Founded in the expectation of imminent global revolution

Applying Bolshevism globally

Comintern came into existence because of, on the one hand, the treachery of most of the social democratic parties and, on the other hand, the inspiration provided by the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution. However, as Jack Conrad explains, the main problem encountered in the early years was leftism - not least when it came to electoral strategy and tactics

On March 4 1919, within the Kremlin walls, from where the tsars of old Rus once ruled, the Communist (Third) International was formed as a world party of revolution. In the words of Gregory Zinoviev, its president, Comintern united revolutionaries across the world “on a common ideological platform”.1 This “common ideological platform”, formalised in the resolutions and theses of its congresses and executive committee, in effect amounted to the generalisation and global application of the principles, strategy and tactics of Bolshevism, not least on the terrain of parliament and parliamentary elections.

One can quibble with Zinoviev’s use of the term, “ideological”. After all, what really united Comintern were its commonly agreed programmatic principles, aims and approaches, formalised in the resolutions and theses of congresses and meetings of its executive committee. Eg, it was quite possible for a Machist, a Muslim or an Old Believer to become a Communist Party member … if they accepted Comintern’s programmatic principles, aims and approaches.

Either way, Comintern’s main internal problem during its early years was certainly not philosophical idealism. Nor was it right opportunism or centrism: that found primary expression in the so-called Two-and-a-half International and the rump Second International. No, the main internal problem was leftism.

Disgusted by official social democracy’s degeneration, which culminated in the great betrayal of August 1914 - that is, when parliamentary fractions in Germany, Britain, France, Austria, etc voted for the war budgets of their ‘own’ governments - there was, understandably, a widespread and deeply held belief amongst many honest partisans of the working class that to avoid such a fate it was vital to stay clear of the modern-day Sodom, the bourgeois parliament, and the Gomorrah of bourgeois elections.

Such boycottist sentiments were born of a genuine fear, and not only characterised the ‘left’ communists, but also the influential International Workers of the World in the US and other syndicalists, including in the workers’ committee movement in Britain. A deal of patient effort was expended by Comintern in the attempt to overcome this “infantile disorder” and wean comrades away from the seemingly safe abstractions and certainties of purity politics: ie, if you do not touch parliamentary politics, you will not get contaminated by them (some extended that to trade unions, but we shall not deal with that here).

It should be added that the “infantile disorder” - the subtitle of Lenin’s famous 1920 ‘Leftwing’ communism pamphlet - was, of course, a reference to Comintern, as a newly hatched organisation, its many politically inexperienced adherents … but also a good number of politically experienced, politically hardened leftists who rallied to Comintern in the mistaken belief that the Bolsheviks were politically experienced, politically hardened leftists too.2

Amongst those leftists criticised by Lenin (born 1870), were Anton Pannekoek (born 1873), Herman Gorter (born 1864) and Otto Rühle (born 1874). In other words, Lenin, the old man of Bolshevism, was also criticising, trying to correct, his contemporaries. And, of course, ‘infantile’ leftism has a long history, going back to the founder of modern anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin (born 1814), and before him to agrarian socialists: eg, Gerrard Winstanley (born 1609). Indeed we can trace ‘infantile’ leftism all the way back to Jesus, an apocalyptic revolutionary, and the many other such primitive communists of classical antiquity.

Left anchorites

Lenin’s ‘Leftwing’ communism, had nothing to do with establishing some sort of a doctrine of Moscow infallibility. Indeed he expected Russia soon to fall behind, when it came to taking the lead in the world revolution and providing a model to be emulated (well, initially at least). As the Russian Revolution was increasingly forced onto the defensive, the emergency measures - mostly necessary for sheer survival - became the norm to be emulated. Eg, banning opposition parties, prohibiting factions and suppressing press criticism.

‘Democracy’ was thereby, however, given as a free gift to the capitalist class in the west and their politicians and paid persuaders ... and has been used against us ever since to considerable effect. Capitalism and democracy are still nowadays claimed to be synonymous, where, in fact, they are opposites. The ‘natural’ form of capitalist democracy is not ‘one person, one vote’ - a concession imposed on an unwilling ruling class - but the ‘one share, one vote’ of companies and corporations.

