The Communist International was founded in 1919 by those who had stood firm against imperialist war and utilised the crisis of the First World War to “hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule” through revolution.
But when the next great imperialist war broke out in 1939, statements signed “Communist International” sang a different tune.
Prior to this war, the Comintern had been calling for a united struggle for peace embracing not only working people and oppressed nations but also “capitalist states… concerned to maintain peace” such as Britain and France, while condemning the Nazis as “chief instigators of war”.
But when war broke out in 1939, the Comintern focused attacks on Britain and France, even saying that German workers preferred Adolf Hitler’s rule to a British victory.
Two years later, the Comintern reversed policy again, calling on the world’s peoples to join in a war alliance with the US and Britain, whose victory would, in the words of soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, clear the way for a “companionship of nations based on their equality”.
With the goal of “aiding by every means the military efforts” of the Allied governments, the Comintern itself dissolved in May 1943.
After each of these reversals – and there had been others in 1935 and 1928 – all Comintern member parties did an instant about-face. Their politics switched from ultra-left rejection of any alliance with other working class parties, toward a quest for unity with elements in the capitalist class, and back again.
Through all these turnabouts, one element was consistent – a rejection of the revolutionary programme and strategy developed by the Communist International in its congresses during Lenin’s lifetime between 1919 and 1922.
Instead, Comintern positions faithfully followed the shifts in soviet foreign policy under Stalin – allied with France from 1935, then with Germany from 1939, then with Britain and the US from 1941.
Soviet Russia had signed treaties with Germany in Lenin’s time, in 1918 and 1922. But such pacts did not alter the Comintern’s efforts to lead workers in overthrowing Germany’s imperialist government.
Leon Trotsky, who led the communist opposition to Stalin’s policies, pointed out in 1937 that the Communist International had by then become a “submissive apparatus in the service of soviet foreign policy, ready at any time for any zigzag whatever”.
But the strongest force defending the Soviet Union from abroad, Trotsky pointed out, was the revolutionary working class movement – the very force that Stalinist policy was undermining.
Stalinist policy “has brought nothing but misfortunes to the workers’ movement of the world”, including catastrophic setbacks such as the triumph of fascism in Germany (1933) and Spain (1936-39) that led directly to war.
The Comintern’s demise was rooted in the rise in the Soviet Union of a conservative and privileged bureaucratic layer, which under Stalin’s leadership seized control of the Communist Party and the state.
Lenin sensed the danger. In 1921, he described the soviet state as a car that refuses to obey its driver, “as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand”.
The revolutionary working class that had created the soviet state was now demobilised and dispersed by the blows of civil war.
In this context, Moscow’s 4,700 communists staffing government departments “are not directing, they are being directed”, Lenin said, by “that huge bureaucratic machine” – a state apparatus that “is to a considerable extent a survival of the past”. The vanquished capitalist society “imposes its culture upon the conqueror”, he warned, absorbing and corrupting communist functionaries.
In 1922-23, during his final illness, Lenin sought to launch a struggle against this peril.
After Lenin was incapacitated by a stroke in March 1923, Leon Trotsky led this struggle. But the Left Opposition he headed was unable to prevent a bureaucratic faction from securing its grip on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Comintern.
The turn away from Lenin’s course was symbolised by Stalin’s concept that socialism could be achieved within the Soviet Union, without workers’ victory in other countries.
This ran counter to the Bolsheviks’ view, which had been restated by the Comintern’s Fourth Congress in December 1922: “The proletarian revolution can never triumph completely within a single country; rather must it triumph internationally, as world revolution.”
Two years later, Stalin asserted “the possibility of building a complete socialist society in a single country” as “indisputable truth”.
But this concept changed the Communist International’s function. The priority was no longer international revolution but merely, as Trotsky pointed out in 1930, “to protect the construction of socialism [in the USSR] from intervention, that is, in essence, to play the role of frontier patrols”.
This appraisal was confirmed by the central slogan at the Comintern’s last congress in 1935: “The fight for peace and for the defence of the Soviet Union.” Comintern leader Palmiro Togliatti explained this as meaning, with regard to the Soviet Union, “We defend concretely its whole policy and each of its acts.”
The campaign against Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1923-24 aroused widespread misgivings and opposition in the International. In response, Stalin and his allies asserted their control of the International through a campaign misleadingly called “Bolshevisation.”
In 1924, directives of the Comintern executive to member parties were defined as “imperative”, to be applied “immediately”. Its emissaries were given wide powers to act on its behalf. Moscow now hand picked national leaderships, Trotsky stated, on the basis of “readiness to accept and approve the latest apparatus grouping” in the party.
In the 1930s, the Stalinist regime executed the vast majority of Bolshevik leaders from Lenin’s time, along with hundreds of prominent figures in other communist parties who had taken refuge in the Soviet Union.
During the decades following the Comintern’s dissolution in 1943, the immense obstacle presented by world Stalinism to progressive struggles weakened and finally shattered.
In our times, we see signs of a new rise of internationalism in the struggles of workers and the oppressed. Since the turn of the century, the worldwide movement against the Iraq war, the rise of popular struggles in Latin America, and other movements have shown broad understanding that the great questions of our epoch will be decided in the world arena.
In this context, the programme and strategy hammered out by the Communist International in Lenin’s time has new relevance.