Ted Grant

The Rise and Fall of the Communist International

Written: June 1943
Source: The Unbroken Thread
First published: Workers' International News, Vol. 5 No. 11
Transcription/Markup: Emil 1998
Proofread: Emil 1998

The Third International has been officially buried. In the most undignified and contemptible fashion it would be possible to conceive, it has passed off the stage of history. Hurriedly and without consultation with all the adhering parties, not to speak of the rank and file throughout the world, without any democratic discussion and decision, as the result of the pressure of American imperialism, Stalin has perfidiously abandoned the Comintern.

To understand how it is that this organisation which aroused the terror and hatred of the whole capitalist world has come to such an inglorious end at the bidding of capitalism, it is necessary to review briefly the stormy rise and even stormier decline of the International. The decree for its dissolution was merely an acknowledgement of what has long been known to all informed people; that the Comintern as a factor making for world socialism was dead and had departed forever from its original aims and purposes. Its demise was predicted and foreseen long in advance.

The Third International grew out of the collapse of capitalism in the last war. The Russian revolution sent a wave of revolutionary fervour through the ranks of the working class throughout the world. To the war-weary, disillusioned and embittered masses, it came as a message of hope, of inspiration and courage, it showed the way out of the bloody chaos into which capitalism had plunged society. It was born as a direct consequence of the betrayal and breakdown of the Second International which supported the ruling classes in the last war.

The breakdown of imperialism and capitalism was signalled by the revolutions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, revolutionary situations in Italy, France and even Britain. The spectre of socialist revolution hung all over Europe. The memoirs and writings of nearly all the bourgeois politicians of that time bear witness to the despair, the lack of confidence of the bourgeoisie in the face of the fact that they had lost control of the situation. Social democracy saved capitalism.

The powerful trade-union and socialist bureaucracies placed themselves at the head of the upsurge of the masses and diverted it into harmless channels. In Germany, Noske (1) and Scheidemann conspired with the junkers and capitalists to destroy the revolution. The soviets of workers, soldiers, sailors, peasants and even students, which had issued from the November revolution of 1918, held power in their hands. The social democrats handed the power back to the capitalists.

Gradually, slowly, peacefully, as their theoretical conceptions explained it, they would transform capitalism into socialism. In Italy, by 1920 the workers had seized the factories. Instead of leading the workers to the conquest of power, the Socialist Party bade them cease 'unconstitutional' procedure. So it was throughout Europe. The results of this programme are evident today. The worst tyranny and the bloodiest war in the history of capitalism. But precisely because of the breakdown of international socialism in the Second International, which had betrayed Marxism, the Third International was formed.

As early as the beginning of the last war (First World War) Lenin had courageously issued the call for the Third International. The Third International was formally inaugurated in March 1919. Its declared aims and objects were the overthrow of world capitalism and the construction of a world chain of united soviet socialist republics to join up with the USSR, which itself was not conceived as an independent entity but merely as the base for the world revolution. Its fate would be determined and was bound up with the fate of the world revolution.

The formation of the Third International swiftly led to the creation of mighty communist parties throughout the most important countries in the world. In Germany, France, Czechoslovakia and other countries, communist parties with a mass membership were created. In Britain a small communist party was formed which wielded considerable influence. The success of the world revolution in the next period seemed assured by the development of events. The communist parties in Europe were steadily increasing in numbers and influence at the expense of the social democracy.

The last war had not succeeded in solving any of the problems of world capitalism. In fact it had aggravated them. Capitalism had broken down at its 'weakest link' as Lenin expressed it. The attempts to destroy the young Soviet Republic by the wars of intervention had completely failed. German capitalism, the mightiest in Europe, found itself stripped of its resources, part of its territory, burdened with staggering reparation payments, and generally placed in an impossible position. British and French imperialists, the 'victors' in the last world war, were in a position fundamentally not much better.

