Party organization in Lenin’s Comintern

By John Riddell

January 7, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary — Many socialist groups today seek to shape their organizational principles in the spirit of “democratic centralism” identified with V.I. Lenin. Yet as historian Lars Lih has demonstrated (“Fortunes of a Formula” and “Further Fortunes of a Formula”), Lenin himself used the term only occasionally, and then with widely varying emphasis. The formula’s meaning for socialists today is in fact derived mainly from its application by the Communist International (Comintern) in Lenin’s lifetime and under his guidance (1919–23).

This article will examine how this principle was expressed in the internal functioning of the Comintern’s national parties and also in their relationship to the Comintern’s leadership, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).

The shape of democratic centralism

The basic concept underlying “democratic centralism,” far from unfamiliar or complex, is in fact common to most voluntary organizations of working people. Its essence is simple: all group participants are engaged, either directly or through elected leaderships, in making collective decisions, and all are then obliged to help carry them out. This principle applies to workers organizing a sporting or social club as much as it does to a revolutionary socialist party. But internal democracy and discipline had a unique meaning in the Comintern that flowed from the nature of the International’s goal.

The parties of the Comintern aimed to educate, rally, and organize working people in a social revolution to overturn capitalist power and institute workers’ rule. The Russian revolution of 1917 was taken as a model of what might be achieved in the near future. This revolutionary task had to be carried out in the teeth of fierce opposition by the present ruling elite, which defended its power using every available means – from police repression to murderous military assault. A breakdown in membership discipline – that is, a failure to carry out agreed decisions – could be catastrophic for both the party as a whole and for its individual members. Disciplined functioning by members was essential not only to success but to survival.

A revolutionary party’s course of action is not predetermined; it must be deduced from the social and political context and the lessons of experience. Policy flows not from leadership decisions alone but from perceptions of the party ranks. The authority of leadership bodies flow from a democratic election process based on membership discussion of the party’s course of action.

Most revolutionary socialist groups and parties embrace these concepts, viewing them as the lesson of experience in the epoch of the Russian revolution a century ago. They often view it as an inheritance from the Bolshevik party of Russia and its central leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The Bolshevik experience

Two articles by historian Lars Lih survey the use of term “democratic centralism” in writings of Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks from 1905, when the term was first used, until 1923.

As Lih points out, Russian socialists attempted to apply a concept exemplified by the pre-1914 Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). In Russia, it was applied by both the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions of Russian Social Democracy, but only during the limited time period of 1905-08 when socialists enjoyed a measure of democratic freedom. Apart from that interlude, severe tsarist oppression made it impossible for socialists to carry out democratic elections of party leaderships and very difficult for them to operate in a centralized fashion.

The Bolsheviks first invoked “democratic centralism” in a conference resolution, adopted late in the revolutionary year of 1905, that strongly emphasized the “democratic” nature of this policy:

Recognizing as indisputable the principle of democratic centralism, the Conference considers the broad implementation of the elective principle necessary; and, while granting elected centres full powers in matters of ideological and practical leadership, they are at the same time subject to recall, their actions are to be given broad publicity [glasnost], and they are to be strictly accountable for these activities (quoted in Lih, “Fortunes of a Formula”).

Thereafter, except for one letter to U.S. socialists in 1915, Lenin did not discuss the term democratic centralism until 1920-21, when circumstances had vastly changed. During the later period, Lih states, Lenin’s use of the term strongly emphasized the centralist imperative:

Lenin used the term in various discussions and debates that arose in response to the new and unforeseen challenges of acting as a ruling party. Didn’t the party have to defend a single line when intervening in “non-party” venues such as trade unions?  Didn’t the party have a duty to ensure that uniform policies were enforced throughout the length and breadth of the land? And so on. (“Fortunes of a Formula”)

There is barely any connection, Lih concludes, between the meaning of the term as used by Lenin in 1906-7 and in 1920-1. Democratic centralism “is in essence a homonym: two distinct formulas that use the same words.”

But Lenin’s mentions of the term are too limited to have given rise, on their own, to the “democratic centralism” concept that is embraced by many socialist groups today. The concept was certainly part of the Bolshevik vocabulary, but socialists’ understanding of this term today is chiefly an inheritance from the Communist International.

The Comintern embraces centralism

The Communist International (Comintern) was founded in 1919 in a spirit of rebellion against the hypocrisy of the Second International, whose leadership had betrayed its program and congress decisions at the outbreak of world war in 1914. Forces attracted to the task of building a new, revolutionary International demanded that it be something quite different and new. The new global movement must do what it said it would do, with no gap between word and deed. The term used by Its members to describe this consistency was “centralism.”

