Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

5. Left Oscillation, Right Turn 1924–8

‘The policy of the most important communist parties, attuned to the fifth congress, soon revealed its complete inefficacy. The mistakes of pseudo-”leftism”, which hampered the development of the communist parties, gave an impetus to a new empirical zigzag: namely to an accelerated sliding down to the right ... The adventurist leftism gave way to an open opportunism of the right centrist type.’
Trotsky, Strategy and tactics in the imperialist epoch.

THE IMMEDIATE response of the Comintern leadership to the failure of the German October was to proclaim the correctness of its own role at every stage, to sacrifice scapegoats and to proclaim that there was a continuing revolutionary situation in Germany. ‘The basic appraisal of the German situation given by the Comintern executive last September remains in essentials unchanged,’ declared the executive in January 1924. ‘The character of the phase in the struggle and the chief tasks of the party are the same. The KPD must not strike from the agenda the question of insurrection and seizure of power.’ [1]

It was a case, as Trotsky sourly remarked, of ‘accepting the backside for the face of the revolution after the latter had already turned its rear’ [2] – and it was typical of the short-lived ‘left oscillation’. Rhetoric, bluff, fantasy and, above all, lack of honest accounting were its hallmarks. Along with this went a rather shame-faced ultra-leftism, but this was not universally applied: the British, United States, Chinese and Yugoslav communist parties were unaffected.

And there were changes in the party leaderships. In Germany the lefts – Arkady Maslow, Ruth Fischer and their supporters – took over the KPD, which regained legal status in March 1924. In Poland, where there had been a general strike in November 1923 and a local insurrection in Cracow, the ‘rightist’ leadership of Warski, Walecki and Wera Kostryewa was replaced by the left-wingers Domski, Zofia Unslicht and Lenski. In France Rosmer, Monatte and Souvarine were eliminated and Zinoviev’s protegés Treint and Suzanne Girault were installed. In Sweden the rightist Hoeglund was replaced by Kilbom.

But these changes were by no means politically identical. This was Zinoviev’s Comintern, not yet Stalin’s. The ‘Troika’ of Zinoviev, Stalin and Kamenev had defeated the Left Opposition at the thirteenth conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in January 1924 and hi thirteenth congress in May. They were now vigorously promoting a cult of ‘Leninism’ – by which was meant opposition to the political line pursued by Trotsky – and great efforts were made, successfully, to secure endorsement of this from foreign communist parties. The Comintern was now Zinoviev’s fiefdom. But there was still some debate in the various communist parties. The new left leaders had varying degrees of genuine support in their parties. They were not all simply creatures of Moscow. Significantly, most of them were soon in conflict with the Comintern executive.

Thus the Maslow-Fischer group had the overwhelming majority at the Frankfurt congress of the KPD in April 1924 and brushed aside the attempt of the Comintern representative, Manuilsky, to moderate their victory by including some representatives of the old leadership in the new one. In Sweden, Kilbom undoubtedly had majority support and would have ousted Hoeglund even without Comintern support. In Poland and France, however, matters were somewhat different.

‘In the autumn of 1923 the central committees of the Polish, French and German parties protested, in one form or another, to the central committee of the Soviet party against the violence of the attacks on Trotsky ... This incident had serious consequences. Stalin never forgot or forgave this protest. Zinoviev, who was then president of the International, viewed it as a vote of no confidence in himself.’ [3]

The attack on ‘the three Ws’ in the Polish party had more to do with their reluctance to condemn Trotsky than with their real waverings in November 1923. Those who replaced them had real support but not a majority – they owed their victory to the intervention by the Comintern executive. So, still more, did Treint and Girault in France. Thus an evil precedent was created by Zinoviev. He and his supporters were soon to fall victim to it themselves.

Politically, the period of the ‘left oscillation’ is significant for the abandonment of the united front tactic in practice – although, characteristically, it was retained in words; for the first appearance of the notorious doctrine of ‘social fascism’; and for ‘Bolshevisation’.

‘Bolshevisation’ was the watchword of the fifth congress of the Comintern in June-July 1924. It was the precise counterpart to the cult of the dead Lenin in the USSR and its actual content was the same: unqualified submission to the Troika as the supposed guardians of Leninist orthodoxy and hostility to all critical voices, above all to Trotsky. Naturally this ‘Leninism’ had nothing in common with the spirit of Lenin’s own politics. He himself had written, some years earlier, of the fate of great revolutionaries:

‘After their deaths, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them so to say, and to hallow their names ... whilst at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.’ [4]

This is an exact description of the function of ‘Leninism’ and its Comintern counterpart ‘Bolshevisation’ in this period.

