Contribution for the public meeting with the theme: ‘imperialism or socialism 70 years NATO – 100 years Comintern’
During the history of the revolutionary labour movement various international organisations expressed the struggle against war and imperialism, for peace and socialism. This year we celebrate that 100 years ago the Third Communist International was founded, also known as the Comintern, which made a decisive contribution to the struggle of the working people for peace and socialism in the period from 1919 to 1943. In this period, after the October revolution until the Second World War, the Comintern played an important role in the foundation of communist parties all over the world, the struggle against rising fascism and the upcoming Second World War. But the Communist International also put its mark on the development of the trade union movement, the anticolonial movement, the women’s movement, the organisation of the youth, etc.
The NCPN and CJB attach value to the recognition of the role of the Communist International. It is especially important for the younger generations of communists to get to know the history of the international communist movement and to draw lessons that are relevant for the struggle today. In this contribution we will therefore elaborate on the question: what can we learn from the history of the Communist International for the contemporary struggle against wars and imperialism and for peace and socialism? But we will also elaborate on the question: what do the NCPN and CJB do today about international cooperation and solidarity?
In order to correctly understand the role and importance of the Third Communist International and draw the right conclusions for our contemporary struggle, it is important to say some things about what went before. The Comintern was preceded by the First International Workingmen’s Association and the Second International.
The International Workingmen’s Association
The First International was founded by the trade unions and various political groups in 1864. It was founded in the last phase of the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois-democratic revolutions. A struggle was taking place at that time in the young labour movement to separate the labour movement ideologically, politically and organisationally from the bourgeoisie.
Marx and Engels struggled against bourgeois and petit bourgeois theories about socialism that had a utopian and a reformist or sectarian character. For example, the anarchist theories of Proudhon and Bakunin, reformism of Lasalle (who believed that a peaceful transformation of the bourgeois state was possible through general suffrage), the conspiracy methods of Blanqui etc. The First International was ideologically very diverse. It was not yet steadily based on scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It did however contribute to the strengthening of the labour organisations and activity on the national and international level.
The end of the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie is marked by the Commune of Paris in 1871, the first proletarian revolution, that was defeated after 70 days by the bourgeois armies. A period of heavy repression followed. The First International was disbanded a few years later.
The Second International
Capitalism entered a new period in its development. Between 1871 and 1914 the transformation to the last stage of capitalism takes place, which is imperialism, with as most important characteristic that monopolies became dominant in the economy. The bourgeoisie stabilizes her power and becomes a reactionary class. No major uprisings and revolutions take place, at least not in the most developed capitalist countries.
It is in this context that the Second International was formed on the 14th of July 1889 in Paris. The national political parties of the labour class are formed in this period. Although Marxism was influential in those parties, reformist, anarchosyndicalyst and other opportunist forces also exerted influence. When the imperialist First World War started, most parties of the Second International supported the national bourgeoisie in the war and abandoned the struggle for peace and socialism. Various social democrats even became ministers in the war governments of the time. This betrayal by social democracy marks the definitive break between what we nowadays call social democracy and communism. The social democrats ended up in opposite imperialist camps and as a consequence the Second International seized to function in 1916, even though a new social democratic ‘Second International’ and a ‘Second-and-a-half International’ were formed after the war.
The foundation of the Comintern
Opportunism and reformism did not get the upper hand in all parties of the Second International. The Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin, the German communists under Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, socialist parties in the Balkan and in some other countries held a revolutionary direction. The Bolsheviks succeeded in not supporting the national bourgeoisie in the imperialist war, but instead make use of the contradictions in imperialism to realise the socialist revolution. The socialist October Revolution provided a stimulus for the revolutionary elements in the labour movement.
In many countries communist parties were founded in this period. Towards the end of 1918 the Bolsheviks thought the time was ripe for a new, communist international of parties that were based on scientific socialism and that were willing to break with opportunism. The founding congress of the Third International took place from 2 to 6 March 1919 in Moscow. That happened under very difficult circumstances, as the armies of the capitalist countries had surrounded Russia. Nevertheless, over 50 representatives from Europe, Asia and America were present. They represented communist parties, but also revolutionary currents within the old social-democratic parties.
