Thirty-Five Years of Comintern Publishing: A Balancesheet
In June 1983, after returning home from my shift in a machine shop in Brampton, Ontario, I received a visit from two leaders of the New York-based socialist publisher Pathfinder Press, Mary-Alice Waters and Barry Sheppard. They asked me to head up a full-time project to translate, edit, and publish the record of world revolutionary movement in Lenin’s time – principally, the record of major Communist International (Comintern) gatherings from 1919 to 1923. Pathfinder would commit substantial resources for this work, they said, over a period of a decade or more.
I objected that I had no background in academic research and publishing. Waters and Sheppard countered that given my grasp of history in that period, my knowledge of the three main translation languages, and my experience as a socialist activist attempting to implement the Comintern’s ideas, I was the obvious choice.
I accepted the challenge and took charge of the project. It has taken a good deal more than a decade. Along the way, Pathfinder has been replaced as publisher by Historical Materialism Book Series and Haymarket Books. Nine documentary books have now gone to press, totaling 6,500 pages, and another is in preparation. (See list of volumes below.) More than 100 collaborators have helped in various ways to produce them.
The effort was inspired from the start by the belief that despite a vast transformation of the social and political environment, the ideas of the Communist International spoke to our times. The International’s early years marked a high point of revolutionary Marxism as a global force. Close to a million members were organized in dozens of political parties spread across every continent, coordinated by a leadership and publishing apparatus in Moscow in the newly established Soviet republic. Their influence was extended by allied organizations focused on youth, women, trade unions, anti-imperialist solidarity, defense of victims of oppression, and other fields of work.
At each of its world congresses, a multilingual team of stenographers took down a record of the proceedings, and by the 1921 congress they were publishing this material within ten days. Think of it as a Comintern version of YouTube, containing thousands of pages of published debates and documents. News bulletins went out every few days, backed up by a journal hundreds of pages long – and all of it in four languages.
Born of a global revolutionary upsurge in 1917-20, the Comintern was unable to withstand the ebbing of this impulse and the rise of Stalinism in its heartland, the Soviet Union. After Lenin’s death, the Comintern fell under the influence of Stalinism, ceased to play a revolutionary role, and ultimately, in 1943, was dissolved. Still, in the view of Stalin’s leading Marxist opponent, Leon Trotsky, the first four Comintern congresses – those held in Lenin’s lifetime – mapped out a revolutionary strategy for an entire epoch.
Suppression of Memory
In the early 1980s, very little of the Comintern record was available in English. We had Lenin’s speeches at Comintern congresses and also those by Trotsky, but almost nothing else. The entire experience had been largely forgotten. Or more accurately, as our Hispanic compañeros say, it had been disappeared – indeed, violently suppressed.
Each time I publish a Comintern congress, I take a census of the fate of participants who were within Stalin’s reach in the 1930s. Each time, I find that 65 per cent or more were murdered by Stalinist repression. What is more, the Comintern archives were locked down and its published records were no longer distributed. Its original leaders were denounced in the 1930s as fascists and enemies of the people and executed; their writings were locked away. This was destruction of memory on a massive scale.
True, the Stalinist regime spared the works of Lenin, but they were made available only in isolation, shorn of their context, and framed by an infallible official interpretation. Here in North America, Stalinism could exert no monopoly over historical study. But the mainstream of university-based historiography put little effort into publishing the Comintern record. And perhaps inevitably, we Marxists who opposed Stalinism were also limited in our outlook. Our scant resources were devoted mostly to publishing the works of Trotsky. And as our anti-Stalinist movement fractured, each of its currents had its own authorized and fixed interpretation of history. We, too, had little access to the record of the Comintern experience. We, too, suffered from a loss of historic memory.1
Why is socialist memory important to revolutionaries? Revolutionary memory provides the language we use in projecting a social alternative. Memory is the map of our imagination. It is the factual basis for developing and testing policy. As best we can, we try to pass on and, where necessary, rediscover this memory and make it available for a new generation to weigh and assess. The Comintern publishing work aimed to do this for a small but significant fragment of our revolutionary heritage.
