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‘A Fascinating Volume Offering Many Treasures’

October 13, 2020

Daniel Gaido’s review of The Communist Movement at a Crossroads

The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922–1923, edited by Mike Taber. Trans. John Riddell. Historical Materialism Book Series. Chicago: Haymarket, 2019. $50. Pp. 808.

By Daniel Gaido: Taber and Riddell have published the minutes of the three Enlarged Plenums of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) held while Lenin was still alive, between February 1922 and June 1923.

A Monumental Edition

This volume is part of Riddell’s monumental edition of the proceedings of the first Four Congresses of “The Communist International in Lenin’s Time,” held between 1919 and 1922. It also includes a volume of documents from “the preparatory years” (1907–1916) before the foundation of the International, a documentary collection on the German revolution of 1918–1919, and a third volume with the minutes of the Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1920.

The complete series so far include eight books in nine volumes, to which a ninth book will be added entitled The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920–1922:
1. Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907-1916: The Preparatory Years, New York: Pathfinder, 1984, 604 pp.
2. The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents, 1918-1919: Preparing the Founding Congress, New York: Pathfinder, 1986, 687 pp .
3. Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919, New York: Pathfinder, 1987, 503 pp.
4. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920, Volume 1: New York: Pathfinder, 1991, 632 pp.
Volume 2: New York: Pathfinder, 1991, 592 pp.
5. To See the Dawn! Baku, 1920: First Congress of the Peoples of the East, New York: Pathfinder, 1993, 368 pp.
6. To the Masses! Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Leiden: Brill, 2015; Chicago: Haymarket, 2016, 1,299 pp.
7. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden: Brill, 2011; Chicago: Haymarket, 2015, 1,310 pp.
8. The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923, Leiden: Brill, 2018; Chicago: Haymarket, 2019. 796 pp.

The first five volumes of the series were published by Pathfinder, while the rest will be published in hardcover and electronic editions by Brill and in paperback by Haymarket. The translations were made from the Russian-language originals, checked against the German and French versions (the official language of the Communist International was German). This body of texts has enabled scholars and political activists to acquaint themselves with the debates of the International in its revolutionary period, before the ascent of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The organization of the book is quite straightforward: after an introduction by Taber contextualizing and summarizing the debates, it provides English versions of the debates of the three Enlarged Plenums of the ECCI held while Lenin was alive, in chronological order.

The main thread of the debates was the application of the united front policy — an action program based on the most immediate demands of the masses and aimed at all the labor movement organizations, which would lead, by its own dynamic of struggle, to a series of transitional demands, culminating in the slogan of a workers’ government.

In Marxist terminology, democratic or immediate demands refer to measures that can be adopted within the framework of capitalist society (such as female suffrage, a constitutional republic, the eight-hour day) while socialist demands refer to those measures that can only be implemented after the proletarian seizure of power, such as the nationalization of the means of production, the adoption of a planned economy and the other measures related to the abolition of commodity production and wage labor. The debates of the Second Enlarged Plenum centered around transitional demands standing in the intermediate period between both extremes.

First Enlarged Plenum

In the First Enlarged Plenum (February 21–March 4, 1922), Chairman of the International Grigory Zinoviev submitted a “Report on United Front Policy,” finally adopted as a resolution after an entire week of debates, during which the new tactic was opposed by the Communist Parties of France, Italy and Spain (103–181). Prior to the plenum, the Third Congress had witnessed a strong clash between the ultra-left supporters of the “theory of the offensive” and a “right wing” led by Lenin, Trotsky and Clara Zetkin, and which ended with the adoption of the slogan “To the Masses.”

Clara Zetkin

Taber and Riddell’s volume includes the document submitted on February 28, 1922, by the Workers’ Opposition to the Enlarged Plenum, which denounced the “social composition” of the Russian CP (“40 per cent workers and 60 per cent non-proletarians”) as well as the methods employed by the incipient “party and trade-union bureaucracy,” which made impossible “carrying out the principle of workers’ democracy with regard to electing trade-union leaderships” and promoted “the development of careerism, intrigue, and servility.” The volume also includes the “Reply by the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party” signed by Trotsky and Zinoviev (181–183).

Second Enlarged Plenum

The Second Enlarged Plenum (June 7–11, 1922), held between the Third and Fourth Congresses, took up the question of the transitional demands in the new united front policy framework, particularly the slogan of “workers’ government” in the countries where the Social Democrats and Communists constituted the dominant forces of the labor movement but were not yet ripe for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For the mass Communist Parties of Germany and Czechoslovakia this question was a pressing political issue. Zinoviev argued that “one of the most important lessons we must draw from this stage” was that the parties should not limit themselves “either to the intense struggles for immediate small and partial demands, nor to the achievement of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also to raise the major demands that lie in between, such as, for example, in countries where the working class is sufficiently strong, the slogan of the workers’ government and that of workers’ control of production” (289–290).

Grigorii Zinoviev

To codify these experiences the Commission on Program was established; it was composed of 33 members from 15 countries, which included Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek, the five Russian CP leaders assigned to work in the International (364–65). Zinoviev thought that the commission could present a draft program for the Fourth Congress, but this hope was not fulfilled.

Third Enlarged Plenum

The Third Enlarged Plenum (June 12–23, 1922) took place after the celebration of the Fourth Congress (the last one under Lenin), which had endorsed the “Theses on the Workers’ United Front” (adopted by the ECCI back in December 1921) and the “Theses on the Eastern Question” whose sixth section indicates tactics to be followed in the semi-colonial countries, the “anti-imperialist united front.”

Developing the united front policy and the method of transitional demands to their logical conclusion, the plenum expanded the transitional slogan of the “workers’ government” to the more general slogan “the workers’ and peasants’ government,” which the International advanced even for the United States.

But perhaps the most important new question debated by the Third Enlarged Plenum was Zetkin’s Report and Resolution “On the Struggle against Fascism” (Mussolini’s “March on Rome” had taken place eight months earlier) and the related debate on the national question in Germany, raised by the Franco–Belgian occupation of the Ruhr basin on January 11, 1923.

‘Schlageter Speech’

In response to Zetkin’s report Karl Radek made his famous intervention on the murder of Leo Schlageter, a German fascist executed by the French army for resisting occupation. Radek emphasized the need for the working class to politically challenge the fascists and lead the struggle against national oppression under the Versailles Treaty, pointing out that the German bourgeoisie’s “passive resistance” policy was an imposture (613–618).

This speech was the subject of strong criticism because it supported a national liberation movement in an imperialist country. The contradiction, however, was not in the International’s policy during the Ruhr crisis but in the reality itself, and the most respected spokesperson for the German CP at that time, Zetkin, pointed out that “the noble and profound words of Radek touched my spirit as an old fighter” (618). These are just some indications of the treasures that await the readers of this fascinating volume.

Daniel Gaido’s review was first published in Science and Society, A Journal of Marxist Thought and Analysis. Together with Richard Day, Gaido has edited Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record, 2009 and Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War 1, 2011, Brill and Haymarket Books. A socialist historian, Gaido is based in Córdoba, Argentina.

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