Lenin Establishes the Comintern Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Vladimir Ilich Lenin founded the Third or Communist International as a mechanism for the Soviet Communist Party to control the international socialist movement. This led to a worldwide split in the working class between moderate and radical socialist parties.

Summary of Event

World War I produced a deep split in Europe’s socialist movement. The more moderate elements, who constituted a majority, generally supported their governments’ participation in the war. A smaller, more radical group of socialists opposed any support of the war on the grounds that it was an imperialistic conflict. This division paralyzed the Second International, Second International the organization that united most of the world’s socialist political parties. Vladimir Ilich Lenin belonged to the radical fringe of socialistic politics. When the war ended, he and other Russian leaders sought to create a new revolutionary organization that would preempt a revival of the Second International. Comintern Third International Communist Party;Soviet Union Bolsheviks;Comintern [kw]Lenin Establishes the Comintern (Mar. 2-6, 1919) [kw]Comintern, Lenin Establishes the (Mar. 2-6, 1919) Comintern Third International Communist Party;Soviet Union Bolsheviks;Comintern [g]Russia;Mar. 2-6, 1919: Lenin Establishes the Comintern[04690] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 2-6, 1919: Lenin Establishes the Comintern[04690] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 2-6, 1919: Lenin Establishes the Comintern[04690] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 2-6, 1919: Lenin Establishes the Comintern[04690] Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Comintern Zinovyev, Grigory Yevseyevich Trotsky, Leon

For Lenin and his close colleague Leon Trotsky, the need for a new revolutionary organization to spread a radical vision of socialism was not an academic issue; they believed such an organization was central to preserving communism in Russia and thus their own power. Both leaders adhered to a theory—developed by Trotsky—known as the theory of permanent revolution, according to which the revolution in Russia would survive only if it extended to other countries and ultimately around the world. Russia in 1919 was in a desperate condition. Civil war had broken out, the economy was nearing collapse, and most of Europe was hostile to Russia’s new regime. If the revolution were to survive, it would have to spread, and the most likely place for that to happen was in Germany.

Lenin and Trotsky believed that Germany in 1918 had been as ripe for revolution as Russia had been in 1917. Defeated in war, Germany was demoralized. The economy was suffering badly because of the Allied Powers’ wartime blockade. Politically, the country was unstable. When the German emperor, William II, abdicated in November, 1918, political power fell to the German Social Democratic Party, the largest political party in the German parliament. However, as was the case throughout Europe, Germany’s socialists were split. The larger, more moderate faction of Germany’s socialists was led by Philipp Scheidemann, Scheidemann, Philipp who proclaimed the establishment of a German republic. Karl Liebknecht, Liebknecht, Karl the leader of the more radical left-wing socialists, declared Germany to be a Soviet state. The struggle between these two factions was decided ultimately in favor of the moderate majority, in large part because of the backing of the German army.

Germany’s first socialist chancellor was Friedrich Ebert. Ebert, Friedrich From the beginning, Ebert’s policy was to look to the West for reconciliation and to shun a close association with Lenin’s Bolshevik government. Moscow came to view Ebert’s government as an adversary and determined to overthrow it by supporting the radical wing of Germany’s socialists. Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed that, however small, these forces could produce a second German revolution and thereby contribute to the survival of Russia’s revolution.

The radical core of Germany’s socialists was the Spartakusbund. In December, 1918, the Spartakusbund convened its first legal congress in Berlin. To influence the decisions of the congress, Moscow sent Karl Radek, Radek, Karl a communist with considerable experience in German revolutionary activities. Radek was influential in the transformation of the Spartakusbund into a separate political party, which took the name Communist Party of Germany. Communist Party;Germany Lenin saw the party as the potential spearhead for revolution in Germany, a revolution that would displace Germany’s moderate Social Democrats and spur revolution in other industrial states.

As these events were taking place, the leaders of the Second International were preparing for a new congress to convene in February, 1919. It was important to the Russians that a Third International be organized to displace a revived Second International. In January, 1919, they therefore invited a number of left-wing socialist parties and organizations to meet in Moscow for the purpose of establishing a new international. Most of those invited were located in Europe, but a small number of North American and Asian groups were also invited.

