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1919: Founding of the Third International

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The Early Years
The guns, mortars and rifles that opened fire in 1914 shattered not only the lives and limbs of a generation of young soldiers. The Second (Socialist) International itself collapsed under fire.

The major “socialist” parties, the German Social Democrats (SPD), the Austrian Socialists, the British Labour Party and French Socialists, pledged their loyalty to their own ruling classes. They enthusiastically urged the workers of their countries to support the imperialist carnage in the name of “defending the fatherland”.

In place of internationalism they urged “patriotism”. In place of class struggle they urged support for the national war efforts and voted for war credits to the capitalist governments. In place of solidarity they urged workers to shoot their brothers and sisters in other countries.

This betrayal had been long prepared by the reformist leaders. The great parties of the Second International had of course declared their opposition to war, even as late as the 1912 Basle Congress. But the resolutions turned out to be a facade of fine words. What lay behind them were bureaucratic apparatuses that had already made their peace with capitalism and set their sights on steady reform within it rather than a struggle to overthrow it.

But almost immediately a socialist opposition arose, small at first, that opposed both the war and the Social Democratic leaders’ capitulation to the imperialist warmongers. This opposition did not emerge suddenly and out of nowhere. A left wing had been developing inside the Second International to counter its drift towards reformism, not only around the question of war but on almost every aspect of Marxism, from theory through to strategy and tactics in the class struggle.

The left wing of the Russian social democrats, the Bolsheviks, joined with the left of the German SPD, led by Rosa Luxemburg, to fight this opportunist trend. As early as the Stuttgart Congress of 1907, where the fight against war was a major issue, Lenin commented: “the remarkable and sad feature was that the German Social Democracy, which hitherto had always upheld the revolutionary standpoint in Marxism, proved to be unstable, or took an opportunist stand.” Even so, the speed and extent of the collapse into “social patriotism” in August 1914 shocked Lenin and the left of the International.

In response the Bolsheviks issued a statement in September 1914, accompanied by an article by Lenin that outlined a revolutionary position on the war. It characterised the war as imperialist and declared that it “had placed on the order of the day the slogan of socialist revolution.” It called on the workers to turn this imperialist war into a “civil war” against their own rulers.

Lenin wrote: “The second international is dead overcome by opportunism. Down with opportunism, and long live the Third International ...To the Third International falls the task of organising a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie in all countries for the capture of political power, for the triumph of socialism.”

In September 1915 the Italian and Swiss socialists convened an anti-war conference that met at Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The gathering included not just the left but also a “centre” current of socialists. This grouping opposed the war from a pacifist perspective and resolutely opposed Lenin’s call to break completely with the opportunists of the Second International whoum he stimatised as “social partiots”.

The majority at Zimmerwald voted to reject the Bolshevik position of turning the imperialist war into a civil war. After a series of stormy debates, the Bolsheviks eventually voted for the declaration against the war that came out of the conference. They saw it as “a call to struggle” and a first step. They established a Zimmerwald Left, which issued its own statements alongside the majority and acted as an organising centre for the revolutionaries.
As Trotsky later noted: “In Zimmerwald Lenin was tightening up the spring of future international action. In a Swiss mountain village he was laying the cornerstone of the revolutionary International.”

The Zimmerwald movement, as it came to be called, rallied increasing support as the horror of the war hit home. Along with the Italians and the Swiss, other important forces, including the Norwegian Labour Party, the Swedish Left Social Democrats, the British Independent Labour Party and of course the German left came over to the movement. Karl Liebknecht and Otto Ruhle, both Social Democratic members of the German parliament, had broken with the party’s leadership and were using their parliamentary positions to denounce the war and mobilise opposition. On Mayday 1916, 50,000 Berlin workers demonstrated against war and for socialism.

The Russian revolutions
The opposition to the war was given an enormous boost by the two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The October revolution especially, which brought the Bolsheviks to power and led to the withdrawal of Russia from the war, raised the standard of working class internationalism and inspired workers everywhere to join the revolt.

By January 1918 mass strikes, with munitions workers to the fore, spread across Austria, Poland, Hungary and Germany. Two million workers were involved. These strikes were contained but in November the German fleet at Kiel mutinied. Workers’ and soldiers councils sprang up throughout Germany, the Kaiser abdicated and power fell into the hands of the workers’ councils with the German Social Democrats at their head.

The war had split German Social Democracy three ways. Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht had formed the German Spartakists, which became the German Communist Party (KPD) at the end of 1918.

The social patriotic leaders had forced a split on the reluctant “centre”, as leaders like Kautsky and Hugo Haase moved to oppose the war in 1916. They formed the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), a centrist party that vacillated between reform and revolution, but one which grew to several hundred thousand members when the revolution broke out in Germany. The SPD itself, now firmly in the grip of the right, proceeded to become the hangman of the German revolution.

In Austria too, the right-wing socialist leaders were placing themselves at the head of the mass movement that demanded an end to war, empire and capitalism itself. And, as in Germany, their aim was to curb that movement, destroy its revolutionary potential and save capitalism. The Austrian socialist leader, Otto Bauer, explained this new counter-revolutionary role of social democracy with candid accuracy: “The Social Democrats alone could put a stop to the stormy demonstration by means of negotiation and remonstrance. The Social Democracy alone could negotiate with the unemployed, could manage the People’s army, could restrain the masses from revolutionary adventures which might have been conducive to revolution. How deeply the bourgeois social order had been affected was best shown by the fact that the bourgeois governments, without the participation of Social Democrats had become an impossible proposition.”

A leader of the right-wing German National People’s Party echoed Bauer’s analysis but from the vantage point of German big business: “A government without the Social Democrats during the next two to three years seems to me quite impossible, since otherwise we shall stagger from general strike to general strike.”
And so it proved to be. In Germany, Austria and Hungary workers rose, formed soviets and declared war on capitalism. In each case, notwithstanding the weakness of the revolutionary elements and the mistakes they made, the principal determining factor proved to be the old parties of the Second International.

They joined multi-party, cross-class national governments. They took over police forces or supported monstrous para military forces, such as the German

Freikorps of former soldiers, which marched through Germany smashing working class resistance and murdering working class fighters and leading Marxists such as Luxemburg and Liebnecht.

Everywhere the reformists joined hands with the bourgeoisie and set about brutally crushing the international revolution that threatened capitalism across the whole of Europe.

In the war the reformists were the recruiting sergeants for the capitalists. In the revolutions that followed the war they became its bought and paid for executioners, gunning down workers and revolutionary socialists. Reformism had demonstrated in practice that it was now not merely against revolution – it had become the bourgeoisie’s best means of smashing revolution.

To counter the reformists, to provide leadership for the revolution, Lenin urged that a new International be created as quickly as possible.

The Bolsheviks, now renamed the Russian Communist Party, took the lead in convening a conference to found a third, Communist International. An appeal was broadcast by radio from Moscow on 24 December 1918. Lenin had proposed to invite all those groups and parties who wanted “to break with the social patriots”, who wanted the socialist revolution now and “stood for the dictatorship of the proletariat” and for soviet power.

In practice, because of the continuing military action in parts of Europe and the widespread revolutionary turmoil few parties were able to assemble in Moscow for the founding congress, eventually convened in March 1919. Russia was being blockaded and attacked by the western armies of intervention. Only 35 voting delegates were present, as opposed to the hundreds at the Second International gatherings. Aside from the Russian Communists the most important parties represented were from Germany, Norway, Sweden and the Balkans.

The assembly opened in early March under pictures not only of Marx and Engels but also of the martyred Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Both had been murdered in January 1919 by troops brought into Berlin by the SPD government to crush an attempted rising by the Spartakists and the Berlin shop stewards’ movement.

The German Communists, represented by Hugo Eberlein (the other delegate had been arrested before getting out of Germany) had already discussed the question of founding of the new international. While Luxemburg considered it “absolutely necessary” she and the party leadership, prior to her murder, had been against the conference declaring a new international immediately. The German Communists felt that a number of communist parties needed to be founded before an international could be proclaimed.

