MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People



Zinoviev, Gregory (1883-1936)

Old Bolshevik, was president of the Comintern 1919-1926.

Together with Kamanev, Zinoviev opposed the plans for the revolution. Their opposition was defeated in a vote by the majority of the party, to which they responded on the 18th of October writing for Novaya Zhizn (a Menshevik daily) the Bolshevik plan for an uprising against the government, and expressed their opinions that it was doomed.

With Stalin and Kamenev launched the crusade against Trotskyism in 1923. Later formed a bloc with Trotsky against Stalin (the United Opposition), 1926-27. Expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 as a result, he capitulated to Stalin and was readmitted. Expelled again in 1932, he recanted again, but was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. In 1935 Zinoviev was tried again at the first Moscow trial in 1936 and was executed.


Gugoiui Evseyevich Zinoviev, whose real name was Radomysisky, was born in 1883 at Elizavetgrad (later re-named Zinovievsk) in the Kherson province of Russia. The son of a Jewish petty bourgeois family, he had no formal education but was taught at home, and started work as a teacher at the age of 15. He soon took an active part in the strike struggles which broke out in 1900-1901, and joined the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party in 1901.

During 1902 he went abroad to Berlin and Paris, then studied for a time in the University of Heme: while in Switierland he met Lenin and Plekhanov early in 1903. During August of that year he attended the historic second Social Democratic Labour Party Congress in London, when the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks took place. Zinoviev immediately supported the Bolsheviks and joined their faction; after the congress he was sent back to Russia as a party worker, but his health was poor and he had to return abroad.

In 1905 he went again to Russia and took a leading part in the St. Petersburg party organization, publishing the newspaper Proletary. Throughout 1906 he carried out agitation among the St. Petersburg metal workers, who sent him as their delegate to the Fifth Party Congress of May 1907 in London, where he was elected for the first time to the Central Committee. The next year he was arrested for his revolutionary activities, but was released on the grounds of his ill-health; he then went to Switzerland and became Lenin’s closest collaborator from that time until 1917. He was the only Bolshevik to support Lenin in 1910 against those who advocated compromising with the Mensheviks and retaining the joint central committee (during this period the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were formally in the same organization). In 1911 he lectured at Lenin’s party school for Bolshevik underground workers, held at Longjumeau, near Paris.

At the Sixth Party Conference in Prague during January 1912 he was elected to the new all-Bolshevik Central Committee.

During the First World War he took a clear internationalist stand, representing the Bolshevik party at the 1915 Zimmerwald conference against the war, and the Kienthal conference of 1916; he helped to organize the ‘Zimmerwald Left’ which called for the imperialist war to be turned into a civil war. Together with Lenin he wrote the pamphlet Socialism and the War (1915) and a collection of articles, Against the Current (1916) which attacked the social-patriotic betrayal of the reformist parties in the Second International.

After the February revolution of 1917 he returned to Russia with Lenin, but, like the other leading Bolsheviks, initially opposed Lenin’s ‘April Theses’ which called for the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government. He went underground with Lenin during the ‘July Days’, when the Provisional Government clamped down on the Bolsheviks; they were both forced to hide in Finland, and returned to Petrograd only in October.

At this point, faced with the immediate necessity of taking power, Zinoviev, along with Kamenev, came out openly against the insurrection. He and Kamenev published an article in the non-party press which exposed the Bolshevik’s plans for the insurrection; for this Lenin denounced them as ‘strike breakers’ and proposed their expulsion from the party, a demand which was later dropped.

After the October revolution, Zinoviev advocated a coalition government to include the Mensheviks and SRs and resigned from the Central Committee in protest against Lenin’s resolution excluding these parties, but returned within a few days.

Nevertheless he became one of the Soviet regime’s principal figures; at first the chief party spokesman in the Trade Union Central Council, he presided at all the early trade union congresses, and was later elected president of the Petrograd Soviet. Petrograd was the centre of the metal-working industries where the core of Bolshevik trade union cadres were concentrated, and where Zinoviev had considerable support within the party.

When the government was transferred to Moscow during the Civil War, he was appointed chairman of the Northern Commune: at this time he was also a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the 7th Army and president of the Committee for the Defence of the Republic. At the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 he was elected a candidate member of the Politburo and a full member at the Tenth Congress in1921.

