In 1922 socialists from around the world travelled to Russia to discuss and debate the future of the workers' movement.
In doing so they helped craft the policy of the 'united front' – a strategy which has guided efforts to bring revolutionary socialists together with workers and organisations that hold reformist views ever since.
Last month the historian John Riddell completed a translation of the historic conference that charted this course – the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International, held in the cities of Moscow and Petrograd.
The full text of the debates will be ready for publication next year. John spoke to Socialist Worker about the project, which was undertaken in collaboration with the Historical Materialism book series.
The Communist International was a world union of socialists formed in 1919 by leaders of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Initially they hoped that the flood tide of revolution would soon sweep capitalism away. But by the time of the fourth congress in 1922 that tide was ebbing – and the congress's character was shaped by this fact.
In particular, the delegates had to discuss how to work with other political currents. 'The majority of politically conscious workers in the main countries in Europe still followed reformist parties,' explains John.
'That was despite the fact that the leaderships of those parties had betrayed the working class – first by leading them to the slaughter of the First World War, then at the end of the war by blocking attempts to establish socialism.
'But it was not enough to denounce these parties. Some way had to be found to unite with these workers.'
In 1922 the working class was on the back foot, struggling to defend earlier gains from a renewed ruling class offensive. 'The capitalist economies were in crisis,' says John. 'There were massive lay-offs and attacks on workers' living standards. This posed a great challenge for the unions.
'Most union leaders were reformists – they offered the bosses collaborative support in order to win reforms. By 1922 they weren't winning any reforms – but they still stuck to this orientation.
'In this situation, what should revolutionary socialists do? Some were tempted to break with the old unions and try to build new ones. But the Communist International stood very strongly for unity within the labour movement.
'It argued that in every industry we should fight to get everyone together in a united struggle. This was difficult, because the reformists were trying to drive the militant forces out of the unions, so they also had to carry out a fight against expulsions.'
The key activities of revolutionaries within unions involved advancing basic demands, he adds – 'stop the wage cuts, stop the lay-offs', but these could go further.
'They would also call for workers' control of production. In more extreme situations they called for the arming of workers and the formation of workers' governments.'
In particular the Communist International hoped that the united front would help pull the majority of workers to the left. 'They believed that divisions in the working class could be overcome in struggle. People would see that if they stood together, they could win.
'That in turn would encourage them towards other victories. It would take them on the trajectory of the struggle for workers' power, regardless of what prejudices they might previously have held. The idea was – let's fight together and win together, and in that way we'll resolve our differences.'
The year 1922 was a critical time for the working class in other respects too. 'The congress took place just after the first victory of fascism, when Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy,' says John.
Fascism was then a totally new phenomenon. But the conference debated how to fight it and crafted the policy of organising a united front against fascism.
'They didn't come to this decision easily,' John notes. 'It was something that brewed through the congress and was finally arrived at just in time for inclusion in the final resolution.'
Reading the transcripts of the conference, 'you really get the impression of the great weight of the rank and file, of frontline fighters, helping to craft this decision – and also of the weight of the congress itself as an arena in which discussion could take place'.
Combing through these records was a central part of John's historical research. 'The congress took place before air travel,' he says. 'It took weeks for delegates to get there. And once they got there, they talked for about three weeks.'
People who had attended the congresses 'wanted the folks back home to know what had been said', which drove them to take extensive notes. 'They took a detailed record of the discussion and published it in book form.'
So the basic record of the congresses has long been available – but the translation into English was often not good. John's project has included retranslation from original German and Russian texts.
He is now in the final stages of producing a book of the proceedings. This will contain new material, he explains, such as records that have been locked in Russian archives since the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.
The Communist International was created as a centralised international party rather than the much looser structure that had characterised previous international socialist federations such as the Second International. John explains why this was the case.
'You have to look back to what happened at the outbreak of the First World War,' he says. 'The reformist leaders helped herd the workers into the war – despite the fact that they had passed resolutions at the Second International saying they would never do that.
'The Communist International was founded on the idea that you must not betray your international. The principles of the international take priority over the tactical problems of this or that country.'
There are obvious advantages to this method, says John, but also dangers that flowed from the fact that the International was dominated by Russia – the only country to have pulled off a successful socialist revolution.
The fourth congress was the last to largely avoid those dangers. It was also the last one that Lenin attended.
'After Lenin's death the Russian Bolshevik party came to be dominated by a conservative bureaucracy headed by Stalin,' says John. 'It degenerated, swerved to the right and eventually became an instrument for counter-revolution.
'Then this concept that the international always came first was utilised to make all the member parties around the world follow Stalin's orders and Russian foreign policy.
'For example, in Germany there was an attempt to deny the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the greatest socialist leaders ever.
'Now Luxemburg was right on some questions and wrong on others, but this rejection of her was aimed at making the German party a simple transmission belt for the decrees of Moscow.'
Mistakes in Germany promoted by Stalin fatally weakened the Communist Party there. They failed to create a united front with reformist socialists – and failed to stop Adolf Hitler's rise to power.
However, John is studying an earlier, more positive period, when the united front tactic was central. 'Conditions were so different in different places. For example, take the united front against imperialism in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.
'Countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Iran all had small but very able groups of Communists. In these countries mass movements were beginning to take shape against colonialism.'
The communists had to decide how to work with these larger forces without dissolving themselves within them or painting them as more left wing than they actually were.
'Look at the situation in Turkey in 1920,' says John. 'It was sort of like the Iraq war now. There was an attempt by the imperialist powers – above all the British – to dismember Turkey.
'The Turks were led by Mustafa Kemal. He was a fighter for national liberation, but from a conservative wing of the ruling layers of Turkey. His perspective was definitely capitalist and not socialist.
'The response of both the Soviet Union and the Communist International was to form a united front with him, despite all of the disagreements, in order to beat back imperialism.
'They felt that if this struggle could be won and imperialists driven out of Turkey, it would turn the tide for the entire region.
'By 1922 Turkey had won. But Kemal's government repressed both the Communists and the workers' movement. The Communist International protested loudly against that.
'At the same time it emphasised that they would always stand with Turkey against the imperialist powers in defence of Turkish independence.
'Another good example are the Islamic anti-imperialist movements of the day. They were very militant, but were usually hostile to socialism.
'The united front tried to build a bridge to these forces and create an effective anti-imperialist struggle. But unity with Islamic fighters was not so easy to achieve. They were working within a religious framework of the unity of Islamic people internationally.
'The Communist International had initially taken the position that pan‑Islamism was not progressive. Some Communists, particularly those from Algeria and Indonesia, came to the fourth congress to get that policy changed. It was modified to say that we definitely want to unite with Islamic fighters and we regard their struggle as progressive.
'It added that we maintain our own communist views on the historic role of the working class and how socialism will be achieved, but we will discuss that within a framework of fraternal unity.'
John Riddell is coeditor of the Socialist Voice forum, based in Canada. Go to » www.socialistvoice.ca
He has edited six volumes in the series The Communist International In Lenin's Time, available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com