Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

13. First steps of the Communist International

AT THE OUTBREAK of the First World War both Lenin and Trotsky argued the need to build a new international. After the October revolution the time came to honour that pledge.

Marxists, beginning with Marx himself in The German Ideology of 1845, had always conceived revolution as an international process. Trotsky, in his classic work Results and Prospects (1906), had stated specifically that the Russian working class would be unable to maintain itself in power without direct state aid from the victorious European proletariat. Trotsky, Lenin and all the other leading Bolsheviks constantly repeated the same idea throughout the revolution – at that time the notion of building socialism in one country never entered anyone’s head.

However, the devastating effects of the civil war lent a special urgency to this general consideration. As we have seen in the preceding chapters the forced militarisation of the Soviet Republic, the destruction of the already fragile economy, the straining of relations with the peasantry and the decimation of the minority working class, all generated increasing bureaucratic tendencies. Ultimately the only escape from these pressures lay in the spreading of the revolution internationally. This required international organisation.

On 24 January 1919 an invitation was issued to the Founding Congress of the Third or Communist International (Comintern). This invitation was drafted by Trotsky. The ‘objects and tactics’ of the new international were summed up thus:

  1. The present era is the era of the disintegration and collapse of the entire world capitalist system, which will drag the whole of European civilisation down with it if capitalism with its insoluble contradictions is not destroyed.
  2. The task of the proletariat now is to seize state power immediately. The seizure of state power means the destruction of the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie and the organisation of a new proletarian apparatus of power.
  3. The new apparatus of power should embody the dictatorship of the proletariat (and in some places also of the rural semi-proletariat, the village poor), that is, it should be the instrument for the systematic suppression of the exploiting classes and their expropriation ...
  4. The dictatorship of the proletariat must be the lever for the immediate expropriation of capital and for the abolition of private property in the means of production and their transformation into national property ...
  5. In order to safeguard the socialist revolution, to defend it against internal and external enemies, to assist other national sections of the fighting proletariat and so on, it is essential to disarm the bourgeoisie and their agents completely, and to arm the proletariat.
  6. The world situation today demands the closest possible contact between the different sections of the revolutionary proletariat and the complete union of the countries where the socialist revolution has already been victorious.
  7. The fundamental methods of struggle are mass actions of the proletariat leading to open armed conflict with the political rule of capital. [1] [1*]

On 2-6 March 1919 the Founding Congress of the Communist International met in Moscow. It was a puny affair. There were 51 delegates: 35 with voting rights, representing 19 parties and organisations, and 19 with consultative votes, representing 16 organisations. These figures are actually very misleading, as the delegates were far from representative. Of the 35 with voting rights, only four were not then residing in Russia: one each from Norway and Sweden, neither of which had a Communist Party, and two others specially delegated to the congress from countries where a Communist Party did exist: Max Albert (the pseudonym of Hugo Eberlein) from Germany, and Gruber (the pseudonym of Karl Steinhardt) from Austria, representing a tiny communist group. The majority of the delegates represented national communist groups affiliated to the Bolshevik Federation of Foreign Communist Groups. Their membership was very small, ranging from about ten in the French group to 90 (in December 1918) in the Hungarian and 112 in the Yugoslav. [4]

In the history of the international labour movement there had never previously been a meeting so small and so unrepresentative that actually started such a massive and powerful international movement. Nothing was further from the Bolshevik leaders’ minds, however, than the intention of giving an assortment of small sects the label of an International. When they founded the Communist International they were relying on what they foresaw was going to happen in Europe: mass communist parties would emerge in the revolutionary struggles ahead. They assumed correctly that in the revolutionary situation existing after the war and with the example of victorious Bolshevism, the communist sects would rise to achieve mass influence.

