Source: Published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/472-toward-the-united-front), pp. 178-185.
Translation: Translation by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission.
Comrade Zinoviev has recalled and confirmed certain principles established by the Third Congress and approved by the Italian party.
The first concerns interpreting the condition of capitalism. A crisis exists that is not transitory and that signifies the decline of capitalism itself, one that can be termed its final crisis.
The second point makes clear that in order to make possible a revolutionary victory in this situation, it is necessary for the Communist Party to widen its influence among the broad masses. That it can achieved by taking part in struggles for all the specific interests of the working class.
The Italian Communists have not supported a putschist method either in theory or in practice; they have not given way to the illusion that power can be won by a small revolutionary party. What they do not accept is only the formulation regarding the ‘majority’ of the working class, which is vague and arbitrary. It is vague because it does not make clear whether the reference is strictly to the proletariat or also includes the semi-proletarian layers and all political and trade union organisations. This formulation also seems to us to be arbitrary because the relationship of forces may very well make a revolutionary attack impossible even in a situation where we have the majority, while it is also not excluded that an attack may be possible before we have won this majority.
Our opinion on the International’s tasks and the report presented by Comrade Zinoviev is that the International has so far not resolved the major tactical problems in the best manner. The Left current is usually recognised by its confidence regarding an outbreak of revolution in the near future. Well, in this regard I am more pessimistic than Comrade Zinoviev.
The existence of a great capitalist crisis is an absolutely necessary objective precondition for the revolution. Nonetheless it must be recognised that the subjective conditions for the existence of a strong Communist International with influence on the masses can to some degree be jeopardised by the direct impact of the crisis on the workers’ economic organisations (the trade unions and similar organisations), which we can term the ‘original’ natural organisations of the working class, and which are immediately affected by the evolution of the objective situation. The most immediate way to win the masses is through intensive trade union work. The economic crisis and joblessness make this task more difficult. The opportunists express this problem through the slogan that we must wait for a capitalism to flourish again before we act for the liberation of the proletariat.
In fact, here we may stand by a classical formula: It is necessary to win the greatest possible influence for the revolutionary party during capitalism’s heyday, in order to be able, at the moment when crisis breaks out, to draw the economic organisations with us into a process of revolutionary action. That is what the opportunists have obstructed. Nonetheless the Communist International does not retreat from its task of mobilising the world proletariat for revolution.
This problem confronts us today under difficult conditions, which however cannot be viewed as insuperable. Although for now some countries stand as exceptions, in my opinion the economic situation will worsen in general, bringing with it joblessness and a decline of the trade unions.
As a result of the danger of new wars, discontent will grow not only in the proletariat but in semi-proletarian classes. The great task is to shape this chaotic discontent into a form suitable for revolutionary struggle. The International has sought to resolve this problem by explaining the conditions created by the offensive of capitalism. This was the origin of the united front tactic.
We accept by and large the spirit of this tactic. The objections we raise, which apply to the general work of the International’s leadership, flow from some observations that we will now present.
Winning the masses is our main goal. But this does not mean that this goal can be achieved necessarily in a steady mechanical development. It does not mean that we will necessarily find, at any given moment, a way to advance toward this conquest in broad stages. It is possible that we will be placed for a certain time in conditions where we do not see the party grow, but where we will be able during this interval to carry out efforts that can give us confidence that we will be able to win the masses later on. Zinoviev has said that some parts of the International have seen their influence grow despite a decrease in their membership level.
Winning the masses should not be understood solely in terms of statistical variations. It is a dialectical process, shaped above all by the evolution of objective social conditions. Our tactical initiative can speed up this process within definite limits or, to be more precise, given certain conditions that we take for granted. Our tactical initiative – that is, our party’s adroitness in action – is effective only with regard to developments in the proletariat’s psychology, using this term ‘psychology’ in its broadest sense, including its consciousness, its spirit, its will to struggle. We must recall here that, as our entire revolutionary experience tells us, two factors play a primary role: complete ideological clarity in the party and a strict and skilful persistence in its construction and organisation. What we say is that on the road to a genuine conquest of the masses, expressed through the gathering around a party of new layers of the proletariat that are capable of revolutionary action, it is a bad business for us to permit these conditions to be jeopardised in order to achieve a seeming improvement in the party. Capacity for revolutionary action requires preparation that can never be improvised and that resides in the factors already mentioned: doctrinal clarity and organisational solidity.
