The Communist International and Imperialism

Pre­sen­ta­tion of Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, 1932

The 1914–1918 war was an impe­ri­al­ist war. Britain’s aim was to pre­vent Ger­man colo­nial expan­sion in North Africa and Latin Amer­i­ca, and to exclude Ger­many from oth­er for­eign mar­kets. In addi­tion Britain had made a secret deal with France and Rus­sia to carve up the Ottoman Empire. British “vic­to­ry” in World War I meant that the British Empire was larg­er in the 1920s than it had ever been before. And despite their rhetoric, the Euro­pean empires had no inten­tion of “lib­er­at­ing” the colo­nial peo­ples. After World War I there was nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion for Euro­pean nations, but cer­tain­ly not for the coun­tries of Africa and Asia.

The Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1917 offered an alter­na­tive, a source of hope to the exploit­ed and oppressed through­out the world. The Russ­ian lead­ers under­stood that it was nec­es­sary to spread the rev­o­lu­tion. If it remained iso­lat­ed it could not sur­vive. After 1917 they suf­fered an appalling­ly cru­el so-called “civ­il war” (in fact an inva­sion by troops from var­i­ous coun­tries includ­ing Britain and the Unit­ed States). Rev­o­lu­tions in Hun­gary and Bavaria in 1919 were rapid­ly crushed. As yet nobody was talk­ing about social­ism in one coun­try. So the new Sovi­et state need­ed allies, in its own inter­ests and in the inter­est of the work­ers of the whole world. Either social­ism would extend its vic­to­ry, or exploita­tion and oppres­sion would con­tin­ue and new wars would break out.

It was with this per­spec­tive that the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al (Com­intern) was found­ed in 1919, with the object of encour­ag­ing world rev­o­lu­tion. The Sec­ond Con­gress of the Inter­na­tion­al, held in Moscow in July and August 1920, had brought togeth­er a large num­ber of social­ists and syn­di­cal­ists who were going to form the new Com­mu­nist par­ties which could over­throw world cap­i­tal­ism once and for all. But the great major­i­ty of del­e­gates came from Europe. It was also nec­es­sary to look for allies else­where, in what Grig­o­ry Zinoviev, the pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, called “a sec­ond step for­ward.”1  This was the Baku Con­gress of Sep­tem­ber 1920, with which the Bol­she­viks made a sym­bol­ic dec­la­ra­tion of their oppo­si­tion to impe­ri­al­ism and attempt­ed to lay the foun­da­tions for an orga­ni­za­tion­al expres­sion of this oppo­si­tion.

It is worth recall­ing the Baku Con­gress because it demon­strat­ed the Bol­she­vik com­mit­ment to fight­ing impe­ri­al­ism, estab­lish­ing a tra­di­tion which remained pow­er­ful for some years, but which was lat­er lost with the rise of Stal­in. I shall try to set out briefly the strengths and weak­ness­es of Baku, and then give a short account of the sub­se­quent devel­op­ments of the Com­intern.

The Bol­she­viks’ vision was of a world where colo­nial­ism and racism would be abol­ished and for­ev­er for­got­ten. Accord­ing to the Bol­she­vik Radek, it was nec­es­sary to “recon­struct  mankind on a new basis of free­dom, where there will not be peo­ple of dif­fer­ent-coloured skins with dif­fer­ent rights and duties, where all men share the same rights and duties.”2 Hence the Man­i­festo adopt­ed by the Sec­ond Con­gress of the Inter­na­tion­al had stressed the impor­tance for Com­mu­nists in impe­ri­al­ist coun­tries of the strug­gle against their own impe­ri­al­ism:

The social­ist who direct­ly or indi­rect­ly helps to per­pet­u­ate the priv­i­leged posi­tion of one nation at the expense of anoth­er, who accom­mo­dates him­self to colo­nial slav­ery, who makes dis­tinc­tions between peo­ples of dif­fer­ent race and colour in the mat­ter of rights, who helps the bour­geoisie of the metrop­o­lis to main­tain their rule over the colonies instead of aid­ing the armed upris­ing of the colonies; the British social­ist who fails to sup­port by all pos­si­ble means the upris­ings in Ire­land, Egypt, and India against the Lon­don plu­toc­ra­cy – such a social­ist deserves to be brand­ed with infamy, if not with a bul­let, but in no case mer­its either the man­date or the con­fi­dence of the pro­le­tari­at.3

