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The Comintern’s Second Congress: A Centennial Introduction

July 19, 2020

See also appendix, “Study Aids for the Second Congress” 

By John Riddell: The Second Congress of the Communist International (Comintern), convened in Moscow precisely 100 years ago, on July 19, 1920. Its deliberations, spread over almost three weeks, represent the best single introduction to the thought and dynamics of global communism during Lenin’s lifetime.

The complete proceedings are available in a handsome recent 1,455-page printing from Pathfinder Press, edited by me.[1] The earlier Pathfinder printing of 1991, however, is the version generally found in libraries, and its pagination is different from the edition currently available from Pathfinder. Page references in the present text, therefore, are to the 1991 printing.

An earlier translation by Bob Archer, first published by New Park in 1977, is available on Marxists Internet Archive (MIA). Sessions in the MIA edition are enumerated inaccurately; two sessions are left out entirely; a few interventions are omitted; and annotation is lacking.

Yet another recent translation by me of Second Congress discussions on colonial liberation is available online in Liberate the Colonies! [2]

The comprehensiveness of the two-volume Pathfinder edition was assured through a comparison of five editions published by the Comintern in 1920-21 and 1934 in four languages (English, French, German, and Russian) and also in its rich annotation, including an introduction presenting the Congress’s historical context, comprehensive biographies, chronology, index, and striking photographic sections.

Also included in the Pathfinder volumes are almost 200 pages of appendices consisting mainnly of documents included in the 1934 Russian edition.

This reader’s guide will review the main congress debates as presented in the Pathfinder edition of 1991 (hereinafter 2WC). A listing of its appendices and a comparison with the MIA edition are posted separately (“Study Aids for Second Congress“).

Profile of the Second Congress

Translation into English during the congress. Angelica Balabanoff, centre, reads from notes. Humbert-Droz Archive

The Comintern was launched in Moscow 16 months before the Second Congress, in March 1919, at the time of greatest peril during the imperialist intervention into the Russian civil war. (See “100 Years Ago: How the Comintern Was Founded”.) The Russian Soviet republic was then blockaded by a ring of hostile armies; only nine delegates slipped through from abroad to reach the congress. Although there was massive support for Soviet Russia among workers abroad, the organized groups seeking contact with Russian Communists were still very small, and most had little knowledge of their policies.

When the Second Congress convened a year later, the situation had been transformed. The Soviet Red Army had beaten off the imperialist intervention and routed the main reactionary White Guard armies. On the last remaining major battlefront, on the west, an invading Polish army was now in rapid retreat as the Red Army neared Warsaw. Outside the Soviet republic, masses of revolutionary-minded working people were rallying to the Comintern banner, including – in France, Germany, Italy, and Norway – in the form of mass parties previously affiliated to the Second International.

The imperialist blockade of Soviet Russia, while still in force, had weakened, and routes of legal entry now existed through Finland or Estonia. Even so, delegates often faced near-insuperable barriers to obtaining the needed visas, and many slipped through in disguise or with the aid of smugglers. Three delegates perished on the return journey. (2WC, 5-8)

Nonetheless, among the 218 delegates on the official list, fully half represented groups and peoples outside Soviet territory. Only nineteen delegates were women – 9 per cent – but even so, this proportion was far in advance of the norm in political assemblies in capitalist countries. Thirty delegates came from colonial and semi-colonial countries. Their participation, Lenin noted, made the gathering truly a world congress – the first in the history of the socialist movement. (2WC, 8-9)

Closing Session at Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.

Fifty-four delegates came from Social Democratic, Socialist, anarcho-syndicalist, or other non-Communist workers’ organizations. Delegated represented groups in 34 countries in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia. A congress resolution noted that they represented not just the “Communist tendencies and groups” that had existed a year earlier, but “parties and organizations,” several of which had tens of thousands of members. (2WC, 765)

Youthful, dedicated, and competent, the assembly of revolutionaries present at the Second Congress was dispersed during the twenty years that followed. Thirty-three delegates later had ties to Communist opposition currents led by Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Karl Radek, which were savagely repressed under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Of those outside the Soviet republic, three-fifths left the International by 1933. Of 69 delegates then in the Soviet republic for whom information could be found, 52 were executed or died in prison under Stalin’s terror and another six were imprisoned or dismissed from leading posts.[3]

World Capitalism in Crisis

As the delegates assembled, the capitalist order in Europe, then still the centre of world imperialism, had been weakened by the impact of world war and by revolutions in several countries. Never before or since has capitalist rule been so shaken.