Having determined this, we say that we will closely follow the line of the International if it sets the goal, as was done between the Third and Fourth Congresses (our party was the first to do this, even before the return of its delegates from the Third Congress) to benefit from all the expressions of the capitalist offensive in order to draw along with the Communist Party the working-class masses who are still followers of the Social Democracy or are dispersed. We will not repeat here an analysis of the nature of the bourgeois offensive that the ruling class has been forced to undertake by the inevitable character of the crisis. There is a special agenda point to handle this question, and in discussing Italian fascism we will be able to show the degree to which the bourgeoisie is able to achieve the simultaneous application of all its methods of counter-revolutionary defence.
The employers’ offensive makes it possible to advance political and economic demands that immediately concern the totality of the working class, and that offer the Communist Party a favourable opportunity to promote united working-class action and to demonstrate through facts that the other proletarian parties are incapable of championing even the most immediate interests of the proletariat. That has a double revolutionary effect, both placing obstacles in the path of the reconstruction of threatened capitalism and also increasing the influence of the Communist Party on the masses. We have said that we perceive limits in the application of this tactic – limits related to the need not to imperil the other factors giving the party influence on the masses or the inner revolutionary readiness of its membership. We must never forget that our party is not a rigid mechanism that we can simply manipulate but is rather a living being affected by outside forces, which can be modified through the direction given to it by our policies. That is why we say that setting up a permanent leading body made up of representatives of the different proletarian parties stands in contradiction to the principle of the united front tactic.
We must of course prepare ourselves for the opportunists to either reject or accept common action. Responsibility for the action must rest with a body that arises from the working masses through the intermediary of their economic organisations, one that in principle can be conquered by any party. In this way the Communist Party can subordinate itself to this body and provide an example by placing itself in the leadership of the united proletarian action, without taking responsibility before the masses for the bad results of methods of action imposed by the non-Communist majority of the proletarian organisations. For with respect to winning influence on the masses and their psychology, we must reckon with the parties’ past responsibility and traditions, as well as with the groups and individuals that the masses follow.
It is thus by no means a matter of excluding political issues from the list of united front demands and including only economic ones. It is also not a matter of rejecting – in principle or out of some conceivable feeling of standoffishness – temporary negotiations even with the worst leaders of the opportunists. It is merely a question of not placing at risk the readiness of the broadest possible layer of the proletariat for a revolutionary situation – in which action will take place entirely in the framework of the Communist Party’s methods – thus avoiding the danger of leading the entire proletariat to a defeat. It is a matter of preserving our party’s full capacity during the development of the united front to pursue efforts in every field to enrol genuinely proletarian forces. The united front tactic will have no point if the work of organising the masses carried out by the party inside the trade unions, the factory, and so on cannot take place.
We say that the danger exists of the united front degenerating into Communist revisionism, and in order to prevent that, we must remain within certain limits.
Now as to the workers’ government. If it is confirmed, as at the Expanded Executive in June, that the workers’ government refers to ‘the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie’, then we consider that under certain circumstances this slogan can be used as a terminological replacement for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Certainly we will not oppose that, unless this need to hide our true programme could be considered opportunist. But what if the workers’ government slogan creates an impression among the masses that it refers not merely to a transitory political situation or to the momentary relationship of social forces, but rather suggests that the most important problem in the relationship between the working class and the state (the problem on which we founded the programme and organisation of the International) can be resolved in some way other than through armed struggle for power and its exercise in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat? In that case, we reject this tactic, because it jeopardises a foundation stone for the preparation of the proletariat and party for revolutionary tasks, in return for the dubious benefits of achieving immediate popularity.
It will perhaps be said that the reality of the workers’ government does not correspond to our fears. But here I must say that I have heard countless explanations of what the workers’ government is not, but only from the mouth of Comrade Zinoviev or others can I learn what a workers’ government actually represents.
If the point is to consider objectively the achievement of a transitional regime that will precede the proletarian dictatorship, then my opinion is that if the proletarian victory does not take a very decisive form, the process will lead under the blows of reaction to bourgeois coalition governments in which the right wing of the opportunists will directly participate, while the centrists disappear from the political scene, after having exhausted their role as accomplices and Social Democrats.
In Germany, for example, we see that right on the eve of a generalised economic crisis, the question of control of production cropped up in the factory council movement. We saw something similar to this in the Italian situation of September 1920, which preceded a major proletarian defeat. If a similar revolutionary situation arises in Germany, the Communist Party there must prepare itself to recognise all opportunist tendencies without exception and to reject even the slightest support for this slogan of workers’ control. Either the Communist Party will from this moment on succeed in playing an independent role, or there is a possibility that a counter-revolutionary situation will develop, preparing the road for a government in which German fascism can call on collaboration from the right-wing Socialist betrayers.
From all this it flows that we cannot fully adopt either the draft theses of Comrade Zinoviev or the directives on the activity of the Communist International. That relates not only to policy but to the construction of our international organisation.
