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‘Heated debate and tumult’: The Comintern’s 1921 congress

December 26, 2017

Umair Muhammad

To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, edited and translated by John Riddell. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016. $50.00. Pp. x, 1299.

By Umair Muhammad. From June 22 to July 11, 1921, the Communist International (Comintern) convened its Third Congress in Moscow. Hundreds of delegates, representing groups and political parties affiliated with the Comintern from 55 countries, were in attendance. To the Masses, edited and translated by John Riddell, makes the full proceedings of the Third Congress available to the English-speaking world for the first time.

In 1921, global capitalism was still reeling from the economic crisis that had followed on the heels of the Great War. The spectre of communism, having haunted Europe for more than half a century, had taken material form with the victory and increasing consolidation of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Elsewhere across the European continent, however, working class upsurges had faced successive setbacks and the revolutionary tide seemed to be subsiding. It was in this context that delegates from around the world gathered together to decide on the direction of the communist movement.

Leon Trotsky, freshly away from the battlefield, kicked off the discussion with an extensive report on the state of the global economy. A heated debate followed, with delegates having few qualms about challenging the economic assessment offered by the commander of Red Army.

Heated debate was something of a norm at the congress, with one topic in particular causing a great amount of tumult: the March Action in Germany. In March 1921, partly in response to provocations by the state, the United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD) undertook a violent effort to overthrow the government and implant a workers’ regime in its place. The VKPD was ill-positioned for such a move, given that the party counted less than half a million workers among its membership. The action was a disastrous failure, with 150 party members killed and four thousand jailed.

At the congress, much of the discussion on the March Action focused on the conduct of Paul Levi. An erstwhile star of the VKPD, Levi had condemned the March Action as a “Bakuninist putsch” in a pamphlet published shortly after the action was suppressed. As a result, Levi was expelled from the VKPD and the Comintern. While not himself at the congress, Levi’s defenders included the veteran German communist Clara Zetkin, who made the case that “without Levi’s criticism, it would have taken us longer to come to grips with the theory and practice of the March Action… The Communist Party and the proletariat would have been exposed to the danger of being launched into renewed ill-advised undertakings.”

In the end, Levi’s political position prevailed at the congress: to win over the masses as a precondition to taking power, and not to engage in irresponsible adventures, was deemed the way forward for Comintern member parties. The VKPD’s leadership ended up being thoroughly criticized. But the same treatment was not given to the Moscow representatives who had helped to spur on the March Action. The Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) had sent envoys to Germany who had actively encouraged the disastrous course taken by the VKPD. The unwillingness of congress delegates to speak openly about the actions taken by these envoys suggests, as Riddell notes, “that leadership accountability was not being dealt with in an even-handed manner and, even, that the ECCI itself was above criticism.” Moreover, Levi’s breach of party discipline was not forgiven, which ultimately meant that he would not return into the fold of the VKPD and the Comintern.

A range of other topics were discussed at the congress, including the women’s movement and the fate of the colonial world. The congress passed a resolution that called on affiliated communist parties to actively recruit women workers. The crucial role played by women in the Russian Revolution had made the importance of women’s involvement in the revolutionary project clear. But it was not just the case that communist revolution would fail without the involvement of women. It was also the case that without revolution, the liberation of women could not be realized. “Women can achieve genuine, as opposed to formal, equality only in communism,” the congress resolution argued, and it warned “against any collaboration and compromise with the bourgeois feminists.”

A number of delegates at the congress pointed to the importance of giving attention to the non-European world. Zetkin, for instance, declared that “the battles to liberate the British and French proletariat will be fought not only on their native land but also in the torrid lands of India and Iran, on the variegated landscape of China, and throughout the Near and Far East.” Similarly, Lenin made it a point to “emphasise the significance of the movement in the colonies.” Yet, the session on the Eastern question, left until the end of the congress, was a rushed, inadequate affair. During the session, the Indian communist M. N. Roy was given only five minutes to make a statement. He used the allotted time for the purpose of raising a sharp complaint. “The way the Eastern question has been handled at this congress,” Roy charged, “is purely opportunistic and more appropriate for a congress of the Second International.”

Despite its shortcomings, the Comintern’s Third Congress was a laudable undertaking. As Riddell highlights in his introduction to the volume:

The congress was a practical working meeting, whose outcome was not predictable and not preordained. It was characterised by free and open debate, in which those with unpopular views were not silenced or penalised. Despite the Bolshevik leaders’ prestige, there was no reticence about criticising them and no hesitation in opposing their positions. Deep differences were frankly debated, and an area of agreement was defined and widened.

Reading To the Masses gives one a sense of the monumental nature of Comintern congresses. Not just the size of the undertakings, but also their historical importance—as attempts at fashioning a united communist movement—is strikingly portrayed. It helps a great deal that the volume is laboriously annotated and contains an extensive glossary: the events and figures that feature in the proceedings are detailed by Riddell, ensuring the volume is accessible not only to the specialist but to the lay-reader as well. (The length of the volume may, however, give pause to specialist and lay-reader alike!)

The publication of To the Masses caps a project that Riddell began in 1983 when he set out to prepare English translations of the Comintern congresses that had taken place while Lenin was alive. The project has led Riddell to produce eight hefty volumes, including one that deals with the German Revolution and another on the proceedings of the Comintern’s First Congress of the Peoples of the East, held in 1920 in Baku.

As with the other volumes Riddell has edited and translated, To the Masses brings together and preserves an important piece of history. For this alone, Riddell is to be thanked. But the value of Riddell’s work is greater still as it is quite likely that, over time, To the Masses will help add new dimensions to old debates and will open up new lines of inquiry for scholars and activists to explore.

Reprinted by permission. First published in Science and Society, 81:3 (July 2017), pp. 452-4. Umair Muhammad is a socialist activist and scholar based in Toronto.

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Review of book by Umair Muhammad


  1. Les Evenchick permalink

    Review makes me want the book. Who were the 3 Comintern envoys sent to promote the premature uprising? I would like to know is a vote was taken on the reinstatement of Levi and what that vote was, if taken.

    • The delegation was composed of Béla Kun, Jószef Pogány, and August Guralski (p. 16). The vote on the Executive Committee’s conduct in Germany, which encompassed the Levi question, was unanimous except for the Yugoslav delegation (pp. 400, 921). However, this vote took place before the main substantive discussion of the issues raised in Germany, which had a rather different outcome. Thanks for your question, Les, and by all means do read the book!

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