We should therefore understand the Comintern as a part in the development of the labour movement, that builds on the experiences of the First and Second International, as we descried here. Lenin wrote the following: “The First International laid the foundation of the proletarian, international struggle for socialism. The Second International marked a period in which the soil was prepared for the broad, mass spread of the movement in a number of countries. The Third International has gathered the fruits of the work of the Second International, discarded its opportunist, social-chauvinist, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois dross, and has begun to implement the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Important for understanding the character of the Comintern, is therefore that it was founded on the one hand as a result of the struggle against the opportunism of its predecessor, the Second International, and on the other hand as a result of the October revolution and the start of the construction of socialism in Russia.
The social root of opportunism
The betrayal of the Second International in the imperialist First World War did not came out of the blue. It was a direct consequence of the reformist line of the parties. At this point it is worthwhile to elaborate on what opportunism exactly encompasses, and why Lenin emphasized the struggle against opportunism and the formation of communist parties and a new International freed from the opportunist wing.
The epistemological or theoretical basis for opportunism is on the one hand dogmatism and on the other hand revisionism. Dogmatism means that tactics useful in specific circumstances are elevated to principles. Dogmatism can also mean that ideas are maintained that have been proven to be outdated or incorrect by practice. Revisionism is discarding principles, often under the pretext of tactical considerations, or disposing of positions that are labelled outdated, without a scientific basis.
These are the theoretical mistakes of the opportunists, but Lenin emphasized that there is also a material basis for the domination of opportunism in the Second International. As Engels had already pointed out, the rise of imperialism was accompanied by the development of a so-called labour aristocracy. This is a layer in the labour class that is bribed by the bourgeoisie and its interests are entangled with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Think of reformist leaders of trade unions, that are payed very well, whether we consider their formal loan or what happens under the table. Labour aristocracy splits the labour movement and tries to turn the labour movement into a tale of the bourgeoisie.
From that point of view, we can understand why Lenin emphasized that communists and opportunist cannot be in the same party, especially in the imperialist stage of capitalism, that the Second International was politically bankrupt and that a Communist International was necessary. Lenin wrote: “Typical of the socialist parties of the epoch of the Second International was one that tolerated in its midst an opportunism built up in decades of the “peaceful” period, an opportunism that kept itself secret, adapting itself to the revolutionary workers, borrowing their Marxist terminology, and evading any clear cleavage of principles. This type has outlived itself. If the war ends in 1915, will any thinking socialist be found willing to begin, in 1916, restoring the workers’ parties together with the opportunists, knowing from experience that in any new crisis all of them (…) will be for the bourgeoisie (…)?”
The contribution of the Comintern to the creation of communist parties
Thanks to this Leninist position the Comintern played a very important role in the creation of revolutionary labour parties over the whole world that broke with social democracy. The Comintern contributed to the political, ideological and organisational development of young communist parties on the basis of scientific Marxism and helped them overcoming wrong positions and methods.
On the first congress a platform was adopted (a sort of program) where bourgeois democracy was criticized as a form of dictatorship of capital, and the dictatorship of the proletarian was posed as goal. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the state of the labour class, i.e. socialist democracy. Marx and Engels emphasized, especially after the experiences of the Paris Commune, that the working people must from their own organs of power and state in order to construct socialism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is an important element of Marxism that the reformists had dropped, as the reformists wanted to use the bourgeois state to enact reforms that would lead to socialism.
The second congress took place in July 1920. A very important document is a text by Lenin that was adopted by the congress, where he sets up 21 terms of admission for the Comintern. A number of important characteristics of communist parties are formulated there, such as the need to struggle against the influence of opportunism, against social-democratic and other reformist elements. It also mentions the necessity of the struggle against colonialism and support for national liberation movements, as colonialism was sometimes justified in the reformist labour movement. Another important condition is that parties should be organised on the principles of democratic centralism.
In the framework of this congress Lenin also wrote ‘Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder’. In this work he addressed certain sectarian elements in the Comintern, that also existed by the Dutch communists at the time. In this left-opportunist current the participation of communists in bourgeois parliaments was for example refuted in principle. Lenin pointed out that communists must use various forms of struggle, including the participation in bourgeois parliament, depending on the concrete circumstances.
