The Comintern: Lessons and Contemporary Relevance

Radical, the Bangla journal of Radical Socialist, had organised a meeting today, 22nd November 2019, on The Communist International: Its Lessons and Contemporary Relevance. The speakers were Partha Ghosh of the CPI(ML) Liberation, Parthasarathi Dasgupta of RSP, Srideep Bhattacharya of the CPI(M) and Professor Sobhanlal Duta Gupta. Below I give the edited text of my talk as coordinator, in which I tried to raise some of the key issues. 

Kunal Chattopadhyay


Welcome to today’s discussion. We have organised this not out of some historical curiosity, nor for pedantic reasons. We sincerely believe that all forces claiming to be Marxist in Indi are facing not merely short term political problems but a deep ideological-political crisis, and that discussions have to be held across organisational boundaries over many of these ideological issues. We have attempted such dialogues in the past, as with the discussion over fascism when we published a collection of essays. We believe that today’s discussion is no less important. That is why we went for large scale campaigns instead of trying to hold a small round table meeting in a room. We have also published on this occasion a pamphlet containing thee essays by John Riddell, one of the foremost authorities on the early Comintern, who has been responsible for the translation of all the major texts and debates from the foundation of the Comintern to its Fourth Congress, and one essay by noted scholar and activist Paul Le Blanc. 

As coordinator, I propose to raise a number of issues. It is not that every speaker must address every aspect. But I believe all of these to be vital issues. I hope that many of them will be discussed today, and that the audience will continue to think over them after the meeting.

Let me say that there are many vital points, and I can therefore barely mention them now, and connect them to the class struggle of the present time. There is the question, first of all, about the relationship between Internationalism and International Organisations. Do we need an International organisation to have effective internationalism? Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin clearly thought so. The later Communist International, by dissolving itself, and the main currents of communist parties worldwide thereafter by their practice, have showed they think differently. Which position is valid? The Bund der Kommunisten, despite being mainly an organisation of German communist workers, wrote its Manifesto with an internationalist perspective. And its members joined workers organisations in other countries wherever they lived. In 1864, when the International Workingmen’s Association was founded, Marx drafted its rules, and wrote in the preamble: 

“That the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries;

That the present revival of the working classes in the most industrious countries of Europe, while it raises a new hope, gives solemn warning against a relapse into the old errors, and calls for the immediate combination of the still disconnected movements”;

And these views were accepted by English trade unionists, French Proudhonist anarchists, German communists, and soon by workers in many other countries. This suggests that within advanced sections of the working class this was a widely held idea, not a sectarian gospel imposed by this or that group. And as far back as 1871, we find Marx on behalf of the General Council of that International, writing, evidently to an English worker in Calcutta, that setting up a section of the International in India should involve bringing in Indian workers as well. 

When the Second International was founded, it was a more Marxist international. And the debates and conflicts in it actually showed that internationalism and consistent left wing politics went together. Thus, it was the rightwing non-Marxist socialist Ramsay Mcdonald who objected to Madam Cama speaking at the Stuttgart Congress. In the same Congress it was the then left wing Kautsky who condemned colonialism while the rightwing van Kol defended a so-called socialist colonial policy for Africa. The lesson, for us in a non-imperialist country, is that without active, organised internationalism, can there be real, consistent anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism in the belly of the east? Ask yourself – leftists are ranged on opposing sides over the anti Assad struggle. Leftists are divided over Bolivia, even, with some feeling that criticising the shortcomings of Morales is more important than building resistance to the coup. Unless we have a structured forum for international discussions, how do we organise international solidarity over major issues like these? Closer to home, who other than communists have a real interest in talking about the democratic rights of Kashmiris, anywhere in the world? Not the US, not Pakistan government, not other governments taking positions for diplomatic reasons.

Founding and dissolving the Comintern:

This was the internationalist heritage that Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and other left wing communists felt was betrayed in 1914, when most parties of the Second International in their majority supported their national rulers in World War I. Each of them, right from 1914, were discussing when and how to form a Third, Communist international. The debate was over tactical questions, not the principle. As Luxemburg famously said – The International is the Fatherland of the Working Class. 

Yet in 1943, the Communist International dissolved itself, claiming that it had served its purpose. Had it? The letter that went out to invite communists to come together had talked about coordination of communist activity under a common leadership. The Manifesto of the First Congress stressed that real equality of nations was not possible without proletarian revolution and proletarian internationalism. So this is a clear issue in debate. Can real internationalism exist without a revolutionary workers’ international?  Do we need discipline in that International? What kind of discipline – the one that existed in 1919-1923 or the one that began to be imposed in the name of Bolshevization by Zinoviev and Stalin? Or do we say that no international is needed – let each party in each country go its own way? Would that not raise national patriotism above internationalism? 

