The Communist International 100 years on

Issue: 164

Gareth Jenkins and Tony Phillips

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Third International—the Communist International (or Comintern), the organisation of revolutionary socialist parties around the world. The Comintern represented the hope of millions that the example of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia could be spread globally to rid the world of the horrors of imperialism and capitalism. Yet that hope remained unfulfilled. The Third International degenerated and was finally killed off by Stalin less than a quarter of a century after its birth.

This article aims not to give a history of the organisation but to assess some of its achievements and weaknesses. We shall look in particular at three important aspects of the Comintern as a school for strategy and tactics: the united front, the colonial question, and the relationship between the Comintern and the Russian state. We want to challenge the assertion that the Comintern was a “mistake”—that the failure, in countries such as Germany, to bring about a revolution was because Bolshevik methods were inapplicable there. This was the claim made by Julius Braunthal, who stated in his History of the International that the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which he related to Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, bore “no relationship to the actual power, traditions and psychology of the labour movement in those countries in which the conditions for a Communist revolution was not present”.1 Worse still, the split in the international working class movement engineered by the Comintern was responsible for the rise of fascism and the catastrophe of the Second World War.

Much the same argument was raised by communists who came to break with Stalin in the 1960s and 1970s. Fernando Claudín, for example, in his two-volume history of the Communist movement, argued that the 1943 resolution to dissolve the Comintern implicitly recognised “that, as a matter of fact, during the greater part of the history of the Comintern, the latter was not the type of international organisation that the working class needed to have”.2 Its “ultra-centralism, its draconian subordination of the periphery to the centre” meant that the Comintern ignored “the fact of national difference”:3 consequently, its structure “‘corresponded’ not to the real needs of the international working class movement but to a certain theoretical conception of the course to be followed by the world revolution, and to the tactical and organisational requirements of this course: the conception held by Lenin and the Bolshevik nucleus”.4

A similar argument has arisen recently in the United States, as a new ­generation of radicals, in and around the Democratic Socialists of America, hammers out a viable strategy for change. The rise of the DSA is wholly to be welcomed—but much less so is the attempt to rehabilitate Karl Kautsky, the leading figure of pre First World War Marxism. Kautsky was vilified by Lenin for abandoning revolutionary politics when he failed to oppose the outbreak of war in August 1914. Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik Revolution as undemocratic confirmed for Lenin that Kautsky’s Marxism only served, as did open reformism, to undermine working class politics in the interests of the bourgeoisie. This rehabilitation, with its base in the academy, has sought to claim not only that Lenin’s debt to Kautsky is greater than previously realised. It has also proposed, much more dubiously, that Lenin should be understood as the real inheritor of Kautsky’s Marxism (even though Kautsky himself abandoned it) and even that Kautsky was the true architect of the October Revolution.5 It follows from this that it is a mistake to extrapolate Leninism, or Bolshevism, as a current distinct from what Kautsky stood for, or to claim that this represents the only authentic continuation of the Marxist tradition. The failure of the October Revolution to spread is proof, then, that the “invention” of Bolshevism as the model for future revolutionary practice was a wrong turn for the movement that could only end in failure internationally. The demotion of Bolshevism has obvious consequences for whether the Third International continues to have lessons for today’s radicals.

Despite very real differences, the conclusion to be drawn from all these commentators is that the Comintern parties were bound to fail because they attempted to implement strategies alien to the socialist and working class traditions in which they operated. We intend to show that, on the contrary, the problem was that the early Comintern leadership often had a better understanding of how other Communist parties should relate to their milieu than their own leaders did. Consequently, the failure of the Communist parties often stemmed, not from too much Bolshevism, but from too little.

What kind of International should it be?

The crucial event that led to the foundation of the Comintern took place on 4 August 1914. On that day, the German SPD group in the Reichstag voted for war credits, ie for funding for the German armed forces in the First World War. This was a fundamental break with the policy of the Socialist or Second International, the international organisation of socialist parties set up in 1889, to oppose world war when it came. The SPD vote was quickly followed by votes to support their own governments by all the socialist parties in the combatant nations with the honourable exceptions of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Bulgarian and Serbian socialist parties. This collapse shocked Lenin. The SPD was a mass, nominally Marxist party and the leading socialist party internationally, one that Lenin had hitherto regarded as a model. But it was clear that this was no aberration, but revealed that something was rotten in the politics of the Second International. Lenin soon came to the conclusion that a new revolutionary socialist international was needed on a clear anti-war, anti-imperialist basis.

Initially, socialists in Germany who opposed the war such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin appeared to be in a tiny minority. But as popular discontent with the war rose, so too did dissent within the SPD with the policy of unconditional support for the war. More and more Reichstag deputies (though still a small minority) refused to vote for war credits or abstained. Eventually, the leadership expelled the dissidents who went on to create the USPD (the so-called Independents). The split was not a clear break with the policies and practices of pre-war German Social Democracy—it included outright reformists on the right of the party as well as revolutionaries and those such as Kautsky who occupied an intermediate position. Its opposition to the war therefore tended to be of a pacifist nature, with demands for a peace settlement without annexations but no clear commitment to fighting to stop the imperialist war. Only a tiny minority to the left of these “centrists”6 continued to stand by the pre-war policy of outright opposition to the war—and only a handful of these were prepared to push the logic of Liebknecht’s slogan, that the main enemy is at home, to the defeatist position advocated by Lenin.

