80 Years since the Dissolution of the Communist International

Listen to our podcast series on this topic:


In the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Marx and Engels declared that a “specter was haunting Europe—the specter of communism.” Seventy-one years later, with the creation of Communist International on March 2, 1919, real, living communism haunted the entire world. Also known as the Third International or the Comintern, its founding congress saw the participation of just 52 delegates from 34 parties worldwide. It opened with a tribute to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who had been murdered by the reactionary Freikorps in Berlin just a few weeks earlier.

The gathering was organized despite the chaos of revolution and counterrevolution that raged all around them, or rather, precisely because of it. The Bolsheviks understood that in the final analysis, only the world revolution could save the Russian Revolution, and for that, a revolutionary international was required. At its Second Congress held in July and August 1920, the Comintern resolved to

Struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state.

The Second Congress also adopted Lenin’s famous “twenty-one conditions,” outlining the prerequisites for affiliating to the new international. These focused on differentiating the revolutionary communists from the many variants of reformist socialists and establishing democratic-centralist structures at all levels of the organization as a precondition for confronting the centralized power of the bourgeois state. Taken as a whole, the 21 points

Declared war on the whole bourgeois world and on all yellow social-democratic parties. The difference between the communist parties and the old official “social-democratic” or “socialist” parties that have betrayed the banner of the working class must be clear to every simple toiler.

A line in the sand had been drawn, and just a few years after the betrayal of the Socialist International and the nightmare of World War I, the future of world communism seemed bright indeed. As Ted Grant explained after the Comintern was ignominiously dissolved by Stalin on May 15, 1943:

The Third International was created by Lenin and Trotsky as an instrument of world revolution. It was born in the midst of the revolutionary cataclysms which followed the last world war and was inspired by the victory of the Russian Revolution. This was conceived by its founders as the first step towards world socialism, which would soon be followed by victories in the more advanced countries of the West.

The Third International was created by Lenin and Trotsky as an instrument of world communist revolution. / Image: public domain

Within a year of its founding, the Comintern was the most powerful international proletarian organization ever created. The world capitalist class had been put on notice and literally trembled at the prospect of a worldwide communist revolution. But just a few years after it entered the scene of history, the Communist International suffered a sudden, dramatic, and irreversible decline. What happened between the Fourth Congress, held in late 1922, and the Comintern’s final collapse? How was all that potential squandered and turned into its opposite?

First, we must remember that this was a tragic and stormy period for the world working class, which saw the defeats of the German, Chinese, and Spanish Revolutions, the rise of Hitler, the outbreak of World War II, Trotsky’s assassination, and more. After holding annual congresses from 1919 to 1922—during a brutal civil war and imperialist encirclement—just three more congresses were held over the twenty years that followed: the Fifth, in 1924; the Sixth, in 1928; and the Seventh, in 1935. This alone speaks volumes about the changes that had taken place.

As with all major social processes, the rise and fall of the Third International can only be understood as part of a process, a clash of living forces—and the end result was not predetermined. The nationalist, bureaucratic degeneration that took place in the USSR after the death of Lenin was mirrored in the Comintern, and these processes fed back on each other.

It was not merely a question of bad ideas, decisions, or leaders—though there were certainly plenty of these—but of colossal antagonistic class forces colliding on a national and international scale. Despite Trotsky and the Left Opposition’s heroic efforts to organize a political fightback against the degeneration, even his enormous authority could not hold back the tide of history.

The Comintern had been formed by extremely raw and politically immature forces, most of which came from the old reformist and anarchist organizations. Most had sectarian, ultraleft tendencies and no real understanding of Marxism or class-struggle tactics and strategy. They reflected a previous, outdated stage of the working class’s political and organizational development. They operated mainly in the realm of crude pragmatism and general abstractions. They didn’t know how to apply materialist dialectics to the tumultuous and contradictory events of the post–World War I epoch. They were undoubtedly energetic and well-intentioned, but they simply weren’t up to the task—and were denied the luxury of time to learn from their mistakes.

If the truth is to be told, when the Comintern was founded, there weren’t any genuine Bolshevik organizations outside Russia. The “secret” of the success of the October Revolution was not only that there was a revolutionary leadership up to the task of winning and holding power, but that it had been painstakingly built in advance. This was accomplished, in large part, through a series of sharp but clarifying debates over important questions of theory, strategy, and tactics.

