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Part 2: Introduction to ‘The Communist International at a Crossroads’

May 12, 2020

Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum (June 1922) 

Second installment of the Introduction to “The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923,” by Mike Taber. Available from Haymarket Books.

The Third Enlarged ECCI Plenum of 12–23 June 1923 was in several ways a contradictory meeting – more so for what it did not discuss than for what it did.

Three months earlier, Lenin had suffered a devastating stroke that left him incapacitated and ended his political life. Indeed, by mid-1923 elements of the post-Lenin Stalinist degeneration had already begun to appear in the Soviet Union. As will be described later in this introduction, this question was not discussed at the plenum, which also largely passed over the approaching revolutionary crisis in Germany.

Introduction to ‘The Communist International at a Crossroads’

Despite these negative signs, however, the Third Enlarged Plenum was nevertheless in general continuity with the first four Comintern congresses and the first two enlarged plenums, making important contributions to the Comintern’s political legacy in several key areas. For these reasons, the Third Enlarged Plenum deserves to be categorised as a legitimate part of the Lenin-era Comintern.

Political Background 

Growth of Communist Movement

By June 1923, the Comintern’s united-front efforts had resulted in substantial gains for the Communist movement in several countries, above all Germany. This progress was reflected in a relative decline in the strength of its Social- Democratic opponents.

The centrist Two-and-a-Half International, which had initiated the Berlin Conference discussed earlier, had been formed in February 1921 as an alternative to the Communist International, and had garnered a significant amount of support from proletarian militants who were discouraged by the split in the workers’ movement and desired unity. Among these layers, the Comintern’s united-front efforts had made a significant impact, undercutting support for the Two-and-a-Half International. As a result, the centrist International was left with little alternative but to reunite with the reformist Second International. It did so at a May 1923 congress in Hamburg, Germany, held several weeks prior to the Third Enlarged Plenum.

The declining attraction of Social Democracy among working-class activists was paralleled by a growing appreciation for the Communist movement, which was increasingly seen as the champion of proletarian unity.

But gains from the united-front policy were perhaps felt most strongly in the trade-union movement. Working-class sentiment for united action to fight the capitalist offensive was such that two of the Amsterdam International’s union federations felt pressured to respond favourably to the united-front initiatives of the Red International of Labour Unions. In May 1923 united-front agreements were reached between Communist-led union forces and the Amsterdam International’s metalworkers and transport workers’ federations.

World Political Situation 

The world political situation that confronted the Third Enlarged Plenum in June 1923 was one of intensifying crisis.

On 11 January 1923, the Ruhr region in Germany was invaded by sixty thousand French and Belgian troops, who occupied the area in an attempt to exact war reparations. That invasion and occupation exacerbated the social crisis within Germany.

The Ruhr invasion also increased tensions among the imperialist powers, particularly the rivalry between Britain and France. ‘What has taken place in the last six months in the Ruhr,’ Radek reported to the Third Enlarged Plenum, ‘shows not only that the international bourgeoisie is incapable of rebuilding the capitalist world economy, but the bourgeoisies of the individual countries are incapable of subordinating their specific interests to the common interests they all share.’[1]

Karl Radek

Another theme of Radek’s world political situation report was the danger facing Soviet Russia. A month earlier, the British government had sent an ultimatum to the Soviet republic signed by its foreign secretary, Lord Curzon. The ultimatum demanded that the Soviets recall their diplomatic representatives from Iran and Afghanistan, apologise for anti-British acts, reduce maritime limits around its borders, and other things. The note threatened to cancel the British-Soviet trade agreement of 1921 unless these demands were met, with an implicit threat of war.

One other feature of the world situation in 1923 that clearly showed the unfolding crisis was the growth of rightist movements throughout Europe. In line with this, one of the biggest contributions of the Third Enlarged Plenum was its discussion of fascism.


Italian fascism arose as a reaction to the rising proletarian movement in Italy, and to that movement’s inability to utilise the country’s social crisis to lead the working class toward the seizure of power. The achievement of proletarian rule in Italy had in fact been sharply posed during a September 1920 wave of factory occupations that had rocked the country. But that promising revolutionary opportunity was lost when the Italian Socialist Party – then a member of the Comintern – and the main trade union federation under its influence refused to see this month-long movement as anything more than a simple trade-union battle. In the wake of this failure, fascist forces led by Benito Mussolini escalated their attacks on the working class and its organisations, receiving increasing backing from Italian capitalists. At the end of October 1922, the fascists were able to take power, with Mussolini becoming prime minister of Italy.

Fascist movements were on the rise in other European countries, too, the strongest being in Germany. Fascist-type formations also sprang up in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and elsewhere.

