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Majorities, minorities, and revolutionary tactics: A review of To the Masses

July 21, 2016

To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921. Edited by John Riddell. Haymarket Books, 2015, 1,299 pages, $55

The following review by Jennifer Roesch first appeared in issue #101 of International Socialist Review and is reprinted by permission. In addition to her extensive discussion of the Third Congress proceedings, Jennifer Roesch offers an original interpretation of the congress’s outcome. – JR

By Jennifer Roesch. With the publication of To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, John Riddell has translated the entire proceedings of the first four congresses of the Comintern.1 These four congresses embody the experiences and debates of the revolutionary period that opened with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and closed with the final defeat of the German Revolution in 1923.


Clara Zetkin

The attempt to bring the revolutionary forces together into a single world party with national detachments that could generalize strategies and tactics and lead the struggle against world capitalism was always, in Clara Zetkin’s words, a “wager.” (789) Under the pressure of revolutionary events, the Comintern faced a tangle of challenges. The Bolsheviks were the only party in the Comintern that had carried out a successful revolution. As a result, it enjoyed enormous prestige and naturally took a leading role in the development of the Comintern. Meanwhile, many of the new revolutionary parties, most notably the German, were built rapidly out of the wreckage of the German Social Democratic Party (SDP) betrayals and lacked cohesion. It was a project beset by difficulties from its outset and was ultimately unsuccessful.

And yet, the debates on politics, strategy, and tactics in the first four congresses of the Comintern remain extremely valuable for Marxists today. The theses, resolutions, and manifestos of the Comintern’s first four congresses, as well as the individual assessments of both participants and historians, have been available for decades. But John Riddell has made an invaluable contribution in gathering together the full proceedings of the Third and Fourth Congresses, which join his earlier publication of the proceedings of the first two Congresses (Pathefinder Press). They allow readers the opportunity to develop a much more complex and detailed picture of the work of the early Comintern than was previously available.

This most recent volume is particularly useful because the Third Congress marked a critical turning point—a transition from the first years of the revolutionary storm, when everyone expected rapid revolutionary successes following the Russian example—to a recognition that the struggle would be protracted and require a much more developed understanding of strategy and tactics.

Riddell has included in the volume a wealth of supplementary material that takes up a 145-page appendix. This material, which includes private correspondence between various Comintern leaders, minutes of commission meetings, draft reports, and records of individual conversations—sheds light on the differences between key leaders within the Comintern and helps to clarify lines of debate that were often glossed over or muddied in the formal plenary sessions. In doing so, it gives readers a fuller basis on which to draw their own assessments of the Comintern’s experience.

Background to the Third Congress


Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

The Third Congress took place over three weeks in late June and early July of 1921 in Moscow. More than 600 delegates from fifty-five different countries and represented several million members attended. It discussed a number of important questions, including strategy and tactics, trade union policy, the world situation, work among women, and the Eastern question.2 This review, however, will focus on the most time-consuming, and contentious, discussion that took place at the conference around the question of strategy and tactics in general, and around the German movement in particular.

Much had changed since the Second Congress that had been held a year earlier. In the first year of the Comintern, expectations were that capitalism was tottering, especially in Europe, and that soviet republics on the Russia model would therefore spread quickly. But this first wave did not break through: the 1919 Hungarian soviet republic was quickly defeated, as was the Bavarian. In Germany, an abortive workers’ uprising led to repression and the murder of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and a host of other revolutionaries.

While the revolutionary wave in Europe had ebbed, the Russian Revolution faced its own difficulties. The civil war had ended, but at an enormous cost. The country’s economy had been devastated and the working class was demoralized and decimated. Without the help of a revolution in Europe, the Bolsheviks were forced to retreat. The New Economic Policy, a set of concessions to the peasant majority and the reintroduction of small-scale private production, was introduced. This was a holding operation designed to buy time for the Soviet government until the revolution could spread to other countries.

Following the betrayals of the traditional, reformist social-democratic parties, large numbers of workers broke ranks to the left. But they did not gravitate in the first instance to the Comintern. Instead, this period saw the formation of centrist parties, organizations that vacillated between the old reformism and the revolutionary forces. The task of the Comintern’s Second Congress was to lay the basis for winning the mass of revolutionary workers who had joined these organizations while breaking with their reformist leaderships. The most important achievement was in Germany.

In 1917, antiwar members of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had split and formed the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and by late 1920 it had 800,000 members. The German Communist Party (KPD), formed by genuinely revolutionary leaders like Rosa Luxemburg, was one-tenth the size. The mass of newly radicalizing workers was in the USPD, and it was essential to win them in order to build a genuinely mass revolutionary party in Germany.

In October 1920, the UPSD held a convention at Halles to debate whether to affiliate to the Comintern and accept its “21 conditions.”3 The majority, by a vote of 237 to 156, voted for affiliation and the party promptly split. The majority then entered into negotiations with the KPD and in December the United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD) was formed with 400,000 members. This was an enormous achievement, but it was not without difficulties.

