Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier

Between the First and the Second Congresses
Of the Communist International[1]

Chapter 11

Table of Contents:


The First Congress

The First Congress of the Communist International (March 1919) was originally intended to be merely a preparatory conference for the foundation of the new International.[2] The Congress was not representative of the world movement: almost all the delegates came from Russia or the adjoining countries controlled by the Russians, and the westerners present came from small groups residing in Russia. The European delegates who attended the Congress only did so because they happened to be in Russia at the time. Only the presence of Eberlein, the KPD delegate (an adherent of the party’s right wing), testifies to the existence of a revolutionary movement beyond the zone of Russian control. As for the project of creating an International, which would not really be in a position to direct the necessary struggles, Eberlein was very reticent, and feared that the International would only exist on paper, or would be something like a “spiritual center”. What he wanted, however, was an “organizing center” and, unlike its predecessor, a powerful and highly-structured International. But he was swept up with the general enthusiasm and ultimately voted in favor of the immediate foundation of the Communist International.

Between 1918 and 1919, a large number of communist parties and groups evolved towards leftist positions, especially in respect to the parliamentary question, and thus underwent organizational and political crises, which were exacerbated by the actions of the Communist International (cf. Chapter 17). As in France or in Great Britain, the leftist tendencies were sometimes small minorities, but considered as a whole they comprised a significant proportion of the first adherents of the Communist International.

The positions held by the Russians were little known at that time, and sometimes were not even known at all. The subsequent disillusionment derived from the fact that people generally trusted the reports they received, focusing above all on the “soviet” aspect of the revolution. Since they had carried out a violent revolution against the elected parliament, the Bolsheviks were considered to be hostile to parliament, and it was thought that they would declare themselves against the employment of traditional methods. Didn’t the texts of the First Congress attack bourgeois democracy? While they said that democracy is counterrevolutionary, and that the parliamentary form is not suitable for the revolution, they did not explicitly state that one should refuse to engage in parliamentary activity. The Bolsheviks knew that parliamentary democracy is not the adequate form for the revolution and for post-revolutionary society: only the European communist left understood that parliamentary democracy constituted a danger to the proletariat, a treacherous terrain where it would become lost. The Russians had fought in a society where democracy was opposed to the established regime. There, democracy had at least represented a small part of the real social movement, its internal conflicts and those which existed between the movement and the State found an echo and real interest outside of parliament because democracy allowed the revolutionaries to transform it into a tribunal precisely because democracy was suppressed. Only in this situation was it possible to speak of “revolutionary parliamentarism”. In Western Europe, on the other hand, democracy, within certain limits (women’s suffrage, etc.), was accepted by the State.

At the First Congress Lenin defended a confused position in respect to the institutions which had arisen in the west during and after the war, comparing them to the Russian soviets.[3] In reality, the German councils were reactionary, and the shop stewards’ committees and factory councils did not sufficiently transcend the framework of the enterprise to be considered potential organs of proletarian power:[4] the Second Congress would later adopt a clearer position, despite a certain formalism, by defining the “preconditions for the creation of workers councils”[5]. In 1919, Eberlein wanted the Congress to admit the complexity of the trade union issue. It was too simple, he said, to issue calls for “revolutionizing” the trade unions whose structure was adapted to the old State system: the “leadership of the economic movement” had passed to the councils, the trade unions having become, in Germany, “simple mutual aid organizations”. It was impossible to predict developments in this sector and consequently to provide clear directives for action which would be valid for all countries. He continued: “Wherever possible, we must make use of the revolutionary trade union in the struggle.” This tactical flexibility was all the more surprising since he also demanded a centralized International. His point of view was reminiscent of Luxemburg’s assessments of the trade unions at the end of 1918. The problem was not the trade union itself, but the functions, 1) of economic struggles, and 2) of the structures which these struggles provided themselves. If there is an ascendant movement (and the left therefore always reasons from this perspective) the organs born from the purely reformist struggle during the period of stability are not neutral instruments which one could possibly make use of and acquire influence over, and win a majority: their function is opposed to the revolution. This analysis applies to the councils as well as to the trade unions. If they become stable institutions defending limited interests of the workers, both the trade unions and the councils must be destroyed. The Spartacists, however, went from the trade union to the council with the shift of workers activity from one to the other: they were looking for an institution where they could exercise their influence.