At the Comintern’s brief and preliminary March 1919 founding congress in Moscow, no attempt was made to codify this principle. Aside from selection of a provisional Executive Committee, all organizational issues were referred to the subsequent world congress.[1]

The Second Congress took place in Moscow fifteen months later, in July–August 1920.[2] The three-week event brought together 218 delegates from 37 countries to lay down the International’s basic programmatic and organizational principles. The need for centralism was often cited in the congress, usually with reference to the International as a whole. Many delegates stressed their desire that the Comintern function as a single, centralized party, directed by a general staff based – at least initially – in Moscow. But some of the forces seeking to join the Comintern were unfamiliar with or resistant to concepts of organizational discipline.

Lenin set the tone for the congress on this issue through a short passage in his pamphlet, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Written for the congress, the pamphlet was provided to the delegates in translation when they arrived in Moscow. Lenin called on Communist forces to build:

a rigorously centralised party with iron discipline, [with] the ability to become masters of every sphere, every branch, and every variety of political and cultural work.[3]

Following an opening session on the world situation, the Second Congress addressed the nature of its affiliated parties as its first item of business. Its theses on this point, adopted in the third session, stress the urgency of centralism.

14. The Communist Party must be organized on the basis of democratic centralism. The most important principle of democratic centralism is election of the higher party organs by the lowest, the fact that all instructions by a superior body are unconditionally and necessarily binding on the lower ones, and the existence of a strong central party leadership whose authority over all leading party comrades in the period between one party congress and the next is universally accepted.”[4]

This passage – balanced and flexible in its wording – is likely the most influential definition of democratic centralism expressed by the early Comintern. The Second Congress reiterated this principle in another resolution, whose main purpose was to exclude opportunist forces seeking to enter the International, namely the Twenty-One Conditions for Admission to the Comintern. Condition #12 reads:

12. Parties belonging to the Communist International must be organized on the basis of the principle of democratic centralism. In the present epoch of intensified civil war, the Communist Party will be able to fulfill its duty only if it is organized in the most centralized way possible and governed by iron discipline, and if its central leadership, sustained by the confidence of the party membership, is strong, authoritative, and endowed with the fullest powers (emphasis in original).[5]

The reference to a  Communist party functioning in an “epoch of intensified civil war” evoked the experience of the Bolshevik Party of Russia, which faced counterrevolutionary revolts and invasions that were still under way when the Second Congress convened. The Bolsheviks had responded to this peril through a combination of firm discipline and vigorous internal debate on major issues before the revolution. On occasion, members joined in temporary internal tendencies or factions. Party members’ confidence in the democratic resolution of differences, through open discussion and elected conventions, was indispensable to maintenance of party unity under emergency conditions.

12. Parties belonging to the Communist International must be organized on the basis of the principle of democratic centralism. In the present epoch of intensified civil war, the Communist Party will be able to fulfill its duty only if it is organized in the most centralized way possible and governed by iron discipline, and if its central leadership, sustained by the confidence of the party membership, is strong, authoritative, and endowed with the fullest powers (emphasis in original).[5]

Condition #16 extended the principle of democratic centralism to the International as a whole, while setting limits to its application:

All decisions by congresses of the Communist International as well as by its Executive Committee are binding on all parties that belong to the Communist International…. At the same time, of course, in 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 to which such decisions are possible.

The last two of these early Comintern descriptions are unbalanced in the same way as the later statements of Lenin cited by Lih: centralism is stressed much more than the principle of democratic leadership selection, while the norms of collective policy discussion are omitted entirely.

The somewhat imbalanced presentation of democratic centralism in these two Second Congress resolutions responded to a challenge posed in absorbing the mass workers’ parties seeking admission, especially those in France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Many members of these parties, while sincere in their revolutionary aspirations, were hostile to the bureaucratic “centralism” that they associated with Social Democratic leaders that had allied with capitalist governments during the war. These parties seeking admission included some leaders, like Marcel Cachin and Jean Longuet in France, Bohumir Šmeral in Germany, and Wilhelm Dittmann in Germany, who bore a share of responsibility for this historic betrayal.

Socialists coming to the Comintern from these parties – the French SFIO, the German USPD, the Czech SPD – were imbued with the democratic traditions that predominated in the pre-1914 Second International and that had inspired internationalist currents during the war. By and large, they had a strong grasp of internal democracy but were less convinced of centralism. The congress decisions quoted here sought to address this imbalance.

