New book details key congress of revolutionary international

September 22, 2012

Toward the United Front, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922
Edited & translated by John Riddell,
Brill, 2012, 1310 pp.

Many leftists have spent dreary evenings meeting in draughty community halls where the reading of the minutes of previous gatherings seems to drag on interminably. Refreshingly, for a variety of reasons, this 1200-page compendium of 90-year-old proceedings makes for revitalising and pertinent reading.

Of course, some phraseology used by participants in the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern — the international organisation of revolutionary parties set up by Russia's Bolsheviks) is dated, but the ideas are largely current.

Also pleasant is how skilfully this huge tome has been assembled to make it easy for a contemporary activist to use as a toolkit. If you have an interest in, say, the anti-colonial question there is a five-page summary in the introduction with all the relevant page references noted.

Also, there are 38 pages of biographies of the main players, a first-rate index and a chronology that situates the congress in its historical setting.

This was the last international gathering in which the central leader of the Russian Revolution, V. I. Lenin, took part. It was also the last Comintern congress in which Leon Trotsky was a respected leader before Stalinism spread its pall.

There was a free-flowing, at times sharp, debate by delegates, not just from different parties but from various factions within parties, strongly defending their points of view. Any notion that the Comintern, in its early days, was a passive tool in Moscow’s hands is dispelled in these pages.

Important issues were on the table and delegate arguments influenced outcomes.

For Trotskyists and off-shoots of the Trotskyist movement, the first four Comintern congresses hold a particular importance. In the 1930s, with Stalin’s thugs hunting him, Trotsky demanded that those who wanted to be part of his grouping had to, among other things, endorse the outcomes of the first four Comintern congresses.

However, at times the respect can extent of hide-bound dogmatism.

For example, a contemporary Marxist refusing to support modern feminism because the Comintern regarded it as a reformist movement of the wives and daughters of the possessing classes (p. 856) would be treating the documents as a dogma, unable to deal with a changing world.

Such a reading would turn the record of the early Comintern into a cookbook of revolutionary recipes rather than documents of a school in which the best minds of a generation studied.

What ensures the relevancy of these proceedings is the simple fact that the Fourth Congress registered the time when 19th century debates, including the dispute over World War I (that split the socialist movement into opportunist forces that backed “their side” in the slaughter, and revolutionary forces that opposed the war) were being superseded by new realities.

Those new problems that appeared on the agenda of the Fourth Congress included: the existence of the Soviet Union as the first workers' state, the emergence of fascism, Black liberation, freedom for the colonial world, women’s liberation and, most importantly, how to grapple with the schism between revolutionary and reformist socialists in a way that strengthened the workers' movement.

Thus, the Fourth Congress should not be seen as a quaintly antique oddity but as a historical fulcrum around which humanity turned as a new world began make itself felt.

The congress dealt with how the worker’s movement could achieve unity in action despite political differences and how to articulate transitional demands to concretise the question of which class should rule.

Further, it addressed the thorny question of how to build a government that would put those transitional demands into practice.

As these key debates indicate, the Comintern up to its fourth Congress was characterised by a multi-faceted democracy in which respected Russian leaders could debate freely with each other and be disagreed with.

The picture that emerges in this book is of a body of activists working hard to understand reality and find a way forward.

US socialist and future Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon said of those times: “Those were the good days of the Communist International, when its moral authority was the highest and the wisdom of its advice to the young parties from the various countries was recognised and appreciated by all.”

Meeting the personalities of these figures through this book is a joy and a surprise. It is delightful to find Comintern leader Karl Radek bantering jokingly with fellow leader, and factional opponent, Nikolai Bukharin.

On another occasion, a long-winded delegate gets silenced at the end of a long day ― not by a vote but by the whole congress singing the Internationale. As sharp as debates became, they were never destructive.

No doubt academics will love the hard bound edition of this book, produced by Brill. At 200 Euros it will be out of reach for nearly all activists. However, US socialist publishing house Haymarket is bringing out a paperback edition later this year at US$55, which will allow many more to access the voices of these great revolutionaries.

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