Skip to content

100 Years Ago – How the Comintern was founded

February 24, 2019

An introduction to the founding congress and its proceedings: First of two parts. (See Part 2)

1WCBy John Riddell: One hundred years ago, revolutionary socialists from more than two dozen countries launched a global movement, the Communist International (Comintern).

The complete record of their March 2-6 congress in Moscow was published by Pathfinder in 1987 under my editorship in Founding the Communist International. It has recently been made available for US$35 in a handsomely redesigned new printing,[1] which includes my original introduction and the entire text from the 1987 edition.

However, as yet nothing from this edition is available online.[2] My present two-part commentary aims to provide an online guide to the Pathfinder edition and encourage its use. Many points in my present text are developed more fully in my introduction to the Pathfinder edition.[3]

The 51 delegates at the Comintern’s founding congress in 1919 represented, for the most part, revolutionary groupings that were still quite small and inexperienced. By contrast, the goal they set was ambitious: creating a global organization capable of leading workers and peasants in taking political power in countries around the world. They aimed to emulate the example set by the 1917 revolution in Russia, which had established, under leadership of the Bolshevik party, rule by workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils in the form of the Soviet government.

Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919, ed. John Riddell, New York: Pathfinder, 2012 (1987).

Lenin A

V.I. Lenin

Founding the Communist International, a complete record of the March 2-6, 1919, congress, includes a full stenographic text of its discussions, resolutions, and decisions, along with reports from more than 20 countries. The book was published as the third of a series of volumes documenting the Comintern’s evolution from the years preparatory to its foundation through to the end of 1923, that is, to the end of the period in which it was guided by the leadership assembled by V.I. Lenin. This series, now known as the Comintern Publishing Project, includes eight titles, totalling 7,500 pages, edited by myself and Mike Taber. These volumes are available from Pathfinder and Haymarket Books.

Early socialist Internationals

Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, the revolutionary workers’ movement has sought to build an international movement to promote and coordinate the worldwide struggle for socialism and liberation. The founding statement of this movement, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written in 1847 by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, concluded with an appeal that has resounded across time: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Proletarians of all countries, unite![4]

The Communist Manifesto served as the programmatic foundation of the Communist League, the first attempt to build such an international organization. Formed just before the wave of revolutions that shook Europe in 1848, the Communist League was dissolved in 1852 following on the defeat of this upsurge and the restabilization of the old ruling classes.

Twelve years later, Marx and Engels took part in launching the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA). They were its central leaders during its 12 years of existence. According to Lenin, in his April 1919 article, “The Third International and Its Place in History,” the IWMA, also known as the First International, “laid the foundation of the proletarian, international struggle for socialism.”[5]

The First International fell victim to a wave of reaction across Europe after the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871. In the years that followed, however, Socialist parties sprung up in many European countries. Many of these groups joined in 1889 in forming the Second or Socialist International. Lenin wrote in April 1919 that this International “marked a period in which the soil was prepared for the broad, mass spread of the movement in a number of countries.” But its growth, he continued, “proceeded in breadth, at the cost of a temporary drop in the revolutionary level, a temporary strengthening of opportunism, which in the end led to the disgraceful collapse of this International.”[6]

This “disgraceful collapse” took place at the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, when most of the International’s parties and leaders in the warring countries rallied behind their respective imperialist rulers in prosecuting the war effort.[7]

The Zimmerwald movement

This wave of national chauvinism was resisted by small socialist currents in many countries, whose representatives met in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, on September 5–8, 1915. Forty-two delegates adopted a manifesto rejecting “national defense” in the war and calling on workers to unite in struggle for peace, national liberation, and socialism. A coordinating movement was established, and further conferences were held.

The Zimmerwald Movement embraced socialists with a wide spectrum of views, including many “centrist” forces who sought to recreate the Second International together with the opportunist forces that had led it to ruin.

