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May 2018

Spartacist Supplement

The Third Comintern Congress and the Struggle for Bolshevism

To the Masses:
Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921

Edited and Translated by John Riddell
(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015)

A Review

The publication of an English translation of the proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International (CI, or Comintern) is a very welcome event. We salute John Riddell for his decades of work in producing not only this volume but also the proceedings of the CI’s First, Second and Fourth Congresses, as well as three other books documenting the struggle for a revolutionary Marxist international during V. I. Lenin’s time.

It is necessary, however, to approach Riddell’s work with some caution, given his great distance from the politics of the Bolshevism of Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Riddell deals in half-truths. This is captured in the very title of his new book, To the Masses. As Trotsky noted:

“The slogan of the Third Congress did not simply read: ‘To the Masses!’ but ‘To power through a previous conquest of the masses!’ After the faction led by Lenin (which he characterized demonstratively as the ‘Right’ wing) had to curb intransigently the entire Congress throughout its duration, Lenin arranged a private conference toward the end of the Congress in which he warned prophetically: ‘Remember, it is only a question of getting a good running start for the revolutionary leap. The struggle for the masses is the struggle for power’.”

The Third International After Lenin (1928)

Study of the CI in its early, revolutionary period is indispensable for those motivated by the struggle for socialist revolution. The early Comintern drew a sharp line against the social-chauvinist Second International and various centrist waverers and fakers. Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades fought to transform the fledgling parties that were drawn to the banner of the Bolshevik-led October Revolution into disciplined vanguard parties capable of leading the proletarian overthrow of capitalist rule.

By the time the Third Congress met in Moscow in June-July 1921, the preliminary weeding out of reformists and centrists who had joined the CI under pressure from their working-class bases, among whom the October Revolution was hugely popular, was well under way. The “Conditions of Admission into the Communist International” (21 Conditions) adopted at the Second Congress in 1920 provided essential guidelines for breaking the new Communist parties both programmatically and organizationally from the reformists. The Third Congress was, in Trotsky’s words, a “school of revolutionary strategy” (The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. II [New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1953]).

While the theses, resolutions and major speeches and interventions by Lenin and Trotsky at the Third Congress have long been available, this is the first time a transcript of the entire proceedings has been published in English. Riddell has also produced new translations of the resolutions, a useful names glossary and a substantial appendix of documents, correspondence and reports from commission meetings, including previously unavailable material. This is important because much of the debate took place in smaller meetings or through letters by the major participants. Riddell’s introduction provides useful context for the Congress. At the same time, as we show, the facts that he chooses to present (or not present) add up to a particular political slant: the elevation of unity above program. The same applies to the documents he chooses to include (or not include) in the appendix.

E. H. Carr, the great historian of Soviet Russia, remarked in a 1961 lecture series:

“History properly so-called can be written only by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself. The belief that we have come from somewhere is closely linked with the belief that we are going somewhere.”

What Is History? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)

Carr concluded: “Our view of history reflects our view of society.”

Indeed, Riddell’s To the Masses reflects his own political views and appetites. Riddell spent many years as a leader in the Canadian organization linked to the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This included the SWP’s period of degeneration from Trotskyism to reformism in the early-mid 1960s, a development fought by the Revolutionary Tendency, forerunner of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). Loyal to the SWP of Jack Barnes long after it formally renounced the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution in the early 1980s, Riddell continued to support the SWP until 2004. Through 1993, his books were produced for the SWP’s Pathfinder Press in a series titled The Communist International in Lenin’s Time. But the SWP decided to cut off the project. The Third and Fourth Congress proceedings were later published by the Historical Materialism Book Series, whose paperback editions are produced by Haymarket Books, associated with the U.S. International Socialist Organization (ISO). (The hardback editions were published by Brill.) While Historical Materialism/Haymarket publishes authors with a range of political views, Riddell’s outlook shares much with that of the ISO and many others associated with Historical Materialism conferences.

With one or two exceptions, Riddell only hints at his views in the introduction to To the Masses; for these you have to scour his website. The question is: What lessons are to be drawn from the Third Congress? On one side is the road mapped out by Lenin and Trotsky, who fought against leftist errors by German and other Communist leaders as a necessary step in forging revolutionary parties that could win the masses and fight for power. On the other side is the road subsequently taken by the German party and most of the CI leaders, who “corrected” their errors by adapting to and conciliating the Social Democracy, tacitly writing off the possibility of proletarian revolution.

The latter course meshes with the politics of Riddell and kindred spirits who seek to disappear the vast gulf that separated Lenin’s Comintern from the Second International and its leading section, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the reactionary miasma that issued out of the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the ISO et al. have ever more openly identified with the pre-1914 Second International and its leading ideological spokesman, Karl Kautsky. Their rehabilitation of Kautsky, who condemned the dictatorship of the proletariat established in Russia in 1917, stems from their rejection of the Bolshevik-led revolution as a model and, with that, Lenin’s struggle to split proletarian revolutionary forces from the Second International. (For more on this question, see “Recycling the Second International: The Neo-Kautskyites,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13.)

On his blog, Riddell salutes a 1909 article by Kautsky that defends the social-democratic idea of a party encompassing all self-defined socialists, from right-wing opportunists to revolutionaries (“Karl Kautsky and Labor Parties: A Memoir of Canada,”, 1 June 2016). Riddell calls Kautsky’s piece “a link in a 150-year-old chain of Marxist thought on broad working-class political formations and the tactical and strategic challenge they present to the building of a revolutionary movement.” In reality, the “party of the whole class” meant that vanguard layers of the proletariat were submerged in a backward mass while the party’s pro-capitalist parliamentarians and trade-union misleaders bound the workers to their class enemy. Today, the neo-Kautskyites seek to revive the reputation of the Second International, whose support for the imperialist war in 1914 was the culmination of years of growing opportunist practice.

The final overturn of the October Revolution in 1991-92 was accompanied by a deepgoing retrogression of consciousness around the world: with few exceptions, advanced layers of the working class today no longer identify workers’ struggles with the goal of building a socialist society. As our comrade James Robertson put it, “Now we’re in an unusually deep trough, and the experiences that are immediately available to us are not very good. So we had better make very heavy reference back to the experiences of the workers movement when it could see much further: 1918 through 1921” (“The Bolshevik School of Experience,” Workers Hammer No. 195, Summer 2006). The task of the ICL is to carry forward the program of Bolshevism, seeking in the course of class struggle to reimplant revolutionary Marxism within the proletariat.

In counterposition to Riddell, we stand on the legacy of the first four Congresses of the Communist International, continued by the Fourth International founded by Trotsky and his supporters in 1938. Where Riddell neuters the programmatic conquests of the early CI and embellishes weaknesses or ambiguities, we have made serious efforts to critically extend its work in those instances where history has revealed problems. These include our reappraisal of and resulting opposition to the Communist practice of running candidates for executive offices in the bourgeois state (“Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009) and our article, “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13). Those articles should be seen as a corollary to Lenin’s writings on the state. We have also long been critical of weaknesses in the 1922 Fourth Congress, primarily its call for an “anti-imperialist united front” and its misuse of the “workers government” slogan.

Translation and Politics

Major discrepancies exist between the various language versions of early CI resolutions and proceedings, even those published in Lenin’s time. This problem stems from incomplete and partial translation at the Congresses, where, in addition to the more widely used German and Russian, French and English were also official languages. Until the Riddell editions became available, the CI material in English was partial and for the most part poorly translated.

Three decades ago, the Prometheus Research Library, the library and archive of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League/U.S., published a new English translation of one of the most important resolutions from the Third Congress, “Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work” (Prometheus Research Series No. 1, 1988). Along with a substantial introduction, this bulletin included a translation of the reports and discussion on this point at the Congress. More recently, we published an English translation of the Congress’s “Theses on Methods and Forms of Work of the Communist Parties Among Women” (“A New Translation: Communist International Theses on Work Among Women,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 62, Spring 2011). We are in no position to judge the overall quality of translation in the Riddell series. But based on our work on these two resolutions, we do say that Riddell’s versions are problematic.

In introducing his new volume, Riddell lays out a self-contradictory policy: “The translation, while remaining faithful to usage conventions within the Communist movement of the time, endeavours to use the vocabulary of today’s English, even when Communists of the 1920s would likely have used a different term.” The translations in To the Masses certainly come off as smooth to the modern reader, but at least in the case of the Organizational Resolution, the original meaning is blunted, as we will demonstrate later in this article. This is compounded by the fact that, for whatever reason, the italic emphases of the original Resolution have not been included in the translation, despite Riddell’s assurances that such emphases “have for the most part been retained.” This omission robs the text of its sense of urgency and has the effect of underplaying Lenin’s role in its framing, since emphatic phrases were so characteristic of his style.

Riddell has translated from the most definitive German text, making occasional revisions where the Russian significantly differs. Since German tended to be the language most widely used in the CI, this is a reasonable starting point. Nevertheless, this procedure can also produce distortions. For example, the Women’s Theses, as we documented in our 2011 article, were the result of a year-long debate pitting West and Central European cadre against Russian cadre over the legacy of the work of the Second International and the extent to which the Bolshevik experience could be generalized. Riddell disappears this important fact.

The views of the Russian comrades largely prevailed, and they wrote the final text of the resolution. Our translation of the Women’s Theses was therefore drawn from the 1933 Russian version and checked against the 1921 German version. Riddell used the reverse procedure. While he included many passages from the Russian that do not appear in the German, he chose to omit a key sentence from the Russian stating: “Women socialists who carried out special work among women had neither a place, nor representation, nor a decisive vote in the Second International.” Riddell’s choices reflect his minimization of the Comintern’s break with the reformism of the Second International.

At bottom, translation issues flow from politics. We recommend to our readers that they stick with the ICL translations of (and background to) the Women’s Theses and the Organizational Resolution, which more faithfully capture the intent of the Russian and German originals.

The March Action

The most passionately debated issue at the Third Congress was the German March Action. A wave of workers’ struggles had broken out in central Germany in March 1921, provoked by the Social Democratic regional authorities sending in police to suppress combative miners in the coalfields of Mansfeld. What was in order for the German Communists (originally the German Communist Party, or KPD, but known in 1921 as the United Communist Party, or VKPD) were defensive tactics. If successful, that course might have allowed the proletariat to go onto the offensive.

But the VKPD called for armed resistance. While workers in the Mansfeld area fought heroically, there was little response elsewhere. Later, a general strike called by the party was unsuccessful, leading to physical fights in many places between a Communist minority and workers under the influence of the Social Democrats. The outcome was a grave defeat, with thousands of the most militant workers arrested and imprisoned. Yet the VKPD leadership maintained that the March Action was actually a victory and vowed to remain on its disastrous course.

Backing this view was a “theory” that Communists had to be permanently on a “revolutionary offensive.” Debate over the “theory of the offensive” polarized the Comintern, with Lenin and Trotsky initially in a minority in the Russian Political Bureau. It was in this context that Lenin and Trotsky declared that they were on the right wing of the Congress. Following a series of sharp fights, the Congress made an important corrective, and most of those who had zealously supported the March Action accepted the criticisms of the “theory of the offensive.”

It was made clear at the Congress that the spread of revolution would take longer than had been anticipated in the turbulent period that began toward the end of World War I. But the German leadership, aided and abetted by CI head Gregory Zinoviev, increasingly seized on this understanding as a rationale to conciliate the SPD, viewing its left wing as a potential ally rather than an obstacle to a proletarian seizure of power. When a revolutionary crisis enveloped Germany two years later, the Communists made no serious attempt to fight for power.

Opportunists are always happy to condemn ultraleftism; nobody today would dispute the fact that the March Action was a mistake. What draws a political line between reformists and revolutionaries is not the lessons of the 1921 March Action but those of the defeated German revolution of 1923. Implicitly in his introduction and explicitly elsewhere, Riddell has endorsed the line of conciliating the Social Democrats that led to disaster in 1923.

The Struggle to Assimilate Bolshevism

By the time the Third Congress convened, the Red Army in Russia had emerged victorious from more than two years of Civil War against the White Guard forces and imperialist intervention. The result, as Lenin stated in a Congress resolution on the policies of the Russian party, was an unstable equilibrium “that enables the socialist republic to exist—not for long, of course—within the capitalist encirclement.” (Unless otherwise indicated, quoted passages from Third Congress proceedings and documents are taken from To the Masses.) But the Civil War had further devastated Russia’s industrial base. Discontented peasants could not expect to get manufactured goods in exchange for the produce that was demanded of them. Yet to revive industry, it was first necessary to feed the cities. With no way to go forward, the Bolsheviks were forced to make a retreat, embarking on the New Economic Policy (NEP). This course enabled peasants to accumulate a surplus that they could market, establishing market trade within the framework of the workers state.

Conditions facing the Soviet state had been markedly different during the CI’s Second Congress a year earlier. Following the defeat of the White armies on Russian soil, the Red Army had repelled Marshal Pilsudski’s imperialist-backed Polish forces from Ukraine; by the summer of 1920, Soviet forces had advanced to the outskirts of Warsaw, marking their farthest westward march. In the end, however, the Red Army was repulsed and compelled to retreat. Furthermore, in the fall of that year a promising revolutionary situation in Italy was betrayed by the Social Democrats, and Mussolini’s fascists were gaining strength. The Italian bourgeoisie was emboldened to begin an economic offensive against the proletariat. Then came the defeat of the March Action.

