The vast expanse of the United States makes it difficult for any group to organise national events. But long drives and expensive flights could not deter nearly 100 comrades and contacts from attending this year’s National School, the US IMT’s largest event to date. Comrades from 18 US states, a delegation from Edmonton, Canada, and Fred Weston from the UK met in Pittsburgh to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Third (Communist) International, the most impressive revolutionary organisation humanity has ever known.
Class struggle throughout the world
The weekend began with a lead-off on World and US Perspectives by John Peterson, the editor of Socialist Revolution. He explained that the first four congresses of the Third International, held from 1919 to 1922, offer us vital lessons, both theoretical and practical. Although 100 years may seem like a long time, this is not ancient history. There are still people living who were around when the Comintern was founded, some of them teenagers at the time. Those who founded the Third International thought its creation was so urgent and important that it was launched in the midst of a brutal civil war in Russia. We must view this as living history and an inspiration as we fight to complete the work started by our comrades a century ago—because the crises and contradictions of capitalism confronted by the early Comintern remain fundamentally the same today.
Turning to the situation today, John explained that there have been sharp and sudden political and economic changes around the world: from Brexit and the downfall of Theresa May in Britain, to the rise of the yellow vests in France, and the roaring back to life of revolution in Algeria and Sudan. In Spain you have the burning issue of the National Question, while Italy is one of the weakest links in the chain of European capitalism. Even in Germany, the powerhouse of the eurozone, the economy is grinding to a halt and crisis and mass social unrest are on the horizon. In the Americas, the youth are on the move in Brazil despite the rule of Bolsonaro, who is in a far weaker position than most on the left might think. In Venezuela, the crisis continues as imperialism and the local oligarchy try again and again to snuff out what remains of the revolution, thrown back each time by the inspiring revolutionary élan of the masses. And in the US itself, the prospect of another economic meltdown, the 2020 presidential elections, and the beginnings of a revival of the labour movement mean the Marxists will have more opportunities than ever to win people to the ideas and organisation of revolutionary socialism.
Antonio Balmer was next up to bat to speak on building the IMT in the belly of the beast. Today, our potential to build is greater than ever before. Nearly 100 million people in the US now view socialism in a positive light. Whereas in the past we would often get snickers and jeers, we now have many positive conversations about socialism and passersby greet our banners with nods and raised fists. He explained that the many tasks that go into building an organisation may seem daunting but that this should not hold us back. Relatively speaking, we are, in many ways, in a far better situation than the Bolsheviks were in Russia. Whereas Russia at that time had a relatively small working class that was mostly concentrated in a handful of cities, we have a massive nationwide working class that is well educated and has a revolutionary history of its own.
Compared to the size of the Russian population as a whole, the Bolsheviks had a numerically small force of just 8,000 members at the beginning of 1917—just one Marxist cadre for every 23,000 people in the country. Due to their political training, however, this force grew to a quarter of a million members in the space of nine months, and won over the entirety of the working class to its programme. We should never approach the building of the revolutionary organisation mechanically, but it is instructive to consider the numerical aspect of what the Bolsheviks achieved. In the US today, in order to have an equivalent ratio of one member per 23,000 people, the US Marxists would need to reach a membership figure of 14,000. This number is quite large as compared to our numbers today, but with the correct ideas, perspectives, and methods, combined with the objective situation—which will do 99% of the work for us—the task is most definitely achievable. Building a cadre organisation requires combining the long view of history with meticulous dedication to theory and organisational professionalism, all while sinking deep roots into the working class as we prepare for future events. Many will try to pull us into base-building and other alleged shortcuts that substitute a handful of committed activists for the working class, but we must always keep our eyes on the prize and do the painstaking work that is required to build an organisation of highly educated, trained, and disciplined cadres that can successfully transmit a revolutionary programme in the midst of a revolutionary upsurge.
