Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

Speech on Comrade Radek’s [1] Report
on “Tactics of the Comintern”

At the Third Congress

Fourteenth Session, July 2, 1921

FIRST, A BRIEF formal comment. Comrade Thälmann [2], whose passionate speech we just heard, has complained that he was not allowed to take the floor after me. But, after all, the order in which speakers take the floor is determined by the speakers’ list. Comrade Thälmann also said that he is a very disciplined comrade. As such he ought to have accepted the discipline imposed by a speakers’ list, instead of complaining about such an objective fact.

Comrade Thälmann is likewise dissatisfied – once again unjustifiably – with Comrade Lenin who is quoted as having allegedly said that “We are here proposing our theses on tactics, and the other delegations have no right to present any amendments.” This was not what Comrade Lenin meant, and Comrade Thälmann’s standpoint in this connection is absolutely false. Lenin said: “The theses we propose are not a product of the Russian delegation, nor were they elaborated in some quiet office in the course of an hour or so.” Comrade Thälmann can make the necessary inquiries among the members of his own delegation from whom he will learn that we held lengthy, exhaustive, and at times vehement negotiations and discussions over the theses, in which the members of the German delegation also participated and introduced their proposals; and that mutual concessions were made. And our theses are the result of this rather laborious process. Those of us who participated in elaborating them do not claim that they were approved by all the parties, groups and tendencies, but we do maintain that in our opinion the theses constitute a compromise, a concession to the leftist tendency. I shall presently try to analyze more closely just what the term “leftist tendency” signifies here. Right now I want only to underscore that we view these theses as a maximum concession to a tendency represented here by many comrades, including Comrade Thälmann.

Comrades! Many delegates have privately expressed to me their impatience that so much of our time is being taken up by the German delegation to discuss its internal affairs. The impatience of these comrades is unwarranted, in my opinion. The main issue under discussion is the March action. Naturally, it is human, all too human for personal questions, personal antagonisms and emotions to become involved in such a purely political question. True, some comrades have needlessly sharpened the personal and emotional aspect of the question as, for example, Comrade Heckert did, whose speech was otherwise very interesting. But I think that we must single out here the essence of the question, and this essence, which is the main issue, is not a purely German issue but an international issue par excellence. In relation to Russia the German party is that particular Western European party which, after developing into an independent, definitive and large party, was the first to engage in independent action. And since the young, much too young Italian party, and the larger French party which is likewise young as a Communist Party, find themselves facing in this connection a similar situation, I believe that all the delegations, and especially the ones just mentioned, have a great deal to learn from this question.

I shall begin my discussion of the March action with an analysis of the amendments that have been submitted. For the Congress must choose between two tendencies. Of the stylistic and factual corrections and additions to the first draft of the theses I shall, naturally, say nothing. Well, we have to choose between two tendencies. Between the tendency which is represented here by Comrade Lenin, Comrade Zinoviev and particularly by the reporter Comrade Radek as well as by me; and the other tendency which is expressed in the amendments both as they stand now and as originally proposed. That is why it is important for us to take up these amendments. I shall confine myself only to the section dealing with the March action. Our theses state in this connection that we view the March action as forced upon the VKPD (United German Communist Party) by the government’s attack upon the proletariat of Central Germany, and we recognize that by its courageous conduct “the VKPD has shown itself to be the party of the revolutionary proletariat of Germany.” Then we go on to lay bare the chief mistakes committed during this action, and in conclusion we give the following advice:

For the purpose of carefully weighing the possibilities of struggle, the VKPD must attentively listen to the voices which point out the difficulties of this or that action and carefully examine their reason for urging caution. But as soon as an action is decided upon by the party authorities, all comrades must submit to the decisions of the party and carry out this action. Criticism of the action can commence only after its completion, and must be conducted only within the party organizations, giving due consideration to the situation wherein the party finds itself in the face of its class enemies. Since Paul Levi did disregard these obvious demands of party discipline and the conditions of party criticism, the Congress approves his expulsion from the party and declares it inadmissible for any members of the Communist International to collaborate politically with him in any way whatsoever.

