Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

Mass Parties and the International


Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, International Socialism (1st series), No.68, April 1974, pp.19-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Parties and groups only recently affiliated to the Second International are more and more frequently applying for membership in the Third International, though they have not become really communist ... The Communist International is, to a certain extent,. becoming fashionable ... In certain circumstances, the Communist International may be faced with the danger of dilution by the influx of wavering and irresolute groups that have not yet broken with their Second International ideology.
– Lenin, The Terms of Admission into the Communist International, 1920.

In September 1919 the Bologna congress of the Italian Socialist Party voted by a large majority and on the recommendation of its executive, to affiliate to the Communist International. It was a big and growing organisation, and in the elections two months later it got one third of the total votes and returned 156 deputies. The Norwegian Labour Party, the NAP, confirmed its affiliation and the Bulgarian, Yugoslav (ex-Serbian) and Rumanian parties joined as well. The first three of these were important organisations. The NAP, which was based on trade union affiliation like its British counterpart, completely dominated the Norwegian left, and the Bulgarian CP had the support, from the beginning, of virtually the whole Bulgarian working class. The Yugoslavian CP returned 54 deputies in the first (and only) free elections held in the new state.

In France the Socialist Party, SFIO, which had more than doubled its membership – from 90,000 in 1914 to 200,000, had swung far to the left, and was flirting with Moscow. So were the leaders of the German Independent Social Democrats, USPD which was rapidly gaining ground at the expense of the Social Democratic Party, SPD. The Swedish left Social-Democrats, the Czechoslovak left wing and smaller parties in other countries (including the British ILP) had essentially the same line. Pressure from their ranks was forcing them to pay lip service to the October revolution and to negotiate for admission to the Communist International.

“The desire of certain leading ‘centre groups to join the Third International”, wrote Lenin, “provides indirect confirmation that it has won the sympathy of the vast majority of class conscious workers throughout the world, and is becoming a more powerful force with each day.” [1]

But these parties were not revolutionary communist organisations. Their traditions were those of pre-war social-democracy, revolutionary in words, passive in practice. And they were led by men who would try any twist or turn, in order to keep control and prevent the adoption of genuine revolutionary strategy and tactics.

Without the bulk of the members of these parties the new International could not hope to exert a decisive influence in Europe in the short term. Without a break with the centrist leaders it could not hope to exert a revolutionary influence. Nor was the situation much different with the mass parties already inside the International. The Italian Socialist Party, for example, had centrists and even some thorough-going reformists in. its leadership.

The struggle against centrism was complicated by another factor. Strong ultra- leftist currents existed inside many of the communist organisations. And outside them were some important syndicalist trade union organisations that had moved close to the Third International but which still rejected the need for a communist party.

The Spanish syndicalist federation, the CNT, which had about a million members, had voted for affiliation in December 1919. A strong minority of the French union federation, the CGT, was also in favour. Other syndicalist groups, like the American IWW, were undoubtedly revolutionary and were thought to be winnable. To gain and integrate these big forces was a difficult and complex operation. It required a struggle on several different fronts.

At the Second World Congress (July-August 1920) 217 delegates from 67 organisations in some 40 countries debated the issues. Centrists and ultra-lefts were well represented. Both the French Socialists and the German Independent Social Democrats had (non-voting) delegations.

The decisions of the Congress were of fundamental importance. In a sense this was the real founding congress. It took place at the height of the war with Poland, when the Red Army was nearing Warsaw. In Germany an attempt to establish a military dictatorship, the Kapp putsch, had just been defeated by mass working class action. In Italy the factory occupations were about to begin. The mood of revolutionary optimism was stronger than ever.; Zinoviev, President of the International, declared “I am deeply convinced that the Second World Congress of the CI is the precursor of another world congress, the world congress of Soviet Republics.” [2] All that was needed were real mass communist parties to lead the movement to victory.


The 21 conditions

Just as it is not easy for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle so, I hope, it will not be easy for the adherents of the centre to slip through the 21 conditions. They are put forward to make clear to the workers in the USPD and in the Italian and French Socialist Parties, and to all organised workers, what the international general staff of the proletarian revolution demands of them. – Zinoviev, Speech at the Second World Congress.

