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Barry Healy on Fourth Congress: Revolutionary fulcrum of the modern world

August 19, 2012

Review by Barry Healy (Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal)

In 1986, British Marxist Raymond Williams, polemicising against the then rising, trendy post-modernists, asked the question, “When was modernism?” He pointed out that “modern” first became synonymous with “now” in the 16th century[1]. While there is no more modern ideology than Marxism, the world is forever changing – what is “modern” changes and with it so must Marxism.

The proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) expose an occasion when the Marxist movement refocused on what was relevant and in large measure addressed the politics that became twentieth-century modernism [see Publication Note, below]. It was not an easy exercise, but the record shows that the 400 or so revolutionaries who met for a month, starting on November 5, 1922 – first in Petrograd, later in Moscow – met the challenge determinedly and with a confident belief in the democracy of their movement.

World War 1 had brought a “shock of the new.” More than 100 years of capitalist industrial development and, in particular, the qualitative change in the form of imperialist rivalry wrought in the last quarter of the 19th century had brought European states to a ferocious meeting point. The first 14 years of the 20th century had been spent preparing for the conflagration.

By and large the states that won World War 1 were those that had the most advanced industry and the fewer feudal relics within them. From among the debris change was becoming exponential.

Long gone was the world in which the Communist Manifesto was written, where stalwart masses would rise up against monarchists, seizing cities and fight raggedly from behind barricades. Also gone was the period in which the mass social-democratic parties had basked in the smug certitude that just by broadening socialist culture throughout society they would painlessly come to power.

By 1922 many of the old great powers – the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman and the tsarist empires, which had divided up the world into territorial empires and brought on WWI – were gone, and those that still remained were changed forever. New states had appeared, new questions were pressing upon socialists and the Comintern was answering them. As U.S. delegate Frank Billings (real name Otto Huiswoud) remarked in the “Report on the Black Question”: “the Second International is an International of white workers and the Communist International is an International of the workers of the world.”

The peoples of Europe had ended WWI through rebellions that had swept Ireland, Russia and Germany and mutinies among French and British troops. However, post-WWI revolutionary upsurges in Germany and central Europe had been defeated and militant trade union struggles in Britain, France and Italy had subsided. Those upsurges had galvanised earlier Comintern congresses but, chillingly, just days before the Fourth Congress convened, fascism – the great curse of the 20th century– had taken power in Italy.

It was apparent to the Fourth Congress delegates that the “democratic” post-WWI settlements were fake. The new world order precariously built on the foundations of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, with the United States of America asserting its international role, was emerging.[2]

That empires had fallen was true and many kingdoms were now republics, but the old rulers were still in the saddle. Bourgeois democracy had fallen in Italy, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and was endangered in many other places. For example, the March 1920 attempted coup led by right-wing politician Wolfgang Kapp, even though defeated by a general strike and armed working-class resistance, showed that the German army was run by rightist generals who were out of control.

Emergence of the Comintern

The formation of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 was one of the first acts of the Bolshevik government. The record of its meetings shows that, once established, it was in semi-continuous session for years, in one form or another:

  • March 1919, Founding Congress (four days)
  • July 1920, Second World Congress (20 days)
  • September 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East (seven days)
  • June 1921, Third World Congress (21 days)
  • January 1922, First Congress of Toilers of the Far East (12 days)
  • February 1922, first enlarged plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) – effectively a mini-conference (eight days)
  • June 1922, second enlarged plenum of ECCI (six days)
  • November 1922, Fourth World Congress (30 days)
  • June, 1923, third enlarged plenum of ECCI (13 days)[3]

In addition to the Comintern itself there were additional structures: the Young Communist International, the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern), the Communist Women’s Movement founded in 1921, Red Peasant International (Krestintern) formed in 1923 and International Red Aid established in 1922.

These bodies required a tremendous amount of attention from the Bolsheviks and were a training ground for foreign communists. James P. Cannon, who was US ECCI representative, a Fourth Congress delegate and on the congress presiding committee, recalled that he and other delegates “were mainly apprentices of a younger generation,” compared to the Russian leaders[4].

