Sat Feb 24, 2024
February 24, 2024

The III International: Lenin’s Great Obsession

On the 100-year anniversary of the great Russian Revolution, it is necessary to study and draw all the lessons of its main achievement: the building of the III International – the Communist International – a year and a half after seizing power. It was the most advanced attempt to form a world revolutionary leadership and the first to understand this leadership as a democratically centralized organization of revolutionary parties to develop the socialist revolution and seize power in all countries of the world. By Alicia Sagra

Founding the III International was one constant concern for Lenin. Trotsky wrote that in the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference when the few socialists against the first world war gathered, Lenin was so harsh on the reformists – despite accepting to sign a declaration against war with them – because his main worry was the International Party. Trotsky added that Lenin set the first stone of the III International at that moment, and his intransigence with the reformists was due to his conception of revolutionaries having to found their own party apart from the reformists who, if they wished, could form theirs.
Why this obsession with the International Party?
As the Marxist intellectual George Novack wrote, that is not a dogma, not even a sentimental dream. Internationalism is based on the world character of the capitalist economy. Unlike feudal societies, capitalist society is not fragmented and isolated. Capitalism, since its beginning, run on a world basis; it extended the world market and imposed the international division of labour. No capitalist country can live isolated from the world, even less after the emergence of imperialism in the early XX century. That generated the internationalization of class struggle and posed the great need for an international organization of workers, to be able to advance in the tasks to defeat imperialism and build socialism worldwide.
The first great step
The first attempt to build an international party was in 1864, with the emergence of the First International in which Marx and Engels participated. This was the first step to uniting workers’ forces beyond borders. It was very important to challenge the policy of the European bourgeoisie, which used the workers of one country to break the strikes in another country. However, it was fragile due to the incipient degree of organization of the proletariat, at the time. It was not a party, but a united front of workers’ organizations and leaders.
It had a clear class nature, but it had no clear ideology. Marx and Engels’ followers, defenders of scientific socialism, were part of it, as well as two sectors of Anarchism expressed in Proudhon and Bakunin. The theoretical-programmatic differences were strong when the First International had to face its first great revolutionary challenge: the 1871 Paris Commune.
The crushing defeat of the Commune caused great demoralization, at the same time that it confirmed Marx and Engels’s standings. The lessons of the Commune made the influence of the founders of scientific socialism to grow which, together with the disloyal activities of Bakunin, led to the dissolution of the First International in 1872.
The Second Attempt
In 1889 the II International – the Socialist International – was founded. It represented a great advance as it was no longer a united front but a federation of Marxist parties which, according to Trotsky, had the great merit of educating millions of workers in Marxism.
However, it was destroyed as a revolutionary international in 1914, when the major affiliated parties supported their imperialist governments in the First World War.
The Consequences of the Great Betrayal of 1914: The Role of Centrism
As it could not be different, the effect of this betrayal was crushing. The Socialist International, which had educated millions in proletarian internationalism, broke its principles and voted in favor of war credits for each imperialist country. In other words, it called German workers to kill French and English workers in the war and vice versa. How did it happen?
The non-centralized regime of the II International allowed the existence of three wings within its main party, the German one, the same ones that existed inside the II International. The right-wing, represented by Bernstein and Vollmar, based on the workers’ aristocracy (a product of the emergence of imperialism); the leaders of the centre who led the party as a whole: Kautsky and Bebel; and on the left-wing, Rose Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin.
During the different congresses of the German party and of the II International, the centre and the left wing used to vote together and the right wing was defeated. Thus, in the 1912 Basel Congress, the II International passed a manifesto against the war which says:
If the war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent its outbreak. They must employ the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the general political situation. In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of the capitalist class rule.”  (1912 Basel Congress Manifesto)
The International deployed a great agitation campaign in all countries but did not manage to stop the war. Then things changed: the centrists joined the right wing and voted in every country (with the honourable exception of the Russian and Serbian parties) in favour of war credits. In other words, in favour of siding with their respective imperialist governments in each country.
The great betrayal took place because the right-wing received the support of the centrists, not because it became the majority. That tragically endorses Lenin’s definition that the centre is more dangerous than reformists themselves, because the latest present themselves revealing their faces, so it is easier to challenge them.
