Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

14. The Comintern: Trotsky teaches strategy and tactics

The Third Congress

THE CONGRESSES of the Comintern were schools of strategy and tactics, and at them Lenin and Trotsky played the part of teachers, while the leaders of the young Communist Parties were the pupils. Especially significant were the Third and Fourth Congresses.

The revolutionary high tide of 1918-19 failed to produce victory for the proletariat. The revolutionary wave ebbed before the Communist parties grew up and reached the maturity they needed to lead the struggle for workers’ power. This gave the bourgeoisie the opportunity to achieve the stabilisation of capitalism. When the Third Congress of the Communist International met (22 June-12 July 1921) the immediately revolutionary situation had passed. The crucial issue facing the congress was what revolutionary parties should do in a non-revolutionary situation.

Trotsky delivered the report on the world economic crisis and on the new tasks of the Communist International. This surveyed the various defeats suffered by the revolutionary movement since 1919 and proceeded to analyse the economic position of the leading powers, world trade, the prospects for economic recovery and its impact on the class struggle. Trotsky concluded that capitalism had managed to restore a temporary, uncertain and uneven equilibrium, while the situation at bottom remained revolutionary.

In 1919 the European bourgeoisie was in a state of extreme confusion. Those were the days of panic, the days of a truly insane fear of Bolshevism ...

The year 1919 was, without doubt, the most critical year for the bourgeoisie. In 1920 and 1921 we observe a gradual influx of self-assurance among the bourgeoisie and along with this an undeniable consolidation of its state apparatus, which immediately following the war was actually on the verge of disintegration in various countries ... [1]

Why was the revolution not victorious?

In the most critical year for the bourgeoisie, the year 1919, the proletariat of Europe could undoubtedly have captured state power with minimum sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organisation, setting forth clear aims and capably pursuing them, [in other words] a strong Communist Party. But there was none. On the contrary, in seeking after the war to conquer new living conditions for itself, and in assuming an offensive against bourgeois society, the working class had to drag on its back the parties and trade unions of the Second International, all of whose efforts, both conscious and instinctive, were essentially directed towards the preservation of capitalist society. [2]

By and large the Communist leaders in Europe had the illusion that as the Russian proletariat had managed to make a revolution it would not be difficult for the European proletariat to do the same. Trotsky had to reiterate what he had said at the First and Second Congresses of the Comintern: that the Western European bourgeoisie was far more formidable an enemy than the Russian bourgeoisie had been.

The economic recovery of capitalism after the war was intermittent and uneven. In 1921 there was a short-lived economic crisis. After analysing the economic situation of world capitalism at the Third Congress, Trotsky posed the question: what would be the impact of an economic recovery on the class struggle of the proletariat? He argued against a mechanical approach that identified economic crisis with a revolutionary situation and economic improvement with a decline of revolutionary prospects.

Many comrades say that if an improvement takes place in this epoch it would be fatal for our revolution. No, under no circumstances. In general, there is no automatic dependence of the proletarian revolutionary movement upon a crisis. There is only a dialectical interaction.

Let us look at the relations in Russia. The 1905 revolution was defeated. The workers bore great sacrifices. In 1906 and 1907 the last revolutionary flare-ups occurred and by the autumn of 1907 a great world crisis broke out ... Throughout 1907 and 1908 and 1909 the most terrible crisis reigned in Russia too. It killed the movement completely, because the workers had suffered so greatly during the struggle that this depression could act only to dishearten them. There were many disputes among us over what would lead to the revolution: a crisis or a favourable conjuncture?

At the time many of us defended the viewpoint that the Russian revolutionary movement could be regenerated only by a favourable economic conjuncture. And that is what took place. In 1910, 1911 and 1912, there was an improvement in our economic situation and a favourable conjuncture which acted to reassemble the demoralised and devitalised workers who had lost their courage. They realised again how important they were in production; and they passed over to an offensive, first in the economic field and later in the political field as well. On the eve of the war the working class had become so consolidated, thanks to this period of prosperity, that it was able to pass to a direct assault.