The splits in the SPD begged the question of what kind of International there should be when peace came. Reviving the Second International, on the old basis, was not really a viable option, even for the pro-war parties that hankered after a return to the pre-war methods that had so horrifically failed. But the opponents of the war were not agreed on the best way forward, as the divisions at the anti-war conferences at Zimmerwald in 1915 and at Kienthal the following year showed. These conferences marked the first stages of an international (or rather, European) regrouping of socialist forces. But only a minority, with Lenin at its heart, wanted a new International built on the basis of commitment to transforming the imperialist war into world revolution. The majority were unwilling to go that far for fear of being isolated.

Ultimately, the radicalising effect of the war and the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 were the decisive factors. Lenin was not the only one who wanted a different kind of International, one committed to action and not words, but his was the only socialist party that had proved in practice why organisation based on Bolshevik politics would be central to building an International that could deliver revolution. Two things were vital. The first was for the new International to exclude all reformists and opportunists—there could be no unity with those who had sacrificed the international unity of the working class to the interests of rival ruling classes. The second was to create a world party of the proletariat—one that could lead united action against imperialism. The Second International’s toleration of reformism had reduced it to a mere talking shop. A new International, on the contrary, as Leon Trotsky was to argue at its First Congress, had to be “the International of open mass action, the International of revolutionary realisation, the International of the deed”.7

In order to avoid the passive electoralism of the Second International, the new International would also have to be centrally organised and led, not a federation of autonomous national sections. This last was not, by the way, some kind of Leninist deviation as Braunthal argued. While still in prison, Luxemburg had argued that in addition to the guiding principles of international solidarity and the primacy of the fight against imperialism:

The centre of gravity of the proletariat’s class organisation is the International. The International decides the tactics of the national sections in time of peace…and in addition, the entire tactical policy to be applied in wartime. The duty to carry out the International’s decisions takes precedence over all other organisational obligations. National sections that violate these decisions place themselves outside the International.8

What could be more centralist than that?

Was it premature to launch the Comintern?

The first congress of the Communist International was held in Moscow in March 1919. But was it premature? It certainly represented much less on the ground than subsequent Comintern congresses. Of the 35 delegates, only the Bolsheviks represented a mass revolutionary party and, of the foreign delegates, only Hugo Eberlein for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) could claim to represent a genuine revolutionary organisation, albeit a small, persecuted one. Eberlein had been mandated by the KPD to oppose the immediate founding of the Comintern. “A Third International should not be simply an intellectual centre,” he argued, “it must be the basis for an organisational power,” which was not yet possible given that “real communist parties only exist in a few countries”.9

Such caution might have been advisable if the current of history had not been, at that point, moving strongly towards revolution. The Bolshevik triumph had won huge sympathy among workers and the oppressed across the world. Revolutionary struggles were underway in Germany, Hungary and Italy and would soon break out in Ireland, India, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and China. Lenin’s “wager”, as it had been in October 1917, was that revolutionaries had to seize the time: waiting for better “objective” conditions meant sacrificing present opportunities.10 Lenin was also aware that “complete and final victory…cannot be achieved in Russia alone. It can be achieved only when the proletariat is ­victorious in at least all the advanced countries or, at all events, in some of the largest of the advanced countries”.11

This, then, was the spirit in which Grigori Zinoviev, on behalf of the Bolsheviks, replied to Eberlein: “We have a victorious revolution in a large country… In Germany you have a party striding towards power and that in a few months will form a proletarian government. Are we supposed to hesitate? No-one will understand us”.12

There was another reason for the urgency. German social democracy was not a spent force in the working class movement, despite the betrayals of August 1914 and the role it played in enabling German capitalism to recover from the destabilising shock of the November 1918 revolution, and despite its responsibility for the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. There was an attempt in early 1919 at a conference in Switzerland to revive the Second International. The danger was that the Bolsheviks would lose the initiative unless they acted rapidly and decisively to create a new International that would be an organisational pole of attraction for the many millions enthused by the October Revolution and by the idea of soviet power.

The Congress agreed on the Platform of the Communist International drafted by Eberlein and Nikolai Bukharin, which restated the revolutionary Marxist case that capitalism cannot be reformed and made it clear that, in addition to breaking with right wing social democracy, it was “also necessary to break with the centre (the Kautskyites) who abandon the proletariat in its hour of greatest need and flirt with its sworn enemies”.13

Eberlein was persuaded to abstain on the motion to launch the new International and the Communist International became reality. Within months the decision was vindicated by mass parties such as the Italian Socialist Party and the Norwegian Labour Party voting to affiliate. Smaller but important parties in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Sweden and Rumania joining left the Second International as an increasingly unrepresentative rump. By the Second Congress held in July 1920, mass parties such as the centrist SFIO (French Socialist Party) and the USPD (which in 1919 had provided left cover to the SPD government by accepting ministerial positions) had been forced by pressure from their rank and file to send delegates. Both parties voted to affiliate despite the open and covert opposition of their leaders.14 The USPD had merged with the KPD by the end of the year.

Building parties of a new type

As Lenin put it, “the Communist International is becoming rather fashionable”.15 The Bolsheviks now feared that, rather than being isolated, the new international would be swamped with left-talking centrists and that its revolutionary politics would be watered down. Affiliation to the Comintern was one thing; ­transformation into genuine revolutionary parties quite another. Despite being pushed leftwards by their membership, the centrist parties forced into the orbit of the Comintern were reluctant to adopt an interventionist form of organisation, one that broke with the Second International model of relative passivity outside the electoral sphere.