The Fourth World Congress had heard a report on fascism by Italian CP leader Amadeo Bordiga. While that report included some useful observations about the fascist movement in Italy, its attempt to analyse the fascist phenomenon in general was nonetheless inadequate and schematic. In essence, Bordiga stated, there was little substantive difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy, and he predicted that fascism was unlikely to last long. Moreover, Bordiga provided little perspective on how the working class could conduct a struggle against fascism. That deficiency was not Bordiga’s alone; the fight against fascism received scant attention in Zinoviev’s main report to the Fourth Congress.

Only on the second-to-last day of the congress did Zinoviev say that Communists should unite with non-Communist forces in the struggle against fascism.[2]

It was an important first step, nevertheless. On 3 January 1923, the ECCI issued an appeal calling for an international united front against fascism. In line with this, an International Provisional Committee against Fascism was formed, chaired by Clara Zetkin.

Zetkin Report and Resolution 

Klara Zetkin

Given the inadequacy of the Fourth Congress analysis of fascism, the clarity of Clara Zetkin’s report to the Third Enlarged Plenum is all the more remarkable. In fact, this plenum should be recognised as the site of the first major discussion in the international Marxist movement on the causes and nature of fascism.

Zetkin’s analysis included the following key elements:

– Fascism’s emergence is inextricably tied to the crisis of capitalism and the decline of its institutions. This crisis is characterised by escalating attacks on the working class, and by middle layers of society being increasingly squeezed and driven down into the proletariat.

– The rise of fascism is based on the proletariat’s failure to resolve capitalism’s social crisis by taking power and beginning to reorganise society. This failure breeds demoralisation among workers and among the forces within society that had looked to the proletariat and socialism as a way out of the crisis.

  • Fascism possesses a mass character, with special appeal to petty-bourgeois layers threatened by the decline of the capitalist social order. To win support from these layers, fascism makes use of anti-capitalist demagogy.
  • Fascist ideology elevates nation and state above all class contradictions and class interests.
  • A major characteristic of fascism is the use of organised violence by antiworking- class shock troops, aiming to crush all independent proletarian organisation.
  • At a certain point important sections of the capitalist class begin to support and finance the fascist movement, seeing it as a way to counter the threat of proletarian revolution.
  • Once in power, fascism tends to become bureaucratised, and moves away from its demagogic appeals, leading to a resurgence of class contradictions and class struggle.
  • Workers’ self-defence is crucial in order to confront the fascist terror campaign. Above all, this includes organised workers’ defence guards to combat fascist attacks.
  • United-front action to combat fascism is essential, involving all working-class organisations and currents, regardless of political differences.
  • In addition to combating fascism physically when necessary to defend itself, the working class needs to combat fascism’s mass appeal politically, making special efforts among middle-class layers.

These basic ideas can all be found in Trotsky’s later writings on the rise of fascism in Germany, which are better known. While Trotsky has been widely credited with being the originator of a Marxist theory of fascism,[3] many of the points he raised can be found in this 1923 discussion.

Zetkin’s report and resolution also contrasts sharply with the analysis of fascism put forward subsequently by the Comintern under Stalin. There were two such Stalinist approaches, equally erroneous:

  1. ‘Social Fascism’

Adopted during the Comintern’s ultraleft ‘Third Period’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the thrust of this view was to equate Social Democracy and fascism, thereby justifying the German Communist Party’s refusal to seek a united front with the powerful Social-Democratic Party in the fight against the Nazis. Had such a united front been organised, it would have had the support of the overwhelming majority of working people in Germany and would almost certainly have been powerful enough to counter the Nazis. The adamant refusal to seek such united action by both the KPD and the SPD leaderships can rightly be said to have opened the road to Hitler’s assumption of power.

  1. ‘Popular Frontism’

This view was first fully presented in a report by Georgy Dimitrov to the Seventh Congress of the by-then fully Stalinised Comintern in 1935. Fascism, Dimitrov stated, was ‘the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital’. It ‘acts in the interests of the extreme imperialists’, ‘the most reactionary circles of the bourgeoisie’.[4]

Based on this analysis, the task of Communists was to form blocs – ‘popular fronts’ – with supposedly less reactionary, less chauvinistic, and less imperialist sections of the bourgeoisie – its ‘anti-fascist wing’ – and to subordinate independent working-class struggle and political action to this objective. In practice such an approach meant that Stalinist parties opposed all independent proletarian revolutionary action in general, seeing this as an obstacle to the projected popular front.[5] Such a perspective also became the justification for giving back-handed support to ‘anti-fascist’ capitalist politicians such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US, under the guise that his Republican opposition represented ‘the chief menace of fascism’.[6]

The ‘Schlageter Speech’ 

To the extent that the discussion on fascism at the Third Enlarged Plenum has been studied, much of the attention centres not on Zetkin’s report or the resolution she authored, but on Karl Radek’s ‘Schlageter speech’ given during the discussion.[7]

Albert Leo Schlageter was a member of the right-wing Freikorps troops involved in carrying out sabotage actions against French occupation forces in the Ruhr. Captured by French troops and charged with blowing up the railway near Düsseldorf, he was executed on 26 May 1923. The Nazis and other rightist forces treated him as a martyr.

