The Comintern’s encounter with syndicalism

by Ian Birchall • Published 25 July 2020

It is now over a hundred years since the Russian Revolution and the subsequent foundation of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919. The Comintern was created in response to a wave of revolt which swept across Europe (and to some extent other parts of the world) in the aftermath of the First World War. Sickened by four years of slaughter in the trenches, and angry at the corrupt and incompetent rulers who had sent them to die there, working people were enthused by the news of the Bolshevik victory.

Often they knew few details of what was happening in Russia. But what was important was a feeling of hope – hope that the old order was doomed to perish and that a new form of society based on equality and cooperation was coming into being. Learned disquisitions which dissect the minutiae of the rise of communism, but forget the fundamental factor of hope, fail to understand the dynamic that drove the whole process.

Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders knew that without support from workers elsewhere in the world the revolution was doomed to failure. Fourteen foreign armies had been sent into Russia to try to overthrow the new regime. But the Bolsheviks faced a fundamental problem. In 1914 a powerful and well-organised working-class movement had existed in Europe; but the vast majority of its leadership had opted to support the war, often joining pro-war governments with right-wing bourgeois parties. A new leadership was urgently needed to give shape and organisation to the rising revolt.

So the aim of the newly-founded Comintern was to create new parties which would break with the old organisations fatally compromised by their support for the war. It had to be done quickly – the fate of the Russian Revolution would be decided within just a few years. Initially there were signs of hope. In 1919 Communists took power, albeit briefly, in Hungary and Bavaria. Things moved very quickly. The Hungarian Communist Party was only founded in November 1918; by the following March it was in power. The next years saw a wave of factory occupations in Italy and a general strike in France. Between 1918 and 1923 Germany seemed to be hovering on the brink of revolution.

Later historians may look back and argue that the hopes of spreading the revolution were exaggerated. But life is not lived in retrospect; at the time the Bolsheviks and their allies elsewhere in the world believed they had a reasonable chance of success. They were only too well aware that if they failed there would be a new wave of reaction. Everything was at stake. This is the context in which both the achievements and the mistakes of the Comintern should be studied.

For many years the left, and especially its revolutionary wing, has stood in the shadow of the Comintern. It represented the highest point of struggle and organisation that the working-class movement had reached thus far, and so seemed to be a model to emulate. For many years Trotskyist organisations used to take pride in standing in the tradition of the “first four congresses of the Communist International” – that is, the years 1919-1922, when Lenin and Trotsky had played a leading role in the Comintern.

Yet the history of the Comintern has often been more invoked than understood. The rise of Stalin marked a sharp break in the Comintern’s history – many of those who had played a key role in the early years disappeared, either voluntarily or through expulsion. Most histories were written either by those who saw Stalin’s USSR as the legitimate heir of Leninism, or by Cold War apologists who viewed Leninism and Stalinism with equal hostility and failed to distinguish between them.

So it is only in recent years, with the end of the Cold War and the availability of the Russian archives, that it has been possible to get a more accurate picture of the reality of the Comintern. A team of researchers headed by John Riddell have produced the full minutes of the first four congresses, offering a more complex picture than was previously available.[1] Pierre Broué’s history of the Comintern, based on formidable erudition, combines a commitment to its basic values with a clear-sighted recognition of its weaknesses.[2] Important histories of the early years of the French and German Communist Parties have opened up new perspectives on their origins.[3]

We no longer look to the Comintern as a model for imitation; our revolution, if and when we make it, will be substantially different from October 1917. But that does not mean there is nothing to be learned from history. History involves both continuity and change, and a movement that is aware of its own past is better armed to make its future. In that spirit I want to look at one particular theme, the relation between the Comintern and revolutionary syndicalism.

Most accounts of the collapse of the European labour movement in 1914 tend to focus on the Second International, founded in 1889 with the encouragement of Engels. True, the Second International had within its membership the leading Marxists – Lenin and Luxemburg as well as Kautsky – and the main reformist leaders. But a substantial number of European and North American workers owed their allegiance to revolutionary syndicalism, which was well implanted in France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Ireland and the USA.[4] And the influence spread wider; one of the leading Bolshevik worker-intellectuals, Shlyapnikov, spent years working in France and came into contact with syndicalist ideas.[5]

It is important to be clear about what syndicalism was. Often the word has been used almost as a term of abuse. In Russia the Workers’ Opposition was denounced for “syndicalism”. More recently it has often been used to indicate an excessive preoccupation with trade-union activity at the expense of “politics”.

