Pierre Broué

Five Years On


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2008, pp. 119–136.
Chapter XVII of L’histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, Paris 1997.
Translated by Gareth Jenkins.
All biographical and historical notes are added by RH editors.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the early months of 1924 the executive set about using ‘bolshevisation’ as a pretext for purging the Communist International and cleansing it of any independent-minded spirits. Yet only five years earlier, in a small room in the Smolny, a handful of militants had proclaimed its birth. Communist parties, both big and little, now existed in every corner of the world. Every Communist believed that these parties would grow and grow, both in number and in size, and that within a reasonable space of time (a matter of years) the revolution would end in triumph across the whole planet.

Crisis or uneasiness?

Many of those roused to political consciousness and action by the Russian Revolution had unreservedly immersed themselves in revolutionary struggle but were now affected painfully, to a greater or lesser degree, by what had happened and was happening in Russia. They were conscious of incomprehensible developments, of unacceptable oppositions and of unimaginable accusations.

In the first months of 1924 they knew that there existed a serious conflict at the top of the International. But as the case of Boris Souvarine [1] shows (despite his lucidity, he tried but failed to comprehend), not even the best and most intellectually gifted among them ultimately had any grasp of what was developing in the capital of their revolution, at the head of the first country to witness a victorious revolution.

Severe losses

Of course, soldiers, and sometimes even generals, die in war. Of course, as peddlers in ‘politically correct’ commonplaces repeat ad nauseam, the revolution devours its children. But even so, what an appetite! The history of the International started, as we have seen, with the disappearance – three murders and one unhappy death – of four of its founding fathers: Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches [2] and Franz Mehring. [3] Five years later, it lost Lenin who had been the most constant, lucid and determined fighter for the founding and construction of the International. Can we grasp what this meant? The International had been decapitated – literally. To measure the extent of this mutilation, let us imagine that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had disappeared a few years after the publication of The Communist Manifesto. What would have become of that ‘Marxist’ body of thought which left such a deep imprint on the political and social ideas of the nineteenth century? Who in their wake would have ensured its development and growth? We are talking here of an entire front rank being destroyed.

How is it possible not to recognise what is, after all, undeniable? The disappearance of these tried and tested Marxists, these indisputably theoretical ‘brains’, had an inescapable significance for the crisis in Marxist thought that was exploding in tandem with the developing crisis in the revolution. Our intention is not to underestimate the importance and striking character of Trotsky’s thought (he was the unchallengeable giant of political thought in the century). But is it not clear that the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin in a way clipped his wings? Was he not, to some degree, forced to mount a conservative defence of the revolutionary thought of those who had disappeared? At the very moment when, undeniably, his creative faculties were most needed, we see the eagle Trotsky confining himself – and what else could he have done? – to proving that he was the most ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Leninist’ of them all. He was thereby condemned to play, in the strict sense of the term, a conservative role (that of preserving the threatened body of theory). He was condemned to exalt the old, venerable, yet worn-out tools, instead of perfecting or forging new ones from them.

Lost leaders

Behind the pioneers who had disappeared stood a second rank, the men who doubtless would have been summoned to succeed them and become the first rank. Not all the rich potential of their intelligence and consciousness had yet developed. Nevertheless these men had already, at different times, embodied a stage in the socialist awareness of workers, of human consciousness. They too were missing at this point at the beginning of 1924, even if they were not dead or rather not yet all been killed off.

John Maclean [4], the schoolmaster and Marxist teacher, had organised the Clydeside shipyard workers in the middle of the war and been a friend to the oppressed Irish people. He had just died in solitude, impoverished and in a minority, having never made the journey to Moscow or belonged to the International. Exhausted by prison and repeated hunger strikes, he had been powerless to persuade his comrades in England and in the Communist International that a Communist party was needed in Scotland.

John Reed [5], ‘Jack’, was much more than the romantic revolutionary that is the usual image of him. He was, quite simply, a revolutionary – a man of immense intelligence and unfailing courage, whose lucidity was respected by all. Typhus, or, to put it another way, the exhaustion and wretchedness that the blockade inflicted on the human body, had killed him in a matter of weeks.

Raymond Lefebvre [6], as we have seen, had bewitched all those who had known him. This writer, thinker and orator had drowned – that is, he too had been killed by the blockade of the supposedly ‘democratic’ Allies. ‘Tomorrow’s leader’ would never lead – and without a doubt was irreplaceable.

Of Lev Davidovich Trotsky’s future we have spoken. But what a past this young man had already had! He had been chairman of the St Petersburg’s workers’ soviet in 1905 and his defence at his trial had been an historic indictment of a backward and autocratic regime. He had led the October insurrection in Petrograd, created the Red Army from scratch and been its victorious commander. He was now diagnosing the crisis of the revolution and the evil from which the fatherland of the oppressed was suffering. He was engaged in a struggle against the apparatus.

Christian Georgievich Rakovsky [7] was another of these soaring individuals. A leading intellectual of the European workers’ movement, who had become a member of the bureau of the Second International, he had revived international relations in the middle of the war and laid the foundations of the Communist International before embarking on and winning the most terrible of the civil wars as head of the Ukrainian Soviet government. He had taken up the struggle against the apparatus with Lenin, even before Trotsky had done (reckless as ever, according to the latter). Though neither Lenin nor Rakovsky were dead (at least not yet), they had been sidelined. Rakovsky was in exile, together with Bredis and Andreychin [8], and could no longer participate in the leadership of the International, above whose leaders both he and Trotsky towered head and shoulders.

