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1919-2019. One hundred years from the foundation of the Communist International

The Fourth Congress

From the special series 1919-2019. One hundred years from the foundation of the Communist International

The historian Branko Lazitch wrote that the IV Congress, compared to the first three, placed itself in a regressive line: while the I Congress held the perspective of working in anticipation of an imminent future world revolution, the IV Congress acknowledged that such an objective had fallen out of reach and they had to learn to conduct political activity over much longer timeframes. Arrigo Cervetto comments: In a way it is true. After having tried the revolution with a communist party, Lenin wants to prepare the revolution with a Leninist party. His job is to prepare this party.

Italian fascism

Karl Radek was commissioned to give a report focused on “The Capital Offensive”: the Italian events represented the most serious defeat that socialism and communism have suffered since the beginning of the world revolution. But the speaker denied that a parallel could be drawn with the counter-revolution of 1849: that had its roots in a general economic recovery of capitalism which, instead, could not be found in 1922. Radek's report was affected by the same strategic insufficiency that we have already noted in Trotsky's report at the III Congress.

It was necessary to be clear — Radek remarked: the victory of fascism in Italy forced the proletariat on the defensive and the conquest of power was no longer on the agenda. On the other hand, Radek continued, the Communist International is not only the party that wants to conquer power but also the party of the struggle for power. It would be nonsense to think that we have fallen into a sort of state of daze in which the party cannot fight. We must avoid both the disappointment and the expectation of revolution. Our watchword must be “to fight for every meter of ground”.

The Bolsheviks knew very well that the significance of the victory of fascism in Italy ought not to be underestimated. Even in the days leading up to the October victory, Lenin had observed that, if the party had not lived up to its task of leading the masses, the counter-revolution would have ended up conquering the field. The crisis had reached a point where, if the almost desperate hatred against the capitalists, had not found a revolutionary solution, it would have ended up being channelled by the bourgeoisie in a counter-revolutionary way through the reactionary and anti-Semitic movement of the Black Hundreds, who are giving the people a counterfeit of Bolshevism. They were prophetic words. Again, the Russian experience could not be overlooked.

In his speech to the Congress, Lenin thus addressed the Italian communists who insisted on the insufficiency of the Russian experience as a compass for the revolution in the West: The fascists in Italy may, for example, render us a great service by showing the Italians […] that their country is not yet ensured against the Black Hundreds.

The need for “retreat”

Lenin addressed the Congress in the session evaluating the “Five years of Russian revolution”. It was his penultimate public speech. In fact, on May 25th 1922, Lenin suffered the first attack of the serious illness that in less than two years would lead to his death. Only from October (and only for a few months) was Lenin able to fully return to work and thereby attend the IV Congress.

In his speech, Lenin started from the Russian situation. The NEP was to be considered a problem that today is of the utmost importance because the gravest internal political crisis at the beginning of 1921 had been the most serious that Soviet Russia had ever gone through. The only possible solution was the retreat of the NEP. But Lenin used the example of the NEP to pose a strategic problem concerning the world party as a whole. The CI had to reflect again before drawing up its own program, because the most important thing in the period we are now entering is to study. And above all, we had to study the problem of the retreat. Learning to conduct an offensive in favourable conditions is not difficult. Things change during a retreat. For this reason, I think, the idea that we must prepare for ourselves the possibility of retreat is very important, and not only from the theoretical point of view. From the practical point of view, too, all the parties which are preparing to take the direct offensive against capitalism in the near future must now give thought to the problem of preparing for a possible retreat.

These words must be weighed: I think, the idea that we must prepare for ourselves the possibility of retreat is very important, always studying the problem of preparing for a possible retreat. To what extent? Lenin does not say and the fact that he leaves a fixed line deliberately undefined makes these considerations of great importance. We will return to this later.

Translating the “Russian experience”

Lenin also criticised the resolution on the organisation of the communist parties approved by the III Congress: it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian — it has been excellently translated into all languages — but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. […] if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out.

Marx and Engels had already faced this problem: translating German communist literature meant, for them, above all offering the German party's experience to the different national sections of the world party, so that it could adapt to the mentalities, history, traditions of other countries. So it was for Lenin too: the Russian experience had a universal value, but it was necessary to know how to “translate” it in the aforementioned sense. However, perhaps there is more to these words.

The historian Pierre Broué considers them connected to the struggle that Lenin was engaging with the Great-Russian spirit prospering in the bureaucracy inherited by the Soviet State from the old Tsarist apparatus and that was boldly weighing into the party up to its highest levels, to the extent that it became one of the vectors of the Stalinist counter-revoluion. Over-interpreting is always dangerous, but there is no doubt that at exactly this time the great clash with Stalin on the question of nationalities began, which was Lenin's last battle.

Reflecting on the defeat

Zinoviev delivered the Executive Committee report. In the scientific lab of the world party, the hypothesis that the revolutionary crisis was still open persisted; it continued to be cultivated and Zinoviev was one of its main supporters. That said, his report did not fail to recognise that in 1921-22 the capital offensive had grown in intensity. Trade union members in Europe had decreased from 25 million in 1920 to 18 million in 1922, while strikes had increasingly turned from offensive into defensive. That was why the retreat had to stand on the united front line.

However, in his inaugural address, Zinoviev went further in considering the gravity of the situation:

Obviously, from a historical point of view, the victory of the Communist International is assured. Even if our organisation were to be swept away from the earth under the blows of reaction, as it happened to the Paris Commune and the I International, the Communist International would be reborn again to bring the proletariat to victory in the end. For Zinoviev it was not necessarily his generation of fighters who would succeed in completing the historic mission that the Communist International [had] set itself.

It is a starting point which lacks the documentation of a more indepth reflection: there are many elements of it, but in the dark era of Stalinism certainly someone worked to erase the traces. It is, however, equally certain that the loss of Lenin's contribution was decisive in this. Organising the retreat also meant raising the question of how to ensure the continuity between the party's generations in the defeat.

Let's halt our overview of the early years of the CI and the IV Congress here. The epilogue is known. The Stalinist counter-revolution, once it had eroded the Soviet power from within, overthrew it and enslaved also the world party to the foreign policy interests of Russian State capitalism. The defeat became a disorderly retreat, in which the class enemy took no prisoners. Inexperience, disorganisation, superficial assimilation and a lack of in-depth analysis of the strategic nodes did the rest. At that point, there remained only heroic minorities of internationalists who bore witness and remained loyal to the principles until martyrdom. It wasn't enough.

Instead of stubbornly defending the small Russian fortress, refusing to acknowledge its capitulation, it was necessary to study Lenin's lesson on the science of retreat. Only with such a strategy would it perhaps have been possible to save the theoretical and organisational continuity of the party-strategy and, perhaps, attempt a new assault in the great political and military crisis of the 40s.

Lotta Comunista, December 2019