Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

8. The Legacy of the Comintern

THE COMINTERN had been founded in 1919 as a consistently internationalist organisation, heir of the Zimmerwald Left, hostile to every ruling class and to the ‘disintegrating admixtures of opportunism and social-patriotism’ inside the working-class movement.

When it was dissolved in 1943 it was, and had been for the best part of a decade, an instrument of nationalist policies which aimed to mobilise working-class support for various ruling classes against other ruling classes. It had carried ‘opportunism and social-patriotism’ to new depths.

In 1919 the Comintern had stood for uncompromising working-class struggle. In 1943 it stood, and had stood for years, for systematic class collaboration with various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces, subordinating working-class interests to theirs according to the shifting requirements of Russian diplomacy.

At its foundation the Comintern had declared its opposition to all imperialisms and proclaimed the right of self-determination of all peoples. By 1943, indeed earlier, it had come to oppose the national struggle in the colonies and ‘spheres of influence’ of Russia’s allies. Thus, when the Indian National Congress launched its ‘Independence Now’ campaigns in British-ruled India in 1942, the Communist Party of India denounced the Congress leaders as ‘traitors’ and ‘Japanese agents’. The Congress leaders, who included Gandhi and Nehru, were imprisoned by the British. The CPI leaders did their utmost to damp down the mass agitation that followed, which included mass strikes and riots, and defended every act of repression by the British authorities. In 1943 Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill came to an agreement at Teheran to repartition the world between them into the new spheres of influence. The USSR had itself joined the ranks of the imperialist powers.

In 1919 the Comintern stood unequivocally for workers’ revolution and workers’ power based on a system of workers’ councils: ‘The victory of the working class lies in shattering the organisation of the enemy power and organising workers’ power; it consists in the destruction of the bourgeois state machine and the construction of the workers’ state machine,’ declared the 1919 Platform. All this was explicitly abandoned with the 1935 Congress and was never revived. Trotsky called it ‘the Comintern’s Liquidation Congress’. The Comintern parties heaped unblushing praise on Stalin’s brutal, despotic dictatorship over the working class in the USSR. The Comintern had become simply an instrument of the class rule of the Russian bureaucracy.

The wheel had come full circle. The Comintern had come to reject all that it had set out to fight for. This was not a matter of merely tactical changes to adjust to changing circumstances – although, of course, this argument was constantly used to justify each new betrayal. Internationalism, workers’ power, anti-imperialism; these are not tactics but principles, necessary conditions for the successful struggle for socialism. It was because the social democratic parties had abandoned them that the Comintern was founded in the first place.

Inevitably, given the outcome, many people question the validity of the tradition represented by the early Comintern: does it contain some original taint, flaw or distortion which led to, or at any rate facilitated, its becoming a tool of Stalin’s foreign policy?

The old myth of the ‘original sin’ of Bolshevism, going back to 1902, of the monolithic party controlled from the top by a single will, does not stand critical examination – which does not, of course, prevent it being presented as an indisputable truth by a wide range of socialism’s opponents. In fact, as even a cursory acquaintance with its history will show, the Bolshevik organisation was anything but monolithic. It experienced sharp internal conflicts which were resolved by argument, sometimes in public, and by voting at congresses. More than once Lenin, the supposed ‘dictator’, found himself in a minority. Moreover his own views on party organisation changed and changed again as the circumstances within which the party worked changed. [1]

More serious is the argument that the Comintern imposed unsuitable forms of organisation, inspired by Russian conditions, on the parties outside Russia – and that this was a major cause of their ultimate degeneration. As we have seen, Lenin himself was uneasy in 1922 about a tendency to copy mechanically from the Russian experience.

Most critics, however, locate the alleged deformation earlier than 1922. For them the root of the evil is the 21 Conditions of 1920. Thus Claudin, a former leader of the Spanish Communist Party, describes the 21 Conditions as

‘a model of sectarianism and bureaucratic method in the history of the working-class movement ... [they] signified in practice that the Communists were organising a split in the labour movement, and were doing this, moreover, in a mechanical way and not through a political and ideological process that would have enabled the working people to convince themselves that it was necessary ... A large number of socialists and trade unionists who wanted to join the Comintern because they were in sympathy with the Russian revolution and shared, generally speaking, the revolutionary objectives of the new International, nevertheless disagreed with it on certain points, especially where structure and methods of work were concerned.’ [2]

Consider these objections seriously. ‘Organising a split in the labour movement’? But the main split in the labour movement occurred in August 1914, nearly five years before the Comintern was founded, when the largest social democratic parties repudiated the internationalist position they had voted for at the Stuttgart and Basel congresses of the Second International and backed ‘their own’ governments in the slaughter of the First World War. Were Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Connolly, Maclean, Lenin, Trotsky, Debs and the rest ‘sectarian’ in refusing to support the war? Was Liebknecht sectarian when he declared ‘the main enemy is at home’? Was Connolly sectarian when he declared ‘neither King nor Kaiser’? Was Lenin sectarian when he wrote in 1914:

‘The worst possible service is being rendered to the proletariat by those who vacillate between opportunism and revolutionary Social-Democracy ... by those who are trying to hush up the collapse of the Second International or to disguise it with diplomatic phrases.’ [3]

The International collapsed in 1914. The split followed that collapse. The responsibility for both lay wholly with the social democratic right. The split was further deepened by the out-and-out counter-revolutionary actions of the SPD leaders in Germany in 1918.