The Controversies on the III International
Despite its monstrosity, the betrayal of the II International did not become evident to the rank-and-file of the II International. On the contrary, the broad majority followed their leaders and fell into patriotism and the defence of their own country in the imperialist war. That fact influenced the heterogeneous minority of leaders against the war.
Most of these leaders believed one could not abandon the II International but wait for the war to end to return to normality. Many of them, mainly those who belonged to the major parties, feared the isolation that breaking with the II International would imply.
The view of the revolutionary minority was different. Among them, there were Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Rose Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, Kristian Rakovsky in Romenia and John Maclean in Scotland. About this sector, Trotsky wrote:
We revolutionary Socialists did not want the War. But we do not fear it. We do not give in to despair over the fact that the War broke up the International. History has already disposed of the International. The revolutionary epoch will create new forms of organization out of the inexhaustible resources of proletarian Socialism, new forms that will be equal to the greatness of the new tasks.[1]
However, this agreement on the irreversible bankruptcy of the II International did not imply into an agreement regarding founding the III International.
Rosa Luxemburg did not think the central task was discussing new programs or a new International built by “dozens of people”. For her, the central one would be brought by the “actions of millions of workers.” Thus, she opposed the “revolutionary defeatism” proposed by Lenin and stood by “the struggle against war,” to develop the “conscious will of the masses” [2]
Lenin had no doubts:
“The II International is dead, overcome by opportunism. Down with opportunism, and long live the III International purged not only of “turncoats”, but of opportunism as well.” [3]
Aware of the difficulties, Lenin understood that in order to build the new International Party, it was necessary to wait for the evolution of the Spartacus League led by Rose Luxemburg:
It is quite understandable that to bring about an international Marxist organisation, there must be a readiness to form independent Marxist parties in different countries. Germany, being the country with the oldest and strongest working-class movement, is of decisive importance. The immediate future will show whether conditions have already ripened for the formation of a new, Marxist International. If they have, our Party will gladly join such a Third International that will be purged of opportunism and chauvinism. If they have not, it will show that a more or less prolonged evolution is needed for this purging. In that case, our Party will be the extreme opposition within the old International—until a base is formed in different countries for an international working men’s association that stands on the basis of revolutionary Marxism.[4]
Trotsky was getting closer to Lenin, although he did not answer to Lenin’s demand to adopt the “revolutionary defeatism” policy.
The 1915 Zimmerwald Conference
It was a meeting of the few leaders of the II International against the imperialist war. Trotsky described it:
In the summer of 1915, there arrived in Paris the Italian deputy Morgari, the secretary of the Socialist faction in the Rome Parliament, and a naive eclectic, who had come to secure the participation of French and English socialists in an international conference. (…) The organization of the conference was in the hands of the Berne socialist leader, Grimm, who was then trying his utmost to raise himself above the philistine level of his party, which was also his own inherent level. He had arranged to hold the meeting in a little village called Zimmerwald, high in the mountains and about ten kilometres distant from Berne. The delegates, filling four stage coaches, set off for the mountains. The passers-by looked on curiously at the strange procession. The delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches. But they were not sceptical. The thread of history often breaks then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing in Zimmerwald.
The days of the conference, September 5 to 8, were stormy ones. The revolutionary wing, led by Lenin, and the pacifist wing, which comprised the majority of the delegates, agreed with difficulty on a common manifesto of which I had prepared the draft.
The manifesto was far from saying all that it should have said, but, even so, it was a long step forward. Lenin was on the extreme left at the conference. In many questions he was in a minority of one, even within the Zimmerwald left wing, to which I did not formally belong, although I was close to it on all-important questions.
In Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action. In a Swiss mountain village, he was laying the cornerstone of the revolutionary International. (…) Liebknecht himself was not in Zimmerwald; he had been imprisoned in the Hohenzollern army before he became a captive in prison. Liebknecht sent a letter to the conference which proclaimed his abrupt about-face from pacifism to revolution. His name was mentioned on many occasions at the conference. It was already a watchword in the struggle that was rending world socialism.
The conference at Zimmerwald gave the development of the anti-war movement in many countries a powerful impetus. In Germany, the Spartacists expanded their activities. (…) The essentially unimportant differences that still separated me from Lenin at Zimmerwald dwindled into nothing during the next few months.”[5]
During the Conference, Lenin developed strong combat against centrists, despite being an evident minority (8 out of 38 delegates). He knew his proposal could not win the Conference, but he wanted to win the best cadres of the II International for his stand. Thus, Trotsky states, “In Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action”. And according to his own statement, himself was won, in the following months, for most of Lenin’s proposals.
