Soviet Russia as I saw it in 1920: the Congress in the Kremlin - Sylvia Pankhurst

Soviet Russia as I saw it in 1920: the Congress in the Kremlin - Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst's report to Workers' Dreadnaught, on her attendance at the Second Congress of the Communist International, in Moscow, 1920.

Almost immediately after my arrival at the Djelavoi Dvor, a message came: 'Lenin has sent for you to come at once to the Kremlin.'

The Commandant wrote out a little pink probusk. The motor car took me over the cobbles to the walls of the Kremlin. The Red Guards, five or six of them, checked the car to examine my probusk, and three times afterwards I was obliged to display it before I reached my destination. Once, later on, when I walked to the Kremlin to keep an appointment with Lenin, I was stopped for twenty minutes at the gate, because I had only the pass issued by the Conference, which was by that time out of date. Unable to understand the reason why I was being held up, I ran past the guards with their rifles and fixed bayonets, through the open archway to the telephone on the other side. 'You might have been shot,' a comrade told me later. 'What would be the use of shooting me; I could not do any harm?' 'It was a woman who shot Lenin!'

Passing the Czar's big bell, which lay on the ground with a piece chipped out of it, the road led to the private apartments of the Czar and the Throne Room where the Congress was held. Looking at the great entrance, one sees a mighty staircase. Today it was all hung with long red flags blazoned with the sickle and corn-sheaf, and at the end, a painting of 'Labour,' huge and naked, breaking the chains that bind the earth, hideous and ill- proportioned, but having a certain effective vigour. The walls of the corridors and ante-chambers were lined with photographs, posters and literature. The Russian Communists are indeed great propagandists!

Lenin
In the innermost of the private apartments of the Czar's, Lenin, with smiling face, came quickly forward from a group of men waiting to get a word with him.

He seems more vividly vital and energetic, more wholly alive than other people.

At first sight one feels as though one has always known him, and one is amazed and delighted by a sense of pleasant familiarity in watching him. It is not that one has seen so many of his photographs, for the photographs are not like him; they represent an altogether heavier, darker and more ponderous man, instead of this magnetic and mobile being.

Rather short, rather broadly built, he is quick and nimble in every action, just as he is in thought and speech. He does not wear a picturesque Russian blouse, but ordinary European clothes that sit loosely upon him. His brown hair is closely shaved, his beard lightish brown, his lips are red, and his rather bright complexion looks sandy, because it is tanned and freckled by the hot sun. The skin of the face and head seem drawn rather tightly. There seems to be no waste material to spare. Every inch of his face is expressive. He is essentially Russian with a Tartar strain. His bearing is frank and modest. He appears wholly unconscious of himself, and he met us all as a simple comrade. His brown eyes often twinkle with kindly amusement, but change suddenly to a cold, hard stare, as though he would pierce ones innermost thoughts. He disconcerts his interviewers by suddenly shutting one eye and fixing the other sharply, almost fiercely, upon them.

I had been sent for to take part in the Commission on English affairs, which had been set up by the Third International.

We sat at a round table in the Czar's bedroom. Lenin was on my right hand, and on my left, Wynkoop of Holland, who was translating the German speeches into English. Lenin has a complete knowledge of English: he more than once humorously pulled up Wynkoop for misinterpreting the speakers.

Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev, Trotsky
Bukharin, Editor of the Pravda, and one of the leaders of the Left in the Russian Communist Party, regarded the excited debaters from other countries with laughing blue eyes. Young and vigorous, he had the expression of one to whom life is full of enjoyment. In brown holland blouse and sleeves rolled up to the elbows, he looked like a painter who has just laid down his brushes. During Committee meetings he is continually drawing caricatures of the delegates, but no important point in the discussion escapes him. Today he drew Wynkoop as a solemn, pompous owl.

Radek, who was going to the Polish front in a few days, was also smiling and cheerful, with a detached, dreamy air. One is constantly impressed by the absence of strain or excitement amongst the Russians. These men, standing against a world of enemies, appear to face the situation with perfect calm and much humour.

Zinoviev is of another type: the controversy seemed to bore him. He was a little impatient with the opposition, and criticised, with a tinge of contempt which he doubtless regarded as salutary for the Communist Parties which had not yet learnt how to appeal successfully to the masses. One of the American delegates said of Zinoviev that he always talks to one as though he were taking a bath.