On the united front tactic, the fifth world congress made a formally correct declaration. [5] After all, the Troika was wrapping itself in the mantle of Lenin and Lenin’s pronouncements on the matter were all too recent and well-known. But the whole emphasis of Zinoviev’s speech on orientation and tactics was in the other direction. ‘Only from below’ was the substance of Zinoviev’s line, meaning that united front action should be proposed only to the rank and file of other parties and workers’ organisations, not to their leaderships.

Now there are circumstances in which the united front is clearly inappropriate, a wrong tactic. One such case was in Russia in September-October 1917, in the weeks before the insurrection. Then, a united front approach by the Bolsheviks to the Mensheviks and the right wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party would have meant stepping back from the struggle for power. Again, in circumstances where the revolutionary left is extremely weak the united front tactic is also wrong – or irrelevant. A united front means united in action and is meaningless if the revolutionaries have no real forces to commit to such action.

If the united front tactic is judged inappropriate, then it is politically necessary to say so. The whole thrust of the political line given at the fifth congress of the Comintern was that the offensive was the order of the day in a number of countries, especially Germany. This was grotesquely wrong, but if it had been true, then the united front tactic – which, remember, is a defensive tactic – should have been seen by the congress as at least secondary and, in particular cases, definitely wrong.

But this was not done. Instead the line of the united front ‘only from below’ was proclaimed. It was a nonsense. The essence of the united front tactic is that the appeal for united action is made to the leadership of another workers’ organisation as well as the rank and file, although, of course, everything depends on the response of the rank and file. Unity in action will then prove to the rank and file of that organisation that revolutionary politics are superior to that of their own leadership. To make the appeal for united action only to the rank and file is not a united front at all – it is merely an appeal to individuals to work with or join the party, an appeal which revolutionaries should make in all circumstances anyway.

Any honest communist party leadership which believed, however mistakenly, in the call for the offensive put forward by the fifth world congress would have argued this case. Some did. Bordiga, for the Italians, argued against the united front in principle. Domsky, for the Poles, argued against it in practice. But the self-deceiving, shame-faced position put forward by Zinoviev and his supporters carried the day.

The immediate consequences of this were, in fact, fairly unimportant – but the ‘only from below’ line was to be revived, with truly disastrous consequences, in 1929–33.

So too with ‘social fascism’. To start with a genuine principled and incorrigible ultra-left – Bordiga, said at the fifth congress:

‘Fascism fundamentally merely repeats the old game of the bourgeois left parties, i.e. it appeals to the proletariat for civil peace. It attempts to achieve this aim by forming trade unions of industrial and agricultural workers, which it then leads into practical collaboration with the employers’ organisations.’ [6]

What then is the difference between fascism and social democracy? None at all, on this analysis. This is manifest nonsense. The essential distinctive characteristic of fascism is that it seeks to smash all autonomous workers’ organisations, revolutionary and reformist alike, to atomise the working class and so make it politically impotent. This was already happening in Italy in 1924, as Bordiga was speaking. Social democracy, on the other hand, rests upon, parasitises if you will, genuine workers’ organisations. Without them it has no basis at all.

The class basis of fascism is fundamentally different from that of social democracy. Like revolutionary socialists, the fascists can win a truly mass base only in conditions of deep social crisis. But whereas revolutionary socialists depend upon the organised working class or on workers fighting to achieve organisation, whose collective strength gives these workers the ability to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, the fascists depend upon the petty bourgeoisie and the unorganised and ‘lumpen’ section of the working class. Driven to extremes of insecurity as victims of the crisis, and without their own organisations to defend them, they can be easy recruits to fascism, which offers them the false solidarity of prejudice and paramilitary violence in a time of profound social crisis.

Unlike the social democrats, the fascists have no commitment to bourgeois democracy. Unlike revolutionary socialists they are committed to maintain the dictatorship of capital – though since part of their support is from victims of capitalism this involves the liquidation of their ‘lumpen’ working class wing if they come to power, as Hitler liquidated the Röhm-Strasser wing of the Nazi Party in 1934.

The fifth world congress, however, gave countenance to Bordiga’s idiocies by enshrining the proposition that ‘Fascism and social democracy are two edges of the same weapon of the dictatorship of large-scale capital.’ [7] Stalin’s notorious aphorism, ‘Social-democracy and fascism are not antipodes but twins’, belongs to this period. Again the immediate consequences were unimportant but the revival of these notions in 1929–33 was to be catastrophic. Fascism and social democracy are not two edges of the same weapon. They are alternative supports for capitalism.

The practical outcome of the ‘left oscillation’ was the removal from positions of leadership in the Comintern, and, in some important communist parties, of independent-minded people both of the ‘right’ and of the ‘left’ (in communist terms). Some of these people were clearly in the wrong and were moving towards social democracy; others were, in varying degrees, correct in their criticisms. This was a long step towards the situation against which Lenin had warned Bukharin and Zinoviev some years earlier:

‘If you drive away all not particularly amenable, but intelligent, people and leave yourselves only obedient fools, you will surely destroy the party.’ [8]

It was also the cause of some tragedies. In December 1924 the weak Estonian Communist Party, encouraged by Zinoviev, who was badly in need of a success, launched a coup d’état.