Encouraged by the Russian revolution, the colonial and semi-colonial masses were stirring and preparing to revolt. The masses at home were restless and uneasy and the economic position of Anglo-French imperialism had worsened considerably in comparison with that of Japanese and American capitalism. It was on this international background that the crisis broke out in Germany in 1923. Germany with her high productive capacity was crippled by the restrictions imposed by Versailles(2) and had now become the weakest link in the chain of world capitalism.

The failure of Germany to pay the instalments on the reparations resulted in the French capitalists marching into the Ruhr. This helped to complete the collapse of the German economy, and the German bourgeoisie endeavoured to unload the burdens onto the shoulders of the working and middle classes. The mark fell in value from 20 to 40 to the pound in January, to 5 million in July and 47 million at the end of August. The indignant German masses turned towards communism.

As Brandler, the then leader of the Communist Party, stated at the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Comintern: "There were signs of a rising revolutionary movement: We had temporarily the majority of the workers behind us, and in this situation believed that under favourable circumstances we would proceed immediately to the attack..." But unfortunately the leadership of the International failed to stand up to the test and take advantage of the opportunity. Success in Germany would inevitably have led to victory throughout Europe. But as in Russia of 1917, so in Germany of 1923, sections of the leadership vacillated.

Stalin, with his organic opportunism, urged that the German party be 'curbed' from taking any action. The result was that the favourable opportunity to take power in Germany was missed and the communists in Germany suffered defeat. For similar reasons the revolution in Bulgaria also suffered shipwreck. But the defeats of the revolution in Europe caused by the failure of the leadership inevitably led to serious consequences. As Lenin had written, urging the necessity to prepare for the insurrection, in Russia in 1917: "The success of the Russian and world revolution depends upon two or three days' struggle."[source]

The failure of the world revolution and the isolation of the Soviet Union, taken in conjunction with its backwardness, the weariness and apathy of the Soviet masses who had gone through years of war, terrible privations and suffering during the course of the civil war and the intervention, their disillusionment and despair at the failure of their hopes of aid from the workers of Europe: all this led inevitably to reaction within the USSR.

Reflecting at the time, perhaps unconsciously, the interests of the reactionary and conservative bureaucracy which was just beginning to raise itself above the Soviet masses, Stalin for the first time in 1924 came forward with the utopian and anti-Leninist theory of 'socialism in one country'. This 'theory' sprang directly from the defeat which the revolution had suffered in Germany. It indicated a turning away from the principles of revolutionary internationalism on which the Russian revolution had been based and on which the Communist International was founded.

Stalin, at the funeral of Lenin in January 1924, from force of habit following in the tradition of the Russian revolution declared: "In leaving us Comrade Lenin enjoined on us fidelity to the Communist International. We swear to thee, Comrade Lenin, to devote our lives to the enlargement and strengthening of the union of workers of the whole world, the Communist International." [Quoted in Trotsky's Stalin, chapter 12, part 2] At that time he had not the slightest notion of whither the theory of socialism in one country would lead the Soviet Union and the Comintern.

The history of the Comintern since those days has been largely bound up with the fluctuating policies of the bureaucracy of the USSR. Lenin had insistently linked the fate of the Soviet Union with that of the world working class, and principally of its vanguard the Comintern. Even the oath of the Red Army pledged the red soldiers to loyalty to the international working class. Indeed the Red Army was not regarded as an independent 'national' force, but as one of the instruments of the world revolution.

Of course, all this has long since been altered by Stalin. Trotsky, in conjunction with Lenin who, in his last years, viewed the developing situation with alarm, had already begun the struggle against the bureaucratisation of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet State in 1923. Lenin was warning of the dangers of degeneration which threatened the Soviet state.

On the background of the growing reaction, nationally and internationally, the struggle between the internationalists and the Thermidorians(3) entered into an acute stage. Trotsky, in alliance with Lenin, had demanded the restoration of complete democracy within the Bolshevik Party and the soviets. Lenin, in pursuit of this objective, had demanded the removal of Stalin from the post of General Secretary of the party because he had become the focal point around which the bureaucracy was crystallising.

