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Comintern, July 1920—a critical juncture

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The Comintern met for the second time 100 years ago. Simon Basketter looks at how the debates there help us to understand and challenge the capitalist system today
Issue 2714
Lenin addressing delegates at Uritsky Theatre, painted by Isaak Brodsky
Lenin addressing delegates at Uritsky Theatre, painted by Isaak Brodsky

The Second World Congress of the Communist International, or Comintern, was held in the summer of 1920. It aimed to pull together the best militants across the world to form parties that could repeat the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Gregory Zinoviev, its first president, wrote, “Decisive struggles confront the world proletariat. We are living through an epoch of open civil wars.

“The crucial hour is at hand. In almost all the countries where there is a workers’ movement of any size, the immediate future holds out for the working class a number of fierce armed conflicts.”

The role of socialist ­organisation and leadership was crucial.

The Comintern - organising to fight for a global revolution
The Comintern – organising to fight for a global revolution
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The Congress had 217 delegates from 67 organisations in 40 different countries. Some represented small groupings, others parties with tens of thousands of members.

Representatives of left wing reformist parties in France, Germany and Italy were wavering between a revolution and reform but ultimately chose a pro-capitalist course.

The Congress, like all left wing events it started late—a week late.

While delegates waited there was a football match between Moscow and an International team. British shop stewards’ leader Willie Gallagher captained the International team, which included US journalist John Reed. They lost heavily in front of a crowd of 18,000.

After the Congress opening rally, delegates participated in a mass demonstration before gathering at the former stock exchange to see a play performed by a cast of 3,000 people.

The Russian Revolution saw workers take power in 1917. The Bolshevik party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, 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 an ­international basis.

Since the first Congress in 1919, short-lived republics of workers’ control had taken power in Hungary and Bavaria in Germany. Factory occupations spread across Italy. There were mass strikes in Glasgow and Belfast, and the British and French armies mutinied.


Anti-colonial revolts erupted across the world including in Iraq, Ireland, India, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and across the Russian empire. In Congress sessions, the key argument was that you had to have a clear break with reformism but also work to get the mass of workers to also break from reformist leaders.

Delegates were given copies of Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, and Lenin’s “Left Wing” Communism—an Infantile Disorder.

The first is a spirited defence of overthrowing the system by taking state power through revolutionary insurrection. The second is a polemic on how revolutionaries should relate to reformist workers and their organisations.

All sorts of parties sent ­delegations to the Second Congress. Lenin wrote, “The Communist International is to a certain extent becoming fashionable.”

Some reformists tried to use radical rhetoric to cover their attempts to make peace with the system. So the Comintern laid down tough conditions of membership to emphasise the differences. This was one way of breaking from unaccountable reformist leaders.

Others, having broken from reformism, now didn’t want to work with anyone with ­reformist ideas.

For instance, when revolution broke out in November 1918 in Germany, pro-capitalist union bureaucrats moved quickly to negotiate for workers. Bosses conceded the eight-hour day.

Workers poured into the unions. The union bureaucracy provided a pro-capitalist ­buttress against revolution.

So most German Communists were wrongly calling on ­workers to “get out of the trade unions”.

In a strike that defeated a coup in March 1920 the Communists initially didn’t support the “reformist” strike.

Many favoured building new “unitary organisations” that would combine the functions of a trade union and a ­political party.

US communists said their task was “the destruction of the existing trade union ­organisations”. In Lenin’s view, such a stand was “the greatest service communists could render the bourgeoisie”.

Syndicalist union ­federations comprised the majority of the union movement in France and Spain, and the US-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had won respect.

A wide range of syndicalists, who wanted to destroy capitalism through trade union struggle, resisted the First World War and hailed Russia’s revolution.

At the congress, a ­proposal to work in reformist-led unions provoked what Zinoviev later called “a most vexatious ­resistance” from delegates influenced by syndicalism.

Congress produced theses that committed communists to “support syndicalist revolutionary unions”.

Lenin proposed concessions to syndicalist currents, including that the ability of the International’s affiliated parties to lead revolutionary union work must be put to “a practical test”.

The trade union theses finally adopted called for Communists to join unions “in order to turn them into instruments of conscious struggle for the ­overthrow of capitalism” and to “take the initiative in forming trade unions where none exist”.


The Communists argued that a revolutionary party was needed to overcome divisions.

Some, such as Zinoviev, pointed to the limitations of unions as a vehicle for fundamental change while simultaneously arguing that they could be transformed into revolutionary bodies if they only had the correct leadership. Nonetheless a significant layer of ­syndicalists were integrated into the International.

A similar productive debate took place over defeating imperialism. At the Second Congress, 11 countries from Asia were represented—a breakthrough for the world socialist movement.

Addressing the Congress, Lenin noted that 70 percent of the world’s population “are either in a state of direct colonial dependence or are semi-colonies”.

The “cardinal idea” ­underlying the Congress theses on the national and colonial questions, he said, was “the ­distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations”.

According to these the goal lay in “uniting the proletarians and toiling masses of all nations” in a common struggle “to overthrow the landowners and the bourgeoisie”.

But to achieve that goal “all communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and in the colonies”.

Lenin insisted on the need to distinguish between reformist currents that accept the colonial framework and “national-revolutionary movements”, even though the plan of the latter remains “bourgeois-democratic” rather than socialist.

The theses were improved through debate. In part this was because of important interventions by MN Roy from India, who argued that the role of Communists was not just to support nationalism but fight for revolutionary upheaval.

So the theses said Communists should “absolutely maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, even in its embryonic stage”, in order to defend workers’ interests.

The approach was extended to immigrants in the US, Canada and Australia.

The Congress called for “a vigorous campaign against restrictive immigration laws”, equal wages for non-white workers, and their organisation into the unions.

Again dividing lines were developing.

Giacinto Serrati, leader of the Italian Socialist Party, deplored the ten minutes that was spent discussing black oppression in the US.

His compatriot Antonio Graziadei moved an amendment to weaken “support” of liberation movements down to merely taking “an active interest in” them.

But most communists rallied in support of liberation struggles. Communist Parties were formed that year in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, India (in exile), Korea and Indonesia, and the following year in China.

Following the Second Congress, many left social democratic currents split.

Hundreds of thousands of members were won to the new International, others retreated to reformism.

The process helped open the doors to a new generation attracted to the Russian Revolution. Congress debates were a significant step forward in the left’s understanding of how to change the world.

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