Ellen Wilkinson

The Congress of 1921

Source: The Communist, August 27, 1921
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IT is difficult to get back to the British atmosphere after a visit to Russia, so many of one’s views and opinions have been changed. The questions with which one is bombarded, “Is Communism a success in Russia? Will the Bolsheviks succeed? Did you get enough to eat?” seem as irrelevant as the assumption of our own comrades that Communists go to Russia as to a state where Socialism has been established in order to learn how to do it. Russians are rather weary of explaining to naive new-comers that Communism in Russia has only begun as yet, and it cannot succeed until the Communists in other countries have done their part. It is no more possible to have a Communist Russia in a capitalist world than to have a Communist Manchester in a Capitalist Britain.

An egregious young University lecturer once remarked that Lenin should travel. These Russians leaders are the real Internationalists, for they have travelled, and have lived most of their lives outside the country they now rule. The Russian Revolution is to them an engagement on the world front of the class struggle—a fact more generally understood on the Continent than here, owing to the instability of the political and economic situation left by the war.

The Conference of 1921, therefore, was not a gathering of representatives to learn how things are done under Communism but a Council of War, a congress of deputies from the various fronts to consider the world revolutionary conflict, to take stock of gains and losses since the last Congress, and to make plans for the struggle in the immediate future.

Thus the report of the Executive Committee was followed by a discussion of the situation in the different countries, especially Germany and Italy, where the March action in the one and the seizure of factories in the other had brought victory for the proletariat very near. As the tactics of the parties in these countries were examined, criticised, and appraised, we witnessed not dictation by Moscow, not the forcing of Russian ideas on to alien soil, but the moulding of an effective force in the class struggle. The sole concern of these experienced generals, not by any means all Russian, was the efficiency of the Communist Party as an instrument of struggle. Infinite patience was shown to the K.A.P.D. (Communist Labour Party of Germany), but there was a firm refusal to tolerate little groups, however fine fighters might compose them, and an insistence on the necessity for an all embracing army, the one Communist Party in each country.

* * *

The central feature of the Conference was Trotsky’s great speech on the world situation, a brilliant analysis of the economic position of to-day that should be carefully mastered by every Communist when it is reprinted, as I believe it is to be, in the new Labour Monthly. It is impossible to summarise the close argument and wealth of fact, but its main theme was that which dominated the whole conference—the immediate future of the world struggle.

At the close of the war the bourgeoisie were disunited and the machinery of capital broken. The Russians said then, and still maintain, that the World Revolution could have been accomplished in 1919. But the proletariat was even more disunited. It was betrayed by its leaders. The bourgeoisie had been given time to re-organise, and were frantically trying to restore economic stability and capitalist prosperity. Would that make the task of revolution harder? Immediately—yes, but Communists were only concerned with whether these fluctuations were on the up or the down grade. Economic stability could not be restored by capital. England and America were rushing into war. He dared to give the date as 1923-4. The uneasy equilibrium of 1921 could not be maintained, but the bourgeoisie were offering desperate resistance to the workers who were retreating everywhere before them. This created the new situation. The Communists must weld together on this basis all sections of the working class.

In conclusion, Trotsky declared that “our successes as well as our defeats have proved that the difference between ourselves and the Social Democrats and Independents does not lie in the fact that we said that the revolution would come in 1919, and they had replied that it would come later. That is not the difference. It consists in the fact that they are supporting the bourgeoisie against the revolution in all situations, where as we are ready to use every situation, however it may work out, for the revolutionary offensive and the seizure of power.”

* * *

After these discussions came Radek’s speech on tactics. Radek does not carry the heavy guns of Trotsky. In some ways he is the Puck of the International, delighting in telling cutting home-truths and pricking the swelling balloons of the pompous. His bon mots were the joy of the Congress, barbed as they were with sufficient malice to make them stick.

Its remarked that the left Communists, in criticising the rest for being opportunist, seemed to pride themselves on being men who wouldn’t use their opportunities. Some parties had carefully adopted the most correct Communist position, and had learned to say all the creeds quite nicely without being aware that it was necessary to get their machinery ready for action. The proletariat was so disorganised compared to the bourgeoisie that it must be welded together on the basis of the defensive. The old leaders said that the aims of the Communists were too remote, but we must show that the old leaders would not lead the workers even for immediate aims. The Communist Party must be ready to work even in the most every-day struggles of the workers, relating them to the class war. “Back to the masses, in amongst the workers, you can’t lead from a distance” was the recurring burden of a remarkable speech.