After Lenin's death, Zinoviev, Kamenev(4) and Stalin, 'the troika' secured a decision disregarding Lenin's advice by the Central Committee and commenced a campaign against Lenin's ideas which were being put forward by Trotsky, with the spurious invention and legend of 'Trotskyism'. The fate of the Comintern was linked with the fate of the Bolshevik Party of the Soviet union which, through its prestige and experience, was naturally the dominant force in the International.

The transition from the policy of world revolution to that of socialism in one country expressed a sharp turn to the right in the Comintern. In Russia, Zinoviev and Kamenev were forced into opposition by the anti-Marxian policy now being developed by Stalin. They were thrust into an alliance with Trotsky and his supporters. Stalin, together with Bukharin, opposed the policy of industrialising Russia through a series of five year plans suggested by the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and came out with his famous aphorism at the plenary meeting of the Central Committee in April 1927 that 'to attempt to build the Dnieperstroy hydro-electric station would be the same thing for us as for a muzhik(5) to buy a gramophone instead of a cow'. [Quoted in Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed, chapter 2 [source]]

As late as the end of 1927, during the preparations for the Fifteenth Party Congress, whose task was to expel the Left Opposition, Molotov said repeatedly: "We must not slip down into poor peasant illusions about the collectivisation of the broad masses. In the present circumstances it is no longer possible."[Quoted in Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed, chapter 2 [source]] Inside Russia the policy was to allow the kulaks (rich peasants) and the Nepmen (capitalists in the towns - so-called after the New Economic Policy of 1921), full scope for economic development. This policy was perfectly typified by the slogan coined by Bukharin with the full support of Stalin, given out to the peasantry: 'Enrich yourselves!'

The policy of the Comintern was now pushed far to the right with the preoccupation of Stalin to find allies to 'defend the Soviet Union from attack'. The Comintern was already being reduced to the role of a border guard. The disagreements within the Bolshevik Party and the International flared up over the question of the Chinese revolution and the situation in Britain. In China during 1925-7 the revolution was stirring up the millions of Asia into action. The Comintern, instead of relying on the workers and peasants to carry through the revolution, as was the Leninist policy in Russia, preferred to rely on the Chinese capitalists and generals.

The Left Opposition warned of the consequences of this policy. The Chinese Communist Party was the sole workers' party in China and had a dominating influence over the working class; the peasantry were looking towards the example in Russia to show them the way out of their centuries-long suffering at the bands of the landlords, through the seizure of the land. But the Comintern stubbornly refused to take the road of working-class independence which Lenin had insisted on as the prerequisite for communist policy in relation to the bourgeois-democratic and anti-imperialist revolutions in the East.

Meanwhile a similar policy was pursued in Britain where the masses were undergoing a process of intense radicalisation. As a means of struggling against intervention against the Soviet Union the Russian trade unions made an agreement with the General Council of the TUC. The tendency towards revolutionary developments in Britain is seen in the fact that a million members, a quarter of the trade-union membership, were organised in the Minority Movement(6). Trotsky, analysing the situation in Britain, had predicted the outbreak of a general strike.

The task of the Communist Party and the Communist International should have been to prepare the workers for the inevitability of a betrayal on the part of the trade-union leadership. Instead, they sowed illusions in the minds of the workers, especially as the trade-union bureaucrats had covered themselves with the agreement with the Russian trade unions, whose prestige they utilised as a cloak. After the betrayal of the 1926 general strike by the trade-union bureaucracy, Trotsky demanded that the Russian trade unions should break off relations with the TUC. This Stalin and the Comintern refused to do.