Comrade Brand, however, is flatly opposed to any supervisory body whose admonitory voice the party is obliged to heed. We shall perhaps have further occasion to return to Comrade Brand who is so critical of admonitory supervision, statistics and many other things. What amendments do the German comrades and others propose to the foregoing paragraph? They propose to us that the Third Congress of the Comintern accept the March action of the VKPD as a step forward and declare the following:

This action signifies that the strongest mass party of Central Europe has made the transition to real struggle; it constitutes the first attempt to realize in life the Communist Party’s leading role in the struggle of the German proletariat – the role which the party had assumed in its founding program. The March action signifies the exposure of a victory over the open counter-revolutionary character of the USP (The Independent Socialist Party of Germany) and the masked centrist elements in the ranks of the VKPD itself. The March action, by disclosing in the very course of the struggle numerous mistakes and organizational shortcomings of the party, has made it possible to clearly understand these mistakes and shortcomings and to begin liquidating them. This action revealed in the course of its development that the party’s combat discipline is not strict enough and has aided to strengthen it. It attracted not inconsiderable masses of Social-Democratic workers and created a revolutionary ferment among these parties. This action, far from having impaired the organization, has, on the contrary, strengthened its fighting spirit ...

And so on and so forth.

When a demand is made of the Congress that it recognize that the March action was not only a mass action, imposed upon the working class (and thereby also upon the party), but that the party had also conducted itself stoutly; when a demand is made of the Congress that it likewise recognize that the party made an attempt to realize in struggle the leading role of the Communist Party – then the Congress should, after all, also be given the right to say whether this attempt was successful or unsuccessful. When we say that the March action was a step forward, we mean to say by this – at least that is how I understand it – that the Communist Party no longer stands before us as an opposition within the Independent Socialist Party or as a propaganda Communist organization, but as a unified, independent, firmly welded and centralized party, which has the possibility of independently intervening in the struggle of the proletariat; and that all this took place for the first time during the March action. In connection with the Second World Congress, I had many discussions with French comrades concerning the situation in the trade unions and in the party and I then told them: “Yes, you together with the syndicalists, the anarchists and the Socialists, you, too, represent nothing more than an opposition. As a result there are certain tendencies and nuances, and even potential stupidities. The instant you separate from the old organization and come out as an independent force, you will have made a big step forward.” This has now been achieved in full [in Germany]. But it does not mean that the first action, this first attempt to play an independent leading role, has proved successful.

They tell us that they have learned a great deal from it and, moreover, precisely from their own mistakes. That is what their amendments say. I shall not stop to read them to you but they state that the major merit of the March action consists precisely in this, that it provided an opportunity of clarifying the mistakes committed therein, only in order subsequently to eliminate them. Isn’t it a little too audacious to seek for special merits in this connection? In a private conversation with Comrade Thalheimer I told him that he reminded me of a Russian translator in the ’seventies who translated an English book and pointed out in his introduction that he had translated it solely to show the world how worthless this book is. [Laughter] After all, one does not engage in an action simply for the sake of seeing what mistakes might arise therefrom and for the sake of eliminating them afterwards. These amendments are written in the spirit of self-justification, and not in the spirit of analysis.

In his interesting speech Comrade Heckert [3] has painted for us a picture of the March action showing that the situation was extremely acute at the time. The question of reparations, the occupation of the Ruhr, Upper Silesia, economic crisis, unemployment, big strikes. Under these circumstances the social contradictions became still further exacerbated and the final impulsion for the party’s action came from the workers’ movement in Central Germany. A truly beautiful, superb, economic picture! But another comrade defending this same action sketched for us an entirely different picture. When Comrade Thalheimer, thirty years from now, when his hair will already be grey, takes in hand the pen of Mehring [4] to write the history of the Communist Party, he will then find documents and books ... [Interjection by Radek: In my magic trunk. (Laughter)] He will find documents and books in which an entirely different picture of the movement can be found, namely: that the international situation was quite confused and in general and on the whole, disclosed a tendency toward compromise. The Upper Silesian question hung suspended in midair. It could not exert any revolutionary influence. The disarmament question in Bavaria? Rote Fahne has consistently declared, contrary to Heckert’s speech yesterday, that it was becoming more and more clear that this question would be solved by a compromise at the expense of the revolutionary workers of Bavaria and of all Germany; and besides, without any major clashes on an international scale, or any clashes between the German and Bavarian governments. And in this same connection Comrade Thalheimer will find, thirty years from now, articles proving that the crisis in Germany bore and bears an entirely different character from that in the United States or in England; that in Germany this crisis did not become aggravated so catastrophically as it did in those two countries; that Germany’s entire economic life is in a state of decay and that under the existing economic conditions in Germany the crisis could not erupt with sufficient force. The number of unemployed in Germany is insignificant as compared to the United States and England.

