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‘Toward the United Front’: Translations for the twenty-first century

On February 3, 120 socialists took part in a Toronto meeting to celebrate publication of Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, available in paperback from Haymarket Books. This 1,300-page volume is the seventh book of documents on the world revolutionary movement in Lenin’s time edited by John Riddell. Riddell’s address to the Toronto meeting, below, explains the purpose of the book and the publishing project. For the video record, see LeftStreamed.

By John Riddell

It’s now your turn to read, utilize, and comment on the book. I believe you will find it surprising and even contradictory. Here are nine features that startled me as I read through the congress for the first time.

  1. Far from directing the congress, the Bolshevik leaders are divided. For example, regarding transitional demands, one Bolshevik leader, Karl Radek, sides with the German delegation against the Bolshevik reporter, Nikolai Bukharin. In the end the German position carries.
  2. On many issues, the congress concludes in a different spot than where it began. Thus Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev began by insisting that the term “workers’ government” was merely a synonym for soviet rule, but by the end, he had adopted a broader view.
  3. Often the decisive impulse came not from the Comintern Executive but from front-line delegates. Here’s one instance. Fascism had just taken power in Italy. Opening reports to the congress praised the record of Italian Communists, who had rejected united action against Fascist attacks. But seven delegates from the floor called for a united front against Fascism, and that position won acceptance just as the congress closed.
  4. Delegates argued not so much from doctrine or from the Bolshevik example as from their own experience. For example, the celebrated categorization of forms of workers’ governments in the congress resolution was not exhaustive, as Zinoviev explained; it merely surveyed the forms expressed in political life at that moment.
  5. Sometimes, the congress is indecisive. Thus, regarding workers’ governments once again, it published, without explanation, no less than three different versions of its resolution.
  6. Key issues are left unresolved. Is the purpose of a united front to expose and discredit rival workers’ leaders or to join with them in constructive action? Both, one might say. But in the congress, some leaders emphasized one approach and some the other, while the resolution stuck to the middle of the road.
  7. On some issues, the Comintern was visibly conflicted. Consider the discussion on colonialism. Many delegates criticized chauvinist attitudes among Communists in the imperialist countries. But in addition, no less than seven different delegates assailed the Fourth Congress itself for insufficient attention to the colonial question. They were backed up by a collective protest by thirteen delegations.
  8. In another conflicted area, the oppression of women, the congress accepted ambiguity. It pledged support to the Comintern’s network for work among women, which was defined as merely an area of work to be carried out by both women and men. Yet the women leaders habitually called these structures the “Communist Women’s Movement,” called their journal “The Communist Women’s International,” and acted accordingly.
  9. The greatest gains recorded by the Congress took place in peripheral fields of work, such as sending material aid to Soviet Russia, defending political prisoners, campaigning for colonial liberation, organizing revolutionary women and youth. All these fields that all relate to the Comintern’s task of winning broad social hegemony. It was here, not in its declared goal of revolutionary party-building, that the Comintern scored its most enduring successes.

One of my articles on the congress, which you’ll find on my website, is entitled “The Periphery Pushes Back.” It expresses my impression that the driving force behind the congress debates was not so much the Comintern Executive but the working-class vanguard in capitalist Europe, which was divided between a layer impatient for a quick revolutionary success and a layer seeking to achieve workers’ unity in action. That view contradicts the mainstream view of Comintern historiography. My introduction is thus more ambitious than in my Pathfinder days: it assembles evidence for a reinterpretation. When you read the book, see if you agree.
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