This provided a lesson for 1921:

should we today, in the period of the greatest exhaustion of the working class resulting from the crisis and the continual struggle, fail to gain victory, which is possible, then a change in the conjuncture and a rise in living standards would not have a harmful effect upon the revolution, but would be on the contrary highly propitious. [3]

The question, which is raised by many comrades abstractly, of just what would lead to revolution, impoverishment or prosperity, is completely false when so formulated ... Neither impoverishment nor prosperity as such can lead to revolution, but the alternation of prosperity and impoverishment, the crises, the uncertainty, the absence of stability – these are the motor factors of revolution. [4]

The Theses on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern written by Trotsky (aided by Varga) and adopted unanimously by the Third Congress summed up the world situation and the tactics needed by Communist parties. In a nutshell, the proletariat now faced defensive struggles:

The fundamental task of the Communist Party in the current crisis is to lead the present defensive struggles of the proletariat, to extend their scope, to deepen them, to unify them, and in harmony with the march of events, to transform them into decisive political struggles for the ultimate goal ... Whatever the shifts in the course of the struggle, the Communist Party always strives to consolidate organisationally new bases of support, trains the masses in active manoeuvring, arms them with new methods and practices, designed for direct and open clashes with the enemy forces. Utilising every breathing spell in order to assimilate the experience of the preceding phase of the struggle, the Communist Party seeks to deepen and extend the class conflicts, to co-ordinate them nationally and internationally by unity of goal and unity of practical action, and in this way, at the head of the proletariat, shatter all resistance on the road to its dictatorship and the socialist revolution.

After stating that there was no permanent reformist solution to the problems facing the working class and reaffirming that the destruction of capitalism remained the ‘guiding and immediate mission’, the Theses on Tactics adopted by the Third Congress argued the need for Communists to fight for reforms:

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.

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 an emanation of the same inability to grasp the essential conditions of revolutionary action as was expressed in the hostility of some Communist 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. [5]

In one of the most important programmatic documents of revolutionary Marxism, Trotsky developed the theme of the united front. On the United Front, theses drafted for the enlarged plenum of the executive committee of the Comintern, states:

The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution. In order to summon the proletariat for the direct conquest of power and to achieve it the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class.

So long as it does not hold this majority, the party must fight to win it. If the theme of the First and Second Congresses of the Comintern was the struggle for workers’ power, then the theme of the Third Congress was ‘To the Masses’, that is, the conquest of power through a previous conquest of the masses achieved on the basis of their daily life and struggle.

The Communist Party can win the majority of the proletariat, said the theses, by leading it in clashes with the capitalists:

In these clashes – insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or of its majority, or of this or that section – the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers.

Hence the need for a united front between Communists and Social Democrats:

The problem of the united front – despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch between the various political organisations basing themselves on the working class – grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism. ...wherever the Communist Party already constitutes a big, organised, political force, but not the decisive magnitude; wherever the party embraces organisationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organised proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness ...

... the [Communist] party must assume the initiative in securing unity in these current struggles. Only in this way will the party draw closer to those two-thirds who do not as yet follow its leadership, who do not as yet trust the party because they do not understand it. Only in this way can the party win them over.

Should the reformist leaders be included in the united front?

Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders?

The very posing of this question is a product of misunderstanding.

If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form.

The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organisations and join us. It may be precisely after engaging in those mass activities, which are on the order of the day, that a major change will take place in this connection. That is just what we are striving for.

The policy of the united front does not assume that the reformist leaders will accept this policy wholeheartedly:

A policy aimed to secure the united front does not of course contain automatic guarantees that unity in action will actually be attained in all instances. On the contrary, in many cases, and perhaps even in the majority of cases, organisational agreements will be only half-attained or perhaps not at all. But it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilability but to the lack of real will to struggle on the part of the reformists.