The syndicalism of the pre-1914 labour movement was somewhat more complex. French syndicalism, which had a considerable influence elsewhere, was embodied in the trade-union organisation the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour – CGT), founded in 1895. The basic principles of syndicalism were set out in the Charter of Amiens of 1906, which argued that trade-union organisation should be independent of any political organisation. It stated that “for syndicalism to achieve its maximum effect, economic action must be carried out directly against the bosses, the confederated organisations not having to involve themselves, as a union group, with parties and sects that can, outside and alongside, pursue social transformation in complete freedom”. The individual member was warned “to not introduce into the union the opinions he professes outside it”.[6] Émile Pouget, one of the main founding figures of French syndicalism, put it rather more bluntly – “Politics, we don’t need it! So if you really must, go and do it in the shithouse!”[7]

Pouget, together with Émile Pataud, wrote Comment nous ferons la révolution (How We Shall Make The Revolution, 1909), which, in form of a novel, imagined the transition to a socialist society: an army attack on workers led to a general strike, the dissolution of parliament and the taking over of all economic and social functions by the trade unions. A counter-revolutionary invasion was repulsed. The unions, and the unions alone, provided all the organisation and leadership necessary.

But when the syndicalists dismissed “politics”, they meant, essentially, the activities of political parties, and in particular their involvement in parliamentary elections. They did not mean more general political considerations about the organisation of society. Alfred Rosmer, one of the most perceptive writers associated with pre-1914 French syndicalism, later attempted to analyse this.

He argued that French syndicalism was a reaction against the Second International model of organisation, whereby the labour movement was divided into a political wing and an economic wing, which divided their responsibilities between them. He described this as

the direct legacy of the decrepit, thoroughly rotten and mendacious Second International, whose principle was as follows: “You shall concern yourself with political matters and we with economic matters; don’t stick your nose in our affairs and we won’t worry about yours”.[8]

In Rosmer’s terms this meant that the CGT was a “hybrid” organisation, in that it functioned both as a trade union and as a political party at the same time. This had the advantage of avoiding an artificial separation between economic and political issues. But it also entailed certain disadvantages. Because the CGT played the role of a party as well as of a union, it was more difficult for it to present itself as the organisation of all the employed, regardless of political or ideological differences, as the unions in Britain and Germany did. As a result, unionisation levels in France were much lower than in Britain or Germany – half a million members in France compared to four million trade unionists in Britain. The union came to be seen, not as the organisation of the whole class, but as an “active minority”. So when the union took the initiative in a strike or campaign, other non-unionised workers would follow its lead. (This tradition of minority unionism has persisted in France – in May 1968, during the biggest general strike in human history to that point, at least seven million out of the ten million strikers were not unionised.)

Although there were differences between syndicalism and anarchism, the syndicalist tradition owed something to anarchism. Whereas Marxism had focused on exploitation as the fundamental basis of class conflict, anarchism and syndicalism tended to put greater emphasis on the principle of authority. This could be a weakness but it could also be a strength. While the concept of exploitation was central to an understanding of the economic mechanisms of capitalism, the question of authority related more directly to the day-to-day experience of workers. In the workplace workers did not immediately experience the falling rate of profit, but rather the harshness and bullying of their manager or supervisor.

There was a strong moral current in syndicalism, in contrast to the more “scientific” pretensions of Marxism. One form taken by this was the principle of what the French syndicalists called the “refus de parvenir” (the refusal to make a career). An example of this was Maurice Dommanget, a founding member of the French Communist Party and one of the finest historians of his generation, who could have held a university post, but preferred to remain as a primary school teacher and trade-union activist.

But the syndicalist tradition did have serious weaknesses. These had already become apparent at the end of the nineteenth century, during the notorious Dreyfus affair, when a Jewish army officer was falsely accused of spying and exiled to Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Because of their predominant emphasis on class, many syndicalists argued that workers had no interest in defending a wealthy officer and that they should not take sides. There was anti-Semitism among the syndicalists, but primarily this was a question of stressing class to the exclusion of other forms of oppression. (Many of the Socialist leaders, like Jaurès, were equally slow to respond).