By the time of the Third Congress, the initial revolutionary wave that had swept Europe after World War I, sparked by the Russian Revolution, had receded. In his report on the Russian party, Lenin said that it was “clear to us that, without the support of the world revolution, the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible.” The Bolsheviks had done all they could to preserve the Soviet system, because “we knew that we were working not only for ourselves, but also for the international revolution.” But the workers state faced a life-or-death situation. That the Bolsheviks brought their policies of tactical retreat (for Soviet Russia) before the CI Congress—the highest Communist party body—for approval was a profound demonstration of international democratic-centralism and the antithesis of the practices of the Comintern and the Russian party in their later period of Stalinist degeneration. After vigorous debate, the Bolsheviks’ tactics were put to a vote and prevailed—an integral part of reorienting the Third International as a whole.

The workers state had survived, but revolutionary opportunities elsewhere had been defeated, due mainly to the lack of a tested and steeled revolutionary leadership. These defeats also showed that the Social Democrats, while serving as an essential prop for capitalist rule, still commanded the allegiance of large sections of the workers. The Third Congress set down the fact that the resources of the newly formed Communist parties, politically as well as organizationally, were not yet sufficient for the conquest of power.

The appendices in To the Masses include an excerpt from a 14 August 1921 letter by Lenin to the German Communists (published in full in Lenin’s Collected Works), written a few weeks after the Congress concluded. However, the excerpt omits Lenin’s trenchant summary of the tasks facing the CI:

“First, the Communists had to proclaim their principles to the world. That was done at the First Congress. It was the first step.

“The second step was to give the Communist International organisational form and to draw up conditions for affiliation to it—conditions making for real separation from the Centrists, from the direct and indirect agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class movement. That was done at the Second Congress.

“At the Third Congress it was necessary to start practical, constructive work, to determine concretely, taking account of the practical experience of the communist struggle already begun, exactly what the line of further activity should be in respect of tactics and of organisation. We have taken this third step. We have an army of Communists all over the world. It is still poorly trained and poorly organised. It would be extremely harmful to forget this truth or be afraid of admitting it. Submitting ourselves to a most careful and rigorous test, and studying the experience of our own movement, we must train this army efficiently; we must organise it properly, and test it in all sorts of manoeuvres, all sorts of battles, in attack and in retreat. We cannot win without this long and hard schooling.”

In his report on the world economy, the first substantive point at the Congress, Trotsky stressed that there would be no “final crisis” automatically spelling the end of capitalism. The proletariat had to overthrow the capitalist system, and for this a revolutionary party was indispensable. The Social Democrats, said Trotsky, “almost entirely exclude the subjective factor—the dynamic revolutionary will of the working class.” He also attacked subjectivist notions that willpower was sufficient in and of itself for successful revolutionary struggle, pointing as an example to the peasant-based Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) party in Russia. He noted that the SR left wing ridiculed the need for concrete analysis of economic and political situations and falsely claimed that all obstacles could be overcome through “free will and the revolutionary actions of a minority.”

The Mensheviks had sought to do in Russia what the Social Democrats succeeded in doing in Germany in 1918-19: abort a social revolution. Due above all to Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks were able to thwart the Menshevik attempt to derail the Russian Revolution. In contrast, the German proletariat lacked a tested revolutionary party. Where Lenin split with the Mensheviks in 1903, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and other revolutionaries remained in the SPD even after it voted, on 4 August 1914, to support its own imperialist bourgeoisie in World War I. Between 1903 and 1917, the Bolsheviks had been tempered and steeled through sharp political and theoretical struggles, through two revolutions and through what Lenin described as a “rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement,” both legal and illegal and ranging from local circles to mass movements (“Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder [1920]).

The Organizational Resolution

Most of the parties that came over to the CI from the Second International had significant residues of social-democratic program and practice. These were variously reflected in parliamentary illusions, trade-union opportunism, loose functioning and the presence of a reformist right wing. The Bolshevik experience had to be distilled and made accessible to these parties, so that it could be assimilated and applied by them to the specific circumstances in their own countries.

This was the purpose of the Organizational Resolution, which was drafted under Lenin’s close guidance. Given the extensive debates on the issues in dispute, particularly the March Action, this resolution got short shrift on the floor of the Congress, crammed in toward the end with hardly any discussion. But that was not the original intention of the Comintern leadership, as reflected in the Call for the Congress, which describes the organizational question as a major point on the agenda.

In his introduction, Riddell devotes all of two paragraphs to the Organizational Resolution and qualitatively understates its purpose. He writes that it was designed “to grapple with bureaucratic deformations member parties had inherited from the prewar Second International.” In fact, the Resolution mandated a wrenching reorganization to transform those parties into combat organizations, led by professional revolutionaries and capable of wresting power from the bourgeoisie.

The Resolution is suffused with this understanding. The German word Kampforganisation, with its clear military connotation, is repeated insistently in the last part of the Resolution, particularly in the section titled “On the Combination of Legal and Illegal Work.” Yet the phrase “combat organisation” appears only once in the Riddell translation, replaced elsewhere by a range of weaker phrases such as “organisation of struggle” and “fighting contingents.” The repetition is lost and the revolutionary intent is denatured, all part of a consistent softening of the Resolution in a social-democratic direction.

Moreover, where the German original condemns the Social Democrats for concentrating on “parliamentary impossibilities,” Riddell renders this as “opportunities that arise—or more likely, do not arise—in parliament.” The Resolution’s language on the need for a Communist party to vigorously combat the Social Democrats and supplant them as leaders of the proletariat is also blunted by Riddell. Where the German text has the Communist organization striving to be recognized “as the courageous, perceptive, vigorous and consistently loyal leader of the common movement” (our emphasis), Riddell replaces “the” with “a.”

Riddell’s dismissive attitude to the Resolution is clear elsewhere as well. At the Fourth Congress the following year, in what was his final speech to the world Communist movement, Lenin complained that the Resolution was “too Russian” and lamented that “we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners” (“Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution,” November 1922). By this he meant that the CI had not yet managed to make Communists in the West absorb the Resolution’s intent and implement it on their own national terrain.

Liberal academics and social democrats have frequently distorted the meaning of “too Russian” to imply that Lenin was confessing that the Resolution was not applicable to West Europe. Riddell says the same thing in the introduction to his compilation of the Fourth Congress proceedings, claiming that Lenin intended a “warning against arbitrarily imposing Russian organisational norms” (Toward the United Front [Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012]). Lenin intended exactly the opposite in his speech, insisting that “that resolution must be carried out” and asserting that foreign Communists “must assimilate part of the Russian experience.”