‘The insurgents had a few initial successes at Reval, the capital, owing to the advantage of surprise. But after only a few hours everything was over. It was a classic example of a hopeless putsch. The persecutions naturally were intensified after its failure; and the rising itself provided a suitable occasion to institute a, military dictatorship.’ [9]

Unlike the Reval putsch, the Bulgarian ‘Guy Fawkes Plot’ of April 1925 was not a Comintern initiative, but undoubtedly owed something to the atmosphere of ‘leftism’ that Zinoviev had encouraged. The plan of the operation, which was organised by the military organisation of the Bulgarian Communist Party, without the knowledge of the party’s leadership-in-exile, was to blow up Sofia Cathedral at a time when the king, government and army chiefs were attending the funeral of a murdered general.

‘Official Bulgaria assembled en masse for the funeral. A bomb exploded, killing more than 100 persons and wounding 300, though all the members of the government miraculously escaped ... Two leading members of the military organisation of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Yankov and Minkov, were killed resisting arrest. Hundreds of communists were arrested; confessions were obtained under torture, and many of those arrested were executed, with or without trial.’ [10]

The Comintern executive denied responsibility, which was the formal truth, and stated the orthodox Marxist case against individual terrorism. The Bulgarian Communist Party was temporarily destroyed in the ensuing repression.

The short-lived oscillation to the left was ended at the fifth plenum of the Comintern executive in March 1925. It was belatedly discovered that ‘in the centre of Europe, in Germany, the period of revolutionary upsurge has already ended.’ [11] The conclusion drawn was that it was necessary to shift the emphasis back to the united front tactic. ‘Only from below’ and ‘social fascism’ were soon quietly dropped. ‘Bolshevisation’ was not. It was emphasised more than ever, and its stance against Trotsky and his supporters became more and more blatant. The shift rightwards – correct in itself, if 16 months too late – soon developed into out-and-out opportunism.

As Trotsky wrote later: ‘A cat burned by hot milk shies away from cold water. The “left” central committees of a number of parties were deposed as violently as they had been constituted prior to the Fifth Congress. The adventurist leftism gave way to an open opportunism of the right-centrist type.’

‘To understand the character and tempo of this organisational right ward swing, it must be recalled that Stalin, the director of this turn, appraised the passing of party leadership to Maslow, Ruth Fischer, Treint, Susanne Girault and others, back in 1924, as the expression of the Bolshevisation of the parties ... But ten months later the genuine “Bolsheviks” and “revolutionary leaders” were declared social-democrats and renegades, ousted from leadership and driven out of the parties.’ [12]

Soon their patron, Zinoviev, was to go too. For the right-ward shift in Russia, the growing self-confidence of the bureaucracy with its new slogan of ‘Socialism in one country’, led to the break-up of the Troika and the passing of Zinoviev, and then Kamenev, into opposition. Stalin’s star was rising.

Zinoviev’s period of dominance in the Comintern had been a fiasco. ‘Leftist’ and pseudo-leftist adventures had been combined, as we shall see, with grossly opportunist adventures. Yet, with all his weaknesses and vacillations, there were certain limits beyond which Zinoviev would not go. A Bolshevik since 1903, a member of the Bolshevik central committee since 1907, Lenin’s closest collaborator in the early years, he had absorbed too much of Lenin’s internationalism to be a suitable instrument of the increasingly nationalistic bureaucratic dictatorship.

Although not formally deposed until 1926, Zinoviev lost influence after the fifth plenum of the Comintern Executive in early 1925. Stalin was now the leader, though still only the ‘first among equals’ of the newly self-conscious bureaucratic chiefs.

Stalin was a newcomer to the Comintern.

‘In the days when the Comintern seemed a living organism and engaged the constant and anxious attention of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, he [Stalin] remained apparently indifferent to it. He turned to it only in 1924 when it ... had become a bureaucratic machine capable of impeding or furthering Soviet policy or his own political designs.’ [13]

For Stalin, the Comintern was essentially an instrument of Russian foreign policy. However, this could not be openly avowed, nor could Stalin yet run it himself or through puppet nominees. He needed a prominent ‘old Bolshevik’, with some genuine qualifications, who was wholly convinced of the need for a rightist orientation. Nikolai Bukharin was that man. The period of the right turn was the period of Bukharin’s Comintern.

Bukharin was a doctrinaire, in the literal sense of the word. Lenin had written of him, in his ‘testament’ just before his death, that Bukharin’s ‘theoretical views can only with the very gravest doubts be regarded as fully Marxist, for there is something scholastic in him (he has never learned, and I think never fully understood, the dialectic).’ [14] Bukharin had been a consistent ultra-left in the first years after the Russian revolution. Now he was, equally consistently and equally mechanically, rightist in his views on the situation inside Russia and internationally. Under his regime the Comintern underwent a further and qualitative degeneration.

