Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

3. The Ebb

‘In the most critical year for the bourgeoisie, the year 1919, the proletariat of Europe could undoubtedly have conquered state power with minimum sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organisation, setting forth clear aims and capably pursuing them, i.e. a strong Communist Party. But there was none ... During the last three years the workers have fought a great deal and have suffered many sacrifices. But they have not won power. As a result the working masses have become more cautious than they were in 1919–20.’
Trotsky, The Main Lesson of the Third Congress, 1921.

WHAT SHOULD a revolutionary party do in a non-revolutionary situation? In 1919 this was not an issue. By 1921 it was central. As the Theses on the World Situation, adopted by the Third World Congress in 1921, put it:

‘During the year that has passed between the second and third congresses of the Communist International, a series of working-class risings and struggles have ended in partial defeat [the advance of the Red Army on Warsaw in August 1920, the movement of the Italian proletariat in September 1920, the rising of the German workers in March 1921].

‘The first period of the post-war revolutionary movement, distinguished by the spontaneous character of its assaults, by the marked imprecision of its aims and methods, and by the extreme panic which it aroused amongst the ruling classes, seems in essentials to be over. The self-confidence of the bourgeoisie as a class, and the outward stability of their state organs, have undeniably been strengthened ... The leaders of the bourgeoisie are even boasting of the power of their state machines and have gone over to an offensive against the workers in all countries both on the economic and on the political front.’ [1]

A sober attempt to assess the actual situation, however unwelcome, and to relate to it, was the hallmark of the Comintern in Lenin’s time – not revolutionary rhetoric.

The recovery of capitalism was shaky and uneven. 1921 saw the onset of a serious, if shortlived, economic crisis. Nevertheless the receding of the revolutionary wave of 1919–20 meant that the immediate perspective of which Zinoviev had spoken in 1920, the World Congress of Soviet Republics, was now unreal. Revolutionary opportunities could, and indeed did, arise in the next few years. But the international movement as a whole had to come to terms with a new situation.

In Russia the year 1921 saw the abandonment of ‘War Communism’ and the adoption of the ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP), a policy which Lenin described as ‘a strategical retreat’. ‘We said, in effect,’ he wrote, ‘“Before we are completely routed, let us retreat and reorganise everything, but on a firmer basis.” If Communists deliberately examine the question of the New Economic Policy there cannot be the slightest doubt that we have sustained a very severe defeat on the economic front.’ [2]

The NEP was, above all, a concession to the peasant majority of the population which, with the end of the civil war, was increasingly turning against the Soviet regime. Compulsory requisitioning of grain, which had fed the armies and the cities throughout the civil war, was abandoned and a fixed and moderate tax (in kind, for the currency had become worthless) substituted for it. Private trade and private small-scale production were legalised and encouraged. A new currency, based on gold, was introduced and the test of profitability was applied by the state-owned banks in advancing and withholding credit to private and, with a few exceptions, public enterprises alike. Inevitably, unemployment reappeared in the cities – and it was fairly heavy throughout most of the rest of the decade – and petty capitalism flourished.

There was no alternative to these moves other than increasing repression against the peasant majority, and that, of course, would have destroyed the workers’ state from within in a very short time, for the weakened, shrunken working class was itself heavily influenced by peasant discontent. The NEP was a holding operation, not a long-term solution to the problems of the beleaguered revolution. Such a solution depended on the workers of ‘one or more advanced countries’, as Lenin wrote, taking and holding power. Meanwhile it was necessary to change tack.

On the international field a corresponding turn was essential. This was not at all a question of an automatic reflection of events in Russia. The changed situation in the world outside Russia, above all in Europe, was one of the two main factors forcing the retreat to the NEP.

That changed situation put the choice squarely before European communists (and communism was still, in 1921, essentially a European movement): find ways and means of making revolutionary politics meaningful and important to workers in a (for the time being) non-revolutionary situation, or face relegation to the position of revolutionary sects without serious influence on the course of events.

‘From the day of its foundation’, declared the Third World Congress’s Theses on Tactics, ‘the Communist International has clearly and unambiguously made its goal the formation not of small communist sects, trying by propaganda and agitation only to establish their influence over the working masses, but participation in the struggle of the working masses, the direction of this struggle in a Communist spirit, and the creation in the course of this struggle of experienced, large, revolutionary, mass communist parties.’ [3]

After stating that there was no permanent reformist solution to any of the problems facing the working class, after reaffirming that the destruction of capitalism remained the ‘guiding and immediate mission’, the Theses argued:

‘But to carry out this mission the communist parties must put forward demands whose fulfilment is an immediate and urgent working class need, and they must fight for these demands in mass struggle, regardless of whether they are compatible with the profit economy of the capitalist class or not ... 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 revolutionary groups to participation in the trade unions or to making use of parliament. It is not a question of proclaiming the final goal to the proletariat, but of intensifying the practical struggle which is the only way of leading the proletariat to the struggle for the final goal ...’ [4]

Powerful tendencies in a number of important communist parties rejected this approach. For them, the struggle for ‘partial and immediate demands’ smacked of reformism. A set of ultra-leftist amendments to the ‘Thesis on Tactics’ were submitted by the German, Austrian and Italian parties.

Lenin wrote later:

‘At that [third] Congress I was on the extreme right flank. I am convinced that it was the only correct stand to take.’ [5]

Ultra-leftist ideas had gained sustenance in the course of the struggle against centrism, a struggle that was far from ended in 1921. Indeed the two trends to some extent reinforced each other.This can be seen from the contrasting examples of Italy and Germany. The debacle into which the centrist leadership of the Italian party had led the working class in the autumn of 1920 encouraged the ultra-left adventurism of the ‘theory of the offensive’ in Germany.

The Italian Debacle

‘The present phase of the class struggle in Italy is the phase that precedes either the conquest of political power by the revolutionary proletariat ... or a tremendous reaction by the capitalists and the governing caste. Every kind of violence will be used to subjugate the agricultural and industrial working class.’
Gramsci, writing in L’Ordine Nuovo, May 1920.

ITALY emerged from the First World War as the weakest of the ‘victors’. Its rulers had little to show for the half a million dead and the huge war debt. The cost of living had risen sixfold since before the war and was still climbing. The result was two years which have gone down in Italian history as the Biennio Rosso – the Red Two Years.

Workers in both town and country flooded into the trade unions. The socialist union federation, the CGL, had only 250,000 members at the end of the war. By the autumn of 1920 it had two million. Catholic and revolutionary syndicalist union federations also mushroomed. ‘During 1919 wave after wave of strikes, land occupations, demonstrations, street actions, conflict, broke over the country.’ [6] In June and July 1919 nationwide demonstrations over food prices reached insurrectionary proportions in a number of areas. There was a widely supported two-day national strike in solidarity with Soviet Russia. In the great industrial centre of Turin engineering workers began forming factory councils.

