The final part of Paul Hampton’s review article looking at the themes of John Riddell’s book of documents from the early communist movement.
The Fourth Congress adopted a call for an anti-imperialist united front in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, aimed at “the mobilisation of all revolutionary forces” in “an extended, lengthy struggle against world imperialism”.
The expression was new, but the concept of an anti-imperialist united front had been effectively endorsed at the Second Comintern Congress and by the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku in 1920.
At the Fourth Congress, the need for an anti-imperialist united front was first voiced by the Indian delegate M N Roy, who had been a key participant at the Second Congress, submitting his own theses, with an amended version added to Lenin’s draft after the discussion in the commission. But Roy’s speech, like the congress resolution, was a combination of insight and confusion.
Roy identified some important trends. He observed that “imperialism is right now making the attempt to save itself through the development of industry in colonial countries”. India was permitted during the war “adequate industrial development”. Roy denounced as “mechanical” the idea that capitalist development in the colonies was impossible or would always be constrained by imperialism.
The resolution registered the emergence of a “new workers’ movement in the East” that was “the result of the recent development of indigenous capitalism” and suggested the Communist parties in the colonies and semi-colonies had a dual task of organising “the working and peasant masses for the struggle for their special class interests” as well fighting to lead the “bourgeois democratic revolution, aimed at winning political independence”.
Roy argued that the national-revolutionary struggle in these countries “can achieve ultimate victory only under the leadership of the workers and peasants, that is, of a political party that represents them”. He also recognised that the bourgeoisie in the colonial and semi-colonial countries was not a revolutionary force: “unfortunately arrived too late on the scene, 150 years too late, and is in no way ready to play the role of liberator”.
However Roy also used some loose formulations, which opened a path to the slippage that followed the Fourth Congress, when the increasingly Stalinised Comintern adopted formulas such as the “bloc of four classes” and “workers’ and peasants’ parties” with disastrous results. For example Roy argued that “fundamentally, the national movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries is objectively revolutionary” and that the goal of the anti-imperialist united front was “to organise all available revolutionary forces into a great united front against imperialism”.
Communists should support the liberation battles against colonialism of the plebeians of the colonies, among whom modern working classes were only incipient forces; and (this was the implicit assumption) the political weight of the workers’ state in the USSR and the strong worker-based CPs of Europe could draw these plebeian movements into alliance.
The prototype for Comintern work had been the efforts of Sneevliet in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where socialists had entered the Sarekat Islam organisation and recruited cadres who formed the Indonesian Communist Party in 1920.
The organisation’s delegate Tan Malaka spoke with great passion at the Fourth Congress about this experience, managing to extend his speaking time when told to wind up by replying: “I come from the Indies; I travelled for forty days”. He strongly advocated support for pan-Islamic movements. He said: “We have been asked in public meetings: ‘Are you a Muslim, yes or no? Do you believe in God, yes or no?’ And how did we answer? ‘Yes, I said, ‘when I stand before God, I am a Muslim, but when I stand before man, I am not a Muslim’... With the Quran in hand, we inflicted a defeat on their leaders”. He argued that pan-Islamism had once had “a historical meaning, signifying that Islam must conquer the entire world, sword in hand”. But now, “the Holy war lost its significance” and pan-Islamism now meant “the nationalist freedom struggle... the liberation struggle against the different imperialist powers of the world”.
Malaka was supported by other delegates, such as Tahar Boudengha from Tunisia, who also denounced the chauvinism of the French party’s members in Algeria. The main reporter on the “Eastern Question” resolution, Willem van Ravesteyn, said that “in this world-historic struggle for the political liberation of Islam, the revolutionary proletariat has the duty to devote its full attention and provide all possible moral support”. The Islamic peoples “have it in their power to destroy the bridge that sustains British imperialism” and that “the liberation of the Islamic world from every form of European political domination… would lead unavoidably to the fall of Western imperialism”.
These discussions all took place before the emergence of political Islam in its modern form (the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928). Given the subsequent history, particularly of the involvement of Islamic parties in the massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and of course Islamism in North Africa and elsewhere, it would be ridiculous to transpose these expressions of solidarity in 1922 onto today’s conditions and forces. The Second Comintern Congress had taken a sharply critical line towards pan-Islam in Lenin’s theses — accommodating to religious political forces was not part of the Comintern approach.
