A brief history of the Comintern – the Third International of the working class

The history of the Comintern is the history of the first worldwide wave of working-class revolution. Let its lessons inform our quest to build the next wave.

A recent video on Proletarian TV showed a wide-ranging discussion on the historical backdrop to the Communist (Third) International (aka the Comintern), its development and its eventual dissolution, between comrades Harpal Brar of the CPGB-ML and American Marxist Caleb Maupin.

During their talk, they touched briefly on the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, the nature of the Chinese revolution, and the tactical shift in Comintern policy between 1928 and 1935 in the face of the rise of fascism.

We reproduce here some accompanying background information to those earth-shaking events. The video itself can be viewed on Proletarian TV (YouTube) or at thecommunists.org.


The Second International, formed in 1889 to coordinate the work of socialist parties, collapsed when those parties ultimately deserted the international proletariat for the defence of their fatherlands during the First World War.

VI Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood early on that the First World War was not one that would be waged in defence of any ‘people’, but was rather a predatory imperialist war of conquest. Communists were therefore bound to resist it, and to oppose their own ruling classes by turning the imperialist war into a civil war against the capitalist system and its representatives. Why did the parties of the Second International fail to understand this?

The reason was a rampant opportunism, built on the foundation of a labour aristocracy who had been bribed with a portion of the superprofits of imperialism. This had corrupted them to favour their own narrow sectional interests – a corruption we can see in the history of the Labour Party in Britain that continues to this very day.

The collapse of the Second International paved the way for the building of a new form of organisation, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks in the USSR. This Third International became known as the Communist International, the Comintern.

James Connolly and the 1916 Easter Rising

James Connolly was, along with John Maclean, one of the few who understood the imperialist nature of the war, and the correct response for Marxists to take. Connolly had independently arrived at the same conclusion as Lenin – that workers had to fight their own ruling class at home, rather than joining ‘their’ rulers to fight workers overseas:

Should the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world …

“Let us not shrink from the consequences. This may mean more than a transport strike, it may mean armed battling in the streets to keep in this country the food for our people. But whatever it may mean it must not be shrunk from. It is the immediately feasible policy of the working-class democracy, the answer to all the weaklings who in this crisis of our country’s history stand helpless and bewildered crying for guidance, when they are not hastening to betray her.

“Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last warlord” (Our duty in this crisis, 1914).

It was in this way that the Easter Rising of 1916, under the leadership of Connolly and Patrick Pearse, was both the first fallout of the imperialist war, and the precursor to the 1917 October revolution.

For that action, in similar manner to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, Connolly was condemned and murdered by social democracy. Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald labelled him a ‘militarist’, and Labour MP Arthur Henderson led a round of applause in the British parliament upon receiving the news of his execution.

This thorough corruption of the parties of the Second International is still evident before our eyes today. The extreme hostility shown towards the Corbyn project by the Labour Party has provided fresh proof to new generations that the parliamentary so-called ‘representatives’ of the working class will not suffer even the slightest nod to positive reforms – never mind any actual revolutionary change.

Likewise, the immediate and extensive mobilisation of anti-Russian sentiment in response to the war in Ukraine shows how easily the sentiment of the working class, via its trade unions and political representatives, can be called to the support of the interests of the imperialist state.

The twenty-one conditions of admission

The success and ensuing international prestige of the October Revolution – communism becoming ‘fashionable’ – led to the Comintern requiring strict criteria of admission. These criteria enshrined and intensified the struggle against opportunism:

2. Every organisation that wishes to affiliate to the Communist International must regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labour movement (party organisations, editorial boards, trade unions, parliamentary factions, cooperatives, local government) and replace them with tested communists, without worrying unduly about the fact that, particularly at first, ordinary workers from the masses will be replacing ‘experienced’ opportunists” (Second congress of the Communist International, 1920).

The conditions also required participating parties to conduct propaganda within the armed forces. As comrades Harpal and Caleb point out, no revolution – Bolshevik or otherwise – has hitherto been successful without making inroads into the army, the most disciplined detachment of workers in service of the bourgeoisie.

