Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 19, 2014

A response to the Kellogg-Riddell exchange on the early Comintern

Filed under: Comintern,Germany,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

John Riddell

Paul Kellogg

I strongly recommend that you read two important contributions to understanding the role of the early Comintern. The first is an article by Paul Kellogg titled “Substitutionism versus Self‐emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo‐Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921” that can be downloaded from here. I was particularly interested to read this since I had learned from Paul that it was in the works back in April 2013 at the HM Conference. He related a positively hair-raising narrative of the Red Army invading Poland to extend the Bolshevik revolution at the point of a bayonet led by a former Czarist officer who was a raving anti-Semite. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a very capable military man who was among those to face a firing squad opon Stalin’s orders on the eve of WWII.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess a strong identification with Paul Kellogg’s analysis, especially on the importance of Comintern’s role in the German disaster of the early 1920s. He has written a defense of Paul Levi who opposed the bumbling diktats of the Kremlin that relies on the same material I found useful—Pierre Broue’s history of the ill-fated German revolution as well as Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution; The Communist Bid For Power In Germany, 1921 1923”. Based on my review of the German events, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern imposed a “Zinovievist” party-building model on the Comintern that led to both Stalinists and Trotskyists turning away from what was truly revolutionary about Lenin’s party—its ability to draw revolutionary-minded workers into struggle without bureaucratic or sectarian limitations. The “Zinovievist” model put a premium on “democratic centralism” and discipline for good reasons. After the German disaster, it became necessary to circle the wagons and protect the leadership in Moscow from the responsibility of defending an indefensible policy. Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose “turn toward industry” was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.

Paul Kellogg’s article was a review of John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a book published by Haymarket. Since I think this is a book that belongs on everybody’s bookshelf, it is too bad that the publisher has put a $55 price tag on it. Years ago, when Riddell was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, Pathfinder Press in the USA—the publishing arm of the SWP—came out with a number of books by Riddell on the Comintern. I should add that I have a somewhat different take on where things like the Comintern proceedings belong. They should be on the Marxist Internet Archives along with the rest of the core literature of our movement and not for sale by small propaganda groups or outfits like Lawrence-Wishart. If Haymarket had made such a decision, their political capital would have increased immensely even if their bottom line had decreased. Forget about Pathfinder—they sicced their corporate lawyers on MIA some years ago when the comrades put some of their copyrighted material on the Net.

Riddell has come a long way since his original work on the Comintern for Pathfinder when he (and I) saw its early history after the fashion of Christian fundamentalist understanding of the Garden of Eden myth. Before the snake tempted Eve, there was perfect goodness—afterwards perfect evil so much so that God flooded the Earth and started over. In our theology, it was Stalin rather than the snake that led to perdition.

While only small Trotskyist sects still hold to this view, most serious scholars and activists have a more nuanced view of the early Comintern. A careful study of the pre-Stalin years will reveal disasters of biblical proportions to extend the analogy a bit. There is no disagreement between Riddell and Kellogg on this, only on what Riddell describes as Lenin and his comrades coming to their senses.

Riddell reminds his readers that even if the Comintern’s legacy is mixed, it made many decisions that are relevant to today’s world especially since they might be aimed at those who pursue ultraleft and sectarian positions at odds with its program. For example, Riddell views the position on bourgeois revolutionary struggles as antithetical to the typical ultraleft dismissal of the Bolivarian revolution, including one made by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the British SWP (now deceased:

The Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 agreed, on Lenin’s proposal, to support “bourgeois liberation movements” in colonial and semi-colonial countries provided they are “genuinely revolutionary.” (The term “bourgeois” referred here not to class composition but chiefly to a program that did not go beyond the limits of a bourgeois [capitalist] order.) Hallas dismisses this position on the grounds that a “bourgeois liberation movement” necessarily fears arousing the masses and is therefore not genuinely revolutionary (p. 50–51).

The objection is not small, given the role of national liberation in revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, as for example in Venezuela. Many Marxist currents share Hallas’s viewpoint, and their aversion to the Comintern’s position on nationalism has a major impact on practical policy.

I would only add that even if Lenin were resurrected today in a Marxist version of Jesus showing up on Easter, it would make no difference to today’s sectarians whose hatred of Venezuela is so visceral that they are beyond hope. At certain point, data and logic make no difference to dead-end sectarians. Just read the Militant newspaper on Venezuela—a group that detested Hugo Chavez while at the same time hailing the Obiang kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea.

But beyond this there is an additional problem. Even when Comintern resolutions said the right thing, there were times when the words clashed with the action. I am reminded of this now that I am immersed in Ukrainian history of the period demarcated by Riddell’s book, when relationships between the Kremlin were as troubled as the intervention into Germany. Indeed, I would include the policies on the Ukraine as ranking with those in German and Poland in terms of undermining the goal of world revolution as even those responsible for the policies were deeply committed to achieving them.

