Prof Rempel lecture: Comintern

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The Creation Of The Communist International

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


The Communist or Third International (Comintern for short) was born during the revolutionary convulsions of 1919. The First and Second Socialist Internationals had become victims of historical circumstances. Lenin felt that the revolutionary environment now called for an entirely new international communist organization that would foster working class solidarity and world revolution against the bourgeoisie.

Immediately after the revolutions of November 1918, Lenin had decided that now was the crucial moment for launching the slogan of the new international. All through the war he had stood for schism, not only from the patriots, but even from the pacifists. Now he set out to put his aim into practice. The war prisoners, some of them now trained communist agitators, were sent home with that aim. according to Lenin's wishes, and in the way already prescribed by him, they founded the communist parties of Hungary and of Austria. But in Germany they found their work not so easy.

There, the Spartakusbund had few members but a strong group of self-confident and able leaders: Liebknecht. Luxemburg, Jogiches, Leviné, Levi. Liebknecht's attitude is not known, but all the others were against Lenin's plan, some of them passionately so. They did not want an international in which the Bolsheviks would have all the power; they wanted a new revolutionary international, but would not form it before at least some strong revolutionary mass parties existed in the West. Luxemburg especially was convinced that without this being achieved before the foundation of a new international the very fact of the foundation of an exclusively Bolshevik international would deter important sections of the revolutionary movement in the West.

No contact or almost none existed at that time between Russia and the victorious countries. In Germany, the most important of the defeated countries, Lenin could get no safe foothold on account of Rosa Luxemburg's opposition. This seemed a serious obstacle indeed. But Lenin regarded Luxemburg's hesitations as sheer opportunism and decided to go ahead. The work of preparing the new international was done, quite naively at that time, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chicherin launched a wireless appeal for an international conference. Rosa Luxemburg's counter-stroke was to send two delegates, Levine and Eberlein, to this conference, but with a mandate to oppose the formation of the international and to refuse to join it, if it should nevertheless be founded.

This was on Jan. 12, 1919, amidst the turmoil of the January rising in Berlin. Three days later Rosa Luxemburg was dead. Almost her last act had been one of defiance of the Bolsheviks. Levine was stopped at the German border but Eberlein got through, a feat achieved by few. It was very difficult to reach Russia at the time, and even those who had wanted to attend were not always able do so.

Thus the Bulgarian Tesnyaki, one of the few organizations which had decided to join, were represented, not by their own men, but by Rakowski, who at the time was organizing civil war in the Ukraine. one American delegate had got through, but both Britain and France were only represented by people living in Moscow, and no organization in those countries could be regarded as safe for the new international. Both the Swedish and the Norwegian left were represented, however, the latter preparing itself to take definitely the leadership of the Socialist Party of that country. Italy and Switzerland were not represented but believed to be more or less friendly. Holland had a delegate, representing a minority group.

No Austrian delegate was present at the beginning, and Hungary was not regarded as important at the moment. A glowing account published five years after the event tells how the news of the proclamation of the dictatorship, first in Budapest and then in Munich, electrified the conference; but the memory of the author has let him down. The conference ended on March 7, while the Hungarian dictatorship was proclaimed on March 21, and the Munich dictatorship on April 7,1919.

In fact, Lenin knew that it was impossible to form an international without the Germans. But there was Eberlein, with his imperative mandate against it. All the delegates united their efforts to convince him. At first he kept to his orders, however, and the conference, instead of acting as first congress of the Communist International, had to sit as a preparatory meeting only. But on the third day arrived the Austrian delegate, Steinhart, a brilliant speaker and an enthusiast. Steinhart had traveled seventeen days, he had crossed the lines of both the Whites and the Reds at the danger of his life, and now he gave a highly colored and emotional account of the struggle of the Austrian proletariat, which, he believed, was on the point of establishing a dictatorship.

He impressed the conference deeply. Under the pressure from all sides, Eberlein gave in and consented to abstain from voting. The International was founded and a few basic planks of the platform were laid down; essential among them was the principle of the Soviet dictatorship and the duty of severing in every country all ties with both patriots and pacifists. As the newly founded International stood, there could be no doubt as to its leadership. Compared to the small groups which had joined them, the Russians were like giants to dwarfs. Moscow became the seat of the International, and Grigori Zinoviev was made its president.

It was hardly a happy choice' In the whole Bolshevik Party there was probably no man so like the mercurial Bela Kun, leader of the Hungarian communists who seized power briefly during this time. A brilliant speaker and debater, Zinoviev had the gift of dealing with various sorts of people, but an innate duplicity and love of double-dealing and intrigue very soon disgusted the most enthusiastic. He was notoriously anything but courageous, but, as is so often the case with excitable types, was capable of the wildest overrating of chances and unable to admit failure.

