Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

Speech on Comrade Zinoviev’s
Report on the Role of the Party

The Second World Congress

COMRADES! 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. Comrade Levi [2] has underscored just this aspect of the discussion, pointing out that for the great majority of the Western European and American workers this question was settled long ago, and that in his opinion a discussion of this question will hardly help raise the prestige of the Communist International. For my part I proceed from the assumption that there is a rather sharp contradiction between the march of historical events and the opinion expressed here with such Marxist magnanimity to the effect that the broad masses of workers are already excellently aware of the necessity of the party. It is self-evident that if we were dealing here with Messrs. Scheidemann, Kautsky or their English co-thinkers, it would, of course, be unnecessary to convince these gentlemen that a party is indispensable to the working class. They have created a party for the working class and handed it over into the service of bourgeois and capitalist society.

But if what we have in mind is the proletarian party, then it is observable that in various countries this party is passing through different stages of its development. In Germany, the classic land of the old Social Democracy, we observe a titanic working class, on a high cultural level, advancing uninterruptedly in its struggle, dragging in its wake sizable remnants of old traditions. We see, on the other hand, that precisely those parties which pretend to speak in the name of the majority of the working class, the parties of the Second International, which express the moods of a section of the working class, compel us to pose the question whether the party is necessary or not. Just because I know that the party is indispensable, and am very well aware of the value of the party, and just because I see Scheidemann 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-for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades in order to prove to them that the party is indispensable for the fulfillment of the historical mission which is placed upon them-the destruction of the bourgeoisie. I will try to prove this to them in a comradely way, on the basis of my own experience, and not by counterposing to them Scheidemann’s long years of experience and saying that for the majority this question has already been settled. Comrades, we see how great the influence of anti-parliamentary tendencies still is in the old countries of parliamentarianism and democracy, for example France, England, and so on. In France I had the opportunity of personally observing, at the beginning of the war, that the first audacious voices against the war – at the very moment when the Germans stood at the gates of Paris – were raised in the ranks of a small group of French syndicalists. These were the voices of my friends – Monatte, Rosmer and others. At that time it was impossible for us to pose the question of forming the Communist Party: such elements were far too few. But I felt myself a comrade among comrades in the company of Comrades Monatte, Rosmer and others with an anarchistic past.

But what was there in common between me and a Renaudel who excellently understands the need of the party; or an Albert Thomas and other gentlemen whom I do not even want to call “comrades” so as not to violate the rules of decency?

Comrades, the French syndicalists are conducting revolutionary work within the syndicates. When I discuss today, for example, with Comrade Rosmer, we have a common ground. The French syndicalists, in defiance of the traditions of democracy and its deceptions, have said: “We do not want any parties, we stand for proletarian syndicates and for the revolutionary minority within them which applies direct action.” What the French syndicalists understood by this minority was not clear even to themselves. It was a portent of the future development, which, despite their prejudices and illusions, has not hindered these same syndicalist comrades from playing a revolutionary role in France, and from producing that small minority which has come to our International Congress.

What does this minority mean to our friends? It is the chosen section of the French working class, a section with a clear program and organization of its own, an organization where they discuss all questions, and not alone discuss but also decide, and where they are bound by a certain discipline. However, proceeding from the experience of the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie, proceeding from its own experience and the experience of other countries, French syndicalism will be compelled to create the Communist Party.

Comrade Pestaña [3] says: “I don’t want to touch this question. I am a syndicalist and I don’t want to talk politics, still less do I want to talk about the party.” This is extremely interesting. He does not want to talk about the Communist Party so as not to insult the revolution. This means that the criticism of the Communist Party and of its necessity appears to him within the framework of the Russian Revolution as an insult to the revolution. That’s how it is. It was the same in Hungary.

