One hundred years ago a small meeting in Russia founded the Third or Communist International, winning millions of supporters within months, writes Tom Orsag
On 2 March 1919, 51 people met to hold a conference in the old imperial court of justice, in Moscow, to found a new “Communist International” or Comintern.
The conference aimed to clarify the lessons of the Russian revolution, and create a movement to build revolutionary parties capable of leading the working class to power in other countries.
The gathering that founded the Communist International was small and rather unrepresentative. Only the Russians represented a mass revolutionary party. A delegate from the Norwegian Labour Party came from a mass party but it was distinctly not revolutionary.
Most of the delegates were not even very representative of their own organisations, even though they claimed to represent 35 different parties across Europe.
A capitalist blockade barred travel to the revolutionary Soviet republic, so many of the delegates were foreigners who just happened to find themselves in Russia at the time of the revolution. Some had been prisoners of war and one was an attache to the French embassy.
Only nine of the delegates had actually come to Moscow from abroad, specifically for the meeting.
The most important was from the German Communist Party. It had been founded in December 1918, barely four months earlier. It was new, raw and growing fast, as a revolutionary epoch opened up in that country. But its leaders opposed the decision to form a new International, believing it was premature until there were mass revolutionary parties in several European countries.
Yet within the next year, parties representing millions of workers would seek to join, including mass parties in Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Bulgaria.
John Dos Passos, the American novelist, reported from Spain, “Here, as everywhere else, Russia has been the beacon fire”, as workers and landless labourers revolted on the Western edge of Europe.
A tremendous wave of struggle swept almost every capital city and region of Europe, as workers and peasants revolted against capitalism and were inspired by the October revolution in Russia in 1917.
In 1918, after four years of mind-numbing and industrial-scale slaughter through the First World War, four great empires lay in ruin. Gone were the Tsar in Russia, the Kaiser in Germany, along with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Emperors.
In 1919, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote to Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution.”
The US representative in Paris, Edward M. House, wrote in his diary, “Bolshevism is gaining ground everywhere.”
The question now was, could the workers of other countries emulate Russia and also come to Russia’s aid?
Internationalism has always been at the heart of the socialist movement, not for sentimental reasons, but because capitalism has created a world economy, which can only be transformed on a world scale.
In January 1918 following the socialist revolution in Russia the revolutionary leader Lenin wrote, “The final victory of socialism in a single country is of course impossible.” Again in July, Lenin wrote that victory over capitalism required “the joint effort of the workers of the world”.
The Russian revolution was soon besieged as the world powers sought to crush it through foreign intervention and civil war.
The purpose of the International was to “facilitate and hasten” that world victory, a task in which working people inside and outside Russia had an equal stake.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of modern socialism, were key leaders of the First International established in 1864. But, the wave of reaction in Europe following the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 led to its disbanding.
The mass socialist parties that emerged in the following decades formed a Second International in 1889, which claimed to stand in the revolutionary tradition of Marx and Engels.
But at the outbreak of the First World War it collapsed, as the leaders of the Socialist and Labour parties across Europe betrayed their promises to oppose war and backed their own ruling classes in promoting a slaughter that was to claim 20 million lives.
Only a small minority continued to oppose the war and maintain their socialist internationalism.
In 1915, 42 anti-war socialists from 12 countries, including the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky, met in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, to adopt a historic statement calling for an international fight for peace, based on self-determination of nations and without annexations or indemnities.
A minority current at Zimmerwald, led by the Russian Bolshevik Party, asked the conference to go further.
It called for revolutionary struggle against the war, and the capitalist governments supporting it, under the banner of socialism. This current also favoured a “ruthless struggle” against the opportunist forces in socialist parties whose pro-war stand had betrayed the workers’ movement.
Known as the Zimmerwald Left, it was the embryo of the future Communist International.
The Zimmerwald Left’s strategy was soon vindicated. As the war progressed the revolutionaries drew strength from strikes, soldiers’ and sailors’ protests, and demonstrations in all warring countries.
Worker-soldier revolutions in Russia in 1917 and then in Germany in 1918 overthrew their governments and forced an end to the war.
In Russia, workers themselves took power in the socialist revolution of October 1917 led by the Bolshevik Party.
After the German Revolution began, and the formation of the German Communist Party under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in December 1918, the Bolshevik leaders felt it was urgent to convene an international congress.
The leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, sought to generalise the politics and role of the Bolshevik Party that had made the revolution possible.
The Russian revolution was based on a new kind of direct working class democracy and power, embodied in the workers’ councils or soviets.
It was only when the Bolsheviks winning majority working class support in the St Petersburg and Moscow Soviets in September 1917 that provided the basis for the revolution.
In early 1919, when invading imperialist and counter-revolutionary armies threatened the soviets’ survival, Lenin proposed to the Comintern conference some theses explaining the nature and potential of soviet power.
Its substance, he said, “is that the permanent and only foundation of state power, the entire machinery of state, is the mass-scale organisation of the classes oppressed by capitalism”. Soviet power “is so organised as to bring the working people close to the machinery of government.” That is why the councils were based on the workplace, not a territory.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Russian revolution seemed to millions an immediate practical example to follow.
But events in 1919 showed how difficult it was for a revolution to succeed without an experienced and mass revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks.
Germany’s rulers worked with the Social Democrats to provoke revolutionary workers into a series of isolated uprisings that were easily crushed. Key Communist Party leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in Berlin in January 1919. The lack of any nation-wide party capable of leading and co-ordinating workers’ action produced a severe setback.
And in Hungary, a badly led Soviet republic was overthrown by force after just four months.
The Comintern had to quickly try to construct mass parties capable of leading a revolutionary movement to victory.
As the Second Congress of the Comintern, in 1920, stated, the working class cannot, “achieve its revolution without having an independent political party of its own… Political power cannot be seized, organised and operated, except through a political party.”
A revolutionary party should consist not of “the whole working class” but rather “its most advanced, most class-conscious and therefore its most revolutionary part”.
It must be an interventionist party which can serve as a, “political lever with whose help the advanced part of the working class can steer the whole mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat on to the correct road”.
This required parties with both roots in the workers’ movement and a leadership capable of navigating a turbulent period of struggle.
But in the heat of a revolutionary period across Europe this was a difficult task. Hundreds of thousands of workers were breaking from the old social democratic parties that had supported the capitalist order and the war.
New Communist parties developed through splits in those parties in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. But they were full of a confused mix of ideas. And many of the old opportunist party leaders came with them, but were far from committed to revolution.
The Comintern tried to deal with this problem at its second congress in 1920 by imposing a series of conditions on Comintern membership, in an effort to exclude opportunist figures and win the new parties to a firm commitment to revolutionary struggle.
Even genuine revolutionaries within the new Communist Parties were often very inexperienced, and prone to ultra-left attitudes that prevented them from developing a mass base, such as refusing to work in non-revolutionary trade unions or to use parliamentary elections to spread revolutionary ideas.
The Comintern faced crucial debates about revolutionary strategy and how to win over the mass of the working class to socialist revolution.
The Comintern’s first four congresses, between 1919 and 1922, distilled the revolutionary experience of the time and provide a foundation on which revolutionary socialism still stands: on issues like the united front, work in trade unions, liberation struggles of the oppressed, the nature of workers’ rule and the fight for national liberation in the colonies of imperialist powers.
This period remains the highpoint of the revolutionary socialist movement so far in history, with valuable lessons for today.