At the congress itself Trotsky made only a brief appearance, since at the time Kolchak started his spring offensive on the eastern front. Trotsky gave the congress a short explanation of the main lines of his military policy. Then he presented it with a manifesto he had written to introduce the new International to the world:

Seventy-two years ago the Communist Party proclaimed its programme to the world in the form of a Manifesto written by the greatest heralds of the proletarian revolution, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels ... The development of Communism during this three-quarters of a century proceeded along complex paths: side by side with periods of stormy upsurge it knew periods of decline; side by side with successes – cruel defeats. But essentially the movement proceeded along the path indicated in advance by the Communist Manifesto. The epoch of final, decisive struggle has come later than the apostles of the socialist revolution had expected and hoped. But it has come. We Communists, the representatives of the revolutionary proletariat of the various countries of Europe, America and Mia who have gathered in Soviet Moscow, feel and consider ourselves to be the heirs and consummators of the cause whose programme was affirmed 72 years ago. Our task is to generalise the revolutionary experience of the working class, to purge the movement of the corroding admixture of opportunism and social patriotism, to unify the efforts of all genuinely revolutionary parties of the world proletariat and thereby facilitate and hasten the victory of the Communist revolution throughout the world. [5]

Trotsky’s manifesto gave a sharp and incisive survey of the changes in the world economy during the First World War, the transformation of free-market capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism:

During the decades preceding the war, free competition, as the regulator of production and distribution, had already been thrust aside in the main fields of economic life by the system of trusts and monopolies; during the course of the war the regulating-directing role was torn from the hands of these economic groups and transferred directly into the hands of military-state power. [6]

Which class should dominate the state-controlled economy? This was the question facing humanity:

The state-isation of economic life, against which capitalist liberalism used to protest so much, has become an accomplished fact. There is no turning back from this fact – it is impossible to return not only to free competition but even to the domination of trusts, syndicates and other economic octopuses. Today the one and only issue is: who shall henceforth be the bearer of state-ised production – the imperialist state or the state of the victorious proletariat? [7]

The reformists, said the manifesto, evaded the issues facing the proletariat and preached conciliation:

The opportunists, who before the world war summoned the workers to practise moderation for the sake of gradual transition to socialism, and who during the war demanded class docility in the name of civil peace and national defence, are again demanding self-renunciation of the proletariat – this time for the purpose of overcoming the terrible consequences of the war. If these preachments were to find acceptance among the working masses, capitalist development in new, much more concentrated and monstrous forms would be restored on the bones of several generations – with the perspective of a new and inevitable world war. Fortunately for mankind this is not possible. [8]

The development of capitalism and imperialism put on the order of the day the need for an alliance of the proletariat of Europe and America with the national liberation movements of the colonies:

The last war, which was by and large a war for colonies, was at the same time a war conducted with the help of colonies. The colonial populations were drawn into the European war on an unprecedented scale. Indians, Negroes, Arabs and Madagascans fought on the territories of Europe – for the sake of what? For the sake of their right to continue to remain the slaves of England and France? Never before has the infamy of capitalist rule in the colonies been delineated so clearly; never before has the problem of colonial slavery been posed so sharply as it is today. [9]

The workers and peasants not only of Annam, Algiers and Bengal, but also of Persia and Armenia, will gain their opportunity of independent existence only in that hour when the workers of England and France, having overthrown Lloyd George and Clemenceau, will have taken state power into their own hands. Even now the struggle in the more developed colonies, while taking place only under the banner of national liberation, immediately assumes a more or less clearly defined social character. If capitalist Europe has violently dragged the most backward sections of the world into the whirlpool of capitalist relations, then socialist Europe will come to the aid of liberated colonies with her technology, her organisation and her ideological influence in order to facilitate their transition to a planned and organized socialist economy.

Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia! The hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will strike for you as the hour of your own emancipation! [10]

The manifesto, however, was addressed primarily to the proletariat of Europe. It argued the case for the dictatorship of the proletariat very strongly:

The entire bourgeois world accuses the Communists of destroying freedom and political democracy. These are lies. Upon assuming power the proletariat merely lays bare the complete impossibility of employing the methods of bourgeois democracy and creates the conditions and forms of a new and much higher workers’ democracy. [11]

The wails of the bourgeois world against civil war and against Red Tenor represent the most monstrous hypocrisy yet known in the history of political struggles. There would be no civil war if the clique of exploiters who have brought mankind to the very brink of ruin did not resist every forward step of the toiling masses, if they did not organise conspiracies and assassinations, and did not summon armed assistance from without in order to maintain or restore their thievish privileges.