A current within this movement, the Zimmerwald Left, presented a revolutionary alternative to this centrist view and became the direct precursor of the Communist International.[8] The Zimmerwald Left sought, in Lenin’s words, to build “a proletarian International, freed from opportunism” that would “resolutely and irrevocably … rid itself of this bourgeois trend in socialism.”[9]

After the war’s end, the Zimmerwald movement divided between those seeking to rebuild the Second International and those committed to launching a new, revolutionary International. Leaders of the Zimmerwald Left submitted a statement and resolution to the Comintern founding congress that explained this evolution.[10]


Leon Trotsky

The founding congress encompassed, in addition to delegates from the Zimmerwald Left, some who had stood aside from this current, such as Leon Trotsky, who in 1917 led a significant current of Russian Marxists into the Bolshevik movement, and Hugo Eberlein, representing the Spartacus current in Germany whose outstanding leader was Rosa Luxemburg.

The Comintern emerged as a fusion of revolutionary forces from many divergent backgrounds. Among its early members were former adherents of the Left, Centre, and even (in the case of a few individuals) the Right in the Second International; the anarcho-syndicalists; and also revolutionary nationalist movements in the colonized countries.[11]

A tenuous balance 

During the 17 months following the 1917 October revolution, Europe had been shaken by a popular upsurge that toppled monarchies in Germany, Austria, and most of Eastern Europe and brought the World War to an abrupt end in November 1918. In Germany, councils of workers and soldiers swept away the monarchy and briefly held formal government authority, before being brutally repressed by rightist militias summoned by leaders of the largest workers’ party, the SPD. After a moment of panic, the old ruling classes regained tenuous control in Central Europe. In January 1919, the victors in the World War – Britain, France, the U.S., and their allies – met in Paris in a year-long conference to fashion the postwar capitalist order.

As the Comintern congress convened, a ring of counterrevolutionary forces – Russian White Guards and interventionist armies from Britain, France, the U.S., Germany, and their allies – drew increasingly tighter around Soviet-ruled territory. Their blockade made trade and travel across the Soviet borders almost impossible.

Meanwhile, forces in the workers’ movement that had supported their respective ruling classes in the war announced steps to reconstruct the collapsed Second International.

Preparatory steps

On December 24, 1918, the Russian Communist Party, leader of the Soviet state, broadcast a radio appeal written by Lenin to “communists of all countries,” to “rally around the revolutionary Third International.” The call declared that the new International “already exists and leads the world revolution.”[12]

Nonetheless, as the opportunist forces gathered for their February 1919 conference in Bern, Switzerland, the revolutionary wing of the workers’ movement still lacked an organizational form. As the 1920 Comintern congress noted, this wing consisted of “communist trends and groups” rather than “parties or organizations.”[13] While seeking to apply the central notions of Bolshevism, these currents had little knowledge of its program and strategy. The most consolidated and authoritative of these groups was the Spartacus League in Germany.

Eduard Fuchs

Eduard Fuchs

By fortunate coincidence, about two days after the radio appeal, a Spartacus emissary, Eduard Fuchs, arrived in Moscow, bearing a mandate from its most authoritative leader, Rosa Luxemburg. He gave Lenin the newly published program of the Spartacus group, reported that a Spartacus conference at year-end would unify it together with like-minded groups into a political party, and expressed to Lenin his general agreement with the conference proposal.

Lenin immediately wrote Georgiy Chicherin, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs who was then responsible for relations with revolutionaries abroad, proposing an immediate call for a conference to form the new, Third International. In reply, Chicherin expressed concerns that it was too soon to launch the new International – hesitations that foreshadowed the main debate in the founding congress.[14]

Given the prevailing turmoil and insecurity in western Europe, organizers reluctantly decided on Moscow as the Congress site, a choice that was sure to sharply reduce attendance from abroad.


Georgii Chicherin

When Fuchs delivered the Bolsheviks’ proposal to his Spartacus comrades in early January 1919, it did not meet with agreement from Luxemburg and other German party leaders. One of them, Hugo Eberlein, stated in 1924 that in Luxemburg’s view, although the new revolutionary International was “absolutely necessary …. the time to found it has not come,” for its existence was “dependent on that of several revolutionary parties in Western Europe.”[15]

In mid-January, the SPD-led German government launched a murderous assault on the workers of Berlin, in the course of which their forces assassinated Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Spartacists’ best-known leaders. Reeling from this staggering blow, leaders of the newly formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) nonetheless agreed to send Eberlein as their delegate to the Moscow conference, with instructions to insist that launching the new International be postponed. Given the blockade, there was no way to communicate this decision to Moscow prior to Eberlein’s arrival.

