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Leon Trotsky 19350823 The Comintern’s Liquidation Congress

Leon Trotsky: The Comintern’s Liquidation Congress

August 23, 1935

[Writing of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 8, 1935-36, New York ²1977, p. 84-94]

The Seventh Congress of the Comintern, which at the writing of these lines still had not finished its work, will sooner or later go down in history as the liquidation congress. Even if all its participants do not today recognize the fact, they are all — with that obligatory unanimity which in general has characterized the Third International over recent years — busy in practice with the liquidation of the program, principles, and tactical methods established by Lenin, and are preparing the complete abolition of the Comintern as an independent organization.

The Third International arose directly out of the imperialist war. It is true that long before it, widely different tendencies had been struggling within the Second International; but even the furthest left of these, represented by Lenin, was far from the thought that the revolutionary unity of the world working class would have to be created by a complete break with the Social Democracy. The opportunist degeneration of the workers’ parties, closely connected with the period of the flowering of capitalism at the end of the last and the beginning of the present century, was completely revealed only at the moment when the war bluntly posed the question: With the national bourgeoisie or against it? Political development made a sudden leap in 1914; to use Hegel’s phrase, the accumulation of quantitative changes suddenly acquired a qualitative character.

The extent to which the sharp turn to patriotism by the sections of the International seemed at first completely unexpected can be seen perhaps most clearly from the example of Lenin. In the years before, more than once he had had to criticize the German Social Democracy; but invariably he considered it his party. And even when, in Switzerland, he received a fresh number of Vorwärts announcing that the Social Democratic fraction in the Reichstag had voted Wilhelm Hohenzollern credits for the war, he declared with complete confidence to a circle of friends that this issue had been forged by the German general staff to prove the fictitious unanimity of the German people and to frighten the enemy. And when there was no longer any room for comforting illusions, the conclusions Lenin drew from the catastrophe were all the more decisive and categorical. The Social Democratic International was broken, its individual sections were in the service of the national general staffs, a new International must be constructed — this was Lenin’s program right from the first days of the war. From then on, parliamentary and trade unionist leaders of the workers’ organizations seemed in his eyes merely agents of militant imperialism inside the working class. He proclaimed the break with them as the first condition for further revolutionary work. The new International, purged of opportunism, must become an organization for civil war against imperialism. Lenin rejected the very name of Social Democracy, calling it a dirty shirt which must be changed for a clean one.

Reconsidering the theoretical bases of reformism in the light of the new experience, Lenin above all emphasized the theory of the state. The leaders of the Second International considered that the democratic state is an autonomous institution, suspended above classes, and consequently capable of serving different, even opposite, historical goals. The problem consisted for them in gradually, step by step, filling “pure” democracy with a new economic content. Jaurès, the most inspired representative of reformism, preached: “The Republic must be socialized.” The idealization of democracy inevitably led to idealization of the democratic parties of the bourgeoisie. Cooperation with them was presented as a necessary condition for systematic “progress.”

If, in Germany, with its tempestuous economic development and backward political development, the democratic parties faded before they managed to bloom, then in conservative France, with its more stable intermediate classes and the traditions of the Great Revolution, the Radical Party continued to occupy a most important, by a superficial view even a decisive, position in the political life of the Republic. The theory of pure democracy as an arena of uninterrupted progress led in France directly to the bloc of the Socialists with the Radicals. This question became for decades the touchstone for the workers’ movement. Jaurès stood for an alliance of all “pure republicans” for struggle against the “reaction.” Guesde, on the other hand, supported class struggle against all the parties of the bourgeoisie, including its treacherous wing. This antagonism at times took on a very sharp character, but in the last analysis, in its practical consequences, it did not go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy. In spite of all his theoretically irreconcilable formulas, Guesde in 1914 spoke for the defense of the Third Republic from “Prussian militarism,” and unexpectedly for others — and perhaps for himself — became minister of national defense. In Lenin’s eyes, his former comrade-in-arms — and even to some extent his teacher — became just as much a traitor to internationalism as the infamous Scheidemann.