He had made his career in the party by boundless submission to Lenin, who found him useful because he repeated the master's ideas to the letter, but with a polemical and literary gift which Lenin did hot possess. But he had refused to follow Lenin during the decisive days. and in November 1917 had twice publicly reject d responsibility for the Bolshevik coup d'etat. This man, who was not deemed suitable for a major office in the Soviet state, was made head of the Communist International.

There was, however, no idea of Zinoviev leading the International alone. Radek and Bukharin were supposed to cooperate in every important decision. Bukharin knew the Scandinavian labor movement from his own experience, but was otherwise handicapped by his lack of linguistic ability; moreover, he was weak. Lenin appreciated him mostly as a man with gifts for abstract theory. Bukharin had opposed Lenin during the crisis of the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, where he defended resistance to the end; a course appropriate to what the French call a grand couer, but which would have brought down the Soviet regime within a fortnight.

Generally speaking Bukharin was to be ranked high by moral standards, but was no politician. He had a particularly unhappy tendency to swing from one attitude to the opposite one and to carry each of his varying attitudes to extremes. For years he was regarded as the incarnation of the extreme left within the International, to become later the incarnation of the extreme right.

Radek was of a different mold. He was a pupil not of Lenin but if Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and that he was used to close contact with the Western labor movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige' He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with rhetorical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic.

Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undeniable line between what is right and what is wrong' Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Radek formed the real day-to-day leadership of the Comintern. Occasionally Trotsky, while burdened with immense labors, lent a hand' especially in matters concerning France. Decisions of paramount important were, of course, submitted to Lenin. Thus the leadership of the International was entirely in the hands of the Russians, Radek being regarded as a Bolshevik and being a member of the Russian party. At the same time the Russians had not set free a single man of paramount capacities for this work.

Of course the people who really counted at that time, Lenin. Trotsky, Sverdlov, Dzershinski, Krassin. Chicherin, Kamienev, and many others were overwhelmed with work! but there is no safer symptom of the real scale of values of a movement than the decision as to what is of essential and what of minor importance in an emergency. The Russians sincerely believed that they were working for world revolution and regarded their own revolution as part of it. But the choice of the men they delegated for the task proved that, unknown to themselves, they were Russian nationalists who regarded --already then-the other parties as auxiliaries in their cause.

Immediately after the first congress of the International the combined offensives of Yudenich and Denikin closed the doors of Europe to Russia. During the whole decisive period of civil war the Russians hardly attempted to influence the policy of the Western communist movements. It would have been very difficult, technically, and moreover there was no time for it.

The Russians, completely cut off from the rest of the world, saw events as they wanted to see them and as the revolutionary atmosphere of their own country suggested them to be. Trotsky, in the gazette of his armored train, wrote an article in which he claimed to see the Red army, after defeating the Whites, conquer Europe and attack America And Zinoviev, in number I of the Communist International, prophesied that within a year not only would all Europe be a soviet republic, but would already be forgetting that there had there been a fight for it. Such wild prophecies contrasted blatantly with the real insignificance of the forces the International had at its command outside Russia in 1919. In Hungary only the impotent debris of a party; in Austria and Germany groups less than 5 per cent of the socialist parties of their respective countries; in England and France as good as nothing.

The Balkans seemed more hopeful, only to become a scene of defeat after a few months. The delusion of the Moscow leaders--including, of course, Lenin-- was comprehensible in the circumstances, though it was dangerous from their point of view. But it remained even after the blockade. When the material rampart was taken away, the Russians surrounded themselves with a spiritual rampart of their own making; anyway their mentality was so different from that of the West as to make a correct appreciation of its politics very difficult for them. #And the atmosphere of a dictatorial country, strictly severed from all alien currents of thought, did the rest. Those who saw the world abroad generally saw it only from the communist point of view, living exclusively among communists, who were often only an infinitesimal fraction of the population of their respective countries. This continued to be the case in later years.

If the hopes of Moscow at that period had little in common with reality, its influence was not, however, limited to the very narrow circle of those who had adhered to the Comintern at the first world-congress itself. The general prestige of the Russian revolution was strong though vague, not only at the time.

The newly founded organization of the Comintern also made some progress during the year 1919. a considerable number of recruits came in and strengthened the belief of the Russians that world revolution was quickly approaching. Only they did not always mean what the Russians believed them to mean. Lenin had conceived the Comintern as a body united in doctrine and action and strong through its unity. But the recruits to the Comintern during this first year of its existence came from the most varied quarters, and the conversions were effected for very divergent reasons and on varying and sometimes contradictory assumptions.

Of all parties and organizations which adhered in 1919 only a single one wanted to become what the Russians thought was a real communist party. This was the party of the Bulgarian Testyaki, which by tradition had been closely allied with the Bolsheviks since its foundation. The second adhesion to the Comintern after the first congress was that of a movement which had never had close contacts with Russia: the Norwegian Labor Party. This had one thing in common with the adhesion of the Bulgarian Tesnyaki; the Norwegians too controlled the bulk of them labor movement of their country, but it was a very small country indeed.

