Leon Trotsky
Third Congress of the Communist International

Speech in Discussion of Tactics and Strategy
July 2, 1921

Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses), pp. 571-581
Translation: John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Bluden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission

First, a very brief formal comment. Comrade Thälmann, whose impassioned speech we just heard, complained that he was not allowed to take the floor after me. But after all, the order of speeches is determined by the speakers’ list. Comrade Thälmann also said that he is a very disciplined comrade. As such he must abide by the discipline of the speakers’ list; he really had no grounds to complain about this objective fact.

Comrade Thälmann also complained – once again unjustifiably – about Comrade Lenin, portraying matters as if Comrade Lenin had said that we are proposing Theses on Tactics and Strategy here and the other delegations do not have the right to present amendments. This was not what he meant, and Comrade Thälmann’s viewpoint on this matter is quite wrong. Lenin said: ‘The theses we are proposing were not concocted and produced by the Russian delegation by gathering in some small office and spending a brief hour writing them up.’ On the contrary! Comrade Thälmann can make the necessary inquiries among the members of his own delegation: he will learn that we conducted lengthy, exhaustive, and at times impassioned negotiations and discussions over the theses, including with members of the German delegation. Various proposals were made, including by the German delegation, in a process of mutual concessions. Our theses are the result of this rather laborious process. I do not claim that these theses were approved by every party, group, and tendency, but I do say that from our point of view, the theses were viewed as a compromise in the sense of a modification to the left. I will take up later just what this term ‘left’ signifies. For now I want only to stress emphatically that we view the theses as the limit of the concessions to the current represented here by many comrades, including Comrade Thälmann. Comrades, many delegates have expressed to me privately their impatience with the fact that the German delegation is taking up rather a great deal of time for such an extensive discussion of its internal affairs. In my opinion, the impatience of these comrades is unwarranted. This involves above all the March Action. Of course it is simply human, all too human, that this very political question is mixed in with personal concerns, personal frictions, and passions. Certainly, some comrades have needlessly sharpened the personal and emotional side of the question, as did Comrade Heckert, whose speech was otherwise very interesting. But I believe we must identify here the main issue, focus in on the main question, and this question is not a German one; it is eminently international. The German party is the first in what we, from our Russian geographical point of view, regard as Western Europe that has developed into an independent, firmly defined, large party and has, for the first time, led a major independent action. And because the new, very new Italian party and the larger French organisation that is also very new as a Communist Party confront conditions that are very similar in this respect, I believe that every delegation, and especially those I have mentioned, have a great deal to learn from this question.

I shall begin my discussion of the March Action with an analysis of the proposed amendments. The congress must choose here between two tendencies. I will, of course, not take up the editorial and factual changes to the first draft of the theses. We have to choose between two tendencies. Between the tendency represented here by Comrade Lenin, Comrade Zinoviev and particularly by the reporter Comrade Radek, and now defended by me; and then the amendments and proposals that give or seek to give expression to a different tendency. It is therefore important to analyse these amendments. I will limit myself to the passage that deals with the March Action. Our proposals say in this regard that we view the March Action ‘as a struggle forced on the VKPD by the government’s attack on the Central German proletariat. We recognise the courageous action of the VKPD, which has demonstrated that it is a party of the revolutionary proletariat of Germany.’ Then we identify the major errors committed during these actions and, in conclusion, provide the following advice:

In order to carefully weigh the possibilities for struggle, the VKPD needs to take into account the facts and considerations that point up the difficulties of a proposed action and work out carefully how they may be countered. But once the party leadership has decided on an action, all comrades must abide by the party’s decisions and carry out this action. Criticism of an action should be voiced only after it has concluded, and then only within the party structures and in its newspapers, and after taking into consideration the party’s situation in relationship to the class enemy. Since Levi disregarded these self-evident requirements of party discipline and conditions for party criticism, the congress approves his expulsion from the party and considers any political collaboration with him by members of the Communist International to be impermissible.

Now Comrade Brand was flatly opposed to making any reference to a cautionary voice to which the party should pay heed. We will perhaps return to Comrade Brand, who takes exception to cautionary voices, statistics, and a great deal more. What is being proposed with regard to these passages by the German and other comrades who signed these amendments? They propose that the Third Congress of the Communist International recognise the VKPD’s March Action as a step forward, saying:

The strongest mass party of Central Europe made the transition to effective struggle. It made an initial attempt by the Communist Party to achieve a leading role in the struggles of the German proletariat, a role which the party identified in its initial programme. The March Action defeated the Independent party [USPD] and the centrist forces hidden within the VKPD itself, exposing their plainly counterrevolutionary character.

