Leslie Goonewardene

Rise And Fall Of The Comintern

The Third Period

Chapter Seven


The 6th Congress of the Comintern was held in July 1928 after an interval of four years. At this Congress an abrupt change was made from the previous policy of rightism—which had commenced in 1925-26—to one of ultra-leftism. It was announced that a new period in the history of the post-war world “the third period” had begun. (The first period had been declared ended in 1924. Now the second period too was over). The Social-Democratic reformists who had been the chief ally in the second period suddenly became the chief enemy. The Congress laid down that the world revolution was imminent, that the workers had lost faith in the Social-Democrats, and that the task of the Communist Parties was now to lead the insurrectionary masses to victory. The defeated Chinese revolution was proclaimed to have entered a, newer and higher phase. The third period was declared to be one characterised by the increasing radicalisation of the masses simultaneously in every country. Stalin’s theory of Social Fascism, invented in 1924, and conveniently forgotten in the period of Rightism, was now revived. The Social-Democrats and not the Fascists were now declared to be the chief enemy.

That the masses in most countries (with the notable exception of China) were showing signs of unrest and preparing the march forward was true. The British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese Revolution (1925-27) the Opposition had pointed out long ago, had checked the ebb tide of reaction, and heralded new upheavals. Capitalism too, it had added, was heading for crisis. But it would be fantastic to say that the masses were disillusioned with the Social-Democrats and were prepared to follow the Communists. That future events would discredit the Social-Democrats who today commanded the allegiance of a majority of the workers, was true. But if their following were to turn to the Communists, a correct application of the tactic of the united front was necessary. Again, no guide could have been better in this regard than the decisions of the 3rd and 4th Congresses of Lenin’s time. But the epigones had no need for the teachings of Lenin save to utilise them, torn from their context, for their own bureaucratic purposes.

It is the duty of communists to work in mass organisations even though these may be under reformist leadership. For when, with the maturing crisis the workers become disillusioned in their leaders, the communists must be there to lead the workers into the revolutionary path, if this disillusionment is not to lead to demoralisation and defeat. But the isolation of the Communist Parties in the coming years was completed by the disastrous policy of splitting from the Social-Democratic trade unions and forming Red Trade Unions under Communist leadership. Instead of a united front with the “Social-Fascist trade union bureaucracy” there was to be created a “united front from below”—that is a united front in which the workers following the Social-Democrats were expected to accept Communist leadership.

At the 6th Congress the Comintern Programme drawn up by Bukharin was adopted. It incorporated the theory of Socialism in one country, and. prescribed the misleading slogan of ‘democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants’ (discarded by Lenin in 1917) for colonial and semi-colonial countries. The Draft Programme of the C.I.—A Criticism of Fundamentals , written by Trotsky from his exile in Alma Ata and issued by the Left Opposition, provided a masterly survey of the international movement from 1923-27 and an acute analysis of the burning questions of the movement and particularly of the theory of Socialism in one country. To this day it continues to be the foremost Marxist document of the post-war revolutionary movement. As was to be expected, it was suppressed by Stalin. Those delegates from abroad who were permitted to see it were not allowed to take a copy of it with them out of Russia. Ultimately a copy had to be smuggled out.


The adoption of the ultra-leftist policy of the “third period” led, as was to be expected, to another series of expulsions in the international field of all those who refused to accept this sudden change of policy. Unlike in the Russian Parties, there were evidently still left in other sections of the International, individuals who refused to realise that their function was blindly to follow the leader in Moscow. Lovestone, Gitlow, and Wolfe, who commanded the allegiance of a majority in the American party were expelled as agents of the American bourgeoisie. Jilek in Czechoslovakia, Doriot and Sellier and all their supporters in France, Brandler and Thalheimer in Germany with many class conscious workers, Kilboom with the bulk of the party in Sweden, Strasser and Schlamm in Austria, Chen Tu Hsiu the founder and leader of the party in China, Nin, Andrade and Maurin in Spain were all expelled from the Comintern. M.N. Roy who had denounced Trotsky as the agent of Chamberlain now found himself denounced in the same manner.

The long series of expulsions mortally wounded the Comintern sections and stultified their ability not only to act correctly but to think at all. Only the “obedient fools” against whom. Lenin had warned were now left. They obediently led the movement to ineffectiveness and isolation in many countries and to its biggest and gravest defeat in Germany.

