Saturday, 22 January 2011

Rediscovering Zinoviev?

Rediscovering Zinoviev? The USPD Halle Congress of October 1920

From LSHG Newsletter #41 (Spring 2011)

History, to put it mildly, has not been very kind to Grigory Zinoviev. From historical character sketches to Hollywood movies he is remembered for his cowardice and dithering leadership skills, his opposition to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, his ruthless ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Communist International and his capitulation to Stalin.

But was there more to this ‘Old Bolshevik’ and close collaborator of Vladimir Ilych Lenin? In researching a forthcoming book in collaboration with Lars T Lih (see below) I have come across perhaps his greatest
overlooked accomplishment: his appearance at the USPD’s famous Halle congress in October 1920, speaking on behalf of the Communist International.

Unlike any other in the 20th century workers’ movement, the whole congress was (literally) split down the middle between ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’, with one chairman selected from each faction, and with the occasional chair thrown from one side of the room to the other. Speaking for over four hours in his second language of German, Zinoviev’s intervention was pivotal in steering the USPD left towards the newly-formed Communist International and rapprochement with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

Dubbed by the German press as one of the finest speeches of the century, it certainly lacks some of the finely-tuned style and carefully-selected language often associated with great speech-making. Yet what distinguishes it as a feat of oratory is that it is almost entirely composed of Zinoviev’s immediate, off the- cuff responses to seemingly incessant heckles and interjections from some of European Social Democracy’s heavyweights: Rudolph Hilferding, Jean Longuet and Julius Martov, to name but a few.

Zinoviev's speech defended the young Communist International against its many critics in the socialist movement as well as the record of the young Soviet Republic in Russia. Delivered against the backdrop of the Polish- Soviet War, just a few months before the inauguration of the New Economic Policy in early 1921, it was the only such public defence by a top Bolshevik leader outside the Soviet Union’s borders in Lenin’s lifetime. It reveals, as few other documents do, the self-image of the Bolsheviks at this crucial time.

What were the issues that divided the Halle congress and how adequately did
Zinoviev deal with them? What did he emphasise and what did he overlook in confronting his fierce critics head on? Does the achievement warrant a reappraisal of Zinoviev as a historical figure? Analysing this hidden gem of workers’ movement history is essential to understanding the formative years of the Communist International, the controversies that surrounded it, and the legacy that it, along with its early leader Zinoviev, has left behind.

Ben Lewis
[Ben Lewis is a translator and researcher based in London, currently working on a volume for the Historical Materialism book series entitled Karl Kautsky against revisionism: selected political writings 1898-1904. It will form the backdrop of his PhD thesis. He will be speaking on Zinoviev and the Halle Congress at the LSHG Seminar on 24 January.

Zinoviev and the Halle Congress
Zinoviev's largely forgotten speech and Martov's counterblast for the first time in English, plus introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T Lih

“We are on the field of battle. The audience in the hall is divided in two sections; it is as if a knife has cut them sharply in two. Two parties are present"
Grigory Zinoviev's description of the Halle congress of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD) in October 1920.

Would the USDP and its 700,000 members opt for the Third International or attempt to stay a halfway house floating uneasily between communism and official social democracy? The Halle congress would decide. In the debate Zinoviev, Comintern's president and a Bolshevik since 1903, was pitted against not only the heavyweights of German Social Democracy. He also had to reckon with his Russian contemporary, Julius Martov, the intellectually rigorous and polemically steeled leader of the Menshevik Internationalists.

In publishing Zinoviev's largely forgotten four-hour speech and Martov's counterblast for the first time in English, this book helps to deepen our understanding of a crucial chapter in the history of the German working class movement. The text includes introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T Lih, alongside Zinoviev's diary entry for his stay in Germany.

Advance orders £15 (including p&p) from November Publications, BCM Box 928, London WC1 3XX, or for more information email

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