Source: Published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/472-toward-the-united-front), pp. 160-169.
Translation: Translation by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission.
Comrades, when the Executive delivers its report, we all shiver before the approaching tempests that will assail the its position from both Left and Right. The Right sector, to the degree that it exists, has not yet been heard from. Comrade Varga has in his charming manner sought to show that he does not belong to the Right, and we will take him at his word. So I am obliged to deal chiefly with the attacks from the ‘Left’, and to polemicise with them, even though I believe that in the situation where the proletariat now finds itself internationally, the danger threatening us comes not from the Left but from the Right. (Very true) The Right danger consists first of all in the fact that it is very hard to carry out Communist politics at a time when the masses are not on the assault. In a period of assault every worker feels instinctively the need for revolutionary action, and the party acts more as a regulator than as the driving force. In a period like the present, one of preparation between two revolutionary waves, communism signifies above all difficult intellectual preparatory work of the party and the youth of our Communist Parties. In addition, given their Social Democratic past, it is not easy but rather quite difficult to unify two things: the mass character of the party and its Communist character. Consider the situation in the French Communist Party and the Norwegian party, the two parties most typical of the Communist International’s right wing: the debate on the situation of these parties will constitute the most difficult part of the work of this congress. If I now concern myself only with the two Left comrades who have spoken here, it is not because I consider the danger of a drift to the left to be greater, but because so far no one from the Right has spoken.
I will start with Comrade Vajtauer, representing the Czechoslovak opposition. I must make clear at the outset that the speech of Comrade Vajtauer contrasts sharply with that of Comrade Fischer. Comrade Fischer’s speech dealt with the party’s errors. Comrade Fischer may have analyzed these errors rightly or wrongly, but no one who heard her speech had the impression that the comrade speaking did not belong to the party. Everyone understood that we were dealing with an organic component of the German Communist Party, far from the worst in its ranks.
Comrade Vajtauer’s speech could only arouse quite a different reaction. Comrades, we have a rough idea what the Czechoslovakia opposition is, despite the difficulty in grasping its theoretical character. When Comrade Neurath tried to do this, my friend Comrade Bukharin, who certainly does not belong to the Right, was so affected that we wanted to take him under the arms and drag him unconscious from the hall. (Laughter) Nonetheless it would be quite wrong to take this phenomenon lightly and dismiss it as a joke.
The Czechoslovak Left deserves to be taken seriously, not only because it includes outstanding veteran proletarian forces in the party like Comrade Šturc, but because it signals a danger. There are six hundred thousand unemployed in Czechoslovakia, and a tendency crops up in the party and presents theses saying: We are faced with an immediate struggle for power! When such a tendency appears in such a situation, we should not focus solely on whether or not they have formulated their ideas clearly. Rather this shows that in the critical situation in which the Czechoslovak party now finds itself, a segment of it is discontented with the party’s attitude. They believe that the party is not struggling hard enough. And although this segment may still be small, given six hundred thousand unemployed, there is always enough raw material available so that we may see developing out of such a nucleus of opposition a policy that can hurl the party into premature battles.
For this reason, I believe we must deal with these matters seriously. But I must say that the opposition has not made that easy for us. Vajtauer appears here in the name of the Proletarian Opposition, as it calls itself in the Czechoslovak party, in the name of an opposition that expresses the mistrust of the proletarian Acheron. We had the honour of becoming acquainted with Comrade Vajtauer in the Communist and workers’ movement only two years ago. So after this glorious revolutionary activity, Comrade Vajtauer comes here and claims, roughly, that Šmeral and the majority of the party executive are conspiring with the bourgeoisie and Masaryk, and the Czechoslovak bourgeoisie is demanding of the Czechoslovak Communists: Give me the head of Vajtauer, and then we will conclude a coalition! Vajtauer comes and tell us that in Kladno, where someone as tested as a Comrade Muna – who has performed his duty as a revolutionary in a time that was somewhat more difficult than the period in which Comrade Vajtauer blessed the international Communist Party with his activity – Vajtauer comes in the name of his opposition and says that in Kladno under the leadership of Muna’s party a strike was broken. He flings such things around and then comes and says: Choose between me and these traitors. And then he says: If what I am doing here is anarchism, then, if you please, we will be anarchists. Given all this, we say: A little more modesty please, Comrade Vajtauer. You come here and say: Yes, discipline, provided you vote for me. In this case, we will certainly talk with the opposition, but we will first of all tell this opposition: Please, if you want to present a proletarian opposition here, then choose as your representatives people who, if they are not proletarians – for not everyone has the good fortune to be born a proletarian – at least possess a certain sense of responsibility toward the history of the proletarian party.