In China, as we had occasion to remark earlier the Communists in this period pursued a policy of building a Soviet China based on the peasants. The flames of the peasant revolt which had not yet died down provided them with a temporary base for their military operations against the Kuomintang armies of Chiang Kai Shek. Comintern writers have made varied claims with regard to the population of Soviet China. Their figures, varying from 50 million to 90 million, are obviously exaggerated. Soviet China was not only remote from the urban centres, but the areas themselves were continually changing according to the fortunes of war. However, the yearly campaigns of Chiang Kai Shek for five years with a large modern army supported by bombing planes of the European Imperialists, were failures. The difficulties of transport in the mountainous country, the support the Red Army received from the peasants and the desertions of Chiang’s own troops all combined to upset Chiang’s plans.

Nevertheless, only real proletarian leadership of the agrarian revolt could save it from ultimate disintegration and defeat. And Communist Party leadership was not a substitute for the leadership of the proletariat. The leadership of the workers in the great urban centres was necessary. But the Communists steadily drained away the best elements from the cities into the Chinese Red Army, thus depriving the city workers of their best leaders. The Opposition pointed out correctly that instead of spending their entire efforts for a peasant war doomed to defeat, the main task of the Communist Party of China was to return to the urban centres and there, bit by bit, by struggling for democratic rights and the workers’ most elementary demands, patiently to attempt to build their base once again in the working class. It would be a difficult task but that was the only way by which the Communists could be at the head of the next revolutionary wave. The Oppositionists were of course denounced as traitors who wanted to dissolve “Soviet China of 90 millions.” The Chinese Communists and Red Army fought valiantly, if vainly, for the Chinese revolution that had “entered a higher stage” in the mountainous districts of China’s interior. This is the reason why the Communist Party of China to this day has no base in the working class.

In India there developed in this period a mass movement against Imperialism in the form of the Civil Disobedience-Movement of 1930-33. Though it was a movement conducted under the treacherous bourgeois leadership of the Indian National Congress, nevertheless it was a mass movement against Imperialism, and the place of the Communists was inside it. A correct policy of participation in the movement while preserving their organisational identity and freedom of criticism and action with the purpose of developing the movement into a revolutionary assault on Imperialism, was pregnant with possibilities. At all events, the discrediting of the anti-revolutionary bourgeois-leadership would have been possible and the position of the Communists enormously strengthened. But a policy, in keeping with the ultra-leftism of the Comintern line, of standing aloof from the mass movement and criticism from outside, resulted in the isolation of the Communists.

The Spanish revolution of 1931 which drove Alfonso from the throne passed by the Communists without noticing them. Their tirades against Social-Fascism did not touch the masses. In country after country, the ultra-leftism of the Comintern resulted in futile and ineffective criticism and only succeeded in further isolating its sections.

It is important to draw a sharp distinction between this ultra-leftism imposed by the bureaucracy on the degenerated Comintern and the ultra-leftism which occurred in Lenin’s time, in the first post-war years of 1920-21. Then it had been a misguided policy by the young Communist Parties motivated by an honest revolutionary zeal. But in the years 1929-33 it was an open betrayal of the interests of the international proletariat, for which the Stalinist bureaucracy must bear full responsibility.


Fascism is a form of government to which the bourgeoisie resorts in the present era of the permanent decline of capitalism, when it finds that the system of government known as bourgeois democracy no longer suffices to maintain its dictatorship. Rudely tearing aside the democratic drapings of the parliamentary system, it institutes the unchallenged supremacy of finance-capital in all state and administrative fields. It destroys not only the advance guard of the working class—the party of the proletariat—but also trade unions and all independent organisations of workers, thus demolishing all the defensive bulwarks of the working class and keeping the entire class in a state of forced disunity and subjection. In developed capitalist countries, however, where powerful trade unions and workers’ political parties exist, this transformation cannot be achieved by the normal methods of police terror without immediately inviting a social upheaval. The big bourgeoisie therefore find it necessary, by means of the Fascist movement, to utilise against the working class the dissatisfied petty bourgeoisie and lumpen proletariat that capitalism itself has created, in order to institute its own undisputed way. In these countries, therefore, Fascism assumes the character of a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie and gives the appearance of being a movement directed not only against the workers but also against the big bourgeoisie.

German capitalism, restrained from expanding by the defeat in the last war and the Treaty of Versailles, of all countries in the world displayed in the most acute fashion the contradictions of capitalism in the present epoch. Nevertheless, till 1928, with the financial aid of America, the German bourgeoisie continued to lean on the Social-Democrats and to pin their hopes in bourgeois democracy. However, the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929 on the German bourgeoisie produced a sharp turn in their policy. From then on they began increasingly to support the National Socialist Party of Hitler as the only party capable of saving German capitalism from collapse. The real expansion of the Fascist movement commences precisely from this time when the big bourgeoisie commenced to take the movement under its wings.