These were the years of the ‘right-centre bloc’ in the USSR, the alliance between Stalin and Bukharin; the years of ‘growing into socialism’ – in one country, of course – ‘at a snail’s pace’; the years of banking on the peasantry for slow economic growth – ‘enrich yourselves’ was the party’s message to them (all those quoted expressions are Bukharin’s); the years in which planned industrialisation was rejected as ‘adventurism’.

The corresponding policies in the Comintern were those of making alliances with ‘left’ union bureaucrats, ‘left’ labour politicians, and bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists.

‘Petty-Bourgeois ‘allies’

‘Thanks to its privileged position and conservative habits of thinking, the soviet bureaucracy ... is far more inclined to trust in the “revolutionary” Kuomintang, the “left” bureaucracy of the British trade unions, petty bourgeois “friends of the Soviet Union” and liberal and radical pacifists than in the independent revolutionary initiative of the proletariat.’
Trotsky, The International Left Opposition.

THE ROOTS of the right turn lay in the period of the left oscillation, not merely by way of reaction against it, but also because the bureaucratic adventurism which characterised Zinoviev’s regime in the Comintern contained within it seeds of gross opportunism.

Back in the autumn of 1923 a meeting of delegates allegedly representing peasant organisations in forty countries set up an ‘International Peasant Council’ in Moscow. This shadowy body was described by the fifth world congress as the ‘Peasant International’ (Krestintern). Six million supporters were claimed for it and it was evidently seen as a hook with which important catches could be made. Negotiations were opened with the leaders of the exiled Bulgarian Peasants Union. They were promised subsidies if they would join the Krestintern. The wily Bulgars took the money (allegedly 20 million dinars) and slipped away. [15]

Their success may have encouraged Stephan Radich, leader of the Croat Peasant Party. He came to Moscow in 1924, and actually affiliated his party to the Krestintern. Having thus alarmed the Yugoslav government, he came to terms with it and took his party into a coalition government: ‘En route from green Zagreb, he thought it advisable to show himself in Red Moscow in order to strengthen his chances of becoming a minister in White Belgrade,’ noted Trotsky. [16]

Little more was heard of the Krestintern, although, as we shall see, it survived long enough to play a minor role in the Comintern’s disastrous intervention in the Chinese revolution of 1925–7.

Then there was the comic interlude of the Federated Farmer-Labour Party.

‘In the United States the small farmers have founded a Farmer-Labour Party, which is becoming ever more radical, drawing closer to the communists, and becoming permeated with the idea of the creation of a workers’ and peasants’ government in the United States,’ it was claimed at the Fifth World Congress. [17]

What lay behind this fantasy was a small Labour Party movement centred on the leftish leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labour (the local leadership of the AFL). They had their own Farmer-Labour party (the ‘farmer’ being added to the title to attract votes, for this was a purely electoral affair) and were seeking to broaden it by a conference in Chicago in July 1923.

The American communist party, then called the Workers Party, set out to capture this conference, and so, it imagined, a growing movement. The party was small; it claimed some 14,000 members, most of them recent immigrants, the majority not speaking English, and it had until very recently been wildly ultra-left. Now, under the guidance of a Hungarian Comintern official called Pogany (Pepper in the USA), it proposed to break into big-time electoral politics with the presidential election of 1924, via a front party.

‘Several hundred delegates, claiming to represent some 600,000 workers and farmers came to Chicago for the Farmer-Labour convention ... Only ten delegates were officially allotted to the Workers Party ... but the communists had other ways of getting in. Dozens attended as delegates from local trade unions. Others managed to represent such organisations as the Lithuanian Workers Literature Society, the Rumanian Progressive Club, the United Workingmen Singers, and so on.’ [18]

The genuine Farmer-Labour Party supporters did not represent a great deal in the American working class, but they represented something – their presidential candidate had polled a quarter of a million votes in 1920. The Workers Party represented practically nothing but it had the delegates and so was able to take over the convention. The genuine Farmer-Labour supporters walked out. Workers Party nominees for president and vice-president of the USA were duly adopted. The party’s leaders were jubilant. The Workers Party ‘assumed the position of leadership and the first mass party of the American workers – the Federated Farmer-Labour Party – was formed’. [19]

What the Workers Party had actually ‘assumed the position of leadership’ of was a shell; a reformist shell, for the programme actually adopted was practically identical to that of the old Farmer-Labour Party, and a shell so fragile that it completely disintegrated within a year, leaving the Workers Party rather weaker than before.

These foolish opportunist schemes took place under the regime of the ‘left oscillation’. The much more serious Polish ‘May Error’ occurred when the ‘right turn’ was already fully in motion.

The policies of the ultra-left leadership installed in 1924 had seriously weakened the Polish communist party. It should be noted that, throughout the period when it was a genuine workers’ party, 1919–38, the Polish communist party was an illegal organisation, though possibilities for semi-legal activity varied greatly. It usually worked through legal ‘cover’ organisations.

‘If, in 1923, the party did not show enough revolutionary vigour, its policy during the years 1924 and 1925 was marked by a false excess of that vigour. This was all the more harmful because after the crisis of November 1923 the objective possibilities of revolutionary action had decreased. During the period the Polish Communist party rejected the united front tactic completely and dispersed its efforts in futile adventures. The result? It lost its influence and cut itself off from the working masses.

‘It is worth recalling that, at the beginning of 1924, in local elections, the Polish Communist Party was still stronger than the Socialist Party. This success, however, was no more than a delayed echo of the radicalisation of the masses which had taken place in 1923 and did not foreshadow the rise of a new revolutionary wave [exactly as in Germany]. In the following year the communist party’s influence declined drastically.’ [20]

For these reasons, and still more because Domsky and Zofia Unslicht were honest and conscientious supporters of Zinoviev, they were ousted. Warski and his friends, who had meanwhile made the required denunciation of Trotsky, were reinstated as the leadership in December 1925. There was one significant change. Lenski broke with his former associates, preferring to declare unqualified support for the CPSU (in fact, for Stalin), and was henceforth Stalin’s man in Poland – the prototype for Thälmann in Germany, Thorez in France, Browder in the USA, Pollitt in Britain, and the rest. He was included in the new leadership, which steered the party sharply to the right.

On 12 May 1926 Joseph Pilsudski, who had been commander-in-chief of the Polish army when it defeated the Red Army in 1920, launched a coup d’état against Poland’s right-wing bourgeois democratic government, which was headed by the Peasant Party leader Witos. The Polish communist party supported the coup, which was successful and created a military dictatorship which the Comintern was soon to call ‘Pilsudski’s fascist regime’!

How was this lunacy possible? Because the Polish Socialist Party supported Pilsudski, who had once been one of its members and leader of its ‘revolutionary fraction’ – in other words its terrorist wing – in 1905–6, and the united front policy was now interpreted as meaning that the Polish communist party tailed the Socialist Party. That and the absurd notion, a product of the anti-Trotsky campaigns, that the revolution in Poland had to be a bourgeois revolution and therefore Pilsudski was the Polish Cromwell.

‘The Comintern was just then busy eradicating the Trotskyist and Zinovievist heresies. The distinctive marks of these heresies were defined as “ultra-left” and negative attitudes toward “alliances with the middle strata”, a fundamental unwillingness to make such alliances and an unwillingness to recognise that bourgeois revolution, especially in the underdeveloped countries, formed a separate stage of the historical development, in which the bourgeoisie played a progressive and even revolutionary role.

‘The Comintern was as if seized with an obsessional cult of “alliances”. Any sign of scepticism with regard to this cult was stigmatised as Trotskyism. The cult of alliances served a double purpose: within the Soviet Union it justified the rightist line of Bukharin and Stalin; internationally it justified Soviet policy in China, which subordinated the Chinese Communist Party to the Kuomintang and placed it under Chiang Kai-shek’s orders.’ [21]

Of course all this garbage had to be junked very quickly in the case of Poland. Pilsudski, a reliable ally of French imperialism, was bitterly hostile to the USSR and his regime persecuted the workers’ organisations, particularly the Polish Communist Party, far more viciously and effectively than Witos had ever done.

The British General Strike

‘Zinoviev gave us to understand that he counted on the revolution finding an entrance, not through the narrow gateway of the British Communist Party, but through the broad portals of the trade unions. The struggle to win the masses organised in the trade unions by the Communist Party was replaced by the hope for the swiftest possible utilisation of the ready made apparatus of the trade unions for the purpose of revolution. Out of this false position sprang the later policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee ...’
Trotsky, A Balance sheet of the Anglo Russian Committee. [1*]

THAT SAME MAY 1926 saw the British General Strike. The story will no doubt be familiar to most readers. [22] As has been noted, the British communist party was unaffected by the ‘left oscillation’. In 1924 the central thrust of its activity was united front work in the unions, focussed around the National Minority Movement. This essentially correct work was given a rightist twist with the formation of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee in April 1925 – about which the Comintern was extraordinarily enthusiastic.

‘The change in sentiment among the working masses and the majority of the organised working class in England is expressed organisationally in the creation of the Anglo-Russian unity committee,’ declared the sixth plenum of the Comintern executive in March 1926.

