XLII. THE SWING TO THE RIGHT
SEVERAL periods can be said to mark the post-War revolutionary political development of Europe. The first period extended from s 1919 to 1921; the second from March, 1921, to October, 1923; the third from 1923 to 1928; the fourth from 1928 to 1933; and the fifth from 1933 to the present. In this chapter of our work we shall confine ourselves mainly to the third period, (*1) 1923 to 1928.
Immediately after the War, the revolutionary mass movement developed to the point where it was strong enough physically to overthrow capitalism, but was unable so to do for lack of a mature revolutionary party. Nor had the proletariat had sufficient time during the actions themselves to forge the proper party. By March, 1921, when the German Communist Party attempted an insurrection, the wave was declining. This flare-up was defeated by the failure of this party adequately to prepare and by the absence, therefore, of certain important prerequisites for a successful revolution.
At this point it could hardly be said that the Comintern itself had failed in its duty; it was simply a question of the extreme difficulty of building an adequate Communist International that could fulfill its historic mission all over the world. Indeed, Lenin was among the first to realize the new situation; he pointed out that the Communist Parties were ready neither politically nor organizationally for the conquest of power. It was necessary to win the masses in day to day struggles. Here Lenin attacked the Leftists who remained living in the past, who had not appreciated the changing conditions demanding new tasks. These Leftists would consider no retreat, no compromise; they wanted unceasing, continual attacks. Such a way was the way to ruin. (*2)
In the summer of 1923, however, a new revolutionary situation developed in Germany. The internal position of Germany, especially in connection with the collapse of the government’s tactics of passive resistance, was catastrophic. Yet the German Communist Party took no advantage of the opportunities. As was admitted some time after the event: “If in May, 1924, during the stabilization of the mark and a certain consolidation of the bourgeoisie, after the passage of the middle class and the petty bourgeoisie to the nationalists, after a deep party crisis and after a heavy defeat of the proletariat, if, after all this, the communists are able to rally three million seven hundred thousand votes to themselves, then it is clear that in October, 1923, during the unprecedented economic crisis, during the complete disintegration of the middle classes, during a frightful disorder in the ranks of the social democracy consequent upon the sharp contradictions among the bourgeoisie itself and an unprecedented mood of struggle of the proletarian masses in the industrial centers the Communist Party had the majority of the population on its side, could and should have fought, and had all the chances for success.” (*3)
It so happened that, by this time, the Executive Committee of the Comintern was reasonably well organized, and the whole German situation had been considered prior to the events of October. A group within the Executive Committee, headed by Trotsky, (*4) demanded that the German Party be forewarned and instructed to prepare itself for the oncoming revolutionary crisis. With the failure of the revolutionary situation to materialize and the consequent defeat of the German revolution (which indeed was the final mighty blow of the bourgeoisie in the course of its stabilization), a new political period opened up marked, however, not merely by the improvement of the position of capitalism, but by the fact that the Executive Committee of the Comintern itself was exposed as a blunderer responsible for the disasters.
From now on, this was to be the typical situation: The Comintern would dictate a policy leading only to catastrophe and when the true situation should be revealed, the top leadership would begin to find scapegoats for its errors and to expel the national leaders for the crime of following the International. In the case of Germany in 1923, the Comintern at once proceeded to the removal of Brandler and Thalheimer, who, indeed, had committed many serious blunders of an opportunist character, but who, in all their actions, had been in harmony with the leadership of the Comintern.
Such a situation was bound to have a doubly deleterious effect upon the Communist International. In the first place, the illusion was increased that the Executive Committee was infallible, that it never made mistakes, but rather that all the errors were due to people who perversely refused to follow the instructions given by the center. In the second place by this method all possibility of correction was removed, and the national sections were thrown into interminable confusion. Such a policy was divorced from that of Lenin, who consistently had followed the line as stated by him:
“The attitude of a political party toward its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest criteria of the seriousness of the party, and of how it fulfills in practice its obligations toward its class and toward the laboring masses. To admit a mistake openly, to disclose its reasons, to analyze the surroundings which created it, to study attentively the means of correcting it—these are the signs of a serious party; this means the performance of its duties; this means educating and training the class, and subsequently, the masses.” (*5)
What was ominously pregnant with possibilities for the future was that now there was organized in the very top leadership of the Comintern a critical group, led by Trotsky, which declared that the errors in Germany were due to the policies adopted by the general leadership, and that these errors were so costly that the Comintern leadership must be removed as an opportunist and centrist one. From now on, a titanic struggle was to occur on all fronts between these two sections of the communist movement.