Interestingly, van Ravesteyn referred to the struggle under the British mandate in Palestine in terms that seem very reasonable, acknowledging both national movements despite the overwhelming predominance of Arabs compared to the Jewish population (about 10 to 1) at the time. He said: “The two dominant forces, Jewish and Arab, are both discontented... British rule has not been capable of achieving even a limited degree of peaceful collaboration between the nationalities in the new Palestine”. In spite of the anti-imperialist rhetoric, the complexities of various national questions were not forgotten.
Another significant test for the Comintern strategy was China.
Liu Renjing argued that “starting from the principle that that an anti-imperialist united front should be established to drive imperialism out of China, out party decided to achieve a united front with the national-revolutionary Kuomintang Party”. He argued that “we can only combat imperialism if we unite our forces — those of the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat”, yet went on to suggest “we can gather the masses around us and split the Kuomintang Party”.
At the root of the anti-imperialist united front tactic was an assessment, well articulated by Radek. He said: “Comrades, you must understand that in China neither the victory of socialism nor the establishment of a soviet republic is on the agenda. Unfortunately, the question of national unity has not been historically placed on the agenda in China”. The task of Communists consisted of “unifying the real forces taking shape in the working class with two goals: first, organising the young working class, and second, establishing a proper relationship between them and the objectively revolutionary bourgeois forces”. He urged Chinese members to “Get out of the Confucian scholars’ reading rooms and go to the masses!”.
Few disputed the tactic of joining the Kuomintang at the time it was propagated in 1922, not even Trotsky. However, by 1925 it had become clear that Chinese workers were engaging in their own class struggles, for which an independent Communist party was necessary. Also the bourgeois forces around the Kuomintang were becoming openly counter-revolutionary. In March 1927 the Kuomintang military forces massacred the Communists in Shanghai.
As Trotsky forewarned, events in China indicated two central limitations of the Fourth Congress conception of the anti-imperialist united front.
First, it was not grounded in the realities of the class structures of many of the most “backward” states — the combined and uneven development of the world economy meant sufficient class differentiation had already taken place in the colonies causing antagonism between workers and other classes.
Second, the perspective of permanent revolution — in which the organised working class was central to making the bourgeois revolution (including fighting for national independence, a democratic republic and land reform) and in the process preparing itself for making a socialist revolution — was desperately in need of generalisation beyond Russia. That is what Trotsky began to do in the aftermath of the Chinese debacle. In the process, he abandoned the term “anti-imperialist united front”.
Today, after almost another century of capitalist development, it is difficult to see in what circumstances an alliance between working class forces and bourgeois or petty-bourgeois parties in an anti-imperialist united front would be anything other than a snare for workers. The last century is littered with examples where trade unions and socialist (and Communist) parties have subordinated themselves to other forces which have turned out to be Bonapartist or worse. The early Comintern never forgot the watchword of class independence, even as it sought to utilise anti-colonial struggles to the advantage of workers’ movements and Soviet Russia. The anti-imperialist united front, underdeveloped and undertheorised by the early Comintern in very different conditions from today, is best confined to the history books.
What is the relevance of the Fourth Congress discussions today, when circumstances in the world and in labour movements are so different?
It would be wrong to take a scriptural approach and mechanically transpose assessments of realities then on to today. Hence the assessment of contemporary imperialism must be recast in the light of a more integrated, uneven and combined global capitalism in the early 21st century. Here the historical context behind slogans such as the anti-imperialist united front need to be understood, because these are the reasons why this particular approach should be rejected. Similarly, there are different political conclusions to draw for our assessment of the modern, more diffuse women’s movement.
However it would also be a mistake to dismiss the early Comintern as merely the work of “dead Russians” or a matter of a bygone age. The early Comintern and particularly the Fourth Congress codified the lessons from the highest level of working class struggle seen so far in history.
Unfinished discussions around transitional demands, the united front and the workers’ government provide fertile lines for struggles today. These lessons are not restricted to the assessment of capitalist decline, but turn on the importance of winning the majority of the working class. They are not restricted only to situations where Marxists have already organised mass parties — after all, how can such parties be built unless the revolutionaries struggle alongside reformist workers and convince them? Nor are they restricted only to pre-revolutionary situations when the fight for power may soon be on the agenda.
Riddell has done a herculean job editing this volume and his previous ones to bring the Comintern to life. But politically he wants to reclaim the workers’ government (or workers’ and farmers’ government) slogan because he believes that Cuba and Nicaragua were originally, and Venezuela and Bolivia are today some species of workers’ government — an idea Workers’ Liberty utterly rejects. Our differences are at the level of analysis, from which different political conclusions follow.
The misuse of transitional demands, the united front and the workers’ government by sections of the Marxist left does not destroy their importance.
• John Riddell’s website has a number of useful articles.