100 years after the foundation of the Communist International: what lessons can we draw for future combats? (Part 4)

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In the preceding parts of this series we have highlighted the opportunist weaknesses which were at the base of the constitution of the Communist International (CI), both on the programmatic and on the organisational levels. This part will tackle the final period of the CI as an organisation of the working class.

In the years which followed the Founding Congress (1919) and its Second Congress (1920), despite episodes of great combativity, the reflux of the revolutionary wave continued. The working class in Russia was more and more isolated, the Soviets were slowly dying, the Bolshevik Party was merging with the state, becoming more bureaucratic and losing its proletarian content. Insurrectional uprisings in Western Europe (Bulgaria, Poland and Germany)[1] were supported by the CI although conditions were becoming more and more unfavourable, ending in the disorientation and demoralisation of the proletariat.

The CI suffered from the effects of the isolation of the revolution in the sole Russian bastion and followed the same trajectory as the Bolshevik Party where the logic of the apparatus gradually worked against an authentic class policy. Its political vitality was dying, as in the Russian party which in the end led it to become a useful tool serving the imperialist interests of the Russian state. In other words, after having epitomised the highest expression of global proletarian unity in its revolutionary struggle, the CI entered a process of degeneration.

This fourth part will therefore try to show the way in which this tragic political evolution happened.

  1. The Bolshevik Party is no longer what it was

The three years of civil war between 1918 and 1920, during the course of which the White armies and foreign battalions gave the revolution a hard test, led to the Soviet Republic adopting the policy of “War Communism”. But what was only to be a number of urgent measures in order to face up to a desperate situation gave rise to a militarisation of society under the authority of the Bolshevik Party and the state. During this period that necessitated very heavy sacrifices for the workers and other social layers, we saw “a progressive weakening of the organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat (the workers’ councils) and consequently the development of tendencies towards bureaucratic institutions.” [2]

If during the whole of the civil war privations were on the whole put up with by the workers and poor peasants, it didn’t last in the new conditions. The civil war left the social situation in Russia totally drained. The people lacked everything, from food to fuel, needed to stave off the rigours of winter. From summer 1920, the first signs of discontent were emerging, notably in campaigns around the uprisings of peasants in Tambov. But agitation spread rapidly through towns where, aside from economic demands, the workers also demanded the end of War Communism. As such these strikes didn’t only express a reaction faced with the degradation of living conditions; they also marked a desire for the soviets to return to the heart of political decision-making. It is in this context that the sailors’ insurrection at Kronstadt broke out on February 28, 1921. In reaction to the brutal methods of the requisition of wheat undertaken by armed detachments, and the privations suffered by workers and peasants alike, the sailors of the warship Petropavlovsk mutinied and adopted a ten-point resolution with the principal claim being the rapid regeneration of soviet power. The revolt of the Kronstadt sailors happened “during the course of a movement of the class struggle against the growing bureaucracy of the regime, it identified with this struggle and saw itself as a moment in its generalisation”[3]  

The terrible repression that the Bolshevik Party unleashed on the revolt marked a real turning-point of the revolution. Through the execution of close to 3000 sailors, the Bolshevik Party crossed the red line by exercising violence within the working class. This dramatic policy undertaken by the only organisation, up to then, defending the revolutionary line and the communist programme marked, to a certain extent, a point of no return and a slow, irredeemable rupture between the interests of the Bolshevik Party which was assimilating itself more and more with the state, and those of the working class.