The Comintern did not only represent a break from the Second International in theory but a break in practice. As Zinoviev put it, the aim was to build “a fighting organisation of the international proletariat”.16 The new International should be made up of parties of a new type. The Theses on the Role and Structure of the Communist Party,17 a report given by Zinoviev and agreed by the Second Congress, laid out very clearly the type of revolutionary vanguard parties the Comintern was aiming to build. “The Communist Party”, it stated, echoing the Communist Manifesto, “is part of the working class—its most advanced, class conscious, and therefore its most revolutionary part”.18 At the same time it must be able to relate, through struggle, to the mass of workers, most of whom do not hold clear revolutionary ideas much of the time, if it is to lead. The emphasis on the active minority was also necessary to appeal to syndicalists who understandably rejected the supine, treacherous Social Democratic model of the party. The resolution set out the principles of democratic centralism as a requirement for all affiliated parties—principles repeated in the Theses on the Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties at the Third Congress.

The Comintern leadership were anxious to exclude centrist leaders who paid lip service to revolution in order to appease rank and file workers while carrying on their reformist practice. This is where the famous 21 conditions for affiliation, also agreed at the Second Congress came in.19 These binding conditions, taken together, were intended to make it harder for a centrist to enter the Comintern than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. They were anathema to the reformist leaders but were also criticised from the left both at the time and since. For Claudín, they were “a model of sectarianism and bureaucratic method in the labour movement”20 which needlessly cut the Comintern off from workers who were moving to the left but still looked to centrist leaders such as Giacinto Serrati of the Italian Socialist Party or Wilhelm Dittmann and Arthur Crispien of the USPD in Germany.21

But Claudín forgets that the split in the international workers’ movement had not been brought about by the Bolsheviks, but by the reformist leaders breaking with their paper socialist principles at the outbreak of the war. Even those who had verbally opposed the war such as Serrati and Dittman played a disastrous, vacillating role in the post-war revolutionary struggles, showing that they could not be relied upon in the heat of battle. A revolutionary international that could organise and lead the masses in struggle would have to break with these people while winning over their supporters. The Comintern had no bureaucratic means to enforce acceptance of the 21 conditions, only argument and pointing to workers’ experience of struggle. Zinoviev did this very successfully at the USPD’s Halle Congress later in 1920 when he persuaded the majority of delegates to vote to join the Comintern.

As well as the practice of the mass reformist parties, the Comintern also wanted to break with the sectarian abstract propagandist approach of the followers of pre-war French socialist Jules Guesde and the British Socialist Party. The new revolutionary parties needed actively to intervene in the class struggle if they were to “win the masses” as the slogan of the Third Congress put it.22 They needed to be firm in principle but flexible in tactics and organisation. They needed to be able to manoeuvre to right and left according to the conditions of the struggle. The new CPs needed to understand how to use parliament and local government as a platform for agitation and propaganda without encouraging illusions in the possibility of achieving change through parliamentary means. They needed to learn how to work inside the mass trade unions in order to work both with and against the trade union bureaucracy. They needed to know when to advance and when to retreat and how to work both legally and illegally. The key tactic bringing all this together was the united front, of which more below.

The theses on party organisation agreed by the Third Congress are an example of how the Comintern tried to generalise the experience of the Russian Revolution in a positive way.23 But Lenin later worried that “the resolution is an excellent one, but…everything in it is based on Russian experience…if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out”.24 The leaders of the French Socialist Party and the Norwegian Labour Party accepted the 21 conditions and joined the Comintern but dragged their feet when it came to actually transforming their parties into revolutionary organisations on the Bolshevik model. The Norwegian party ultimately refused to do this and left the Comintern. Ultra-leftism remained strong in both the Italian and German CPs throughout the early years and centrism stubbornly persisted in the French Communist Party. The work of transforming the CPs of the world into activist, ­interventionist revolutionary parties that could lead the masses in struggle was a long way from completion when the Soviet bureaucracy brought the process to an end as it began to subordinate the Comintern and its constituent parties to its interests from 1924 onwards.

Towards the united front

Of the many achievements of the Comintern the united front policy remains one of the most important. By 1921, it was clear that revolution was no longer imminent; capitalism was experiencing a partial recovery and the working class was on the defensive. The most perceptive leaders (Lenin and Trotsky in particular) realised the need for a sharp move to the “right” (as they put it), if the new International was to survive.

However, they barely carried the day. The dominant mood at the Third Congress was that centrist passivity and opportunism still remained the main enemy. It had to be defeated by communist parties launching “a series of offensive acts”25 to break through “the passivity and disinclination to struggle of the ­economically privileged and ideologically backward layers”.26 This was “the only way…to awaken the apathetic masses to awareness of their objective political situation”.27 This semi-anarchist, elitist and voluntarist theory had been the German Party’s justification for the disastrous March Action earlier that year, in which it had attempted to force the majority of workers to follow their demand for a general strike, irrespective of actual conditions. This had all but wrecked the mass party that had emerged as a result of the merger of the USPD majority with the KPD.

The leading critic within the German Party had been Paul Levi, whose blistering attack on the March Action as the “greatest Bakuninite28 putsch in history to date”29 had earned him expulsion from the party for indiscipline. But, as Lenin privately admitted to Clara Zetkin (Levi’s chief supporter), even though the way in which he had attacked the party was incorrect, making his expulsion unavoidable, his actual analysis was essentially correct.30

In the debate at the Third Congress, Lenin openly attacked the “stupidity” of the theory of the offensive and defended the German Party’s January 1921 Open Letter (a proposal to the trade union and Social-Democratic leaders for joint action) as “a model…because it is the first step in a practical method to win over the majority of the working class”.31 This was not, he said, opportunism. Communists should stop the “sport” of “hounding centrists”32 and seize any opportunities to advance their influence over the non-party millions.33

“We must not counterpose ourselves,” said Karl Radek, a Comintern leader with deep knowledge of conditions in Germany, “in doctrinaire fashion to what the masses are fighting for. Rather we must make the struggles of the masses for their immediate needs more acute and broaden them, teaching the workers to develop a greater need—the need to take possession of power”.34 Given that even the “smallest…parties cannot limit themselves to mere propaganda and agitation”,35 communists had to engage in partial struggles and demands such that “the working class will become aware that for it to live, capitalism must die”.36

But it was not until December 1921, and in subsequent meetings in 1922, that the executive elaborated what this meant in its Theses on the United Front.

