The Communist International and the struggle for liberation of the working people of Latvia

Ingars Burlaks, First Vice President of the SPL.

Latvian Revolutionaries at the origins of the Comintern

The revolutionaries of Latvia had a very active part in the international activity of the Social Democracy of Russia, and later also in that of the CPR (b). Yan Berzin (Jānis Bērziņš-Ziemelis), associate of V.I.Lenin, representing the Social Democrats of Latvia, participated as a member of the delegation of Russia in the international socialist conference of Zimmerwald. He also was a member of the left wing of the conference delegates (“Zimmerwald's Left”) and he signed the draft resolution and manifest containing the call to “change the imperialist war into the civil war”. Later, Yan Berzin, in 1919, became a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and from 1919 to 1920, was the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Comintern.

In March 1919, representatives of Latvia participated in the First Congress of the Comintern. The Communist Party of Latvia was represented by Кarl Gailis (Kārlis Gailis), participant of the armed uprising of October in Petrograd in 1917, later filled the post of People's Commissary for Labour of Latvia, in the Socialist government of P.Stučka, in 1919.

From the CPL, D.S.Beika, J.A.Berzine (Anderson), P.I.Stučka took part in the proceedings on the 2nd Congress of the Comintern. The delegates of the LCP intervened with their report on the situation in the Party organisations and the first overview of the clandestine activities under the conditions of the bourgeois dictatorship. P.I.Stučka took part in the commission of preparation of the thesis on agrarian issue lead by V.I.Lenin; D.S.Beika participated in the commission on the trade union movement affairs.

Struggle for the workers' rights under conditions of bourgeois republic in Latvia

The consolidation of the Comintern coincided with a dramatic period in the history of the young Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR): already on the 22nd May 1919, the Baltic Landeswehr, German Iron Division composed by voluntaries sent from Germany, and the formations of the White Guards under command of the Count Lieven expelled the Red Army detachments from Riga, and, in January 1920, aided by the Polish troops which had begun their offensive from West Belorussia, the Army of the Latvian bourgeois republic occupied the cities of Daugavpils and Rēzekne. The LSSR ceased existing; withdrawing a part of the communists together with the Red troops in retreat to the territory of Russia, the other part stayed in the underground in Letonia.

The Latvian nationalist bourgeois government started with the terror which caused the total number of victims that was over 10 thousand persons. Protecting in words the freedom of speech, the bourgeoisie demolished unmercifully the working class organisations, jailing their members. Any political opposition was repressed. Many communists perished, among them, J.Ozols, member of the CC of the LCP, J.Vintens, member of the CC of Young Communists of Latvia, A.Sukuts, former commissary of the State Control of the Soviet Latvia and many others. In 1921, they killed J.Shilf (Jaunzem) and A.J.Berce (Arajs), both members of the LCP CC. Communists were subject to arrests and cruel repressions.

The bourgeois propaganda media announced more than once that the Communist Party was fully annihilated, nevertheless the LCP, supported by labourers and first of all by the working class, existed during the 20 years of the bourgeois supremacy, guiding the struggle for re-establishing the Soviet power in Latvia. The lines of the LCP were filled by workers and conscientious peasants. In the underground period, the number of party members varied from 500 to 1150, without counting the imprisoned.

Due to the changes of conditions of work of the LCP, its structure and its organisation situation radically changed. In January 1920, the LCP CC decided to incorporate into the 3rd Communist International with the rights of an independent section. The main task then was strengthening of the party primary underground organisations. In the LCP territorial structure, operated the Riga city Organisation and 7 regional organisations. The number of district organisations varied from 40 to 50. Due to frequent arrests and repressions, not only elected managers but also co-opted persons worked in the Central Committee.

In order to help Latvian Communists in their underground work, first in Pskov and later in Moscow, the External Bureau of the LCP CC was organised. Keeping close ties with the Comintern Executive Committee, it helped solving tactical and organisational tasks, provided Marxist literature. The publishing house “Spartak” of the External Bureau of the LCP CC, during 16 years of its existence (1920-1936), issued around 250 books and brochures that contributed a lot to the ideological and organizational work of the Party.

In the underground, the Latvian Young Communist Union and the organisation “Red Aid” operated. Headed by the LCP, these organisations were the core of the revolutionary forces in Latvia, around which a broad activist group was consolidated comprising those without party membership, trade unionists and members of cultural and educational entities of the left. Under conditions of underground in Riga, continued publishing the newspaper "Cīņa", the LCP CC central medium, and tenths of printed publications of the Party, Young Communists and the organisation “Red Aid”.