The project goal was to make available in English the record of the Comintern’s major congresses held in Lenin’s lifetime or, more precisely, the time period when it was led by Lenin and the leadership team he had assembled. We also planned two initial volumes on the preparatory years prior to the Comintern’s formation in 1919, thus embracing the years 1907 to 1923.
This publishing agenda sought to free socialists from dependency on officially authorized historical interpreters and to provide a basis for open discussion based on direct access to source materials.
For the most part, the documents in question had been published in various languages in books or periodicals during that period. Locating these sources in the era prior to open online catalogs took energetic work in library card catalogs, but little archival research was needed – which was just as well, given that the main relevant archives in the Soviet Union were then closed.
The project stood outside the academic community in terms both of its support base and its volunteers. This posed problems, especially in accessing university libraries. My collaborators and I concocted various ruses to get into the New York University and Columbia University collections in Manhattan; I was barred from the Harvard library because I lacked a doctorate. On the other hand, as non-academics, we were under no pressure to publish new historical research and were thus free to focus on document publication – a low priority in conventional academic work. We won respect from many university-based historians for doing necessary work that did not fit into their job description.
Encounter with History
When we started work in 1983, I established policies aimed at circumventing the obstacle of authorized historical interpretations and make it possible for readers to have a direct encounter with revolutionary history. Among these initial decisions:
- The books would speak, as much as possible, not in the voice of a historian but of the Comintern itself.
- Each volume attempted to embrace an entire experience, including views of participants of every viewpoint.
- Editorial comment aimed to provide context but to avoid, as much as possible, imposing a point of view.
- Texts were translated with care into today’s idiom and diction.
- Annotation sought to make content accessible for non-specialist readers, including worker activists.
With that agreed, I set about building a team. Pathfinder was linked with a political group, the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, which had more than a thousand members, whom I could ask for help. But almost none of them had university connections; very few had experience in research, translation, or historical writing. We would have to learn by doing.
Translation for the project was from German and, secondarily, French and Russian. Other languages played a role, principally Serbo-Croatian, Czech, and Dutch. I acquired at least some knowledge of all the concerned languages, but I decided against doing the foreign-language work all on my own. I assembled and trained a team to do the initial translations; I edited the texts, comparing originals in all available languages, and I wrote or edited the annotation. The advantage of this approach lay not so much in easing my workload but rather in assuring translation quality from a team none of whom had professional experience and in providing greater resources for research. Most of the time, I had two assistants, and we assembled a massive library of source materials. I got useful editorial advice and collaboration from Steve Clark, Bruce Marcus, Mike Taber, and other Pathfinder staffers.
Each volume listed the dozens of volunteers for that work, including dedicated translators such as Bob Cantrick, Robert Dees, Rachel Gomme, Bob Schwartz, and Sonja Franeta.
The first volume covered the internal struggle within the Second International, its collapse, and the Zimmerwald movement, 1907-16; the second took up the German revolution of 1918. The next instalments were proceedings of the First Congress; a two-volume edition of Second Congress, and the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East (To See the Dawn). There were many detours, diversions, and false starts, and for some years I carried responsibility for editorial direction of Pathfinder as a whole. Nonetheless, in ten years six books were published, totalling just over 3,000 pages.
The project’s sponsorship by the publishing house of a political party (the Socialist Workers Party – U.S.) obviously posed the question whether our work could retain independent and objective editorial judgment. However, academic reviewers raised no criticisms of this sort. In my own experience, there was only one instance of political interference. It occurred in the final few months of my work with Pathfinder. Party leaders asked that I trim my introduction to the Baku Congress book to cut back on the portrayal of chauvinist infringements of the rights of Muslims under Soviet rule. I also received a curious instruction not to utilize the writings of “bourgeois” historians. Nonetheless, this instruction was not enforced, and the book in question, To See the Dawn, was sweeping and effective on this issue in question, presenting important new archival material.