Defending itself against the Trotskyist charge that it had capitulated in Germany without striking a blow and thus definitely had retarded the movement for some time to come, the Executive Committee adopted the theory that the events of October, 1923, were only episodic, that the revolution had not been averted but was still possible in Germany and elsewhere. To compensate for the Executive’s Right Wing errors in Germany, abortive attempts to take power were made in Bulgaria and in Esthonia, but, on every front, the Communists signally were defeated. By the time of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, the chairman, Zinoviev, (*6) was ready to admit that “The chief thing that strikes the eye when reviewing the present international political situation, is the beginning of the democratic-pacifist period.” (*7) But even here the Comintern made a doubly false analysis.
In the first place, the Fifth Congress believed that the reason why capitalist countries were entering upon a democratic-pacifist era with the Labour Party in control in England, the Left Bloc in France, the Weimar coalition in Germany, and similar situations elsewhere, was because the situation was rapidly becoming a revolutionary one, and this was the capitalist method of forestalling revolution. The Fifth Congress declared: “The objective meaning of the present unique democratic-pacifist period is that the bourgeoisie can no longer rule according to its old methods. This period reflects the instability of the capitalist structure, its decline, which is beginning to develop in a descending curve.’’ (*8)
Certainly the capitalist class would never have permitted the socialists to rule Germany and Austria and the Labourites to govern England were it not for the fact that capitalism was bankrupt and could continue to function only with the consent of the workers themselves. But what the Congress failed to realize was that this situation accrued, not because the workers were advancing to the barricades, and Socialist rule represented a sort of international Kerensky regime to that goal, but that the workers were in full retreat after the blunders committed by the communist revolutionists in various countries.
In the second place, afterward, when the leaders of the Comintern had been put right by events and had reviewed the situation more realistically, their conclusion that this was a democratic-pacifist period was held too rigidly and mechanically. They failed, therefore, to see that, even in the period of retreat, there was a law of uneven development in which sections of the world’s toilers would be advancing to the revolution, not retreating. Thus the outbreak of the British General Strike found the Executive Committee thoroughly unprepared. Thus, too, the historic Chinese revolutionary movement of 1925-1927 would see the Comintern stifle the revolution at its birth.
The combination of errors committed by the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in interpreting the victory of the socialists in the government as a sign of a forthcoming revolutionary wave, coupled with the later belief that the socialist-pacifist era was to be of prolonged duration, gave a plausible pretext for various immature Communist Parties to abandon their class base and to make all sorts of agreements with non-revolutionary elements. Fundamentally, this was a reflection of the increased pressure of world capitalism upon the ranks of the proletariat. Had this fact been recognized, the Communist International would have been able to survive the period of partial and temporary stabilization of capitalism. But the very weakening of the revolutionary caliber of the advanced workers prevented their recognizing their weaknesses, and so they plunged into one disastrous venture after another.
The first crime committed was in relation to the trade union reformists of Great Britain. We have already noted that the British trade union leaders had broken from their Amsterdam comrades to advocate the unity of the Russian unions with those of the rest of the world. From this date there had been organized the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee, which immediately had begun to exert great influence among the workers all over the world for the unity of all forces of labor in action. Soon the Communist International heads were idealizing this united front and dreaming that communism would arrive in Britain not so much through the weak Communist Party as through the Anglo-Russian Committee.
“The Anglo-Russian Committee was regarded not as a purely episodic bloc of leaders that inevitably would have to be and demonstratively would be broken at the first serious test, in order to compromise the General Council. No, not only Stalin, Bucharin, Tomsky, and others, but also Zinoviev saw in it a long lasting ‘friendship,’ an instrument for the systematic revolutionization of the English working masses, and if not the gate, at least the threshold over which the revolution of the English proletariat would stride. The farther it went, the more the Anglo-Russian Committee became transformed from an episodic understanding into an inviolable principle standing above the real class struggle. That became obvious at the time of the general strike.” (*9)
In the course of this alliance with the Trade Union Council of Great Britain, the communists violated all the resolutions adopted at their Congresses. Fulsome adulation was poured on the heads of the British leaders, and a Minority Movement was built in the Trade Unions which was placed wholly at the disposal of the Left members of the General Council.