Five months before the Second Congress convened, Comintern leader Karl Radek portrayed the alarm of Europe’s capitalist rulers by quoting the following passage from their main British newspaper, the Times:

A spirit of unrest rules the entire world, from America to China, from the Black to the Baltic Sea. Not a single society, not a single civilization is sufficiently solid, not a single constitution is sufficiently democratic to resist this pernicious tendency. Examples everywhere show that the fundamental bonds have torn and burst under the long strain.[4]

At the time of the founding congress, Lenin had hailed the rise of “new soviet forms of mass proletarian struggle,” that is, democratically structured workers’ action committees, in countries across Europe, citing the example of the British shop stewards committees. “The new movement,” he stated, “is headed toward …. Soviet government with the torrential might of millions and tens of millions of workers sweeping everything from their path.”[5]

The main resolution of the founding congress hailed the prospect of Soviet-based rule, that is the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” as an expression of true workers’ power, replacing the dictatorship of the capitalist class in both its parliamentary form (“bourgeois democracy”) and that of direct autocracy.[6]

These hopes were set back during the months that followed, during which a Soviet government in Hungary was crushed by invading capitalist armies, while workers’ councils in Germany were overcome by a military assault organized by the German Social-Democratic Party.

These defeats highlighted the need for revolutionary-minded workers and their allies to come together in a political party similar to the Russian Bolsheviks, which had led the October 1917 revolution that vested all power in the hands of workers, soldiers, and peasants’ councils. The urgency of building such parties, joined together in the Comintern, became the central unifying theme of the Second World Congress.

A Diversity of Traditions

The congress delegates represented a coming together of revolutionary-minded activists from many different currents of the workers’ movement. At least eight delegates hailed from anarcho-syndicalist currents. The majority came from the mass socialist parties of the prewar Second International, most of which identified as Social Democratic. These forces had split during World War I (1914-18) into three currents: a rightist majority, made up of parties supporting the war effort of their capitalist rulers; centrist forces, who had opposed the war but lacked a revolutionary strategy; and the revolutionary left, which sought – in the words of Karl Liebknecht – to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war,” that is, a revolution.

At the Comintern congress, one delegate – Marcel Cachin of France – had during the war supported the pro-capitalist “majority.” The centrist-led forces were represented by two parties with hundreds of thousands of supporters: the French Socialist Party majority and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). Two other large parties, the Italian Socialists and the Norwegian Labour Party, while already members of the Comintern, displayed some similar weaknesses.

The international revolutionary wing was represented, among others, by the German Communist Party (Spartacists), the Dutch Communists led by Anton Pannekoek, the Tesnyaki current in Bulgaria, and, of course, by the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Russia, itself representing a coming together of diverse revolutionary currents in Russia.

The presence of so many delegates from oppressed nations of Asia and Latin America was much remarked upon. The absence of such representatives in gatherings of the pre-1914 Second International had led these peoples, in Zinoviev’s words, “to adopt an attitude of the greatest distrust.” M.N. Roy, a pioneer Communist from India, later remarked that at the Second Congress “for the first time, brown and yellow men met with white men who were not overbearing imperialists but friends and comrades.” (2WC, 38-39, 801)

The most firmly established of the Communist groups in the colonial and semi-colonial world was then the Communist Party of Iran, with about two thousand members. Groups in Turkey, China, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) were also represented, along with a group of exiled revolutionaries from India and groups in Argentina and Mexico. A much larger congress of revolutionaries from Asia met in September 1920 in Baku.[7]

On arrival in Russia, delegates engaged in a variety of activities acquainting them with the Soviet reality as well as in extensive discussion with Russian Communist leaders. The draft resolutions, John Murphy recalls, “constituted a revolution in the conceptions of every party and every non-Russian delegate in the Congress.” In the commissions established on different agenda points, he continues, “every delegation ‘went to school’ on the first principles of the new movement under the direction and tuition of one of the Russian leaders…. The Russians seemed to be incapable of exhaustion by discussion. Patiently they would argue, go over the ground a second time, a third, a fourth if need be, until night turned into day and day into night….”[8]

The Comintern in Vogue

The Second Congress assembled at a time when the rival Second International had almost collapsed and the Comintern had become, in the words of one of its resolutions, “rather fashionable.” The Comintern stood in danger, the resolution continued, “of being diluted by vacillating and irresolute groups that have not yet broken with the ideology of the Second International.” (2WC, 40, 765) Comintern leaders hoped that the full debates of the congress, translated and published in four languages, would educate both delegates and their supporters back home, thus drawing a clear line between genuine adherents and wavering, centrist-influenced forces.