“The tactic,” as Duncan Hallas explains,

starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organisations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organisations, which it can do under favourable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organisations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind.37

Because social democratic organisations had the allegiance of the majority of workers, they were to be approached for joint action over basic economic and political demands. As John Molyneux put it, if they agreed, “then the communist parties would have the chance to prove in practice their superiority as defenders of the proletariat. If the social democrats rejected the proposals, then the blame for any disunity would fall on them”.38

The united front was not a propaganda trick to expose social democracy—not, as leading French communist Albert Treint described it approvingly, “a way of ‘plucking the Socialist goose’ (plumer la volaille socialiste)”.39 Winning battles through the united front was important in its own right for the self-confidence of workers. At the same time, the united front was a strategy for weakening the hold of social democracy and strengthening the hegemony of the communist party, without which final victory would not be possible.

There was opposition to the tactic, from the ultra-lefts (predictably) but also from the semi-centrist majority French leadership.40 The Germans, on the other hand, managed to use the united front tactic to rebuild much of the influence it had lost as a result of the March Action.

The Fourth Congress of the Comintern, in November 1922, extended the united front to the call for a workers’ government. The debate raised more problems than it solved and the resulting text was highly unsatisfactory as a guide to action.41 The difficulty hinged on what was meant by “workers’ government”. Was it, as Zinoviev initially argued, a pseudonym for proletarian dictatorship? If so, how did a coalition of workers’ parties exercising governmental power differ from soviet power?

The issue was not hypothetical. Communists (in Germany, for example) found themselves faced, at different moments, with the prospect of workers’ parties in office. The problem was, as Radek put it, “warning on the one hand against…complete intransigence that says ‘soviet government or nothing’, and also against the illusion that tries to convert the workers’ government into a parachute”.42

The Fourth Congress resolution on tactics argued:

As a general propagandistic slogan, the workers’ government (or workers’ and peasants’ government) can be used almost everywhere. As an immediate political slogan, however, the workers’ government is most important in countries where bourgeois society is particularly unstable, where the relationship of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the agenda as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. In these countries, the slogan of the workers’ government flows unavoidably from the entire united front tactic.43

The Comintern argued that “the slogan of the workers’ government thus has the potential of uniting the proletariat and unleashing revolutionary struggle”.44 “Such a government would be a step towards workers taking power through soviets—providing it armed the workers, disarmed counter-revolutionary bourgeois organisations and introduced workers’ control over production”.45 But how likely was this scenario? It is one thing to make specific, partial demands of a workers’ government and another to demand that it lead a frontal assault on bourgeois economic and state power.

The Fourth Congress attempted to answer this by distinguishing between “illusory” and “genuine” workers’ governments, the latter being the only ones in which communists might participate—but under strict conditions of the sort referred to earlier: “guarantees that the workers’ government will carry out a genuine struggle against the bourgeoisie”.46 But, as Hallas pointed out, if reformists could do that they would no longer be reformists by definition.47 The danger was of exaggerating their potential for decisive struggle and therefore the role that communists might play in them—as was proved, only too well, in the failure of the workers’ government of the Saxony province, with its two Communist ministers, to fulfil the role of detonator to the German revolution in 1923.

There seems to have been a tendency to think that the direction of travel with workers’ governments could only go one way—towards revolution. While Zinoviev argued that the election of even an “illusory” workers’ government (a Labour government in Britain, for example) might be “objectively a step forward”,48 Radek went further and said that it would “merely be a stepping stone to the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the bourgeoisie will not tolerate a Labour government… The Social Democratic worker will find himself compelled to become a Communist, in order to defend his rule”.49 No one seems to have considered that workers’ governments might contain and defuse struggle, despite being a by-product of it.

However, in the Comintern’s defence, there was so little experience of workers’ governments that it was reasonable to assume that in a period of social turmoil they could help disintegrate bourgeois power. The next Congress might have ironed out confusions and ambiguities. But this was the last at which honest accounting was possible. By the time of the Fifth Congress, the united front had been abandoned for bureaucratic ultra-leftism.

Revolution in the colonial world

As in other areas, Comintern policy on the colonial world represented a sharp break from the Eurocentric theory and practice of the Second International. In the early 1920s most of Africa and Asia was divided among the imperialist powers such as Britain and France. Even countries such as China and most of Latin America, which were formally independent, were in practice dominated by one or other imperialism. The Second International majority had verbally opposed the exploitation and oppression of the colonial peoples but regarded colonialism as inevitable or even progressive. They argued that it would lead to the economic and social development of the underdeveloped countries. The plight of the majority of humanity that lived in the colonies and semi-colonies would only be addressed after the victory of socialism in the “advanced” countries. In practice the parties of the Second International did nothing to support the growing struggles of colonial peoples. By supporting their own governments at the outbreak of the war, they backed the struggle of their own ruling class to retain and expand their colonial possessions.