Let’s get to the point, comrades. What has Comrade Vajtauer said here? He has interpreted Šmeral’s dreams. He has said that Šmeral wants to become a minister, as it were. He did not lay it out bluntly. That is an approach that reflects Vajtauer’s anarchist background. He did not say that on such and such a day Šmeral said something on the basis of which I claim that he wants to be a minister. He has interpreted Šmeral’s dreams. There is a reason for that. In the past, Vajtauer undertook scientific study of the interpretation of dreams, and he now is applying this method to the Communist International. (Laughter) We ask what the Comintern Executive is supposed to make of this dream interpretation? The only thing to do is to put it in an almanac of dreams.
The Comintern Executive has before it the following facts: The opposition current had a majority in the Executive up to March this year. That is the first fact. The second is that in July this year a session of the Expanded Executive took place in which we dealt thoroughly with the Czech matters. After lengthy efforts, Comrade Jílek signed with us a resolution saying that there are no principled differences in the Czechoslovak party. That was in July, and in September the party stood in danger that Šmeral was selling out – in the dream of Comrade Vajtauer – and comrades around Zinoviev are frivolous people because they do not believe in his dream. (Interjection: ‘And especially the International’.)
Comrades, Vajtauer may threaten us so menacingly with leaving this International and declaring for a separate International, but we have experienced something like this before. At the Third Congress the leaders of the KAPD spoke. I'd like to now suggest that you read the most recent article of Comrade Gorter. After the KAPD split, Gorter declared every strike to be a counter-revolutionary act. He claimed that everything was headed to the right, and the task of the Communists is to stand there and say, nothing can help but the revolution. Even if the voice of Comrade Gorter is added to that of Comrade Vajtauer and they both declare for a separate International, we will bear this fate with the courage that characterises us as Communists, at the risk of possibility seeing a third voice added to that of comrades Vajtauer and Gorter.
If we are not to take Comrade Vajtauer’s speech simply as humour, then we must ask him that he not speak a second time in this manner to a congress of fifty-two communist parties. We cannot deal definitively with the Czechoslovak question in this phase of the debate. It will be examined with the greatest care in the commission, and the congress will carefully take into account whatever is correct in the warnings of this comrade regarding the state of the party. For we say plainly, when a couple of honest proletarians raise a warning voice, in this period when the greatest danger comes from the right, we do not have the option of passing over the matter in silence or with a joke.
Provisionally, however, the Executive must stand by the results of its previous work on Czechoslovakia, which was, broadly speaking, that the policies of the Czechoslovak party are correct. That is why we said to the comrades of the opposition, who have raised the banner of rebellion: You have acted wrongly, but we have the duty not to carelessly throw proletarians overboard, even if their criticisms are quite incomprehensible. So we will try once more to speak to the conscience of these comrades and discuss with them. That is why we reversed the decision of the Czechoslovak party.