What were the aims of the Communist International, and what was it not? A routine bourgeois claim is that from the beginning the communist International was a tool of soviet foreign policy. There have been three kinds of responses. One is to deny that there was ever a stage when that happened. A second one is to accept that under Stalin that happened, and that is why it is not a good idea to have an international. A third position is to argue that the early experience of the international shows why having an international was valuable and why we should even now strive to rebuild an international. It fought for a unity of revolutionaries – coming from social democratic, anarchist, syndicalist, and other traditions. Today, once more, we have a deeply fragmented social and political left. Not all even call themselves communists. Do we think there is a need to unite them? Do we need an international and structured discussion over issues coming up in every country or not? They range from what is Leninism really about and is it valid? What is the nature of imperialism today? What is the relationship between special oppression and class (race, caste, gender, sexuality, etc). In India, we are facing the painful reality that significant social movements see the Marxist left as irrelevant or even as opponents – for example large Ambedkarite Dalit movements, Adivasi struggles, LGBTIQ struggles – even though in many cases concrete battles have been fought by the left. These issues are coming up in various countries. Do we need the experience of Bolivia, where the first nation (our Adivasi) is the majority or not? Do we need to learn about transgender struggles and the class struggle or not? And are we going to leave that to academics in Universities, or go back to activist –thinkers, which is what Marx, Engels, the younger Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Gramsci and others were? The Comintern holds a lesson for us. Do we want to take it?

Achievements of the Congresses:

We need to look at the concrete experience of the work of the International to judge these issues. It held Seven World Congresses. The tradition in which Radical places itself sees the first four Congresses as fundamentally positive. That does not mean that every semi colon of every document of that period is valid today. But it means, as John Riddell and his collaborators have shown through their decades long work, that in that period, there was real, vibrant democracy. There was a massive debate over everything. And the Bolsheviks did not use their numerical strength to push through lines. There are clear traces of negotiations in how the documents were drafted and amended, how lines were modified. At the same time, the work can be divided into two phases. The first two congresses brought the communist forces together. The third and the fourth congresses saw that there existed a left tendency hat thought communists alone could make the working class revolution, and sought to correct this by calling for a turn to the masses. This led to sharp debates. On one hand there was a conflict between those who thought that any participation in bourgeois parliaments, bureaucratic trade unions, etc were signs of degeneration and those who saw these as necessary work. On the other hand there was a serious attempt at understanding on the part of some of the Russians, like Lenin and Trotsky, that tactics suitable for Russia were not always suitable elsewhere. But they were also concerned that the elections plus trade unionism, the tried and tested tactics of the second international, needed to be overcome for a revolutionary line. Rosa Luxemburg, working in the German Social Democratic Party long before the war, was better aware of this dimension, and her The Mass Strike was an attempt to break out of this false orthodoxy. Out of these twin concerns were born the tactics of the working class united front. This was the idea that when capitalism was on the offensive a united front of all working class organizations could halt them, snatch some small victories, change the attitude of workers, show them that communists were serious about class unity, and begin a fresh tide towards revolutionary politics. But today, in India, we seem to have returned to that old duality. Either we talk about immediate armed struggle. Or we talk about nothing but elections and the annual ritualised general strike.

The United Front – From The ECCI and the Fourth Congress to the Fifth, sixth and Seventh:

But this immediately brings us to several sharp disputes which we need to consider. The United Front, discussed by the ECCI and then by the Fourth Congress, was not interpreted in the same way by all. Lenin, Trotsky, Zetkin, and others had one understanding. The aim of the UF as they saw was to wage defensive struggles of the working class in alliance with other working class parties and mass organisations. Victories in defensive struggles could lead to radicalisation of the workers and also make the communist politics mre acceptable to many still attached to the Social Democrats. At the fifth Congress, which Zinoviev called the Congress of Bolshevisation, Zinoviev and Stalin had a different understanding, which was for a more rigid tactics where the main task of the UF was seen simply as exposing the social democrats. This hardened at the Sixth Congress to the so called United Front from Below, which meant no UF with leaders of the reformist parties, but a rhetorical call to their cadres to break and join with the communists.  This led to the crushing defeat at the hands of Hitler.

Social fascism, and change in the Colonial Policy:

Of course, this leads to two other issues of the Sixth Congress – the view that all parties other than the communists were fascists, the Social Democrats being social fascists, and actually more dangerous than the Nazis. And there were the colonial theses, so different from the national and colonial documents of the Second and the Fourth Congresses. 

Finally, after Hitler’s defeat, there was a swing, not to the working class UF, but a very different UF propounded by Dimitrov. Its variant for India was the famous Dutt Bradley thesis. Saumendranth Tagore, delegate to the Sixth Congress, was critical of the colonial Thesis. He was also opposed to Dimitrov’s line of the UF. In France, in Spain, this line was put into action. Left wing critics argue that it led to a disaster. It led to Franco’s victory, because the Popular front tried to placate capitalists and ended by disarming the revolutionary anarchist and POUMist workers of Barcelona. 

This is a matter of much debate. Not only supporters of Stalin, but those who believe that Diimitrov posed a challenge to Stalin in some way, will differ from my assessment. But this is hardly a historical curiosity. Today, we have all three trends. There are those on the left who think we need an all-out alliance with every anti-BJP party in the name of a United Front. Let us remember that each time this has been done, there have actually been a strengthening of the right – as in the Left support to UPA I leading to the weakening of the left thereafter. There are those who call for a working class UF. And there are those who argue that the CPI(M), or the Left Front as a whole, is social fascist, so to call for a working class UF is to succumb to unity with revisionism and social fascism. 

