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1923 - 1933: Collapse of the Third International

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Conceived in war, born in revolution, the Third or Communist International came to an ignominious end in yet another war, in 1943. Its degeneration, which set in after its 4th Congress in 1922, was rooted in defeats for workers internationally and in the triumph of Stalinism in the USSR.

The Communist International - often called the Comintern - was formed in the first years of the Russian Revolution. Its first congress took place in March 1919. The International began its life, as Leon Trotsky wrote, with the “revolutionary charge” of the October Revolution. The existence of the Third International was always intimately entwined with the fate of this revolution.

In the first years of its existence, the Comintern was the motor force for many significant achievements for the world working class - the defence of the October Revolution in Russia against imperialist encirclement and internal counter-revolution; the establishment of communist parties around the world; the development of revolutionary policy on the trade unions; the struggle against imperialism and national oppression; the building of revolutionary women’s and youth movements; the tactic of the united front and the workers’ government; and many other issues.

The Communist International set out both to defend the October Revolution in Russia and to spread the revolution internationally. In the first few years both seemed possible, even inevitable. For the Bolsheviks these aims were inextricably linked. They saw their revolution as only the bridgehead, the first step of a world revolution. Speaking at the Third Congress in 1921, Lenin said:

"It was clear to us that without aid from the international world revolution, a victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible. Even prior to the revolution, as well as after it, we thought that the revolution would also occur either immediately or at least very soon in other backward countries and in the more highly developed capitalist countries, otherwise we would perish. Notwithstanding that conviction, we did our utmost to preserve the Soviet system under any circumstances and at all costs, because we know that we are working not only for ourselves but also for the international revolution."

In the early years of the Third International the prospects for the spread of international revolution seemed excellent. Workers in the more developed capitalist countries emerged from the First World War revolted by the senseless slaughter of that war and inspired by the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia. In Bavaria and Hungary there were briefly soviet governments. In Trotsky’s words soon after the end of the war, Russia’s western horizon seemed to blaze red with the fires of revolution.

Tactical retreat
The Third Congress in June 1921 took place in an atmosphere of retreat and partial defeats. At the time of the Second Congress the Red Army, attacked by the Poles at the instigation of French imperialism, repulsed them and went over to the offensive, striking towards Warsaw. Lenin’s hope was that the Polish workers would rise in revolution and that a link could be made with the German Communists who had recovered from defeat and were becoming stronger and stronger. It was not to be. The Red army had to retreat from Poland, which from now on was in the hands of a solidly pro-imperialist government.

In 1920 too the Italian workers suffered a major defeat that was to pave the way for Mussolini’s rise to power. In March 1921 another premature rising in Germany, organised by the CP, had been put down. “The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany, we shall perish.” Lenin’s words spoken over three years earlier, months after the October Revolution must have hung heavily on the International’s delegates meeting in the summer of 1921.

Within Russia itself the Bolsheviks were also forced to execute a strategic retreat on a political, economic and international level. Revolt against the privations and restriction of four years of civil war was evident in the Kronstadt rising of 1921 and the challenge from within the Bolshevik Party of the Workers’ Opposition, which included such leading figures as Alexandra Kollontai. In response, at the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921, the leadership introduced a ban on political factions within the party. This was declared to be only a temporary limitation on democratic centralism. But it introduced a party regime where internal debate was to become increasingly difficult - eventually impossible. The temporary ban was never lifted.

At the economic level, the Bolsheviks were forced to make a major concession to the market economy, i.e. capitalism, with the New Economic Policy (NEP). Following the ravages of imperialist war, the civil war with the brutal but unavoidable measures of ’war communism’, the Russian economy was on its knees; industry was grinding to a halt. In the period after the revolution production of steel had fallen from 4.2 million tonnes to 183,000 tonnes. In the countryside food production was falling to starvation levels.

The NEP aimed at encouraging the peasants to produce food for a controlled private market. It achieved some rapid and spectacular results. The economy was stabilised. In 1922 and in 1923 industrial production doubled. But there was a cost. The restoration of elements of the markets led to an expansion of power of the rich peasants or Kulaks. Whilst food production improved, sections of the peasantry were able to “enrich” themselves and they provided a social base for right wing elements within the Communist Party.

At a social level, another very significant phenomenon was occurring - the growth of a powerful bureaucracy. This came partly from the old Tsarist state bureaucracy, which the civil war and the decimation of the working class had made impossible to replace with workers’ self-administration. But it came in part from the hundreds of thousands of working class party members drawn into state and military administration. Only the expansion of the productive forces in Russia and therefore of the working class and the spread of the revolution to advanced capitalist countries could have offset or reversed this tendency to bureaucratisation.

