Joseph Hansen

The First Four Congresses

(Summer 1958)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, pp.107-108.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Volume I 1919-1922

Selected and edited by Jane Degras
Oxford University Press, New York. 1956. 463 pp. $9.60.

This book deserves careful study by everyone interested in the application of Marxist theory to politics, particularly as it applies to the difficult problem of building the socialist movement. For students of the history of the Communist International it is a most welcome and useful compilation of the key documents of the highly important first four congresses.

The work of these international gatherings is scarcely known today. I daresay that most rank-and-file members of the Communist party have never heard of the discussions and decisions. Socialists in other sections of the radical movement, more given to following their own inclinations in reading, generally have a better acquaintance with this period. But even here, it must be regretfully admitted, ignorance outweighs knowledge.

The reasons for this anomaly are not difficult to ascertain. Translations of the material in the early twenties were few, incomplete and scattered; they are rarities today. It might seem that the Communist party stood to gain by compiling the documents, publicizing them, and supplying commentaries on them, as it has with innumerable other topics. But, alas, in the volume at hand Stalin’s name appears only twice, once in the appendix, where he is listed as a member of the large executive committee elected at the Second Congress, and once in a note by the editor that although the future dictator was supposedly a delegate at the First Congress “there is no evidence, either in the records of the congress or in the accounts written by participants and observers, that he took any part in its meetings.”

Some of the leading participants, such as Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin and Trotsky, whose names appear throughout, were finally murdered by Stalin as “fascist mad dogs.” Since the Kremlin’s secret political police made out that the criminal bent of these figures and some of their wrecking activities extended back to the first days of the Soviet Union, it was scarcely in the interest of the frame-up to publicize what Stalin’s victims were really doing and what they were really interested in at the time.

Finally, Stalin’s policies were in absolute contradiction to those worked out at the first four congresses. An example can be cited that is still of current interest, involving, as it does, Stalin’s efforts to sow illusions first in the League of Nations and later in the United Nations:

“The so-called League of Nations is nothing but the insurance contract by which the victors in the war mutually guarantee each other’s spoils. For the bourgeoisie, the desire to re-establish national unity, to ‘re-unite with the ceded parts of the country,’ is nothing but an attempt of the defeated to assemble forces for new wars. The reunification of nations artificially torn apart is also in accordance with the interests of the proletariat; but the proletariat can attain genuine national freedom and unity only by means of revolutionary struggle and after the downfall of the bourgeoisie. The League of Nations and the entire post-war policy of the imperialist States disclose this truth even more sharply and clearly, everywhere intensifying the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of the advanced countries, accelerating the destruction of petty-bourgeois national illusions about the possibility of peaceful coexistence and of the equality of nations under capitalism.” (From the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions drafted and introduced by Lenin at the Second Congress.)

Of special interest is the picture that emerges from these documents of the Leninist team of leaders at work. A common stereotype of today is that one or two great men – Lenin, or Lenin-Trotsky (or Stalin!) – completely dominated the scene. When the genius spoke, that was it; the rank and file plunged at once into the brilliant course thought up to meet the emergency. The truth is that these top leaders, who were indeed dominant in intellect and political acumen, found themselves at home in a minority. Even with the prestige of having successfully led a revolution they were hard pressed at times to get a majority on crucial questions. Moreover, majority backing did not always coincide with correct estimates; they made errors, some of them of considerable consequence. Lenin, for example, against the opposition of Trotsky, favored a military counterattack on Polish territory, a campaign that ended in a costly defeat for the Soviet Union.

However, these men, thoroughly trained in Marxist theory and practice, the hardest of schools, knew how to collaborate in a common cause. Their teamwork at the first four congresses of the Communist International is a shining example of how such contrasting types as Lozovsky and Bukharin, Radek and Lenin, Zinoviev and Trotsky were able to combine their knowledge, experience and various skills in the difficult work of assembling a capable new revolutionary leadership, the central task that faced these meetings of socialist-minded delegates from all over the world. The human material itself, it should be added, was somewhat refractory despite the admiration and respect displayed for the leaders of the October Revolution and their achievements.

How the Leninist team saw the immense problem and how they tried to solve it cannot but be of absorbing interest to socialists of today, who see themselves faced with an analogous problem following the disintegration of the Communist International under the influence of Stalinism.

At the First Congress, held in Moscow, March 2-6, 1919, the main target was the bureaucratized leadership of the Social Democracy. The delegates reviewed the debacle of the Second International due to the leadership’s policy of supporting the various capitalist governments in World War I. This had splintered the Second International irremediably in 1914. A major split occurred between the sections supporting the Allied and those supporting the Central powers. A less conspicuous but even more fateful division occurred between the national patriots of both sides and the internationalists, who reaffirmed their revolutionary socialist solidarity across the imperialist trenches. The latter tendency had moved toward the formation of a new international organization during the war years; the First Congress brought this process to its consummation by founding the Communist International.