It was in this con­text that the Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee of the Inter­na­tion­al had invit­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the oppressed peo­ples to gath­er at Baku. It was an appro­pri­ate place. Baku was in Azer­bai­jan, one of the coun­tries of the for­mer Tsarist Empire which had become inde­pen­dent in 1918, and which was “at the junc­tion between Rus­sia and the East.”4 But also it was a cen­ter of oil pro­duc­tion, and the Bol­she­viks rec­og­nized the impor­tance that oil would have in the 20th cen­tu­ry. When the Amer­i­can John Reed addressed the del­e­gates, he asked them: “Don’t you know how Baku is pro­nounced in Amer­i­can? It’s pro­nounced oil!”5

The jour­ney was a dan­ger­ous one. The British gov­ern­ment made every effort to pre­vent the del­e­gates from get­ting to Baku. A steam­boat car­ry­ing Iran­ian del­e­gates was attacked by a British air­craft; two del­e­gates were killed and sev­er­al wound­ed. British war­ships tried to pre­vent Turk­ish del­e­gates from cross­ing the Black Sea. Two Ira­ni­ans were killed on the Azer­bai­jan bor­der by the Iran­ian police.6 Del­e­gates com­ing from Moscow had to pass through regions dev­as­tat­ed by the civ­il war. The French del­e­gate, Alfred Ros­mer, recalled:

The trip … allowed us to see at first hand the vast extent of dam­age done by the civ­il war. Most of the sta­tions had been destroyed, and every­where the sid­ings were full of the half-burnt wrecks of coach­es. When the Whites had been beat­en, they destroyed every­thing they could as they retreat­ed. One of the most impor­tant sta­tions in the Ukraine, Lozo­va­ia, had just recent­ly been attacked by a band of Whites, and we had right before our eyes the dam­age caused by such attacks, which were still fre­quent in these regions.7

Nonethe­less del­e­gates came in large num­bers. It is dif­fi­cult to estab­lish pre­cise fig­ures, but accord­ing to the steno­graph­ic report of the Con­gress there were 1891 del­e­gates, includ­ing 1273 Com­mu­nists. Non-Com­mu­nist del­e­gates were warm­ly wel­comed; as Zinoviev, pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, put it:

We did not ask you: “What par­ty do you belong to?” We asked each one: “Are you a man who lives by his labour? Do you belong to the work­ing mass­es? Do you want to put a stop to the strife between the peo­ples? Do you want to organ­ise a strug­gle against the oppres­sors? That is enough. Noth­ing more is required, you will not be asked for any Par­ty card.”8

Many of the del­e­gates came from the coun­tries of the for­mer Tsarist empire and from the Mid­dle East. There were 100 Geor­gians, 157 Arme­ni­ans, 235 Turks, 192 Per­sians and 82 Chechens – but also  14 Indi­ans and 8 Chi­nese. Trans­la­tion took up a lot of time; Asian lan­guages were heard which had been sup­pressed in the Tsarist peri­od. Alfred Ros­mer recalled that “the audi­to­ri­um was extreme­ly pic­turesque. All the East­ern cos­tumes gath­ered togeth­er made an aston­ish­ing­ly rich and colour­ful pic­ture.”9

In his intro­duc­to­ry address, Zinoviev explained clear­ly why the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies rec­og­nized that their strug­gle was only a small part of a gen­er­al strug­gle against world impe­ri­al­ism and that the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion could not suc­ceed unless it was part of a much broad­er move­ment:

We are mind­ful that in the world there are liv­ing not only peo­ple with white skins. … There are also in the world hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple who live in Asia and Africa. We want to put an end to the rule of cap­i­tal every­where in the world. And this will become pos­si­ble only when we have lit the fire of rev­o­lu­tion not mere­ly in Europe and Amer­i­ca but through­out the world, and when behind us march all the work­ing peo­ple of Asia and Africa.

The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al wants to unite under its ban­ners speak­ers of all the lan­guages of the world. The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al is sure that under its flag will ral­ly not only the pro­le­tar­i­ans of Europe but also the mighty mass of our reserves, our infantry – the hun­dreds of mil­lions of peas­ants who live in Asia, our Near and Far East.10 

Zinoviev also argued that the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion would only be a small episode in a much big­ger process, pre­dict­ing “when the East real­ly gets mov­ing, then not only Rus­sia but all of Europe will seem only a small cor­ner of the vast scene.”11 But for work­ers in the West it was not sim­ply a moral ques­tion. Zinoviev remind­ed them that they had a very urgent mate­r­i­al inter­est in sup­port­ing the strug­gles of the colo­nial peo­ples: “The Ital­ian bour­geoisie is now threat­en­ing its work­ers that, if they should revolt, Ital­ian cap­i­tal will move coloured troops against them.”12 Of course uni­ty between Euro­pean work­ers and the oppressed in the colonies would not be easy. Many work­ers had acquired impe­ri­al­ist atti­tudes, while the vic­tims of colo­nial­ism might imag­ine that work­ers in the impe­ri­al­ist coun­tries were get­ting at least crumbs from the table of their own impe­ri­al­ists.

