Educational work in the Third International

The third and fourth congresses of the Communist International were held in the midst of a waning of the world revolutionary wave. Therefore, if the first two congresses had revolved around theoretical clarification and the struggle for the seizure of power’s urgent matters, the next two were centered around how to create a revolutionary tactic and how to build the party in times of backlash. This was the moment when the new International realized that fighting for leadership and pushing the organized workers from the Second International’s fabric it inherited was not enough. The young revolutionary parties had to restart the organizing momentum themselves and lead it coherently. The verticals oriented to propaganda and organization of young workers and working women were strengthened, communist fractions were organized inside unions and cooperatives and around the latter a new generation of “People’s Houses”, already communist, was created in France, Spain and other countries. It is in this framework that the formative work developed during the previous period are re-examined and the tasks and ways of approaching this formative work for the communists defined.

Library of the «Casa del Pueblo». Madrid.

A good part of the bases of the Third International had received their basic education and been formed -even from a technical point of view- in the “People’s Houses” of socialdemocrat parties, “People’s Universities” and all the workers’ educational fabric developed around the workers’ movement of the last period of ascending capitalism. When the issue is dealt with explicitly at the Fourth -and last- Congress of the International, the resolution insists that:

Developing Marxist educational work is an essential task of all Communist parties. The goal of this work is to raise the capacity of all party members and functionaries for education, organisation, and struggle.[…] Communist educational work should be an integral component of the party’s work as a whole.

The explicit conclusion is that the revolutionary formation of the workers must be centralized in the party and that “where it is developed in special organizations outside the Communist Party,” the communists must perform “systematic work” within such organizations. Educational work is strategic. But what are they referring to by “educational work”? The debate leading up to the adoption of the resolution makes it clear that it goes beyond Marxist education molded to the party apparatus. We want to break with the logic of the social democratic period in which the party was dedicated to the “education of cadres”, and the unions and popular universities provided general cultural and technical education for the workers. Hoernle, from the KPD, who presented the motion for its approval, insisted:

In direct contrast to the reformist parties, the emphasis of Communist party work is not on a small number of leaders, but on the masses of members. They are viewed not merely as electoral pawns, fillers of seats at meetings, and holders of membership cards, but as those who carry out responsible party work. The way in which the party carries out its work through fractions and cells demands that each individual member have a minimum of political understanding, Marxist schooling, and also formal skills such as eloquence, debating skill, know-how in holding a meeting, organisational capacity, and so on

«Literacy in the way to communism», 1921

But it is in the mass-oriented education of organized workers that the difference between reformism and communism is clearer.

Reformist educational work is directed above all to individualist egoism. It gives the individual worker an opportunity, limited as it is, to lift himself personally above the average of fellow members of his class and so achieve a better existence at their expense. He does this through personal diligence, by listening to various lectures on popularized academic themes, and by education in particular fields.[…] By and large, reformist educational work delivers to the worker a finished package of poorly popularized knowledge. It seeks to present the dubious fruits of bourgeois science and culture, fobbing off the worker with poisoned crumbs, but always awakening the illusion that it is delivering real bread. Communist educational work shows the proletarian how all bourgeois knowledge is shaped by class conditions and declares an intense war on all bourgeois science, art, morality, and religion. It shows how bourgeois tendencies find expressions everywhere – not only in the social sciences, not only in politics, but in the apparently neutral sciences, in fields that are apparently far removed

But if everything is about to be criticized (=demolished), where do we start? In the middle of the first revolutionary decade there is no doubt: for all that is needed for the struggle. But that involves a wide range of subjects, from “specialized training” for agitation among their own full-time representatives ones-which included practical skills like typography or public expression-to “in countries where broad masses of the proletariat are still illiterate […] to provide basic training. And to do so:

The Communist parties must therefore set great store on ensuring that their propaganda and agitation utilize new methods, methods that stimulate, that make it possible to seize the attention of the indifferent masses and awaken their interest. Observe how skilled the bourgeoisie is in dominating the masses thorough means such as films, slide shows, and the pomp of religious ceremony. Communist parties too must learn to utilize these methods -slide shows, films, artistically designed celebrations, theater performances, political propaganda plays, and so on- a field that has so far been very neglected in Western Europe and that must be systematically developed.

Poster of the movie «The Strike», by Einsenstein, influenced by Proletkult.

The International intended to take all this cultural production and agitation not only to its own channels, which it evidently prioritized, but also to that of the fabric then existing “in practically every country” of workers’ cultural associations: the “Proletkult” and the workers’ groups of “free thinkers” in Germany, the “Plebs League” in Great Britain… even, “under certain circumstances”, to the “People’s Universities” in the city halls, then common in the Latin countries. It was not a question of “surreptitiously planting” contents, it was a question of opening breaches, of turning the indoctrination classroom into a battlefield of class perspectives.

The party must attempt to strengthen its influence and that of proletarian struggle organizations as a whole in such educational institutions. It must attempt to bring the masses of workers who listen and learn there into opposition to bourgeois professors and teachers. It must demand that the methods of teaching through lectures be replaced by free discussions and thus arouse an intellectual opposition against bourgeois influence.

Formative work and agitation intertwine and fuse throughout the debate until they become indistinguishable in Krupskaya’s intervention, which insists on the need to use visual and interactive methods to transmit and debate, starting with the militants themselves, according to “the tradition of our [Bolshevik] party. That said, the message of the congress is the centrality and the need for worldwide centralization of educational work in the broadest possible scope within the class. To the extent that it proposes an International commission to ensure that the parties do not neglect it and puts, in order to improve and secure content, the state resources of the soviets (the “Socialist Academy”) at work for the needs of the parties on the ground. Because…

In a word, the minimum that must be demanded of the Communist parties today is educational work among their members that is centrally led and organized, and specialized educational work among the functionaries. In addition, their agitation must be more profound, scientific, and Marxist, and must be linked to propaganda that is genuinely popular in form and is supported by artistic, visual, musical, and theatrical material of every kind.

What can we rescue today?

«An illiterate is a blind man. Everywhere failure and misfortune await him». Aleksei Kadakov, 1920

Ninety-nine years after that congress, revolution never ceased to be at the order of the day. On the contrary, its necessity has only grown in the face of the anti-human and anti-historical affirmation of an increasingly deformed and destructive capitalism not only for our class but for our entire species. However, we are no longer in the middle of a world revolutionary wave, not even during its ebb. The Stalinist counterrevolution, which would already dominate
the next congress, uprooted the bastion of class dictatorship outlined by the Russian revolution in the years that followed. Fascism and Nazism wiped out the massive organizational fabric inherited from the Second International, including educational organizations. Apparently we would be heirs of a field covered in barely recognizable ruins.

To top it off, the necessarily totalitarian development of state capitalism, with its mass media, its educational systems, its worldwide propaganda campaigns, seems to make impossible any independent class expression outside of the struggles. And yet, spontaneously, here and there, in neighborhoods and even in small groups within companies, small cultural associations of workers emerge, gatherings, self-education initiatives, which are not satisfied with the degraded “popularization” of the ideology that this system distills.