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The Communist International between hope, heroism, and failure
Lutz Brangsch is a research fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.
Soviet poster commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Comintern. Ivan Vasilyevich Simakov [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The documents and history of the Communist International (Comintern) have been made available to the German-speaking public in extensive publications put out by Russian and German scholars such as Alexander Vatlin, Vladislav Hedeler and Bernhard Bayerlein. Anyone who rummages through these volumes is likely to be stunned by the contradiction between the inspiring effect this organization had on the Bolsheviks and other left and left-bourgeois movements on the one hand, and how it was instrumentalized by certain interest groups, or rather by the interests of the Soviet state, on the other. These are questions that arise frequently in one form or another and which repeatedly challenge criticisms of the conceptions of organization, solidarity, and internationalism for which the Comintern stood.
The internationalist commitments of the workers movement that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels set out in the Communist Manifesto were not invented by them, but were already characteristic of proletarian life. The social democratic parties claimed to uphold this tradition until the beginning of the first world war. The reality of the Second International, however, was resolution, not action. It was only logical that this tradition would go on to found a new international after the war. The communist parties that emerged from the split with the old reformist social democracy were not the only ones who pushed for international cooperation. The old social democratic parties, discredited by their active support for the path to war trodden by “their” governments, also revived the idea of an international. The founding of the Comintern did not split the left but gave the really existing division an organizational expression. It united the forces whose internationalist positions made them a minority after 1914.
A Fruit of War
The foundation of the Comintern was in every respect a fruit of the war. The Comintern was intended to be a radical critique of the “old” social-democratic policies and at the same time consistently put the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist rule at the centre of politics. The idea of a permanent civil war against capital, inspired by the civil war raging in Soviet Russia in 1919, dominated the founders’ thinking. The Comintern re-introduced the question of direct solidarity within the proletariat. The emphasis was on “direct” forms of solidarity, i.e. not mediated through apparatuses, as had been the case in the Second International. Transforming the parties into sections of a world party in the image of the Bolshevik Party was seen as the way forward. Cadre policy, education, strategy development and financing were centralized in Moscow.
However, in March 1919 there could be no talk of a network of established communist organizations. The routes to Moscow were largely blocked, and so the inclusion of participants was haphazard and arbitrary. Only two organizations sent delegates who were in fact able to make the journey from their respective countries. The others were emigrants who were “marshalled” by the apparatus of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) more or less at random. In Lenin’s view, the young Communist Party of Germany (KPD) should be the Russian Communists’ most important partner. However, the KPD was critical of the idea of such a formation at that time. Rosa Luxemburg justified her rejection of an association on the grounds that the masses still had no organizations which would allow them to decide on the creation of a new international themselves. In accord with his mandate, Hugo Eberlein abstained as representative of the KPD in the vote on the founding of the Comintern.
This also suggests that due to the continuity of the personnel, the birth of the Comintern carried within itself the conflicts of the war and pre-war period; both in its relationship to social democracy as well as internally, within the left-wing opposition. It was not only a question of the relationship to a socialist revolution in general or the Russian revolution in particular, it remained rooted in the practical organizational logic of the Second International’s decisive weakness: its orientation towards the party apparatuses. Rosa Luxemburg had repeatedly brought up her criticism of the dominance of apparatuses within the parties of the Second International, and her rejection of a hasty founding of the Comintern was faithful to this position. The course of events was to prove her right. Over time, and as a result both of the Comintern’s ties to the Soviet national interest and of the country’s isolation, this dominance would become even stronger.
Conflicts on Two Fronts
With that, two conflicts that were to shape the history of the Comintern had been defined. On the one hand there is a conflict with social democracy, which after the war became a largely unconditional stabilising force for the bourgeois system in many countries. Social democratic party interests merged with state interests. The Comintern, for its part, promoted and organized the same merger with respect to the international communist movement’s relationship to the state interests of Soviet Russia or the Soviet Union.
The second conflict concerns the character of socialist revolution and hence also the character of a communist party. This was linked to Luxemburg’s criticism of the Russian revolution in 1917. A critical view of the Russian revolution and its lessons was impossible because of the protagonists’ close identification with the Soviet national interest. Just as in the 1920s every criticism of the Comintern and Soviet Russia was interpreted as a form of unreserved support for capital and thus for counterrevolution, so every criticism of actually existing socialism would eventually meet the same fate.
But the expediency of this question also allowed the Comintern to break new ground in its analysis of modern societies, in attempts to actually combine anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles, in discussions of the role of women in social struggles, in the development of very practical everyday solidarity, and in other areas—regardless of how successful they may have been. The Comintern’s magazines and publishing houses played an important role in disseminating knowledge of society and of social struggles in other parts of the world, and in developing the movement’s own culture. Communists from other countries were given the opportunity to study in the Soviet Union. However, it became clear that the post-Lenin leadership of the Bolsheviks primarily viewed this side of the Comintern’s work instrumentally. The homogenization of cultural production and its orientation towards the interests of the Soviet state had begun with Bolshevization; now the financial resources of the Soviet Union were used to push the process further. To maintain one’s career within the party, it became increasingly important to have “good connections to Moscow”.
This entanglement of state and movement interests caused considerable difficulties for the individual parties in some cases. Thus the KPD was faced with the impossible task of bringing Germany’s arms and military cooperation with the Soviet Union into alignment with its own antimilitarist course. The shift from the idea of a united front to that of social fascism had disastrous consequences in the resistance against the emerging fascism. The three-way commitments to the Bolshevik party model, the national interest of the Soviet Union and material dependence on Soviet finances formed the Comintern’s Bermuda Triangle.
The Comintern apparatus and the leaders of its various sections were directly involved in the internal conflicts in the Soviet Union from the end of the 1920s onward. The attempts to regulate the communist movement through finances and ideology were supplemented by the physical annihilation of possible opponents of the Stalinist line. Starting in 1930, these apparatuses were dominated by a climate of fear and self-censorship. This experience determined the behaviour of communist functionaries in the post-war period as well.
The Long Shadow of the Comintern
The Comintern was thoroughly shaped by the conditions it emerged out of: the logic of war and civil war. The elementary question, still relevant today, is: why was it never able to be overcome? The Comintern disappeared just as it had emerged: unspectacularly and in silence. Reading the May 1943 diary entries of chairman Georgi Dimitrov, one finds that at the beginning of the month the business of the Comintern seems to be running smoothly. On the evening of May 8th, the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, the Comintern representatives of the Bolsheviks Manuilsky and Dimitrov meet for a night-time discussion. They reach the conclusion that the organization has become an obstacle to the independent development of its member parties. The functions that had been useful from a Soviet point of view had become part of the Soviet apparatus. The real political issue is not the dissolution, but the lack of any discussion about it. However, the anchoring of the communist movements in the resistance to fascism opened new horizons for alliances and new paths towards a different society. The fact that they were unsuccessful is also due to the fact that a critique of the Comintern remained impossible even after its demise.
The end of the Comintern led back to its beginning: the Comintern had always claimed that the proletarians themselves should be the ones to organize the revolutionary struggle. In fact, all that remained of that struggle was that a new apparatus was created, which now, after 24 years, could simply disappear. The moral of the story: internationalism by proxy is impossible.
Translation by Hunter Bolin & Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective