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  • Published in Book Reviews

The sharp and dramatic debates during the Third Congress of the Comintern contain lessons on strategy and tactics of crucial relevance today, argues Chris Bambery

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To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, ed. and trans. John Riddell (Haymarket Books 2015), x, 1299pp.

Imagine a hot, hot day. You’re trekking in the heat when suddenly an azure bay comes into view. Hurriedly you peel off and dive in to the fresh water. You feel refreshed, alert to the world around you. After plunging into To the Masses, I feel something the same. Collected here are the speeches, resolutions and more from the Third Congress of the Communist International (Comintern), held in Moscow in 1921, bringing together the young revolutionary Communist Parties from across the globe.

It brings to a conclusion the crucial work of John Riddell in editing a series which started with the collapse of the Second International after social democratic parties across Europe rallied to their respective states with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. It continued to the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, in 1922, the last prior to Lenin’s death and prior to its degeneration into an appendage of Soviet diplomacy. John has done us all an immense service.

This is a huge volume, but it is not difficult to read. The reason I emerged from its pages feeling refreshed was this historical record gives the lie to the caricature of the Bolsheviks and the post-1917 revolutionary movement which is so commonplace today. In this version, the Bolsheviks created a one party, totalitarian state having seized power for themselves behind the backs of the Russian masses.

Instead what we have here is a robust debate, both between the Russian delegation to the Congress – Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Grigorri Zinoviev, Karl Radek and Nicolai Bukharin – and wider. Lenin is treated with respect but there is robust debate. Above all there were sharp differences of opinion.

Crisis of the German Revolution

The issue which dominated the congress was the March Action initiated just weeks before by the young German Communist Party (KPD). Shortly before that, almost overnight, it had mushroomed in size as the majority of the Independent Socialists voted to join the KPD. This was a party of hundreds of thousands which vacillated between the revolutionary politics of the Communists and the reformist ones of the Social Democrats (SPD). The latter had headed the immediate post-war government which had crushed the revolutionary wave which had ended the First World War in the autumn of 1918, murdering Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartacus League, the forerunner of the KPD.

The German Communists became embroiled in arguments within the Comintern and Russian leaderships. Lenin and Trotsky believed the immediate post-war revolutionary wave had ebbed. As a result, the new Communist Parties were everywhere a minority of the working class, and would have to work patiently to win over the majority. Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin believed not just that the revolutionary wave still flowed strong but that it was the job of revolutionaries to make the revolution. They championed a theory of revolutionary offensive at all times.

Those three effectively ran the Comintern because Lenin and Trotsky were immersed in maintaining and defending the young Soviet Republic. What made things worse was that key Comintern emissaries in Western Europe were even more extreme in championing this theory of the offensive. Many of the German Communists, including central leaders, were new to revolutionary politics, were impatient and had little grasp of strategy and tactics. The two leaders who had been closest to Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin, opposed the theory of the offensive, alongside some of the more rooted trade-union activists.

In early 1921, Germany was still on the edge of civil war with far-right gangs terrorising working-class areas and meeting workers who had obtained arms. In March 1921, a miners’ strike took place in central Germany, in the one area of Halle-Merseburg where the KPD, rather than the Social Democrats, could claim to have the support of the working class. The security chief in the central government was a Social Democrat and he ordered the police and army to occupy the area to break the strike, restore order and disarm the workers.

Clashes broke out with armed workers and, in response, the Communist daily newspaper declared: ‘Every worker should defy the law and take arms where he can find them’. By 23rdMarch there was fighting across the district with armed workers taking over factories and mines. The next day the Communist Party called a nationwide general strike, even though the trade unions denounced this appeal and the KPD did not have the support of anything like a majority of the working class across Germany.

Urging on the leadership of the KDP were the Comintern’s emissaries: crucially two leaders of the defeated Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Béla Kun and Mátyás Rákosi. The latter told the German leadership splits were necessary because a ‘too large party’ needed to ‘strengthen itself by purging itself’.

Kun was the driving force in urging first armed resistance in Halle-Merseburg and then in initiating the call for a general strike across the country. By this time, Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin had resigned from the leadership and Levi went further issuing a pamphlet denouncing the March Action, as it quickly became known, as a putsch, an adventure carried out by a small minority seeking to take power. He was expelled.

Meanwhile the general strike call was only followed by the minority of workers loyal to the KPD. Fights broke out as the majority crossed their picket lines and some Communists used firearms. Others carried out fake attacks on their offices and themselves, pretending fascists were behind them, hoping that would breed anger and thus win support for the failing general strike. Meanwhile army units surrounded occupied workplaces and blasted their way in with artillery. By 29thMarch the March Action was over.

