Socialists are, almost universally, avid readers. As a minority current in capitalist society, socialists often feel isolated in their sharp criticism of how the ruling class rules, and seek to exchange and advance their ideas through intense, serious reading. Among the most engaging collections of reading material for socialists are the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Communist International, or Comintern, that took place between 1919 and 1922.
The recent publication of the first English translation of the proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern of 1922, Toward the United Front by John Riddell, presents an inviting opportunity for socialist readers. It has the potential to open a vastly expanded conversation about this rich period of socialist history. John Riddell’s helpful introduction, biographical notes, and annotations add texture and depth to this formative moment.
But the volume is a challenge to read.
Certainly, at just over 1300 pages, it is a hefty volume. But length alone is not a deterrent for modern readers; each one of the seven-volume Harry Potter series, written by J. K. Rowling, was met by millions of readers with keen anticipation.
The challenge rests more specifically in shaping the context of the proceedings, and the context today. What elements of the Comintern discussions are relevant, and how are they relevant, for socialists today?
Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War One and the Russian Revolution, reading this period of living history is exciting. The actuality of the revolutionary process is palpable. The text provides a sense that another world was not only possible but was in the making, as the delegates discussed and debated next steps.
The 1930s ended with the return of world war, and the first four congresses continued to provide a source of inspiration and clarity for revolutionary socialists.
Leon Trotsky, a central participant in the first four congresses, pointed to these proceedings as a pivotal laboratory for socialists. As he stated in 1933:
“The first [four] congresses of the Communist International left us an invaluable programmatic heritage: the character of the modern epoch of imperialism, that is, of capitalist decline; the nature of modern reformism and the methods of struggle with it; the relation between democracy and proletarian dictatorship; the role of the party in the proletarian revolution; the relation between the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie, especially the peasantry (agrarian question); the problem of nationalities and the liberation struggle of colonial peoples; work in the trade unions; the policy of the united front; the relation to parliamentarianism, etc.—all these questions have been subjected by the first four congresses to a principled analysis that has remained unsurpassed until now.”
Preserving this history after ninety years, including periods of intense repression, would not have been possible without the monumental efforts of working class movements—and socialist readers, writers and translators—all over the world. Framing “revolutionary continuity” has, understandably, become a central feature of contemporary readings of the classical socialist tradition.
There is commonly an emphasis on the persistence of capitalism, imperialism and war, and a stress on similarities between the movements of today with those that have come before us. This is a standard frame for reading about the Communist tradition.
But in the twenty-first century, obviously much has changed. To read Communist international history in a way that contributes to the reality of building socialism today demands recognition of new contexts and new questions, as well as the points of continuity.
John Riddell’s Toward the United Front brings to life the deliberations of activists living in demonstrably different times. Many of the conversations and debates are strikingly relevant, but others appear, sometimes disturbingly, archaic.
Regarding the life and conditions of women, for example, the one day of the Congress devoted to discussions on “the woman question” was presented by the chair as a concession. And women in general were no more than ten per cent of the organized parties in the Comintern. The contributions of these early feminist pioneers are very inspiring. But without in any way minimizing the continued barriers of capitalism and oppression, the women’s movement has advanced tremendously since this time.
Moreover, the period after the Russian Revolution was widely anticipated to be a pause in the continuing movement of global socialism. But this has not been a linear path. It would be a mistake to burden the comrades of the Fourth Congress with the assumption that they were speaking to those of us, decades later, who had endured the longue durée of post-war liberal capitalist democracies.
Toward the United Front is not an ABC guide or “how to” book for socialists. It is not a textbook, to be quoted as if it could apply mechanistically to present day conditions. But it is a profoundly interesting history book. It is rich in lessons of the challenging conditions of the time and some of the efforts to build a new world of freedom.