The 1921 Theses on Organization

Following the Second World Congress, mass socialist parties or factions joined the Comintern in Germany, France, Italy, and Czechoslovakia. The process of integrating these forces was marked by major problems and setbacks, discussion of which dominated the Third World Congress convened in June 1921. (See “The Comintern’s Great Turn of 1920-21”) The congress addressed the question of party organization through a major text, “Theses on the Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties,” drafted by Otto Kuusinen under the supervision of and with major input from Lenin.[6]

Historian Paul Le Blanc provides us with a collection of key passages in this resolution that illustrate the resolution’s respect for self-acting national leaderships and encouragement of flexible engagement in workers’ struggles. (Quotations are excerpted from Paul Le Blanc, “Democratic Centralism in the Communist International.”) Le Blanc’s selection of illustrative passages from the document is worth reproducing:

Far from being a dogmatic effort to impose ‘the Russian model’ on all Communist parties, there is an insistence on relative national autonomy:

There is no immutable, absolutely correct structure for Communist parties. The conditions of proletarian class struggle are variable and subject to a process of constant change. In line with these changes, the organization of the proletarian vanguard must also constantly seek appropriate forms. Similarly, the organization of each party must conform to the historically determined features of its country. (Thesis 2)

And then there is this insistence on leadership authority being rooted in flexibility and in close contact with the actual working class and its struggles:

To lead the revolutionary class struggle, the Communist Party and its leading bodies must combine great striking power with great capacity to adjust to the changing conditions of struggle. Successful leadership also requires close ties with the proletarian masses. Without such ties, the leaders will not lead them but at best only follow along after. (Thesis 5)

This insistence on engagement with the real, everyday struggles of the working class is a major point stressed in the document:

Communists make an enormous mistake by pointing to the Communist program or the armed struggle as excuses for passivity, scorn, or even hostility to workers’ current struggles for small improvements in their working conditions. No matter how small and modest the demands may be that the workers now pose for struggle against the capitalists, this is never cause for the Communists to stand aloof from the struggle. Of course, our agitation should not give the impression that we Communists blindly instigate unwise strikes or other rash actions. However, among the workers in struggle, the Communists should always earn the reputation of being the most competent comrades-in-arms. (Thesis 24)

One of the most important aspects of the document is its warning against the very type of centralism that has all-too-often been put forward as ‘Leninism’:

Democratic centralism in a Communist Party should be a true synthesis and fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy. This fusion can be achieved only on the foundation of constant and common activity and struggle by the entire party. (Thesis 6)

In a Communist Party, centralization should not be formal or mechanical. It should relate to Communist activity, that is, to the formation of a strong, agile, and also flexible leadership.

A formal or mechanical centralization would concentrate ‘power’ in the hands of a party bureaucracy, lording it over the other members and the revolutionary proletarian masses which are outside the party…. (Thesis 6)

The resolution criticizes the lack of genuine (as opposed to ‘formal’) democracy, a deficiency common in the parties of the Second International. It tells us:

In the organizations of the old, non-revolutionary workers’ movement, a pervasive dualism developed, similar to that of the bourgeois state, between ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘people’. Under the paralyzing influence of the bourgeois environment, functionaries became estranged from members, a vibrant collaboration was replaced by the mere forms of democracy, and the organizations became split between active functionaries and passive masses. Even the revolutionary workers’ movement cannot avoid being influenced to some degree by the formalism and dualism of the bourgeois environment. (Thesis 6)

Warnings against the wrong kind of centralism are repeated more than once:

Optimal centralization of party activity is not aided by dividing up the party leadership schematically into a hierarchy with many different levels arrayed one above the other.’ (Thesis 44)

Instead, democratically-elected committees in working-class districts and regions should guide the work of the organisation in those localities, suggesting a high degree of relative autonomy within the organisation. This is projected as a way of providing political leadership in a manner which ensures that close contact is maintained between it and the broad masses of Party members in the various locales. 

The central proposal of the Theses on how to attain such a “synthesis and fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy” is “the duty of Communists to be active so as to achieve the unity of the entire organization in collective thought and action.” The bulk of the document. beginning  with Thesis 8, presents structural guidelines for the implementation of this concept.

Inner-party democracy

Theses 47 to 51 present principles for democratic functioning within the party, including the following points.

Thesis 47:

  • [Answerability] The central leadership of the party … is responsible to the party’s convention and to the leadership of the Communist International….  
  • [Inclusivity] [W]hen electing the central leadership, minority points of view on significant political issues should not be excluded. On the contrary, they should be encompassed in the leadership as a whole through their best representatives.
  • [Working majority] Whenever possible, however, the small [day-to-day] leadership should be homogeneous in outlook. In addition, in order to lead firmly and confidently, it should not have to rely only on its own authority but rather be backed by a numerically clear majority in the leadership as a whole….