In the south and other agricultural areas, peasants, often led by ex-soldiers, occupied the land. And in the army itself there were a number of mutinies. In the general election of November 1919 the Socialist Party (PSI), already affiliated to the Comintern, took nearly one third of the votes.

The strike wave rolled on into 1920, reaching a new high point in April when half a million workers in the Turin region struck in defence of their factory councils. Only two months later, Serrati, leader of the centrist majority of the PSI (known as the ‘maximalists’), could declare to the Second World Congress of the Comintern :

‘Thus the political and economic conditions in Italy are such that they inevitably drive towards revolution. The party is so powerful that it may be said that the Italian proletariat is almost ready to seize power.’ [7]

The PSI, however, had no plan for any such thing. As we have seen, Serrati and the rest of the maximalist leadership of the PSI had refused to support the peasant land seizures on the grounds that they were ‘demagogic and petty-bourgeois’. They had condemned the factory council movement in Turin as ‘the realm of aberration’. The maximalists also tolerated within the ranks of the Socialist Party a minority of open reformists who were not only strong in the party’s parliamentary group but also controlled the massive CGL union federation. In April both the maximalists and the CGL leaders had stood by passively while the Turin workers struck in defence of their factory councils and went down to defeat.

The real test for the politics of the PSI leaders came in September 1920. From May onwards the metalworkers’ section of the CGL had been pursuing their wage claim. Negotiations finally broke down in August and a special conference of the metalworkers’ union decided on a go-slow. On 30 August one Milan employer locked out his workforce. Immediately Milan metalworkers occupied all their factories in the city. On 31 August the engineering employers made the lockout nationwide – and by 4 September half a million metalworkers had occupied their factories throughout Italy.

This famous ‘occupation of the factories’ was no ordinary wage dispute. Factory councils controlled the occupied plants. ‘Red guards’ defended them. The occupying workers continued production, often supplied with deliveries by the railway workers union. In a number of cases the occupations were spread to neighbouring gasworks and chemical plants.

The following story sums up the mood. The representative of a transport firm phoned the Fiat factory in Turin hoping to speak to the manager:

‘Hello. Who’s there?’

‘This is the Fiat Soviet.’

‘Ah! ... Pardon ... I’ll ring again ...’ [8]

The mood owed much to the propaganda of the maximalist leadership of the PSI over the previous years. As Trotsky explained shortly afterwards:

‘Everything written in Avanti [the party’s daily paper] and everything uttered by the spokesmen of the Socialist Party was taken by the masses as a summons to the proletarian revolution. And this propaganda struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the working class, awakened their will and called forth the September events.’

But, as Trotsky added:

‘The PSI verbally conducted a revolutionary policy, without ever taking into account any of its consequences. Everybody knows that during the September events no other organisation so lost its head and became so paralysed by fear as the PSI, which had itself paved the way for these events.’ [9]

There was no exaggeration in Trotsky’s verdict. As revolutionary fervour mounted in the factories the maximalist leaders of the PSI and the reformist leaders of the CGL (who, remember, were also PSI members) gathered in Milan. First the union leaders questioned the representatives of the Turin workers. Would Turin kindly start the armed insurrection? Knowing that these same union leaders had left the Turin workers to fight alone in April, the Turin representatives of course said no.

The CGL leaders turned to the national directorate of the Socialist Party. ‘You believe this is the moment for revolution. You assume the responsibility. We submit our resignation.’ The maximalists’ bluff was called. They now backed off on the grounds that it was ‘too grave a responsiblity’.

Instead the question was put to the special congress of the CGL on 11 September. There were two motions. One, from the CGL leaders, called for a struggle for ‘union control’ of production (even the reformist union leaders now recognised that there was no possibility of ending the struggle on the basis of wages alone). The other motion, from the Socialist Party leaders, called for the movement to be put under their direction to be led ‘towards the maximum solution of the socialist programme’. Predictably, the union leaders’ motion won – by 591,245 votes to 409,569. The maximalist leaders must have heaved a sigh of relief. At any rate they were eager to stress that they were willing to abide by the ‘democratic decision’.

By the end of the month all the factories had been handed back to the employers in return for a wage increase and the setting up of a commission to draft legislation for ‘union control’. For all its revolutionary rhetoric the maximalist leadership of the PSI had failed absolutely to give any concrete lead to the hundreds of thousands of workers it influenced and the millions they influenced in turn. Instead it had engaged in a bureaucratic charade with the reformist union leaders in Milan.

The Comintern had endeavoured to shift the maximalists from afar. Late in August its executive had sent a letter to the PSI signed by Bukharin, Lenin and Zinoviev:

‘In Italy there are at hand all the most important conditions for a genuinely popular, great proletarian revolution ... Every day brings news of disturbances. All eye-witnesses – including the Italian delegates – assert and reiterate that the situation in Italy is profoundly revolutionary. Nevertheless in many cases the party stands aside, without attempting to generalise the movement, to give it slogans ... to turn it into a decisive offensive against the bourgeois state.’ [10]

On 22 September, when it was, as it turned out, already too late, the Comintern executive sent another urgent call to the party leaders.

‘You cannot win by the seizure of factories and workshops alone ... the scope of this movement must be extended, generalised, the question raised to a general political level, in other words the movement broadened into a general uprising with the object of overthrowing the bourgeoisie by the seizure of power by the working class ... This is the only way to salvation; otherwise the disintegration and collapse of the mighty and magnificent movement that has begun is inevitable ...’ [11]

None of this had any effect. The PSI failed to give the mass movement an overall political direction, failed to direct it towards the seizure of power, failed to make technical preparations for an insurrection. Inevitably, the predicted ‘disintegration and collapse’ set in.

The outcome was disastrous. The thoroughly frightened but still intact ruling class began to turn to fascism.

‘Mussolini’s movement, weak and negligible before September 1920, grew with extraordinary rapidity in the last three months of the year.’ [12]

The occupation of the factories had proved that the PSI, although affiliated to the Communist International for a year, was not really a communist party. It was symptomatic that Serrati and the bulk of the other maximalist leaders still refused to expel from the party the open reformist tendency led by Turatti – which included, of course, the leaders of the CGL.

After the debacle of September 1920 both the International and the left in the PSI pushed for a split. It came at the PSI’s Congress in January 1921 held at Livorno. But unlike the splits in the French Socialist Party and the German USPD the previous year, the PSI left did not succeed in winning a majority away from the centrists. The card vote at Livorno was 14,695 for Turatti’s open reformists, 58,785 for the left and 98,028 for Serrati’s centre group. The left promptly walked out, to form the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

The relationship of forces would not have been so bad if the PCI had had an aggressive but flexible strategy for winning the workers who followed Serrati. But it had no such strategy. The dominant force in the PSI left, now the dominant force in the new Communist Party, were the supporters of Amadeo Bordiga. Imposing as a man of iron principle, Bordiga was also an unbendable ultra-left dogmatist. His faction in the PSI had originally been formed on the basis of abstention from parliamentary elections on principle. He had condemned the Turin factory councils as ‘economistic’. Now he was to be absolutely opposed to any united front approach to the Socialist Party.