And so on and so forth.

So the congress is being asked to state that the March Action was more than a mass struggle, a mass action forced on the working class and thereby on the party, and that the party conducted itself courageously. The congress is also being asked to recognise that the Communist Party made the attempt to establish its leadership role in these struggles. In that case, the congress must also be granted the right to say whether this attempt was successful or unsuccessful. When we say that the March Action was a step forward, we are referring – at least I am – to the fact that the Communist Party was no longer an opposition inside the USPD or a Communist propaganda group but a solid, unified, independent, centralised party, and that it is capable of intervening independently in the proletarian struggle, which occurred for the first time in the March Action.

At the Second World Congress, I had many discussions with French comrades concerning the situation in the trade unions and in the party. I told them, ‘Yes, you are together with the syndicalists, anarchists, and socialists, and still you represent only an opposition.[1] As a result there are certain tendencies and nuances, and even perhaps potential blunders. You will take a great step forward the moment you break free of the old organisation and take the stage as an independent force.’ That has now been fully accomplished.

That does not mean, however, that this initial action, this attempt to play an independent leading role was successful. It is said that we have learned a great deal from this, including from the mistakes. That is what the amendments say. I will not read them out. But it is said there that the great merit of the March Action was that it made possible the identification of errors that had been committed, in order to correct them later on. Well, to seek merits in this fashion is certainly a very bold approach. I told Comrade Thalheimer privately that this reminded me of a Russian who translated an English book in the 1870s and wrote in the preface that he had translated the book so that the whole world could see how completely worthless it was. (Laughter) One does not launch an action simply for the sake of seeing what errors one will commit in order to correct them later on. These amendments are written in a defensive spirit, not one of analysis. In his interesting speech, Comrade Heckert portrayed the March Action by showing that conditions were extremely acute at that time. There was the question of reparations, the occupation of the Ruhr, Upper Silesia, the economic crisis, unemployment, and major strikes. In this broad framework of the world-historical movement, contradictions were intensifying even more, and then the movement of the Central German workers gave, if you will, the last impulse for the party’s offensive. This is truly a fine, honest, economic picture. But another comrade, defending the same action, gave us quite the opposite picture. If, thirty years from now, Comrade Thalheimer – by that time old and grey – takes in hand Mehring’s pen in order to write the history of the Communist Party,[2] he will come upon documents and books –

Radek: In my magic suitcase... (Laughter)

Trotsky (continuing) – documents and books that present quite a different picture of the movement. Specifically, the international situation was somewhat confused, and it was by and large moving in the direction of compromise. The Upper Silesian question was hanging fire, and in any case it could not exert any revolutionary influence. As for the disarmament question in Bavaria, Die Rote Fahne consistently declared, contrary to Heckert’s speech yesterday, that it was increasingly clear that this question would be resolved by a compromise at the expense of the revolutionary workers of Bavaria and of all Germany, and that this would take place without any major clashes on an international scale or between the German and Bavarian governments.[3] What is more, thirty years from now, Comrade Thalheimer will find articles showing that the crisis in Germany had and still has quite a different character from that in the United States or in Britain. In Germany this crisis did not become as catastrophically acute as in those two countries. Given that Germany’s entire economic life is in a state of decay, under the prevailing economic conditions the crisis did not have the power to erupt in that fashion. The number of unemployed in Germany is insignificant in comparison to the United States and Britain.

As for the internal situation, the Social Democrats are partly in the government, partly in the opposition. The same applies to the Independent party, which moves closer and closer to the Social Democrats. The trade unions and their bureaucratic leadership are all against us. What conclusion should be drawn from this? After all, the same comrade tells us that a wall of passivity prevailed among the workers, and the task was to break through this wall through the revolutionary initiative of a resolute minority. Heckert, on the contrary, said that everything was in uproar, everything was stirred up. Much storm and stress. And then came the events in Central Germany. The other comrade says, ‘We were mired everywhere in a swamp. There was a wall of passivity. We had to break through it at any cost.’ Each of these pictures is splendid as a finished, logical portrayal, but I hardly think they fit together. Then again, another comrade – it was Comrade Koenen – stated that there was an open insurrection in Central Germany, while passivity reigned all around. Activity encased in passivity. From all this we get the impression that members of the German delegation still regard this experience in terms of defending it at all costs, rather than investigating and analysing it. Everything we hear is, so to speak, just a means to an end – namely the goal of defending the March Action at all costs before the International. That is hardly likely to succeed. The main issue for me, therefore, is what Comrade Thälmann referred to. He said that if the theses and even the amendments are adopted, ‘we will carry out a reorientation in our country’. I believe that our brave and dogged Comrade Thälmann is quite correct. He must have a very close feel for the masses.