The books won a good response from academic reviewers, including leading Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, and were widely used by university teachers and socialists. Study classes were held in various parts of the world. The books have appeared in upgraded new editions, are still in print, and are available from Pathfinder and Amazon.
All in all, it was a rich and fruitful experience. Pathfinder deserves credit for making possible this publishing achievement.
Rebirth of the Project
By 1993, after ten years, the project had run out of steam. I left Pathfinder and returned to Toronto. Nine years later, Pathfinder asked me to resume work on the next Comintern volume, the proceedings of the Third Congress, held in 1921. A rough-draft translation was in hand. I set about the work in my spare time, and by early 2004 the project was close to completion. Early that year, however, because of a political disagreement, Pathfinder ended their relationship with me. I gave Pathfinder my Third Congress manuscript, for which they held copyright.
Yet that event proved to be not an end but a beginning. Recommitting my energies to socialist activism, I made many new friends who knew me by reputation and urged me to resume work on the Comintern books. I pointed out that the road was blocked by the Third Congress manuscript in Pathfinder’s possession, which it would surely soon publish. But years passed, and the book did not appear.
Finally, after a late session of the April 2008 Historical Materialism conference in Toronto, I met in a deserted university cafeteria with Sebastian Budgen, who heads up the Historical Materialism Book Series, my Toronto friends Abigail Bakan and Paul Kellogg, and my partner Suzanne Weiss. Paul made an unexpected suggestion: “Start with the Fourth Congress, where you have an open field. That gives you time to suss out Pathfinder’s intentions.” All were agreed. Historical Materialism would publish the hardcover; Chicago-based Haymarket Books would follow up with the paperback. I got to work – on my own this time.
As it turned out, Pathfinder decided against publishing the Third Congress. They rejected my offer to purchase their manuscript, but otherwise put no obstacles in the path of my recreating the manuscript from scratch. I did an entirely new translation of the proceedings. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the work went faster than when I had full-time assistants. Mike Taber, who had played an indispensable role in preparing the earlier books published by Pathfinder, recreated the annotation and advised on all aspects of the book. Mike and I believe the final text to be qualitatively superior than our first attempt.
The Fourth Congress appeared in 2011 and the Third Congress followed it in 2015, and each book filled 1,300 pages.
This work was assisted by Jeff White, who developed a customized editorial style book for Comintern publishing projects. It was also aided by a global array of consultants, advisers, and well-wishers. Without this supportive community the work would have been impossible.
Parsing the Congresses
The Third and Fourth congresses presented a challenge of a different sort than that encountered in publishing the first two global conferences.
The First Congress launched an appeal to form the new International; the Second Congress consolidated the new global organization and sketched out strategic principles; the Third and Fourth congresses grappled to define how it should apply its strategy in struggle.
The First Congress focused on the nature of workers’ power; the Second, with the need for a revolutionary party; the Third and Fourth, with the path to win political hegemony among working people, especially through united front policy.
The Second Congress adopted broad guidelines for anti-colonial struggle and for unity with working farmers. This acquisition was greatly deepened at the Baku Congress (First Congress of the Peoples of the East), held the same year. After a pause at the Third Congress, the Fourth Congress developed practical policy for these two work areas.
When the first two congresses met, delegates were confident in the imminent victory of socialism across Europe. By the Third and Fourth Congresses, however, it was evident that at least in Europe the postwar revolutionary upsurge had passed its peak.
It is thus not surprising that the Third Congress, the pivotal point between these two periods, was marked by internal crisis, while a measure of equilibrium was restored at the Fourth Congress.
For another approach to periodizing the congresses, see the strategic schema laid out in “The Comintern as a School of Socialist Strategy.”
