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Part 3: Introduction to ‘The Communist International at a Crossroads’

May 10, 2020

A Sharp Break; An Ongoing Legacy

Third installment of the Introduction to “The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923,” by Mike Taber. Available from Haymarket Books.

Two Questions Not Discussed 

Two decisive questions, however, were not specifically addressed at the Third Enlarged Plenum although they nevertheless remained constantly in the background:

1. The Revolutionary Situation in Germany 

As the Third Enlarged Plenum was meeting in June 1923, a revolutionary crisis in Germany was unfolding. The situation was rooted in the profound crisis of German capitalism and its devastating impact on the proletariat, peasantry, and middle classes, with two overriding political and economic contributing factors:

Introduction to ‘The Communist International at a Crossroads’

Part 1: Overview; First and Second Enlarged Plenums (Feb.–Mar. and June 1922).

Part 2: Third Enlarged Plenum, June 1923

Part 3: A Sharp Break; An Ongoing Legacy

a) In January 1923 the Ruhr region in Germany, the country’s leading coal-producing area, was invaded by 60,000 French and Belgian troops, who occupied the region in an attempt to exact war reparations. While the German capitalist government called for ‘passive resistance’ to the French occupation but did nothing to organise it, the working class took the lead on the industrial front, with strikes and demonstrations. Right-wing forces were also present, waging armed resistance against the occupiers.

b) Germany in 1923 was undergoing a catastrophic hyperinflation, caused primarily by the massive printing of paper money in order to make the reparations payments imposed on Germany by the victorious Allied powers. Whereas the exchange rate of the mark to the dollar was some 4-to-1 in 1914 and 8-to-1 in 1918, it exploded in 1922 and 1923, reaching over 4- trillion-to-1 by late 1923. The impact on the working class, peasantry, and middle classes was devastating. Members of the middle class lost their life savings and were ruined, while large sections of the toilers were pauperised. Broad masses of the population saw no way out under the capitalist system, and were open to a revolutionary solution.

From early June 1923, Germany was rocked by strikes and mass street demonstrations. Communist-led trade unions and factory councils played a major role in these battles. This wave culminated in a spontaneous general strike that rocked the entire country in early August. Facing what the capitalist rulers feared was an approaching insurrection, Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno resigned, in an attempt to assuage the growing rebellion.

Despite the clear revolutionary character of these mobilisations, neither the German CP – either of its two main factions – or the Comintern leadership saw the crisis at that time as anything other than an opportunity to win members and influence, and to forge a united front with wings of the Social-Democratic Party.

While the Third Plenum spoke in general terms about the approaching revolution in Germany, it failed to recognise the concrete revolutionary situation that was developing in real life.[1]

The Struggle in the Russian Communist Party

Leon Trotsky

In the background at the Third Enlarged Plenum was the still-developing struggle in the Russian Communist Party that was to publicly explode in October and November 1923.

From late 1922 on, Lenin had initiated a broad fight within the Soviet leadership around a number of issues, including the national question, defence of the monopoly of foreign trade, and the alliance with the peasantry. At the root of many of these questions was the growing bureaucratisation of the Communist Party, whose general secretary was Joseph Stalin.

To wage this fight, Lenin had formed a bloc with Trotsky, urging him to champion their common positions on these questions within the party leadership,[2] and he had called for Stalin to be removed as general secretary. But Lenin’s plans were derailed on 10 March, when Lenin suffered an incapacitating stroke that ended his political life.

To counter the efforts of Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin had succeeded in forging an alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev. This ‘troika’ was a secret faction within the Soviet Politburo that was waging an underground struggle to undercut Trotsky’s influence at every step.

Josef Stalin

Conscious of this struggle against him, with Lenin out of the picture Trotsky sought to avoid a showdown at the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923. The same reason may also explain why Trotsky did not take the floor at the June 1923 Third Enlarged Plenum.

These two questions – the German events of 1923 and the struggle in Soviet Russia – although beyond the scope of the present volume, were to be decisive in the Comintern’s political break from the Lenin era. This break was registered at the Communist International’s Fifth World Congress.

