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The Comintern (Communist International, also known as the Third International) was an international Communist organization founded in Moscow in March 1919. The International intended to fight "with all means, also with arms in hand, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international soviet republic as a transition to the complete abolition of the state."[1] The Comintern was founded after the dissolution of the Second International in 1916, following the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference in which Vladimir I. Lenin had led the "Zimmerwald Left" against those who supported the "national union" governments in war with each other.

The Comintern held seven World Congresses, the first in March 1919 and the last in 1935. In 1928 it was estimated that the organization had 583,105 members, excluding its Soviet membership.[2]

At the start of World War II, the Comintern supported a policy of non-intervention, arguing that this was an imperialist war between various national ruling classes, much as World War I had been. However, when the Soviet Union itself was invaded on June 22, 1941, during Operation Barbarossa, the Comintern switched its position to one of active support for the Allies. The Comintern was subsequently officially dissolved in 1943.


From the First to the Second International

Although divisions between revolutionary and reformist-minded elements had been developing for a considerable time, the origins of the Communist International derive from the split in the workers' movement that surfaced in 1914 with the beginning of the First World War. The First International (also known as the "International Workingmen's Association"), founded in 1864, had split between the socialists and the anarchists who preferred not to enter the political arena, setting their sights instead on the creation of a strong anarcho-syndicalist movement. The Second International, founded in 1889, followed, but tensions surfaced again in the new International.

"Socialist participation in a bourgeois government?"

For example, as far back as 1899, reformist or right-wing elements in the socialist movement had supported the entry of French independent socialist Millerand into Waldeck-Rousseau's republican cabinet (1899-1902), which included as Minister of War none other than the Marquis de Galliffet, best known for his role during the repression of the 1871 Paris Commune. On the other hand, revolutionary or left-wing elements were fiercely opposed to this development. In France, this was represented by the debate between Jules Guesde, whom opposed himself to socialist participation in a "bourgeois government," and Jean Jaurès, considered as one of the founders of social-democracy. Jules Guesde declared in 1899:

Wherever the proletariat, organized in a class party—which is to say a party of revolution—can penetrate an elective assembly; wherever it can penetrate an enemy citadel, it has not only the right, but the obligation to make a breach and set up a socialist garrison in the capitalist fortress! But in those places where it penetrates not by the will of the workers, not by socialist force; there where it penetrates only with the consent, on the invitation, and consequently in the interests of the capitalist class, socialism should not enter.[3]

Criticizing the belief "that by a portfolio granted to one of his own socialism has truly conquered power–when it’s really power that conquered him," Jules Guesde thought that "such a state of affairs, if we don’t quickly put an end to it, would bring on the irremediable bankruptcy of socialism. The organized workers considering themselves duped, some will lend an ear to propaganda by the deed," thus fostering "anarchy." The same controversy arose the next year, when Guesde opposed himself to Jean Jaurès who advocated socialist participation to the bourgeois government, during a famous November 29, 1900 speech in Lille on the "Two Methods," held during several hours before 8,000 persons.


Also important was the controversy over the publication of Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism,[4] which espoused a reformist path to socialism and received powerful criticism from, among others, Karl Kautsky and the young Rosa Luxemburg, who criticized him as a revisionist. The revisionist current would come to dominate the Second International, one of the factors in the subsequent break with it by revolutionary socialists.

Aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1905 had the effect of radicalizing many socialist parties, as did a number of general strikes in pursuit of universal suffrage in Western European countries. At this point the Second International appeared to be a united body that was growing at every election and in every advanced country. Karl Kautsky, aptly dubbed the Pope of Marxism, was at his most radical as the editor of the highly influential Die Neue Zeit (The New Time), the theoretical journal of the massive Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) which was the flagship of the International.

However, by 1910, divisions were appearing in the left of Social Democracy (as the Marxists who dominated the International described themselves), and left-wing thinkers such as Rosa Luxemburg and the Dutch theoretician Anton Pannekoek were becoming ever more critical of Kautsky. From this point onwards then it is possible to speak of there being a reformist right, a center and a revolutionary left within the International. Interestingly, from the point of view of later events, both the Menshevik and Bolshevik wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party were counted amongst the revolutionary left wing. The quarreling groups of Russian emigres were not held in high regard by the leaders of the International and were unknown to the general public.

