The newly available records of the Comintern Executive Committee from 1922-23 show the importance of the organisation before its later Stalinisation, argues Chris Bambery

The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923, ed. Mike Taber, trans. John Riddell (Haymarket Books 2019), 796pp.

One of the great successes of the neoliberal offensive we have been living under for four decades is the effective removal of the 1917 Russian Revolution as a source of inspiration for those looking to change the world. True, the lazy idea that Lenin led to Stalin was already around but after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union it became the dominant narrative.

That Stalin would have had anyone who wrote a pamphlet like Lenin’s State and Revolution under his rule shot is neither here nor there. Nor that Trotsky, the second figure in the October Revolution, led a fight against the coming to power of Stalin and the then creation of a dreadful dictatorship on the basis of defending the Bolshevik tradition, a fight involving tens of thousands of party members who would go onto the camps and a death sentence.

The result of that success has been to remove 1917 and Lenin effectively from having any great influence in the anti-capitalist movements of recent years. When I first got involved in the radical left in the early 1970s virtually all its different strands identified themselves with Lenin and October. What happened after was a tidal change.

Two Canadian Marxists, first John Riddell and then Mike Taber set themselves a mission to liberate the history of the Communist International during Lenin’s remaining years prior to Stalin’s takeover. This was the international grouping brought together in March 1919 to organise those forces which had opposed the First World War and supported the October Revolution. It held three other conferences in Lenin’s lifetime, the last in November 1922.

At its launch the expectation was that the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe would succeed and that the leadership of the new Comintern would include giants like the leaders of the young German Communist Party (KPD), Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. By the time it met they were the victims of counter-revolution in Berlin. If the Comintern is ever mentioned today it is as a rubber stamp for the Russian leadership. That’s what it would become under Stalin but it was very far from the case in Lenin’s time.

Politics of the Comintern Executive Committee

So far John and Mike have produced a series of volumes including an accurate record of the debates at the first four Comintern congresses. Reading them it’s clear that Lenin and Trotsky are first among equals, but equals they are and they cannot just snap their fingers to get the correct decision. There is real debate and argument.

This volume is the record of the Comintern’s Executive Committee’s two meetings prior to the Fourth Congress and the one following it. The debates and the arguments are still all here but there is a difference. Lenin, now ill, and Trotsky are largely absent and the proceedings are dominated from the Russian side by the Comintern President, Grigorii Zinoviev, described by Victor Serge as ‘Lenin’s greatest mistake’. Zinoviev had opposed the actual seizure of power in November 1917 and went public on it.

He has none of Lenin’s ability to tackle opponents hard but always to allow them an avenue of retreat and work hard to win them over. Trotsky was the polemicist par excellence: one opponent described how when Trotsky polemicised with you it was like looking up as the sabre of a mounted policeman caught the sun as it swept down towards you. Zinoviev was more a bully. The second Russian in prominence is Karl Radek, a great journalist but a little too full of himself.

Trotsky appears once, arguing with the leadership of the newly formed French Communist Party over its strategy. It’s important to say he was intimate with the French working-class movement and its personalities, plus he spoke the language well. It’s clear the esteem he was held in.

Lenin doesn’t appear directly but Mike Taber includes an appendix of his correspondence concerning the Berlin Congress of early 1922. There were at that time three internationals, the old Second International, which had voted for war in 1914 and bitterly opposed Soviet power in Russia, the Comintern, and, in between, what was called the ‘Second and a Half International’, which vacillated between the two.

United front of internationals

In February 1922 the latter approached the Comintern with the proposal that all three bodies meet to discuss how to oppose a growing ruling-class offensive after the revolutionary tide turned. It would peak with the victory of Italian fascism. The Comintern responded positively knowing this would cause arguments within its own ranks; it would mean sitting down with the people responsible for Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s murder. Lenin argued hard to attend saying it served the interests of the working class; if the Comintern refused they would be seen as splitters and if the others refused to co-operate the boot would be on the other foot.

That approach included not committing any provocations, for instance removing from a resolution on the subject the description of the two other groupings as ‘accomplices of the world bourgeoisie’. The Comintern delegation in Berlin was high powered, led by Zinoviev, Clara Zetkin and Nikolai Bukharin. The meeting agreed to hold a World Congress of Labour bringing together the parties belonging to all three internationals. The Comintern delegation used the meeting to explain its united-front policy to the Western European working class. In the event the Second International backed down from holding the World Congress of Labour and the Second-and-a-Half International would not force the issue.

He was critical that the Comintern side made too many concessions in Berlin but still argued it was right to go, writing:

‘Communists must stew in their own juices, but must learn to penetrate into prohibited premises where the representatives of the bourgeoisie are influencing the workers; and in this they must not shrink from making certain sacrifices and not be afraid of making mistakes, which at first, are inevitable in every new and difficult undertaking’ (p.376).

In the event the conference broke down but the Comintern was seen as not being to blame.

Germany and the Comintern

The other major party of the Comintern was the German Communist Party, the KPD, and here it is clear it was not just a major force in Germany but had real weight in the Comintern’s deliberations. Its leadership at this point was pursuing a united-front strategy towards the Social Democrats (SPD), despite their being responsible for Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s murder, because they had majority support in the German working class.

In 1921 the KPD issued an Open Letter proposing unity to resist the growing bosses’ offensive. The SPD rejected it but the proposals touched a nerve and won the Communists an audience among SPD supporting workers.

The KPD took up the idea that there should be a referendum on whether the aristocracy’s wealth and estates should be expropriated at the time of hyper-inflation and eventually forced the SPD to back down. The result came near to success and scared the German elite mightily. The KPD was a growing force.

The best sections of this book are when Clara Zetkin, Luxemburg’s old friend and comrade, talks about fascism. She is crystal clear.

The last plenum ends in June 1923 when a revolutionary wave was on the rise in Germany. It would be allowed to recede by the Russian party and the Comintern, with Zinoviev the then leading figure in both, and Trotsky becoming side-lined and subject to attack. Zinoviev would introduce the idea fascism and social democracy were ‘twins’, which would later be the Stalinist Comintern line in the early 1930s with disastrous consequences in Germany where a disunited left allowed Hitler to take power.

What of Stalin? He is mentioned here in passing and clearly he has no great standing. Yet, he is General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, a land under economic blockade, coming out of a civil war where every imperialist power sent troops to fight Soviet power. Where the economy and much of the working class had been destroyed and where famine stalked the countryside. The party and state apparatus, which were interchangeable, was in control and increasingly seeing itself as a force above the rest of society. Stalin was their man.

The idea Lenin led to Stalin misses out the former’s last fight was to secure Stalin’s removal. His will called clearly for that. Trotsky let that opportunity slip through his fingers. But we are jumping on. If you know something about the Communist movement in Lenin’s time this and all the volumes in the series are invaluable. If that’s not the case, but you’d like to find out more, I’d start with Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (some of which is free online). Serge was a Belgian-Russian who started as an anarchist, rallied to Bolshevism and then sided with Trotsky against Stalin – luckily getting out of Siberia before the real Stalinist killing spree began. He was always prepared to stand up to Trotsky too; he was no yes man.

To John Riddell and Mike Tabor we owe a tremendous debt. These volumes, and all in the series, are the result of meticulous research and investigation, a model of clarity. That it was clearly a labour of love, it cannot be denied.

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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.