During an interview he seems generally bent on hurrying away to another appointment. An indefatigable pamphleteer, he was probably, even then, composing another Thesis; but he was ready to enter vigorously into the discussion and to speak at considerable length when his turn came.

His voice is not musical, but he is evidently a very popular orator.

At the great meeting in Moscow's biggest theatre, which was the final demonstration of the Congress, Zinoviev and Trotsky were the principal speakers. Trotsky received by far the greater reception. Coming from the Polish front, with the fall of Warsaw to the Red Army daily anticipated, he was naturally the hero of the occasion. He spoke without effort, without any shouting, breathless excitement, but with perfect control and ease. Outwardly well-groomed, he had evidently an excellent mental equipment. He proceeded slowly and leisurely up and down the platform, with an ever varied flow of tone and gesture. The still audience listened eagerly, but he spoke so long that at length he tired them, in spite of their great interest and admiration.

Zinoviev, on the other hand, held the people to the last and finished amid a brisk round of cheers.

At the Commission on private affairs in the Czar's bed- room, Zinoviev sat a little apart from the table. He leaned back comfortably on a soft lounge. Beside him was Levi, of the German KPD. The French; the Austrians and others were also represented on the Commission. The Italians, characteristically, were unrepresented because they could not agree on which of their number should represent them. They were nevertheless present in force and took part in the discussion, Bordiga even presenting a Thesis for discussion against Parliamentary action.

Obviously Lenin enjoys an argument, even though the subject may not seem to him of first class importance, and though the adversaries may be unskilled. At present he was in a bantering mood, and dealt playfully with the British delegates. The majority of them were objectors to certain passages in a Thesis now under discussion, written by Lenin himself, on the tasks of the Communist Party.

Lenin and the British Labour Party
The passages in dispute dealt with the British Communist Parties and declared that they should affiliate to the British Labour Party and make use of Parliamentary action. Lenin evidently does not regard either of these questions as fundamental. Indeed, he considers that they are not questions of principle at all, but of tactics, which may be employed advantageously in some phases of the changing situation and discarded with advantage in others. Neither question, in his opinion, is important enough to cause a split in the Communist ranks. I am even inclined to suspect that he has not been uninfluenced by the belief that the course he has chosen is that which will appeal to the majority of Communists, and will therefore cement the largest number of them in united action. As to the question of affiliation to the Labour Party (a question that may presently arise in similar form for decision by the Communist Parties of Canada and the United States), Lenin says:

'Millions of backward members are enrolled in the Labour Party, therefore Communists should be present to do propaganda amongst them, provided Communist freedom of action and propaganda is not thereby limited.' When, afterwards, in the Kremlin, I argued with Lenin privately that the disadvantages of affiliation outweighed those of disaffiliation, he dismissed the subject as unimportant, saying that the Labour Party would probably refuse to accept the Communist Party's affiliation, and that, in any case, the decision could be altered next year.

Lenin and Parliamentarism
So too with Parliamentarism; he dismissed it as unimportant, saying that if the decision to employ Parliamentary action is a mistake, it can be altered at next year's Congress.

When, however, it is argued that Communists should not go into reformist Labour Parties or bourgeois Parliaments because they may be affected by the environment and lose the purity of their Communist faith and fervour, Lenin replies that after the proletarian conquest of power, the temptation to weaken in principle will be much greater. He argues that those who cannot withstand all tests before the Revolution, will certainly not do so later.

He is for attacking every such difficulty, not for avoiding it: he is for dragging Communist controversy out into the market-place, not closeting it amongst selected circles of enthusiasts.

He does not fear that Communism will be postponed or submerged by the advent to power of reformists. Convinced that reforms cannot cure or substantially palliate the capitalist system, he is impatient for the rise to power of the Reformists in order that their importance may be demonstrated. When I talked with him in the Kremlin, he urged that British Communists should say to the leaders of the Labour Party:

'Please Mr. Henderson, take the power. You, to-day, represent the opinions of the majority of British workers; we know that, as yet we do not; therefore we cannot at present take the power. But you, who represent the opinions of the masses, you should take the power.'

In those days, news had come that Councils of Action had been set up to stop Britain declaring war on Soviet Russia in support of Poland.