Such was the Bolsheviks’ respect for the German party that, despite their firm belief that an international should be formed immediately, they agreed to make the conference a preliminary one, rather than a founding one.

However, this initial decision was reversed when Gruber and his fellow Austrian delegate arrived after struggling for 17 days to get to Moscow. A delegate later recalled “they had travelled on locomotives and on tenders, on springs and on cattle wagons, they had tramped, had got by trickery through the front lines of Petlioura and Polish bands…Gruber hardly takes time to wash and runs to the Kremlin to be the sooner among his comrades, to help raise the standard of a new, a third International, truly revolutionary.”

Gruber’s news of revolutionary upheaval across the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian empire and of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Vienna electrified the pre-conference. A proposal was put to form the new International immediately. While Eberlein abstained he promised to try to win the German Party round to the decision when he returned home. Every other delegate voted to found the Communist International (Comintern) there and then. A new movement of global import was born.

The decision to found the new international was quickly confirmed as correct. Several large workers’ parties joined within months of the declaration – the Socialist Party of Italy, the Norwegian Labour Party, the Bulgarian Party, the German Communists and so on. Three others, the French Socialist Party, the USPD and the British ILP, broke with the Second International and entered into discussions with the Third.

In October 1919, the Danish Socialist Youth broke away from the parent party and affiliated to the Communist International. A month later the delegates of 14 revolutionary youth groups claiming 300,000 members united in the Communist Youth International.

By contrast, the Second International convened in July 1919, was a flop. Of the major European countries only two – Britain and Germany – sent delegations. And its message to the world working class was to make peace with the capitalist warmongers, who had overseen four years of unprecedented carnage and to make war on revolutionary Russia.

World Party
The Communist International was not simply a body that would pass resolutions and issue proclamations. It was to become a means for implementing them internationally. It was to become a real world party, organising and directing action around the world. It was to become the first truly global International of the working class.

In this task, in just over a year, it was to prove enormously successful. When the Communist International convened on 19th July 1920 for its second congress it was a very different and much stronger organisation. There were 217 delegates representing 67 parties and organisations from over 40 countries.

The delegates to the Comintern’s second congress met for nearly three weeks, convening in the Throne Room of the Kremlin’s imperial palace. In a side room delegates sometimes took catnaps in the former Tsar’s bed – it could hold five of them at a time! And the Tsar’s throne acted as a clothes tree, heaped with jackets and hats.

In a smoking room nearby there was a large map of western Russia and Poland. Poland, encouraged by the French government, had attacked the soviet Ukraine. With the attack having been repulsed, the delegates could track the progress of the Red Army as it struck back into Poland, arrows recording the advance towards Warsaw and eventual defeat.

But serious work was being done at the meeting, which in many ways was the real founding congress of the new International.

The revolutionary upsurge had continued across Europe as the impact of the post-war crisis was felt. A Hungarian soviet republic had come into being weeks after the first congress, in which the young communist party held power in alliance with the social democrats.

The republic was drowned in blood as the imperialist allies armed the counter-revolution to crush it. A soviet republic formed in Bavaria in 1919 suffered a similar fate. In Italy in 1919-20 the government faced an accelerating crisis. Peasants occupied the land and the workers organised wave after wave of mass strikes. In April 1920, the Turin workers declared a general strike in defence of factory committees and occupied the factories.

Once again Germany was the centre of attention. After the crushing blow delivered to the Spartakists and the Berlin workers in early 1919 right-wing sections of the military overplayed their hand. The Kapp putsch of March 1920 ousted the SPD in Berlin and tried to establish a dictatorship. Only the resolute action by the SPD and USPD-led trade unions in declaring an indefinite strike saved the day. Faced with paralysis and growing armed clashes the coup was defeated and the workers’ movement emerged with renewed confidence.

Opening the Second Congress, Zinoviev recalled his prediction at the founding congress that “all Europe would be soviet within a year”. “In reality”, he now said, “it would probably take not one year but two or three for all Europe to become a soviet republic”. This was not just empty rhetoric; the left was gaining strength across Europe.

