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The IMT has spent the past year commemorating the March 1919 centennial of the Third (Communist) International’s founding. In particular, we celebrate the extraordinary promise and lessons of its first four congresses. But just a few years after it entered the scene of history, the Comintern suffered a sudden, dramatic, and irreversible decline. What happened? How was all that potential squandered and turned into its opposite?
The Comintern rose out of the ashes of the Second (Socialist) International, forged in the fire of the Russian Revolution. Within a year of its founding, it was the most powerful international proletarian organization ever created. The capitalists of the globe were put on notice and trembled at the prospect of a worldwide communist revolution.
As with all major social processes, both the rise and fall of the Third International can only be understood as part of a process, a clash of living forces—and the end result was not at all predetermined. The nationalist, bureaucratic degeneration which took place in the USSR after the death of Lenin was mirrored in the Comintern—and these processes fed back on one another.
It was not merely a question of bad ideas, decisions, or leaders, but of colossal antagonistic class forces colliding on a national and world scale. Despite Trotsky and the Left Opposition’s heroic effort to organize the political fightback against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and its international expression, even Trotsky’s enormous authority could not hold back the ebbing tide of history.
So what transpired between the Fourth Congress, held in late 1922, and the Comintern’s final dissolution on May 15, 1943?
What is Zinovievism?
After holding yearly congresses in the midst of a brutal civil war and imperialist encirclement, just three more congresses were held over the next twenty years: the Fifth, in 1924; the Sixth, in 1928; and the Seventh, in 1935. This alone speaks volumes about the changes that had taken place. This is a long and tragic period which includes the defeated German, Chinese, and Spanish Revolutions, the rise of Hitler, the outbreak of World War II, Trotsky’s assassination, and much more.
While we must always adapt our tactics to the concrete conditions, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Most of the answers to the questions we confront today can be found in the experience of the past—both positive and negative. In fact, there’s often no better way to learn than through the mistakes of others. “How not to build a healthy revolutionary international” may, therefore, be a more apt title for this article.
A fair amount of background, context, and history will be needed if we are to understand the decline and collapse of the Comintern, a process that began under Zinoviev and was completed by Stalin. Zinoviev’s role in laying the foundations for the Stalinist strangulation of the Comintern is one of the essential pieces of this puzzle. An understanding of the essence of Zinovievism is, therefore, crucial if we are to maximize the lessons we can learn from this experience.
First and foremost, we must understand that Zinovievism is not an empty insult but describes a particular method—a very bad method.
Zinovievism is when you look for artificial shortcuts to resolve political or organizational problems, taking administrative measures instead of patiently explaining. It is when you use threats, intimidation, suspensions, and expulsions to impose blind political obedience and subservience. It is when personal prestige and loyalty to an individual or a clique take precedence over political and organizational principles. It is when you issue commands from above “in the name of” this or that body—as though that automatically granted you authority.
In short, Zinovievism is when you deal with political differences by resorting to organizational methods. As such, it is diametrically opposed to genuine Bolshevism—the very opposite of how Lenin and Trotsky built the Comintern in the first place.
And while Stalin used and perfected Zinovievist methods, we generally reserve the term “Stalinism” to describe the broader phenomenon of degenerated or deformed workers’ states, although in some instances it is entirely correct to refer to “Stalinist” organizational methods as well.
The early years of the Comintern
The Comintern was formed by extremely raw and politically immature forces, a majority of which came out of the old reformist and anarchist organizations. Most of them had sectarian, ultraleft tendencies and no understanding of Marxism or of class-struggle tactics and strategy.
These individuals reflected a previous, antiquated stage of the working class’s political and organizational development. They operated largely in the realm of crude pragmatism and general abstractions and had no idea how to apply materialist dialectics to the tumultuous and contradictory events of the post-WWI epoch. They were energetic and well-intentioned but simply not up to the task—and were denied the luxury of time to learn from their mistakes and develop.
The Second Congress of the Comintern. / Image: Public Domain
If the truth is to be told, at the time the Comintern was founded, there were no real Bolsheviks outside of Russia and Bulgaria. But Lenin and Trotsky had to work with what they had. They bent over backward to win the best individuals and groupings from around the world to revolutionary Marxism and Bolshevism. Even within Russia, while there were many dedicated revolutionary cadres, there were very few genuinely well-rounded Marxists, people with a serious grasp of theory. Really speaking, although individuals like Bukharin are sometimes included on the shortlist, only Lenin and Trotsky truly qualify as theoreticians.
Above all, Lenin and Trotsky had to combat the “infantile disorder” of ultraleftism. However, they engaged in this combat with political arguments, with resolutions, by “patiently explaining” with a view toward educating and raising the comrades’ level. Their method was to use the errors of ultraleftism to help people learn. They offered sharp but constructive, comradely criticism, as opposed to insults, shaming, and commands from above.
The only authority a political leadership can have is a moral and political authority. It cannot be imposed artificially or bureaucratically from above. It must be earned over time and continuously re-earned. A genuine revolutionary leader does not and cannot demand authority based on positions or titles such as “full-timer,” “leading comrade,” “CC member,” “EC member,” or “IEC or IS member.” Comrades must be inspired politically to make sacrifices and to carry out democratic decisions collectively—even if they were on the losing side of a vote.
However, a proper discussion and the opportunity to politically convince an opponent takes time. If the leadership has a low political level or low authority, or if it loses its patience, it may look for shortcuts and resort to organizational measures instead of political arguments. This is a slippery slope to disaster. Lenin once warned Zinoviev and Bukharin: “if you want obedience, you will get obedient fools.” And the biggest fools are those who think they can build something healthy and lasting based on these methods.
Another vital lesson from the experience of the Comintern is that once a revolutionary situation breaks out, it is too late to build a revolutionary leadership. The “secret” of the success of the October Revolution was not only that there was a revolutionary leadership up to the task of winning and holding power, but that it had been painstakingly built in advance—and would not have been up to the task had it not been built before the revolution erupted.
There are plenty of examples of Zinovievism in the history of our movement. Stalin is a classic example, of course, although he operated at an extreme level in which he actually held state power and opponents were not merely bullied or removed from their positions bureaucratically—but physically exterminated.
There are also those like James P. Cannon of the US SWP, who infamously used these methods against Ted Grant and the comrades of the WIL during the episode of the so-called “Unity Conference” in Britain in 1938, in the run-up to the founding of the Fourth International. And in more modern times we have seen the likes of Gerry Healy and Peter Taaffe use these methods—with the shipwreck their respective organizations as the inevitable result.
Who was Grigori Zinoviev?
Grigori Zinoviev was born Hirsch Apfelbaum to Jewish dairy farmers on September 23, 1883, in what is now Ukraine. He was the same age as Kamenev; four years younger than Trotsky; five years younger than Stalin; and 13 years younger than Lenin.