Likewise, with their emphasis on class struggle in the workplace, many syndicalists tended to ignore or give little importance to the question of women’s oppression. In 1912 in France there was the notorious case of Mme Couriau, who took a job in the printing industry. The union not only refused her membership, but expelled her husband for failing to persuade her to quit her job! Fortunately some syndicalists, notably Alfred Rosmer, spoke out vigorously against this.

But though there were serious weaknesses in the syndicalist tradition, syndicalists were in the forefront of struggle in several countries. In the United States the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were at the centre of many conflicts. In the Lawrence Massachusetts textile workers’ strike of 1912 there were 23,000 strikers speaking at least 14 different languages; by organising mass pickets and daily demonstrations with up to ten thousand participants, the IWW led the strikers to victory.

In Spain syndicalist Francisco Ferrer was well-known for setting up a network of independent, secular libertarian schools. He was executed on trumped up charges in 1909 following a week of insurrection in Barcelona, and there were militant demonstrations throughout Europe.

In France the syndicalists found themselves confronted with a violent and brutal state. The Clemenceau government had come to power on the basis of support for Dreyfus, but on several occasions used the army to break strikes, and strikers were shot. On one occasion most of the CGT leadership were arrested and imprisoned.

But precisely the confrontation with the state meant that the CGT had to develop a political as well as a trade-union response. One very important aspect of this was the way the CGT developed an anti-militarist strategy. Opposition to the use of the army for strike-breaking was one important aspect of this approach, but syndicalist anti-militarism went far beyond this. The possibility of a war with Germany, developing into a Europe-wide conflict with massive destruction, was part of the consciousness of many French workers. In 1910 syndicalist Alphonse Merrheim asked:

What will be necessary to make France go to war? To persuade it that it is in danger, that national rights have been trampled underfoot. …. Our chauvinistic press, well bribed, will find it easy to howl that French intervention is necessary.[9]

In 1902 the CGT published a pamphlet called the Nouveau Manuel du Soldat (the New Soldier’s Manual). This set out briefly the anti-militarist case, with arguments and quotations from various writers. Some 200,000 copies were distributed. The target audience was young men who were being called up for military service. The Manuel left it to their discretion what they should do – if they found the pressures of military life insupportable they should desert, but if they felt able to stay in the army and argue with their fellow-conscripts they should do that. But at all costs they should refuse to shoot on their fellow-workers.

But the CGT went beyond propaganda with the establishment of the sou du soldat (soldier’s sou – a sou was a coin of very low value, perhaps one hundredth of a day’s wage). A fund was created from contributions from trade-union members which was used to send to conscripts a small sum of money and some propaganda – the aim was to provide a few luxuries which might make their miserable existence more tolerable, but also to maintain contact between soldiers and the trade-union movement (by, for example, inviting them to visit the local trade-union centre). It was hoped to build up a body of anti-militarist activists within the conscript army.

Of course the numbers involved were far too small to take effective action in the event of war. But the anti-militarist agitation was sufficient to cause a certain degree of anxiety in government circles. The number of desertions increased, although not dramatically. When the primary teachers’ union voted to support the sou du soldat in 1912, there was considerable alarm.

There were different currents of opinion within the syndicalist movement, and many activists had an essentially reformist position. The most politically developed current was that around the journal La Vie ouvrière (Workers’ Life). Launched in 1909, this was inspired and edited by the remarkable militant Pierre Monatte, and appeared twice a month. It was aimed at what one might describe as worker intellectuals – trade-union activists with little formal schooling, but a serious desire to understand. These were people who had little time to read, but who wanted hard information on a range of topics, from immediate trade-union issues to more general political questions. Though its circulation never exceeded two thousand, it exercised a real influence. It built up a team of international correspondents from the syndicalist current around the world, including William Z Foster from the USA and Tom Mann from Britain. Mann, who had spent some years in Australia, wrote of the experience of state arbitration through wages boards or wages councils there. There was a readership outside France; one of the subscribers in Switzerland was Zinoviev, future president of the Comintern, who may well have passed his copy to his neighbour Lenin. When the young Ho Chi Minh arrived in Paris from Indochina in 1919 one of the first places he visited was the Vie ouvrière office.

The outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. It was not only the Second International which collapsed; syndicalists and anarchists flocked to support their own national governments. In France, just days before the declaration of war there had been massive anti-war demonstrations on the streets of Paris. But then the syndicalist daily paper, La Bataille syndicaliste, made a complete turnabout and supported the war. CGT leader Jouhaux worked closely within government institutions during the war.

Alfred Rosmer has left a vivid account of how he and Monatte found themselves totally isolated.[10] They visited individuals whom they had thought to be sympathetic to the politics of La Vie ouvrière, only to find they had gone over to support for the war. It was obviously impossible to go on producing the journal. They were reduced to gathering around themselves a small number of individuals. One of these was the writer Marcel Martinet, later to be cultural editor of the Communist daily L’Humanité. (In 1919 Martinet’s novel about the war would be runner-up to Proust for the prestigious Goncourt prize.[11])

Only in 1915 was Rosmer able to circulate a statement to former subscribers to La Vie ouvrière, setting out the bases for an internationalist opposition to the war. He condemned those French Socialists who “make all German workers unanimously responsible for the treachery of some of their leaders”.[12]

Meanwhile other significant contacts had been made. Leon Trotsky and some other Russian revolutionaries, including Radek and Lunacharsky, had established an anti-war daily paper in Paris, Nashe Slovo (Our Word). They quickly recognised an affinity with the remnants of the Vie ouvrière grouping, and a close association developed, which was to have significance for the future.

Some small-scale actions remained possible. In May 1915 Rosmer cooperated with the production of an issue of the paper of the metal workers’ union. Strict censorship was in force. An article was included expressing anti-war sentiments, and giving information about strikes in Scotland which had not been reported in France. The censors demanded the removal of the offending article. Some copies of the duly censored paper were produced – and a large number of the original version. Piles of the uncensored paper were packed, wrapped in a few copies of the censored version. The authorities were deceived and the subversive article got wide circulation among trade unionists.

But the most important activity was the preparation for the Zimmerwald conference in Switzerland in September 1915. Though involving only a small number, this conference marked the beginning of the reconstruction of an international – and internationalist – labour movement. In France the syndicalists played an important role in building Zimmerwald. In his history of the labour movement during the war Rosmer mocked later Russian accounts which referred to Lenin’s role in building in France – as he pointed out, at this time nobody in France had ever heard of Lenin.[13] Rosmer himself played an important role in organising and Merrheim was one of the delegates. Report-back meetings played an important part in building an oppositional current.

There was no right of conscientious objection in France, and in any case syndicalists believed that they should go to the army and suffer the same conditions as their fellow-workers. Pierre Monatte accepted the call-up – but made it clear that he would not load his gun – he said he could not continue to be politically active if he had been responsible for the death of German workers. There was a threat to shoot him, but he became a signaller and was commended for repairing telephone lines under fire.[14]

But it was virtually impossible to do political work under conditions of trench warfare and with a large peasant army. There is no evidence of any syndicalist role during the 1917 mutinies, which seem to have been largely spontaneous – though of course individuals may have been touched by anti-militarist propaganda before or during the war. The syndicalists remained a tiny minority – but one whose significance would be shown in the post-war period.

The October Revolution of 1917 changed everything and opened up a new period for the revolutionary movement throughout the world. For millions of working people, even if they had only a vague understanding of what was happening in Russia, it represented a very concrete hope of a new direction for the labour movement, and indeed for the whole of humanity. The old certainties, the old alliances and divisions were called into question.

Historians, whether sympathetic or hostile, rightly lay stress on the role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in making the revolution. But the Bolsheviks did not make the revolution all on their own; from the very outset they sought, and found, allies. The military committee which organised the October insurrection included four anarchists. One of these was the remarkable Bill Shatov. Of Russian origin, Shatov had lived in the United States and had been a member of the IWW. He went on to play an active part in the defence of the revolution and held various positions of responsibility in the revolutionary regime.

With October the revolution was entering uncharted waters. There was no clear road ahead, merely problems, contradictions and looming threats that could destroy the whole project. Above all the revolution needed allies. Only support from the international working class could counter the immediate military threat; and only the internationalisation of the revolution could ensure the survival of its principles. As Trotsky put it at the Third Congress:

When another stronghold is erected in France or in Germany, then the one in Russia will lose nine-tenths of its significance; and we will then stand ready to go to you in Europe in order to defend this other, more important stronghold.[15]

The image of Lenin, among friends and foes, is of a hard man who repeatedly split from those who deviated from the “correct” line. (I used to have on my bookshelves a volume, produced in Moscow, entitled “Lenin Against Conciliationism”.) But Lenin knew when to conciliate as well as when to split; if his self-appointed followers have been much better at splitting, it is because it is much easier.