The involvement of the Communist Party in the united front in no way suspends its political independence from reformism and reformist parties:

We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticising perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the half-way spirit in the labour movement. For this reason any sort of organisational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us. We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute. In this way, we shall bring closer the hour of the united revolutionary front under the undisputed Communist leadership. [6]

The Communists had to carry out a two-edged policy: first, to secure success in achieving the immediate aims of the united front, secondly to win workers away from social democracy. To achieve both, the Communist Party had to know how to fight alongside social democracy and against it at one and the same time. Without sharp demarcation lines to divide it from social democracy, the Communist Party would slide into opportunism. The Communists should march separately from social democrats but strike together.

Powerful trends in a number of important Communist parties rejected the struggle for ‘partial and immediate demands’. They thought this policy to be reformist. A set of ultra-left amendments to the ‘Theses on Tactics’ was submitted by the German, Austrian, Dutch and Italian parties. At one time these tendencies appeared to have a majority at the congress. Lenin wrote later: ‘At that congress I was on the extreme right flank. I am convinced that it was the only correct stand to take ...’ [7] The same stand was taken by Trotsky. After a long, hard battle the line taken by Lenin and Trotsky finally carried the day.

The specific case around which the battle took place at the congress was that of the Märzaktion – the March Action in Germany.

Since the defeat of the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw the revolutionary fever in Europe had subsided. Against this background the leadership of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), encourged by Zinoviev, president of the Comintern, by Bukharin and by Zinoviev’s emissary Bela Kun, the leader of the failed Hungarian revolution, decided to ‘spur on’ the revolution in Germany by an act of insurrection – the Märzaktion.

Rioting in the coalfields of Mansfeld in Central Germany led on 16 March 1921 to the intervention of the Reichswehr, the German army. On the following day the central committee of the KPD (known as the Zentrale) called for a nationwide general strike on 24 March, urging the workers to seize arms, to organise themselves and to join the struggle against the counter-revolution. It was a desperate step, because all factories closed down in any case from Good Friday (25 March) through to Easter Monday. But the response to the Communist appeal was negligible.

In Berlin, the seat of the Zentrale, the strike movement failed completely. Most workers reported to their jobs on 24 March, and only a few factories were idle, despite attempts by the KPD to enforce shutdowns by attempted invasions by the unemployed. These methods aroused sharp criticism even within the party. Ernst Däumig, for instance, sent a furious letter to the Zentrale, in which he protested against the practice of pitting proletarians against proletarians. Equally indignant were the party officials in charge of trade union activities, who complained that the tactics employed by the Zentrale were wrecking their influence within the unions. The Zentrale obtained slightly more support in the Ruhr region and the Rhineland. [8]

But all in all, the general strike was a fiasco: the number of workers participating in it was estimated at only 200,000. [9] In his report to the Third Congress of the Comintern, Zinoviev spoke of the involvement of 500,000 workers.

The KPD-organised demonstrations were also pathetic. In Berlin they attracted fewer than 4000, while just a few weeks earlier the party had won 200,000 votes in elections. [10] By 1 April even the most stubborn diehards amongst the Communist leaders had to recognise the futility of the exercise. The Zentrale resolved to end the insurrection by calling off the ‘nationwide’ general strike. The collapse of the adventure was followed by a massive decline of the KPD: from some 400,000 members to 150,000 or less. Thousands of militants were thrown into prison and tens of thousands lost their jobs.

The German Communist Party leaders had tried to force the pace of struggle, to substitute the party militants for the mass movement. At the Third Congress these leaders and other ultra-lefts sought to justify their practice by means of a special ‘Theory of the Offensive’. Trotsky launched a powerful attack on them:

this famous philosophy of the offensive, absolutely non- Marxist, has arisen from the following propositions: ‘A wall of passivity is gradually rising; this is a misfortune. The movement is stagnating. Therefore, forward march! Let us break through this wall!’ It seems to me that a whole layer of leading and semi-leading comrades in the German party have been for quite some time educated in this spirit and they are waiting to hear what the congress has to say on this score ...