On 31stMarch the KPD leadership called off the general strike. Thousands of its members had been killed or jailed, the party was now illegal and it had lost 100,000 members, many of them trade unionists who had regarded the strike call as mad.

Lenin and Trotsky against ultra-leftism

The party leadership argued the whole thing was a success that had blooded the organisation for future such battles. When it arrived a few weeks later in Moscow for the third Comintern congress they were cocky and confident in the support of Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin. But among the Russian leadership, Lenin and Trotsky were appalled at what happened and determined to break the theory of the offensive and what they saw as ultra-leftism.

Lenin and Trotsky faced a battle starting as a minority both within the Russian delegation to the Congress and among the delegates as a whole. This is what dominates this volume. The stage was set when Trotsky introduced the second session, a report on the world economy which not only argued that capitalism had stabilised itself, even if only temporarily, but went onto argue that this required a strategic shift towards patiently working to create mass Communist Parties which could eventually lead a majority of the working class. The hostility to his report is palpable in the minutes.

The Russian delegation had agreed a compromise. The KPD would be praised for its defence of the workers in central Germany but the theory of the revolutionary offensive had to be decisively rejected. It fell to Karl Radek to introduce the session on strategy and tactics. He had watered down the theses agreed to by Lenin and Trotsky. The latter rose like a lion and tore into the likes of Béla Kun, denouncing the idea that a minority of the working class could make a revolution and arguing that the Communist Parties must turn ‘to the masses’.

At a meeting of the Executive Committee matters exploded. A young French Communist had argued that the class of 1919, young men who were normally regarded as too young to be conscripted into the army but had now been called up, should resist by force, gun in hand if necessary. Trotsky responded scathingly that this was adventurism. Kun then defended the Frenchman. As he spoke Lenin arrived and took the floor. Reading his intervention shows all his strengths.

Lenin was out to ‘wring the neck’ of the theory of the offensive, ridiculing its defenders, the ‘kuneries’, as he called them, and of those who referred to the supposed small size of the Bolsheviks (he pointed out that in October 1917 they had a majority of the Soviets and the army). But there was a difference between how Trotsky and Lenin argued. The former was a brilliant polemicist, but he took no prisoners. Lenin wanted to win over his leftist opponents, particularly the young and inexperienced, and to offer them a way of retreat. Despite their different approaches both were working in tandem, corresponding and talking. They were determined to win a majority.

The role of Clara Zetkin

Another person who rocketed in my estimation as I read this book was Clara Zetkin. Despite having resigned from the leadership, she attended the congress, and was denounced by her opponents as a rightist. However, her speeches denouncing the March Action strike home time after time. This volume contains her and Lenin’s accounts of their meetings to resolve the matter. She wanted Paul Levi to be reinstated as a party member. In conversation Lenin argued that while Levi was in the right over the March Action the fact he had gone public in denouncing it and the KPD was unacceptable. He acted in a ‘unilateral, exaggerated and even malicious fashion’, in a way which ‘lacked a sense of solidarity with the party’ (p.1143).

The Comintern Congress had upheld Levi’s expulsion but Lenin told Zetkin:

‘We must not lose Levi, both for ourselves and for the cause. We cannot afford to lose talented men, we must do what is possible to keep those that we have’ (p.1144).

He promised her that if Levi could lay low for three or four months and accepted his punishment he would personally fight to re-admit him. Unfortunately, Levi refused the offer.

Lenin declared himself ready, if Levi ‘behaved himself’ (for example, by working for the party under an assumed name), personally to ask for his re-admission after three or four months. ‘The important thing’, he said, ‘is to leave the road open back to us’ (p.1144).

Lenin also met with Zetkin’s supporters, trade unionists in the main, telling her:

‘Wonderful fellows these German proletarians … I do not know whether they will make shock troops, but there is one thing of which I am sure: it is people like these who make up the long columns with solid ranks of the revolutionary proletariat. It is on their unbreakable force that everything depends in the factories and the trade unions: these are the elements who must be assembled and led into action, it is through them that we are in contact with the masses’ (p.1146).

However, he added that she needed to be patient with the young who had recently been won to communism. Clearly Lenin wanted to bring the young German Communist Party united through this storm, and ensure it learnt the correct lessons of the March Action.

This is a huge volume and there is much wealth in it. For instance, a brilliant passage from Lenin on the importance of the colonial revolution, whose sharpness complements its brevity. Despite its size, it is not difficult to read. John Riddell and the publishers have done a real service in making this available to an English speaking audience. The first four congresses of the Communist International were seen as schools for revolution, schools from which you could never graduate. We always need to learn, to adjust our strategic and tactical approach, and there is so much we can learn here.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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