The split with the centrists and the formation of a genuinely mass revolutionary party was essential, but there were two questions that remained unresolved. The first was how to establish unity within the ranks of the newly formed party. There were strong “left” currents within the VKPD that believed the party was too passive and needed to be “activated.” By this they meant that this party was now large enough to take action on its own. This current was exacerbated by the existence of the KAPD, a more hardened ultra-left current, which had been admitted to the Comintern as a sympathizing organization.

The second problem is that while the split achieved the necessary independence of the revolutionary forces in their own party, it did not eliminate the existence or influence of the centrists. The USPD still maintained the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of workers. Another mass layer of workers also remained loyal to the SPD. These workers formed a substantial part of the working-class movement and would need to be won if a revolution was to be successful in Germany.

Similar conventions in France and Czechoslovakia won majorities for the Comintern and established mass Communist parties. However, in Italy, one of the most important countries in Europe, the Comintern was not successful in carrying through this strategy. At the Second Congress, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) had affiliated to the Comintern, only to prove itself unwilling and incapable of providing leadership to the occupation of the factories in 1920, resulting in the movements defeat and paving the way for Mussolini’s rise.


Amadeo Bordiga

There were three separate currents in the party: the Communist Faction led by the Bordiga; the Unitary Communists led by the centrist Serrati; and the right wing, organized as the Socialist Concentration, led by Turati. The challenge for the Comintern leadership was to break with the Turati-led right wing while winning the majority of the PSI.

This split was carried out clumsily and had two disastrous results. The first is that when the Bordiga group broke with the Socialist Party to form the Communist Party, unlike in Germany, they failed to bring the substantial bulk of the membership with them. This problem was compounded by the fact that this strengthened and left largely unchallenged the “left” tendencies within the Communist Party that Bordiga represented. According to one historian of the Comintern, Bordiga was an “unbendable ultra-left dogmatist” whose “faction…had originally been formed on the basis of abstention from parliamentary elections on principle,” and “had condemned the Turin factory councils as ‘economistic.’”4The Italian debacle prompted a fierce and debilitating debate within the German party—causing its two most clear-sighted leaders, Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin, to resign from its central leadership, the Zentrale. It was also to be an important topic of discussion at the Congress.

By the spring of 1921 the Comintern had won substantial mass parties in the main countries of central Europe. However, these parties were far from unified. They lacked tested leaderships that had learned how to debate sharply and openly while closing ranks around a unified strategy. Having emerged only recently in conditions of crisis and mass upheaval, these young parties did not have time to develop and mature. They were responding to rapidly changing events under intense pressure.


Paul Levi

In Germany, Paul Levi was thrust into the position of leading the new Communist Party following Rosa Luxemburg’s death. Prior to this, he had not been a party leader but a lawyer. Levi played a critical role in helping to win over the bulk of the workers in the USPD and he developed the “open letter” policy that proposed joint action with the other workers’ organizations—which was later to be generalized throughout the Comintern in the form of the united front. However, he lacked a loyal base within the party. Clara Zetkin collaborated closely with Levi and did command a high level of respect. But, there was a substantial layer of impatient workers, as well as a substantial layer of party leaders like Paul Frölich, who exerted enormous pressure on the party to pursue a more “activist” line. The central leadership split under this pressure, with the majority adapting to this leftist current. Levi and Zetkin found themselves in the minority opposition.

As tumultuous as the revolutionary years of 1918–1920 were, by 1921 it was clear that there had been a very difficult turn in the political situation. Capitalism had been able to restabilize itself. The ruling class, which had needed to lean on the social-democratic leaders at the deepest moment of crisis, now moved to shed themselves of any dependence on the reformists. This meant that there were increasing attacks on basic working-class living standards and organizations. Workers had become more hesitant but were willing to fight in defense of their conditions and around partial demands. In these fights, there was a strong desire for unity amongst rank-and-file workers.

It was clear that the tempo of events had shifted and that the overthrow of the existing governments was not an immediate prospect. Instead, the working class had to regain its confidence through a series of defensive and partial struggles. Moreover, the Communists had to fight to win the majority to their ideas. The existence of sizable mass revolutionary parties wasn’t a sufficient condition for a revolutionary offensive. The masses themselves had to be won. This was summed up in the slogan “To the masses” which Riddell takes as the title for the volume.