Fred Weston then took the stage to report on the exciting growth the IMT has experienced around the world in the past period. As just one example, this July the IMT will hold the largest International School in its history, with an estimated 400 comrades in attendance. These global conferences have become so robust that the number of attendees now has to be limited, indicating our rapid expansion and the dedication the comrades have put into building worldwide. This is no surprise since we’ve grown by triple digits in the advanced capitalist countries while opening several exciting new fields of work. Considering that in the not-too-distant past the IMT had nothing in the Americas, and now have hundreds of members from Canada to Argentina, we have come a long way. This report left the comrades positive and eager for the next session: the Fighting Fund collection.
Tom Trottier set the bar high at the beginning of the collection, and you could sense the excitement in the room. He explained that these donations are part of the building blocks of the organisation and that, as Trotsky explained, that it is the role of the revolutionaries to tip the scales during revolutionary moments, allowing them to write history. We still live under capitalism and this is why we need the money. The US comrades dug deep and blasted through our target for the collection—but there is still much more needed if we are to continue to expand our production of books, booklets, magazines, organise more regional and national schools, and much more. Huge cheers erupted when the record-breaking tally was announced and comrades raised even more money through the purchase of beverages as the discussions continued into the night.
Discussing the Third International
Day two looked at the nuts and bolts of the Comintern, with Fred Weston opening the day with a plenary session on the Comintern’s Centennial. The Comintern was the only truly massive revolutionary international. The Second (Socialist) International was a mass organisation, but it was dominated by reformists. The Socialist International put the nail in its own coffin when the majority of its sections—save for the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Serbian Social Democrats—voted for war credits and the slaughter of the “war to end all wars.” A new international was needed to represent genuine Marxism.
In 1919, the first congress of the Comintern was held in Moscow with 51 delegates from 22 countries. Most of these delegates were already in the country, with only a few had been able to cross the border into Russia. By 1921, however, the Comintern was far larger, due to the revolutionary energy generated from the success of 1917, which drew membership from all over the world. Various conditions saw Communist parties arise in Germany, France, Italy, Britain, the United States, and dozens more. Many of these emerged from left-wing splits from the Socialist Parties, including the Communist Parties of Britain and Italy. But ultra-leftism was a major problem in the international. This explains Lenin’s sharp criticism in his essential work, Leftwing Communism: an Infantile Disorder. It was not meant to disgrace the ultra-left comrades or insult them, but to help them develop politically. These comrades were new and inexperienced, and though they had revolutionary fervour rushing through their veins, they needed guidance and balance.
The first four congresses of the Comintern are a treasure trove of Marxist theory. We claim them as our own, a testament to the gains of the working class in its strongest attempt as of yet to defeat capitalism. All the congresses after the fourth were merely Zinovievist and Stalinist shows, intended to preserve the position and privileges of the bureaucracy. This overview of the early Comintern perfectly set the tone for the break-out commissions on various aspects of the Comintern’s work that followed.
Tom Trottier led off the discussion on the Comintern and the trade unions. We cannot fetishise the trade unions but they are extremely important working-class organisations, the front line of defence against the bosses. The Comintern created the Profintern, an organisation with less strict rules for joining. This allowed for the communists to work more closely with trade unionists, giving them the opportunity to patiently explain the ideas of Marxism. This was also a training ground for the communists to understand how to work in the trade unions.
Three different types of unions need to be understood in this context. Business unions, reformist trade unions, and anarchist unions. The business unions tended to organise highly-skilled workers who accepted the idea that “what was good for the boss was good for the worker.” The reformist unions were unions set up by the socialist parties that focused particularly on bread and butter demands rather than the need for revolution. Then there were the anarchist unions. These unions were by and large in favour of revolution and needed to be won to communism on this basis. But they did not understand the nature of the state.
Lenin explained in What Is to be Done? the need to organise the broadest layers of the working class into united (industrial) trade unions, regardless of their diverse political outlook. This is in contrast to the party, which requires theoretical and programmatic clarity, and is made up of trained Marxist cadres. It is also important to understand as a side note that the trade unions will continue to play a role after the revolution, as training grounds for running the workers’ state, as well as providing protection from the state should the workers’ disagree with the decisions of the state.