But the British del­e­gate, Tom Quelch, remind­ed his lis­ten­ers that there was an objec­tive basis for uni­ty. He began his speech with a quo­ta­tion from Karl Marx, who said that “the British work­ing class would be free only when the peo­ples of the British colonies were free.” There­fore he insist­ed that “the ene­my of the British work­ing class, the British cap­i­tal­ist class, is at the same time the ene­my of the peo­ples of the East, the oppressed East.”13

In his clos­ing speech Zinoviev went so far as to pro­pose a revi­sion to Marx’s Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo. Marx had said “Work­ers of all lands, unite!” but now, accord­ing to Zinoviev, this should be replaced by: “Work­ers of all lands and oppressed peo­ples of the whole world, unite!14

The Con­gress aroused great enthu­si­asm. For Zinoviev, a fine speak­er who some­times lapsed into wish ful­fill­ment, the task was “kin­dling a real holy war against the British and French cap­i­tal­ists.”15

A more real­is­tic and hon­est per­spec­tive was giv­en by Karl Radek:

We approach these peo­ples not in order to use their strength for our strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ism, but in order to help them to escape not only from the yoke of cap­i­tal but also from medieval rela­tions, from the yoke of feu­dal­ism and igno­rance, and to give them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to begin liv­ing as human beings. We approach them know­ing that the young Com­mu­nist world which is being born amid unheard-of suf­fer­ing can­not yet bring them the wealth of the West, that this has still to be cre­at­ed, but we approach them so as to free them from the yoke of cap­i­tal, to help them build a new, free life in what­ev­er way they will con­sid­er cor­re­sponds to the inter­ests of their work­ing mass­es.16

The Con­gress was only a begin­ning. It should be said that, strict­ly speak­ing, it was an assem­bly rather than a con­gress. There was very lim­it­ed time, reduced even fur­ther by the need for trans­la­tions. It is hard to know exact­ly how the del­e­gates had been elect­ed. The great major­i­ty of them did not have any chance to speak and it was scarce­ly pos­si­ble to take gen­uine­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sions. Nonethe­less sev­er­al ques­tions of great impor­tance were raised.

Alfred Ros­mer, who had been one of the French del­e­gates at the Con­gress of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, made a sear­ing attack on the hypocrisy of French impe­ri­al­ism:

When the world war began, the bour­geois press of all coun­tries assert­ed that this world war would bring free­dom to the oppressed nations, in oppo­si­tion to bar­barous Ger­many. But if that was so … why did the great pow­ers not begin by free­ing the peo­ples they them­selves oppressed? Why did Britain not give free­dom to Ire­land? Why did it keep the three hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple of India under its yoke? Why did France, which said it was fight­ing against Ger­man bar­barism, oppress and hold down Moroc­co, Tunisia and Alge­ria and oth­er Moslem coun­tries? And why is France now car­ry­ing on a war in Cili­cia and Syr­ia in order to enlarge her empire by adding a piece of Asia?

When the war end­ed France and Britain tried to take back from these peo­ples even the mis­er­able crumbs they had giv­en them. When it was nec­es­sary to fight the Ger­mans, when hun­dreds of thou­sands of Alge­ri­ans, Tunisians, and Moroc­cans had to be mobi­lized, they were promised var­i­ous free­doms; but the very day after Ger­many had been defeat­ed all these mis­er­able free­doms were with­drawn, and when the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Tunisia sent a del­e­ga­tion to France and point­ed out that 45,000 Tunisians had fall­en on the bat­tle­field, and recalled the promis­es that had been made to them, these del­e­gates were them­selves put in prison, and those native news­pa­pers which took the lib­er­ty of pub­lish­ing the fact were closed down and con­fis­cat­ed.17

But if the Con­gress backed strug­gles against impe­ri­al­ism, the orga­niz­ers insist­ed that there was no point replac­ing impe­ri­al­ists with indige­nous exploiters. As Zinoviev put it:

What sense does it make to a Geor­gian peas­ant if [Georgia’s Men­she­vik rulers] sing like nightin­gales about the “inde­pen­dence” of Geor­gia, when the land remains as before the prop­er­ty of the old landown­ers, when the same old oppres­sion con­tin­ues, and when at any moment some British gen­er­al can tram­ple with his jack­boots on the throat and on the chest of the Geor­gian peas­ant and work­er? … The great impor­tance of the rev­o­lu­tion that is begin­ning in the East lies not in request­ing the British impe­ri­al­ist gen­tle­men to take their feet off the table, and then per­mit­ting the Turk­ish rich to put their feet on the table. … No, we want … [the world to be] ruled by the work­ing man with toil-hard­ened hands.18