A different sort of problem was posed by the ultraleftist and sectarian errors then widespread in Comintern organizations. Many Comintern adherents rejected on principle belonging to reformist-led unions, running candidates in elections, allying with working people who were not wage labourers (such as exploited peasants), or supporting movements for national liberation in the colonies. Many rejected taking part in struggles for immediate, democratic, and transitional demands that fell short of directly posing the conquest of power by the proletariat.

Early in 1920, an international ultraleft current began to take shape in support of these positions, including forces in seven European countries plus the United States. This current set up an organizing centre in Amsterdam, which held an international conference in February. They were well represented at the World Congress.

Comintern leaders sought to win over these currents through patient education. Zinoviev generously termed such groupings and their supporters “the Communists of tomorrow,” adding “they are the nucleus of the revolutionary workers, who wish to march with us.” Lenin’s newly written pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, addressed their views, and every delegate received a copy on arrival. (2WC, 80-1)

Three Major Themes

The congress began with a lengthy report by Lenin on capitalism’s continuing crisis and the prospect of world revolution (Session 1). In subsequent sessions, the congress debate shifted back and forth among three major topics:

  • The role and duties of the Communist Party: sessions 2, 3, 6,7,8, 14, 16.
  • Workingclass unity and electoral participation: sessions 9, 10, 11, 12, 15.
  • Allies of the working class: sessions 4 and 5 (colonized and oppressed peoples) and session 13 (peasants).

The Role of a Communist Party

The need for a revolutionary party had not been a major topic of the Comintern’s founding congress in March 1919. The central theme of that gathering had been the need to achieve Soviet power (“the dictatorship of the proletariat”) as the basis for overcoming capitalism. During the year that followed, however, setbacks suffered by workers in several countries underlined how urgent it was for workers to achieve unity and cohesion in the class struggle.

Going into the Second Congress, Comintern leaders proposed to consolidate the revolutionary workers’ movement in a global party of revolution, composed of autonomous national sections. However, many revolutionary-minded workers had been alienated from the concept of a workers’ political party by the betrayal committed by the Second International’s largest parties at the outset of World War I. The first two Second Congress sessions were, therefore, devoted to affirming the overriding need for revolutionary workers to come together in a political party. The Congress theses on the “Role and Structure of the Communist Party” specified that this party, made up of “the most advanced, most class-conscious and therefore more revolutionary part” of the working class, must seek to “guide the entire mass of the proletariat and semi-proletariat onto the correct road.” (2WC, 191)

A quite different challenge was presented by requests to join the Comintern from groups or currents that had until recently been tied in with the opportunists of the Second International and were still far from Communist in outlook. “The Communist International is becoming rather fashionable,” a Second Congress resolution commented. “It is in danger of being diluted by vacillating and irresolute groups that have not yet broken with the ideology of the Second International.” (2WC, p. 765)

The most influential of these “Centre” currents at the congress were the delegates of the Socialist Party of France and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD). Intensive discussions with these delegates led to a decision to develop written criteria for admission to the Comintern, which subsequently became known as the “Twenty-One Conditions.” These theses were oriented to the ranks of the many parties with Social Democratic origins that had joined or were considering joining the International but were still marked by opportunist practices. They aimed to provide a standard by which members of these parties could judge their leaderships and measure their organizations’ progress toward becoming Communist parties. (2WC, p. 42)

Unfortunately, the final text of the Twenty-One Conditions does not appear to be available online in English. A Google or MIA search for that title leads to Lenin’s initial draft – only 19 theses. For the final text, see the Pathfinder edition, 2WC, vol. 2, 765-771 or Alan Adler, ed., Theses, Resolutions, and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, ed., London: Ink Links, 1980, 92-7.