Great hopes were held of an early success for the new polarizing center. The insurgency of the European masses was in evidence throughout the continent, above all in Germany. Radek said at a later congress that the belief in an immediate world revolution was even shared by such imperialist statesmen as Lloyd George and Clemenceau. The formidable question that faced the First Congress was “Can a brand new leadership, competent enough to lead the revolutionary upsurge to success, be forged in time?”

No thought was entertained, of course, that the old leadership of the Social Democracy might be reformed. Had the experience of 1914 not been enough to destroy such an illusion, the current role of the Social Democracy in blocking the development of the working-class revolution was more than sufficient. Another possibility, of considerable appeal to leaders less realistic than the seasoned Bolsheviks, was the direct action of the raw masses. From their own bitterly won experience, however, the founders of the new international realized that the necessary organizing cadres were to be found mainly in the ranks of the Second International. And so their primary appeal was in that direction.

The first major complication in this course was the success of the Russian workers government in stabilizing its rule. In 1920 the Second Congress faced the paradox that the appeal to the ranks of the Second International had met with response from a section of the Social Democratic leadership. The evidence showed, however, that these centrist leaders aimed at bending with the universal enthusiasm among the working people for the Russian Revolution without letting go of anything essential.

Thus it became necessary to precipitate a crystallization of political tendencies among the newly won forces. In contrast to Stalin’s later policies, Lenin sought to drive away those “friends” from whose treacherous instability the Soviet Union were better saved. He therefore proposed the famous twenty-one conditions for admission to the Communist International for which the Social Democrats have roundly abused him ever since. These aimed at defining the International as a fighting organization and requiring deeds as well as words in evidence of acceptance of the responsibilities of membership. The conditions had the desired effect. The “friends” drew back and the infant organization emerged with a promising body of young energetic leaders blazing with zeal.

Their political insight, however, left much to be desired. This could be acquired only through experience, an educational process that was to prove costly in the conditions of the time.

The task of building a revolutionary socialist International was, of course, intimately interrelated with world economic, social and political developments. These were the subject of sweeping analysis and general orientation at all four congresses. Most of the documents dealing with such topics preserve an astonishing freshness and validity for the current scene. Particularly instructive is the development of Leninist policy in the light of new problems and deepening understanding flowing from the experience of winning and holding state power.

The post-war revolutionary upsurge in Europe subsided. But the cadres who had come to the Communist International, especially those in Germany, acted as if the previous situation still existed. The result was adventuristic actions and ultra-leftist policies that seriously damaged the standing of the young organization. The turn in the objective situation and the necessity for an adjustment of tactics were the principal topics at the Third Congress in 1921. General agreement was reached on following the policy of the “United Front.”

This signified a change in attitude toward the leadership of the Social Democracy. Proposals were now advanced for collaboration in common actions where it was possible to reach at least minimum agreement. Critical appraisal of Social Democratic policies were not abandoned; in fact, the Communist International insisted on the democratic right of all parties in a united front to freely voice opinions about each other’s basic programmatic positions. It was the hope of the Communists, naturally, to prove in action that they stood in the forefront of the working class struggle and that their program corresponded best to its fundamental, long-range interests.

The prerequisite for such a freewheeling policy was the previous assemblage of at least the core of a new leadership politically mature enough to discharge its responsibilities in limited blocs with a leadership of the character of the Social Democracy.

The Fourth Congress, which convened in 1922, extended the discussion to highly complex questions. Italian fascism had now appeared on the scene, placing the intricate problems of this new phenomenon before those fighting for the socialist alternative. In the Far East, national-revolutionary movements having a peasant base in pre-capitalist economies tested the famous flexibility of the Bolsheviks. In Europe the problem of governments that were anti-capitalist and yet not socialist – that were perhaps even anti-socialist – challenged for the first time both the theoretical and political capacities of Marxism. Work in various fields such as the trade unions, the youth, the Negro struggle, women’s rights, came up for consideration.

This Congress, the last one before the death of Lenin, testified to the success of the Bolsheviks in placing their knowledge and talents, as was their fraternal duty, at the disposal of other sections of the world socialist movement. An international organization capable of highly disciplined and militant struggle had now to be reckoned with in world politics.

In hailing this achievement, how were the delegates to foresee the subversion and eventual destruction of the Communist International by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the new reactionary force already rising with alarming swiftness in the Soviet Union?

I hope that these brief comments are sufficient to indicate the value of the work of the first four congresses of the Communist International. Now a word about the book itself. It is not a complete record. Quite a few documents are missing. Only excerpts are offered from others. By way of compensation, important documents issued by the Executive Committee between congresses have been included.

The notes provided by Jane Degras have been kept to a minimum. They are often helpful and informative, but it must be added that sometimes the selection and interpretation of items indicate an editorial bias.

Despite these limitations, the volume is to be recommended as an indispensable supplement to the two volumes of Trotsky’s First Five Years of the Communist International.


Last updated on: 5.3.2006