Characterising Schlageter as ‘our class opponent’ and a ‘courageous soldier of the counterrevolution’, Karl Radek’s speech to the plenum was a somewhat lyrical attempt to discuss the motives that led Schlageter to join the fascist forces. By doing so, Radek pointed to fascism’s nationalist appeal to the petty-bourgeois masses, as well as to sections of the working class.

[W]e believe that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not in the camp of the capitalists but in that of the workers. We want to find the road to these masses, and we will do so. We will do everything in our power to make men like Schlageter … not spill their eager, unselfish blood for the profit of the coal and iron barons, but in the cause of the great toiling German people, which is a member of the family of peoples fighting for their emancipation.

Radek’s speech was not an individual flight of fancy. As he reported to the Comintern’s Fifth Congress a year later, he had been assigned to deliver it by the ECCI leadership. ‘The Schlageter speech’, he said, ‘was given at the [Third] Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee with the agreement – not just silent but written – of the chairman of the Executive Committee [Zinoviev].’[8]

Following the speech, it was widely claimed that Radek was proposing a rapprochement with fascism. The Social-Democratic Party was especially insistent about this claim. Its central organ Vorwärts published an article entitled ‘The New National Hero: Radek Extols Schlageter’.[9] The Social Democrats spoke of the ‘collusion of the Communist and fascist leaders’. Even Ruth Fischer, a leader of the leftist faction in the KPD at the time, subsequently accepted this interpretation, stating that Radek had ‘openly proposed a united front’ with the German nationalists.[10]

Radek decisively rejected this claim, however. In an article printed in Inprecorr, he reminded readers that he had specifically referred to the Nazis as the workers’ ‘class opponent’. He then spoke of the underlying reason for the speech:

Fascism is a political movement embracing wide masses of the proletarianised petty bourgeoisie. And if we are to combat it, we must combat it politically. It is only possible to combat fascism politically, by first opening the eyes of the broad, suffering masses of the petty bourgeoisie to the fact that their justifiable feelings are being taken advantage of by capital, which is to blame, not only for their economic misery but also for the national misery of Germany. … The Communist Party must be capable of awakening in the petty bourgeois masses the great and holy faith in the possibility of overcoming misery, of awakening the conviction that petty bourgeoisie and working class in cooperation are able to overcome misery, and to create the foundations for a new life in Germany.[11]

KPD’s ‘Schlageter Line’

Coming out of the Third Enlarged Plenum, the German Communist Party organised a campaign of joint discussion meetings and public debates with fascist and Nazi forces, which took place over the course of July and August 1923.

Communist speakers addressed nationalist audiences in meetings held at universities.[12] In her memoirs, then-KPD leader Ruth Fischer stated that ‘Communists built up small groups in which nationalists and socialists met to discuss the necessity of a united German front against France.’ Fischer recounted that in one such meeting Hermann Remmele, a Communist Reichstag deputy, spoke at a meeting in Stuttgart and, according to a report in Die Rote Fahne, ‘was greeted by “enthusiastic applause from fascists and workers”. Communist speakers declared, “The time is not far off when the Völkische [Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi newspaper] and the Communists will be united.”’[13]

According to Pierre Broué, ‘Communist orators sometimes let themselves get carried away in their desire to please their audiences and made dangerous concessions to them.’ The Social Democrats even accused the KPD of having made anti-Semitic statements, referring specifically to Fischer.[14] No convincing evidence for this assertion has been provided, Broué insists. Fischer herself vociferously denied the charge.[15]

Despite claims that the Schlageter line aimed to achieve a united front of Communists and Nationalists,[16] no credible evidence has been supplied that such a goal was ever a serious aim of the KPD leadership at the time.

This assertion could possibly be made with a view toward the subsequent de-facto bloc of the by-then Stalinised Communist Party with the Nazis in the so-called ‘Red Referendum’ of 1931.[17] But no convincing evidence has been provided of any effort at a ‘united front’ between the Communists and Nazis in 1923.

