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Toward the United Front: translating practice, theory and organization

Jesse McLaren

February 18, 2013

How do we challenge the capitalist offensive, imperialism, and the growth of fascism? How do we build the trade union movement, relate to left governments, build solidarity with anti-colonial struggles and fight for women’s liberation? While each of these questions has changed over time and has specific features in the present, they are all longstanding questions with general features that previous generations have grappled with. If we want to build and unite of all these movements in the future, we need to learn the lessons of the past.
Ninety years ago, 350 activists representing revolutionary organizations from around the world—from the US to China, from Australia to Tunisia, from Japan to Java—met in revolutionary Russia to participate in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. For the first time, the proceedings of their month of discussion and debate are now available in English—the latest in a series of translations by John Riddell.
Translating the 1922 Fourth Congress from multiple languages into 1200 pages is not only a tremendous linguistic task, but also a political task. For generations the world was divided between imperial powers in Washington and Moscow, who both agreed on a common narrative: the Russian Revolution was the work of a monolithic top-down party completely dominated by Lenin—who progressed seamlessly to Stalin—which focused on building “socialism in one country” through the rigid application of economically-reductionist theories that dismissed struggles against oppression and were hostile to religion. While this accurately describes Stalinist theory and practice from the late 1920s to the late 1980s, this represented a complete counter-revolution against the Russian Revolution and the early Communist International.
Toward the United Front: proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 resurrects practice, theory and protagonists who were literally buried by Stalin. As Riddell explains in the introduction: “Of the 60 Communists mentioned in the Fourth Congress who were within Stalin’s reach and about whom information is available, 39 were killed and four jailed during the purges. Although its heritage was discarded by the Stalin-era Comintern, the Fourth Congress remains relevant today. On many issues that have proven central to world social struggles, such as racism, colonialism, women’s emancipation, and the struggle of small farmers, the Congress mapped out the road that the workers’ movement followed during the subsequent century.” Toward the United Front brings to life these pioneering revolutionaries—including annotations pointing out cultural references, and a biography of characters at the end of the text—and is an important contribution to reviving the genuine socialist tradition: neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism.
Russian revolution, global revolt
Whereas social democratic parties all supported the imperialist war and the capitalist world that produced it, the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin spoke early in the Fourth Congress about the importance of the 1917 Russian Revolution: “The Russian revolution came as a cleansing storm. The Russian proletariat was the first to draw with logical consistency the practical conclusions from imperialist war and capitalist collapse…We also see, crystallized within the Russian Revolution, the concentrated historical understanding and revolutionary will of the proletariat of all countries. International revolutionary socialism, together with the intellectual and moral forces that it aroused and schooled here, became living and effective in the Russian Revolution.” She also stressed the decisive factor of the revolution: “it was not the action of a brave, small party, operating without a firm connection with the proletarian masses in the blue skies of revolutionary slogans and demands. No, the Bolsheviks’ action was the heroic deed of a party of an organized minority, which had established a connection with the masses on a broad front and which was rooted in the proletarian masses…The act of insurrection was not the deed of petty revolutionary gymnastics by a daring party, but a revolutionary deed of the broadest revolutionary masses.”
Five years later, the Russian Revolution had survived at great cost the onslaught of a dozen invading armies (Vladimir Lenin’s only speech described the externally-imposed famine and warned of growing internal counter-revolution), but remained isolated because of the failure of other revolutions in the absence of other mass revolutionary parties. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trostky explained (whose participation in the Congress was warmly welcomed, in contrast to Stalin’s complete absence): “Thanks to the fiasco of the 1920 revolution, in which only a revolutionary party was missing, Mussolini and his Fascists have now been able to seize power…Even now, we can say with full certainty that, if the proletariat in Germany, France, and Europe as a whole had taken power in 1919, the entire course of events in Russia would have taken an entirely different form…In this way, we would have been able to advance gradually and without major retreats, making many corrections to our primitive war communism and yet continuing to progress, to pass through the evolution to communism.”
There was no question of “socialism in one country,” the Russian Revolution had to spread, but its first attempt in Germany produced disaster with a premature uprising. The Russian revolutionary Karl Radek—who in 1921 had supported the March action (in debates that will be available when Riddell re-translates the 1921 Third Congress)—had learned from experience: “The Communists cannot bring this offensive about artificially. The great error of the March battles was the attempt to substitute our own party’s will to struggle for the struggle of the broad masses. Our will to struggle must find expression in the way we appeal to the masses and organize them.”