So fat as the internal relations are concerned, the Social Democrats are partly in the government, partly in the opposition. The same applies to the Independent Socialist Party, which keeps drawing closer and closer to the Social Democrats. The trade unions, their bureaucratic leadership, are all against us. And what conclusion must be drawn from this? After all, the same comrade tells us that incredible passivity reigns among the workers, and that it was necessary to make a breach in it through the revolutionary initiative of a resolute minority. Heckert, on the contrary, said that everything was in flux, everything was plowed up. Storm and stress. And then came the events in Central Germany. Another comrade said: “A stagnant swamp was everywhere. A wall of passivity was rising. We had to break through it at any cost.” Each of these pictures is splendid as a finished logical unit but I hardly think they harmonize with one another. Still another comrade – Koenen – attested that an open insurrection reigned in Central Germany, while everywhere else there was a reign of passivity. Activity was implanted in a shell of passivity. From all this one gets the impression that the members of the German delegation still approach the issue as if it had to be defended at all costs, but not studied nor analyzed. And everything that we hear is, so to speak, a means toward an end – which is to defend the March action at any price before the International. But this will hardly succeed. The crux here, so far as I am concerned, lies in what Comrade Thälmann has pointed out. He said that if we accept the theses or even the proposed amendments, “we shall carry out a reorientation in our country.” I believe that our brave and staunch Comrade Thälmann is correct in the given instance. He probably has very close ties with the masses. [Thälmann interjects: Yes, indeed, the closest.] I don’t doubt it in the least, especially when I take into consideration the frame of mind in which certain comrades have arrived from Germany or in which they published certain articles and pamphlets there. They have, after all, made a rather lengthy and uncomfortable journey to Russia in order to gain an opportunity to think over the situation somewhat more dispassionately. Then the theses appeared which met with stubborn opposition. Later came discussions with the other delegations, including the Russians, and the German comrades could not have failed to notice that the comrades in the International do not view things through German spectacles. And so they take the path, as it were, of strategic retreat.

