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Ian Birchall

History of the Communist International


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2, 1999, pp. 265–68.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Pierre Broué
Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste
Fayard, Paris 1997, pp. 1120, FF295

PIERRE Broué’s history of the Communist International is an impressive achievement. As well as over 800 pages of scrupulously documented text, it contains a detailed chronology, an extensive bibliography, and an index with biographical sketches of virtually every individual who plays a part in the story. In addition, there is a list of some 8,000 pseudonyms used by those active in the Communist movement. (I was slightly less impressed when the first entry I checked – Tony Cliff – turned out to be inaccurate.) Doubtless there are errors and omissions, but it would require a whole team of specialists to locate where they are. Broué has provided not only an enthralling narrative, but a work of reference which will be indispensable to anyone working in the field.

Whilst the account centres on the key states of Central and Western Europe which decided the fate of the post-1917 revolutionary wave, Broué includes much material from other parts of the world, and there are full accounts of the development of revolutionary Communism, and then Stalinism, in both Asia and Latin America. Whilst some sections rely heavily on established accounts – Isaacs on the Chinese Revolution, Renshaw on the British General Strike – Broué also makes substantial use of recently discovered archive material. An important example is the use of material from the work of Bernhard Bayerlein, showing the divergences within the Comintern leadership at the time of the German events of 1923 and after. Amongst other material, he quotes a letter from Stalin in August 1923, urging that the Germans be held back and not stimulated; Zinoviev’s draft theses on Germany from August 1923; details of the dispute between Trotsky and Zinoviev in the autumn of 1923; and Rákosi’s report to Zinoviev of October 1923.

The latter part of the book, dealing with the Stalinised Comintern, is perhaps the less interesting. The broad outline of the crimes of the Third Period and the betrayals of the Popular Front are a well-known story, and although Broué adds much detail, he does not revise the general picture. Certainly he provides sufficient documentation to belabour any surviving admirers of Stalinism. Whilst the catastrophic outcome of the Third Period in Germany is all too familiar, the story of the massacres in Colombia and El Salvador, also produced by Third Period policies, will be less so. Broué also details the leadership changes carried out during the Third Period; as he points out, it was the leaderships established during the Third Period who implemented the policies of the Popular Front. Chapter 32 provides an extensive roll-call of those murdered at the hands of the Stalinist apparatus.

Yet, as Broué shows, the Comintern was never altogether a ‘monolith’ (as some of us have perhaps too easily believed). The famous zigzags were neither unanimous nor executed without hesitation. Thus the Comintern opposed Duclos’ attempt to get L’Humanité published legally under the Nazi occupation of France. Even when Stalin decided that the Comintern must be dissolved, there were divergent voices on the Executive. No-one defied Stalin, but there were several views as to how the strangulation should be carried out. Perhaps such differences should not surprise us in an organisation where fear and ambition had replaced principle. But individuals did make a difference, and Broué attempts to evaluate their rôles. Thus Dimitrov (whose direct involvement in the Sofia Cathedral episode Broué makes clear) emerges as a complete scoundrel, who drank too much and sexually harassed secretaries; André Marty, however, is said to have been a ‘big-mouth’, but not the butcher he is often accused of being.

Broué considers that by 1935 the Comintern was no more than a ‘direct dependency of the political police of the [Soviet] state’. Undoubtedly there is a substantial degree of truth in this, and Broué provides much detailed material on the rôle of Russian agents within the various Communist parties. Nonetheless, a number of reservations should be noted. Firstly, the various Stalinist parties retained sufficient roots in their national labour movements for them subsequently to develop into variants of Social Democracy. Secondly, in the 1930s and during the Second World War, the Communist parties continued to attract many of the best class fighters of their generation. To dismiss militants of the quality of Harry McShane or Joe Jacobs as merely ‘Stalinists’ because they became embroiled in Communist parties at a time when Trotskyism was almost invisible would be sectarian folly. And thirdly, a theoretical question arises: if the counter-revolutionary Comintern was simply a projection of the Russian state machine, then what sort of state was it? Could it in any sense be a state that represented workers’ class interests, in however degenerated a fashion? Wisely, Broué makes no attempt to pursue this point.

But it is the first half of the book which is much more illuminating and thought provoking, and highly relevant to the education of a new generation of revolutionaries. For here we are dealing with a living movement, with all its richness and contradiction, its spontaneity and its mistakes. Anyone who believes there was a line of continuity between the early Comintern and the later monstrosity that bore the same name should read Broué’s detailed account of the full debate and open argument that characterised the first congresses.

But Broué also undermines the romanticisation that has existed within the Trotskyist camp. I recall a faction in the International Socialists (led by Sean Matgamna) which included in its programme support for the ‘first four congresses of the Communist International’. I was never sure what this might mean, and having read Broué I am finally convinced it was meaningless. Indeed, the real Comintern was something of a ramshackle affair, a hasty improvisation to deal with an urgent and unpredictable situation. We can learn at least as much from the early Comintern’s mistakes – which were numerous – as from its programmatic declarations. But precisely these were the mistakes – and often dubious manoeuvres – of a living movement. The point was neatly summed by Georg Lukács, in a remark recorded by Victor Serge: ‘Marxists know that dirty little tricks can be performed with impunity when great deeds are being achieved; the error of some comrades is to suppose that one can produce great results simply through the performance of dirty little tricks.’ Here we have beautifully encapsulated the essential difference between Lenin and Zinoviev.