Failure of the Second International confronted with World War I

World War I was to prove to be the issue which finally and irrevocably separated the revolutionary and reformist wings of the workers movement. The socialist movement had been historically antimilitarist and internationalist, and was therefore opposed to being used as "cannon fodder" for the "bourgeois" governments at war–this especially since the Triple Alliance (1882) gathered two empires, while the Triple Entente itself gathered the French Third Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the Russian Empire. The Communist Manifesto had stated that "workers' do not have any fatherland," and exclaimed, "Proletarians of all countries, unite!" Massive majorities voted in favor of resolutions for the Second International to call upon the international working class to resist war should it be declared.

Despite this, within hours of the declaration of war, almost all the socialist parties of the combatant states had announced their support for their own countries. The only exceptions were the socialist parties of the Balkans, Russia and tiny minorities in other countries. To Lenin's surprise, even the German SPD voted the war credits. Finally, the assassination of French socialist Jean Jaurès on July 31, 1914, killed the last hope of peace, by taking out one of the few leaders who possessed enough influence on the international socialist movement to block it from aligning itself on national policies and supporting National Union governments.

Socialist parties of neutral countries for the most part continued to argue for neutrality, and against total opposition to the war. On the other hand, Lenin organized the "Zimmerwald Left" opposed to the "imperialist war" during the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference, and published the pamphlet Socialism and War, in which he called all socialists who collaborated with their national governments "Social-Chauvinists" (socialist in their words but chauvinist in their deeds).

The International was being divided between a revolutionary left, a reformist right and a center wavering between each pole. Lenin also condemned much of the center, which often opposed the war but refused to break party discipline and therefore voted war credits, as social-pacifists. This latter term was aimed in particular at Ramsay MacDonald (leader of the Independent Labour Party in Britain) who did in fact oppose the war on grounds of pacifism but had not actively resisted it.

Discredited by its passivity towards world events, the Second International was henceforth dissolved in the middle of the war, in 1916. In 1917, Lenin published the April Theses, which openly supported a "revolutionary defeatism;" the Bolsheviks pronounced themselves in favor of the defeat of Russia in the war which would permit them to pass to the stage of a revolutionary insurrection.


The Comintern membership card of Karl Kilbom
The Communist International published a namesake theoretical magazine in a variety of European languages from 1919 to 1943

The Comintern was thus founded at a congress March 2-6 1919,[5] against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War. Nineteen parties and organizations assisted the congress. There were 52 delegates present from 34 parties.[6] They decided that an Executive Committee would be formed with representatives of the most important sections, and that other parties joining the International would get their own representatives. The Congress decided that the Executive Committee would elect a five-member bureau to run the daily affairs of the International. However, such a bureau was not constituted and Lenin, Trotsky and Christian Rakovsky later delegated the task of managing the International to Grigory Zinoviev as the Chairman of the Executive. Zinoviev was assisted by Angelica Balbanoff, acting as the secretary of the International, Victor L. Kibaltchitch[7] A former anarchist, he was not even a member of the RCP(b) at the time. In his own words, he considered that it was his knowledge of various European languages that motivated his inclusion into the Comintern apparatus.[8] Material was presented by Lenin, Trotsky, and Alexandra Kollontai. The main topic of discussion was the difference between "bourgeois democracy" and the "dictatorship of the proletariat."[9]

The following parties and movements were invited to the first congress[10]:

  • Spartacus League (Germany)
  • The Communist Party (Bolshevik) Russia
  • The Communist Party of German Austria
  • The Hungarian Communist Workers' Party, in power during Béla Kun's Hungarian Soviet Republic
  • The Finnish CP
  • The Communist Party of Poland
  • The Communist Party of Estonia
  • The Communist Party of Latvia
  • The Lithuanian CP
  • The Belarusian CP
  • The Ukrainian CP
  • The revolutionary elements of the Czech social democracy
  • The Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party (Tesnjaki)
  • The Romanian SDP
  • The Left-wing of the Serbian SDP
  • The Social Democratic Left Party of Sweden
  • The Norwegian Labour Party
  • For Denmark, the Klassenkampen group
  • The Communist Party of Holland
  • The revolutionary elements of the Workers Party of Belgium (who would create the Communist Party of Belgium in 1921)
  • The groups and organisations within the French socialist and syndicalist movements
  • The leftwing within the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland
  • the Italian Socialist Party
  • The revolutionary elements of the Spanish SP
  • The revolutionary elements of the Portuguese SP
  • The British socialist parties (particularly the current represented by John MacLean)
  • The Socialist Labour Party (Britain)
  • Industrial Workers of the World (Britain)
  • The revolutionary elements of the workers' organisations of Ireland
  • The revolutionary elements among the shop stewards (Britain)
  • The Socialist Labor Party of the United States
  • The Left elements of the Socialist Party of America (the tendency represented by Eugene Debs and the Socialist Propaganda League of America)
  • IWW (United States)
  • IWW (Australia)
  • Workers' International Industrial Union (United States)
  • The Socialist groups of Tokyo and Yokohama (Japan, represented by Comrade Katayama)
  • The Socialist Youth International (represented by Willi Münzenberg)