There are more aspects that we could mention, but the goal here is show how the Comintern contributed to the formation of communist parties and the confrontation of revisionism and dogmatism.
The United Front of the workers
After the October Revolution there were attempts to socialist revolutions in a number of other countries, including Finland, Germany and Hungary. After 1920 it became clear that the defeats of these revolutionary revolts resulted in negative correlation of forces. The bourgeoisie stabilized its power and communists were persecuted, which made open presence on the workplaces and in the trade unions sometimes difficult. The social democrats manged to gain much influence on the trade union movement.
On the third congress in 1921 the central question was how communists should operate in these new non-revolutionary circumstances. The united front strategy was developed. It encompasses that communists should pursue in non-revolutionary circumstances to promote the common struggle of workers, despite different political ideas. In that framework the Red International of Labour Union or Profintern was founded, with the goal of rebuilding the trade union movement on a revolutionary line.
After the third congress the content of the united front and the stance towards social democracy became an important point of struggle in the Executive Committee of the Comintern and in the national parties. The united front was initially intended to increase the influence of the communists on the working masses and to detach them from the influence of social democracy, more generally from bourgeois ideology. However, some interpreted the united front as an attempt to alter the line of the social-democratic parties and to establish cooperation of social-democrat and communist parties from above. In this framework social democracy was split in a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ social democracy. These are ideas that persist today, in different circumstances, in the Netherlands, as some groups have illusions about the character of social-democrat parties such as the SP. Lenin criticized those who regarded the united front as a strategic alliance with social democracy: “The representatives of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals need a united front, for they hope to weaken us by inducing us to make exorbitant concessions. (…) they hope to utilise united front tactics for the purpose of convincing the workers that reformist tactics are correct and that revolutionary tactics are wrong. We need a united front because we hope to convince the workers of the opposite.” On the other extreme were the ones that dismissed the united labour front altogether.
The antifascist people’s front
Rising Fascism in the ’30 had a major impact on the international communist movement. How should communists deal with rising fascism? And this in a time of economic crisis and strongly intensifying contradictions between imperialist powers, that all had the goal of destroying the Soviet-Union.
The strategy that persisted was that broad antifascist people’s fronts should be formed, with the goal of forming governments through parliament, in order to prevent fascist governments from rising to power that would have a more aggressive stance towards the Soviet-Union. The seventh congress in 1935 formulated some conditions. However, in practice far-going concessions were often done to the social-democratic and other bourgeois forces. Unfortunately, the people’s fronts in practice were able to prevent neither the rise of fascism nor the war. In 1943 the Comintern was disbanded.
Nevertheless, the Comintern made an important contribution to the struggle of progressive forces against fascism and war. For example, in the Spanish civil war (1936-1939), which was a preamble for the Second World War. The Comintern organised the International Brigades, one of the biggest expressions of international solidarity in the previous century, on which the next speech will elaborate.
Today the increasing contradictions between imperialist powers and the rise of the extreme right make it necessary to critically study the strategy of the Cominterin against the upcoming war and imperialism in this period.
The international communist movement after the Second World War
After the dissolution of the Comintern, cooperation happened through Cominform (1947-1956) and various international meetings of communist parties. In order to understand the current situation of the international communist movement today it is worthwhile to mention some post-war developments.
First of all, we must remark that the antifascist struggle led to the overthrow of bourgeois power in central and eastern Europe, often also thanks to the contribution of the Red Army. But elsewhere turning the struggle against imperialist war or for national liberation (in the colonies) in a struggle for the conquest of power failed.
Second, between 1960 and 1990 Eurocommunism gets the upper hand in a number of parties. It is an opportunist current where the revolutionary road is discarded and the formation of anti-monopolistic, democratic governments within capitalism is set as a goal, often under the pretext of special national conditions. Sometimes parties did this in a clearly reformist framework, i.e. to reach socialism through parliamentary reforms. Other parties presented it as intermediate step in a revolutionary process. The Italian, French and Spanish parties are examples of big communist parties that were transformed to social-democratic parties, but the influence of these positions was global.