It is for this reason that the Leninist position is that the police and armed forces are ‘workers in uniform’. Despite being personnel of the imperialist state – as so many workers are – their experience, discipline and skills, and their essential role in maintaining capitalist power, mean that they are not bodies that communists can ignore.

Discipline was another of the important conditions required by the Comintern – without democratic centralism, there could be no collective action:

12. The parties belonging to the Communist International must be built on the basis of the principle of democratic centralism. In the present epoch of acute civil war the communist party will only be able to fulfil its duty if it is organised in as centralist a manner as possible, if iron discipline reigns within it and if the party centre, sustained by the confidence of the party membership, is endowed with the fullest rights and authority and the most far-reaching powers.

Only with this level of internal discipline can the struggle against social democracy, opportunism and reformism be meaningfully and effectively waged.

Furthermore, and of particular relevance to the emergence of the Trotskyite opposition to the Comintern, and to the ongoing anticommunism of Trotskyism to this date, all parties were sworn to the unswerving defence of the Soviet Union and the accomplishments it was making:

14. Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation to give unconditional support to every Soviet republic in its struggle against the forces of counter-revolution.”

The notion that the interests of the Soviet Union were somehow at odds with – or that they could somehow be placed above – the interests of international proletarian revolution were, and have continued to be, a favoured weapon in the arsenal of the opposition. It is to this end that they attack ‘socialism in one country’, as if the defence of the Soviet Union was not also the defence of working-class revolution in all countries!

As comrade Harpal relates, Josef Stalin exposed this tactic before the executive committee of the Comintern in 1926:

What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost” (Seventh enlarged plenum of the ECCI, 1926).

And of course, after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, this is exactly what we saw – workers’ wages have stagnated (fallen in real terms) for three decades, and the imperialist economies have been propped up only by the exploitation of cheap labour in Asia, eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Infantile disorders

On the other side, there was a simultaneous struggle against ‘left’ deviations, explained by Lenin in 1920 in his classic work Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder.

As Harpal and Caleb discuss, what Lenin meant for communists in Britain was that, in a context of virulent anticommunism, they should support the Labour Party, not blindly, at all costs, but “as a rope supports a hanged man” – in order to help workers understand its true nature as a party of imperialism not of socialism.

What did Lenin mean by this? That communist activity in bourgeois electoral politics should be pursued with the objective of most quickly and effectively exposing the opportunism and treachery of those who presume to represent the working class.

Although this text of Lenin’s has become, in Harpal’s words, a “bible for every opportunist” – which is nowhere more clear than in the Communist Party of Britain’s futile tailing of the Labour Party and electoral politics and its British Road to Socialism manifesto – Lenin’s explicit instructions were for communists to use elections and participation in the trade union struggle as a platform to shed light on the ultimate futility of bourgeois politics, and thereby win people to communism:

British communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within Parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone …

At present, British communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois ‘democracy’), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man – that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.”

The above words of Lenin, written before the working class in Britain had had the experience of a Labour government and its wholesale treachery against the proletariat at home and abroad, have become a shibboleth for revisionist and Trotskyite cliques and continue to be used to frustrate the building of a revolutionary movement through the exposure of social democracy

For the reformists of our era to continue to cherry-pick half-sentences from Lenin’s writings that suit their self-serving dedication to a parliamentary road to socialism is, as comrades Harpal and Caleb state, “going against Lenin himself”.

The nature of the Chinese revolution

There were also bitter differences between the Comintern and the Trotskyite opposition over their respective understandings of the revolutionary movement in China, as well as over the tactics they believed should be pursued by China’s communists.

As Caleb explains, the Trotskyites opposed a strategic alliance with Sun Yat-sen’s anti-imperialist nationalist movement. Trotsky argued that the Communist party should remain outside the Kuomintang (KMT), and denied the revolutionary potential of the Chinese peasantry.