The dissolution of the Comintern

Why was the CI dissolved? Was it to keep the imperialist allies of the USSR happy? Was it because it had served its purpose? Let us remember, the dissolution was not through a fresh world congress. It was done by the Presidium of the ECCI. The resolution read in part

The world war unleashed by the Hitlerites still further sharpened the differences in the conditions in the various countries, drawing a deep line of demarcation between the countries which became bearers of the Hitlerite tyranny and the freedom-loving peoples united in the mighty anti-Hitler coalition. Whereas in the countries of the Hitlerite bloc the basic task of the workers, toilers and all honest people is to contribute in every conceivable way towards the defeat of this bloc by undermining the Hitlerite war machine from within, by helping to overthrow the Governments responsible for the war, in the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition the sacred duty of the broadest masses of the people, and first and foremost of progressive workers, is to support in every way the war efforts of the Governments of those countries for the sake of the speediest destruction of the Hitlerite bloc and to secure friendly collaboration between the nations on the basis of their equal rights.

First, this shows that class terms had disappeared in favour of tyrants versus freedom loving people, etc. Second, this leads us to ask why this change happened. This goes back to the 6th Congress. That Congress adopted a programme calling for Socialism in One County. If that happened, Trotsky said, a case today valid for USSR would be valid tomorrow for others and would lead to national communism everywhere. So internationalism and class struggle would give way to nationalism.

Finally, the text quoted shows that in the so-called anti-Hitler bloc, the struggle against imperialism was not paramount. At the same time, the resolution insisted that situations were different in each county that is why an international was not needed. This raises the question – were situations less different in 1919? And this also raises a very important question for India. It shows that the decision to oppose the Quit India Movement, the decision to support the British government, was not some silly mistake made by the CPI leaders. That it was in fact the line of the Communist International. This brings us to the questions – (a) can we have a communist line that does not prioritise class struggle in one’s own country, (b) can such class struggle be successful if it does not try to become hegemonic, i.e., national in the best positive sense, (c) does this not prove that an international is a bad idea? Or does this, instead, raise questions about the nature of democratic centralism on an international level and the relationship between workers’ state and revolutionary parties that need much more serious debate?

Communist Women’s International

One more question is of extreme importance, so I want to raise it here. In the period up to the middle 1920s, the CI played a great role in developing an autonomous communist women’s movement – the Communist Women’s International. From 1924, Clara Zetkin was clearly feeling a pressure. This is evident from how she writes the Reminiscences of Lenin, invoking Lenin to stress the need for an autonomous communist women’s mass organisation. But gradually, over the next three years or so, it was shut down. So was the Soviet Zhenotdel by the end of the 1920s.This brings up the question – was there a uniform communist gender and sexuality policy? Or is it possible to argue that both revolutionary Russia and the international communist movement was more radical in the period 1918-1925 and grew into accommodating a kind of left wing but patriarchal line in the subsequent period? Recovering that heritage is important if we want to participate in the mass feminist and Queer movements and to make them a living part of the socialist struggles. We need to acknowledge that large sections of the left took a hostile position to the feminist demand for autonomous movements, terming it separatism, petty bourgeois. We need to understand that our rejection of struggles to express sexuality by asserting that it is unimportant stems from our accepting compulsory heteronormativity, something that early years of Soviet power was breaking with. In today’s world where will we stand? Will we be part of new LGBTIQ struggles, will we fight for parties that are feminist as well as revolutionary, or will we retreat behind the conservative position of the later Comintern and the later , Stalin era USSR, where sexist, heterosexist, and family ideology dominated politics were restored? 

Internationalism and International Organisation Now

Finally – what of now? Is it enough to have periodic exchanges, international meetings? Or does the nature of globalized world capitalism, the global climate change threat, the global rise of ultra right, fascistic or ultra nationalistic forces, call for a revival of more concrete forms of organisational coordination – certainly, not micro internationals, but mass international organisations to coordinate real internationalist struggles. To explain this, let me highlight how differences can occur. When in the name of forcing the Germans to pay the indemnity, the French imperialists occupied the Ruhr, the Communist International called for united response across Europe. In the Ruhr, fraternization with the French troops was an important component in drawing a political line against the German nationalists (and Social Democrats), and the KPD youth achieved some success in such efforts. The French Communists, working with the Communist Youth International, vigorously campaigned against the occupation; propaganda was distributed to soldiers in both French and Arabic. At the same time, the KPD rejected nationalism. When German Chancellor Cuno called for a vote of confidence on his “passive resistance” policy in the Reichstag on January 13, the KPD parliamentary fraction demonstrated and voted against him. By contrast, in the 1970s, with ‘independent’ communist parties, the trade disputes of the European Economic Community saw the French and the Italian Communists opposing each other over export quotas of French and European wine. 

An international today cannot punish, as if it is handling a disobedient criminal. But it can bring persuasion in a systematic way. It can coordinate information and action in a disciplined way. This is our perspective. But as with all the issues I have raised, this needs debate and discussion.