Third, certain opportunist positions slowly gained the upper hand in the Communist Party of the Soviet-Union from the 20th congress in 1956, where e.g. the so-called ‘democratic way to socialism’ was accepted, i.e. through bourgeois parliament. Perhaps the post-war correlation of forces was overestimated and imperialism was underestimated. In the next decennia capitalist elements are slowly reintroduced in the economy. In the end, this led to the contrarevolutions around 1990. In conditions of the construction of socialism, opportunism develops into a contrarevolutionary power.
The contrarevolution was a hard defeat. Many communist parties were further transformed to social-democratic parties or dissolved themselves, like the CPN. It is important to understand that the cause of the contrarevolutions and the crisis in the international communist movement lies in opportunism, and not the other way around.
International cooperation by the NCPN and CJB and the struggle for rebuilding the international communist movement
The international communist movement has not yet overcome the crisis since the contrarevolution. But there are visible steps being made and there are various forms of international cooperation that contribute to that, in which the NCPN and CJB steadily participate, despite our limited resources.
Since 1998 there is the yearly International Meeting of Communist and Worker’s Parties (IMCWP). This year it was in Izmir (Turkey) with the theme: ‘100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist International; the fight for peace and socialism continues!’ Noteworthy is that several parties cooperate and publish a theoretical journal, the International Communist Review, in which various issues are studied. The NCPN does not write for this, but it certainly is worthwhile to look into.
There is also the yearly European Communist Meeting that is organised on initiative of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). This happened on the 9th of December and was mainly about anticommunism and falsification of history by the EU, as well as the regroupment of the labour movement. There is also a closer cooperation under the name Communist Initiative, of which the NCPN is not yet a member but that we are following.
The last years the CJB consistently participates in the Meeting of European Communist Youth Organisations (MECYO), that took place in Austria. The CJB has an observer status at the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY).
On these international meetings communist parties exchange information on the current developments in their countries, share practical experiences from the struggle and exchange thoughts on all kinds of issues. The International Bureau of the NCPN and CJB that was build up in the last years plans the international work of the party and the CJB, discusses international developments and ties to make this collective in the party.
What we as NCPN may really be proud of however, is that years ago we took the initiative of organising the Four-parties conference. A unique form of collaboration in the international communist movement, where German, Luxembourg and Belgian comrades meet yearly to openly exchange experiences and have discussions. This year the Four-countries conference was in Brabant last march.
International solidarity today
The history of the labour movement shows clearly: against the capitalists and their imperialist alliances, such as the EU and NATO, who do not hesitate to use violence and war to safeguard their profits, stand the normal people that long for a society without wars, poverty and exploitation. Against imperialism stands the labour movement and the communist parties, that fight against war and imperialism, for peace and socialism.
The NCPN and CJB struggle against imperialist wars, show solidarity with the people of Syria that suffers from imperialist war for eight years now, as well as the people of Yemen. We show solidarity to the peoples that face occupation, e.g. in Palestine and Cyprus. We condemn the intervention in internal affairs of other countries and show solidarity to the people of Venezuela and Bolivia. We struggle against the economic blockade against Venezuela and take active part in the campaign Hands of Venezuela. We show solidarity with socialist Cuba and demand an end to the decades-long blockade by the US. We fight against anticommunism and the attempt to prohibit communist parties and persecute communists in Poland other countries.
100 years Comintern – the struggle for peace and socialism continues
The successes and mistakes of the Communist International provide important lessons for the struggle today against imperialism fascism and war. Extensive study of the history of the Dutch an international communist movement is necessary to learn and overcome wrong positions, to enrich our theory and improve our practical activity. The Communist International is a symbol of international solidarity and proletarian internationalism, and with those principles the NCPN and CJB continue the struggle for peace and socialism.
 Lenin (1919), The Third International and its place in history, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/apr/15.htm.
 Lenin (1915), What Next? On the Tasks Confronting the Workers’ Parties with Regard to Opportunism and Social-Chauvinism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/jan/09.htm.
 Lenin (1922), We have paid too much, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/apr/09.htm.