The Communist Left and the resolutions of the second congress of the Communist International - Henriette Roland-Holst

Opening of 2nd Congress of the CI

Dutch communist Roland-Holst argues against using the objective and subjective conditions of the Russian Revolution as a model for revolution in the Western countries.

The consequences of the decisions reached in Moscow are more complicated for the left communist groups. The fact that the new demands for international centralization and discipline cannot be separated from the decisions concerning parliament and the trade unions has led to an unfortunate outcome, giving the impression that one part of the radical camp is against the formation of a solid international association.

Only one of the left groups, the Austrian communist group, has immediately confirmed its appreciation for the great value of such an association. Revoking its decision to boycott the elections, which had been proclaimed shortly before the congress, in order to participate in very unfavorable conditions in the electoral campaign, it has provided an example of international discipline of a kind never seen in the old movement.

In my view, it seems unjust and inappropriate to joke about this act of the Austrian comrades by calling them “Mamelukes”, as the Arbeiter-Zeitung1 has done. However anti-parliamentary one may be, one can and, according to my criteria, one must appreciate the sacrifice such an act implies. The Austrian comrades are not necessarily puppets of Moscow who are blindly following orders. They could also be men who enjoy an interior freedom, who do not serve the lifeless word, but the cause, who do not fail to see the greater truth hidden behind a smaller one. They are convinced that the question of whether or not to participate in the elections is secondary, and that the primary question is this: international unity and international discipline.

An entirely different question, however, is whether the negative experiences in respect to participation in parliamentary elections, most recently suffered by the Austrian communists, and last summer by the Germans, 2 do not cast doubt upon the consequences of a discipline which obliges parties in the Third International to act against their own better judgment and intuition. Does the Austrian failure not prove that grudging obedience to a directive, without enthusiastic conviction, not only fails to reinforce the revolution but actually retards its progress? Is this failure not a sign that it is desirable and necessary to give the member parties freedom of action in certain cases and within certain limits, and precisely in those cases where the conscious and active part of the working class either demands or rejects a particular course of action?

In his pamphlet on left wing infantilism, while addressing the issue of parliamentarism, Lenin has brilliantly reminded us of the danger of lethargy, which inevitably arises periodically in extreme left wing tendencies and constitutes their negative aspect. He explained to all radicals that only by remaining in close and continuous contact with the masses can this danger can be avoided, and in this respect he has done all of us a great favor. And he has personally convinced us that it is folly for the communists to refuse to participate in bourgeois institutions or non-revolutionary workers organizations, out of fear of weakness or corruption; the construction of the institutions of the new society will not be possible without confronting similar and even more serious dangers. Lenin has not presented any proofs, however—and neither he nor anyone else can present such proofs—that the communists of Western Europe must participate in parliamentary elections in defiance of the intuitive rejection of such elections by the revolutionary vanguard. All the examples he adduces from the practice of the Bolsheviks prove nothing. All of these examples refer to a phase in the development of the world revolution which we have left behind, and which will never return for any proletariat. The world war and the Russian revolution have contributed new elements to the course of events; the mentality of the masses, and even more so, the mentality of their vanguard, have changed.3 One of the symptoms of this change is the rejection by part of the revolutionary workers of the corrupted and disgraced parliament, which is profoundly hated and despised. What has taken place in Germany and Austria will probably be repeated in England and France, should the communists in those countries also participate in parliamentary elections. Over the long term, Pannekoek will be vindicated against Lenin, and the international resolution on parliamentarism will have to be revised at a future congress.

Based on what we have read in certain declarations in the Workers Dreadnought,4 the English anti-parliamentary left communists will follow the example of the Austrian comrades, that is, they will place more value on organizational unity at the national and international levels, than on the defense of their opinions on particular issues. Now that the Labour Party has refused to admit communist organizations, the most important bone of contention separating the right and left wings of the English communist movement has disappeared, and I think the Pankhurst group’s position is tactically correct, which consists of advocating unification with the old BSP (now the CP). It would be idiotic to preserve the current fragmentation of forces, solely and exclusively because of the antiparliamentarism of a small group: a party cannot have an essentially negative purpose for its existence, without falling into lethargy and situating itself outside of the masses. However, the task of Sylvia Pankhurst’s brave and dedicated group will be far from finished, once formal organizational unity is established. Since it is likely that the moderate wing of the English CP, with its strong predilection for parliamentarism, will be predominant, it will be the task of Pankhurst’s group to be the revolutionary conscience of the party and to ceaselessly defend the new concepts concerning the role of the masses as the creative element in the revolution. In this way it will also help preserve the spirit of the Shop-Stewards Movement, and will help that movement grow stronger as well. The relative and absolute small size of the communist groups in England, as well as the lack of a strong apparatus of bureaucratic power and influential leaders in the old BSP make it more probable that organizational unity for the communists of this country is the best option, so as to provide the fresh, young and radical elements who are least prejudiced by the old concepts with an influence on the growth of the movement. The precondition for this—and this is very important—is that they preserve their independence of spirit, and do not allow themselves to be deprived of the right to criticize both the national and international leaderships.