Actively promoting communist ideas among soldiers of the army of the bourgeois Latvia, the LCP, in the beginning of the year 1920, created a party military (army) organisation which had some 200 members. The underground circles of soldiers —party members operated within the framework of the party territorial organisations.

Rise and fall of the bourgeois dictatorship

In the history of the bourgeois Latvia of the pre-war years, it is possible to define two clearly different periods: period of the bourgeois parliamentary republic and the following years of the fascist dictatorship. These periods are separated by the 15th May 1934; the coup d’état implemented by the actual prime minister of the moment, Kārlis Ulmanis. The parliament (Saeima), the elected bodies of local authorities and all political parties were eliminated from the Latvian political life stage, and internal and external policy were defined solely by the “leader” and “master of the land” as he was called with flattery by his closest circle.

But “the leader” did not enjoyed much the title of head of government, on 12th March 1936, based upon an absolutely unconstitutional resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers adopted after the functions of the State President Alberts Kviesītis had been concluded, Ulmanis usurped this position as well.

In Latvia of the years 1934 – 1940, in contrast to the Nazi Germany, Italy other countries of “classic” right-wing dictatorships, even compared to Lithuania and Estonia, there was no ruling fascist party as the regime political foundation, although the activists of the right-wing party, Peasants’ Unión, headed by Ulmanis, before the coup, as well as the convinced nationalists of other right-wing parties, supported the coup diligently working in the structures of the new regime. Besides there was an organisation of the aizsargi (“guards”, “protectors”), which together with the police structures implemented the function of forced repression. Nevertheless, the regime had all main determining features of a fascist dictatorship: terror and oppression, liquidation of bourgeois parliamentary regime, authoritarian power, social demagogy and unbridled preaching of nationalism. Ulmanis also had “his” concentration camp in Liepāja and the forced labour prison of Kalnciems, there were intents to apply the death penalty to political adversaries, but influenced by a series of internal (broad protests among the intellectuals) and external reasons (mainly, afraid of losing the favourable attitude of the ruling circles of England which served as a reference for Ulmanis), his regime was behind those of Hitler and Franco in this sense...

The government of Ulmanis started its activity with massive arrests of communists in Liepāja, Ventspils, Tukums, Aizpute, and Priekule. Latvian Communists more than once indicated the threat of a fascist coup. The underground declaration made by the Communist Party in April 1934, dedicated to the celebration of the 1st May expressed: “In Latvia, the Ulmanis government has been installed. It is a government of fascism, war and treason of people. The bourgeois put this personage in a cup of scales for the sake of fabricants and big owners bending Latvia’s workers, labouring peasants and unemployed into the ram’s horn”.

Nevertheless, on that occasion, the attempt made by the Communists in order to form a united resistance front against the threat of a fascist dictatorship together with Social Democrats was rejected by their leaders.

Due to dispersion of workers ‘organizations and extinction of democratic freedoms, the Communist Party was deprived of possibilities of using even the few legal forms of work that had previously existed, however it continued fighting in a deep underground. Its illegal organisations kept on operating, illegal newspapers and leaflets continued to be printed as well.

In the second half of the 1930s, the LCP had to struggle against considerable organisational difficulties. Under the influence of the anti-Trotsky struggle in the URSS and in the Comintern, in 1936, the CC of the LCP was eliminated, its External Bureau was terminated. However, the Party solved those difficulties. Its interim secretariat headed the reestablishment and strengthening of the LCP organisations. In February 1939, a new CC was elected in the XXVI conference of the LCP. According to the resolutions of the VII Congress of the Comintern (July – August 1935) the LCPL considered creating an anti-fascist popular front as its main task at that stage.

Of all the parties prohibited after the fascist coup, only a part of members of the Social Democratic party, who understood the need of struggling against the reformist ideology, continued acting politically, founding an illegal Latvian Socialist Worker Peasant Party. In November 1934, the Communist Party made an agreement of founding a united anti-fascist front with this party, and in 1936, achieved a union of the Communist Youth and the Socialist Youth into the Union of Working Youth of Latvia. That is how at a considerable degree it was possible to prevent the division of the working class of Latvia. Around the communists anti-fascist forces came together, forming the anti-fascist popular front.

The repressions and terror of the fascist dictatorship, economic recession that became particularly acute in the beginning of the Second World War, closing of enterprises and growth of unemployment, the sending of urban inhabitants to compulsory work in the countryside practiced by authorities beat up the flame of revolutionary struggle. This allows to state that in the end of spring 1940 in Latvia, a revolutionary situation matured, and the LCP made all it was able to do in order to transform it into a socialist revolution.