Others too were sidelined, for example, Paul Levi [9], Rosa’s disciple and also her talented successor, who had shielded the infant party against Noske’s [10] killers and its own hotheads – he, at least, had ‘a head’, a rare thing, as Lenin recognised. Also about to be sidelined was Heinrich Brandler [11], the imperturbable, calm and cautious building worker. So too would the jovial Serrati [12], leader of a mass party that had melted like snow in the sun, and the eloquent Bordiga. [13] So too would Pierre Monatte [14] and Alfred Rosmer [15], those respected symbols of French syndicalism whom the Communist movement had won to its side, the better to lose them. So too would Willy Münzenberg [16], that leader of men who had taken up business. So too had Louis Fraina [17], kept out of touch in Mexico by the International. So too had the Poles Marchlewski [18], Warski [19] and Kostrzewa [20], who brought up the debate about the post-October politics of the Bolsheviks that Rosa Luxemburg had intended to open and that never took place. Shunted to one side, in other words, was the German-Polish ‘KPD-KPP political axis’, attributed by Felix Tych to Rosa Luxemburg, which Levi had never believed in and which after Levi’s departure Clara Zetkin would not champion.

The new leaders

Who then was now leading this International? What kind of men had they been when, in the dark night at the beginning of the world war, revolutionaries had been searching each other out, lantern in hand? The leaders of the Communist International were the leaders of the Russian Communist Party, the troika, as it was called in Moscow, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. Of the three, Kamenev [21] had never had much to do with the International; Stalin had only just begun to interfere; and Zinoviev had been its chairman since its foundation. Their personalities, role and importance should not be minimised. They were unquestionably out of the ordinary. But they are far from being comparable with their predecessors.

Zinoviev had been Lenin’s devoted lieutenant in exile, the talented vulgariser of his thought. He had also carried out Lenin’s dirty work in factional struggles, a role that had won him numerous enemies. He was a passable writer, though with a somewhat overblown style. On the other hand, he was an orator with exceptional powers of conviction, a man, moreover, who was passionately fond of convincing and persuading. But on several occasions he had collapsed in moments of danger or when major decisions needed taking – and there were those who had not forgotten some of his big panics, as when General Yudenich had launched his offensive against Petrograd in 1919. He had become the chairman of the International because he had lived for a long time in the West, where he knew many people, and because he spoke German fluently. But he was also available in that March of 1919, it must be said, because his terrible lapse – the public denunciation of the insurrection being prepared in October 1917 – had meant he had been passed over for all the key posts in the first year of soviet power. He had certainly pulled off a feat of oratory at the Halle congress of 1920 and brought great political success. All the same, that was insufficient to make of him the undisputed leader of the International that he wanted to be and thought he was – or to have his authoritarianism and summary methods forgotten.

Up till then, his accomplice Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, or Stalin, had shone in the International above all by virtue of his unobtrusiveness. A delegate from the Russian party at its founding congress, he had not spoken. There were dark areas in his political past before 1917. Lenin valued him as a solid worker. But he was a party man, who had only lived abroad for a short while, knew no Western language and few foreign militants. Having become the all-powerful General Secretary of the party in 1922, he had rationalised the apparatus, of which he was the organiser, and rigorously centralised, homogenised and subjugated it. Those who knew him said he was surly, vindictive and brutal. What was not yet known – the Russian people would have to wait nearly forty years to find out – was that before his death Lenin had broken off all personal relations with him after condemning his brutality and ‘cop’ mentality . Nor was it known that the postscript to Lenin’s testament had recommended Stalin’s removal from the Secretariat, where he had concentrated ‘excessive power’ in his hands. In 1924 Stalin took his first cautious steps on the terrain of the International, which he was now getting to know.

We shall only speak of the others in passing.

The problem of formal leadership

The difficulties with providing the Communist International with an appropriate structure were immense. For some considerable time the parties were not keen on sending what they considered their leaders to Moscow. On occasions they even seized on the need to have a representative in Moscow as a pretext for getting rid of someone they saw as an embarrassment or simply a malcontent. There too things developed in a very ad hoc manner. The first executive remained a fiction, the real work of leadership being consigned to a handful of Russian leaders.

From the Second Congress onwards, some rules were adopted but what emerged from the executive was a tight leadership, the real one – the ‘small bureau’ that would become the Presidium. The institution of ‘enlarged executives’ – with several hundred people present – allowed party representation to be reconciled with a permanent leadership arising from the International Congress and not from the parties as such. Above all, the central apparatus was reinforced by reforming the statutes at the Third Congress. The political leadership would henceforth depend on a truly bureaucratic apparatus.

It was the secretariat, limited in number, together with a certain number of departments that guaranteed the power of the apparatus in the main. The most important of these departments was the organisational one, the orgburo, led by a member of the executive whose business it was to regulate the organisational problems raised by the sections. The agitprop department, also led by a member of the executive, was responsible notably for running and controlling the world press of the Communist parties. In addition there was a department for the Far East, to carry out work in Asia and ‘colonial’ work in general; a department for information and statistics; the very important trade union department; and the international women’s department. Preparation was underway to create an international control commission. Any Communist living on soviet territory was, according to rule, a member of the soviet party. So too were political refugees and even temporary delegates. They all had to submit to its discipline and therefore to the authority of the all-powerful General Secretary.

The strength of the Stalinist bureaucrats

What gave the people who led the International after five years’ existence their authority? It was not genius. It was not their gifts as theoreticians or leaders of men, nor their role in the revolution and the survival of the victorious workers’ state. Quite simply, it was a system – the bureaucratic system of degeneration that had infected the Russian party after those terrible years of isolation and unspeakable suffering caused by the blockade and the civil war following foreign intervention. The system worked well. It was one in which someone like Stalin would see off someone like Trotsky and in which a revolutionary worker like Ivan Nikich Smirnov [22], whom Lenin called ‘the conscience of the party’, would give way to wooden-arsed Molotov, the man who, in his own words, lacked genius but not perseverance.