You would assume, for example, that Lenin was totally for the self-determination of Ukraine when he wrote these words on December 28, 1919:

The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

Yet just three months later Lenin had this to say about the Borotba Party that the Ukrainians had democratically elected:

When we said in the Central Committee that the maximum concessions should be made to the Borotbists, we were laughed at and told that we were not following a straight line. But you can fight in a straight line when the enemy’s line is straight. But when the enemy moves in zigzags, and not in a straight line, we have to follow him and catch him at every turn. We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy. In this way we showed that we are in no way intolerant. And that these concessions were made quite rightly is shown by the fact that all the best elements among the Borotbists have now joined our Party.

In other words, Lenin saw the bloc with the Borotbists as a necessary evil. As long as Denikin was threatening the security of the USSR and using the Ukraine as a launching pad for armed forays, there would be a need for keeping the Ukrainians on your side. But this was just a maneuver. The Borotbists were really an enemy, a group that Lenin had compared to the Right SR’s on occasion, and not genuine allies. But the statement that really hits home is this: We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy.

How does this square with the statement of the Comintern that bourgeois liberation movements in colonial or semi-colonial countries should be supported? Apparently, there is an exception clause for those countries that were in the Czarist Empire. The movements had to pass a “communist” litmus test.

It didn’t matter that the Borotbists held the Comintern in high esteem or that they favored a government based on workers and peasant’s councils. They were still not sufficiently “communist”. In early 1920 they applied for membership in the Comintern, not the sort of act one would associate with a party that was similar to the Right SR’s. The Comintern turned down their application as conveyed in a letter found in Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A chapter in the history of the Ukrainian Revolution”. They were told that their agitation against the Red Army was counter-revolutionary, even if the Red Army was backing a Bolshevik like Christian Rakovsky who said that the Ukrainian nation did not exist.

They were also told that they had conducted agitation against Russians living in the Ukraine, an act that was “reminiscent of the darker activities of the Second International”. What brass to tell this to the Ukrainians when Soviet officials were asking Ukrainian peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?” Such incidents were reported in Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski’s article reproduced here. (“Petliurists” refers to Petliura, a former head of state in the Ukraine far to the right of the Borotbists but arguably within the domain of the “bourgeois” liberation movements endorsed by the Comintern.)

Finally, I want to point out that the “German March Action of 1921” referred to in Paul Kellogg’s title was not the end of Soviet mistakes. Even after the Comintern had adopted the United Front originally proposed by Paul Levi, there was another blunder of biblical proportions as I indicated in my article “The Comintern and German Communism”.

The decision to launch a revolution in Germany in the fall of 1923 was made in Moscow, not in Germany. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

The Bolshevik leaders were monitoring the situation carefully. Lenin at this point was bed-ridden with a stroke and virtually incommunicado. Any decisions that were to be made about an “intervention” in Germany would rest on Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky who were the key leaders in Lenin’s absence.

At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.

The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”

There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.

It was Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, who was most self-deluded by the strength of the German Communist Party. He wrote in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior and” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The 22 million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” What Zinoviev didn’t take into account was that while the working class may be united socially and economically, it was not necessarily united politically. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Brandler was so swept up by the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders that he joined with them in pumping up the numbers. In the end he went so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of 50,000 to 60,000 proletarians in Saxony.

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

The next few weeks witnessed escalating confrontations between the left-wing government in Saxony and the German capitalist class. The Communist newspaper “Red Flag” printed daily calls for arming the workers and preparing for an offensive against the bourgeoisie. A telegram from Zinoviev arrived on September 31 who confirmed that the date for seizure of power would come in the first half of November. The problem, however, is that an enormous gap existed between the feverish proclamations of their newspaper, Zinoviev’s green light and the actual preparations for an armed offensive. In fact, the problem was that very little attention was paid to technical and organizational details up to this point. While the Comintern had stressed the need for an underground apparatus, there was little evidence that the German party had paid any attention to such matters. The dichotomy between ultraleft braggadocio and painstaking preparation proved to be the party’s undoing.

Specifically, their military plan required a 3 to 1 numerical superiority over the army and police. However, the Communists could not rely on such numbers. There were 250, 000 well-trained cops and soldiers while the Communist Party membership was only about 300,000, including many people either too young or too old to be effective fighters.

The bigger problem turned out to be political, however. The German Communist Party had simply overestimated its ability to command the allegiance of the rest of the working class and its parties. While this mass party had some claim to be the “vanguard” of the German working class as compared to the Maoist and Trotskyist sects of today, it still had not won over the masses completely as the Bolsheviks of 1917 had.

The German central government had reacted to the insurrectionary developments in Saxony as one would expect. They assembled a fighting force under the command of General Muller in order to restore order. As soon as the Communists heard about this white guard’s pending attack, they assembled a conference of left-wing and labor leaders in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 21 to put together a united defense against the counter-revolution.