The main force of Lenin’s theoretical critique was now directed against the theory of pure democracy. In his innovations he appeared as a restorer; he cleansed of admixtures and falsifications, and revived in all its uncompromising theoretical purity, Marx and Engels’s doctrine of the state as a tool of class oppression. To the myth of pure democracy he counterposed the reality of bourgeois democracy, grown on the foundation of private property and transformed by the course of development into a tool of imperialism. The class structure of the state, determined by the class structure of society, excluded, according to Lenin, the possibility of the proletariat’s taking power within the framework of democracy and with its methods. An opponent armed to the teeth cannot be defeated by methods dictated by the opponent himself, if, in addition, he also remains the supreme arbiter of the struggle. The advance of the socialist proletariat must inevitably lead to the revolutionary or counterrevolutionary collapse of democracy. As soon as the question passes from secondary points of parliamentary reform to the question of capitalist property, all the parties of the bourgeoisie, including the most “left” ones, inevitably join the most powerful nucleus of the ruling class, namely, finance capital. The perspective of peaceful progress or democratic socialization is revealed from this point of view as pure utopia. The preparation for revolution demands a simultaneous break not only with the bourgeois radicals but, as we already know, also with the democratic reformists in the working class itself.

It would be a fundamental error to draw from what has been said the conclusion that Lenin ignored the petty bourgeoisie, in particular the peasantry, as a political factor. On the contrary, he considered the ability of the workers’ party to lead behind it the petty-bourgeois masses of town and country as a necessary condition for revolutionary victory, and not only in Russia and the countries of the colonial East, but to a considerable extent also in the highly developed capitalist metropolitan countries. However, in the so-called middle classes he strictly distinguished between the economically privileged upper layers and the oppressed lower ones — the parliamentary activists and the electoral sheep. To achieve a militant alliance of the proletariat with the petty bourgeoisie, he considered it necessary in the first place to purge the workers’ ranks of reformists, and secondly to free the small people of town and country from the influence of bourgeois democracy. A parliamentary coalition of the Social Democracy with the bourgeois democrats meant for Lenin marking time and thereby preparing the way for the most reactionary dictatorship of finance capital. An alliance of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie presupposes the leadership of a revolutionary party, which can be won only in irreconcilable struggle with the historical parties of the middle classes.

That is the kernel of Lenin’s teaching on the conditions for preparing the proletarian revolution. It was on these principles, thoroughly checked and confirmed by the experience of the October Revolution, that the Communist International was founded. Our brief theoretical survey should help the reader to determine correctly the historical position of the latest Communist congress, which, in all the key problems of our epoch, has liquidated Lenin’s teaching, making an abrupt about-face to opportunism and patriotism.

In accordance with his doctrine of imperialism, Lenin considered it absurd to seek a so-called guilty party in the conflicts of capitalist states. The diplomacy of each country puts the responsibility for war on the other side, and the Social Democrats of each country servility follow their diplomats in this. Even the most experienced detectives do not, as is well known, always catch the firebrand. And what if the powder magazines of Europe catch fire simultaneously from several sides? The legal criterion of “culpability” gets us nowhere. The real culprit of wars is imperialism, that is to say, the irreconcilability of the worldwide interests brought about by it. The peace of Versailles is just as much a link in the preparation of the next war as the program of Hitler, whom this very Versailles treaty helped to victory.

Meanwhile, in a complete break with all the founding charters of the Communist International, the makers of speeches at the Seventh Congress, and the participants in the discussions that followed them, have unanimously repeated that the source of the war danger is German fascism. The conclusion has been drawn from this that what is necessary is the firm unity of all “democratic” and “progressive” forces, all the “friends of peace” (there is such an expression) for the defense of the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and Western democracy, on the other. This superficial, not to say, trivial, conception of world relations takes us right back to the official doctrine of the Entente in 1914-18; except that in place of Prussian militarism we now have fascism.

In actual fact, the cause of the passing of Germany from shamefaced currying of favor to “equal” aggressiveness is not Hitler’s vocal chords, which do not possess any mystical power, but the revival of the powerful productive forces of the country after the upheavals of the war and the postwar period. England and France are defending against Germany not democratic principles but the artificial balance of power established as a result of the war. Participation in the victorious camp of the defenders of “democracy” did not prevent Italy from being the first to come to fascism. And to return to the present, it is precisely Italy, the ally of French democracy — and indirectly of the Soviet Union too — that is preparing to open the bloody brawl by its rapacious raid on Ethiopia. In the light of these simple and incontrovertible facts, the attempt to present the imperialist antagonisms of Europe as a clash of the principles of fascism and democracy is absolutely ridiculous. To this must be added that the fascist tendencies in France, Czechoslovakia, Romania, etc., would develop irresistibly in the event of a war, but that the complete victory of fascism in Europe would not mitigate one whit the antagonisms which are tearing it apart.