Nat­u­ral­ly there were del­e­gates of var­i­ous dif­fer­ent reli­gions, but in par­tic­u­lar there were many Mus­lims. For the Bol­she­viks the aim was to draw out the rad­i­cal­ism which was inte­gral to the Mus­lim tra­di­tion. Accord­ing to the Russ­ian del­e­gate Skachko:

Even accord­ing to the shari­at, the land can belong only to him who tills it, and not to the cler­gy who have grabbed it, like the muj­tahids [Shi’ite divines] in Per­sia, who were the first to vio­late the fun­da­men­tal law of the Moslem reli­gion. They are not defend­ers of this reli­gion but per­vert­ers of it. They are just such par­a­sites and oppres­sors as the feu­dal land­lords, except that they are also hyp­ocrites who dis­guise their char­ac­ter as oppres­sors behind the white tur­ban and the Holy Koran. This mask of sanc­ti­ty must be torn from them, com­rades, and the land they own must like­wise be wrest­ed from them and giv­en to the work­ing peas­antry.19

But prac­tice did not always con­form to the­o­ry. Crit­i­cal voic­es were heard. One of the pres­i­dents of the Con­gress, Narbutabekov, used very vig­or­ous lan­guage to protest against the actions of Bol­she­vik bureau­crats in  Turkestan:

I tell you, com­rades, our Turkestani mass­es have to fight on two fronts. On the one against the reac­tionary mul­lahs in our own midst, and on the oth­er against the nar­row nation­al­ist incli­na­tions of the local Euro­peans. Nei­ther Com­rade Zinoviev, nor Com­rade Lenin, nor Com­rade Trot­sky knows the real sit­u­a­tion, knows what has been going on in Turkestan these last three years.  …  But now, as we trav­el about, Moslems come up to us and say that our beliefs are being tram­pled on, that we are not allowed to pray, not allowed to bury our dead in accor­dance with our cus­toms and reli­gion. What is this? It is noth­ing but a sow­ing of counter-rev­o­lu­tion among the toil­ing mass­es.20

It appeared that, despite the good inten­tions of the Bol­she­viks, what Lenin called “Great-Russ­ian chau­vin­ism” was far from dead.

Of the 1891 del­e­gates there were only 55 women. Nadzhiya, a Turk­ish woman, mocked West­ern fem­i­nists who were obsessed with the veil, and at the same time made a pow­er­ful chal­lenge to East­ern men, propos­ing very con­crete demands:

The women’s move­ment begin­ning in the East must not be looked at from the stand­point of those friv­o­lous fem­i­nists who are con­tent to see woman’s place in social life as that of a del­i­cate plant or an ele­gant doll. This move­ment must be seen as a seri­ous and nec­es­sary con­se­quence of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment which is tak­ing place through­out the world. The women of the East are not mere­ly fight­ing for the right to walk in the street with­out wear­ing the chadra, as many peo­ple sup­pose. For the women of the East, with their high moral ideals,  the ques­tion of the chadra, it can be said, is of the least impor­tance. If the women who form half of every com­mu­ni­ty are opposed to the men and do not have the same rights as they have, then it is obvi­ous­ly impos­si­ble for soci­ety to progress: the back­ward­ness of East­ern soci­eties is irrefutable proof of this.

Com­rades, you can be sure that all our efforts and labours to real­ize new forms of social life, how­ev­er sin­cere and how­ev­er vig­or­ous our endeav­ours may be, will remain with­out result if you do not sum­mon the women to become real helpers in your work. …

But we know too that the posi­tion of our sis­ters in Per­sia, Bukhara, Khi­va, Turkestan, India and oth­er Moslem coun­tries is even worse. How­ev­er, the injus­tice done to us and to our sis­ters has not remained unpun­ished. Proof of this is to be seen in the back­ward­ness and decline of all the coun­tries of the East. Com­rades, you must know that the evil done to women has nev­er passed and will nev­er pass with­out ret­ri­bu­tion. …

The women Com­mu­nists of the East have an even hard­er bat­tle to wage because, in addi­tion, they have to fight against the despo­tism of their men­folk. If you, men of the East, con­tin­ue now, as in the past, to be indif­fer­ent to the fate of women, you can be sure that our coun­tries will per­ish, and you and us togeth­er with them: the alter­na­tive is for us to begin, togeth­er with all the oppressed, a bloody life-and-death strug­gle to win our rights by force. I will briefly set forth the women’s demands. If you want to bring about your own eman­ci­pa­tion, lis­ten to our demands and ren­der us real help and co-oper­a­tion.