For the Comintern, however, the struggle in the colonies and semi-colonies was a central part of the worldwide struggle to overthrow capitalism. Basing its ideas on Lenin’s and Bukharin’s analysis of imperialism, the Comintern argued that, far from being progressive, imperialism was hugely destructive as the world war had shown. The economies of the colonies were held back and subjected to the interests of the imperialist powers who oppressed and exploited their inhabitants. The war had not been an aberration as Kautsky argued, but the direct result of capitalist accumulation. The struggle to redivide the world among the warring powers was the consequence of the concentration and centralisation of capital and the resulting competition for markets, raw materials and investment opportunities. Lenin’s Theses on the National and Colonial Question, agreed on by the Second Congress in 1920, emphasised the fact that nation-states were not equal but were divided between oppressor nations, ie the imperialist powers, and oppressed nations, ie the colonial and semi-colonial countries. The duty of revolutionaries was to defend the right of oppressed nations to self-determination so long as this meant total opposition to imperialism.

The Comintern believed that the loss of their colonial possessions would make the overthrow of the imperialist ruling classes easier for the workers in the developed countries. The super-profits from the colonies were a central prop of the economies of the key imperialist powers such as Britain.50 The Second Congress rejected the stages theory of the Second International, which held that socialism was only possible in semi-feudal societies such as China and India after they had developed into fully fledged capitalist societies. Lenin told delegates that “in addition, the Communist International should advance the proposition, with the appropriate theoretical grounding, that the backward countries, aided by the proletariat of the advanced countries, can go over to the soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage”.51 The Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, drafted by Indian delegate M N Roy and also adopted by the Second Congress, argued that: “The Communist International…must establish relations with those revolutionary forces that are working for the overthrow of imperialism in the politically and economically subjugated countries. These two forces must be coordinated if the final success of the world revolution is to be assured”.52 The fact that delegates from India, China, Japan, Turkey and elsewhere were invited to the early Comintern congresses and were treated as equals was a huge step forward from the practice of the Second International.

So what did this mean for the Comintern concretely? The working class was a small minority of the population in most colonial countries in the early 1920s. Although CPs were formed in key countries such as India, China and Turkey, they were very far from being mass workers’ organisations and were almost always illegal. CPs in colonies such as South Africa and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) were initially dominated by European colonists and had to be pressured by the Comintern to relate to the indigenous population. A Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in Baku in Azerbaijan in 1920 to build Comintern influence in the colonial world and a Congress of Toilers of the Far East held in Moscow in 1922 to help foster the foundation and growth of CPs in East Asia.53

The early Comintern was very clear that CPs, while supporting national revolutionary movements, had to base themselves primarily on the working class and maintain their independence from national liberation movements such as Congress in India or the Kuomintang in China. Lenin’s theses stated:

The Communist International has the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies only on condition that the components are gathered in all backward countries for future proletarian parties… The Communist International should arrive at temporary agreements and, yes, even establish an alliance with the revolutionary movement in the backward countries. But it cannot merge with this movement. Instead it absolutely must maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, even at an embryonic stage.54

The principles agreed at the Second Congress were elaborated in more concrete form at the Fourth Congress to guide the new CPs that were growing across the colonial world.55

In oppressed nations such as India and China the peasants made up the overwhelming majority of the population. How communists related to the peasantry was of vital importance in winning the leadership of national revolutionary movements away from the indigenous bourgeoisie and building mass movements against imperialism. Theses agreed at both the Second and Fourth Congresses drew on the rich experience of the Bolsheviks. They had been able to win the support of the peasants during the Russian Revolution by abandoning the party’s programme of nationalisation of the land and supporting the seizure and sharing out of the land by the peasantry. But this example had not been ­followed by CPs in Hungary and Bulgaria with disastrous results.

Tragically the Comintern was to fail its first serious test in the developing world during the Chinese Revolution of 1925 to 1927. This was a truly titanic struggle combining a revolt against the imperialist powers such as Britain and Japan that controlled parts of the country, working class struggle in the cities and a giant peasant upsurge in the countryside.56 By the time the revolution broke out, the Comintern was already moving away from the revolutionary spirit of its early years and looking for short cuts and unprincipled alliances in an effort to end the international isolation of Soviet Russia. The policies and principles laid down in Lenin’s theses at the Second Congress were reversed, with terrible consequences.57

Rather than supporting but keeping its independence from the revolutionary nationalist movement, the Chinese CP was told by Soviet adviser to the Kuomintang Mikhail Borodin, that “the present period is one in which the Communists should do coolie service for the Kuomintang”.58 This advice was shown to be not only racist but criminally incompetent when Kuomintang troops massacred 25,000 Communist workers in Shanghai in March 1927 after they had led a successful uprising in the city. The bourgeois nationalists used the mass movement to extend their control of the country. Then, alarmed by the threat to their class interests, had turned on it.

A key part of the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions was the ­requirement that Communist Parties in the advanced countries offered practical support for anti-imperialist struggles in the colonies controlled by their own ruling class. The eighth of the 21 conditions for entry to the Comintern required that “Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International is obligated…to support every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds”.59 As with the other conditions, it took a long struggle to put this into practice in affiliated parties. The Fourth Congress heard that members of the French Communist Party in Algeria opposed the Comintern’s call for Algerian independence from France and saw no point in publishing Communist propaganda in Arabic on the racist grounds that the indigenous population was not intellectually capable of understanding it.60

Unlike the Second International, which tolerated open racists in its ranks, the Comintern clearly rejected racism as incompatible with communism. The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions argued that “the fight against this evil, against the most deeply rooted petty-bourgeois, nationalist prejudices…such as racism, national chauvinism and antisemitism…must be given all the more priority”.61 US delegate John Reed gave a detailed account of black workers’ resistance to racism and the Jim Crow laws at the Second Congress. “Theses on the Black Question” were agreed at the Fourth Congress in 1922.62 The CPUSA delegation included two black delegates, a major step forward. Prodded repeatedly by the Comintern, the CPUSA became the first political party in US history to include black and white workers on an equal basis. The Fourth Congress also called on the CPs of the US, Canada and Australia to campaign against immigration controls on the grounds that they were racist and would divide and weaken the working class.63

Moscow and the Comintern—a fatal embrace?

