Tuesday, 27 December 2011

John Riddell on the Comintern: giant and dwarfs?

Zinoviev, Comintern president
I'm a bit late with this, but I recommend reading John Riddell's blog post 'The Comintern in 1922: the periphery pushes back'. It is based on a presentation Riddell - the leading historian of the Communist International - gave at November's Historical Materialism conference.

It challenges assumptions about Moscow dominating the Comintern in the early 1920s. Arguing that Communist parties outside Russia influenced decisions more than is traditionally acknowledged, he begins:

'Until recently, I shared a widely held opinion that the Bolshevik Party of Russia towered above other members of the early Communist International as a source of fruitful political initiatives. However, my work in preparing the English edition of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, held at the end of 1922, led me to modify this view. On a number of weighty strategic issues before the congress, front-line parties, especially the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), played a decisive role in revising Executive Committee proposals and shaping the Congress’s outcome.

When I translated the first page of this congress, I was not far distant from the view of Tony Cliff, who, referring to the 1921–22 period, referred to the “extreme comparative backwardness of communist leaders outside Russia.” They had an “uncritical attitude towards the Russian party,” which stood as “a giant among dwarfs,” Cliff stated.

Duncan Hallas wrote of the Comintern’s failure “to emancipate the pupil from excessive dependence on the teacher.” A similar view is advanced by historians hostile to the Comintern tradition, although they regard Bolshevik influence as not helpful but calamitous.

In recent years, a new generation of historians has focused attention on the dynamics of Comintern member parties, stressing the influence of their worker ranks and the parties’ relative autonomy. Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew present the view, widely held among these historians, that “strategy was defined in Moscow, but tactics, to a certain extent, could be elaborated on the ground by the parties themselves.” However, the record of the Fourth Congress suggests that at least in 1922, the influence of front-line parties was felt in determining not only national tactics but international strategy.'


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