It is our duty to say clearly and precisely to the German workers that we consider this philosophy of the offensive to be the greatest danger. And in its practical implication to be the greatest political crime. [11]

In an article entitled The Main Lesson of the Third Congress, published in Pravda on 12 June 1921, Trotsky wrote:

That trouble with revolutionary subjectivism, as Herzen put it, is this, that it mistakes the second or fifth month of pregnancy for the ninth. No one has yet done so with impunity. [12]

Trotsky returned to the theme in a speech a month later:

through an impatient application of the most drastic form of revolutionary struggle, at a time when conditions have not yet matured for a decisive collision, one can obtain only negative results, and even bring about a revolutionary abortion instead of a mighty revolutionary birth. [13]

In a speech on the balance sheet of the Third Congress delivered at the Second Congress of the Communist Youth International (14 July 1921), Trotsky returned again to this theme:

The idea of replacing the will of the masses by the resoluteness of the so-called vanguard is absolutely impermissible and non-Marxist. Through the consciousness and will of the vanguard it is possible to exert influence over the masses, it is possible to gain their confidence, but it is impossible to replace the masses by this vanguard. And for this reason the Third Congress has placed before all the parties, as the most important and unpostponable task, the demand that the majority of the toiling people be attracted to our side. [14]

Again on the same theme Trotsky said:

Only a traitor could deny the need for a revolutionary offensive; but only a simpleton would reduce all revolutionary strategy to an offensive. [15]

The ultra-left impatience of the German leadership was but the other side of the coin of opportunism, Trotsky argued:

opportunism expresses itself not only in moods of gradualism but also in political impatience: it frequently seeks to reap where it has not sown, to realise successes which do not correspond to its influence. [16]

A few weeks after the Third Congress Trotsky summed up its

The Third Congress of the Comintern, if one were to express its significance in a succinct formula, will in all likelihood be inscribed in the annals of the labour movement as the highest school of revolutionary strategy. The First Congress of our Communist International issued the summons to rally the forces of the world proletarian revolution. The Second Congress elaborated the programmatic basis for mobilising the forces. The Third International in its sessions already came in contact with these forces, consolidated them and was thus confronted with the most important practical questions of the revolutionary movement. That is why the Third Congress became ... the highest school of revolutionary strategy. [17]

Trotsky had to teach the leaders of the young Communist parties that what characterised Bolshevism was not only its revolutionary scope but also its revolutionary realism – two aspects that are inseparable.

Trotsky’s struggle, alongside Lenin, against the theory of the offensive and his brilliant advocacy of the united front gives the lie to the persistent allegation that Trotsky was an ultra-left. This notion, originating within the Stalinist apparatus, has received much wider circulation and acceptance. Thus, for example, Gramsci, the supposed guru of Euro-Communism and academic Marxism, could write that ‘Bronstein [Trotsky] ...can be considered the political theorist of frontal attack in a period in which it only leads to defeats.’ [18] The facts, however, demonstrate clearly that such a judgment is a one-sided caricature and falsification of Trotsky’s position.

The Comintern may have been a superb school but Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders faced great difficulties in the attempt to achieve a rapid dissemination of the principles of Bolshevism. Not only was there the youthful ultra-leftism of many of the newly radicalised elements to contend with, but also the sly and stubborn resistance of many of the older pre-war opportunist leaders who had come over to the Comintern under mass pressure but had not changed their underlying outlook or political practice.

An interesting case study of these problems is provided by Trotsky’s relations with the French Communist Party.

Trotsky and the French Communist Party

Of the Bolshevik leaders Trotsky, having spent nearly two years of the war in Paris, had most personal knowledge of the principal members of the leadership of the French Communist Party (PCF). Hence the executive committee of the Comintern elected Trotsky to chair its French commission. This took up a lot of Trotsky’s time. His writings and speeches on the state of the French Communist Party fill 139 pages of his First Five Years of the Communist International.

