Comintern: somewhat ramshackle

Navigating uncharted waters

Ian Birchall examines the deliberations of Comintern’s Third Congress in the aftermath of the 1921 March action

Many on the Marxist left invoke the ‘first four congresses’ of the Communist International, but until recently it had been difficult to know exactly what those congresses consisted of. However, John Riddell has now published the complete proceedings of the Third Congress of the Third International to add to his previous volumes on the First, Second and Fourth Congresses.1

These proceedings should not be regarded as scripture or some kind of recipe book for action, but are important to study as part of the record of the years following the 1917 Russian Revolution, which were a high point of working class struggle and organisation. The first four congresses of the Communist International - those attended by Lenin (and from which Stalin was notably absent) - remain a point of reference for many on the left. And yet it is only now that we are able to get a full picture of what occurred.

Delegates who gathered for the Third Congress in Moscow from June 22 to July 12 1921 were aware of the historical stakes. There were references to the possibility of another global conflagration following World War I - ‘Socialism or barbarism’ seemed a reality. As the congress theses put it, the “imperialist bourgeoisie” was “preparing a new war, which will threaten to destroy human civilisation once and for all”.2 That delegates can scarcely have envisaged the holocaust and Hiroshima does not detract from their sense that history was on a knife-edge, and that failure could have catastrophic consequences.

1921 context

1920 had been a good year for the International. The Second Congress had been a success, drawing in increasing support for the besieged Russian state from a range of sections of the international labour movement. The congress was followed later in the year by the establishment of mass communist parties in Germany and France, but at the beginning of 1921 things started to turn sour. Economic difficulties in Russia led first to the Kronstadt revolt, then to the New Economic Policy.

In March the German Communist Party (KPD) launched the fateful ‘March action’. Responding to a provocation in central Germany, the party launched a general strike without support outside its own ranks, leading to savage state repression. The KPD lost over a half of its membership and its ultra-left conduct meant that relations with the left of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) were damaged irreparably, contributing to the failure of revolution in 1923.

Things were complicated by the behaviour of Paul Levi. Levi, a former party leader, had opposed the March action, largely on the basis of a correct analysis, but he had then broken party discipline by making his criticisms public at a time of severe repression, describing the action as a “Bakuninist putsch”. As result he was expelled from the KPD. Naturally there were strong feelings on both sides and many accounts suggest he was arrogant and aloof. There is, of course, no rule that revolutionaries have to be likeable - many are not - but Levi was clearly not a popular, and hence not an effective, leader. Though absent from the congress, where his expulsion was confirmed, Levi was constantly referred to.

Levi’s position reflects one of the options available for revolutionaries in this period. By 1922 he was arguing that the post-war revolutionary wave was over, and that there was nothing revolutionaries could do until a new wave arose. He rejoined the SPD and devoted himself to the question of civil liberties. Though this position was not put explicitly at the Third Congress, it clearly represented one of the alternatives before the movement. While history seems to have vindicated his position, he can be legitimately accused of fatalism. Things did not have to turn out the way they did, and a reasonable person, looking at the world in mid-1921, would have had good grounds for supposing that revolutionary opportunities were not yet exhausted.

If Levi’s position represented the right of the political spectrum, the left took the form of support for what came to be described as the ‘theory of the offensive’. Its adherents basically argued that, in order to reverse the decline in working class militancy, the communist parties needed to go onto the attack. There was sympathy for this position among some of the executive committee of the International, notably Béla Kun, the Hungarian communist leader, but also to some extent Karl Radek and Grigory Zinoviev. As Clara Zetkin summed it up, the March action, the most significant application of the theory of the offensive, had shown that the German party leadership “thought that they could force the situation by a decision, cooked up in the test-tube by the party’s bodies, a decision that would bring about an immediate reorientation of the party masses, which had not been prepared inwardly, intellectually and politically”.3 In a difficult situation, in which possibilities seemed to be receding, revolutionaries will clearly had a role to play. But the danger was that the parties would substitute themselves for the absent working class consciousness.

