100 years after the foundation of the Communist International: What lessons can we draw for future combats? (part II)

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In the first part of this article, we recalled the circumstances in which the Third International (Communist International) was founded. The existence of the world party depended above all on the extension of the revolution on a global scale, and its capacity to assume its responsibilities in the class depended on the way in which the regroupment of revolutionaries from which it arose was carried out. But, as we showed, the method adopted in the foundation of the Communist International (CI), favouring the largest number rather than the clarification of positions and political principles, had not armed the new world party. Worse, it made it vulnerable to rampant opportunism within the revolutionary movement. This second part aims to highlight the content of the fight waged by the left fractions against the political line of the CI to retain old tactics made obsolete by the opening of capitalism’s decadent phase.

This new phase in the life of capitalism demanded a redefinition of certain programmatic and organisational positions to enable the world party to orient the proletariat on its own class terrain.

1918-1919: revolutionary praxis challenges old tactics

As we pointed out in the first part of this article, the First Congress of the Communist International had highlighted that the destruction of bourgeois society was fully on the agenda of history. Indeed, the period 1918-1919 saw a real mobilisation of the whole world proletariat,[1] firstly in Europe:

  • March 1919: proclamation of the Republic of Councils in Hungary
  • April-May 1919: episode of the Republic of Councils in Bavaria
  • June 1919: attempts at insurrection in Switzerland and Austria.

The revolutionary wave then spread to the American continent:

  • January 1919: “bloody week” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where workers are savagely repressed.
  • February 1919: strike in the shipyards in Seattle, USA, which eventually extends to the entire city in a few days. The workers manage to take control of supplies and defence against troops sent by the government.
  • May 1919: general strike in Winnipeg, Canada.

But also Africa and Asia:

  • In South Africa, in March 1919, the tramway strike spreads throughout Johannesburg, with assemblies and rallies in solidarity with the Russian Revolution.
  • In Japan, in 1918, the famous “rice meetings” take place against the shipment of rice to Japanese troops sent against the revolution in Russia.

Under these conditions, revolutionaries of the time had real reasons to say that “The victory of the proletarian revolution on a world scale is assured. The founding of an international Soviet republic is underway”.[2]

So far, the extension of the revolutionary wave in Europe and elsewhere confirmed the theses of the First Congress:

1) The present epoch is the epoch of the disintegration and collapse of the entire capitalist world system, which will drag the whole of European civilization 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 organization of a new apparatus of proletarian power.[3]

The new period that was opening up, of wars and revolutions, confronted the world proletariat and its world party with new problems. The entry of capitalism into its decadent phase directly posed the necessity of the revolution and modified somewhat the form which the class struggle was to take.

The formation of left currents within the CI

The revolutionary wave had consecrated the finally found form of the dictatorship of the proletariat: the soviets. But it had also shown that the forms and methods of struggle inherited from the 19th century, such as trade unions or parliamentarism, were now over.

“In the new period it was the practice of the workers themselves that called into question the old parliamentary and unionist tactics. The Russian proletariat dissolved parliament after it had taken power and in Germany a significant mass of workers pronounced in favour of boycotting the elections in December 1918. In Russia as in Germany, the council form appeared as the only form for the revolutionary struggle, replacing the union structure. But the class struggle in Germany had also revealed an antagonism between the proletariat and the unions.”[4]

The rejection of parliamentarism

The left currents in the International organised themselves on a clear political basis: the entry of capitalism into its decadence phase imposed a single path; that of the proletarian revolution and the destruction of the bourgeois state with a view to abolishing social classes and constructing a communist society. From now on, the struggle for reform and revolutionary propaganda in bourgeois parliaments no longer made sense. In many countries, for the left currents the rejection of elections became the position of a true communist organisation:

  • In March 1918, the Polish Communist Party boycotts the elections.
  • On 22 December 1918 the organ of the Abstentionist Communist Fraction of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Il Soviet, is published in Naples under the leadership of Amedeo Bordiga. The Fraction sets out its goal as being to “eliminate the reformists from the party in order to ensure for it a more revolutionary attitude”. It also insists that “all contact must be broken with the democratic system”; a true communist party is possible only “if we renounce electoral and parliamentary action.”[5]
  • In September 1919, the Workers’ Socialist Federation speaks out against “revolutionary parliamentarism”.
  • The same is true in Belgium for De Internationale in Flanders and the Communist Group of Brussels. Antiparliamentarianism is also defended by a minority of the Bulgarian Communist Party, by part of the group of Hungarian Communists exiled in Vienna, by the Federation of Social Democratic Youth in Sweden and by a minority of the Partido Socialista Internacional of Argentina (the future Communist Party of Argentina).
  • The Dutch remain divided on the parliamentary question. A majority of the Tribunists are in favour of the elections; the minority like Gorter is indecisive, while Panekoek defends an antiparliamentary position.

For all these groups, the rejection of parliamentarism was now a matter of principle. This was actually putting into practice the analyses and conclusions adopted at the First Congress. But the majority of the CI did not see it that way, starting with the Bolsheviks; even if there was no ambiguity about the reactionary nature of trade unions and bourgeois democracy, the fight within them should not be abandoned. The circular of the Executive Committee of the CI of 1 September 1919 endorsed this backward step, returning to the old social democratic conception of making parliament a place of revolutionary conquest: “[militants] go into parliament in order to appropriate this machinery and to help the masses behind the Parliamentary walls to blow it up.”[6] 

The trade union question crystallises the debates

The first episodes of the revolutionary wave quoted above had clearly shown that the unions were obsolete organs of struggle; worse, they were now against the working class.[7] But more than anywhere else, it was in Germany that this problem was posed in the most crucial way and where revolutionaries managed to establish the clearest understanding of the need to break with trade unions and trade unionism. For Rosa Luxemburg, the unions were no longer “workers’ organisations, but the strongest protectors of the state and of bourgeois society. Therefore, it goes without saying that the struggle for socialisation cannot be carried out without involving the struggle for the liquidation of trade unions”.[8]

The leadership of the CI was not so far-sighted. Although it denounced the unions dominated by social democracy, it still retained the illusion of being able to reorient them on a proletarian path:

What is now to happen to the trade unions? Along what path will they travel? The old union leaders will again try to push the unions onto the bourgeois road [...] Will the unions continue along this old reformist road? [...] We are deeply convinced that the answer will be no. A fresh wind is blowing through the musty trade union offices. [...] It is our belief that a new trade union movement is being formed.”[9]

It was for this reason that in its earliest days the CI accepted into its ranks national and regional unions of trades or industries. In particular, there were revolutionary syndicalist elements such as the IWW. If the latter rejected both parliamentarism and activity in the old unions, it remained hostile to political activity and therefore to the need for a political party of the proletariat. This could only reinforce the confusion within the CI on the organizational question since it included groups that were already “anti-organisation”.

The most lucid group on the trade union question remained without doubt the left-wing majority of the KPD which was to be excluded from the party by the leadership of Levi and Brandler. It was not only against unions in the hands of the social democrats but hostile to any form of trade unionism such as anti-political revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism. This majority was to found the KAPD in April 1920, whose programme clearly stated that:

Aside from bourgeois parliamentarism, the unions form the principal rampart against the further development of the proletarian revolution in Germany. Their attitude during the world war is well-known […] They have maintained their counter-revolutionary attitude up to today, throughout the whole period of the German revolution.

Faced with the centrist position of Lenin and the leadership of the CI, the KAPD retorted that:

The revolutionising of the unions is not a question of individuals: the counter-revolutionary character of these organisations is located in their structure and in their specific way of operating. From this it flows logically that only the destruction of the unions can clear the road for social revolution in Germany.”[10]

Admittedly, these two important questions could not be decided overnight. But the resistance to the rejection of parliamentarism and trade unionism demonstrated the difficulties of the CI in drawing all the implications of the decadence of capitalism for the communist program. The exclusion of the majority of the KPD and the rapprochement of the latter with the Independents (USPD) who controlled the opposition in the official unions was a further sign of the rise of programmatic and organisational opportunism within the world party.

