2nd world congress of the Comintern: Syndicalism and the party debate

A debate at the 2nd World Congress of the Comintern from July 19 to August 7, 1920 between Jack Tanner, Lenin and Trotsky over the specific position and point of the party and the role of the revolutionary minority. Raising left-wing objections to parties, and the problems it causes, especially in relation to ideological unity and leadership. Including a discussion of syndicalism and trade union relations with politics.

Submitted by Ambiorix on January 22, 2013

Jack Tanner (Shop Steward): Comrade Zinoviev placed the main emphasis in his report on the necessity of a Communist Party. This seems to me to be mistaken, as does the idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat coincides with the dictatorship of the Communist Party. What has now taken place in Russia cannot be a valid pattern for every country. In Britain for example the situation in general is completely different from the position as it was in Russia before the revolution.

The shop stewards mean by dictatorship of the proletariat something very different from what is meant by it in Russia. By that they mean the dictatorship of a minority as represented by the shop stewards. You may not agree with that in particular, but we are of the opinion that we command a larger and a broader layer of class conscious proletarians than is the case in Germany. We are reproached by Comrade McLaine for being apolitical and for refraining from any political activity. That does not correspond with the truth. We are anti-parliamentarian, but that does not mean that we are apolitical. Comrade McLaine was glad that the shop stewards want to work with the BSP. He cannot claim that the BSP is the only revolutionary party in Britain. Very many of those who are now active in the shop stewards movement and in other economic movements opposed the building of the party because they believe and are convinced that it is a waste of time to be active in a political party. They are still in favour of the revolution.

Now public opinion seeks to hold workers back from direct action and make them regard parliament as the means to effect their class interests. We were among the first to come out in favour of direct action, and not only for economic but also for political aims. Comrade Zinoviev said that one can only take an active part in the different areas of social and cultural life through a political party. One can also do this in other ways. I will only be able to give a final verdict on my attitude to the revolution when I have been back to Britain and once more compared British and West European conditions with those in Russia. I ask the Russians and the other representatives whether they have not also something to learn from the others, that is to say that one should also learn from the economic movement and the revolutionary movement of other countries and not simply teach them. I refer also to the fact that the political parties have learnt a great deal from other organisations, precisely on the question of direct action. Not long ago political parties opposed direct action. Recently at least their attitude has become different.

Finally I would like to emphasise that the Second International collapsed because it was characterless and did not give clear guidelines. I am afraid that the Communist International is falling into the opposite extreme and becoming too dogmatic. All organisations should be given freedom of movement within their own country. The suggestion of using parliament as a means of fighting arouses misgivings in many people. The Communist International must create a wide, broad basis on which the individual parties can reach agreement on the important principled questions. Everything else should be left to each party itself.

Lenin: Comrades, I should like to make a few comments on the speeches of Comrades Tanner and McLaine. Comrade Tanner spoke of the fact that he and the others were for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but that by that they meant something other than we do here. He said that by the dictatorship of the proletariat we actually mean the dictatorship of the organised and class-conscious minority.

Now it is precisely one of the main characteristics of workers’ political parties that, under the conditions of capitalism where the masses of workers are always exploited and are not in a position to develop their human abilities, they can only include the minority of their class. A political party can only comprise a minority of the class in the same way that really class-conscious workers only form the minority of workers in any capitalist society. Therefore we are forced to recognise that the great mass of workers can only be led and guided by the conscious minority. If Comrade Tanner says he is against the Party but in favour of a revolutionary minority of the most determined and class-conscious proletarians leading the whole proletariat, then I say that in reality there is no difference between our points of view. What is the organised minority? If this minority is really class-conscious and able to lead the masses and give an answer to every question that stands on the agenda, then it is actually the Party. If comrades like Comrade Tanner, who are particularly important for us because they represent a mass movement, which you could scarcely say of the BSP, want a minority that will fight with determination for the dictatorship and educate the mass of workers along these lines, then what they want is a party.

