Charting New Paths: The Comintern in 1922-1923

Against the Current No. 210, January/February 2021

Tom Twiss

The Communist Movement at a Crossroads:
Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923
Edited by Mike Taber; translated by John Riddell
Leiden: Brill, 2018; Chicago: Haymarket Books, paperback edition
published 2019, 796 pages, $50.

IN 1922-1923 THE Communist International found itself in shifting terrain that presented fresh opportunities and new dangers. The clearing of smoke from European battlefields and barricades had revealed devastated economies and exhausted workers.

Years of war and revolution had left European workers exhausted. But by 1922 they were slowly regaining their combativeness in the face of mounting pressure from their ruling classes

Following two years of fascist terror in Italy, Benito Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister was stimulating the spread of similar movements throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, in the heartland of the revolution, Lenin’s incapacitation by strokes was opening a struggle for leadership that would lead to sharp reversals of Comintern policy.

In multiple ways then The Communist Movement at a Crossroads is a highly appropriate title for a published collection of Comintern materials from these years. This volume, edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, is the latest addition to the monumental multi-volume series, “The Communist International Publishing Project,” with titles published by Pathfinder Press, Brill, Haymarket and LeftWord Books.(1)

It consists of proceedings (mostly extensive summaries of speeches) and resolutions from the enlarged meetings of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI), translated primarily from the German versions of the official public record.

The enlarged plenums were important gatherings, described as “mini-congresses” by the ECCI’s president Gregory Zinoviev, of representatives from the Comintern’s member parties between world congresses.

Included here are records of the three enlarged plenums from the critical years 1922-1923. Each is fascinating just for the addresses by such leading luminaries of international communism as Gregory Zinoviev, Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek and Clara Zetkin, as well as important contributions by lesser-known figures. But the collection is especially valuable for the light it sheds on issues of continuing relevance.

The United Front

A red thread running through the plen­ums was a discussion and debate about the united front — a strategy for the unified action of all working-class organizations around immediate demands.

The strategy, which had been implemented by socialists as early as the First International, was resurrected by the German Communist Party in January 1921. In an open letter the KPD called upon other socialist parties and trade unions to join it in demanding higher wages, reduced living costs and workers’ defense. That summer the Comintern’s Third World Congress endorsed the open letter as a model for campaigns that would enable the working class to struggle for its immediate interests.(2)

Then in December 1921 the Executive Committee unanimously adopted theses proclaiming that Communist parties of the world must strive everywhere for “unity of [the] masses, as broad and complete as possible, in practical action.”

The theses explained that the recent offensive by international capitalism against the living standard of workers had given rise to a spontaneous striving for unity. By championing this impulse, Communist parties could expect to attract broader support from workers and become better situated to expose resistance to unity from the reformists and centrists.(3)

Not everyone in the Comintern welcomed the new approach. Its most vociferous critics were in the leaderships of the French and Italian parties. Representatives of both sections distrusted and resisted collaboration with reformists who had endorsed their respective countries’ war efforts and who had shown greater readiness to ally with capitalists than with Communists.

Some insisted that the only permissible united front was “from below” with the masses, not “from above” with the leaders. However, Karl Radek, speaking as majority reporter on the united front, explained to the Second Expanded Plenum, it was necessary to go through the Social Democratic leaders:

“Anyone who now says ‘united front from below’ misunderstands the situation. For in order to reach the base, to go to the masses of Social Democrats, we must first get an obstacle out of our path.”(4)

During the discussions in this volume and at the Fourth World Congress, the policy gained increasing acceptance within the Comintern. At the same time, as noted by Taber, it continued to evolve.

By late 1922 Comintern leaders had begun to describe the united front not simply as a short-term defensive approach, but increasingly as a longer-term offensive orientation. Also, by the Third Enlarged Plenum in 1923 they had begun to perceive its applicability in a range of contexts beyond the defense of workers’ standard of living, including a united front against war, an anti-imperialist united front in colonial and semi-colonial countries, and a united front against fascism.(5)

One other important application of the policy discussed at the Third Enlarged Plenum was the demand for a “workers’ and peasants’ government.”

Six months previously, the Fourth World Congress had issued a call for the creation of “workers’ governments” based exclusively on united fronts of workers’ parties.(6) The Third Plenum broadened the class base of the envisioned front to include working peasants in all countries — although for North America the slogan was modified to “workers’ and farmers’ government.”(7)

While urging parties to forge united fronts in all these areas, the Comintern leaders repeatedly stressed the necessary limits of those alliances. Most importantly, they advised parties “to maintain absolute autonomy and complete independence,” including the “right and capacity to express . . . their opinion regarding the policies of all working-class organizations,” and they explicitly excluded support by united fronts for capitalist governments and electoral alliances with capitalist parties.(8)

The Struggle Against Fascism

A crucial related issue that the Comintern addressed in these years was the rise of fascism.

The Comintern briefly discussed the issue at the Fourth World Congress in November 1922, shortly after Mussolini’s appointment as prime minister. However, its first serious examination of fascism was in a brilliant report and resolution presented to the Third Enlarged Plenum the following June by Clara Zetkin, the famous veteran of German socialism, collaborator of Rosa Luxemburg, and leading figure in the Communist women’s movement. The Communist movement was already well acquainted with brutally repressive rightist regimes. But Zetkin emphasized the distinctiveness of fascism as a mass-based movement of violent terror.

She explained that in Italy and other parts of Europe, the war had brought the collapse of the capitalist economy and bourgeois state, the impoverishment of workers, and the proletarianization of the middle classes. Seeking a way out of the crisis, those most adversely affected should have been drawn to socialism but were demoralized by the failures of the working-class leadership.

Consequently “masses in their thousands” streamed to the fascists, who courted them with anti-capitalist demagogy and promises of salvation by a strong, authoritarian state towering above social classes.

This growing fascist movement was welcomed and supported by the capitalist class as an “extralegal and nonstate instrument of force” that could further subjugate the proletariat, facilitating the reconstruction of the capitalist economy. The movement’s shock troops were the fascist gangs that terrorized peasant organizations, unions and parties of the left.

Zetkin called for a united front of all labor organizations and labor parties to organize workers’ self-defense against the fascist attacks. She also emphasized the need to challenge fascism, ideologically and politically, by building a communist movement that addressed the needs of the social layers that were drawn to it.

In this regard, she viewed the slogan of “workers’ and peasants’ government” as especially valuable for combatting fascism in rural areas. At the same time, she stressed the importance of promoting the inspiring world outlook of communism as an alternative to fascism.(9)

Zetkin’s report and resolution have been published along with useful supplementary material in a separate Haymarket volume.(10) However, a benefit of reading the report and resolution in the Crossroads volume is that the reader can see the appreciative responses of the other delegates and their remarks on the growth of fascism in their own countries.

One especially significant — and troubling — contribution to the discussion was Karl Radek’s notorious “Schlageter speech.” Radek began by confessing it had been difficult for him to follow Zetkin’s report, for hovering before his eyes was “the corpse of a German fascist, our class opponent,” Albert Leo Shlageter, who had been executed by the French.

Schlageter was a member of the right-wing paramilitary German militia, the Freikorps, which had carried out acts of sabotage against the French occupation of the Ruhr. After his arrest and execution by the French in May 1923, Schlageter was treated as a martyr by the Nazis and other German rightists. At the plenum Radek similarly eulogized him as a “martyr of German nationalism,” and a “courageous soldier of the counterrevolution” who deserved “to be sincerely honored by us, the soldiers of the revolution.”(11)

No one at the plenum objected specifically to Radek’s tribute to Schlageter, although a Czechoslovakian delegate rejected the appropriation of nationalism on which it was based.(12) However, the German Social Democrats subsequently denounced the speech as an obvious appeal to the Nazis for collaboration.