Writing in the 1950s Cannon said:

The problems of the various national parties, one after another, came up for review in the sessions of the presidium. The big questions of the time, as I recall, were the continuing crisis in the French party and the application of the tactics of the united front generally. All the important parties had permanent delegates in Moscow. They presented periodic reports on new developments in their respective countries and joined in the discussion.[5]

The problems that they faced included things like the stresses produced by the triumph the communist parties were having in recruiting masses of women. The communists were the first parties to actively recruit women. However, by the time of the Fourth Congress, it was clear that advances were inconsistent across the Comintern and some party leaderships were not focused on the work. It is fascinating to read the discussions as great minds like Clara Zetkin talk through the successes and the frustrations involved.

Another emerging issue was the rise of the oppressed peoples of the east. Dutch delegate, Willem van Ravesteyn, giving the report on the “Eastern Question” said:

Islam, in contrast to the capitalist world, is capable of some degree of unification because the bonds linking all Muslims are more than religious in character. Islam is more than a belief; it is a complete social system, a civilisation, with its own philosophy, culture, and art, and in its centuries-long struggle with the rival Christian civilisation it has become a self-aware organic unity.

The Fourth Congress looked very favourably on the prospects of working with pan-Islamists in anti-imperialist united fronts. Socialists engaged in the Arab Spring today will find much to ruminate upon in this section of the congress.

A focus of contemporary politics that does not appear in the congress is homosexuality. The Soviet republic was the first country in the world to abolish anti-homosexual legislation. That the Comintern was silent on the matter probably indicates that as far as communists were concerned the issue was handled. Moreover, there was no sign of the modern gay rights movement for them to relate to.

Importance of the Fourth Congress

Many leftists have spent dreary evenings meeting in draughty community halls where the reading of the minutes of previous gatherings seems to drag on interminably. Refreshingly, for a variety of reasons, this 1,200-page compendium of 90-year-old proceedings makes for revitalising and pertinent reading.

Of course some phraseology is dated but the intellectual encounter is substantially current. Also pleasant is how skilfully this massive tome has been assembled to make it easy for a contemporary activist to use as a toolkit. If you have an interest in, say, the anti-colonial question, there’s a five-page summary in the introduction with all the relevant page references noted. Additionally, there are 38 pages of biographies of the main players, a first-rate index and a chronology that situates the Fourth Congress in its historical setting.

That this was the last international gathering in which Lenin participated and the last Comintern congress in which Leon Trotsky was a respected leader before Stalinism spread its pall, mark it as a unique event.

Similarly, there is the free-flowing, at times sharp, debate by delegates, not just from different parties but from various factions within those parties, strongly defending their points of view. Any notions that the Comintern was always a passive tool in Moscow’s hands is dispelled in these pages. Apprentices or not, as Cannon described things, the Fourth Congress proceedings show delegates were not so in awe that they held their tongues. Important issues were on the table and delegations made sure that they influenced outcomes.

For Trotskyists and off-shoots of the Trotskyist movement, the first four Comintern congresses hold a particular importance. In the 1930s, with Stalin’s thugs hunting him, Trotsky demanded that those who wanted to be part of his grouping had to, among other things, endorse the outcomes of the first four Comintern congresses. However, at times, respect can become of hide-bound dogmatism.

For example, for contemporary Marxists to refuse to support modern feminism because the Comintern regarded it as a reformist movement of the wives and daughters of the possessing classes (p. 856) would take reverence too far and be a denial of real changes in the world. Such a reading would turn the record of the early Comintern into a cookbook of revolutionary recipes rather than documents of a school in which the best minds of a generation studied.

What ensures the relevancy of these proceedings is the simple fact that the Fourth Congress registered the time when 19th century debates, including the key World War 1 disputes within the socialist movement (which created the Zimmerwald left current and eventually to the Comintern itself), were being superseded by new realities that were to be the staples of the century.

Revolutionary fulcrum

Those new problems that appeared on the agenda of the Fourth Congress included the existence of the Soviet Union as the first workers’ state, fascism, black liberation, freedom for the colonial world, women’s liberation and, most importantly, how to grapple with the schism between revolutionary and reformist socialists in such a way that the workers’ movement itself was not weakened.