The Second International had been a loose federation of national parties. The Third was to be a centralised world party with national sections, although the International must take into account “the varying conditions in which the individual parties have to fight and work and ... must take decisions of general validity only when such decisions are possible.” [3] The various national programmes were to be based on the International’s programme and subject to international approval. All decisions, not only of congresses but also between congresses, of the executive (ECCI), were to be binding on all the parties. This was the substance of the 15th and 16th of the 21 conditions for affiliation to the Third International put forward by the executive.

In the light of later events many critics have seen in the 21 conditions the seeds of degeneration. They were put forward, it is argued, solely to ensure Russian dominance, to enable the Russians to manipulate the international movement in their own interests.

But the centrist critics of the conditions did not argue this at the time. The reasons are obvious. After the experience of the 1914-18 war no one addressing an audience of revolutionaries could defend the methods and practices of the Second International. Everyone, apart from the syndicalists, paid at least lip service to the ideals of international unity and a world party. Moreover, everyone, not least the Russians themselves, expected the exceptional position of the Russian Party as the only one in power to be a strictly temporary affair. Lenin had written shortly before the congress “soon after the victory of the proletarian revolution in at least one of the advanced countries, a sharp change will probably come about: Russia will cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country (in the ‘Soviet’ and socialist sense).” [4]

The conditions that the German Independent Social Democrat delegates, in particular, most objected to were the ones requiring “a complete and absolute break with reformism and with the policy of the centre”. [5] and the expulsion of a number of named “notorious opportunists” including Karl Kautsky and Rudolf Hilferding of the Independent Social Democrats, Turáti and Modigliani of the (affiliated) Italian Socialist Party, Jean Longuet of the French Socialist Party and Ramsay MacDonald of the ILP.

“They overlooked entirely”, argued Crispien for the Independent Social Democrats, “that we have separated from the Right Socialists, that we did not shrink from this break as soon as it became historically inevitable. Just the same this break should not be treated slightingly. I admit that a separation was a necessity ... But it was a bitter necessity ... The workers can be split much easier than they can be won and kept together for the revolution in Germany.” [6] No more splits could be countenanced.

The centrist leaders were prepared to make very radical noises “We took a definite stand at the party conference in March” said Crispien, “and already then put into our programme the dictatorship of the proletariat in unmistakable terms ... we pointed out that parliamentarianism is not going to achieve socialism.” [7] The Independent Social Democrat leaders would not, however, accept the 21 conditions because that would mean a split with their own right wing. The facts that at the beginning of 1919 the Independent Social Democrats had collaborated with the Social Democrats to establish the Weimar Republic, that without this collaboration the operation would have been much more difficult if not impossible, that the revolutionism of most of the Independent Social Democrat leaders was purely verbal: all these things were carefully glossed over.

The French adopted a different tactic. Their main spokesman was the notorious opportunist Marcel Cachin. Cachin had not only been violently pro-war (until 1917) but had acted as an agent of the French government in an attempt to create a pro-war wing in the Italian party and had co-operated for this purpose with the renegade (and future fascist dictator) Benito Mussolini. Cachin was willing to promise anything. “We are in full agreement ... We are convinced that if our friend Longuet had been able to be here, his opinion, after consideration, would not have been different from ours [Longuet was an outspoken opponent of the Bolsheviks]. We shall return to France carrying your conditions.” [8]

A party led by Longuet, Cachin, Frossard and their friends would never be a revolutionary party, whatever promises it made. Clearly, it was not going to be as easy as Zinoviev had supposed to prevent the centrist camels slipping through the needle’s eye. For this reason a number of left-wing delegates sharply criticised the executive of the International for allowing the centrists to be present at all. Lenin replied “I think they are wrong. When Kautsky attacks us and brings out books against us, we polemise with him as our class enemy. But when the Independent Social Democrat Party, which has expanded as a result of an influx of revolutionary workers, comes here for negotiations, we must talk to its representatives, since they are a section of the revolutionary workers.” [9]

After the Congress these workers could be reached more easily. After an intense debate in their party, the USPD leaders were compelled to call a congress at Halle, in October, to consider affiliation to the Communist International. The left won by 236 votes to 156 and the right wing split away. The left wing then united with the Communist Party to produce a new party with some 350,000 members. The International now had a mass party in the most important country in Europe.