When Comrade Neurath says that we have destroyed and shattered the Central Committee’s authority, I say that if we destroyed it, we could not have shattered it, and if we shattered it, we have not destroyed it. But still the hope remains that this authority will be stronger when we leave this hall, if the work of the commission shows that the Central Committee is doing everything possible to transform the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia into a good party, fit for struggle. No one claims that it has already reached that state. And if Comrade Vajtauer says that Comrade Zinoviev is telling us, look at young Šmeral, he is a model! In this sign shalt thou conquer! I don’t know when he said that. I value Comrade Šmeral much more than many Left comrades. I am convinced of his good will in carrying out the decisions of this congress, and unlike many comrades I harbour no trace of suspicion toward Šmeral, although I have spoken quite sharply against him. But I know one thing: we do not yet have a model Communist Party, not there or in any country, for the simple reason that such a such an exemplary youth must first be beaten for several years (Laughter) – not only here at this congress on the basis of wisdom that we have drawn from the Russian revolution, but on the basis of the lessons of your own revolution in the West. There is no exemplary Communist Party, because such a party can be created only through revolution. It must be created in the fire of civil war, and Czechoslovakia has not yet gone through such experiences.
I now come to the speech of Comrade Fischer. In her speech, she named a great number of weaknesses in the Rathenau action that we also immediately perceived in the Executive here in Moscow, as we received the detailed reports on the course of events. When voices are raised in the party, saving, ‘In an action that is to be carried out by the masses, no secrets from the masses’, and ‘Don’t let the Social Democrats dictate that when we conduct negotiations with them, our comrades will not be publicly informed in full detail’, and ‘The Communist press has to assess every development from a Communist point of view and not run after the corpse of Rathenau shouting “republic, republic"’ – when that is said, we can only answer that we would prefer that this would be not the voice of the opposition but the consciousness of the entire party. (Very true!)
The fact that the German party committed errors at the beginning of the Rathenau campaign can be denied only by a sworn advocate of every party executive. When we saw Rote Fahne [Red Banner] here, Comrade Zinoviev said a couple of times, ‘The devil take them, why are they so wrought up about the republic, about this Rathenau? Not a word of criticism about these things!’ And that was our general impression. The party was clinging excessively to the Social Democrats out of fear of isolation.
If that was the limit of Comrade Fischer’s criticism, she would be quite correct, but there are other aspects to this criticism. Comrade Fisher says, among other things, that she is not opposed in principle to negotiations at a leadership level and also not in principle in favour, but things must be done with caution. Well and good, but her politics, her criticism of the party in the Central Bureau [Zentrale] or the Central Committee did not consist simply of these obvious generalities. Her opposition conveyed a constant suggestion: You are too preoccupied with preserving your virtue. (Very true)
Comrade Fischer says that we had the railway workers’ strike, a brilliant action without leaders. We went to the masses again and again and said the same thing as the masses were saying, repeating, ‘Masses, masses’, and no leader was there. By the second action there were leaders there, and although she is not in principle opposed to that, the results were harmful. (Interjection: ‘The congress of factory councils?’) I'll come to that in a moment.
Comrades, what actually happened? When we are in the accursed position of negotiating with the leaders, the opposition, with Comrade Ruth Fischer in the lead, become exceptionally nervous. I experienced this business during the conference of the three executives. Every day that passed without us having broken with the others seemed to Comrade Fischer and the opposition to have been a wasted day. And when negotiations began in the Rathenau crisis, the opposition came every day to the Central Bureau with a motion demanding either an ultimatum or a break-up. Why? That’s what is so mechanical about the whole outlook of the Left comrades. Our united front tactic does run according to a schema. We now know one thing in general: We are the weaker side. We face great barriers on the road to the masses; the Social Democracy seeks to isolate us from its workers. When the pressure from the masses is great enough, they must negotiate with us. And when they negotiate, we have an interest in breaking this off only at the point when we have compelled them to set the largest possible masses in motion or when it is already been clearly established for everyone that they do not want any action. To break off earlier, or even to have an impulse not to sit an hour with these people – or even half an hour – that is evidence that we feel ourselves to be weaker than we actually are. The party should take a clear position in its press from the very beginning, explaining to the masses: Yes, we are negotiating with the Social Democrats, but if you do not take action, they will betray you. If we did that, then we could confidently negotiate further up to the point where this betrayal has been fully revealed. But rather than pressing the party to take a clear position before the masses, you are always tugging the party by the hand to keep it from negotiating. That displays a kind of nervous hysteria that does not serve the party well.