In the other concurrent commission, José Manuel led off on the question of the Comintern and immigration. He began by explaining the distinction between migration, or, seeking new lands and productive forces, vs. immigration, when one is forced to leave one’s home to find employment. Whereas the reformists often worry about immigrants undermining existing labour markets, Marxists support the freedom of movement of workers and fight for equal rights for all, no matter where one was born. As Lenin explained, the nation state and the market economy are the two main barriers to continued human progress. Hastening the disintegration of national borders through the socialist revolution will lead to a far greater development of the productive forces, and thereby, to an increase in quality of life for all. In the past, the Socialist Party in the United States had a chauvinist attitude toward migrant labour. The Communist Party that arose out of the break from these social chauvinists did lead some migrant worker struggles, such as in San Joaquin Valley. Unfortunately, however, the Communist Party in the US never built a cadre organisation, and eventually dissolved into nothing.
After a short lunch break, the second set of commissions was underway.
Steve Iverson took up the question of the United Front, which remains of great importance to this day. The purpose of the United Front is to organise workers on the basis of class independence around concrete demands, both nationally and internationally—something the reformists and many trade unionists consistently refuse to do. The role of Marxists in a united front is not to dissolve ourselves into these coalitions but to “march separately and strike together” with the broader working class while maintaining our organisation and programme, thus strengthening working-class movements as they develop. Most members of the Comintern were raw and many were infected with ultraleftism, so many of them did not understand this tactic. In fact, at one point only Lenin and Trotsky were fighting for this approach. Nonetheless, the leaders of the Russian Revolution were proved right again and again and the United Front remains an essential tactic in the arsenal of the working class in its struggle against the capitalists.
Parson Young led off the other concurrent session, which focused on the Comintern and the Colonial and National Questions. The Third International was the first mass workers’ organisation to bring delegates together from four continents. Its starting point was the understanding that the struggle to liberate the colonies and oppressed nations is ultimately a class question that can only be resolved through international socialist revolution. Marxists understand that, dialectically, the question of national identity is ever in flux and can take on both revolutionary and reactionary aspects. Trotsky once referred the nationalism of the workers of an oppressed nation as the “shell of immature Bolshevism.” But nationalism can also be an outright poison that undermines working-class unity: e.g., white nationalism, Hindu nationalism, etc. As Lenin explained, the National Question is, in the final analysis, a question of bread. If there is not enough to go around, people will fight for the scraps. Only a world of superabundance can end the fight over scarcity—and such superabundance can only be guaranteed by socialism. On this basis, the national divisions will wither away along with the state, money, etc.
Socialism in our lifetimes!
After the commissions were wrapped up, Fred Weston was asked to give closing remarks to the electrifying school. He noted that Lenin had once remarked in January 1917, just weeks before the outbreak of the February Revolution, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” How wrong he was! Just ten months later, the Bolsheviks and Russian workers held power across one-sixth of the earth’s landmass.
Sharp twists and sudden changes can and will occur when we least expect them—so we must be prepared. We must use every opportunity to find contacts and win them to our ideas, programme, and perspectives, fighting against both opportunism and sectarianism at every turn. Developing cadres is the key to this healthy growth. But this takes time. Fred said that many young comrades often come up to him and say, “I want to be able to speak as well as you!” But this is not automatic; it comes with time, experience, and a lot of hard work. No one is born a Marxist, and it takes training over many years, reading and discussing constantly. But we must remember that reading is not the only thing we do—we must also intervene actively in the movement. For Marxists, revolutionary theory is our guide to revolutionary action.
As always at IMT events, the 2019 National School ended with a rousing rendition of The Internationale, followed by Bandiera Rossa. Everyone left energised and with high levels of revolutionary enthusiasm and optimism for building the forces of Marxism in the United States. If you would like to participate in meetings like this and fight for socialist revolution in our lifetime, we invite you join us!