The Comintern would not have existed without the Russian Revolution. Inevitably, therefore, its centre was in Moscow. But this was not meant to be permanent: “As soon as the proletarian revolution broadens its territory, the Executive Committee will have to move to the European capital best suited to providing comprehensive assistance to the interests of the international ­proletarian revolution”.64

However, because the revolution did not spread, the Russian Communist Party came to dominate. No other party could match either the quality of its leadership (the only theoretical rival to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, had been murdered) or the wealth of experience it possessed in party building and strategy and tactics. On the other hand, the isolation of the Bolsheviks encouraged bureaucratic methods not only at home but in the attitude of the Comintern apparatus to the foreign parties. Successful revolution abroad would have challenged that. As it was, the parties were, as Cliff put it, “slow to learn to avoid mistakes resulting either from centrism or from ultra-leftism, and were thus open to continued criticism from Moscow. As a consequence, they absorbed not the Leninist method of criticism and self-criticism, but only the idea that Moscow was always right”.65 And that, in turn, increased their dependence on the Comintern apparatus, whose money and envoys became indispensable for their survival.

This made it all the more difficult to resist a second, and ultimately determining factor in Moscow’s domination of the Comintern: the eventual divorce between the interests of world revolution and those of the Soviet Union. In the early days, it was taken for granted that these were one and the same. Internationalising the revolution was the only way in which the one country that had broken with the system could be saved from destruction by the advanced capitalist countries. At the same time, defending the citadel of world revolution was imperative—without the Soviet Union the prospects of international ­revolution were dim.

But, as it became clear that international revolution was not an immediacy, so the Soviet Union had to find means to survive in a hostile state system, of which it was now an antagonistic part. It therefore sought to “normalise” relations with its bourgeois enemies. This involved, on the one hand, trying to take advantage of capitalist greed for abundant raw materials so as to strengthen the Soviet Union’s own economic position, and, on the other hand, to exploit ­inter-imperialist rivalries (particularly in respect to its fellow pariah country, the defeated and prostrate Germany). The obvious problem was how to ensure that an advantage to the bourgeois enemy was not to the greater disadvantage of the revolution. The Treaty of Rapallo, signed between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1922, helped the Soviet Union break out of its economic and diplomatic isolation. But the treaty’s semi-secret military provisions also strengthened the very state that the German party, as a section of the Comintern, was determined to overthrow. The contradiction between the needs of the Soviet Union and those of the world revolution was more apparent than real so long as such agreements involved no political concessions or subordination of revolutionary principles.

However, this was not a situation that could last. In the absence of ­international revolution, the internal dynamics of an isolated workers’ state, hobbled by the cultural backwardness it had inherited, could only strengthen the bureaucracy. As early as 1923, Adolph Joffe, the Soviet envoy to the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, put his name to the statement that “neither the communistic order nor the Soviet system can actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions necessary for the successful establishment of either communism or Sovietism”.66 He therefore opened the door to a deal more suited to Russia’s geopolitical needs than those of China’s workers and peasants. Joffe was a principled revolutionary, but his concession to a viewpoint that in effect retreated from what Lenin had argued at the Second Congress set a precedent that made it easier for the Stalinist bureaucracy subsequently to convert the Comintern into its tool. To quote Harold Isaacs analysing the tragedy that befell the Chinese revolution (see above), it then “became no longer a question of ‘making the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism,’ but of making the greatest international sacrifices for the preservation of Russia’s national ‘Socialism’”.67

It would, of course, be wrong to conclude from this that, once set in motion, the degeneration could only go one way. But the failure to turn revolutionary opportunities into actuality created a vicious circle reinforcing the grip of the bureaucracy. The tipping point came with the disastrous role it played in opening the road to Hitler’s victory in January 1933. From that point on, as Trotsky then rightly concluded, the Comintern was dead as the agent of international revolution.

Why does the Communist International matter today?

One hundred years on, so much has changed that it can seem that the lessons of the Comintern are not so much right or wrong as irrelevant. Yet the global working class is bigger than ever, despite changes in its composition (particularly, in the growth of a massively proletarianised state and public service workforce) that makes it look very unlike the proletariat of the 1920s. And the system continues to be shaken by revolt, in both the Global North and Global South.

However, with the neoliberal triumphalism following the death of “Communism”, much of the radical left found itself on the defensive. Socialism seemed a dead duck until the protracted crisis following the global crash of 2008 began to reawaken interest in it as a systemic alternative to “really existing capitalism”—even in the heart of the beast, the US. But the past weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living and the kind of class politics represented by the Comintern remains the property of a small minority. Much more ­prevalent, in the struggles around different oppressions, or even against the system as a whole, as with the new movements over climate change such as Extinction Rebellion, is a politics in which class plays at best a secondary role. The idea that only the working class has the potential to challenge and defeat the system because of its centrality to the creation of profit has remained marginal.