Thus the Fourth Congress should not be seen as a quaintly antique oddity but as a historical fulcrum around which humanity turned as a new world began make itself felt. The congress dealt with how the workers’ movement could achieve unity in action despite political differences and how to articulate transitional demands to concretise the question of which class should rule.

Further, it addressed the thorny question of how to build a government that would put those transitional demands into practice.

The packed Congress agenda covered 24 items with powerful figures giving reports. The executive report was given by Zinoviev. Lenin, Clara Zetkin, Trotsky, and Bela Kun spoke on “Five years of the Russian Revolution and the perspectives of the world revolution”. Trotsky spoke on the “New Economic Programme” and the problems of the French party. Also discussed were the “Versailles Treaty system”, the “Eastern Question”, communist education, international aid for the Russian Revolution, communist work among women, agrarian issues and youth work.

Internal issues in many Comintern sections (France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Turkey, Denmark, and Yugoslavia) were discussed, both in the open forum and in special commissions. Sharp, dissenting arguments sometimes flared in sessions as factions used the podium to let the world movement know their views.

United front

Underlying nearly all these discussions was how to grapple with the split in the international workers’ movement. Earlier, communists had needed to clarify basic positions of principle, to the point of splitting established socialist (social-democratic) parties. But this resulted in significant numbers of workers being separated from revolutionary leadership precisely at a time when capitalism was internationally on the offensive. Moreover, it meant that Communist Party members could hot-headedly want to take action at exactly the moment when they needed to patiently communicate with masses of demoralised workers.

The united front was the strategy adopted by the ECCI in December 1921 to attempt to deal with this. But that decision did not immediately stop divergent opinions from appearing, including within the ECCI itself. For example, a complete inability to understand the united front proved catastrophic in Italy when the Communist Party refused to join together with the independent workers’ Arditi del Popolo commandos against fascist Benito Mussolini’s gangs (though individual communists did join the Arditi).

In Germany, following conflicting ECCI advice, which in turn reflected differences of opinion with the Russian party leadership, the German Communist Party (KPD) first led the way towards a united front with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and then, disastrously, turned away and led an attempted uprising in March 1921.

Within this Fourth Congress record the reader can see important variations in approach to the united front. While none argued against it, differences arose over the fine points of implementing the strategy. For example, the KPD’s Ruth Fischer complained that there was too much emphasis on “sacred negotiations at the top”(p. 146).

Fischer reflected the position of the KPD minority (and Zinoviev and others among the Bolsheviks) that united fronts were to be built with Social Democratic workers independently of their leaders. Karl Radek expressed opinions closer to the KPD majority, indicating that the Bolsheviks were not a monolithic party and the Comintern leadership itself was fluid on issues.

Not all these unity matters related to parties to the right of the communists. In some countries there were revolutionary anarchist and semi-anarchist currents within the unions, such as the French syndicalists. They refused to join with communist unionists unless there was a clear organisational separation of the Comintern and its trade union affiliate, the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern). The Fourth Congress voted to make that separation in order to achieve the broader unity.

Similarly, as an example of reaching out, sitting in the Fourth Congress as invited guests was the black Harlem poet Claude McKay. The radical U.S. Christian, Albert Rhys Williams, a member of the U.S. party, came on his own accord to the congress but was not accepted as a delegate – mainly because he supported the minority faction in the party (Cannon’s grouping). However, he won standing as a de facto delegate and addressed the gathering.

Grappling with fascism

The phenomenon that was fascism was so new that the Fourth Congress had difficulty in assimilating its impact. Zinoviev, in his opening address, said something that will go down in the annuls for unfortunate reasons. Mussolini’s coup d’état was “a farce”, he said. “A few months or years will pass and it will turn out favourably for the Italian working class” (p. 116).

Zinoviev was unstinting in his praise for the Italian party: “If we were to develop a policy manual for Communist parties, then I that that Italy will provide the most important chapter, the most important example” (p. 105).