Thesis 49:

  • [Right to be heard] … Every party unit and committee and every single member has the right to express their wishes and make proposals, comments, and complaints at any time directly to the party central leadership or the International.

Thesis 51:

  • [Internal debate] Party members are obligated always to conduct themselves, in all their public activity, as disciplined members of a combat organisation. When disagreements arise over a course of action, these should, if possible, be settled within the party before acting.
  • [Breadth of discussion] In order to ensure that every party decision will be carried out energetically by all party units and members, the broadest possible range of members should be involved in considering and deciding every question.
  • [Public debate] The party and its leading bodies have the responsibility of deciding whether and to what extent questions raised by individual comrades should be discussed publicly (newspapers, lectures, pamphlets).
  • [Maintaining unity] Even when some members consider a decision of the party or its leadership to be wrong, they must bear in mind in their public activity that the worst breach of discipline and the worst mistake in struggle is to disrupt the unity of the common front.
  • [Loyalty] The highest duty of every member is to defend the Communist Party and, above all, the Communist International, against all enemies of communism. Anyone who forgets this and publicly attacks the party or the Communist International must be treated as an enemy of the party.

In line with these principles, organizational splits among Communists during its early years were quite rare, and when they took place, the world movement sought to bring its moral authority to bear in an attempt to heal the breach.

For a discussion of the application of such principles today, see Party Democracy in Lenin’s Comintern– and Now.

A campaign party

The 1921 theses are rooted in the concept, originally developed by the SPD and other parties of the pre-1914 Second International, that the socialist party’s activity should be organized around a succession of political campaigns, each one limited in duration but engaging the entire spectrum of party resources. The Comintern resolution stressed that the entire membership should be engaged in these campaigns, proposing this involvement in part as a barrier to the bureaucratization that infected the mass parties of the Second International.

Thesis 6, as noted, calls for “a true synthesis and fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy,” which “can be achieved only on the foundation of constant and common activity and struggle of the entire party.”

Section 3 of the theses therefore proclaims “Communists’ obligation to be active.” A Communist party “should ask of everyone in its ranks to commit their energy and time to the party, to the extent possible under given circumstances” (Thesis 10). Each member should “belong to a small working group, be it a committee, collective, fraction, or cell” and “take part in general meetings of the local organisation.” (Thesis 11).

Membership energies are to be utilized, Thesis 31 explains, in “organizing political struggles” – that is, mobilization of all party resources around a specific goal:

Even if the party is still weak, it can still take advantage of major political events or strikes that shake the entire economy in order to carry out well-prepared radical propaganda initiatives. When the party decides on such an initiative, it must commit all the energy of its branches and sectors to this campaign.

All the connections that the party has acquired through the work of its cells and working groups should be used to hold meetings in the main centres where political organising or a strike movement is under way. (Thesis 31)

The first great campaigns of this type, organized to halt capitalist military intervention against the Soviet government and to bring material assistance to the impoverished Soviet republic, were strikingly successful. Such campaigns heightened the movement’s striking power and facilitated working alliances with non-Communist forces. In addition, campaigns broadened the party’s capacity to draw rank and file members into active party work.

Applying democratic centralism

The Comintern’s 1921 organizational theses, were next mentioned in a world congress by Lenin himself, in his address to the Fourth World Congress in 1922. At the end of what was to be his last speech to the world movement, he expressed concern regarding the resolution. Although “prepared to subscribe to every one of its fifty or more points,” Lenin said, the resolution was “too Russian” and incomprehensible to non-Russian Communists. “Everything in it is based on the Russian experience”; non-Russians “will not understand it” and “cannot carry it out.” Lenin said. “The most important thing for all of us, Russian and non-Russian comrades alike,” is to take time to study.[7]

Only Clara Zetkin spoke to his remarks. Highlighting Lenin’s remark “that we all have much to learn,” Zetkin interpreted this as an appeal for patience. Declaring that “to win time is to win everything,” Zetkin added a characteristically elegant quotation from the German poet Goethe: “Time is my estate, and time my field to plough.”[8]

Elsewhere in the congress, some comments by delegates seemed to restrict the range of opinion permissible in a Communist party. Bulgarian Communist Vasil Kolarov, for example, called for “a common conception regarding all great questions,” insisting that “deviating viewpoints will necessarily lead to indiscipline” – a formula that suggested the need for a monolithic movement.

