The Third International, or Communist International (Comintern), held its first Congress in Moscow in March 1919. The Soviet Republic was still defending itself against imperialist-backed counter-revolutionary forces. Under siege conditions, the Communist International elaborated the program, strategy and tactics for world revolution as a practical task confronting the international working class. Drawing on the tragic lessons of 1914, the Communist International was to be based on an uncompromising struggle against opportunism and revisionism, which had led to the demise of the Second International. On July 30, 1920, Trotsky introduced the Theses on the Conditions of Admission to the Communist International, which enumerated the so-called “21 Points” defining the terms of membership in the international revolutionary organization. Parties seeking membership in the Comintern would be obligated to “regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labor movement,” and recognize “the necessity of a complete break with reformism and ‘centrist’ politics...”
Trotsky explained that the Comintern was established as a “school of revolutionary strategy” that would oversee the development of new Communist Parties around the world, based on an understanding of the objective situation, the elaboration of correct tactics, and the fight against opportunism. He wrote, “The task of the working class—in Europe and throughout the world—consists in counterposing to the thoroughly thought-out counter-revolutionary strategy of the bourgeoisie its own revolutionary strategy, likewise thought out to the end. For this it is first of all necessary to understand that it will not be possible to overthrow the bourgeoisie automatically, mechanically, merely because it is condemned by history.”
At the end of World War I, the extension of revolution was an imminent possibility. In November 1918, the outbreak of revolution in Germany led quickly to the abdication of the Kaiser and the proclamation of a republic. Political power fell into the hands of the SPD, which did everything it could to strangle the revolution. In contradistinction to Russia 18 months earlier, there did not exist in Germany a developed political party tempered by years of intransigent struggle against revisionism and centrism. The left-wing opponents of the SPD had hesitated far too long in proceeding to a decisive organizational break with the Social-Democratic Party. A substantial faction of that opposition situated itself halfway between the SPD and Bolshevism. It was not until late December 1918 that the most revolutionary faction in Germany, the Spartacists, proceeded to found the Communist Party. Then, in January 1919, with little preparation and with no strategic plan, an insurrection broke out in Berlin. The SPD regime mobilized right-wing shock troops to suppress the uprising and sanctioned the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Further defeats of the insurgent working class in Europe followed. In March 1921, a premature and ill-prepared insurrection was suppressed by the German state. At the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, Lenin and Trotsky intervened decisively against “ultra-leftism.” Communist parties, they insisted, could not conquer power without first winning the support of the masses. A pamphlet written by Lenin, entitled “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder, was distributed to the Congress delegates. It pointed out that the Bolshevik Party developed in struggle not only against Menshevism, but also “against petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism, or borrows something from the latter and, in all essential matters, does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle.”
Lenin explained that the Bolshevik victory in October 1917 would not have been possible if the revolutionary party had not previously engaged in, and mastered, many forms of political struggle. He refuted radical shibboleths that rejected, under all conditions, political compromises, denied the legitimacy of engaging in electoral and parliamentary activity, and declared it impermissible to work inside reactionary trade unions. The Third Congress counseled Communist parties to prepare for a more prolonged period in which they would have to win over the allegiance of the working class. Among the tactical initiatives encouraged by Lenin and Trotsky was the utilization of the demand for a “united front” of mass working class organizations. The purpose of the “united front” was to organize the defense of the working class, or to undertake the struggle for important demands in a manner that demonstrated to the masses both the revolutionary initiative of the Communist parties and the perfidy of the Social Democrats. The aim of the united front was not to declare a political amnesty and refrain from criticizing political opponents. Rather, the tactic sought to realize the objective need of the working class for unity in struggle, while at the same time raising its political consciousness by exposing its opportunist leaderships.
The shift in political course implemented at the Third Congress brought substantial gains. Especially in Germany, the authority of the Communist Party increased significantly. But in early 1923, the political situation changed dramatically. The devastating collapse of the German economy in the early spring, followed by unprecedented inflation, set into motion a process that seemed to be leading inexorably to the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state. The membership of the discredited SPD melted away, while that of the Communist Party (the KPD) grew rapidly. By October 1923 the conditions for a successful revolution appeared extraordinarily favorable. A date was set for the insurrection, October 25—the sixth anniversary of the Soviet revolution. Then, at the last moment, Heinrich Brandler, the leader of the KPD, cancelled the scheduled insurrection. State forces quickly suppressed isolated insurgent activity in cities where local leaders had not learned of the decision to call the insurrection off. Instead of a socialist revolution, the German October ended in a political fiasco.
For Trotsky, the failure of the German Revolution in 1923 was a demonstration in the negative of the supreme political truth: given the existence of the necessary objective conditions for revolution, the subjective factor of leadership assumes decisive significance in the struggle for power. Moreover, he noted that historical experience had demonstrated that the transition to the struggle for power invariably provokes within the revolutionary party a severe political crisis. Such crises have immense significance; and how they are resolved is likely to determine the fate of the revolution for years, if not decades. Trotsky wrote:
A revolutionary party is subjected to the pressure of other political forces. At every given stage of its development the party elaborates its own methods of counteracting and resisting this pressure. During a tactical turn and the resulting internal regroupments and frictions, the party’s power of resistance becomes weakened. From this the possibility always arises that the internal groupings in the party, which originate from the necessity of a turn in tactics, may develop far beyond the original controversial points of departure and serve as a support for various class tendencies. To put the case more plainly: the party that does not keep step with the historical tasks of its own class becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes.
Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International [London: Inks Links, 1980] pp. 93-94.
The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London: New Park, 1974), p. 7.
“Left-Wing” Communism - An Infantile Disorder, in: V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), p. 32.
“Lessons of October,” in: Challenge of the Left Opposition, pp. 228-29.