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Toward a United Front Against Fascism

January 7, 2021

How Socialists Resist Rightist Coups: Part 2

See also Part 1: “How Socialists Resist Rightist Coups: The Kornilov and Kapp Putschesand Part 3: “1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch” 

By 1920, The working-class movement urgently needed to find a road to effective resistance to such rightist threats, including when these assaults took the form of a military coup replacing one capitalist government with another.

The initiative for united working-class action came from the Communists in Germany (see “The Origins of United Front Policy”). On 8 January 1921 the KPD addressed an open letter to all other major workers’ organizations, proposing common action around nine demands, representing goals that the entire workers’ movement held in common. The first two goals set the tone: wage struggles on behalf of all workers and increased pensions. One of the demands addressed the threat from far-right enemies of the Weimar Republic:

7. Disarmament and dissolution of armed bourgeois detachments and formation of workers’ self-defence organisations.[i]

Conceptually, the Open Letter was in one sense a return to the spirit of the Erfurt Program rejected by Rosa Luxemburg in December 1918. It offered a “minimum program” of immediate goals to be set alongside the revolutionary objective of overthrowing capitalist rule and establishing a government of workers’ councils. But the Open Letter posed the action program in a novel way – as a platform for an alliance of all major workers’ organizations.

Leaders of the SPD and other major workers’ organizations rejected the KPD’s Open Letter initiative. Nonetheless, German Communists pursued this approach, winning significant rank-and-file support. Later that year the Open Letter approach was endorsed by the entire Comintern. The International’s call for the united front, on Lenin’s suggestion, incorporated a thesis on Bolshevik experience of unity with the rival Menshevik movement in 1917 and before. Inexplicably, this thesis did not mention the Kornilov events.[ii]

The new policy, named “united front,” was pursued for three years with some success.

For example, on 26 August 1921, a leading German bourgeois politician and opponent of the working class, Matthias Erzberger, was assassinated by an extreme rightist current. The Communists joined in building the massive popular protests that followed. They played this role again during the outpouring of rage following the similar assassination on 24 June 1922 of another prominent bourgeois statesman, Walter Rathenau. On this second occasion, the KPD proposed a series of measures by the German government to strike down the ultra-rightist, fascist, and proto-fascist groups advocating violence against the Republic.[iii]

The KPD’s energetic efforts to build the Erzberger and Rathenau protests displayed a broad and inclusive conception of the united front. Even some bourgeois forces on occasion could be embraced in anti-fascist actions, while taking care not to surrender working-class political independence.

Resisting Italian Fascism

The next major assault on workers’ democratic rights emerged through the rise of Fascism in Italy in 1921–22. Led by Benito Mussolini, the Fascists waged a brutal war against worker organizations, with covert support of the police and army, before finally achieving power through the threat of a “March on Rome.”

Benito Mussolini

Fascism was then a new phenomenon, and the Comintern had not yet worked out an appropriate response. The Italian Communist Party, formed in January 1921, stood opposed to broad united action against fascism, and the International’s leadership in Moscow did not insist on the need for a correction. The default by Italian Communists helped smooth the Fascists’ road to victory, a disastrous setback for the workers’ movement. (See “Fumble and Late Recovery: The Comintern and Italian Fascism.”)

On October 30, 1922, five days before the opening of the Comintern’s Fourth World Congress, Benito Mussolini assumed power in Italy. Congress delegates from several front-line parties pointed to the need for a united-front response. (See “The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back.”) Moments before the congress closed, Zinoviev declared, “We must succeed in becoming a vanguard of the entire anti-fascist struggle.” Soon after the Congress adjourned, the Comintern Executive Committee clarified that the needed defense should take the form of a united front.

But just what was it that the Comintern sought to defend against Fascism? Workers and their organizations needed physical defence from Fascist attacks of the working class, to be sure, but more was involved. The Erzberger and Rathenau campaigns had protested the murder of a capitalist politicians hostile to the working class. United fronts against the Kapp Putsch and earlier – in Russia – against the Kornilov putsch in 1917 had blocked efforts by the extreme Right to overthrow capitalist governments that were themselves repressing the working class. A Comintern campaign in 1922 on Austria defended, among other things, the sovereignty of this bourgeois republic.

