Paresh Chattopadhyay on the Comintern and the Triumph of National Socialism in Germany

In a recent letter published in Economic and Political Weekly (September 6, 2014), Paresh Chattopadhyay reminds us of the role of the Third International in the accession to power of the National Socialists in Germany. The context of the comments excerpted below is a critical response to an article on the BJP’s recent return to power in India. Chattopadhyay contributed a chapter on Marx and Engels to the recently published Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism

The victory of the Nazis occurred in a period which was qualified by the Russian and the Comintern leaderships as the “third period of the general crisis of capitalism”, a new epoch of class struggles and civil wars favourable to proletarian revolution. The Sixth Congress of the Comintern (1928) laid down the tasks corresponding to the new situation, epitomised by the “Class against Class” formula. In this “maturing revolutionary situation”, it was emphasised, the social democrats were the “principal enemy” of the working class. Bukharin opposed this, warning against what he considered a “sectarian” line. In the same Congress, Palmiro Togliatti, opposing Ernst Thaelmann, general secretary of the KPD, held that social democracy was a movement based on workers and petty bourgeoisie and drew its main force from the labouring masses. In 1929, Togliatti had to follow the party line and abandoned his earlier critical position. In the July 1928 Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the majority, including Stalin, thought that the advanced capitalist countries were on the eve of proletarian revolution, refusing all collaboration with the social democrats. Opposing this, Bukharin held that the European social democratic parties and their trade unions had with them the immense majority of workers, and that it would be a grave error to dismiss them as “social fascists” and denouncing them as the main enemy. (In 1930, Trotsky, already exiled, to his great credit, spoke of the “absurd idea” according to which fascism could not be defeated without first defeating social democracy. Addressing the social democratic workers, he urged them to tell their party to engage in a real struggle for a social democratic state. “We will be by your side. We will pledge not to undertake revolutionary actions which go beyond the limits of democracy.”)

In 1929, the 10th Plenum of the Central Executive Committee of the Comintern qualified the social democrats as “social fascists”, and declared that the “aims of the fascists and those of the social democrats were identical”. In 1931 the KPD voted together with the Nazis against the social democratic government of Prussia in a referendum, and the fall of this government was hailed by Pravda (13 August 1931) as a victory of the working class. All the actions undertaken by the Nazis against the social democratic trade unions one year before Hitler came to power were supported by the KPD whose general secretary Thaelmann spoke of a “single class front with the Nazi proletarians”. Even two days before Hitler’s coronation, Thaelmann wrote that the “recent events signified a turning point in favour of the proletarian revolution”, and three months later, the KPD still declared, “the proletariat has not lost any battle, suffered any defeat”.

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