Radek’s Schlageter speech and the KPD’s ‘Schlageter line’ were meant to open the eyes of the Communist movement to fascism’s appeal to the petty bourgeoisie, and to sections of the working class. To that extent, the line involved no violation of Communist principle and fulfilled a political need.[18] Nor could there be a principled objection, in and of itself, to debating with these forces and appealing to their supporters. Moreover, the initiative was taken at a time of significant uncertainty and vacillation in the nationalist ranks.

The experience of the anti-fascist struggle over the last century, however, raises two important considerations concerning the suitability of such initiatives in the future:

  1. The real and significant danger of political adaptation to rightist and fascist forces cannot be ignored, including the prospect of individuals and currents in the working-class movement crossing over entirely to the class enemy. Such was the case in Italy – with Mussolini himself as well as other forces in the Communist movement (Nicola Bombacci). The same phenomena took place in Germany, where one wing of the National Bolshevik tendency within the leftist Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD) wound up in the camp of the Nazi movement. Experience has shown that the anti-capitalist and often anti-Semitic demagogy of fascist and ultra-right forces can become attractive to sectors of the workers’ movement.[19]
  2. The most effective way for the working class to educate and win over those attracted to fascism is not primarily through political appeals to its supporters or attempts to debate them, but rather by showing the proletariat’s absolute determination to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie and resolve capitalism’s social crisis. In doing so, organised countermobilisation and self-defence by the working class and its allies in response to fascist threats can be seen as an effective educational tool.

Workers’ Government 

In the Comintern’s discussions of 1922 and 1923, the united front was seen as integrally tied to the demand for a workers’ government. As stated by a resolution of the Fourth Congress: ‘The slogan of the workers’ government flows unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic.’[20]

The issue of the workers’ government, which originally arose out of the experience of the German workers’ movement, was a key point of discussion at the Fourth Congress.[21] It was also an important theme of Zinoviev’s main report to the Third Enlarged Plenum, focusing on two aspects:

1. The Centrality of the Governmental Question 

One of the contributions of the Comintern in 1922 and 1923 was on the central place of the governmental demand in a Communist party’s programme. ‘The slogan of the workers’ government,’ Zinoviev reported to the plenum, ‘serves as a link between our programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the small demands around which we can now mobilise the masses.’[22]

Along these lines, Zinoviev’s report to the Third Enlarged Plenum pointed to how the Communists’ governmental demand separated them from the Social- Democratic tradition.

In order to understand the psychological essence of the [Communist] parties … you must take into account that these parties do not yet feel themselves to be striving to win the majority in their countries. They are not yet parties struggling for power and for leadership of the state. So far, most of our parties still have the psychology of merely an oppositional workers’ party in the framework of bourgeois society, a party that does not feel itself to be a leading force, the bearer of hegemony, which has set out to win the majority of the people, to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and to replace it in a leadership role. …

We must awaken the will to power in our parties. We must make them into parties aware in their every move of their task to overcome the bourgeoisie. Our parties are the vanguard of the working class. Imbued with the will to power, this vanguard will transmit this commitment to the broad layers of workers in their millions. And when millions and millions of proletarians are imbued with this will to power, victory will no longer be so difficult.[23]

The ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ Slogan

The Fourth Congress had raised the possibility of a ‘government of workers and the poorer peasants’ in ‘the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, and so on’.[24] The Third Enlarged Plenum applied this concept more broadly, reformulating the workers’ government slogan into that of a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’, pointing to the class alliances necessary for the proletariat in its fight for power.

Speakers in the discussion referred to the experience of the Bolsheviks in the years prior to the 1917 revolution, in which Lenin had outlined the class alliances necessary for the coming revolution, presenting an algebraic formula based on this necessary alliance, since, as Lenin said, ‘politics is more like algebra than arithmetic.’[25] In line with this perspective, the Third Enlarged Plenum’s resolution on the workers’ and peasants’ government stated:

The ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan is a propagandistic formula that enables us to express arithmetically what was previously expressed only algebraically. As such, it can be universally helpful.[26]

As Radek told the plenum, ‘The Bolshevik Party was very early in orienting to the peasants, but only in the slogan of the 1905 revolution, for a coalition with the peasants, did this assume great significance.’

Mention was made of how following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had made an alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries – a party based on peasant support, which was part of the government that had held power in Soviet Russia until mid-1918. As Trotsky put it at the Fourth Congress, the Left SRs ‘represented the peasantry in the workers’ government’.[27]

The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan also figured prominently in the discussion on fascism at the Third Enlarged Plenum, where it was presented as a way to combat fascism’s mass appeal to petty-bourgeois layers. And it played a prominent part in the plenum’s assessment of events in Bulgaria.[28]

Bulgaria Coup 

On the eve of the June 1923 Enlarged Plenum, a right-wing coup in Bulgaria overthrew the government headed by radical Peasant Party leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski, sparking armed resistance by Peasant Party supporters.