These errors were a result of the ‘leftist’ Trotskyites and the ‘rightist’ Bukharinites having no understanding of the nature of the Chinese revolution. Rather than recognising it as an anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggle, Trotsky characterised it as a struggle over the control of customs unions!

The superficial understanding of these critics of Comintern policy regarding unfolding events in China led Stalin to criticise them in 1927 as “revolutionary tourists”:

One gets the impression that one is dealing not with Marxists, but with some sort of bureaucrats who are completely divorced from real life – or, still more, with ‘revolutionary’ tourists, who … having learned from the newspapers that some sort of a revolution – whether agrarian or anti-customs, they were not quite clear – was really taking place in China, they decided that it was necessary to compile a whole heap of theses – one set in April, another in the early part of May, a third in the latter part of May – and having done so, they bombard the executive committee of the Comintern with them, apparently believing that a plethora of confused and contradictory theses is the best means of saving the Chinese revolution” (JV Stalin, Revolution in China and tasks of the Comintern, 1927).

Chen Boda, influential member of the CPC and close associate of Mao Zedong until 1970, quoted Stalin at length in his pamphlet Stalin and the Chinese Revolution. In these excerpts, Stalin elaborates on the failures of the opposition to the Comintern:

Notwithstanding the ideological growth of our party, unfortunately there is still in our party a certain type of ‘leaders’ who sincerely believe that it is possible to direct the revolution in China, so to speak, by telegraph on the basis of the known and universally recognised general principles of the Communist International without taking into consideration the national peculiarities of Chinese economy, Chinese political regime, Chinese culture, Chinese customs and traditions.

“These ‘leaders’ differ from the real leaders precisely in that they always have in their pockets two or three ready-made formulae that are ‘suitable’ for all countries and ‘obligatory’ in all conditions.

“For them there is no question of taking into account the national character and national peculiarities of each country.

“For them there is no question of coordinating the general principles of the Communist International with the national peculiarities of the revolutionary movement in each country, of applying the general principles of the Communist International to the national and state peculiarities of different countries.

“They do not understand that the main task of leadership at the present time, when the communist parties have already grown up and have become mass parties, consists in finding, grasping and skilfully combining the national and characteristic features of the movement in each country with the general principles of the Communist International in order to facilitate and make practically possible the carrying out of the basic aims of the communist movement …

“Our oppositionists belong precisely to this type of miserable leader.”

Chen Boda made it clear that, despite such tragic setbacks as the Shanghai massacre of 1927, it was upon the above understanding that the Chinese revolution was ultimately successful.

It was the CPC under the leadership of Mao Zedong that correctly applied Stalin’s theory: avoiding mindless dogmatism, and understanding the ‘peculiarities’ of the Chinese situation, Mao was able to successfully adapt the principles of the Comintern to advance the Chinese revolution.

The struggle against social democracy

1928 saw the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern and its plans for the ‘third period’ of capitalism – a period that would see widespread radicalisation of the working class amidst the treachery of social democracy on one hand and the threat of fascism on the other.

As early as 1924, Stalin had described precisely the relationship between social democracy and fascism:

Fascism is the bourgeoisie’s fighting organisation that relies on the active support of social democracy. Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism. There is no ground for assuming that the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of social democracy”.

Rather than being qualitatively different forms of governance, social democracy and fascism are merely two means by which the bourgeois dictatorship tries to deal with the threat of communism. In 1935, British communist leader Rajani Palme Dutt elaborated on this:

Where the majority of the working class has followed the line of reformism (Germany, Italy, etc), there at a certain stage fascism invariably grows and conquers.

“What is the character of that stage? That stage arises when the breakdown of the old capitalist institutions and the advance of working-class movement has reached a point at which the working class should advance to the seizure of power, but when the working class is held in by reformist leadership.

“In that case, owing to the failure of decisive working-class leadership to rally all discontented strata, the discredited old regime is able to draw to its support under specious quasi-revolutionary slogans all the wavering elements, petty bourgeoisie, backward workers … and on the very basis of the crisis and discontent which should have given allies to the revolution, build up the forces of reaction in the form of fascism” (Fascism and Social Revolution, p88).