But let us take up the main thread. Lenin’s ‘Leftwing’ communism and Comintern’s resolutions directed against leftism were designed to unite, in the most effective way, the forces of revolution for revolution against the bourgeois state, “the bourgeois parliamentary system” included.3 An angular, but perfectly correct, formulation. Remember, in the UK we have prime ministerial government, the monarch in parliament and that goes hand-in-hand with the House of Lords; in the US, besides the monarchical president and the House of Representatives, there is the Supreme Court and the Senate, presided over by the vice-president; etc. Put another way, the bourgeois parliamentary system is full of checks and balances against democracy.

Those leading Comintern well knew that we can never overthrow the bourgeois state and establish the rule of the working class by isolating ourselves from parliamentary sins and temptations like Christian anchorites - till, that is, capitalism does us the favour of collapsing in some sort of final crisis. Such a perspective would reduce the communist movement to an impotent sect. Illusions in parliamentarism among the masses have to be overcome by using parliamentarism - ie, revolutionary parliamentarism. Indeed, revolutionary parliamentarism can become a weapon in the class war, and one of the sharpest, most potent weapons at that. Communist MPs can use parliamentary immunity to say what would otherwise be unsayable. Communist MPs can use their authority to arouse extra-parliamentary actions and protests. Communist MPs can table bills and propose amendments to popularise demands, such as a popular militia, the repeal of anti-trade union laws, the abolition of the monarchy, etc. Comintern was undoubtedly correct here.

True, Comintern’s revolutionary parliamentarism came with a certain fetishisation of soviets. Take the 2nd Congress of Comintern, meeting over July 20-August 6 1920. Its resolution, ‘The Communist Party and parliament’, insisted that the “state form” of socialism had to be the proletarian dictatorship and the “soviet republic”.4

The dictatorship of the proletariat does not, of course, mean the opposite of democracy, as is often claimed by bourgeois philistines. No, it simply means - well, according to orthodox Marxism - the decisive rule of the working class majority. Not the dictatorship of the Communist Party, that is for sure (though things were clearly slipping in that direction practically in Russia from 1918 onwards because of objective circumstances, and from around a slightly later date an equal slippage happened in the minds of most communist leaders internationally, because they sought to both faithfully excuse and emulate their Russian mentors).

As for soviets, they are simply the Russian word for ‘council’ - specifically a system of delegated representation from workplaces, barracks, battleships and urban and rural localities. However, working class rule can take many different forms: eg, the 1871 Paris Commune was based on the city’s 20 arrondissements.

Socialism could never come about peacefully through a quiet Wednesday afternoon vote in a bourgeois parliament - that was rightly taken as axiomatic. The task of the working class was therefore to shatter the bourgeois state and consign its key elements to the dustbin of history: the standing army, the police, the privy council, MI5, civil service mandarins, appointed judges, the monarchy, the established church … all such shite must go.

Incidentally, it is worth adding that Comintern wanted to “destroy” the local capitalist state as well, and replace it with “local soviets of workers’ deputies”.5 Transforming the likes of the London County Council into a long-term strategic asset went completely unexplored, and so did transforming the House of Commons, as seriously envisaged by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Immediately following the October Revolution in Russia the atmosphere was ecstatic, heady and not a little delirious.

None of the soviet stuff, nor the shattering of the bourgeois state, raised objections or hackles from the ‘left’ communists, not least their veteran, authoritative, thinkers. This was not the case, though, with the generalisation of Bolshevik parliamentary experience - from the 1906-07 duma elections to the 1917 elections to the Constituent Assembly - as a model to be adopted by the world communist movement as a whole.

It was “obligatory”, said the Comintern resolution, for the leading party of the proletariat to use every legal position open to it, not least parliament. In fact it should be used as an “auxiliary centre” in the Communist Party’s revolutionary work.6 Parliament, as the Bolsheviks had shown, provided an excellent means to gauge popular support, expose the bankruptcy of the existing regime, educate the masses in the basic differences between the competing political parties and disseminate key revolutionary ideas.