Theses on Tactics and Strategy

Divisions in the CI going into the Third Congress were substantial, threatening a split. The most authoritative exponent internationally of the “theory of the offensive” was the Russian Nikolai Bukharin. The majority of the VKPD leadership supported the March Action and had been opposed by a minority led by former leader Paul Levi (now expelled) and Clara Zetkin. The March Action was also supported by the Italians and Austrians as well as the Hungarians led by Béla Kun, a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) who had been sent to Germany in early March 1921.

Levi and Zetkin had resigned in a huff from the VKPD Zentrale (central leadership body) in February 1921, when their opportunist position on Italy was voted down. They had both defended Giacinto Serrati, the leader of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), when he refused to expel the reformist wing of his party. Levi then went on vacation and was out of Germany when the March Action crisis exploded. His subsequent criticisms of the March Action were mainly correct, as Lenin acknowledged. But Levi went outside and against the party with his attacks—in two public pamphlets—violating democratic-centralist discipline. He termed the March Action a “putsch,” going so far as to compare VKPD leaders with Hitler’s crony General Ludendorff—at a time when the party was being savagely persecuted. The VKPD justly expelled Levi for this act of political strikebreaking. Levi appealed his expulsion to the Third Congress.

The Russian party was initially divided on the March Action, with Trotsky later reporting that for a period of time the two sides met in opposing caucuses, indicating a pre-factional situation. But Lenin and Trotsky won over Lev Kamenev, thereby gaining a majority on the Political Bureau against Zinoviev and Bukharin, who supported the March Action, as did Karl Radek, the CI representative to Germany. In the end, the Russian delegates came to an agreement, compromising on some wording in the “Theses on Tactics and Strategy” presented to the Third Congress and generally presenting a united face.

The Theses described the March Action as a “step forward” insofar as it represented a heroic response by a section of the working class, fighting under Communist leadership, to an overt provocation by the bourgeois state. This was a repudiation of Levi’s accusation that the March Action was a putsch. The Theses upheld Levi’s expulsion for his breach of discipline but also stressed that the VKPD had made a number of errors, the most serious of which was to confuse a defensive situation with an offensive one. The document asserted, “This error was compounded by a number of party members who contended that, under present conditions, the offensive represented the VKPD’s main method of struggle.”

In her Reminiscences of Lenin (1924), Zetkin relates how Lenin told her that the Theses would enable the Lefts to save face: “The congress will wring the neck of the celebrated theory of the offensive and will adopt a course of action corresponding to your ideas. In return, however, it must grant the supporters of the offensive theory some crumbs of consolation” (translated in To the Masses). Lenin also offered Levi a path back to the party, so long as he acted as a disciplined supporter of the CI. But Levi went a different way. After briefly forming his own small group, he soon ended up back in the SPD.

The German, Italian and Austrian delegations introduced amendments to water down the criticisms in the Theses. In a sentence stressing the need to “win the majority of the working class to the principles of communism,” they wanted to delete “majority” and substitute “goals” for “principles.” Lenin intervened strongly against the amendments, insisting that not a single letter of the resolution be changed. He noted that even anarchists agreed with the “goals” of communism inasmuch as they opposed capitalist exploitation, but communist principles included recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the use of state coercion in the period of transition to communism.

Lenin insisted that talk of taking power in the absence of winning a decisive majority of the toilers was empty chatter. He noted:

“In Russia, we were a small party, but we had with us in addition the majority of the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country. Where do you have that? We had with us almost half the army, which then numbered at least ten million men. Do you have the majority of the army behind you?”

He argued that a decisive struggle must be waged against this type of revolutionary adventurism, “otherwise the Communist International is lost.”

Trotsky created an uproar among the Lefts with his trenchant criticism of the March Action, using far sharper language than had Radek in his lengthy report on the Theses. Six delegations signed a statement declaring that while they supported the Theses in principle, they had strong reservations about Trotsky’s speech.

Lenin and Trotsky were very severe in their criticism of leftism at the Third Congress because at the time they viewed it as the most immediate threat to the CI. However, their primary concern in the longer run was whether Communist leaders had the determination to act in a revolutionary fashion. In remarks to delegates from the German, Czech, Hungarian and other parties on July 11, as the Congress drew to a close, Lenin expressed concern that Bohumir Šmeral, head of the Czech party, might not be prepared to carry out “the offensive in Czechoslovakia” when the situation called for it. This came after Šmeral had told Lenin of his fear that he might be called on to carry out some “untimely action.” In the same speech, Lenin emphasized:

“The left mistake is simply a mistake, it isn’t big and is easily rectified. But if the mistake pertains to determination to act, then this is by no means a small mistake, it is a betrayal. These mistakes are not comparable. The theory that we shall make a revolution, but only after others have acted first, is utterly fallacious.”

The leftism of 1921 proved to be fleeting. German Communist leaders Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, leading enthusiasts for the March Action in 1921, were obstacles to revolution when they were running the party two years later. Bukharin later ran the CI with J.V. Stalin when it presided over the betrayal of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution; Bukharin then became the leader of the Right Opposition. Another major backer of the March Action, the Hungarian Jószef Pogány (John Pepper), was pushing farmer-labor populism in the U.S. a few years after the Third Congress.

Reformist Apologists for Levi

Grotesquely, some leftists today solidarize with Paul Levi’s stabbing the German party in the back over the March Action. An example is Daniel Gaido, who has edited two books produced by Historical Materialism and is associated with the Argentine pseudo-Trotskyist Partido Obrero. In a posting on Riddell’s blog, Gaido denounces Levi’s expulsion as a “wretched affair” and declares that “Zinoviev and Béla Kun, the organizers of the ‘March Action’ putsch in 1921, should have been defenestrated at the Comintern’s third congress, not Levi.” Actually, when it comes to defenestration, it is Daniel Gaido who is throwing communism out the window.

Riddell does not go as far as Gaido. In his introduction, he asserts that “the congress decisions represented an inevitable compromise” and that the “broader political compromise at the congress” (which included Levi’s expulsion) “served a necessary goal—too often neglected in the socialist movement—of preserving the unity of revolutionary forces.” But there was nothing inevitable about the compromise given the very serious differences. The agreement that Lenin achieved was based on principle. He had won on the fundamental issue: the Lefts had abandoned their support to the “revolutionary offensive.”

Riddell also asserts that “in a congress notable for candour and controversy, almost nothing was said in criticism of the ECCI’s record” and that the “failure to assess the role of the ECCI emissaries in the March Action” had negative results. This is not a new argument. Similar charges of a cover-up at the Third Congress were raised by the late fake-Marxist ideologues Tony Cliff and Pierre Broué. Jennifer Roesch of the ISO solidarizes with this approach in her review of To the Masses, claiming that Radek, Kun and Zinoviev were able to “evade any responsibility for their role” and that this “set a dangerous precedent” (“Majorities, Minorities, and Revolutionary Tactics,” International Socialist Review, Summer 2016).