The events of summer 1940 can be rightly called socialist revolution, which main engine was the working class of Latvia. Its political leader was the Latvian Communist Party that during its twenty five years of underground work prepared many hundreds of bold fighters, winning the support of the working class of Latvia.

Speaking about the events of the year 1940 in Latvia, it would be good to recall the words pronounced by V.I.Lenin in 1918, in the Moscow Regional Conference of Factory Committees: “Revolutions are not made on order, neither are applied to a special moment, but they become ripe during the process of historic development and burst at the moment caused by a complex of several internal and external reasons” (V.I. Lenin Complete Works, v.36, p.531).

In the second half of the 1930s, Latvia became placed in a complicated international situation. Since Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the threat of a fascist aggression was becoming ever more realistic. Even Poland had its expansionist aspirations in connection with Latvia. The existing hope for being supported by the Great Britain was also gradually fading. In its fight against the aggression Latvia could only expect a real help from the Soviet Union. This is why the slogans of the popular anti-fascist front guided by the LCP “Let's Don't give Latvia to Hitler” and “For a close alliance with the USSR” corresponded with the mood of the broadest layers of population and were recognised by those.

The revolutionary situation in Latvia emerged in September 1939 together with the beginning of the Second World War which created absolutely new phenomena in the economic life of Latvia. The National economy was completely dependent of the great European capitalist powers. The trade turnover only with Germany and England (which came into a mutual state of war) was 70% of the total volume. At the same time it has to be stated that 90% of Latvian foreign trade was implemented by sea. The crisis of navigation emerged as a result of conversion of the Baltic Sea and other Europe's seas into theatres of military actions caused a respective crisis of raw materials and fuels which at their occasion assessed a crushing blow to Latvian industry. In June 1940, already each fifth worker in Latvia was unemployed.

The Ulmanis' regime was also going through a deep internal crisis. During all the period of Ulmanis' dictatorship, a struggle was going on between representatives of urban and rural bourgeoisie, because the urban bourgeoisie considered itself ousted from the state governance. Many functionaries had been involved in corruption.The threat of the German invasion in Latvia considerably influenced the group of Latvian farmers called the new masters which had obtained their lands as a result of the bourgeois agrarian reform. The fact was that, before the reform, land of considerable importance had belonged to former landowners – barons, ethnic Germans, and the farmers were afraid of losing those formerly barons' lands. The threat of Hitler's invasion also notably influenced the ethnic minorities of Latvia (Russian, Byelorussian, Jew, Polish, Lithuanian), as well as the intellectuals and even Latvian army officers.

Latvia had to assume a possibility of the of Hitler's invasion. The Soviet-Latvian pact of mutual help, signed on 5th October 1939 in Moscow, dissipated this tension. According to the pact, Latvia offered to the Soviet Union a right of creating military and naval bases in Liepāja and Ventspils, as well as several air fields in Kurzeme. Nevertheless, the military groups were of poor importance and those were controlled by Latvian troops. At the same time, Ulmanis' dictatorship maintained its open hostility towards the USSR, as well as towards Latvian workers, and it was eagerly looking for ways of preserving its power. Ulmanis' government, behind the backs of the USSR, strengthened its military contacts with Estonia and Lithuania, conducting intensified ideological indoctrination of the army, police and aizsargi. The command of the Latvian army prepared a plan of war against the Soviet Union (the so-called “mobilisation prescription No 5”).

In spring 1940, in the Western Europe, decisive developments radically influenced the situation of Latvia. On 10th May 1940, Hitler's Germany began a broad offensive in the Western front, as a result of which Belgium and Holland capitulated. English army was defeated and evacuated to England, and The French began retreating. On 14th June 1940, German troops entered in Paris, and some days later France ceased resisting. In these moments, German army had free hands and Hitler could move it to the East (and he began doing it). In case of occupying Baltic States Germany could gain a favourable beach head for a future attack on the Soviet Union. Under those conditions, it was impossible to be sure that the Baltic States reactionary and fascist regimes, afraid of their peoples, would not commit a national treason allowing Hitler's troops enter the Baltics.

The Soviet government delivered to the Ambassador of Latvia in Moscow a note, in which the violations made to the pact of mutual help were indicated and the demand was formulated to establish a government which would honestly implement the conditions of the pact. The note was accepted, the government of Latvia renounced.On 17th June 1940, detachments of the Red Army entered in the territory of Latvia. The Red Army did not intervene in the internal affairs, but its presence certainly had a decisive deterrent influence in further events. Latvian bourgeoisie did not dare to develop its terror against Latvian working movement by cracking down at revolutionary manifestations.

