Duncan Hallas

Founding of the Communist International


Duncan Hallas, Founding of the Communist International, International Socialism (1st series), No.66, February 1974, pp.17-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The upsurge in the class struggle is giving new significance to the revolutionary tradition. Many of the questions now confronting the movement were raised in the last great period of revolutionary upheaval, in the years following the First World War. At the first four congresses of the Communist International, before it degenerated under the influence of Stalin jam, revolutionaries from dozens of countries hammered out answers to these questions which are still of relevance today.

This article by Duncan Hallas is the first of a series on the early years of the Communist International which aims to provide an outline of these discussions.

Our task is to generalise the revolutionary experience of the working class, to cleanse the movement of the disintegrating admix hires of opportunism and social patriotism, to mobilise the forces of all genuinely revolutionary parties of the world proletariat and thereby facilitate and hasten the victory of the communist revolution throughout the world. (Manifesto of First Congress of the Third International, 1919).

March 4, 1919. Thirty-five delegates meeting in the Kremlin voted, with one abstention, to constitute the Third or Communist International. It was not a very weighty or representative gathering. Only the five delegates of the Russian Communist Party (Bukharin, Chicherin, Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev) represented a party which was both a mass organisation and a genuinely revolutionary one. Stange of the Norwegian Labour Party (NAP) came from a mass party but, as events were to prove, the NAP was far from revolutionary in practice. Eberlein of the newly formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) represented a real revolutionary organisation but one that was still only a few thousand strong. Most of the other delegates represented very little.

On these grounds Eberlein, acting on the instructions of the German Central Committee, wished to confine the meeting to preliminary work, to the adoption of a provisional programme and so on. Western Europe, he noted, was entirely unrepresented. The common view that what the Germans really feared was undue Russian dominance is probably correct but this argument was not openly advanced.

The majority took it for granted that an “International” without some real mass support in a number of countries was nonsense. Zinoviev, for the Russians, argued that mass support existed in fact. The weakness of many of the delegations was accidental. “We have a victorious proletarian revolution in a great country ... You have in Germany a party marching to power which in a few months will establish a proletarian government. And are we still to delay? No one will understand it.” [1]

That the socialist revolution was an immediate prospect in central Europe, above all in Germany, was doubted by none of the delegates. Eberlein himself had said “unless all the signs are deceptive, the German proletariat is facing the last decisive struggle. However difficult it may be, the prospects for communism are favourable.” [2] Lenin, the most sober and calculating of revolutionaries, had said in his opening speech that “not only in Russia, but in the most developed capitalist countries of Europe, Germany for example, civil war is a fact ... the world revolution is beginning and growing in intensity everywhere.” [3]

This was not fantasy. In November 1918 the German Empire, till then the most powerful state in Europe, had collapsed. Six People’s Commissars, three Social Democrats and three Independent Social Democrats, replaced the Kaiser’s government. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils had covered the country and wielded effective power. True, the Social Democratic leaders, who dominated them, bent all their efforts to reconstituting the old capitalist state power under a new “republican” guise. That was all the more reason for creating a revolutionary International with a strong centralised leadership tq guide and support the struggle for a Soviet Germany. And that struggle, in spite of the bloody suppression of the Spartakus rising in January 1919, appeared to be going forward. “From January to May 1919, with offshoots reaching into the height of the summer, a bloody civil war was waged in Germany ...” [4] A month after the Moscow meeting the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed. The other great central European power, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had ceased to exist. The successor states were in varying degrees of revolutionary ferment. In German speaking Austria the only effective armed force was the social democratic controlled Volkswehr (People’s Army). In Hungary a Soviet Republic was formed on 21 March. All the new or reconstituted states, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, even Poland, were unstable.

The role of the socialist leaderships was crucial. The majority now supported counter-revolution in the name of “democracy”. Most of them claimed to be, indeed once had been, Marxists and internationalists. They were now a major prop of capitalism, using socialist phrases and the credit established by their years of agitation to prevent the establishment of workers’ power. Their attempt to reconstitute the Second International by a meeting at Berne was advanced as a further, urgent, reason for proclaiming the Third. As early as 1914, Lenin had written “the Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism ... long live the Third International”. [5] Now, 18 months after the October Revolution, the slogan could be turned into a reality.