The strategy of the CI leadership - by which I mean Lenin and those close to him, notably Trotsky - was to try to steer an intermediate path, rejecting both defeatism and passivity, on the one hand, and voluntarist adventurism, on the other. It was also vital to avoid splits and to hold the movement together, especially in face of the massive defections from the German party. The basis for this was a careful and sober analysis of the objective circumstances, within which action had to be taken.

Tactics and strategy

The congress opened with Trotsky’s analysis of the conjuncture - a three-hour speech which he gave in German. He then immediately followed this with his own translations into French and Russian, speaking for a total of nine hours non-stop!

His report has long been available, but gains relevance when it is placed in the context of the congress. Trotsky’s analysis insisted on the growing importance of the USA: “The economic centre of gravity is no longer in Europe, but in the United States. Europe has decayed, and by and large it is decaying more and more.”4 Here he identified a process which would only be fully apparent after World War II - the huge European colonial empires remained largely intact until 1945. But, while he insisted that capitalism was in, and would remain in, deep crisis, he refused to pronounce on the time scale - “we cannot argue about the tempo of events, after history has betrayed us so infamously in this matter”.5

And his conclusion was clearly directed against the more optimistic and voluntarist of the delegates:

The struggle will perhaps be prolonged and perhaps will not stride forward as feverishly as one might wish; the struggle will be difficult, demanding many sacrifices. Accumulated experience has made us more astute. We will be able to manoeuvre in and through this struggle.6

His general perspective, cautiously phrased as it was, was proven correct. Capitalism survived, but at a terrible price, with years of depression and the rise of fascism

Following this, five heated sessions (crammed into three days) on “tactics and strategy” were at the very heart of the congress. These centred on the March action and the theory of the offensive.

The debate was lively and often bitter. The KPD delegation had representatives of both sides, and sharply varying assessments of the events were presented. Some speakers claimed that the KPD had not suffered any substantial losses - a claim which does not fit the facts. Heinrich Malzahn of the KPD, who was sympathetic to Levi’s position, responded to Zinoviev’s claim that half a million workers had participated in the March action with a careful analysis that claimed that 200,000-220,000 workers took part in the strike.

Divisions were apparent even among the Russian leadership. For his part, Trotsky was scathing about the philosophy of the offensive:

This celebrated philosophy of the offensive, which is completely non-Marxist, has arisen from the following curious outlook: ‘A wall of passivity is gradually rising, which is ruining the movement. So let us advance, and break through this wall!’

…. We are obliged to say frankly to the German working class that we regard this philosophy of the offensive as the greatest of dangers, and that to apply it in practice is the greatest of political crimes.

Radek, on the other hand, while rejecting the theory of the offensive, came out in defence of the March action. He claimed that the German Communist Party

has shown the masses through its March action - however many errors it may have made - what a lie it is to say that, as the Communist International’s section in Germany, it is unwilling to struggle. It has shown its will to struggle, thereby making it possible for the broadest masses of impatient proletarians, above all the unemployed, to join its ranks.

Another German delegate, Ernst Friesland, insisted that the March action had not harmed the party: “We did not lose any influence with the German working masses; on the contrary, our influence is growing from day to day, despite the errors.” His claims did not stand up to an examination of the facts. The Communist Party lost at least half, and perhaps two thirds, of its membership.

Worth mentioning is the presence at the Congress of the KAPD (Workers’ Communist Party of Germany), a grouping of ultra-lefts who had been expelled from the KPD at Levi’s instigation. They served the function of clarifying the debate by arguing against some of the most basic principles of the International. There was no point winning unanimous votes if the arguments were not carried, and the arguments could not be had properly without the presence of an opposition. The KAPD declared that a united front approach was opportunist, and even called for “clearing the old counterrevolutionary trade unions out of the way”.

The most lucid critic of the March action was Clara Zetkin, who was given additional speaking time and also spoke for an hour and a quarter in defence of Levi. She adopted all the main points made by Levi, but at the same time stayed within the discipline of the movement.