We have heard Comrade Zinoviev complain of the lack of centralism and discipline in our international activity. We advocate a maximum of centralism and authority for the highest central body.
But the obedience of the entire organisational network with regard to the initiatives of the leading centre cannot be secured by a solemn oath to be disciplined or by commitments undertaken, no matter how sincerely.
Nor will it work to apply internal democracy and control by the ranks of the organised workers – that mostly leads to confusion. The guarantee of discipline must be sought elsewhere. We must remember, with the aid of Marxist dialectic, that our organisation is neither a mechanism nor an army, but a genuine unified complex, whose development is both a result and a contributing factor to the evolution of the historical situation.
The guarantee of discipline can be found only in a sharp delineation of the boundaries within which we employ our methods of action, and in the programmatic clarity of the most important tactical resolutions and organisational measures. The Russian revolution provided the international revolutionary movement with the basis to restore its ideology and fighting organisations. That is a gain that must not be undervalued, and its further effects will develop to the degree that the link between the Russian revolution and the international proletarian movement remains firm. We criticise the tendency to grant too much freedom in organisational measures and tactical methods, a freedom that moves us further from our goals. The choice in such matters should be left to the leading centre. This choice should be made – we repeat – by the centre and not by the national organisations, who claim to have better judgment of the special conditions of their milieus. But when this right is extended too far, and the centre lacks foresight, then cases of indiscipline will necessarily pile up, which undermine the construction of the revolutionary world organisation and damage its prestige. In our opinion, the International’s central bodies should be organised in an even less federal manner. They should be constituted not by representatives of national sections but by the international congress.
It is quite obvious that only the Russian revolution can give us a headquarters location and the general staff for the Communist International. But in order to lead the movements around the world with certainty, this general staff should, in accord with them, set the plans for proletarian revolutionary strategy. And not a single case should be permitted of a refusal to obey these decisions.
Unfortunately, there is no lack of examples of the bad results of too much elasticity and of an eclectic approach to the choice of means of struggle. The bad situation of the French party is the most striking example. And we must also mention the quite striking fact that all parties that have an absolute majority of the politically organised workers on their side and that originated directly in the traditional Social Democratic parties are going through a crisis. That is evident in France, Czechoslovakia, and Norway. We cannot avoid saying that in a certain sense a voluntary error is being made, namely, that the construction of the International of workers parties is being viewed as too similar to that of state and military organisations.
By trying, come what may, to find decisive measures for the achievement of great revolutionary successes, we have possibly gone down a path that carries us through crises that break out without any way to prevent them through use of the resources at our disposal, and that removes us too far from results that are secure and firm. It is also possible that decisive turning points will take us by surprise, posing difficult questions for us. I do not deny that this experience may to some extent be necessary. I will only take the liberty of making a contribution that results not from abstract considerations but from the experience of a party that maintains its place in our common front line of struggle.
Our International is too often seen as something external to the parties that belong to it. Sometimes the parties, or factions within them, permit themselves to carry on a polemical discussion with the International that is often public and insulting. The International sees itself compelled to create factions inside the parties that obey its directives, which strikes me as absurd and dangerous.
We see ourselves compelled to deal with too many organisational and disciplinary questions, at a time when we note that the enemy has launched reaction against us in a way that makes the negotiations and the entire procedure required in such cases almost impossible.
Let me close with the slogan issued by Zinoviev himself: Let us be a truly Communist international party, strictly centralised and imbued with the spirit of revolutionary struggle.
I also note that in a party of this type there will be no alterations in the structure or organisation for this or that region, and that in our national congresses we will never see delegates from a region that do not agree to the common rules of the organisation.
In the centralised international Communist Party we will truly have an indispensable unity of thought and action, such that every case of refusal to accept discipline will be duly punished.
1. The Third Congress Theses on Tactics had stated, ‘The most important task of the Communist International at present is to gain decisive influence over the majority of the working class and to lead its decisive sectors into struggle.’ (To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (Historical Materialism Book Series 2015), p. 927) This position was reaffirmed by the Fourth Congress resolution on tactics.
2. By ‘Left current’ Bordiga means forces in the Comintern such as the Italian majority leadership that raised ‘left’ criticisms of policies of the ECCI, as for example with regard to united front policy.
3. The quotation does not appear in the published record of the Expanded ECCI.
4. Bordiga’s hostility to the slogan of workers’ control was influenced by the outcome of the massive strike wave of September 1920 in Italy. It was brought to an end by a manoeuvre by Giolitti, the prime minister, who proposed an agreement supposedly to institutionalise workers’ control of the factories. The agreement, approved by unions and employers, served to demobilise the strike movement but was not implemented.