He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1901 at the age of 18 and was with the Bolsheviks from the time of the split with the Mensheviks in 1903. He was first elected to the Central Committee of the RSDLP in 1907, at the age of 24. He spent the first years of WWI in exile in Switzerland and returned with Lenin to Russia in the famous sealed train.
Zinoviev was Lenin’s “closest disciple” in the decade leading up to 1917, a member of the Central Committee abroad, which Trotsky referred to as the “spiritual center” of the party. Lenin himself credited Zinoviev as coauthor of his pamphlet “Socialism and War,” written in the summer of 1915, a classic exposition of the Bolshevik position on WWI. Zinoviev also wrote a series of articles on the history of war and the class struggle, published in a collection of writings with Lenin in 1916. Lenin often collaborated with others to help develop them—although the key ideas came from him. This was also the case with Stalin’s short book on the National Question.
Lenin clearly saw Zinoviev as a promising young comrade. As Lenin’s chief lieutenant, he played an important role in organizing the Zimmerwald conference, which brought him into contact with many antiwar lefts from around the world. This positioned him to play a leading role in the Comintern as a key organizer of the first few congresses. He drafted many of the Comintern’s documents and even gave the opening speech at the Second Congress.
He was, by all accounts, a marvelous agitational speaker. Trotsky called him “an orator of extraordinary power.” As he put it:
His high tenor voice would surprise you at first, but afterward win you with its unique music. Zinoviev was a born agitator. He knew how to infect himself with the mood of the masses, excite himself with their emotions, and find for their thoughts and feelings a somewhat tedious, perhaps, but very gripping expression.
However, Trotsky also pointed out that Zinoviev’s character was weak—something evident time and again in so many of his ideas, decisions, and actions. His tendency to vacillate and to fall back on organizational maneuvers can be traced to the need to compensate for his chief weakness—an incomplete and imbalanced political grasp of Marxism, coupled with a deep-seated lack of confidence in the working class.
Perhaps most infamously, Zinoviev and Kamenev voted against the October 1917 insurrection, lost the vote, and then proceeded to published an article against it in the bourgeois press. Lenin wanted them expelled from the party for this serious breach of discipline—not for disagreeing politically but because they literally put the lives of their comrades and the fate of the revolution at risk through their organizational and political disloyalty. However, events were moving so quickly that this incident was soon buried in the general turmoil of those days.
Then, just days after the victorious seizure of power, Zinoviev and Kamenev again showed their true characters. Under pressure from the right-wing railroad unions and petty-bourgeois parties, Zinoviev was among those who agreed it would be best to remove Lenin and Trotsky from the government in order to form a conciliatory coalition with the Mensheviks and SRs—parties that were “socialist” in name but life-and-death opponents of the socialist revolution in practice. Again on the losing end of a crucial vote, both Zinoviev and Kamenev resigned from the Central Committee. This time, Lenin called them “deserters” for siding with the petty-bourgeois, and in the final analysis, the bourgeois enemies of the revolution.
But Lenin always tried to get the best out of everyone and knew Zinoviev had certain talents. Despite his flaws and indecision, he was still an experienced Bolshevik, and these were in short supply. As a result, Zinoviev was readmitted to the party and reelected to the Central Committee at the Seventh Party Congress, in March 1918, and put in charge of the work in Petrograd. He was also one of the seven original members of the Politburo. And at the 1923 and 1924 Party Congresses, he delivered CC reports, speeches usually given by Lenin, who was gravely ill at the time.
Armed with ideas by Lenin, Zinoviev was an unrivaled speaker and defender of Bolshevism. As an example, he was masterful in his 1920 debate at Halle in Germany against the Menshevik, Martov, where he argued that the USPD should affiliate to the KPD and the Third International. After this, Zinoviev became known as “the man of Halle”—and by some accounts gained even more influence than Lenin or Trotsky among the German workers.
As Trotsky explained:
At meetings of the party he was able to conquer, convince, bewitch, whenever he came with a prepared political idea … Armed with a prepared strategic formula containing the very essence of a question, Zinoviev would adroitly and astutely supplement it with fresh exclamations, protests, demands, just now caught up by him on the street, in the factory or the barrack. In those moments he was an ideal mechanism of transmission between Lenin and the masses—sometimes between the masses and Lenin.
However, as we have seen, Zinoviev was a compromiser at heart and lost his nerve under the pressure of great events. Years later, when offering brief sketches of the leading Bolsheviks in his Testament, Lenin highlighted the “October incident,” described above, and noted that Zinoviev and Kamenev’s conduct was “not accidental.”
As another example, during the defense of Petrograd against the White general Yudenich in 1918, Zinoviev again imploded under the pressure. As Trotsky explained in My Life:
In Petrograd, I found the leaders in a state of utmost demoralization. Everything was slipping. The troops were rolling back and breaking up into separate units. The commanding officers looked to the communists, the communists to Zinoviev, and Zinoviev was the very center of utter confusion. Svyerdlov said to me: “Zinoviev is panic itself.” And Svyerdlov knew men. In favorable periods, when, in Lenin’s phrase, “there was nothing to fear,” Zinoviev climbed easily to the seventh heaven. But when things took a bad turn, he usually stretched himself out on a sofa—literally, not metaphorically—and sighed. Since 1917, I had many opportunities to convince myself that Zinoviev had no intermediate moods; it was either the seventh heaven or the sofa. This time I found him on the sofa.
And of course, Zinoviev’s vacillation and indecision during the critical weeks of the 1923 German Revolution was another tragic turning point in history that highlights—in a negative sense—the role of the individual in history.
These were all inconvenient truths which Trotsky reminded everyone of in his 1924 work, Lessons of October, in which he sought to correct the dangerous course of the Soviet Union and the Comintern. Unsurprisingly, this made him Zinoviev’s mortal enemy.
Also unsurprisingly, Trotsky had nothing but scorn for Zinoviev’s vacillation, grandstanding, and lack of decisive conviction. The key is this: Zinoviev was not a theoretician—but he thought of himself as one and was regarded as one by many others. A fundamentally low political level combined with ambition, jealousy, and excellent oratorical skills is a dangerous combination—and something Trotsky couldn’t abide.
As he explained:
Being merely an agitator, and neither a theoretician nor a revolutionary strategist, Zinoviev, when he was not restrained by an external discipline, easily slid down the path of demagogy … That is, he showed an inclination to sacrifice enduring interests to the success of the moment.