The Congress did not pass a resolution denouncing Kun and his co-thinkers. But neither did it pass a resolution condemning the errors of Clara Zetkin, who continued to defend Levi’s actions until well into the Congress. Lenin and Trotsky were interested in political clarity, not retribution against individuals for mistaken positions. In his 14 August letter to the German Communists cited earlier, Lenin criticized Radek for publicly attacking Zetkin in the VKPD newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) shortly after the Congress. Lenin pointed out that a “peace treaty” had been negotiated at the Congress providing for joint, non-factional work. (This section of Lenin’s letter is also omitted in Riddell’s appendix.)

Accusations of a cover-up are belied by the material that Riddell himself and others have compiled. Lenin’s scathing criticism of Kun was well known by all who attended the Third Congress. Alfred Rosmer, then a leader of the French party, recalled in his memoir Lenin’s Moscow (London: Pluto Press, 1971): “Throughout the debates, Lenin had covered Bela Kun with sarcasm; expressions such as ‘stupidity of Bela Kun’, ‘foolishness of Bela Kun’ recurred time and time again.” At an expanded ECCI meeting held on the eve of the Congress, Lenin intervened sharply to defend Trotsky against Kun’s advocating that the French Communists follow an adventurist course of calling on draftees to refuse conscription, which would have led to the victimization of those who tried it. Lenin said bluntly: “I have come here in order to protest the speech by Comrade Béla Kun in which he attacked Comrade Trotsky instead of defending him, as he was obligated to do if he was a real Marxist.” He called Kun’s position “not worthy to be expressed by any Marxist, by any Communist comrade.”

The “cover-up” line is an echo of charges made by Levi himself. In Our Path: Against Putschism (April 1921), Levi wrote in regard to the Comintern envoys:

“They never work with the Zentrale of the country in question, always behind its back and often even against it. They find people in Moscow who believe them, others do not.... The only thing of this kind that the ECCI manages are appeals that come too late, and excommunications that come too early. This kind of political leadership in the Communist International leads either to nothing or to disaster.”

—David Fernbach, ed., In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi (Boston: Brill, 2011)

Comparing the ECCI to the Soviet state agency charged with fighting counterrevolutionary subversion, Levi declared: “The ECCI works more or less like a Cheka projected beyond the Russian frontiers.” This was grist for the mill for the Social Democrats, who accused the Comintern of serving the needs of Russian nationalism, sacrificing the interests of workers internationally to the dictates of their “Soviet masters.”

The assertion that Kun and others were not held accountable implies that the fight against leftism was incomplete at the Third Congress. If true, one would expect it to be a continuing serious problem. But the opposite was the case. Yesterday’s advocates of the revolutionary offensive were nowhere to be found when such an offensive was actually on the agenda in Germany in 1923.

Tellingly, in her review of To the Masses, the ISO’s Roesch does not even mention that Levi ended up a social-democratic renegade. Levi’s rapid return to the SPD is nonetheless an embarrassment to some of his present-day defenders, which helps explain why they make Clara Zetkin into a veritable cult figure. According to Roesch, “The contributions of Lenin, Trotsky, and Zetkin, in particular, stand out for their political clarity and exposition of the dynamic relationship between objective and subjective factors on the one hand, and between party and class on the other” (“Majorities, Minorities, and Revolutionary Tactics”). To compare Lenin and Trotsky, the foremost Communist leaders of the time, with Zetkin is patently absurd. If Zetkin had heard someone saying this, she would have been deeply embarrassed.

A longstanding member of the SPD left wing known especially for her work among working-class women, Zetkin was a rare participant in the 1889 founding of the Second International who made it into the CI. However, even after the Russian Revolution, her understanding of the need for a programmatically hard vanguard party was partial, reflecting an incomplete break with social-democratic conceptions. Lenin’s struggles with Zetkin at the Third Congress were key to winning her over more thoroughly to Bolshevism. (See “Clara Zetkin and the Struggle for the Third International,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 64, Summer 2014.)

Riddell claimed in “Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den” (, 12 January 2014) that “Zetkin’s discussion with Lenin helped win the leading Russian Communists to support her critique of the disastrous ‘March Action’ launched by Béla Kun and her party.” This is backwards. It was Lenin who won over Zetkin on key questions in the course of the Third Congress. In a letter to Zetkin and Levi on 16 April—written before Lenin learned that Levi had gone public with his criticisms—Lenin acknowledged that he had read little about the German events. But, he wrote, “I readily believe that the representative of the Executive Committee [Kun] defended stupid tactics, that were too leftist…this representative is very often too leftist.” At the same time, Lenin expressed distress over Levi and Zetkin’s defense of the centrist Serrati in Italy and their irresponsible resignations from the German leadership.

Zetkin continued to defend Levi even after she arrived in Moscow. She insisted that the March Action was a “putsch” and alibied Levi’s strikebreaking. On the eve of the Congress (18 June), she wrote, “I am convinced that Comrade Levi, in writing his pamphlet, was guided by passionate concern for the party’s present and future.” Lenin remonstrated with her: “You saw only the erroneous policy of the Zentrale and its bad results and not the combative workers of Central Germany. In addition, Paul Levi’s completely negative criticism lacks any sense of adherence to the party” (Reminiscences of Lenin).

From 1921 to 1923

In The Third International After Lenin, Trotsky pointed out:

“The revolutionary character of the epoch does not lie in that it permits of the accomplishment of the revolution, that is, the seizure of power at every given moment. Its revolutionary character consists in profound and sharp fluctuations and abrupt and frequent transitions from an immediately revolutionary situation; in other words, such as enables the communist party to strive for power, to a victory of the Fascist or semi-Fascist counter-revolution, and from the latter to a provisional regime of the golden mean…immediately thereafter to force the antagonisms to a head again and acutely raise the question of power.”

The ability of the revolutionary party to recognize these shifts is of exceptional importance.

By 1923, the situation in Germany was very different from what it had been two years earlier. In late 1922, the government failed to make reparation payments to France in the form of requisitions of coal and other basic commodities, as dictated by the Versailles Treaty. In response, French troops occupied Germany’s heavily industrial Ruhr region in January 1923. Amid severe economic dislocation and hyperinflation, the trade unions were paralyzed. The SPD, whose chief mechanism for chaining the working class to the bourgeois order was its leadership of the unions, lost control over the mass of the working class. Workers deserted both the unions and the SPD in droves and poured into the factory councils, in which the Communist Party (once again called the KPD) had substantial weight.