In contrast to what is taking place in England, in Germany it is not very likely that the left communist opposition can now fulfill its task within a unified party. The most important, although not the only reason for this, is that the question of the relation between communism and the trade unions in Germany has assumed a very different form than in England. In England, the new spirit which wants to dispossess the leadership of decision-making power over the struggle and its development, in order to place that power in the hands of the organized masses, has found a way to create its own organs within the trade unions: a practical solution, characteristic of the manner in which ways of life are changed in England. In Germany, with its much more rigid concepts and its arrogant fanaticism of power in all walks of life, such a thing has not yet been possible. The radical communist opposition considers the renovation of the trade unions from within to be impossible, and believes that it can attain its objective only by means of the general workers federations, the so-called “unions”. There is thus a conflict with the official communist party, which for the time being appears to be insurmountable.

The political isolation of the extreme left implies great dangers for the latter, although, fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities these days to prevent a loss of contact with the masses. It is, furthermore, precisely its independence which allows the KAPD to freely propagate its ideas and to transform them into reality, without being paralyzed by the requirements of a dogmatic and authoritarian party discipline. Whatever forms they assume, depending on the specific situation, all the radical leftist groups everywhere represent essentially the same tendencies. The idea that only the energy, the initiative, the heroism and the dedication of the masses can make the revolution a reality, has not only been theoretically understood by these groups; they want to transform this idea into the soul of all organization and all action, they want to bring this idea to the consciousness of the working class masses.

This idea, of course, is not always a steady and luminous beacon held aloft by the left radicals. Their beacon is often overshadowed by multiple errors; the groups which are attracted to this beacon are often searching, looking for direction, making mistakes, and faltering, because they abandoned the old well-traveled roads. To this we must also add that extremes normally attract adventurers of the spirit: undesired episodes frequently result.

The KAPD has persistently sought theoretical understanding, i.e., the truth concerning the question of which road to follow for the liberation of the proletariat. It has had to expel dubious and confused elements from its ranks, and is undergoing a continuous process of maturation and increasing awareness. It has made mistakes, but its errors were never the result of the indecisiveness of a party bureaucracy still in thrall to antiquated concepts. It did not vacillate during the days of the “Kapp Putsch”; nor did it vacillate when it seemed for a moment that the soviet armies were only a few days from the gates of Warsaw, it did not hesitate when paralyzing the transport of arms and munitions to eastern Europe became a matter of the utmost importance for the Russian and international revolutions. Because of its faith in the mission of the masses, and the masses’ power to fulfill that mission, the KAPD now represents the future. The KAPD acknowledges the necessity of party centralization, as long as this is understood to mean unity founded on basic principles, and on the will to translate these principles, regardless of the circumstances, into guidelines for action, rather than on the absolutism of a handful of leaders. It recognizes the great value of the party in the revolutionary struggle, and the task it must fulfill, which is to be the political center of the will and the thought of the working class. It rejects with equal fervor, however, both the idea of the dictatorship of the party over the masses, and the idea of the dictatorship of the party’s leaders over its militants. The KAPD has undergone various changes, it has overcome enough false and erroneous concepts, and most of the truths which it has discovered are proven and authentic, precisely because it has discovered them by means of its own efforts, and has not accepted them as a result of a ruling passed down from above. This gives it a power which few parties outside of Russia possess.