The Second Congress backtracks

At the start of 1920 the CI began to advocate the formation of mass parties: either by the fusion of communist groups with centrist currents, as for example in Germany between the KPD and the USPD; or by the entry of communist groups into parties of the Second International, as for example in Britain where the CI advocated the entry of the Communist Party into the Labour Party. This new orientation completely turned its back on the work of the First Congress that had declared the bankruptcy of social democracy. This opportunist decision was justified by the conviction that the victory of the revolution would result inexorably from the greatest number of organised workers. This position was fought by the Amsterdam Bureau composed by the left of the CI.[11]

The Second Congress, which ran from 19 July to 7 August 1920, foreshadowed a fierce battle between the majority of the CI led by the Bolsheviks, and the left currents, on tactical issues but also on organisational principles. The congress was held during a full “revolutionary war”,[12] in which the Red Army marched on Poland in the belief that it could join with the revolution in Germany. While remaining aware of the danger of opportunism and acknowledging that the party was still threatened by “the danger of dilution by unstable and irresolute elements which have not yet completely discarded the ideology of the Second International”,[13] this Second Congress began to make concessions regarding the analyses of the first congress by accepting the partial integration of certain social democratic parties still strongly marked by the conceptions of the Second International.[14]

To guard against such a danger, the 21 conditions of admission to the CI had been written against the right and centrist elements, but also against the left. During the discussion of the 21 conditions, Bordiga distinguished himself by his determination to defend the communist programme and warned the entire party against any concession in the terms of membership: 

The foundation of the Communist International in Russia led us back to Marxism. The revolutionary movement that was saved from the ruins of the Second International made itself known with its programme, and the work that now began led to the formation of a new state organism on the basis of the official constitution. I believe that we find ourselves in a situation that is not created by accident but much rather determined by the course of history. I believe that we are threatened by the danger of right-wing and centrist elements penetrating into our midst.[15] […] We would therefore be in great danger if we made the mistake of accepting these people in our ranks. […] The right-wing elements accept our Theses, but in an unsatisfactory manner and with certain reservations. We communists must demand that this acceptance is complete and without restrictions for the future. […] I think that, after the Congress, the Executive Committee must be given time to find out whether all the obligations that have been laid upon the parties by the Communist International have been fulfilled. After this time, after the so-called organisation period, the door must he closed […] Opportunism must be fought everywhere. But we will find this task very difficult if, at the very moment that we are taking steps to purge the Communist International, the door is opened to let those who are standing outside come in. I have spoken on behalf of the Italian delegation. We undertake to fight the opportunists in Italy. We do not, however, wish them to go away from us merely to be accepted into the Communist International in some other way. We say to you, after we have worked with you we want to go back to our country and form a united front against all the enemies of the communist revolution.[16]

Admittedly, the 21 conditions served as a scarecrow against opportunistic elements likely to knock on the door of the party. But even if Lenin could say that the left current was “a thousand times less dangerous and less serious than the error represented by right-wing doctrinarism”, the many regressive steps on the question of tactics strongly weakened the International, especially in the period to come, which was characterised by retreat and isolation contrary to what the CI leadership thought. Inexorably, these safeguards did not allow the IC to resist the pressure of opportunism. In 1921 the Third Congress finally succumbed to the mirage of numbers by adopting Lenin’s “Theses on Tactics”, which advocated work in parliament and the unions as well as the formation of mass parties. With this 180° turn, the party was throwing out of the window the 1918 programme of the KPD, one of the two founding bases of the CI.

The CI - sickness of leftism[17] or opportunism?

It was in opposition to the KPD's opportunist policy that the KAPD was born in April 1920. Although its program was inspired more by the theses of the left in Holland than those of the CI, it requested to be attached immediately to the Third International.

When Jan Appel and Franz Jung[18] arrived in Moscow, Lenin handed them the manuscript of what would become Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, written for the Second Congress to expose what he saw as the inconsistencies of the left currents.

The Dutch delegation had the opportunity to take note of Lenin's pamphlet during the Second Congress. Herman Gorter was commissioned to write a reply to Lenin, which appeared in July 1920 (Open Letter to Comrade Lenin). Gorter relied heavily on the text published by Pannekoek a few months earlier entitled World Revolution and Communist Tactics. It is not necessary to go back over the details of this polemic here.[19] However, it must be pointed out that the different issues raised echo perfectly the fundamental question: how did the entry into the era of wars and revolutions impose new principles in the revolutionary movement?? Were “compromises” still possible?

For Lenin, left-wing “doctrinairism” was a “childish sickness; “young communists”, still “inexperienced”, had given way to impatience and indulged in “intellectual childishness” instead of defending “the serious tactics of a revolutionary class” according to the “particularity of each country”, taking into account the general movement of the working class.

For Lenin, to reject work in the unions and parliaments, to oppose alliances between the communist parties and the social democratic parties, was a pure nonsense. The adherence of the masses to communism did not depend only on revolutionary propaganda; he considered that these masses had to go through “their own political experience”. For this, it was essential to enrol the greatest numbers in revolutionary organisations, whatever their level of political clarity. The objective conditions were ripe, the path of the revolution was all mapped out...

However, as Gorter pointed out in his reply, the victory of the world revolution depended above all on the subjective conditions, in other words on the ability of the world working class to extend and deepen its class consciousness. The weakness of this general class consciousness was illustrated by the virtual absence of a real vanguard of the proletariat in Western Europe, as Gorter pointed out. Therefore, the error of the Bolsheviks in the CI was “to try to make up for this delay through tactical recipes which expressed an opportunist approach where clarity and an organic process of development were sacrificed in favour of artificial numerical growth at any cost.”[20]

This tactic, based on the quest for instant success, was animated by the observation that the revolution was not developing fast enough, that the class was taking too long to extend its struggle and that, faced with this slowness, it was necessary to make “concessions” by accepting work in trade unions and parliaments.

While the CI saw the revolution as a somehow inevitable phenomenon, the left currents considered that “the revolution in Western Europe [would be] a long drawn out process” (Pannekoek), which would be strewn with setbacks and defeats, to use the words of Rosa Luxemburg. History has confirmed the positions developed by the left currents within the CI. Leftism was therefore not a “childish sickness” of the communist movement but, on the contrary, the treatment against the infection of opportunism that spread in the ranks of the world party.


What lessons can we draw from the creation of the Communist International? If the First Congress had shown the capacity of the revolutionary movement to break with the Second International, the following congresses marked a real setback. Indeed, while the founding congress recognised the passage of social democracy in the camp of the bourgeoisie, the Third Congress rehabilitated it by advocating the tactic of allying with it in a “united front”. This change of course confirmed that the CI was unable to respond to the new questions posed by the period of decadence. The years following its founding were marked by the retreat and defeat of the international revolutionary wave and thus by the growing isolation of the proletariat in Russia. This isolation is the decisive reason for the degeneration of the revolution. Under these conditions, badly armed, the CI was unable to resist the development of opportunism. It too had to empty itself of its revolutionary content and become an organ of the counter-revolution solely defending the interests of the Soviet state.

It was in the very heart of the CI that left fractions appeared to fight against its degeneration. Excluded one after the other during the 1920s, they continued the political struggle to ensure the continuity between the degenerating CI and the party of tomorrow, by learning the lessons from the failure of the revolutionary wave. The positions defended and elaborated by these groups responded to the problems raised in the CI by the period of decadence. In addition to programmatic issues, the lefts agreed that the party must “remain as hard as steel, as clear as glass” (Gorter). This implied a rigorous selection of militants instead of grouping huge masses at the expense of diluting principles. This is exactly what the Bolsheviks had abandoned in 1919 when the Communist International was created. These compromises on the method of building the organisation would also be an active factor in the degeneration of the CI. As Internationalisme pointed out in 1946: “Today we can affirm that just as the absence of communist parties during the first wave of revolution between 1918 and 1920 was one of the causes of its defeat, so the method for the formation of the parties in 1920-21 was one of the main causes for the degeneration of the CPs and the CI”.[21] By favouring quantity at the expense of quality, the Bolsheviks threw into question the struggle they had fought in 1903 at the Second Congress of the RSDLP. For the lefts who were fighting for programmatic and organisational clarity as a prerequisite for CI membership, small numbers were not an eternal virtue but an indispensable step: “If ... we have the duty to confine ourselves for a time with small numbers, it is not because we feel for this situation a particular predilection, but because we have to go through it to become strong” (Gorter).