True enough, in the speeches of the delegates to the congress the arguments for the defense of the Central European and Western democracies from the attacks of National Socialism invariably took second place to the argument for the defense of the Soviet state. However, this hierarchy of arguments can in fact easily be overthrown and will inevitably be. The duty to defend “democracy” and “national independence” from National Socialism must evidently preserve its force whether or not the Soviet Union takes part in the war. As far as the actual defense of the land of the Soviets is concerned, this slogan was in fact written on the banner of the Third International from the first day of its existence. The Seventh Congress remains formally under the sign of this tradition. But what a difference in perspectives and methods!

Under Lenin, and in the first years after his death, the main opponents on the world arena were social patriotism and its foster brother, democratic pacifism. It was considered unshakably established that they were the ones who were lulling the minds of the toilers and thereby freeing the hands of imperialism.

Soviet diplomacy, to be sure, had even earlier not shrunk from taking advantage of the contradictions of imperialism (though never pretending that they were contradictions between “reaction” and “democracy”); but the chief guarantee for the existence and development of the Soviet Union was seen by the leadership in the time of Lenin as being the development of the European and world revolution. It was precisely for this reason that in that period there could not be talk of any prolonged alliance of the Soviets with one of the conflicting imperialist groups, nor could the thought possibly have entered anyone’s head that in those capitalist countries with which the Soviet Union had established temporary treaty relations the proletariat should replace revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie by reformist and pacifist cooperation with the “left” bourgeois parties and with all the “friends of peace” in general. In the question of war, pacifism, and “civil war” there has thus been an almost 180-degree turn.

Of course, none of the delegates to the Seventh Congress directly rejected proletarian revolution, or the dictatorship of the proletariat, or all the other terrible things. On the contrary, the official speech-makers swore that in the depths of their souls they had not altered at all, and that the change in tactics concerns only a particular historical stage, when both the Soviet Union and the remnants of Western democracy have to be defended from Hitler. It is not, however, advisable to believe these solemn oaths. If the methods of revolutionary class struggle are useless in difficult historical conditions, that means that they are bankrupt in general, especially as the coming epoch is going to be one of increasing difficulties. How Lenin once scoffed at the social patriots, who also swore that it was only “for the duration of the war” that they were consigning to the archives their international obligations!

At the center of all the debates at the congress stood the most recent experience in France, in the form of the so-called “People’s Front,” which was a bloc of three parties: Communist, Socialist, and Radical. Direct and indirect cooperation with the Radicals (the so-called cartel) had always been a component part of the policy of the Socialist Party. But in contradistinction to the German Social Democrats, the French section of the Second International, bound by the revolutionary traditions of its proletariat, could never make up its mind to take cooperation with the bourgeois left as far as the setting up of a coalition government with it. Confining itself to electoral agreements and common parliamentary votes, the cartel proclaimed as its task “the defense of democracy” from internal reaction and external dangers. The French Communist Party, it may be said, grew up in the struggle against the cartel. When the Socialists, warding off the blows from the left, adduced in their justification the necessity for union with the middle classes, the Communists answered that even though the Radicals were mainly supported by the petty bourgeoisie, in all questions of importance they sacrificed its interests to the bankocracy. Alliance with the party of the Versailles peace, they asserted, was a preparation for a new war and a new betrayal by the Socialists.