Fifth Congress Break with Leninism

A year after the Third Enlarged Plenum, the Comintern’s Fifth Congress of June–July 1924 registered a decisive reversal of Lenin’s course. The congress took place less than six months after Lenin’s death in January 1924.

With Lenin dead and Trotsky marginalised, Comintern president Grigorii Zinoviev – then part of the ‘troika’ with Stalin – now assumed the role of principal political leader. As such, he mapped out a series of major policy changes that reversed the Comintern’s adopted positions on the united front and the workers’ government. Karl Radek, who had previously been the other main Russian CP leader assigned to day-to-day Comintern work, had supported Trotsky in the Russian discussion and was attacked repeatedly at the congress.

During the debate at the congress, Radek and Zetkin defended the previous Comintern positions, but their arguments were rejected.[3]

The international analysis made by the Fifth Congress was shaped by the German defeat of the previous year.

Rather than facing up to this defeat and drawing the lessons from it, however, the congress insisted that the German revolution was still on the rise. While doing so, it sought to scapegoat individual leaders for whatever failures had occurred in Germany – above all putting the blame on the KPD’s Heinrich Brandler and Comintern leader Karl Radek around secondary issues. The Comintern leadership as a whole was exempted from any criticism.

To help gloss over the German defeat, the congress determined that the centre of the world class struggle had shifted to Britain in the wake of the inauguration of a Labour Party government in January 1924. While the British election was certainly an important development, the Comintern’s characterisation can reasonably be considered a transparent attempt to shift the focus off the German failure.

This strategic error was summarised by Trotsky four years later:

The fundamental tasks of the Fifth Congress were: first, to call this defeat [in Germany] clearly and relentlessly by its name, and to lay bare its ‘subjective’ cause, allowing no one to hide behind the pretext of objective conditions; secondly, to establish the beginning of a new stage during which the masses would temporarily drift away, the social democracy grow, and the communist party lose in influence; thirdly to prepare the Comintern for all this so that it would not be caught unawares and to equip it with the necessary methods of defensive struggle and organisational consolidation until the arrival of a new change in the situation. But in all these questions the congress adopted a directly opposite attitude.[4]

Highlighting the Fifth Congress reversal of course, was the open rejection of key programmatic decisions of the Lenin-era Comintern on three central issues:

  1. The united front. Zinoviev’s report to the Fifth Congress on behalf of the ECCI endorsed the view presented by a minority at earlier Comintern meetings of a supposed dichotomy between the united front from above and from below.[5]‘ Regarding this issue, we can therefore assert the following,’ Zinoviev stated, ‘United front from below – almost always. United front from below combined with from above – quite often, with all the necessary guarantees, as a tactic for the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses. United front from above by itself – never!’[6] As mentioned earlier, the Second Enlarged Plenum had argued specifically against such a dichotomy, seeing it as a negation of the very idea of a united front. Zinoviev also disparaged the 1921 Open Letter initiative of the German CP that Lenin had wholeheartedly endorsed, and essentially rejected any attempts to reach concrete agreements with the Social-Democratic Party for common action:

Unfortunately, in practice our most frequently applied method was the following: draft an open letter to the Social Democrats followed by long and boring negotiations with the leadership over creation of a ‘joint programme’. This was the line of least resistance.[7]

  1. The workers’ government. At the Fourth World Congress in November 1922, Zinoviev had at first presented the view that the ‘workers’ government’ slogan was merely a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. A number of delegates objected to this view, pointing to the slogan’s value as a transitional demand. As a result of these objections, Zinoviev himself withdrew the ‘pseudonym’ view in his summary to the Fourth Congress.[8]But in Zinoviev’s main report to the Fifth Congress, he returned to the ‘pseudonym’ view that he had discarded. ‘The workers’ government slogan’, he stated, ‘is for us the most attractive, accessible, and popular way of winning the masses for the proletarian dictatorship.’[9]
  1. Fascism. In sharp contrast to the analysis of fascism by Zetkin at the Third Enlarged Plenum, Zinoviev presented the Fifth Congress with the view of a supposed identity between Social Democracy and fascism. ‘The Social-Democratic Party has become a wing of fascism,’ he declared. ‘The fascists are the right hand and the Social Democrats the left hand of the bourgeoisie.’[10]

These policy reversals illustrate the Fifth Congress’s status as the dividing line between the Lenin-era Comintern and its subsequent degeneration.