Aside from 66 Communist delegates, there were 140 delegates from factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates from control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 from unemployed committees and 7 from the Socialist Party. Brandler took the floor and called for a general strike. His call was met by stony silence. What he had not counted on was the hostility of the rest of the workers movement. As much as they feared the consequences of General Muller’s offensive, they were not ready to follow the lead of a sectarian Communist Party that had unilaterally made decisions for the mass movement.

On the day of the conference, the German army marched into Saxony and the Communist Party was forced to call of its revolution. Or, to be more accurate, the Communist Party was forced to call off the revolution of Zinoviev, Radek, Stalin and Trotsky.

9 Comments »

  1. FYI: You likely overlooked it, but all the Pathfinder Press works on the early years of the Communist International (that involved the participation of John Riddell) are currently listed on the on-line Pathfinder Press catalog.

    Comment by Dave — May 19, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

  2. I’ll change my article but those knuckleheads at Pathfinder have a fucked-up search engine. If you go to “John Riddell” in the authors index, nothing shows up.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 19, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

  3. As much as the Comintern was responsible for the catastrophe in Germany, the inability of the German Communist Party to integrate more level-headed working class elements, such as, for example, Richard Muller, head of the turners of the Berlin metalworkers union, was also significant. After supporting Levi in 1921 and subsequently resigning after Levi’s departure, all we know of him is “Later fate unknown”.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 20, 2014 @ 12:56 am

  4. “Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose ‘turn toward industry’ was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.”

    Sorry but this doesn’t really make sense.

    If the SWP was rooted in ‘the working class in its millions’ rather than a few hundred petty bourgeois college kids it wouldn’t have to ‘turn to industry’ to begin with.

    Comment by Steve D — May 20, 2014 @ 8:47 am

  5. The “national liberation” stuff was at odds with Marx and the early workers movement. The Comintern got behind from a national viewpoint. It was meant to strengthen the USSR as a state.

    By that time the bourgeoisie was too scared to unleash the working class for revolution, and when it did start to move those nationalist “revolutionaries” struck as hard as any colonial theory. You can see this in Egypt, Ghana, Turkey, Iran, etc. It continued as long as the “support for national liberation” program did. Just look at how Vietnam, Nicaragua and now Venezuela react to strikes.

    Early on Marx pointed out the need for the working class to remain independent, even when it might be necessary to temporarily fight alongside other classes. The failure to take this advice has led to untold bloodshed. And that was even when capitalism was still ascendant. Now deep into decadence any dreams of “national liberation” are doomed to become nightmares faster than you can say Shining Path.

    Comment by Steve D — May 20, 2014 @ 8:54 am

  6. Another attempt to tar Trotsky with the same brush as Stalin whithout explicitly opposing a marxist analysis.

    As for Steve D I suppose by pretending the semi-colonial states do not exist you can then pretend that the likes of Putin and Assad are part of the proletarian counter-hegemony.

    Comment by David Ellis — May 20, 2014 @ 10:07 am

  7. Huh? I’m no Marcyite bub.

    I’ve been commenting here for a while and always voiced my opposition to both imperialist blocs fighting over the Ukraine. Neither offers anything to the working class.

    Today all countries are emerged in the imperialist system. There’s no escape or “national independence” available for any one state or especially section of a state. Least of all through bourgeois revolution which was last effective in the 19th century.

    The only way forward is proletarian revolution that is not bound by the borders of bourgeois states.

    Comment by Steve D — May 20, 2014 @ 11:17 am

  8. “Another attempt to tar Trotsky with the same brush as Stalin whithout explicitly opposing a marxist analysis.”

    Actually, I don’t think that is true. Trotsky did err in supporting the German uprising in 1923, but Stalin, as noted in the post, was hesitant even though he did eventually come around. Discussions and decisions related to Germany in the Comintern were already contaminated by the succession crisis in Moscow. Stalin’s initial skepticism foreshadowed more fundamental differences that would emerge over the next decade. Trotsky and Stalin were not on the same page in regard to Germany, so much so that Trotsky reportedly requested that he be allowed to enter Germany surreptitiously to lead the effort, a request that was, of course, denied (perhaps, because, if he had been allowed to do so, both outcomes were considered bad by the triumvirs, martyrdom in death, greater political power in victory)

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 20, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

  9. The discussion of the disastrous organizational policies of the early Comintern are of practical concern, not just historical interest. Today the fragmentation of the U.S. socialist movement ordered by the CI is directly visible and effectively blocks young activists from joining together. The only possible conclusion to be drawn from observing the shattering process after the Russian revolution is that the damage must be undone and a united movement must be developed. Thank you to Louis for raising the issue for discussion, and thanks to all who have studied the history. But the point is not contemplation, rather, action is the point.

    Comment by dkeil — September 6, 2014 @ 6:22 pm


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