The relations between western and Russian communists in 1919-1921 (and thus the Communist International as well) were characterized by a certain mutual incomprehension which would not be dispelled until after 1921 (although some, such as Rühle, displayed more lucidity in this regard). The non-Russian communists made an effort to organize centers for propaganda, reflection and tactical elaboration: even though they were not at first aware of the fact, these efforts clashed with the intentions of the Russians to centralize the international activities of the movement under their leadership. But the Bolsheviks could not be victorious without the help of two convergent factors. First, the difficulties and setbacks of the revolution, which forced the communists in the most active countries into clandestinity, did not facilitate the installation of permanent centers. But this “technical” reality, which the Russians so heavily emphasized, did not explain everything. The failure or the stagnation of the movement in Europe caused a large number of western communists to accept Russian tutelage on the theoretical and organizational planes. At the Second Congress, out of 167 delegates, 40% were Russians or “assimilables”. Germany, Great Britain and the United States had five votes each, that is, as many as Finland or Georgia. The Italian Socialist Party had 4 votes (as did the Austrian Communist Party): its three factions were represented, but only the center possessed a deliberative voice. The organization of the Congress was in the hands of the Bolsheviks: the Executive Committee named in 1919 was still Russian, since, out of all the other parties, only the Hungarian Communist Party had been able to send a delegate.

One could devote an entire volume to the study of the perfectly sincere and revolutionary communists who accepted the Bolshevik positions without ever seeing the matter from the point of view of the left; in France, The Communist Bulletin and Rosmer provided a good example of what is said above concerning the left’s misunderstandings. For them, Bolshevism was the entire strategy and program; all that was needed was to know how to apply it to other countries. They did not understand that bolshevism was, according to the most generous hypothesis, the best product of the socialist movement as it had existed prior to 1914, without ever going beyond those limits. Its perspective transcended the Russian framework, since the socialist movement there could not, from the beginning, triumph without the world revolution. But in order to be capable of taking all the tactics of the world revolution into consideration, a step was necessary which the Russians never took. The lack of information (which was, however, often exaggerated)[6] was only a secondary reason: the Russians made use of the European documents by only reading into them what they had previously wanted to find. Lenin, who was often more perspicacious than the westerners in his assessments, nonetheless demonstrated a high degree of incomprehension regarding the specific problems of the communist revolution in the more advanced countries.[7] The situation as it developed between 1920 and 1921, along with Russian isolation due to the European defeat, led to an ambiguous policy on the part of the Bolsheviks, who were as concerned with protecting their state as with promoting the world revolution. This contradiction was unsustainable and would only really be resolved by Stalin. From this point of view, Trotskyism represents neither the best revolutionary expression of, nor a layer which broke loose from the Russian “bureaucracy”, nor an aberration, but a vain effort to preserve a revolutionary perspective by taking the heroic period as a basis, and ignoring the contradictions of that period.[8] In the dead end of Trotskyism, its confused opportunism mixed with the memory of a few doctrinal points reproduced the caricatural and congenital ambiguity of the “first four congresses of the Communist International”. Militants like Rosmer did not see that, if it had spread, the revolution not only would not have respected the line established by the Russian leadership of the Communist International, but would have profoundly transformed the status and the nature of the Russian party itself, which might have, perhaps, found other leaders. The ebb of the movement in the West, however, caused its revolutionaries to regress to the Russian level.


The Failure of the Amsterdam Bureau

The Amsterdam Conference (January 1920) was held to define the basis upon which the Auxiliary Bureau (or sub-Bureau) for Western Europe should conduct its activities. Another office, the Berlin Secretariat, was to coordinate the movement in Eastern Europe, including Germany. But should communist organizations unify around centers which would define their own tactics, or should they merely support the Communist International’s activities? The question was hardly posed in 1919, and would soon receive an answer from events themselves. The KPN (the Communist Party of the Netherlands) played a preponderant role in the Bureau. It had distinguished itself during the war by its collaboration with anarchists and anarchosyndicalists. Rutgers, in his report to the First Congress of the Communist International, declared: “We have always got along better with the syndicalist elements of the workers movement [than with the reformist socialist party] and when the civil war broke out, our party, together with the syndicalists and an anarchist group, formed a revolutionary committee.”[9] Although the KPN sent two deputies to the Dutch parliament, Pannekoek, Gorter and Roland-Holst were opposed to parliamentary action. It was one of the first parties to break with the Communist International, which it had joined in April 1919 when it named Wijnkoop as a delegate to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). Rutgers (cf. Chapter 17), who had arrived in Amsterdam in November, intervened in the debate on the parliamentary question and took the side of the left.[10]

The Amsterdam Conference was attended by the leaders of the KPN, S. Pankhurst, Willis and Hodgson (British Socialist Party, a centrist party which would contribute the bulk of the membership of that country’s Communist Party), Murphy (delegate of the Shop Stewards Movement), L. Fraina (American communist) and Borodin.[11] What particularly distinguished the debate was the high proportion of Anglo-Saxons present. With some 20 participants, this conference was more representative of the international revolutionary movement and specifically of the weight of the left in that movement than was the First Congress of the Communist International. Zetkin, who arrived just before the end of the conference, denied its representative character. The discussion would end prematurely due to the intervention of the police. One part of the delegation dispersed, while others, in a private capacity, carried on the discussion elsewhere.