‘The Anglo-Russian committee, whose foundation was greeted joyfully by the masses, marks a new stage in the history of the international trade union movement ... It demonstrates the practical possibility of creating a unified International, and of a common struggle of workers of different political tendencies against reaction, fascism and the capitalist offensive.’ [23]

What it in fact demonstrated was that the temporarily dominant left-reformist bureaucrats on the British TUC General Council found it useful to acquire some ‘left’ cover, protection from communist party criticism at practically no cost. In the period from July 1925 to May 1926 the British government was coldly and carefully preparing to break the power of the miners’ union. In this same period the left trade union leaders, heroes of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, bemused their followers with leftist rhetoric, made no preparations for the inevitable conflict with the government and covered up for the right. Within two months of the sixth plenum which was so vocal in their praise, they had joined with the right to sell out the General Strike.

These left officials were by no means unknown to the leaders of the British Communist Party. They were, typically, men who had been involved in the pre-1914 syndicalist and amalgamationist movements, had moved up various union machines and become very much part of the union establishment, constituting its left face. A number of them had even joined the Communist Party in 1920 or 1921 but had left again as soon as the party began to put pressure on them to act as disciplined party members. At best, they could only be vacillating and unreliable allies. At least some of the Communist Party leaders understood this well enough. ‘It would be suicidal policy, however, for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official left wing,’ declared the party’s monthly journal in September 1924. [24] The emphasis had to be on ‘the formation of workplace committees [as] a necessary means of counteracting the bureaucracy’.

This emphasis shifted sharply when the Anglo-Soviet committee was set up, ostensibly ‘to promote the cause of unity in the international trade union movement’ as a step towards ‘international unity of the workers of all countries’ and ‘an unbreakable pledge of peace and economic security’. [25] The agreement with the Russian unions was endorsed unanimously by the British TUC that September. The British Communist Party then proceeded to adopt the ‘suicidal’ policy. Of course there were ‘native’ opportunist tendencies in the party leadership which were only too glad to adapt to the TUC’s fake left, but it was the Comintern and Russian leaders who ensured that the opportunist line was consistently pursued.

The thinking of the Russian leaders at this time was dominated by the idea that whereas the British communist party was small and weak, the TUC was a power in Britain, a power that could be exerted in the interests of the USSR. The job of the communist party was therefore to encourage the TUC, not to upset it by ‘premature’ criticism.

What was criminal about this episode was not the Anglo-Soviet committee itself, which was possibly justified as a temporary manoeuvre to weaken the Amsterdam International; it was the deliberate creation of illusions in the TUC ‘lefts’ and the political paralysis imposed upon the British communist party by the Comintern. During the nine-month ‘truce’ between government and unions leading up to May 1926 it was essential for the communist party to criticise, constantly, concretely and clearly, the inactivity of the left trade union leaders in the face of the government preparations for a showdown, to warn of impending disaster, to exert all its efforts to develop rank-and-file preparation independently of the union bureaucracies, ‘left’ as well as right. Instead it helped to strengthen illusions in the lefts, those ‘friends of the USSR’ and to help them to keep control over the trade union movement – a position summed up in the notorious slogan put forward by the communist party: ‘All power to the General Council.’ It was the General Council of traitors, as was soon to be proved.

Even after the betrayal of the General Strike the Bukharin-Stalin leadership clung pathetically to the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, in spite of repeated snubs. Then, in 1927, when the British government broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR, using ‘communist propaganda in India’ as its pretext, the committee demonstrated its real value as a point of support: the TUC walked out of the committee and denounced the Russians!

The Chinese Revolution

‘The Kuomintang, whose principal group entered into an alliance with the Chinese Communists, represents a revolutionary bloc of workers, peasants, intellectuals and urban democracy on the basis of a community of class interests of these strata in the struggle against the imperialists and the whole militarist feudal order for the independence of the country and for a single revolutionary-democratic government.’
Resolution of the Comintern Executive, March 1926. [2*]

THESE WERE also the years of the Chinese revolution of 1925–27, a gigantic upheaval of world-historic importance.

China in the early 1920s was a semi-colonial country dominated by the ‘spheres of influence’ of rival imperialist powers, of which Britain and Japan were at that time the most important. These powers exercised their control through territorial rights which they held in the coastal cities, with their own troops on the ground to enforce these rights, and through ties with the gangster warlords who divided up the country. The most important of these were the ‘pro-British’ Wu Pei-Fu, who controlled much of central China, and the ‘pro-Japanese’ Chang Tso-Lin, who was dominant in the north. There were also many minor warlords, shiftingly attached to one or other of the big sharks. In the south, in Canton, a weak Chinese nationalist government, that of the Kuomintang (KMT) maintained a precarious existence by making alliances with one or other local warlord. In the capital, Peking, the official national government of China was impotent.

The Kuomintang was a bourgeois nationalist party which affected a vague leftist rhetoric.