Even more marginal is the idea that a revolutionary party that looks to ­workers’ power needs to be built if systemic change is to be successful (an idea central to the Comintern’s strategy for world revolution). We referred in our opening remarks to Claudín’s critique that the Comintern failed because it wished to tie the working class movement to the conception held by Lenin and the Bolshevik nucleus about what was required organisationally. And we also referred, in the same context, to the current attempt to rehabilitate Kautsky. The critics who look to Kautsky’s Marxism as having contemporary relevance do so on the basis that his strategy for a rupture with capitalism was not “reformist” (he was as aware as any revolutionary of how far the existing state and business interests would go to sabotage any socialist government). But neither was it “Leninist” (a model for the taking of power involving soviets, insurrection, and a Bolshevik-style party, all of which have for these critics proved historically unrealistic in the context of capitalist democracy).68

What this strategy boils down to is the hope that the electoral struggle really can deliver a socialist society provided it is backed by mass, extra-parliamentary action.69 But as Charlie Post tellingly points out, this is as unrealistic now as it was in Kautsky’s day. Working class struggle does not rise and fall in accord with parliamentary timetables: at crucial junctures, giving “equal weight to ‘winning office’” undercuts “building mass struggles”.70 Believers in this dual strategy then find themselves, as Kautsky himself did, faced with choosing sides. Kautsky finished up on the side of reaction, as some of his contemporary defenders admit. But what these defenders don’t understand is what Lenin came to understand—that Kautsky’s move to the right in 1914 was not in contradiction to the Second International Marxism he espoused but in line with it.

This brings us back to the continuing relevance of the Comintern for socialists today, in particular its debates about how even the smallest of revolutionary organisations had to overcome the danger of sectarian isolation by relating to much broader layers in the workers’ movement, while simultaneously avoiding accommodation to prevalent reformist ideas. The claim that we have moved beyond what that era in our socialist history has to tell us because the “distinction between revolution and reform appears less immediately relevant”71 is not credible. The whole tragic experience of the Syriza government in Greece demonstrates that there can be no marrying a strategy based on change from below with that of change from above. The choice between the two is as inescapable as it was a hundred years ago.

Hallas came to the conclusion that “the heritage of the first four congresses in principles, in strategy and in tactics, is so indispensable to revolutionary socialists today”.72 He did so not because the Comintern did not commit many blunders73 or because he had illusions about the modern day strength of the revolutionary left. He did so because ultimately only the kind of organisation that the Comintern was committed to building would meet the task of overthrowing capitalism. The state is not neutral, and irreversible socialist change is only possible if it is smashed and replaced with mass organisations of workers’ power. That is the central lesson of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern and one we forget at our peril.

Gareth Jenkins is a retired lecturer and member of Hackney SWP. His translation of Pierre Broué’s Histoire de l’Internationale communiste, 1919-1943, is awaiting publication.

Tony Phillips is a member of the SWP and an activist in the Unison union based in London.


1 Braunthal, 1967, px.

2 Claudín, 1975, p34 (author’s emphasis).

3 Claudín, 1975, p35.

4 Claudín, 1975, p36.

5 This is the claim now made by leading scholar Lars Lih (Lih, 2019) whose pioneering work on Lenin’s controversial What Is To Be Done? (Lih, 2008) did much to disprove the Cold War myth about the pamphlet being a departure from Second International Kautskyan Marxism. For other, related attempts at rehabilitation, see Blanc, 2019; Blanc’s defence is in reply to an excellent critique of Kautsky by Charlie Post (Post, 2019). See also Blanc, 2016, for a defence of Kautsky’s view of the party.

6 We are using “centrist” in the way Lenin used the term to characterise those like Kautsky whose verbal revolutionism and commitment to Marxism masked passivity and adaptation to reformism. It also designated parties that wavered between revolutionary and reformist politics, looking left under the pressure of class struggle while continuing to act right. How to relate to these parties became a major issue for the Comintern, as we shall see.

7 Riddell, 1987, p231.

8 Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy (co-written with Liebknecht, Zetkin and Mehring), Riddell, 1984, p417.

9 Riddell, 1987, pp168-169.

10 “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and in miseries/ On such a full sea are we now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures”—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, scene 3, 218-224.

11 Quoted in Hallas, 1985, p7. Hallas’s little book was first published over 40 years ago. Later research has added immeasurably to our knowledge, particularly the work done by Pierre Broué (English translation of his Histoire de l’internationale communiste hopefully forthcoming) and John Riddell’s superb, multi-volumed editing and publishing of all the relevant Comintern documents (which has, among other things, eliminated distortions in the record). Nevertheless, Hallas’s political grasp of the issues, and plain speaking about problematic elements even in the pre-Stalinist period, makes this the best and most accessible guide to what is enduring in the legacy of the Comintern.

12 Riddell, 1987, pp170-171. Zinoviev’s prediction about Germany proved false, an example of taking a strong possibility for a certainty. It was perhaps a reflection of his political weakness (he had, after all, in October 1917 opposed the insurrection and here may have been trying to compensate), a tendency to dogmatic inconsistency that was to play its part in the degeneration of the Comintern.

13 Riddell, 1987, p247.

14 Riddell, 1991, pp368-419. In both cases, it was the majority that were won to communism—unlike the earlier instance of the Italian Socialist Party (see note 21 below).