On this basis workers’ democracy, real power of the soviets over the state and the economy could have flourished and dissolved the growing caste of bureaucrats. Neither occurred in time. This bureaucracy was to provide the social base for the development of Stalinism. Lenin had accepted that economic policies such as NEP were a step back, not a step on the road to socialism. And the longer they waited on that road, the larger the bureaucracy would become.

Trotsky used the analogy of the policeman to explain the role bureaucracy plays: “The basis of bureaucratic rule is poverty of society in objects of consumption with the resulting struggle of each against all.” If we have only a limited supply of goods, then the workers must queue. If the workers queue, a policeman is required to keep order in the queue. The workers hate the queue; the policeman owes his livelihood to the queue. Who wants to keep the queue? The bureaucrat."

The retreat could also be seen at an international level. The Soviet Union began to protect itself and re-establish trade relations with a flurry of international treaties with their erstwhile imperialist enemies. After the revolution, foreign trade had fallen from 2.9 billion roubles to 30 million. In the early months of 1921 the Soviet government signed treaties with Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Britain. In April 1922 they signed the Rapallo Treaty with Germany.

The Bolshevik Party itself had not emerged unscathed from the civil war. Tens of thousands of the most experienced and committed revolutionaries and the vanguard of the workers in the factories had been killed fighting to defend the revolution in the civil war. In the last days of Lenin’s conscious life he became alarmed at the spread of bureaucratisation in the state and the party. He tried to alert Trotsky to this danger. The latter was slow to act, but when finally convinced put himself at the head of an anti-bureaucratic Left opposition. Following the death of Lenin, party membership was opened up in the so-called ’Lenin Levy’.

The promoter of this policy was Grigory Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International. His close ally Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin formed a block to exclude Trotsky from any effective say in the direction of the Russian Communist party or the International. Rather than attacking bureaucracy and promoting a revival of party and soviet democracy, they defended the bureaucratic regime.

The levy flooded the party with tens of thousands of new members, some extremely opportunist and owing their positions to the new bureaucrats. By 1929, of the 1.5 million members of the CCCP only 8,000 had joined the party before 1917 and only 130,000 had joined before the end of the civil war.

As events across the world, and particularly in Germany, failed to spread the revolution outside of Russia, so the Russian CP increasingly dominated the leadership of the Comintern. And the increasing dominance of the Stalinist clique and their theory of socialism in one country then led to disastrous policies within the International, which in turn led to appalling defeats.

Every defeat strengthened the bureaucracy, the Stalinists and the right wing within the Bolshevik Party. Each defeat weakened the revolutionary opposition that looked to international revolution to strengthen the struggle for socialist development in a backward and isolated Russia. As Trotsky recognised, the defeat of the German revolution in 1923 which ended a mighty revolutionary period in that country, had disastrous consequences for those who were attempting to organise against the development of the bureaucracy under Stalin.

In The Third International After Lenin he said: “The first onslaught against the opposition was perpetrated immediately after the defeat of the German revolution and served, as it were, as a supplement of this defeat. This onslaught would have been utterly impossible with a victory of the German proletariat which would have raised extraordinarily the self-confidence of the proletariat of the USSR and therefore also its power of resistance to the pressure of the bourgeois classes, internally as well as externally, and to the party bureaucracy which transmits this pressure."

The Fifth Comintern Congress in June 1924 revolved around the international response to the defeat of the German Revolution. The International began to turn against some of the key programmatic gains established by the Fourth Congress such as the theses on the united front and the workers’ government tactic. It was at the Fifth Congress that Zinoviev, not Stalin, first characterised social democracy as a wing of fascism - “social fascism".

One of the key decisions of the Fifth Congress was the move to ’Bolshevise’ the CPs outside of Russia. From this point on the International, rather than being a genuine forum of debate and discussion distilling the lessons of the struggle from all over the world into policies and tactics, became a means of imposing the party line and regime of the Russian party on those in every other country. This shift at an organisational level was soon to be codified at the theoretical level by Stalin as he and his clique developed the theory of socialism in one country. Completely contradicting the internationalism of Lenin, the Stalinists now began to argue that it would be possible to build a socialist society in one country, provided that this country was protected against intervention and invasion from capitalism.

All opposition to the new theory was to be stamped out. In December 1925 at the Fourteenth Congress of the Soviet CP, Stalin, in alliance with the right wing under Bukharin, defeated the centre-left around Zinoviev. Although Zinoviev’s prestige as the leader of the Comintern had been utilised to defeat the Left Opposition in 1923/4, he was now surplus to requirements. Zinoviev was quickly removed as head of the International and Bukharin put in charge.

The Anglo-Russian committee
The consequences of the growing hegemony of Stalin and socialism in one country was soon to be experienced in the role of the British Communist Party in the General Strike of 1926.