Without the guidance of Lenin, Zinoviev was quickly exposed as out of his depth. To make up for it, he resorted to bullying and commandism. / Image: Public Domain
The Mensheviks derisively called Zinoviev “Lenin’s shadow.” Victor Serge pointed to Zinoviev as “Lenin’s greatest mistake.” More than anything, this reflects Serge’s petty-bourgeois demoralization at the time he wrote those lines. However, there is an element of truth to it. As Lenin himself put it, “he [Zinoviev] copies my faults.”
But to Lenin’s great credit, he always tried to bring out the best in everyone, always sought to find the best “horse for the course.” He was patient but firm and favored giving people second or even third chances. Nine times out of ten, this gave him positive results. Someone once said, “If you want to know what a man is like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors—not his equals.” The difference between how Lenin treated his “inferiors” and the way Zinoviev or Stalin or Taaffe treated people is highly instructive.
There is no doubt that Zinoviev was highly intelligent, dedicated to the world revolution, and a hard worker—but this is not sufficient. It is the method of Lenin we must learn, and Zinoviev never did that, despite long years working side-by-side with him. Above all, he never grasped dialectics, which explains his constant zig-zags and 180-degree somersaults.
However, left to his own devices, without the political guidance of Lenin, Zinoviev was quickly exposed as out of his depth. To make up for it, he resorted to empty bravado, bullying, and commandism. This is precisely what happened to James Cannon after Trotsky’s death, and to Peter Taaffe even before he expelled Ted Grant and Alan Woods from the CWI.
Cannon and Taaffe were also effective agitators and defenders of ideas generated by others—but they were not revolutionary theoreticians or strategists—despite having grand illusions that they were. This inflated their egos and made them defensive, jealous, and spiteful when it came to others who did have a superior grasp of revolutionary theory, strategy, and tactics—although Cannon never descended as deep into the cesspool of spite and dishonesty as Taaffe did.
Zinoviev and the invention of “Trotskyism”
The impossibly difficult conditions the early Soviet State and Comintern had to contend with have been detailed elsewhere, for example, in Trotsky’s masterpiece The Revolution Betrayed. The world revolution failed to spread, and the young Soviet republic’s isolation and backwardness ultimately led to the crystallization of the counterrevolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy. In the final analysis, conditions determine consciousness, and by the time of Lenin’s death, the Russian Party and by extension, the Comintern, were not what they had once been.
Jealous of Trotsky and seeing him as the chief obstacle to his becoming Lenin’s heir, Zinoviev formed an alliance, known as the First Troika, with Kamenev and Stalin. In preparation for the struggle, Zinoviev built up a base of support within Petrograd (by then renamed Leningrad) and in the Comintern.
Although he would have been horrified had he realized it at the time, Zinoviev was objectively reflecting the pressures of the petty bourgeoisie—and through them, of the big bourgeoisie and imperialism. It was a fight to the death as the forces of revolution and counterrevolution struggled over the future of the Soviet state and the Comintern.
It was in this context that Zinoviev invented the term “Trotskyism,” counterposing it to “Leninism.” At the 13th Party Congress, in May 1924, just months after Lenin’s death, Zinoviev denounced “Trotskyism.” He slandered and lied about Trotsky and his role in the revolution and Civil War and demanded that he be expelled from the party. However, since plenty of people still remembered the truth about Trotsky’s role in the revolution, it wasn’t so easy.
Zinoviev also helped create the disgusting “Cult of Lenin.” He spoke demagogically at Lenin’s funeral and, against Nadezhda Krupskaya’s wishes, approved of having him embalmed and put on public display. As for Trotsky, he was unable to attend the funeral because he was away in the Caucuses recovering from an illness when Lenin died—and Stalin lied to him about the date. Naturally, his non-attendance was used to paint him as an enemy of Lenin and the revolution.
Lenin’s death helped tip the balance of forces in favor of the bureaucratic counterrevolution. For factional reasons, Zinoviev went along with the reactionary, anti-Marxist “theory” of socialism in one country—although he surely knew better. In short, Zinoviev’s petty, spiteful attempt to further his own prestige and to take out Trotsky as a rival helped ease open the floodgates for the rise of Stalinism and eventually, capitalist restoration.
His “method” of debate included the use of selective quotations, conflations, amalgams, crude straw-man arguments, and outright lies. Zinoviev himself admitted as much when he and Kamenev zig-zagged yet again and joined Trotsky to form the United Left Opposition against Stalin in 1926: “The trick was to string together old disagreements [between Trotsky and Lenin] with new issues.” The Stalinists, sectarians, and bourgeois enemies of Bolshevism later perfected these methods, which are entirely alien to the traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.
Zinoviev’s fall and Stalin’s rise
While Zinoviev was incorrigibly indecisive, according to Trotsky, Stalin was
gifted with practicality, a strong will, and persistence in carrying out his aims. His political horizon is restricted, his theoretical equipment primitive … His mind is stubbornly empirical and devoid of creative imagination. To the leading group of the party (in the wider circles he was not known at all) he always seemed a man destined to play second and third fiddle.
However, Stalin personified the Thermidorian counterrevolutionary bureaucracy in a way Zinoviev never could. As Trotsky explained: “In Stalin each [Soviet bureaucrat] easily finds himself. But Stalin also finds in each one a small part of his own spirit. Stalin is the personification of the bureaucracy. That is the substance of his political personality.”
By the 14th Party Congress, Zinoviev and Kamenev had been outmaneuvered by the single-minded ruthlessness of their erstwhile ally. Zinoviev was removed from the Politburo in July 1926. He now had a base only in the Leningrad party and the Comintern, and soon, even that was pulled out from under him by Stalin. The office of Comintern Chairman was abolished altogether, and Zinoviev was dismissed from all regional posts.
On the tenth anniversary of October, in November 1927, the Left Opposition organized demonstrations against the bureaucracy, which were broken up by force. On November 12, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and many others were expelled from the Communist Party altogether. Many, including Trotsky, were sent into internal exile to places like Kazakhstan and Siberia.
Although Zinoviev paled when compared to Trotsky, he positively shone compared to Stalin. By vying for power against Stalin—someone who never forgave or forgot—he sealed his fate. Furthermore, Zinoviev knew Stalin’s methods up close due to their work together in the first Troika. Stalin couldn’t allow this and set out to have him thoroughly demonized and discredited.
He used Zinoviev’s methods against him, combining them with ruthless, calculating Caucasian cruelty. In the end, Zinoviev was a “useful idiot” for the sociopathic Stalin as he meticulously gathered the reins of power behind the scenes, acting like a moderate in public, skillfully balancing between all factions, layers, and classes.
Despite allying with Stalin, as an old Bolshevik, Zinoviev could not simply be absorbed into the Stalinist apparatus. He had to be eliminated. / Image: Public Domain
Trotsky alone stood firm in his ideas and actions. True to their weak and vacillating characters, Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated and ran back into Stalin’s loving arms. They were reaccepted into the party and given mid-level positions—but were never again on the CC. They vegetated on the sidelines until October 1932 when they were again expelled from the party for not actively exposing oppositionists. They were readmitted yet again in December 1933, in total humiliation, making self-flagellating speeches as Stalin basked in their downfall and disgrace.