The history of the last 100-plus years shows that once a revolutionary situation breaks out, it’s too late to build a revolutionary leadership. Nonetheless, Lenin and Trotsky did their best to form such a leadership in short order and had to work with what they had. They bent over backward to win the best individuals and groupings from around the world to revolutionary Marxism and Bolshevism. Even within Russia, while there were many dedicated revolutionary cadres, there were very few genuinely well-rounded Marxists, people with a serious grasp of theory.

Really speaking, although individuals like Bukharin are sometimes included on the shortlist, only Lenin and Trotsky truly qualify as serious theoreticians. Above all, Lenin and Trotsky had to combat the “infantile disorder” of ultraleftism. They engaged in this combat with political arguments, with resolutions, by “patiently explaining” to educate and raise the comrades’ level. Their method was to use the errors of ultraleftism to help people learn.

They offered pointed but comradely and constructive criticism instead of insults, shaming, and commands from above. After all, the only real authority a political leadership can have is moral and political authority. It cannot be imposed artificially or bureaucratically from above. It must be earned over time and be continuously re-earned. However, due to a lack of revolutionary leadership, the world revolution suffered a series of defeats, and capitalism was temporarily stabilized. Lenin’s death in 1924 exacerbated the process of confusion and retreat as Stalin maneuvered to seize the reins of power by any means necessary.

The political expression of the Comintern’s fall was the rise of Zinovievism, so-called after the first head of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev. The essence of Zinovievism is resorting to organizational methods to deal with political differences. For a more detailed explanation of the many twists and turns taken by the Comintern on its road to ruin, see the article “Zinoviev and the Stalinist Degeneration of the Comintern.”

Under the control of Stalin and Zinoviev the Comintern became its dialectical opposite. / Image: public domain

After a series of disastrous zig-zags alternating between class collaborationism and ultraleftism, Stalin dissolved the tool that was supposed to guide the world proletariat to victory. Shortly after that, he scrapped The Internationale as the national anthem of the USSR. This, on the eve of the inspiring revolutionary wave that followed the end of World War II. In fact, that was precisely why he dissolved it, to prove to the Allied imperialists that he had no intention of ending capitalism. But, of course, the Comintern had died long before it was officially disbanded. In 1936, in an infamous interview with the American journalist Roy Howard, Stalin made this abundantly clear:

Howard: Does this … mean that the Soviet Union has to any degree abandoned its plans and intentions for bringing about world revolution?

Stalin: We never had such plans and intentions.

Howard: You appreciate, no doubt, Mr. Stalin, that much of the world has long entertained a different impression.

Stalin: This is the product of a misunderstanding.

Howard: A tragic misunderstanding?

Stalin: No, a comical one. Or, perhaps, tragicomic. You see, we Marxists believe that a revolution will also take place in other countries. But it will take place only when the revolutionaries in those countries think it possible or necessary. The export of revolution is nonsense. Every country will make its own revolution if it wants to, and if it does not want to, there will be no revolution. For example, our country wanted to make a revolution and made it, and now we are building a new, classless society. But to assert that we want to make a revolution in other countries, to interfere in their lives, means saying what is untrue, and what we have never advocated.

This is incredible stuff. It is frankly astonishing that the assorted neo-Stalinists and “Tankies” continue to revere Stalin and his henchmen, despite being the gravediggers of the Russian Revolution and its international expression, the Comintern.

The IMT bases itself on the extraordinary promise and lessons of the early Comintern, which laid the foundations for worldwide revolutionary class struggle in the epoch of imperialism. The ideas and methods outlined in the resolutions of its first four congresses are a treasure trove of insights into the Marxist method. They deserve to be carefully and dialectically applied to today’s world. There are no excuses for making the same mistakes made over decades by the Communist Parties of the world. If we take a serious approach, we can use this wealth of material to shorten the period needed for the training and selection of cadres as we rebuild a worldwide revolutionary Marxist international.

Click to Donate

Are you a communist? Then apply to join Socialist Revolution!

Click to Donate