In March 1919, the founding congress of the Communist International called on workers of the world to unite 'under the banner of workers' councils and the revolutionary struggle for power'.
The appeal succeeded beyond its founders' expectations. During the year that followed, organisations representing millions of workers on several continents declared support for the new International.
Indeed, the International noted in August 1920 that the statements of support it was receiving had become 'rather fashionable'. In conditions of capitalist collapse and near civil war across most of Europe, some working class leaders whose course was far from revolutionary felt compelled to pay lip service to the new International.
Many figures who had betrayed the working class during the First World War were knocking at the International's doors. But little progress had been made in organising revolutionary-minded working people outside Russia to contest the power of the employing class.
Events in Germany, where a workers' and soldiers' revolution had overthrown the monarchy in November 1918, were instructive.
In the early months of 1919, Germany's capitalist rulers, aided by the Social Democratic Party, had been able to provoke workers into premature armed conflicts, one city at a time, with no concerted national response. Capitalist terror claimed the lives of hundreds of working class fighters, including the central leaders of the German Communist Party.
In Hungary, the unreadiness of local communists contributed to the overthrow of a revolutionary government in 1919 by invading armies, after four months' rule.
The challenge before the International's Second Congress, held in Moscow from 19 July 1920 to 7 August 1920, was to explain how revolutionary forces could unite worldwide in building organisations with a leadership capacity comparable to that of the Bolshevik Party, which had headed the struggle for soviet power in Russia.
Delegates came from 37 countries, representing not only small groupings but also several parties with tens of thousands of members and strong ties with the broad working class movement.
Currents with many contrasting viewpoints attended, including representatives of left wing social democratic parties in France, Germany, and Italy that were wavering between a revolutionary and a pro-capitalist course.
In the free-wheeling congress debate, some of these figures tried to paint up their credentials by raising 'leftist' criticisms of Bolshevik policy, chiding them for encouraging Russian peasants to divide up great estates, or for supporting national liberation movements in the British, French, and other colonies.
The congress began by explaining the need for all the revolutionary forces in each country to unite in a party. 'Every class struggle is a political struggle' that 'has as its goal the conquest of political power,' the congress theses stated. And power 'cannot be seized, organised, and directed other than by some kind of political party' that serves as a 'unifying and leading centre' for all aspects of working class struggle.
Such a party represents the most revolutionary part of the working class, the theses stated. But the communist party 'has no interests different from those of the working class as a whole' and is active in all broad organisations of working people, including in the rural villages.
The party must be governed by 'democratic centralism', exemplified by the Bolshevik Party of the time, which assured full internal democracy in reaching decisions, but demanded unity in applying them.
The Bolsheviks insisted that the revolutionary movement must be cleansed of the pro-capitalist current that had led the Socialist International to disaster in 1914. In line with this thinking, the congress took special measures to fend off opportunist leaders seeking to find a niche in the new International.
Delegates adopted 21 conditions for admission to the International. These restated principles of revolutionary functioning that had proven crucial in post-1914 experience, such as:
- Control by the party in each country over its publications and its parliamentary representatives.
- Commitment to revolutionary work among peasants and in the army.
- Active support for liberation movements in the colonies.
- Readiness to resist repression through underground activity.
The also insisted on a clear organisational break with forces 'who reject on principle the  conditions'.
Revolutionary socialists held that the flouting of International congress decisions by national leaderships had been a key factor in the Socialist International's collapse in 1914. The 1920 congress agreed that the new International must be centralised, and that the International's decisions must be binding on its member parties.
But the congress also resolved not to infringe member parties' autonomy in the day to day struggle. Given 'the diverse conditions under which each party has to struggle and work', the congress stated, 'universally binding decisions' would be adopted 'only on questions in which such decisions are possible'.
International centralism was expressed through Comintern decisions on world issues of broad principle and strategy, backed up with prudent advice to and loyal collaboration with elected national leaderships.
The Comintern was not free from harmful interference in national party affairs by some of its international representatives.
But Lenin and Trotsky, its most authoritative leaders, held to a policy of patient and non-intrusive education. Their approach won ground during the International's first four years.
In 1921, the Comintern adopted detailed instructions on the organisational structure of a communist party. Yet the following year, Lenin noted that this 'excellently drafted' and accurate resolution 'has remained a dead letter' because 'everything in it is based on Russian conditions'.
Communists abroad 'must assimilate part of the Russian experience' through study and through traversing similar experiences on their own.
Following the Second Congress, the left social democratic currents split – hundreds of thousands of members were won to the new International, while others retreated to pro-capitalist reformism.
This process helped open the doors of the International to a new generation attracted to the example of the Russian Revolution, many of whom, initially at least, stood outside the socialist movement.
Two such non-socialist currents were of particular importance:
- Syndicalists – that is, revolutionaries influenced by anarchism, who rejected the need for a party and a workers' government.
- Revolutionary nationalists in countries oppressed by imperialism.
Each of these viewpoints has support today among many young activists around the world. Subsequent installments of this series will consider how the new International undertook to win such non-socialist revolutionaries.
John Riddell has edited a six volume series of documents, The Communist International in Lenin’s Time, published by Pathfinder Press. He edits the Canadian publication Socialist Voice. His books are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com