The Communist Party of Bulgaria had the support of the overwhelming majority of the working class of the country, dwarfing the Social-Democratic party, with dominance in the trade unions and among working-class deputies in parliament. Within the Comintern, the Bulgarian CP had often been pointed to as a model party.

But during the coup, the party failed the test. Rather than opposing the rightwing governmental seizure and seeing it as an attack on the working class and peasantry as a whole, the CP took a neutral stance, presenting the coup as an internecine struggle within the bourgeoisie that workers had no stake in. During the days of the coup, the Bulgarian party repeatedly defended this stance of neutrality.

The coup and the CP’s failure was the subject of a report by Radek given to the last session of the Third Enlarged Plenum. Radek’s report subjected the Bulgarian CP and its leadership to withering criticism, focusing on ‘the absence of a will to struggle’ within the party going back years. ‘It accomplished wonders in the sphere of propaganda and organisation, but at a historic moment it was not able to carry out the transition from agitation and opposition to the deed, to action.’ Much of the report was centred on the question of the Executive Committee’s degree of responsibility, given Radek’s description of the longstanding nature of the Bulgarian CP’s problems. Radek denied any ECCI responsibility for the Bulgarian party’s stance.

In contrast to the approach of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Radek cited the example of the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the attempted coup by General Lavr Kornilov against the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky. Although the Bolsheviks were opponents of Kerensky, who had persecuted them fiercely, they nevertheless helped organise the successful resistance to Kornilov.

After Radek’s report, the meeting adopted an appeal that urged Bulgarian toilers to ‘Unite in struggle against the white putsch not only with the broad peasant masses but with the surviving leaders of the Peasant Party.’ And it called for ‘a common struggle for a workers’ and peasants’ government’.[29]

National Question in Germany

Prior to 1871 Germany was divided into more than a score of independent states and principalities, with feudal remnants abounding. In that context the developing revolutionary workers’ movement supported the fight for German unification as part of an advancing democratic revolution, which it viewed as a prelude to the fight for socialism.

When German unification was largely achieved in 1871, however, power was in the hands of the dynastic Prussian regime of Otto von Bismarck, laying the groundwork for a modern bourgeois and imperialist state. For the German Social-Democratic Party, German unification then ceased being a burning question. The unification left outside the country a large German population in Austria-Hungary plus small minorities elsewhere.

During World War I, Germany had been at the head of one of the rival groups of imperialist powers. Even though the German government and other supporters of the war publicly declared that it was being waged in defence of Germany’s national interests, Lenin had dismissed this claim in his attack on the German Social Democracy’s support for the war. This same basic stance guided the position of the early Comintern toward the ‘national question’ in advanced capitalist countries.

In the context of the Versailles Treaty’s demands on Germany and the occupation of the Ruhr, however, the national question began to find a deep resonance in German society that could not simply be ignored by the Communist movement.

In his ECCI report to the Third Enlarged Plenum, Zinoviev stated that ‘we Communists are against the bourgeois fatherland, but if we achieve a socialist government, we will defend this socialist fatherland.’ This view was echoed by Radek in the discussion, presenting the perspective that ‘salvation is to be found only through the Communists. We represent today the only road forward. Strong emphasis on the nation in Germany today is a revolutionary act.’[30]

This question became the subject of debate between the rival factions in the KPD. The debate originated around an article written by August Thalheimer, a leader of the party majority, which stated:

The German bourgeoisie, however counterrevolutionary it is in its essence, has been brought by the cowardice of the petty-bourgeois democracy (above all the Social Democrats) into a situation where it can act externally in an objectively revolutionary fashion. It is externally revolutionary (at least for a time) against its own will, as was the case with Bismarck from 1864 to 1870, and for analogous historical reasons.[31]

The leftist faction in the KPD vociferously opposed this view. At the Third Enlarged Plenum, Alois Neurath, a leader of the Czechoslovak party who supported the KPD minority, criticised Thalheimer’s viewpoint as a concession to social patriotism. The ‘broad masses of petty-bourgeois proletarian layers’, he stated, will not be won ‘if we try to compete with the German nationalists. Instead, we must always emphasise in this critical situation our intransigent internationalism.’[32]

While not endorsing all of Thalheimer’s conclusions and formulations, Radek responded to Neurath’s argument:

Comrade Neurath says that Germany is being flooded by a tide of nationalism, which we must combat rather than adapting to it. The party has not adapted in the slightest; it sharply combats nationalism. The German party has not overlooked an important fact neglected by Comrade Neurath, namely the difference between nationalism and the revolutionary national interests of Germany, which at present coincide with the revolutionary national interests of the proletariat.[33]

‘Limits of Centralism’ 

Another point on the agenda at the Third Enlarged Plenum was a report by Bukharin on ‘the limits of centralism in the Comintern’.

