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The forgotten Fifth Comintern Congress: Bridge between Lenin and Stalin

June 23, 2014

The first four congresses (1919-1922) of the Communist International (Comintern) have won attention as events shaped by Lenin and his policies; the sixth congress (1928) is famous as the event marking the triumph of Stalinism. But the fifth congress of the Communist International (1924) is a largely forgotten event in revolutionary history.

A new study by Joel Geier examines the Fifth Congress, claiming that it has a distinctive character, bearing the imprint of the Comintern’s president at that time, Grigorii Zinoviev. I am posting here the segment of Joel’s article that takes up the congress’s ultra-left turn on the united front question. For the full article, including source notes, see “Zinoviev and the Degeneration of Communism.”

By Joel Geier. The Fifth Comintern Congress, held in June–July 1924, formed the bridge between the four revolutionary congresses of 1919–1922 and the Sixth Congress of 1928, which consolidated Stalin’s unchallenged sway. The early Comintern Congresses, whatever their weaknesses, were open, democratic, and often contentious conferences that remain a storehouse of lessons for revolutionaries. By the Sixth Congress all that was gone.

Grigorii Zinoviev, 1920 (Drawing I. Brodsky)

Grigorii Zinoviev, 1920

At this congress, Zinoviev was at the height of his power. In E. H. Carr’s words, this was Zinoviev’s Congress. In the discussion of the “World Economic and Political System,” involving forty-nine speakers and thirteen sessions over eight days, Zinoviev’s speeches constitute sixty-five of the 120 pages of minutes.[1] But this was not a Stalinist congress. There was opposition from sections of the German, Swedish, Italian, and other parties, and from important leaders like Karl Radek, Heinrich Brandler, Amadeo Bordiga, and Clara Zetkin. August Thalheimer, despite being held responsible for the 1923 German defeat, continued as coauthor of the Program and cochairman, with Bukharin, of the Program Committee. Bordiga presented a counter resolution to Zinoviev’s report that received the support of eight delegates, and five Italian delegates refused to uphold Boris Souvarine’s expulsion (for “Trotskyism,” whatever the exact formal charge was.)

But the level of discussion, range, and tolerance of differences had declined greatly from the Fourth Congress. Throughout the Congress, Zinoviev led the attack against the “right danger” and “the petty bourgeoisie,” the charges leveled against Trotsky and his supporters, even as ignorant adaptation was given to Kautskian opportunism. Eugen Varga, the International’s chief economist, for example, endorsed the thesis that ultra-imperialism could do away with imperialist war: “It is possible that the contradictions between the various imperialist powers can end,” he remarked. “A single imperialist power or a united Anglo-American imperialism can so hold the rest of the world under it that future wars would be impossible.” This repudiation of Lenin’s strongly argued views went unopposed.

The Bolshevization and anti-Trotsky campaigns

Fascism and “social-fascism”
The second important discussion of the Congress was on the defeat of the German Revolution. The aim was not to understand this disaster, but to protect Zinoviev and the Comintern leadership by shifting blame to the German leaders Brandler and Thalheimer, but also to Radek, Trotsky’s ally, and by implication, to Trotsky himself. Trotsky was doubly rebuked as “the source of the right-wing opportunism in the Comintern,” and for his attitude that the German party leaders should not be made scapegoats for implementing policies that had been made by the Comintern leadership.

In the course of this discussion, Zinoviev formulated an analysis of fascism and of social democracy that was, in essence, the forerunner of the theory of “social fascism” later fleshed out by Bukharin and Stalin at the Sixth Comintern Congress. The theory, which posited that social democracy and fascism are “twins,” precluded a united front between communists and social democrats against Hitler on the grounds that the former were no better than the latter. With no vocal opposition, Zinoviev claimed something similar in 1924: “The Social Democratic party has been converted into a wing of Fascism.”

Amadeo Bordiga, who delivered the official report on fascism, added: “Fascism has merely adopted in a new form the old platform of left-Bourgeois parties and of the Social Democrats,” and that “Mussolini’s triumph in Italy was a change in the leadership of the bourgeois class but this change does not represent a change in the program of the Italian bourgeoisie.” This was to be later repeated by the German CP, that the Weimar regimes were already fascist and that Hitler would not represent any change.

“The united front from below”
The new definition of social democracy negated the policy on united fronts—won by Lenin and Trotsky at the Third and Fourth Congresses to overcome the infantile leftism of the newly formed Communist parties. Karl Radek and Clara Zetkin, supported by a few other delegates, vigorously defended the united front policy of joint struggle with reformist workers parties, only to have Zinoviev respond thus: “If these workers parties were really workers parties, we could form a coalition with them and we would become unconquerable in Europe. But these parties are workers parties only in name. It is therefore . . . counterrevolutionary utopianism, it is opportunism to talk of a coalition.”

Zinoviev then redefined the united front not as an agreement with other parties, but as the unity of all forces “from below,” under communist leadership. As the adopted thesis asserted, “The tactics of the united front from below are the most important, that is, a united front under communist party leadership. . . . they should in no circumstances be degraded to the tactics of lowering our ideals to the level of understanding reached by these [social democratic and non-party] workers.

