The Communist International: Its Relevance Today

Thirty-five years ago I undertook to translate and publish the record of the Communist International in Lenin’s lifetime, covering the preparatory years from 1907 to its foundation in 1919 and through 1923. Ten books totalling 7,000 pages are published or in preparation. This has been a team effort of more than 100 collaborators in several continents backed up with a broad community of readers, critics, and supporters.

During its first years, the project was sponsored by a U.S. Marxist group, the Socialist Workers Party. After publication of six books, work broke off. In 2008, I resumed the series as an independent venture, publishing through the Historical Materialism Book Series and Haymarket Books.

Last year, I passed on direction of this work to my long-time collaborator Mike Taber, but I share in the work.

The Communist International or Comintern was the most ambitious expression yet seen of socialist internationalism, aiming to lead in achieving workers’ power on a world scale. It failed in this task. Apart from Lenin, almost all its founding leaders perished in Stalin’s frame-up purges of the 1930s. Stalin dissolved the Comintern in 1943, and thereafter it was little remembered.

Socialist Internationalism

Yet in its prime, the Comintern marked a high point of revolutionary Marxism as a global force. Close to a million members were organized in dozens of political parties spread across every continent and coordinated by a leadership and publishing apparatus in Moscow in the newly established Soviet republic. Their influence was extended by allied organizations focused on youth, women, trade unions, anti-imperialist solidarity, defense of victims of oppression, and other fields of work.

Congresses stretched over several weeks, and their complete proceedings were transcribed, translated, and published. A day’s proceedings hit print within ten days. Think of it as a Comintern version of YouTube: thousands of pages of published debates and documents, plus updates of news and analysis every few days – in French, German, Russian, and English.

My work aimed to make the core of this record available to today’s socialists, in the belief that the Comintern’s ideas spoke to our times. The project has never had a base in the universities; none of us had academic or professional qualifications. It was an effort by activists to achieve activist goals:

  • To break with the scriptural approach to early Communist history, that focuses on Lenin’s writings, by providing a rich historical context.
  • To display international Communism as a working community and its leadership as a broad, inclusive team.
  • To block the imposition of authorized interpretations of workers’ history by facilitating independent study of primary sources.
  • To highlight the agency of front-line parties and their forgotten leaders in shaping the Comintern. To challenge the then-prevailing interpretation that Moscow decided all.
  • To display the Comintern’s politics as a strategic system for global struggle, embracing interwoven positions on a wide spectrum of issues.
  • To encourage rapprochement among revolutionary Marxists of different schools on the common ground of early Comintern positions.

Why the Early Years?

Back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky, then in exile, called for publication of the record of the Comintern’s first half-decade, which he regarded as the foundation for Marxist politics in his era. Trotsky held that after Lenin’s death the Comintern degenerated and became an obstacle to socialism, a judgment that I repeated in my introductions. Many Marxists do not accept this periodization, but these books provided an objective record that won support from Marxists of every school.

My introductions to each volume aim to present what the reader needs to know to understand the documentation that follows. I present my own interpretation on my blog. I hope soon to publish a book of my analytic papers, highlighting links between Comintern and contemporary politics. I’ll now turn to that topic.

Resonance in Our Century

When the new International was formed in 1919, hopes were high that workers would take power within months across much of Europe. Lenin then wrote that the concept of soviets (councils) has “triumphed throughout the world,” in a movement of “tens of millions of workers sweeping everything from their path.” (Founding the Communist International, p. 302)

So much has changed since that time. The revolutionary subject – the working class – has been weakened under neoliberalism. The socialist movement has declined worldwide. There is no immediate prospect of workers’ power.

Yet already in its first year, the Comintern began to grapple with how Marxists should function in a non-revolutionary society. Its early decisions provide a road map for such conditions. In that sense, the Comintern lies on our side of the historical divide separating us from the time of the Russian revolution.

After the end of World War 2, world capitalism went through an era of structural reform, in which workers won many gains. Today, however, workers cannot win significant reforms without confronting the question of political power. Questions of strategy now come to the fore: alliance among dissimilar movements, intersectionality, links between revolutionary groups and mass struggles, expression of socialist politics through mass-based political parties.

In this context, the Comintern example is instructive. Its national units were mass parties closely linked to an even broader layer of socialist-minded workers. The parties had wide support among oppressed and alienated layers outside the proletariat. They were marked by a close interrelationship between the party and the surrounding movement and class. Most of the time, each party was divided into currents reflecting different outlooks within the working class as a whole. They debated such differences before the working class as a whole and had a good record of resolving them constructively. By and large, the early Comintern kept diverse revolutionary forces joined in a single movement.

That is so different from what we see today! We have none of this. But surely, for socialism to go forward, we must develop these capacities.

Crisis of Productive System

The Comintern’s formation responded to a profound crisis of world capitalism expressed through global war. Marxists believed that this disaster was rooted in the contradictions of the productive system. Three months after the war’s outbreak, Leon Trotsky advanced this view, rewording a famous statement of Marx:

“The present war is basically a revolt of the productive forces developed by capitalism against the nation-state form of their exploitation. Today the entire globe has become the arena of a worldwide economy… [forcing] capitalist states into a struggle for … the profit interests of each national bourgeoisie.” (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 150)

Capitalists profited from the war even as it destroyed the use values on which production rests.

The present-day trend to environmental breakdown operates in similar fashion. Capitalism heaps up profits while destroying the material basis of production. The crisis can be remedied – and profitably too – but only if the nationally based groups of capitalists act in concert. But that is barred by what Trotsky called “the nation-state form of exploitation.” This tends toward reproducing the conditions identified by Marx as necessary for social revolution. The process is slower than in 1914 – yet fast enough to have figured in the Syrian catastrophe of this decade.

As things stand, it is hard to see how calamity can be avoided unless populations around the world can assert their common interest in survival and escape from the prison of a now-dysfunctional productive system. Although far from a sure thing, it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Our common task today thus has an uncanny resemblance to the task assumed a century ago by the Communist International.

Constructing a Strategy

The Comintern’s early congresses consisted of a step-by-step effort to develop a strategic system – that is, a framework of policies that shaped its parties’ recruitment, education, and intervention. Revolutionary strategy was then defined as “a combined system of actions which by their association, consistency, and growth must lead the proletariat to the conquest of power.” (Trotsky, Third International after Lenin)

An earlier article “The Comintern as a school of socialist strategy” lists the major elements of early Comintern strategy, specifying when each element was adopted. The main components: the Soviet model of workers’ rule, the role of a revolutionary party, and the process through which it can gain social hegemony: alliances with oppressed peoples and social layers; unity with non-revolutionary forces.

Despite the enormous shift in social context in the last century, this broad strategic framework remains relevant today. It does not tell us what to do; it does not “teach lessons.” The value of workers’ history lies rather in expanding the vocabulary of our imagination. In that spirit, I’m going to suggest three linkages between Comintern policies and today’s tasks.

But first, we must note that developing this strategic system was marked by a convulsive crisis.

1921: A Strategic Rift

During the Second Congress in 1920, the Red Army was advancing victoriously toward Warsaw, raising hopes in Moscow that its triumph would spark a German revolution and thus tilt the world balance toward socialism. But the Soviet forces were defeated and forced to retreat. Capitalist governments regained stability; the workers’ upsurge ebbed. Although the Comintern built parties of hundreds of thousands in Germany, France, and beyond, they remained blocked by the persistent strength of reform-oriented social democracy.

Within the Comintern, two counterposed responses were advanced, both originating in Germany. They later became known as “the policy of the offensive” and “the united front.”

The “offensive” referred to here was a plan to throw the Communist forces into a confrontation with the government in the hope that a bold initiative would draw the worker masses into struggle. This was tried in Germany in March 1921 with disastrous results. Still, when the Third Congress assembled that summer, supporters of the “offensive” were in the majority.

“Something is wrong in the International,” Lenin told Congress delegates. “We must say: Stop! Otherwise the Communist International is lost.” (To the Masses [Third World Congress], p. 25)

My Third Congress volume tells a gripping story of how the International set its course toward united front policy – that is, a campaign to unite with non-Communist workers and their organizations in militant action. Yet the new policy was not fully accepted in the ranks, and the debate erupted again only two years later.

The Third Congress Bugbear

The Third Congress marked a shift in balance between the Russian Communist Party and the Comintern’s other member parties. According to the conventional interpretation, the Russian leaders were fully in command from the start and their authority only expanded with the passage of time. That is a fair description of the later Stalin years. But during the Comintern’s early period, there was a trend in the other direction. Once the Comintern had built mass parties outside Russia, they increasingly put their stamp on its debates. That was evident at the Third and Fourth Congresses, which were dominated by debate on initiatives in the Italian and German parties.

The generally held model of authoritative Bolshevik leadership in the Comintern breaks down in the Third Congress. That helps explain why Stalinist authorities shut down their edition of Comintern proceedings when it came to the Third Congress. Its editor, Béla Kun, was shot. Pathfinder too had a completed Third Congress manuscript and decided not to publish it. They did not execute me, but they broke off relations. I found a new publisher and recreated the manuscript from scratch.

What is Centralism?

The Third Congress crisis also reflected a breakdown in Comintern centralism – that is, its ability, on the great issues, to discuss, decide, and act in concert. The need for this capacity had been the great lesson of 1914, when the Second International (1889–1916) had collapsed into warring national components. Still, centralism was often misunderstood as meaning a military command structure. The 1921 breakdown showed the limits of such top-down leadership, limits that were – as Clara Zetkin pointed out at the time – inherent and unavoidable. The contradiction was left unresolved, and a few years later the concept of hierarchical discipline triumphed. This misunderstanding of centralism persists even today.

Unity Against Imperialism

The Comintern undertook to reorient global socialism toward support of anti-imperialist movements in the colonies and semi-colonies. Most of these movements were “bourgeois” in character, that is, they did not challenge capitalist relations. How should the Comintern relate to them? Communists from colonial countries had conflicting views, and the debate wound its way through the early congresses. In 1920, Lenin expressed the Comintern’s conclusion:

“We, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organizing in a revolutionary spirit.” (Report on National and Colonial Questions)

After Lenin’s death, the Comintern backed away from this conception, with bad results.

I’d like to suggest three present-day applications of this policy. Today, there are few remaining colonies in the classical sense, but imperialism, in recent decades, has diminished the limited sovereignty of post-colonial states. Should socialists defend subordinate capitalist countries that run afoul of imperialism and come under attack? Consider Iran.

Also, how should we relate to insurgent popular movements today whose social dynamic is unclear, which may not be, in Lenin’s words, “genuinely revolutionary?” Consider the so-called “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Third, the early Comintern also embraced the revolutionary approach to Black liberation that we now know as pan-Africanism, later upheld by Cuban Marxists and by Malcolm X and still a factor in revolutionary thought today.

The Communist Women’s Movement

During the Comintern’s first years, structures for work among women were set up in most sections and coordinated through a secretariat in Berlin. This movement encountered what Zetkin, who led this work, called “open or covert opposition” in Communist parties. The women heading up this work were in my view the most able and resilient international leadership team produced by the Comintern. Their journal, Communist Women’s International, was a formidable educational tool, expressing the thinking of the International’s most consistent defenders of united front policy. (See “The Communist Women’s Movement”)

In many ways, their movement strikes us today as incomplete. For example, they wrote little on sexual violence against women. But their overall vision was radical. “Private property is the ultimate and fundamental cause” of male domination, they said; it must be replaced by social property. Women must be “fully integrated into social production,” and the social reproduction of labour – that is, issues related to childbirth and child-rearing – revolutionized.

This outlook is inherently intersectional. It links women’s struggles to those of other oppressed and exploited sectors. But it goes further: it sees such movements as joining in an assault on capitalism itself.

Despite the efforts of these women, Marxist movements of that era remained overwhelmingly masculine in composition. And even today, despite women’s historic gains, this imbalance is still found in most Marxist movements. We should reflect on why this is so.

The United Front

Now let us consider the present-day implications of Comintern’s united front policy. Its goal was specific to its time: to engage with socially conscious workers who were loyal to reformist Social Democratic parties.

United front policy operated on three interrelated levels.

  • First, it referred to an effort to forge organizational unity with progressive forces aligned against Communism in a campaign for broadly agreed-on goals.
  • Second, it advanced a program of immediate, democratic, and transitional demands. The last term, transitional, refers to demands rooted in today’s conditions that infringe on the rights of private property. Consider a present-day anti-tar sands protest: it typically demands “prevent oil spills” and “stop the pipeline” (immediate demands), “respect Indigenous land rights” (democratic), “keep the oil in the soil” (a confiscation of capitalist property, and thus transitional) – a neat combination of three programmatic levels.
  • Third, a call for a workers’ government. That is, a regime of one or many workers’ organizations that draws its authority from mass movements of working people and acts on their demands. Such a government might be formed in parliament but is independent of the bourgeoisie and can open the road to true workers’ power.

These concepts are valid beyond the original context of seeking alliance with reform-minded workers. They are the core of a strategic framework for Marxism in non-revolutionary times. They are highly controversial, even among those who look to the early Comintern. They deserve study and discussion.

Another troubled topic is how to balance the goal of serving the working class as a whole with that of building one’s own organization. This is posed every time we launch a broad campaign. Ideally, the two aims go hand in hand, but in practice, it is all too tempting to act in a way that maximizes potential for recruitment at the cost of a campaign’s broad effectiveness. That is what we commonly call “sectarianism.” A small socialist group focused on its next handful of recruits often finds that sectarianism pays – for the small group, but unfortunately not for the working class.

There is language in some Comintern texts that could suggest a sectarian reading of the united front concept. The Comintern insisted that the united front served both to build the party and advance the cause of workers as a whole. It sought to build united fronts that were inclusive, democratic in decision making, and consistent in serving the broader goals of the working class. That goal is worth pursuing today.

The Future of Comintern Publishing

Documentary publishing on Communist history is now outgrowing the framework of the project I have led. Independent and uncoordinated translation projects are springing up: a collection of Radek’s articles on the German revolution, for example; an edition of the Latin American Comintern conference of 1929; a South Asian edition of my Baku Congress book. There are no doubt many other such initiatives.

Masses of source material are appearing online, generally without annotation. Discussion sprawls awkwardly across the Internet, only weakly linked to discourse within the academic walled garden. Adherents of rival interpretations strive to establish dialogue.

And through all this, working people globally are claiming their own history as part of their struggle for emancipation. Let us all join in pursuing this goal. •

This article is based on a talk presented at The Capitalism Workshop in Toronto, April 18, 2018.

John Riddell is a Toronto-based activist and maintains a blog at johnriddell.wordpress.com.