Radek is quoted in the proceedings as referring to a “Third Congress resolution forbidding the formation of factions.” The congress record contains no mention of such a decision. Radek may possibly have been referring to Point 6 in the Third Congress organizational resolution, which did condemn “internal power struggles or efforts to dominate the party.” In fact, neither these words nor anything else in the resolution barred formation of a politically constituted faction.[9]

On the whole, however, the tone of Fourth Congress debates encouraged member parties’ initiative, internal democracy, and self-reliance.

Trotsky, for example, called the formation of factions in France a “normal and healthy response” under the circumstances, while Zinoviev, in his closing summary, noted that “minorities exist on this or that question (that is always the case).”[10]

Willi Münzenberg explained to the congress how the international campaign for material aid to the Soviet republic, which he headed, helped increase the proportion members drawn into active party work. In the Comintern parties numbering hundreds of thousands of members, Münzenberg said, members “are not all simply political activists. The moment the Communist Party is organised as an open party, which anyone won by our agitation can join, it wins a large number of forces who may well not be politically active in the purely political daily work.” Many of these inactive members, he said, could be won to participate in the aid campaign for Russia.[11]

Application of the Twenty-One Conditions

Only rarely did organizational disputes in the national sections draw the attention of the congresses or ECCI plenums, and these discussions focused mainly on shortcomings in applying the Twenty-One Conditions.

The most stubborn internal dispute in the early Comintern took place in the French section. After its formation in December 1920, the ECCI worked to promote a united leadership combining a number of hostile factions. Two weeks before the opening of the Fourth Congress, however, a French CP congress ended in deadlock, and all sides asked the World Congress to mediate.

At the congress, ECCI representatives argued in commission for a united leadership in France, including all factions and implementing the Twenty-One Conditions. These proposals met with stubborn resistance. The situation was unblocked by an initiative by Leon Trotsky, who called for enforcement of a Second World Congress decision to bar Communist membership in Freemasonry, a fraternal order that Communists viewed as a component of the capitalist ruling class. The Second Congress ban was an extension of the Twenty-One Conditions call for a clear break from bourgeois influences.

“There were Freemasons … in all three factions,” commission member Jules Humbert-Droz later commented. “Each of them would be equally affected by this decision.… Above all, the battle lines would shift: the Freemasons of all factions would unite against this decision of the International.[12]

The ban on Freemasons was incorporated in the commission’s ultimate proposal for a leadership based on proportional representation of all factions, with members nominated by the faction caucuses present in Moscow. The proposed list was submitted as a recommendation to the subsequent French party congress, which adopted it.[13]

Similar issues arose in the Norwegian and Swedish parties. In Norway, a group of party members studying in universities had formed an association to publish a magazine called Mot Dag (toward the dawn) critical of Comintern policy. The Fourth Congress ruled that in order to avoid harmful factionalism, the Mot Dag grouping must open its ranks to all students who belonged to the party.[14]

The 1923 Expanded ECCI Plenum considered a public controversy over religious beliefs that had arisen in the Swedish party. The plenum affirmed the Communist movement’s opposition to religious beliefs and organizations and ruled that its members must refrain from any form of religious propaganda.[15]

Apart from these incidents, the Comintern appeared by its Fourth Congress to have achieved something of an equilibrium in the application of democratic centralism in its member parties.

Centralism within the International

The achievement of such a balance, even if temporary, proved to be more difficult on the level of the Moscow leadership’s relations with national sections of the International. Following the Second Congress, disagreements appeared in the German section regarding whether to prioritize united-front efforts to bring workers together in struggle as opposed to initiatives in action carried out, at least initially, by the Communist party alone.

The conflict led to a leadership overturn in the German section in February 1921, followed the next month by the damaging defeat of the party’s “March Action” initiative. In both cases, questionable initiatives of ECCI emissaries played a major role. At the June-July 1921 world congress in Moscow, these events came in for intense debate, but the questionable role played in them by ECCI emissaries was not examined. The two incidents revealed dangers inherent to the Comintern’s concept of international centralism, but the issue remained unexplored. (See “The Comintern’s Great Turn of 1920-21”)

Six months after the Third Congress, the question of centralism in the Communist world movement was posed frontally by the Executive Committee’s adoption in December 1921 of the united front policy. The new policy committed the International to seek unity in action with social-democratic parties around basic demands to defend workers’ livelihoods against employer attacks.