Before 1914

If the outbreak of war threatens, it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, with the aid of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert all their efforts to prevent the war by means of co-ordinated action If war nevertheless breaks out, it is their duty to work for its speedy end, and to exploit with all their forces the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the population and to hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule (Resolution of the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, 1907)

Social democracy had a fairly short life. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the model for the rest, “the pillar and example”, was founded in 1875. It adopted a fully Marxist programme (the Erfurt programme) in 1891. Between 1878 and 1890 the SPD had been an illegal organisation, proscribed by Bismarck’s anti-socialist law. “At the first congress in exile (Weyden, Switzerland 1880) it unanimously voted to strike from its programme the clause stating that it would pursue its aims by ‘all legal means’. During this time of troubles, the urban working class became increasingly alienated from the state.” [6]

This was demonstrated by voting figures. The SPD was outlawed but socialist candidates (in fact SPD nominees) were able to contest elections. On a restricted suffrage they polled, collectively, some 300,000 votes in 1881 and one and a half million in 1890. By 1912 the party, now a legally tolerated but socially outlawed organisation, polled four and a quarter million votes, (34 per cent of the total poll), and elected 110 deputies to the Reichstag. In 1914 the SPD had 1,086,000 card-holding members.

In France the unified socialist party (SFIO), founded in 1905, gained 102 seats in the elections held early in 1914. A year earlier the Italian Party (PSI) had gained a quarter of the vote and 78 deputies. The Austrian party had over a million votes and 82 deputies. From Scandinavia to the Balkans, Marxist Social Democratic parties, on the German model, gained numbers, votes and deputies. Even in the USA the Socialist Party (founded in 1900) had, by 1912, 125,000 members, 800,000 votes, “56 mayors, 160 councilmen and 145 aldermen ... eight foreign language and five English language dailies. .. 262 English and 36 foreign language weeklies. [7] Weaker but significant movements were growing up from Australia, Britain and Chile to Switzerland, Spain and Uruguay. All of them affiliated to the Second International and all of them, apparently, committed to the socialist reconstruction of society and to uncompromising opposition to “national unity”, imperialism and war.

It was an illusion. There were certain differences between the various social democratic parties but basically they were pseudo-revolutionary parties. They combined an uncompromising hostility to capitalism and imperialism in words with a practical activity that was essentially confined to winning members and votes. Because they were excluded from any share of state power, and because they had an ideology which rejected all the values of official society, the social democrats created, to some degree, a whole world of their own. “No German town was without its social democratic daily paper, its consumer co-operative, its workers’ sports and cultural associations.” [8]

This impressive apparatus had become an end in itself. There was no real perspective of a struggle for power. The inevitability of socialism, as a result of the contradictions of capitalism, was constantly stressed. Confrontation with the forces of the state, or even the employers, was avoided wherever possible. As a political force social democracy was essentially passive. Though some of the parties, notably the Belgians and the Austrians, had been willing to use (and had used) the weapon of the mass political strike, this was for the strictly limited purpose of forcing an extension of the suffrage. Most of the parties would not even go this far.

In August 1914 the illusion was destroyed. Social democracy collapsed. The combination of extreme verbal radicalism with practical passivity was no longer possible for mass parties in the warring states. The leaders were faced with a simple choice. Maintain their political position, their internationalism, and face a return to illegality, persecution, prison and the seizure of their massive assets. Or abandon all they had stood for, support their own’ imperialist state and gain an honoured and increasingly important role in capitalist society. They capitulated and became recruiting sergeants for imperialism.

There were exceptions. The Italians, Americans and Scandinavians were not compelled to choose immediately. They could maintain the illusion a little longer. The Serbs, heroically, stood their ground and were subjected to a murderous persecution. The Russians, including at first most of the Mensheviks, refused to support the Tsarist war machine. The Bulgarian majority was also anti-war. Everywhere else there were anti-war minorities.