If the working class had in one sense emerged victorious from the war against the counter-revolutionary forces, the concentration of authority in the hands of the party-state duo was the other side of the coin. The dissentions within the proletarian camp on this issue, notably incarnated in the workers’ strikes in Moscow and Petrograd and the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors, were expressed even within the party from the beginning of the civil war. They were to reach their paroxysm during the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (RCP)[4] notably through controversy over the union question and the critiques of the Workers’ Opposition group notably animated by A. Kollontai and Shliapnikov. Since autumn 1920, this group within the RCP was established during the course of the debate on the role of the unions in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Although the framework for the debate remained profoundly inadequate, the position of the Workers’ Opposition was that the industrial unions would have to manage production while being independent from the soviet state[5] thus expressing “in a confused and hesitant manner, the antipathy of the proletariat for the bureaucratic and military methods which were more and more marking the regime and the hopes of the working class that things were going to change now that the rigours of the war had ended.”[6] This debate gave rise to lively polemics throughout the winter of 1920-1921 while, according to Lenin in his opening speech to the congress, the party had need for unity in its ranks more than ever: “Comrades, we have lived through an exceptional year, we have allowed ourselves the luxury of discussions and debates within our party. For a party surrounded by enemies, the most powerful and strongest enemies who group together the whole capitalist world, for a party which has borne the most incredible burden, these luxuries are really surprising (...) In any case, whatever the discussions which have taken place up to now, whatever debates are taking place amongst us, while we must face up to so many enemies, the dictatorship of the proletariat in a peasant country is an immense task, so difficult that it’s not enough that our work is formally more unified, more planned than before, that your presence here at this congress already proves; it is also necessary that there remains not the least trace of a factional spirit whatever the place and form in which it has shown itself up to the present; in any case it is necessary that these traces do not continue.”[7] Following that, the congress had to endorse the objective fixed by this opening speech through the adoption of the resolution on “party unity” ordering “the immediate dissolution of groups without exception formed on such-and-such a platform, and give instruction to all the organisations to strictly insist on the inadmissible character on all types of fractional activity. The non-execution of this decision of the congress will result in the immediate and unconditional exclusion from the party.” This decision, also defended by a majority of the CI, reflected the profound change in the way in which the party treated disagreements expressed on subjects as fundamental as the role of the trade unions for example. The forbidding of fractions within the party showed in reality a deformation of the discipline within the latter since henceforth it demanded the strict submission to the decisions of the party once they had been taken. Critiques from militants or groups were tolerated but it was formally prohibited to put up an opposition to the official party decision on the basis of an organised defence of their positions[8]. With this decision, the Communist Party of Russia abandoned a whole part of its history since it itself had led such work in fighting against the opportunism which gangrened the IInd International, leading that organisation to its own bankruptcy at the outbreak of the First World War.

A good number of dishonest and inconsequential academics and journalists saw in this affair the definite proof of the “natural authoritarianism” of Lenin and a so-called Bolshevik tyranny. In reality, this process was above everything a product of the isolation and state of siege imposed on the revolution in Russia, expressing not a “natural authoritarianism” but a real deviation of the Bolsheviks from their own history. Furthermore, as Lenin indicated, the existence of opposition groups organised in a “fraction” could be used by counter-revolutionary forces with the aim of discrediting the party. But what Lenin was no longer seeing was that while the open enemies of the revolution could point to these disagreements within the party in order to discredit it, it was all the more true that the “hidden enemy” of the revolution, the counter-revolution from the inside, was served by the forbidding of fractions as a means of entirely Stalinising the party.

It was thus the isolation of the revolution to the Russian bastion which led the RCP to turn in on itself and prioritise the interests of the party and of the state through an “iron discipline” rather than guarantee the expression of disagreements so as to participate in the clarification of fundamental political questions for the whole of the revolutionary milieu and the world working class[9]. Floating the threat of exclusion of groups defending divergent positions, the Russian party deprived itself of vitality and opened itself up to the bureaucratic spiral.

2.  “Lenin’s last struggle”

If, as we’ve indicated, Lenin defended the ban on fractions and, consequently, tried to dissuade some militants from publicly criticising the “necessary discipline”, he wasn’t slow however in taking stock of the proliferation of bureaucrats and of the danger thus weighing on the activities of the party. The tendencies to bureaucracy were a constant preoccupation of Lenin since the taking of power in October 1917. The consciousness of this scourge continued to be affirmed with the accumulation of dysfunctions and the proliferation of arrivistes and the grip of functionaries  

The different oppositions appearing during the years 1920-1921 never ceased, although in a confused manner, to warn the party against the growing weight of the “Workers’ State”[10] and of the absorption of the party into it. A mortal danger for the revolution and the party that Lenin himself exposed at the time of the XIth congress of the RCP, affirming that “erroneous relations between the party and the Soviet administrations” were being established.

The “Georgian Affair”, which broke out during 1922, allowed Lenin to take stock of the breadth of the bureaucratic gangrene. The use of violence, repression and manipulation by Grigol Ordzhonikidze (Secretary of the Transcaucasian Regional Bureau) under the orders of Stalin (Secretary-General of the RCP) against members of the Georgian party who refused to go along with the planned Constitution of the USSR[11] very much scandalised Lenin.

These brutal methods, totally foreign to proletarian and communist morals, were never before seen in the ranks of the party. They demonstrated the all-powerful nature of the party machine over its members and the disastrous evolution of the party and the state, engendering practices coming from “an apparatus which is fundamentally foreign and represent a hodgepodge of bourgeois and tsarist vestiges (...) covered only with a soviet veneer”[12].