The elections of September 1930 first revealed the danger. The Fascists increased their votes by over five million, polling six million votes, that is, as much as the Social Democrats, the largest single party in the Reichstag. That the German Communist Party had also increased their votes from four to six million was true. But this only signified that the crisis of capitalism was splitting society into two irreconcilable camps at the expense of the middle parties. (The poll of the Communist Party in fact, increased almost to the very end. But that of the Fascists increased incomparably more). The crisis can be ultimately resolved by the victory either of Fascist reaction or of proletarian revolution. In the meantime, which of these two solutions it was to be depended on the effectiveness of the tactics of the Fascists on the one hand and of the party of the revolutionary proletariat on the other. It is not necessary to endow Hitler and his lieutenants with any extraordinary strategic ability to say that the tactics of the Fascists proved infinitely superior to those of the Communist Party.

The crying need of the hour was for a united front of the working class against the looming danger of Fascism. More specifically, what was required was a united front between the Social Democratic and Communist Parties which together commanded the allegiance of a majority of the working class. Such a united front would immediately alter the correlation of forces. The forces of working class would increase not two fold but tenfold. Under the influence of the forces generated, the wavering sections of the pretty bourgeoisie would be drawn behind the workers. The prospect of the seizure of power would be posed before the workers not merely as a historical necessity but as practical possibility. The moment the imminence of the Fascist danger was removed, the Social Democratic leaders, would, no doubt, draw away with alacrity. But what section of the proletariat would they be able to draw with them? With a bold and resolute leadership the Communist Party could lead the workers to the seizure of power.

To ask the question, would they have won, is to mistake Marxism for astrology. At all events, there was every reasonable chance of victory and the alternative was—the tragic result that has followed. The growth of Fascism if it signified anything, signified the approaching end of bourgeois democracy. Henceforth, there were only two roads for Germany to travel, that of Fascist reaction or of proletarian revolution, and the necessary first step to her taking the latter road was the creation of the united front.


After the German defeat, Stalinist apologists have glibly placed the responsibility for the victory of Fascism on the Social Democracy, hoping thereby to absolve themselves from all blame. That the German Social Democratic Party played a criminal role in the crisis is indubitable. But the Social Democratic Party, though composed of workers, is a bourgeois influence in the working class. It is incapable of revolutionary struggle and can only lead the workers to defeat. And it is precisely to snatch the workers from the demoralising influence of the Social Democracy that the Communists International was created in 1919.

The bureaucracy of the German Social Democratic Party, desiring to preserve the ‘status quo’ with the comfortable government and trade union jobs, it assured them, feared, it is true, the advent of Fascism. But to the end they hoped to defeat the Fascist bands not with the mass organisations at their disposal but with the state police. That the Social Democrats preferred the prospect of maintaining their alliance with the bourgeoisie to entering into a united front with a party they believe to be revolutionary, is clear. But the Social Democratic leaders of no country make united fronts with revolutionary parties until they are forced to do so by the pressure of the masses. And the German Social Democratic leaders were no exception against the Fascists. If the Communist Party had carried on a persistent campaign among the Social Democratic workers, it is indubitable that the leaders would have been compelled to enter into a united front, or in the alternative, to lose their mass following.

But the Communist Party, acting in accordance with the decision of the 6th Congress, labelled the Social Democrats (and along with them the Left Opposition who were demanding a united front) as Social Fascists. Instead they prescribed the united front from below. In September 1930, the Rote Fahne (the German Communist daily) declared, “the 14th of September was the high point of the National Socialist movement in Germany. What comes after this can only be decline and fall”. But all through 1931 the crisis continued to mature and Hitler’s following to increase. The Communists continued to call the Social Democrats the chief enemy, and Red Trade Unions were fostered in opposition to the Social Democratic trade unions. They even tried to outdo the Fascists by taking their chauvinist slogan of scrapping the Versailles Treaty.

In the summer of 1931 in the midst of their campaign against the Social Democrats the Communist Party suddenly sent an ultimatum to the Social Democratic ministers in the Prussian Government demanding a united front between the two parties. The offer, as was to be expected, was refused. The communists in reply supported the Fascists in their attempt to oust the Social Democratic Government in Prussia by referendum. This criminally mistaken manoeuvre was undertaken not on the initiative of the German Communist Party but on the advice of Moscow. Later in the year a section of the Social Democratic Party voiced its desire for a united front with the Communists. But Thaelmann, the leader of the Communist Party scornfully warned the workers against this “new demagogic manoeuvre” of the Social Fascists. Thus instead of helping the Social Democratic workers to find their way to the Communists through experience, the Communist Party helped the Social Democratic leaders to avoid the question of a united front and to maintain their demoralising influence over the workers.