In December the Tours congress of the French Socialist Party voted by three to one majority to affiliate and accept the 21 conditions. The new French Communist Party started with 150,000 members. But though the more uncompromising right wingers, led by Longuet and Blum, had split away to re-establish the Socialist Party, the Communist Party itself was led by “re-constructed” centrists like L.O. Fossard and Marcel Cachin. Events were to prove that the reconstruction was only skin deep.

That same December the Czechoslovak social-democratic party split, the Communist left taking over half the membership and establishing a Communist Party 100,000 strong. A separate split in the social-democratic party of the German speaking minority added further forces and, after the unification of these, the party claimed 170,000 members.

By early 1921, parties affiliated to the Communist International had the support of the majority of politically conscious European workers in several countries (France, Italy, Norway, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) and of a substantial minority in others (Germany, Sweden, Poland). The important exception was Britain where the CP, founded in 1920, had perhaps 3000 real members (although claiming 10,000) and was not a serious force in national politics. But Britain had never had a mass social-democratic party (the Labour Party did not admit individual members until 1918). The new mass Communist Parties had all kinds of defects, but their very existence was an enormous step forward.

In the summer of 1920 still further forces, the big syndicalist organisations of France and Spain and smaller ones elsewhere, were open to influence. The problem was to convince them of the need for a revolutionary party. An important debate at the second world congress took up the nature of the revolutionary party and the syndicalist objections.


The role of the party

The Communist International decisively rejects the view that the proletariat can achieve its revolution without having an independent political party of its own. Every class struggle is a political struggle. The goal of this struggle, which is inevitably transformed into civil war, is the conquest of political power. Political power cannot be seized, organised and operated except through a political party. – Resolution of the Second World Congress.

“It may seem fairly strange that, three-quarters of a century after the appearance of the Communist Manifesto, discussion should arise at an international communist congress over whether a party is necessary or not”, Trotsky told the Congress, “but the events of recent years compel us to pose the question whether the party is necessary or not.” [10]

The revolutionary syndicalists identified political parties with parliamentarianism and participation in parliaments with opportunism and betrayal. Their alternative was militant trade unionism based on direct action and leading ultimately to the revolutionary general strike. Parties were not only unnecessary. They were a positive handicap to the working class. The betrayal of 1914 proved it.

“What matters most is that the spirit should be revolutionary ...”, said Pestana, delegate of the Spanish syndicalists. “The important thing is that the trade unions as such should be revolutionary and militant organisations.” [11] Tanner, for the British Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement, developed the argument.

Most of the active men in the shop stewards’ movement have been members of the political socialist parties but have left them because they considered they were not travelling along the right path ... There is no question of returning like repentant sinners to the fold ... Now efforts are being made again to get the workers to resort to parliament, although all are agreed that it must be abolished as soon as possible. The English workers are losing faith in parliamentary action ... You will get nothing but antagonism from the class-conscious workers on the question of affiliation to the Labour Party. [12]

The Russian leaden badly wanted to win over the syndicalists as a revolutionary counter-weight to the centrist waverers who were slipping into the CI. “Just because I know that the party is indispensable ... and just because I see Scheidemann [the German Social Democrat leader who collaborated with the army to suppress the Berlin workers] on the one side and, on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want to tear its head off,” Trotsky declared, “I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades ... to prove to them in a friendly way ... and not by counterposing to them Scheidemann’s long experience and saying that for the majority this question has already been settled.” [13]

Zinoviev stressed the contrast between a social-democratic and a Communist party. “We need no parties which are actuated by the simple principle of getting into their ranks the greatest possible numbers of members, parties which degenerate into petty bourgeois parties ... We want no such parties in which, for example, during election campaigns candidates are put up who only yesterday joined the party. We want no such parliamentary representation in which there are 46 professors and 45 lawyers or more ... It is understandable why ... there are good working men who say ‘It is better to have no party at all than to have such a party’.” [14]

The Communist organisation, he emphasised, was totally different.