Comrade Tanner has spoken of the fact that this minority should lead and organise the whole mass of workers. If Comrade Tanner and the other comrades from the Shop Stewards Movement and the IWW recognise – and we see every day in every discussion with them that they really do recognise – that the conscious Communist minority of the working class can lead the proletariat, then they must admit that this is the meaning of all our resolutions. Then the only difference between us is that they avoid the word ‘party’ because among the British comrades there is a kind of prejudice against the political party. They probably think that a political party is something like the parties of Gompers and Henderson, the professional parliamentarians, the traitors to the working class. If by parliamentarism they mean the present British or American variety of parliamentarism, then we are also opposed to it. We need new, different parties. We need parties that really have constant contact with the masses and are able to lead the masses.

Trotsky: Comrades! It may seem fairly strange that three-quarters of a century after the appearance of the Communist Manifesto discussion should arise at an International Communist Congress over whether a party is necessary or not. Comrade Levi has underscored just this aspect of the discussion, pointing out that for the great majority of the Western European and American workers this question was settled long ago, and that in his opinion a discussion of this question will hardly help to clarify the standpoint of the Communist International. For my part I proceed from the assumption that there is a rather sharp contradiction between the march of historical events and the opinion expressed here with such Marxist magnanimity to the effect that the broad masses of workers are already excellently aware of the necessity of the party. It is self-evident that if we were dealing here with Messrs.

Scheidemann, Kautsky or their English co-thinkers, it would, of course, be unnecessary to convince these gentlemen that a party is indispensable to the working class. They have created a party for the working class and handed it over into the service of bourgeois and capitalist society.
But if what we have in mind is the proletarian party, then it is observable that in various countries this party is passing through different stages of its development. In Germany, the classic land of the old Social Democracy, we observe a titanic working class, on a high cultural level, advancing uninterruptedly in its struggle, dragging in its wake sizeable remnants of old traditions. We see, on the other hand, that precisely those parties which pretend to speak in the name of the majority of the working class, the parties of the Second International, which express the moods of a section of the working class, compel us to pose the question whether the party is necessary or not. just because I know that the party is indispensable, and am very well aware of the value of the party, and just because I see Scheidemann on the one side and, on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want. to tear its head off – for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades in order to prove to them that the party is indispensable for the fulfilment of the historical mission which is placed upon them – the destruction of the bourgeoisie. I will try to prove this to them in a comradely way, on the basis of my own experience, and not by counterposing to them Scheidemann’s long years of experience and saying that for the majority this question has already been settled. Comrades, we see how great the influence of anti-parliamentary tendencies still is in the old countries of parliamentarianism and democracy, for example France, England, and so on. In France I had the opportunity of personally observing, at the beginning of the war, that the first audacious voices against the war – at the very moment when the Germans stood at the gates of Paris – were raised in the ranks of a small group of French syndicalists. These were the voices of my friends – Monatte, Rosmer and others. At that time it was impossible for us to pose the question of forming the Communist Party: such elements were far too few. But I felt myself a comrade among comrades in the company of Comrades Monatte, Rosmer and others with an anarchistic past.

But what was there in common between me and a Renaudel who excellently understands the need of the party; or an Albert Thomas and other gentlemen whose names I do not even wish to mention in order not to violate the rules of decency.

Comrades, the French syndicalists are conducting revolutionary work within the unions. When I discuss today, for example, with Comrade Rosmer, we have a common ground. The French syndicalists, in defiance of the traditions of democracy and its deceptions have said: ‘We do not want any parties, we stand for proletarian trades unions and for the revolutionary minority within them which applies direct action.’ What the French syndicalists understood by this minority – was not clear even to themselves. It was. a portent of the future development, which, despite their prejudices and illusions, has not hindered these same syndicalist comrades from playing a revolutionary role in France, and from producing that small minority which has come to our International Congress.

What does this minority mean to our friends? It is the chosen section of the French working class, a section with a clear programme and organisation of its own, an organisation where they discuss all questions, and not alone discuss but also decide, and where they are bound by a certain discipline. However, proceeding from the experience of the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie, proceeding from its own experience and the experience of other countries, French syndicalism will be compelled to create the Communist Party.

Comrade Pestaña says: ‘I don’t want to touch this question – I am a syndicalist and I don’t want to talk politics, still less do I want to talk about the party.’ This is extremely interesting. He does not want to talk about the Communist Party so as not to insult the revolution. This means that the criticism of the Communist Party and of its necessity appears to him within the framework of the Russian Revolution as an insult to the revolution. That’s how it is, for in the course of development the Party has become identified with the revolution. It was the same in Hungary.

Comrade Pestaña, who is an influential Spanish syndicalist, came to visit us because there are among us comrades who to one degree or another take their stand on the soil of syndicalism; there are also among us comrades who are, so to speak, parliamentarians, and others who are neither parliamentarians nor syndicalists but who stand for mass action, and so on. But what do we offer him? We offer him an International Communist Party, that is, the unification of the advanced elements of the working class who come together with their experience, share it with the others, criticise one another, adopt decisions, and so on. When Comrade Pestaña returns to Spain with these decisions his comrades will want to know: ‘What did you bring back from Moscow?’ He will then present them with the theses and ask them to vote for or against the resolution; and those Spanish syndicalists, who unite on the basis of the proposed theses, will form nothing else but the Spanish Communist Party.

Today we have received a proposal from the Polish government to conclude peace. Who decides such questions? We have the Council of People’s Commissars but it too must be subject to certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless, chaotic mass? No. The Central Committee of the party is convened in order to discuss the proposal and to decide whether it ought to be answered. And when we have to conduct war, organise new divisions and find the best elements for them – where do we turn? We turn to the Patty. To the Central Committee. And it issues directives to every local committee pertaining to the assignment of Communists to the front. The same thing applies to the agrarian question, the question of supplies, and all other questions. Who will decide these questions in Spain? The Spanish Communist Party – and I am confident that Comrade Pestaña will be one of the founders of this party.

Comrade Serrati – to whom it is, of course, unnecessary to prove the need of a party, for he is himself the leader of a large party – asks us ironically: ‘Just what do we understand by a middle peasant and a semi-proletarian? and isn’t it opportunism for us to make them various concessions?’ But what is opportunism, comrades? In our country the power is in the hands of the working class, which is under the leadership of the Communist Party and which follows the lead of the party that represents it. But in our country there exists not only the advanced working class, but also various backward and non-party elements who work part of the year in the village and the other part in the factory; there exist various layers of the peasantry. All this has not been created by our party; we inherited it from the feudal and capitalist past. The working class is in power and it says: ‘Now I can’t change all this today or on the morrow; I must make a concession here to backward and barbaric relations.'

Opportunism manifests itself whenever those who represent the toiling class make such concessions to the ruling class as facilitate the latter’s remaining in power. Kautsky reproaches us because our party is seemingly making the greatest concessions to the peasantry. The working class, in power, must hasten the evolutionary process of the greatest part of the peasantry, helping it to pass over from a feudal mode of thinking to communism; and must make concessions to the backward elements. Thus I think that the question for which a solution has been found that appears opportunist to Comrade Serrati is not at all a question that lowers the dignity of the Communist Party of Russia. But even if such were the case, even if we had committed this or that mistake, it would only mean that we are operating in a very complex situation and are compelled to manoeuvre. Power is in our hands but just the same we had to retreat before German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk and, later, before British imperialism. And, in this particular instance, we are manoeuvring between the various layers of the peasantry – some we attract to us, others we repel, while a third layer is crushed by us with an iron hand. This is the manoeuvring of the revolutionary class which is in power and which is capable of committing mistakes, but these mistakes enter into the Party’s inventory – an inventory of the Party which concentrates the entire experience accumulated by the working class. That is how we conceive of our Party. That is how we conceive of our International.



11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on January 22, 2013

Thanks for this!