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Only now are we recovering from the legacy of the Comintern’s failure



Loren Balhorn,

Lenin, Trotsky, and other leading Bolsheviks on the second anniversary of the October Revolution.
Lenin, Trotsky, and other leading Bolsheviks on the second anniversary of the October Revolution Photo: L.Y. Leonidov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The founding congress of the Communist International (“Comintern”) held in Moscow on 2–6 March 1919 began with grand ambitions. The meeting convened by Vladimir Lenin sought to unite the emerging Communist parties that had split from their Social Democratic progenitors into a powerful, centralized organization. Traumatized by the socialist movement’s failure to stop the horrors of World War I and inspired by the Bolsheviks’ decisiveness, the newly minted Communist movement believed world revolution was an immediate prospect that could lead humanity to its collective liberation.

These Communists anticipated their coming victory within the space of just months. Practically unimaginable today, in 1919 socialist revolution in the advanced-capitalist world seemed not only possible but even likely. Indeed, for a brief moment the Comintern and the parties it united stood at the forefront of a power struggle unprecedented in scale and intensity. The International’s first four years of existence witnessed multiple uprisings and revolutions, socialist and other radical organizations exploded in size, and it appeared that the world could really be on the cusp of socialist transformation.

Loren Balhorn works as an editor at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin.

This article originally appeared in Jacobin.

Yet the Communists failed to realize this transformation. The Soviet Union remained isolated and grew increasingly authoritarian and stagnant. When it met its end in 1991, its failure triggered neoliberal capitalism’s truly total globalization and the collapse of the international left as a powerful force able to oppose it.

Today, we no longer live in the world of 1919. Instead, the socialist movement finds itself emerging from a long political slumber. This opens up the hope of seizing the new opportunities that have given socialism a new lease of life. Yet the collective strength and international organization which our predecessors took for granted a century ago seem more distant than ever.

Virtue Out of Necessity

The Communist movement had in fact emerged as a product of circumstance, arising not from any clear plan but rather the conditions facing socialists on the ground in Russia. The balance of forces between various workers’ parties waxed and waned with time, and the Bolsheviks never ruled out the possibility of governing together with allied organizations. As Eric Blanc demonstrates, ideas of what exactly the revolution or post-revolutionary order would look like remained in flux throughout the socialist camp in 1917.

This gradually began to change in 1918. The Bolshevik uprising massively raised the stakes in the international struggle for socialism, necessitating a shift in strategy. Aware that Russia could hardly survive on its own given its backward economy and imperialist states’ efforts to besiege and invade it, the Bolsheviks wagered everything on revolutionaries coming to power in their more developed Western neighbours. As the centre of the class war moved westward, Russia could nurse itself back to health with aid from Germany and other industrialized states. The Comintern was founded to realize this vision a little over a year after the Bolsheviks took power.

In these years Communist parties were still fairly heterogeneous, with various currents vying for leadership and advocating a number of strategies ranging from united fronts with Social Democracy to immediate armed insurrection. Converging in Moscow, the Comintern itself became the site of lively, spirited debates between leading international activists. The minutes of early congresses, painstakingly translated by John Riddell, offer a glimpse into a lost political world. Playful insults and acerbic criticisms intermingle with impassioned arguments over the fate of humanity and a sense of political earnestness that ironic Facebook memes could never capture.

Though not all of these gatherings were as impressive as they sounded (The “First International Conference of Negro Workers” in 1930, for example, was held in a sailors’ bar in the German city of Hamburg), they were tied to organizations that boasted thousands and sometimes even millions of members. The decisions they made had implications for world politics and struck fear in the hearts of their enemies for good reason.

Internal disagreements aside, these early Communists were animated by the prospect of a workers’ revolution succeeding in Western Europe. This key link in the historical chain would either propel the movement to victory or send it hurtling to crushing defeat — put simply, the fate of the world was at stake. This motivated everything Communists did and helps to explain both their incredible bravery as well as some of their more questionable decisions.

The German Floptober

It is hard to estimate how much of an emotional impact the October Revolution had on Communists’ political bearings. Yet without doubt, the Bolsheviks’ distinction as the only party to actually take and hold state power also gave their experience legitimacy as a “model” to follow. Russia, however, was unlike Germany or France. These countries had more developed civil societies, more entrenched ruling classes, and a bourgeois-democratic tradition that many workers respected. Taking power would inevitably be a much more complicated and protracted process than in the tsarist empire. But the desperate conditions of the young Soviet state made it all the more urgent for revolutions to follow in the West as soon as possible.