It is, indeed, impossible to deny that the proposed amendments are dangerous, not so much in what they directly and immediately say, as in this, that they seek in a rather masked and misty form to express those ideas which were spread among the German workers and in the ranks of the German Communist Party in the name of the Central Committee during the hottest days of the struggle and after the struggle. Comrade Thälmann and others say: “We must come back with theses which do not disavow us.” We don’t want this at all either; we don’t want in any way to disavow the German party for it is one of our best parties. But the entire conception of the March offensive, the conditions of struggle and of victory are developed here in such a way that some of the articles, some of the speeches, some of the circulars of the German Central Committee and of its members must be understood as something that is very grave and dangerous. This is the main thing. They want to so influence the situation as to prevent the adoption of a thoroughly precise resolution, but to get instead an unclear, misty resolution into which they could gradually read a new meaning that they want and which they could imperceptibly interpret later on in an entirely different sense. This is the essential thing. This is inadmissible. For in our opinion the danger is far too great to allow so much scope for a gradual and imperceptible diminution of the spirit of the offensive. We shall never agree to this; it is excluded. Yes, you can clamp us down by a decision of the Congress majority, but even in that case we shall continue to fight within the framework, and only within the framework set for us by the Congress. I hope, however, that the resolution on tactics will be adopted as was the economic resolution. In the latter case the Left-Wing comrades of our German delegation also wanted to stage something in the nature of a demonstration; and after accepting these theses in principle, they nevertheless introduced a resolution which contained diametrically opposite views. But later it turned out that they decided not to insist on what they had previously wanted to say. And in the Commission almost nothing remained of the differences. It seems to me that exactly the same thing will happen with the tactical questions. I know from personal experience how unpleasant it is not to be recognized by a party Congress or a Congress of the International. However, Comrades, I think that for your situation in Germany it is best to introduce clarity into this question. I don’t believe what Levi has said, that is, that the party would perish from it. The Congress must say to the German workers that a mistake was committed, and that the party’s attempt to assume the leading role in a great mass movement was not a fortunate one. That is not enough. We must say that this attempt was completely unsuccessful in this sense – that were it repeated, it might actually ruin this splendid party. [Thalheimer interjects: You know that this is excluded.] For you – yes; but not for thousands of organized workers who had assumed that the Congress would acclaim with ecstasy what we look upon as a blunder. [Hearty approbation] The same applies to our young French friends. In the ECCI, we discussed the question of the 1919 draft and we asked whether the French party ought to advance the slogan not to obey this order. On that occasion I asked one of our young friends [Laporte]: “What is your opinion, should the draftees resort to armed or purely passive resistance?” And the comrade vehemently replied: “Naturally, with revolver in hand.” He supposed that he was thus manifesting his complete agreement with the Third International; that he was thus giving the Third International the greatest revolutionary happiness and that he was fulfilling his duty by speaking as he did. He meant it quite seriously and he was unconditionally ready to fight the draft with revolver in hand. Naturally, we poured a bucket of ice water over him and I believe that the comrade will learn better. He has come into a new milieu here, something he does not see every day. The rough edges are being polished off little by little. But in Germany, France, Hungary! These 2-3 weeks during which we gather in the sessions of the Congress do introduce a few changes into our views. But there, in those countries, what has changed there? Nothing. And this famous philosophy of the offensive, absolutely non-Marxist, has arisen from the following propositions: “A wall of passivity is gradually rising; this is a misfortune. The movement is stagnating. Therefore, forward march! Let us break through this wall! It seems to me that a whole layer of leading and semi-leading comrades in the German party have been for quite some time educated in this spirit and they are waiting to hear what the Congress has to say on this score. If we now proclaim that we are throwing Paul Levi out of the window, while you utter a few muddled phrases about the March action, pointing out that it is the first attempt, a step forward, in short, if we smother criticism by phrase-mongering – then we shall have failed in our duty. It is our duty to say clearly and precisely to the German workers that we consider this philosophy of the offensive to be the greatest danger. And in its practical application to be the greatest political crime.

I am in complete agreement with Comrade Zinoviev and cherish, as he does, the hope that at this Congress we shall arrive at a unanimous verdict on the character of our activity; I also think that on this extremely’ important tactical question we do not have to make any major concessions to the so-called Left. A few comrades – among them, I believe, the French – have expressed concern over the struggle against the Left. Comrade Zinoviev has dealt with this. Fortunately, it is precisely in the French language that the word “la gauche” has a twofold meaning: gauche – that which stands on the left; and gauche – that which is helpless, awkward. [Interjection: Linkisch!] Yes, linkisch, but in the bad sense of the word. In German, by the way, it comes almost to the same thing. Well, I think that in conducting a struggle 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, for since we are the Communist International, the Marxist International, it follows that we are the most revolutionary party there is. This means a party capable of utilizing every situation and every possibility, and able not only to lead the struggle but also to assure victory. That is the real goal. It is sometimes forgotten that we must learn strategy, must cold-bloodedly weigh the forces of our enemy as well as our own, must, estimate the situation and not plunge into struggle in order to breach a wall of passivity or, as one comrade put it, to “activize the party.” Therewith we are naturally obliged to also occupy ourselves a little with statistics, even though Comrade Brand has pointed out that opportunists spend a great deal of time over them. In one of his speeches we heard him juxtapose the sword and statistics, while in a second speech we had the charge of opportunism flung at us. Such a position is dangerous for our Italian comrades, who have yet a great deal to do with statistics. If I had occasion to refer as did Heckert and Thalheimer to Italy, I might have said: “Here is a country ruined by war where the workers have seized the factories, where the followers of Serrati have perpetrated a betrayal, where the fascists are sacking labor printing plants and setting fire to working-class institutions. And if this party does not raise the cry: ’With All Our Forces Forward Against the Enemy,’ then it is a cowardly party which will be condemned by world history.” But if we look at things not from the standpoint of such phraseology but from the standpoint of weighing the situation cold-bloodedly, we would have to say what Comrade Zinoviev did, namely: they must gain anew the confidence of the working class since the workers have become much more cautious precisely owing to this treachery. They will say to themselves: “We heard the same phrases from Serrati. He said virtually the same thing and then he betrayed us. Where is the guarantee that the new party will not betray us, too?” The working class wants to see the party in action before going into the decisive battle under its leadership.

