Published by Verso

Glyn Ford on the Comintern

Travellers of the World Revolution: A Global History of the Communist International – Bridgette Studer

Comintern’s 30,000 crusaders travelled far in their short quarter century. Called into existence in 1919 it was arbitrarily axed by Stalin in 1943 as a sop to Roosevelt and Churchill as the troika started the carve up of the post-war world. The first World Congress in March 1919 was propaganda show as the Third International was launched with scarce a representative of a foreign Communist Party in sight. The second, in July/August 1920, in contrast was down to business as 217 delegates from 37 countries and 67 organisations – from China to Ireland, Mexico to Iran – learnt communism Soviet-style. They aimed to ride Europe’s revolutionary wave, preparing and executing a global civil war of class against class under the command of a cadre of combat ready professionals.

The need was to recruit and train, proselytise and deploy. Revolutionaries were manufactured in a series of training schools: the Communist University of the Toilers of the East – where Hô Chi Minh was to graduate; the Communist University of the National Minorities of the West; and slightly later the International Lenin School that was to gift East Germany Walter Ulbricht. Alongside, Moscow’s missionaries fanned out around the globe nurturing, shaping and instructing new parties – where they were to be found – and creating them where they weren’t. With the next revolution imminent there were to be expeditionary operations to seize the time. The question was where?

Germany in 1923 was first up as Comintern’s operatives attempted to leverage revolt out of chaos, choreographing a parody of the October Revolution. Even in failure Berlin became the second city of communism, where the future was waiting to be born until it was beheaded in 1933 by the Nazis; even if the official line was Hitler was the harbinger of final victory. Next came China (1926-27) where Stalin chose Chiang Kai-shek and his Guomindang to lead the Communist Party of China (CPC) to the slaughter, which followed in 1927 when Chiang turned on his subordinates.

Between times an anti-imperial, anti-racist and national liberation gambit was played with the recognition class was not the sole driver of violent resistance. They set up a military training school to prepare an armed expedition to India. There was a Baku Congress for the “Peoples of the East” whose Pan-Islamic participants paid scant attention to calls for women’s equality. John Reed had early raised the “Negro Question” with Lenin, but it was not until 1930 that the International Congress of “Negro Workers” took place in Hamburg. 

Spain’s civil war (1936-39) was Comintern’s last throw, when an initially hesitant Stalin threw Moscow’s weight behind the Republicans and the tiny Communist Party. Anarchic volunteers were swiftly marshalled and corralled into the heroic International Brigades (IB), all closely watched over by Moscow’s heretic hunters. Of the 35,000 volunteers 31,000 fought with the IB under the eyes of 2200 Soviet agents from a ramified gaggle of groups. To avoid frightening the governments of the UK, France and US, Stalin limited ambition to restoration, not revolution. When the unorthodox POUM (Workers” Party of Marxist Unification) and its 300,000 members argued revolution was the road to victory they were suppressed, in the aftermath of Barcelona’s 1937 May Days, as Trotskyist agents of fascism. All a bit rich from those that not so long after gave the world the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-41). 

There was real enthusiasm amongst Comintern’s operatives to escape Moscow, for the Great Terror had started. But sanctuary in Spain was death postponed, not death averted. Dead men at the Front, awaiting leave to die. Working for Comintern was always double jeopardy held in the vice between friends and enemies. The first proved more deadly. Of the 320 Comintern agents named in Travellers of the World Revolution a third died a violent death; 64 in Stalin’s purges and 25 at the hands of the Nazis, the Guomindang, Japan and Franco. Stalin even helped with the latter. In February 1940 he deported 30 militants tainted with Trotskyism into the hands of Hitler. The survivors were apostates. Of the non-Soviet delegates to the second World Congress only 40% were still in the Party in 1933 and less than 25% on Comintern’s dissolution in 1943. Infamous – Willi Münzenberg, Tina Modetti, M. N. Roy, Agnes Smedley or Richard Sorge – or unknown they all suffered the same fates.

Studer is close to listing the Comintern as failure. Certainly, the Germany, China and Spain expeditions did little to burnish its image. Nevertheless, it stole opportunity in keeping the West and the rest off-balance, misdirecting them away from we know not what mischief.


  1. Hi, Glyn; long time since we last met. Good review. Are you still in Tameside? Are you still in touch with Salma?

    John Tummon

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