With its triumph in the Russian party and its domination reaffirmed in the battle over the New Course at the end of 1923, this system began to infiltrate the International via the apparatus. It was constructed on the same pattern, often using the same men, whose only distinction consisted in the defeats that the working class in their countries had suffered under their leadership and that had forced them into exile. These were men with the temperament of subordinates – hard men, underlings and enforcers, the Guralskys [23] and Rákosis [24] educated in the school of what Lenin called ‘kuneries’. [25] And it was the self-same Bela Kun [26] we saw in 1919 and in 1921, who returned from his exile in the Urals at that very moment, following Lenin’s death.

It was not, however, because they appeared as what they were – defenders of the new bureaucratic order – that these men now had authority. It was because of what they said they were – professional revolutionaries who represented the Russian Revolution and the party that had led it to victory. For these Communist leaders who had turned into bureaucrats were still in some sense Communists who truly wished for the victory of the revolution – provided, of course, that it did not overly disturb them! Their followers, however, took matters on trust without always understanding or approving them.

Historians of the Communist parties have shed some light on this problem. Speaking of the French Communist Party line in 1924, Philippe Robrieux [27] points out how the ‘war chest’ accumulated the previous year for the German Revolution was put to use by the new leadership and how a series of young militants, many of whom, from Jacques Duclos [28] to Benoît Frachon [29] and François Billoux [30], would become leaders in the Stalinist epoch, were ‘professionalised’. He describes French militants coping with the pressure from those they felt were the ‘giants of October’:

How could one stand firm when torn or trapped in a vice of contradictory feelings and ideas? On the one hand, there was devoted admiration for the towering figure of Trotsky and attachment to the International; on the other, there was a professional feeling that keeping one’s mind on meetings, people, the International took precedence over critical examination of political issues and being able to weigh them up […] How conceivably could one be right against these men and what they represented? How could one resolve to give up the position of professional militant to return to the factory? It would not have been easy to swap the heady atmosphere of meetings and rallies for the depressing surroundings of the workshop, with its never-ending, tedious round of activity. At the end of the day, to resign oneself to anonymity was extremely difficult to accept. [31]

More broadly, it dawned on everyone sooner or later that capitalism had stabilised, that the Dawes plan had put an end to the German crisis and that the revolution was now, as Trotsky put it at the Third Congress, ‘a matter of years’. For all that revolution had not slipped off the agenda. The German workers were still there – so were the Austrian workers, with their workers’ militias, and the Italian workers, who in the aftermath of Matteotti’s [32] assassination would soon seem to be within a hair’s breadth of overthrowing a shaken Mussolini. And there were the Spanish who in a dozen years would bring about a revolution comparable in depth to that in Russia – an even deeper one, according to Andrés Nin [33], who experienced both. Trotsky himself believed up till 1933 in the probable revival of what he called the ‘working class kernel of the Bolshevik Party’. Furthermore at stake was not only Europe. Other perspectives opened up, quite unexpectedly sometimes, which might have reversed matters. Joffe [34], as we have seen, negotiated with Sun Zhongshan [Sun Yat-sen] [35] and Borodin [36] arrived in China – the advance guard of numerous diplomats, military advisers and other Communist advisers.

The dark crossroads

However, this particular moment, what Victor Serge [37] called ‘the dark crossroads’ marked the start of a quite different story. The Communist International, the Comintern, was no longer what it had been – and would never again be. From the International of Lenin’s time we slide darkly towards that of Stalin’s. We could call it the Komintern if we wished to. It hardly matters from now on, even if the Cominternians (to coin a horrible neologism) were becoming Kominternians (to coin an even worse one) and would later receive a bullet to the head in the Lubyanka (something, incidentally, which never happened in Lenin’s time and which even the blindest of historians might recognise as signalling a change of direction).

A history of ideas, requiring decades of team-work, might allow us to uncover the mechanisms and stages of a transformation that had barely surfaced in 1923. In reality there had been a transition from the idea of the party as an indispensable mount for the history-making mass movement to ride on, to the idea of the party-state (characterised by the bureaucratic regime) as having to be established by the insurrection as its pre-ordained object.

One whole school of thought, including Victor Serge, dates the beginning of this metamorphosis to 1920. In our opinion, that is to confuse the beginning of an accumulation of features that around 1923 would transform quantity into quality.

International centralisation

The International centre, in the shape of its leading bodies, was, like the Russian party, a highly centralised organisation, an apparatus of rigorously trained professionals. But it was no less the product of a political will that had grown over the years than it was the product of day-to-day empirical politics. It is difficult to accept Karel Svátek’s argument that the Zimmerwald left was the ancestor of the institutions of the International. It was the ancestor of the International, without doubt, but not of its apparatus. For the left had only drawn leaders together.

As we have seen, the top men of the Comintern came from the foreign bureau for revolutionary propaganda abroad, which was appointed to the commissariat for foreign affairs. The Russian federation of Communist groups, highly centralised in the image of the party, was answerable to this office and existed formally up till 1920.

The men of this apparatus were first and foremost Russians, Poles or Latvians, familiar with life abroad, having worked and lived in exile. Initially they had acted as semi-diplomats and returned to that role from 1920–1921 onwards (we have in mind here three of the first secretaries of the Comintern, V.V. Voroski [38], Jan Berzine [39] and Mikhail Kobetsky [40]). Abramovich [41], Bratman [42], Bronski [43] and Karakhan [44] reappeared in embassies or consulates. One exception was Walecki [45], who remained within the apparatus of the Comintern: he was one of the few needed for negotiations.

