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Comintern Fourth Congress: revisiting the "woman question"

Abbie Bakan

May 19, 2012

The Communist International, or Comintern, gathered in annual delegated congresses in the years following the Russian Revolution to discuss next steps in advancing international socialism. The first four congresses, prior to the consolidation of Stalinism, offer rich lessons for socialists today.

The Comintern proceedings were recorded in various languages, but only now are complete English translations becoming available. Translated and edited by John Riddell, the proceedings of the first two congresses, and related events leading up to the founding of the Third (Communist) International, were published in six volumes between 1984 and 1993.

Riddell has recently completed the detailed research on the Fourth Congress. Titled, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a new generation of activists can now study some of the most important conversations among socialists at the time.

The 1300-page edition is published in hard cover as part of the Historical Materialism series, available in paperback in the fall, published by Haymarket Books.

Toward the United Front was launched in Canada in May at the Historical Materialism (HM) 2012 conference at Toronto’s York University. Discussed over a series of three panel presentations, the launch included contributions by Riddell and a diverse, international group of socialists and activists who have closely followed the lessons of the Comintern. Over 150 participants attended the panels.

Then and Now

What was referred to at the time as the “woman question” was a central concern of the Comintern.

Unlike the conditions of 1922, when women first won the right to vote in many countries around the world, ninety years later socialists are able to discuss the legacy of the Comintern in hard-won conditions of free assembly. And, unlike the month-long Fourth Congress meeting in Petrograd and Moscow, women speakers at the HM Toronto conference made up half the panelists.

Riddell has helped bring to light not only the notable contributions of Lenin and Trotsky, but also the leader of the Communist women’s movement, Clara Zetkin. Zetkin (born in 1857) was a senior spokesperson in the Comintern proceedings. She led the one-day session devoted to addressing Communist work among women. Zetkin also opened and closed the Congress proceedings, and shared the pivotal discussions on lessons of the Russian Revolution with Lenin, Trotsky and Hungarian socialist Béla Kun.

Toward the United Front also introduces Zetkin’s comrade and sister, Hertha Sturm (born in 1886). Sturm was also a leader of work among women, as well as a member of the German section of the Comintern, a teacher, and a former political prisoner following her role in the short-lived Bavarian workers’ republic in Germany in 1919.

As Riddell notes in the introduction: “A session of the Congress was devoted to reports from leaders of the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM), an auxiliary organization of the Comintern….Women in Europe were then only beginning to exercise their newly won political rights. The workers’ movement had helped lead the struggle for those rights, but, even so, the reports by Zetkin and Sturm showed that women were weakly represented in Communist parties….Both Sturm and Zetkin commented on the prevalence in the parties of what is now termed male chauvinism….”

Zetkin celebrated the gains among women workers in revolutionary Russia. “The masses of working women and peasant women are being drawn into all arenas of the economy and of social life. They are being drawn into collaboration in building new relationships and in overcoming the difficult challenges that arise, for example, with respect to unemployment or food shortages—problems that are bound up with social transformation under the given historical conditions. They are being drawn into collaboration in reorganising society in a Communist direction.”

But in other countries, Zetkin and Sturm chastised their comrades for failing to organize among women and neglecting the potential for radical social transformation. This was despite formal agreement at the previous Congress of this priority area.


Reading the Fourth Congress demands an understanding of the difficult conditions in the years after World War One.

Much discussion was devoted to assessing, in Riddell’s words, “the ebbing of the post-1917 revolutionary upsurge in Europe and a general offensive by the capitalist class.” The delegates struggled to adjust to new conditions, convinced that renewed prospects for international socialism would soon be on the horizon. It was in this context that the Congress discussed building alliances based on the united front.

But some events were beyond prediction.

By 1924, the Fifth Congress took place under the yoke of a deep bureaucratization in Russia, led most prominently by Joseph Stalin. Then came the purges of the 1930s. Of the 60 delegates attending the Fourth Congress who were, in Riddell’s words, “within Stalin’s reach,” and about whom information is available, 39 were killed and four jailed in the repression.

It is not surprising then, that it has taken some effort to revive the contributions of the revolutionary Comintern generation. The women of the movement, comprising only 10 per cent of the membership of the Comintern parties, could easily have been forgotten.

But this valiant minority changed the world. And John Riddell’s new translation helps us pick up the thread.

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