Radek later explained that his purpose had been to combat fascism politically by showing the petty bourgeoisie that capitalism was the source of their legitimate national grievances. But as Taber has appropriately observed, Radek’s approach involved serious dangers, including the possibility that such adaptation to the right could lead sections of the working-class movement to cross over to the class enemy.(13)

Centralism in the Comintern

An additional concern addressed in the plenums was the accusation that the Comintern was becoming excessively centralized. From the beginning, the Comintern’s founders had envisioned that it would be not only democratic, but also significantly centralist in nature. Decentralism, they believed, had been largely responsible for the failure of Social Democracy to uphold its internationalist principles at the outbreak of the world war.

Consequently, the Comintern statutes adopted in 1920 emphasized that the Communist International “must be organized in a far more centralized way than was the Second International,” while conceding that the Comintern would need “to take into account the diverse conditions under which each party has to struggle and work, adopting universally binding decisions only on questions in which such decisions are possible.”(14)

By the time of the Third Enlarged Plenum, the Norwegian and Swedish parties had begun to chafe at the “super-centralism” they perceived in the Comintern.

Although delegates from both parties claimed to be strong advocates of centralism, they argued that the Comintern was interfering in issues that were purely local in nature and insisted that centralism should be introduced only gradually in their parties because of their strong federalist traditions.(15) Predictably, their opponents in the Comintern were more inclined to see the international implications of all the issues under discussion.

Zinoviev, while admitting “We should not intervene in local questions,” insisted “All the major questions today are international in significance.”

Others were even more extreme in their assertions. Arthur Ewert from Germany argued, “[T]here are hardly any issues that have only a national, local significance,” and Richard Schüller from the Youth International flatly declared, “All issues before the individual sections are of concern to the International.”(16)

However, the Comintern reality seems to have been considerably less oppressive than these remarks suggest. In 1922 both the French and Italian sections refused to participate in a major united front initiative of the Comintern, yet they experienced no disciplinary consequences.

During these plenums, the decisions taken by the ECCI that were related to the policies and practices of individual parties were almost always recommendations, not instructions. Most of the delegates who spoke about the direct involvement by the Comintern in the affairs of their parties testified to the helpful nature of that intervention. Furthermore, the discussions and debates throughout the plenums were remarkably open and freewheeling.(17)

Paths Not Taken and the Road Ahead

As Taber explains, all the Comintern policies discussed here would be dramatically revised in the years after the Third Enlarged Plenum. On one level, this was the result of the change in leadership that began with Lenin’s incapacitation in 1923. More deeply, it was a product of the bureaucratization that was already discussed in the appeal submitted by the Soviet Workers’ Opposition to the First Enlarged Plenum in 1922.

The rejection of the Comintern’s 1922-1923 understanding of both united fronts and fascism was most evident from 1928 onwards. During the years 1928-1933 (the “Third Period”), the Stalinist Comintern disastrously insisted there was no real difference between Social Democracy and fascism, thereby excluding any alliances with Social Democrats.(18)

Then in 1935, it redefined fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital,“and instructed Communists to form binding alliances even with “anti-fascist” bourgeois parties. All this was accompanied by a deepening centralization that eliminated the autonomy enjoyed by Comintern sections and the openness of Comintern discussions in 1922-1923.

The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, along with the other volumes in the series, is an essential resource for studying the history of the Communist movement and its parties. But more than that, it is a valuable tool for those who would apply the lessons of the early Comintern.

For activists in today’s United States, Zetkin’s analysis of fascism seems especially relevant. Despite commonly heard claims that the Trump administration is fascist, it clearly does not resemble the mass-based movement of violent terror depicted by Zetkin. Nevertheless, it is also clear that among Trump’s supporters there are elements of such a movement, that Trump has relied upon and encouraged those elements, and that they continue to be active. The Communist Movement at a Crossroads provides some important clues to how contemporary activists can combat such a movement.