The “social patriots”, as their opponents soon came to call them, were able to claim that, in 1914, they had the support of the mass of the workers. It was true. Trotsky noted that in Vienna the patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in Austria-Hungary seemed especially surprising. “What was it that drew (them) ...? What sort of an idea? The national idea? But Austria-Hungary was the very negation of any national idea. No, the moving force was something different. The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many ... The alarm of mobilisation breaks into their lives like a promise ... Changes still more incredible are in store ... For better or worse? For the better of course-what can seem worse than ‘normal’ conditions? ... War affects everybody and those who are oppressed and deceived by life consequently feel that they are on an equal footing with the rich and powerful.” [9] And similarly in London, Paris and Berlin there was mass enthusiasm for the war.

But revolutionaries who cannot withstand temporary popular hatred, as well as official persecution, are worthless. The pioneers of social democracy had withstood both in their time. Why did they betray theft own past?

One explanation is the fatalistic character of social democratic theory. Karl Kautsky, “the Pope of Marxism” and chief theoretician of the SPD, put it in these words: “The Socialist Party is a revolutionary party but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it.” [10] A fine theoretical justification for passivity!

But, according to Marx, practice comes before theory. “In the beginning was the deed.” The theory of a mass movement has material as well as intellectual roots.

Near the end of his life John Wesley wrote, in a remarkable anticipation of the materialist conception of history, “The Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionally increase ... in the desire of the flesh ... and in the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.” So it was with social democracy. A whole layer of social democrats had prospered.

By 1913 the SPD and its associated trade unions owned property worth 90 million marks. To administer and control it “the party had generated a whole category of parliamentarians, working-class bureaucrats and functionaries in the unions, the co-operatives, the party secretariats, the editorial offices of the party press ... Such people no longer lived for, but also off the working-class movement.” [11] And they had a great deal more to lose than their chains.

Lenin emphasised a still more fundamental material factor. “Opportunism was engendered in the course of decades by the special features in this period of the development of capitalism, when the comparatively peaceful and cultured life of a stratum of privileged working men ‘bourgeoisified’ them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists.” [12] The “labour aristocracy” theory, which had earlier been developed by Marx himself in the special case of Britain, contained an important kernel of truth. But it was to prove an oversimplification. Skilled (and “privileged”) workers played an important part in the anti-war movement. That movement began to grow as the casualty lists and economic hardship grew.


The rising tide

The imperialist war is ushering in the era of the social revolution. All the objective conditions of recent times have put the workers’ revolutionary mass struggle on the order of the day. It is the duty of socialists, while making every use of every means of the working class’s legal struggle, to ... develop the workers’ revolutionary consciousness ... promote and encourage any revolutionary action, and do everything possible to turn the imperialist war between peoples into a civil ... for the conquest of political power by the working class, and the realisation of socialism. (Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left, 1915).

The outbreak of the world war seemed, at first, to have split the socialist movement into two parts, the “social patriots” and the “internationalists”. It soon became obvious that the movement was really split into three parts. The internationalists themselves were divided between consistent revolutionaries and what came to be called the “centre”. The centrists took a pacifist position. They were against support for “their own” governments and in favour of a negotiated peace. They wanted to reconstitute international links between the socialist parties, illegally if need be, but looked back to a re-birth of the old International rather than the building of a revolutionary International. They saw the war as a disastrous interruption of “normal” political life, not as an opportunity for revolution.

In September 1915, the Italian and Swiss parties succeeded in convening a conference of anti-war socialists at Zimmerwald near Berne in Switzerland. Both these parties were dominated by the “centre”. The Swiss were neutral (although both pro-French and pro-German tendencies existed in the party) and the majority of the Italians, the PSI, maintained a centrist anti-war position even after Italy’s entry into the war in May 1915.