‘Its declared aims were Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles: Nationalism, Democracy (people’s rights) and Socialism (people’s livelihood). No concrete proposals gave content to these vague abstractions. The real aim was military power and it was the offer of Soviet military aid which attracted Sun towards an alliance [with the USSR]’ [26]

An agreement was reached between the Kuomintang and the government of the USSR in 1923 which led to the despatch of Russian arms and military and political advisors to Canton the following year. Soon the Kuomintang had a relatively efficient army headed by Chiang Kai-shek, who had received military training in Russia.

The Chinese communist party, founded in July 1921, was still tiny in 1923. That January the Comintern executive

resolved that all members of the Chinese communist party should enter the Kuomintang as individuals, although at the same time the party ‘must maintain its independent organisation ... While supporting the Kuomintang in all campaigns on the national-revolutionary front, to the extent that it conducts an objectively correct policy, the Chinese communist party should not merge with it and should not during these campaigns haul down its own flag.’ [27] How these mutually incompatible aims were to be achieved was not explained.

On 30 May 1925 the British-controlled and officered Shanghai police fired on a demonstration, killing twelve people.

‘The effect was swift and tumultuous. Shanghai, the great foreign stronghold with its Western banks and mills and its foreign areas, was paralysed by a general strike. Even servants left foreign homes ... It soon spread ... Incomplete statistics recorded 135 strikes arising directly out of the May 30th shootings, involving nearly 400,000 workers ...

‘At Hankow on 11 June, a landing party of British soldiers fired upon a demonstration, killing eight and wounding twelve. In Canton, Chinese seamen employed by British shipping companies walked out on 18 June. On 23 June a demonstration of students, workers and military cadets paraded in Canton ... British and French machine-gunners opened fire on the marchers. Fifty-two students and workers were killed and 117 wounded. A boycott of British goods and a general strike were immediately declared. Hong Kong, the fortress of Britain in China, was totally immobilised. Not a wheel turned. Not a bale of cargo moved. Not a ship left anchorage.’ [28]

This explosion was led by individual rebels and young nationalists – and the Chinese communist party. The party grew massively out of it. Soon it had 30,000 members, compared with fewer than a thousand in 1924, and the overwhelming majority were workers in the coastal cities.

The Chinese working class was very new but already large: about three and a half million workers in the modern, mainly foreign-owned sector of industry, plus another eleven million in small enterprises, mainly Chinese-owned. It was also highly concentrated in a few cities. Before the movement that followed 30 May, the unions, new and in many cases led by the Communists, counted their members only in thousands. By the end of 1925, they had three million members. At the same time a peasant movement, based on refusals to pay rent, began to grow in adjacent provinces, particularly around Canton.

All this was highly disconcerting for the Kuomintang leaders, now dominated by Chiang Kai-shek since Sun Yat-sen had died in late 1924. They were nationalists. They knew that without mass popular support they could not hope to break the power of the imperialists and their warlord protegés. So they had to support the protest movements after 30 May. But they were bourgeois nationalists, with innumerable family ties among merchants, capitalists and land-owners, groups which in China were closely intertwined. Workers’ power and peasant revolt were as frightening to them as to the foreign bosses of Jardine Matheson and the Shanghai and Hong Kong Bank.

So the Kuomintang sought to use, control and then destroy the mass movement. This was a very difficult operation. It was in fact impossible without two conditions: first the fast-growing communist party must continue to be subordinated to the Kuomintang; secondly the Kuomintang needed the continued supply of Russian guns and Russian military expertise which alone could make possible the expansion of a reliable ‘professional’ army for use against workers, peasants and warlords alike.

The Bukharin-Stalin leadership guaranteed both. When Chiang Kai-shek launched his first military coup in Canton in March 1926 and imprisoned the local communist party leaders and strike committee activists (for the strikes were still continuing), the Chinese communist party was ordered to submit. In January the CPSU had declared:

‘To our party has fallen the proud and historic task of leading the first victorious proletarian revolution of the world ... We are convinced that the Kuomintang will succeed in playing the same role in the East.’ [29]

Now, after the March coup, the subordination of the Chinese communist party to the Kuomintang was reinforced.

Thus the Chinese communist party was subordinated to the Chinese bourgeoisie in the interests of the foreign policy pursued by the Russian bureaucracy. Stalin’s chief emissary in China, Borodin, declared: ‘The present period is one in which the communists should do coolie service for the Kuomintang.’ [30] That same month a right-wing Kuomintang leader, Hu Han-min, was elected to the praesidium of the Krestintern and gave fraternal greetings to the sixth plenum of the Comintern executive!

