I made the following comments to a celebration of John Riddell’s multi-volume series of books on the history of the world revolutionary movement. The meeting, attended by 120 people, took place on March 3, 2013. We were marking the publishing of John’s book on the Communist International’s Fourth World Congress, Toward the United Front. Here is what I said:
John’s books show that the Comintern was led by many persons, a team. And John himself is a team person. That was his approach from his youth, and it is how he organized his Comintern publishing.
Look at his latest volume: he thanks sixty-two people in fourteen countries.
In fact, that’s how I met John. In 1984 I visited New York and dropped in on Pathfinder Press. When I entered the workroom, he stepped forward, befriended me, and asked if I knew a second language. I said that I knew French but not well. He showed me some of the old sources he was using, and his persistence made me suspicious about his intentions. Later I noticed that he made such appeals at every opportunity and even at conferences and conventions.
One day, when John was on cleanup detail, he looked into a broom closet. The movement’s national secretary was walking by and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
“A Russian translator,” John replied. Even today, he carefully eyes anyone who speaks another language.
Our friendship developed rapidly. John said he had committed to live in New York for ten years for the project and asked me to move there. We found an apartment together. After ten hours at the office, he would come home, have supper, and then work away at learning Serbo-Croatian and Russian.
In 1993 John left Pathfinder, we moved to Toronto, and his Comintern activity ended. We were not doing much politically either. Later, Pathfinder asked him to resume work and he did so, translating after returning from his full-time job. Then came the Iraq war. John called on the political wing of Pathfinder to actively defend of the people of Iraq against the U.S. war, and for that, Pathfinder broke relations with him. They came to collect his work. As the cartons were lugged out the door, it seemed again that the project was over for good.
Actually, that turned out to be a big opportunity. We got active again, as if waking from a long sleep. We met all of you folks here and your comrades involved in different socialist and activist groups. We worked in Palestine solidarity, defense of Venezuela and Bolivia, and ecological justice. So when the opportunity came for John to have a third shot at the Comintern work, we were part of a supportive community and deeply involved in struggles and experiences that made the old Comintern texts come alive for us.
I notice, being close to John, that the lessons of the Comintern echo through his activism. His book notes where Clara Zetkin and others anticipate the spirit of present-day indigenous movements. Last year he linked the Fourth Congress to the current struggle in Greece – and suddenly he had a flock of Facebook friends in Greece. For him, ideas debated in the Comintern are alive in today’s struggles.