At this Congress we have three more or less clearly expressed tendencies, three groups, which have temporarily become converted into tendencies, and which must be borne in mind in order to evaluate correctly the interplay of forces at this Congress. In the first place we have the German delegation which has come almost directly from the fires of the March action and which expresses most sharply its attitude toward the philosophy of the offensive. That has, naturally, been discarded by some German comrades.

Then there are the Italian comrades, who are pursuing the same path. This is quite comprehensible if we bear in mind that their party has broken with the centrists. The Italian comrades say: “Now our hands are at last untied; now we can fulfill our duty, participate in the revolutionary actions of the masses and exact revenge for the treachery of Serrati.” Nowadays you know, Comrades, it is said – not only by Levi but also by the capitalist press and the “independent” press – that the March action was ordered by the ECCI and that Levi has been expelled for refusing to obey this order. Some comrades in the French and Czechoslovak parties have begun asking themselves – and this shows how little acquainted they are with the spirit of the ECCI – “What if I, too, should some day receive such an order in the name of the ECCI and if I fail to fulfill it will I then be expelled from the party?” These two different moods are represented here.

There likewise exists a third set of views which are expressed, we hope, in our theses. This third tendency holds that it would, of course, be senseless for the ECCI to accept the standpoint of a tactical philosophy which recommends that combat activity be raised through more or less artificial mass actions, and that we begin issuing such orders to the different countries. On the contrary, precisely because we have now become sufficiently strong and because as a result of this we are faced with the task of leading the mass movement as an independent centralized party, we are all the more obliged to analyze cold-bloodedly and with absolute thoroughness the situation as it exists in each country, and wherever it is possible and necessary, to attack and to assume the offensive with all our energies. This is just what our proposed theses say.

In France, one comrade said, there are no Lefts. Yes, there are none. The French party is in its moulting stage. On reading its chief organ l’Humanité, you notice a rather confused, amorphous tone in agitation and speeches, which is dealt with quite definitively in our theses. Naturally, one can also find in l’Humanité, to borrow an expression from Comrade Bukharin, “the swinishness from the pen of Longuet and his closest friends.” This newspaper is replete with Communist will, but this will is not adequately harnessed. Communist thought is neither sharp nor clear enough in it. One misses in it the will to continually expound and change the situation in a revolutionary sense. When this is missing in the party’s central organ, then so far as I am concerned it is excluded for this party to summon forth a great revolutionary action and to lead it. The first precondition for it is a gradual crystallization of clear revolutionary thought and will in the party’s paper and throughout its entire agitation and propaganda. This process of crystallization might take two, three or six months, perhaps a year, depending on the circumstances. And for many comrades all this will not take place fast enough. They do not take into consideration the internal import of this process – the revolutionary metamorphosis of a big party. They want to leap over this process and it seems to them that only a pretext is lacking for the launching of revolutionary action. And so they say: Frossard and others don’t do this or don’t do that. The 1919 draft – precisely in France where the anarchists and syndicalists are so strong, and, besides, with the French temperament and with the Parisian working class – here is an excellent pretext. And it is quite possible for a certain section of this working class – its best section, the one which will be of decisive importance in major battles – to be summoned and involved by younger, less experienced, impatient comrades in an action that might prove disastrous to the development of the revolutionary movement in France for many years to come. This is the situation. Naturally, the argument may be raised that: “You are singling out and attacking individual comrades. We’ll grant you that this or another comrade delivered a bad speech, but that’s not the issue.” The issue, Comrades, is this: that if everyone were able to arrive at a correct judgment, there would be no need of an International. The task precisely consists in sharply underscoring a danger (even the smallest one) the instant that it manifests itself; the task is to turn attention to it, to exaggerate it, if you please. That I or you exaggerate a danger, is not so important; it all comes down to how high you pitch your voice. But the other danger of being belated or of letting slip a situation, which enables this tendency to grow and to be trapped by provocation; the danger that this may burst into the conflagration of an adventure – this is a very great danger. This is the reason why some comrades get so heated in talking about it. Let me tell you that when I discuss this privately with this or that comrade I often notice that he does not understand me, that he is thinking to himself, that I am a little older while he is a little younger; that my hair is already grey but that he is bolder and that he approaches the question from the standpoint of temperament, then I say to myself: The greatest danger lies in this, that certain comrades are not aware that there is such a thing as dangerous soil, that they are politically inexperienced in a revolutionary sense, that they do not understand this counsel and how pertinent it is and they think, with their limited horizon, that someone is pulling them to the right. Not at all!