The PCF was in poor shape. It claimed a membership of 120,000 in 1920, but during its first year of existence it was torn by factionalism and its membership halved. The PCF leadership disagreed with the executive committee of the Comintern on a series of major issues, including its attitude towards the reformists, the weakness of its parliamentary work, its failure to infiltrate the trade unions, the lack of discipline shown by its press, the ‘Theory of the Offensive’, the question of the united front and the colonial revolution. Trotsky’s efforts to overcome opposition in the PCF were a labour of Sisyphus; the results were minimal.

The Comintern leadership failed completely to overcome the national traditions out of which the PCF developed – persistent right opportunism.

Before the Russian Revolution, very few people in France opposed the war, refused to accept the principle of national defence, or called on socialist deputies to vote against war credits – no more than a hundred militants, without any influence on the masses. ‘Excepting a few groups of the extreme left,’ says Robert Wohl, historian of French Communism, ‘the names of Lenin and Trotsky had been unknown until the February revolution.’ [19]

After the war, as a result of the clear bankruptcy of French reformism, the victory of the October revolution, and the survival of Bolshevik power, hundreds of thousands of people in France, as elsewhere, moved towards Communism. At the Congress of the French Socialist Party in Tours in December 1920, the overwhelming majority decided to join the Communist International. The result was that of the 179,800 members of the French Socialist Party (SFIO), 110,000 joined the Communist Party, while the dissidents were scarcely able to rally 30,000. [20] But the Socialist-turned-Communist Party was far from being really revolutionary. It was ‘a coalition of left-wing and centrist groups ... an unwieldy and hybrid political formation ... an unstable compound of conflicting elements’. [21] Its most prominent leaders were out-and-out opportunists.

Take the case of Marcel Cachin, who remained a leader of the party until his death in 1958. When the 1914 war broke out he was:

a social-patriot of the deepest conviction; in 1915, as an agent of the French government, he had tried to persuade the Italian socialists to enter the war on the side of the Entente. Legend has it that it was Cachin who handed Mussolini the French subsidies that enabled him to start his own newspaper and shift from anti-patriotism to violent nationalism. [22]

In March 1917 Cachin went to Russia as a member of a delegation with the blessing of the French government, in order ‘to revive the interest of the Russian socialists in the pursuit of the war’. [23] He went so far as to accuse Lenin of being a German agent. [24]

The general secretary of the new French Communist Party, L.O. Frossard, had similar political characteristics. He joined the Comintern simply hoping ‘to drape traditional French socialism, which was now in disgrace because of its participation in the sacred union, with the prestige of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik regime.’ [25]

At the Strasbourg conference of the SFIO in February 1920 Frossard declared:

No one has the right to say that adopting an attitude [in favour of national defence] is a sufficient ground for expulsion ... Those who consider it necessary to defend their fatherland even under capitalism will not let themselves be treated as pariahs. [26]

At the Tours congress Frossard told the right wing, who opposed communism and hence split from the party: ‘For my part, tomorrow I will speak of you without bitterness. Tomorrow I will not utter a single wounding word about you. I consider you socialists and I will say so.’ [27]

(In 1923 Frossard resigned from the French Communist Party. He rejoined the Socialist Party in 1936, held ministerial posts in several Third Republic governments, and was a member of Petain’s first government in 1940).

On 5 December 1921 the executive committee of the Comintern sent a letter drafted by Trotsky to the Marseilles congress of the PCF. In it Trotsky stated that:

Unlike the Second International, the Comintern does not rest content with offering congratulations and greetings to its sections. Being guided solely by the interests of world revolution, it has the duty to fraternally point out to them their respective weaknesses and to try, in the process of intimate joint and harmonious collaboration, to eliminate these weaknesses ...

The [PCF] has suffered from a weak leadership. The central committee immersed itself in a whole number of current administrative duties and failed to give firm political leadership to the party, failed to give day-to-day direction to the party’s thought and diversified activities, failed to create a collective consciousness. The party has suffered from a lack of policy; it has lacked an agrarian policy, a trade union policy, an electoral policy ...