At Zimmerwald the split between the centrists and the left came into the open. As well as the sponsors there were German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Russian and other delegates present. By 19 votes to 12, the conference rejected the draft resolution submitted by Lenin which contained the call to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. In spite of this, Lenin called the conference “the first step” and the left, including the Bolsheviks, voted for the manifesto of the majority as well as publishing their own rejected resolution. “The capitalists of all countries claim that the war serves to defend the fatherland ... They are lying”, declared the manifesto. “It is a fact that this manifesto is a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it”, wrote Lenin. In spite of its “inconsistency and timidity”, it would “be sectarianism to refuse to take this step forward”. [13] In the atmosphere of frenzied “patriotism” which still existed in 1915, when any contact with “enemy” nationals was regarded as treason, Zimmerwald was indeed a real step forward for socialist internationalism.

At the next conference, at Kienthal in 1916, the left took a harder line. “Every step forward taken by the international labour movement along the road mapped out by Zimmerwald shows more and more clearly the inconsistency of the position adopted by the Zinimerwald majority”, declared the (unsuccessful) Bolshevik resolution, for it “is afraid of a break with the International Socialist Bureau [the Second International’s completely inactive centre] ... It is the social-chauvinists and Kautskyites of all countries who will undertake the task of restoring the bankrupt International Socialist Bureau. The task of socialists is to explain to the masses the inevitability of a split with those who pursue a bourgeois policy under the flag of socialism.” [14]

By this time the anti-war movements were gaining real support. Easter 1916 saw the Dublin rising against British imperialism. Karl Liebknecht and Otto Rühle had broken with the SPD and were agitating against the war in the Reichstag. In May 1916 the arrest of Liebknecht for treason provoked a strike of 50,000 workers in Berlin and a wave of clashes with the police. The shop stewards’ movement was gaining ground in Britain.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia sparked off massive peace demonstrations in Britain as well as in Germany and Austria-Hungary. That spring the SPD split and the centrists, including the SPD Reichstag leader of 1914, Haase, and the theoretician Kautsky, founded the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD) on an antiwar programme.

The October revolution had an even bigger effect. In January 1918 mass strikes developed in Austria-Hungary and Germany, strikes not for money but for peace. “It started at the factory of Manfred Weiss, in Csepel, near Budapest, by far the biggest munitions factory in Hungary ... The strike spread like wild fire ... By 16 January it had reached the munitions factories of lower Austria; on the 17th all Vienna went on strike. A few days later the Berlin munitions workers followed suit, and then the engineers and many other branches of industry all over the Reich. Nowhere had the official leadership called the strike ... The movement shook the Central Powers to their very foundations.” [15]

More than two million workers were involved but the movement was contained, like the big mutinies in the French army in 1917, it lacked a coherent leadership. But the mutiny of the sailors of the German High Seas fleet at Kiel on 4 November 1918 led to the collapse of Imperial Germany. “In Kiel there was only one authority – the Council of workers, sailors and soldiers deputies ... From Kiel the rebellion spread to Hamburg and on the night of 8 November it was learned in Berlin that it had triumphed, with little or no resistance, in Hanover, Magdeburg, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt-am-Main, Brunswick, Oldenburg, Wittenburg and other cities.” [16] On 9 November the specially “reliable” Fourth Regiment of Fusiliers was rushed into Berlin. It mutinied. The Kaiser fled. The German workers’ and soldiers’ councils were in power. The point needs emphasising. They were in power, no other authority in Germany disposed of an effective armed force. The betrayal of that successful movement by the leaders of the SPD (and the USPD) in the name of “democracy” deepened the split of 1914. The issue of workers’ councils or parliament was now central.


Soviets or parliament?

Democracy assumed different forms and was applied in different degrees in the ancient republics of Greece, the medieval cities and the advanced capitalist countries. It would be sheer nonsense to think that the most profound revolution in history, the first case in the world of power being transferred from the exploiting minority to the exploited majority, could take place within the time worn framework of the old, bourgeois parliamentary democracy, without drastic changes, without the creation of new forms of democracy, new Institutions that embody the new conditions for applying democracy. (Resolution of the First Congress of the Communist International, 1919)

Soviets or Parliament? After the October revolution the Russian Communist Party had dispersed the newly elected Constituent Assembly, in which the Social-Revolutionary peasant party had a majority, in favour of Soviet Power. After the November revolution the German Social-Democratic Party had dissolved the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, in which it had a majority, in favour Of the National Assembly in which it did not.

