During the nationalist carnage of the First World War some despaired at the possibility of transforming the world for the better.
But the Russian Revolution saw workers take power in 1917.
They won because there was a party capable of giving a clear lead—the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks argued that socialism was the self-emancipation of the working class, not something granted from above.
They stressed that the capitalist state must be smashed. And they argued that capitalism, as a global system, must be fought on a global basis.
The Bolsheviks formed the Communist International, or Comintern, in 1919. It aimed to pull together the best militants across the world to form parties that could repeat the Russian victory.
It held its first Congress in March 1919. There were 35 delegates, but only the five Russians represented a real mass revolutionary party.
Creating mass revolutionary parties would not be easy. Nevertheless the Comintern became the highest school of revolutionary strategy and tactics.
Its debates focused on building revolutionary parties to lead the working class to victory.
The Comintern discussed in detail how revolutionaries should tackle oppression, and relate to trade unions and national liberation struggles.
The Russians learnt from other revolutionaries’ experiences.
The Indian delegate to third Congress, M N Roy, wrote, “For the first time, brown and yellow men met with white men who were not overbearing imperialists but friends and comrades”.
The Comintern wasn’t set up so that groups on the left could have a grandiose name.
It was formed in the expectation that the revolutionary crisis would create the conditions for mass communist parties to emerge and lead a challenge for state power.
This was realistic. Within the year of the first meeting, short-lived soviet republics took power in Hungary and Bavaria. And factory occupations spread across Italy.
There were mass strikes in Glasgow and Belfast, and the British and French armies mutinied. In March 1920 a general strike crushed a right wing coup in Germany.
Workers flocked into the parties of the Comintern. The second world Congress of the Comintern was held that year. It had 217 delegates from 67 organisations in 40 different countries.
The new soviet Russia couldn’t survive in isolation. Germany was the key.
In the closing months of the First World War revolution swept Germany.
Social Democrats, who had backed the war, dominated the newly-formed workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
A new left government declared a republic and promised to abolish the army. But it also moved to abolish the workers’ councils.
The conditions were there for revolution. But the rooted revolutionary leadership that could make them successful was not.
The growth of mass reformist organisations dominated the experience of the Comintern.
The reformists argued that to abolish capitalism you had to rebuild its institutions—such as the state and parliament—and bring change from above.
The late Socialist Workers Party member Duncan Hallas wrote a brilliant account of the Comintern.
He explained that the social democratic parties “combined an uncompromising verbal hostility to capitalism with a practical activity that was essentially confined to winning members and votes.
“Confrontation with the forces of the state or even the employers was avoided wherever possible.”
The scale of Europe’s revolts meant that centrist parties sent delegations to the second Congress of the Comintern.
As Lenin wrote in 1920, “The Communist International is to a certain extent becoming fashionable.”
The Communists tried to confront the reformists and win over those who were genuinely vacillating between reform and revolution.
Some reformists tried to criticise the Communists from the left. They wanted to use radical rhetoric to cover their attempts to make peace with the system.
The debates were blunt and harsh—but productive. The Comintern laid down tough conditions of membership to emphasise the differences.
It insisted that its member organisations adopt democratic centralism.
That meant insisting on internal democracy in making decisions but demanding unity in applying them.
This was one way of breaking from unaccountable reformist leaders. It also aimed to reach out to revolutionary trade unionists who didn’t trust political parties.
By 1921 the system had recovered a little from the shocks of the post-war period. Revolutionaries had to develop new tactics.
In 1922 the Comintern’s executive committee called for “the establishment of a united front of all parties supported by the proletariat regardless of the differences separating them so long as they are anxious to wage a common fight for the urgent and immediate needs of the proletariat.”
The emphasis was on the fight.
Revolutionaries had broken with reformism. Learning to work with reformist workers and organisations was not always easy or welcome.
But as Lenin said, failing to do so would leave workers to the “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”.
Russian revolutionary Trotsky argued that Communists should be “prepared to negotiate with the scab leaders”.
This was all for the purpose of winning workers to revolutionary ideas and organisation.
Communists had to prove in struggle that their revolutionary politics made them the best militants to win over workers.Struggle raised the need for unity in fighting for measures that would boost class confidence.
What became known as the united front tactic started from a contradiction facing all revolutionary parties.
They represented a minority of the working class, and the class could not seize power unless a majority was actively involved.
Some way was needed to bridge the gap. This involved revolutionary parties proposing specific areas where revolutionaries could fight alongside reformist parties.
Appeals were made to the leaders of reformist parties, as well as to rank and file workers. But revolutionary parties had to maintain political independence if they were to win workers to revolutionary politics.
The tactic had some success in defending the labour movement from attacks in Germany in 1922-23.
The turning point for the German Revolution, and the Comintern, came in 1923. French troops occupied the Ruhr, inflation soared and the country polarised between left and right.
The potential to challenge for state power developed.
The Communists forced “workers’ governments” with the Social Democrats in two states, supposedly to launch a revolutionary rising.
But when the reformists lost their nerve so did the Communists—despite support among a majority of workers.
By 1925 Lenin was dead. Stalin, who had shown minimum interest in the Comintern, moved to increase his influence as the revolution degenerated.
The US revolutionary James P Cannon described the consequence of Stalin’s bloody counter-revolution.
He said the Communists went from “agencies of revolution into border guards of the Soviet Union and pressure groups in the service of its foreign policy”.
In the mid-1920s Russian leaders steered Communist parties into alliances with the right.
In China, the Comintern insisted on an alliance with the nationalist Kuomintang. It led to thousands of Communists being massacred.
Then Stalin denounced reformist parties as social fascists and Communists were told not to work with them.
In Germany this enabled the unnecessary victory of Nazi Adolf Hitler in 1933. This in turn led to another lurch.
Stalin ordered Communist parties to swing to the right as he tried to make alliances with the ruling classes of Britain and France. This meant revolutionary movements in countries such as France and Spain were held back, and they lost.
The mistakes in the early years of the Comintern sprang from the inexperience of the revolutionary parties.
The Russians, who had led a revolution but had little experience of mass reformist parties, dominated a little too much.
The disasters of the later years were the result of the complete rejection of the principles upon which the Comintern was built.
The experience of the Comintern shows why we need rooted revolutionary parties to lead working class struggle to victory.