The most important theatre of revolution was in Germany, defeated and disorganized after World War I. After the revolutionary wave of 1919 was drowned in blood, the Comintern retreated and began to devote more of its resources to trade union and movement work as a step towards building socialist majorities. Still, revolution remained on the horizon. As chairman Grigory Zinoviev explained after the Third Congress in 1921:

Since we are no prophets, none of us can say exactly how many months or years will pass before the victory of the proletarian revolution in the first of those important countries which really determine the fate of the World Revolution. One thing, however, we know exactly, and the new analysis of Europe’s economic situation at the Third Congress has again completely convinced us of it: The revolution is not over. We are not very far distant from the period in which new conflicts will begin, which will shake Europe and the whole world in a much greater degree than the sum total of all previous struggles.

A surge of Communist strength in several working-class strongholds of Germany in 1923 sparked new hopes that the moment of revolution was again approaching. Moscow dispatched Karl Radek to the country to prepare a final German uprising that autumn. After arriving, the widely respected Polish-German Bolshevik wrote in the pages of the Communists’ daily paper, Die Rote Fahne, that the “German bourgeoisie is organized like no other in the world. The Communist Party needs to be organized like no other.”

The Bolshevik leadership was confident in its German comrades. By all accounts, it viewed the German revolution as its saving grace following years of punishing civil war and geopolitical disappointment. Nor was the excitement limited to party leaders. Gleb Albert’s recent book on internationalism in the early Soviet Union, for example, recounts scenes of everyday Russians donating loaves of bread to their local Communist Party to feed German workers. This enthusiasm was expressed by Joseph Stalin, in his capacity as general secretary of the Soviet party, to German leader August Thalheimer on 10 October 1923:

The approaching revolution in Germany is the most important world event of our time. The victory of the German Revolution will have even more importance for the proletariat of Europe and America than the victory of the Russian Revolution six years ago. The victory of the German Revolution will shift the centre of the world revolution from Moscow to Berlin.

Historians depict the party shifting away from movement work towards insurrectionary preparations during this phase. The Communists had formed “workers’ governments” with left-wing Social Democrats in several regions where the movement was particularly strong and planned to use cross-party militias as springboards for an insurrection across Germany. If things went according to plan, the country would be ruled by a workers’ government aligned with Russia by the end of the year.

Yet despite the frenzied state of preparations and the harshness of party leaders’ rhetoric, Germany’s October Revolution was tripped up at the starting line. The party unsuccessfully moved to pass a motion in favour of the uprising at a hastily convened Conference of Factory Councils in Chemnitz in October 1923. The Communists viewed this support as crucial, knowing from previous failures that a minority insurrection only involving their own forces would be isolated.

Things could not have played out in a more German way. Opponents of the insurrection moved that the resolution be delegated to a subcommittee, which in turn agonized and delayed until the Communists, outmanoeuvred and unlikely to win a majority, revoked their plan. A small number of militants in Hamburg either failed to hear the news in time or wilfully ignored it and attempted an armed insurrection anyway. It proved to be a disaster.

Bewildered by this crushing disappointment, Comintern leaders blamed the German leadership for failing to pull the trigger and squandering the opportunity. After all, in Moscow’s intense factional atmosphere at the time no one wanted to take the fall for such a major miscalculation. From Trotskyists to Stalinists, the notion of a failed revolution caused by a cowardly leadership became party gospel. The myth reinforced trends towards further centralization and what was later called “Bolshevization” of the Communist parties.

Picking up the Pieces

The failed German Revolution would have disastrous long-term effects, entrenching a divide between Communists and Social Democrats that greatly weakened the resistance to Hitler’s rise and culminated in the destruction of the German workers’ movement — one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. But the failed revolution also had immediate effects within the Soviet Union itself, fuelling a vicious, protracted struggle for power in the upper echelons of the Bolshevik Party. Several factions, not only Stalin’s, advocated for strategic retreat and a consolidation of the Soviet state. As time wore on and Stalin eventually removed all of his opponents real and imagined, the Comintern was reduced to a tool of Soviet foreign policy, subject to Moscow’s central political direction.

The Comintern’s unceremonious dissolution in 1943 (in deference to the USSR’s Western allies) marked the institutional end of the revolutionary internationalism that animated early Communism, which had in any case already long ceased to have any real political significance on the world stage. Since the Socialist International declined into a dysfunctional club of neoliberals in the 1990s, nothing approaching a socialist internationalism of any significance has emerged. Perhaps for this reason, the Comintern continues to be of considerable interest to socialists today.

As a highly literate political movement fully invested in spreading its ideas through the written word, the first histories of the Comintern were written by Communists themselves. Leon Trotsky had already published The First Five Years of the Communist International in 1924, practically as events unfolded. His Lessons of October published that same year sparked a wide-ranging public controversy between prominent Bolsheviks and pioneered the practice of using interpretations of Comintern success and failure as factional tools to paint opponents in a negative light.

In the official version of the story, the process of political differentiation that led to the crystallization of a specifically “Communist” wing of the workers’ movement was reduced to the efforts of Lenin, who “provided the Party and the proletariat with a clear revolutionary line.” Lenin’s teachings, carried on by Stalin, represented the essence of Communist thought and action. Dissenting opinions and historical ambivalences were airbrushed out, making this narrative of little use for making sense of the Comintern today.