Thälmann: Indeed, a very close feel.

Trotsky: I do not doubt that in the least, especially when I consider the state of mind in which many comrades arrived from Germany, which is reflected in the many articles and pamphlets they wrote in Germany. They had a rather long and uncomfortable journey to Russia, during which they could take a cooler view of the situation. Then the theses appeared, which encountered stubborn resistance. Later there were discussions with other delegations, including the Russians, in which the German comrades could not help noticing that comrades of the International did not view matters through German spectacles. At that point they began to carry out something of a strategic retreat.

There is no denying that the proposed amendments are dangerous, not so much in what they say plainly and directly, but because they seek to express in a somewhat concealed and confused fashion the concepts that were advanced on behalf of the Zentrale among German workers and in the German Communist Party apparatus during the most intense days of struggle and the period that followed. And Comrade Thälmann and other comrades think, ‘We must return home with theses that do not disavow us.’ Well, we do not want that either. We certainly do not want to disavow the party, because the German party is one of our best. But the entire conception of the March Action and the conditions of struggle and victory are presented here and are expressed to its members through many of the German Zentrale’s articles, speeches, and circulars in a fashion that can only be regarded as quite abrupt and dangerous. That is the main issue. They want to influence the situation in such a fashion that the resolution adopted here will be not precise but confused and open to gradual and imperceptible reinterpretation later on to give it a different meaning reflecting something of their viewpoint. That is the main issue. This is impermissible. In our opinion, the danger is far too great to allow so much scope for this spirit of offensive to die away gradually and imperceptibly. We will never accept this; that is excluded. True, you can overwhelm us with a majority decision of this congress. In that case, we will struggle within the framework permitted us by the congress – and only within that framework.

But I hope that the outcome with the resolution on tactics and strategy will be the same as with that on the economic situation. In that case as well, the comrades of our German delegation’s left wing wanted to stage a demonstration. They voted for the theses in principle, but also introduced a resolution that contained outspokenly contrary views. But it then turned out that they no longer dared to stand by what they had previously sought to introduce. And, in the commission, nothing was left of their position but a few insignificant remnants. In my opinion, that is exactly what will happen regarding the tactical and strategic questions. I know from my own experience how extremely unpleasant it is to be disavowed by a congress of the party or the International. However, comrades, the best thing for your situation in Germany is to introduce clarity on this question. I do not believe what Levi said about the party being destroyed by this. But the congress must tell German workers that it was an error, and that the party’s attempt to play a leading role in a great mass movement was unsuccessful. We must establish that this attempt was unsuccessful, in the sense that if there should be a repetition, this excellent party really could be destroyed.

Thalheimer: You know very well that this is excluded.

Trotsky: Excluded for you, yes, but not for the thousands of organised workers who thought the congress would cheer enthusiastically for what we in fact view as an error. (Loud applause) The same is true for our young French friends. The Executive took up the question of the calling up of the class of 1919, questioning whether the French party should have issued the slogan of refusing to obey the call-up order.[4] At that point I asked our young friend Laporte what was meant by that: should those who were called up have offered armed resistance or merely resisted passively? And the comrade replied emphatically, ‘With revolver in hand, of course’. And he thought that in this way he was demonstrating his full agreement with the Third International, his great revolutionary enthusiasm, and his sense of duty. And he was quite serious about it, fully prepared to fight against the call-up with revolver in hand. Of course we had to throw a bucket of cold water on him, and I am sure that the comrade has learned from this. He came into a new milieu here, one he does not encounter just any day, and some of his rough edges were smoothed out.

During these two to three weeks that we spend together here at the congress, our thinking changes in many ways. But what has changed during these two to three weeks in Germany, France, or Hungary? What has changed in these countries? Nothing whatsoever.