The question became central at the Second Congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1920. Few Communist Parties existed as yet, and a range of organisations and individuals had been invited. These included a number of anarchists and syndicalists from Western Europe. They came, motivated by hope, curiosity, or a mixture of the two. They did not come with the illusions of later visitors, and knew they would find a country ravaged by upheaval and civil war, but wished to see how the new order was being built. Travel to Russia was not easy in the aftermath of the world war.[16]

But the Second Congress was far from unanimous in its welcome to the syndicalist delegates. Paul Levi, leader of the newly founded German Communist Party, had faced opposition in his own party from ultra-lefts who opposed participation in elections and reformist trade unions. His response had been, not to try to win over at least some, but to expel them. Now when the Congress debated the need to build revolutionary parties, he made no attempt to engage with those coming from different traditions:

It seems to me that clarifying the differences between communism on the one hand and the anarchist views of the Spanish comrade on the other is quite out of line with the tasks of this congress, nor does it serve the interests of what the world today is demanding of the Communist International, namely, fully defining a course of action. We get no closer to carrying out this task by focusing the discussion on a question that the majority of the Western European working class settled decades ago.[17]

Zinoviev was similarly dismissive. (This debate makes clear that there was no such thing as a single Bolshevik position.) He lectured the delegates on the history of the Bolshevik Party: “Had we not had a centralised party built along military lines, with iron discipline, organized over the course of twenty years, by now we doubtless would have been defeated twenty times over”.[18] He omitted to mention that such “iron discipline” had not been seen in 1917, when Zinoviev himself had argued publicly against the insurrection.

Lenin very visibly dissented. Responding to a delegate from the British Shop Stewards’ Movement, he argued that “if Comrade Tanner says that he is opposed to parties, but at the same time is in favour of a minority that represents the best organised and most revolutionary workers showing the way to the entire proletariat, then I say that there is really no difference between us”.[19] It was a remarkable attempt at a reconciliation between two different traditions.

Trotsky responded equally vigorously, evoking his own experience of working with French syndicalists and insisting that:

Just because I know that the party is indispensable, and am very well aware of the value of the party, and just because I see Scheidemann on the one side and, on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want to tear its head off – for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades in order to prove to them that the party is indispensable for the fulfillment of the historical mission which is placed upon them – the destruction of the bourgeoisie.[20]

If there were conservative and sectarian attitudes within the Comintern, such attitudes were also far from uncommon among the syndicalists. The IWW’s response to the Comintern was a self-satisfied assurance that its own traditions and analysis were quite adequate:

We have no reason to be excited by the invitation. The programme of the IWW was valid before the war, survived the war without the necessity to alter even a single point, it is valid now and will with absolute necessity be the programme of every revolutionary party.[21]

In France Pierre Monatte, though he had supported the Comintern, refused to join the new organisation until 1923, when he could have played a positive role by encouraging other syndicalists to join and ensuring that their distinctive contribution was recognised.

But despite the heated debates, there was a general recognition of the urgency of building the Comintern. If the revolution was to survive, it had to be spread within a few years. That required revolutionary parties throughout Europe and beyond, and every means had to be used. Pierre Broué has shown that the formation of the Comintern was a complex process, in which individuals, networks of personal contacts, the various “foreign sections” based on ex-prisoners-of-war in Russia, small political groups and mass parties all interacted in the context of a unique revolutionary wave.[22]

But central to the strategy was the task of splitting the existing mass organisations of the working class. Throughout Europe the parties of the Second International had backed the war in 1914, with the anti-war minorities being marginalised. But at the end of the war radicalised workers were looking for ways to achieve social change, and often they turned to the traditional organisations of their class, while being impatient with the old leaderships. This offered excellent opportunities for provoking splits and establishing new mass parties.

Yet this process is often invoked and quoted in oversimplified form. Only in a handful of countries were Communist Parties created from splits in mass social-democratic parties. The circumstances were complex and historically unique – scarcely enough to justify arguing that it is a universal principle that revolutionaries should always work inside existing mass reformist parties.