Zetkin deserves to be remembered and studied as one of the major figures of the Comintern, and not seen purely in terms of her work on the women question.7 She had written to Levi urging him to seek reconciliation:

I implore you, in the interests of our cause, not to slam the door of the party violently and unwisely. You should keep a low profile for now, at least until I return with more precise information. I know this is a difficult sacrifice, but you must do this for the cause. After having jumped so bravely into the abyss, because you wanted to save the party, you must also now summon up the self‑control to wait for a time and be silent.8

The tireless Zetkin also introduced the debate on women. While stressing the importance of mobilising male and female members of the working class, she was against separate women-only organisations. She called for the establishment of women’s committees - so called “because they carry our work among women, but not because we consider it important that they consist only of women. On the contrary. We welcome it when the women’s committees include men.”9

In particular Zetkin made a forthright and very relevant defence of open debate in the movement. She summed up beautifully the position that revolutionaries must not stifle criticism for fear of aiding their enemies: “For, if we take as a criterion the way our opponents utilise the written or oral statements that we make as communists, we must never write a line or open our mouths, because our opponents will twist everything and suck honey from every blossom”.10 It is a sentiment that retains its full validity today.


Some historians (for example Tony Cliff and Pierre Broué) have claimed that the congress’s treatment of the March action was a “cover-up” and that there was a need for a sharper criticism of it.

In view of the full account of the debate, it is hard to maintain that claim - the March Action and the theory of the offensive were both subjected to merciless criticism. But there was a compromise. The theses adopted unanimously rejected the theory of the offensive, but recognised certain positive aspects to the March Action. This was necessary in order to hold the movement together. A sharper condemnation of the March Action could have caused further splits in the KPD.

As Lenin explained,

It is, of course, no secret that our theses are a compromise. And why not? Among communists, who are already holding their Third Congress and have worked out definite fundamental principles, compromises under certain circumstances are absolutely necessary.11

The congress commission on tactics and strategy described the March Action as a “step forward” because “(1) thousands of workers struggled courageously; and (2) the party placed itself at the head of the struggle”. Clearly this was untrue, and it set a dangerous precedent. On the other hand, to have designated the March Action as a defeat would only have reinforced the demoralisation in Germany. And a split, either in the German party or in the International, would have been a serious blow to the movement.

What was important was to make sure that nobody, in Germany or elsewhere, saw the March Action as a model to be imitated. Hence the importance of condemning the theoretical justifications for it, and a clear explanation of the need to avoid such adventurist tactics. A document from the executive insisted that “when the vanguard of the proletarian army is forced into battle in isolation, it must avoid an armed confrontation with the enemy. For only the masses can enable the masses to triumph.”12

Riddell’s assessment of the compromise is:

While leaving some issues undiscussed or postponed for later clarification, it served a necessary goal - too often neglected in the socialist movement - of preserving the unity of revolutionary forces that was indispensable for further steps forward and providing a principled and broadly agreed basis for their further united action and discussion.

Riddell quotes in his appendix extracts from a text available on the Marxist Internet Archive and which repays close study: Zetkin’s Reminiscences of Lenin,13 in which she recounts discussions during the period of the congress, in particular Lenin’s attempt to find a means of drawing Levi back into the movement (precisely because his talents were needed) - attempts which failed because of Levi’s own arrogance.14 Lenin’s formulae on the basis for the compromise and on Levi’s defects as a leader are well worth noting. These recollections deserve careful study: they show Lenin at his best, revealing his sensitivity to the complex dynamics of a real movement.

In this connection Riddell has dug out a fascinating anecdote. In the debates about the March Action there were sharp clashes between Zetkin and another member of the German delegation, Fritz Heckert. But a few days later it was Zetkin’s birthday, and the job of presenting a large bouquet of roses to the veteran fighter was given to none other than Heckert. The person behind this was Lenin himself.

Lenin and Trotsky

Many retrospective critics point to the defects of the International’s leadership - including its president, Zinoviev - and to the poor quality of its emissaries. But this was just an aspect of a deep-lying problem of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern - the shortage of personnel.