From the editor’s point of view, however, the most significant difference between the conferences concerns the balance between the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the Comintern’s other member parties. According to the conventional interpretation, the Russian leaders were fully in command from the start and their authority only expanded with the passage of time. That generalization is accurate with reference to the years of Stalin’s ascendancy.
During the Comintern’s early years, however, there was a trend in the other direction. Once the Comintern had built mass parties outside Russia, they increasingly put their stamp on its debates. That was evident at the Third Congress, which was dominated by events in the Italian and German parties. Indeed, going into that Congress the Bolshevik leaders were divided and Lenin’s viewpoint seemed at first to be in a minority among delegates. The Fourth Congress was more harmonious, but even so, several major policy initiatives were shaped by input from front-line parties (see “The Periphery Pushes Back”).
The ‘Third Congress’ Barrier
Both the Pathfinder effort to publish the congress proceedings and the earlier and similar project carried out in Moscow during the 1930s broke down when they approached publication of the Third Congress. Is there a lesson here? Granted, circumstances were very different. What is more, the head of the Moscow project, Béla Kun, was executed, and that did not happen to me. Still, for Marxist editors, the Third Congress presents a special challenge.
The congresses held in 1919 and 1920, including that in Baku, represent the more or less harmonious working out of initiatives by the central Bolshevik leadership, and particularly those assigned to Comintern work: Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin, Karl Radek, Trotsky, and Gregorii Zinoviev. There are notable exceptions: how the arrival of the Austrian delegate Karl Steinhardt changed the course of the founding congress; how M.N. Roy, a delegate from India, reshaped Second Congress discussion of anti-colonial movements, how the Baku Congress, thanks to an initiative by indigenous delegates from Central Asia, contributed to a significant shift in soviet policy in majority Muslim republics. (See “Should Communists Ally with Revolutionary Nationalists?”) Even so, my introductions to these volumes highlight a pattern of Bolshevik ideological hegemony.
In the run-up to the Third Congress, however, members of the Bolshevik leadership team were working at cross-purposes, and some initiatives from the Moscow centre had proven very damaging. The congress was shaped to a large degree – for good or ill – by autonomous forces in the front-line countries, especially Germany and Italy. This was the inevitable result of the consolidation of mass Communist parties and the resulting leverage they acquired in global debates.
But some crucial exchanges and statements did not find expression in the Congress plenary sessions. In preparing the Third Congress proceedings for publication, it was necessary to dig into the archives for materials to be included in an explanatory appendix, work carried out in the main by Mike Taber. The introduction had to provide a narrative to explain the background to events at the congress. It also broke with the project’s reticence regarding expressing editorial opinions, advancing a novel explanation of Lenin’s conduct.
In the Fourth Congress, leadership unity was in large measure restored, and the proceedings were marked by greater harmony and coherence – and also greater complexity, greater length. The original German proceedings, set in brutally small type, covered 1,000 pages. Even so, two crucial discussions – on China and on legality of the U.S. party – took place entirely outside the formal proceedings. Although the Comintern’s Moscow leadership functioned with more cohesion, there were many issues, especially those related to united workers’ action, where the outcome was shaped by initiatives from front-line countries. The introduction had to explain this trend and also provide a road map to the complex and many-themed debates. (See “How Front-Line Parties Took the Lead in Lenin’s Comintern”).
The Internet Conundrum
As the project has advanced, it has faced an obstacle greater than coping with the expanding length and complexity of congresses. The project itself is ill-adapted to the digital era. Much basic research on social history is now conducted on the Internet, which has increasingly become a repository for documentary resources. Digital material unavailable on the public Internet can be accessed within the walled garden of closed academic library facilities. University instruction is now largely based on digital journals, once again available only to accredited members of the university community.
The hardcopy Comintern volumes are relegated to a second-tier of materials usually consulted only when digital sources are unavailable. Unfortunately, neither of the two Comintern volume publishers, Pathfinder and Brill, have yet provided modes of affordable access to digital versions of these books.
