Communist International was an organization of communist parties devoted to hastening socialist revolution. During World War I, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin condemned the Second International, a loose coalition of socialist parties, because most of its leaders had voted for war credits and supported the war. He dubbed them traitors to Marxism and the proletariat, and thereafter urged creating a new international, a Third or Communist International, which would lead the world's workers to socialism.
The founding Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 was the first step toward realizing Lenin's dream. That Congress did little more than announce the birth of the Comintern—"a unified world Communist Party, specific sections of which were parties active in each country"—and its basic principles. Delegates to the Second Congress in 1920 adopted the Twenty–One Points, which defined membership rules. Certain points deserve note. Each party seeking Comintern affiliation had to remove reformists from its ranks, purge its membership periodically, and adhere to the principles of democratic centralism. Those principles
applied within member parties as well as to each party's relation to the Comintern. All decisions made by Comintern congresses and the Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI) were binding on member parties.
The Comintern's primary function was to identify and enact the proper strategies and tactics to promote international socialist revolution. During its existence, it enacted several policies to achieve that goal. Until 1921, it advocated the united front policy, the goals of which were to win workers away from Social Democratic and radical parties and to seize power in their respective countries. A belief in inevitable revolution drove this policy. But in 1921 the prospects for revolution ebbed, and the Comintern adopted a more flexible set of united front tactics, which allowed for conditional cooperation with Social Democratic parties, preserving the goal of extending Communist Party influence among workers.
At its Sixth Congress in 1928, the Comintern adopted a hard-line policy when it dubbed Social Democrats and reform socialists the main enemy and "social fascists." Any collaboration with "social fascists" became unthinkable. The Comintern urged workers and unions to reject and destroy Social Democrats. Known as the Third Period, this policy proved disastrous.
The Seventh Congress in 1935 rejected this policy and resolved that fascism was the primary enemy. It required member parties to drop their attacks on reformists and to forge broad antifascist coalitions. This policy, the Popular Front, lifted the Comintern's fortunes. Its call for a broad–based, antifascist struggle won many supporters worldwide. Popular Front coalition governments came to power in France and Spain in 1936. The Popular Front's victory in Spain triggered the Spanish Civil War, during which the Comintern organized the International Brigades, a ragtag army of international volunteers who flocked there to fight fascism.
Following the Nazi–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, the Comintern abandoned its antifascist policy and announced that communists should not support the imperialist war in Europe. After the Nazi invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, Comintern policy changed again, calling for antifascist activities to defend the USSR. In 1943, on Josef Stalin's orders, the Comintern disbanded.
Although the Comintern was a collective of fraternal communist parties, the Communist Party (CPSU) wielded unrivalled influence. It did so because it was the only communist party to have seized power, it had organized the Comintern, and it provided the Comintern and member parties with political, organizational, and financial assistance. The Twenty–One Points reflected the CPSU's organizational and operative principles. Party leaders prepared many of the Comintern's major decisions and often decided which tactics and strategies the Comintern would pursue and whom to remove from and appoint to the leadership bodies of the Comintern and fraternal parties.
By the late 1920s the CPSU's values and behaviors had infused the Comintern. A variety of factors accounted for this. Within the ECCI apparatus there were CPSU committees. The removal of those who opposed the party or Comintern line hastened the process. In the 1920s the ECCI removed the followers of Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern from 1919 to 1926, and later the followers of Nikolai Bukharin, Zinoviev's successor, for their opposition to party policy.
Nonetheless, the Comintern was an international political institution and therefore possessed some distinctive characteristics. Most members of the ECCI and its apparatus were foreigners; representatives from abroad routinely participated in Comintern activities. The ECCI was responsible for fraternal parties, each of which was assigned to a national or regional section in the ECCI; many members of these parties lived in the USSR.
The Comintern, therefore, existed in two worlds: in the USSR, the socialist world; and in the international arena, the capitalist world. Within the USSR, its roles were to elaborate policies to strengthen the international communist movement, to defend Soviet foreign and domestic policies, and to cooperate with the appropriate party and Soviet offices. In the capitalist world, the Comintern guided and directed Communist parties, helped to build their organizational structures, educated party members in Marxism–Leninism, and demanded that its followers defend the USSR's policies and leaders.
To manage its various activities, the Comintern had a substantial bureaucracy. Formally, Comintern congresses, held in 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1924, 1928, and 1935, determined its polices. In reality, the congresses approved the policies and nominees put forth by the CPSU delegation and the ECCI. Congresses elected the ECCI, which implemented and interpreted policies between congresses. Within the ECCI apparatus, departments provided the ECCI's leaders with information about the fraternal parties; functional departments attended to routine operations.
Given the Comintern's activities abroad, it cooperated with the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and with military intelligence and security organs. Originally relations among them provided for some measure of administrative autonomy. But from the mid-1920s cooperation between the Comintern and the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, security organs, and the military intelligence services deepened.
Although the Popular Front raised the Comintern's international reputation, within the USSR domestic pressures placed it in a vulnerable political position. From the mid-1930s anxieties about foreign threats, a growing spy scare, and fears that foreign agents held CPSU party cards meant that vigilant police and party leaders increasingly scrutinized the Comintern. When mass repression erupted in 1937, Comintern workers and members of fraternal parties living in the USSR were often victims. By 1939 the Comintern apparatus lacked many essential personnel. Although it was not disbanded until 1943, the repression of 1937 and 1938 destroyed the Comintern's ability to function and its reputation abroad.
See also: communist party of the soviet union; party congresses and conferences; popular front policy; zinoviev, grigory yevseyevich
Braunthal, Julius. (1967). History of the International, vol. 2, tr. Henry Collins and Kenneth Mitchell. London: Praeger.
Carr, E.H. (1982). The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935. London: Pantheon Books.
Degras, Jane T., ed. (1956-1965). The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents. 3 vols. London: Oxford University Press.
Kahan, Vilém, ed. (1990). Bibliography of the Communist International (1919-1979). Leiden: E. J. Brill.
McDermott, Kevin, and Agnew, Jeremy. (1997). The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin. New York: St. Martin's Press.
William J. Chase