Coherent with this policy, Lenin demanded that, along with the common Manifesto, a resolution should be presented by Radeck in the name of the “Zimmerwald Left-Wing”. It posed that “Rejection to the war credits, separation of the socialist ministers from the bourgeois administrations, the need to unmask the imperialist nature of this war in the parliamentary tribune, in the legal and, if necessary, illegal press columns, the organization of demonstrations against the governments, propaganda in the trenches in favour of international solidarity, protection of the economic strikes attempting to transform them into political strikes, civil war and not social peace.”
The Triumph of the Russian Revolution and the Outburst of the German Revolution
Since 1915, the situation began to change and mobilizations against the war in Scotland, Berlin, and Romania took place. The Bolsheviks’, Trotsky’s and Radek’s works for a new International progressed. Contacts were established in France, Sweden, the U.S. and Switzerland. However, the great leap forward took place with the triumph of the 1917 October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks showed that their politics was viable. As Rose Luxemburg said: “they dared”.
However, the Bolsheviks knew this was only the first step. Without the development of the world revolution, they would be under threat and the building of the III International was still the main task. So, in the midst of the challenges of power, peace signing, advancing in responding to hunger, and ending inequalities and oppression, they continued prioritizing the task of building the III International. They sent the best propagandist to diplomatic posts to develop this work in the countries that recognized the new revolutionary State. At the same time, they dedicated themselves to carrying out intense political work over the war prisoners of the Tsarist army. Out of this work, led by the Polish revolutionary Karl Radek, the Hungarian, Yugoslavian, Bulgarian and Czechoslovakian Communist groups emerged and became part of the foreign sections of the Bolshevik party. And, little by little, they returned to their countries to build and participate in the revolutionary processes exploding all over Europe.
Despite of these advancements, for Lenin the conditions were not ready yet to carry out the great task of founding the III International. All these groups were very small and very dependent on the Bolshevik party.
The outburst of the German revolution, in November 1918, opened the door for these conditions. In December of the same year, the Spartacus League of Rose Luxemburg joined the Internationalist Communists of Germany to found the German Communist Party. Lenin was waiting for that: “When the Spartacus League became the German Communist Party, the foundation of the III International, the Communist International, truly communist, truly international, became a fact. Formally, the III International is not yet consecrated, but the III International exists in reality from this moment on.” What Lenin did not know at the time is that the January 5 insurrection had taken place, and the two great leaders of the Communist party, Rose Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had been murdered.
January the 24th, the Pravda published the news of the murder and summoned an International Socialist Conference. The summons was signed by Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian Communist Party, the German Communist Party, the Finish Communist party, the Balkans Socialist Federation, the North American Socialist Workers’ Party, and the foreign bureau (in Russia) of the Polish, Hungarian, Austrian and Latvian Communist parties.
The Founding of the III International was not an easy task
March 2, 1919, in the midst of the civil war, Lenin opened the International Conference honouring the memory of Rose Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, “the best representatives of the III International.” The maximum expression of the importance of this meeting for the Bolsheviks is that Trotsky left the war front to participate in the Conference.
Many international delegates did not arrive or arrived late. A great part of the present delegations was part of the foreign sections of the Russian party. The parties which had an existence of their own – the German, Polish, Austrian and Hungarian – were very small unlike the Russian, which had 500 thousand members at the time. All of this supposedly made the foundation of the III International a mistake, because it was not representative enough to do so. However, we consider that history showed the opposite was true.
At this conference, which lasted from March 2 to 6, there was a report on the German revolution and the situation of the Russian state. Lenin’s resolution on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat was adopted, but the main point was the discussion on whether to found the III International, and it was a harsh debate.
The German delegate stood for Rose Luxemburg’s stand that it was not the time yet, that it would be very weak and the only strong party was the Russian one. One can wonder about the influence of the opinion of a great leader that was recently murdered. Zinoviev, one of the Bolsheviks’ great propagandists, answered:
“We should not work under the assumption that we are too weak; Rather let us be inspired by a great sense of strength and by the conviction that the immediate future belongs to the III International. If we work in that spirit, we will take this necessary step without wavering. After  careful consideration, therefore, our party recommends the immediate formation of the III International. That will show the whole world that we theoretically and organizationally armed.”[6]
March the 4th, with the abstention of the German delegate, the motion is passed and the III International is founded.