This celebrated philosophy of the offensive, which is completely non-Marxist, has arisen from the following curious outlook: ‘A wall of passivity is gradually rising, which is ruining the movement. So let us advance, and break through this wall!’ I believe that an entire layer of comrades in the German party leadership, or close to it, were educated for a stretch of time in this spirit. Now they are waiting to see what the congress will have to say. Should our response be that, while throwing Paul Levi out the window, we speak of the March Action only in the most confused fashion as the first step, a step forward – phrase-mongering to muffle our criticism? That would be a betrayal of our duty. We are obliged to say frankly to the German working class that we regard this philosophy of the offensive as the greatest of dangers, and that to apply it in practice is the greatest of political crimes.

I am in complete agreement with Comrade Zinoviev and, like him, cherish the hope that we will be united in expressing our opinion at this congress. I believe that we cannot make any significant concessions to the so-called Left in this overriding question of policy. Many comrades, including, I believe, those from France, were somewhat concerned that a struggle was being waged against the Left. Comrade Zinoviev spoke to this issue. Fortunately, it is precisely in the French language that the term gauche has two meanings: gauche refers to what stands on the left, and gauche also means ‘clumsy, awkward’.

Interjection: Linkisch.

Trotsky: Yes, linkisch in the negative sense of the word. In German it comes to much the same thing. Well, I believe that in struggling against the so-called Left, we do not at all feel that we are to the right of these ‘Lefts.’ We see no party to the left of us, because we are the International, the Communist, Marxist International, the most revolutionary party possible. That means we are a party that is capable of utilising all situations and all possibilities, not only to conduct struggles but also to achieve victories. That is our true goal. It is sometimes forgotten that we learn the art of strategy, precisely and soberly estimate the enemy’s power, and analyse the situation, rather than rushing into battle to break the wall of passivity or, in the words of another comrade, ‘to activate the party’.

And here, obviously, statistics have a role to play. This is true despite the fact that, as Comrade Brand says, opportunists also make good use of statistics. In his speech, he counterposed statistics and the sword, and in a second speech the charge of opportunism was flung at us. Such an outlook is dangerous for our Italian comrades, who will in the future have a great deal to do with statistics. If I were to talk about Italy in the style of Heckert and Thalheimer, I might have said: ‘Here is a country in which the workers occupied the factories, the Serrati forces betrayed them, the Fascists have assaulted the workers’ print shops and burned their offices. The party’s call must be: Forward against the enemy with all our strength. A party that fails in this is cowardly and will stand utterly condemned before the court of history.’ But let us examine the situation not with such phrase-mongering but with a sober assessment of conditions. Then we can say only what Zinoviev said here. You must win the confidence of the working class anew, because betrayal has made workers much more cautious than they were previously. They will think that they heard much phrase-mongering from Serrati. He said pretty much the same thing and then betrayed them. What guarantee is there that the new party will not also betray them? They will want to see the party in action before they go into decisive struggles under its leadership.

We have three rather well-defined tendencies at the congress, three groups that have taken shape temporarily as tendencies. Without examining them, there is no way to size up accurately the forces at play in this congress. First of all, there is the German delegation, which came here straight from the fires of the March Action and expressed their outlook most sharply in the philosophy of the offensive. Many German comrades have, of course, pulled back from that now.

Then there are the Italian comrades, who are following the same path – unsurprisingly, because the party is on the rebound from the centrists. The Italian comrades say that now they finally have a free hand, now they can carry out their duty, launch revolutionary mass actions, and thus be revenged for Serrati’s betrayal.

And now, comrades, as you know, it has been said not only by Levi but also by the capitalist and Independent [USPD] press that the March Action was ordered by the Executive and that Levi was expelled because he was not willing to obey the order. Many a comrade in the French and Czech parties wondered whether they too would receive such orders given in the name of the Executive, and, if they then refused to carry them out, they would then be expelled. Such a view may well indicate that these comrades are not that familiar with the spirit of the Executive, but there are many comrades in the Communist International who have such fears. So we have these two points of view here.

There is also a third point of view, expressed, we hope, in our theses. This viewpoint states that it would of course be absurd for the Executive to adopt this tactical philosophy of intensifying struggles through more or less artificial mass actions, sending off orders to this country and that. Quite the contrary. We have now grown strong and thus face the responsibility of leading the mass movement as an independent, centralised party. This places on us the responsibility to analyse the situation in every country quite precisely, with a cool eye, and then – when it is possible and necessary – attack with passionate determination. That is exactly what our proposed theses say.