The Comintern and Centralism 

The question of centralism was not a new one for the Communist International.

The Second International had never claimed to be centralist in nature, functioning largely as a ‘mailbox’, as it was characterised by the Comintern’s Second Congress.[34] The resolutions adopted at the Second International’s congresses had only moral weight, with no mechanism to assure their implementation by the different parties.[35]

The consequences of that type of functioning were brought into sharp relief during the First World War. Despite all the resolutions passed at earlier international congresses to oppose imperialist war and support the struggle against it, the main parties of the Second International lined up, one after another, to support the war efforts of their respective capitalist classes.

The hypocrisy of international Social Democracy left a deep mark on revolutionary- minded workers and youth. What these militants aspired to was something completely different: an international movement that did what it said it would do, with no gap between word and deed.

When the Communist International was formed in 1919, the new movement made a sharp break with the decentralised structure of the Second International. Instead, it set out to build an instrument to fight the centralised power of the bourgeoisie, making this a key part of its Statutes: The Communist International knows that in order to achieve victory more rapidly, the international workers’ association that fights to destroy capitalism and create communism must have a strictly centralised organisation.

The Communist International must be, truly and in fact, a united Communist party of the whole world. The parties that work in each country are only its individual sections. The organisational apparatus of the Communist International must guarantee the workers of every country that at any given moment they will receive maximum assistance from the organised proletarians of other countries.[36]

To carry out this centralisation, the Comintern created a leadership body – the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). The Statutes defined the ECCI’s functions as follows:

[The Executive Committee directs all the activities of the Communist International from one congress to the next, publishes the central organ of the Communist International (the magazine Communist International) in at least four languages, issues in the name of the Communist International such appeals as are required, and issues directives binding on all organisations and parties belonging to the Communist International. The Executive Committee of the Communist International has the authority to demand of its member parties the expulsion of groups or individuals that breach international discipline, as well as the authority to expel from the Communist International any party that contravenes the resolutions of the world congress. Such parties have the right to appeal to the world congress. As necessary, the Executive Committee organises in different countries technical and other auxiliary bureaus, which are strictly subordinate to the Executive Committee. Executive Committee representatives discharge their political duties in the closest possible communication with the party leaderships of their respective countries.[37]

Nevertheless, in outlining international centralism, the Twenty-One Conditions for Admission to the Comintern adopted by the Second Congress made a point of stating international centralism’s limits:

[I]n all their activity, the Communist International and its Executive Committee must take into account the diverse conditions under which each party has to struggle and work, adopting universally binding decisions only on questions in which such decisions are possible.[38]

Respect for the specific conditions facing each party was the general practice in the Communist International’s first years. During this time, the ECCI was judicious about issuing directives and orders, focusing on political collaboration with the Comintern’s national sections. Zinoviev referred to this general practice at the Third World Congress in 1921:

An attempt has been made to claim that we impose a dreadful pressure, a dreadful centralism. The opposite is true. Our organisation has been far too loose. We are well aware that many important questions are of such a nature that they must be resolved by the parties directly concerned, in the framework of national conditions. We have thoughtlessly proposed slogans to resolve on an international level issues that are inherently capable of resolution only on a national level.

However, there are issues where international guidelines must be established. We must have a much more centralised organisation, and we must build connections that are much tighter and more effective than has previously been the case.[39]

Returning to this question at the Third Enlarged Plenum, Zinoviev stated:

[T]he Communist International is really beginning to become a unified Communist world party. What does that mean – a world party? It absolutely does not mean, as a few scattered comrades suppose, the liquidation of our national parties. No, it means only that at moments when history demands truly international action … the Communist International will bring its parties together and direct their energies in a manner consistent with the demands of the international struggle.

ECCI’s Role 

At the Third Enlarged Plenum, there was some discussion of the ECCI’s role and its collaboration with individual sections.

Much of the ECCI’s work in the 1919–23 period was devoted to providing collaborative advice and assistance to individual member parties. As mentioned at the Third Enlarged Plenum, such collaboration included:

  • Coordinating international campaigns. These included actions in support of Soviet Russia, the defence of political prisoners, and the united-front effort.
  • Working for unification of Communist forces (US, Austria, Italy, etc.).
  • Convincing parties to fight for legalisation (US, Japan).
  • Helping parties to ease inner-party conflicts and restore collaborative relations between warring factions (Germany, Denmark, etc.).
  • Encouraging small parties’ involvement in working-class struggles (Britain, Switzerland, etc.).

One of the activities of the ECCI that engendered occasional criticism from Communist parties concerned the practice of sending envoys to the various sections.