That was the decisive split, the central division from which others followed.

What Claudin and his like object to is the subsequent split with the centrists in 1920. In a political sense this had already occurred at Kienthal in 1916, but in 1920 some of the centrist parties had had ‘an influx of revolutionary workers’. These had to be won, and to win them a split with the vacillating, half-hearted and often treacherous centrist leaders was essential. Hence the 21 Conditions. Specifically, there had to be a break with Ramsey Macdonald, Karl Kautsky, Leon Blum and other leaders who were willing to use the rhetoric of revolutionary socialism but were far from it in action. Otherwise the movement ran the risk of a repeat of August 1914.

But perhaps the 21 Conditions had undesirable side-effects? It is not necessary for us to idealise them. Cobbled together rather hastily – there were nineteen on the eve of the second congress, two being added at the last moment – they were a fairly blunt instrument, but they were effective in their main object. Not all the centrist leaders were excluded, as we have seen, but the worst scoundrels were. The ‘disagreements on certain points’, that Claudin speaks of, were in fact disagreements about fundamentals. As to ‘a political and ideological process’, what else were the debates at Halle and Tours? The Comintern at this time had no ‘bureaucratic’ means whatsoever available to it in central and western Europe, unlike the centrists and the social democrats. And, in truth, the 21 Conditions were never fully implemented by any communist party in the revolutionary period, often for bad reasons, sometimes for good ones. Claudin’s argument is spurious.

Of course, the real issue here is ‘Moscow domination’, not the conditions themselves. The difficulty is real enough. The decline of the Russian revolution and then the Stalinist counter-revolution that followed did indeed destroy the Comintern. That is indisputable. But, as has been argued repeatedly, the fates of the revolution and of the international were inseparable, and necessarily so. Any scheme for a revolutionary international separate from Soviet Russia – and it still was Soviet Russia in 1920 – was an utterly Utopian proposition.

Moreover, it must be reiterated that in the early years the Comintern executive’s advice was decidedly superior to that of the various ‘anti-Moscow’, ‘autonomist’ factions in the various parties. Look at the record. Was ‘Moscow’ wrong in its assessment of the French, German and Norwegian centrist leaders? Was it wrong to fight hard against the sectarians, both those of the passive propagandist variety such as Pannekoek and Wynkoop or those of the adventurist type such as Bela Kun, Fischer and Thalheimer? Of course not.

Was it wrong, in 1921, to argue that the revolutionary wave had passed, that a retreat was necessary, that the united front tactic should now be central? Of course not.

Naturally it is possible to point to blunders. The split with the Italian centrists could doubtless have been better handled. The perspective of the Red International of Labour Unions was mistaken and, by 1921, this should have been recognised and the necessary conclusions drawn. But on the main issues, on the central thrust of its political line, the Comintern leadership was right and all its opponents, in their different ways, were wrong. That is precisely why the heritage of the first four congresses, in principles, in strategy and in tactics, is so indispensable to revolutionary socialists today.

It would be wrong, of course, to apply the letter of Comintern decisions in a mechanical fashion regardless of circumstances. But the essential principles are there. If, for example, a detailed examination of the balance of class forces, the state of workers’ organisations, the strength of the reformist parties, show that united front work is relevant, then basic guidelines for such work can be learned from the early years of the Comintern. It is as necessary today as it was then that any united front should centre round agreements for unity in action of some kind rather than for propaganda; that a prior condition should be the existence of an independent and politically clear revolutionary party; and that the push for unity must not imply the covering up of differences on essentials. These things we know, not just from the revolutionary experience of the years following the First World War, of which the first four congresses of the Comintern were the summation, but also from the disasters that followed the people’s fronts of the 1930s – when these principles were not applied.

1923 was the turning point. It saw the defeat of the German October, the beginning of the Russian bureaucracy’s growth to self-consciousness, the emergence of the Left Opposition, and the violent bureaucratic reaction to it.

Up to the end of 1923 the Comintern, in spite of inevitable weaknesses and errors, was a genuine workers’ International. Its focus was still working-class struggle. The mistakes that were made were, as we have seen, the result of political immaturity and a misreading of the balance of class forces rather than any shifting of that focus. But with the rise of the bureaucracy and the formulation of the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’, the class focus began to change. In China in 1925 the Comintern looked to the Kuomintang, an organisation of the bourgeoisie, for revolutionary change, not to the workers’ organisations alone.

In the period 1924-8 the Comintern became a ‘centrist’ body – Trotsky coined the term ‘bureaucratic centrism’ to describe its policies – though it still carried, with increasing distortions and degeneration, something of the tradition of its revolutionary years. After 1928 the last remnants of these were progressively liquidated, just as the last remnants of workers’ power in the USSR were liquidated.