In December 1934, Zinoviev was expelled for the last time and arrested. He was tried in 1935 and found guilty of “moral complicity” in the murder of Sergei Kirov—a Stalinist frame-up. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Then, in August 1936, the infamous show trials began. In the “Trial of Sixteen,” he was charged with forming a terrorist organization, of killing Kirov, of plotting to murder Stalin and other such monstrosities. He was alleged to be one to the leaders of the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center.”
Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty if they would not be killed. Stalin told them, “it goes without saying,” they wouldn’t be killed. On August 25, 1936, within 24 hours of their conviction, he had them executed. Kamenev allegedly told Zinoviev, who was howling and crying and fighting the guards, “Quiet down and have some dignity!”
As an old Bolshevik, Zinoviev would always be a threat and had to be eliminated. He could not simply be absorbed into the Stalinist apparatus once it was fully formed and consolidated. Along with hundreds of others, he had to be physically eliminated.
In 1988, under perestroika, the Soviet government formally absolved Zinoviev and co. of the absurd charges that had led to their executions. That was Zinoviev—the first president of the Comintern.
How did things go so wrong so fast?
Zinovievism was not yet Stalinism, but it certainly helped pave the way. Since he lacked all-sided understanding of the problems of the world revolution, Zinoviev supported the expansion of the Russian party bureaucracy, with himself at its core, as a way of countering the rising power of the state bureaucracy. However, here, too, it was shown that organizational maneuvers and measures cannot reverse the tides of revolution and counterrevolution. In the final analysis, only the world revolution could solve the problems of isolation, backwardness, and bureaucracy, and victory on that front required class-independent, revolutionary, internationalist policies.
Since Zinoviev had been Lenin’s long-time collaborator and stood at the head of the Comintern, the glow of the Russian Revolution shone directly on him. This gave him credibility and authority far beyond his capabilities and political level. People naturally looked to him for guidance and leadership, both theoretical and practical. And he made a dog’s dinner of both. The problem is that Zinoviev actually believed he could match Lenin’s genius.
The Comintern had been the premier tool for spreading the world socialist revolution from its base in backward Russia. But now it was quickly transformed into a border guard for the rising Stalinist bureaucracy, the first line of defense for its narrow, nationalist foreign policy.
In conjunction with the grave errors of the leadership, profound social processes ultimately drove the degeneration of both the USSR and the Comintern. The relative and temporary stabilization of world capitalism after the post-WWI revolutionary wave increased the isolation and pressure on the young Soviet Republic and postponed the world revolution.
There was a massive boom in the USA, for example, known as the Roaring Twenties. The stress, strain, and death of a decade of war, revolution, and counterrevolution had taken its toll, and the leaden rump of bureaucracy weighed down on the masses. Dialectically, the revolutionary wave, full of momentum and potential, turned into its opposite.
Thousands of sworn enemies of Bolshevism infested the Soviet government in search of riches and prestige. Likewise, the Comintern was flooded by careerist yes-men and women with no interest whatsoever in world revolution—or actively working against it. We have seen a similar phenomenon in Venezuela in the recent period, although that was never a workers’ state.
Many formerly rabid anti-Bolsheviks not only influenced Comintern policy from behind the scenes but even rose to positions of leadership. For example, Martynov, a former leader of the Mensheviks. This arch-petty-bourgeois reformist energetically supported Stalin against Trotsky because he recognized that Trotsky represented genuine Bolshevism, whereas Stalin’s policy opened the path to eventual capitalist restoration. It was Martynov who came up with the so-called “bloc of four classes,” embraced by Stalin, which led to the tragedy of the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27.
The subjective crisis of leadership of the world working class became an objective factor in capitalism’s postwar stabilization.
The Fifth Congress
The IMT celebrates and bases itself on the proceedings of the first four Congresses of the Comintern. The written record of those meetings is a treasure trove of Marxist theory and internationalist working-class politics. Despite Lenin’s prolonged illness, he and Trotsky’s confidence in the world proletariat and the socialist future burns brightly in every one of their speeches and resolutions.
By the eve of his death, Lenin was keenly aware of the problems plaguing the new workers’ state—and of Stalin’s pernicious role. In works such as Better Fewer, But Better, he launched an all-out attack on the growing bureaucracy and the poison of national chauvinism that was already creeping in. All of this, ultimately, was a reflection of the backwardness and alien class pressures bearing down on the Soviet state and its administrative apparatus: “Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome.”
Within weeks of Lenin’s death on January 21, 1924, the counterrevolutionary momentum had accelerated dramatically. The Fifth Congress, held in June and July of that same year, served as a bridge between Lenin and Trotsky’s Comintern and Stalin’s Comintern, with the theory of “socialism in one country,” the madness of the “Third Period,” and eventually, the Popular Front.
The Fifth Congress was, in many ways, “Zinoviev’s Congress.” In the discussions on World Perspectives, his speeches account for over half of the 120 pages of official minutes. Although some dissent was still possible at this Congress—e.g., some protests took place against people being expelled for so-called “Trotskyism”—the proceedings were already heavily stage-managed. Zinoviev personally led the charge against the “right danger” of Trotskyism. He called Trotsky a petty-bourgeois, an opportunist, etc.
Perhaps most infamously, this was the Congress that launched the so-called “Bolshevization” campaign across the International. While this may sound superficially “radical,” it was, in fact, a complete caricature of genuine Bolshevism.
Instead of working patiently to help the national sections improve their work through political debate and experience, “Bolshevization” used the Comintern as a battering ram to shore up the position of the Troika of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin. The crude aim was to make all communist parties subservient to the Russian Party—“the only true Bolshevik Party”—the one party to rule them all.
The Russian Bolshevik Party had been forged and tempered in the fires of revolution and counterrevolution through a process of intense, democratic debate over a period of two decades. “Bolshevization” was a clumsy, utopian search for a non-existent shortcut that could mold the raw Communist Parties of the world in the Bolsheviks’ image overnight. The result was a poisoned and deformed travesty. In essence, it was a variation of Bukharin and Zinoviev’s “theory of the offensive,” an adventurist policy proposed by them to the Third Congress, which was rejected and countered with the policy of the United Front.
So-called “Bolshevization” trained up generals who knew only how to follow orders blindly and how to charge—and they were soon smashed to bits in the choppy waters of the class struggle in the interwar period.
The campaign dovetailed perfectly with the anti-Leninist “theory” of socialism in one country. This was the undialectical idea that communism could be fully realized within the limits of the Soviet Union. As a result, the USSR was to be defended by any means and maneuvers necessary—at the expense of revolutions in more advanced countries and of the world revolution itself.
However, as Trotsky explained in his later critique of the draft program of the Sixth Congress:
If socialism can be realized within the national boundaries of backward Russia, then there is all the more reason to believe that it can be realized in advanced Germany. Tomorrow the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany will undertake to propound this theory. The draft program empowers them to do so. The day after tomorrow the French party will have its turn. It will be the beginning of the disintegration of the Comintern along the lines of social-patriotism.
The Russians had always enjoyed great authority within the Comintern—authority earned by their clear political arguments, experience, and the example of having won and held power. Now, authority was to be imposed from above. Orders were to be issued and followed automatically, no matter how incorrect or absurd.
A “monolithic” party?
The Tenth Congress of the Bolshevik Party was held in 1921 in the midst of War Communism and civil war, mass starvation, the Kronstadt Uprising, imperialist encirclement, and after a bitter and divisive struggle over the role of the trade unions between seven different factions. In these conditions, a temporary ban on factions within the party was agreed. This was due to extreme contingent factors and the urgent need to maintain party unity or risk unravelling the revolution altogether. It was not viewed as a matter of principle.
A healthy revolutionary organization is a living and dynamic organism. The flow of ideas, information, political clarification, and the raising of the level must be continuous. Now, out of expedience—because giving commands is less time-consuming than winning people over through political arguments—Zinoviev pushed the temporary ban on factions into the entire Comintern.
As long as they agreed to work loyally on implementing majority decisions while defending their views, political minorities had traditionally been given at least some representation on the elected bodies. Now, they were to be excluded altogether from the national and international leadership. The party was to be monolithic from top to bottom out of “principle”—a bureaucratically centralized “homogenous Bolshevik world party” “permitting no factions, tendencies, or groups.”
Zinoviev used bullying and bureaucratic maneuvering to enforce his authority in the Comintern. / Image: Public Domain
In practice, this meant that the membership was deprived of the right to elect and control the leadership. Internal votes became rigged stage-shows and no longer reflected the genuine will of the membership—whether the membership was right or wrong.
Marxists are not in favor of factions at any and all times under any and all conditions. They can be abused and paralyze the work. But allowing them as temporary tools to clarify specific questions is sometimes necessary to achieve full clarity and to move things forward.
Fusions and splits are also a necessary part of the process of welding together a world revolutionary party. But a healthy revolutionary tendency must never use expulsions to resolve political differences and must seek to exhaust all political channels before resorting to a split.
Zinoviev made replacement from above, expulsions, and splits the primary method for resolving differences. Political purges were carried out under the guise of “Bolshevism.” Loyalty to Moscow or the head of a de facto faction was the new litmus test for leadership, not revolutionary competency. As a result, the revolutionary leadership of the world proletariat was decapitated precisely when enormous opportunities were on the horizon. As Trotsky wrote, this approach doomed “the young sections of the Comintern … to degeneration before they had time to grow and develop.”
There is a world of difference between democratic centralism and the bureaucratic centralism of Zinoviev and Stalin. This destructive method has absolutely nothing in common with Lenin, and yet it is presented as the purest form of Leninism by the Stalinists, Maoists, anarchists, and of course, the bourgeois.
The Troika’s authority was to be above question and infallible. To achieve this, Lenin’s authority had to be hijacked, and Trotsky’s authority destroyed, especially in key countries like Germany and France. When revolutions failed due to the Troika’s policies, or when their perspectives were blatantly falsified, instead of drawing the lessons, admitting to and learning from his mistakes, Zinoviev doubled down on his position and blamed others. This badly miseducated the members of the International. He made especially grievous errors when it came to the timing of both revolutionary upsurges and ebbs.
The March Action in 1921 in Germany led to a bloody defeat, the resignation of 200,000 members, and the isolation of the German Communist Party. And yet, to cover for his own mistake, Zinoviev declared to the KPD leaders: “The Communist International says to you: You acted rightly!” Lenin and Trotsky did what they could to correct these mistakes at the Comintern’s Third Congress, but as we will see, they had only limited success in convincing the ultralefts.
Then, after the even more disastrous failure of the 1923 German Revolution, Zinoviev scapegoated the leadership of the German party. Trotsky refused to blame the Germans and instead placed the onus squarely where it belonged: with Zinoviev and Stalin. At the height of the movement, when all that was needed was an inspirational push to urge the German workers to seize power, their indecision and hesitation destroyed the revolution—and the Russians’ best hope for a reprieve from isolation and backwardness. Instead of seizing on the explosive initiative of the masses, they had told the German leadership to “go slow.” As Stalin clearly put it: “In my opinion the Germans must be curbed and not spurred on.” They mockingly considered Trotsky’s urgent call for the German workers to organize an insurrection “fanciful.” This was a missed opportunity of epic proportions.
Despite standing at the head of the Comintern, Zinoviev didn’t take responsibility. He and the rest of the Troika had overestimated the revolutionary ripeness in March 1921 and underestimated the depth of the defeat in 1923. To cover for their fatal miscalculations, they resorted to bravado and aggression, instead of a dialectically balanced appraisal of the situation as it really was. With Lenin incapacitated, they used smoke and mirrors to deflect the blame to Trotsky, Radek, and Thalheimer. Trotsky was painted as “the source of right-wing opportunism in the Comintern.” Germany 1923 was the turning point that inaugurated a new, post-Leninist phase of development of the Comintern.
Bukharin and Zinoviev’s “theory of the offensive,” which had led to disaster in 1921, had been rejected by the Third Congress. Zinoviev and Bukharin had opposed the United Front and said that Lenin had been mistaken on this question, that he had been influenced by the conservatism of Paul Levi.
In practice, therefore, although the United Front was the official policy after the Third and Fourth Congresses, it was resisted by many sections of the Comintern. Instead, they embraced the infantile romanticism of the “theory of the offensive,” which was revived in a new guise at the Fifth Congress.
Some experienced cadres like Karl Radek and Clara Zetkin tried to defend the Leninist view. But they were defeated as Zinoviev redefined the United Front as something that is formed on the basis of individual workers getting together “from below,” not as an agreement between mass workers’ organizations. The ultralefts—people like Fischer and Maslow—actually blamed United Front policy for the defeat in 1923 in Germany, arguing that the German CP had been weakened by its years of collaboration with the SP.
The Fifth Congress even approved a resolution stating that “ultra-imperialism” could do away with imperialist war. This was a scandalous reversal on Lenin’s views on imperialism and war—and of Zinoviev himself when he coauthored Socialism and War.