Beginning with the Marseilles Convention, the central committee must steer a much firmer course and become a genuine leading political body, controlling and inspiring the press, guiding the parliamentary work, taking a definite position, day by day, on all the political questions, domestic and foreign ...

... the party must sketch out its line of conduct on questions pertaining to the trade unions. It must loudly proclaim to the working class its right and its duty to concern itself with these questions. It must demand of its members that they remain Communists inside the trade unions as well as in the party. A Communist Party cannot tolerate the fact that its members support the policy of Jouhaux and of the Amsterdam International ...

Similarly the party must wage an energetic struggle against the ideas of anarchists and ordinary trade unionists who deny the role of the party in the revolution.

The tradition of the French Socialist Party was that the party, being a parliamentary organisation, kept out of industrial disputes. This tradition had been carried over into the PCF.

Those who maintain that the economic struggle is of no concern to the party are either complete ignoramuses or individuals seeking to make a mockery of Communism. The party must draw into its ranks all the best elements of the working class; and as touches the ideological aspect, it must become the inspirer of all forms of proletarian struggle, including of course the economic struggle as well. The trade union as such is not subordinate to the party as such. In this sense the trade unions remain independent. But the Communists who work in the trade unions must invariably function as disciplined Communists.

Many of the leaders of the PCF showed no discipline at all, involving themselves in issuing proclamations that opposed the basic policies of the Comintern.

During the French delegation’s stay in Moscow, on the occasion of the Third World Congress, the [executive committee of the Comintern] called the attention of the delegates to the need of placing the unofficial party press under the control of the central committee. The [executive committee] had primarily in mind the newspaper La Vague published by Brizon and Journal du Peuple by Fabre. Both Brizon and Fabre were advocating a policy incompatible with the policy of the party and the Communist International. The Second World Congress adopted the principled position that no party member could use the freedom of the press as a flimsy pretext for publishing periodicals not subject to the party’s absolute political control ...

Any delay in solving this problem would be all the more unfortunate in view of the fact that since the adoption of this resolution, an opportunist tendency had crystallised round Journal du Peuple, a tendency which bemoans the split that occurred at Tours and which to this day sheds tears over the departure of the dissidents [the SFIO breakaway] and which even advocates open collaboration with bourgeois parties ... [28]

In January 1922 the PCF central committee passed a resolution opposing the policy of the united front. A special delegate conference of the party endorsed the committee’s resolution by a vote of 46 to 12. [29]

On 2 March 1922 the executive committee of the Comintern unanimously passed a long set of theses in which Trotsky elaborated the tasks of the PCF and advocated the expulsion of all who supported a government of the ‘Left Bloc’, an alliance between the workers’ parties and the bourgeois Radicals:

The split of Tours drew a basic line of demarcation between reformism and Communism. But it was absolutely unavoidable for the Communist Party issuing from this split to retain in some of its segments certain survivals of its reformist and parliamentary past ... The survivals of the past ... are expressed in: (1) an urge to restore unity with the reformists; (2) an urge towards a bloc with the radical wing of the bourgeoisie; (3) a substitution of petty-bourgeois humanitarian pacifism for revolutionary anti-militarism; (4) a false interpretation of the partys relations with the trade unions; (5) a struggle against genuine centralist leadership in the party; (6) efforts to replace international discipline in action by a platonic federation of national parties. [30]

In June the executive committee of the Comintern again sharply criticised the leadership of the PCF in a resolution drafted by Trotsky:

The International categorically warns against the application of the principles of federalism and autonomy inside the revolutionary party, which must be the mighty leader of revolutionary action.

On the trade union question the resolution states:

The International affirms that the greatest danger to the French working class and especially to the trade union movement is represented by individualistic, petty-bourgeois elements, hostile to the spirit of proletarian discipline and artful in dodging all organisational control over their activities. [31]

Regarding the attitude to the united front of workers’ parties on the one hand and the left Bloc’ with bourgeois parties on the other, the resolution states:

The International affirms that the press and the leading bodies of the French Communist Party have given completely incorrect information to the party concerning the meaning and the importance of the tactic of the united front. The International simply sweeps aside the superficial judgments of journalists, who strive to see a revival of reformism where there is an enhancement in the methods of struggle against reformism.