A test of the new policy was posed by the call of the left social democratic “Vienna Union” (the “Two-and-a-Half International”) for a consultation with representatives of the Comintern and the right-wing social democratic Second International for an inclusive conference of the world workers’ movement. In response, the ECCI declared that the Comintern would participate.[16] However, the French and Italian, Comintern sections rejected united-front policy and did not join in Comintern efforts with regard to this united-front consultation. The Comintern statutes empowered the ECCI to override such national decisions, but it did not do so, relying instead on a process of discussion and shared experience.

When the Fourth World Congress convened in November 1922, Zinoviev’s opening report zeroed in on the International’s failure to join in efforts around the “Conference of the Three Internationals” initiative:

I must say that what the French and to some extent the Italian party did was a disruption of the international campaign that our organization had initiated. We should see that clearly and take the necessary measures.[17]

Despite Zinoviev’s statement, the congress did not propose any action in response to this incident.

A congress resolution on “Reorganization of the Executive Committee” reaffirmed the authority of ECCI envoys but stressed the need to provide them with precise written instructions. The resolution’s proposal for direct election of ECCI members by the congress was adopted after some debate; other structural proposals were not controversial. The issue of enforcing international centralism was not addressed.[18]

The report and discussion of this issue, however, touched on issues that weighed heavily in the International’s later evolution. Hugo Eberlein, as reporter, stressed the need “for the Comintern to become, more and more, a truly centralised world party” in which the sections “view the central leadership of the International as truly a leading body.” Bukharin, reporting on Norway, said of the Comintern that “we are on the way to a constantly increasing centralisation.” Josef Grün of Austria said the International was moving from a time of agitation to one of “intensive organisational reconstruction.” Zinoviev echoed this call in his summary, calling for a time of “rehabilitating the parties.”

None of these goals were pursued in the congress resolution on reorganising the ECCI. Thus, where Eberlein’s report had proposed empowering ECCI envoys to exercise “close supervision” of national sections, the resolution limited this to “special cases.” Eberlein’s report had specified that the newly constituted organisational bureau was to supervise the organisation of the sections; this did not appear in the resolution.

As for international discipline, Ernst Meyer saw it as rooted in the consciousness of member sections, a situation where “every sister party knows the others and, in its own activity, takes into account the reaction in the sister parties and the consequences for them.” Trotsky, sorting out the troubled affairs of the French party, took care to reaffirm its autonomy, presenting the congress’s role as providing “guidelines” and “advice.” In the many national disputes brought before the congress (e.g. Denmark, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia), its commissions sought to avoid a partisan stance and to unify the Communist forces in each country.[19]

1923 debate on international centralism

Seven months after the Fourth Congress, an enlarged ECCI Plenum conducted a general review of “limits” to the application of centralism in the International’s relations with its member parties. The discussion focused on relations with the Norwegian section

The Comintern’s affiliate in Norway was the Norwegian Labour Party, a mass federated organisation dating back to the pre-war Second International. Despite many promises to reorganise the party along the lines of the Twenty-One Conditions, its leadership had failed to do so. The Fourth Congress passed a forceful resolution, insisting again on compliance. Again, the Norwegian majority failed to act. At the 1923 enlarged ECCI plenum, delegates opted again for further discussion and organized an extensive debate of the underlying issues.

Much of the discussion on centralism at the plenum went in the direction of calling for increased ECCI involvement in parties’ local activity and tactics. However, no decision along these lines was adopted. Instead, the adopted resolution, focused on the Norwegian party, was careful not to encroach on the authority of its leadership in local matters. The plenum’s proposals for changes to the Norwegian party’s policy and structure were made in the form of recommendations.

After the failure of further ECCI efforts to reach agreement, the party majority brought matters to a head by voting in November 1923 to reject ECCI proposals. This triggered a walkout by a significant minority, which formed the Communist Party of Norway.

During the plenum, the leaderships of two major parties – in Italy and Bulgaria – were subjected to stinging criticism.

  1. In Italy, the Comintern’s section was held to have sabotaged a Fourth Congress decision to seek fusion with the Italian Socialist Party, long a Comintern supporter but social democratic in tradition. The ECCI voted to alter the party’s national leadership to secure representation within it of the Italian party’s pro-fusion minority. This decision was the first such ECCI intrusion into national leadership selection. However, the ECCI did not challenge the majority control of the section’s elected majority leadership. 
  2. In Bulgaria, the Communist Party had refused to defend the ruling radical peasant party against an attack by a murderous right-wing military coup. The ECCI report criticizing this failing was a stinging blow to the authority of the Bulgarian section’s leadership, but the ECCI plenum made no move to alter its composition.