  1. Com­plete equal­i­ty of rights.
  2. Ensur­ing for women uncon­di­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty to make use of the edu­ca­tion­al and voca­tion­al-train­ing insti­tu­tions estab­lished for men.
  3. Equal­i­ty of rights of both par­ties to mar­riage. Uncon­di­tion­al abo­li­tion of polygamy.
  4. Uncon­di­tion­al admis­sion of women to employ­ment in leg­isla­tive and admin­is­tra­tive insti­tu­tions.
  5. Every­where, in cities, towns and vil­lages, com­mit­tees for the rights and pro­tec­tion of women to be estab­lished.21

For oth­er impor­tant ques­tions there was no time. Three doc­u­ments on Pales­tine and Zion­ism were pre­sent­ed to the Con­gress, but they were not dis­cussed.22 A state­ment from the Cen­tral Bureau of the Jew­ish sec­tions of the Russ­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty described Zion­ists as serv­ing British impe­ri­al­ism and con­demned the arti­fi­cial estab­lish­ment of a priv­i­leged Jew­ish minor­i­ty in the pop­u­la­tion of Pales­tine.

In the short-term, the results of the Con­gress were quite mod­est. A Coun­cil of Pro­pa­gan­da and Action was set up with 35 Com­mu­nist and 13 non-par­ty mem­bers. But already world cap­i­tal­ism was begin­ning to sta­bi­lize itself.  Alfred Ros­mer com­ments: “In the fol­low­ing months there were no upris­ings sig­nif­i­cant enough to wor­ry or seri­ous­ly involve the impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers.”23 The Coun­cil of Pro­pa­gan­da and Action was short-lived – it last­ed only until the begin­ning of 1922. But it played a part in 1921 in the found­ing of the Com­mu­nist Uni­ver­si­ty of the Toil­ers of the East, with 700 stu­dents of 57 nation­al­i­ties and branch­es at Baku and Irkut­sk.24

But, to quote Ros­mer again, in the longer term the Con­gress had a real influ­ence on polit­i­cal devel­op­ments in Asia:

A deep dis­tur­bance had been caused, but the effects were vis­i­ble only lat­er on. Time was need­ed for the debates and res­o­lu­tions to bear fruit, and the gath­er­ing togeth­er of suf­fi­cient forces who under­stood the strug­gle that would have to be car­ried on against mas­ters who hith­er­to had been all-pow­er­ful.25

Com­mu­nist Par­ties were found­ed in Turkey (1920), Iran (1920), Chi­na (1921) and else­where.

If the ideas of Baku lived on, and still live on, many of the par­tic­i­pants met a more trag­ic fate. Sev­er­al, includ­ing Zinoviev, Radek, and Narbutabekov, per­ished dur­ing the Stal­in­ist ter­ror of the 1930s; Alfred Ros­mer was expelled from the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty in 1924. Yet just after the Baku Con­gress there were grounds for hope. The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al was no longer con­fined to the coun­tries of Europe; it was expect­ed that a Com­mu­nist move­ment would devel­op in Asia, and even in Africa and Latin Amer­i­ca. World impe­ri­al­ism would face a real threat.

Cer­tain­ly there were prob­lems. In North Africa there were Euro­pean Com­mu­nists who con­sid­ered that the native pop­u­la­tion was too “back­ward” to take part in the Com­mu­nist move­ment. A report adopt­ed by the Sec­ond Com­mu­nist Interfed­er­al Con­gress of North Africa in 1922 explained that “what char­ac­teris­es the native mass­es is their igno­rance. This is above all the main obsta­cle to their eman­ci­pa­tion.”26 In South Africa there were Com­mu­nists who argued that a lib­er­a­tion move­ment of the coloured races was not prac­ti­cal pol­i­tics.27 The Inter­na­tion­al had to com­bat such ele­ments with­in its own ranks.

But inside Rus­sia, in the very heart of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment, there were also prob­lems. The Bol­she­viks had tri­umphed in the civ­il war and repulsed impe­ri­al­ist inva­sions. But the econ­o­my had suf­fered bad­ly. The Kro­n­stadt ris­ing of March 1921 revealed the weak­ness of the new regime; the Bol­she­viks had to retreat with the New Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy.

The great prob­lem was the iso­la­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion. Even in Europe the first rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave had begun to sub­side. In Italy Mus­soli­ni was mak­ing progress. In France and Britain the class strug­gle was becom­ing less acute. The great hope that remained was Ger­many. A Ger­man rev­o­lu­tion could strength­en iso­lat­ed Rus­sia and encour­age new rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments else­where.

In 1923 Ger­many seemed ripe for rev­o­lu­tion. An eco­nom­ic cri­sis had led to wild infla­tion. The Ruhr was occu­pied by the French army because a weak­ened Ger­many could not pay the repa­ra­tions demand­ed by the Ver­sailles Treaty.