Of these, the following attended: The Communist Parties of Russia, Germany, German Austria, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Estonia, Armenia, the Volga German region; the Swedish Social Democratic Left Party (the Opposition), Balkan Revolutionary People's of Russia; Zimmerwald Left Wing of France; the Czech, Bulgarian, Yugoslav, British, French and Swiss Communist Groups; the Dutch Social-Democratic Group; Socialist Propaganda League and the Socialist Labor Party of America; Socialist Workers' Party of China; Korean Workers' Union, Turkestan, Turkish, Georgian, Azerbaijanian, and Persian Sections of the Central Bureau of the Eastern People's, and the Zimmerwald Commission.[11]

The first four World Congresses

Delegates to the second congress of the Comintern at the Uritsky Palace in Petrograd
Painting by Boris Kustodiev representing the festival of the Comintern II Congress on the Uritsky Square (former Palace square) in Petrograd

From 1919 to 1926, the first Chairman of the Comintern's Executive Committee was Grigory Zinoviev, but its dominant figure until his death in January 1924 was clearly Lenin, whose strategy for revolution had been laid out in What Is to Be Done? (1902)—the title of which was borrowed from nineteenth century socialist author and critic, Nikolai Chernyshevsky. The central policy of the Comintern under Lenin's leadership was that Communist parties should be established across the world to aid the international proletarian revolution. The parties also shared his principle of democratic centralism, "freedom of discussion, unity of action," that is, that parties would make decisions democratically, but uphold in a disciplined fashion whatever decision was made.[12] In this period, the Comintern became known as the "General Staff of the World Revolution."[13][14]

In advance of the Second Congress of the Communist International, held in 1920, Lenin sent out a number of documents, including his Twenty-one Conditions to all socialist parties. The Congress adopted the 21 Conditions as prerequisites for any group wanting to become affiliated to the International. The 21 Conditions called for the demarcation between Communist parties and other socialist groups,[15] and instructed the Comintern sections not to trust the legality of the bourgeois states. They also called for the build-up of party organizations along democratic centralist lines, in which the party press and parliamentary factions would be under the direct control of the party leadership.

Many European socialist parties went through splits on the basis of the adhesion or not to the new International. The French SFIO ("French Section of the Workers International") thus broke away with the 1920 Tours Congress, leading to the creation of the new French Communist Party (initially called "French Section of the Communist International"—SFIC); the Communist Party of Spain was created in 1920, the Italian Communist Party was created in 1921, the Belgian Communist Party in September 1921, and so on.

Writings from the Third Congress, held in June-July 1921, talked about how the struggle could be transformed into "civil war" when the circumstances were favorable and "openly revolutionary uprisings."[16] The Fourth Congress, November 1922, at which Leon Trotsky played a prominent role, continued in this vein.[17]

Did you know?
From 1919 to 1926 The Comintern (Communist International, also known as the Third International) was involved in a wave of revolutions across Europe

During this early period, known as the "First Period" in Comintern history, with the Bolshevik revolution under attack in the Russian Civil War and a wave of revolutions across Europe, the Comintern's priority was exporting the October Revolution. Some Communist Parties had secret military wings. On example is the M-Apparat of the Communist Party of Germany. Its purpose was to prepare for the civil war the Communists believed was impending in Germany, and to liquidate opponents and informers who might have infiltrated the party. There was also a paramilitary organization, the Rotfrontkämpferbund.[16]

The Comintern was involved in the revolutions across Europe in this period, starting with the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Several hundred agitators and financial aid were sent from the Soviet Union and Lenin was in regular contact with its leader, Bela Kun. Soon an official "Terror Group of the Revolutionary Council of the Government" was formed, unofficially known as "Lenin Boys."[16] The next attempt was the "March Action" in Germany in 1921, including an attempt to dynamite the express train from Halle to Leipzig. When this failed Lenin ordered the removal of the leader of the Communist Party of Germany, Paul Levi, from power. A new attempt was made at the time of the Ruhr Crisis. The Red Army was mobilized, ready to come to the aid of the planned insurrection. Resolute action by the German government cancelled the plans, except due to miscommunication in Hamburg, where 200-300 Communists attacked police stations but where quickly defeated. In 1924, there was failed coup in Estonia by the Estonian Communist Party.[16]

Several international organizations were sponsored by the Comintern in this period:

  • Red International of Labour Unions (Profintern—formed 1920)
  • Red Peasant International (Krestintern—formed 1923)
  • International Red Aid (MOPR—formed 1922)
  • Communist Youth International (refounded 1919)
  • Red Sports International (Sportintern)

In 1924, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party joined Comintern. In China at first both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang were supported. After the break with Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, Stalin sent personal emissaries to help organize revolts, which failed.[16]

From the fifth to the seventh World Congress

The second period

Lenin died in 1924. 1925 signaled a shift from the immediate activity of world revolution towards a defense of the Soviet state. In that year, Joseph Stalin adopted the thesis of "socialism in one country," detailed by Nikolai Bukharin in his brochure, Can We Build Socialism in One Country in the Absence of the Victory of the West-European Proletariat? (April 1925). The position was finalized as the state policy after Stalin's January 1926 article On the Issues of Leninism. The perspective of a world revolution was dismissed after the failures of the Spartacist uprising in Germany and of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, and the reflux of all revolutionary movements in Europe, such as in Italy, where the fascist squadristi broke the strikes and quickly assumed power following the 1922 March on Rome). This period, up to 1928, was known as the "Second Period," mirroring the shift in the USSR from war communism to the New Economic Policy.[18]

At the 5th Comintern Congress in July 1924, Zinoviev condemned Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács's History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923 after his involvement in Béla Kun's Hungarian Soviet Republic, and Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy. Zinoviev himself was dismissed in 1926 after falling out of favor with Stalin, who already held considerable power by this time. Bukharin then led the Comintern for two years, until 1928, when he too fell out with Stalin. Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov headed the Comintern in 1934 and presided until its dissolution.

The Third Period

In 1928, the 9th Plenum of the Executive Committee began the so-called "Third Period," which was to last until 1935.[19] The Comintern proclaimed that the capitalist system was entering the period of final collapse, and that as such, the correct stance for all Communist parties was that of an highly aggressive, militant, ultra-left line. In particular, the Comintern described all moderate left-wing parties as "social fascists," and urged the Communists devote their energies to the destruction of the moderate left. With the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany after 1930, this stance became somewhat controversial with many such as the Polish Communist historian Isaac Deutscher criticizing the tactics of the Communist Party of Germany of treating the S.P.D. as the principal enemy.

In 1932 special sections were established in many Communist parties with the purpose to keep complete records of all party activists to gather questionnaires from all the leaders. More than 5,000 such dossiers were sent from the French Communist Party alone to Moscow before the war.[16]

7th Congress and the Popular Front

The seventh and last congress of the Comintern was held in 1935 and officially endorsed the Popular Front against fascism. This policy argued that Communist Parties should seek to form a Popular Front with all parties that opposed fascism and not limit themselves to forming a United Front with those parties based in the working class. There was no significant opposition to this policy within any of the national sections of the Comintern; in France and Spain in particular, it would have momentous consequences with Léon Blum's 1936 election, which led to the Popular Front government.

As the Seventh World Congress officially repudiated the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism as the purpose of the Comintern, Leon Trotsky was led to state that it was the death of the Comintern as a revolutionary International and therefore a new International was needed. Trotsky also argued that the Stalinist parties were now to be considered reformist parties, similar to the social democratic parties (but also playing a role as border guards for the Russian state).

As a result, in 1938 the Fourth International was founded in opposition to the Comintern. Its founders believed that the Third International had become thoroughly bureaucratized and Stalinized, and was no longer capable of regenerating itself into a proper revolutionary organization. In particular, they saw the calamitous defeat of the communist movement in Germany (at the hands of the National Socialists) as evidence that the Comintern was effectively irrelevant and fully under Stalin's control.

The Stalin purges of the 1930s affected Comintern activists living in the USSR. One hundred and thirty-three of the staff of 492 became victims. Several hundred German Communists and antifascists who had fled from Nazi Germany were killed and more than thousand were handed over to Germany.[16] Fritz Platten died in a labor camp; the leaders of the Indian, Korean, Mexican, Iranian, and Turkish Communist parties were executed. The only German Communist leaders to survive were Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht. Of the 11 Mongolian Communist Party leaders, only Khorloogiin Choibalsan survived. A great number of German Communists were handed over to Adolf Hitler. Leopold Trepper recalled these days: "In house, where the party activists of all the countries were living, no one slept until 3 o'clock in the morning. […] Exactly 3 o'clock the car lights began to be seen […]. we stayed near the window and waited [to find out], where the car stopped."[20]


At the start of World War II, the Comintern supported a policy of non-intervention, arguing that the war was an imperialist war between various national ruling classes, much like World War I had been (see Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact). But when the Soviet Union itself was invaded on June 22, 1941, the Comintern changed its position to one of active support for the Allies.