It was not until the mid-1920s that the hold of the ultra-lefts on the PCI was finally broken. By then it was too late. Fascism had triumphed.

Germany: The March Action

‘The crux of the matter is that Levi in many respects is right politically. Unfortunately he is guilty of a number of breaches of discipline for which the party expelled him. Thalheimer’s and Bela Kun’s theses are politically utterly fallacious. Mere phrases and playing at Leftism.’
Lenin, Letter to Zinoviev, 6 June 1921.

IN ITALY in the second half of 1920 a genuine mass revolutionary movement, a movement which could have led to the overthrow of the Italian bourgeois state, to a soviet Italy, and so to a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Europe in favour of the working class, was destroyed by the spinelessness of a centrist party leadership.

In Germany in March 1921, in the absence of a nationwide mass revolutionary movement, a party leadership tried to force the pace, to substitute the party militants for the mass movement. The result was a severe defeat. Not, indeed, a disaster on the Italian scale, but a serious defeat nonetheless, a defeat that was to have a profound and unfavourable influence on the German workers’ movement.

There was a connection between the two events. On the surface it concerned the leadership of the German Communist Party (KPD). Paul Levi, the outstanding KPD leader, had attended the Congress of the PSI at Livorno. After the Congress he had criticised the tactical clumsiness of the International’s representatives. These were Kristo Kabakchiev, a Bulgarian whom Trotsky described as ‘a lifeless doctrinaire’, and Matyas Rakosi, a Hungarian ‘organisation man’, an ‘apparatchnik’ without a serious political idea in his head who much later (1944–56) was to become the Stalinist boss of Hungary.

Levi’s criticisms, which may have been broadly speaking correct, led Rakosi to demand an endorsement of his actions and a condemnation of Levi from the German party leadership. He gained his point, by 28 votes to 23. Levi, Clara Zetkin, who was the outstanding women’s leader of the KPD and previously of the SPD, Ernst Däumig, who had been a prominent leader of the Berlin shop stewards’ movement during the war and was now head of the KPD’s ‘military apparatus’, and two other members of the right wing of the party leadership resigned in protest. The left gained a majority.

This shift in the political balance in the KPD ‘general staff’ had important consequences. It gave temporary dominance to a group of lefts – Maslow, Fischer, Thalheimer, Frölich and others – who believed in the ‘theory of the offensive’: the view that ‘the working class could be moved only when set in motion by a series of offensive acts’ as Ruth Fischer put it. [13]

Of the March action Fischer was later to write:

‘In the months preceding the Kronstadt revolt in March 1921, an action in Germany to divert the Russian workers from their own troubles had been concocted by a caucus of the Russian party centering around Zinoviev and Bela Kun.’ [14]

It is true enough that Zinoviev and Bukharin were toying with the notion that the German workers might be ‘galvanised’ by an ‘offensive’ undertaken by party militants – and that they were guilty of gross irresponsibility in sending Bela Kun to Germany as Comintern representative with undefined powers. Kun, ‘my dear Bela’, as Lenin said of him, ‘who also belongs to a poetically gifted nation and considers himself obliged to be constantly more left than left’ [15], was an ardent advocate of the ‘offensive at all costs’. Another Comintern representative, Guralsky (who also went by the name of Kleine), who was reputed to be close to Zinoviev, took the same line. The KPD leadership could reasonably suppose that the Comintern favoured the ‘offensive’, although in fact the Comintern executive – which still included Lenin and Trotsky – had taken no such decision. Nevertheless, all the members of the executive bear some responsibility for the actions taken by the KPD leadership, whether responsibility by commission (Zinoviev and Bukharin) or by omission.

But that is only one side of the matter: Kun’s adventuristic tendencies met a ready response from the new German leadership. Even the sober Brandler was persuaded by Kun. The fact is that among the members of the USPD who had been won to the Communist International after the Congress of Halle, there was a strong sentiment for immediate revolutionary action. The lefts, around Maslow and Fischer, gave expression to this impatience, developed a theoretical justification for it, and used it to overthrow their factional opponents in the leadership. These opponents, the group around Levi, were already attempting to direct the party along the lines on which Lenin and Trotsky were to direct the whole International after the Third World Congress. But Levi lacked the authority, the patience and the tactical skill for this task.

On 26 March 1921 the Social-Democratic Oberpräsident of Saxony, Otto Horsing, ordered his police to occupy the Mansfeld copper mines, a communist stronghold, and a number of factories on the pretext that ‘robbery and looting’ were rife. This was almost certainly a calculated provocation. The police and the Social-Democratic leaders were well aware that the ‘offensive’ was coming and Horsing preferred to deal with it at a time of his own choosing. [16]

The immediate outcome was indeed a rising of sorts, a series of armed clashes between workers and police and soldiers in the Mansfeld region and at the Leuna chemical plants near Halle. Aside from the resources of the KPD’s military apparatus, the workers had quantities of arms left over from 1919. For a brief period Red Guards, led by the anarchist guerrilla Max Hölz, dominated the Mansfeld area. But the action was localised.

This type of situation would have been a difficult one for the most sober party leadership. As in the ‘July Days’ in Petrograd in 1917, the workers in one centre were moving to armed insurrection while the mass of the working class was far from any such thought. The problem was to check the most advanced sections, to organise a retreat while minimising losses – an extremely hard and tricky operation.

The left leaders of the KPD, intoxicated with romantic notions, pursued the opposite course. They called for a general strike and armed actions against the state. The party’s military units were ordered to ‘provoke’ the authorities and so ‘galvanise’ the workers. ‘Several bombs were exploded in Breslau and Halle; several other bombings planned for Berlin did not materialise.’ [17] When the strike call fell on deaf ears – as, in general, it did – the party militants were ordered to force the workers out.

‘The Friedrich-Albert-Hütte in Rheinhausen, owned by Krupp, was the scene of heavy fighting on Thursday,’ said one party report quoted by Levi, ‘between communists who occupied the plant and workers who wanted to go to work. Finally the workers attacked the communists with clubs and forced their way into the plant. Eight men were wounded.’ [18] There were big clashes in the Hamburg shipyards between social-democratic and communist workers. In Berlin the party attempted to organise the unemployed to seize the plants and keep the workers out! Everywhere, outside a limited area in central Germany where there was real support, a minority of communist-influenced workers acted without, and often against, the mass of the working class.

The inevitable collapse of the adventure was followed by a savage repression. The KPD was outlawed. Membership fell catastrophically to 150,000 or less and thousands of militants were imprisoned.