Congress call

On January 21, a meeting of about a dozen Communists from different countries resident in Russia issued a call, drafted principally by Trotsky, “to convoke the first congress of our new revolutionary International” in Moscow starting February 15.[16]

The call proposed that the new International’s platform be based on the recently published program of the Spartacus League in Germany along with that of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in Russia.

Point 13 of the call specified that in contrast to the Second International, which had collapsed so ignominiously in August 1914, the new International would have an effective central leadership, “an overall fighting body … that has permanent relations with the movement and gives it systematic leadership, subordinating the interests of the movement in each country to the common interests of the revolution on an international scale.”

In the call, the event was named, “First Congress of the Communist International,” with the following explanation:

The congress must take the name “First Congress of the Communist International,” while the various parties become its sections. Marx and Engels had already thought the name “social democratic” theoretically incorrect. Moreover, the shameful collapse of the Social Democratic “International” requires a dissociation. Finally, the fundamental core of the great movement is already constituted in a number of parties that have taken that name.[17]

The congress call invited 39 named groups, including seven Communist parties within the borders of the former tsarist empire. Another four CPs and 15 other groups on the list in central and western Europe had evolved from currents in the 1914 Second International that evolved to the left under the impact of the war crisis. The named currents ranged in size from a tiny nucleus in France to the Italian Socialist Party, a mass organization.

The list of invited group reflects an effort to draw a broad range of revolutionary currents into the new International. For the United States, for example, invitations were extended not only to the Socialist Propaganda League, which supported the Zimmerwald Left, but the broad left current led by Eugene V. Debs in the Socialist Party; the Socialist Labor Party, which held many sectarian positions; and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary syndicalist current.

The invitations to revolutionary workers’ groups outside Europe and the United States were limited to socialist currents in Japan represented by Sen Katayama and to the IWW in Australia. No group from colonized peoples outside Europe was listed. Drafters of the congress call still lacked the contacts needed to break from the Eurocentric pattern of earlier gatherings held by the Second International. In fact, however, a great transformation in world socialism, through which anti-imperialist freedom movements moved to the centre of the world class struggle, was already under way.

Revolution in colonized countries

The rise of such movements had begun in the decade before World War 1. Democratic revolutions under bourgeois leadership had broken out in Iran (1905), Ottoman Turkey (1908), Mexico (1910), and China (1911). The African National Congress in South Africa was formed in 1912. The Bolshevik movement in Russia hailed the rise of such struggles. In his 1913 article, “Backward Europe and Advanced Asia,” Lenin wrote that “Hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light and freedom. What delight this world movement is arousing in the hearts of all class-conscious workers.”[18]

Only eight days after workers and peasants in Russia took power in October 1917, the Soviet government proclaimed the right of all peoples in Russia to self-determination. On December 7, a Soviet appeal to “all toiling Muslims of Russia and the East” declared: “Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable…. You yourselves must be the masters in your own land.”[19] Large numbers of pro-Soviet revolutionary nationalist militants organized in the Socialist-Communist Muslim Party (March 1918), later known as the Russian Party of Muslim Communists (Bolsheviks) (June 1918), and then Central Bureau of Muslim Organizations of the Russian Communist Party (November 1918).

Delegates of the Central Bureau of Muslim Organizations at the founding congress were the vanguard of the much larger assembly of anti-colonial revolutionaries from Asia that attended the Comintern congresses the following year. The promise of creating a genuinely global movement with an agreed strategy for colonial freedom was fulfilled that year at the Second Comintern Congress and the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East.

Conference or congress?


Hugo Eberlein

The difficulties of travel experienced by delegates from outside Russia forced a two-week postponement. Even so, when the gathering convened on March 1, only two delegates were present from outside Russia, and neither of them felt able to vote in favour of constituting the International at that point. One of them, Emil Stang of Norway, said his party had not discussed the matter. The other, Eberlein from Germany, reported that his party had indeed taken a position, which was contrary to that of the congress organizers. He insisted that the gathering be merely preparatory in character – a “conference” and not a “congress.”