This idea was elaborated by Ruth Fischer, Zinoviev’s newly installed leader of the German CP, who attacked the defense of the united front policy as “an attempt to represent Fascism and the November Republic (the Weimar democratic republic) as two opposing forces and not as different forms of the same force of capitalist dictatorship.” She held the position adopted by the Third and Fourth Congresses to be the cause of the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923: “The failure of the German October was due to opportunism that grows from the United Front policy with Social Democrats, of years of opportunism which weakened the Communist Party by allying it with Social Democracy.”

Radek correctly declared that “Comrade Zinoviev’s speech, which in my opinion represents the annulment of the resolution of the Fourth Congress, of the United Front. A number of comrades considered the open letter [the first united front proposal] to be opportunist but Lenin intervened at the Third Congress to defend it.” Both Zinoviev and Bukharin, who had opposed the united front policy of the Third and Fourth Congresses, then said that Lenin had made a mistake in endorsing a policy that had been first developed by Paul Levi, and Lenin had come to realize that they were correct in their original views against it, for which no evidence was given.

The summation speech on fascism by Bordiga said that the response of the different forces of opposition to the assassination of Matteotti (a socialist opponent of Mussolini) meant that “The party must adopt the slogan of the liquidation of all antifascist oppositions and must replace them by an open and direct action of the Communist movement.” This ultraleft fantasy, not to unite with but to oppose all other antifascist forces as insufficiently revolutionary, was the prelude to the disastrous tragedy of the German CP’s failure to resist Hitler’s accession to power.

Given the Zinovievist Comintern’s adoption of policies that were the prelude to those adopted under Stalin’s Comintern a few years later, why consider Zinovievism a distinct political tendency, but not yet Stalinism? The Fifth Congress, unlike Stalinism, still had open opposition, which challenged the new line, defended the united front, and argued against Zinoviev and Bukharin’s attempt to undo the work of the Third and Fourth Congresses. Opposition existed, but it was severely contained by the demoralization arising from the defeat of the German Revolution and the acceptance of Russian bureaucratic policies as necessary for victory. The balance of forces convinced doubters that it was futile to engage in open opposition at this point. Trotsky, who attended as a member of the Presidium of the Congress and wrote its manifesto, refused to speak at the Congress, despite being asked to give his views on the Russian question. He indicated it was a closed question, fearful it would lead to measures against him in the Russian party.

The Fifth Congress, however debased, retained its communist character, as indicated by three political debates and decisions that were in keeping with the spirit of the previous congresses. The first decision was the one attractive feature of “Bolshevization,” the healthy aspect used to sell the rest of the otherwise lethal package. This was the move to reorganize the CPs into factory cells—the factory branch model. One of the few cogent conclusions drawn from the defeat of the German Revolution was that the KPD made major errors because its decisions were not closely aligned with changing consciousness in the factory councils, able to judge on a daily basis the level of agreement, or dissent, with its political proposals. The factory cell structure of the Bolshevik Party had enabled it to merge its ideas with the sentiments arising from below, to evaluate mass response to Bolshevik proposals and tactics, and flexibly alter its approach in the rapidly shifting events in 1917. The Fifth Congress proposed in its “Basic Conditions for the Formation of Mass Communist Parties,” that the CPs be reorganized using this successful Bolshevik model, to prepare for the next revolutionary upsurge.

Second, the Congress advanced the anti-imperialism of the communist movement by stressing that all CPs, particularly those in countries with colonies, had to engage in practical anti-imperialist work. They had to support colonial revolts spreading by dynamics unleashed in the collapse of empires in World War I and the Russian Revolution. The French Communists began for the first time anti-imperialist work in support of the revolts in North Africa, and antimilitarist work in the French army. Similarly, the Americans began work around the occupation of the Philippines, and then in defense of Augusto Sandino and the Nicaraguan revolution.

Finally, the Congress inaugurated Communist work among the peasantry, declaring that for revolution to succeed it had to win over the peasantry. This has been dismissed in some left histories as a rightward drift, bringing the Russian CP’s NEP peasant policy into the Comintern. While there is merit to that argument, the chief issue was that the CPers were beginning the necessary work that social democracy, including its radical wing, had previously rejected. The Second International “orthodox Marxist” view was that the peasantry were small capitalists doomed to extinction and shouldn’t be defended, as large farms were more efficient. Lenin and the Bolsheviks broke with this fatalistic determinism as a sectarian substitute for politics. They supported the peasants taking over the great estates and dividing the land. That policy won the peasantry to the revolution, and to the Red Army in the Civil War. The defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Zinoviev argued, was its failure to give land to the peasants.

These three advances in theory and practice do not excuse the destruction of the Comintern’s politics and norms of democracy that were spread by Zinovievism, but they are indications that despite its deep degeneration, the Communist movement was still alive with revolutionary potential.

Copyright © 2014 Joel Geier; reprinted with permission from International Socialist Review no. 93.

For the proceedings of the previous, fourth congress, see:

Other articles on the united front on this website


[1]. All references to the congress are taken from Fifth Congress of the Communist International, Abridged Report of Meetings Held at Moscow June 17th to July 8th, 1924 (London: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1924). The abridged edition in English is less than half the length of the complete German edition. For page references, see Zinoviev and the Degeneration of Communism.” 

One Comment
  1. Mike Taber permalink

    Another important area where the Fifth Congress openly reversed the position of the Fourth Congress was on the question of the workers government.

    For those interested in consulting the source cited by Joel containing the Fifth Congress proceedings, it can be found online at:

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