Later in the same speech he seemed to be accusing the social democrats of being little different to the fascists:

It is no accident that, at the head of the counter-revolutionary movement in Italy, we now have Mussolini, a renegade of the Second International, a former Social Democrat. It is no accident that, in Germany, we have Ebert and a Noske at the head of the government, and, in Poland, Pilsudski. It is no coincidence that in some countries, such as Britain and Germany, the Second International plays a decisive role. (p. 124)

He called for “no illusions”: the advance of social democracy “means nothing other than wheeling up the artillery of white terror against the Communist parties”(p. 125). This is hardly the language with which to lead a united front strategy and reflects the confusion of views right at the top of the Comintern. It also presages the rhetoric of “social fascism”, Stalin’s maniacal line on the social democrats. That line, in later years, facilitated Hitler’s rise to power because the KPD could not effectively articulate a distinction between gradations of bourgeois politics.

Zinoviev’s views became more tempered as the month-long congress progressed and detailed reports from Italy began to filter in.

Leadership in balancing Zinoviev’s line came from the KPD. Its congress delegation arrived with instructions to advocate an international campaign against fascism. Swiss and Czech delegates chimed in with agreement.

Yet the issue never sparked a fierce debate on the congress floor, possibly because the matter was too novel for hardened positions to have formed. It was discussed in the commissions.

On the second last day of the Fourth Congress, and right at the very end of a lengthy speech on Czechoslovakia and Italy, Zinoviev suddenly changed his line. In ignoring a struggle against fascism in unity with the Arditi del Popolo, he said the Italian party had made “gross errors” (p. 1053). Further he said:

The chapter of errors of the Italian working class is…written in the life’s blood of Italian workers. True, it is not so easy just to put behind us all these errors – and that is certainly a euphemism with respect to what has happened in Italy – and go on with our business. But what has happened has happened. We must now focus on the future. And we hope that the severe defeat, the hard outcome that has struck us in Italy will lead to enabling our party to now turn this page of history and, when the time comes, to take to heart, at least, the lessons of the past (p. 1054).

Transitional demands

Since its Third Congress, the Comintern had been attempting to clarify the issue of how to advance demands that reflected the pressing needs of workers without immediately wheeling out the demand of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is, while avoiding the minimum program/maximum program errors of the Second International the communists wanted to meaningfully link the needs of workers to satisfy their immediate needs to the overall socialist project of forming a new state.

The German party was most advanced in this regard, having raised the demands for workers’ control of production and a workers’ government, and brought its experience to the Fourth Congress.

Four different programs were presented to the congress for consideration: a draft from Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, one from the Bulgarian party, a German program and the action program of the Italian party.

In Bukharin’s report, he was concerned with warding off opportunist errors, stating:

Questions and slogans like the united front of the workers’ government or the seizure of material assets are slogans founded on a very fluid basis, one of a certain decline in the workers’ movement (p. 497).

More stridently, he concluded:

I will fight against that in every possible way. We will never permit such concepts to be built in to the programme (p. 498).

However, August Thalheimer, from the KPD delegation, argued for “transitional demands, demands for stages, and the minimum programme”. Noting that he had “a sharp disagreement with Comrade Bukharin” (p. 509), he said that what is decisive for ending capitalism “is not the theoretical endpoint but the period of severe crises brought about by imperialism” (p. 506). He explained:

What I am saying is that the specific disagreement between us and the reform-socialists is not the fact that we put demands for reforms, demands for a stage, or whatever you want to call them in a chambre demands and slogans very tightly with our principles and goals. This linkage is, of course, no guarantee in itself, any more than having a good map guarantees that I will not lose my way…

In my opinion, therefore, the opportunist danger is located on precisely the opposite side from where Comrade Bukharin sees it. The danger lies in the roads that lead from a given starting point to socialism and the dicseparée [separate room] and keep them outside our programme. Rather, the difference is that we link transitional tatorship of the proletariat.

If we leave large parts of this road without illumination, there is the danger that, in the dark patches, many errors will be made (pp. 510-11).

After a few days of consideration, the congress endorsed the KPD point of view (with the Italians registering their dissent).

The workers’ government

If a workers’ movement unites in a given nation-state, successfully raises transitional demands, and fights off the fascist danger, then it will eventually be faced with the question of state power. What then?