The capitalists faced ever-deeper political and economic crises, especially in the defeated countries as the victorious powers exacted economic and political revenge through the Versailles Peace Treaties. The manifestos of the first two congresses reflected this – it was the period of the offensive; soviet power was the order of the day.

And the Second Congress was very much the war council of the revolutionaries to discuss, plan and execute this offensive. It was a real working body, which started welding together the new forces that were being drawn to revolutionary communism under the impact of the Russian revolution.

It fulfilled the promise of the First Congress, a promise summed up by Trotsky in his article of March 1919, Great Days: “The Tsars and priests – ancient rulers of the Moscow Kremlin – never, we must assume, had a premonition that within its grey walls would one day gather the representatives of the most revolutionary section of modern humanity. Yet this did occur ...The revolutions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the tempestuous sweep of the soviet movement and of civil war, sealed by the martyrdom of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and many thousands of nameless heroes, have demonstrated that Europe has no roads different to Russia. Unity in methods of struggle for socialism, disclosed in action, guaranteed ideologically the creation of the Communist International and at the same time made it impossible to postpone the convocation of the Communist congress. Today this congress convenes within the Kremlin walls. We are witnesses to and participants in one of the greatest events in world history ...What a joy it is to live and fight in such times!”

The First Congress develops the communist programme
Among the resolutions passed by the First Congress was a set of Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In these theses, introduced and written by Lenin, the Russian Communists tried to distil some of the lessons of soviet democracy and explain why it was superior to parliamentary democracy.
This was a vitally important question. Soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils) were being formed right across Germany and Austria, as well as in new states like Hungary.

The German Social Democrats were denouncing the Bolsheviks as anti-democrats for disbanding the Russian Constituent Assembly in 1918 and handing all power to the soviets. They were trying to weaken or disband the workers’ councils in Germany by convening a National Assembly. The SPD leadership had declared in the midst of the November 1918 revolution, “All power to the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies? No. We reject the idea of the dictatorship of one class if the majority of the people are not behind that class.”

The theses replied to such wilful misconceptions, “it is not a question of ‘dictatorship in general’ but of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, i.e. the proletariat, over its oppressors and exploiters…History teaches us that no oppressed class ever did, or could, achieve power without going through a period of dictatorship i.e. the conquest of political power and the forcible suppression of resistance always offered by the exploiters, a resistance that is most furious and stops at nothing.”

They also attacked the ideas being put forward by the USPD leaders that somehow workers’ councils and the National Assembly could co-exist “peacefully” together. This was actually a project designed to rescue the bourgeoisie’s power base while gutting the councils of any real power.

The Congress Manifesto, written and moved by Trotsky, declared: “Our task is to generalise the revolutionary experience of the working class, to cleanse the movement of the disintegrating admixture of opportunism and social patriotism.” This was true throughout the period of the revolutionary Comintern, as the Communist International came to be known.
The first congress also debated its attitude towards other socialist currents. It recognised, without hesitation, the true nature and role of the reformist social chauvinists. Events had revealed this all too clearly. Perhaps more important was the attitude it adopted to those socialists who wished to keep a foot in both camps – the so called centre.
It opened the door of the new International to these forces, but it did so on the basis of calling on them to break decisively with the Second International and to declare unambiguously in favour of soviet power. And, in its Manifesto, it made clear that this was no purely “theoretical” question. The fight for soviet power was now the task of the hour:
“Socialist criticism has sufficiently denounced the bourgeois world order. The task of the international Communist Party is to overthrow this system and construct in its place the socialist order.”

The experiences of the Bolshevik party and the successful tactics it developed were little known to the masses now rallying to communism and the Third International. The role of soviets and soviet power, revolutionary strategy in situations of dual power, the opposition to workers’ representatives entering radical governments, the use of the united front in the struggle for power, developing a revolutionary approach to national self-determination in multi-national states, communist principles in relation to war and proletarian tactics to break up the bourgeois armed forces – all these questions had been addressed by the Bolsheviks in the course of three revolutions, dating from 1905, and a successful insurrection.

The strategy and tactics needed to be generalised and developed in the debates and resolutions of the new Communist International and to become a guide to action for the national communist parties. The next three congresses of the Comintern set about performing this task.