However, the KPD “continued to follow its one-sided interpretation of the slogan of the Third Congress” (Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin). After reining in the revolutionary strivings of the working masses earlier in 1923, it climbed down without a fight on the eve of a planned insurrection in October.

Cringing legalism had set in atop the party well before these critical events. An early indicator came during Brandler’s trial for participation in the March Action, when he declared to the prosecutor that “the dictatorship of the proletariat is possible even under the German constitution!” Brandler added: “Since 1918 the possibility of determining the fate of Germany through armed uprisings has increasingly diminished” (Der Hochverratsprozess gegen Heinrich Brandler vor dem ausserordentlichen Gericht am 6. Juni 1921 in Berlin [The High Treason Trial of Heinrich Brandler Before the Special Court on 6 June 1921 in Berlin] [1921] [our translation]). At an August 1923 meeting of the Russian Political Bureau, Trotsky said of the German leadership: “What they have over there is the mindset of a whipped dog after the experience of the failure of its March [Action]” (“Recording of Discussion ‘On the International Situation’ at the 21 August 1923 Session of the Politburo of the CC of the RKP[B],” Istochnik, May 1995 [our translation]).

At bottom, the KPD banked on the illusion that the left wing of the Social Democracy could become a revolutionary ally. As early as December 1921, the German Communist Party asserted that it was “willing to facilitate, by all parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means, the coming into being of a socialist workers government” and was ready to “join such a government if it has a guarantee that this government will represent the interests and demands of the working class in the fight against the bourgeoisie” (Political Circular No. 12, 8 December 1921). Far from acting as a corrective, key leaders of the Comintern, notably Zinoviev and Radek, encouraged the KPD on this course, which was essentially approved by the ECCI in January 1922.

In December 1922, the Fourth CI Congress adopted a deliberately obfuscationist resolution—“Comintern Theses on Tactics”—that enumerated five different kinds of “workers governments,” including an overtly capitalist social-democratic government. The real point was to legitimize a parliamentary coalition with the Social Democrats in the guise of a “workers’ government with Communist participation” that did “not yet signify the dictatorship of the proletariat” (quoted in Riddell, Toward the United Front). This attempt to create a halfway house between proletarian and bourgeois rule constituted a revision of the Marxist understanding of the state, as codified in such works as Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918). The working class cannot simply take hold of the existing state machinery and run it in its own class interests. The bourgeois state must be overthrown through workers revolution and a new state—the dictatorship of the proletariat—erected in its place.

The flawed Fourth Congress discussion on workers governments was taken by the KPD leadership as an endorsement of its conciliation of the left Social Democrats. In October 1923, the KPD formed regional coalition governments with the SPD in Saxony and Thuringia, which melted away when challenged by the German army. KPD leaders quickly called off an insurrection that the Comintern had prodded it into planning. An index of the KPD’s deep disorientation was that its plans for launching the insurrection hinged on SPD-led unions calling a general strike.

Trotsky realized belatedly in August 1923 that a revolutionary situation existed in Germany. He was the one who demanded that the KPD and Comintern organize a struggle for power, while Zinoviev vacillated and Stalin counseled holding back. But Trotsky’s approach at the time was largely administrative. He approved of the KPD’s entry into the Saxony and Thuringia governments, believing that this would provide a “drill ground” for revolution.

A year later, Trotsky came to grips with the underlying causes for the German defeat, generalizing from the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution. In The Lessons of October (1924), which was written in response to the KPD’s capitulation, he asserted that even an experienced revolutionary party runs the risk of lagging behind events and of counterposing the slogans of yesterday to the new tasks. This is particularly true in a revolutionary crisis, when elements of the party leadership will resist the necessity to make a turn when the question of power is posed. In 1917 this was overcome by Lenin’s leadership; in Germany in 1923 there was no one to play this role.

Riddell does not address the 1923 events in Germany at all in his introduction to To the Masses. He deals only briefly with the issue in his book on the Fourth Congress—even though the occupation of the Ruhr took place only a month after that Congress met—and does not clearly state a position on the issues in dispute. But in a presentation at a Historical Materialism conference in Toronto in 2012, he noted that the Fourth Congress resolution left room for a “workers government” to take office “while the capitalist state, or most of it, was still around,” a position that he embraced. Riddell uses this methodology to support capitalist governments of various stripes (see “Revisionists Still Trying to Bury Leninism,” Workers Vanguard No. 1006, 3 August 2012). He claims, for example, that “the government of Bolivia headed by President Evo Morales can indeed be viewed as a ‘workers’ government’ of the type discussed by the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin and the Communist International (Comintern) in the early 1920s” (“How Clara Zetkin Helps Us Understand Evo Morales,”, 18 September 2011).

Debate Over Italy

Contrary to the tale told by most of today’s reformists, Lenin and Trotsky also waged sharp fights against the right wing at the Third Congress. This was most notable in debates over the Italian Socialist Party. The PSI, which had come over to the Comintern in 1919 without a split, included a spectrum of tendencies, among them a substantial reformist grouping around Filippo Turati. One of the 21 Conditions stipulated that reformists, specifically including Turati, be excluded from the party. Their presence in the PSI had ensured the party’s betrayal of the revolutionary struggles in Italy in 1919-20.

At the PSI congress in Livorno in January 1921, the centrist leadership around Serrati refused to break with Turati & Co., despite repeated insistence by ECCI representatives. Serrati claimed that he would split with Turati, but at a time that suited him. The left wing around Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci walked out and founded the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), which was recognized as the CI section. The PSI appealed its expulsion at the Third Congress but was decisively rejected. The door was left open for Serrati’s readmission, but only if he expelled the reformists and fused with the PCI. In fact, Serrati did not come back to the CI until 1924, two years after Mussolini had taken power.

Zinoviev indicted Serrati and the PSI in his ECCI report at the Third Congress. At bottom, Serrati’s argument was that he could not break with the reformists because they had support in the trade unions. Zinoviev responded that the Comintern would not be blackmailed by numbers, asserting, “Even if we lose a large number of Italian workers for a period of time, that cannot be avoided, and we will win them back again.”

Levi, who attended the Livorno congress as a representative of the German party, supported Serrati’s stance, as did Zetkin in Germany. Riddell is evasive as to his own views on the Italian split while providing cover for Zetkin. In his introduction, Riddell writes that Zetkin, in eventually supporting the Third Congress decision on the PSI, “identified it with her controversial stand immediately after the Livorno Congress.” In fact, Zetkin took a far different stance after Livorno. In a 25 January letter to Lenin—not reproduced by Riddell in his appendix—she called the PSI split “a grave defeat” (Briefe Deutscher an Lenin 1917–1923 [Letters to Lenin by Germans 1917-1923] [Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1990] [our translation]). She argued for a “most rapid reunification of the two factions,” stating that it was “an objectively unjustifiable error for the communists to constitute their own faction.”