The Fifth Congress, therefore, represented a total negation of the policies fought for and won by Lenin and Trotsky at the Third and Fourth Congresses and a direct repudiation of Lenin’s writings on the infantile disorder of ultraleftism. Again, all of these mistakes were carried out in the name of Bolshevism.
Out of their depth
The stage was set for the ruin of the Comintern as a revolutionary international. As Trotsky explained in 1928:
The CPSU has the greatest wealth of experience in the domain of ideology and revolution. But as the last five years showed, even the CPSU has been unable to live with impunity for a single day on the interest of its capital alone but is obliged to renew and expand it constantly, and this is possible only through a collective working of the party mind. And what, then, need be said of the communist parties in other countries which were formed a few years ago and are just passing through the initial stage of accumulating theoretical knowledge and practical ability? Without a real freedom of party life, freedom of discussion, and freedom of establishing their course collectively, and by means of groupings, these parties will never become a decisive revolutionary force.
Zinoviev seemed to naively believe that the weight, momentum, and authority of the Russians and the revolution, combined with orders from above, would be enough to guarantee worldwide victory. But the class struggle is far more complicated than that. Once capitalism achieved a certain stability in the early 1920s, he and pretty much everyone else was exposed as out of their depth. There were real and tragic consequences for their mistakes.
These people did not understand dialectics and were infected with impatience—the bane of revolutionaries. Marxists must have a long-view of history. Zinoviev and his co-conspirators were looking for a magic key and didn’t have the theoretical level to cope with the changed situation. So they turned increasingly to bureaucratic methods and commandism.
The “Bolshevization” campaign meant the “Russification” of the national parties, the forcible reorganization of the internal life of all the national sections of the Comintern, bureaucratically from above, with all dissenters being unceremoniously driven out. Tens of thousands of comrades around the world trusted the Russians and the Comintern to provide objective and balanced political advice—not advice based on factional interests—and this led to disaster in one country after another. Unprincipled maneuvers replaced political debate. Mindless careerists and bureaucrats were favored over talented individuals who may have made some mistakes or who thought independently.
Bukharin leaned on the same methods after he succeeded Zinoviev as head of the Comintern between 1926 and 1929. He too was a rigid, mechanical thinker. The Bulgarian Communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, who had an even cruder political level, eventually took over the Comintern in 1934. He presided over it until its dissolution a decade later, further perfecting the use of these methods under the direct tutelage of Stalin.
By the Sixth Congress, held in 1928, Stalin had the upper hand. The Congress failed to correct the mistakes of the fifth Congress, and in the aftermath of the failed Chinese Revolution, it launched the so-called Third Period, which was to last until 1935.
Following on the First revolutionary period after the October victory, and the Second period of capitalist stabilization, the Third Period undialectically proclaimed that the capitalist system was in its period of final and imminent collapse. All Communist Parties were to adopt a stridently ultraleft line in another perverse variant of the “theory of the offensive.”
All non-Communist Parties, including the Socialist Parties, were alleged to be “social fascists.” Not only was it impermissible for communists to work with them, but they should actively work to smash the reformist Left physically. Never mind that millions of workers were still under the influence of the Social Democracy. The constant zig-zags demoralized and wrecked the Comintern as a revolutionary international.
Outside of Russia, Germany had the most influential Communist Party and was the most important country for extending the world revolution. Revolution and counterrevolution raged there from 1918 on, and in 1923, a severe economic crisis and the military occupation of the Ruhr by French imperialism sparked yet another revolutionary upsurge.
However, disoriented by the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the opportunism and expulsion of Paul Levi, and the ultraleftism of Fischer and Maslow, the German CP leadership, now under Brandler and Thalheimer, was in over its head and needed clear and decisive guidance. They asked Moscow to send Trotsky himself to help coordinate the revolution. Of course, for factional reasons, this was refused.
However, Stalin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev could not offer a consistently revolutionary alternative, even if they were not consciously trying to sabotage the revolution at that time. Zinoviev and Kamenev’s vacillation and Stalin’s two-stage Menshevism doomed the German Revolution. As explained above, they told the Germans to hold off, the revolutionary moment was lost, and the movement fizzled and was crushed. Russia’s fate was nearly sealed.
The blame lay with Zinoviev, the ECCI, and the Russian Politburo—and everyone in the leadership knew it. Although Trotsky agreed that they had glaring deficiencies, he refused to scapegoat Brandler and Thalheimer. But as we have seen, the Troika were experts in intrigues and prestige politics. They succeeded in deflecting blame to Trotsky, Karl Radek, and the Germans. A vicious campaign of lies and slanders was unleashed to wipe out any support for Trotsky in Germany.
Brandler was removed and replaced by Fischer, Maslow, and Urbahns—ultralefts who had opposed the United Front tactic at the Third and Fourth Congresses and who considered Lenin and Trotsky to be right-wing opportunists. They rooted out anyone vaguely sympathetic to Trotsky and moved resolutions for Trotsky’s expulsion from the Communist International. After they had done Moscow’s dirty work, an even more subservient leadership was installed, under Ernst Thälmann, who deepened the anti-Trotskyist campaign.
To make matters even worse, Zinoviev also invented “Luxemburgism” to undermine her memory and authority. As with Trotsky, they exaggerated her differences with Lenin and dragged her contribution to revolutionary Marxism through the mud. But the authority of Rosa and Trotsky was not so easy to bury. It took several years to achieve, but the German party was eventually wrecked as a tool for the world revolution. Added to this was the subsequent insanity of the Third Period and social fascism, which helped paved the way for the rise of Hitler.
France was the first experiment in anti-Trotskyist “Bolshevization.” Trotsky had a lot of authority and connections there, and this had to be undermined. As elsewhere, the Communist Party leadership was installed from above—people with little experience who had not fought through the tough times of the war and the struggle against the social democracy. The French PCF, which had once been self-financed, became dependent on subsidies from Moscow—another lever for wresting control of the national parties from the rank and file. Incompetent fools like Treint were propped up by Moscow for toeing the line.
Treint accused Trotsky and the Opposition of being petty-bourgeois Mensheviks, “opportunist rightists,” who had sabotaged the German Revolution. In fact, the first use of the word “Bolshevization” appears to have been in an article by Treint in March 1924. As he put it: “homogenous ideology, homogenous policies, homogenous structure, homogenous leadership!”
Treint embraced the theory of social-fascism and invented the phrase anarcho-fascism—lumping anarchists as well as social democrats in with the fascists. He declared that fascism was already in power, since, according to him, bourgeois democracy and fascism were one and the same. In less than two years, the French party was also destroyed as a political tool for the French socialist revolution. As could be expected, Treint’s reward was to be expelled along with the Zinovievites of the United Left Opposition in 1927.