Pankhurst proposed the organization of an international strike against intervention in Russia, with at least one month of preparation. Gorter expressed his approval and wanted the same thing to be done in the event of a revolution in Germany. Wijnkoop thought it would be difficult to organize an international action, and contested Gorter’s key argument, which the latter had often made during that period and which he would mention in his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin: that the unification of capital also obliges the proletarians to unite. Wijnkoop denied that capital was as unified as Gorter had claimed, and did not believe that a revolution was immanent in Germany. The resolution passed, advocating the preparation of the proletariat for a general strike if the revolution were to break out in any country.

Fraina’s resolution on the trade unions combined “industrial unions” (not organized by trade) with political action. It implicitly rejected the theses defended by, for example, the Italian “ordinovistas” associated with Gramsci: “The conception according to which the workers, under capitalist rule, must acquire in their industrial unions the experience and the technical skills to run the new society, and that they have to gradually acquire, through their industrial unions, power over industry, is confused with the proposals of parliamentary socialism which hold that the workers must gradually conquer experience in the affairs of State by means of control over the bourgeois State. Each of these conceptions rejects, in its own way, the fundamental problem of the revolutionary conquest of State power. The conquest of State power: that is the goal of the revolutionary proletariat.”[12] The institution for this conquest was the soviet. This resolution, however, was still confused: it fought against “laborism” and the traditional trade unions, but called for the conquest of the “industrial unions”. The trade unions were weapons of capital, but the industrial unions were potentially weapons of the proletariat. These industrial unions would become the classical unions of the post-war era, particularly in the United States (the CIO) but also in Europe: the evolution of the trade unions at Renault illustrates this development quite well.[13] This position was all the more contradictory since the resolution admitted that “the development of imperialism determines the definitive absorption of the trade unions by capitalism”.

Concerning parliamentarism, the conference limited itself to outlining the divergent positions, without pronouncing in favor of one or the other. Almost all of the delegates were in favor of breaking with the socialist parties. The resolution on communist unity, drafted by Fraina, advocated breaking with the member organizations of the Second International, and rejected the idea (which was supported by the Communist International and accepted by the English centrists) of communists affiliating with the Labor Party. It was also decided that “shop committees and other workers organizations” should be admitted into the Communist International, without making this a question of principle.

These measures, which were approved but never implemented, due to a lack of means and time, testify that the Bureau considered itself to be one of the centers of the movement in Europe. The Bureau published documents and issued a Manifesto to the English, French and Belgian Workers calling upon them to take action in case of allied intervention in Germany. The KAPD was accepted into the Bureau in April, even though Germany was the responsibility of the Berlin Secretariat, which was hostile to the KAPD and instead advocated working with the USPD.[14] In May, the Bureau announced its opposition to communist affiliation with the Labor Party. Speaking at the SFIO’s Congress in Strasbourg (February 1920), Roland-Holst recommended the expulsion of its right wing. The Bureau, composed of Wijnkoop, Rutgers and Roland-Holst, was torn apart by the factional struggles within the KPN. On May 15, Radio Moscow announced the closing of what it simply referred to as the “Amsterdam Bureau” rather than the “Western European Bureau”, a title reserved for the Berlin Secretariat, which had played no effective role. The first and last attempt to coordinate the communist movement in the West had developed under the influence of the Left, and had resulted in failure. A second attempt would also fail. Created in Sofia in May of 1920, the Balkan Communist Federation, composed of the Bulgarian (cf. Chapter 17), Yugoslav, and Greek parties, as well as the communist fraction of the Romanian Socialist Party, which would found a Communist Party in May of 1921, would not accept the directives of the Communist International. The Yugoslav Communist Party (founded in April 1919) did not adopt either the slogan of national self-determination or that of the distribution of land to the peasants (cf. Luxemburg’s critiques of the Bolsheviks’ positions on these two issues in her notes on The Russian Revolution). One of its leaders characterized national struggles as “fights between rival bourgeoisies”. But this Communist Party accepted centrists as members and practiced parliamentarism on a grand scale. The Balkan Federation would disappear after 1923.[15]


The Second Congress of the Communist International

Some of the rather optimistic positions of the Second Congress (July 1920) must again be set in context. After having been invaded by Poland, Russia counterattacked and penetrated Polish territory. Between sessions, the delegates received reports on the war, viewing the advance of the Red Army on a large wall map. The advance upon Warsaw was quickly stymied and the Russians had to beat a hasty retreat. The appeals directed by the Russians to the Polish workers clashed with the Poles’ sense of national solidarity against their ancient foe: “the right of national self-determination”... This conflict also demonstrated that the Red Army, composed primarily of peasants, was more suited to the defense of Russian territory than for the world revolutionary war, as Gorter had already pointed out.[16]

Confusion persisted concerning the Russians’ position advising the revolutionaries in other countries not to “imitate” them. Many revolutionaries (Welti in Switzerland, Loriot in France, Pankhurst, Roland-Holst) interpreted this statement as the Russians’ acceptance of wide-ranging autonomy.