But what is it that enables significant sections of the working class in imperialist nations to be won over to reformism and social democracy?

Building on Lenin’s theory of imperialism, the programme of the Sixth Congress described the creation of a labour aristocracy in the imperialist countries – a ‘privileged’ strata of workers who had been bribed and coopted to beliefs in social reformism, fairytales about the gradual and peaceful development of capitalism into socialism, and of course, rallying to the defence of the fatherland instead of the interests of the international working class.

This labour aristocracy was held in line by the social-democratic parties:

Imperialism splits off the best provided-for section of the working class from the main mass of the workers. Bribed and corrupted by imperialism, this upper stratum of the working class constitutes the leading element in the social-democratic parties; it is interested in the imperialist plunder of the colonies, is loyal to its own bourgeoisie and ‘its own’ imperialist state, and, in the midst of decisive battles, has fought on the side of the class enemy of the proletariat” (Programme of the Communist International, Comintern sixth congress, 1929).

In Germany, the Communist party (KPD) was, outside the Soviet Union and China, the strongest communist party in the world. Deep enmity existed between it and the German social democrats (SPD). In May 1929, under the instruction of the social-democratic police chief of Berlin, there was a brutal police response to May Day marches organised by the KPD, in which 33 were killed and nearly 200 injured.

Add to this the SPD’s disastrous toleration of German chancellor Heinrich Brüning’s government-by-decree – a slide into authoritarianism that paved the way for the collapse of Weimar democracy and the rise to power of the National Socialists. In the light of these facts, the Comintern had every justification for denouncing social democracy as the moderate wing of fascism.

The trenchant antipathy of the social democrats to any rapprochement with the KPD, their favouring of fascism as the lesser of two evils, meant that the Comintern stance of 1928 – that social democracy was the principal impediment and obstacle to the extension of the revolution – was correct:

The rise of fascism and the tactical shift in 1935

In was in this context that the tactical shift of the Seventh Congress – in which the primary struggle against social democracy gave way to a united-front policy against the forces of fascism – must be understood.

As comrade Harpal indicates, far from jumping incoherently between strategies like a yo-yo, the Comintern understood the difference between strategy and tactics; it understood that, because fascism had taken hold in Germany and Italy, communist parties could and should take a new approach.

Scales had fallen from the eyes of workers who had previously been under the sway of reformism – they had now seen with their own eyes how social democracy had acted as the handmaiden to the fascist takeover. They had experienced how, in Palme Dutt’s words:

In the final stage, as the fascist movement advances closer to direct power, social democracy gives its final and decisive assistance by opposing and banning the united working-class front against fascism – the sole means to prevent fascism coming to power – and concentrating hopes in illusory legal defences, the ballot, ‘democracy’, moderate bourgeois governments and finally even the support of pre-fascist and near-fascist dictatorships (Brüning, Dollfuss) as the ‘lesser evil’.” (Fascism and Social Revolution, 1935, p166)

On top of this, the success of the strategy of the ‘third period’ had put communist parties around the world in a position to take active and decisive leadership of the mainstream labour movement – this was a period in which the working class, as comrade Joti describes, had a revolutionary leadership at home as well as internationally.

What were united-front tactics to consist of? Manuilsky emphasised that, rather than waving the white flag to a previously bitter enemy, the united front was to be the principal means by which workers now disillusioned with social democracy would be won over to the communists and to the class struggle:

The essence of the united front does not lie in a formal agreement between two parties … which cease fighting during the period of operation of the agreement with a view to establishing ‘spheres of influence’ in the working-class movement, as if to say: ‘This is your section and this is mine; let’s not interfere with each other, let’s live quietly like good neighbours, without excitement and without offending each other.’

“That is the way the question may be presented by a petty-bourgeois who desires to lead a calm and peaceful life, and not by those who have the interests of the working class at heart … The main thing in the united front is the joint action of workers belonging to various political trends against the common enemy, capital, action which presupposes that the social-democratic workers come over to the position of the class struggle. Without this basis, without the class struggle, there can be no united front” (Dmitry Manuilsky, ‘The work of the Seventh Congress’, p30).

