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Ian H. Birchall

From Comintern to Cominform

(March 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March/April 1976, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform
Fernando Claudin
Peregrine, £4.75

Fernando Claudin was an active militant of the Spanish Communist Party for over 20 years, and at the time of his expulsion in 1965 he was a member of its Politbureau. The present book is simply the first part of his attempt to explain his divergences from the present line of the world Communist movement. It is an impressive historical study, extending from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Claudin has researched widely on original documents; he has read and critically absorbed the writings of Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher; he neither apologises for Stalinism nor lapses into anti-Communism. Even at £4.75 for an 830-page paperback it is a book worth reading. If the rest of this review concentrates on its weak points, it is precisely because I take it to be a serious contribution to revolutionary debate.

Claudin’s analysis starts with Stalin’s dissolution of the Communist International in 1943. It is easy for him to show that this was a declaration of non-revolutionary intent made by Stalin to his wartime allies, and that the arguments advanced had no validity. But from this he goes on to question the very basis of a centralised International, arguing that the Comintern’s ‘ultra-centralised structure’ did not meet the real needs of the working-class movement.

Now it is easy to show that the Third International had extreme powers of intervention in the national sections, and that from the beginning the Russian Party dominated the Comintern (they did, after all, have a revolution behind them). But here it is content, not form, that matters. What were the nature of the interventions?

Take, for example, the French party. Formed by a Congress of the Socialist Party at which the majority voted to affiliate to the Comintern, it was from its inception stuffed out with shifty careerist parliamentarians, and had virtually no orientation to the industrial struggle. In the first few years of its existence the Comintern aimed its interventions at changing the Party and giving it a proletarian orientation. Would it have been better to leave it alone?

Claudin’s critique is not simply organisational. He accuses Lenin and the Bolsheviks of ‘theoretical complacency’, alleging that they overestimated the imminence of revolution in 1919, by underestimating the grip of reformism on the working class in Western Europe. Now it is a fact that capitalism survived the twenties, and from our point of view it is vital to, examine the political (fascism, co-option of labour leaders) and economic (arms economy, planning) means whereby it has survived. But it was hardly the job of the founders of the Comintern to predict all this. Far from their being fatalistic or complacent, their whole strategy and the very existence of the Comintern was based on the premise that either they must smash capitalism or it would smash them.

In his conclusion, Claudin calls the whole Leninist conception of the party into question, attempting, rather unconvincingly, to oppose Marx and Luxemburg to Lenin. In itself, this is a clapped out spontaneist red herring. The arguments are familiar: the party is not external to the class, but derives from the class’s awareness of the need for effective organisation; but since the class’s consciousness is necessarily uneven, the party or embryo party may at times represent only a tiny minority of the class.

The basic issue is neither organisation nor theory – it is politics. The political basis for the Communist International was a clean break with the reformist strategy of Social Democracy, on the basis of a revolutionary line of smashing the bourgeois state and establishing soviet power. And on this key question, Claudin hedges his bets. Many left-wing Social-Democrats, he tells us, thought the split ‘harmful’; the 21 Conditions for affiliation to the Comintern (designed to ensure that all CPs engaged in regular day-to-day revolutionary practice) ‘shut the doors of the Comintern to ... many of the best cadres of the movement, inspired by sincere revolutionary feeling.’

Claudin backs up his argument by invoking the strength and resilience of the Social Democracy, showing how it grew at the Communists’ expense in country after country. But thereby he undermines his own argument. For if Social Democracy was and is so powerful, then all the greater is the need for a distinct and tightly organised alternative to it. Doubtless the newly-formed Communist Parties made errors of both sectarianism and opportunism. But if they had not existed, then the Social Democracy’s task of regaining control over the labour movement would have been made ten times easier. (One’s respect for Claudin’s judgment is not enhanced by a footnote in which he deplores the Argentinian CP’s failure to recognise the progressive aspects of Peronism.)

Claudin is concerned mainly with the movement internationally; his treatment of developments inside Russia is fragmentary and incidental. And this, precisely, leads him into a dangerous ambiguity. The various CPs subordinated the class struggle to the interests of the Russian state – but what were those interests? Were the Stalinists comrades who were mistaken, however deeply, or were they representatives of an alien class interest?

Russia, Claudin tells us, is a ‘totally new social system ... Neither capitalist nor socialist ...’ Like Max Shachtman’s theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ this doesn’t get us very far. What are the laws of motion of this society, what is its dynamic? This is not so much Marxism as a bewildered gaping at an uncomprehended phenomenon. Claudin ends up comparing the East European trials of the early fifties to the exorcisms of the mediaeval church – a neat debating point, but not much in the way of an explanation.

Behind this lurks a fundamental vagueness on the agency of socialist revolution.

‘The course of the world revolution still has many surprises and many changes of personnel in store.’

The ambiguity extends to the Yugoslav and Chinese revolutions. Claudin stresses, correctly, the importance of these revolutions which took place independently of Stalin and thus shook Moscow’s grip on the world movement. But Claudin goes much further than this; though never lapsing into naive Maoism or Titoism, he sees these revolutions as alternative and preferable models for the transition to socialism, and a clear break with the class collaborationist policies of the Moscow-line CPs.

And so Claudin, despite many valuable insights, falls short on the question of a clear characterisation of Social Democracy and Stalinism. As the crisis deepens, more and more people will turn to socialist ideas; but they will not all make it direct to revolutionary politics. A variety of political currents will feed on the radicalisation. Not only will Stalinist and Social Democratic organisations enjoy a certain resurgence, but all manner of centrist bodies will spring up. Their function will be to serve as a bridge over which revolutionaries and potential revolutionaries can be herded back into the reformist camp (Cf. the French PSU). Often a leftist-sounding rejection of the Leninist party will serve to cover up an unwillingness to make a full-blooded challenge to the mass reformist parties (Cf. Il Manifesto in Italy). The fight against centrism will be a key aspect in rebuilding the revolutionary movement, Claudin’s book, unfortunately, will not help us in that task.

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