In reality, however, by saying “do not imitate us”, the Russians actually intended to say: “Don’t think anymore about revolution”, “don’t remain a small minority”, “form large mass parties”; and “imitate us” basically meant “make compromises” and “be disciplined”; what was essential for the Russians was, at that time, to stay in power, rather than worrying about the regression which their power was undergoing.

In September 1919, Roland-Holst asserted that profound differences existed between the Russian and Western masses.[17] Others wanted the most rigorous centralism in order to prevent deviations: this was the position of the Italian Left, which was hardly more consistent than the other left tendencies, since it would be the (Russian) leadership of the Communist International which would be the great centralizing force for right wing deviations. The Russians wanted tactics adapted to the circumstances, but only as they understood them. A clear change of course on the part of the Russians took place in relation to the tactics to be followed in the West, and consequently, in relation to the Left as well. In 1919, the criteria for the membership in the communist parties, established after long deliberation, were agreement with the dictatorship of the proletariat, breaking with the socialists, and internationalism. Even among those who would join the Communist Party, some refused, in 1919-1920, to make parliamentary activity (which, however, they supported) a criterion for membership: “the differences of opinion on this issue will not interfere with the unification of the forces of the extreme left in Great Britain.”[18] On August 28, 1919, in reply to Pankhurst, Lenin announced his support for a realignment which would by no means exclude the antiparliamentarians:

“If we consider the problem in its general and theoretical form, it is ... the same program, that is, the struggle for soviet power ... which can and, today, must unify all honest and sincere working class revolutionaries... The question of parliamentarism is now a partial and secondary question... I would consider the immediate foundation of Communist Parties, that is, of parties fighting for the transition from bourgeois parliamentarism to soviet power, to be an authentic step towards complete unity.”[19]

During the same period, Lenin advised Levi not to make parliamentarism grounds for a split. Similarly, on the topic of the trade unions, the Communist International evolved from a somewhat flexible position, not transforming the conquest of the traditional trade unions into a principle, to a tactic based on that very principle. During its first period, until the winter of 1919-1920, the Communist International rejected the destruction of the traditional trade union organizations wherever the revolutionary movement was growing (Germany). On the other hand, however, it allowed that American proletarians should leave the AFL and create another union based, among other organizations, on the membership of the IWW, not because an important movement existed at that time in the United States, but because the IWW had already organized a significant part of the working class.[20] Later, in 1920-1921, under the influence of an increasingly difficult situation for the workers movement, the Communist International evolved towards the ambiguous position mentioned above. It is true that Lenin had never hesitated, for example, to seek “personalities” like Zetkin, Serrati, or the Romanian Rakovsky, for some legitimacy. He needed a successor, and chose an heir from the “true” Second International. Altogether contradictory, Bolshevism developed its weakest (social democratic) aspects under the pressure of the decline of the movement: these aspects, never having been criticized, despite the revolutionary practice of the Bolsheviks in 1914, 1917, etc., returned to appear in force after 1919, when they would play a despicable role within a different context.

A little later, the tendency which sought parties capable of exercising pressure on their respective parliaments incited the Communist International to support the entrance of centrists into the Communist Parties (VKPD) and to encourage splits which would preserve the center (PCF). The year 1919 witnessed the consolidation of the revolutionary regime in Russia and the defeat of the proletariat everywhere else. The movement was crushed everywhere: France, Great Britain, Italy, the USA, and Central Europe. The paradox resided in the fact that these defeats allowed the communist movement to become conscious of itself and its enemies, without thereby acquiring the means to assert itself and seize the initiative. Nothing had yet been definitively decided, but its weakness remained and would significantly diminish its possibilities in the following years. It increasingly abandoned the offensive into the hands of the Communist International, and consequently to its Russian leadership. It was not Lenin’s maneuvers which allowed him to control the Communist International, but the real situation of the divisions within the Communist International which demanded his leadership. Lenin was very careful not to do anything which would promote the unification of the international trend towards the left. He endeavored not to attack Loriot, even though Loriot was sympathetic to antiparliamentarism, because the French communists were not associated with the “international” left. Lenin treated Wijnkoop with caution, who maintained an intermediate position, against the affiliation of the socialist parties, but in favor of parliamentary activity whenever possible.