For her part, the ISO’s Roesch complains that the split at Livorno was a “debacle” that “prompted a fierce and debilitating debate within the German party—causing its two most clear-sighted leaders, Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin, to resign from its central leadership.” For Roesch, the fault lies with the ECCI and the Italian Communists for carrying out the Comintern line!

Zetkin’s conciliationist position on the PSI was reflected in her early interventions at the Third Congress. The crux of her first speech on the question, delivered on June 27, was to assert that while she had favored an immediate break with Turati, “what made this break difficult was the existence of a middle force, which indisputably included broad proletarian masses”—a clear reference to the Serrati group. This is the same tailist argument that Serrati made: If the “masses” have illusions in the reformists, then you can’t break with the likes of Turati.

Zetkin went on to say that she believed that the PSI controlled numerous municipalities and municipal police and that “it adds considerably to the Communists’ strength that in thousands of municipalities they have control of an armed force” that could “intervene in conflicts on behalf of the revolutionary struggle.” This utterly reformist argument portraying the bourgeois cops as allies of the workers was refuted in the discussion by the German delegate Wilhelm Koenen.

Intervening later on the round, Lenin described the Turati forces as “Italian Mensheviks” and emphasized that the Italian party “could not become a Communist Party” as long as it tolerated them in its ranks. He asked, “During the occupation of the factories in Italy, did we see anything resembling communism?” and responded: “No, at that time, there was as yet no communism in Italy.... And the first step along this road is a final break with the Mensheviks, who for more than twenty years have been busy collaborating with the bourgeois government.”

In light of the discussion, Zetkin changed her views. Speaking again on June 29, she demanded that “the break from the Turati forces must be carried out immediately, ruthlessly, and without evasions” and affirmed that the CI “carries out splits only in order to forge unity on a higher and more solid level” (emphasis in original). She concluded that the Italian workers should “separate yourselves nationally from forces with whom you no longer can nor should be united.... You must choose!”

Levi’s rightward course out of the Comintern began with his opposition to the PSI split at Livorno, not with the March Action. In his mind (and evidently Riddell’s as well), the March Action and PSI split were directly connected. In reality, these two questions were qualitatively different in their political substance.

The Fight for German Communism

From the time of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had seen Germany, with its large pro-socialist proletariat, as key to the international situation, giving exceptional strategic importance to the struggle to forge a Communist party there. With its defeat in World War I, Germany entered into a period of deep social upheaval. Beginning with a working-class revolt in November 1918 that led to the overthrow of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the country was racked by protests, strikes and semi-insurrections. But unlike in Russia the previous year, there was no Bolshevik party to lead the masses to power. Instead, the SPD, joined in government for a crucial period by the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), formed a capitalist government that oversaw the bourgeoisie’s bloody counterrevolution.

Having supported German imperialism from the outset of the war, the SPD leaders had expelled virtually all of their critics in early 1917. In April, the expelled members founded the USPD, a highly heterogeneous centrist grouping including Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and Rudolf Hilferding on the right and the Spartacist group of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht on the left. Only in late December 1918, when the decisive revolutionary moment was already at hand, did the Spartacists split from the USPD to form the KPD(S) (Communist Party of Germany [Spartakus]). A couple of weeks later, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered by reactionary Freikorps troops unleashed by the SPD government. Two months after that, Leo Jogiches, another leading cadre, was also murdered. Thus, the KPD was deprived of its most experienced and effective leaders. Luxemburg’s protégé and Zetkin’s close colleague, Paul Levi, became its central leader.

Riddell’s introduction to To the Masses is uncritical of Levi up to the time of his public break from the party in 1921. Levi was not without some capacity. Lenin insisted that the Theses on Tactics and Strategy firmly endorse Levi’s attempt to apply united-front tactics to Germany through the January 1921 “Open Letter to German Workers’ Organisations” that Levi had co-authored with Radek. The “Open Letter” had been widely denounced as opportunist in the German party and by Zinoviev and Bukharin.

But Levi was one-sided and an opportunist dilettante to boot. Throughout the upheavals that roiled Germany in the postwar years, he was conscious of the dangers but blind to revolutionary opportunities. His deficiencies might have been counterbalanced within a collective leadership. However, Levi had a pathological hatred of more leftist elements. Rosmer noted that Levi “loathed all anarchists and syndicalists en bloc; they were elements of an ‘opposition’ which permanently obsessed him” (Lenin’s Moscow). Yet many working-class leaders influenced by syndicalism had become key figures in the CI, among them Rosmer himself and James P. Cannon, a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who became a founding leader of the U.S. Communist Party and later of American Trotskyism.

In Germany and other countries in 1919-20, Left Communism was a significant current, giving voice to an important layer of the working class that was impatient to carry out a revolutionary overturn. The Left held a number of erroneous positions, such as opposition to working in trade unions led by reformists and to participating in parliamentary elections. Lenin understood that in many cases these positions were a knee-jerk response to betrayals by the pro-capitalist union leaders and the Second International. He believed that Left Communists and revolutionary syndicalists (sometimes the same people) were in many cases excellent human material, often more subjectively anti-capitalist than those recruited from social-democratic parties.

Levi’s approach was the opposite. At a KPD conference in October 1919, he expelled anyone who voted against participating in reformist-led unions or utilizing the bourgeois parliament. The KPD lost half its membership, including much of its proletarian base. Levi’s ultimatism appalled Lenin, who wrote of the expelled Lefts:

“My impression is that they are very gifted propagandists, inexperienced and young, like our own Left Communists (‘Left’ due to lack of experience and youth) of 1918. Given agreement on the basic issue (for Soviet rule, against bourgeois parliamentarism), unity, in my opinion, is possible and necessary, just as a split is necessary with the Kautskyites.”

—“Letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Germany Regarding the Split,” 28 October 1919

The following year, the leftists who had been drummed out of the KPD founded the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD), which initially had more than 40,000 members and significant influence in the factories. The Comintern leadership attempted to reintegrate them into the main German party. But when KAPD representatives were offered a decisive vote at the Second CI Congress, Levi threatened to pack his bags and leave. In the end, the KAPD representatives refused to attend the Congress due to their political differences. Nevertheless, in December 1920 the CI provisionally allowed the KAPD to become a sympathizing section, and its status was reviewed at the Third Congress.

By then, the KAPD was much smaller, and the prospect of an imminent revolutionary situation was no longer posed. The workers movement was on the defensive, and the KAPD was averse to following CI discipline. The Third Congress passed a motion giving the KAPD three months to fuse with the VKPD or its association with the CI would be terminated. The KAPD rejected the ultimatum, left the Comintern and formed its own hostile international current.