Neither outcome was inevitable. Had the German working class been able to take power in 1923, the future of Europe, the USSR and the world would have been very different. That ‘tide which taken at the flood leads on to fortune’ was missed, so a new class rule took over in the USSR, inflicting the evils of Stalinism on the working-class movement and reinforcing social democracy in reaction to these.

What remains relevant is the critique of Comintern policy in Britain, China, Germany and elsewhere put forward by the Left Opposition. That critique, continued by Trotsky after his exile from the USSR in 1929, informs the approach of this book. It is a continuation of the authentic communist tradition.

In 1929 Trotsky wrote: ‘The thread of history often breaks, then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing at Zimmerwald.’ [4] That is what he also sought to do with the International Left Opposition and, after 1938, the Fourth International. But although the tradition was continued in a living form, it was by an organisation whose working-class base was minuscule and in a period when there was little successful mass working-class struggle from which to learn and on which to build.

Those who carried this tradition were to be subjected to a trial which Trotsky had not anticipated. After 1944, Stalinism massively expanded – on the basis of military conquest and agreements with the ruling classes of the West. There were, in fact, three separate and related developments. First, most of Eastern Europe was conquered by the armies of the USSR and incorporated in its ‘sphere of influence’ in the post-war carve-up of central Europe. Then, in 1947-8, these were transformed from the top down into more or less close replicas of Stalin’s Russia. Second, the communist parties in the West pursued, until the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947, policies of class collaboration which were, if it were possible, to the right even of the People’s Front period. They grew massively and were represented in the governments of France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and a number of other countries, including Batista’s Cuba. Third, in Albania and Yugoslavia in 1944, in China in 1948-9 and later in Vietnam and Cuba, regimes essentially similar to that of the USSR were established by military means, by the conquest of weak native bourgeois regimes – which had been essentially puppets of foreign powers – by peasant armies led by intellectuals. [5]

These three processes were not clearly distinguished by the groups which made up the Fourth International. A contributory factor to this disorientation was Trotsky’s refusal to accept that a counter-revolution had taken place in the USSR and his insistence that the USSR was still some form of workers’ state, however distorted. This meant that during the Cold War, when Stalinism was putting forward a view of the world divided into two opposing camps, socialism versus imperialism, the Fourth International groups were drawn into a similar world-view – of workers’ states versus imperialism. This led most of them into a position of ‘critical support’ for Stalinism and, since it now seemed that a ‘workers’ state’ could be created by means other than working-class revolution, to the adoption in varying degrees of political ideas which looked to some agency other than the working class for the achievement of socialism. Thus they came, in practice, to jettison much of the core of the communist tradition, the tradition of the revolutionary Comintern which Trotsky himself had fought and died to uphold.

For that tradition is concerned with socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. Its essentials are uncompromising internationalism, unconditional support for workers’ struggles against every ruling class, the goal of a workers’ state based on workers’ councils as the agency of the transition to socialism, and unequivocal rejection of all suggestions that any other class, alliance of classes, political grouping or party can substitute for the working class in bringing socialism.

Out of the fight to apply and develop that tradition in the course of working-class struggles, a new workers’ international will be born. It will necessarily ‘stand on the ground of the first four congresses’ of the Comintern. The circumstances of the 1980s are much more favourable for the rebirth of the international revolutionary workers’ movement than they have been for many years.

The Stalinist movement internationally is in an advanced state of disintegration. The Stalinist states themselves are wracked with internal class conflict – the Solidarnosc events of 1980-81 in Poland being only the most spectacular example. Their relationships with one another are often tense to the point of barely concealed or open conflict, which at times has resulted in armed clashes – between Russia and China in the 1960s or China and Vietnam in 1982 – or even invasion and conquest, as with Vietnam and Cambodia. The myth of a ‘socialist camp’ is tattered indeed and the ideological consequences of this are profound. The communist parties elsewhere, including the important Japanese Communist Party, are in decline and are, in any case, increasingly difficult to distinguish from their social democratic rivals.

The social democratic organisations, caught up in the renewed crisis of capitalism, face increasing difficulties. Social democratic governments of the 1980s in France, Spain, Portugal and Greece demonstrate merely their impotence to solve the economic crisis or even to alleviate it.

That crisis, which also affects the Stalinist states in varying degrees, must over time intensify the class struggle, whatever temporary depressing effects it might have. The productive potential of the world economy is vastly greater than it has ever been. The world working class is bigger than ever before. The difficulties facing us are immense, of course. But they are capable of solution. Workers’ revolution and workers’ power are not Utopias. They are the only way forward for humanity.



1. Tony Cliff’s Lenin, especially vols.1 and 2 (London 1975 and 1976) convincingly demonstrates this.

2. Claudin, The Communist Movement, pp.107-8.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.21, p.31.

4. Trotsky, My Life (New York 1970), p.249.

5. See Ian Birchall, Workers against the Monolith (London 1974).


Last updated on 4.11.2004