This was the French Com­mu­nists’ finest hour. The French Com­mu­nist Par­ty cre­at­ed a news­pa­per aimed at sol­diers called La Caserne (the bar­racks), which encour­aged insub­or­di­na­tion and frat­er­niza­tion with Ger­man work­ers. The Com­mu­nists dis­trib­uted two mil­lion leaflets and posters. There were many African sol­diers in the French army; the pro­pa­gan­da dis­trib­uted to the Sene­galese tried to link the strug­gle of the Ger­man work­ers and that of the Sene­galese peo­ple for inde­pen­dence.

But there was no Ger­man rev­o­lu­tion. The USSR remained iso­lat­ed. In this con­text of defeat, Stal­in pro­posed a new strat­e­gy, that of “social­ism in one coun­try.” Accord­ing to Stal­in “the vic­to­ry of social­ism in one coun­try, even if that coun­try is less devel­oped in the cap­i­tal­ist sense, while cap­i­tal­ism remains in oth­er coun­tries, even if those coun­tries are more high­ly devel­oped in the cap­i­tal­ist sense – is quite pos­si­ble and prob­a­ble.”28 Now the pri­or­i­ty was indus­tri­al­iza­tion. As Stal­in put it in 1928: “The ques­tion of over­tak­ing and out­strip­ping the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries tech­ni­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly is for us Bol­she­viks nei­ther new nor unex­pect­ed.”29

The USSR would have to face the mil­i­tary threat of the cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries which sur­round­ed it. And that would mean adopt­ing cap­i­tal­ist meth­ods inside the coun­try. The last rem­nants of work­ing-class pow­er were destroyed.

The first test for the new strat­e­gy came in Chi­na. The young Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty seemed to have a promis­ing future – there were great strug­gles devel­op­ing in Shang­hai and else­where. But the Russ­ian lead­ers advised the Chi­nese com­mu­nists to make an alliance with the nation­al­ist move­ment known as the Guo­min­dang, led by Chi­ang Kai-shek. The result was a dis­as­ter. On April 12, 1927, Com­mu­nist Par­ty orga­ni­za­tions in Shang­hai  were vio­lent­ly sup­pressed by the mil­i­tary forces of Chi­ang Kai-shek and the Guo­min­dang. Sub­se­quent­ly there was a purge of Com­mu­nists across the coun­try.

At the same time Com­mu­nist par­ties were being trans­formed with­in the impe­ri­al­ist coun­tries them­selves. A great many of the mil­i­tants who had found­ed these par­ties were expelled or left, and they were often replaced by a new lay­er of bureau­crats who were more flex­i­ble and obe­di­ent. By the begin­ning of the 1930s the Com­intern had rad­i­cal­ly changed. Accord­ing to his­to­ri­an Pierre Broué:

The Com­intern … seemed very much weak­ened, the main cause being its close reliance on the lead­er­ship of the Russ­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty. This sit­u­a­tion made it pos­si­ble for the Russ­ian lead­ers to use its par­ties for their own ends, as pawns in their own diplo­mat­ic manoeu­vres.30

In 1928 the Sixth Con­gress of the Com­intern adopt­ed the new line of the so-called “Third Peri­od.” Accord­ing to this per­spec­tive fas­cism and social democ­ra­cy had become twins, and social democ­rats were con­demned as “social fas­cists.” In Ger­many this strat­e­gy had fatal results; the Com­mu­nists refused to build a unit­ed front and Hitler came to pow­er. This was one of the great­est crimes of Stal­in­ism.

For Euro­pean work­ers, who had polit­i­cal free­doms and trade-union rights, the dif­fer­ence between fas­cism and democ­ra­cy, even in its cap­i­tal­ist ver­sion, was clear. In Trotsky’s words “in the war against fas­cism we were ready to con­clude prac­ti­cal mil­i­tary alliances with the dev­il and his grand­moth­er, even with Noske and Zörgiebel.”31

But in the colo­nial coun­tries the sit­u­a­tion was some­what dif­fer­ent. In Africa and Asia the Third Peri­od seemed to cor­re­spond to a cer­tain real­i­ty. Dur­ing a revolt in Nige­ria fifty unarmed women were mas­sa­cred by the troops of a British Labour gov­ern­ment. The Com­mu­nist paper The Negro Work­er blamed “His Majesty’s Social-Fas­cist gov­ern­ment.” Accord­ing to Hakim Adi, “the des­ig­na­tion … did not appear entire­ly mis­placed.”32 The “Sedi­tion Bill” in the British colony of the Gold Coast imposed a penal­ty of three years impris­on­ment on any African who was in pos­ses­sion of lit­er­a­ture banned by the colo­nial gov­er­nor.

