chancellor:

‘The history of the German working class represents the most tragic page of modern history. What shocking betrayals by its historical party, the Social Democracy! What ineptitude and impotence on the part of its revolutionary wing! But there is no need to go so far back. For the past two or three years of the fascist upsurge, the policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been nothing else but a chain of crimes which literally saved reformism, and thereby prepared for the subsequent successes of fascism.’ [21]




1. Carr, The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin (London 1980) p.124.

2. These figures and those that follow are from Nove, An Economic History of the USSR (London 1972). The figures have been rounded to the nearest half of one per cent.

3. Degras, vol.2, p.456.

4. Degras, vol.3, p.44.

5. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, vol.3, part 2 (London 1976) p.415.

6. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern (London 1982) pp.178 and 67.

7. Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia (Stanford 1969) pp.53 and 61.

8. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, p.51.

9. Anderson, Hammer or Anvil, p.131.

10. Anderson, pp.135-6.

11. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971) pp.155-6. (My emphasis.)

12. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, p.25.

13. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, p.26.

14. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, pp.59 and following.

15. Anderson, pp.147-8.

16. Degras, vol.3, p.213.

17. Borkenau, World Communism, p.364.

18. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol.3, p.86.

19. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, p.157.

20. Quoted in Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, p.29.

21. Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, p.342.


Last updated on 26.2.2008