At the Comintern’s foundation in 1919, on Lenin’s motion he was elected chairman of the Executive Committee. One of his biggest achievements was to win the majority of the German Independent Social-Democratic Party for fusion with the new German Communist Party (KPD) in 1920, after a four-hour speech in German! However, against Trotsky’s opposition to an adventure, he and Bela Kun instigated the abortive rising in Germany in 1921, believing that this would ‘electrify’ and spur to action the masses; in fact its defeat led to a great crisis in the German Communist Party and increased the isolation of the USSR.

At the plenum of the ECCI prior to the Third Congress of the Comintern, he bitterly opposed the introduction of the tactic of the ‘United Front’, the policy designed to win the mass of workers away from their reformist leaders. However he eventually agreed that this tactic should be presented to the Congress as the official policy of the Executive, and delivered the main report to the Congress himself.

A decisive turning point in the international situation was the defeat of the 1923 German revolution. As president of the Comintern, Zinoviev urged on the KPD with left phrases, but only half-heartedly supported Trotsky’s proposal for a definite plan of action. When the irresoluteness of the KPD leadership led to the failure of the plan, he sanctioned the cancelling of the insurrection at the decisive moment and made the KPD secretary, Brandler, the scapegoat for its failure. When Trotsky protested against this bureaucratic evasion of responsibility, Zinoviev used his influence within the foreign Communist Parties to have Trotsky denounced at the fifth Comintern Congress (the so-called ‘Congress of Bolshevization’)

Zinoviev had opposed Trotsky at almost every crucial turn of Bolshevik policy in government; after the onset of Lenin’s illness in 1922 he had come together with Kamenev and Stalin to form the troika which was eventually to wield virtually all state power. Despite Lenin’s serious doubts, he led the Petrograd delegation in pushing through Stalin’s appointment to General Secretary at the 11th Party Congress in 1922.

At the 12th Party Congress which took place in the vacuum of leadership left by Lenin’s illness, the troika covered up their intrigue with a whispering campaign against Trotsky (‘he imagines himself a Bonaparte’) and a glorification of Lenin.

Zinoviev in fact took the initiative in the struggle against Trotsky, answering the crisis of leadership with the suppression of all discussion of policy: ‘Every criticism of the party line, even a so-called ‘left’ criticism, is now objectively a Menshevik criticism.’

However, when in the summer of 1923 wildcat strikes broke out in the industrial centres, threatening the base of the regime, the triumvirs found many party cadres in sympathy with the strikers’ demands. Within the party, 46 prominent Bolsheviks signed a declaration in October calling for the restoration of party democracy and the right to form factions, and severely criticizing the economic policies of the ruling clique. This was close to the policies fought for by Trotsky.

Adapting to this opposition, Zinoviev made a speech in November promising to restore party democracy—but once begun, the discussion revealed enormous hostility to the trium-virate within the party, and it was hastily suppressed.

Trotsky then openly broke with the ‘Old Guard’, writing an Open Letter attacking their handling of the ‘New Course’.

Zinoviev’s reply, at the 13th Congress the next year, was to demand that Trotsky should publicly recant his views—an unheard-of demand at that time which many of Zinoviev’s own supporters would not back, and which he had to drop. ‘It is now a thousand times more necessary than ever that the party should be monolithic’, he declaimed.

In autumn 1924 Trotsky wrote ‘The Lessons of October’ as a preface to an edition of his speeches in 1917. Zinoviev used this as an excuse to launch the ‘Literary debate’—a massive campaign in the party press in which the slogan of Trotsky’s ‘under-estimation of the peasantry’ was invented and proclaimed, while the writings of Trotsky and his comrades in the Left Opposition were suppressed. It was implied that Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past meant he was hostile to Bolshevism — i.e. that he was basically a Menshevik at heart.

At the end of 1924 Zinoviev demanded in the Politburo that the Central Committee be asked to expel Trotsky from its ranks; Stalin, sensing the crisis this would provoke within the party, refused to comply. Instead Trotsky was dismissed as Commissar of War. Once Trotsky had been removed from any position of power, the chief force holding the triumvirate together was gone. Zinoviev intrigued with Kamenev to oust Stalin from the General Secretaryship, and proposed that he replace Trotsky as Commissar of War; they found it was too late to dislodge Stalin from his position in the apparatus.

The increasing isolation of Russia following the defeat of the German revolution in 1923 and the temporary stabilization of conditions in Western Europe had strengthened the position of the bureaucracy, and during late 1924 brought Stalin to the fore as the dominant force in the troika. When Bukharin abandoned the perspective of revolution in Europe and in autumn 1924 advocated making wholesale concessions to the peasantry so as gradually to build ‘socialism in one country’, Stalin seized on this theory as an ideological justification for the growing power of the apparatus and in April 1925 attempted to make it official party policy.