From the beginning, the Communist Party in the US was an atomized, factional mess as it emerged from the Socialist Party. The movement was dominated by the many” foreign-language federations” of immigrants, such as the Russians, Germans, and Hungarians. Incredibly, in the early days, only between 5% and 10% of the CP’s members were in English-speaking branches. Given the conditions of their home countries, many of these comrades believed that a secretive, underground organization was a matter of principle, even though conditions in the US were very different from places like tsarist Russia.
At one point, there were two “official” communist parties in the US—the Communist Party of America (led by Ruthenberg and Fraina), and the Communist Labor Party (around John Reed and Gitlow)—both of which had emerged from left splits from the SP. They were eventually forced from above to fuse on an unprincipled basis after a series of decrees by Zinoviev and the Comintern. As a result, the CP was permanently divided into bitterly entrenched factions.
The post-WWI boom of the 1920s led to enormous confusion and backsliding in the American CP, with many writing off the prospect of economic crisis and revolution altogether. All of this opened the way for the Hungarian, József Pogány, known as John Pepper in the US, to barge in and wreak havoc as the alleged representative of the Comintern in the US. Among other insanities, Pepper proclaimed that poor farmers, not the workers, were the revolutionary class. James P. Cannon likened these days to “political gang warfare.” They were at a primitive stage of building a revolutionary organization—and never had the opportunity to emerge from the quagmire.
Many of the branches of the Comintern were irreparably damaged from birth thanks to the methods of Zinovievism. The Communist Party in the US was an atomized, factional mess. / Image: Public Domain
Even before the “Bolshevization” campaign was launched, the CPUSA was dependent on the Comintern. It relied on Moscow, and Zinoviev in particular, to mediate between the various factions. It was never able to build a cohesive, unified national leadership. This made it ripe terrain for the Bonapartist maneuvering and balancing between factions of a Zinoviev.
And although the CPUSA was already, in effect, “Bolshevized,” a strident Bolshevization campaign was pursued nonetheless, headed by none other than James Cannon. In fact, he was known as the “Captain of Bolshevization.” He was a hard-line Zinoviev loyalist who unquestioningly implemented the decisions of the Fifth Congress with almost religious zeal. As an example, after Lessons of October, Cannon and Earl Browder banned the publication of Trotsky’s articles in the CPUSA’s theoretical journal, the Workers Monthly.
Like Zinoviev, Cannon was a highly skilled agitator, able to translate others’ ideas into demagogic speeches and action. He was strong-willed and a proletarian fighter, an ex-Wobbly with solid class instincts. He had known and largely been trained by class fighters like “Big” Bill Haywood. But he had a low theoretical level, not a shred of dialectics, and was guided solely by good old American pragmatism and “common sense.”
Given the factional mess of the US party, one can understand why Cannon would be a fan of a monolithic party with absolute agreement on everything and blind authority to the leadership. Things are much easier that way! But you’ll never build a genuine Bolshevik Party with such methods—not in a billion years.
The various leaders of the American party all jockeyed for position to gain the favor of Zinoviev or Bukharin. Visits to Moscow resembled visits to the Vatican. Increasingly, the internal political debates and election results were decided in advance behind closed doors.
The factional fighting and Moscow’s interference reached the height of absurdity at the American Party’s Fourth Convention in 1925. The party was deeply divided, roughly down the middle. William Z. Foster and James Cannon’s faction had won a majority of the convention delegates, against the faction led by Charles Ruthenberg and Jay Lovestone. However, after the convention, all the decisions were overturned by a telegraph cable from Moscow declaring that “The Ruthenberg Group is more loyal to the decisions of the Communist International.”
Foster wanted to fight the decision—but Cannon split with Foster and formed a third faction—in order to accept Moscow’s decision while arguing that in reality, he, not Ruthenberg, was more loyal! He also opposed having the Comintern’s bureaucratic intervention debated within the Party as that would undermine the Comintern’s authority.
Once again, one of the key countries of the world revolution was treated like a pawn in a game of bureaucratic chess. Many honest and energetic revolutionaries were utterly ruined, losing sight of why they had become communist revolutionaries in the first place. Factionalism, which in earlier times had been a means to an end, became an end in itself.
Many, like Foster, were eventually happy to accept Moscow’s rule if it meant their personal rise. But that was also temporary, as the factions in Moscow also rose and fall. No one was betting on Stalin in the early years—most didn’t even know he existed. So they ingratiated themselves to people like Zinoviev or Bukharin. When Stalin finally emerged the victor, so-called communists from around the world prostrated themselves and fawned over him to win his favor.
To his credit, James Cannon and the Canadian Maurice Specter eventually repudiated Stalin. After stumbling across Trotsky’s critique of the Draft Program of the International at the Sixth Congress, they went on to found American and Canadian Trotskyism and the Fourth International. But the methods Cannon learned under Zinoviev’s tutelage left their mark, and he never unlearned them. When Trotsky was alive, he could get the best out of Cannon. But once he died, it was all over for the most important section of the Fourth International.
The Seventh Congress
And so it was around the world. In Italy, in 1924, Gramsci was imposed over the ultraleft Bordiga, though Bordiga was the natural leader with majority support. Gramsci, too, was an energetic supporter of “Bolshevization.” In Hungary and Finland, Zinoviev leaned on abject failures like Bela Kun and Otto Kuusinen, people eager to do anything to keep their positions and cover for their disastrous past.
In China, the ECCI and Zinoviev had total control over Chen Duxiu and the first cadres of the Chinese Communist Party, via control over their salaries and finances, which dampened the latter’s ability to raise honest criticisms and disagreements. In Japan, two opposing factions were bureaucratically smushed together from above by Bukharin in 1927. The ultraleft majority leadership under Kazuo Fukumoto was unceremoniously removed with no discussion in the ranks of the party. Naturally, Fukumoto was accused of “Trotskyism”—though he never supported Trotsky.
In The Third International After Lenin, written in 1928, Trotsky chastised the then-Stalinist leadership of the Comintern and explained:
The weaknesses of the communist parties and of their leadership did not fall from the sky, but are rather a product of the entire past of Europe. But the communist parties could develop at a swift pace in the present existing maturity of the objectively revolutionary contradictions provided, of course, there was a correct leadership on the part of the Comintern speeding up this process of development instead of retarding it.
Zinoviev coined “Trotskyism” to slander Lenin’s right-hand man. Under Stalin, this reached new dimensions. / Image: Public Domain
But there wasn’t a correct leadership, and the process was not only retarded but entirely derailed. By the time of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, held in 1935, the leadership of every national section was unrecognizable, having been renewed several times over. Finally realizing the existential threat posed by Nazi Germany, and with Stalin’s internal enemies largely neutralized, the Third Period was discarded and the Popular Front—the very opposite of the United Front—was adopted. This policy of blatant class collaboration ordered all communist parties to form “popular fronts” with any and all parties that opposed fascism, including, and in particular, bourgeois parties. In places like Spain and France, this led to disaster.