While the Comintern fought to win over revolutionary syndicalists and anarchists, Levi pushed for unity with the centrists. His purge of the Lefts in 1919 was intended to appeal to the USPD leadership. At the time, there was great ferment within that centrist party. Much of its working-class base was revolutionary-minded, while the leadership was divided between hardened reformists and a vacillating group that conciliated the right wing.

A USPD congress in Leipzig in late 1919 approved a resolution stating that the party would support a new International including both the CI and what it described as “social-revolutionary parties” in other countries. This was an attempt to appropriate the authority of the October Revolution while creating a counterbalance to the overwhelming authority of the Russian Communist Party, giving the USPD room to maintain its opportunist practices. (A centrist international was in fact established in 1921. Derisively dubbed the Two-and-a-Half International by the CI, it soon folded back into the Second International.)

The Comintern naturally opposed the 1919 Leipzig resolution, but Levi wanted a regroupment with the USPD based on conciliating its leaders. The KPD began to run articles in its press stating that Lenin’s harsh criticisms of the USPD were out of date and posing the possibility of the two parties coexisting in the Comintern. The CI took over dealings with the USPD to stop the KPD leadership’s conciliationist course. Contrasting the different approaches toward the USPD, historian Werner Angress notes that “whereas Levi was primarily interested in facilitating this political marriage by being conciliatory to the Independents, Lenin was more concerned with devising safeguards against the possibility that a merger would bring ‘opportunist’ elements into the Communist movement” (Stillborn Revolution—The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923 [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963]).

At the subsequent USPD conference in Halle in October 1920, a left wing encompassing nearly two-thirds of the active membership split from the right-wing leaders after a sharp confrontation with centrist politics. A four-hour speech by Zinoviev was pivotal in steering the leftists toward the CI, leading them to fuse with the KPD in December 1920 and form the VKPD. This was a signal achievement.

Nonetheless, Levi’s treatment of the Lefts amounted to a lost opportunity. In a party that had never fully assimilated the Marxist understanding of the state, the purge of the Left meant that the leading cadre consisted even more heavily of those elements most sensitive to pressures from parliamentarism and the bourgeois legal order.

Profintern and the Revolutionary Syndicalists

The Comintern’s attempt to win over revolutionary syndicalist militants was evident in the Third Congress discussion on the trade-union question. Many of these syndicalists were opposed to political struggle and to political parties, a false response to the abject parliamentarism of the Second International. The “Theses on the Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU)” adopted at the Congress characterized as a “bourgeois notion” the “concept that trade unions are neutral, apolitical, and non-partisan.” The resolution explained that Communist parties are composed of the most politically conscious elements of the proletariat who therefore required their own organization, separate from and opposed to the reformist parties. For their part, the unions are mass organizations of the working class, which seek to unite all workers within a given industry regardless of what political tendency, if any, they belong to.

The RILU, or Profintern, was set up as a counterweight to the Amsterdam trade-union international, which was dominated by Social Democrats from the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals. By their very nature, the Amsterdam misleaders sowed class-collaborationist defeatism and national chauvinism. To forge proletarian unity in struggle against the capitalists required breaking unions from the reformists and placing them under a leadership committed to the cause of socialist revolution. In practice, Profintern-affiliated unions were led by either Communists or revolutionary syndicalists. On the part of the CI, the Profintern was an attempt at a united front with the syndicalists, allowing for common actions while giving Communists more opportunity to persuade syndicalist workers of the correctness of their views.

In addressing syndicalist prejudices, the resolution opposed calls raised by the IWW and others for workers to leave the unions that were under pro-capitalist leadership, affirming instead that Communists should work within them and “try by every means to win the old unions to revolution.” While frankly acknowledging such differences, the Comintern sought to collaborate with syndicalist forces. Longtime IWW leader William “Big Bill” Haywood was a Third Congress delegate and spoke under the trade-union point. Numerous other syndicalists were delegates to the founding congress of the Profintern, which was held concurrently with the CI gathering.

The Lessons of October

The main task of the Third Congress was to prepare the parties of the Comintern for the revolutionary crises that were bound to come. In 1923 one did in fact come, but the programmatic weaknesses of the KPD, reinforced rather than corrected by a CI that was itself beginning to degenerate, let the revolutionary situation slip. The Lessons of October demonstrated Trotsky’s brilliant grasp of the adaptation to social-democratic practice and bourgeois legalism that underlay the 1923 defeat:

“If by Bolshevism—and we are stressing here its essential aspect—we understand such a training, such a tempering, and such an organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand; and if by Social Democracy we are to understand the acceptance of a reformist opposition activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality—i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state; then, indeed, it is absolutely clear that even within the Communist party itself, which does not emerge full-fledged from the crucible of history, the struggle between social democratic tendencies and Bolshevism is bound to reveal itself in its most clear, open and uncamouflaged form during the immediate revolutionary period when the question of power is posed point-blank.”

The 1923 defeat had enormous repercussions. A wave of disappointment swept over the Soviet masses, who had keenly anticipated a victory of the German workers, and thereby the crucial extension of the revolution. The resulting demoralization helped open the door for the Soviet Thermidor, in which political power was usurped from the working class. By the end of 1924, Stalin, at the head of the developing Soviet bureaucracy, was promulgating the nationalist dogma of “building socialism in one country.”

The CI began to change, too. As Trotsky wrote in The Third International After Lenin, “From 1923 on, the situation changed sharply. We no longer have before us simply defeats of the proletariat, but routs of the policy of the Comintern.” The decisive watershed was 1923. This understanding is integral to Trotskyism, the revolutionary Marxism of our time.

John Riddell began The Communist International in Lenin’s Time series just after Jack Barnes’ SWP abandoned its last pretense of Trotskyism. The earlier volumes are extremely valuable for English-speaking Marxists, but they have to be viewed through the prism of where the Barnesites were going. For example, in the introduction to the proceedings of the CI’s 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East (To See the Dawn [New York: Pathfinder, 1993]), the paeans to bourgeois-nationalist forces, including South Africa’s African National Congress, express the SWP’s embrace of the disastrous “two-stage” schema for revolution in the colonial and semicolonial world, long a hallmark of Stalinist betrayal.

Riddell has traveled some political distance since then, but no nearer to Leninism. At least he acknowledges publicly that he is no longer a Trotskyist. Still, his reformist politics differ little from those of Daniel Gaido or the ISO, who from time to time nominally assert some connection to Trotskyism.

The proceedings of the Third CI Congress collected in To the Masses demand careful study, since an understanding of the past is essential to prepare for the future. We in the ICL seek to critically assimilate and transmit the history of Bolshevism and the early years of the Comintern in order to strengthen our efforts to build an international Leninist vanguard party for the revolutionary struggles that lie ahead.