Moscow Rules? 'Red' Unionism and 'Class against Class' in Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1928-1935

By Manley, John | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Moscow Rules? 'Red' Unionism and 'Class against Class' in Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1928-1935


Manley, John, Labour/Le Travail


IN THE STILL VIBRANT debate between "traditionalist" and "revisionist" historians of international Communism, the former tend to argue that the key to understanding the Communist experience in any country is recognition of the fundamental subordination of each national party to the will of "Moscow," exercised both directly and through the Communist International (Comintern), while the latter, though rarely denying the salience of the Moscow connection, suggest that national parties enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy in resisting or adapting Moscow's demands. American revisionists in particular have emphasized the CPUSA's creative engagement with American political culture, seeing this phenomenon even in the period most traditionalists see as the point at which national parties incontrovertibly capitulated to Stalinism--the "Third Period" (1928-35) of "Class Against Class," ultra-leftism, "Social Fascism," and political catastrophe in Germany. Using the surprisingly under-used tool of comparative analysis to evaluate the conception, implementation, evolution, and "liquidation" of the Third Period in the United States, Britain, and Canada, this article offers some succour to the revisionists, but rather more to the traditionalists.

DANS LE DEBAT TOUJOURS PASSIONNE entre les historiens << traditionalistes >> et << revisionnistes >> du communisme international, les premiers se montrent enclins a argumenter que la cle de comprehension de l'experience communiste dans n'importe quel pays est la reconnaissance de la subordination fondamentale de chaque parti national a la volonte de << Moscou >>, exercee directement ou par l'intermediaire de l'Internationale communiste (Komintern), alors que les seconds, bien qu'ils nient rarement l'influence determinante des rapports avec Moscou, pretendent que les partis nationaux jouissent d'un degre remarquable d'autonomie dans la resistance ou l'adaptation des demandes du Moscou. Les revisionnistes americains en particulier ont mis l'accent sur l'engagement createur de CPUSA vis-a-vis de la culture politique americaine, en percevant ce phenomene meme dans la periode que la plupart des traditionalistes regardent comme la capitulation des partis nationaux au stalinisme--la << Troisieme Periode >> (1928-35) de << lutte des classes >>, ultra-gauchisme, << fascisme social >>, et la catastrophe politique en Allemagne. En utilisant l'outil etonnamment sous-utilise de l'analyse comparative pour evaluer la conception, la mise en oeuvre, l'evolution, et la << liquidation >> de la Troisieme Periode aux Etats Unis, en Bretagne et au Canada, cet article offre un certain secours aux revisionnistes, mais beaucoup plus aux traditionalistes.

Introduction

FROM THE 1950S UNTIL THE 1970S, historians of British and North American Communism tended to emphasize the political subservience of the British, American, and Canadian parties [CPGB, CPUSA, CPC] to the Soviet Union and the "line" of the Russian-dominated Communist International [Comintern]. "Perhaps the most compelling reason for studying the cpc," historian William Rodney observed, "is to be found in [its] subordination to Moscow through what can only be termed moral control exercised at a great distance, surely a fascinating phenomenon, and one of the most extraordinary political relationships of recent times." (1) At no time did that relationship seem more overt than in the "Third Period" (1928-34), the years of the "New Line," "Class Against Class," and "Social Fascism." Most "traditionalist" historians regard this as the Comintern's darkest hour, the moment when Stalinism triumphed in the International and Moscow's intrusions politically disabled the working-class movement. (2) According to this characterization, Communist industrial work--and for all Communists, the workplace remained at this point the crucial site of class struggle--was driven less by workers' needs than by a need to provide Moscow with evidence of fidelity to the line, and whether in Britain or North America they achieved this via "spectacular gestures" and "prestige strikes, the need for which was not understood by the members (though [they] looked impressive in . …

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