Although the two plenum decisions respected the autonomy of the national sections in choosing their leadership, the plenum’s handling of the two crises was nonetheless questionable. The shortcomings of the national party leaderships in both countries had a common root cause – a failure to apply the Comintern’s policy of the united front. Yet this failing was not taken up by the ECCI reporters (Zinoviev and Radek) or in the subsequent discussion. In both cases the ECCI leadership in Moscow had failed to press the relevance of united-front policy to the Bulgarian and Italian communists and thus bore a share of responsibility for their failings. Silence on this issue suggested an evasion of the ECCI leaders’ responsibility, in the framework of democratic centralism, to submit their conduct for a searching review.

Balance sheet

The early Communist International is historically unique in terms of the size and character of its membership: dozens of nationally based revolutionary sections that included forces of diverse origins and viewpoints and whose membership often reached into six figures. During the early 1920s, an increasing number of these parties faced fierce repression. Still, to the degree possible, these parties maintained democratic functioning and revolutionary inclusivity.

In the early years, internal debates, including at the highest level – the global congresses – were marked by a spirit of unrestrained criticism and political controversy. The Executive Committee defended the movement’s unity, for the most part with success. Political agreement within the International grew in these years.

The need for centralism in the world movement was most often invoked in terms of the need for national sections to carry out decisions of the Comintern’s leading bodies. In practice, “centralism” was sometimes achieved in an opposite manner: “front-line” forces often took the lead. The early Comintern record shows many examples of correction through experiences of the national sections and the thinking of their worker ranks.

The record of the Fourth World Congress suggests that, by 1922, the influence of front-line parties was felt in determining not only national tactics but international strategy. Among the congress debates profoundly influenced by proposals from delegates of front-line parties were the following five points:

  • Resistance to fascism.
  • Transitional demands.
  • Workers’ and farmers’ government.
  • The anti-imperialist united front.
  • The united front issue as a whole.

United-front policy, in particular, evolved from experiences at the rank-and-file level (see “The Origins of United Front Policy”).

Based on the record, the decisive factor in genuine centralisation was thorough discussion and collaboration among authoritative national leaderships. For detailed development of this point, see “The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back.”)

The often proclaimed goal of integrating national sections into a single centralized global revolutionary party remained elusive. The calls to centralise authority in the ECCI’s hands failed to take into account limits imposed by the Comintern’s actual political dynamics. As Zetkin pointed out in a private letter to Lenin on 25 January 1921, the ECCI was “far too cut off” to do more than “recognise the broad lines of development and deduce basic conclusions.” The ECCI “cannot possibly survey all the concrete circumstances that must be considered in carrying out the guidelines.” This limitation “is understandable, but it leads to errors.”[20]

Zetkin’s warning must be understood in the context of the realities of workers’ international collaboration a century ago. Commercial air travel was as yet unavailable; written messages and reports were restricted to the speed of train or boat; electronic communication was constricted to the severe limits of a now-forgotten artefact: the telegram.

Even now, in the era of Internet and intercontinental air travel, another decisive obstacle remains. The goal of leading the working-class majority in establishing workers’ power has to be achieved – now as then – on the level of the national state. Achieving this goal demands close mutual understanding and confidence between leadership and working-class ranks is decisive. This must be achieved above all in the framework of the intervention of national parties in the class struggle of their country.

Centralism in the early Comintern was achieved above all through globally coordinated campaigns, such as the efforts to defend and aid the young Soviet republic, which were strikingly successful. In practice, the decisive force for centralism – that is, the International’s unity in action – was not so much “iron discipline” as the knitting together of initiatives in Moscow and in the front line parties in great global mobilizations.

A participant’s assessment

U.S. Communist James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the Comintern and a prominent advocate of international centralism in the 1920s, left us a vivid description of how international centralism in Lenin’s Comintern worked out in practice:

The leaders of the Russian Revolution had an absolutely decisive moral and political authority. There were Lenin and Trotsky and Zinoviev and Radek and Bukharin – new great names that the revolutionary workers of the world were recognising as the authentic leaders of the revolution. These were the men who set up, with the aid of a few others, the Comintern, the Third International.

They had state power in their hands. They had unlimited funds, which they poured out generously to subsidise and support the foreign parties. When there was a difference of opinion in any party, with two or three factions growing up, they could subsidise delegations to travel from any part of the world to Moscow. The differing groups could have full representation before the executive body to discuss the issues. The international leaders could get a real picture on the spot, hearing the representatives of the different tendencies themselves, before offering advice. And that’s what they mainly offered in the early days – advice, and very few orders.