We could not discuss tactics for long without coming to the policy of the Russian Communist Party and its concessions to Capital. Lenin said that Russia, ruined by foreign and civil wars, had not and could not set up Communism by herself. After the World Revolution she would probably be the most conservative state in the new order, because predominantly peasant. To-day she was the vanguard in the class war, standing “bloody but unbowed” against the smashing blows of the world bourgeoisie until the workers of other countries should be able to make their revolutions. Till then the most important thing for the International was for the Bolsheviks to retain power. Anything must be sacrificed to that, and the Russian workers must be fed, and the peasants supplied with machinery.

* * *

Most foreign delegates had the good taste to leave this debate to the Russians themselves, but, watching Lenin closely during this discussion, I thought his humourous smile grew somewhat bitter as certain delegates from countries that had thrown away priceless opportunities for revolution, complained that Russia’s attempt to save her people from starvation might make their struggle a little harder.

The best speech in the debate was Kollontai’s magnificent reply to Lenin, a restatement of first principles. “Are you not putting too much faith in locomotives and machinery,” she asked, and too little in the creative impulses of the people that made the revolution possible? By three years of Soviet rule the minds of the people were being moulded into Communist ways of thinking. Though they might indulge in private trading, they knew they were doing wrong. Now that free trade was legalised all the old profiteering instincts were reviving, and the work of three years would be destroyed.

Trotsky evaded the main challenge of her speech by ironically enquiring whether she proposed to produce locomotives by creative impulse, instead of by machinery. But then Trotsky is a trying person with a nasty habit of being practical at all the wrong moments.

* * *

These discussions on the different phases of the world situation brought us to the consideration of the organisation of Communist Parties in the non-revolutionary countries. Communists were faced with a new situation. The bourgeoisie were showing complete contempt for their own laws by the unconstitutional use of armed forces directly organised by the proletariat of their respective countries—the Orgesch in Germany, the Fascisti in Italy, the Volunteer Defence Corps in England, etc. How was the situation to be met?

There were those who, like the K.A.P.D. wanted the Communist Party to be a body of picked fighters, carefully trained Samurai. They argued that the Bolsheviks before the Revolution were a small party, even now their numbers were insignificant compared to the Russian population, yet they led the people by their power of acting together in a crisis. Lenin’s reply to this showed him firmly on the side of those who desired the Communist Party to be a Mass Party. At the critical moments of July, 1917, he said, the Bolsheviks made their final victory certain by their slogan of “back to the Masses.” They left the intrigues of the coalition lobbies to go back to the factories and the mines, so that in November they were swept to power by the great surge of the masses they had organised.

The thesis on the “Organisation of Communist Parties” went back to the Commission for the incorporation of certain amendments in detail, and the revised text must be received before comment is possible; but the dominant note of the thesis was the demands to be made on each individual member of the Party. No one must be a rank and file member in the sense of paying a subscription, reading the Party paper, and leaving it at that. Every member must be attached to some committee, some definite work group, the whole machinery being organised to make the Party, not a political party among other parties, but a definite organ of struggle, instrument of Revolution.

These are the salient features of a great conference that would need a book, not an article, to describe. We met under the shadow of famine and of cholera, but we knew that these men and women comrades in Russia would win through. They had got down to rock bottom, and reconstruction had begun, however slowly. But we were ashamed to think of the price they had paid, because of their betrayal by the leaders of the workers in other countries.

The Congress ended with a speech by Zinoviev, who reviewed the work of the International since its inauguration, and then with a magnificent gesture sent us forth to the great work to which we were all dedicated. The Red Army band started the International, and through the great Palace of the Kremlin, monument of the luxury and tyranny of a thousand years rang the Revolutionary Anthem. We could not part. Many of those present would never meet again. To all lands they were returning, some to long years in prison, some to the gallows, some to the bullet of the assassin.

The Russians shouted, “Let us all sing our war songs,” and they sang their great Hymn to Freedom. The French followed with the Carmagnole, the Spaniards and the Germans, and the Yugoslavs sang theirs. Then Artem Sergiev, the beloved leader of the Don Miners, who within so short a time was to meet a tragic death, led out the Russians with their Marching Song, and we all had been so often thronged with diplomats and great ladies in the past. But it was not of their ghosts that we thought, but of the shades of those who, quiet in their graves under the Kremlin wall, had fought for the freedom they were never to know.

In the vestibule we clustered with the Red Army band, and groups of young officers, eager to seize our hands and wish us bon voyage. One of them, such a boy, was lifted shoulder high and again the International pealed forth over Moscow, silent under the stars. And as the groups of comrades, who, in spite of the barriers of custom and language, had got to know each other so well in these fateful days broke from the crowd to say good-bye, we knew that divided by hostile governments, with little news of what each other was doing, we were not going back to work in separate parties, but in one all-embracing International, to which we were personally dedicated, for the World Revolution.