... The idea of the ‘Left Bloc’ under the present conditions can corrupt a great many workers who have little or no political experience. The French Communist Party must bear in mind this perspective, which represents a very serious danger. To the idea of the ‘Left Bloc’ in its entire day-to-day propaganda it must systematically counterpose the idea of a bloc of all workers against the bourgeoisie. [32]

A general strike in Le Havre on 29 August 1922 exposed the complete bankruptcy of the PCF. The metal workers and the shipyard workers of Le Havre had come out on strike on 19 June 1922, when the management announced that their wages would be cut by 10 per cent. During July and August tension between the employers and the strikers mounted. In mid-August the port workers and sailors joined the movement, bringing the number of strikers to 40,000. On 25 August, after the arrest of some workers, the local unions called a one-day general strike. The next day there were bloody encounters between the police and the strikers. Three workers were killed, fifteen more wounded. The CGTU – the left-wing General Confederation of Trade Unions – responded by calling a general strike for 29 August.

The night the general strike was declared there was no one at the offices of L’Humanité, the Communist Party daily, or at the party headquarters. The leaders were all on vacation. The next day’s edition of L’Humanité did not even carry the strike order. [33]

Another clear expression of the deeply entrenched reformism of the PCF was its attitude to the colonial question, which should have been central for a party in the metropolis of a great empire. Thus, for instance, the Algerian branch of the PCF had ‘come out clearly against nationalist movements and nationalist revolts, unanimously and without a single voice being raised to sustain a contrary point of view, without a single native comrade having made the slightest comment.’

When the Comintern drafted an appeal for the liberation of Algeria and Tunisia in May 1922, the Algerian section of Sidi Bel Abbès replied with a memorandum requesting that the publication of the Comintern appeal in Algeria be countermanded. The Communists of the Sidi Bel Abbès section, despite their long tradition of leftism, could not accept the International’s colonial policy, said the memorandum. The liberation of Algeria would be reactionary, not progressive, if it preceded a victorious revolution on the mainland. The native population of North Africa, it said, was composed mostly of elements hostile to the economic, social and intellectual development necessary to enable an autonomous state to build communism. The job of the PCF in North Africa, therefore, was to establish a favourable attitude towards communism.

These propositions were accepted unanimously by the Second Communist Interfederal Congress of North Africa, on 7 December 1922. The attitude of the North African Communists was that appeals to revolt and communist propaganda among the native population would be not only premature, but dangerous. [34]

At the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, Trotsky again moved a resolution critical of the PCF. The behaviour of the party during the Le Havre general strike, this said, was the result of its separation of politics from the industrial struggle:

By severing, in a manner false in principle, the class struggle of the proletariat into two allegedly independent spheres – economic and political – the party failed to evince, on this occasion too, any independent initiative, confining its activity to backing up the CGTU, as if the murder of four proletarians by the capitalist government were actually an economic act and not a political event of first-rate importance. [35]

A further plague afflicting the PCF was Freemasonry. Many of its leaders were Freemasons, including the general secretary, Frossard. At the Fourth Congress Trotsky described Freemasonry as a petty-bourgeois body imbued with Catholicism, with bankers, lawyers, parliamentary deputies and journalists in place of the cardinals and abbots. Supposedly non-political, as was the church, the function of Freemasonry was to attract labour leaders into the bourgeois camp:

The fact ... that a considerable number of French Communists belong to the Masonic lodges, constitutes ... the most striking evidence that our French party has preserved not only the psychologic heritage of French reformism, parlamentarism and patriotism, but also its connections, purely material and highly compromising to the party leadership, with the secret institutions of the radical bourgeoisie ... a whole slew of prominent party workers – deputies, journalists, right up to members of the central committee, retain intimate ties with the secret organisations of the class enemy ...