Civil war is imposed upon the working class by its mortal enemies. Without renouncing itself and its own future, which is the future of all mankind, the working class cannot fail to answer blow for blow.

While never provoking civil war artificially, the Communist parties seek to shorten as much as possible the duration of civil war whenever the latter does arrive with iron necessity; they seek to reduce to a minimum the number of victims and, above all, to assure victory to the proletariat. [12]

The new Communist International, it said, was the heir of all socialist traditions the world over:

we Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf – to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

If the First International presaged the future course of development and indicated its paths, if the Second International gathered and organised millions of workers, then the Third International is the International of open mass action, the International of revolutionary realisation, the International of the deed. [13]

Zinoviev, at the Eighth Congress of the Russian party, described this document by Trotsky as ‘a second Communist Manifesto’. [14]

Trotsky was emphatic on the international significance of the Russian revolution. However, he was conscious of the radical differences in the conditions of the revolution in Russia compared with those facing the revolution in western and central Europe: it would be far more difficult to achieve victory in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe than in backward Russia.

A couple of weeks after the first congress of the Comintern, Trotsky compared the German revolution with the Russian revolution, showing why it would be much more difficult for the German proletariat to win power than the Russian:

History once again exhibited to the world one of its dialectic contradictions: precisely because the German working class had expended most of its energy in the previous epoch upon self-sufficient organisation construction, occupying the first place in the Second International both in party as well as trade union apparatus – precisely because of this, in a new epoch, at the moment of its transition to open revolutionary struggle for power the German working class proved to be extremely defenceless organisationally. [15]

The Russian proletariat was fortunate in having a revolutionary party; not so the proletariat of Germany:

In the absence of a centralised revolutionary party with a combat leadership whose authority is universally accepted by the working masses; in the absence of leading combat nuclei and leaders, tried in action and tested in experience throughout the various centres and regions of the proletarian movement; this movement upon breaking out into the streets became of necessity intermittent, chaotic, creeping in character. [16]

However in the coming struggles the German proletariat should be able to forge the needed instrument for victory:

The difficulties, the partial defeats and the great sacrifices of the German proletariat should not for a moment dishearten us. History does not offer the proletariat a choice of ways. The stubborn, unabated, erupting and re-erupting, creeping revolution is clearly approaching the critical moment when, having mobilised and trained all its fortes in advance for combat, the revolution will deal the class enemy the final mortal blow. [17]

A few days later Trotsky wrote a prophetic article pointing out the danger that the pioneering position of Russia in the world revolution would lead to national messianism. He delivers a clear antidote to this:

In our analysis there is not an atom of ‘messianism’. The revolutionary ‘primogeniture’ of the Russian proletariat is only temporary. The mightier the opportunist conservatism among the summits of the German, French or English proletariat, all the more grandiose will be the power generated for their revolutionary onslaught by the proletariat of these countries, a power which the proletariat is already generating today in Germany. The dictatorship of the Russian working class will be able to finally entrench itself and to develop into a genuine, all-sided socialist construction only from the hour when the European working class frees us from the economic yoke and especially the military yoke of the European bourgeoisie, and, having overthrown the latter, comes to our assistance with its organisation and its technology. Concurrently, the leading revolutionary role will pass over to the working class with the greater economic and organisational power. If today the centre of the Third International lies in Moscow – and of this we are profoundly convinced – then on the morrow this centre will shift westward: to Berlin, to Paris, to London. However joyously the Russian proletariat has greeted the representatives of the world working class within the Kremlin walls, it will with an even greater joy send its representatives to the Second Congress of the Communist International in one of the Western European capitals. For a world Communist Congress in Berlin or Paris would signify the complete triumph of the proletarian revolution in Europe and consequently throughout the world. [18]

This hope for a speedy victory of the revolution in the West was shared by Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders at the time.