The Moscow accords concerning the tasks of the communist parties are still founded upon the old division of men into two species: an elite minority which thinks, decides and acts on behalf of all, and a large obedient herd. This division has dominated the past, and many reasons could be adduced to cast doubt on whether it will ever disappear. But the most important task of socialism is to overcome this situation as much as possible, by educating the masses to undertake their own inquiries, to make their own judgments, to act on their own behalf, that is, to organize their own affairs. This impulse, which in the soviet system is still expressed in an incipient and incomplete manner, exists in the groups of the extreme left as a powerful and conscious will. Especially for this reason, these groups are the bearers of a new development: they cannot be expelled from the International without the latter suffering a loss of strength and foreclosing future prospects. In this respect, Sorel’s broadly applicable and profound judgment is completely valid, according to which it is better for the proletariat to temporarily content itself with weak and chaotic organizations, rather than to submit to associations which are imitations of the political forms of the bourgeoisie.

Our general conclusion is as follows:

As long as the objective and subjective conditions for revolution in the various countries continue to be as divergent as they are today, international discipline and centralization, as sought by Moscow, can only be realized in a limited manner. The Moscow accord on organization is very valuable, however. It is one of those regulatory ideas which, in all those countries where the revolution is still only a possibility and where the power of the past is still strong, and the force of the future is still weak, are useful and necessary, as counterweights against an exaggerated national particularism and as a means of socialist education.

In our western world, where bourgeois ideology, the idea of bourgeois freedom, has affected all classes, it is of the utmost importance to learn to renounce personal desires, aspirations, habits, and concepts which are contrary to common activity and common struggle. An education following the Russian example is therefore necessary for all western communists.

But while that is true, it is also true that the more highly developed individuality of the western proletarians, their greater need for intellectual independence and the personal and collective self-determination of their destinies, could be a corrective against the excessive inclination to accept the country, the people, the past, the experiences and actions of the Russians as models for the international movement. History never repeats itself, life’s current never flows backwards, and its power continually creates new and distinct forms. The conditions amidst which the Russian revolution began and then triumphed will never exist again in the same way in other countries, in the entire world outside of Russia. And this is also why the relation between leaders and simple comrades, or the relation between party and masses, which arose in Russia as consequences of its particular situation, will not be repeated outside of Russia. Everywhere, the revolution encounters other situations, other conditions, and other human material, which must be worked and molded in accordance with other circumstances. The proletariat can learn a great deal from the Russian revolution; blindly following it is impossible. Everywhere, the current must find its own channel.

The example, the authority and the leadership of a brave, conscious, committed and selfless vanguard in the epoch of transition from capitalism to communism are indispensable for a successful conclusion to the proletarian struggle against its external enemies and, perhaps to an even greater extent, against the enemy within, that is, its own defects, greed and egoism. The penultimate achievement of revolutionary development will be the disappearance of the distinction between leaders and followers. While this division still exists, the masses will not have attained self-determination and self-government, they will continue to be more the object than the subject of history.

We do not wish to delve into the question of whether the disappearance of this division between leaders and followers can take place in the manner foreseen by the Moscow accords, that is, through the progressive dissolution of the communist party into the masses, or the masses into the party. This would undoubtedly constitute a painless transition to the self-liberation of the masses. But history seldom works in such pleasant ways, and one must fear that it will not do so in this case, either. It is more likely that the communist party will not willingly abandon its tutelage over the masses, even when it will no longer be necessary. The masses might have to rebel against this tutelage in order to impose their total self-determination. But this historical possibility must not prevent the communists from fulfilling their task in the present epoch. This task is: to lead the masses to where they will no longer need the example and the leadership of a specially organized group, of a political-spiritual aristocracy; to render themselves unnecessary. The communists labor in order to prepare for their own disappearance.

This is the last section of a long article by H. Roland-Holst: Die Aufgaben der Kommunistischen Partei in der proletarischen Revolution (The Tasks of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution), published in Kommunismus, Vol. II, Nos. 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8 (January-March, 1921). The text had been submitted to the journal’s editorial committee in November of 1920. In the pages preceding the extract presented above, Roland-Holst discussed, among other topics, the 21 Conditions for Admission to the Communist International, which were adopted by the Second Congress and were vigorously opposed by the KAPD.

Published in English in a collection of texts as appendix to The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921. Online version taken from the Collective Action Notes website.

  • 1. KAPD newspaper.
  • 2. The legislative elections in which the KPD obtained 380,000 votes.
  • 3. This was actually true of the most radical part of the proletariat, not just certain intellectuals.
  • 4. The journal of S. Pankhurst’s group in London.