The International considers it urgent to put an end once for all to these compromising and demoralising connections ... The congress instructs the central committee of the French Communist Party to liquidate prior to 1 January 1923 all the connections between the party, in the person of its individual members or groups, with the Freemasons. Every Communist belonging to a Masonic lodge who fails prior to 1 January to openly announce to his party and to make public through the party press his complete break with Freemasonry is thereby automatically expelled from the Communist Party and is forever barred from membership in it. [36]

Finally Trotsky sharply criticised the PCF’s attitude to nations oppressed by French imperialism:

The Fourth Congress once again calls attention to the exceptional importance for the Communist Party to carry on correct and systematic work in the colonies. The congress categorically condemns the position of the Communist section in Sidi Bel Abbès, which employs pseudo-Marxist phraseology in order to cover up a purely slaveholder’s point of view, essentially in support of the imperialist rule of French capitalism over its colonial slaves. [37]

In conclusion

Lenin and Trotsky aimed to build mass Communist parties welded together by a clear understanding of their historical tasks, parties founded on clear programmes, combined with a correct relationship with the masses, in other words parties of strict principle united by revolutionary realism. Instead, the Communist parties outside Russia exhibited opportunist vagueness on the one hand, and sectarian aloofness on the other. They oscillated violently between opportunism and adventurism – the two poles of left centrism.

Of course one could argue that Communist parties could not be expected to come into existence fully fledged even in the most acute revolutionary situation, which is true; or that time would have welded the parties into real, consistent revolutionary organisations. That is possibly also true. But time was the one thing history did not grant. In fact the national traditions of the Communist parties of Europe were very resistant to the pressure of Bolshevism. The grafting of Bolshevism was largely unsuccessful, a fact which contributed powerfully to the failure of the international revolution and thus to the eventual triumph of Stalinism in Russia.

One thing, however, the Communist International did achieve, and Trotsky played a role in this second only to Lenin. In its debates, theses and manifestos it laid down a record of undiluted, uncorrupted revolutionary Marxism which remains relevant to this day. As Trotsky himself put it in 1933:

The first congresses of the Communist International left us an invaluable programmatic heritage: the character of the modern epoch as an epoch of imperialism, that is, of capitalist decline; the nature of modern reformism and the methods of struggle with it; the relation between democracy and proletarian dictatorship; the role of the party in the proletarian revolution; the relationship between the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie, especially the peasantry (agrarian question); the problem of nationalities and the liberation struggle of colonial peoples; work in the trade unions; the policy of the united front; the relation to parliamentarism ... all these questions have been subjected by the first four congresses to a principled analysis that has remained unsurpassed until now. [38]


1. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 228-9.

2. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 346.

3. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 261-2.

4. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 285-6.

5. J. Degras (editor), The Communist International 1919-1943: Documents volume 1 (London 1971), pages 248-50.

6. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 91-6.

7. Lenin, Works, volume 33, page 208.

8. Angress, Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923 (Princeton 1963), pages 156-7.

9. H. Malzahn, in Protokoll des III. Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg 1921), page 259.

10. P. Broué, Révolution en Allemagne 1917-23 (Paris 1971), page 484

11. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 328-9.

12. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 348.

13. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 32.

14. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 353.

15. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 29.

16. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 13.

17. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 349.

18. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London 1982), page 238.

19. R. Wohl, French Communism in the Making, 1919-1924 (Stanford 1966), page 91.

20. Wohl, pages 218-9.

21. Wohl, pages 438-9.

22. Wohl, page 174.

23. Wohl, pages 89-90.

24. Wohl, page 96.

25. Wohl, page 307.

26. J. Braunthal, History of the International (London 1967), volume 2, page 193.

27. Wohl, page 218.

28. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 53-6.

29. Degras, volume 1, page 308.

30. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 110-11.

31. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 145.

32. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 146-7.

33. Wohl, page 288.

34. Wohl, pages 407-8.

35. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 278-9.

36. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, pages 281-2.

37. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 284.

38. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1933-34) (New York 1972), page 40.

Last updated on 28 July 2009