A few months later Trotsky had second thoughts about the imminence of the revolution in the West. On 5 August 1919 he sent a secret memorandum from the front to the central committee urging a radical reorientation in international affairs. This memorandum, a product of Trotsky’s fantastically creative imagination, in a way pioneered the ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’ that Lenin introduced at the Second Congress of the Comintern in July-August 1920. Trotsky wrote:

the failure of the general strike demonstration [in Germany], the strangulation of the Hungarian Republic and the continuance of open support for the campaign against Russia are all symptoms of the sort that indicate that the incubatory preparatory period of the revolution in the West may last for indeed a considerable time yet ...

We have up to now devoted too little attention to agitation in Asia. However, the international situation is evidently shaping in such a way that the road to Paris and London lies via the towns of Afghanistan, the Punjab and Bengal. [2*]

Our military successes in the Urals and in Siberia should raise the prestige of the Soviet revolution throughout the whole of oppressed Asia to an exceptionally high level. It is essential to exploit this factor and concentrate somewhere in the Urals or in Turkestan a revolutionary academy, the political and military headquarters of the Asian revolution, which in the period immediately ahead may turn out to be far more effectual than the executive committee of the Third International. A start should already now be made with organising matters in this direction on a more serious basis, with assembling the necessary personnel, linguists and translators of books, and with recruiting indigenous revolutionaries – using all resources and means available to us ...

Preservation of present-day slaughterhouse capitalism for even a few years infers inevitable attempts at intensifying colonial exploitation, but also, on the other hand, equally inevitable attempts at uprisings. Asia may become the arena of the next uprisings. Our task lies in effecting the necessary switch of the centre of gravity of our international orientation at the opportune moment. [19]

The Second Congress of the Comintern

By the time of its Second Congress, from 19 July to 7 August 1920, the International had transformed itself from a collection of small sects (if one excludes the Russian party) into a mass organisation. The Italian Socialist Party had voted to affiliate to the Comintern at its conference in Bologna in September 1919, adding 300,000 members to the International. In June 1919 the Bulgarian Socialists, known as Tesniaki – ‘narrow’, who had consistently held a revolutionary internationalist position very close to Bolshevism, also voted to affiliate. This was a mass party with 35,478 members in 1920. The Yugoslav Socialist Party, another mass party, also joined. The Czechoslovak Social-Democratic Party split in December 1920, the Communist Left taking more than half the membership and establishing a Communist Party of 350,000 members. A separate split in the Social-Democratic Party of the German-speaking minority added further forces and after their unification the Czechoslovak party claimed 400,000 members. The Norwegian Labour Party affiliated in spring 1919, and in Sweden the majority of the Socialist Party, after a split, also joined the Comintern, adding another 17,000 members.

In Germany the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD), with its 800,000 members, which had split from the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) in April 1917 under pressure from the revolutionary mood among the masses, veered markedly to the left in 1919 and 1920. At its Leipzig Congress in December 1919 it decided by 227 votes to 54 to leave the Second International – but by 169 to 114 not to join the Third International. In France the Socialist Party joined the Comintern with its 140,000 members.

Trotsky made only a brief appearance at the Second Congress of the Comintern in order to endorse the ‘21 Conditions’ for membership of parties in the International. He did not participate in the rest of the discussion at the congress on important issues of strategy and tactics: on the role of Communist parties in the proletarian revolution, on parliamentarism, the trade union question, the national and colonial question, and the agrarian question. This was because he was overburdened by military affairs, as the Polish-Russian war was raging. He came to the congress just towards its end – at the time when the Red Army stood at the gates of Warsaw – to present the manifesto he had written on behalf of the International. Again his brilliant pen produced a masterpiece that merits extensive quotation.