After using the Anglo-Russian Committee for as long as they needed, more than a year after the General Strike, the British trade-union leadership broke off relations. The Comintern let out a howl that they had been betrayed. But meanwhile the young Communist Party of Great Britain which should have increased its membership by leaps and bounds as a result of these great events, was paralysed and disorientated by the policy of the International, was completely discredited and dwindled in influence among the masses. These further defeats of the International, due directly to the policy of Stalin and the bureaucracy, at first sight paradoxically, increased the power of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union.

The Soviet masses were further disheartened and disillusioned by these new defeats of the international proletariat and suffered a further decline in spirits. The defeats which had been a direct consequence of the policy of Stalin and the bureaucracy further strengthened its hold on the Soviet Union. The Left Opposition led by Trotsky which had correctly analysed and forecast these developments was now expelled from the Bolshevik Party and from the International.

The internal results of Stalin's policy now began to bear fruit in the alarming growth of the strength and influence of the kulaks and of the Nepmen. The Soviet Union stood on the brink of disaster. In panic and terror Stalin and the bureaucracy were compelled to adopt a caricature of the very policy for which Trotsky and his co-thinkers had been expelled. In Russia the Five Year Plans against which Stalin had so strenuously fought were introduced.

It is on the basis of this planned production that the Soviet Union achieved its greatest successes and on which the present day USSR bases itself in war. Meanwhile the panic turn to the left internally was reflected in a panic turn to the left internationally. Stalin had burned his fingers badly in his attempts to lean on capitalist elements in China and to conciliate social democracy. Now he veered the International sharply in the opposite direction. In violation of its statutes the International did not hold a conference for four years. A new conference was called which introduced officially the programme of the Communist International. It also proclaimed the end of capitalist stability and the beginning of what was termed the 'Third Period'. This was supposed to usher in the period of the final collapse of world capitalism. At the same time the social democracy, according to the once-famous (but now buried) theory of Stalin, was supposed to have transformed itself into 'social fascism'. No agreements were now possible with 'social fascists' who constituted the main danger confronting the working class and must be destroyed.

It was just at this period that the unprecedented slump of 1929-33 affected the world. In particular it hit Germany. The German workers were thrust into a position of degradation and misery and the middle classes were ruined. Germany's unemployment figure rose steadily till at the peak it reached 8,000,000. The middle class, having failed to receive anything from the revolution of 1918, and disappointed with the failure of the communists in 1923 to take power, now in anguish and despair began to look for a solution to their problems in a different direction.

Subsidised and financed by the capitalists, the fascists began to secure a mass basis in Germany. In the elections of September 1930, they secured nearly six and a half million votes. Despite their expulsion from the Communist International, Trotsky and his followers still considered themselves as part of it and insistently demanded that they be allowed to return to the ranks. At the same time they subjected the suicidal theory, which had now been adopted by the Comintern, to a sharp criticism. In place of it they demanded a return to the realistic Leninist policy of the united front(7) as a means of winning the masses in action and through their own experience, to communism.

With the victory of Hitler at the polls Trotsky sounded the alarm. In a pamphlet entitled The Turn in the Communist International - the Situation in Germany he issued a signal for a campaign, which was carried on for three years by the International Left Opposition of the Comintern, as the Trotskyists looked on themselves. In Germany, France, USA, Britain, in far away South Africa, and in all countries where they had groups, the Trotskyists conducted a campaign demanding that the German Communist Party set into motion a campaign for a united front with the Social Democrats to prevent Hitler from coming to power.

At the direct instructions and bidding from Stalin and the Comintern, the German Communist Party denounced this policy as a counter-revolutionary 'social fascist' one. They insistently fought against social democracy as the 'main enemy' of the working class and argued that there was no difference between democracy and fascism. In September 1930, the Rote Fahne, organ of the German CP proclaimed: "Last night was Herr Hitler's greatest day, but the so-called election victory of the nazis is the beginning of the end." [September 15, 1930]

Right throughout these years the Comintern continued its fatal course. When Hitler organised a referendum in 1931 to oust the Social Democratic government in Prussia, at the direct insistence of Stalin and the Comintern the German communists voted with the nazis against the social democrats. As late as May 1932, the British Daily Worker could proudly indict the Trotskyists for their policy in Germany thus: "It is significant that Trotsky has come out in defence of a united front between communist and social democratic parties against fascism. No more disruptive and counter-revolutionary class lead could possibly have been given at the time like the present."