During the last two years of his life, Lenin tried to arrest the bureaucratic drift incarnated by Stalin and his minions. After the Georgian episode, he undertook a frontal combat, openly accusing the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate led by Stalin to be “at the forefront” of the development of bureaucracy.

It is thus guided by the flame of internationalism that Lenin put his meagre forces to work in order to try and repel the Stalin’s first offensives and his doctrine of “socialism in one country”. But the totally erroneous responses that he advocated , consisting more or less of restructuring of the state, in the (illusory) expectation of a revolutionary jump-start from the European proletariat, only confirmed the irredeemable impasse in which the Russian revolution and the entire world revolution found itself.

For decades, the dominant ideology has used every means in order to establish a link between the revolutionary combat of Lenin and the totalitarian power of Stalin. But facts are stubborn! “Lenin’s Testament” contains enough to warn against the future tyrant, dismissing any legitimising of gangster methods and the chauvinistic aims of Stalin and his clique. Moreover, the “Testament” was kept under wraps for a long time and it was only after guaranteeing his total power within the party and the state that Stalin indulged in a kind of confession regarding what the document said about him.

3. The Bolshevisation of the International

Because of the victory of the revolution in Russia and the weakness of other communist parties, the RCP played a preponderant role in the formation of the Communist International, whose executive seat was based in Moscow. But this preponderance itself took a disproportionate character in the life and the functioning of the CI.

Consequently, bureaucracy and rampant authoritarianism within the RCP soon ate into the ranks of the International. Lenin was one of the few concerned about the “Russification” of the CI. He firstly expressed this at the time of the Second Congress by proposing the installation of the executive seat to Berlin, then at the Fourth Congress where he criticised the “too-Russian” character of the “Theses on the Structures, Methods and Action of the Communist Parties”, although he fully supported their content. Concerned about the too-strong “dependence” of the CI on the RCP, he exhorted the other sections of the CI to appropriate without delay all the experiences and lessons of the revolution in Russia so as to affirm its cohesion through a greater association of the different sections in the life of the party. This was also a question of guaranteeing the vitality of the International by placing reflection and the study of revolutionary experience at the centre of the activity of the sections.[13] But these working perspectives were extinguished with the death of Lenin in 1924. From that moment we see a turnaround in the CI which more progressively became a weapon in the hands of the (Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin) Troika first of all, then of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The “Bolshevisation of the Communist Parties” announced at the Fifth World Congress in July 1924 aimed to suppress all opposition, as much Trotsky and his partisans as the groups of the left: “The key word of Bolshevisation is born in the struggle against the right. Naturally it will be led against it, but also, of course, against the ultra-leftist deviations and against the pessimism which, here or there, weighs heavily on us”.[14]

This new watchword thus formed a clear expression of the tighter grip in which the Russian revolution found itself after the setback of the German proletariat in 1923 at the time of its desperate attempt at insurrection. This only accelerated the grip of the bureaucracy henceforth using its authoritarian discipline against all those who opposed or criticised the policy of the party led by the Troika first of all and subsequently by the Stalinist clique. It was thus a matter of “breaking the back” of all forms of resistance against the degeneration of the International. Alfred Rosmer, a member of the Executive Bureau of the CI between 1920 and 1921, having participated in its Second, Third and Fourth congresses, gives an informed account of the appalling policy manoeuvred by Zinoviev, then the president of the International: “Through the means of emissaries that he sent to the sections before the congress, he suppressed all opposition. Where resistance was expressed, a great variety of methods were used in order to minimise them; it was a war of attrition where the workers were beaten in advance by functionaries who, having everything to lose, imposed interminable debates; war-weary and overwhelmed by the weight of the International, all those who had made criticisms temporarily gave up or simply left”.[15]

The “Declaration of the Committee of Entente” [16], addressed to the Executive Committee of the CI in July 1925 after the Fifth Congress denounced the same aberrations: “The serious problems of fractions and tendencies within the Party, which is posed historically, both as a consequence of the policy followed and as a repudiation of this type of tactic, as a symptom of its insufficiencies that it’s necessary to study with the greatest attention, they pretend they’ve solved through orders and by threats, submitting comrades to crude disciplinary pressures, thus leaving one to think that on their personal conduct depends the entire favourable development of the Party”.