Lenin declared that we should inform Henderson that he must no longer scruple to seize power by Revolution, since he and his Party had already committed themselves to that by setting up a Council of Action charged with the work of bringing about a general strike in the event of further war measures by Britain against Russia. Such a strike, as Henderson, Clynes and their colleagues had frequently themselves declared, would be a revolutionary act. The Labour Party was now committed to it.

Lenin said that the creation of the Councils of Action were due to a wave of revolutionary sentiment in the British masses, which had forced their Labour leaders to take some sort of action. That the declarations of the Council of Action failed to satisfy Communists, and that the Council was inactive, merely meant that the wave of mass feeling had not yet gone very far and had largely subsided.

The feeling of the masses rises and falls, he argued, in irregular tides; it does not remain at high-water mark.

'We in Russia,' he said, 'seized the power at the moment the masses had risen. When they receded from us, we were obliged to hold on till the next wave of feeling brought them back to us.'

Lenin argued, that in order to explode the futility of reformism and to bring Communism to pass, the Labour Party must have a trial in office. Therefore British Communists should affiliate their Party to the Labour Party and come to arrangements with it for the formation of a joint Parliamentary block and the mutual sharing out of constituencies. In addition to the Thesis under debate, Lenin had prepared and had translated ready for the Conference, a book called The Infantile Sickness of 'Leftism' in Communism This book was intended to confound and convert those of us who disagree with its author, and who assert that the Labour Party will in any case come to power, and the British Communist Party cannot dissociate itself too early and too clearly from the Labour Party's reformist policy, and must by no means enter into alliances or arrangements with it. We also assert that Communists can best wean the masses from faith in bourgeois Parliamentarism by refusal to participate in it.

Lenin and Trade Unionism
The passages in Lenin's Thesis on Trade and Industrial Unionism, and Zinoviev's Thesis on Unionism were also the subject of hot debate.

Lenin and the other Russians of his school, regard the Unions primarily as agglomerations of workers providing opportunities for Communists to win the masses for Communism. The dissentients, who belong to the highly industrialised Western bourgeois democracies, are unable to detach themselves from the view that an industrial organisation is an organisation for fighting the capitalist employer. Moreover, they are most of them influenced by the view that, if the industrial organisations the workers are developing for themselves under Capitalism do not actually become the organisations which will administer industry under Communism, they are at least a training ground for preparing the workers in the shops to administer Communist industries on Soviet lines. (...)

Whatever the merits of the rival contentions might be, the Theses of Lenin and Zinoviev, and indeed all the Theses and resolutions coming from the Russian Communist leaders, because of their great achievements, were certain to be adopted at this first anniversary of the founding of the Third International.

The Russians, although the sixty delegates of their Party had between them but five votes, like the British, could steam-roller anything they chose through the Congress.

We, who were in opposition on certain matters, nevertheless argued our case in spite of the hopelessness of the task, and Lenin argued against us, as though our defeat had not been a foregone conclusion.

The Congress meeting in the Czar's Throne Room the following evening, allowed me to extend to twenty-five minutes, the allotted five minutes in which I had to accomplish the stupendous task of replying to a Thesis and book of Lenin and innumerable speeches.

The Congress had lasted a month. As the speeches were delivered in various languages and translated, delegates streamed restlessly in and out to an adjoining room, where tables were loaded with slices of bread and butter and sardines, caviar, preserved meats and cheese, and saucers filled with sweets wrapped in coloured papers. Glasses of hot tea were always on hand there. Angelica Balabanova often had to complain that very few auditors were present to hear her translation. Giving but a cursory sketch of rambling speeches, empty of real matter, Balabanova always rendered well and fully the words of those who had anything to say, though she was ill and very tired.

Artists sat amongst the delegates, making drawings of them or roamed about looking for models. Balabanova protested, as she always does against such portraiture.

On the defeat of the English amendments and the unanimous adoption of Lenin's Thesis, with which, in the main, I am in complete agreement, the Congress ended. The delegates sprang up singing 'The International', the Editor of the Italian Socialist paper Avanti! led the singing of the 'Carmanol.' John Reed and others caught Lenin, and though he resisted, hoisted him upon their shoulders. He looked like a happy father amongst his sons.

Published in Workers' Dreadnought, 16 April 1921. Taken from the Antagonism website.