The members of our party must be the best men in every industry. They will be a minority at first; but since they have a clearly defined programme, since they are the best men, since they ate known among the working people, they will, when the right hour comes, become immediately the leaders of the masses.

The struggle that is coming is a gigantic one ... Not shapeless labour unions which live from hand to mouth, but the party is what we need most, the party which comprises the best elements of the working class, who have been organised for years, who have formed the nucleus and who will point out to the working class the right road. The task is to organise the advance guard of the working class who will really be in a position to lead the masses in this struggle. In this fight we cannot do without a general staff’; we must create it, meaning that we must organist at once the best elements of the working class. [15]

The essence of the matter was summed up in the “theses” on the party question adopted at the congress.

A sharp distinction must be made between the concepts of party and class. The members of the Christian and Liberal trade unions of Germany, England, and other countries are undoubtedly part of the wotldng class. The more or less numerous groups of workers who still follow Scheidemann, Gompers [head of the American Federation of Labor] and their like are undoubtedly part of the working class. In certain historical circumstances it is even possible for the working class to include very numerous reactionary elements.

It is not the task of Communism to adapt itself to these backward sections ... but to raise the entire working class to the level of the Communist vanguard ... The revolutionary syndicalists often speak of the great part that can be played by a determined revolutionary minority. A really determined minority of the working class, a minority that is Communist, that wants to act, that has a programme, that is out to organist the struggle of the masses – that is precisely what the Communist Party is. [16]


No compromise, no manoeuvres

It would be absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (“No compromises!”) to suit all cases. One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance. It is, in fact, one of the functions of a party organisation and of party leaden worthy of the name, to acquire, through the prolonged, persistent, van egated and comprehensive efforts of all thinking representatives of a given class, the knowledge, experience and- in addition to knowledge and experience- the political flair necessary for the speedy and correct solu don of complex political problems. – Lenin, “Left Wing” Communism.

In late December 1918 the national congress of German workers and soldiers’ deputies had voted by 344 to 98 to allow the election of a national assembly. The Social Democratic leaders who pressed this line, in effect the suicide of the councils, undoubtedly enjoyed the support of a large majority of the working class at that moment. Almost immediately afterwards the German Communist Party held its founding congress. It voted by a big majority (62 to 23) to boycott the election.

The more experienced Communist leaders were almost unanimously in favour of participation. Rosa Luxemburg argued “We wish to be prepared for all possibilities, including utilising the National Assembly for revolutionary purposes, should the Assembly ever come into being.” [17]

It was of course possible, in the circumstances, to make a case of sorts for the boycott. It could have been argued that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were still in existence and could be maintained, that the Social Democrats were rapidly losing ground, that its majority in the councils could be quickly overturned, that an insurrection with mass support against the Social Democrat government was possible in the near future. Such a case would have been based on a misreading of the situation but it would not have been simply absurd.

But this was not what was argued by most of the advocates of the boycott. For them, such calculations were irrelevant. They were for workers’ councils and against parliaments. Therefore they must have nothing to do with any parliament. To do so could only confuse the workers. A group of the boycottists wrote a little later that “all reversion to parliamentary forms of struggle, which have become politically and historically obsolete and any policy of manoeuvring and compromise must be emphatically rejected.” [18]

Politically obsolete for whom? In the National Assembly elections held on January 19th 1919, the SPD won eleven and a half million votes, overwhelmingly the votes of working men and women (this was the first German election held on the basis of universal suffrage). Parliamentarianism was certainly obsolete from the point of view of the few thousand Communists and even, at that time, for a wider circle of working class militants, perhaps some hundreds of thousands.

It was evidently not at all obsolete from the point of view of the millions of workers who voted for the Social Democrat or Independent Social Democrat Party.

The ultra-lefts assumed that what was clear to the advanced militant must also be clear to workers at large and that those who did not accept it were either scoundrels who had been corrupted or sheep who were merely waiting for the correct lead to be given. These were the underlying assumptions of the young militants who had joined with the handful of other older revolutionaries to form the German Communist Party. They led to a policy of adventurism alternating with abstention.

On 5 January 1919, the still tiny Communist Party, with the support of local sections of the Independent Social Democrats, attempted to seize power in Berlin. The rising had not been planned in advance on the basis of a calculation of the balance of forces. It was the spontaneous reaction of Communist and some Independent Social Democrat militants to the attempt of the government to dismiss Emil Eichhorn, a left wing Independent Social Democrat who had taken over as chief of the Berlin police during the November revolution.

Luxemburg, the nationally known leader of the party, was opposed to the rising. She was overruled and, reluctantly, put herself at its head. The revolutionaries had some military support, notably that of about 3,000 armed sailors from Kiel, but they were a decided minority in the still existing Berlin council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies.

lacking majority working class support, even in Berlin, the rising was soon crushed. Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, the Social Democrat leaders, gave the cover of “socialist” and “republican” legality to hastily reconstructed right wing army units led by former Imperial officers. In the repression that followed Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and many others were murdered.

The Communist Party, or rather its local leadership in Munich, behaved well during the brief life of the Bavarian Soviet Republic (April 7th to May 1st 1919). It opposed its formation, correctly assessing it as an adventure resting on slender support, and only took over the leadership when the coalition of anarchists, Independent Social Democrats and some Social Democrat supporters (which formed the “government”) fell to pieces.

The result of the defeat was that “Bavaria became the Land (province) with a perpetual state of emergency which hampered all attempts at socialist organisation. The Communist Party went underground. Leaders not killed in the first days (of the counter-revolution) were sentenced by civil courts to long prison terms ...” [19] The local Communist leaders could hardly be blamed for this outcome. They had done all they could have done.

But they were not typical of the membership nationally. What Lenin called “the infantile disorder of ultra-leftism” flourished. A majority of the party was not only opposed to participation in elections; it was equally opposed to working in the existing unions.

“New forms of organisation must be created ...”, declared the group previously quoted. “A Workers’ Union, based on factory organisations, should be the rallying point for all revolutionary elements. This should unite all workers who follow the slogan ‘Get out of the trade unions’. It is here that the militant proletariat musters its ranks for battle. Recognition of the class struggle, of the Soviet system and of the dictatorship should be sufficient for enrolment.” [20]

Against this “old and familiar rubbish” Lenin had written, shortly before the 1920 congress of the International, one of his most powerful polemics, “Left Wing’”Communism. At the congress itself a firm line was taken against abstentionism: “Communists in all countries must join the trade unions in order to turn them into conscious fighting organs for the overthrow of capitalism ... All voluntary abstention from the unions, all artificial attempts to create separate trade unions ... are extremely dangerous for the Communist movement.” [21]

On boycotts of parliaments, mindful of the struggle against centrism, the “theses” adopted carefully restated that “The form taken by the proletarian dictatorship is the Soviet Republic ... The task of the proletariat is to shatter the bourgeois state machine, to destroy it, and to destroy with it parliamentary institutions ... Consequently Communism repudiates parliamentarianism, as the form of the future society, as the form of the class dictatorship of the proletariat. It denies the possibility of winning parliament over permanently; its object is to destroy parliamentarianism.” [22]

On the other hand, “‘Anti-parliamentarianism’ on principle, that is, the absolute and categorical rejection of participation in elections and in revolutionary parliamentary activity, is ... a naive and childish doctrine which is beneath contempt, a doctrine which is ... blind to the possibility of the revolutionary parliamentarianism The boycotting of elections or of parliament are permissible primarily when the conditions for the immediate transition to armed struggle for power are at hand.” [23]

Opposition to these views was by no means confined to Germany. The biggest section of the left of the Italian Socialist Party was strongly “boycottist in principle”. A good proportion of the British, United States, Dutch and other Communist Parties were ultra-left. In fact ultra-leftism, both of the abstentionist and of the adventurist variants, was strong in the early years of the Communist International and was to re-assert itself strongly in 1924-25 as well as, under different circumstances, in 1928-34.