While a capitalist offensive was beating back the revolutionary wave across Europe, global resistance was emerging—outlined by the Russian revolutionary Varsenika Kasparova. She summarized developments since the Second Congress in 1920: “1) the struggle against imperialism has developed in all the colonial and semi-colonial countries, such as Korea, British India, the Dutch Indies, Egypt, Syria, China, Iran, and the movement has extended to embrace the masses of women. In addition, Turkey has regained its independence. 2) a proletarian class movement has begun in almost all countries of the East, starting in capitalist Japan, and Communist parties have been formed in almost all these countries. We also see that active participation in this movement by women, who suffer from particularly oppressive subjugation, is greater and greater, above all in the countries of the East where large-scale industry has begun to develop.”
The united front: from practice to theory
The opportunity and challenge, then and now, was how a minority of revolutionaries could win all exploited and oppressed people to self-emancipation through the process of united struggle. This would not come through socialists standing on the sidelines, passively demanding a maximum program, but rather by throwing themselves into united fights for every possible reform--proving in practice the potential of self-emancipation and the vitality of revolutinoary politics and organization. As Grigorii Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, argued: “Precisely because we wish to struggle for proletarian revolution, we must take part in every strike, leading the way and fighting for every partial demand…be it only to the extent of a drop of milk for the children.”
It’s inspiring to read delegates discussing their experience from around the world, applying revolutionary tactics to every kind of resistance—from strikes to boycotts, cooperatives to elections, newspapers to film, and from financial appeals to armed resistance. As the German revolutionary Edwin Hoernle described, “the united front tactic demands a high level of intellectual flexibility, dexterity, and agility of thought, linked with firmness in principles.” Zetkin poetically warned of permanent dangers that revolutionaries continue to confront: “Two dangers threaten us. On the left, the ship is in danger of breaking up on the reefs and cliffs of an adventurist and romantic putschist policy, while, on the right, lies the danger that the ship will run aground on reformist sandbanks and get stuck in the sinking and decaying waters of opportunism.”
The theory of the united front did not come from Lenin or Trotsky’s brain any more than the soviets. But what the Bolsheviks did to learn and generalize the soviets that emerged in the 1905 revolution, the Communist International did to learn and generalize the united front tactic from the international experience of resistance. As the German revolutionary Ernst Meyer argued, “Our experiences during the Rathenau campaign make it quite clear that, in many cities and districts, common work—common struggle—was made possible only when the leadership came together to negotiate and discuss. Many comrades assert that the united front should be constituted only on an economic basis, not in a political framework. That is also wrong.”
Riddell’s annotations help historical hindsight to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the participants by both clarifying events mentioned (like the Rathenau campaign, when the German Communist Party helped organize mass demonstrations protesting the murder of a Jewish capitalist by right-wing groups), and by noting events delegates failed to mention (like the Arditi del Popolo anti-fascist brigades, which the Italian Communist Party failed to relate to). In the midst of capitalist crisis and radicalizing workers, counter-revolutionary fascism used the petty-bourgeoisie to smash all forms of working class organization, amidst divisions on the left, and emerged for the first time in Italy. While some delegates were still confused about fascism, the united front emerged as a tactic for revolutionarie to unite with reformists to fight it. But when this was most needed a decade later in Germany there was no revolutionary organization to put theory into practice; the Stalnized Comintern and German Communist Party had reversed the Fourth Congress lessons, and Trotsky's passionate pleas for united struggle went unanswered.
One of the major, and ongoing, debates was about what role a “workers’ government” might play in revolutionary change. Whereas Zinoviev initially called this merely a “pseudonym for a soviet government,” fellow Bolshevik Radek disagreed by pointing out the dangers that continue today: “If we conceive of the workers’ government as a soft cushion, we will not only drive it into bankruptcy, but also ourselves suffer political defeat. We will stand with the Social Democrats as a new type of swindler. We must maintain the masses’ understanding that the workers’ government is worthless unless the workers stand behind it, taking up arms and building factory councils that push this government and do not allow it to make compromises with the Right.”