Speaking of representation, I was a delegate to Moscow five times. And every time I was there, delegates from other factions in the American CP were also there. At the Sixth Congress in 1928, we had about 20 delegates from the US, representing all three factions, and the whole expense was paid by the Comintern.

After the degeneration of the Russian party and the emergence of Stalinism, the centralism of the Comintern – which Trotsky and Lenin had handled like a two-edged sword, which they didn’t want to swing carelessly – became in the hands of Stalin an instrument for suppressing all independent thought throughout the movement.[21]

Cannon also described how he and another representative of a minority current in the U.S. party at the Fourth Congress set out to win the Comintern leadership to a proposal to support his tendency’s proposal to dissolve his party’s parallel underground structures. Many members initially criticized this proposal as a violation of Point 3 in the Twenty-One Conditions: (“Create everywhere a parallel organizational apparatus that in the crucial hour can help the party discharge its duty to the revolution.”) Nonetheless, the arguments of the U.S. minority convinced the ECCI members and won the day.[22]

The creative power of international consultation did not receive much comment at the time – it was simply taken for granted. Nor did early Comintern members take note of what now strikes us as a unique strength of their International – its membership’s diversity in ideological training, experience, and outlook.

As for the organizational resolution of 1921, although rarely invoked in subsequent discussions, its evocation of a dynamic fusion of centralism and democracy was largely realized as member parties restructured their activity around a coherent pattern of mass campaigns.

A pattern of course correction through feedback from the front-line parties, little noticed at the times, is clearly evident in International’s stenographic records, documents, and resolutions, many of which are now available in volumes of the Comintern Publishing Project.

At the time, the Comintern’s democratic practices seemed self-evident. The dynamic fusion of centralism and democracy evoked in the 1921 resolution received, despite Lenin’s appeal, little further analysis. Such silences undercut resistance to bureaucratic pressures in the mid-1920s and after that ultimately pressed the Comintern into a monolithic mould. Nonetheless, at the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, the Comintern appeared to have achieved a measures of equilibrium in the application of democratic centralism within national sections.

Beginning at the Fifth World Congress in 1924, however, the Comintern’s central leaders campaigned for the extensive reorganization of its member parties (“Bolshevization”) along lines that radically reduced national autonomy and the scope for internal democracy while promoting the growth of bureaucracy in the Moscow center.[23]

The democratic centralism of the early Communist International thus remains today in large measure a hidden treasure, well worth the effort to discover.


[1]. See the brief report by Platten, in John Riddell, ed. Founding the Communist International, New York: Pathfinder, 1987, p. 256.

[2]. Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (2WC), New York, Pathfinder, 1991.

[3]. Lenin, “’Left-Wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder,” Appendix, in Collected Works, vol. 31, pp. 17-118.

[4]. Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (2WC), “Theses on the Role of the Proletarian Party,” New York, Pathfinder, 1991, p. 198.

[5]. 2WC, Theses on the Conditions for Admission,” 2:769.

[6]. Riddell, ed, To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International (3WC), Chicago: Haymarket, 2015,pp. 1–53, 978–1006.

[7]. Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International (4WC)Chicago: Haymarket, 2011, pp. 293–305.

[8]. 4WC, p. 337. For Goethe text in translation, see Peter Lang, Poems of East and West, 1998.

[9]. 4WC, p. 44 (Radek); 3WC, p. 979 (resolution).

[10]. For a discussion of democratic centralism at the Fourth Congress, see 4WC, pp. 41-45.

[11]. 4WC, p. 42.

[12]. Humbert-Droz, Jules, De Lénine à Staline, Neuchâtel: A la Baconnière, 1971, 119–20.

[13]. The Fourth Congress adopted three resolutions on the French Communist party, on organizationpolitical orientation, and “program of work and struggle,” which can be found in 4WC, 1013–17, 1123-32, 1194–8. 

[14].  4WC, pp. 1088-89.

[15].  Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922–1923 (hereinafter: Crossroads)Leiden: Brill, 2018, pp. 605-6)

[16]. Taber, Crossroads, pp. 222-4.

[17]. 4WC, p. 98.

[18]. 4WC, pp. 1133–7.

[19]. 4WC,pp. 41–45. 

[20]. 4WC, p. 45.

[21]. James P. Cannon, “Internationalism and the SWP,” in Speeches to the Party, New York: Pathfinder, 1973, pp. 73–4.

[22].  See Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, New York: Pathfinder, 1973, pp. 64–73.

[23]. For a critical analysis of Zinoviev’s role, see Joel Geier, “Zinoviev and the Degeneration of World Communism,” International Socialist Review, no. 93.