The slogan of a workers’ government had been raised by the Comintern at its Third Congress, but was understood in contradictory fashions throughout the Communist International, including its Bolshevik leadership.

Four different versions of the Fourth Congress resolution on tactics were debated and the concept evolved as the discussion progressed.

Zinoviev was quite dismissive of the concept. A workers’ government was simply a dictatorship of the proletariat, he believed. In this he was supported by the KPD minority led by Ruth Fischer and the Italian party.

Radek strongly argued a contrary view:

The workers’ government is not the dictatorship of the proletariat – that is clear. It is one of the possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat… The German, Norwegian, Czechoslovak workers will … take a stand of “no coalition with the bourgeoisie, but rather a coalition with the workers’ parties that can secure our eight-hour day, give us a bit more bread, and so on”. That leads to the establishment of such a workers’ government, whether through preliminary struggles or on the basis of a parliamentary combination. It is nonsense to reject in doctrinaire fashion the possibility of such a situation (p. 167).

Radek’s words have an up-to-date ring. Is not what is happening in Venezuela a government that has refused bourgeois coalition and advanced the political and economic power of the working class thus encouraging “possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat”? And what would a SYRIZA victory mean in Greece? Would it not be taking parliamentary power under capitalism with a program to “secure our eight-hour day, give us a bit more bread, and so on” and be opening up the road to workers’ power?

The Fourth Congress decided in favour of Radek’s and the KPD majority view.

Comintern’s ‘best days’

As these key debates indicate, the Comintern up to the Fourth Congress was characterised by a multifaceted democracy in which respected Bolshevik leaders could debate freely with each other and be disagreed with.

The picture that emerges in this book is of a body of activists working hard to understand reality and find a way forward.

James P. Cannon said of those times:

Those were the good days of the Communist International, when its moral authority was the highest and the wisdom of its advice to the young parties from the various countries was recognised and appreciated by all.[6]

Meeting the personalities of these figures through this book is a joy and a surprise. It is delightful to find Radek bantering jokingly with Bukharin. On another occasion a long-winded delegate gets silenced at the end of a long day not by a vote but by the whole congress singing the “Internationale”. As sharp as debates became, they were never destructive.

As modernity has evolved again with the collapse of the Soviet Union and now the world capitalist economic crisis, the task is to not regard the decisions of the Fourth Congress as being set in stone but to recreate the spirit of endeavour that pervaded it.

No doubt academics will love the hard-bound edition of this book, produced by Brill. At 200 euros it will be out of reach for nearly all activists. However, U.S. socialist publishing house Haymarket Books is bringing out a paperback edition later this year at US$55, which will allow activists to bring the voices of these great revolutionaries into their own homes.

[Barry Healy is a Socialist Alliance activist in Perth, Western Australia. This article first appeared in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

Publication Note

Toward the United Front, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, edited and translated by John Riddell

Brill, 2011 (hardback), 1310 pages, 200 euros; Haymarket Books, 2012 (paperback), US$55

Haymarket Books is now taking pre-publication orders of Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, at US$50, a 10% reduction. It is due to be released in November 2012.

To take advantage of Haymarket’s offer, go to Toward the United Front, order the book, go to “check-out” and enter RIDDELL2012 in the “coupon code” field.

To recommend the Brill hardcover edition to your favourite library, go to Brill Academic Publishers and click on “recommend”.

Toward the United Front will also be available from Resistance Books in November.


[1] Williams, Raymond, The Politics of Modernism, Verso, 1989, p. 31

[2] Healy, Barry, “Versailles vs Comintern: two visions of world peace”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

[3] Listed in Wikipedia at under the heading, “World congresses and plenums of Comintern”.

[4] Cannon, James P., The First Ten Years of American Communism, Report of a Participant, Pathfinder Press, 1973, p .65.

[5] Ibid., p. 64.

[6] Ibid., p.66

One Comment
  1. Hans Modlich permalink

    Superb article John. I’ve glanced over it and made a print out and look forward to studying it more — in a few days time. Ciao 4 niao

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