By Neil Harris
THE CHANGING tactics of the Communist International (1919 to 1943) have become so associated with Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin and their respective followers, that it has become almost impossible to have a useful discussion about tactics at all. No one now can see beyond the positions the Bolshevik party’s factions held, even though Lenin died 89 years ago, Trotsky 73 years and Stalin 60 years ago.
Those who cling tightly to one Comintern thesis, like a lifebelt, are actually drowning in their own dogmatism – times change. Yet those tactics were tested out during the most dangerous of times and it’s a shameful waste to ignore the lives, sacrifices and experiences of those communists who came before us. An inability to freely debate tactics effectively accepts the reformist assumptions that dominate the left in Britain today and it’s also unscientific. For a moment let’s wipe away the dust of the past and take a fresh look at tactics through the eyes of a child of the 21st century.
It must be emphasised that this article deals only with the western European experience. The question of working class alliances with the peasantry in revolutionary struggles, or with other social groups as part of struggles for national liberation, are a matter for comrades in countries with those experiences to analyse for themselves.
Of course, tactics are not the same thing as strategy - the Communist International only ever had one strategy – revolution. Following the 1917 Russian revolution the shockwaves flew around the world like a tsunami, That was why the International was created: to build revolutionary communist parties in every country of the world. In Europe the aim was to ride the revolutionary wave that followed the First World War. In the developing world it was to help the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements that were springing up wherever there was an empire or a feudal ruler.
So much for strategy, tactics are the everyday ways communists work for revolution. The really difficult question has always been what tactic to use while waiting for that once in a lifetime revolutionary situation to arrive. Those opportunities pass quickly.
The point of having an international was to pool worldwide communist experience, analyse the balance of power in the class struggle and hammer out a line of march. Its strength was to be in its unity, the strong parties would bring on the weak. The method was to be scientific – to propose a course of action and then test it. To work properly that needed discipline (a worldwide form of democratic centralism) because if the tactic succeeded it would be developed further, if it failed – it would be dropped and a new thesis adopted.
The International had an Executive Committee that made day-to-day decisions and periodic congresses that dealt with major policy. There were commissions that considered questions concerning individual parties or regions and these made recommendations to the executive. Comintern agents, chosen from quite different regions or countries, would be sent to observe and advise national parties on Comintern policy and, if necessary, to ensure those decisions were carried out locally.
Contrary to what the enemies of communism always claimed, Comintern policy was never the work of one man or one country but many. From 1919 to 1922 it was easy; revolutions were breaking out all over Europe. The urgent task was to split the working class movement, to win class conscious workers away from reformism and into the new, revolutionary communist parties. All that mattered to Lenin was how to build those new parties quickly enough, while keeping out the opportunism and reformism that had destroyed social democracy as a revolutionary force for socialism.
In Britain that involved merging different, rival groups of activists whose revolutionary heritage was sometimes questionable, and then welding them together into one party, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Lenin understood that the British Labour Party’s unique federal constitution allowed for affiliation; individuals could do so through their trade unions and parties as autonomous “socialist societies”, allowing both to keep their revolutionary politics intact. Affiliation allowed communists to be both separate to and part of the Labour Party at the same time and while it was possible, the CPGB was allowed to follow that policy by the International. However Lenin was equally clear that Labour leaders would always follow the bourgeoisie and as a result Labour would always be a reformist party.
That proved to be the case; for a while communists were able to stand for Parliament as “Labour-communist candidates” and in a number of constituencies won seats. As soon as the Labour leadership realised what was happening; communists were excluded and banned. The CPGB was then returned to the general line of the Comintern.
That line was to split revolutionaries away from social democracy, a policy which was strongly influenced by experiences in Germany where social democratic regional governments and social democrat police chiefs had been enthusiastic in ordering the murder of communists and left social democrats fighting for the German “soviets”.
Unfortunately the revolutionary tide in Europe ebbed quickly and by 1922 the 3rd and 4th congresses of the Comintern adopted a new tactic to meet that situation: “The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.”
Imperialism had quickly changed its tactics, learning from the experience gained during revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary. The united front policy recognised both this and the economic recovery that capitalism had made after the war. Now that the revolutionary tide was gone, the struggle was going to take time. In particular, the majority of workers were still supporting social democratic rather than revolutionary movements.
The tactic was intended to unite all rank and file workers in class struggles that would lead them towards revolutionary activity, irrespective of whether they were in communist or social democratic parties. At the same time this would expose the opportunism and reformism of their social democratic leaders by simply sidestepping them. This was “the united front from below”. It also had the added advantage of uniting all the main players in the Soviet Union; Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, behind the same policy.
By 1928 the Comintern had moved to the left again and a new thesis: the “third period” or “class against class” policy was adopted at the 6th congress. It was a dramatic shift and to this day is attacked by the right as “ultra-leftist” and by the Trotskyites as “Stalinist”. It was neither.
The actual title comes from the analysis that the 1920s were divided into three parts; the "First Period" characterised by the economic collapse and workers revolutions that followed the end of the First World War. The "Second Period" was the post war period of capitalist recovery and counter revolution. In 1928 the Comintern predicted there would be a “‘third period” of major economic collapse and revolutionary situations lasting through the 1930s.
As a result it aimed to shift the international to the offensive again, further bolshevising the national parties, emphasising illegal activity and confronting reformism head on. In addition to the working class, the unemployed and servicemen (serving or demobilised) were to be organised on revolutionary lines and the trades union movement was to be split to create revolutionary, militant unions free from the Socialist International’s reformism. The new line assumed that the revolutionary tide would return and that when it did, the communists would be ready to lead the working class.
The third period made little differentiation between different forms of bourgeois state – treating dictatorial autocracy, bourgeois democracy and fascism as simply different shades of the same dictatorship.
In particular it was a policy that highlighted the traitorous nature of social democracy – which for years had supported Marxist revolution and opposed imperialist wars in grandiose resolutions. Yet on the outbreak of the First World War the parties of the Second International had voted with their own national imperialisms for war on their fellow workers.
Faced with the rising tide of working class militancy after that war, the social democratic leadership in every country sided with reaction and sometimes even supported the prototype forms of fascism, to put down workers revolutions. Now that new revolutions were predicted, social democracy would not be given a chance to do the same again.
Nowadays it is easy to forget how bitter the memories of that social democratic treachery were: in Berlin, Budapest or Vienna. Here in Britain, the same treachery was behind the defeat in the General Strike. In a quote which sums up the policy, it was said: “the social democrats are merely the left wing of the bourgeoisie”.
None of these views or the third period policy itself would have offended Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky in 1917 but by 1928 Lenin was dead and ideological trenches had been dug, the positions were set.
The Comintern had other concerns too; in 1927 the Chinese Goumintang treacherously turned on their communist party allies in the United Front, murdering as many communists as they could find. The year before, despite Soviet assistance, the General Strike in Britain was defeated and the Comintern rightly saw this as a catastrophic defeat for the international movement as well as for the British working class.
The policy was developed at a time of relative prosperity but it correctly anticipated the coming economic collapse and the growing risk of war. A year later in 1929 the capitalist world was to plunge into the greatest crisis it had ever known – the Wall Street crash and then the Great Depression. From 1931 onwards, there was a stampede amongst the imperialist powers to gain new colonies that could only ever lead to an inter-imperialist war – the first outbreak of which was the attack on China that year and the last was the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.
The young Soviet Union itself was under attack from every side – externally it faced a renewed threat of war and an arms race it could not afford while internally there was sabotage and disruption. The year 1927 was particularly bad, a year of war scares, assassinations, attacks on Soviet embassies and revolutionary defeats. It was not difficult for communists to see these as signals of the coming final conflict between capital and labour, the beginning of the “death throws” of capitalism. It heralded dangerous times and most communists looking at social democracy could only see treachery.
But while economic collapse came quickly, reaction prevented the predicted workers’ risings. In Italy fascism was in power, throughout the rest of Europe either fascism or more traditional forms of dictatorship were coming. Instead of revolution, it was to be a further period of brutal counter revolution.
For its opponents, the “third period” policy was projected as a disaster; it was said to have divided the working class, isolated communists from that class and hindered united working class opposition to fascism. This is unfair, even if there is some element of truth to it; social democracy was only too desperate to isolate communists and was happy to do deals with fascism in order to do so.