Both Zinoviev and Kamenev strongly opposed this move, but the breach was hushed up in order to avoid scandalizing the party. Zinoviev did not come out openly against ‘socialism in one country’ until September 1925, in his book Leninism, where he argued that on its own the backward Soviet economy could never raise its productive technique to a level high enough for socialism, and that to abandon the perspective of revolution abroad was a break with Leninist internationalism. At the October session of the Central Committee he demanded a free debate on this question at the forthcoming 14th Party Congress, but was outvoted by the supporters of Stalin and Bukharin, who at the same time prohibited any public criticism of official policy.

A tremendous clash between the opposing factions took place at the 14th congress, but the outcome was that Stalin and Bukharin increased their majority on the CC. The new CC immediately set about destroying the strength of the ‘Leningrad opposition’: Zinoviev was replaced by Kirov as Leningrad party secretary and his supporters were removed from positions of authority.

In April 1926 the Leningrad and Left Oppositions finally began to collaborate; Zinoviev then revealed to Trotsky the methods by which the triumvirate had excluded him from power. At the July session of the CC Zinoviev declared that ‘On the question of apparatus-bureaucratic repression, Trotsky was right as against us’; and Trotsky read out a joint statement attacking Stalin’s policies.

Stalin hit back with a charge that they had violated party discipline by forming a faction, and the CC voted by a massive majority to dismiss Zinoviev as president of the Comintern. The Opposition turned to the party rank-and-file, only to find an organized heckling campaign to prevent them being heard at meetings: Zinoviev was driven from the platform at the 15th conference of the party. However, he shrank back from an all-out conflict with the apparatus, vowing not to bring matters to the point of expulsion from the party—which meant accepting in advance the limits laid down by Stalin.

Ideologically, Zinoviev remained hostile to the theory of permanent revolution and clung to the shibboleth of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, even within the Joint Opposition, and insisted that their Platform (1927) should specifically deny its validity.

The Platform was drawn up in May as a balance-sheet of the position reached by the revolution, and a campaign for signa-tures to it was launched in preparation for the 15th Congress due at the end of the year. Zinoviev optimistically expected 20-30,000 signatures; they got 6,000. Although their perspectives had been proved correct, the effect of the international defeats of the proletariat was a greater force, producing demoralization throughout the party, and the bureaucracy prepared to expel the opposition before the congress even took place.

On 14th November the CC expelled Trotsky and Zinoviev from the party, together with virtually the entire Opposition. By December Zinoviev had parted company from Trotsky and capitulated to Stalin; on 18th December he appeared at the Congress to condemn his own views as ‘wrong and anti-Leninist’. Zinoviev was readmitted to the party in 1928 and appointed to an unimportant post in the Consumer Co-operatives, then to the Collegium of the Peoples Commissariat of Food. From then on he and Kamenev, who had capitulated with him, issued denunciations of the Left Opposition to the order of the bureaucracy. They had ceased to live politically.

However, during the period 1930-32 when the country was convulsed by the consequences of the forced collectivization begun in 1928, they began anxiously to discuss the dangers of the new policy. The development of the economic crisis led to a revival of opposition to Stalin within the apparatus itself; because of this weakening of its position the bureaucracy had to eliminate any candidates for leadership of any opposition group. For being in possession of a document emanating from the Right Opposition which bitterly attacked Stalin and collectivization, they were expelled from the party and exiled to Siberia. In 1933 they again recanted and prostrated themselves before Stalin; they were finally allowed to return to Moscow in May, broken men.

Stalin hoped to use Zinoviev as a means of striking against ‘Trotskyism’ and thereby consolidate the ranks of the bureaucracy. In December 1934 Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested and brought before a military tribunal ‘in connection’ with the GPU-engineered assassination of Kirov (this was part of a campaign of harassment to force them to indict Trotsky); they were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment as the leaders of a mythical counter-revolutionary group.

Finally in August 1936 they were brought from the jails to be framed in the first of the Moscow show trials. After making a public ‘confession’, Zinoviev was sentenced to death for ‘organizing the joint Trotskyite-Zinovievist Terrorist Centre for the assassination of Soviet government and CPSU leaders’, and shot on August 21st, 1936.

Transcribed by David Walters, 2001