For many on the revolutionary left, even today, the Comintern is cited as though it provided a simple recipe book for the construction of revolutionary parties. But as Broué shows, the formation of the Comintern was a complex process, in which individuals, networks of personal contacts, the various ‘foreign sections’ based on ex-prisoners-of-war in Russia, small political groups and mass parties all interacted in the context of a unique revolutionary wave emerging from the war and the Russian October. Those who seek to reduce this to the shibboleth that all revolutionary parties come simply from splits within existing working-class institutions should study Broué and think again. Thus in the example of France, revolutionary Syndicalists like Rosmer, Monatte and Martinet played a key rôle in the formation of the Communist Party, even though they had never felt any inclination to ‘enter’ the SFIO. And if they had played an even larger rôle, whilst the corrupt parliamentarians like Cachin had been excluded, the PCF might have been better able to face up to the demands of the new period.

The real problem was, of course, that the overwhelming majority of the established leadership of the working class had sold out in 1914. The Comintern’s task was therefore to forge a new leadership, at every level from Central Committee to shop steward, within the few brief years before the revolutionary wave began to subside. The amazing thing is not that there were mistakes and that bizarre short-cuts were pursued, but that so much was achieved. Some of us might draw the lesson, contrary to the advocates of ‘entrism’, that it is a great pity that the left in the Second International did not break away – or at least develop a much more solid factional organisation – before 1914.

Be that as it may, the Comintern leadership found themselves in a race against time. Paradoxically, the Russians had to try to teach other parties to rely more on their own concrete analysis of circumstances, and less on imitation of the Russian example. This is the message of Lenin’s magnificent but despairing speech to the fourth Comintern congress, when he warned: ‘We have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners.’ Broué provides a neat example of the tendency to see the world through Russian eyes when he cites the repeated practice of the Italian Communists of referring to Mussolini’s Blackshirts as ‘White Guards’ – something hardly calculated to clarify the issues for the average Italian worker.

It is also in this context that the question of ultra-leftism in the Comintern must be understood, and here Broué can be criticised for taking too superficial a view of matters. It is easy enough in retrospect to condemn the March Action and the ‘theory of the offensive’. Of course, it is quite right to blame Béla Kun for his stupidities – as Lenin did one once occasion to such an extent that the congress record had to be altered to moderate his vituperation. But the fundamental questions are: firstly, why was there such a shortage of cadres that a man like Kun was given responsible positions? And secondly, why did the ultra-leftism of such leaders find a genuine ‘resonance’ (as our Pabloite friends used to call it) amongst the layers of newly radicalised young workers, militant, angry and impatient, but lacking experience and any real sense of tactics.

Lenin himself seems to have related to ultra-lefts of all types with understanding and patience. He realised that most ultra-lefts were genuine revolutionaries, and even amid the tremendous pressures of post-revolutionary Russia, he found time to argue and convince. Broué’s account brings out the differences between the various Bolshevik leaders. Indeed, contrary to the popular image of ‘Bolshevism’, even the leading core of Bolsheviks was far from being homogeneous. Broué brings out the different rôles of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek and others. Zinoviev, despite his talents as an orator, appears mainly in a negative light. It was Zinoviev (not Trotsky, as is often alleged) who threatened to shoot the Kronstadt insurgents ‘like partridges’. It was above all Zinoviev’s ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Comintern that paved the way for Stalin. Moreover, Zinoviev is shown to have been one of the very first proponents of the ‘theory’ that Social Democracy was a ‘variety of Fascism’.

But most striking of all is the visible gap between Lenin and even his most gifted associates. Lenin understood that the art of party-building requires a knowledge of when to split and when to pull together. Of course, splitting is a lot easier than pulling together, and all too many of Lenin’s would-be followers (including even, at times, Trotsky) have preferred to split rather than pull together.

Broué’s sympathies tend to be with the right wing of the revolutionary movement. In particular Paul Levi, whom he had already presented in a relatively positive light in his 1971 book on the German Revolution, is here presented as a major figure in the Comintern leadership. Certainly Broué is quite right to endorse Levi’s critique of the March Action; Levi was undoubtedly a shrewd analyst of the political situation. But it must also be said that he was an inept faction-fighter. One can scarcely imagine Lenin deciding to break party discipline, but then failing to follow through, and retreating from the debate. Within a more stable leadership team, Levi could certainly have played a very useful rôle, but in the near chaos of the German party he failed to live up to the demands upon him.

One review can only touch on a very few of the many issues raised in Broué’s book, which will undoubtedly continue to provoke discussion and further research for years to come. In the last issue of Revolutionary History, Al Richardson described the book as ‘magisterial’. Perhaps I am not quite so easily pleased, but there is no doubt that this is an important and valuable book. I would add the hope that an English translation will soon appear, but it might look as though I am volunteering for the job. Good luck to whoever has the stamina to undertake it.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021