Understandably, therefore, Comintern was absolutely opposed to the ‘left’ communist minority which wanted to boycott parliamentary elections because of moral scruple and supposed high revolutionary principle. Such a position was “naive and childish” and “does not stand up to criticism”.7 Primarily, only when “conditions are ripe for an immediate move to armed struggle for power” would a boycott be “permissible”. Unlike our parliamentary roadists, the 2nd Congress of Comintern was firmly of the view that parliament was of “comparative unimportance”. The “struggle for power lies outside parliament”.

The present-day opportunist left groups, who claim to adhere to the Comintern tradition, but who cannot countenance communist unity - eg, the Morning Star’s CPB, the SWP, SPEW, the RCP (Socialist Appeal), etc - should admit that Comintern energetically promoted the “unity of all communist elements”. However, it did so not on the basis of “parliamentary tactics: rather the acceptance of the principle of armed struggle for the proletarian dictatorship”.8 Note, none of the above ‘parties’ raise, promote or even privately entertain the minimum demand for a popular militia to replace the standing army.

Indeed, it should never be forgotten that Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the Morning Star’s CPB, has actually forbidden his members from advocating a popular militia in Britain - or anywhere else, for that matter - unless specifically approved of by his cringing leadership. CPB members are also told, in that exact same spirit, to familiarise themselves with the home office’s list of banned organisations. So ‘yes’ to uMkhonto we Sizwe in apartheid South Africa, ‘no’ to the IRA in the Six Countries of Northern Ireland, ‘yes’ to the NLF in Vietnam, ‘no’ to the YPG in Kurdish Syria.9 Clearly, Mr Griffiths has undergone a very strange journey from revolutionary Welsh nationalism to home office ‘official communism’.10


When it came to revolutionary parliamentarism, Comintern presented its national sections with a 12-point check list, which puts the Socialist Campaign Group, the Democratic Socialists of America, Die Linke, Syriza, Nupes, People Before Profit, etc, etc, to shame.

In our view these 12 points retain their essential validity. They should still be observed by communist organisations, their MPs and candidates. We can summarise them thus:

1. The central committee and the Communist Party must “systematically inspect” the quality and organisational abilities of its parliamentary fraction.

2. Candidates and MPs should have proven loyalty to the party.

3. Communist MPs must accept the discipline and decisions of the central committee.

4. Communist MPs must combine legal with illegal work.

5. Communist MPs must “subordinate all their parliamentary work to the extra-parliamentary work of their party”. The “purpose” of communist parliamentary work is “propaganda, agitation and organisation”.

6. Communist MPs must play a leading role in mass street demonstrations and other revolutionary activity initiated by the working class.

7. Communist MPs must not behave like social democrats and “build up business connections with their electors.”

8. Communist MPs are not “legislators” seeking agreement with other legislators. They are party agitators in the “enemy camp”. Communist MPs are “responsible not to the atomised mass of voters, but to the Communist Party”.

9. Communist MPs must make speeches intelligible to the average worker.

10. Working class communist MPs must not be intimidated by parliament: they must speak, even if it is “straight from notes”.

11. Communist MPs must not only expose the bourgeoisie: they must also expose reformists and centrists.

12. Communist MPs only deserve the name ‘communist’ if they “show ceaseless hostility to the bourgeois system and its social patriotic lackeys”.11

United front

Comintern’s 3rd Congress set itself the task of winning the majority of workers to communism. Because the revolutionary wave ushered in by the October Revolution had begun to ebb, this could no longer be done through a direct challenge to the misleaders of social democracy and the “traitors in the trade union bureaucracy”. Manoeuvre was needed - namely the “united proletarian front” tactic.12

What was meant by that was communist parties putting forward and taking the lead in fighting for a programme of immediate demands, which would answer the pressing needs of the mass of workers. Through such an approach a united front “from below” could be created, which would erode and break down the hesitations, reservations and prejudices of the mass of workers concerning the communists.

At the 4th Congress, Zinoviev noted that the “retreat of the proletariat has not yet come to a stop”.13 What this meant was that the workers’ united front, outlined in skeletal form at the 3rd Congress, “is now more relevant than ever”.14 The united front from below was therefore complemented with a “united front from above”. To further the struggle for the united front from below - in other words, to open up the mass of workers to the influence of communism - it was legitimate “to negotiate with the scab leaders of the social democrats”, to propose a united front between leaderships.15

Yet, in spite of the fact that the resolution on tactics stated that “the united front tactic has nothing to do with the so-called ‘electoral combinations’ of leaders in pursuit of one or another parliamentary aim”, the possibility of communists using their parliamentary strength in order to form what was called a workers’ government was considered.16

Comintern outlined five types of workers’ governments. The first was a “liberal workers’ government”, of the Labour Party type, including, we might add, one headed by a Tony Benn or a Jeremy Corbyn. The second was the social democratic kind of government seen in Germany after World War I. Both were “illusory”. After all, despite occasional chatter about socialism, such governments are, in reality, committed to running capitalism in the interests of the working class (an impossibility, which explains why they were described as “illusory” by Comintern).

Despite that, today we find all manner of opportunists calling for a vote for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party in the name of moving towards a workers’ government. The social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty comes to mind. It wants the labour movement to push, prod and even force the expected government of Sir Keir Starmer, Rachael Reeves, Wes Streeting and David Lammy into a position where it will “tax the rich to rebuild public services” (and carry out a whole wish list of other radicalish economic demands).17

Far from attempting to expose Sir Keir’s Labour Party, holding out such an unlikely, implausible, surely absurd possibility is intended, in fact, to foster illusions and reconcile militant trade unionists to auto-Labourism. After all, the AWL and Labour front bench have so much in common. Both insist that the ‘main enemy’ is not at home, with the government, the state machine and the capitalist class, but is to be found in Moscow, in Beijing or in Tehran. Both want to ‘arm, arm, arm Ukraine’, because we need to ‘stand up to the evil of Putinism’. Both want a capitalist two-state ‘solution’ in Israel/Palestine. Both back the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie used in the Labour Party to purge the left and now being deployed to besmirch the giant pro-Palestine solidarity marches. Etc, etc.

Of course, communists would be ready to back a Labour government, including with purely parliamentary arrangements, but only to the degree that it really attempted to advance the interests of the working class - say, by pledging to repeal all anti-trade union laws, get rid of the standing army, withdraw from Nato, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, nationalise banking, insurance and infrastructure, introduce measures of economic planning … and so on and so forth.


Such a government, however, would, argued Comintern, have to be supported by “combative workers’ organisations” and “must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war”.18 Even tame experiments such as Salvador Allende’s 1970-73 government in Chile led directly to “civil war”, albeit of a decidedly one-sided sort. The left parties, the trade unions and the working class masses were more or less totally unarmed, the army was not … and general Augusto Pinochet and his military junta proceeded to imprison, torture, kill and disappear thousands upon thousands.

However, to state the obvious, governments of the liberal Labour and social democratic sort are by no means “inevitable”.19 There are other roads.

Hence the three other kinds of workers’ governments - those which Comintern called “genuine”. They were a government of workers and poorer peasants; a workers’ government with communist participation; and, lastly, a genuinely proletarian workers’ government, which, in its “pure form”, can only be “embodied in the Communist Party”.20

Zinoviev himself strongly argued that to establish a workers’ government, it would first be necessary to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” and therefore the workers’ government of the ‘liberal workers’ government’ form represented the “least likely path” to working class state power.21

The Communist Party would perhaps, under certain specific circumstances and with definite guarantees, support a coalition government with a view to furthering the struggle against the state apparatus and thereby bring about working class rule. The case of the Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary coalition in 1917, which resulted in a government of workers and poorer peasants, is an example.

Applied to a coalition of workers’ parties, this would require a firm, public, binding commitment to carrying out the full minimum programme of the Communist Party. That would include, as a most “basic task” of such a workers’ government, “arming the proletariat, disarming the bourgeois counterrevolutionary organisations, introducing [workers’] control of production, shifting the main burden of taxation onto the shoulders of the rich, and breaking the resistance of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie”.22 In short, a civil war - hopefully over in 24 hours, hopefully virtually bloodless, hopefully so uneven when it comes to force capability, that it brings decisive victory to the working class.

Frankly, though, the ‘workers’ government’ slogan was a product of frustrating times, coined during a period of forced retreat from what had previously been thought of as a world situation where the proletariat stood on the brink of taking state power more or less everywhere. Certainly the slogan was full of ambiguities. Even according to its authors, it had “dangers”.23 It could, for example, easily become an excuse for stagism, lesser evilism or auto-Labourism.


However, there is no mystery about what Comintern was out to achieve. Communist parties found themselves in a minority, sometimes an extreme minority: ie, not much more than a group of a couple of thousand.

The fight for a workers’ united front around elemental issues and, after that, the workers’ government slogan, were designed to achieve class unity around the communist parties. Labourite and social democrat leaders, who preferred unity with the liberal bourgeoisie to unity with the communists, would be exposed, would drain members, supporters and voters to the communists, till the poles were reversed. Instead of the communists being in the minority, they would be in the majority and the Labourites and social democrats would find themselves mere irrelevant rumps - as with the Mensheviks in the Russia of autumn 1917, who for all practical purposes could therefore be largely ignored.

Under such circumstances everything hinges on our combat organisations, splitting the enemy’s state machine - crucially the army - and assessing the international situation. We would have to ask ourselves searching questions, such as: ‘Can the big countries of Europe coordinate with us?’; ‘Will the working class movement in America be able to hold back counterrevolutionary intervention?’; ‘Can we in Europe inspire Africa, Asia and Latin America?’

If the answers to such question are positive, we would surely risk all and go for state power. However, if the answers were negative, we would be well advised to wait, to hold back, to patiently bide our time till things have been changed for the better.

On the other hand, sometimes life does not give the luxury of choice. We might be forced to take a gamble and make a leap into the unknown. We shall see.

  1. G Zinoviev, ‘Paris - Bern - Moscow’, in John Riddle (ed) Founding the Communist International: proceedings and documents of the 1st Congress March 1919 New York NY 1987, p306.↩︎

  2. Lenin’s pamphlet was written for the opening of the 2nd Congress of Comintern. Printed almost simultaneously in Russian, French, German, Italian and English, it was handed out to delegates as they arrived in Moscow.↩︎

  3. VI Lenin CW Vol 28, Moscow 1977, p458.↩︎

  4. A Adler (ed) Theses, resolutions, manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, p99.↩︎

  5. Ibid p100.↩︎

  6. Ibid p101.↩︎

  7. Ibid p102.↩︎

  8. Ibid p103.↩︎

  9. ‘Protocol for all party members’ Unity September 6 2021.↩︎

  10. For a brief overview of Robert Griffiths and his political career, see M Fischer ‘Welsh road to British road’ Weekly Worker March 26 1998: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/233/welsh-road-to-british-road.↩︎

  11. A Adler (ed) Theses, resolutions, manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, pp103-05.↩︎

  12. Ibid London 1980, p301.↩︎

  13. Quoted in EH Carr The Bolshevik Revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1977, p440.↩︎

  14. A Adler (ed) Theses, resolutions, manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, p395.↩︎

  15. Ibid London 1980, p396.↩︎

  16. J Riddell (ed) Towards the united front: proceedings of the 4th Congress of the Communist International, 1922 Chicago IL 2012, p1161.↩︎

  17. Editorial: ‘Our demands and a workers’ government’ Solidarity March 20 2024. Revealingly, the war budget, Nato, the House of Lords and the monarchy go unmentioned. And, naturally, there is no thought of a mass Communist Party. Everything is framed by Labourism and auto-Labourism.↩︎

  18. J Riddell (ed) Towards the united front: proceedings of the 4th Congress of the Communist International, 1922 Chicago IL 2012, p1160.↩︎

  19. As claimed in an article, ‘Could a Labour government lead us to socialism?’, published in the Morning Star under the name ‘Marx Memorial Library’ (March 2 2024). The anonymous MML author answers their article’s question with a blunt ‘no’, but then says, “we’re unlikely to get socialism without one”. A line, note, surely at variance with the CPB’s programme, Britain’s road to socialism.↩︎

  20. J Riddell (ed) Towards the united front: proceedings of the 4th Congress of the Communist International, 1922 Chicago IL 2012, p1161.↩︎

  21. Ibid p25.↩︎

  22. Ibid p1159.↩︎

  23. Ibid p1160.↩︎