The point can be illustrated from the history of the French Communist Party (PCF). In later years historians, whether Communist or anti-Communist, have been at pains to stress the continuity between the birth of the party and its subsequent Stalinist evolution. Many of those who played a key role in the Party’s early years have simply disappeared from the historical record, since they left, or were expelled, before 1930.[23]

In fact a number of syndicalists, notably Rosmer and Monatte, as well as other non-members of the Socialist Party (SFIO), played an important role in the process which led to the split in the party and the foundation of the PCF at Christmas 1920. Political lines were drawn loosely at the time, and non-members used to participate in SFIO meetings.[24]

Alfred Rosmer was not present at the founding congress of the PCF, but his wife-to-be, Marguerite Thévenet, played an important role. Clara Zetkin, who entered France illegally to address the congress, wrote personally to Lenin to give her impressions and stressed that Madame Rosmer was “one of the most lucid, loyal, energetic and politically intelligent ‘men’ in the French movement”.[25]

In the early years syndicalists played a major role. After returning from Moscow Rosmer briefly played a leading role in the French Communist Party. When Monatte finally joined in 1923 he rapidly became a member of the Central Committee. Robert Louzon, living in Tunisia, helped to launch the first Arabic-language Communist daily paper – promptly suppressed by the authorities. Marcel Martinet became an imaginative cultural editor of L’Humanité. Trotsky recalled that at one point in the early twenties Lenin had said to him that the leadership of the PCF should be removed and replaced by the Vie ouvrière team.[26] (Of course at that stage Moscow did not have the power to intervene in this fashion.)

One initiative taken by the Second Comintern Congress was the decision to found the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU or Profintern). Syndicalists were organised in trade unions, not in parties, and unions could not affiliate to the Comintern. So it was proposed to establish an international body, parallel to the Comintern, which trade unions could join. It was stressed that this was not an attempt to split existing unions, and that Communists should strive to remain in the existing unions even when attempts were made to expel them.

Historians, even those sympathetic to the Comintern, have tended to take a negative view of the RILU. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein as well as Ralph Darlington have described it in very uncomplimentary terms.[27]

But if the whole RILU project was open to criticism, it is hard to see what alternative there was. Zinoviev’s proposal that unions should affiliate to the Comintern alongside parties was impracticable. The Comintern needed a way to relate to the syndicalists, and it needed it quickly.

The international body organising the existing trade unions was the solidly reformist International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), known as the Amsterdam International. But if the Comintern was right to attack its reformist leadership, claims of its impending demise were much exaggerated. Thus in 1921 the Comintern predicted the “imminent and complete collapse” of the IFTU.[28] In fact the IFTU would survive longer than the RILU.

The person put in charge of organising the RILU’s founding congress was Alfred Rosmer. There could have been no better choice. He had come out of the syndicalist tradition, and appreciated both its strengths and its weaknesses. As a journalist for La Vie ouvrière he had reported on countries from Britain to South Africa, and had a good knowledge of the international labour movement.

Unfortunately, Zinoviev, with whom he had to work, did not share these qualities. Zinoviev thought it enough to denounce reformist leaders, believing workers would be convinced by having their leaders insulted. Thus an “appeal” to the IFTU began: “You are the chief bulwark of capitalism, now living out its last days – you are the watchdogs of capital, barking furiously at all those who approach your master’s lair”.[29] It was a sign of the shortage of competent and experienced cadre that the new Russian state had to give so many senior responsibilities to a mediocrity like Zinoviev.

The founding congress of the RILU was held in the summer of 1921, at the time of the Third Congress of the Comintern; it was attended by 380 delegates. It was not a carefully stage-managed event. At one point uproar broke out when syndicalist delegates raised the question of the position of anarchists in Russia:

Delegates stood on their chairs and sang the Internationale when Lozovsky tried to speak. For several minutes the meeting hall was rather like the New York Stock Exchange. Everybody was shouting, including the spectators, who left their seats to invade the conference area.[30]

But this was just an example of the friction that was inevitable when two different traditions came together and attempted to cooperate.

Much debate centred on the sterile question of the formal relation between the RILU and the Comintern, with the syndicalists being very suspicious of any suggestion that they were being subordinated to a “political” organisation. In the longer term the results were distinctly meagre, with the RILU being given a very minor place in Comintern strategy, before it was finally wound up in 1937.