During the first year of its existence the Comintern exerted a very considerable influence upon the anarcho-syndicalists all over the world. The small group of Dutch extremists who adhered to the Comintern at the first world congress had collaborated with the Dutch anarcho- syndicalist trade unions throughout the war and continued to do so, with the full assent of the Comintern. In France, large groups of the there numerous anarcho-syndicalists within the trade unions sympathized with the Bolsheviks earlier than any other section of French labor, and when, two years later, the French trade-union movement was split, they sided with the communists. The Spanish C.N.T. (National Confederation of Labor) , the strongest anarcho-syndicalist organization of the world. adhered to the Comintern during the first year of its existence, a fact strangely contrasted with the subsequent heated enmity of the two during the Spanish Civil War.

In the United States sympathies for the Russian revolution, and accordingly for the Comintern, were very weak within the trade unions of the American Federation of Labor but very strong among the small but active ''Industrial Workers of the World". Most of the small groups in Britain which adhered to the Comintern were influenced by the anarcho-syndicalist ideas of the American IWW, notably the Scottish Shop-stewards. Why did these groups sympathize so intensely with the Bolshevik revolution during its first stage? First of all, because the anarchists, since the time when Bakunin, the founder of anarchism, had fought Marx, had predicted that the socialist mass parties of the west would ..betray''' In this basic matter anarchists and Bolshevists agreed.

The anarchists had always stood for revolution, though some of them wanted this revolution to be achieved, not by bloodshed but by the peaceful means of a general strike; this did not apply to all anarcho-syndicalists, least of all to the Spanish movement. Thus, in more than one respect, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was the fulfillment of the dreams of international anarchism. Even its form appealed deeply to them' Bakunin was the first Russian revolutionary to conceive the idea of a revolutionary movement led and directed by a small circle of select conspirators. but carried on by the spontaneous rising of the largest masses.

Finally, the Soviet regime had something deeply akin to anarchism. Had it been a persistent reality, and not an incident in the evolution of a party dictatorship, it would have been anarchism in full. For the Soviets, elected by the masses, directly responsible to them, getting no special reward for their work, locally and regionally independent, must be and were the ideal of anarchism and anarcho- syndicalism' Accordingly Lenin, as early as 1917, had expressed in State and Revolution the idea that Bolshevism, on the international battle-field, must seek the alliance of the best elements of the anarchists against the socialist traitors.

But its is obvious that the successes the Comintern scored in this milieu could not last. Not a single one of the anarchist contacts thus established lasted for more than two or three years. The anarchists broke with the Comintern in disgust as soon as the dictatorship of the party, the Cheka, and the Red Army had fully developed; admiration turned into deep hatred.

Another recruit, much more important than any other, came from Italy. Here the Socialist Party adhered en bloc immediately after having received the news of the first world-congress of the Comintern. Italy was one of the largest of European countries, and the Italian Socialist Party, which had opposed the war from beginning to end, won tremendous influence after its conclusion. Italy in 1918 remained almost as shattered as Austria and Germany,

For two years after the war things seemed to move in the direction of a revolution and the Socialist Party seemed to be the force of the coming day. During 1919 and 1920 the Italians were the chief force of the Comintern in the international arena. But this adhesion was based as little upon a real agreement of views and methods as that of the anarcho-syndicalists. In spite of a considerable number of national peculiarities the Italian socialists, on the whole, were a typical Western socialist party, with a reformist right wing, a middle group, and a small, revolutionary left wing. Internationally Lenin had founded the Comintern in order to get rid of the influence of both patriots and pacifists over the labor movement.

But nationally, in Italy, the split, which was the raison d'etre of the Comintern, was not effected. It can be said, without exaggeration, that in the Italian socialist Party there was hardly a single man who agreed with the Bolsheviks. The majority of the Italians rejected absolutely the idea of purging the party of the reformists and 'traitors'. And the small left-wing minority rejected activity in parliament, and on many other points agreed with that German 'ultra-left, wing which was excluded, a few months later, at the congress of Heidelberg. This state of things continued in the Italian Socialist Party all through the years of revolutionary excitement.

Had the Comintern taken action the difference would have become apparent at once. But it took care not to do so. Being unable to take a hand in Italian affairs themselves, the Russians welcomed the adhesion of the Italian socialists without looking too closely. Altogether they had naive illusions in those days. They were convinced that the proletarian revolution was afoot all over Europe and sweeping everything before it. Forgetting all their doctrines about the treacherousness of the socialists, they took--as Zinoviev confessed later on--even D'Arragona, the ultra-moderate leader of the Italian trade unions, who later became a Fascist, for a real Bolshevik. They were thrown hither and thither between extreme diffidence and naive confidence.



Source: Franz Borkenau, The Communist International (London, 1938)


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41



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BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
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Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
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Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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