The overthrow of Daladier’s ministry by an open uprising of the armed leagues of reaction (February 6, 1934) brought about radical changes in the distribution of political forces. Under the influence of the agitation among the masses the Socialist Party hastily drew back from the compromised Radicals; it even expelled from its ranks the faction of the right parliamentarians, the so-called Neo-Socialists, who considered cooperation with the bourgeois left to be the principal content of a Socialist policy. On the other hand, the approach of the fascist danger in France and the growth of German armaments produced an exactly opposite evolution in the Comintern, and at a breathtaking pace. The very same leaders who until February 6 had proclaimed the left Radical Daladier as nothing but a fascist, and the Socialist leader Leon Blum as a social fascist, now, under the shock of real fascism, completely lost faith in themselves and in their banner and decided — at the direct bidding of Moscow, of course — to seek salvation in an alliance with the democratic parties, and not only with the Socialists but also with the Radicals.

The talks, which lasted for several months, had a thoroughly theatrical character, with a fair admixture of involuntary comedy. The Socialists did not believe in the sincerity of the Communists’ outpourings of ardent friendship; the “social fascists” of yesterday were afraid of a plot. And when they finally realized the strength of the terror of their recent bitter opponents and agreed to a united front, the second chapter began: the struggle for an alliance with the Radicals. The Socialists were obstinate, citing the political fruitlessness — proved by long experience — of a bloc with the party of Herriot and Daladier, conservatives through and through; but the insistent pressure of the Communists, the belated neophytes of the cartel, won the day. The Radicals, from whom their left allies did not even demand a break with the extreme reaction represented in the coalition ministry of Laval, reluctantly accepted the tripartite cartel as a political means of strengthening their shaky parliamentary positions and ensuring for France the help of the Red Army as an ultimate reserve. As soon as the People’s Front was established, the Neo-Socialists took up their natural place in it, beside the party of Briand. Their previous expulsion thus proved to have been a simple misunderstanding.

In putting forward the French experience as the model of the most successful application of the new realistic policy, neither the speaker, Dimitrov, nor the French delegates took the slightest trouble to analyze what that episodic grouping of forces bearing the high-flown name of “People’s Front” in fact amounted to, in the social and economic sense. On the contrary, all the orators stubbornly refused to analyze the program of the new cartel and its perspectives. This is hardly surprising: the crisis of French parliamentarianism is above all the crisis of French Radicalism. The petty-bourgeois masses are increasingly losing faith in the heroes of the Jacobin phrase, who in fact always turn out to be one of the instruments of finance capital. Fascism exploits the political disillusionment of the petty bourgeoisie of town and country with the Radical Party. Behind the scenes, finance capital generously supports the fascist leagues, preparing a new support for itself. The present regime has a transitional character. The Radicals are still necessary to support the unstable national government of Laval.

But the two-faced and thoroughly rotten character of this party is nowhere so deadly clear as in the fact that on the one hand it is represented by its authoritative leaders in the national government, which is issuing draconian financial decrees, and on the other it is part of the People’s Front, which is waging a noisy struggle against the government and its decrees. The Socialists and the Communists declare that the financial decrees of Laval are an excellent political gift to fascism; at the same time they carefully avoid the question of the responsibility of the Radicals for the government’s policy. The whole People’s Front is founded on equivocations, silences, and falsifications. No wonder the struggle against fascism has assumed a purely decorative character. The discrediting of the Radicals among the popular masses has automatically spread to their allies. The “People’s Front,” very noisy but paralyzed by internal contradictions, shifts from one foot to the other helplessly. At the same time, the fascists are broadening their political base and perfecting their military organization. Nobody so much as breathes a word of this at the congress, where the obligatory monolithism, prescribed in advance, reigned.

Essentially, the Seventh Congress was called to raise into a law and to extend to all countries without exception the about-face carried out by the French Communist Party. The chief paradox of this congress, by the way, is that, while preaching the necessity for “a strictly realistic account of the national peculiarities of each country,” it lays down with a stroke of the pen for all its sections the “People’s Front” as the model to be followed. Since Dimitrov has acquired a certain moral authority by his courageous conduct in the well-known Reichstag fire trial — Dimitrov never had and does not now have any other right to political authority — it was he who was assigned the delicate mission of announcing in a wordy but unsubstantial speech the fact that the Comintern in the struggle with fascism had entered the road of democratic coalition and patriotism. In distinction from the Socialists, who as we already know could never make up their minds to a governmental combination with the Radicals, the Seventh Congress carried through its about-face to the end and directly posed the problem of the new course as the construction of a People’s Front government.