In 1928 the Red Inter­na­tion­al of Labour Unions set up the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers. Among its activ­i­ties were a dri­ve to union­ize black work­ers and a cam­paign to defend the Scotts­boro Boys, young black men in the Unit­ed States who had been false­ly accused of rape and threat­ened with the death penal­ty. Papers The Negro Work­er and Le Cri des Nègres were launched and dis­trib­uted in Africa, often with great dif­fi­cul­ty. Although Com­intern finance of these activ­i­ties was very lim­it­ed, it can be said that the Com­mit­tee made a use­ful con­tri­bu­tion by dis­sem­i­nat­ing anti-impe­ri­al­ist and anti-racist ideas.33

When Hitler came to pow­er the Stal­in­ist lead­er­ship rec­og­nized its mis­takes. Between 1934 and 1936 the Com­intern made a remark­able turn. Now the pri­or­i­ty was no longer the strug­gle against impe­ri­al­ism, but rather the strug­gle against fas­cism. The con­se­quences were vis­i­ble in the poli­cies of the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Accord­ing to Jacob Mon­e­ta:

The French Com­mu­nist Party’s turn on the colo­nial ques­tion was so fun­da­men­tal that not only did it approve repres­sive mea­sures against nation­al­ist move­ments in the colonies, but it open­ly demand­ed the smash­ing of an organ­i­sa­tion like the Étoile Nord-Africaine (North African Star) which it con­sid­ered a nui­sance.34

In 1926 it had been mem­bers of the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty, Hadj-Ali Abdelka­d­er and Mes­sali Hadj, who had found­ed the Étoile Nord-Africaine, the first organ­i­sa­tion to call for com­plete inde­pen­dence for Alge­ria and the coun­tries of the Maghreb.35 But now the French Com­mu­nists were aban­don­ing their sup­port for Alger­ian inde­pen­dence.

In 1937 Com­mu­nist Par­ty leader Mau­rice Thorez explained to the party’s Ninth Con­gress:

If the deci­sive ques­tion of the present time is a suc­cess­ful strug­gle against fas­cism, then it is in the inter­est of the colo­nial peo­ples to main­tain their union with the French peo­ple, and not to adopt an atti­tude which could favour the objec­tives of fas­cism and, for exam­ple, place Alge­ria, Tunisia and Moroc­co under the rule of Mus­soli­ni or Hitler, or make Indochi­na into a base for the oper­a­tions of Japan­ese mil­i­tarism.36

And in a speech in Algiers in 1939 Thorez used a very ques­tion­able anal­o­gy:

We want a free union between the peo­ples of France and Alge­ria. A free union means the right to divorce, but not an oblig­a­tion to divorce. I should even add that in the present his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions for Alge­ria this right involves a duty to become even more close­ly unit­ed with French democ­ra­cy.37

In Jan­u­ary 1937 the French Pop­u­lar Front gov­ern­ment, backed by the Com­mu­nists, took the deci­sion to dis­solve the Étoile Nord-Africaine. A few days lat­er L’Humanité pub­lished a long arti­cle crit­i­ciz­ing the “hos­til­i­ty of the lead­ers of the Étoile Nord-Africaine  to our par­ty and to the Pop­u­lar Front,” but not con­demn­ing the dis­so­lu­tion.38

After the brief inter­val of the Hitler-Stal­in Pact, the log­ic of the Pop­u­lar Front con­tin­ued. The pri­or­i­ty was the defence of the USSR and hence the strug­gle against fas­cism. While uni­ty against fas­cism in Europe made strate­gic sense, it should not be for­got­ten that the impe­ri­al­ist states com­pris­ing this alliance them­selves com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties in the col­o­nized world. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, for exam­ple, three mil­lion died of famine in Ben­gal as a direct result of the poli­cies of the British gov­ern­ment. One could eas­i­ly under­stand a Ben­gali who didn’t make a dis­tinc­tion between British leader Win­ston Churchill and Hitler.

On June 9, 1943 the dis­so­lu­tion of the Com­intern was announced. It was a con­ces­sion by Stal­in to the West­ern lead­ers who were his war allies. Yet, as Broué writes, in real­i­ty for some years the Com­intern “had only been a car­i­ca­ture of what it used to be.”39 For exam­ple, the res­o­lu­tion propos­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of  the Com­intern made no men­tion of the nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gle of the colo­nial and semi-colo­nial peo­ples.40

With that, the Com­intern for­mal­ly came to an end. Though high­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry, the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al played an impor­tant role in the his­to­ry of glob­al rev­o­lu­tions in the 20th cen­tu­ry, leav­ing behind a lega­cy that is still with us to this day.