Meanwhile Trotsky had written four pamphlets and dozens of articles and manifestos; everywhere the international Trotskyists explored every avenue to exert pressure on the Comintern to change its policy. In vain. In January 1933 Hitler was enabled to take power without any organised opposition whatsoever in a country with the most highly organised working class and with the strongest Communist Party outside of Russia.

For the first time in history reaction was enabled to conquer power without any resistance on the part of the working class. The German CP numbered 6,000,000 supporters, the Social Democracy numbered 8,000,000 - together they were the mightiest force in Germany. By this betrayal, the German CP was doomed forever.

But the Comintern was far from recognising the nature of the catastrophe. Instead, it solemnly endorsed the policy of the German CP and of the International as having been perfectly correct. An organisation which cannot learn from the lessons of history is doomed. As a force for world socialism, the Communist International was dead. The International Left Opposition broke away and proclaimed the necessity of a new international. But what was apparent to the vanguard who had abandoned the attempt to reform the Comintern, could not be apparent to the broad masses. Only great events could teach them.

The Communist International continued to carry on this false policy right up to 1934. When the fascists in France, encouraged by the successes of fascism in Austria and Germany, conducted armed demonstrations for the overthrow of the Liberal government and parliament, the CP issued orders to demonstrate with them. But now the full danger which Hitler represented to the Soviet Union was apparent to everyone. Stalin and the bureaucracy became panic-stricken. Contemptuous and cynical of the capacity of the Comintern as an instrument of world revolution, Stalin more openly converted it into an instrument of Russian foreign policy.

An organisation in class society which ceases to represent the working class inevitably falls under the pressure and influence of the bourgeoisie. Stalin, in his search for allies, now turned to the bourgeoisie of Britain and France. The 'Popular Front' policy was initiated and endorsed at the last Congress of the International held in 1935. This policy of coalition with the Liberal capitalists is one against which Lenin had struggled all his life. It represented a new stage in the degeneration of the Comintern and the first workers' state.

With the rise of Hitler, again due to the policies of Stalin, the stranglehold of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union was further increased. Higher over the Soviet masses has the bureaucratic caste raised itself and increased its power. But this progressive degeneration has had qualitative changes. From merely being incapable of insuring anything but defeats for the world working class, Stalinism has become opposed to the workers' revolution in other countries. The Moscow trials, the murder of the old Bolsheviks, the purges, the murder and exile of tens of thousands of the flower of the Russian communist workers, completed the Stalinist counter-revolution within the Soviet Union.

Events in France and Spain(8) are fresh in every revolutionary's mind. The Comintern played the main role in destroying the revolution which could have been accomplished. Indeed, it revealed itself as the fighting vanguard of the counter-revolution. The defeats of the world working class inevitably led to the new world war. Ironically, the war was ushered in by a pact between Hitler and Stalin. Thus Stalin dealt new blows to the world working class and the Comintern. It now executed a somersault and conducted a campaign for peace in the interests of Hitler, with a skilful counterfeit of a 'revolutionary' policy.