Amongst those who remained or kept their positions there were only a few Russians – and these, moreover, had jobs reserved for them requiring confidentiality or specialist techniques: for example, Zinoviev’s two young secretaries, Richard Pikel [46] and A. Tivel [47], an orientalist who had played an important role in Turkestan. Alongside the Russian Piatnitsky [48], the all-powerful boss of the OMS [49], which acted to liaise and to control finances, were two deputies, also Russian, the former railway worker, Peter Wompe [50], who was in charge of liaison, and Aleksandr Abramov [51], who controlled the movement of funds. Watching over all these people was the Chekist Meyer Trilisser (Moskvin). [52]

The remainder were émigrés – revolutionaries who had had to flee their countries after the defeat of the revolution and who had been transformed into pilgrims or into international controllers who carried out directives or checked their application. There were Balts – Zigmas Alexas [53], a Lithuanian, and Jan Anvelt [54], who was Zinoviev’s man. There were Finnish Communists. To start with, there was Otto Kuusinen [55], one of the four first secretaries of the CI after 1922, of whom Lenin wrote that he could think, a rare thing in revolutionaries. Mauno Heimo [56] was an outstanding operator of the apparatus, in some sense its administrative secretary. Tuure Lehén [57] was in charge of training officers, of military teaching for the cadres – in short, he was the Comintern’s specialist in military matters. There were Hungarians: Rudnyánszký [58], who disappeared with a large sum of money in 1921, but who, despite that, was to reappear; Béla Szántó [59], former war commissioner in his country, and of course Béla Kun, who made no public appearances; Matyas Rákosi, who was also one of the secretaries; and Jozef Pogány [60], who, under the name of Pepper, was distinguished for his stupidities. There was also Ilona Duczynska [61], who lasted no longer than Levi, whose analyses she shared. The Bulgarian Kolarov [62] came and went, while remaining in the apparatus with a number of his less important compatriots. Kabakchiev [63] paid for his defence of the policy of the Bulgarian CP in 1923 with a major demotion.

One myth upheld jointly in the 1930s by the Stalinists and the hacks writing for the most anti-Communist ruling classes cast Georgi Dimitrov [64] in a key role as a giant of the revolutionary struggle. In reality, however, he was no more than an embarrassing exile, always being offered different jobs because he drank too much and took liberties with the secretaries …

It is astounding (and certainly many at the time were astounded) to see these men, whose main achievement as revolutionaries was not knowing how to win and whose ‘international’ responsibilities led (as Lenin put it) to one ‘kunerie’ [Bela Kun stupidity] after another, retaining their positions and not being submitted to any obvious form of control, either by their international bodies or the parties they came from.

The International that emerged after the period of revolutions was incapable of making its leading militants read and think, despite Lenin’s advice. Its structural transformation into an apparatus with an executive role, which from now on would settle everything from the outside and from above, did the rest. Henceforth there was no point in being intelligent and well-informed or in having experience of workers’ struggles in order to become a Communist cadre. The one thing needed was discipline. The misuse of the ‘military’ comparison led to an excessive multiplying of the number of warrant officers who lacked vision and of empty-headed, second-class soldiers.

Was everything still possible?

In theory, however, everything still remained possible after the great German defeat of 1923. Of course, detailed discussion, comprehensive questioning, allowing lesser mortals and rank and file militants to speak would have been the pre-condition. Instead, the diktat method of the Russian movement won out over the use of debate. The defeats had been terrible; the future defeat was still more so.

False moves led to a fall – a collapse into the incapacity to tolerate contradiction and criticism, the incapacity to grasp what was novel about a situation. It led to thought as catechism, to ordering people about as the only way to mobilise. How many young men and women would burn themselves out in the years to come? How many would turn away from the Comintern, having devoted body and soul to it? And how many would come to believe that the servility demanded by Moscow was the price to be paid for getting rid of ‘fascism’, which every human being worthy of the name henceforth knew to be the leprous plague of modern times?

When we look back over these six years, we cannot help being drawn to Antonio Gramsci – to repeating, on behalf of all the workers studied in this period, his commentary and the words of respect and admiration he uttered on the occasion of the last of the Fiat workers’ strikes in April 1921. Gwyn Williams’s introduction puts it in terms one would have liked to have written oneself:

There is another equally important, patrimony to inherit. It was not ‘history’ which created the council movement. It is men who do all this […] ordinary workers and working women – who were extraordinary men and women, trying to live Communist in a hard time. Their conduct is part of the memory of the working-class movement which needs all the memories it can get. It needs memory to defeat death.

Gramsci wrote:

The workers of Fiat have gone back to work. Betrayal? Denial of the revolutionary ideal? The workers of Fiat are men of flesh and blood.

They held out for a month.

They knew that they fought and resisted not only for themselves, not only for the rest of the Turin working class, but for the whole working class of Italy.

They held out for a month.

They were physically exhausted because for many weeks, many months, their wages had been reduced and were no longer sufficient to keep their families alive.

Yet they held out for a month.

They were completely isolated from a nation sunk in weariness, indifference, hostility.

Yet they held out for a month.

They knew that they could not hope for help from outside. They knew that for the Italian working class the tendons had been cut. They knew they were doomed to defeat.

Yet they held out for a month …

The Italian working class is flattened under the roller of capitalist reaction. For how long? Nothing has been lost if consciousness and faith remain intact, if bodies surrender but not souls. The workers of Fiat have struggled hard for years and years. They have bathed the streets in their blood. They have suffered hunger and cold. They remain, with their glorious past, the vanguard of the Italian proletariat. They remain faithful and devoted soldiers of the revolution. They have done as much as it is possible for men of flesh and blood to do.

We take off our hats before their humiliation, because to sincere and honest men, there is something of greatness in it. [65]

In that gesture there is also greatness. No leader of the Communist Party was to imitate Gramsci in that gesture.

How could another revolution be made?

Not everything we have just looked at (dare one say, the human side of things – but isn’t that the very foundation of revolutionary struggle?) disappeared. Quite the contrary. One can point to the birth of a truly coherent revolutionary tradition in countries where at the beginning of our period it had been no more than a coming together of different upsurges and individual initiatives. The challenge of late 1923 that Communists had to face, even if it was a challenge they had yet to put to themselves, was a terrible one because it cast doubt on their very identity, their choice of life and death, their raison d’être and their reason for being a Communist (which for them was the same thing).