Beyond this grass-roots alliance with social democrats, the Soviet Union also fought for collective security agreements with the bourgeois-democratic nations. The absolute unwillingness of those imperialist nations to enter into any agreement with the Soviet Union against fascism was cemented by the Munich Agreement (between Germany, Britain, France and Italy) of 1938.

Why was this? Because just as the social democrats of the imperialist nations turned their nose up at any alliance with communists, so too did the imperialist nations see fascism as the lesser of two evils facing them. Winston Churchill only belatedly understood that Adolf Hitler’s Germany posed a threat not only to the Soviet Union but also to the British empire. Stalin described this attitude in 1939:

Certain European and American politicians and pressmen, having lost patience waiting for ‘the march onthe Soviet Ukraine’, are themselves beginning to disclose what is really behind the policy of non-intervention. They are saying quite openly, putting it down in black on white, that the Germans have cruelly ‘disappointed’ them, for instead of marching farther east, against the Soviet Union, they have turned, you see, to the west and are demanding colonies.

“One might think that the districts of Czechoslovakia were yielded to Germany as the price of an undertaking to launch war on the Soviet Union, but that now the Germans are refusing to meet their bills and are sending them to Hades” (Report on the work of the central committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU(B), 10 March 1939).

Rather than ‘appeasing’ Germany, as if the allied nations were negotiating from a position of weakness, they in fact allowed Hitler to rip up the post-WW1 Versailles treaty – to expand German armed forces, to occupy the Ruhr, and so on.

So when even to the end the bourgeois-democratic nations – despite the best efforts of the Soviet Union to form a substantial alliance with them – were attempting to push the German armies eastwards, what could the Soviet Union have done?

When we hear condemnation of the Soviet Union for signing a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, this is the question we must bear in mind.

In the end the democratic imperialist powers found themselves fighting on the same side as the USSR in the Seoond World War. The brilliant tactics of the Soviet Union bore fruit.

It was through this shift in the tactics of the Comintern that the Soviet Union entered not only into united fronts within the imperialist nations but also into a popular front on a world scale with those hostile imperialist nations themselves, with the objective of defeating fascism in the Second World War.

As socialism was brought to the peoples of eastern Europe, and the red flag flew over Berlin and the capitals of the new People’s Republics, this can only be understood as a resounding success.

The dissolution of the Comintern

The Communist International was dissolved in 1943, just after the battle of Stalingrad. The exigencies of the war, the increasingly unique situations in which individual sections found themselves, and the successful growth of the national communist parties and the increasing quality of their cadres, meant that its existence was no longer needed.

The statement of its dissolution reminds communists of one crucial principle – that no organisational form is set in stone. Every form of communist organisation is bound to change in correspondence to the changing landscape of the times:

“Communists guided by the teachings of the founders of Marxism-Leninism never advocated the preservation of organisational forms which have become obsolete; they always subordinated the organisational forms of the labour movement and its methods of work to the political interests of the labour movement as a whole, to the peculiarities of given historical conditions and to those problems which arise directly from these conditions” (Dissolution of the Communist International, 1943).

The story of the Comintern – its formation, its development, its victory in the Second World War, and its eventual dissolution – is the story of the first wave of international communist revolution.

The period in which the Comintern was at the apex of its power was a period that resembles our own in many ways. Inflation was skyrocketing. Wages were stagnating. Imperialist war was brewing in Europe and across the world.

Of course, there is one crucial difference between then and now. In the 1920s and 30s, workers around the world could look to the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union as a beacon, just as the imperialist nations feared it as an existential threat.

Our task as communists here in Britain today is to connect Marxism to the masses once again, exposing the treachery of social democracy and the futility of any ‘progressive’ movement that does not have working-class revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat at its core.

Our task is to ensure the maturation and success of the second wave.

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