As the Communist movement splintered, competing camps wrote their own histories of the movement offering a more nuanced picture. Nevertheless, these products of a heated political atmosphere often explained the Comintern’s rise and fall primarily in terms of fights at the top, tying its degeneration and eventual collapse to internal disagreements and battles between competing factions.

But given the circumstances, could things really have turned out much better than they did? With a hundred years of hindsight, we have the luxury of stepping away from these factionally tinged versions of the story to adopt a more measured approach. The Comintern’s balance sheet is decidedly mixed: the Russian Revolution in 1917 represented a new high point in the socialist movement, with an expressly socialist government taking power through an armed insurrection with mass support.

Yet its subsequent attempt to generalize this approach failed time and again. Rather than the beginning of a chain of successful socialist uprisings across Europe, the Russian Revolution remained isolated and the Soviet state became increasingly defensive and authoritarian. Meanwhile, the split in the workers’ movement — caused by Social Democracy’s failings but cemented by the Comintern’s existence — also structurally prevented united socialist parties from re-emerging.

A World Apart

Given that no socialist project since has come even close to such towering heights, it makes sense that the Comintern continues to occupy a prominent place in the political imaginations of many socialists today. Lacking our own experiences of mass politics to evaluate, generations of marginalized radicals have instead dissected the twists and turns of past revolutions in search of distilled truths and historical laws.

For many people who radicalized before the unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders made socialism a household name again, joining a socialist organization often meant adopting a certain view of the Communist International. For Trotskyists like Duncan Hallas it meant “standing on the ground of the first four congresses of the Comintern” and the strategic lessons they contained. But what, exactly, were those lessons?

The political landscape today is nothing like 1919. Nowhere does the labour movement pose an immediate threat to capitalism, and popular visions of socialism are being reanimated not by the political descendants of the Comintern but by passionate campaigners inside the historical parties of social-democratic reformism.

We are still at the beginning of a potential mass socialist movement — a priceless opportunity we cannot afford to waste. It goes without saying that this situation is light-years away from Russia in 1917 or Chemnitz in 1923. Thus, rather than try to learn from the Comintern directly, we should learn from its position in the trajectory of the socialist movement. By the time the Comintern was founded, mass workers’ parties had been in existence for decades and won a series of major concessions in the core capitalist countries. They built a lifeworld around them that engaged millions of people not only in symbolic electoral action, but a community that believed in the coming socialist society and was reinforced by immediate victories.

Today the distinction between revolution and reform appears less immediately relevant. With overall levels of class struggle and organization still at historic lows, and insurgent politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn popularizing socialism in a way not seen in decades, it seems obvious where the action is. Some socialists argue we should refrain from involving ourselves in these developments but rather “pull them to the Left” by “engaging in real struggles” outside the institutional sphere.

This argument might sound nice, and certainly more radical. But in fact, it represents a hangover from the Comintern days when reformist and revolutionary socialism both represented real mass movements and the choice between the two actually meant something. The problem is that no revolutionary left of any significance exists. To abstain from the breath-taking developments in electoral politics will ensure only that nobody notices that socialists are trying to pull them to the left at all.

Communist arguments had real-world implications a century ago because socialist politics took place in the real world. Our priority has to be getting to a place where socialism has this kind of impact again. What we need are concrete victories that push our movement forward and lay a foundation for mass growth in the future. At least for the time being, it would appear unwise to emulate the Comintern’s strategic perspectives for working-class power.

The Communist movement, with all of its mistakes and later degeneration, nevertheless remains a substantial part of socialist history. If anything, its ultimate failure underlines the stakes and urgency of our shared political project, and the seriousness and dedication which with these socialists pursued it is something to respect and, however modestly, emulate.

It also heeds us to take internationalism seriously as a vital component of the socialist project. As Clara Zetkin once said, the Second International “confined itself to remaining a mere workshop for the concoction of fine resolutions” but failed to act against the war when the moment of decision came. The Comintern sought to remedy this mistake by becoming a centralized party for world revolution that, over time, allowed increasingly little space for strategic flexibility or a plurality of opinions. Socialist internationalism must tread a fine line between both extremes: we need a disciplined, committed network of socialists around the world aware that our struggle can only succeed if waged on a global scale, but with enough patience, open-mindedness, and humility to avoid sacrificing potential opportunities at the altar of orthodoxy.

As long as human civilization continues to be dominated and disfigured by capitalism, we can still recognize the value of the Comintern’s call: “Workers of the World — in the struggle against imperialist barbarism, against monarchy, against the privileged estates, against the bourgeois state and bourgeois property, against all kinds and forms of class or national oppression — Unite!” Let us hope that this time around, we can actually fulfil it.