Everyone recognised that what had first given birth to the Russian Revolution had been a gigantic mutiny, mass desertions and the refusal of a generation bled dry to be massacred. More than anything else 1917 had been the revolt against the war, the Great War, the World War, as it was called. War (at least the Great War) was no more. The last clashes to follow it were directed against its illegal continuation. After the peace, soldiers and sailors were sent (to the Black Sea, for example) and put paid to the policy of intervention against the revolution in central and eastern Europe. The Allies became fearful that their initiatives were stirring up the very blaze they hoped to extinguish, with the risk of new revolutionary explosions. They therefore cut their losses, withdrew their troops and, after the blockade, made do with a temporary cordon sanitaire and economic offensive.

After 1923 it is fair to say that the exactions of the occupying troops and the execution of ‘terrorists’ and ‘saboteurs’ only caused outrage in the world of their victims and among a handful of Communists and libertarians in the aggressor countries. The condemnations that began to rain down on colonial exploitation, then on the unequal and ferocious repression of colonial people in revolt, fell flat. The French working masses would not rise up on the morrow in the factories and worksites of France to defend the inhabitants of the Rif or the Druzes, with whom no French soldiers were ‘fraternising’ (and the majority of Communist cadres wondered whether the slogans put forward by their party were too daring…) Everywhere the electoral results confirmed that the Communists had real, if patchy and limited influence. However, this was far from being the ‘majority of the working class’ that everyone agreed was the precondition for taking power.

As we have seen, this change in the situation, an end to the revolutionary period opened up by the victory of October 1917, was what Trotsky announced at the Third Congress when he said that revolution was no longer a matter of days or weeks but ‘of years’. The victory perceived as straight ahead had once again disappeared into the distance. And the price to be paid began to dawn on militants. Naturally, the ready-made answer that came to Communist lips was: ‘We must build the party,’ ‘We need a party like the Russian party.’ Did that require two decades? Could a mass revolutionary party be built independently of gigantic class battles? Worse still. These battles – in March 1921, for example – did not always favour building the party; some even strongly contributed to destroying the forces mobilised to that end. In 1923, the KPD had barely begun to rebuild itself when it was forced to cancel the minutely prepared insurrection and retreat without a fight.

Working class unity, power and revolution

These were the questions put by the German and Russian parties to the Comintern and its sections, then to its executive. They arose following the catastrophic ‘March Action’ of 1921 and ended with the adoption of the United Front line in December 1922. By then these bodies had given their answers; at stake was how to put into practice a policy that had been the fruit of a wide-ranging debate, without doubt unprecedented on such a scale, the policy of a united working class front and that of a workers’ (or workers’ and peasants’) government. If we are to understand what motivated the shift in ideas, we need to recall the context of the split in the workers’ movement as seen through the eyes of the Bolsheviks, a split Lenin had wanted, even though the decisive impulse had come, more often than not, from their social-democratic and reformist enemies.

In the short-term perspective of world revolution then held by the Bolsheviks, the prime objective had been to expel opportunist and potentially treacherous leaders from the workers’ party before the decisive moment of the struggle for power. Once victory had gathered all the forces behind its flag this split would rapidly disappear of its own accord. The same assumption could be found forming the background to the discussion of the united workers’ front: the proletariat would rid itself of its right wing leaders (the ‘Mensheviks’), bring victory and in the process reunify itself. Even though not fully worked out, this appears to us to have been Lenin’s line of thought on these crucial problems.

Lenin did not see the split in the workers’ movement as needing to last longer than a few years (certainly not half a century). To his way of thinking, the united workers’ front, which would be the route to victory in the advanced countries, was also the thread leading to the mobilisation of working class forces that would make this victory possible.

As we have seen, the German defeat of 1920, then of 1921, demanded a fresh elaboration of the slogans concerning a transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat, particularly the slogan of the ‘workers’ government’. No opportunity arose to carry it out, with the whole business derailed at the worst moment and ending in a retreat without a fight. The death of Lenin and the crisis in the revolution prevented any real debate.

Everything took place as if for his successors Lenin’s daring and theoretical innovations rested on a faulty appraisal of the situation – Stalin would still be saying so in 1943 – and that this was to blame for the defeat of the revolution. Zinoviev’s resulting theorisations to preserve his authority and power fully coincided with Stalin’s conservatism and with that of apparatchiks like Molotov [66] and Rákosi. They feared revolution, which they had glimpsed anew in Germany in the summer of 1923, with party ‘big wigs’ howled down in stormy mass meetings, and international complications on the horizon.

In a word, the men who with Stalin seized power in the USSR threw overboard not only Lenin’s conclusions about the apparatus and the bureaucracy, the national question and Russification, but also his reflections on the workers’ unity aimed at in the united workers’ front – the first step on the modern road to revolution in an advanced country.

As we have already noted, Trotsky, who understood the gigantic enterprise of falsification that was getting under way, would make himself the guardian of the temple and defender of Lenin’s ideas, in opposition to these people. He took care not to go further than Lenin. That way he protected his flank against fresh accusations and avoided giving the impression that he was using Lenin’s thought in self-defence. Further than that he would not go. Instead, he made do with a wealth of analysis about the new phenomena of Stalinism and fascism.

The Comintern in a dead end?

In 1921 some had thought that acts of provocation, such as bombs and kidnappings, might serve as the engine of warfare and atrocities to anger workers and help reconstruct the framework in which revolution could put down roots at a time when below there was no longer any desire for it. But this was no more than a derisory and dangerous expedient, which in any case could not have been easily revived. Henceforward, the Comintern would no longer call for insurrection in an advanced country. In addition, rejection of the united front proved magically capable of being put to multiple uses. The social democratic parties, who wanted none of it either, would benefit enormously from the politics of the Communist parties, with its denunciation of the leaders and its attempt to ‘lure the troops away’. They benefited from the systematic attacks on them, which they used to justify their passivity in the face of power.