Along with a clear translation by John Riddell, the volume has a valuable introduction by Mike Taber that provides essential historical context. It includes an extraordinary collection of notes and a glossary that together identify virtually every individual and event mentioned and that by themselves constitute a major scholarly contribution.

Additionally, the book contains a useful chronology of events that impacted the Communist movement during the years 1921-1924, an extensive bibliography of works consulted, and a comprehensive and very useable index. All in all, this is an important and worthy addition to a remarkable series.

Notes

  1. For a complete list of the titles in this series, see John Riddell, “Comintern Project Book List Hits a Dozen,” Marxist Essays and Commentary, June 24, 2019, https://johnriddell.com/2019/06/24/comintern-project-book-list-hits-a-dozen/.
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  2. John Riddell, ed. and trans., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015, 1061-1063, 939-940. For the history of the united front slogan, see Mike Taber’s “Editorial Introduction” in The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018, 1-49, and John Riddell, “The origins of the united front policy,” International Socialism, Issue 130, April 5, 2011, http://isj.org.uk/the-origins-of-the-united-front-policy/.
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  3. Taber, 254-264.
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  4. Taber, 284. See also 137.
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  5. Taber, 17-18, 219, 256, 605-606, 668. See also John Riddell, “The united front: adoption and application,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, July 2, 2020, http://links.org.au/the-united-front-adoption-and-application.
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  6. John Riddell, ed. and trans., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 1159-1162.
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  7. Taber, 414-415, 446, 457, 654.
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  8. Taber, 260, 361, 355.
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  9. Zetkin’s report is in Taber, 580-606. Her resolution is on pages 664-669.
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  10. Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, edited and with an introduction by Mike Taber and John Riddell, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.
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  11. Radek’s “Schlageter speech” is in Taber, 613-18.
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  12. Taber, 512.
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  13. Taber, 24-27. For other balanced accounts of Radek’s speech and the subsequent “Schlageter line” of the KPD, see Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, 727-730; E.H. Carr, The Interregnum: A History of Soviet Russia Vol. 4, London: Macmillan Company, 1954, 179-186.
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  14. Taber, 538. John Riddell, ed., Workers’ of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991, vol. 2, 770. For a discussion of the organizational principles of the early Comintern, see Taber, 32-36; and John Riddell, “Party Organization in Lenin’s Comintern,” Marxist Essays and Commentary, Nov. 10, 2020, Part 1, “Defining Democratic Centralism,” https://johnriddell.com/2020/11/08/party-organization-in-lenins-comintern/, and Part 2, “How Democratic Centralism Was Applied,” https://johnriddell.com/2020/11/10/how-democratic-centralism-was-applied/.
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  15. Taber, 431, 437, 468, 537-538, 541, 558.
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  16. Taber, 477, 545, 547.
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  17. On the indiscipline of the French and Italian sections, see Taber, 290-291. For recommendations to the Norwegian section, see Taber, 626-632. An exception to the practice of recommendations was the Third Plenum’s demand that the Italian section alter its executive body to facilitate a fusion with the Socialist Party. (Taber, 682). For appreciative remarks by delegates about Comintern intervention, see Taber, 466, 543, 545-546, 547, and 557. However, the Swedish delegate Höglund, complained of Comintern interventions in Norway and Denmark. (Taber, 428.)
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  18. Taber, 22-23. One leading Marxist who continued to apply the Comintern’s earlier understanding of both united fronts and fascism was Leon Trotsky. For Trotsky’s writings on fascism, see especially Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971.
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January-February 2021, ATC 210

2 comments

  1. Early in this review there is a statement that “Then in December 1921 the First Enlarged Plenum…” However the First Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI took place from 22 February to 4 March of 1922. The meeting in December 1921 was not an “Enlarged Plenum” of the ECCI.

    1. ATC checked with the reviewer, Tom Twiss, who responds “Thanks for this comment! That passage has been corrected in the online version of the review.”

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