Yet, in Germany, the brutal counterrevolution of 1919 that numbered Luxemburg and Liebknecht among its thousands of victims had been carried out under the banner of parliamentary democracy. At the KPD’s August 1922 convention, KPD leader August Thalheimer spoke of “defending the [German] republic against monarchist attacks.” Yet at the Fourth Comintern congress, Karl Radek of the Comintern leadership endorsed criticisms by KPD leader Ruth Fischer of the KPD’s conduct during the Rathenau campaign, saying in the Fourth World Congress that Communists should “not run after the corpse of Rathenau shouting “republic, republic.” Zinoviev spoke in similar terms.

In fact, there was a sharp distinction between defending the democratic rights embedded in the German bourgeois republic against a rightist coup and advocating the Weimar Republic as a form of rule. But unfortunately, the need for united anti-fascist defence was raised too late in the Fourth Congress to explore this question.[iv]

Some years after the Congress, the Italian delegate Camilla Ravera recounted a comment by Lenin on this issue in a meeting with Italian delegates held on the eve of the Fourth Congress. “The working class always struggles to win and defend democratic rights, even if they are limited by the bourgeois government,” she recalls Lenin as saying. “And when it loses them, it fights to win them back, and searches for allies for that struggle.” This account is not echoed by other reports of the 1922 congress, but it is consistent with Lenin’s long-held views and expresses well the core issue before the Fourth Congress delegates.[v]

Clara Zetkin on Unity Against Fascism

Following the Fourth Congress, the Comintern launched an initiative for united struggle against fascism, which led to an international conference of 250 delegates from a dozen countries in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on 17–20 March 1923.[vi]

A leading role in these efforts was played by Clara Zetkin, who had helped blaze a trail for united-front efforts in Germany and the International. (See “Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front.”) United resistance against fascism now became the framework in which revolutionary socialists linked up with their pre-1917 heritage of championing democratic rights against all forms of capitalist repression and took broad initiatives against the threat of far-right tyranny.

Clara Zetkin, 1920

When the Comintern’s Executive Committee met in an enlarged plenum in Moscow 12-23 June 1923, anti-fascist resistance was a central agenda point, and Zetkin was chosen to give the main report on it.[vii]

The urgency of this report was underlined by news that a rightist military coup in Bulgaria, three days before the plenum, had overthrown the parliamentary-based regime of a left-wing peasants’ party. The Bulgarian Communist Party, widely viewed as the strongest and most experienced outside Soviet Russia, reacted by declaring its neutrality, claiming that the coup represented an internecine dispute within the bourgeoisie in which the workers had no stake.

The Executive Committee plenum sharply condemned the Bulgarian section’s passivity. Zinoviev called on Bulgarian workers to join in struggle against the putsch with the peasant masses led by Aleksandar Stambolijski and with other leaders of his Agrarian Union. (See on this blog, “The Third Enlarged Plenum.”)[viii]

The Plenum transcript includes three brief mentions of the Kornilov episode, including Zinoviev’s terse comment: “Now we must ourselves ally with the cursed Stamboliyski. The Bolsheviks joined with Kerensky against Kornilov.”[ix]

Aleksandar Stambolijski

Zetkin’s report explained the stakes for working people in the struggle against fascism and similar movements to establish a right-wing tyranny. The final portion of her celebrated address sums up the Comintern’s assessment of how united anti-fascist struggle links up with the perspective of revolutionary victory.

The following paragraphs, taken from the conclusion of Clara Zetkin’s presentation on anti-fascist unity to the Comintern’s Third Enlarged Plenum, are worth quoting at length. They serve as a suitable summary of the early Comintern’s conclusions regarding unity against fascists and the far right:

At present the proletariat has urgent need for self-defense against fascism, and this self-protection against fascist terror must not be neglected for a single moment. At stake is the proletarians’ personal safety and very existence; at stake is the survival of their organizations. Proletarian self-defense is the need of the hour.