Alas, the CI had been born in the storms of revolutionary combat. In these conditions, it was impossible to clarify overnight all the questions it had to confront. Tomorrow's party must not fall into the same trap. It must be founded before the revolutionary wave breaks, relying on good programmatic bases but equally on principles of functioning reflected on and clarified beforehand. This was not the case for the CI at the time.


July 8, 2019.


[1] See our article “Lessons of the revolutionary wave 1917-1923”, International Review n° 80, 1995.

[2] Lenin, closing remarks at the First Congress of the Communist International, in J. Riddell (ed.), Founding the Communist International, Anchor, 1987, p. 257.

[3] “Invitation to the First Congress of the Communist International”, in J. Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-1943, Documents, Cass, 1971, p.2.

[4] The Dutch and German Communist Left, ICC, p.136.

[5] The Italian Communist Left, ICC, p.18.

[6] The Dutch and German Communist Left, p.137.

[7] See “Lessons of the revolutionary wave 1917-1923”, International Review n° 80.

[8] Quoted by A. Prudhommeaux, Spartacus Et La Commune De Berlin 1918-1919, Ed. Spartacus, p.55 (in French).

[9] “Letter from the ECCI to the trade unions of all countries”, in Degras, op. cit. p.88.

[10] “1920: the programme of the KAPD”, International Review no 97, 1999.

[11] In autumn 1919 the CI set up a temporary secretariat based in Germany, composed of the right wing of the KPD, and a temporary bureau in Holland that brought together left-wing communists hostile to the KPD's rightward turn.

[12] This “revolutionary war” constituted a catastrophic political decision which the Polish bourgeoisie used to mobilise a part of the Polish working class against the Soviet Republic.

[13] Preamble to the “Conditions of Admission to the CI”. In Degras, Op. Cit., p.168.

[14] This is what Point 14 of the “Basic Tasks of the Communist International” stated: “The degree to which the proletariat in the countries most important from the standpoint of world economy and world politics is prepared for the realisation of its dictatorship is indicated with the greatest objectivity and precision by the breakaway of the most influential parties in the Second International – the French Socialist Party, the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany, the Independent Labour Party in England , the American Socialist Party of America – from the yellow International, and by their decision to adhere conditionally to the Communist International. […] The chief thing now is to know how to make this change complete and to consolidate what has been attained in lasting organisational form, so that progress can be made along the whole line without any hesitation.” (in Degras, Op. Cit., p. 124).

[15] Respectively the social patriots and the social democrats: “these supporters of the Second International who think it is possible to achieve the liberation of the proletariat without armed class struggle, without the necessity of introducing the dictatorship of the proletariat after the victory, at the time of the insurrection” (see note 16).)

[16] Speech of Bordiga on the conditions of admission to the CI, Second Congress of the Communist International, Volume One, 1977, pp.221-224.

[17] This term corresponds here to the left communist current which appeared in the CI in opposition to the centrism and opportunism that grew within the party. It has nothing to do with the term for the organisations that belong to the left of capital.

[18] These are the two delegates mandated by the KAPD at the 2nd CI Congress to outline the party's programme.

[19] For more details see The Dutch and German Communist Left, “Chapter 4: The Dutch Left in the Third International".

[20] Ibid.p.150.

[21] Internationalisme, "On the First Congress of the Internationalist Communist Party of Italy", in International Review no 162, 2019.


History of the Working Class