With the support of the Communist International the British Communist Party helped establish the Anglo-Russian Committee in 1925. This was a bloc between the British TUC and the Russian Trade Unions. For the TUC leaders an alliance with the soviet trade unions provided them with prestige and a left cover - if the soviets were willing to join with them, how could they possibly betray the workers? The British CP was forced to curtail its criticism of the TUC leaders.

In 1926 Stalin explained the role of the Anglo-Russian Committee thus: “The task of this bloc consists in organising a broad movement of the working class against new imperialist wars and generally against an intervention in our country (especially) on the part of the mightiest of the imperialist power of Europe, on the part of England in particular.” Its task was to help defend Russia, not aid the British class struggle.

Predictably, when the TUC was forced into calling a general strike in support of the miners in 1926 it shamefully sold out the strike within nine days despite its being absolutely solid. The miners were forced to fight on alone and go down to defeat.

The defeat of the British General Strike was soon overshadowed by a greater betrayal in China. In the early 1920s the Chinese communists, with the International’s approval, had joined the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) alliance. The KMT received Russian military aid and support in its fight to free the country from warlordism and imperialist occupation. But Stalin and Bukharin turned this united front against imperialism into an alliance that subordinated the Chinese communists to the bourgeois leadership of Chiang Kai Shek. In the words of a Comintern Executive resolution from 1926 the KMT was “a revolutionary bloc of workers, peasants, intellectuals and urban democracy” which was fighting for a “revolutionary-democratic government".

Despite increasing repression of Communists by the KMT the CI insisted on maintaining the alliance. In 1926 the Politburo of the Russian CP even voted for the KMT to be admitted to the CI with only Trotsky voting against. In April 1927 as the KMT-led armies approached the city of Shanghai the workers rose up, led by the CP, and overthrew the warlord regime. Chiang Kai Shek, when his forces had entered the city, proceeded to massacre the communists and the trade unionists, showing the imperialists that China was ’safe’ in his hands. The Chinese CP took nearly two decades to recover from this defeat.

The theory of socialism in one country at an international level was nothing less than a disaster for the world working class. The theory established a vicious circle from which the Comintern could never escape. The Soviet Union must be protected, the working class struggle in other countries must be subordinated to the interests of the Soviet Union, and then the resulting inevitable defeats of the working class meant that greater effort was needed to protect the Soviet Union.

As Trotsky pointed out in his criticism of a draft programme written by Bukharin for the Sixth Congress of the International:

"The new doctrine proclaims that socialism can be built on the basis of a national state if only there is no intervention. From this there can and must follow (notwithstanding all pompous declarations in the draft program) a collaborationist policy towards the foreign bourgeoisie with the object of averting intervention, as this will guarantee the construction of socialism.... The task of the parties in the Comintern assumes, therefore, an auxiliary character; their mission to protect the USSR from intervention and not to fight for the conquest of power."

Trotsky used the preparation for the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 as a final chance to expose the Stalinists criminal policies. Trotsky was now ousted from the leadership and expelled from the party on trumped-up charges. He criticised the draft programme, which codified the policy of socialism in one country within the International. The new programme concluded that socialism was indeed possible in one country alone:

"Hence it follows that the international proletarian revolutions must not be regarded as a single, simultaneous, and universal act. Hence it follows that the victory of socialism is at first possible in a few, or even in one isolated capitalist country."

As Trotsky pointed out the second part of this formulation would suggest that somehow countries developed not unevenly but entirely independently from each other.

Trotsky’s appeal against his expulsion from the International was rejected at the congress, as were his criticisms of the draft programme. But his final attempts to challenge Stalinism from within were not entirely useless. At the congress one of the delegates serving on the programme commission, James P. Cannon, was very impressed by Trotsky’s arguments. Later he was to become a key figure in building the Trotskyist movement in the United State.

At the very point at which Trotsky had been politically defeated, his analysis of the problems facing Russia was vindicated. The longer-term effects of NEP were providing the material base for the emergence of a vast bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. As the richer peasants, the Kulaks, grew richer, industry began to lag behind. One of the key questions for the Left Opposition in 1923 was the need for a massive industrialisation directed by a democratic plan. Trotsky warned of a potential ’scissors crisis’ as agricultural prices rose and industrial production fell. He was to be proved correct. 1928 saw the realisation of Trotsky’s prediction of a scissors crisis. The Kulaks were hoarding food in the countryside in order to increase prices and avoid only getting the prices set by the government. Meanwhile workers in the cities began to face the prospect of hunger if not starvation.

The response of Stalinism to the crisis was a 180 degree turn against the peasants, a ferocious zigzag characteristic of the way in which Stalin changed the ’party line’. Stalin broke with Bukharin and the right centrists and adopted a crude, distorted version of the solution proposed by the Left Opposition five years earlier - industrialisation minus workers democracy. A policy of forced collectivisation was introduced, a virtual civil war against the peasants, causing massive dislocation in the rural economy. Militarised methods of working were introduced to increase industrial production, and bureaucratic planning with a complete absence of any democratic control by the workers, dominated the economy - a system that was to become famously able to put a man into space but not to supply an equal number of left and right shoes!