The Bolshevik leadership’s response was later described by Grigorii Zinoviev:

The representative of German Communism demanded almost as an ultimatum that we limit ourselves to meeting only as a conference and not proclaim ourselves a congress…. After studying the situation, the Central Committee of our party remained unshakably convinced that we must form the Third International immediately. But, at the same time, we said that with the German Communists opposed, and with them posing the question as an ultimatum, we could not permit even the slightest strain in our relations with the German Spartacists. Only yesterday they had suffered severe losses. So we said: even though they are wrong, we will retreat on this question. And a statement to this effect was made in the name of our party’s Central Committee.[20]

A preliminary meeting of delegates on March 1 therefore decided to convene the gathering not as a congress of the new International but – as Eberlein insisted – as a preparatory conference. The proceedings of the March 1 gathering are available in Founding the Communist International.[21] The conference convened at 6:10 p.m. the following day, March 2.

Profile of the delegates


Angelica Balabanoff

By the end of the gathering, 51 delegates registered, from 35 groups in 22 countries. Nine of them had recently arrived from seven countries outside Soviet territory – a trip that entailed significant danger, given the anti-Soviet blockade. A second delegate from Germany, Eugen Leviné, was arrested en route by German police; two others, Fritz Platten (Switzerland) and Karl Steinhardt (Austria), were jailed during their return journey. The Hungarian delegation was blocked on their journey by fighting in Ukraine.

Two delegates represented large workers’ parties outside Soviet territory that had been early supporters of the Zimmerwald Left: the Norwegian Labor Party, an affiliate of the pre-1914 Second International that had not split during the war; and the Left Social Democratic Party of Sweden, formed in 1917 by a minority expelled from the opportunist-led Swedish Social Democracy.

The Dutch Communist Rutgers, who arrived from the U.S. via Tokyo, represented an international current led by Anton Pannekoek and Hermann Gorter that had acted within the Zimmerwald Left as an ultraleft opposition to the Bolsheviks. Rutgers was given consultative vote for groups in both the U.S. and the Netherlands.

The voting delegate from the United States, Boris Reinstein, had arrived in Russia two years earlier with credentials from the Socialist Labour Party to help form a new International. The SLP never joined the Comintern, while Rutgers’ group became an important founding component of the U.S. Communist movement.

Zimmerwald Left groups in Swizerland, France, and Italy were represented respectively by Fritz Platten, Henri Guilbeaux, and Angelica Balabinoff. Platten had been a prominent figure in the Zimmerwald Left’s centre; Guilbeaux, who had spent the war in exile in Switzerland, represented a small group based in Paris; Balabinoff, a left-wing leader of the Italian party affiliated to the Second International, went to Russia and joined the Bolsheviks in 1917. During the Comintern’s first year, she acted as its secretary.

One major component of the Zimmerwald Left was not represented at the congress: the revolutionary forces led by Willi Münzenberg who held a majority in the Socialist Youth International.

A wide range of delegates came from groups of non-Russian Communists living within the Soviet republic. Some represented nationalities then under counterrevolutionary rule, like those from Ukraine and Poland. Others belonged to groups of Communists from abroad resident in Russia, like the Chinese and Korean delegates. The Czech delegate, Jaroslav Handlir, was among the many prisoners of war won to Communism while in Russia. A dozen represented colonized Asiatic peoples in Russia or on its southern border.

Other delegates represented six Communist Parties from nationalities within the old Tsarist borders (Ukraine, Lithuania/Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, German colonists) that were affiliated to the Russian CP. Each of these parties had separate structures and its own leadership body. These parties grappled with distinctive problems of the class struggle of their own nations, and their policies were by no means mere copies of those carried out in Russia. The Communist Party of Belarus and Lithuania, for example, which was leading a Soviet government in these regions at the time, applied policies on the national and agrarian and national questions similar to those advocated by Luxemburg, which the Bolsheviks had sharply criticized.[22]

The Bolsheviks’ role

The delegation of the Russian Communist Party, of course, carried the greatest authority. At a time of grave crisis in the Russian civil war, several of the party’s central leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and Grigorii Zinoviev, took part in the proceedings and gave major reports. Chicherin was the chief congress organizer. Joseph Stalin, Soviet commissar of nationalities, was listed as a delegate but seems not to have participated. Other leading Bolsheviks such as Alexandra Kollontai, Leon Kamenev, and Maxim Litvinov, were also present.

The Bolsheviks had made a strong call for immediate formation of the new International. They had then given way on this point, mainly under pressure of the German delegate. As the delegates met, the future of the new International remained quite uncertain.