The manifesto starts by summarising the international scene after the Treaty of Versailles, which had formally concluded the First World War:

The bourgeoisie throughout the world sorrowfully recalled its yesteryears. All of its mainstays in foreign and domestic relations have been either overthrown or shaken. ‘Tomorrow’ looms like a black threat over the exploiters’ world ...

The Versailles Treaty has created no new balance of power in place of the old ...

The programme of ‘organising Europe’, advanced by German imperialism at the moment of its greatest military successes, has been inherited by the victorious Entente. When the rulers of the Entente place the defeated bandits of the German Empire in the defendant’s dock, the latter will truly be judged by a ‘court of peers’ – their peers in crime.

But the victors’ camp likewise contains a number of chose who have themselves been vanquished.

Intoxicated by chauvinist fumes of a victory which she won for others, bourgeois France considers herself the commandress of Europe. In reality, never before has France and the very foundations of her existence been so slavishly dependent upon the more powerful states – England and North America – as she is today ...

The power of ruined and blood-drained France is illusory, almost burlesque in character; sooner or later this will penetrate even into the brains of French social-patriots. [20]

The president of the United States, [Woodrow Wilson,] the great prophet of platitudes, has descended from Mount Sinai in order to conquer Europe, ‘14 Points’ in hand. Stockbrokers, cabinet members and businessmen never deceive themselves for a moment about the meaning of this new revelation. But by way of compensation the European ‘Socialists’, with doses of Kautskyan brew, have attained a condition of religious ecstasy and accompanied Wilson’s sacred ark, dancing like King David. [21]

The Versailles Treaty, said the manifesto, had created ‘Babylon on the eve of its destruction’: [22]

The programme of liberation of small nations, advanced during the war, has led to the complete ruination and enslavement of the Balkan peoples, victors and vanquished alike, and to the Balkanisation of a large part of Europe.

Virtually each one of the newly created ‘national’ states has an irridenta of its own, [in other words] its own internal national ulcer ...

Official, governmental, national, civilised, bourgeois Europe – as it has issued from the war and the Versailles peace-resembles an insane asylum. Artificially split-up little states, whose economy is choking to death within their borders, snarl at one another, and wage wars over harbours, provinces and insignificant towns. [23]

The world bourgeoisie was becoming ever more cruel and barbaric:

The war has inured [the bourgeoisie] to subjecting a whole number of countries to a hunger-blockade, to bombarding from the air and setting fire to cities and villages, expediently spreading the bacilli of cholera, carrying dynamite in diplomatic pouches, counterfeiting his opponents’ currency; he has become accustomed to bribery, espionage and smuggling on a hitherto unequalled scale. The usages of war have been taken over, after the conclusion of peace, as the usages of commerce. The chief commercial operations are fused nowadays with the functions of the state, which steps to the fore as a world robber gang equipped with all the instruments of violence. [24]

The manifesto describes the counter-revolutionary bourgeois political regimes:

Since the war, during which the federal electoral bodies played the part of impotent but noisy patriotic stooges for their respective ruling imperialist cliques, the parliaments have fallen into a state of complete prostration. All the important issues are now decided outside the parliament ... The real masters of the situation and the rulers of state destiny are – Lord Rothschild and Lord Weir, Morgan and Rockefeller, Schneider and Loucheur, Hugo Stinnes and Felix Deutsch, Rizello and Agnelli – these gold, coal, oil, and metal-kings – who operate behind the scenes and who send their second-rank lieutenants into parliaments – to carry out their instructions.