Then came the great British General Strike of 1926, whereby the falseness of the communists’ attitude clearly was revealed. British economy had been slowly but steadily deteriorating after the War, and the British workers had been moving consistently to the Left. With the repeated breakdown of the “Triple Alliance,” a burning desire had been created in the British workmen to force a show-down with the employers. At first, labor had taken to parliamentary means and had voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party, placing that Party in office in 1924, only to be disappointed in its achievements and its short duration. In 1926, however, there came the opportunity for which the workers had been waiting. The miners had received new wage cuts of 10 per cent, and they appealed to all the trade unionists of Great Britain to support them in their struggle. The General Council was now forced to call a General Strike; immediately five million men responded in the most magnificent demonstration of its kind in industrial Europe.
Ostensibly, the General Strike was in sympathy with the miners and had merely economic aims; in reality, the strike shook the British Empire to its very foundations and, in the short time of its existence, cost the employers close to one billion dollars. Although the General Council, frightened by the revolutionary situation it had provoked, did its best to call out as few workers as possible and to dilute their militancy, the General Strike marked an immense step for the British worker. It meant that he no longer relied solely upon parliamentary measures, but took to direct action to satisfy his demands. This in turn implied a diminution of the prestige of the Labour Party methods and a warning to the employers that British Labor could be as revolutionary as any. From this time on, British capitalists began to form their Maintenance Men and the beginnings of their fascist corps. From this time on, too, the illusions of democracy among the trade unionists rapidly diminished and, for the first time in their history, a resolution was passed at their Trade Union Congress sympathizing with the aspirations of the colonial peoples under the iron heel of British Imperialism and calling for the independence of India. At last the British worker was becoming international in outlook and revolutionary in attitude.(*10)
The development of the trade union movement to an openly revolutionary position threw the opportunist and centrist leaders back to the arms of the capitalist reaction. Frantically the Trade Union General Council made overtures to the employers and soon, like a bolt from the blue, came the order for the cessation of the General Strike. Up to that time, the solidarity had been magnificent, and more and more workers had expected to be called out. Now all were commanded to return to work, and the miners were left to fight the battle alone.
Needless to say, at this moment the retention of the friendship bloc of the Russians with the General Council was playing directly into the hands of the strike breakers. (*11) “The All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions should have declared openly to the English mine workers’ union and the whole English working class that the mine workers’ strike could seriously count upon success only if by its stubbornness, its tenacity and its impetus it could prepare the way for a new outbreak of the general strike. That could have been achieved, however, only by an open and direct struggle against the General Council, that agency of the government and the mining employers. The struggle to convert the economic strike into a political strike signified, therefore, an intense political and organizational war against the General Council. The first step to such a war had to be the break with the Anglo-Russian Committee which had become a reactionary obstacle, a chain on the feet of the working class.” (*12)
Thus the fact that the Russian communist unions were working hand in glove with the British General Council was immensely useful to the latter in breaking the strike while retaining the confidence of the mass of workers. Later, when their services no longer were necessary, the Russians were to be dismissed by the General Council as similarly they would be dismissed by the British workers. The Communist Party, which had had a chance to become an important factor in the life of the British workers, shrank to an insignificant sect. (*13)
Not only on the trade union front did the Comintern display class capitulation, but also on the political field, in reference to the Labor Party question and to the peasant question.
As far back as the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin had urged the British Communist Party to support the Labour Party candidates against the liberals and conservatives, and to try to join that Party as an affiliated section. To understand this decision of the Third International, one must appreciate the concrete situation existing in England at the time. In the first place, the British communists were fractious and divorced from the masses. It was necessary for them to connect with the trade unions. In the second place, the Labour Party at that time was really not a party at all, but rather an amorphous grouping made up of federated bodies, each element able to retain its independence and its platform. Thus to the trade unions were affiliated the Fabians, the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Party, and others. In 1917, the Labour Party decided also to admit individuals who could join locals for that purpose. The Labour Party had no great discipline, and no definitive program except one of such a minimum nature that all labor groups could agree upon it. Thus the Leninists were in favor of using the Labour Party as a bridge over which the masses could cross in their own way on the road to communism. Although the Labour Party had rejected the affiliation of the Communist Party of Great Britain and had even begun the expulsion of communist individuals from the Party, they still permitted communists in their ranks if they were delegated by their respective trade unions; this permitted the communists some opportunity to work and to make contacts.
Added to these considerations of a communist character were also hidden nationalist reasons which prompted the Russians to urge the British communists into the Labour Party. These reasons were intimated much later in a speech by Bucharin, who declared: “If I remember rightly, we had at that time the Russo-Polish war and practically all trade union leaders supported the country of proletarian dictatorship.” (*14) Thus, because the British trade union reformists were for the moment antagonistic to the Polish War against Russia, fearful as they were that this would mean the spread of communism all over Europe with resulting new world wars, to compel the British Communist Party to make peace with the Labour Party officials and no longer to fight them was considered sufficient. Here we see in germination the method later to become universal by which nationalist Russians would attempt to use the world revolution solely for their own immediate benefit.
Even in the early days the Leninists had pointed out that joining the Labor Party as a group could be only tentative tactics, possible only because the Labor Party had not crystallized as yet into a regular party, but was only an integrated series of united fronts on questions detailed in its platform. In 1920, Lenin had written: “At the present moment there is a tendency of the opportunist leaders to make the Labour Party a real party with local organizations and a programme. They aim to create a large opportunist party which is to retard the revolutionary development of the masses. Were this tendency to succeed, the Labour Party would never afford the Socialist organizations which form part of it the right to an individual Communist policy, nor to the propagation of the revolutionary struggle. It would bind their freedom of action hand and foot. It is thus evident that no kind of organization seeking to carry out a Communist policy could possibly belong to the Labour Party. It would then become necessary after a most energetic struggle against this tendency to leave the Labour Party … . (*15)
What was experimental, tentative, and concrete under Lenin soon became mechanical, general, and permanent in the period of communist backsliding following the Fourth Congress. In the United States, the communists were ordered to join or form Labor Parties; in the Far East were forced to enter into “Workers’ and Peasants"’ parties. In all cases, the revolutionists had to give up their insurrectionary banner and to capitulate to alien class elements. The contradictions that arose from these tendencies gave rise to keen factional fighting among the communists, especially in America.
As a result of the 1920-1921 industrial depression in the United States, the progressive elements in the trade union movement, headed by the machinists’ organization which had grown greatly during the War, and supported by the Socialist Party, had initiated a Conference for Progressive Political Action which went on record for the formation of a Labor Party. The industrial recession of 1924 greatly stimulated Labor Party sentiment, and the communists rightly analyzed this movement as marking a forward step in American life in that, for the first time, labor would be divorced politically from the two open capitalist parties which had monopolized the scene for so long. They correctly divined that this would accelerate sharply the class consciousness of the average American worker and trade unionist, and they reached the conclusion that the Labor Party movement should be supported.
There were several other factors in the political scene in the United States which rendered that decision timely. In the first place, the communists had suffered sharp persecution right after the War and only recently had decided to come above ground and to conduct legal work. Its underground period had induced a wild ultra-Leftism which had to be eradicated in mass work. Thus the decision to participate in the building of a Labor Party was conceived to be a healthy antidote for the communists, as indeed it might have been, had there been proper direction given.
All other important countries had large parties representing the independent labor movement. Only in America was such a party lacking. The Labor Party would put an end to this exceptional circumstance, as it would terminate the period of individualism in American life. Thus it would become a bridge, far more necessary than in Britain, where class lines always had been recognized, for the masses to cross over to communism. Indeed, to some, it appeared to be an inevitable bridge, one with which the American workers by no means could disperse. Here was the infallible formula by which the workers could become communized in America.
The American communists failed to realize sufficiently certain key differences between the situation in the United States and that in Britain. In the first place, the decision of the British communists to work in the Labor Party was induced by the fact that in Britain there already existed a strong and powerful Labor Party which had only to exert its strength to take power. It was necessary to expose the limitations and inadequacies of that Party. The best method was to help it get power; soon thereafter the workers would become disillusioned. In America, on the other hand, it was not a question of a Labor Party’s actual existence, but of the organization of such a party wherein the communists were to set themselves to work to build up a reformist organization which could only betray the masses.
To conceal this situation, the communists blinded themselves with the belief that the Labor Party could become truly revolutionary and would not necessarily have to take on a reformist and opportunist character. Thus in fact, as in the case of the Anglo-Russian Committee, so with regard to the American Labor Party, the Comintern cast doubt on the value of a genuine vanguard party, and threw out implications that the revolution could proceed via other channels, or specifically, that the communists could capture the Labor Party movement for the revolution and transform it into a revolutionary weapon.