As Trotsky forecast in his prediction of the Stalin-Hitler agreement in an article written in March 1933:

"The fundamental trait of Stalin's international policy in recent years has been this: that he trades in the working-class movements just as he trades in oil, manganese and other goods. In this statement there is not an iota of exaggeration. Stalin looks upon the sections of the Comintern in various countries and upon the liberating struggle of the oppressed nations as so much small change in deals with imperialist powers. When he requires the aid of France, he subjects the French proletariat to the radical bourgeoisie. When he has to support China against Japan, he subjects the Chinese proletariat to the Kuomintang. What would he do in the event of an agreement with Hitler? Hitler, to be sure, does not particularly require Stalin's assistance to strangle the German Communist Party. The insignificant state in which the latter finds itself has moreover been assured by its entire preceding policy. But it is very likely that Stalin would agree to cut off all subsidies for illegal work in Germany. This is one of the most minor concessions that he would have to make and he would be quite willing to make it. One should also assume that the noisy, hysterical and hollow campaign against fascism which the Comintern has been conducting for the last few years will be slyly squelched."

This policy of Stalin and the 'stinking corpse' of the Comintern suffered irretrievable ruin when the nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Comintern had to execute a right about turn and convert itself once again into a doormat for Roosevelt and British imperialism. But with the increased dependence of Stalin on American and British imperialism, has come the increased pressure on the part of capitalist 'allies'. American imperialism especially has demanded the ending of the Comintern as a final guarantee against the danger of social revolution in Europe after the downfall of Hitler.

The long drawn-out pretence is over. Stalin has dissolved the degenerate Comintern. In doing so he openly announces his stepping over to the side of the capitalist counter-revolution as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But the imperialists, in forcing Stalin to make this trade in return for concessions and bargains on their part, have not understood the consequences this will have. It cannot and will not prevent the coming of new revolutions throughout the world. In the less than two decades since the beginning of its degeneration, the Comintern has ruined many favourable situations in many countries.

The coming decades will witness many revolutions with the breakdown and collapse of capitalism. Even the violently disturbed epoch of the period between the wars will seem comparatively tranquil compared to the period which lies ahead. On this background of storms and upheavals a real instrument of world revolution will be created. What the workers lacked in the last decades, outside Russia, was a workers' Bolshevik Party and a Bolshevik leadership. The great days of the Comintern of 1917-23 will live again. The growth in support for the ideas of Marxism internationally, based on the traditions of Bolshevism, the rich experience of the past, and learning the lessons of defeats of the working class, can once again lead the oppressed to the overthrow of capitalism and to the world socialist republic.


(1) Right wing SPD leaders. Gustav Noske, as minister of war, organised suppression of the January 1919 uprising of the German workers and sanctioned the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Philipp Scheidemann became Chancellor in 1919. The Junkers were reactionary Prussian aristocrats who dominated the military and civil service until the 1930s. See: Germany - From Revolution to Counter-Revolution by Rob Sewell (Fortress).

(2) The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 imposed harsh terms on Germany at the end of the First World War.

(3) From Thermidor: a term used to describe political reaction without a social counter-revolution. Derived from analogy with the shift of power in the French revolution in the month of Thermidor (July) 1794 when the radical Jacobins led by Robespierre were overthrown by a right wing coup, whilst leaving the fundamental gains of the (capitalist) social revolution intact. Thus Thermidorians: supporters of political reaction in Russia.

(4) Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were Old Bolsheviks. The former was the first president of the Communist International, the later was one-time deputy to Lenin. Both were opposed at the time to the Soviet seizure of power in October 1917. Later, together with Stalin, they blocked the implementation and denied the existence of Lenin's Testament, which called for Stalin's removal as General Secretary. Both were executed in the 1936 purge trials.

(5) A Russian term for peasants.

(6) An organisation that brought together the left in the British trade unions in the 1920's. It was initiated and largely led by the Communist Party.

(7) The united front was conceived as a temporary agreement between mass workers' organisations, for action on specific issues, while retaining independence of programmes.

(8) Popular front governments were elected in Spain in February 1936 and in France in June 1936. As in Spain, the French workers immediately moved into action, occupying factories, establishing workers' committees. In both countries the popular front government acted as a strike breaking force, in Spain opening the way for Franco's fascist uprising in July 1936.