Now firmly in the saddle, the bureaucracy’s one-sided civil war against the Old Bolsheviks intensified. The Comintern and its apparatus were deeply infiltrated by secret police whose aim was to root out all opposition to Stalin. 133 out of 492 Comintern staff members became victims of Stalin’s Great Purge. Several hundred German communists and antifascists who had fled Nazi Germany were liquidated, and more than a thousand were handed over to the Nazis.
Many of those who eventually went over to Trotsky to oppose Stalin—like Zinoviev himself—had been at the forefront of the anti-Trotskyist “Bolshevization” campaigns. This clearly wasn’t the best material to work with, but again, Trotsky did his best to work with what he had. Naturally, many in the Left Opposition’s ranks were suspicious of these people, given their past role. Nonetheless, when Zinoviev was tried and executed in 1936, strikes were organized by Trotskyist prisoners being held in the Stalinist concentration camps. Despite everything, he had played a certain role in the past, and they recognized it.
But the madness was far from over. In November 1939, Stalin signed the Hitler-Stalin pact, completely disorienting the world working class. Then, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Comintern flipped-flopped again and changed its position to one of active support for the Allies.
Finally, on May 15, 1943, as a gesture to the British, and above all, the American imperialists, the Executive Committee of the Comintern issued a declaration calling on the national sections “To dissolve the Communist International as a guiding center 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.”
Scandalously, it declared:
… 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 center would meet with insuperable obstacles.
Without any democratic discussion among the rank and file, the nationally-degenerated CPs rubber-stamped the declaration and the Third International was dissolved. However, it had died long before. In 1936, seven years before its official dissolution, in an infamous interview with the American journalist Roy Howard, Stalin had made it clear that the Comintern was all but buried.
Howard: Does this … mean that the Soviet Union has to any degree abandoned its plans and intentions for bringing about world revolution?
Stalin: We never had such plans and intentions.
Howard: You appreciate, no doubt, Mr. Stalin, that much of the world has long entertained a different impression.
Stalin: This is the product of a misunderstanding.
Howard: A tragic misunderstanding?
Stalin : No, a comical one. Or, perhaps, tragicomic.
You see, we Marxists believe that a revolution will also take place in other countries. But it will take place only when the revolutionaries in those countries think it possible, or necessary. The export of revolution is nonsense. Every country will make its own revolution if it wants to, and if it does not want to, there will be no revolution. For example, our country wanted to make a revolution and made it, and now we are building a new, classless society.
But to assert that we want to make a revolution in other countries, to interfere in their lives, means saying what is untrue, and what we have never advocated.
A revolutionary international is above all its program, method, banner, and traditions. Up until 1933, Trotsky and the International Left Opposition had considered themselves an expelled faction of the Comintern, fighting to reform it politically, in order to return it to genuine Leninism. But by 1933, with the rise of Hitler, things had been corrupted beyond repair. Hence, Trotsky’s declaration of the need for a Fourth International and its formal founding in 1938. Trotsky spent the rest of his life fighting to defend the genuine ideas and methods of Bolshevism—a struggle he waged to the death.
Political and organizational questions are intimately connected
The methods of Zinoviev and Stalin are common in bourgeois politics. Dishonesty and maneuvers are the daily bread of a parasitic minority desperately seeking to maintain control over the majority. Ours is a higher cause, incompatible with deceit and perfidy.
Unfortunately, some in our movement have succumbed to the pressure of great events and resorted to these methods to cover their shortcomings and inadequacies. Their actions poisoned several generations of would-be revolutionaries. These alien methods are rampant on the left today and must not be tolerated at any level of a healthy revolutionary organization. Informal, small-circle politics is an all-but-inevitable stage in an organization’s infancy. But if it does not move beyond this stage, it will never be up to the task of galvanizing the working masses to overthrow capitalism.
Fortunately, comrades like Trotsky and Ted Grant preserved the genuine methods of Marxism for future generations. And by analyzing these experiences dialectically, we can also draw positive conclusions from the negative methods used by others.
In the final analysis, political differences reflect the questions and doubts of different layers of the working class, as well as being an expression of the pressures of alien class ideas in the workers’ movement.
Stalin dissolved the Comintern in 1943 as a gesture to the imperialists. It died, not with a bang, but with a whimper. / Image: Public Domain
The most obvious lesson we can draw from this experience, therefore, is that one cannot solve political problems by resorting to organizational measures. Cynicism and demoralization, decline, and death as a revolutionary organization are the inevitable results.
Program, perspectives, theory, and in particular, dialectics, are not mere adornments but are indispensable to our work. In place of impatience and adventurism, revolutionary Marxists must “patiently explain”—not only to the broader working class—but within our own ranks. Needless to say, there is no room for ego, prestige politics, or cliques.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” slogan, decree, or organizational form that can be imposed from above to magically solve all our problems in every country at any time. If that were the case, overthrowing capitalism could have been achieved decades ago!
As Trotsky explained:
Bolshevism was always strong because of its historical concreteness in elaborating organizational forms. No arid schemes. The Bolsheviks changed their organizational structure radically at every transition from one stage to the next. Yet, today, one and the same principle of ‘revolutionary order’ is applied to the powerful party of the proletarian dictatorship as well as to the German Communist Party which represents a serious political force, to the young Chinese party which was immediately drawn into the vortex of revolutionary struggles, and to the party of the USA which is only a small propaganda society.
A revolutionary organization must build leadership teams at all levels, balancing people’s political and organizational strengths and weaknesses. We must seek to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In so doing, we must find “the right horse for each course”—because the wrong person in the wrong role can make a mess of things, even if they have other strengths.
There is no substitute for an alert, attentive, and engaged membership, combined with a responsive leadership that leads by example and earns its authority politically, over time, admitting and correcting its mistakes. We must rise above such unprincipled pettiness and throw ourselves selflessly into the cause of the world socialist revolution.
Last but not least, the history of the Comintern shows that you can’t improvise a revolutionary leadership once the revolution as started. And once the revolutionary flood tide has started to ebb, it is even harder to hold things together.
Fortunately, for those of us fighting for the socialist revolution today, the tide of history is moving in our direction, and the pace of history is accelerating. We are extremely fortunate to have access to the writings and experience of the great Marxists. This material is truly a gold mine, and as a result, we can shorten the period needed for the training and selection of cadres.
For reasons we have explained extensively elsewhere, the Fourth International never took off. But the IMT has taken up Trotsky’s banner, just as Trotsky took up Lenin’s. In one country after another, we will be tested in revolutionary struggle sooner than we may think—there’s no time to waste in studying and applying these lessons.