The First Congress of what was to become known as the Comintern convened from March 2 to March 6, 1919, in Moscow. A total of thirty-five persons participated, most of them handpicked Russians from left-wing splinter groups already resident in Moscow. Only five delegates—representing Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden—actually came from abroad. As an international congregation, the affair was almost a farce, but it accomplished Lenin’s goal of creating a framework through which the Russian Bolsheviks could control radical forces abroad, particularly in Germany. Gregory Yevseyevich Zinovyev, one of Lenin’s closest associates in the Bolshevik Party, was selected to be the first president of the Comintern.

Although formally created in 1919, the Comintern did not acquire its structure or establish its rules for governance until its Second Congress, which met in July, 1920, again in Moscow. Unlike the earlier congress, the second was a large and far more widely representative affair. More than two hundred delegates participated, including many from political movements of some importance. A general mood of optimism prevailed at this congress in part because of the success (albeit temporary) of the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)[Polish Soviet War]

The most important accomplishment of the Second Congress was the formulation of twenty-one conditions required of any party, group, or faction seeking admission to the Comintern. These conditions were designed to be unacceptable to moderate socialist leaders and thus to compel the more radical elements of the working-class movement to split off from those deemed to be reformist. The twenty-one conditions included the following: Each party had to organize itself along the same lines as the Communist Party of Russia (i.e., according to the principles of “democratic centralism”), take over the trade unions, carry out systematic propaganda in support of proletarian revolution, remove all reformists and moderates from all positions in the party, engage in both legal and illegal activities, supervise the activities of its members in parliament, denounce pacifism and the League of Nations, support colonial liberation movements, conduct periodic purges of its members, support Soviet Russia and all existing Soviet republics, accept all decisions of the Comintern as binding, take the name “Communist Party,” and expel any members who rejected the twenty-one conditions. Russian dominance was assured by the location of the headquarters of the Comintern in Moscow.

The Second Congress of the Comintern was followed by activities throughout much of the socialist world that produced splits between radicals and moderates into communist and socialist parties, respectively. When the Comintern convened its Third Congress in June and July of 1921, the bright hopes of the summer of 1920 had faded. In Europe, once the forefront of Soviet hopes for a working-class revolution, the prospects for success subsided, and when revolution did come in the 1930’s in Germany, it brought not communism but fascism.


Although the Comintern failed to bring about a single successful revolution, its establishment had important consequences for socialist politics globally and for relations between the Soviet Union and the West. The twenty-one conditions that parties had to meet to gain membership in the Comintern brought about a split in the working class throughout much of the world, particularly in Europe. Socialist forces became divided into moderate, reformist (and democratic) political parties—Social Democrats, Socialists, Labor—and communist parties committed to social revolution. Ultimately, this division of Europe’s working class weakened it politically as the communists became as hostile to the reformist socialists as they were to the bourgeoisie.

Another consequence of the Comintern’s activities was the poisoning of relations between the Soviet Union and the other Great Powers in the interwar period. For example, the normalization of relations between London and Moscow was impeded for half a decade by the publication in October, 1924, of a forged letter purportedly from Zinovyev to the British Communist Party giving instructions for subversive activities. In 1943, Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, dissolved the Comintern in order to allay the misgivings of his nation’s allies. Comintern Third International Communist Party;Soviet Union Bolsheviks;Comintern

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borkenau, Franz. World Communism: A History of the Communist International. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962. Chronicles the failure of the Comintern from an insider’s perspective; the author was a member of the German Communist Party in the 1920’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braunthal, Julius. 1914-1943. Vol. 2 in History of the International. New York: Praeger, 1967. Comprehensive and detailed account written by a socialist who was active in the International. A standard reference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennan, George. Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Presents a brilliant account of Soviet foreign policy. Chapter ll covers the Comintern. Offers particularly valuable insights on Germany.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDermott, Kevin, and Jeremy Agnew. The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Focuses on the Comintern’s central leadership and Europe. Shows that communist parties were not always subservient to Moscow.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Utilizes archival materials that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union in discussing Russia during the period from 1918 to 1924. Chapter 4 covers the Comintern.

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Categories: History