Along these lines, a centrepiece of the Fifth Congress was to line the Comintern up in the struggle within the Soviet CP against the Left Opposition, condemning ‘Trotskyism’ and taking initial organisational measures against its supporters in Communist parties around the world.[11] For the first time, ‘monolithism’ became the stated goal of the Comintern.[12]

Lining up the Communist International behind the anti-Trotsky struggle was done under the rubric of ‘bolshevisation’, which became a theme of the congress.[13] The significance of this term was described later by Trotsky:

The ‘bolshevisation’ of 1924 assumed completely the character of a caricature. A revolver was held at the temples of the leading organs of the communist parties with the demand that they adopt immediately a final position on the internal disputes in the CPSU without any information and any discussion.[14]

In the years after the Fifth Congress, the Comintern became completely subordinated to the interests of the Soviet bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin. The radical zigzags it became known for over the coming years reflected the shifting needs of this caste. By the time of the Comintern’s formal dissolution in 1943 as a favour by Stalin to his wartime US and British allies, it had long since ceased being a revolutionary working-class international organisation.

The profound chasm between the Lenin-era and Stalin-era Comintern was highlighted in the late 1930s, when Stalin’s purges led to the wholesale murder of most early Comintern leaders who were then living in the Soviet Union. A look at the biographical sketches contained in the glossary to this volume strikingly illustrates this fact.

The Comintern’s Legacy Today 

The delegates participating in the Communist International’s leadership meetings were all profoundly influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

They had seen working people overthrow their oppressors, take political power, and begin to build a new society. Having witnessed this in real life, they were absolutely convinced that world revolution was a realistic prospect.

In their view, Communists were living through the beginning of the epoch of workers ‘storming the heavens’, as Marx had described the Paris Commune of 1871.[15] Rather than the objects of history – the customary role of working people for millennia – workers had suddenly become the conscious makers of history.

To meet this historic opportunity, revolutionaries sought to create an international movement of action, of deeds. They rejected the model of the Second International, whose grandiloquent verbiage masked a gap between word and deed – a gap that grew into a chasm during the bloodbath of World War I, when the Second International’s main sections supported the war efforts of their respective capitalist classes.

Counterposed to the Social-Democratic model, the young Communist cadres sought to build something entirely new: an international working-class movement that would eliminate the gap between word and deed and act in a unified manner. ‘The Communist International is an International of the deed,’ Communist youth leader Lazar Shatskin proudly told the Third Enlarged Plenum.[16]

What comes across from the proceedings of the first three enlarged plenums, above all, is a picture of the Communist International as a living movement, one that showed itself capable of always moving forward, although sometimes in fits and starts and along winding roads. But even when it took a misstep, the early Communist movement was able to recover its footing and keep advancing. With whatever errors and false starts, the Lenin-era Comintern was a movement deeply involved in working-class struggles, showing itself able to learn from them.

Indeed, most of the major policies adopted in 1922–3 came out of the movement’s concrete experiences in these battles. Such was the case with the positions that the first three enlarged plenums are best known for: those on the united front, the workers’ government, and fascism.

Contrary to many standard narratives of the Communist International, the Comintern under Lenin was not based on directives and orders from Moscow. Its decisions were largely collaborative and not imposed, as a careful reading of the proceedings of this volume shows.

The Comintern’s congresses and conferences were working meetings, where debates evolved and conclusions were not foreordained. Whatever one may think about the policies that the Comintern adopted, free debate and an open exchange of views were an integral part of its meetings.

**    **    **

Why study the early Communist International today, almost a century later?

While the world of the twenty-first century is obviously different in many ways from that facing the early Communist cadres, the similarities are both striking and relevant.

