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‘To the Masses’ – ‘A vibrant and healthy political debate’

April 18, 2016
V.I. Lenin in 1920, drawing by Isaak Brodsky

V.I. Lenin in 1920, drawing by Isaak Brodsky

By Mark Ugolini. Thanks to John Riddell and Mike Taber for the huge effort over many years that has brought us To the Masses and the other wonderful books that make up their series on the Communist International in Lenin’s time. Now in print is nearly the entire documentary record of the first four historic congresses, rich in lessons for the entire working-class movement.

I finished reading To the Masses recently, and what an interesting journey it was. In some ways it reads like a good novel, telling the fascinating story of the central political struggle of the Third Congress. The appendices are excellent, and I followed John’s advice to read them as they are referenced in the main body of the book.  I found myself frequently flipping between the chapters and the Appendices. This helped me follow the political debate, and allowed a fuller appreciation of the unfolding story.

Most valuable to me were insights into the Comintern leadership—how they interacted and engaged others in political discussion and debate. But most of all, how these leaders led (or attempted to lead) on the most critical political questions—both when adherence to political principle was paramount, and when compromise was an absolute necessity.

In some cases, the path forward required parting ways with currents that became mired in national chauvinism and opportunism. But In the absence of fundamental differences, Comintern leaders were tireless in efforts to bring competing currents together to create stronger national sections. High priority was placed on avoiding unnecessary splits in the these sections.

Despite the quality and experience of the Russian leaders, the task of building a centralized International seemed at times beyond their capabilities. Building an International in the conditions they faced was clearly a huge step into largely uncharted waters.  When challenged at the Congress, leaders of the Communist International Executive Committee (ECCI) admitted to serious errors in the direction they provided national sections. To help correct these errors they repeatedly pleaded with national sections to assign its central leaders to work in the International center, and thereby strengthen the work of the ECCI.

Lenin was in attendance at some of the plenary sessions, but missing from others. However, he often was active in hallway debates among delegates, sometimes unexpectedly popping in on important commission sessions with a powerful verbal message. For much of the congress, Lenin was part of the minority, on the political “right” wing. And he seemed quite natural in this role. How comfortable he was warding off harsh polemical attacks; and how un-fazed he seemed, even when these harsh polemics came from the youngest, least experienced delegates. It was common for the most prestigious and authoritative party leaders to be severely criticized during intense, though generally comradely political debate.

Mark Ugolini

Mark Ugolini

One major discussion at the congress was the role of the German party (VKPD) in the “March Action” it initiated during March, 1921. In response to provocative police actions against miners in Central Germany, the VKPD launched initiatives in action designed to spark (or push) the working class into a more generalized revolutionary uprising. These VKPD actions resulted in a serious working class defeat.  Lenin and Trotsky both spoke out forcefully against the ultra-left strategy and tactics employed by the German Party, and ran into a whirlwind of criticism by the German delegation and many other delegates at the congress.  At a plenary discussing Strategy and Tactics Lenin presented a minority viewpoint:

“If the congress is not going to wage a vigorous offensive against such errors, against such ‘leftist’ stupidities, the whole movement is doomed. That is my deep conviction… we are organized and disciplined Marxists…We Russians are already sick and tired of these leftist phrases. We are people of organization. In drawing up our plans, we must proceed in an organized way and try to find the correct line… Show me a party that has already won the majority of the working class…

“In Europe, where almost all the proletarians are organized, we must win the majority of the working class.  Anyone who fails to understand this is lost to the Communist movement; he will never learn anything if he has failed to learn that much three years after the great revolution.” (465-67)

In a subsequent session Trotsky followed up on this theme:

“This celebrated philosophy of the offensive, which is completely non-Marxist, has arisen from the following curious outlook: ‘A wall of passivity is gradually rising, which is ruining the movement. So let us advance, and break through this wall!’… We are obligated to say frankly to the German working class that we regard this philosophy of the offensive as the greatest of dangers, and that to apply it in practice is the greatest of political crimes…It is sometimes forgotten that we learn the art of strategy, precisely and soberly estimate the enemy’s power, and analyse the situation, rather than rushing into battle to break the wall of passivity or, in the words of another comrade, ‘to activate the party’”. (578-79)

But I most appreciated what I learned about Clara Zetkin, and the prominent political role she played.  What principled and courageous leadership she demonstrated at the congress. With very few backers initially, she stood in firm opposition to the congress majority, passionate and committed to her position.  Zetkin’s steadfastness had a huge impact on the debate and sparked changing many minds, which proved critical in altering the political direction of the congress. In one congress session she said:

“Comrades, here is my position: Because the Zentrale (Central Bureau of German CP) had an incorrect political orientation to the revolutionary offensive, it came to a false position regarding the March struggle and was not in a position to carry out the struggle in the necessary fashion…the errors of the March Action were not mistakes like those that take place in every struggle and are to some degree unavoidable. Rather the mistakes were organically rooted in the erroneous theory of the offensive itself…In the future, actions will be required that are a question of life or death for the party. If they are conducted according to the schema set up by the new theory, that means destruction of the party, and the revolutionary proletariat in Germany will thereby lose the leadership it requires.”

She then challenged the congress to broaden the debate.

“I will express this opinion of ours frankly, although it will encounter vigorous resistance. Along with many comrades in Germany and other countries, I firmly believe that criticism of the errors and mistakes must not be restricted to the party organization and the party press. This criticism should properly be presented to the broadest public and the masses themselves…Our workers themselves…demand that the errors and weaknesses of the party be openly discussed, because such debates, if conducted objectively, are educational and enlightening for them as well. The proletarians have a right to this in another sense as well. They must pay for our policies and our errors through their sacrifices, their liberty, and their lives.” (545-47)

For the most part, democratic processes prevailed at the congress. A vibrant and healthy political debate and discussion was certainly on display, and the Third Congress and the International clearly benefited from it.

I plan to devote some time spreading the word on the importance of this work.  To the Masses contains important lessons for anyone seeking a better understanding of revolutionary Marxist history, and also for those working to advance the struggles of the working class and oppressed.

Mark Ugolini is a socialist and activist based in Chicago.

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