Towards the United Front

‘The most important question before the Communist International today is to win predominating influence over the majority of the working class, and to bring its decisive strata into the struggle. For despite the objectively revolutionary situation ... the majority of workers are still not under communist influence.’
Resolution of the Third World Congress 1921. [1*]

THE COMMUNIST PARTIES originated out of the split in the working-class movement in 1914 and grew in the course of the struggle against the centrist leaders in 1919–20, a struggle which led to further splits. Perhaps inevitably, hostility and contempt for the reformist and centrist leaders tended to spill over into a dangerous lack of regard for the workers who still followed these leaders. The lunacy of the March Action was the danger signal. A sharp turn ‘to the right’ was essential if the International was to avoid increased isolation from the class it was trying to lead.

Trotsky later claimed:

‘At the Third World Congress the overwhelming majority called to order those elements in the International whose views involved the danger that the vanguard might, by precipitate action, be shattered against the passivity and immaturity of the working masses, and against the strength of the capitalist state. That was the greatest danger.’ [19]

In fact the majority was anything but overwhelming. Certainly the Theses on Tactics are an implicit condemnation of putschism and adventurism as well as of the passive, propagandist variant of ultra-leftism. But it was a hard fight to get them adopted.

And on the March Action itself, Lenin’s ‘extreme right flank’ had to be content with an equivocal resolution which declared:

‘The action of last March was forced on the KPD by the government attack on the workers of central Germany ... The KPD committed a number of errors of which the chief one was that it did not clearly understand the defensive nature of the struggle ... The Congress considers the March Action of the KPD as a step forward ... the KPD must in future better adapt its battle cry to the actual situation ...’ [20]

This unsatisfactory compromise was, in part, the result of Paul Levi’s public attack on the KPD, an attack which led to his expulsion. Levi published a pamphlet, titled Our Course Against Putschism, which contained an essentially correct, if exaggerated, criticism of the party leaders, written in extremely violent terms (‘the greatest Bakunist Putsch in history’) and which gave the authorities valuable evidence against the party. But the main factor in the compromise was the continuing strength of the lefts. Not until after the Congress did the Comintern executive feel strong enough to draw the logical conclusions of the new line and formally spell out its consequences.

In December the executive declared that it was ‘of the opinion that the slogan of the Third World Congress of the Communist International “To the Masses”, and the interests of the communist movement generally, require the communist parties and the Communist International as a whole to support the slogan of the united front of the workers and to take the initiative in this matter.’ [21] (The emphasis is in the original.)

This, it was made clear, meant a determined attempt to force the leaderships of the reformist and centrist organisations into limited co-operation on concrete issues by winning their followers for unity in action, not merely an attempt to draw those followers into action behind the communist parties.

In January 1922 the executive committee of the Comintern called publicly for

‘the establishment of a united front of all parties supported by the proletariat, regardless of the differences separating them, so long as they are anxious to wage a common fight for the immediate and urgent needs of the proletariat ... No worker, whether communist or social-democrat or syndicalist or even a member of the Christian or liberal trade unions, wants his wages further reduced. None wants to work longer hours ... And therefore all must unite in a common front against the employers’ offensive ...’ [22]

This was an enormous retreat from the positions of 1919–20. Yet it was essential in the new conditions. The new line itself was fraught with difficulties and dangers, above all the danger of the communist parties losing their revolutionary energy and ability to shift rapidly to the left when the tide turned again, but these dangers were unavoidable.

The united front tactic is more frequently misunderstood than almost any other element of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It is a method of struggle for influence and support in a defensive situation and it presupposes the organisational and political independence of the revolutionary organisation.

The tactic starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organisations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organisations, which it can do under favourable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organisations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind.

Trotsky outlined the thinking of the Comintern leadership on the question early in 1922:

‘The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution ... to achieve it the Communist Party must base itself on the overwhelming majority of the working class ... The party can achieve this only by remaining an absolutely independent organisation with a clear programme and strict internal discipline. That is why the party was bound to break ideologically with the reformists and centrists ...

‘After ensuring itself of the complete independence and ideological homogeneity of its ranks, the Communist Party fights for influence over the majority of the working class ... But it is perfectly self-evident that the class life of the proletariat is not suspended during this period preparatory to the revolution. Clashes with the industrialists, with the bourgeoisie, with the state power, on the initiative of one side or the other, run their due course.

‘In these clashes – in so far 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 for unity in action, for 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.

‘Consequently the question of the united front is not at all, either in its point of origin or substance, a question of the reciprocal relations between the communist parliamentary fraction and that of the Socialists, or between the Central Committees of the two parties ...

‘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 constitutes a big, organised force, but not the decisive magnitude ... it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness ...

‘Unity of front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of the reformist organisations, to the extent that the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat.

‘But didn’t we split with them? Yes, because we disagree with them on fundamental questions of the working-class movement.

‘And yet we seek agreement with them? Yes, in all cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in a joint struggle together with the masses that follow us and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of struggle ... 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 real lack of will to struggle on the part of the reformists.’ [23]

There are enormous practical difficulties in applying this approach in any actual appropriate situation. Each such situation is different; each has, invevitably, unique factors. There is no substitute for the ‘knowledge, experience and ... political flair’ of which Lenin wrote, in solving complex political problems. The simple reiteration of the formulae will not suffice.

The Comintern parties themselves provided many obstacles right from the start. For the truth was that the Comintern had not achieved the ‘complete independence and ideological homogeneity of its ranks’ of which Trotsky wrote. In Italy the ultra-left around Bordiga resisted the new tactic. In France it was opposed both by the centrists in the leadership and by the syndicalists, for whom ‘polities’ was essentially separate from militant trade unionism. In Germany the unrepentant co-authors of the March Madness grouped around Friesland, Maslow and Fischer were a constant thorn in the side of the leadership of Meyer and Thalheimer, who wished to implement the united front tactic and for this were denounced as ‘soft’, ‘opportunist’ and ‘social democratic’.

Nevertheless, the KPD did manage some successes in applying the united front tactic in 1922–3. After the murder of Rathenau, a government minister, by the far right, the KPD demanded that the SPD should fight to disarm the paramilitary right and purge the army. It called for the formation of armed workers’ groups – the ‘proletarian hundreds’ – which soon involved many non-communist workers. It set up factory councils to resist the employers’ offensive and check spiralling price rises. Constantly the KPD called for joint action against the bosses and the fascist right. By these methods it not only rebuilt its own forces after the March Madness of 1921, but spread its influence far into the organisations of the working class.

For theory and practice, two things stand out concerning the united front tactic. First, a revolutionary minority party cannot simply carry out propaganda and agitation from the fringes of the working-class movement – though it must do these things too. Second, the united front tactic is concerned with working-class struggles, working-class organisations (however reactionary) and is fundamentally different in principle from ‘Popular Fronts’ or ‘Broad Democratic Alliances’. These two central points will be reinforced by later experience of the 1930s.

The Fourth World Congress

‘The existence of independent communist parties and their complete freedom of action in regard to the bourgeoisie and the counter-revolutionary social-democracy is the most significant historical achievement of the proletariat, which communists will in no circumstances whatever renounce. Only communist parties fight for the interests of the proletariat in its entirety. Nor does the united front tactic mean so-called upper level “electoral alliances” which pursue some parliamentary purpose or other. The united front tactic is the offer of a joint struggle of communists with all workers who belong to other parties or groups, and with all non-party workers, in the defence of the basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie ... The most important thing in the united front tactic is and remains the agitational and organisational rallying of the working masses. Its true realisation can only come “from below”, from the depths of the working masses themselves. Communists, however, must not refuse in certain circumstances to negotiate with the leaders of hostile workers’ parties, but the masses must be kept fully and constantly informed of the course of these negotiations. Nor must the communist parties’ freedom to agitate be circumscribed in any way during these negotiations with the leaders.’
Theses on Tactics, adopted by the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International, December 1922.

THE FOURTH World Congress held in November-December 1922 was the last Comintern Congress that Lenin attended (and he was already too sick to participate save for one speech). It was also the last Congress which the subsequent Trotskyist tradition accepted as a genuinely revolutionary communist Congress.

What had been achieved since the first Congress? Capitalism had weathered the storms of 1919–20, with the indispensable aid of the social-democrats and centrists. Nevertheless substantial revolutionary workers’ parties now existed in a number of important European countries. The parties, typically, led only minorities in the working class, as was natural during the ebb tide, but they were big enough in many cases to be a serious factor. Hence the relevance of the united front tactic. The potential for seizing the opportunities which future revolutionary situations would open up was incomparably greater than in 1919. The 343 voting delegates at the Congress from 58 countries represented the most powerful revolutionary workers’ movement there had ever been.

Naturally, like every living mass movement, it had plenty of defects and deformations. It suffered from internal conflicts which reflected, in the last resort, the pressure of alien and hostile social forces. It suffered too from the internal conflicts derived from immaturity, from the lack of stable, authoritative national revolutionary leaderships, evolved and tested in action and enjoying the confidence of the mass of the members and of at least some workers beyond the membership. The overwhelming authority of the international leadership, of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and, indeed, of all the Russians, overshadowed everyone else.

This authority was not yet based on manipulation, bureaucratic manoeuvres or even the voting strength of the Russian Communist Party. It was based on the obvious fact that not only had the Russians ‘made their revolution’ but that they had been correct – and had eventually been seen to be correct in the eyes of most responsible militants – in the disputes inside the Comintern since 1919. Correct against the ultra-lefts, whose victory would have reduced the movement to a sect. Correct against the centrists whose victory would have dragged it back into a left social-democratic swamp. Without the prestige of the Russian revolution, and therefore of Lenin and his associates, the Comintern could not have become a mass organisation, if indeed it could have existed at all in any serious sense.

But this situation contained the seeds of a very obvious danger. It was one thing to ‘go to school’ under the Russians but quite another to come to rely on the teachers to solve the complex problems facing the German, Polish, British, United States or whatever parties. The teaching which the Russians could give from their own revolutionary experience was the best available in the early years. But an important objective of any real education is to emancipate the pupil from excessive dependence on the teacher. Lenin recognised the danger. The only speech he was able to make at the Fourth Congress contains this passage:

‘At the Third Congress we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but no foreigner can read it. I have read it again before saying this.

‘In the first place it is too long, containing fifty or more points. Foreigners are not usually able to read such things. Secondly, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian -it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And thirdly, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out. This is its third defect. I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further successes ... All that we said in the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not realise this, we shall be unable to move ahead.’ [24]

In retrospect it is clear that the problem lay much deeper than this, much deeper than Lenin himself realised. The more the influence of the Russians was reinforced, the greater became the dependence of the international movement on the outcome of the post-revolutionary struggle for power in a backward and isolated country in which the working class itself was disintegrating.

Yet the leadership of the Russian Communist Party was still incomparably superior in 1922 to the leaderships of the European parties. It further reinforced its authority in the 1922–23 struggles against the leaders of the French and Norwegian parties.

Herein lies the tragedy of the subsequent development of the Comintern. The complex process of uneven and combined development of both capitalism and of the workers’ movements had not only falsified the assumption made by Marx and Engels that the workers’ revolution would occur first in what were, in their day, the most economically and politically developed countries – Britain, France and Germany – it had also led to Russian dominance of the revolutionary movement at the very moment when workers’ power was dying of atrophy in Russia itself.

For already in 1921, speaking in support of the New Economic Policy (NEP), Lenin had argued that

‘owing to the war and to the desperate poverty and ruin (the proletariat) has been declassed, i.e. dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to exist as a proletariat ... Since large scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories are at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared. It has sometimes figured in the statistics, but it has not held together economically.’ [25]

The Moscow in which the delegates gathered was already ruled by a bureaucracy, still controlled at the top by a thin layer of revolutionaries, but essentially a substitute for workers’ power.

The Fourth Congress took various decisions extending and developing the united front tactic. It adopted ‘the slogan of a workers’ government (or a workers’ and peasants’ government)’ to be ‘used practically everywhere as a general propaganda slogan’ [26] which meant that

‘Communists are prepared to act together with those workers who have not yet recognised the necessity of the proletarian dictatorship, social-democrats, members of Christian parties, non-party syndicalists etc. They are thus ready, in certain circumstances and with certain guarantees, to support a workers’ government that is not communist.’ [27]

There was already an important precedent for this. Before the Congress of Halle and in the immediate aftermath of the Kapp putsch in 1920, Karl Legien, the extreme right-wing leader of the ADGB – the German trade union federation – had proposed an alliance of the SPD, the USPD and the unions to fight for a ‘workers’ government’ to ‘republicanise’ the German state machine by purging right-wing officers in the army and the civil service, and to carry out limited social reforms, including a land reform to break the power of the Prussian junkers, the land-owning aristocracy, and nationalisation of the mines.

The KPD, then still only 50–60,000 strong, was drawn into the negotiations. Legien wanted them involved because of their influence on the insurgent workers of Saxony and the Ruhr who were effectively in power in a number of places. The proposal put to the KPD was that they should give ‘critical support’ to such a government, while preserving their freedom of action in other respects. ‘Critical support’ involved rejection of any immediate armed struggle against the Weimar Republic and against the proposed ‘workers’ government’.

Paul Levi, then the dominant leader of the KPD, and his representatives in the negotiations, Jakob Walcher and Wilhelm Pieck, were in favour of such an agreement. The party as a whole regarded it as little less than treason.