The days that followed were days of agony of the regime of Ulmanis, when the Latvian working class rose in order to defeat the fascist dictatorship. On 20th June, Ulmanis announced that a new government headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins had been formed. Investigation is needed on the stance of Soviet power, whether or not there was a question about the release of party officials and members, and if not why, and even more into the issue of participation of communists in the government. However, demonstrations and other actions of workers that took place in many places were organised by Latvian communists. The LCP formulated the demands that were given to the new government on 21st June 1940 during a demonstration. These demands mirrored moods and interests of the working people and made the programme of the new government, which was called People's government.

The socialist revolution of 1940 in Latvia, being an integral part of the revolutionary process that had been started by the Great October socialist revolution, also had its own particularities.

First, it was a socialist revolution which was victorious without civil war, without active resistance from the bourgeoisie. In Europe's history, it is an extremely rare event; it can even be called unique. At the same time, of course, one must take into account that the presence of the Red Army detachments, although maintaining their complete neutrality in connection with all that happened, doubtlessly was a deterrent factor for a possible resistance attempted by the bourgeois regime.

Second, this revolution being essentially socialist was also simultaneously an anti-fascist revolution because as a result of it a fascist dictatorship was overthrown and many measures were taken to liquidate the institutions of the previous regime and to break the old state apparatus. This is why, in the first stages of the revolution, activities of the general democratic character were implemented before all.

Elections to the People's parliament of Latvia that took place on 14th and 15th July 1940 must be considered as one of the central events of the revolution of 1940. Participated in the elections 1,181,323 voters aged 21 and over (94.8% of the population) participated in the elections, and 1,155,807 votes, or 97.8%, were cast for candidates of the Block of the Working People of Latvia. 25,516 voters voted against.

Were those elections free? One must answer affirmatively to the question, because nobody forced voters to go to the polls, and the new government did not have such a repressive apparatus that could do it. There were no lists of voters, because during the dictatorship ther had been no elections, it was possible to vote at any poll station and in any polling district, a mark was made in the passport about participation in the election, which excluded the possibility of a second vote.

Are the election results genuine? Yes, this can be checked by looking up the archives of the documentation of all polling stations and sub-sites. In addition, at the polling stations, the votes were counted not only by the Communists and people who sympathized with them, but also by the employees of the former state apparatus, and representatives of the bourgeois circles. And there were hundreds of them. If there were falsifications of results, these people would have made revelations. However, there are none.

SPL in current times. Historic experience lessons

The general historical picture and the socio-economic situation of Latvia of the 20s and 90s of the last century are very similar: decomposition of a large state, sovereignty of its parts as separate state formations, rupture of economic cooperation, closure of large companies, unemployment massive, and reprisals of the victorious bourgeoisie.

Here is what was written about the Communist Party of Latvia in "The Communist Calendar", in 1925:

The party is in the underground and has only 1000 members, but enjoys great influence among the proletarian masses due to the fact that for the last 18 years it has been waging a vigorous struggle for the interests of the working class. It was the first to create cells in trade unions and other proletarian organizations. It publishes an underground body that has a large distribution. The Union of Communist Youth also has its own organ. The Central Committee issues a newspaper in Russian from time to time.

The use of the united front in many ways helped the Communist Party in its struggle against the Mensheviks, especially in trade unions. It is also trying to attract the poor peasants and the petty bourgeoisie, who are suffering greatly due to the rampant economic crisis.

This is a very high score, if we bear in mind the then social and political situation. Why was the Socialist Party of Latvia unable to repeat the success of the Communist Party of the 1920s and 1930s in terms of influencing the working masses, using public organizations and trade unions in their work, because then the communists had to work underground in infinitely more severe conditions? At the same time, the number of the party members at the time of the liquidation of the Soviet power in Latvia in 1920 was less than in 1991, and the repression of the bourgeois government was much more brutal. In fact, the political forces that won in 1991 took measures to ban the Communist Party, "punctual" punishments of leaders and the so-called “Lustration” of the most capable activists. They dismantled the socialist base and the achievements of the socialist state.

In addition to the features of the situation in Latvia mentioned in previous publications on the ICR pages, the ethnic split of the working class, the deliberate deindustrialization of the economy and the peculiarities of the return of property during denationalization, which together led to a loss of class identity among a large number of working people, complicating the current work of the party among workers.