The Pathfinder introduction, written by me, includes an account of the debates in backrooms and side meetings that set a framework for congress debates on this and other issues. (2WC, 42-55)

The debate on the Conditions for Admission, taking place over many days in both plenary and commission sessions as well as in private discussions, produced a differentiation among delegates from three mass parties – those in France, Germany, and Italy. Marcel Cachin and Louis-Oscar Frossard from France were gradually drawn into agreement with the Twenty-One Conditions. The USPD delegation divided: Ernst Däumig and Walter Stoecker supported the theses; Artur Crispien and Wilhelm Dittmann opposed them. The leader of the Italian Socialist Party, Giacinto Serrati, strongly opposed the theses and broke with his delegation on this point. During the year that followed, all three parties split over adoption of the Conditions. The congress itself adopted the Conditions against only two negative votes.

The Trade Union Debate

Disagreement over trade-union policy led to the most protracted and acrimonious debate of the Congress. Proposals from the Comintern’s leadership in Moscow encountered what Zinoviev termed “a most vexatious resistance.” Sessions of the trade-union commission stretched over 30 hours. At one point, the British delegation announced its withdrawal. The fracture extended to a final vote on the resolution, which was opposed by eight delegates. The evolving debate is well summarized in the Pathfinder edition. (2WC, 46-50)

The disagreements reflected the union movement’s jagged and contradictory recent evolution. During the war, most of the mainstream union leaderships in warring countries had formed a bloc with their national capitalist classes to prosecute the war and suppress labour struggles, a pact that the Germans called a Burgfrieden or “civil peace.” When labour insurgency welled up, it often flowed through new structures, which in both Britain and Germany were called “shop stewards committees” (“Revolutionäre Obleute”).

When the war ended, many left activists felt the old-line unions were bankrupt, and that revolutionary militancy would now flow through new structures – perhaps combining the function of union and party. Meanwhile, the opportunist union leaderships continued their partnership with capitalist states through organs of the League of Nations. Their postwar trade-union confederation, informally termed the “Amsterdam International,” expressed that orientation. Meanwhile, as the war ended, the old-line unions grew rapidly, expanding their reach into broader layers of the working class.

In this context, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders advocated a policy that seemed to some delegates contradictory. The pro-imperialist “Amsterdam” trade-union International should be challenged by a rival unification of revolutionary unions and currents, the Bolsheviks held. But Communists should simultaneously deepen their roots in the mass reformist-led unions and strive to win these unions to a revolutionary course. “There was no guarantee that this goal would be achieved. But without the struggle to transform the unions …. Communists would isolate themselves from workers’ struggle and would have no way of building mass proletarian parties that were part of the experience of the rest of their class.” (2WC, Introduction, 46)

Toward Workers’ Unity

Three other agenda points also addressed the issue of workers’ unity in struggle.

Theses on the formation of workers’ councils, adopted in Session 15, noted that such bodies, elected by all workers to act on urgent political issues, were likely to flourish “only when the revolution had already begun and the immediate struggle for power was on the agenda.” The theses, adopted unanimously, also cautioned against attempts in Germany to integrate surviving workers’ councils into the capitalist state. (2WC, 707, 51)

The debate on “parliamentarism” in Sessions 9 and 10 concerned whether Communist parties should, where possible, run candidates for election to bourgeois parliaments – a tactic opposed on principle by the forces led by Amadeo Bordiga in Italy and other ultraleft groups. The theses favouring electoral participation also aimed to counter reformist practices of USPD, French, and Italian parliamentary fractions. The resolution was adopted against seven votes opposed.

A debate on policy toward the British Labour Party (BLP), on which British delegates were sharply divided, surfaced in the commission on Comintern tasks. The adopted resolution declared that Communist groups in British should affiliate to the Labour Party, even though it belonged to the rival Second International, provided that the party remained a federation of working-class groups and that the Communists preserved their freedom to speak and act for Soviet power. This position, explained in Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism, was a step toward the united-front policy that the Comintern adopted in December 1921. But dissent was widespread: 24 delegates voted against the resolution, with 58 in favour. (2WC, 760-1, 744)[9]

The underlying disagreement found new expression on a different issue at the Third World Congress the following year.[10]

Colonial Liberation

In the view of the Comintern leadership, workers in industrially advanced regions needed to forge an alliance with working people in oppressed nations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas on the basis of commitment to full liberation in the colonies. Lenin wrote draft theses on this topic that directed Communist parties, in countries where precapitalist relations predominate, to “assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries.”