Towards the end of 1931 it was clear that the Comintern had resigned itself to the victory of Hitler in Germany. The whole line of propaganda was aimed at showing that the present “Social Fascist” government or Hitler’s Fascist Government made little difference to the workers. In other words, the Comintern was preparing to hand over the power to Hitler without a struggle. Incredible though this may appear, this was so, and this was precisely what eventually happened. In October 1931, Remmele, one of the three leaders of the Communists, declared in the Reichstag “Once they (the Fascists) are in power then the united front of the proletariat will be established and it will make a clean sweep of everything … We are not afraid of these Fascist gentlemen. They will shoot their bolt quicker than any other Government”. This criminal policy had its source, as we shall see, in the foreign policy considerations of the Soviet bureaucrats. At the same time it is likely that the leaders in the Kremlin with their lack of vision and bureaucratic stupidity realised no more than the bureaucrats of the Social Democracy what precisely the victory of Fascism would mean.

Not that they had had no warnings. In November 1931 Trotsky wrote from Prinkipo, “The coming into power of the German ‘National Socialists’ would mean above all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the disruption of its organisations, the extirpation of its belief in itself and its future … Retreat, you say, you who were yesterday the prophets of the ‘third period’? Leaders and institutions can retreat, individual persons can hide. But the working class will have no place to retreat in the face of Fascism, and no place where to hide … Ten proletarian insurrections, ten defeats one on top of the other, could not debilitate the German working class as much as a retreat before Fascism would weaken it at the given moment. (Germany—the Key to the International Situation ). In January 1932 Trotsky again wrote making an acute Marxist analysis of the situation in his book “What Next” and appealed to the members of the Communist Party of Germany to force their leaders to enter into a united front with the Social Democrats.

But the numerically weak Left Opposition, pitted against the powerful bureaucracies of the Social Democratic and Communist Parties who alike opposed the united front, could not get their policy accepted. They were branded by the Comintern as “Counter-revolutionaries”. In the ‘Communists International’ of March 15th 1932, Paitnitzky the Secretary of the Communist International wrote, “The Social Democrats too sometimes put forward the slogan of unity. And in this the renegade Trotsky hastens to their aid with his proposal for a ‘bloc’ between the Communists and the Social Democrats”.


By the middle of 1932 the economic crisis intensified. Production fell, wages decreased and the number of unemployed rose nearly seven million. In July the Social Democratic Government was dissolved. No protest took place. In the elections at the end of July, the Nazis polled 13 million votes, the Social Democrats 7 millions, and the Communists 5 million. The centre parties had by now practically disappeared. Roughly speaking, the workers had instinctively moved to the Left, and thanks to the disunity of the workers, the petty bourgeoisie to the Right. Votes, however, are not the deciding factor, and still the relationship of forces could have been decisively changed. But in the face of the disunity of the workers the aggressiveness of the Fascists increased.

In September 1932 these 5 adopted by the 12th Plenum of the E.C.C.I., declared, “Only by directing the main blows against Social Democracy, this social mainstay of the bourgeoisie—will it be possible to strike at and defeat the chief class enemy of the proletariat—the bourgeoisie.” Piatnitzky said in his speech, “This united front must be directed against the Social Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy.”[1]

At the end of January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor. In March Hitler burned the Reichstag. On April 1st the Presidium of the E.C.C.I. passed a resolution ratifying the policy of the German Party, which stated, “The revolutionary upsurge in Germany will inevitably grow in spite of the Fascist terror. The resistance of the masses to Fascism is bound to increase. The establishment of an open Fascist dictatorship, by destroying all the democratic illusions among the masses and liberating them from the influence of Social Democracy, accelerates the rate of Germany’s development towards proletarian revolution.” (The Present Situation in Germany , by O. Piatnitzky—Modern Books.)

The Social Democratic leaders, true to type, now tried to enter service under Hitler. But on May 1st commenced Hitler’s offensive. He spared no one, not even the ‘Social Fascists’. Arrests, beatings, murders, confiscations of trade unions’ funds, became the order of the day. There was no resistance. The leaders who could, escaped. The remainder were rounded up by the Fascists and imprisoned or killed. Without leadership, a disorderly retreat of the masses began. The workers’ organisations were systematically broken up and the flower of the German proletariat of Europe, with the largest mass organisations and Communist Party outside Russia, succumbed to Fascist reaction without a struggle. And the international working class movement suffered the biggest defeat in its history.