On May 15, 1943, a declaration of the Executive Committee was sent out to all sections of the International, calling for the dissolution of Comintern. The declaration read:

The historical role of the Communist International, organized in 1919 as a result of the political collapse of the overwhelming majority of the old pre-war workers’ parties, consisted in that it preserved the teachings of Marxism from vulgarization and distortion by opportunist elements of the labor movement. …

But long before the war it became increasingly clear that, to the extent that the internal as well as the international situation of individual countries became more complicated, the solution of the problems of the labor movement of each individual country through the medium of some international centre would meet with insuperable obstacles.

Concretely, the declaration asked the member sections to approve:

To dissolve the Communist International as a guiding centre of the international labor movement, releasing sections of the Communist International from the obligations ensuing from the constitution and decisions of the Congresses of the Communist International.

After endorsements of the declaration was received from the member sections, the International was dissolved.[21]

Usually, it is asserted that the dissolution came about as Stalin wished to calm his World War II Allies (particularly Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill) not to suspect that the Soviet Union was pursuing a policy of trying to foment revolution in other countries.[22]

Successor organizations

The International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was founded at roughly the same time that the Comintern was abolished in 1943, although its specific duties during the first several years of its existence are unknown.[23]

In September 1947, following the June 1947 Paris Conference on Marshall Aid, Stalin gathered a grouping of key European communist parties and set up the Cominform, or Communist Information Bureau, often seen as a substitute to the Comintern. It was a network made up of the Communist parties of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia (led by Tito, it was expelled in June 1948). The Cominform was dissolved in 1956, following Stalin's 1953 death and the XXth Congress of the CPSU.

While the Communist parties of the world no longer had a formal international organization, they continued to maintain close relations with each other, through a series of international forums. In the period directly after dissolution of Comintern, periodical meetings of Communist parties where held in Moscow. Moreover, World Marxist Review, a joint periodical of the Communist parties, played an important role in coordinating the communist movement up to the break-up of the Socialist Bloc in 1989-1991.


  1. Evening Session of August 4 History Archive. Retrieved July 30, 2021.
  2. William Henry Chamberlin, General Staff of the World Revolution Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History.
  3. Jules Guesde's speech to the 1899 General Congress of French socialist organizations Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  4. Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, 1899 Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  5. Nils J. Berg, I kamp för Socialismen—Kortfattad framställning av det svenska kommunistiska partiets historia 1917-1981 (Stockholm: Arbetarkultur, 1982), 19.
  6. First Congress Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  7. Kibaltchitch would later take the name "Victor Serge."
  8. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  9. Speeches at the First Congress of the Communist International Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  10. Letter of Invitation to the Congress Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  11. Details of the Congress Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  12. V. Lenin, Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  13. William Henry Chamberlin's "Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History" Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  14. Max Shachtman, "For the Fourth International!" New International. Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  15. John Archibald Getty, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938 (Cambridge University Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0521335706).
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 16.6 Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International, Seventh Session, July 30 Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  17. Speeches at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International November 1922 Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  18. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, chapter 5 Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  19. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, chapter 6. Retrieved March 20, 2022.
  20. Edvard Radzinski, Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives (Anchor, 1997, ISBN 978-0385479547).
  21. Dissolution of the Communist International Retrieved December 23, 2021.
  22. Robert Service, Stalin. A Biography (Belknap Press, 2006, ISBN 0674022580).
  23. Mark Kramer, The Role of the CPSU International Department in Soviet Foreign Relations and National Security Policy, Soviet Studies 42(3) (1990): 429-446.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Getty, John Archibald. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. Cambridge University Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0521335706
  • James, C. L. R. World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. London: M. Secker and Warburg, 1937. OCLC 2846105
  • Liebman, Marcel. Leninism Under Lenin. London: Merlin, 1980. ISBN 9780850362619.
  • Melograni, Piero. Lenin and the Myth of World Revolution: Ideology and Reasons of State 1917-1920. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1989. ISBN 9780391036109.
  • Radzinski, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives. Anchor, 1997. ISBN 978-0385479547
  • Richardson, Al. The Comintern and its Critics. London: Porcupine Press: Socialist Platform, 2001. ISBN 9781899438389.
  • Service, Robert. Stalin. A Biography. Belknap Press, 2006. ISBN 0674022580

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.


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