You have broken with the opportunists and you are moving forward, but look around you: there exist in this world not only opportunists, but also classes. There is the capitalist society, the police, the army, definite economic conditions; a section is for you, another section is more or less neutral, a third is against you. It is a whole complex world, in which it is a great and difficult task to correctly orient yourself. You must learn this when you answer me. You want me to fight the centrists? All the resolutions of the First and Second Congresses remain in full force, after all. And the entire activity in which we are engaged is, after all, nothing else but a slap in the face to opportunism. But our task does not lie solely in an interminable theoretical condemnation of opportunism. We must in practice overwhelm capitalist society, we must pin both shoulders of the bourgeoisie to the ground and strangle it to death. That is the task. And to solve this task – I must repeat this – one must combine the icy language of statistics with the passionate will of revolutionary violence. We shall learn this and we shall conquer! [Applause and cheers]


1. Karl Radek – one of the leaders of the Communist International in Lenin’s day. In 1910 Radek began active work in the ranks of the German revolutionary opposition. In the years of the First World War Radek joined the Zimmerwald Left from the outset. After the death of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Radek became the leading politician of the German Communist Party. In the ’twenties Radek worked in the Communist International as a member of the presidium of the ECCI. After Lenin’s death Radek belonged for a number of years to the Left Opposition. But in 1929 he capitulated to Stalin, serving the latter zealously until January 1937 when he was framed up in the second Moscow Trial and sentenced to jail. His final fate remains a secret of the Kremlin.

2. Thälmann – a Hamburg worker who became prominent in the German labor movement in the ’twenties. For a number of years Thael-mann headed the Left Wing within the German Communist Party, only to swing over in later years to the extreme Right Wing, i.e., to Stalinism. He unquestioningly and docilely carried through the Kremlin’s fatal policy in Germany from 1929 to 1933 when the Stalinists kept the ranks of the working class divided and thus permitted Hitler to come to power without even a battle. Thaelmann was caught by the Nazis as he was about to leave the country and was imprisoned. His subsequent fate is unknown. The rumor is that he was executed with others by the Nazis. [Thälmann was executed on Hitler’s orders in Buchenwald August 1944. – TIA]

3. Heckert – a prominent German Communist who participated in a number of the Congresses of the Red Trade Union International and of the Comintern. Like the other German leaders he obediently accepted Stalin’s orders, remaining prominent in the German party and in the Stalinized Comintern. During the purges after the Moscow frame-ups, it was reported that he together with other foreign Communists had been executed by the GPU. [Heckert actually died in Moscow of natural causes in April 1936 and his ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall. – TIA]

4. Franz Mehring – great Marxist publicist, famous historian of the German Social Democracy. Coming into the labor movement from the camp of bourgeois democracy, Mehring remained for decades in the Left Wing of the Socialist movement. At the very beginning of the differences with Kautsky, Mehring openly joined the opposition. During the First World War despite his old age he worked actively as a publicist in the Spartacus League. The tempestuous days of the German revolution, imprisonment and the death of his closest friends – Luxemburg and others – drained Mehring’s failing health. He died in 1919 after spending approximately 40 years at his revolutionary post. [Although close to the German working class movement from the beginning of the 1870s, Mehring was originally strongly influenced by Lassalle rather than Marx. At the end of the 1870s he distanced himself from Social Democracy due mainly to personal differences, but began to study Marx at the beginning of the 1880s and eventually joined the SPD in 1891. – TIA]

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Last updated on: 20.1.2007