In December 1933, when there were only isolated groups of Communists left, as an echo from the past, the Report of the 13th Plenum monotonously repeated, “Social Democracy continues to the role of the main social prop of the bourgeoisie also in countries of open Fascist dictatorship.” In Germany, continued the Plenum, “enormous revolutionary energy is being accumulated among the masses and a new revolutionary upsurge is already beginning.” The Plenum again ratified the policy pursued in Germany as correct.

The Comintern leadership is never wrong. It shares with the Pope the mystic quality of infallibility. And it demands like His Holiness unquestioning and unthinking obedience. The theory of Social Fascism invented by Stalin in 1924, we recollect, was not officially discarded in the Rightist period of 1925-27. That is not Stalin’s way. It was merely set aside for future use. Revived again in the ‘third period’, we have witnessed the part it played in determining the destinies of the German proletariat. After 1933 it was put away again, unobtrusively, silently for there is nobody to question. Never refuted, the theory of Social Fascism has remained to this day as part of the official doctrine of the Comintern, Perhaps Stalin hopes that one day again …


How can we explain the criminal blindness of the policy of the Comintern in regard to Germany? It is possible to understand this only if one has understood the nature of the transformation that had come over the Comintern in the preceding years from 1923 to 1928. In this period, we noted, the Comintern was converted from an organisation for World Revolution into a docile instrument of the bureaucracy of the Soviet State. Having liquidated the Left and Right Oppositions, the bureaucracy had the unfettered freedom with unparalleled callousness to use the Comintern as an instrument of its foreign policy.

The foreign policy of the Soviet Union, aimed at preventing military intervention, quite naturally saw in Franco-German antagonism in the post-war years a guarantee against intervention from the West. But the German Social Democracy, pursuing a policy of conciliation towards Britain and France, appeared to be progressively bridging this gap. This made the German Social Democracy the bitter enemy of the Soviet bureaucracy. The exigencies of the struggle against the Opposition had prevented this antagonism from attaining its proper expression till 1928. But even as early as 1927 we find that in Germany the Left leaders of the Social Democrats had been declared to be the chief enemy.

The growth of the party of Hitler, on the other hand, meant that the gap between Germany and France would widen. The precise meaning of the coming to power of Hitler for all organisations of the working class including the Communist Party itself, the Stalinist bureaucracy, as we remarked earlier, were in all probability incapable of perceiving. Remmele had said, “We are not afraid of these Fascist gentlemen …” To the unimaginative bureaucrats the government of Bruning had already a Fascist character. A government of Hitler would be but another Fascist government, only more Fascist perhaps. And Hitler unlike the Social Democrats, was the sworn enemy of France. And thus, the Social Democrats, the chief enemy of the Soviet bureaucracy, became also the chief enemy of the German workers. The cause of proletarian revolution in Germany was sacrificed, apparently for the peaceful construction of Socialism in Russia, but actually to perpetuate the regime of the bureaucracy. For the question of Socialism in Russia will be decided not within its national boundaries but in the wider arena of the international revolution.

Viewed in the light cast upon events by the unravelling of Soviet Russian foreign policy in this period, the whole policy of the Comintern in Germany takes on a lurid colour. Not only the direction of the main attack against the Social Democrats, but also the adaptation to nationalist agitation in the attack on the Treaty of Versailles, the support of the Fascist referendum in Prussia, the systematic lulling of the workers into a false sense of security as regards the Fascist danger, and finally the cowardly surrender without a struggle of all the positions to Fascism hitherto inexplicable acquire meaning and intelligibility in their new relations. Soviet Russian foreign policy is, of course, perfectly justified in exploiting differences and cleavages between different imperialist camps to its own advantage. But to betray the interests of proletarian revolution for the sake of day-to-day considerations of foreign policy is an unpardonable crime.

The defeat of the German proletariat in 1933 marked the end of the period in which the Left Opposition functioned as an Opposition group attempting to reform the 3rd International. The German Catastrophe demonstrated in, glaring fashion the extent of the degeneration of the Comintern and the impossibility of effecting its reform. From a subjective factor for world revolution it had transformed itself into an objective obstacle to it. Thus arose inexorably the need for building a new International. The Left Opposition took the initiative in calling for the organisation of new Communist Parties and of a new, Communist, Fourth International.


[1] Published in English by Modern Books – Publishers.