  • Psychological causes. The moral structure of the communists and the advanced part of the working class at the beginning of the last century was much higher in moral and volitional terms. Many of the then activists began to struggle during the revolutionary uprisings of 1905, then quenched during the 1917 revolution and civil war. Most of the representatives of the Communist Party and the working class of the late 80s were formed as individuals during the peaceful post-war period, in an atmosphere of high social guarantees that they received simply as a given of the socialist system, without struggle and protests, characteristic of capitalist countries.
  • Public organizations, trade unions of the USSR period were fairly formal entities that turned out to be completely unprepared for work in the new conditions. The trade unions, for example, had a so-called during the Soviet period. The “vertical-industry” structure - the minister, the heads of enterprises, and the workers were all in the same union. Under the socialist system, this was not of particularly fundamental importance, since there were enough means to protect the interests and rights of workers in the event of their violation. After capitalist revenge, such trade unions were taken under the control of bourgeois authorities and turned out to be completely incapable of protecting even the economic interests of their members. In addition, the national-bourgeois government tried to carry out de-industrialization fairly quickly, and in fact more or less numerous trade unions now exist only in state-financed organizations such as education or health care, their leaders are “tied up” and depend on local authorities and the government. In the 1990s, the CPF was able to really rely only on those organizations whose members went through a harsh school of life: the Latvian organization of the fighters of the Anti-Hitler coalition, veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war and blockade of Leningrad. But the number of these organizations for natural reasons is reduced, as well as their potential for influence in society.
  • Young people have the greatest protest potential in any country. Latvia is one of the leaders of Europe in terms of the aging society. Various factors contributed to this: the demographic "echo" of the Second World War intensified by the decline in fertility in the 1990s, later, after the incorporation of Latvia into the EU - the mass labour migration of young people abroad. There were important changes in the professional composition of the workers, the system of preparation of workers' specialties was practically destroyed, as a result of which people of pre-retirement age, retirees and invited employees from outside work in the remains of industrial companies. These categories of workers objectively do not tend to organize and express some type of protest.
  • School education in the sphere of social subjects has a clear or indirect anti-communist and nationalist approach, declaring the need for "unique understanding of history" and "common social memory." This process of treatment of the growing generation had been somewhat slower in the schools of the partially Russian language of instruction, which was one of the main causes of their liquidation.
  • After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, power in Latvia has been reserved for bourgeois right-wing parties that, without deviations, carry out a coordinated policy of the dissemination of workers according to their ethnicity, of the active application of the force of law, including against attempts at public comparisons of the situation of workers in the republic in today's society and in the Soviet one (criminal responsibility has been established for positive public expressions of the socialist period). The aggressive anti-Soviet interpreted by bourgeois politicians has become a mandatory indication of nationalist patriotism, as is the unconditional approval of the rapid militarization of the country and its transformation into the first “trench” of NATO on the Eastern border of the European Union. The reigning politicians do not absolutely care about the degree of estrangement and the essential vital interest of the majority of Latvia's population. On the contrary, by implementing an atmosphere of suspicion and mutual distrust in society, the bourgeois authorities of Latvia try to equate all criticism in their direction to the manifestation of disloyalty to the state of Latvia, using it to retain the levers of power in their hands.

The historical experience is valuable in all the manifestations; we must carefully study not only the achievements of the revolutionaries of the past but also their mistakes to avoid committing them again. For example, as early as 1923, the avant-garde tendencies were criticized in the VII Congress of the PCL - attempts to counter the leading role of the party and its political orientation, which had emerged in the ranks of communist youth, especially among the militants of the Riga organization of the UYCL. Also the PSL in its work with current youth organizations has not been able to avoid similar trends.

The task of intensifying the political – ideological and mass struggle and coordinating joint efforts and actions with the participation of working people who are under the influence of other parties, including the Social Democrats (“Concord”) and the party that defends the general democratic interests of the Russian-speaking minority, which is currently under ethnic and linguistic discriminatory conditions ("Russian Union of Latvia"), is still topic today.

The attenuation of the revolutionary struggle during the periods of stabilization of capitalism occurred regularly in the past. However, it is not possible to eliminate capitalist crises, and once the crisis would achieve the level of a revolutionary situation in one or several countries. In this regard, attention must be paid to the positive work experience of the Comintern regarding the coordination of the work of the communist and workers' parties. The role the Comintern had in organizing the work of the Communist Party of Latvia in the 1920s and 1930s of the last century was very significant; its representatives took part in congresses, shared experiences, helped in theoretical and organizational issues.

It is quite obvious that along with the daily struggle for the social and economic rights of the workers, the communist and workers' parties have the task of struggling under all the conditions and being prepared for a similar development of events. Intellectually, theoretically and organizationally prepared, having party personnel reserves which would have state and economic management habits. It is necessary to think about coordination of efforts in this preparation, and the experience of the Comintern, of course, taking into account the current particularities (globalization, new possibilities of computer exchange, etc.), can be useful in fulfilling this task.