The zigzag internally was reflected internationally. The Sixth Congress in 1928 introduced the ’Third Period’ into the policy of the Comintern. The period of capitalist stabilisation was over, the final crisis of capitalism was at hand. The social democrats, now characterised as ’social fascists’, became the main enemy rather than the fascists and the united front could only be entered into “from below” by ignoring and going around the existing leaders of the workers movement. By now the Comintern had become little more than the foreign policy arm of the Soviet state and the new line was duly implemented by subservient CPs around the world.

The German disaster
In the early 1930s the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party commanded far more electoral support than the German fascists. However, the Comintern policy on ’social fascism’ meant that the German communists did not call for and build a united front with other workers’ organisations. The working class forces were divided and separately they were not able to physically confront and smash the fascists. Of course, the Social Democrats were equally to blame for this disaster, clinging to policies of collaboration with the Liberals and even conservatives to block the road to fascism by coalitions with the bourgeoisie.

The leaders of the German CP, under the guidance of the International, were almost blasé about the fascist threat. According to their worldview, if the crisis of capitalism got deeper, if the capitalists were forced to overthrow a democratic government and install a fascist one, then this was simply a sign that things were developing in a way favourable to communist forces. Remmele, one of the leading members of the German CP, said “Let Hitler take office, he will soon go bankrupt, and then it will be our day."

For many, including Trotsky, this was the final act of betrayal. Millions were to die as a result of Hitler’s rise to power; the German Communist Party, one of the largest parties in the CI, was annihilated. In 1933 Trotsky declared that the Communist International was dead for revolution. He turned his efforts to building a new International. The Fourth International was founded in 1938.

The Third International was to continue for another ten years and yet another 180 degree turn was on its way. When the reality of the Nazis in power and the threat they posed to the Soviet Union finally became clear to Stalin, the International was abruptly dragged from the ultra-left back to the ultra-right. In 1934 Stalin signed a pact with France, the Stalin-Laval pact, ending a year later in the policy of the Popular Front, which would continue up to the start of the Second World War and, with a brief intermission, to the final years of the CI.

The policy of the popular front was formally adopted by the Seventh Congress of the Third International in 1935. Under the terms of the popular front, the Soviet Union would unite with the anti-fascist forces of the bourgeoisie. Of course, this was never to be a unity of equals. The communist parties in the imperialist countries were ordered to do nothing that would offend the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile the bourgeoisie were more than happy to use the communist parties to obstruct any and every aspect of class struggle against their governments.

In 1936 a massive French strike wave was derailed in order to protect the popular front. The French workers were amongst the first to suffer; many more would follow. In the Spanish Civil War, the popular front policy led to the CP’s siding with the anti-Franco bourgeois forces. And they did not simply support the bourgeoisie but actively fought the revolutionaries, disarming and disbanding workers’ militias and workers’ councils, slaughtering those militants, revolutionaries and anarchists who refused to toe the line.

In his most comprehensive work on the rise of Stalinism and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky encapsulates the role that the International was to play in its final years: “The less the Communist International is capable of threatening the positions of capital, the more political credit is given to the Kremlin government in the eyes of the French, Czechoslovak, and other bourgeoisies. Thus the strength of the bureaucracy, both domestic and international, is in inverse proportion to the strength of the Soviet Union as a socialist state and a fighting base of the proletarian revolution."

Once war broke out, Stalin fulfilled his role of protecting capitalism internationally. In the USA and Britain strikes which of course would harm the war effort were condemned. In India the national liberation struggle had to be sacrificed for the sake of protecting the alliance with the British. In his final act of betrayal, Stalin had the Third International formally dissolved in May 1943. In practice it had been dead for a decade.

Could the terminal decline of the CI have been avoided? Almost certainly, the history of the Comintern would have been very different if the German and other revolutionary situations had come to fruition in the 1920s. And history may have held a different story if the Left Opposition had succeeded in the battle against the bureaucracy and shifted the forces of revolution into expanding industrial production and democratic planning in 1923/4.

However, once the Stalinists had taken power in the USSR and were able to run Soviet policy according to the theory of socialism in one country, the fate of the Communist International was sealed. The triumph of this theory sounded the death knell for the international.

The Stalinists tied the International and the future of the world working class hand and foot to the international bourgeoisie. The working class paid dearly for the betrayal. Trotsky wrote in the Revolution Betrayed “The Third International was born of an indignant protest against social patriotism. But the revolutionary charge placed in it by the October revolution is long ago expended.”

When the great revolutionary powerhouse of October shut down, the lights of the Comintern, which should have shone like a beacon, went out.