This arti­cle is an edit­ed ver­sion of two pieces that orig­i­nal­ly appeared in French at Con­tretemps.


  1. Baku: Con­gress of the Peo­ples of the East (steno­graph­ic report) (Lon­don: New Park Pub­li­ca­tions, 1977), 11. 

  2. Ibid., 51. 

  3. Jane Degras, ed., The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al 1919-1943: Doc­u­ments, Vol. I (Lon­don: F. Cass, 1956), 179-80. 

  4. Pierre Broué, His­toire de l’Internationale Com­mu­niste (Paris, Fayard: 1997), 181. 

  5. Alfred Ros­mer, Lenin’s Moscow (Chica­go: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2016), 93. 

  6. John Rid­dell, ed., To See the Dawn (New York: Pathfind­er, 1993), 21. 

  7. Ros­mer, Lenin’s Moscow, 92. Alfred Ros­mer (1877–1964) was a remark­able man. He was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary syn­di­cal­ist who opposed the First World War from the first day. 46 years lat­er he signed the Man­i­festo of 121, which sup­port­ed those who refused to take arms against the Alger­ian peo­ple. His book Lenin’s Moscow gives a vivid por­tray­al of the first years of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al. 

  8. Baku: Con­gress of the Peo­ples of the East,  24-25. 

  9. Ros­mer, Lenin’s Moscow, 93. 

  10. Baku: Con­gress of the Peo­ples of the East, 11. 

  11. Ibid., 34. 

  12. Ibid., 28. In Italy this was a time of great strikes and fac­to­ry occu­pa­tions. 

  13. Ibid., 70. 

  14. Ibid., 161. 

  15. Ibid., 35. 

  16. Ibid., 14. 

  17. Baku: Con­gress of the Peo­ples of the East, 73, 194. 

  18. Ibid., 26, 33. 

  19. Ibid., 134. 

  20. Ibid., 62-64. 

  21. Ibid., 148-50. 

  22. These doc­u­ments are repro­duced in Rid­dell, ed., To See the Dawn, 282-91.  

  23. Ros­mer, Lenin’s Moscow, 94. 

  24. Broué, His­toire de l’Internationale Com­mu­niste, 182. 

  25. Ros­mer, Lenin’s Moscow, 94. 

  26. Bul­letin com­mu­niste, Decem­ber 7, 1922. Eng­lish trans­la­tion in Rev­o­lu­tion­ary His­to­ry 10, no. 4 (2012). 

  27. Quot­ed by Hakim Adi, Pan-African­ism and Com­mu­nism: The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, Africa, and the Dias­po­ra, 1919-1939 (Tren­ton: Africa World Press, 2013), 49. Adi’s book, even though it is some­times a lit­tle too sym­pa­thet­ic towards the Stal­in­ist lead­er­ship of the Com­intern, con­tains a great deal of very valu­able infor­ma­tion about the strug­gles of black work­ers in Europe and Africa dur­ing the 1930s. 

  28. Josef Stal­in, The Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion and the Tac­tics of the Russ­ian Com­mu­nists, 1924. 

  29. Josef Stal­in, Indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of the Coun­try and the Right Devi­a­tion in the C.P.S.U.(B.), 1928. 

  30. Broué, His­toire de l’Internationale Com­mu­niste, 550. 

  31. Leon Trot­sky, “What Next?” 1932. 

  32. Adi, Pan-African­ism and Com­mu­nism, 89. 

  33. For details of this work see Adi, Pan-African­ism and Com­mu­nism

  34. Jacob Mon­e­ta, Le PCF et la ques­tion colo­niale (Paris: Maspero, 1971), 111. Moneta’s book pro­vides a very use­ful col­lec­tion of doc­u­ments on the his­to­ry of the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty between 1920 and 1965. Mon­e­ta, who died in 2012 at the age of 97, was a remark­able indi­vid­ual who, among oth­er things, had giv­en prac­ti­cal sup­port to the Alger­ian Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front. 

  35. Ian Bir­chall, “Hadj-Ali Abdelka­d­er: A Mus­lim Com­mu­nist in the 1920s,” Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Review 105, Sum­mer 2017. 

  36. Ibid., 132. 

  37. Ibid., 136. 

  38. Ibid., 113-16. 

  39. Broué, His­toire de l’Internationale Com­mu­niste, 790. 

  40. Degras, the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al 1919-1943, 477-79. 

Author of the article

is a socialist writer and translator. He is the author of France: the Struggle Goes On (with Tony Cliff, 1968); Workers Against the Monolith (1974); Bailing Out the System (19860; The Spectre of Babeuf (1997); Sartre Against Stalinism (2004); A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (2005); Tony Cliff: A Marxist For His Time (2011). He has also translated works by Alfred Rosmer and Victor Serge.