The March Action

In late March, Hörsing, the governor of Prussian Saxony, announced his intention to march police into the industrial and Communist stronghold of Central Germany. This was a deliberate provocation aimed at forcing a premature action by the party. At first, Hörsing’s forces avoided confrontation. The VKPD had initially responded with a defensive stance calling on workers to strike if police entered their factories. When this did not happen, the local party leadership called for strikes. The following day a member of the KAPD held a meeting calling on workers to launch an armed resistance. At this point, Hörsing’s police moved in and began arresting workers and armed battles ensued. As Riddell notes in his introduction, “the insurrection did not spread beyond the region; within ten days it was crushed by militarized police with murderous brutality.” (19)

Meanwhile, the VKPD leadership attempted to force the pace by calling for a general strike throughout Germany. Outside of Central Germany this met with little success. Nonetheless, the party continued to pursue its course. At one point, its newspaper, Die Rote Fahne, called on workers to “flout the law and take up arms,” and issued an editorial titled “Who Is Not With Me is Against Me: A Word to Social-Democratic and Independent Workers,” which contained an ultimatum that all workers must support the Communist general strike call.

The struggle took on the character of a fight between Communist and the majority of non-Communist workers. In some places, Communist workers attempted to use force to prevent other workers (whom they denounced as “scabs”) from entering the factories, and in response communists were often physically driven from the factories. The CP leadership did not even win its whole membership to participating in the struggle. At one point, Malzahn of the German opposition claimed, without dispute, that at most 200,000 workers participated—only half of the party’s own membership. Thousands of workers were arrested, thousands more lost their jobs, and 150 party members were killed. The party lost over half its membership and its members lost the trust of their non-party coworkers.

The initial response of the party leadership was to compound its mistakes. Rather than organize a strategic retreat and assessment of the disaster, it hailed the action as a success. What was more dangerous, it developed a theoretical justification for its actions termed the “theory of the offensive.” This “theory” was summed up in a Zentrale pamphlet which argued, “The party’s slogan must therefore be: Offensive, offensive, whatever the cost, by every means, in every situation that offers serious chances of success.” (21)

Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi—who had only recently resigned from the party leadership over the Italian party dispute—were both sharply critical of the leadership’s action. Zetkin presented her argument, an unequivocal condemnation of the action, to the central committee. Her theses are available to readers in the appendices. Despite the power of her argument, she was defeated by forty-four votes to six and quickly found herself under fierce attack from her opponents. Meanwhile, despite an appeal from Zetkin against it, Levi published a pamphlet calling the action a Bakuninist putsch. This evoked a sharp reaction, and he was immediately expelled from the party for breach of discipline.

Zinoviev 2

Gregory Zinoviev

The ensuing debate was extremely muddled and threatened to break the young party. The party itself had just been dealt (or dealt itself) an enormous blow, and thousands of party members were now in prison. Rank-and-file party members felt betrayed and “stabbed in the back” (an expression that recurs throughout the Congress proceedings) by Levi’s very public and unrestrained attack. At the same time, as party leaders and such ECCI members as Radek, Bukharin, and Zinoviev, who had encouraged the Germans to take a more “offensive” approach, became aware that Lenin and Trotsky had deep reservations, many were quick to retreat. However, this “retreat” tended to consist of evasions and an attempt to walk back from their most adventurist and provocative statements, rather than to engage an honest and clear-sighted assessment.


Two things made the situation even more complicated and difficult to resolve. One was Levi’s role. As Lenin wrote to Zinoviev: “The crux of the matter is that Levi in very many respects is right politically.” (1097) However, his manner of carrying out the debate was bound to alienate and embitter precisely the comrades who needed to be won. Lenin argued this point sharply to Zetkin:

He cruelly tore the party to pieces. His criticism was highly one-sided, exaggerated, even spiteful, and he gave the party nothing on which it could get its bearings. Missing is any feeling of solidarity with the party. That is what so infuriated comrades of the rank and file, making them unable to see or hear all that was correct in Levi’s criticisms—particularly his correct fundamental political orientation. So a mood arose—and it extended to the non-German comrades as well—in which the quarrel over the pamphlet and especially over Levi’s personal role became the sole subject of debate, rather than the false theory and bad actions of the “theoreticians of the offensive” and the “leftists.” They should thank Paul Levi for the fact that up to now they have come through it all so well, far too well. (1143)

This is not a case of Lenin appealing to “good feelings.” It is a recognition that Levi lacked a certain patience and sense of solidarity that would allow him to win over the impatient forces within the party. Some of these forces were irredeemable ultraleftists who had no real interest in winning over the majority of the working class and would soon part ways with the party. But others were sincere workers who had been embittered by the betrayals of 1918, were eager to fight, and needed to be won over to a different course. Levi showed little interest in this task.

Critically, Levi’s actions also allowed the German leaders to evade their own responsibility by using him as a scapegoat. However, despite Lenin’s fundamentally correct assessment, his acceptance that Levi must be sacrificed and his expulsion supported carried obvious dangers. Lenin argued vehemently that Levi’s “open letter” policy must be pursued, and he defended Levi’s criticism as fundamentally correct. However, not only German party leaders, but also members of the Executive, were able to repeatedly abuse Levi and brand him a “Menshevik” on the Congress floor.

The second complicating factor was the role of some of the Comintern Executive leaders, including members of the Russian leadership, in the debacle. While Riddell makes a convincing argument that the main pressure for action came from within the German party itself, it’s also clear that ECCI representatives, at the very least, played a role in encouraging the March Action. Both Bela Kun and Karl Radek argued within Germany for a more activist policy—one in which party members would launch actions with or without the support of larger sections of the working class. Prominent Bolsheviks and Comintern leaders leaders Zinoviev and Bukharin also leaned in this direction, and were both critical of Levi’s “open letter” initiative, which was condemned by the ECCI’s day-to-day leadership body, the Small Bureau. (16) While there is no evidence that the March Action was planned in Moscow in order to aid Soviet Russia, it is true that both Radek and Kun expressed the urgency of breaking Russia’s isolation and linked this to the need for the Germans to move onto the offensive.


Karl Radek

This approach is in stark contrast to the one that Lenin and Trotsky were to argue for at the Third Congress, but it presented a difficulty for them. Radek was a leader in both the Bolshevik central committee and of the Comintern executive committee. Lenin and Trotsky, despite their prestige, were in a minority in their own party. Levi was not in attendance and Zetkin was in the opposition and subject to relentless attacks throughout the conference. Delegates to the conference who had been involved in leading the March Action were extremely bitter.

Thus, Lenin and Trotsky went into the Third Congress needing to accomplish two, somewhat contradictory, goals. The primary task was, above all, to unequivocally reject the theory of the offensive and win the Congress to an orientation on winning the masses. They needed to come out of the conference with a clear basis for future united front work. At the same time, they wanted to win the greatest possible unity with as few losses as possible.

Lenin and Trotsky undertook a fight within their own delegation to take a stand against the leftists and argued for theses on strategy and tactics that could develop a clear line. This would prove to be extraordinarily difficult. In order to win Zinoviev and Radek, who would then need to win over the German leadership, they were forced to make a series of compromises.

Trotsky’s report on the world economic situation

Despite these contradictions, the Third Congress laid down some incredibly useful perspectives and tactical guidelines. The contributions of Lenin, Trotsky, and Zetkin, in particular, stand out for their political clarity and exposition of the dynamic relationship between objective and subjective factors on the one hand, and between party and class on the other. Trotsky’s report on the world economic situation is a powerful example of this approach and contains much for today’s revolutionaries to learn from.


Leon Trotsky

Trotsky first laid out the features of the new situation facing revolutionaries, noting that the expected revolutionary breakthroughs in Europe had not yet taken place and that, in fact, the bourgeoisies, their parties, and their state apparatuses had been able to recover from their initial alarm at the prospect of revolution and regain some of their strength and composure.

Against the reformists who argued that capitalism was restoring its equilibrium and would soon return to a peaceful method of functioning, Trotsky argued that the economic crisis was deep and could not be easily solved, but this did not rule out the possibility of a temporary recovery in the economy. Instead, the key was to identify whether the long-term pattern was one of capitalist ascendancy or decline.

Trotsky argued for a more dynamic understanding of the relationship between the economic situation and revolutionary prospects:

Many comrades ask in a quite abstract fashion whether it is impoverishment or prosperity that leads to revolution. Posed in this way, the question is quite wrong . . . Comrades, what leads to revolution is neither impoverishment nor prosperity in itself, but the alteration between prosperity and impoverishment and crisis. It is instability, the lack of constancy that drives revolution forward. (165)

Aiming at more than simply a correct appraisal of the economic situation, Trotsky sought to win the comrades away from the idea that their task was to “activate” the struggle or launch offensives, noting that “the struggle will perhaps be prolonged and perhaps will not stride forward as feverishly as one might wish.” (134) The main task as he laid it out was to weld together the different layers of the working class that were being formed and reformed in the aftermath of the war. This itself is an uneven process:

One layer learns lessons at a different time than another. One layer burns its fingers and becomes somewhat more cautious, even as another is eager for struggle without foreseeing the consequences of this struggle. That explains why the situation evolves in so much more complicated a fashion… And here the most important task of the Communist Party becomes the process, on this foundation, of welding these different layers together, politically and organizationally, in the struggle against capitalism. (132)

From the start, the discussion on Trotsky’s report revealed persistent confusion on the basic nature of the period. While professing agreement with Trotsky, several delegates introduced ideas that ran counter to the fundamental thrust of his presentation. So, for example, Henryk Brand of Poland argued that capitalism had no room to grant reforms, and that the social-democratic leaders would not struggle for any reforms. (138) Joszef Pogany of Hungary, one of the representatives involved in the March Action, argued that Trotsky devoted insufficient attention to the element of civil war and that “our leitmotif should be civil war and crisis.” (149) August Thalheimer, leader of the VKPD, argued that the temporary equilibrium identified by Trotsky was so unstable that “it can be destabilized by a relatively small jolt, unleashing a political and social crisis.” (151)

To his opponents who stressed the actions of the revolutionary minority, Trotsky replied that we “must not counterpose the subjective factors of history—the revolutionary will and the revolutionary needs of the working class—to the objective conditions…. If we detach the subjective from the objective aspect, this philosophy leads logically to pure revolutionary adventurism.” (160–1) The debate was to emerge much more sharply in the discussion of strategy and tactics.

The debate on strategy and tactics

The debate on strategy and tactics took up five lengthy sessions. Delegates heard not only the main report by Karl Radek, but long speeches from the different sides. Zetkin and Trotsky, both in the minority, each spoke for more than an hour.

As Trotsky noted in his speech, the theses were the result of “lengthy, exhaustive and at times impassioned negotiations.” (572) It became clear, however, that a majority of delegates were not yet ready to accept even the significant concessions that had been made to the “Lefts.” The German, Austrian, and Italian parties jointly introduced a series of amendments that constituted a major blow to the thrust of the theses. They eliminated references to the need to win the “majority” of the working class and to Levi’s “Open Letter.”


Umberto Terracini

In motivating these amendments, Terracini of the Italian party made an explicit defense of the theory of the offensive, arguing: “The words ‘theory of the offensive’ have a certain meaning, which we must clearly understand. We are convinced that this will be of significant benefit for the revolutionary struggle. We should not reject this theory; rather we must try to understand its meaning.” (464)

Taking the floor immediately following Terracini, Lenin declared that the amendments could not be accepted and represented a fundamentally different line. His remarks were extraordinarily brief, especially in contrast to the others, and aimed at making his point as clear and decisive as possible:

If these views of Comrade Terracini are shared by three other delegations then something is wrong in the International. Then we must say: Stop! We must wage a decisive struggle! Otherwise the Communist International is lost. . . .

[T]he aim of my speech, and also the principle of my speech consists in defense of the resolution and theses proposed by our delegation. It would, of course, be pedantic to say that not a letter in them must be altered. . . . If, however, I declare now that, politically, not a single letter can be altered, it is because the amendments, as I see them, are of a quite definite political nature and because they lead us along a path that is harmful and dangerous to the Communist International. Therefore, I and all of the Russian delegation must insist that not a single letter in the theses be altered. (467–8)

In pushing for these amendments, the left current helped to ignite a much more frank and sharp debate about the issues at stake. By the time of the Congress, the German leadership had accepted that it had made mistakes in its conduct during the March Action. However, it was equally eager to lay the lion’s share of the blame for the ensuing crisis at the feet of Levi, and to a lesser extent, of Zetkin.

The German leaders characterized the action as a defensive one that was forced on the party, in which workers played a heroic role and the party acted as a unified revolutionary force for the first time in its history—but in which it made errors. The Russian delegation, which was motivating the theses, seemed prepared to accept this description, though it put more emphasis on the party’s mistakes. The adopted thesis declared that the March Action was “forced on” the German Communist Party. Its “most serious” mistake “was that it did not clearly stress the defensive character of the struggle.” Nevertheless, it was a “heroic struggle” that represented a “step forward.” (941) They and other defenders of the March Action laid emphasis at the Congress that the greatest danger facing the Comintern was on its right rather than its left. Levi, and to a lesser extent Zetkin, were held up as examples of this threat.

One German delegate, Heckert, argued that the party’s loss of half its members after the March Action merely showed that in the test of struggle these members were found wanting. The party has, he argued, “emerged from battle hardened and steeled.” (436)

Bukharin 2

Nikolai Bukharin

Bukharin, also ostensibly arguing in favor of the draft theses, laid the emphasis on the danger of passivity and the influence of the right. “We all know very well,” he said, “that the future Executive, however it is composed, must heavily upbraid any party that, under certain circumstances, does not take the offensive. In other words, the general tactical line proposed in the theses by the Russian delegation cannot be used as a justification for all conceivable future vacillations committed by opportunist forces inside the Communist Party.” Again, he received loud applause. (509)

Lenin, Zetkin, and Trotsky’s contributions

In the midst of this confusion, the task of clarifying the main points at stake fell most heavily on Lenin and, to an even greater extent, Zetkin and Trotsky.5 Their arguments were powerfully made—to the point of provoking anger. Their contributions make for essential reading and help to clarify what is often a vacillating debate in which key issues seem almost deliberately obfuscated.

Lenin’s speech was short but laid down a hard line while identifying the central political questions. After rejecting the amendments, he organized his comments around the need to win the majority. He directed his fire against the German delegation’s proposal to delete the word “majority” from the compromise statement, arguing point-blank that not a single affiliated party had the majority of the working class behind it. The first step is to face this fact; the second is to develop a strategy for winning over this majority.

In this context, Lenin defended Levi’s Open Letter. Levi, along with Radek, had pursued the Open Letter in Germany after the Kapp putsch, an attempted military coup in March 1920 that was defeated in four days by united mass workers’ strikes, mobilizations, and a partial arming of the class.6 The Open Letter proposed joint action to the social-democratic and centrist leaders around basic demands. Riddell has provided its full text in the appendices. While the leaders rejected the proposals, they felt compelled to develop a course of action, and the Communists supported this struggle. As a result, the Communists gained the respect, if not yet the allegiance, of large numbers of workers. Leftists in the German party derided the Open Letter as opportunist. The Open Letter, argued Lenin, “is a model…because it is the first step in a practical method to win over 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.” (467)

He then offered a brief but illuminating analysis of the concept of “the masses”:

The concept of the masses changes in line with the changes in the nature of the struggle. At the beginning of the struggle it sometimes takes only a few thousand genuinely revolutionary workers, a few thousand workers, to warrant talk of the masses. . . . When the revolution has been sufficiently prepared, the concept “masses” becomes different. Several thousand workers no longer constitute the masses. This word begins to denote something else. The concept of “masses” undergoes a change so that it implies the majority, and not simply a majority of the workers alone, but a majority of all the exploited. (471)

While Lenin’s speech was met with arguments and some anger, he was speaking from a position of authority. Despite over forty years as a highly respected socialist fighter, Zetkin spoke from a position of weakness. It would be difficult to overstate the hostility directed at her.7 Despite these difficulties, Zetkin argued her position confidently and persuasively. She took head-on the campaign against her, arguing that it—like the campaign against Levi—was a distraction that served to obscure the debate.

She identified the key conditions for a party to assume leadership of a struggle. These included a precise understanding of the economic and political situation; the need for “intimate and close contact” with the masses; the development of struggle not from the general propaganda slogans but from the specific goals arising from the struggle; and the strong organization of the party. Not having met these conditions, she argued that the party leadership “thought that they could force the situation by a decision, cooked up in the test-tube by the party’s leading bodies, a decision that would bring about an immediate reorientation of the party masses, which had not been prepared inwardly, intellectually or politically.” (544)

She refused to separate out the mistakes made by the party during the March Action and the theoretical impetus for it. Rather than the inevitable mistakes of a real living movement, as they tended to be treated in the discussions, the mistakes of the Zentrale were rooted in a wrong theory, which arose not as a result and mistaken interpretation of the March Action but instead as the basis for the action being taken. (545–6)

Trotsky was the last speaker to take the floor during the debate and spoke for over an hour. His main goal was to clarify points that were murky, to identify the many evasions that were taking place, and above all to argue against any further concessions to the lefts. The arguments of the German leadership, he argued, were aimed more at defending the March Action at all costs rather than analyzing and learning from it. For this reason, the amendments introduced were meant to obscure the actual lessons of the struggle so that the German leaders did not have to return home to tell the workers that they were mistaken.

Trotsky was far more scathing than the compromise resolution in his remarks regarding the so-called “theory of the offensive”:

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!” I believe that an entire layer of comrades in the German party leadership, or close to it, were educated for a stretch of time in this spirit. Now they are waiting to see what the congress will have to say. Should our response be that, while throwing Paul Levi out the window, we speak of the March Action only in the most confused fashion as the first step, a step forward—phrase-mongering to muffle our criticism? That would be a betrayal of our duty. We are obliged 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 analyze the situation, rather than rushing into battle to break the wall of passivity or, in the words of another comrade, “to activate the party.” (579)

The reaction to Trotsky’s speech revealed that his assessment, that there was a desire for a resolution that would leave fundamental questions open to interpretation, was correct—and extended to members of the Russian delegation. In a note to Lenin, he wrote that, “Zinoviev and Radek told me privately that I had thrown a ‘bomb’ and even sent me a brief note that I had broken the agreement.” (1154) He intimated that Zinoviev did not want Bela Kun and other leftists to take the floor—presumably for fear that this would reignite the debate. The theses were adopted, but six delegations wrote a statement that they “accept in principle the Theses on Tactics and Strategy proposed by the Russian delegation, but they express strong reservations with regard to the explanation of these theses in the speech by Trotsky.” (597)

Assessing the Congress

The result of the Congress debates was a rather tenuous and uneasy compromise. How are we to assess this experience? In his introduction, Riddell argues that the Congress achieved the central goal of rejecting leftist adventurism and carrying out an agreed-on strategic turn expressed in its slogan “To the Masses.” While leaving some issues undiscussed or postponed for later clarification, it served a necessary goal—too often neglected in the socialist movement—of preserving the unity of revolutionary forces that was indispensable for further steps forward and providing a principled and broadly agreed basis for their further united action and discussion. (39)

This is no doubt true, and a necessary element of any assessment. It was no small task to preserve this unity with minimal loss of revolutionary forces. Levi’s actions, far from helping turn the party in the right direction after the March Action, gave ammunition to its “left” apologists and defenders, making the task of shifting the Congress even more difficult. In any case, the messy and contentious debates of the Third Congress were a necessary prelude to the adoption of the much more explicit “united front” policy later that year. This policy bore the most fruit in Germany, where it was most consistently implemented. Over the year and half following the Congress, the VKPD was able to regain footing after the March debacle and substantially spread its influence. It was able to lead the working class in a series of struggles that once again shifted the balance of forces and put the working class back on the offensive.

However, it came at a cost. In a letter to Levi, Zetkin insightfully remarked that, “The most distressing and despicable thing is that the decision will not be based on political insight and conviction by the many, but rather on the fundamental clarity and firmness, the insight and political intelligence of Trotsky and Lenin, especially of Lenin alone.” (1150)

The latter were able, through a combination of their personal prestige and their political arguments, to win the Congress delegates to a new course. However, it is not clear that the comrades themselves fully absorbed the lessons of their mistakes. Moreover, while the intervention of the Russian leaders was absolutely essential, it had a negative side as well. The German leadership lost confidence in itself and became hesitant as a result of its prior mistakes. Thus, despite carrying out the policy of the Third Congress in exemplary fashion, they were ill prepared when the opportunity to move over to offensive action did present itself in 1923—with tragic results.

As Duncan Hallas has noted,

It was one thing to “go to school” under the Russians but quite another to come to rely on the teachers to solve the complex problems facing the German, Polish, British, United States or whatever parties. The teaching which the Russians could give from their own revolutionary experience was the best available in the early years. But an emphasis of any real education is to emancipate the pupil from excessive dependence on the teacher.8

This “emancipation” was immensely difficult in the high-pressure conditions in which these inexperienced parties found themselves. It remained an unavoidable fact that the leadership of the Bolsheviks had absorbed a wealth of experience and judgment that were not easily replicated in the span of a few years. Lenin himself recognized this danger, noting at the Fourth Congress the difficulty of “translating” the Bolshevik experience—not as a series of organizational formulas, but as a political method.9 This danger was compounded by the fact that the most outstanding Bolshevik leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, were primarily consumed by affairs in Russia and had limited time to devote to international developments. Indeed, their intervention into the Third Congress debates was critical.

Even more challenging is an assessment of the treatment of the ECCI representatives at the Congress. Radek, Kun, and Zinoviev had all played a central role in encouraging a “leftist” course, and yet all were able to evade any responsibility for their role in the March Action. Zetkin noted to Levi that, “Clearly, the Executive wants the German question to be dealt with, as much as possible, as dirty laundry within the German delegation.” (1150) It is equally clear that this was allowed. As Riddell notes in his introduction, “In a congress notable for candor and controversy, almost nothing was said in criticism of the ECCI’s record, including in discussion of the ECCI report. Radek assured delegates that the ECCI was not responsible for the March Action. The unanimously adopted resolution on the ECCI report gave the ECCI’s actions—including with regard to Germany—unqualified approval.” (38) Zetkin was the only comrade to raise an open criticism of the ECCI on the convention floor.

This represented a departure from the historic practice of the Bolshevik Party, which was characterized by a high level of sharp and open debate. It is difficult to judge the exact reasons for this departure from established norms. There was the need to win over Radek and Zinoviev in order to win the Germans, and there was a desire to save face on all sides. It is also the case that the Bolsheviks, who had come to rule despite their intentions as a one-party state in Russia were very vulnerable to any splits in their central leadership. All of these elements must have played a role, and it is arguable that this compromise was necessary in the specific conditions. But it must also be acknowledged that it set a dangerous precedent for the Comintern and for how subsequent generations of revolutionaries could come to develop a distorted understanding of the organizational principles of Bolshevism.

It is difficult to know whether something could have been done differently with different results. The Third Congress was a critical turning point. The resolutions it adopted made it possible for the delegates to unite around a shared strategic orientation. This was carried through unevenly in the different countries but led to important advances where it was implemented. Moreover, it laid the basis for the further elaboration of the united front strategy, undertaken by Trotsky later that year and which remain today an indispensable guide for revolutionaries.10 Though the outcome of the debate left many questions unresolved and set a precedent in which important debates were only partially argued through, had Lenin and Trotsky not forced a much more open and sharp fight, it is possible that there would have been damaging splits at a time when the revolutionary forces needed to be organized for a retreat and consolidation.

One of the most fascinating and thought-provoking aspects of the material in this volume is the different approach taken to the debate by Zetkin and Lenin. Zetkin was clearly in favor of a much more open and public debate, whereas Lenin insisted on the need for a compromise in order to win the argument but also allow good comrades to “return home without being too humbled and embittered.” (1140)

Through the Comintern, the Bolsheviks attempted to accelerate this process and transmit their own experience to the new parties. To say this is not to say that there were not formidable and impressive leaders outside of the Russian party. These parties, moreover, had begun a process of developing their own strategies and tactics and offered important contributions on theoretical questions. This was true of Levi’s development of the “open letter” tactic, of the contributions of the Indian communist M. N. Roy, and many other important contributions that were made by member parties and individuals.