In Germany the left wing was excluded from the Communist Party at the party’s second congress which was, held illegally, at Heidelberg in October 1919. The surviving Spartakus leaders, Levi, Meyer and others, had forced through resolutions making acceptance of trade union work and rejection of election “boycotts on principle” a condition of membership. It was done with scant regard for democratic procedures (some of the “left” delegates were allegedly not told the time and place of the meeting) and it cost the party half or more of its growing membership. But it was essential if the party was ever to become a real force and, in particular, it was a necessary condition for the fusion with the left wing of the Independent Social Democrats that was achieved a year later.

The “lefts” later formed the Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD) which claimed initially 38,000 members but which fell to pieces in the next few years. It was allowed a nonvoting delegation at the second world congress. Yet even after the exclusion of the “lefts” the Communist Party was far from having acquired the “political flair” of which Lenin had written.

On March 13th 1920 a section of the reconstituted German army under General Luttwitz, the conqueror of the Spartakus rising, turned and bit the hand that fed it. It seized Berlin and deposed the government appointed by the National Assembly. Ebert and his colleagues fled to Stuttgart. The rest of the army stayed “neutral”, it would not fight for the Weimar Republic. This was the Kapp putsch, so called after a civilian reactionary, Dr Kapp, who acted as Luttwitz’s frontman.

The German trade union federation called an unlimited general strike. Over 12 million workers came out. Armed resistance to the putsch developed, especially in the Ruhr and in Saxony, led by individuals and groups of members of the Independent Social Democrats and of both communist parties. Yet the first reaction of the Communist Party centre was to declare its neutrality in a fight between two “counter-revolutionary gangs”! “The proletariat will not lift a finger for the democratic republic” [24], it stated.

This staggering failure to realise what was at stake, the assumption that there is no difference between a military dictatorship and a bourgeois-democratic republic, indicates the extent to which ultra-leftism had affected even its declared opponents. The abstentionist stand was quickly reversed. Fortunately most of the party members were in advance of their leaders and ignored it from the beginning.

The Kapp putsch collapsed after a few days of intense and increasingly violent working class resistance. The result was a marked swing to the left amongst German workers. The Independent Social Democrats gained five million votes in the subsequent election and the Communist Party which became a legal organisation after the defeat of the putsch, half a million. The members of the two organisations grew closer together. The basis for the merger of the parties at Halle had been laid in united action between them. But a strong streak of ultra-leftism survived in the new mass united communist party (VKPD) as was to be shown in March 1921.



1. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.206.

2. Degras, The Communist International 1919-43. Documents, Vol.1, p.109.

3. Degras, Vol.1, p.172.

4. Lenin, CW, Vol.31, p.21.

5. Degras, Vol.1, p.170.

6. Proceedings of the Second World Congress, p.186.

7. Proceedings, p.184.

8. Proceedings, p.217-18.

9. Lenin, CW, Vol.31, pp.250-51.

10. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the CI, Vol.1, p.97.

11. Proceedings, p.65.

12. Proceedings, pp.66-67.

13. Trotsky, First Five Years ...

14. Proceedings, pp.56-57.

15. Proceedings, pp.55-56.

16. Degras, Vol.1 p.129 and 131.

17. Solidarity, Spartakism to National Bolshevism; the KPD 1918-24, p.9.

18. Lenin, CW, Vol.31, p.40.

19. Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, p.108.

20. Lenin, CW, Vol.31, p.40.

21. Degras, Vol.1, pp.146-47.

22. Degras, Vol.1, p.152.

23. Degras. Vol.1, pp.153-54.

24. Degras, Vol.1, p.82.


Last updated on 19.10.2006