The overall situation is that we enter into negotiations in the understanding that in practice they will still deceive us, this time and next time. If we are not to appear as dupes, we must say that to the masses from the outset. But we should activate a process of breaking off from them only at the point when we are capable of doing alone what they do not wish to do together with us.
When we discussed the Rathenau crisis among ourselves, here in the Executive, I always asked – and I believe this is the basic point – can the party take the risk of going up alone against the monarchists? In my view, for the party to have moved into action on its own would have been a greater error than any that were actually made. ('Very true!’) For we learned after the Kapp putsch that the Social Democracy is only waiting for the moment when they can join with the monarchists to hurl themselves on us. And for the party to have avoided that is not an error but an achievement.
At the same time we tell the party not to approach such situations with a rigid concept in your heads that we will always be weaker. ('Very true’) During the course of such an action the mood of the masses can give us such great strength that we are immediately able to press forward on our own. The art of tactics in such a situation is to advance carefully and not to break off prematurely, yet to be ready for this break and to prepare the masses for this break through the political line of our agitation and the way we handle the entire situation.
On the whole, as Comrade Zinoviev has already pointed out in his theses last year on the united front, the united front tactic involves very great dangers. These dangers flow from the fact that we are in a transitional period leading to a new revolutionary upsurge. During this time of transition the broad masses have a feeling that there is nothing they can do differently from the others. They do not have a feeling that revolutionary action is possible, and there can easily arise in the party a soft twilight mood, so to speak – a disinclination to act on one’s own; a conviction that only arm-in-arm with Scheidemann can we Communists go strolling down Unter den Linden. The party leadership and party press are affected by this mood and are too quick to slip over into Social Democratic politics. This is a real danger. When you begin an action, you must be aware not only of the danger of being crushed if you go into the streets alone, but also of the danger that the Communist Party will disappear among the masses and fall into a soup with the Social Democrats.
As for the question of the workers’ government, I would like to draw attention to a very striking formulation of Comrade Fischer. She said that there is a danger that communism might style its hair in Western fashion. I'd like to say a few words about this danger. Comrade Zinoviev said in the Expanded Executive, for us the workers’ government is a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. That’s how Comrade Meyer quoted him; I do not know if he used exactly those words. In my opinion, this definition is not right. But it arises out of a concern, one that Comrade Fischer has described with the words ‘Western hairstyle’. For many comrades, the idea of a workers’ government is a kind of soft downy cushion. They say that the devil knows when our dictatorship will come, and it is certainly a very tricky business to conduct agitation for the slogan of the dictatorship; I'd rather just say workers’ government, which has a very gentle and innocent sound. No one knows what it is. Perhaps it will come to be. But in any case it does not appear to be so dangerous.
We must banish this danger through the character of our agitation. The workers’ government is not the dictatorship of the proletariat – that is clear. It is one of the possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat, based in the fact that the worker masses in the West and are not politically amorphous and unstructured, as they were in the East. They are structured in parties, and they cling to these parties. When the revolutionary tempest broke out in the East, in Russia, it was easier to bring them directly into the camp of communism. For you that is much more difficult. The German, Norwegian, Czechoslovak workers will much more readily take a stand of ‘no coalition with the bourgeoisie, but rather a coalition with the workers’ parties that can secure our eight-hour day, give us a bit more bread, and so on’. That leads to the establishment of such a workers’ government, whether through preliminary struggles or on the basis of a parliamentary combination. It is nonsense the reject in doctrinaire fashion the possibility of such a situation.