There was also discussion about the capitalist offensive still familiar today—not only attacks on unions in general, but also the role of fascism in Europe, racism in the US and Australia, and attacks on women workers, non-unionized workers, and young workers—and the importance of uniting the entire working class to fight on both economic and political issues. While much of the left then and now either dismiss trade unions or seek by declarations to make them vehicles of resistance, the Russian revolutionary Solomon Lozovsky--general secretary of the Red International of Labour Unions--outlined principles that still hold: “A party is really and truly Communist only if it carries out the winning over of the trade unions not only in theory but in practice, since that is a precondition for the social revolution…Influence in the labour movement is not gained through resolutions, or by some fortunate decisions of the central committee, but through the work that Communists carry out in their respective labour organization.”
Women’s liberation: "a cause of the proletariat"
Zetkin played a leading role in the Fourth Congress, and Riddell’s annotations highlight both her oratorical and political contributions—pointing out the rhyming scheme she used in her German speeches, and explaining the broader sense of working class in her argument that “masses of women producers must be mobilized.” As Riddell notes, “’producers’ translates the German word Schaffende, which means both ‘producers’ and ‘creators’. The term is often used by Zetkin, who defined it in a 1923 speech as referring to ‘all those whose labour, be it with hand or brain, increases the material and cultural heritage of humankind, without exploiting the labour of others’—a definition that encompasses women working in the home.”
Zetkin pioneered International Women’s Day, which she described as “not a separate women’s event, not a women’s issue, but an issue for the party, a party campaign, a declaration of war by communism against capitalism.” Similarly she called for a working class strategy to fight women’s oppression—which socialists continue to apply today: “The economic and social afflictions of women and their demands for a culturally satisfying life are utilized as the starting points toward the most advanced activity possible, in conducting the most intense struggle possible against bourgeois society…So, for example, in Germany the struggle against the so-called abortion paragraph provided the starting point for a very extensive and successful campaign against bourgeois class rule and class justice and against the bourgeois state. This campaign won for us the sympathy and support of broad circles of women. Yet the question was approached not as a women’s issue but as a political issue, a cause of the proletariat.”
While Frederick Engels had pioneered a theoretical understanding of women’s oppression, it took discussion and debate to put the fight for women’s liberation into practice. The German revolutionary Hatha Sturm warned that the capitalist offensive was attacking women’s wages and jobs, and called for Communist Parties to demand pay equity both for women’s equality and as a broader class demand. She warned of the way capitalism divides sections of the working class and called for unity: “Working women are played off against the male workers in a fashion similar to the colonial peoples, at whose expense the European workers were able to achieve certain temporary victories. Clearly, the united front of workers and the organizational unity of the trade unions will be strengthened to the degree that all layers of the working class consciously stand together…A very vigorous struggle is needed here in order to meet the danger that a wedge will be driven between working men and women, who may view each other as competitors rather than joining together in solidarity. This is similar to the unity we strive for between workers who are in the factories and those who are unemployed.”
The Fourth Congress took place before Canadian women were even considered “persons” under the law, and Sturm called attention to the unevenness to which Communist Party membership included women, which averaged only 10 per cent and which varied from 1.5 per cent of the Italian party to 50 per cent in a district in Czechoslovakia. As she argued, “the more intensive the Communist party’s work is, the firmer and better educated the party as a whole or sectors of it, the broader is the influence that the party achieves among the masses of women. This is reflected in the extent to which women are linked organizationally to the Communist party…A tenacious struggle must be waged inside the party for this task to be recognized and addressed.”
Building unity against colonialism
Similar unevenness existed in the approach to anti-colonial struggles. Self-determination for oppressed nations was central to the Russian Revolution and the Second Congress had called for supporting anti-colonial movements, followed by a Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, Azerbaijan (whose proceedings John Riddell has also translated) to unite Western revolutionary struggles with Eastern anti-colonial movements. Since then, movements had emerged around the world, as Kasparova outlined, with nascent communist parties in all of them. The Fourth Congress, led by representatives from the small parties demanding more discussion time, sought to generalize their lessons. Unfortunately discussion was cut short—and in later years was buried by Stalinism, with catastrophic results—but this theory and practice remains critical for fighting imperialism and Islamophobia today. 
Tan Malaka, representing 13,000 communists in Java, shared his party's experiences of winning over a million-strong revolutionary Islamist peasant organization to a united front against imperialism--and the dangers of hostility to religion that caused a brief split. As he argued: “For us, it is a united front not with Social Democrats but with revolutionary nationalists. In our country, the policies of the nationalists against imperialism take different forms, including the boycott, the Muslim war of liberation, and pan-Islamism…Just as we want to support the national struggle, we also want to support the liberation struggle of these very combative, very active 250 million Muslims living under the imperialist powers.”