If, in the immediate future, Marcel Cachin, Thorez, and other leaders of the French Communist Party do not manage to form a common government with the “Radical fascist” Daladier and the “social fascist” Blum, then the cause at any rate must be sought in the snares of the historical process and not in the ill will of the Communist leaders. But if in spite of all the objective indications (crisis, financial difficulties, revolutionary outbursts in Toulon, Brest, le Havre, etc.), the coalition government of the left bloc nevertheless comes about, it is possible, without being a prophet, to say in advance that it will be merely a brief episode, and that, when it itself falls, it will bring down the “People’s Front.” We shall be very fortunate if it does not bury in its ruins the remnants of French democracy.

The first great imperialist war broke out when capitalism seemed at the peak of its powers, and parliamentarism an eternal regime. The reformism and patriotism of the Second International were supported on this foundation. War? But this is the last war. … Since then all the illusions, both the primary ones and the derivative ones, have blown away like smoke. The merciless character of our epoch, which has bared all contradictions to the root, lends an especially ominous character — and, it may be said, an especially shabby one — to the capitulation of the Comintern to those ideas and idols on which at the start of its existence it had declared a holy war.

Nothing now distinguishes the Communists from the Social Democrats except the traditional phraseology, which is not difficult to unlearn. Even now the Communist leaders are already not unsuccessfully picking up drawing-room language in their dealings with their allies on the right; the old reserve of curses is preserved only against opponents from the left. It would be no wonder if the united front is proclaimed the first step towards full organizational fusion of the parties of the Second and Third Internationals.

The obstacles in the way of this fusion are rooted not so much in ideas as in the apparatuses. In England, Belgium, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries the sections of the Comintern are too insignificant for the reformist parties to consider themselves interested in experiments with a united front or in attempts at fusion. But where the forces are more evenly distributed, above all in France, the question of fusion is already being posed from both sides as a practical problem. Will it be decided in the immediate future? The programmatic and tactical differences of opinion have been reduced to a minimum since the conclusion of the Franco-Soviet pact; the Social Democrats promise to defend the Soviet Union, in exchange for which the Communists promise to defend the French Republic. In relation to war and national defense — and this is the basic problem of our epoch — the basis for unity is thereby present. But there remains the question of the traditions of the two closed bureaucratic apparatuses and of the material interests of a considerable number of people who are bound up with the apparatuses. Whether the united pressure of fascism and Moscow diplomacy will prove sufficiently strong to overcome this secondary but very considerable obstacle on the path of fusion, the future will show. In any case the Seventh Congress has openly and decisively proclaimed the need to unite with that very Social Democracy which Stalin a few years ago was calling the twin of fascism.

If we take the ideological and political development of the Comintern, leaving aside the question of its fate as an organization — the body goes on decaying long after the living soul has departed from it — we can say that the history of the Third International has found in the Seventh Congress its ultimate conclusion. Twenty-one years ago Lenin proclaimed the slogan of a break with reformism and patriotism. Since then, all the opportunist and intermediate, so-called centrist leaders have imputed to Lenin above all the guilt of sectarianism. One may consider Lenin right or wrong, but it cannot be disputed that it was precisely on the idea of the irreconcilability of the two basic tendencies in the workers’ movement that the Communist International was founded. The Seventh Congress has arrived at the conclusion that sectarianism was the source of all the subsequent great defeats of the proletariat. Stalin is thus correcting the historical “error” of Lenin, and correcting it radically: Lenin created the Communist International; Stalin is abolishing it.

It is, however, already possible to say that even the complete union of the two Internationals would in no way assure the unity of the working class. The principles of social patriotism exclude in advance the possibility of preserving international unity, especially in an epoch of approaching military clashes. But there will not prove to be unity even within national limits. At a new historical stage there will inevitably take place a new irreconcilable split in the workers’ organizations and a regrouping of their elements along two axes: opportunist and revolutionary. Even now, in almost all countries of the world, the banner of the Fourth International has already been raised. For the moment, of course, it is merely an affair of small vanguard groups. But anyone who knows the history of the workers’ movement will understand their symptomatic importance. This side of the question, however, goes beyond the limits of this article, the aim of which is to give a general evaluation of the Seventh Congress. We repeat again: it will go down in history as the liquidation congress.