A comrade tells us that there are no leftist comrades in France. That is quite true. The French party is going through a period of moulting. Read its official publication, L'Humanité. You will perceive in its agitation and in the speeches a rather confused and vague tone. Thus you find in L'Humanité the ‘swinishness’ – to borrow a term from Comrade Bukharin, associated with the writings of Longuet and his close associates. The newspaper is sustained by a Communist resolve, but this resolve is not effectively harnessed. Communist thought is not precise and clear enough. The resolve required to drive the situation forward and clarify it does not shine through. Given that we do not find this in the official publication, it is excluded for me that the party can acquire overnight the capacity to initiate and lead broad revolutionary mass actions. The first precondition is that a clear, revolutionary thought and resolve take shape in it and find expression in all its agitation and propaganda. It may take two, three, or six months or possibly a year for this process of crystallisation to take place. That depends on the conditions. Many comrades will find that it does not take place quickly enough.

They do not take into account the inward state of this process – the revolutionary metamorphosis of a large party. They want to skip over that, and it seems to them that the only thing lacking for a revolutionary action is a pretext. So they say, ‘Frossard and the others just won’t do it. Here we have the perfect occasion. This is where we can make a start.’ The call-up of the class of 1919, for example – and precisely in France, where anarchists and syndicalists are so strong. Given French temperament and the Paris working class it is possible that a good segment of this working class, an excellent segment, which can have decisive weight in major struggles, can be drawn by younger, less experienced, and impatient workers into an action that could be disastrous for the movement in France for many years. That is the situation.

Of course it can be said that this is an attack on this or that comrade who made a bad speech, but that is unimportant. Well, comrades, if everyone could form an opinion on their own, then we would have no need for an International. Our task lies precisely in perceiving a danger even if it is very small, expressing it clearly, drawing attention to it – even, if you will, exaggerating it. For me or you to exaggerate a danger – delivering a warning in a loud voice – is no great problem. But the opposite danger, that of missing such an error, allowing it to grow to the point where it collides against a provocation, leading us into a perilous adventure – that is a great danger indeed. That explains the passion with which many comrades have spoken on this issue.

Let me tell you, sometimes, when I talk privately to this or that comrade, I notice that he does not understand me. He thinks that I am older, while he is younger. I already have some grey hairs, while he is more determined. He considers it to be a matter of temperament and says, ‘You are too cautious.’ Then I say to myself that the greatest danger lies in the fact that certain comrades do not understand the nature of danger. He is politically inexperienced in a revolutionary sense. He does not understand that this warning, while very real, is also limited in character. He thinks we are moving to the right. No, that is not the case.

You have broken with the opportunists and you are remaking this movement from within. But look around you: there exist in this world not only opportunists, but also classes, capitalist society, the police, the army, definite economic conditions. Some are for you, others against, still others rather neutral. It is a big, complex world, and it is quite a task to figure things out. You must learn this when you answer me. You want me to fight the centrists? But all the resolutions of the First and Second Congresses remain in full force. And the entire activity that we will be engaged in is, after all, nothing else but a frontal blow at opportunism. But our task does not lie solely in always condemning opportunism theoretically. We have to overcome capitalist society in practice, pin the bourgeoisie to the ground, and destroy it. That is the task. And for this task, I must repeat, we have to unify the cold language of statistics with the passionate language of revolutionary force. We will learn to do that, and we will triumph. (Loud applause and cheers)



1. During the Second Congress in July – August 1920, French Communists were still an oppositional, although growing, minority within the Socialist Party.

2. A reference to Franz Mehring’s 1,500-page Geschichte der deutschen Sozial-demokratie [History of German Social Democracy], covering the years from 1830 to 1891.

3. To carry out the disarmament clauses imposed by the Versailles Treaty, on 19 March 1921 the German government passed a law calling for general disarmament within Germany, removing the question from the jurisdiction of each federal state. The law called for the dissolution of armed right-wing groups, which were particularly strong in Bavaria.

4. On 3 May 1921 the French government called up the conscription class of 1919, some 200,000 men who had reached draft age that year, to meet its manpower needs for occupying the Ruhr Valley, with the goal of forcing Germany to pay war reparations.