A delegate from India, M.N. Roy, objected to this wording, stating that support should be granted only to genuinely revolutionary movements of the masses. Lenin and Roy then joined in a a joint editing process in which both modified their drafts. With regard to movements to be supported, Lenin changed the term “bourgeois-democratic” to “national revolutionary”; Lenin’s detailed editing of Roy’s theses is shown in the Pathfinder edition. (2WC, 212-13; 846-56)

Serrati opposed the theses in principle, ultimately abstaining on the vote. (2WC, 234-5, 275-7, 653-4)[11] The two sets of theses, with their differing emphasis, were adopted unanimously in a single vote, with three abstentions.

Alliance with Exploited Peasants

Theses on the agrarian question, considered in Session 13, took up an area of deep-going differences in the revolutionary movement.

The Pathfinder edition includes a detailed account of preliminary discussions on this point. (2WC, 52-5) The prewar Second International had paid little attention to the peasant question, leaving a legacy of pessimism and antipathy regarding their struggles toward the peasants. Lenin spoke in the congress of a disastrous error made by the short-lived Soviet government in Hungary in 1919, which had expropriated large landholdings without enabling peasants to decide how this land was to be used or to take in hand in estate management. (2WC, 383-4)

The resolution was adopted against one abstention, probably Serrati, who had objected to the absence of a call for immediate land collectivization (2WC, 655-59).

Commission and Corridor Debates

In the Pathfinder edition, the Second Congress proceedings are supplemented by 21 appendices providing insight into delegates’ activity outside the formal sessions. Among the topics:

  • Theses on colonial revolution by delegates from Iran and Korea.
  • An article on communism and Ireland’s freedom struggle.
  • Documents of the newly formed International Council of Trade and Industrial Unions (forerunner of the Red International of Labor Unions or Profintern).
  • Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement edited by Clara Zetkin.

A full list of the appendices is provided in “Study Aids for the Comintern Second Congress.”

After the Congress

After the congress closed, a number of its most prominent leaders set out for Baku, Azerbaijan, where the First Congress of the Peoples of the East opened on August 31, 1920. Through this seven-day assembly of nearly 2,000 delegates, the Comintern became as a source of inspiration and initiative for the liberation of oppressed peoples of Asia. Many speeches and documents of the congress are available on line in Liberate the Colonies! See also the Pathfinder edition edited by me, To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East, 1993 and 2010.

As the Second Congress delegates arrived home, they opened up a wide-ranging debate in their parties on the Twenty-One Conditions and other resolutions of the Second Congress. In the months that followed, the Comintern won hundreds of thousands of new adherents, including a majority of members of the French Socialist Party and the German USPD.

An analysis of this period is found in my introduction to the Brill/Haymarket edition of the Third Congress of the Comintern, which will be posted on this blog in August 2020.

Also Available on This Blog


[1]. John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! hereinafter 2WC, New York: Pathfinder Press 1991 and 2013, two volumes, US $52.

[2]. John Riddell, Vijay Prashad, and Nazeef Mollah, eds., Liberate the Colonies!  New Delhi: Leftword, 2019.

[3]. See biographical information and tabulation in 2WC, p. 9.

[4]. Karl Radek, “Die Lehren der ungarischen Revolution,” in Die Internationale, 2:21, February 25, 1920, p. 58.

[5]. John Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919 (hereinafter 1WC), New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987, p. 302.

[6]. 1WC, p. 150.

[7]. For the Baku Congress proceedings, see John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn, New York: Pathfinder, 1993 and 2010. Many speeches and documents of the congress are available on line in Liberate the Colonies!

[8]. John T. Murphy, New Horizons, London: The Bodley Head, 1941, 147-151.

[9]. See also comments by Zinoviev in Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, Leiden/Chicago: Brill/Haymarket Books, 2018, 104-6

[10]. John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Leiden/Chicago: Brill and Haymarket Books, 2015.

[11]. Page references to Serrati’s comments were inadvertently omitted in the Pathfinder edition’s index.



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