Many ECCI emissaries provided valuable and universally welcomed assistance, particularly in facilitating the unification of Communist groups and currents and in winning forces from the Social Democracy to Communism. Among the most outstanding examples of such efforts was Zinoviev’s October 1920 trip to Germany, during which he helped win the majority of the German USPD to the Comintern, in the process creating a mass Communist party. Similarly, Zetkin’s December 1920 trip to France to attend the congress of the French Socialist Party, at which she helped convince the majority of that party to join the Comintern, was widely praised.[40]

The impact of other emissaries, however, was not as positive. Negative outcomes of such missions were a special risk in cases where envoys sought to impose tactical policies, based on insufficient knowledge of the local situation and compounded by their own lack of political experience and judgment. The most notorious example was that of the Comintern envoys sent to Germany in March 1921, who helped instigate the March Action of 1921.[41]

Norwegian Question 

The agenda point on centralism at the Third Enlarged Plenum centred on Norway. It focused on the Norwegian Labour Party’s explicit rejection of any degree of centralism within the Communist International, asserting their party’s virtual autonomy. This rejection was part of a move by the Norwegian party’s majority away from communism, which would culminate in its open break from the Comintern by the end of 1923.

The Third Enlarged Plenum sought to hold on to the NLP and win it to the perspective of transforming itself into a Communist party. During the debate, the Norwegian party majority received support from within the Swedish CP, while a strong minority in the Norwegian party supported the line of the Comintern.

The complete identification of the ‘international centralism’ agenda point with the Norwegian question is illustrated by the fact that the commission assigned to take up this issue was referred to interchangeably as the ‘Norwegian Commission’, the ‘Scandinavian Commission’, and the ‘Commission on the Centralism Question’.

While some of the discussion on centralism at the plenum went in the direction of calling for increased ECCI involvement in parties’ local activity and tactics, and denying any ‘limits’ to centralism,[42] the resolution ultimately adopted was careful not to encroach on the authority of the Norwegian party leadership in local matters. Its proposals for changes to NLP policy and structure were made in the form of recommendations.[43]

Other Questions Discussed 

The Third Enlarged Plenum took up a number of other issues. Among these were:

  • Trade unions. In his report to Session 11, Solomon A. Lozovsky took up three main issues related to the work of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU, or Profintern): the significance of the gains made through united-front efforts in creating a left wing within the Amsterdam International; the fight for trade-union unity to oppose the Amsterdam leadership’s expulsion of Communist-led unions; and the importance of the fight for union federations and individual unions to affiliate to the Profintern. A second trade-union report was given by Jakob Walcher.
  • Religion. Prior to the enlarged plenum Swedish Communist leader Zeth Höglund – a defender of the Norwegian Labour Party – had asserted that religion was a private matter, both with relation to the state and to the Communist Party. In response, Comintern leaders initiated a discussion at the Third Enlarged Plenum on how from a Marxist viewpoint religion is indeed a private matter vis-à-vis the state, but it is not a private matter within the party, referring to the writings of Lenin on this question.[44] While the party does not exclude religiously minded workers from joining the party and treats their beliefs with sensitivity, Comintern leaders stated, it nonetheless maintains and defends a materialist and atheist worldview, and is particularly insistent that party leaders uphold this perspective.
  • The programme of the Comintern. The Fourth World Congress had initiated a discussion around the need for a written programme for the Communist International. That debate was continued at the Third Enlarged Plenum with a report by Bukharin, who proposed that it be resolved the following year at the Fifth Comintern Congress.

There were also brief discussions on the cooperative movement, the Communist Women’s Movement, the Communist Youth Movement, and of concrete problems of several national parties that special commissions had been organised to investigate.


[1] See p. 489.

[2] For Bordiga’s report at the Fourth Congress, see Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 403–23. For Zinoviev’s comments on Italy, see ibid., pp. 1032–55.

An indication of the Fourth Congress deficiency on fascism was the lack of a resolution on the question; its Resolution on the Italian Question (4WC, pp. 1138–42) failed to even address the rise of fascism in that country, aside from a passing reference.

[3] See for example Ernest Mandel’s introduction to Trotsky, The Struggle  against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971).

[4] Dimitrov’s report is contained in VII Congress of the Communist International: Abridged Report of Proceedings (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1939), pp. 124–93. It can also be found online at Marxists Internet Archive.

[5] Leon Trotsky and other Marxist leaders pointed out how this approach led to the defeat of the Spanish revolution and civil war of the late 1930s. See for example Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), and Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).

[6] The Communist, no. 6, June 1936, p. 489.

[7] See pp. 613–8 of this volume.