Material posted online typically reaches an audience ten times greater than that reached through the book. But posted material is no substitute for the book itself. This dilemma remains unresolved. However, Mike Taber and I have responded to this challenge through several steps:
- Organizing study sessions on issues raised by these volumes. This has been done especially by the friends of Haymarket Books in the annual Chicago “Socialism” conferences and by the Toronto study group Ideas Left Out. In Greece, discussions of this sort led to publication of a Greek translation of the portions of Toward the United Front relating to workers’ governments.
- Publishing significant portions of the books on Marxists Internet Archive. With the assistance of David Walters, a wide range of materials have thus been made universally available.
- Posting excerpts and extensive study/discussion material online at my blog, johnriddell.wordpress.com.
- Beginning with the present collection, posting the entirety of the text in the form of working papers prior to publication in book form.
A New Phase for Comintern Publishing
After completion of the third and fourth congresses, Mike Taber volunteered to edit a further volume. This rounded out completion of the goal set by Pathfinder in 1983: to publish the record of three extensive conferences held by the Comintern’s executive committee in 1922 and 1923 – “mini-world congresses” that conducted the bulk of the International’s leadership discussion on united front policy. I supplied the translation and otherwise stepped happily into the role of editor’s assistant. This 700-page volume, The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, will appear this year.
Mike Taber has now relieved me as project coordinator. He and I produced an additional book in 2017 on Clara Zetkin’s struggle for a united front against fascism. We have joined with Daria Dyakonovo, Bob Schwarz, and Sonja Franeta to produce the next volume, which will focus on the Communist Women’s Movement.
Uses of the Comintern
Global economy and social structure has changed vastly since the Russian revolution and its era. Fundamental constants still prevail: imperialism, capitalist exploitation, a global working class suffering economic, national, racist, sexist oppression, but resistance takes shape in new and unexpected forms. The central actor in the early Comintern – the masses of ideologically convinced socialist workers in advanced capitalist states – is no longer present in that form.
We should not regard the record of Lenin’s Comintern as a textbook. Much is incomplete or ambiguous, and on many issues the Comintern positions now seem dated or simply wrong. For example, in the Comintern era, the whole world was silent regarding sexual violence against women, and the Comintern said little on this question. To take another example, concern with capitalist ecological breakdown, rooted in the thinking of Marx, Engels, and the Russian revolution, is not reflected in the Comintern congresses. So too, indigenous experience, a factor in Marx and the Russian revolution, found only limited expression in the early Comintern. Even the united front, the early Comintern’s pivotal programmatic contribution, was not fully worked out.
Often the Comintern’s value lies not so much in the answer it provides as the questions it poses. Thus the early Comintern congresses were primarily focused on Europe and overwhelmingly male in composition. But both these facts were vigorously protested by Asian and women delegates, and it is their contestation that inspires us in a struggle for the soul of Marxism that still continues today. Moreover, the Comintern debates and decisions on combatting the oppression of women and colonized peoples proved influential and retain their relevancy today.
The Comintern was formed at a moment of revolutionary hope quite different from conditions today. Yet beginning in 1920, the Comintern tried to chart a course for revolutionary socialists in non-revolutionary times. In that sense, it lies on our side of the historical divide separating us from the time of the Russian revolution.
The Comintern was made up of mass revolutionary parties closely linked to an even broader layer of revolutionary-minded workers. It had wide support among oppressed and alienated layers outside the proletariat. It was marked by a close interrelationship between the party and the surrounding movement and class. Most of the time, its parties were divided into currents reflecting different outlooks within the working class as a whole. It had a good record of resolving such divisions through debate that took place before the working class as a whole and through a democratic process. By and large, it kept revolutionary forces joined in a single movement, united against the divisive forces of national rivalry.
How different this is from what we know! We have none of this today. But surely, for socialism to go forward, we must develop these capacities.
