Green Left discussion list, October 18, 2004
Matthew Worley (ed), In Search of Revolution — International Communist Politics in the Third Period, I.B. London: I B Tauris, 2004, ppxii & 379, ISBN 1-85043-407-7
With two introductory essays, one by the editor and the other by John Callaghan, this book assembles articles by several specialists on the history of the following communist parties: German, British, Italian, French, Yugoslavian, Latvian, Portuguese, Spanish, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Chinese, Indian, South African and Brazilian – during the Comintern’s so-called Third Period, between the Sixth ( 1928 ) and Seventh (1935) World Congresses. The contributors are Norman LaPorte, Aldo Agosti, Stephen Hopkins, Geoffrey Swain, Carlos Cunha, Tim Rees, James Ryan, John Manley, Stuart Macintyre, Kerry Taylor, Patrician Stranahan, Allison Drew and Marco Santana.
For those who approach the history of communism in a spirit of mockery, the Third Period has presented an easy target, with its way-out sectarianism and over-the-top wishful thinking. This reviewer once heard a lecturer speaking of the “folly” of the communists in those years, and getting a rebuke from Gerry Healy, who interjected that “some heroic things” were done at that time. As a Trotskyist, Healy was no apologist for the Third Period policies, but he resented such a dismissal of actions like “Bloody May Day” in Berlin in 1929, when communists asserted the workers’ right to demonstrate in the streets, challenging the ban imposed by the social-democratic police chief Zörgiebel. Heroism and folly can, of course, coincide, as in the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and neither rules out the other.
It is well-known that the ending of the Third Period in 1934-35 was welcomed by many communists, but not so well-known that its inception had also been welcomed by many. A British communist is quoted here (p65) on how the turn to the left “accorded completely with our mood of frustration and despair… our desire for something short, sharp and spectacular to end the hopeless stalemate of our existence”. The policies of the “Second Period”, such as the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee, had got the party nowhere, fast, and had left some workers wondering what a communist party was actually for.
When the old leadership was evicted in 1929, a group of YCLers, singing the Internationale, put special gusto into the line: “And at last ends the age of Cant.” Cant was also the name of one of the ousted “right-opportunist” members of the central committee.
Among the merits of these articles is their testimony to how widespread this mood was at the end of the 1920s. They also show that, if this mood among sections of the rank and file was encouraged rather than restrained by the Comintern leadership, the reason was that a sharp leftward turn in the international movement, shipwrecking right-wing elements, corresponded to the political needs of the dominant faction in Moscow at that time. The fight against the “Right” in the Russian Communist Party was being “internationalised”.
The articles show how Moscow utilised for this purpose the impatient and ambitious leaders of the communist youth, especially by training them in the new spirit at the International Lenin School.
Some historians of the revisionist tendency, keen to play down the role of Moscow in the world movement, have emphasised the occasions when a particular communist party modified its ultraleft line, and have presented them as proofs of that party’s independence.
However, we are reminded here that it was “not by accident” (p11) that the centre’s warning in 1930 to the parties to keep a focus on workers’ partial demands coincided with Stalin’s “Dizzy with Success” letter. The British CP’s Harry Pollitt deserves credit not for a non-existent defiance of Moscow but for adroitly taking advantage of the opportunities offered by modifications in Moscow’s outlook and divisions among what the Germans called the “High Comrades”. These articles will give little comfort to anyone trying to create an image of the CPGB which will appeal to “democratic socialists” (social- democrats?), an almost cuddly image of a party essentially engaged in exemplary trade-union work, for its own sake, and ignoring the noises-off that came from some place abroad — about which the less said the better.
Despite some local and momentary successes, the effect of the Third Period policies was, on balance, to cripple the movement on the world scale. Even where, as in Germany, the party gained members in those years, this progress was accompanied by sharpening hostility between them and the majority of the organised and politically conscious workers. Did the Third Period have any positive results for the communists? In one way, perhaps. Its “sectarianism … by promoting an outrageous sense of political and moral superiority, stiffened Communists’ will to tackle unfavourable circumstances” (p239).
What were left of the communists by 1934 were “highly disciplined, hard and driving, prepared by their formative experiences for the hostility they would encounter when shifts of policy would require them to endure it” (p266) — as was to happen, notably, during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939-41.
When, at the Seventh World Congress in 1935, the communists in certain imperialist countries (France and Great Britain) were given permission — encouraged, even — to play the patriotic card, this seemed to the less well-informed to be something new in principle.
In fact, however, the communists in Germany (an imperialist country, in Lenin’s sense, if ever there was one) had been incited to “go nationalist” already in the Third Period. The article on the German Communist Party by Norman LaPorte is one of the best in this collection, and it describes well the KPD’s fatal striving to compete with the Nazis in the propaganda of revanchisme.
As part of the process of conditioning the USSR for full-scale stalinism, a war scare had been whooped up there from 1927 onward, with France presented as the immediate threat to the workers’ fatherland, and so a key feature of the Third Period was activity to bring down “the Versailles system”. The German social democrats, with their policy of “fulfilment” of the peace treaty, were therefore the “social-fascists” par excellence.
However, connected features of the Third Period, not mentioned in this book, were alliance with Croat separatists and intensified support for Bulgarian irredentism, both aimed at destabilising Yugoslavia, a main pillar of the “Versailles system”.
Among my personal relics of the Third Period is a speech by Thorez in the French Chamber of Deputies in 4 April 1933, published by the French CP as a pamphlet and purchased by me at the party’s Paris bookshop in the summer of that year. It bore the title Alsace-Lorraine under the Yoke. Making his contribution to the fight against “Versailles”, and speaking two months after Hitler had come to power in Germany, Thorez called for the Alsatians and Lorrainers (a nation, he claimed, according to Stalin’s criteria) to be given the right to separate from France. The demand for autonomy within France which had been raised by a section of the population of “the three départements” was “not sufficient”.
Perhaps history’s principal verdict on the Third Period must be that its most important consequence was the disarmament, and worse, of Europe’s working class before the onset of German imperialism in its fascist form. The Third Period was initiated in Moscow, and Moscow itself paid dear in June 1941 for what had seemed to its decision-makers a good idea at the time.