In both cases the question of constitutional forms was really a question of class power. The effect of the RCP’s action was to create a workers’ state. The effect of the SPD’s action was to create a bourgeois state, the Weimar Republic.

Marx had written, after the Paris Commune, that in the transition from capitalism to socialism, the form of state “can only be the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”. The SPD leadership declared, during the November revolution, “All power to the Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies? No. We reject the idea of the dictatorship of one class if the majority of the people are not behind that class.” [17]

The social-democrats had come, in practice, to reject the essence of the marxist theory of the state, that all states are class states, that there is no “neutral” state. They had done more. They had come to reject their own previous position on the inevitability of revolution in favour of “peaceful”, parliamentary roads to socialism. Yet the Weimar Republic was every bit as much a product of the violent overthrow of the previous state as the Russian Soviet Republic. Mutinous soldiers and armed workers, not voters, overthrew the German Empire. The same was true of the successor states of Austria-Hungary. But the greater transformation, the destruction of capitalism, was to be achieved by the ordinary mechanisms of bourgeois democracy!

In fact, this meant the abandonment of socialism as the aim. It was politically and psychologically impossible for the SPD to admit this in 1919. When finally it did so, 40 years later, (Bad Godesburg conference, 1959), it was merely drawing the logical conclusions from its actions in 1914 and 1919. Theory was at last brought into line with practice.

The Third International, in its 1919 Platform, sharply restated the marxist position, “The victory of the working class lies in shattering the organisation of the enemy power and organising workers’ power; it consists in the destruction of the bourgeois state machine and the construction of the workers’ state machine.” [18] There could be no question of socialism through parliament. Lenin, in 1917, had quoted with approval Engels’ statement that universal suffrage is “an index of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state.” [19] “No bourgeois republic, however democratic,” he wrote just after the Moscow conference, “ever was or could have been anything but a machine for the repression of the working people by capital, an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the political rule of capital.” [20]

The workers’ republic, based on workers’ councils, was truly democratic. “The essence of soviet power lies in this, that the permanent and sole foundation of the entire state power, of the entire state apparatus, is the mass organisation of those very classes which were oppressed by the capitalists, that is the workers and semi-workers (peasants who do not exploit labour ...).” [21] This was something of an idealisation of Russia, even in 1919, but the “deviations” were accounted for by the backwardness of the country and the still raging civil war and foreign intervention.

The delegates’ meeting in Moscow had constituted the new International on the basis of uncompromising internationalism, a decisive and final split with the traitors of 1914, workers’ power, workers’ councils, the defence of the Soviet Republic and the perspective of revolution in the near future in central and western Europe. The problem now was to create the mass parties that could make all this a reality. The means lay to hand. Leaders of the “Zimmerwald” centrist-type controlled the Italian party and were soon to capture the French. The German USPD was soon to have 800,000 members. Everywhere in Europe big centrist movements were developing. Their members had to be won for communism. The foundations had been laid. The struggle against the centrist leaders was now the major immediate task.



1. Degras, The Communist International 1919-43. Documents, Vol.1, p.16.

2. Ibid., Vol.1, p.6.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.28, p.455.

4. Haffner, Failure of a Revolution. Germany 1918-19, p.152.

5. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.21, p.40.

6. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-17, p.3.

7. Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States, pp.71-72.

8. Abendroth, A Short History of the. European Working Class, pp.56-57.

9. Trotsky, My Life, p.233.

10. Kautsky, The Road to Power, quoted in Hook, Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx, p.32.

11. Abendroth, op. cit., p.57.

12. This note is missing in the original.

13. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.21, p.387.

14. Ibid., Vol.22, pp.178-179.

15. Borkenau, World Communism, pp.91-92.

16. Oliveira, A People’s History of Germany, p.93.

17. Ibid., p.97.

18. Degras, op. cit., Vol.1, p.19.

19. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.25, p.393.

20. Lenin, ibid., Vol.29, p.311.

21. Degras, op. cit.. Vol.1, p.13.


Last updated on 19.10.2006