The collapse of the Second International in 1914 had deprived the movement of most of its cadre - the CI was forced to rebuild with more inexperienced comrades. And many of the best militants in the Russian party had perished in the civil war. As a result a number of leaders were not up to the job - Béla Kun had screwed up the Hungarian revolution and he could not go home because of rightwing repression, so he was given a job on the CI executive. (Riddell has discovered a particularly nasty letter from Kun to Lenin, in which he accuses Zetkin of suffering from “senile dementia”; he suggests that, since she is too old to contribute to the movement, she should commit suicide.) But any attempt to sharpen the critique of the ECCI’s role would have meant finding new personnel - and those personnel did not exist.

It is easy in retrospect to see Lenin and Trotsky towering over the rest of the movement. But that is actually a sign of weakness - a movement that depended so much on so few individuals was actually very fragile. A revolution that depends on one or two outstanding comrades is easily beheaded, as was shown in Germany with the murder of Luxemburg.

Lenin and Trotsky made no attempt to conceal the difficulties ahead and rejected facile solutions. As Trotsky said, “It is a big complex world, and it is quite a task to figure things out.”15 What is striking, alongside their clarity and firmness, is a certain modesty - here is Trotsky explaining the significance of the Russian Revolution:

Yes, comrades, we have erected a bulwark of the world revolution in our country. The country is still very backward, still very barbaric. It offers a picture of poverty. But we are defending this bulwark of the world revolution, given that at present there is no other. When another stronghold is erected in France or in Germany, then the one in Russia will lose nine-tenths of its significance; and we will then stand ready to go to you in Europe in order to defend this other, more important stronghold. Comrades, it is absurd to believe that we consider this Russian stronghold of the revolution to be the centre of the world.16

Lenin described the thinking of the Bolsheviks on taking power:

We thought that either the international revolution will come to our assistance, and in that case our victory will be fully assured, or we will do our modest revolutionary work in the conviction that even in the event of defeat we shall have served the cause of the revolution by enabling other revolutions to profit from our experience.17

Unity v clarity

The congress revealed one of the most constant themes in Marxist politics - the need for a balance between clarity and unity.

There is no predetermined formula which guarantees a correct balance - it has to be achieved in practice in the particular concrete circumstances. Thus Zetkin argued for the importance of clarity, but Lenin stressed the need not to humiliate the supporters of the theory of the offensive. However, this judgment might be complemented by one of Zetkin’s most acute observations:

Unity of the proletarian front must not be achieved at the expense of revolutionary clarity, revolutionary energy and revolutionary action. Unity must never be won at such a price. That is why it is necessary to draw conclusions not only through fine resolutions, but through living and forceful deeds.18

As Zetkin saw, the demands of unity and clarity often came into conflict; there was no predetermined formula, only a permanent balancing act.

The KPD had also launched an initiative which, though overshadowed by the furore about the March Action, was potentially of much greater significance and which laid the basis for the united front strategy to be developed at the Fourth Congress. In January 1921 it published an open letter, addressed to the main trade unions and workers’ parties. This raised a number of defensive demands - wages, unemployment, cost of living, food supplies - and called for united action. It went on:

We do not ask the recipients of this letter whether they recognise these demands as justified. We take that for granted. Instead we ask them whether they are prepared to undertake immediately a determined struggle for these demands.19

Riddell has dug up some documents which reveal that members of the ECCI, including Zinoviev, were initially contemptuous of a united front strategy, but show how Lenin insisted on its importance. He cites minutes of a meeting of the International’s executive (from which Lenin was absent), where the open letter was discussed. Zinoviev dismissed it as “more a literary fantasy than a mass movement”, while Bukharin called it the “opportunistic blabbering of Levi”.

This contrasts very sharply with a letter from Lenin to Zinoviev just before the congress, which states that “the tactic of the open letter should definitely be applied everywhere” and that “all those who have failed to grasp the necessity of the open letter tactic should be expelled from the Communist International within a month after its Third Congress.”20


The Third Congress coincided with the launching of the Red International of Labour Unions. This was an important initiative, aimed at drawing into the orbit of the Comintern the large number of revolutionary syndicalists in France, Spain and other western European countries, who would be invaluable allies for the CI.