Who was right? Unquestionably, the agreement should have been seized with both hands. The SPD leaders had been badly shaken by the Kapp putsch, which was the result of their support for the creation of the Reichswehr (the new professional German army). They were losing ground fast to the left (mainly to the USPD). At the same time, the mass of the twelve million and more workers who had actively resisted and defeated the putsch had done so in defence of the Weimar Republic. The argument that that republic, under new leadership, might really crush the far right and solve at least some of the problems of working people needed to be tested in practice – not to convince the communist militants of course, but to convince the mass of the working class. For naturally, an SPD-USPD government would have failed to live up to the prospectus. So much the better for the KPD. For, it must be stressed, there was never any question of KPD participation in the ‘Workers’ Government’.

In the event, the whole scheme came to nothing and the Congress of Halle which resulted in the splitting of the USPD and a mass influx of members into the KPD, transformed the situation for the party. Nevertheless, Levi and his associates were right. The KPD was a small minority before the Halle Congress and still a minority, though now a large one, after it. Armed struggle would therefore have been adventurism. The KPD had first to win the decisive sections of the working class – and critical support of a ‘workers’ government’, in the sense indicated, could have greatly facilitated this process.

The negotiations with Legien preceded by a year the adoption of the slogan ‘To the Masses’ and the united front tactic by the Third World Congress. At the Fourth Congress the matter was taken much further. It is useful to consider the Congress resolution in some detail.After the statement about the use of the idea of a ‘workers’ government’ ‘as a general propaganda slogan’, it continues:

‘But as a topical political slogan it is of the greatest importance in those countries where bourgeois society is particularly unstable, where the relation of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie is such that the decision of the question, who shall form the government, becomes one of immediate practical necessity. In these countries the slogan of a workers’ government follows inevitably from the entire united front tactic.’

‘The parties of the Second International are trying to “save” the situation by advocating and forming a coalition government of bourgeois and social-democratic parties ... To this open or concealed bourgeois-social-democratic coalition the communists oppose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers’ parties in the economic and the political field for the fight against the bourgeois power and its eventual overthrow. In the united struggle of all workers against the bourgeoisie the entire state apparatus must be taken over by the workers’ government, and thus the working class’s position of power strengthened.

‘The overriding tasks of the workers’ government must be to arm the workers, to disarm bourgeois and counterrevolutionary organisations, to introduce workers’ control of production, to transfer the main burden of taxation to the rich, and to break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Such a workers’ government is only possible if it is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers’ bodies which are capable of fighting, bodies created by the most oppressed sections of the working masses.’ [28]

The purpose of the slogan of the ‘workers’ government’ was ‘concentrating the proletariat and unleashing revolutionary struggles’. [29] In a situation such as that immediately following the Kapp putsch it might well contribute to such an outcome, always provided that it was a matter of critical support for a workers’ government by an independent communist party. However, the resolution went much further.

It envisaged communist party participation ‘in certain circumstances’ in a ‘workers’ government’. True, such participation was hedged around with various qualifications but the thing is clearly wrong in principle. Indeed, some of the qualifications make it worse; ‘only if there are guarantees that the workers’ government will really struggle against the bourgeoisie in the sense mentioned’ – if social democrats and centrists could do that (‘arm the workers ... break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie’), they would cease to be reformists. Moreover, notwithstanding the talk of ‘the struggle of the masses’, the slogan of the workers’ government inevitably shifted the emphasis to the question of parliamentary majorities – and was so interpreted in Germany in 1923.

In 1921 the opposition to the united front tactic had come mainly from the ultra-left. In 1922–23 it came mainly from the right, from the centrist and left reformist tendencies that still had a sizeable foothold in a number of communist parties. It came too, in deeds rather than words, from what can best be described as ‘neo-Kautskian’ tendencies – tendencies derived from pre-1914 Kautskianism, which meant abstract revolutionism, the belief that socialism would result from ‘inevitable’ historical tendencies and a passive approach to the class struggle.

In France the centrist group led by Frossard seized on opposition to the tactic of the united front as a means of rallying opposition to ‘Moscow’ and for ‘autonomy’. In reality their opposition was to the building of a revolutionary party in their own country. They opposed an active, aggressive attempt to involve the rank and file of the Socialist Party in action precisely because they were moving ever closer to the Socialist Party leaders.

As Trotsky shrewdly noted:

‘On the question of the united front we see the very same passive and irresolute tendency, but this time marked by verbal irreconcilability. At the very first glance, one is hit between the eyes by the following paradox: the rightist party elements with their centrist and pacifist tendencies, who overtly or covertly support Journal du Peuple, come simultaneously to the forefront as the most irreconcilable opponents of the united front, covering themselves with the banner of revolutionary intransigence. In contrast, those elements who have right up to the Tours Convention held in the most difficult hours the position of the Third International are today in favour of the united front. As a matter of fact, the mask of pseudo-revolutionary intransigence is now being assumed by the partisans of the dilatory and passive tactic.’ [30]

The Frossard faction won a majority at the party congress held in October 1922, although a narrow one. The representatives of the Comintern executive committee at the congress, Humbert Droz and Manuilsky, argued for parity on the leading bodies between left and right. When this was rejected they acted in the spirit of the view held by the majority of the Comintern executive of the time and summarised in Zinoviev’s slogan ‘peace is better’ – in other words avoid new splits at almost any cost – and bent all their efforts to force the left to submit.

‘The left received orders from Manuilsky to bow to the decision ... But the orders showed a misunderstanding of the temper of the Right. Frossard meant to exploit ... [his victory] to the full. All posts in the party were filled by nominees of the Right.’ [31]

Frossard and his associates used this success to prepare to split the party and lead it back to unity with the reformist minority. In the event Frossard precipitated the split in January 1923. Though he took with him ‘most of the “politicians”, journalists, municipal councillors and the like’ [32], the bulk of the working-class membership remained loyal and the communist party gained in membership after the split. Frossard subsequently became general secretary of the (reformist) SFIO.

In Norway the outcome was less favourable. The centrist leaders Tranmael and Lie (subsequently first secretary-general of the ‘United Nations Organisation’) had been preparing a break since the summer of 1920 but had skilfully delayed it, even though this required that the DNA accept the Comintern’s 21 conditions (in words) until the revolutionary tide was clearly ebbing away.

Tranmael and Lie forced a split by 169 votes to 110 at the 1923 congress, ostensibly on the familiar issue of ‘autonomy’, and took the majority of the membership. But the DNA still faced, until the late 1920s, a substantial communist party. The DNA got 18 per cent of the vote and 24 deputies elected in the 1924 election, while the Norwegian Communist Party got 6 per cent and six deputies. [33] More important, the Communist Party took a good part of the organised working-class base. But unlike the French Communist Party, the Norwegian party was a minority from its inception, even amongst organised workers. Tranmael and the DNA held the majority of organised workers on a centrist basis, talking left but moving rightwards. They did not join the reconstituted reformist International and continued to ‘talk left’ until the moment came for them to form His Norwegian Majesty’s government in 1936.