In fact communist parties, although small, were leading the struggles against unemployment, poverty and fascism. The party was to be found wherever the fight was at its toughest, and the inspiration was the Soviet Union and the International. The prestige that communists won during this period of intense class struggle was so great that it lasted amongst the wider working class for decades, like the glow left behind long after a super-nova dies down. The word “communist” brought courage to workers and fear to their enemies long after the policy and the parties had changed; that deep class memory was still being exploited by the revisionist euro communists up until the 1980s.
Either way, experience of reality brought about a debate in the Comintern which became more urgent after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. Opposition to the third period policy grew within the Comintern until in 1935 it was replaced with the “Popular Front” as championed by the Bulgarian anti-fascist Georgi Dimitrov. This was to be an alliance between communists and other parties (in other words with other classes) to unite in the fight against fascism.
The “popular front” grew out lessons learnt from Germany and the new analysis that there was something exceptional about the fascist state as opposed to the ordinary bourgeois dictatorship. As a result it was necessary to unite with any democratic force that was prepared to ally itself with the communists in the fight against fascism. This was to create alliances to preserve basic individual liberties – something as precious to the working class as it was to bourgeois individuals themselves.
It would set the wider political agenda for the rest of the 1930s and would be Comintern policy until the organisation was dissolved in 1943. Arguably it was also the basis of the international alliance against the Axis powers agreed in 1941 as well as the origin of the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe after the war – where communist and social democratic parties merged to form socialist parties. After all, the communists and social democrats who had fought each other in the 1920s and 1930s found themselves together in the concentration camps and prisons of fascism.
As a policy it had some successes; the popular front government in France stopped French fascism from winning power and won the working class real gains like the eight-hour day and paid holidays. In Spain the Popular Front built a viable opposition to the military coup d’état, even though the Spanish Civil War was to end in defeat.
Emergencies happen and occasionally bizarre alliances are necessary. Sometimes that might even require an alliance with those who compromise with the class enemy and oppose revolution. At various times in the revolutionary struggle, Lenin made alliances with right social democrats and anarchists. Unfortunately, what should have been a short term emergency tactic was to be seized on by those in communist parties who saw the parliamentary road as the preferred strategy rather than merely a tactic. The result was the postponement of revolution until some distant point in the future – a point that was never going to happen if the “parliamentarians” had anything to do with it.
In any case the successes of the popular front were to be only temporary. With the dissolution of the Comintern it became possible for national parties to adopt national roads to socialism – and in Europe that usually meant that they chose reformism over revolution. Certainly that was the case in Britain, where British communists had been unhappy and unwilling in the 1930s when the International forced them to prepare for illegality.
Often, as in the case of the [British Road to Socialism], there were discussions about tactics going up to the very highest levels but because Soviet policy after 1943 was to avoid any interference in the internal affairs of fraternal parties, these discussions were limited to giving advice only.
The decision to dissolve the Comintern had been on the basis that national parties were mature enough to determine their own political positions. Not only was that not the case, it turned out to be a terrible mistake. The example of the Soviet party and the discipline of the international movement had held back revisionism. Once the international had gone the tactics became opportunistic. In Britain this process actually began in 1941 when the party embraced the war effort with an enthusiasm which went far beyond the needs of the anti-fascist struggle; if it had not been for Palme Dutt and the international that process would have already begun in 1939. Soon those opportunist tactics developed into strategy and the only strategy offered was the parliamentary road.
In the event, the “socialist” parties of the second international proved to be willing allies of American and British imperialism when the war was over. Wherever communists had entered coalition governments, as in France and Italy, the advantage was to be short-lived, ending with expulsion and permanent opposition. Throughout the Cold War, European social democratic parties chose to preserve capitalism and support the Nato alliance against the Soviet Union. Once again they supported the use of state power against both communists and left social democrats as soon as they could get away with it.
There was to be one last doomed example; the French “socialist unity” government of the 1980s, otherwise the popular front, was over. There, for one last time communists entered a bourgeois government, this time with Mitterrand’s “socialists”. As usual the process started with the simple surrender of any remaining revolutionary positions but the outcome was inevitable: it could only end in suicide.