15 Riddell, 1991, p765.

16 Riddell, 1991, p293.

17 Riddell, 1991, pp143-156.

18 Riddell, 1991, p144.

19 Riddell, 1991, pp765-771.

20 Claudín, 1975, part 1, p107.

21 The element of truth here is that the Comintern envoys to the Italian Socialist Party were crude and dogmatic. Whether their behaviour was the decisive factor is impossible to tell. But the Italian CP that emerged from the split, led by the indefatigable ultra-left Amadeo Bordiga, proved incapable of relating to the working class base that remained with Serrati. Had it been able to, and thus turn itself into a mass party, Italian history might have been very different.

22 Riddell, 2015.

23 Riddell, 2015, pp978-1006.

24 Riddell, 2012, p304.

25 Fischer, 1948, p176.

26 Riddell, 2015, p1075.

27 Riddell, 2015, p1075.

28 Revolutions carried out behind the backs of the working class were so identified after the leading figure of anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76).

29 Fernbach, 2012, p148.

30 Riddell, 2015, pp1137-1148.

31 Riddell, 2015, p467. In point of fact, the Open Letter, the idea of which had been chiefly Levi’s, aroused the ire not only of the “lefts” in the German Party’s leadership but the hostility of such executive members as Zinoviev and Bukharin in Moscow. Only Lenin (in a letter in April to Zetkin and Levi) approved of it as “an entirely correct policy” in a rebuke to the lefts (see Riddell, 2015, p1087).

32 Riddell, 2015, p472.

33 In the end, Lenin and Trotsky were forced to accept a compromise, which condemned the theory of the offensive but spared its chief advocates. This involved a cover up of the role played by Zinoviev and those close to him such as Béla Kun, hero of the 1919 Hungarian Revolution and leading proponent of the theory. Letting them off the hook set a dangerous precedent, with a damaging effect on the future work of the Comintern. For an illuminating discussion of this whole episode, see Riddell, 2015, pp21-29.

34 Riddell, 2015, p441.

35 Riddell, 2015, p935.

36 Riddell, 2015, p935.

37 Hallas, 1985, p66.

38 Molyneux, 1978, p90.

39 Adereth, 1984, p40. Treint’s bon mot was a gift to the enemies of the French Communist Party.

40 Trotsky’s explanation was that the French Party’s “verbal irreconcilability” served as a mask for its “passive and irresolute tendency” (Trotsky, 1974, p127). The ultra-left Italian Party disastrously abstained from joint action with the militant anti-fascist, but non-party Arditi del Popolo—which amounted to passivity by a different name. It might seem strange that opponents of the united front could include both ultra-lefts such as the sectarian Italian Communist Party and the semi-centrist majority leadership of the French Communist Party. But passivity in effect was the common factor.

41 Riddell points to the fact that the text on this topic “went through more drafts that any other congress document. Even after its adoption, three different versions were circulated to Comintern parties” (Riddell, 2012, p20)—an indication perhaps of the problem of defining what was meant. Present day Kautskyites have argued that the advocacy of “workers’ governments” through parliamentary elections was a step away from the idea of insurrection towards the approach to the rupture with capitalism taken by Kautsky (see Blanc, 2019).

42 Riddell, 2012, p168.

43 Riddell, 2012, p1159.

44 Riddell, 2012, p1160.

45 Riddell, 2012, p1159.

46 Riddell, 2012, p1160.

47 Hallas, 1985, p74.

48 Riddell, 2012, pp166-167.

49 Quoted (without reference) in Harman and Potter, 2010.

50 The notion of a labour aristocracy bought off by these super-profits was central to Lenin’s analysis of opportunism in the workers’ movement—a view whose accuracy (and therefore relevance to understanding reformism) was later challenged by Tony Cliff among others —Cliff, 1982, pp108-117. The conclusion we might draw from this is that unmasking the treacherous nature of this thin crust of opportunists to the masses is a relatively straightforward task for the revolutionary party. The failure to grasp the broader grip of reformism may in part explain why some sections of the communist movement tended to think of the united front tactic as little more than a means to expose the inadequacies of the trade union and reformist leaderships.

51 Riddell, 1991, p215.

52 Riddell, 1991, p219.

53 See Riddell, 1993.

54 Riddell, 1991, pp288-289.

55 Riddell, 2012, pp1180-1190.

56 See Trotsky, 1974.

57 See Isaacs, 1961.

58 Isaacs, 1961, p103.

59 Riddell, 1991, p768.

60 Riddell, 2012, p702.

61 Riddell, 1991, p287.

62 Riddell, 2012, p946.

63 Riddell, 2012, p1189.

64 Riddell, 1991, p95.

65 Cliff, 1978, p56.

66 Carr, 1965, pp533-534.

67 Isaacs, 1938, chapter 2.

68 See for example Blanc, 2019.

69 See also Chibber, 2017, the title of whose article deliberately echoes that of Kautsky’s 1909 pamphlet, The Road to Power. Lenin, as present-day Kautskyans never tire of reminding us, much admired it. Chibber concludes, however, with something that Lenin would not, we can safely assume, have admired: “Any viable left has to…embrace electoral politics as the other node of a two-pronged strategy, in which power at the base is combined with a parliamentary wing, each feeding the other… We must start down the road of social democracy and then to democratic socialism.”

70 See Post, 2019. Post gives the example of the Winconsin Uprising of 2011 having to “choose between extending the occupation and building mass strike action or support [for] Democrats in the battle to defeat…anti-union legislation.” He concludes that “those who prioritised electing Democrats prevailed, leading to the movement’s derailing and defeat.”

71 Balhorn, 2019.

72 Hallas, 1985, p164.

73 Space forbids us from dealing with the early Comintern’s failure (despite Zetkin’s pathbreaking analysis) to understand and adequately confront fascism.


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