The communists failed also to see that, whereas the British Labour Party had been born in the pre-war period and had represented a genuine movement to the Left and a real awakening of the British toilers, the American Labor Party was being built by socialists who had represented the Right Wing of their Party, and by trade union officials who had done their best to stifle the militancy of the workers in the great strike waves of 1919-1921. Whereas the British Labour Party had been an earnest expression of the progressive development of the workers, the Conference for Progressive Political Action, in attempting to form a Labor Party was mainly a movement to channelize the discontent of the workers into safe directions. Thus, when, in 1924, the movement was on the verge of taking the shape of a permanent party, the leaders decided to endorse LaFollette and to turn it into a political mechanism for the career of a petty bourgeois leader. Although five million votes were collected, truly a remarkable feat, no Labor Party resulted, and the movement collapsed.
The communists, however, who, under the influence of the Comintern representative, Pepper, had come to believe that without the trick of the Labor Party, the “bridge” game could not be won, did everything possible to penetrate the reformist party. They were willing to endorse LaFollette. More than that, one section, headed by Cannon and Hathaway, even proposed that the Labor Party movement be broadened to include the farmers, that it was possible for the agrarian West to take the lead.
Thus there were heaped, one upon the other, a whole series of errors. Error number one consisted in the belief that a Labor Party was inevitable and necessary in American life. Error number two lay in the attempt to mix workers and farmers together into one party. Error number three was inherent in the illusion that under some circumstances the farmers would take the revolutionary lead over the workers. Error number four was revealed in the substitution of parliamentary activity and deals with the reformists for actual revolutionary conduct. Error number five was made when the communists tried to form their own Federated Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.
This last adventure was replete with comedy. Against the Conference for Progressive Political Action, the communists suddenly called a dual conference wherein was to be formulated the “true” party of the masses. This was the class-mass-revolutionary Federated Farmer-Labor Party. What was really organized was a paper conference in which the communists captured themselves and proceeded to put up dummy candidates to run against LaFollette and Wheeler. Thus the Communist Party tried to approach the workers through a maneuver, but the whole plan was so ridiculous that the candidates were withdrawn soon after, much to their chagrin and discomfiture. Pepper was recalled from America. The communists had exposed themselves as crude maneuvrists rather than as class fighters.
The theory of mixing workers and farmers into one indiscriminate organization had been turned into a general line by the Communist International after the Fifth Congress of 1924. They had actually formed a Peasants International (*16) to which had been invited the party of agrarian capitalists of Yugo-Slavia led by Raditch. Later, Raditch was to repay the communists by capitulating to reactionary Belgrade. The Comintern developed a systematic idealization of the peasantry and the kulak. This was to be seen within Russia and it was to be noticed in the Balkans as well as in the United States. But its most harmful manifestations were to be reserved for China. (*17)
1. Compare L. D. Trotsky: The Strategy of the World Revolution, p. 12 and following.
2. At the Third and Fourth Congresses Bucharin fought against the policy of the united front and similar transitional tactics.
3. L. D. Trotsky, work cited, pp. 17-18, quoting from Pravda, May .25, 1924.
4. Lenin was fatally ill.
5. V. I. Lenin: "Left” Communism, an Infantile Disorder, p. 39.
6. Zinovievís real name was Applebaum, Trotsky’s was Bronstein and Stalin’s Djugeshvili.
7. “Theses and Resolutions of the Fifth World Congress of the Comintern,” printed in The Communist International, Dec. 1924-Jan. 1925, No. 7, p. 11.
8. The same, p. 18.
9. L. D. Trotsky: The Strategy of the World Revolution, p. 50.
10. For an interesting account of the General Strike and its lessons, see John Pepper: the British General Strike and the General Betrayal, pamphlet.
11. As late as April, 1927, at the meeting of the Anglo-Russian Unity Committee in Berlin, the Russian trade union leaders proclaimed the “hearty accord” and unanimity of the Committee. The Russian Communists also pledged themselves to non-interference in the affairs of the General Council.
12. L. D. Trotsky, work cited, p. 52.
13. In 1926 the British Communist Party rapidly grew to 12,000 members with a circulation of its paper of 120,000. See O. Piatnitsky: The Organization of a World Party, pamphlet, p. 22.
14. See Communist Policy in Great Britain, pamphlet, 1928, p. 50.
15. The Communist International Answers the I. L. P., p. 26. The title is also Moscow’s Reply to the I. L. P.
16. Headed by the Pole, Dombal.
17. Lack of space forbids us to treat of India.