In any case things were changing rapidly from the end of 1922 onwards. Lenin was effectively incapacitated after his last speech to the Comintern in November. He had warned of the dangers of imposing the Russian experience on the international movement, and urged thought and study, warning that “we have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners”.[31] He was cheered to the rafters, but it seemed nobody was actually listening. Zinoviev was now free to try to shape the Comintern; he prepared the way for Stalin and his own eradication.

A policy of “bolshevisation” was now applied to the parties of the Comintern. Essentially this meant tighter control from Moscow and what Rosmer called “mechanical and slavish imitation of Russian methods”.[32]

Many of the most thoughtful and imaginative individuals who had come to the Comintern in 1920, including most of those from a syndicalist background, became disenchanted and over the next few years most of them left or were expelled. They were replaced by others who were prepared to accept total subordination to Moscow. As Pierre Broué put it, by 1924 the Comintern had “a single, centralised and disciplined apparatus of professional militants, reproduced on the model of the Soviet party, led from Moscow and in conformity with Soviet foreign policy”.[33]

In France the leading figures of syndicalist origin, Rosmer and Monatte, were expelled in 1924, because they had argued that the newly elected British Labour government should be responded to by a careful application of the united front strategy rather than with simple denunciations.

We should be very cautious about trying to draw lessons from the Comintern experience. Today’s world is very different from that of October 1917, and history will not repeat itself. In 1968, when a worldwide upturn in struggle seemed to put revolutionary change on the agenda again, many of us recognised the need for organisation – and since Leninism and the Comintern were the only precedents we had, we used them as models. But it is now time to take a more sceptical attitude to that heritage.

One of the roots of the terrible sectarianism which has blighted the far left is the belief that a single political tradition embodies the sole truth. As Peter Sedgwick put it, too many socialists try to establish “an Apostolic succession from the ideas of certain revered forerunners to those of their (usually self-enthroned) successors in the present day”.[34] The Comintern experience seems to suggest that Tony Cliff was nearer the truth when he argued that “ideas are like a river and a river is formed from lots of streams”.[35] The aftermath of 1917 saw followers of different traditions come together to defend and emulate the Russian Revolution. At best they could have complemented and enriched each other – just as Victor Serge argued that the anarchist preoccupation with morality could provide a valuable counterbalance to Marxism.[36]

Sadly this often did not happen. In the early 1920s, when Mussolini was rising to prominence, a mass anti-fascist movement, the Arditi del Popolo, grew up independently of the Italian Communist Party; the Communists regarded it with scorn, and failed to work with it, let alone learn from its experience.[37]

Likewise, when Trotsky was drawing together the Fourth International, he was deeply suspicious of any political currents independent of the orthodoxy he had defined. That militants of the quality of Victor Serge and Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer found themselves outside the Fourth International from the beginning was a clear indication of the weakness of an organisation condemned to repeated splits, with each fragment claiming to be the sole possessor of truth.

In more recent years the Marxist left has encountered alternative currents. Just as syndicalism grew up in reaction to the corruption and pettiness of parliamentary politics, so too the anti-capitalist movement of the early twenty-first century was contemptuous of orthodox politics and Marxists had to look for common ground for joint action. Likewise Extinction Rebellion and other climate groups have developed new styles of activism; if Marxists can contribute important insights to the struggle against climate change, they need to recognise what can be learned from new organisations and movements. History does not repeat itself, but by studying how socialists in the past confronted unprecedented situations, we can prepare ourselves for the unforeseen circumstances that lie ahead of us.


Allen, Barbara C 2016, Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik, Haymarket.

Behan, Tom 2003, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, Bookmarks.

Birchall, Ian 2011, “PCF: The Missing Founders”,

Broué, Pierre, 1997, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, Fayard.

Charter of Amiens 1906,

Chuzeville, Julien 2017, Un Court Moment Révolutionnaire: La création du parti communiste en France (1915-1924), Libertalia.

Cliff, Tony 1996, “Engels”,

Cliff, Tony and Donny Gluckstein 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926, Bookmarks.

Cyr, Frédéric 2013, Paul Levi, rebelle devant les extrêmes, Presses de l’Université Laval.

Darlington, Ralph 2008, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism, Ashgate.

Degras, Jane (ed.) 1971, The Communist International 1919-1943, Volume I, Frank Cass.