International manoeuvres

‘The representatives of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals need a united front, for they hope to weaken us by inducing us to make exorbitant concessions; they hope to penetrate into our communist premises without any payment; they hope to utilise united front tactics for the purpose of convincing the workers that reformist tactics are correct and that revolutionary tactics are wrong. We need a united front because we hope to convince the workers of the opposite.’
Lenin, We Have Paid Too Much, April 1922.

AT BERNE, in February 1919, the congress intended to constitute the Second International assembled, shorn of many of its former affiliates – the Belgians refused to attend because they would not sit with Germans, the Italians and Swiss would not sit with the anti-Zimmerwald parties, the Bolsheviks were violently hostile, and so on.

Some of the centrists, notably the USPD, did attend but essentially this was a congress of the right-wing rump of the old International. It was paralysed by the ‘war-guilt’ issue; the attempt of the French right wing to fasten exclusive responsibility for the war on the Central Powers – and so to condemn only German and Austrian Social-Democrats for supporting the war – along the lines of the infamous ‘war-guilt’ clause of the Versailles Treaty. The congress was reduced to setting up an action committee ‘to re-establish the International in the shortest possible time’ [34], in other words to re-unite the right, which was riven by national differences, against the revolutionaries.

By the time this body was able to convene another congress, at Lucerne in August 1919, the Communist International had been founded and the revolutionary tide was flowing strongly in Europe. Eighteen parties were present (there had been 23 at Berne) and there was a big apparent shift to the left. No more was heard of German ‘war guilt’. Indeed the whole Versailles Treaty was condemned outright, as was allied military intervention against the Russian and Hungarian revolutions.

But these verbal concessions to the left failed to keep the centrists in the right-wing fold. Under growing pressure from their radicalised memberships, the French (now under centrist leadership), Austrian, United States, Norwegian and Spanish parties, as well as the USPD, all broke from the reconstituted Second International before its Geneva congress in July 1920. A new centrist international, the ‘Two-and-a-half International’ or Vienna Union, came into being – formally constituted in February 1921. Its core was the Austrian social-democratic party, the leaders of which had avoided any sizeable split to the left by covering their support for the recreation of the bourgeois state in Austria (in the form of a bourgeois democratic republic) by revolutionary rhetoric.

Essentially the Two-and-a-half International was an attempt to repeat this manoeuvre on a European scale, to prevent further gains for the Communist International and to pull back as many as possible of those who had gone over to it in 1920. The Vienna Union’s watchword was ‘unity’. The post-Halle USPD, the post-Tours SFIO, the British ILP and the Russian Mensheviks all took part. Altogether it was claimed that twenty parties in thirteen countries adhered to the Vienna Union.

In January 1922 the Bureau of the Two-and-a-half International issued a call for a ‘general international conference of the class-conscious world proletariat’. [35] The executive committee of the Comintern at once agreed to participate. The executive of the revived Second International raised a series of difficulties, which were intended to torpedo the conference, but, in the event, it was compelled to attend by fear of further losses to the left.

The conference eventually assembled in the Reichstag building in Berlin (by courtesy of the SPD) in April 1922. Clara Zetkin, for the Comintern, rejected any idea of ‘organic unity’, of a single international, as proposed by the ‘two-and-a-halfers’, but put forward the theme of ‘a common defence against the attacks of world capitalism’. [36]

Naturally, the delegates of the Second International – prominent amongst whom was James Ramsay MacDonald, future Labour and then Tory Prime Minister of Britain – were not interested in that. They insisted on debating the issue of Caucasian Georgia, where a Menshevik government originally established under British military protection had just been overthrown by the Red Army; the issue of the trial of counterrevolutionaries in Russia and so on.

Concessions by the Comintern delegation, which Lenin later denounced as impermissible, prevented the immediate breakup of the conference but the ‘two-and-a-halfers’ soon came to an understanding with the right. Together they convened another conference which excluded the communists, at which they fused their forces to form a Labour and Socialist International in May 1923. This body maintained a paper existence until 1939 when it collapsed ignominiously with the outbreak of the Second World War.

There were also the two trade union Internationals. The International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) had been set up in 1913, largely as a gesture of independence from party control, by the very right-wing leadership of the German trade union federation (ADGB). It collapsed the next year when each of its two biggest constituents (the British TUC and the German ADGB) backed its ‘own’ government on the outbreak of war.

The IFTU was re-established at a congress at Amsterdam in July 1919. It was a stronghold of the right, the European right-wingers being reinforced by the strongly anti-socialist American Federation of Labour. The founding congress claimed to represent nearly eighteen million trade Unionists: ‘This so-called Trade Union International does, unfortunately, represent something,’ said Zinoviev in 1920, ‘in fact it is the bulwark of the international bourgeoisie.’ [37]

The Red International of Labour Unions (known as the Profintern) was intended partly as a counterweight to the IFTU, partly as a means of drawing the syndicalist union federations of France (CGT) and Spain (CNT) and smaller groups elsewhere into a closer relationship with the Comintern.

The tenth of the 21 conditions which were required of every party affiliating to the Comintern had stipulated ‘an unyielding struggle against the Amsterdam “International” of yellow trade unions.’ Each party ‘must conduct the most vigorous propaganda amongst trade unionists for the necessity of a break with the yellow Amsterdam International. It must do all it can to support the international association of red trade unions, adhering to the Communist International, which is being formed.’ [38]

It was not until July 1921 that the Red International of Labour Unions was able to hold its founding congress: the Italian, Bulgarian and Norwegian union federations attended, together with the Russians and a number of smaller organisations. It was claimed that the 380 delegates from 41 countries represented ‘seventeen million out of a total of forty million trade unionists all over the world’ [39], an extremely dubious claim. But by this time, with the ebbing of the revolutionary tide, the united front tactic was coming to the fore and it is questionable whether the formation of the Red International was a useful operation in the circumstances.

Three years later Zinoviev admitted:

‘Profintern was founded at a moment when it seemed that we should break through the enemy front in a frontal attack and quickly conquer the trade unions ... It was a moment when we thought we should quite quickly win the majority of the workers.’ [40]

Factually this is inaccurate. It expresses the perspective of 1920, not that of the summer of 1921, but it very obviously represented the thinking behind the original decision to attempt to confront and defeat the IFTU on its own ground.

In the event, though the Italian union federation was shortly to be smashed by the fascists and the Norwegians were soon to secede, some more flesh was put on the Profintern skeleton by the splits in the French and Czechoslovak trade union movements.