Better still, the Communists’ fiery denunciation of the social democrats allowed the latter to divert the aspiration for unity to their own advantage and point the finger at the Communists as ‘splitters’. These, however, were only minor gains and losses. There were other, more serious, ones.

The Communist leadership’s rejection of the united front, the refusal even to meet socialist leaders, tipped the scales definitively in favour of the status quo, with ups and downs in the rivalry between the parties but within a reality that made the advance towards decisive change an impossibility for as long as there subsisted two workers’ parties that were opposed to, and even enemies of each other.

This split in the working class ensured the protection of capitalism. It led to fresh conflicts between workers’ parties, to militants becoming disheartened, to loss of confidence, to passivity. And it also meant, if only as a dream, constantly attempting to take power through an alliance with a bourgeois coalition. In the years from 1923 to 1933, for all the Comintern talk of ‘revolution’, the perspective remained one of retreat. The class enemy, as well as the social democrats, talked of revolution as obsolete, surpassed, outdated – a bloody utopia whose cost outweighed the sufferings from which it claimed to deliver humanity. And the Soviets would reply with fairy stories or insults.

How could one be a revolutionary without a revolution? In the final analysis, the class enemy appeared to be still very fearful of the revolution it strongly believed would occur. So we return to the problem, the terms of which Miloš Hájek [67] put to Lenin in 1921: the revolution might yet be triggered by a counter-revolutionary coup aimed at forestalling it. Perhaps this is why the point of Hitler’s preventative struggle was to ensure state power before unleashing the forces of civil war on the working class and its parties. In this instance, whatever the truth of the idea, the counter-revolution did not provoke a revolution – Stalinism thus came before the tribunal of history, alongside social democracy, for having allowed Hitler’s gangs to seize the state without a struggle.

‘Socialism in one country’

Following the abortive German revolution of 1923 Stalin came up with a theoretical justification that was to become necessary for his politics. This was the theory that it was possible to ‘construct socialism in one country’ and that ultimately it was necessary to do so. He first touched on the question in the preface to his writings of 1917, entitled: The October Revolution and the Tactics of Russian Communists. Here he blamed the German defeat on the proletariat’s lack of support from the peasantry, which differed from what had happened in Russia. He wanted to show that Trotsky’s perspective of world revolution could only offer the Russian people the perspective ‘to vegetate in its own contradictions and rot away while waiting for the world revolution’. [68] He backed this up with a quotation from Lenin which he had to manipulate to make it useable: ‘The victory of socialism in a single country is altogether possible and probable, even if that country is less developed from the capitalist point of view and even if capitalism continues to exist in more developed countries from the capitalist point of view.’ [69] The American historian R.V. Daniels has commented: ‘It marked the beginning of a pervasive process of reinterpretation and reconstruction, the effect of which has been to bring what is represented as Marxism-Leninism into accordance with the actual evolution of the Soviet state.’ [70]

It is clear who benefited from this operation. Christened ‘socialism’ and later ‘communism’, the Stalinist bureaucratic regime would retrospectively become the goal of past workers’ struggles – the one to be defended then and in the future. No longer was it a question of some hypothetical and far off world revolution but of the socialism being constructed in the here and now, of the Russia which exemplified this process and was the concern of all. As a result, the Russians and their party were assured of hegemony in the Comintern and the subordination of the latter to Stalin’s foreign policy and ‘socialism’. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the other oppositionists were not mistaken. In their political struggle against Stalin they showed that this pseudo-theory was no more than the rationalisation of indifference to, and a preparation for struggle against world revolution. The fight they began in 1924 went on in different ways till 1933, the date on which the German revolution, namely, the revolutionary cause at the heart of proletarian Germany, was defeated without a fight. It had, nevertheless, been a long, hard struggle and had produced many more victims.


1. Boris Souvarine (Lifschitz) (1895–1984): Founder member of French Communist Party and leading figure in early years; expelled 1924 for supporting Trotsky; did not follow Trotsky, but became writer on Comintern without militant activity.

2. Leo Jogisches (1867–1919): Polish socialist and close collaborator with Rosa Luxemburg; leading organiser of Spartacus League in Germany; murdered in prison while investigating Luxemburg’s death.

3. Franz Mehring (1846–1919): German historian, won over to Marxism; founding member of German Communist Party, died shortly after Luxemburg.

4. John Maclean (1879–1922): Scottish teacher, opponent of World War I; health damaged by imprisonment, died prematurely.

5. John Reed (1887–1920): American journalist, author of Ten Days that Shook the World; leader of Communist Labor Party of America, and member of Comintern Executive; died of typhus after Baku Congress 1920.

6. Raymond Lefebvre (1891–1920): French lawyer and journalist; after two years of military service became opponent of war; attended Second Congress of Comintern and was lost at sea in the Arctic Ocean on his way home.

7. Khristian Rakovsky (1873–1941): Bulgarian revolutionary, friend of Trotsky, organiser of Zimmerwald conference; send abroad as diplomat by Stalin because of oppositional views; later deported; “repented” in 1934, imprisoned, later executed.

8. Giorgi Andreychin (1894–1952): Born in Macedonia, militant in Bulgaria, then emigrated to USA; became miner and IWW activist; in Moscow 1920, oppositionist 1923, exiled 1928, released 1945; returned to Bulgaria and worked in Foreign Ministry; liquidated.

9. Paul Levi (1883–1930): lawyer, close to Rosa Luxemburg; followed her as leader of German CP, brutally expelled “ultra-lefts”, but excluded from CP for indiscipline after March Action; returned to Social Democrats.

10. Gustav Noske (1868–1946): Right-wing German Social Democrat, became War Minister in 1918; the Freikorps whom he protected massacred Berlin workers, killing Liebknecht and Luxemburg; career ended with Kapp putsch when military leaders betrayed him.