Dubief, Henri 1969, Le Syndicalisme Révolutionnaire, Armand Colin.

Ferrette, François 2011, La Véritable Histoire du Parti Communiste Français, Éditions Demopolis.

Fernbach, David (ed.) 2011, In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected writings of Paul Levi, Brill.

Frölich, Paul 2013, Im radikalen Lager: Politische Autobiographie 1890-1921 (ed. Reiner Tosstorff), BasisDruck Verlag.

Lenin, VI 1920, Speech to Second Congress,

Lenin, VI 1922, Speech to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International,

Mazuy, Rachel 2002, Croire plutôt que voir? Voyages en Russie soviétique (1919-1939), Odile Jacob.

Merrheim, Alphonse 1911, “L’Approche de la guerre”, La Vie ouvrière, 5 and 20 January, 5 and 20 February.

Monatte, Pierre 2018, Lettres d’un syndicaliste sous l’uniforme 1915-1918 (ed. Julien Chuzeville), Smolny.

Paizis, George 2007, Marcel Martinet: Poet of the revolution, Francis Boutle.

Riddell, John (ed.) 1987, Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and documents of the First Congress, March 1919, Pathfinder.

Riddell, John (ed.) 1991, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and documents of the Second Congress, 1920, two volumes, Pathfinder.

Riddell, John (ed.) 2011, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Brill.

Riddell, John (ed.) 2015, To The Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Brill.

Rosmer, Alfred 2016, Lenin’s Moscow, Haymarket.

Rosmer, Alfred 1921, Speech to the Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions in July 1921, Revolutionary History, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 2000-2001.

Rosmer, Alfred 1936, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre, Volume I, Librairie du travail.

Sedgwick, Peter 1960, “The Fight for Workers’ Control”, International Socialism, 3, Winter 1960-61,

Serge, Victor 2011, “The Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution” in Revolution in Danger, Haymarket.

Tosstorff, Reiner 2004, Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920–1937, Ferdinand Schoeningh.

Trotsky, Leon 1920, Speech to the Second Congress of the Communist International,

Zetkin, Clara 1921, Letter of 25 January in R Stoljarowa & P Schmalfuss (eds), Briefe Deutscher an Lenin 1917-1923 Dietz Verlag, 1990.

Further reading

Alfred Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, Haymarket, 2016.

Remains an invaluable source as a participant account.

Ralph Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism, Ashgate, 2008.

An excellent international survey of syndicalism before and after 1914.

Reiner Tosstorff, The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) 1920–1937, Haymarket, 2018.

A very full, detailed account of the RILU.

Robert Wohl, French Communism in the Making, 1914-1924, Stanford UP, 1966.

Now very old, but still one of the best things in English on the origins of French Communism, using interviews with participants and independent of French political alignments.

[1] Riddell 1987, Riddell 1991, Riddell 2011, Riddell 2015.

[2] Broué 1997.

[3] Chuzeville 2017, Ferrette 2011, Cyr 2013, Fernbach 2011, Frölich 2013.

[4] See Darlington 2008.

[5] Allen 2016.

[6] Charter of Amiens 1906.

[7] Cited in Dubief 1969, p70.

[8] Rosmer 1921, p70.

[9] Merrheim 1911.

[10] Rosmer 1936, pp209-16.

[11] Paizis 2007.

[12] Rosmer 1936, p548.

[13] Rosmer 1936, p461.

[14] Monatte 2018.

[15] Riddell 2015, p379.

[16] See Mazuy 2002.

[17] Riddell 1991, Vol. I, p166.

[18] Riddell 1991, Vol. I, pp150-51.

[19] Lenin 1920.

[20] Trotsky 1920.

[21] Tosstorff 2004, p107.

[22] Broué 1997.

[23] Birchall 2011.

[24] Ferrette 2011.

[25] Zetkin 1921.

[26] Cited in Paizis 2007, p211.

[27] Cliff and Gluckstein 1986, Darlington 2008; see also Tosstorff 2004.

[28] Riddell 2015, p62.

[29] Degras 1971, pp204-5.

[30] Tosstorff 2004, p348.

[31] Lenin 1922.

[32] Rosmer 2016, p219.

[33] Broué 1997, pp384-5.

[34] Sedgwick 1960.

[35] Cliff 1996.

[36] Serge 2011.

[37] Behan 2003.

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