COMINTERN, THE Paperback – 18 Dec 2008
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Hallas does an excellent job of giving you a lively, readable perspective on that history, but this is not the main virtue of this book. In fact, the main virtue, as I see it, of the book is that it provides us with a wealth of strategic political ideas that we can use to think critically about the obstacles facing the left today. One example is his discussion of the idea of the "united front"--a strategy employed successfully during the early years of the Comintern but eventually discarded once it became Stalinized.
During the height of the occupy movement, key questions emerged: should the movement work with reformist forces who might co-opt it? what should its orientation toward the trade union movement be? how do organized left groups fit into the mix? These are key questions. What many Occupy activists didn't realize, however, is that they were not the first to have asked these questions. In fact, many of these very questions were fiercely debated out in the early years of the Communist International. That is not to say that we can simply apply what our comrades in the early 20th C did to our present state of affairs---but it would be absurd to say we have nothing to learn from their successes and failures. The idea of the "united front", discussed at length in Hallas's book, touches on many of these key questions that faced Occupy.
According to Hallas, the idea of a "united front" is this: "It is a method of struggle for influence and support in a defensive situation and it presupposes the organisational and political independence of the revolutionary organisation. The tactic starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organisations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organisations, which it can do under favourable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organisations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind."
In short, the ideas is that revolutionaries, reformists, organized and unorganized radicals, trade unionists and unorganized workers should come together and unite on the basis of *concrete demands*, not ideological conformity. Radicals, however, should fight to make sure that those demands are left-wing and connect with the popular struggles of ordinary people so as to draw them into the struggle. This creates a link between radicals and ordinary folks while, at the same time, putting immense pressure on more reformist/conservative groupings to stick to the demands. If those centrist forces renege and refuse to carry out a struggle for those popular demands, the left within the "united front" can then criticize them and draw their supporters in a more radical direction. What's more, a united front allows radical left groupings of various stripes to maintain their independence and avoid being co-opted, since their participation in the front is entirely conditional on fighting for agreed-upon, specific demands---such as stopping austerity, halting school closures, taxing the rich, and so on.
It should be obvious from the above that Hallas's history of the Third International is highly relevant for radicals today. We need to learn as much as we can from the struggles of the past so that we can avoid their mistakes, build on their successes, and re-think their strategies so that we can apply them to our present situation. For this reason alone, I found Hallas's book tremendously useful. It is anything but a dry history of a series of uninteresting past events. It is an engaged, politicized look at what our comrades on the radical left argued about and did in the early 20th C.
British politician Lloyd George explained the atmosphere in which the Comintern was formed in 1919: "The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social, and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other. In some countries, like Germany and Russia, the unrest takes the form of open rebellion, in others like France, Great Britain and Italy it takes the shape of strikes and of general disinclination to settle down to work, symptoms which are just as much concerned with the desire for political and social change as with wage demands."
Revolution had toppled the Tsar in Russia and the Kaiser in Germany, workers in Italy occupied factories and almost took power, and communist parties existed across Europe with tens and hundreds of thousands of worker-activists. The problem the Comintern faced was how to win millions of working-class radicals to the theory and practice of Bolshevism and integrate them into a coherent international organization within a few years while the revolutionary wave in Europe reached a crescendo.
Hallas manages to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the time and combine it with an overview of the political debates and problems the Comintern grappled with. This book is really indispensable for anyone who wants to study the history and development of the international communist movement. Hallas also examines Stalin's rise to power and the transformation of the Comintern from an international organization aimed at coordinating the activities of revolutionary socialists across the world into a bureaucratic monstrosity whose politics shifted to reflect the foreign policy objectives of Russia's new ruling class.
The most dramatic and costly consequence of the Comintern's degeneration was Hitler's appointment as Chancellor on Germany in 1933, which could have been prevented if the Germany Communist Party (KPD) had worked systematically with the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) to block his road to power and crush the Nazis before they took power. Instead, the KPD remained passive in the face of the fascist menace, denounced the SPD as "social-fascists," and even welcomed the Nazis seizure of power since it would "spark a revolution."
It is no exaggeration to say that tens of millions of people might not have perished in the Holocaust and World War Two had the KPD moved (with the SPD) to stamp out the fascist menace when they had the opportunity to do so in 1929-1933.
Hallas' work draws both the negative and positive lessons of the Comintern's experience and shows that the principles, strategy, and tactics laid out in the Comintern's early documents are useful and relevant to radicals and socialists today provided they're taken as general guidelines and not a mechanical schemas or dogmas.
Post script (7/21/11): The major weakness of Hallas' book is that it fails to draw the logical conclusion from the many defeats and setbacks of the various mass parties of the early Comintern: namely, that establishing a centralized world party with national sections who are directed by an executive/central committee based thousands of miles away from the scenes of battle is a project doomed to failure. Executive of the Comintern (ECCI) repeatedly intervened in the affairs of its national sections, expelling independent-minded communist leaders for siding with the "wrong" side of factional disputes in the Bolshevik or other parties in the international. The head of the KPD was replaced three times in the space of three years by the ECCI. Is it any wonder that German communists were unable to seize power despite numerous and repeated crises when their party was continually decapitated?
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