In the sharp class conflict of today sheer force decided everything:

There is not a single serious issue today which is decided by ballot. Of democracy nothing remains save memories in the skulls of reformists. The entire state organisation is reverting more and more to its primordial form, [that is] detachments of armed men. Instead of counting ballots, the bourgeoisie is busy counting up bayonets, machine guns and cannons which will be at its disposal at the moment when the question of power and property forms is posed point blank for decision. [25]

The decisive rampart of world capitalism was the bureaucracy of social democracy and the trade unions:

the proletariat is being thwarted in its international revolutionary actions not so much by the half-destroyed barbed wire entanglements that remain set up between the countries since the war, as it is by the egotism, conservatism, stupidity and treachery of the old party and trade union organisations which have climbed upon its back during the preceding epoch. [26]

The manifesto also deals with two key issues discussed by the Second Congress: the fight against ultra-leftism and the colonial question. For the debate on ultra-leftism, Lenin produced his famous booklet Left-wing Communism – an infantile disorder, and on the colonial question he produced theses.

On the ultra-left policy of boycotting parliament and the reformist trade unions, Trotsky declared:

Waging a merciless struggle against reformism in the trade unions and against parliamentary cretinism and careerism, the Communist International at the same time condemns all sectarian summonses to leave the ranks of the multi-millioned trade union organisations or to turn one’s back upon parliamentary and municipal institutions. The Communists do not separate themselves from the masses who are being deceived and betrayed by the reformists and the patriots, but engage the latter in an irreconcilable struggle within the mass organisations and institutions established by bourgeois society, in order to overthrow them the more surely and the more quickly ...

The soviet system is not an abstract principle opposed by Communists to the principle of parliamentarism. The soviet system is a class apparatus which is destined to do away with parliamentarism and to take its place during the struggle and as a result of the struggle. [27]

On the colonial question the manifesto emphasises the significance of the anti-imperialist struggle for the international proletarian revolution:

The toilers of the colonial and semi-colonial countries have awakened. In the boundless areas of India, Egypt, Persia, over which the gigantic octopus of English imperialism sprawls – in this uncharted human ocean vast internal forces are constantly at work, upheaving huge waves that cause tremors in the City’s stocks and hearts.

In the movements of colonial peoples, the social element blends in diverse forms with the national element, but both of them are directed against imperialism. The road from the first stumbling baby-steps to the mature forms of struggle is being traversed by the colonies and backward countries in general through a forced march, under the pressure of modern imperialism and under the leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. [28]

The manifesto also offers a devastating indictment of socialists who fail to defend the rights of oppressed nationalities: The socialist who aids directly or indirectly in perpetuating the privileged position of one nation at the expense of another, who accommodates himself to colonial slavery, who draws a line of distinction between races and colours in the matter of human rights, who helps the bourgeoisie of the metropolis to maintain its rule over the colonies instead of aiding the armed uprising of the colonies; the British socialist who fails to support by all possible means the uprisings in Ireland, Egypt and India against the London plutocracy – such a socialist deserves to be branded with infamy, if not with a bullet, but in no case merits either a mandate or the confidence of the proletariat. [29]


1*. The inclusion of the invitation in the Russian edition of Trotsky’s Collected Works [2], published in 1926, is sufficient evidence of Trotsky’s authorship; an editorial note in Lenin’s Collected Works [3], published in 1935, attributes the authorship to Lenin and Bukharin – the editorial process was by then under Stalin’s control.

2*. It should be noted that the famous quotation attributed to Lenin, according to which the most direct road for the revolution in France or Britain ought to run by way of India, is not to be found in his Works.


1. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume 1 (London 1973), pages 37-9.

2. Trotsky, Sochineniia , volume 13, pages 33-7.

3. Lenin, Sochineniia , volume 24, page 724.

4. Vosmoi sezd RKP(b) (Moscow 1939), pages 501-4.

5. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 43.

6. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 46.

7. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 47.

8. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 46-7.

9. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 48.

10. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 49.

11. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 49.

12. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 52.

13. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 53-4.

14. Sedmoi sezd RKP(b), page 138.

15. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 69.

16. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 70.

17. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 71.

18. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 86-7.

19. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, pages 61-7.

20. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 130-1.

21. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 132.

22. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 145.

23. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 133-5.

24. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 137-8.

25. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 143-4 and 147.

26. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 153.

27. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 159.

28. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, pages 152-3.

29. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 1, page 153.

Last updated on 28 July 2009