It would be the worst defeatism and passivity to say that the attempt should not have been made. The wager had to be made, and despite its ultimate failure and subsequent degeneration, the Comintern provides some of the richest insights and lessons in how to develop perspectives, and strategy and tactics. But if there is one lesson today’s revolutionaries can take from this history, it is that the process of training a group of experienced leaders as Lenin described is incredibly difficult at the height of a revolutionary moment. Instead, it must be built in advance. That is the wager being made by those of us attempting to do this in vastly different conditions today, and we have much to learn from their attempt. Riddell has done us an invaluable service by making this material available, and it is well worth reading, studying, and discussing.

All drawings by Isaak Brodsky, 1920.


  1. Five volumes were published by Pathfinder Press under the general heading “The Communist International in Lenin’s Time”: Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents: 1907–1916, The Preparatory Years (1984); The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents: 1918–1919, Preparing the Founding Congress (1986); Founding of the Communist International, Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919 (1987); Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (two volumes, 1991); and two final volumes published by Haymarket Books: To The Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (2016); Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (2012).
  2. This session was squeezed in at the end of the Congress. The thesis drafted on this question, including that of the Indian delegate M. N. Roy, were not presented, and the speakers (who were not translated), were given five minutes each. Writes Riddell, “Roy spoke out strongly against what he considered the slipshod handling of the Eastern question during the congress.” (45)
  3. A set of conditions drawn up and passed at the 1920 Second Comintern Congress for admitting new parties as member organizations, which included among its items a demand that adhering parties must expel reformists and centrists from their ranks, accept the decisions of Comintern congresses, and oppose colonialism.
  4. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 61.  The full text can be found at….
  5. Lenin, Zetkin, and Trotsky were not alone in making clear-sighted arguments. Lesser-known delegates—in particular, Malzahn of Germany and Markovic of Yugoslavia—made incisive critiques. I’ve focused on these three because of their relative weight in the proceedings.
  6. The KPD initially refused to support the anti-Kapp mobilizations on the grounds that they were being conducted in defense of a bourgeois government.
  7. On the eve of the congress, Bela Kun wrote to Lenin seeking to discredit Levi and Zetkin. Of Zetkin he wrote: “The old woman is suffering from senile dementia. She provides a living proof that Lafargue and his wife acted entirely correctly.” (1089) Riddell explains this reference: “Paul Lafaurge and and his wife Laura, daughter of Karl Marx, both leaders of the socialist movement in France, jointly committed suicide in 1911 at the ages of 69 and 71, fearing the advent of old age and believing they had nothing further to contribute to the workers’ movement.” (1089)
  8. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, 71–2.
  9. Lenin only gave one speech at the Fourth Congress, and his remarks were regarding the thesis on the organizational structures of communist parties. He feared that comrades from other countries had “signed without reading or understanding it.” “Five years of the Russian Revolution and the prospects of the World Revolution,” Collected Works, Vol 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980), 418–32.
  10. See, for example, Trotsky’s excellent piece, “On the United Front: Material for a Report on the Question of French Communism,” written in March of 1922, the best single article laying out the concept of the united front; available at the Marxist Internet Archive in volume 2 collection of Trotsky’s articles and speeches, The First Five Years of the Communist International,


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Issue #72

July 2010

¡Todos Somos Arizona!

Issue contents

Top story

·         ¡Todos somos Arizona!

Orlando Sepúlveda


·         Letter from the editors


·         Laws that need breaking

Sharon Smith

·         Abortion rights in peril

Nicole Colson

·         The modern class war

John Pilger

·         Women, gender, and sports

Dave Zirin

·         Contemporary anarchism

Eric Kerl

·         Marxism and the environment

Chris Williams

·         The working class in the Great Depression

Frances Fox Piven


·         A fight against an entrenched elite

Giles Ji Ungpakorn interviewed by Lee Sustar

·         The new imperialism

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

·         Apartheid Israel and the contradictions of left Zionism

Tikva Honig-Parnass interviewed by Leo Fischer

Critical Thinking

·         Economic crisis and class struggle

Phil Gasper


·         Learning from a revolutionary

Michael Steven Smith and Paul Le Blanc review North Star: A Memoir by Peter Camejo

·         Getting slaves to market

Greg Love reviews The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker and Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora by Stephanie Smallwood

·         Faultlines of a multipolar world

Ashley Smith reviews After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World Order by Dilip Hiro

·         Surgical errors are no accident

Helen Redmond reviews The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

·         Lenin’s Marxism

Paul D’Amato reviews Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Movement by Neil Harding

·         Are men really better athletes?

Sherry Wolf reviews Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano

The International Socialist Review is published quarterly by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change


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