Consider the early Comintern’s engagement with the interlocked issues of unity in action, revolutionary program, support of movements of the oppressed, and efforts to establish a workers’ government. Its decisions on these questions provoke strong objections from many Marxist groups today, who are sceptical regarding transitional demands, anti-imperialist alliances, or struggles for governmental power, and the like. These questions are highly relevant to mass anti-capitalist struggles in our time. I have argued that the Comintern approach on these issues retains its validity. Granted, this record should not be viewed as scripture. Let us renew discussion of these issues, therefore, in a spirit of informed engagement with the opinions advanced and the decisions made by the Comintern.
The Comintern’s proposal for workers’ unity formed part of a strategy for victory over capitalism – that is, a mapping of the interrelationships among different facets of the class struggle permitting us to define a path toward socialism. I attempted elsewhere to present this map in schematic form (“School of Strategy”). Whatever the weaknesses and inadequacies of this attempt, it illustrates the power of an overarching strategic concept, as well as the ease with which it can be modified to bring it into accord with today’s conditions.
An Overriding Strength
The Comintern’s greatest strength was its conviction that capitalism could indeed be overthrown through a revolutionary intervention by working people in their masses. Moreover, it posed the perspective of working peoples’ conquest of political power as the strategic framework of Communists’ activity, regardless of whether the struggle for power was on the immediate agenda.
Above all, the relevance of the Comintern rests on whether its basic presuppositions correspond to global conditions today.
The project for a revolutionary International rested above all on belief that:
- The capitalist market economy increasingly concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority of profiteers.
- The international imperialist order blocks decisive progress by workers in any one country and threatens calamitous war.
- The evolution and growth of productive forces has entered into contradiction with the capitalist mode of ownership to a degree that threatens global catastrophe.
In all these respects, today’s conditions are approaching those of the Comintern era.
Recovering revolutionary memory is not achieved by publishing books alone – it requires the attention and activity of a socialist community. In that spirit, let us all join in publishing, reading, and discussing the early Comintern record as well as that of the many other strands in our broader heritage of global liberation struggles. •
Volumes of the Communist International Publishing Project
- Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International
Documents, 1907-1916 The Preparatory Years.
New York: Pathfinder, 1984, 604 pages.
- The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power
Documents, 1918-1919: Preparing the Founding Congress
New York: Pathfinder, 1986, 687 pages.
- Founding the Communist International
Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress, March 1919
New York: Pathfinder, 1987, 503 pages.
- Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!
Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920
New York: Pathfinder, Vol. 1: 1991, 632 pages, Vol 2: 1991, 592 pages.
- To See the Dawn!
Baku, 1920 First Congress of the Peoples of the East
New York: Pathfinder, 1993, 368 pages.
- Toward the United Front
Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 [See video of booklaunch]
Leiden: Brill, 2012; Chicago: Haymarket, 2013, 1310 pages.
- To the Masses
Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921
Leiden: Brill, 2015; Chicago: Haymarket, 2016, 1299 pages.
- The Communist Movement at a Crossroads
Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923
Leiden: Brill, 2018; Chicago: Haymarket, 2019. c. 700 pages.
- The main documentary collections available in 1983 were Jane Degras’ outstanding three-volume 1956 study, The Communist International 1919-43 Documents and the smaller document collection in Helmut Gruber’s 1967 study, International Communism in the Era of Lenin. A complete collection of early World Congress documents, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, was published in 1980 by Alan Adler et al. Lenin and Trotsky’s speeches were also widely available.
A broader range of material was available in German and – unsurprisingly – Serbo-Croatian.
A formidable collection of German-language Comintern reprints was published by the Milan-based Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1967. The materials, reproduced photographically without annotation, are widely available in research libraries internationally.
Fourteen years later, the first complete edition of the Comintern congresses was published in Serbo-Croatian by a Yugoslav research institute, Kulturni centar, based in Gornji Milanovac. These volumes’ careful annotation was extensively utilized in preparing our English-language editions.
John Riddell is a Toronto-based activist and maintains a blog at johnriddell.wordpress.com.