11. Heinrich Brandler (1881–1967): Founder member of German CP, and member of Comintern presidium; involved in preparing 1923 rising in Germany, made scapegoat for failure and expelled in 1929; then formed KPO, close to Bukharinite tendency.

12. Giacinto Serrati (1874–1926): Leader of maximalist wing of Italian Socialist Party, opposed 21 Conditions and only admitted to Italian Communist Party in 1924.

13. Amadeo Bordiga (1899–1970): Leader of “Communist abstentionist” current in Italian Socialist Party; became leader of Italian Communist Party, but removed 1926 by Gramsci and Togliatti; secretly expelled from CP for “Trotskyism” and “factionalism”.

14. Pierre Monatte (1881–1960): Revolutionary syndicalist, friend of Trotsky and Rosmer, joined French CP but expelled 1924; returned to revolutionary syndicalism.

15. Alfred Rosmer (1877–1964): Revolutionary syndicalist, opposed World War I, became friend of Trotsky; in 1920 went to Moscow for seventeen months, active in Comintern and Red International of Labour Unions; expelled from French CP 1924 for opposition to Bolshevisation; 1929–31 organiser of Left Opposition, but broke with Trotsky; see Revolutionary History, Volume 7, No. 4.

16. Willi Münzenberg (1887–1940): Leading Swiss Socialist, secretary of Communist Youth International till 1921; organised International Workers’ Aid, then built influential campaigning “Münzenberg Empire” (newspapers, films, publishing-houses); later opposed Comintern line and condemned Hitler-Stalin Pact; interned in France where he was murdered.

17. Louis Fraina (Lewis Corey) (1894–1952): Member of American Socialist Labor Party, international secretary of American CP, sent to Mexico by Comintern, withdrew discreetly; well-known writer under name of Corey.

18. Julian Marchlewski (1866–1925): Veteran Polish socialist, represented his party in Moscow in 1920.

19. Adolf Warski (1868–1937): Veteran Polish socialist, internationalist during World War I, founder of Polish CP, twice removed from its leadership by Comintern; as refugee in Russia arrested and executed in 1937.

20. Vera Kostrzewa (1876–1938); Veteran Polish Socialist; on Central Committee of newly founded CP and was part of leadership twice removed by Stalin; in Russia from 1930, arrested and executed in prison.

21. Lev Kamenev (1883–1936): Closely linked to Zinoviev; part of coalition against Trotsky, then of troika against Stalin; never involved in Comintern; shot after first Moscow Trial.

22. Ivan Smirnov (1881–1936): Old Bolshevik from 1903, member of Left Opposition, capitulated 1929, but subsequently built opposition group, imprisoned and executed after first Moscow Trial where he “confessed”.

23. August Guralsky (1890–1960): Joined Bolsheviks 1919, worked with Zinoviev in Comintern, sent to Germany at time of March Action; sidelined after fall of Zinoviev and sent to Latin America; imprisoned during purges but survived and died in Moscow.

24. Matyas Rákosi (1892–1971): People’s Commissar in Hungarian revolution of 1919, then worked for Comintern; imprisoned in Hungary 1925, exchanged and returned to Russia 1940; Stalinist dictator in Hungary after World War II, but after 1956 exiled to Central Asia.

25. An untranslatable pun meaning ‘stupidities of Bela Kun’.

26. Bela Kun (1885–1937): Founder of Hungarian Communist Party, briefly in power 1919; sent to Germany at time of March Action 1921, played important role in Comintern, opposed Stalin’s German policy 1932, and later opposed Popular Front, for which arrested, tortured and executed.

27. Author of the Histoire intérieure du parti communiste, 4 vols, Paris 1980–84.

28. Jacques Duclos (1896–1975): Joined French CP shortly after foundation, on Central Committee 1926, Executive of Comintern 1935; lived clandestinely in occupied France, returned to Party leadership at Liberation.

29. Benoît Frachon (1893–1975): Founder-member of French CP; after World War II leader of CGT.

30. François Billoux (1903–1978): Leader of French Communist Youth in 1920s, Comintern agent in Spanish civil war; imprisoned under German occupation, minister under de Gaulle at Liberation.

31. P. Robrieux, Histoire intérieure du parti communiste, Vol. I, pp. 210–211.

32. Giacomo Matteotti (1885–1924): Italian Socialist deputy, murdered by Mussolini’s Blackshirts.

33. Andrés Nin (1892–1937): Member of Spanish Communist Party, in Russia in 1920s as secretary of Red International of Labour Unions; supporter of Left Opposition; returned to Spain 1931, formed Communist Left, which became one of components of POUM; entered Catalan government, leading to break with Trotsky; kidnapped, tortured and murdered on Russian orders.

34. Adolf Joffe (1883–1927): Old friend of Trotsky, Soviet diplomat in Berlin and China, committed suicide when gravely ill, making death a political protest against Stalin.

35. Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925): Father of Chinese nationalism and founder of Kuomintang.

36. Mikhail Borodin (1884–1951): Old Bolshevik, emigrated to USA, returned to Russia 1918; travelled widely as Comintern official, but removed from all Comintern activity in 1927.

37. Victor Serge (Kibalchich) (1890–1947): Writer, born in Belgium of Russian origin, anarchist, became Bolshevik in post-revolutionary Russia, worked for Comintern press, expelled for oppositional activities but returned to West where he did much to publicise repression in Russia.

38. Václav Vorovski (1871–1923): Polish professional revolutionary, diplomat after Russian Revolution, murdered at Lausanne by a reactionary.

39. Jan Berzine (1881–1938): Organised Bolshevik faction in Latvian Social Democratic party; secretary of Comintern Executive, later diplomat; arrested as “nationalist” in 1937.

40. Mikhail Kobetsky (1881–1937): Active in Russia and Denmark, then from 1929–1934 in Comintern apparatus, subsequently as diplomat; arrested and executed.