‘In March 1926 ... the sixth plenum of the Comintern executive had sanctified the policy of the “bloc of classes” in China. Chiang’s coup had exploded the notion of “community of class interests” on which that policy was based. But the Kremlin leaders, intent upon winning a strong ally in China overcame this difficulty by ignoring it and concealing the fact that power in Canton had passed into the hands of the extreme right wing of the Kuomintang under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. Shortly afterwards, the Political Bureau of the CPSU, against one adverse vote – Trotsky’s – approved the admission of Chiang’s Kuomintang into the Communist International. “In preparing himself for the role of an executioner”, wrote Trotsky, Chiang Kai-shek “wanted to have the cover of world communism – and he got it”.’ [31]

Thus strengthened, Chiang ended the boycott of British goods, re-established ties with British imperialism and launched the ‘Northern expedition’, an attempt at the military conquest of China. This was greeted with enthusiasm by a wave of peasant revolts, which spread ahead of the Kuomintang army. This army was initially small, only 60,000–strong – but the numerically superior forces of the warlords disintegrated.

By February 1927 Chiang’s troops were nearing the Yangtze river. The Chinese communist party launched a general strike in support of the Kuomintang in Shanghai, the largest city still held by warlord troops, and after a bitter struggle the workers seized power there in March. Chiang arrived within days. He proceeded to assemble reliable Kuomintang forces with which to smash the workers’ organisations. The communist party was under strict orders not to resist – representatives of the Comintern executive had told the Chinese communists to hide their arms and in no case to use them. The party continued to woo Chiang and persuade its supporters that all was well.

On 12 April 1927 the Kuomintang forces struck. This was not simply a repetition of the Canton coup. It was a bloodbath, a massacre. Chiang now wanted to reassure the imperialist powers, whose troops still held the foreign concessions in China, that the Kuomintang was ‘safe’. The communist party, the unions and all traces of workers’ organisation in Shanghai were completely and thoroughly eliminated.

But even at the thirteenth hour Bukharin and Stalin would not countenance a break with the Kuomintang. They transferred their allegiance from Chiang to the Kuomintang ‘left’ headed by Wang Ching-wei, which controlled a rival Kuomintang centre based on Wuhan. This was now designated the ‘revolutionary Kuomintang’. In less than three months its leaders had come to terms with Chiang and turned on the communists. Wang Ching-wei was later to become the puppet ruler of Japanese-occupied China from 1938 until his death in 1944.

There was still a large and growing peasant revolt, but the urban workers’ movement was now broken. The communist party leaders outside the cities, notably Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh, became leaders of peasant guerrilla bands. The Kuomintang was never, ultimately, to be able to defeat these peasant bands – but, of course, the class nature of the Chinese communist party, which was now based on the peasantry, was transformed.

There was one final urban spasm in the struggle. An attempted coup was launched in Canton, where the communist party still had a substantial underground organisation. It was timed to coincide with the fourteenth congress of the CPSU in December 1927, where the oppositions inside Russia were to be finally proscribed. Its aim was to give Bukharin and Stalin a ‘victory’ to celebrate, and it was led by Stalin’s personal emissary, Heinz Neumann. Without political preparation, without genuine support, it was crushed within days. Another massacre of workers followed. The Chinese Communist Party’s last working class support was wiped out.

This then was the final fruit of the period of Bukharin’s leadership of the Comintern.



Notes by MIA

1*. This passage actually comes from The Third International After Lenin.

2*. This document can be found in part in vol. 2, pp. 275– 279 (The actual quote is on p. 275). The remainder or of the quote can be found in H.R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Chapter 4.



1. Degras, vol. 2, pp. 77–78.

2. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York 1936), p. 100. [Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch (Part II)]

3. Deutscher, The Tragedy of the Polish Communist Party in Marxism in Our Time (London 1972), p. 123.

4. Lenin, vol. 25, p. 385 (emphasis in the original).

5. See Degras, vol. 2, pp. 151–2.

6. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 85.

7. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 85.

8. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 305 (emphasis in the original).

9. Borkenau, p. 263.

10. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 410.

11. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 296.

12. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, p. 125. [Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch (Part III)]

13. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 1, p. 194.

14. Carr, Interregnum, p. 267.

15. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, pp. 215–6.

16. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, p. 120. [Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch (Part II)]

17. Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, pp. 120–1. [Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch (Part II)]

18. Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, pp. 43–4.

19. Draper, p. 48.

20. Deutscher, pp. 125–6.

21. Deutscher, pp. 135–6.

22. See Hallas and Harman, Days of Hope: The General Strike of 1926 (London 1981) for a brief account. [Duncan Hallas, The Communist Party and the General Strike and Chris Harman, The General Strike]

23. Degras, vol. 2, pp. 260–1.

24. Pearce, Early years of the CPGB in Woodhouse and Pearce, Communism in Britain, p. 165.

25. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, p. 597.

26. Harris, The Mandate of Heaven (London 1978), p. 5.

27. Degras, vol. 2, p. 9.

28. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (New York 1968), p. 70.

29. Quoted in Harris, p. 9.

30. Tilak, The Rise and Fall of the Comintern (Bombay 1947), p. 33.

31. Isaacs, p. 117.


Last updated on 26 July 2018