The RILU was intended to provide an alternative leadership to the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), to which the main unions in most European countries were affiliated. But there was a degree of triumphalism in many of the CI statements, which reflected an underestimation of the power of reformism and an ignorance of the western European labour movement. At the same time it was constantly stressed that communists should remain in the existing trade unions (contrary to the position of the ultra-lefts in the KAPD).

The IFTU was generally referred to as the “yellow Amsterdam International”. In the call for the congress (doubtless drafted by Zinoviev) there was a prediction of the “imminent and complete collapse” of the IFTU. In fact the IFTU had 24 million members in 1921 - rather more than the RILU; it was to survive until World War II, whereas the RILU was marginalised and eventually wound up in 1937. In Zinoviev’s opening speech the IFTU was described, rather optimistically, as “the last bulwark of capitalism”.

Repeatedly the Amsterdam International was referred to as “yellow”. The word (from the French jaune) clearly bore the meaning “scab”. Now the reactionary role of the IFTU leaders, during and after the war, is not in doubt. But it is one thing to denounce treacherous leaders; quite another to call mass workers’ organisations “scab” unions. To do so would undoubtedly be a barrier to united action.

Yet this seems to have been little questioned, apart from one very sensible contribution from the Scottish foundry worker and shop steward, Thomas Bell, who declared:

As for Amsterdam, we must not forget how dangerous it is to make it into a fetish. That is certainly not the case in Britain. We have found that the best method of criticism is not to lay too much weight on criticism itself. The best method is to go into the national unions and attack the Amsterdam International from there by overturning the reactionary leaders, which will make it possible to withdraw this union and its support from the Amsterdam International.21


Let me end with a few thoughts and questions which these minutes have provoked. The picture of the CI which emerges is of a rather fragile and ramshackle organisation with a somewhat weak leadership. This is not to be condescending to a movement which contained many revolutionaries of great courage and integrity operating in a much more difficult situation than anything we can imagine. But perhaps it is best to approach the Comintern in terms of an understanding of its weaknesses and limitations rather than simply seeing it as a model to be imitated.

After 1917 Lenin was operating in uncharted waters. He did not have any clear set of principles, derived from Marx, Kautsky or whoever; he had to operate on the basis of his own judgment, making compromises and sharp turns. As he pointed out at the congress, taking power had been a wager in which nothing was guaranteed. Lenin’s greatness - and the reason why he should be studied - is his ability to improvise. Last year I was lambasted in the Weekly Worker for saying that Lenin’s greatness was his ability to learn from the working class.22 I stand by what I wrote.

Finally Riddell’s work raises a vital historical question. The Russian Revolution was predicated on the possibility of spreading the revolution - Lenin never envisaged socialism in one country. But, when we look at the divisions and fragility of the KPD, we face the very difficult question as to whether revolution in Germany was possible. Or was Levi right that the opportunity had already been passed by 1921?

This is a question in retrospect - certainly, to judge from Victor Serge’s reports, Germany in 1923 looked like a revolutionary situation - if we had that degree of inflation and popular mobilisation, we should certainly think of ourselves as being in a revolutionary situation. But was it in fact possible? And what questions does that raise about the Russian Revolution?


1.. J Riddell To the masses: proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International Leiden 2015.

2.. Ibid p914.

3.. p544.

4.. p115.

5.. p126.

6.. p133.

7.. A new series featuring Clara Zetkin’s letters and writings is now available on the Revolutionary History website: http://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8131:new-series-1&catid=433:book-index-and-contents&Itemid=101.

8.. J Riddell To the masses: proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International Leiden 2015, p1151.

9.. Ibid p785.

10.. p300.

11.. p465.

12.. p1039-40.

13.. www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1924/reminiscences-of-lenin.htm.

14.. For more on this enigmatic individual, see my ‘Paul Levi in perspective’: http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2015-paul-levi-in-perspective.

15.. J Riddell To the masses: proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International Leiden 2015, p581.

16.. Ibid p379.

17.. p657.

18.. p371.

19.. pp1061-63.

20.. pp1098-99.

21.. p758.

22.. ‘Not waving but dying’ Weekly Worker July 24 2014.