41. Aleksandr Abramovich (1888–??): Bolshevik from 1908, emigrated to Switzerland, returned to Russia with Lenin; worked in Comintern apparatus till 1931; apparently arrested in 1930s but survived purges.

42. Stefan Bratman (1880–1937): Pole, emigrated to Switzerland; worked on Comintern Executive, then as diplomat; arrested and executed.

43. Mieczyslaw Bronski (1882–1937): Represented Poles at Zimmerwald; returned to Moscow with Lenin, and took part in several missions abroad, but not subsequently active in Comintern; disappeared during purges.

44. Lev Karakhan (1889–1937): Old Armenian Bolshevik, member of Mezhraiontsy, worked for Comintern, then as diplomat; shot.

45. Maximilian Walecki (1877–1938): Polish socialist, took part in Zimmerwald, leader of Polish CP, worked extensively for Comintern, arrested 1937, executed.

46. Richard Pikel (1896–1936 or 1937): Joined Bolshevik Party from Mezhraiontsy in 1917; political commissar in civil war; arrested as “Trotskyist counterrevolutionary” in 1936 and executed in prison.

47. Alexander Tivel (1899–1937); Originally anarchist; M.N. Roy’s secretary and interpreter in Tashkent; leading official in Comintern; arrested in 1936 and executed.

48. Ossip Piatnitsky (1882–1939): Bolshevik from 1903, member of Comintern Executive from 1921; Central Committee of Party from 1934; imprisoned, denounced as spy and executed for voting against Stalin on CC on question of Bukharin.

49. The Comintern’s international liaison department.

50. Peter Wompe (1891–1925): Menshevik, joined Bolsheviks 1917, Piatnitsky’s deputy in Comintern; played important role in preparing for German October in 1923.

51. Aleksandr Abramov (1895–1937): Russian, active in organising Comintern’s international liaison department in Central Europe; arrested and shot, accused of establishing contacts between Bela Kun and Trotsky.

52. Meer Trelisser (1883–1941): Russian party member from 1901, one of first Chekists, held leading positions in GPU; 1935 GPU man in Comintern presidium; organiser of 1937 purge, arrested 1938, sentenced to death.

53. Zigmas Alexas, known as Angaretis (1882–1940): Lithuanian Socialist, member of provisional government 1919; took refuge in Moscow and from 1924 member of Comintern Executive; active purger in 1936, executed in 1940 for “Lithuanian nationalism”.

54. Jan Anvelt (1884–1937): Estonian Social Democrat, supported Bolsheviks in 1917, became head of Estonian government 1918; close ally of Zinoviev, played important role in Reval insurrection of 1924; removed from Comintern Executive 1936, accused of “Estonian nationalist deviation” and killed during interrogation.

55. Otto Kuusinen, (1881–1964): People’s Commissar for Education 1918, founder of Finnish CP; leading figure in Comintern, and kept his position till dissolution in 1943.

56. Mauno Heimo (1896–1937): Finnish student, joined Communist Party at time of Revolution; said to have sympathised with Trotsky in 1923; leading figure in Comintern central apparatus till his arrest and liquidation.

57. Tuure Lehén (1893–1976): Finnish student, commander in Red Guard, responsible for military training in Comintern, sent on mission to Spain at start of civil war, returned to Finland in 1946.

58. Endre Rudnyánszký (1885–1943): Hungarian revolutionary, elected to Comintern Executive in 1920; sent to Vienna 1921 and fled to Romania with large sum of money; returned to Russia five years later, spent fifteen years in jail, and remained in Russia till death.

59. Béla Szántó (1881–1951): Hungarian socialist journalist, People’s Commissar in 1919 revolution; exiled in Moscow, worked in Comintern apparatus, survived purges of which he was one of main organisers among Hungarian émigrés.

60. Jozef Pogány (1886–1937): President of Budapest Soldiers’ Council 1918, held various posts in Hungarian revolutionary government; took refuge in Moscow, worked in Comintern apparatus, was in Germany March 1921; dismissed 1929, arrested and executed 1937.

61. Ilona Duczynska (1897–1978): Supporter of Zimmerwald, member of Hungarian CP, she went to Moscow 1920, worked in Comintern apparatus; expelled as supporter of Paul Levi; joined Austrian Socialist Party, later with oppositional group in Austrian CP; emigrated to Britain in 1937, pilot with RAF in 1940.

62. Vassil Kolarov (1877–1950): Bulgarian Narrow Socialist, founder-member of Bulgarian CP, leading figure in Comintern; after World War II succeeded Dimitrov at head of Bulgarian government.

63. Khristo Kabakchiev (1878–1940): Bulgarian Narrow Socialist; secretary of Bulgarian CP, imprisoned after 1923 rising.

64. Georgi Dimitrov (1882–1949):Bulgarian Narrow Socialist, then Communist; left Bulgaria after 1923 insurrection; leading figure in Comintern; tried by Nazis for Reichstag fire, and acquitted, which launched his career in Comintern, of which he was General Secretary from 1935; after World War II head of Bulgarian government.

65. G. Williams, Proletarian Order, London 1975, pp. 308–9, and A. Gramsci, L’Ordine Nuovo, 8 May, 1921.

66. Viacheslav Molotov (1890–1986): old Bolshevik, became Stalin’s main lieutenant, head of Comintern between Bukharin and Dimitrov.

67. Author of Storia dell’Internazionale Comunista 1921–1935, Rome 1972.

68. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1924/12.htm

69. The above sentence is translated from Broué’s French. The quotation from Lenin used by Stalin in the above article is ‘the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country taken separately’. Lenin, On the Slogan for a United States of Europe, (1915) [Note added by Revolutionary History]

70. R.V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, Cambridge, Mass. 1960, p. 252.

Last updated on 1.11.2011