The next question is whether we lean back on our soft cushions and relax, or whether we try to bring these masses, on the basis of their illusions, into struggle to achieve the programme of the workers’ government. If we conceive of the workers’ government as a soft cushion, we will not only drive it into bankruptcy, but also ourselves suffer political defeat. We will stand with the Social Democratic as a new type of swindler. We must maintain the masses’ understanding that the workers’ government is worthless unless the workers stand behind it, taking up arms and building factory councils that push this government and do not allow it to make compromises with the Right. If that is done, the workers’ government will be the starting point of a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat and will in time make way for a soviet government. Rather than being a soft cushion, it will open up a period of struggle for power, using revolutionary methods.
I believe one of the comrades said that the workers’ government is not a historical necessity but a historical possibility. In my opinion that is the right formulation. It would be entirely wrong to present a picture that the evolution of humanity from ape to people’s commissar necessarily passes through a phase of workers’ government. (Laughter) But this variant is historically possible, above all in a number of counties where strong proletarian movements stand beside peasant movements, or where the working class is as large as in Britain, where the bourgeoisie has no direct major instruments of power against the working class. In Britain a parliamentary victory of the Labour Party is quite possible. That will not happen in the present elections, but it is possible, and the question will then arise, what is this workers’ government? Is it nothing more than a new edition of the bourgeois-liberal government, or can we force it to be more? I believe Austen Chamberlain was right to say that if a Labour Party government is formed in Britain, it will start with Clynes in power and end with the Left in power, because it has to solve the problem of joblessness.
So, comrades, I believe that the Executive is basically correct in this question in how it presents the problem, warning on the one hand against an complete intransigence that says ‘soviet government or nothing’, and also against the illusion that tries to convert the workers’ government into a parachute.
Comrades, as I said briefly with regard to the rules of order, the questions to be decided in the rest of the agenda will involve merely working out the details of our battle plans. The battle plan will be in place at the moment when you approve that the united front as it has been proposed by the Expanded Executive is the next road that we have to follow. I believe that the experiences we have accumulated in recent years must convince even the blind that no other road is open to us. Either we take this road, or we go the way of Gorter, who wanders alone under the stars crying out the word ‘revolution’. The road of the united front is much more difficult than just busting everything up, which seems easier and more agreeable. But if we do not have the strength to do that, if this road is necessary, we must take it, in full awareness of the dangers lurking on it from the right, and also in firm confidence that this road will harm not us but the Social Democrats. Otherwise the Second International would not be trying so hysterically and frantically to break down all bridges to us. We are not doing that. And this is not because we aim to merge with the Scheidemanns, but in the conviction that by embracing them we will crush them. (Loud applause)
1. Acheron, the river of woe, is one of the rivers that separate Hades from the land of the living.
2. Among Gorter’s writings of that time, his ‘Open Letter to Comrade Lenin’ (1920) and his call for a ‘Fourth Communist Workers’ International’ (1921) are available at: www.marxists.org.
3. The reference is to the ‘Conference of the Three Internationals’, a meeting of executive committee delegations of the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Communist Internationals, held in Berlin, 2 – 5 April 1922. The conference was called by the Bureau of the Two-and-a-Half International to consider proposals for united action and a united congress of workers’ organisations. Comintern representatives at the Berlin conference supported these initiatives, but leaders of the Second International raised objections, particularly with regard to the Comintern’s united front policy, the Red Army’s incursion into Georgia in 1921, and political prisoners in Soviet Russia. The conference issued a call for united May Day demonstrations and set up a coordinating ‘Commission of Nine’, but the unity initiative collapsed the following month.
4. The ECCI 1921 text drafted by Zinoviev is appended to the Fourth Congress Theses on Tactics.
5. Unter den Linden is the major boulevard of downtown Berlin; Scheidemann was a central leader of the SPD.
6. Four days after this session, the Conservative Party won the British general elections. In the subsequent vote, in December 1923, the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald gained enough seats to form a minority government the following month.