We must not combat fascism in the way of the reformists in Italy, who beseeched them to “leave me alone, and then I’ll leave you alone.” On the contrary! Meet violence with violence. But not violence in the form of individual terror—that will surely fail. But rather violence as the power of the revolutionary organized proletarian class struggle.

We have already made a start here in Germany toward the organized self-protection of the working class against fascism by forming the factory detachments.[16] These self-defense units need to be expanded and imitated in other countries as a basis for international success against fascism….

Proletarian self-defense against fascism is one of the strongest forces driving to establish and strengthen the proletarian united front. Without the united front it is impossible for the proletariat to carry out self-defense successfully. It is therefore necessary to expand our agitation in the factories and deepen it.

Our efforts must overcome above all the indifference and the lack of class consciousness and solidarity in the soul of the workers, who say, “Let the others struggle and take action; it’s not my business.” We must pound into every proletarian the conviction that it is their business. “Don’t leave me out. I must be there. Victory is in sight.”

Every single proletarian must feel like more than a mere wage slave, a plaything of the winds and storms of capitalism and of the powers that be. Proletarians must feel and understand themselves to be part of the revolutionary class, which will reforge the old state of the propertied into the new state of the soviet system.

Only when we arouse revolutionary class consciousness in every worker and light the flame of class determination can we succeed in preparing and carrying out militarily the necessary overthrow of fascism. However brutal the offensive of world capital against the world proletariat may be for a time, however strongly it may rage, the proletariat will fight its way through to victory in the end.

Despite fascism, we see the capitalist economy, the bourgeois state, and class rule at the end of their tether. 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!”[x]


A year after the Third Enlarged Plenum of 1923, its policy for militant anti-fascist unity was set aside by the Comintern’s Fifth World Congress. The congress asserted that Social Democracy and fascism were fundamentally similar, a position that barred the road to efforts for anti-fascist unity with non-Communist workers’ organizations. (See “The Forgotten Fifth Congress,” by Joel Geier.)

Subsequently, Comintern policy on unity vacillated. A united campaign in Germany in 1926 showed the power of workers’ united action (see “When Social Democracy and Communism Acted Together”). During 1928-1935, however, the Comintern reverted to a rejection of efforts for unity with other anti-fascist currents, which paved the way to Hitler’s 1933 victory in Germany.

During the 1930s, the rise of murderous Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union infected the Comintern. Many of its parties became enmeshed in repressive actions against other currents in the workers’ movement and dissidents within the Communist ranks.

Zetkin’s 1923 speech on fascism thus stands as the highpoint of Comintern efforts to give revolutionary expression to the socialist movement’s longstanding commitment to defense of workers’ democratic rights against rightist repression. Her words retain their validity for socialists today.

See also Part 1: “How Socialists Resist Rightist Coups: The Kornilov and Kapp Putsches” and Part 3: “1920: German Workers Foil a Rightist Putsch”


[i]. Riddell, ed., To the Masses, pp. 1061–3; Broué, German Revolution, pp. 468–73.

[ii]. Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden/Chicago: Brill/Haymarket Books, 2012, p. 1171. The 1921 call for a united front is available online: scroll down to the appendix to the Theses on Tactics.

[iii]. Broué, German Revolution, pp. 615–6. 

[iv]. The preceding three paragraphs are adapted from Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front, pp. 18-19. 

[v]. Ibid., p. 19.

[vi]. For conference documents, see Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. Mike Taber and John Riddell, Chicago: Haymarket, 2017, pp. 77–88.

[vii]. For the proceedings of the 1923 Executive Committee Enlarged Plenum, see Taber, ed., Communist Movement at a Crossroads, pp. 381–694. 

[viii]. Taber, ed., Communist Movement at a Crossroads, pp. 29–30.

[ix]. Taber, ed., Communist Movement at a Crossroads, p. 479

[x]. Zetkin, Fighting Fascism, pp. 64–66.

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