Consequently, all the militants or tendencies which subsequently expressed disagreements with the orientations defended by the party confronted the following alternative: submit or be excluded! If excluded, they were replaced in the executive organs of the CP by docile, young or inexperienced militants, very quickly becoming apparatchiks with limitless fidelity to Moscow as in the KPD or in the image of Maurice Thorez within the French Communist Party. Henceforth, the CP’s incarnated the implacable defence of the foreign policy of the Russian state instead of playing an active role in the elevation of revolutionary consciousness among the masses. The new mode of organisation of the CP’s through “factory cells” constituted a clear expression of this unfortunate evolution since it kept the workers focussed on local and corporatist problems to the detriment, evidently, of a general vision and perspective for the proletarian combat.

Stalinist propaganda largely contributed to presenting “Bolshevisation” as being in continuity with the policy undertaken by the Bolsheviks since October 1917. It was part of a long series of falsifications set up by this bourgeois clique throughout the period of counter-revolution. In reality, this watchword was a total rupture with the history and spirit of the Bolshevik Party. But much more than that, it marked a significant stage in the degeneration of the Communist International which stayed on this trajectory and became a counter-revolutionary tool in the hands of the Russian state for the preservation of its imperialist interests. Only the left fractions tried to lead a determined combat to counter this involution and keep alive the flame of internationalism and the communist programme. It is this aspect that we will tackle in the last part of this series.

(To be continued)


April 16, 2021


[1] See notably:

“The German Revolution, XII: 1. The bourgeoisie inflicts a decisive defeat on the working class”, International Review no. 98 and “The German Revolution XIII: 1923 (II). A defeat which marked the end of the world revolutionary wave”

[3] Idem

[4] This congress took place from the March 8 to 16 at the same time as the repression of the sailors at Kronstadt was taking place.

[5] Two other positions were expressed in the debate: that of Trotsky for the total integration of the unions into the “Workers’ State” and that of Lenin for whom the unions should always act for the defence of the class, even against the “Workers’ State”.

[6] “The Communist Left in Russia: 1918-1930 (part one)”, International Review no. 8, December 1976.

[7] V. Lenin, Selected Works, “The Xth Congress of the RCP”, volume III, pages 572-573.

[8] We should note however that this decision was considered to be temporary: “The forbidding of fractions was, let me repeat it, conceived as an exceptional measure called to fall into disuse with the first amelioration of the situation” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed”, 1963).

[9] The loss of political vitality and the tendency to bureaucratisation was continued through other means:

  • The congress lost part of its prerogatives for nominations to the central committee since two-thirds of its members now had the possibility of excluding one of its members in the case of disagreements with decisions.
  • The secretariat was given a growing importance in the party apparatus through the growing increase of the number of its members.

[10] The ICC rejects the conception of the “Workers’ State” which appears to us as a contradiction in terms. As we indicate in our pamphlet on The Period of Transition: “The working class does not build states because it is not an exploiting class. The state in the period of transition is inevitable but it is not an emanation of the working class. This state can represent a danger for the proletariat, trying to bind the hands of the proletariat in order to make it ‘work for others’. The working class must be free to pursue its politics including the right to strike against the diktats of the state. Wanting to confuse proletariat and state leads to the aberration of a ‘workers’ state’ which forbids the workers to rise against it. For Lenin, the Soviet state wasn’t a workers’ state proper, but ‘a worker and peasant state with bureaucratic deformations’. It was rather Trotsky, who wanted to subordinate all the workers’ organisations to the state, who talked of a ‘workers’ state’”.

[11] This plan submitted by Stalin, which Lenin opposed, envisaged autonomy to the sister republics of the federation, putting them under overall control of the Russian Republic.

[12] Quoted from P Broué, Le parti bolchevique. Histoire du PC de l’USSR, Editions de minuit, 1971, page 174. Lenin referred here more to the party than the state, but in reality the two were inter-linked.

[13]I am persuaded that in this regard we must say, not only to Russians but also to comrades from abroad, that the most important thing in the period to come is study. We ourselves are studying in the general sense of the term. They must study in a particular sense in order to really understand the organisation, the structure, the method and the content of revolutionary action” (speech of Lenin to the Fourth World Congress).

[14] Speech of Zinoviev at the Fifth Plenum of the CI, quoted from P. Broué, Histoire de l’internationale communiste. 1919-1943, Fayard.

[15] Albert Rosmer, Moscow under Lenin.

[16] This is from the left within the Communist Party of Italy which became the left fraction of the Italian Communist Party.


History of the revolutionary movement