The second part of this article will review events and decisions at the Moscow conference/congress.


[1]. John Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919, New York: Pathfinder, 2012 (1987), 600 pp. (original 1987 printing: 474 pp.). All five Pathfinder books on the Comintern are available in redesigned printings with different pagination from that found in the original version. In the present text, page references are given in these notes to both versions. In its listing of these books, Pathfinder now omits the name of the books’ editor, but the books themselves continue to include my name on the title page of the books themselves.

[2]. Early translations of the congress resolutions can be found on Marxists Internet Archive.

[3]. See Riddell, “Introduction,” in Founding, pp. 9-46 (2012 printing); pp. 1-27 (1987 printing). Among the many editions of the First Congress published in other languages, the most complete is Die Weltpartei aus Moskau, edited by Wladislaw Hedeler and Alexander Vatlin, published in 2008 by Akademie Verlag (Berlin).

[4]. These words are here translated from the original German text. The standard English text, approved by Engels, concludes with the words “Working men of all countries, unite!” The use of the word “men” to refer to all human beings, female or male, current in Engels’ time, has now gone out of usage. “Proletarians” signifies those without direct access to the means of production who sell their labour power to survive.

[5]. Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International, p. 53 (p. 32).

[6]. Riddell, ed., Founding, pp. 52-53 (p. 32).

[7]. Documents of socialist resistance to the Second International’s collapse between 1907 and 1916 are collected in the initial volume of the Comintern Publishing Project, Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, New York: Pathfinder, 2010 (1984), 940 pp. (604 pp.).

[8]. The transition from Zimmerwald to Comintern is documented extensively in Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle and The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, New York: Pathfinder, 2013 (1986), 772 pp. (540 pp.).

[9]. Riddell, ed., Founding, p. 13 (p. 4).

[10]. Riddell, ed., Founding, pp. 257-59 (pp. 182-3).

[11]. This fusion process is reflected in Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, New York: Pathfinder, 2013 (1991), 2 volumes, 1,455 pp. (1,147 pp.).

[12]. Riddell, ed., German Revolution, pp. 584-7 (pp. 441-3). Lenin had proposed in April 1917 that revolutionary Marxists cease using the name Social Democracy, which had been used by most parties of the Second International, and return to the name Communist, by which the first revolutionary workers’ party of 1847-52 had been known. The Russian Bolsheviks adopted this name in March 1918; the German Spartacus League, led by Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, did the same at the end of that year.

[13]. Riddell, ed., Workers of the World, vol. 2, p. 979 (p. 765).

[14]. Hedeler and Watlin (p. xxv) provides details on Chicherin’s response going beyond my account in Founding, p. 19 (p. 8).

[15]. Riddell, ed., Founding, p. 20 (p. 9). For additional comments on this issue by Eberlein and Heinrich Brandler, see Founding, p. 439 (p. 318), fn. 18.

[16]. For the congress call, see Riddell, ed., German Revolution, pp. 594-600 (pp. 447-52). Trotsky was stated to be the author of the Manifesto (354; 255) in The call’s inclusion in vol. 13 of the Russian edition of Leon Trotsky’s writings (1926) indicate that he was the main writer, although Hedeler and Vatlin show that a draft exists in Bukharin’s handwriting (p. xxix). For Lenin’s editing of Trotsky’s draft, see German Revolution, pp. 706-8 (pp. 469-70), n. 29.

[17]. Riddell, ed., German Revolution, p. 599 (p. 451).

[18]. Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle, 170-2 (p. 99).

[19]. Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East, New York: Pathfinder, 2010 (1993), pp. 279-85 (pp. 247-52). Although the vast majority of Asian people lived in majority-Muslim territories, a significant number were in majority-Christian or largely Buddhist regions.

[20]. Riddell, ed., Founding, pp. 25-26 (p. 13).

[21]. Riddell, ed., Founding, pp. 63-64 (pp. 39-40).

[22]. Among the many articles relevant to Luxemburg’s discussions with Bolshevik leaders, see Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” (1918); Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist” (1921), final section; Leon Trotsky, “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg” (1932.


  1. Dayne Goodwin permalink

    i think footnote #10 should be corrected to read pp. 182-3 in the original edition

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: