'Unity' on what terms?
Our history: the CPGB responds to overtures from Labour
The founding of the Communist International in March 1919 provided a pole of attraction for class-conscious workers inspired by the October revolution. Large sections of parties affiliated to the discredited Second International rejected national chauvinism and social-pacifism and looked towards to the new revolutionary centre.
The Labour Party in Britain was at the forefront of attempts to resurrect the Second International, in order to stymie this trend towards communism and coordinate opposition to the Comintern. As part of its efforts, it wrote to the newly formed CPGB. It received this sharp reply, published in the party paper and also as a special pamphlet.
Your letter addressed to the socialist and communist parties of the world states that the congress of the Second International held in Geneva in July-August 1920 instructed the British Labour Party to approach other socialist and labour organisations with a view to re-establishing the Socialist International; and that the British Labour Party, on the understanding that it was to have a free hand, accepted the invitation.
In a concluding paragraph your signatories state: “In accordance with the resolution passed at Geneva, we are addressing this to all socialist sections and not to selected groups. We decline to take part in mere sectional movements and we feel convinced that the socialist bodies of the world will agree with us that to act under the inspiration of petty exclusivism will never provide for socialism the international organisation which it requires.” As stated above, the letter is specifically addressed to “the socialist and communist parties of the world”.
The all-embracing spirit here manifested is in refreshing (and suspicious) contrast to the petty exclusivism which denied the Communist Party of Great Britain affiliation to the British Labour Party. Apparently the Labour Party changes its policy in accordance with its needs at the moment.
In its opening paragraphs the letter deals with the failure (we prefer to call it the apostasy of its leaders) of the Second International during the war. The apology advanced is that the collapse was part of a general breakdown affecting all sections of the international socialist movement; that it was due to the unavoidable splitting up of all sections of the population into national groups as a direct result of the passions engendered by war; that, in short, the Second International was the unwilling victim of a catastrophe that inevitably dissolved international relations of all kinds:
“When the war broke out the Second International was not strong enough to stem the currents created by militarist imperialism and capitalism. It tried at Basle in 1912, and again in Brussels only a few days before the outbreak of hostilities, but its attempts were in vain. Europe, socialist and non-socialist, broke up into national groups as fighting proceeded, and some of these groups which are now blaming the Second International most bitterly for its failure joined in the debacle.”
To say that all sections of the socialist movement were swept away by national passion is no defence - it is an indictment. It is not even true, for in every country there was a fraction that fought steadfastly against the warmongers and, although in most it was only a small fraction, in some - as in Italy, Serbia, and Russia - it was practically the whole party.
At most, it touches only effects, whereas what is needed is an explanation of a cause.
Why then was the international socialist movement swept away? Why did the Second International collapse? The answer lies in the Second International itself; in its doctrines; its mentality; its whole ideology.
The Second International collapsed because of very definite and well understood reasons. For a whole generation it had preached the doctrine of triumphant parliamentarism in the countries under its sway. The socialist movements affiliated to it had increased their voting power enormously, and in some cases had entirely squeezed out, or rather absorbed, the old liberalism. Constitutionalism reigned supreme, and the revolutionary ideals that had dominated the First International had become dissipated in the quest for minor reforms, and in the day-by-day struggles for dialectical victories on the floors of the representative assemblies. Electoral success, instead of being a means for carrying on the revolutionary fight, had been elevated into an end in itself. And always the delusion grew that it was possible, given the requisite majority of representatives, to vote capitalism slowly out of existence ...
In short, the Second International had lost its soul long before the outbreak of war, and the protests made at the Brussels conference, on which stress is laid in your letter, were actuated more by ordinary pacifist motives than by any real desire to rally the workers of the world to a revolutionary fight against war, as a preliminary to the overthrow of capitalism.
The failure of the Second International in the time of trial was inevitable. Any other International organised on the same foundation of reformism must fail as tragically in the future. In the name of unity you call upon us to help re-establish such an International. In the name of the world revolution, we decline. We refuse to betray the workers of the world in such fashion. Instead, we call upon the workers in all countries to form up in the communist parties that follow the banner of the Third International.
Much credit is taken in your letter for the efforts which have been made since the armistice of November 1918 to consolidate international unity. At Berne, Amsterdam, Lucerne and Geneva, we are told, the British representatives made repeated attempts to achieve this end, but without much success. Indeed, it was impossible. The national hatreds and jealousies aroused by the war, for the intensification of which the very persons who met at these congresses were themselves individually and collectively responsible, prevented such a consummation.
At the last congress held (that at Geneva in August 1920, nearly two years after the armistice), for example, the delegates felt compelled to preface their pious socialist resolutions by forcing a degrading acknowledgement of responsibility for the war from the German delegates. That acknowledgement would have come more appropriately from the whole body of delegates there assembled than from any section of it. By discussing war responsibilities at all, the delegates proved clearly their bourgeois nationalist outlook and their complete inability to understand the international socialist position.
Moreover, during the period under review the one fact that dominated the international situation was the Russian Revolution; then, as now, fighting a glorious battle against a whole world of capitalist enemies. It is not enough to say, as do your signatories, that capitalist attacks upon Russia were protested against and opposed ...
Mr J Ramsay MacDonald, at least, did not attempt to hide his sentiments towards Soviet Russia, as the following quotation will show: “The whole Second International is anti-Bolshevik. It is indeed the only real bulwark against Bolshevism short of military executions.” (Labour Leader August 14 1919.) At the time this was written our Russian comrades were still fighting desperately against the counterrevolutionaries with the result still in the balance and victory not yet achieved.
The same congress, too, greeted the return of its Hungarian comrades to the democratic principles of the International, as a prelude to a protest against the white terror of Horthy. But that terror had followed upon the suppression of the soviet regime under Bela Kun. By the “return to democratic principles” the congress meant the return to the fold of the Second International of the social democrat traitors who by fraud and trickery had betrayed the soviet government to the Entente, and brought about thereby the overthrow of that Hungarian revolutionary working class, which had made a magnificent, and, for a time, victorious struggle against its exploiters only to fail in the end. So failed the Communards of Paris in 1871; but any so-called International which had dared to ‘greet’ their overthrow in the Geneva manner would, by that act alone, have condemned itself to the oblivion it richly deserved.
That the International conferences mentioned have examined and passed decisions on the war problems (peace treaty, League of Nations, war responsibilities, and so on) is not convincing proof of the fitness of the Second International to lead the international working class in its struggle for the abolition of capitalism. All the capitalist governments, all the bourgeois political organisations, have done the same. Such academic discussions show clearly the difference between the two Internationals - the Second and the Communist. The one is a bureau for bourgeois research and debate; the other a general staff for revolutionary action.
... You remark: “Some social democratic governments, in the early days after the war, were suddenly faced by armed revolts of the left, and suppressed these revolts by similar means.” Your comment that this was deplorable is far too mild. It was a crime against the international working class. Nevertheless, as you state you do not desire to shirk attack on the issue, it is well to notice how carefully the names of Herr Noske and the German majority Socialist Party, of which he was a leading member, are kept out of your reference. And that omission is deliberate as well as wise. Rarely has a single individual been regarded with such worldwide detestation as the same Herr Noske; and the fact that the German majority Socialist, together with the British Labour Party, constitute the backbone of the Second International is no recommendation to the latter body, though it explains much in your letter. The foul murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg can be laid directly at the door of those upon whom you deem it necessary to bestow a special paragraph of apology.
But more sinister than this reference to the past is your anticipation of the future: “We cannot help feeling but that a full and honest discussion of a problem which may confront any country which is passing through revolutionary conditions, at any moment, is most essential if we are to re-establish some international understanding which will be the basis of socialist action in the future and clarify the problems of the transition period.”
Point is given to this observation by the persecution of communists in Georgia and Yugoslavia. In neither case have “armed risings of the left” taken place, but the persecution is there all the same. If, in any country passing through revolutionary conditions (and all countries are in that position) a Noske suppression is possible, the remedy lies, not in a rapprochement with those who so readily undertake to preserve the dying capitalist regime, but in such a strengthening of the left as will make suppression impossible. In the class war there can be neither impartials nor neutrals.
Finally, on the plea of urgency you make an appeal for the re-establishing of the International. You fear that because of the lack of unity the old order will stabilise itself, and reform round itself interests that will be difficult to dispossess, and prejudices that will be hard to overcome. The danger is indeed great and calls for energetic action on the part of the workers of the world.
T here are two courses open. First, to continue along the old Second International lines of pre-war days; to regard capitalist society as an organism whose ills must be cured by the cooperation of all its members ... That way lies futility, bloody disillusionment, and worse. Pursuing these ideals, the Second International landed into the hell of the great war. All the signs point to a second and greater catastrophe if the same policy be pursued in the future. The world capitalists are already preparing for their next war. The reforms so glibly put forward serve but to buttress the collapsing structure of capitalism instead of destroying it.
Unity of the international forces is indeed imperatively necessary; but on a definitely revolutionary basis, recognising the class war as a real war and not a mere matter of political polemics. The dictatorship of the proletariat to which you refer contemptuously as a “phrase of fluid and uncertain meaning” is no mere phrase, but a living fact that is stirring the minds of millions of workers in all countries, and is actually in operation over a great part of Europe.
This basis of unity to which we have referred is already supplied by the Communist International to which the Communist Party of Great Britain is affiliated. We, therefore, call on the militant class-conscious workers of this country, whether already organised or not, to give allegiance to the Communist International through its national section.
Those leaders of labour, among whom are included the signatories of your letter, who supported their capitalist governments in time of war may well call for the re-establishment of the Second International which would perpetuate all capitalist governments in time of peace. For ourselves, we aim at the immediate overthrow of the capitalist regime through the dictatorship of the workers, by means of its effective and increasingly powerful instrument, the Communist International.
Arthur MacManus (chairman), Albert lnkpin (secretary)
On behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain
The Communist January 1921
1. Congresses of the Second International at Stuttgart (1907), Copenhagen (1910) and Basle (1912) all passed resolutions militantly opposing the coming European war. On the very eve of the carnage, July 29 1914, this position was reiterated by the International’s bureau meeting in Brussels. Leading CPGBer Robin Page Arnot commented, however: “The outbreak of the war [revealed] the line of cleavage … between those who supported their governments, making timely use of the exceptional clauses in the 1904 resolution in order to enter coalitions, become ministers and effective recruiting agents on the one side … [and] the minority who remained faithful to the resolutions of the International and would have no truck with the bourgeois on any action” (The Communist Review July 1923).
2. Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy who headed the counterrevolutionary government that crushed the Hungarian revolution of 1919.
3. Bela Kun (1886-1938) became a leading figure in the Comintern after the defeat of the Hungarian revolution. An ally of Zinoviev, he was prominent in pushing the Communist Party of German (KPD) along the line of the ‘Theory of the offensive’, which culminated in the disastrous ‘March action’ in 1921.
4. The Entente powers in World War I consisted centrally of the United Kingdom, France and Italy.