Those attending the three enlarged plenums of the Comintern in 1922 and 1923 faced a world of deepening inter-imperialist rivalries and the threat of new wars. They encountered a growing international capitalist offensive on workers’ wages, working conditions, and basic livelihoods. Joblessness was rampant and growing, especially among youth. Peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were beginning to rise up and assert their humanity as they sought to free themselves from imperialist and colonial bondage. Women were being increasingly drawn into capitalist production, beginning to break down some of the gender roles that had existed in society for millennia. And the basic social fabric seemed to be coming apart at the seams, leading to a growing appeal for emerging rightist movements around the world.

Much of this picture will sound familiar to contemporary readers confronting twenty-first-century capitalism. Even the deepening ecological crisis that casts a shadow over the world today simply reproduces in a new form the permanent contradiction between capitalist property relations and social progress, a contradiction addressed frequently by the early Communist movement.

As growing numbers take up the fight against this system, some will seek to link up with traditions of struggle by earlier generations. As they do so, many will find the lessons and example of the Communist International under Lenin to be of lasting value.

Those who do so will find much to learn from its discussions of programme, strategy and tactics, revolutionary experiences, and problems of organisation.

In an increasingly interconnected world – with ever-expanding economic, cultural, and informational ties among the world’s population – many militant workers, revolutionary-minded youth, and fighters for social change will find especially attractive the early Comintern’s perspective of international collaboration around a common programme to fight for a society built around human needs and human values.

Many of these activists and fighters will become convinced, through their own experiences, of the Comintern’s firm belief that the only road to lasting social progress lies in working people taking political power out of the hands of the billionaire ruling families through revolutionary struggle.

And many of them will be inspired by the early Comintern’s revolutionary promise, potential, and clarity of vision, summed up in the ringing words of Clara Zetkin at the Third Enlarged Plenum:

Symptoms of fascist decay and disintegration in bourgeois society speak to us loudly and piercingly of coming victory, provided that the proletariat struggles with knowledge and will in a united front. That’s what must be!

Above the chaos of present conditions, the giant form of the proletariat will rear up with the cry: ‘I have the will! I have the power! I am the struggle and the victory! The future belongs to me!’[17]

Mike Taber, January 2017


[1] The August general strike finally convinced Zinoviev and other ECCI leaders that a revolutionary situation existed in Germany. Summoning the German CP leadership to Moscow, the Comintern leaders convinced the KPD of the need to move toward organising an insurrection. With Soviet support and encouragement, hasty technical preparations for an insurrectional struggle were made over the next two months, with the insurrection scheduled for October. But while thousands of KPD cadres responded enthusiastically to these efforts with discipline and heroism, the preparations were too little and too late. In the end, the plans for an insurrection had to be called off. The ‘German October’ ended in failure.

[2] Lenin’s writings on these questions are scattered over his Collected Works. One collection that assembles them together and groups them thematically is Fyson, ed., Lenin’s Final Fight: Speeches and Writings 1922–23 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1995). For Lenin’s proposals to Trotsky, see LCW, 45, p. 607, and Trotsky, My Life (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), pp. 478–80.

[3] For the main speeches by Radek and Zetkin at the Fifth Congress, see Protokoll 1924, pp. 162–90 and 320–39, respectively.

[4] See Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1996), p. 117.

[5] See for example Ruth Fischer’s comments in Riddell 2012, 4WC, p. 146.

[6] Protokoll 1924, p. 81.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Zinoviev had raised the ‘pseudonym’ view earlier at the Second Enlarged ECCI Plenum (see p. 350 of this volume). His remarks to the Fourth Congress withdrawing the idea can be found in Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 266.

[9] Protokoll 1924, p. 90

[10] Protokoll 1924, pp. 66–7.

[11] Accepting a proposal made by the Fifth Congress, an enlarged ECCI meeting held immediately after the congress voted to expel French CP leader Boris Souvarine, who had voiced support for the Russian Opposition. See Protokoll 1924, pp. 1032–4.

[12] From Zinoviev’s embrace of monolithism at the Fifth Congress, see Protokoll 1924, p. 507.

[13] The perspective of ‘bolshevisation’ was laid out in Zinoviev’s summary to his main report to the Fifth Congress. See Protokoll 1924, pp. 508–9.

[14] Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, p. 169.

[15] Karl Marx letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 12 April 1871, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 44, p. 132.

[16] See p. 438 of this volume.

[17] See p. 606.

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