Comrade Pestaña, who is an influential Spanish syndicalist, came to visit us because there are among us comrades who to one degree or another take their stand on the soil of syndicalism; there are also among us comrades who are, so to speak, parliamentarians, and others who are neither parliamentarians nor syndicalists but who stand for mass action, and so on. But what do we offer him? We offer him an International Communist Party, that is, the unification of the advanced elements of the working class who come together with their experience, share it with the others, criticize one another, adopt decisions, and so on. When Comrade Pestaña returns to Spain with these decisions his comrades will want to know: “What did you bring back from Moscow?” He will then present them with the theses and ask them to vote the resolution up or down; and those Spanish syndicalists, who unite on the basis of the proposed theses, will form nothing else but the Spanish Communist Party.

Today we have received a proposal from the Polish government to conclude peace. Who decides such questions? We have the Council of People’s Commissars but it too must be subject to certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless, chaotic mass? No. The Central Committee of the party is convened in order to discuss the proposal and to decide whether it ought to be answered. And when we have to conduct war, organize new divisions and find the best elements for them – where do we turn? We turn to the party. To the Central Committee. And it issues directives to every local committee pertaining to the assignment of Communists to the front. The same thing applies to the agrarian question, the question of supplies, and all other questions. Who will decide these questions in Spain? The Spanish Communist Party – and I am confident that Comrade Pestaña will be one of the founders of this party.

Comrade Serrati [4] – to whom it is, of course, unnecessary to prove the need of a party, for he is himself the leader of a large party – asks us ironically: “Just what do we understand by a middle peasant and a semi-proletarian? and isn’t it opportunism for us to make them various concessions?” But what is opportunism, Comrades? In our country the power is in the hands of the working class, which is under the leadership of the Communist Party and which follows the lead of the party that represents it. But in our country there exists not only the advanced working class, but also various backward and non-party elements who work part of the year in the village and the other part in the factory; there exist various layers of the peasantry. All this has not been created by our party; we inherited it from the feudal and capitalist past. The working class is in power and it says: “Now I can’t change all this today or on the morrow; I must make a concession here to backward and barbaric relations.”

Opportunism manifests itself whenever those who represent the toiling class make such concessions to the ruling class as facilitate the latter’s remaining in power. Kautsky reproaches us because our party is seemingly making the greatest concessions to the peasantry. The working class, in power, must hasten the evolutionary process of the greatest part of the peasantry, helping it to pass over from a feudal mode of thinking to Communism; and must make concessions to the backward elements. Thus I think that the question for which a solution has been found that appears opportunist to Comrade Serrati is not at all a question that lowers the dignity of the Communist Party of Russia. But even if such were the case, even if we had committed this or that mistake, it would only mean that we are operating in a very complex situation and are compelled to maneuver. Power is in our hands but just the same we had to retreat before German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk and, later, before English imperialism. And, in this particular instance, we are maneuvering between the various layers of the peasantry – some we attract to us, others we repel, while a third layer is crushed by us with an iron hand. This is the maneuvering of the revolutionary class which is in power and which is capable of committing mistakes, but these mistakes enter into the party’s inventory – an inventory of the party which concentrates the entire experience accumulated by the working class. That is how we conceive of our party. That is how we conceive of our International.


1. Zinoviev’s report on the role of the Communist Party in the epoch of the proletarian revolution was delivered at the July 23 session of the Second World Congress. Trotsky made his speech on July 26, 1920.

2. Paul Levi – at one time a co-thinker of Rosa Luxemburg. After the latter’s assassination and after the murder of Jogiches (Tyshko), the chief organizer of the party, Levi became head of the Communist Party of Germany. In the autumn of 1920 Levi began to gravitate toward centrism. After the March action of 1921 Levi was expelled from the party. In 1929 he committed suicide by jumping out of a window.

3. Pestaña – leader of the Spanish syndicalists and delegate to the Second World Congress of the Communist International.

4. Serrati – an old leader of the Italian Socialist Party. For a long time Serrati was editor of the party’s central organ Avanti. At the Livorno Congress of 1920 Serrati supported the reformists, thus being one of those who bear the responsibility for the defeat of the Italian workers in the autumn of 1920. In the middle of 1922 Serrati began moving to the left. He attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern as a partisan of the fusion with the Italian Communist Party.

First 5 Years of the Comintern (Vol.1) Index

History of the Communist International Section

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007