The CGT, the only significant French union organisation, had adopted a revolutionary syndicalist position in 1906 (embodied in the Carte d’Amiens). The war proved that hostility to socialist parties rightly suspected of reformism – which was the essence of the syndicalist position – in no way guaranteed that the syndicalists would remain independent from the capitalist state. The CGT itself rapidly developed pro-war reformist and anti-war revolutionary trends together with a temporarily majority ‘centre’ tendency which was pro-Zimmerwald but anti-Bolshevik.

The right wing, seeing that the combined forces of left and centre were gaining a substantial majority, split the CGT after its Lille congress (July 1921) and stole the name and most of the full-time apparatus, thus forcing the left to set up the CGTU in June 1922. At that time the CGTU commanded the support of the majority of organised workers in France and its affiliation to the Red International was a serious blow to the IFTU. It also modified the Red International itself. The syndicalist majority wing of the CGTU leadership insisted, successfully, on the removal of Comintern nominees from the Red International executive.

The next year the Czech chauvinist right-wing bosses of the Czechoslovak union federation expelled unions which organised the majority of trade unionists in Czechoslovakia. The expelled left established the Multinational Trade Union Centre – multinational referring to the German, Slovak, Ruthenian, Hungarian and Polish minorities which, together, constituted a majority of the population of the state of Czechoslovakia which had been created by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. The Multinational Trade Union Centre now affiliated to the Red International.

The Spanish CNT, however, eventually rejected both Amsterdam and Moscow. Its anarcho-syndicalist wing won a decisive victory at a congress in Saragossa in June 1922, which voted to adhere to a syndicalist international, the AIT, of which the CNT remained the only significant affiliate.

The Red International had, from the beginning, fought against the ultra-left notion that individuals or groups of communist sympathisers should secede from IFTU unions. Its first congress resolved:

‘This tactic of the withdrawal of revolutionary elements from the unions ... plays into the hands of the counter-revolutionary trade union bureaucracy and therefore should be sharply and categorically rejected.’ [41]

A little later it was decided that individual unions in federations affiliated to the Amsterdam IFTU should not be encouraged to secede. Nevertheless, the very existence of the Red International made more difficult the necessary task of fighting for trade union unity, even though this was the official platform of the Red International. The fight for the slogan of trade union unity – ‘in those countries where two parallel trade union centres are in existence (Spain, France, Czechoslovakia etc) communists must begin a systematic struggle for re-union of these parallel organisations’ [42] – was hardly helped by the existence of an international parallel centre, which inevitably, developed its own self-justifying inertia and apparatus.

The Fourth World Congress of the Comintern repeated the call for unity – which ‘makes it the duty of every communist party to do everything in its power to prevent the splitting of the trade unions, to restore the unity of the trade union movement where it has been destroyed’ [43] – and also took up the question of ‘autonomy’, the syndicalist watchword.

‘Bourgeois influence on the proletariat is expressed in the theory of neutrality: the trade unions are to stick to purely craft, narrowly economic aims, and not general class aims ... The bourgeoisie always tend to separate politics from economics for they realise very well that if they manage to confine the working class within the frame of craft interests their rule is not seriously endangered. The same frontier between economics and politics is drawn by the anarchist elements in the trade union movement in order to divert the workers’ movement from the political path on the pretext that all politics are directed against the workers. This theory, in essence purely bourgeois, is presented to the workers as the theory of trade union autonomy, which is then interpreted as hostility of the trade unions to the communist parties and as a declaration of war on the communist workers’ movement, still on the notorious pretext of independence and autonomy.’ [44]

This was a shrewd diagnosis. Events soon proved decisively that syndicalist union bureaucrats, notably those of the French CGT and the Spanish CNT, were every bit as hostile to initiatives from below and the communist influence as their social-democratic counterparts. Autonomism, which had a revolutionary (or more commonly pseudo-revolutionary) content before 1914, became reactionary after the best syndicalist militants went over to the Comintern and the remaining syndicalist leaders came to see it as their most dangerous opponent.


Note by MIA

1. The quote can be found in Degras, vol. 1, p. 243.



1. Degras, vol. 1, p. 230.

2. Lenin, vol. 33, p. 63.

3. Degras, vol. 1, p. 243.

4. Degras, vol. 1, pp. 249–50.

5. Lenin, vol. 33, p. 208.

6. Williams, Proletarian Order, p. 68.

7. Degras, vol. 1, p. 188.

8. Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories, p. 65.

9. Trotsky, The First Five Years, vol. 1, p. 262. [Speech on the Italian Question]

10. Degras, vol. 1, p. 190.

11. Degras, vol. 1, p. 193.

12. Cammett, p. 121.

13. Fischer, p. 176.

14. Fischer, pp. 174–5.

15. Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, quoted from Gruber, International Communism in the Era of Lenin (New York 1972), p. 306.

16. Borkenau, p. 214.

17. Fischer, p. 175.

18. Borkenau, p. 216.

19. Degras, vol. 1, p. 225.

20. Decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International (London 1921), p. 18.

21. Degras, vol. 1, p. 311.

22. Degras, vol. 1, pp. 317–9.

23. Trotsky, The First Five Years, vol. 2, pp. 91–95. Emphases in the original. [On the United Front]

24. Lenin, vol. 33, p. 430.

25. Lenin, vol. 33, pp. 65–66.

26. Degras, vol. 1, p. 425. The question of what precisely this meant remained a matter of dispute between left and right in the International. For Trotsky the ‘workers’ government’ was ‘a form of proletarian dictatorship’. The Theses, however, explicitly endorsed participation in ‘a government of workers and the poorer peasants... possible in the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Poland etc’ and in the undefined and extremely elastic category of ‘workers’ governments in which communists participate’. But what were they, as opposed to ‘the real workers’ government... which consists of communists’?

27. Degras, vol. 1, p. 427.

28. Degras, vol. 1, pp. 425–6.

29. Degras, vol. 1, p. 426.

30. Trotsky, First Five Years, vol. 2, pp. 127–8. The Journal du Peuple was a paper run as a personal venture, with a centrist line, by Henri Fabre, a communist party member whom Frossard and others were trying to protect from expulsion. [From the ECCI to the Central Committee of the French Communist Party]

31. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3, p. 416.

32. Borkenau, p. 228.

33. Upton, The Communist Parties of Scandinavia and Finland (London 1973), p. 481.

34. Braunthal, vol. 2, p. 156.

35. Braunthal, vol. 2, p. 241.

36. Braunthal, vol. 2, pp. 246–7.

37. Braunthal, vol. 2, p. 175 note.

38. Degras, vol. 1, p. 171.

39. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3, p. 397.

40. Carr, Socialism in One Country (London 1972), vol. 3, p. 575.

41. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 545.

42. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 554.

43. Degras, vol. 1, pp. 415–6.

44. Degras, vol. 1, p. 412.


Last updated on 26 July 2018