Delegates connected this task to the theoretical understanding of capitalism. The Russian revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin stressed the importance of seeing the global nature of the working class, rescuing Marxist theory from the revisionism of Kautsky: “What did Kautsky’s Marxism do? It understood ‘working class’ to refer exclusively to the continental working class. The position of these layers of the proletariat grew better and better, but Kautsky’s Marxism overlooked the fact that this improvement was achieved at a cost of the destruction and pillage of the colonial peoples. Marx considered capitalist society as a whole.” The German revoluionary Thalheimer quoted from his murdered comrade Rosa Luxemburg: “From the outset, only continual expansion into new spheres of production and new countries enables capitalism to exist and develop. But worldwide expansion leads to a clash between capitalism and pre-capitalist forms of society. That means violence, war, revolution: in a world, disaster—the vital element of capitalism from its beginning to its end.”
For the the Dutch revolutionary Willem van Ravesteyn, the political implications were clear: “The greatest enemy of the proletariat and the Eastern peoples, and especially the Islamic peoples, is the British Empire, an imperialism that spans the world, based on its rule over India and its naval control of the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The Islamic peoples have it in their power to destroy the bridge that sustains British imperialism. If this bridge falls, than this imperialism will also collapse. Its fall would have such a mighty echo in the entre world of Islam and the East that the French Empire too would not survive this blow. The liberation of the Islamic world from every form of European political domination, particularly as regards the countries of the Near East, is in the interest not only of the people there, the peasants and workers in the Eastern territories not yet in the grip of capitalism. It represents also a fundamental interest of the West European and world proletariat.”
But some Communist Parties in the west had not put anti-colonial theory into practice, or were downright pro-colonial, and the Tunisian revolutionary Tahar Boudengha warned of this Achilles heel of the workers’ movement: “The French comrades must take not, one and for all, that the proletarian revolution in France is doomed to sure failure so long as the French bourgeoisie holds the colonial population under its rule. And the liberation of the colonial people will only be possible if there is a party in France that is committed to revolutionary action, not to opportunism.”
Meanwhile, the Indian revolutionary Manabendra Nath Roy outlined the political differentiation that national liberation movements develop, and the importance of Communist parties to push working class revolutions: “The movements in Egypt and India have been brought to a halt by the fearfulness and vacillation of the bourgeoisie. And a great revolutionary movement that embraced the broad masses of peasants and the working class and seriously threatened imperialism was unable to cause it serious damage for he simple reason that its leadership lay in the hands of the bourgeoisie…Thus we see that Communist parties are necessary, even if for the moment they are no more than cells. These parties are destined to play a great role and to take over the leadership in the national revolutionary struggle, when it is abandoned and betrayed by the bourgeoisie.”
Toward revolutionary organization
All the discussions and debate aimed to crystalize practice into theory, and convert theory into practice through revolutionary organization, so as the German revolutionary Hoernle argued, “it will not merely observe the movement, not merely participate in it, but lead it in going over from defence to offence.”
The tragedy of the 20th century is that the lack of mass revolutionary organizations and successful revolutions outside Russia led to a victorious counter-revolution that purged the Communist International and its associated parties of its theory and practice—leading many to falsely counterpose movements and revolutionary organizations. Reviving the real history of the early Communist International is part of rebuilding revolutionary organizations that can fight on every front—against war, exploitation and all forms of oppression—for every possible reform and through the process to build towards a revolutionary transformation of society.
By making proceedings of the Fourth Congress accessible and practical--including self-guided tours--John Riddell has made an important contribution to the intertwined task summarized by Radek: “Anyone who sees a contradiction between the line of united front and the process of unifying and strengthening the Communist parties understands nothing about the tasks of the Communist International. We must have solid parties in order to sustain the united front, just as we must fight for the united front in order to have strong parties.”
John Riddell is a lifelong revolutionary socialist and the editor and translator of a series of texts on the Communist International in Lenin's time. A member of the International Socialists, John is active in a wide range of movements and struggles in Toronto, from Palestine and Latin American solidarity to climate justice and indigenous solidarity. He blogs at For copies of Toward the United Front, order online from Haymarket Books (US) or drop by Resistance Press Bookroom in Toronto.

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