[8] Protokoll Funfter Kongress der Kommunistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Carl Hoym Nachf, 1924), p. 713 (hereafter Protokoll 1924).

[9] ‘Der neue Nationalheld. Radek feiert Schlageter’.

[10] See Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948), p. 268.

[11] Karl Radek, ‘Fascism, Ourselves and the German Social-Democrats’, in Inprecorr, no. 30, 12 July 1923.

[12] Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp. 728–9.

[13] Fischer 1948, pp. 282–3.

[14] Vorwärts, 22 August 1923.

[15] Broué 2005, pp. 729–30. Fischer stated: ‘At a meeting of Berlin University students organised by the Berlin party branch, I was the speaker. The attitude of the nationalists against capitalism was discussed, and I was obliged to answer some anti-Semitic remarks. I said that Communism was for fighting Jewish capitalists only if all capitalists, Jewish and Gentile, were the object of the same attack. This episode has been cited and distorted over and over again in publications on German Communism.’ In Fischer 1948, p. 283.

[16] See for example E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1923 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966) v. 4, p. 193.

[17] The ‘red referendum’ was a name given by the German CP to a 1931 referendum in which the CP was allied with the Nazis in supporting a vote to oust the coalition government in Prussia headed by the Social Democrats. See ‘Against National Communism (Lessons of the “Red Referendum”)’, in Trotsky 1971, pp. 93–114.

[18] Broué 2005, p. 730, asserts that the Schlageter line ‘corresponded to the needs of the time – and history has proved this to be correct – even if its application went awry at times’.

[19] One recent example is that of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation in the United States, which evolved in the 1970s from a left-wing sect into a proto-fascist cult.

[20] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1159.

[21] For an analysis of this discussion, see the introduction to Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 20–7.

[22] See p. 289 of this volume.

[23] See pp. 411 and 423.

[24] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1161.

[25] Lenin, ‘Left-Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder’, Lenin, Collected Works (hereafter LCW), vol. 31, p. 102.

The Bolsheviks’ algebraic slogan was for a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’.

[26] See p. 654.

[27] Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, p. 1003.

[28] The slogan was also subsequently given an opportunistic interpretation, justifying Communists’ participation in the formation of multiclass peasant parties. See for example Thomas Dombal, ‘The Peasants’ International’ in Pravda, 19 June 1923 and Inprecorr, 26 June 1923.

[29] For the report and resolution, see pp. 637–49.

The June 1923 failure in Bulgaria had a sorry epilogue. Three months later, in September, as if to atone for their failure to combat the coup, the Bulgarian CP helped initiate an ill-prepared uprising against the new regime with the goal of setting up a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’. The uprising was quickly crushed. According to Alfred Rosmer, a leader of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow at the time, the adventure was directly instigated by Zinoviev (Rosmer, Moscow Under Lenin, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, pp. 203, 208).

[30] See pp. 445–6.

[31] See p. 509.

[32] See p. 512.

[33] See p. 524.

[34] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 1, pp. 294–5.

[35] By contrast, the Third Comintern Congress discussed how a form of ‘bureaucratic centralism’ existed within most of the Second International’s parties, in which leaders did what they pleased, not bound by membership decisions. See Koenen’s report on the organisational question in Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, p. 811.

[36] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 2, p. 696.

[37] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 2, p. 698.

[38] Riddell (ed.) 1991, 2WC, 2, p. 770.

[39] Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, p. 234. For the discussion at the Fourth Congress, see Riddell (ed.) 2012, 4WC, pp. 41–5.

[40] See Ben Lewis and Lars Lih, eds., Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (London: November Publications, 2011), and 18e congrès nationale tenu à Tours. Compte rendu sténographique (Paris: Parti Socialiste, 1921).

[41] For the Comintern envoys to Germany in March 1921 (Béla Kun, Józef Pogány, and August Guralsky), see introduction to Riddell (ed.) 2015, 3WC, pp. 16–18.

[42] For example, Arthur Ewert from Germany stated, ‘In our view, centralism in the Comintern is far from being sufficiently developed. It is true that a general staff capable of intervening authoritatively regarding the policies, tactics, and tasks of the individual parties cannot be created overnight. It will be constituted only over a lengthy period of development.’ See p. 439.

[43] One binding decision on a party that the Third Enlarged Plenum did make involved the Italian CP, then locked in a bitter factional dispute. The plenum adopted a proposal to select a new mixed central leadership body, with three members from the majority and two from the minority, maintaining the existing factional balance. That decision was opposed by the party majority. See Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano (Turin: Einaudi, 1967), vol. 1, pp. 283–5.

[44] Particularly ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion’, in LCW, vol. 15, pp. 402–13, and ‘Socialism and Religion’ in LCW, vol. 10, pp. 85–6.

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