There was no contradiction between the first two congresses. Bolshevism had originally conceived of itself as the Russian method to create in Russia what already existed in the other large industrial countries, not to impose its own methods on others. What is to be done? Lenin copied Germany; he tried to be a better student of Kautsky than all the other Russian socialists. In 1907, while reflecting on the history of the Russian movement, he offered a modest reevaluation of his work What is to be Done?, defining it as “a summary of Iskra and its policy on organization between 1901 and 1902. Just a summary, nothing more...”[21] If the European revolution had been successful, the Communist International probably would have been led by others, not by Russians. It was the defeat of the German and Hungarian revolutions which led the Communist International to advocate something other than strictly communist party groups. It was because the workers, everywhere, really accepted the elections, that the Communist International recommended parliamentary action, and why Lenin dared to say at the Second Congress that “Parliament is always the arena of the class struggle”. Arguing that the function of the Labour Party was to be an “organization of the bourgeoisie ... which only exists to systematically deceive the workers”, he nonetheless held that one had to “join it”.[22] This contradiction cannot be understood unless one sees that for Lenin the revolutionary task consists in regrouping, in organizing the masses. He therefore sought an “institution”, a framework where agitation could take root: “can one conceive of any other institution so capable of interesting all classes, as parliament?” he asked in the speech quoted above. We should go wherever the masses are, from parliament to the cooperatives, from the trade unions to the town halls, etc... His point of view was imposed on a movement in decline, because he advocated organizing large masses of workers, even the majority, by means of all kinds of activities (trade unions, parliaments, etc.) whose “communist” character, however, would be guaranteed solely by the fact that communists would be their leaders: an appeal to principle of the kind Kautsky used to justify anything as long as “the doctrine” is guaranteed. The 21 Conditions would then serve as a filter.

Approved by the Second Congress, the 21 Conditions manifested an anti-reformist organizational illusion, and were a means to make the Russians’ positions accepted. Far from being the proof of the communist character of the sections of the Communist International, they testified to the presence and the overwhelming weight of the centrist mass parties which would soon take over the organizational tasks of the degenerating communist parties: the Bolsheviks would never forgive the Italian Communist Party for having prevented what was “achieved” by the PCF and the VKPD (cf. Chapter 17). It is too often forgotten that the 21 Conditions were directed against the Left as much as against the centrists (who would enter en masse and accept the 21 Conditions: the latter having served the purpose of isolating the Left). Among the Conditions, working in the trade unions and parliament were explicitly included (Conditions 9 and 11), as well as support for “all colonial movements of emancipation”. Henceforth, being a communist would mean, among other things, being a trade unionist and a voter. But the defense of the Russian State did not yet, in fact, dominate the Russians’ attitude: this decisive change would not take place until after 1921.

At first, the Russians expected to open the Executive Committee of the Communist International to KAPD delegates, but Levi’s opposition obliged them to grant the KAPD only a consultative vote (cf. Chapter 16). A few days later, the Russians again proposed granting votes to the KAPD, the IWW and the Shop Stewards Movement, but only the latter two groups were conceded the right to vote. Zinoviev’s speech on parliament and the trade unions criticized the French antiparliamentarians, the IWW and the SSM, although he considered them to be “friends and brothers”. This speech was followed by an arduous debate on the question of whether the British communists should join the Labour Party, which ended in victory for the proponents of affiliation, but only after a long and acrimonious debate which ended with the Left accepting this position without admitting its rationale, hoping (Pankhurst) that the Congress would return to the question for discussion at a later time. The Congress voted in favor of the resolution, 48 votes to 24: “It was not such an impressive victory for the Russians when one considers the vast arsenal which had been brought to bear against the ‘British Left’.”[23] We should not allow the violent ruptures which took place later to mislead us. At the time of the Second Congress, not only Bordiga (who, from a sense of discipline, accepted “revolutionary parliamentarism”), but also Pankhurst and Gorter (cf. the latter’s Open Letter to Comrade Lenin) thought that there were infinitely more shared views than divergences between their position and the Communist International—the Russians, they thought, made mistakes because they were extrapolating their situation to the other countries of the Communist International—and that experience would lead them to change their positions, especially since they expected that the movement would grow. Organizational fetishism appeared in all the currents of the Left, and not only in Germany. The PCI renounced its abstentionism, placing more value on the existence of a world center than on this tactical disagreement. Of course, submission to discipline makes no sense unless this center would act in a revolutionary way. Such was not to be the case. The PCI fought for a form, deceiving itself concerning its content: organizational fetishism. Excessive faith in the revolution, “automatism”, and sometimes the weakness of their theoretical tradition made the European communists yield to the Russians. The authority of the Russians, and among the Russians Lenin’s opinions, were frequently imposed without too much pressure: “whoever wanted to persist in holding an opinion which was different from that defended by the Russians, was sure to be isolated”, the KAPD’s representative on the Executive Committee of the Communist International, a delegate who spent several months in Russia in 1921, would declare long afterwards.[24] The Left tended to grant little importance to arrangements which it considered to be provisional. Soon, faced with the confirmation of the proletarian defeat, which seemed to vindicate the Communist International’s condemnation of the Left, the official policy appeared to be the only realistic one, and in retrospect the only one which might have prevented that defeat. The prudent counsel of the Communist International (“prepare yourselves”) would offer the prospect of permanent employment to a new generation, or to the older one which could not recycle itself back into the traditional workers movement.

A strong current in opposition to the centrists took shape at the Second Congress. The French delegate of the Socialist Youth, Goldenberg, decried the fact that the French communists had been attacked “precisely by those whom we intend to accept into the Third International for the sole reason ... that they display a verbal solidarity with its principles”. He also lamented “this artificial means of bringing undesirable elements into the International”.[25] Soon after the start of the debate concerning the USPD, after Wijnkoop’s speech, the Estonian Münzenberg warned the Congress against the danger “of diluting and weakening revolutionary propaganda and activity”. Lenin interrupted him: “And who is talking about admitting the USPD?” Münzenberg replied: “The debate in the Executive Committee has clearly proven it. The fact that comrades who only a few weeks or days ago were still fighting with every means at their disposal against the Third International, now declare themselves prepared to sign, without any reservations, the proposed conditions—this proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these conditions have not been formulated with sufficient precision.” Wijnkoop emphasized that if the KPD could criticize the USPD, the KAPD could do the same in respect to the KPD. “Is it totally correct”—he asked ironically—“to say that the KPD is always in the vanguard of the masses? This question must be posed here and it must have an answer. But this would undoubtedly be very difficult in the presence of the USPD. We are not alone, among ourselves, we find ourselves with these gentlemen, the government socialists. We must meet among ourselves alone and speak the truth to one another. But this has been rendered impossible by the Executive Committee” (by admitting the USPD into the Congress). Ultimately, despite the 21 Conditions, the KAPD was admitted as a sympathizing party into the Communist International.

The trade union debate, to some extent, concerned the United States. The Communist Labor Party (J. Reed) was close to the Left and was opposed by the Communist Party (Fraina), which defended working in the trade unions (concerning these two American parties, cf. Chapter 17). Reed was against working in the AFL, but ultimately accepted it in order to destroy that trade union federation and not to conquer it. The Shop Stewards Movement wanted to remain outside the reformist trade unions. Reed and Gallacher, of the Shop Stewards, “thought that there was no more reason to try to change the nature of the old trade unions than there was to try to change the nature of the capitalist State”.[26] The CLP’s argument was unlike the position defended by the KAPD, as Bergmann would explain at the Third World Congress.[27] It was based on the fact that only 20% of the workers in the USA were organized in trade unions: we should therefore organize the unorganized. This viewpoint was closer to that of the IWW than to that of the Communist Left, strictly understood. An Italian delegate, Bombacci, who was a trade union leader for many years, opposed Lenin, and denied that the trade unions had “any revolutionary function whatsoever”[28]... The ensuing debate in the committee on the trade union question resulted in reciprocal concessions.

The Bolshevik position was also based on the conviction, shared by the Italian Left, that the trade unions (led by the Party) would be needed after the revolution to organize production and to represent the immediate interests of the workers. This was Lenin’s position in the debate at the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921.[29] Such a position was justified, at best, in a country like Russia, which is not socialist, but cannot be applied to a revolution in Western Europe. The problem in the latter case is not one of representing the workers but of organizing production and society. Such administrative tasks cannot be undertaken by a trade union: its whole anti-proletarian past (both by virtue of its organizational structure and its anti-communist activities) makes this impossible. Quite the contrary, after and by means of the indispensable destruction of the trade unions, new organizations will be born which will take control of production and the regulation of working conditions. By trying to supersede the trade union-party rupture, the radical German proletarians had at least vaguely perceived that the communist revolution was not a question of managing society, but of overthrowing all of its relations. Lenin, as well as Bordiga, at that time, never advanced beyond a leadership conception, which is but one aspect of the managerial conception.[30]

However, unlike what is taking place today, it must be said in favor of Bordiga and Lenin that they were at least conscious of the goal: an economy without market exchange. The centralization of their forces, by means of the constitution of a leadership cadre, seemed to them to be the most economical road, and even the only possible one, to achieve this goal. Lenin criticized the “non-centralists” from a tactical point of view: their inability to resist the reaction. This view was very political and military and did not apply to a generalized revolutionary movement in which, as in Germany, the military dimension was only one aspect of an economic subversion. For Russia, as long as the revolution did not become a world revolution, Lenin’s position was correct: it was a question of administering political power in a society which could not be profoundly transformed, but had to be ruled as it existed, nonetheless. Of course, this position had to become false, when the hopes for a world revolution had evaporated. Bordiga implicitly went further in defending the need for the “party”: he was a critic of Proudhonism, and not just regarding the strategic problem of striking at the heart of the matter: the State.

In its essence, the German Left cannot be reduced to revolutionary syndicalism: it went beyond the economic-political rift. It is in this sense that one should understand the rule established by certain unionen that their members must acknowledge the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

At the Second Congress of the Communist International, the “Left” (taken in its widest sense) was split over the trade union question into two positions which sometimes overlapped. Must the old trade unions be destroyed or should new organizations be constructed which are both “trade unions” (acting in defense of the workers’ immediate interests) and “revolutionary” (fighting for the communist revolution) at the same time? As in the case of the question of joining the Labour Party, the Left yielded. Reed declared: “The American and English delegates tried to introduce a new spirit into the old trade unions ... the communists must transform the trade unions or remain isolated.”[31] In the plenary session, the Russians acted as if the committee had reached an agreement, which gave rise to vehement protests, which became more aggressive as the Bolsheviks sandbagged the debate (by increasing the number of Russian speakers). Gallacher, although he was inclined to favor affiliation, and would become one of the leaders of the British Communist Party for several decades, stated: “The English comrades have the impression that it was simply a matter of preventing debate.”[32] The final resolution recommended that communists should be present in the trade unions and should join the Red Trade Union International. But the creation of this organization would only make the problem worse. Was it a new mass workers movement, radical yet still based on trade union activities, or was it situated beyond trade unionism? Was it an attempt to build a trade union international whose ultimate purpose was to replace the “yellow” International, created in July 1919, or was its goal only to regroup the minorities within the trade unions and to keep alive the hopes of conquering the old trade unions? The presence of observers and sympathizers from traditional revolutionary syndicalism (Spanish, Italian and French) did not make clarifying this issue any easier, and it would only be resolved under the pressure of events: the “communist” trade unions would become trade unions like all the others, confirming the fact that there is no such thing as an anti-trade union trade union.

“The real founding Congress” of the Communist International[33] did not resolve any crucial problems. It ended without clarifying the trade union question due to a desire not to confront the trade unions,[34] which were reluctant to yield to the Communist International’s will to control the trade union movement (some, because of a revolutionary conviction in favor of trade union autonomy—IWW, Rosmer—others because of their anti-revolutionary position—Italian CGL—others oscillating between these two views—the Spanish CNT). The Communist International and the Red Trade Union International would assume a defensive posture by allowing the reformist centrals to exclude the revolutionary trade unions or those which had joined the Red Trade Union International. In the name of the “unity” of the movement, they left all initiative in the hands of their adversaries, while their adversaries knew how to utilize the weapon of unity when they found it useful, and later forced splits when their interests required them.[35] Pushed to the sidelines, the red trade unions could not exist unless they acted like trade unions: those organizations with revolutionary tendencies, even if they were, at times, contradictory, like the IWW, would disappear.

The weakness of the non-Russian revolutionary movement was manifested in the Communist International’s organizational structure, and was symbolized by the enormous weight of the Russians in the Executive Committee. Wijnkoop tried in vain to warn the delegates: “In reality, we are not building an international Executive Committee, but an enlarged Russian Executive Committee. I have suggested that the Communist International should have its headquarters outside of Russia, in Italy or Norway. Levi has proposed Germany... It is a very important question because we have given enormous power to this committee, even that of excommunicating individuals, groups or entire parties. This cannot be done without a precise knowledge of the domestic situation in each country.”[36] The Executive Committee which was finally named was composed of 15 members, 5 of whom were Russians.

The Communist Parties were not “branches” of the Communist International. They had been formed from within, as outgrowths of the social movements in various countries, often with novel aspects. Despite appearances, it was the Communist International which had been formed by its sections, even though its construction was characterized by clashes. The idea of a “mold” conceals the movement which individuals and groups followed in joining the Communist International. One could ask why they accepted this mold. For example, their emphasis on education was well adapted to what was proposed or imposed by the Communist International, and corresponded to the practice of the classical socialist movement before and after 1914-1918. To guide, to convince, and then to lead the class: where the accent had been placed on education, the communist parties displaced it to organization. It was the same tendency, but extended. Lenin’s fundamental counterrevolutionary traits (the Kautskyist theory of consciousness being brought to the class from without) came from Europe, and all he did was systematize them. Except for a minority (the communist left), the post-1917 European revolutionaries did not criticize him: it was, then, inevitable that these conceptions would come to life again from the moment when the movement ebbed. The conception of an “elite” which leads the workers, however, was not limited to just the socialist movement. Before 1914 it was shared by revolutionary syndicalism. We quote Pouget:

“Most people are sheep-like and unconscious. If by some chance they have ... moments of lucidity, it is under the influence of revolutionary minorities.”

“The revolutionary problem consists entirely in this: to build a minority which is strong enough to overthrow the minority of leaders.”[37]

The obsession with the rupture represented by the “Leninization” of a large part of the European, and even of the world’s workers movement, has led to an underestimation of its continuity with certain practices and conceptions which had roots, prior to 1914, among both socialists and trade unionists... Anarchosyndicalist elitism was one of the channels through which the Leninist conception of the party was transmitted and which would facilitate its imposition. If the CGTU rapidly came under the control of the PCF, and if the Shop Stewards Movement submitted to the leadership of the British Communist Party, it is not because these parties had practiced such clever manipulation: the educational orientation and the organization of conscious minorities had been almost naturally transferred from the trade union to the party.



[1] This chapter deals with the situation of the international movement in general between 1919 and 1920. The relations between the Communist International and Germany are examined in Chapter 16, and the international communist left in Chapter 17. Cf. also the section on Hungary in Chapter 8.

[2] The complete proceedings of the Congresses of the Communist International will be published by EDI. Le Premier congrès de l’IC appeared in 1974.

[3] La question syndicale..., p. 12.

[4] Ibid., p. 50. [Note is missing in the text - MIA.]

[5] Cf. his biography written by C. Gras (Maspero), and his works on the history of the workers movement during the war (Vol. I, Librairie du Travail, and Vol. II, Mouton), and Moscou sous Lénine, P. Horay, 1953 (republished by Maspero, 2 Vols.). [Note is missing in the text - MIA.]

[6] Rosmer, Moscou sous Lénine, P. Horay, 1953, p. 150 and passim, and Reichenbach. It was not, however, until the beginning of 1920 that some copies of Il Soviet (organ of the abstentionist fraction of the PSI) arrived in Moscow, according to D. Urquidi, The Origins of the Italian Communist Party, 1918-21, Ann Arbor, Columbia Univ., whose conclusion is reproduced in Gruber, pp. 308-391. This thesis can be consulted in the International Institute for Social History.

[7] Dauvé, Le mouvement communiste, p. 205, et seq.

[8] Lefort, Les Temps Modernes, December 1948-January 1949, “La contradiction de Trotsky ou le problème révolutionnaire”.

[9] IC, No. 4.

[10] J. Hulse, The Forming of the Communist International, Stanford Univ. Press, 1964, p. 154, et seq. [Note is missing in the text - MIA.]

[11] On Pankhurst and Fraina, cf. Chapter 17.

[12] Bulletin du Bureau Auxiliaire d’Amsterdam de l’IC, No. 2, March 1920.

[13] Le mouvement social, October-December 1972 (on the automobile industry in France, and particularly the Renault factories).

[14] PC, No. 58, pp. 154-157.

[15] F. Tych, in La révolution d’Octobre et le mouvement ouvrier européen, EDI, 1967, pp. 195-228.

[16] Gorter, L’Internationale Communiste Ouvrière, in Invariance, n.d., No. 5, p. 36. Cf. also the analysis of the Second World Congress made by the Italian Left in PC, Nos. 59 and 60.

[17] IC, No. 5.

[18] E. and C. Paul, Creative Revolution, Allen Unwin, 1920, pp. 121-122.

[19] Lenin on Britain, Moscow, Lawrence and Wishart, 1930, pp. 422-428.

[20] La question syndicale..., pp. 30-32.

[21] Quoted in Cahiers du communisme de conseils, No. 9, September 1971, “De la nécessité de la théorie”.

[22] Oeuvres, Vol. 31, Ed. Sociales, 1961, p. 261, et seq.

[23] Hulse, p. 200.

[24] Survey, October 1964.

[25] S. Page, Lenin and the World Revolution, New York University Press, 1959, pp. 162-163.

[26] Hulse, p. 214.

[27] La gauche allemande...

[28] Page, Note 75, Chapter 12.

[29] Dauvé: Communisme et “question russe”, pp. 81-82. An English translation of these same two chapters is available in Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, Antagonism, London, 1998, and also on the Antagonism website:

[30] It was only after 1945 that Bordiga rediscovered the communist position of Marx: cf. Bordiga et le passion du communisme, Spartacus, 1974.

[31] Page: p. 180.

[32] Ibid., p. 181.

[33] PC, No. 56, p. 39.

[34] PC, No. 60, pp. 9-14.

[35] La question syndicale..., pp. 22-23.

[36] Page: pp. 182-183.

[37] C. de Goustine: Pouget, Les matins noirs du syndicalisme, La Tête de Feuilles, 1972, pp. 80 and 84.