Reality showed how correct the Bolsheviks were. Days later, on March 21, the power was seized in Hungary, endorsing Lenin’s view on the revolutionary process in Europe. Before the Second Congress (1920), the Italian Socialist Party, the Norwegian Workers’ Party and the Socialist Left Hungarian Party joined the III International.
Four Congresses that Left Great Programmatic Foundations
The second congress (1920) took place in the midst of a great growth. From the influence of the Russian Revolution, parties of different countries broke with the II International and joined the III International. Mostly, they did so honestly but opportunist leaders who did not want to loose their rank-and-file followed this movement. That forced the III International leaders to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” and the second congress adopted the “21 Conditions of Admission to the Communist International”. The focus was on the struggle against reformism and the vindication of democratic centralism.
Most of the parties accepted the 21 conditions, but some, like the Italian, split and the minority remained affiliated to the III International. The great fact is that, in Germany, most of the independent social democratic party (USPD) joined the III International and merged with the German Communist Party giving origin to a great party, the Unified Communist Party of Germany.
During the Third and Fourth Congresses, the battle was against the ultra-leftist standings which refused to see that there was a setback in the class struggle situation. The struggle for power was not posed on the agenda but the struggle for the leadership of the working class was, and the tactic of the Workers’ United Front is adopted.
In synthesis, throughout these four years, from 1919 to 1922, new parties were integrated to the III International and several of them achieved mass influence. Along these four years, these four Congresses passed resolutions that are a programmatic reference and maintain their validity up to our days: on bourgeois democracy and the role of revolutionaries in Parliament; on the agrarian question; on trade unions; on methods, structure and action of the Communist parties; on women’s oppression; and on the national question.
However, this main organizational achievement of the world workers’ movement was lost. The combination of the defeat of the German revolution, Russia’s backwardness and Lenin’s death set the ground for the counter-revolutionary triumph of Stalin, who led the III International to degeneration and dissolution in 1943, meeting the request of the British imperialism.
The Need to Rebuild the International Party
Today, the world is more connected than ever, by the growing globalization of the economy, means of communication, the internet and social networks. Nevertheless, the workers do not have any organic unity. The struggles of the working class and the peoples of the world are equal in their objectives: against hunger, against unemployment, in defence of education and public health, against oppression of all sorts, and against repression. And all the workers face the same enemies: North American and European imperialism, which own the world and its agents, the national governments.
However, these combats are not coordinated; they do not protect nor help each other. Today, we do not have this great international tool that was built in the heat of the Russian revolution.
It is easy to imagine the reinforcement of the Palestinian struggle if there were a mass International that organized a world boycott of Israel; or what could be achieved if the teachers and students’ struggles of all Latin America were coordinated; or what it would represent for the workers’ struggles against the capitalist crisis, if the International could stop all automotive or oil multinationals every time any of them fired a worker in any country.
Without a doubt, the building of a revolutionary International Party is still a pivotal necessity. Workers achieved it with the Russian Revolution, and we lost it with the Stalinist counter-revolution. Trotsky attempted to recover it by building the Fourth International, but the IV International is not as powerful as the III International yet. On this subject of advances and setbacks, triumphs and defeats, Trotsky has a beautiful phrase that shows the path:
“The working class ascends drilling by itself a granite rock. Sometimes it slips some steps; sometimes the enemy dynamites the steps that have been drilled; sometimes it buries itself because the material is poor. After each fall we must stand; after each slip, we must raise again; each step destroyed must be replaced by two new ones.” [7]
Translation: Alejandra Ramírez
[1] Trotsky, Leon, The War and the International, Chapter XI – The Revolutionary Epoch
[2] Quoted by Pierre Broue, in the German Revolution
[3] Lenin, Vladimir, “The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International”
[4] Lenin, Vladimir, “Socialism and War”, Chapter III – The Restoration of the International
[5] Trotsky, Leon, “My Life”,  Chapter XIX – Paris and Zimmerwald
[6] The Communist International in Lenin’s Time, “Founding the Communist International, Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919, page 171, Anchor Foundation, 1987
[7] Trotsky, Leon, Writings 1933-1934, March 1934

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