There is an important sense in which, after about 1927, the Comintern became marginal both because it had ceased to organize world revolution and because it no longer served Soviet foreign policy very effectively. Communist parties may have had some minor successes as another arm of Soviet diplomacy, but the Soviet government, like governments everywhere, soon realized that government-to-government dealings were effectual ways to conduct business, and that popular movements, mass or otherwise, were not. E.H. Carr saw the 1935 Franco-Soviet pact as a turning-point, in that Moscow had begun to rely for its security on traditional means, not its network of foreign parties. Moscow would also learn later to its cost that communists who took power elsewhere were not always under its control, and could even establish alternative centres of gravity for communists around the world.
The particular failures, and the overall failure, of the Comintern must also be noted. The centralized control of communist strategy by Moscow led to some terrible setbacks, as in China in 1927 when the ‘united front from above’ was short-circuited by Kuomintang expulsion and then massacres of Chinese communists (Pontsov 1999), or in Germany in 1933 when the doctrine of ‘social fascism’ had communists fighting the German Social Democrats instead of Hitler, or in the Spanish civil war of 1936–39, when the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) under the leadership of ‘adviser’ Aleksandr Orlov, weakened the republican effort by murdering non-communist socialists and anarchists (Beevor 2006, 286–293, 300–306, 478). In addition, the communist parties failed to be seen as a major alternative during one of world capitalism’s greatest trials, the Great Depression, which lasted for much of the 1930s in its heartland, the United States. Communist parties in most of the industrialized world remained politically marginal, and their entry into ‘popular front’ (i.e., anti-fascist) alliances had more to do with defending the Soviet Union than advancing the socialist revolution.
In a crucial respect, the failure of the Comintern and its national sections is not so surprising. Given their connections to the Soviet Union, these sections followed the line of the Soviet Communist Party as it successively repudiated Trotskyism, Zinovievism, and Bukharinism and made Stalin’s position as leader virtually impregnable. The Russian style of debate and denunciation was generalized across the communist movement, raising barriers between workers and communists. Good, talented communists were hounded out of the movement for one ‘deviation’ or another, until national leaderships looked to Moscow before they made any significant move. (A telegram of March 1930 from Australia asks: ‘DOES EKKI DENDORSE [sic] PRESENT CEC APPOINTED CONFERENCE ADVISE SIGNED BARRAS LOUGHRAN DOCKER SIMPSON SHARKEY WALKER SHEILEY (sic) ISAACS MOXON’ (CAML 495–4–17).) It was harder to kill deviationists outside Russia, but GPU agents seemed to have succeeded in the case of some prominent Trotskyists. All this was described under the euphemism ‘iron discipline’. The fortunes of the Soviet Union also involved the image of life in Russia. And though communists worked hard to convey the image of happy, prosperous Russians (and even fooled some non-communist visitors, including the Webbs, with modern-day ‘Potemkin villages’), there was enough unadorned truth about Russia to ensure that workers in industrialized countries did not find it an attractive prospect. At a time when the Soviets should have been winning the propaganda war, during the capitalist economic crisis of the 1930s, they were hampered by problems in their own industrialization efforts. As one sympathetic economist, Alec Nove, explained, the year 1933 in the Soviet Union ‘was the culmination of the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standards known in recorded history’ (Nove 1972, 207), when workers’ real earnings represented one-tenth of what they had been in 1926/27. ‘Bourgeois propaganda’ at the time—hysterical though it often was—probably didn’t know the half of it.
One of the systemic problems of the Comintern was its attempt to parcel world development into overarching formulae. The most disastrous of these arose from the Sixth Congress in 1928, which declared the advent of the ‘third period of the general crisis of world capitalism’. This included the notion that the ‘third period’ would ‘inevitably give rise to a fresh era of imperialist wars among the imperialist States themselves; wars of the imperialist States against the USSR; wars of national liberation against imperialism; wars of imperialist intervention and gigantic class battles’ (Degras 1960, 456). This is a period in which all the antagonisms of capitalism would be accentuated, leading to ‘the most severe intensification of the general capitalist crisis’ (457). Therefore, the ‘main danger’ to the communist parties, so the argument went, was the danger of ‘Right opportunism’, which soon included Trotskyism. The Comintern was used extensively for the campaign against Trotskyism in the international parties, essentially an attempt to root out any opposition to the leadership of the Russian Communist Party. In Russia, that could be achieved by purges, prisons and murder; elsewhere, it had to be done by ‘argument’ and expulsion.
The disputes within and ultimately the struggle for control over the Russian Communist Party found their echoes and parallels in the Comintern. Opposition was removed from within the Russian party first, and then elsewhere. All of this was done via the language of theoretical debate in which Lenin had earlier specialized, and there was—in hindsight—a bizarre quality to debates about theoretical positions which could mean the difference literally between life and death and which, after being used to defeat one set of opponents, could be discarded for a new position. The text obscured the pretext. Very few outside the inner circles of the ECCI could have known how this game was being played, even if they had inklings or concerns. Those parties remote from Moscow—including the Australians—were in this respect not much worse off than those closer. Delegates to the Sixth and Seventh Comintern Congresses began to understand, and were forced to take sides in, the Russian disputes. Local issues were taken up if they were grist to the larger Comintern mill. The highest virtue of communists was not independence of spirit and critical thought, but loyalty. Stalin made it very clear to the Americans in 1928 that, if they believed they could persist in their view of ‘American exceptionalism’ in spite of the Comintern, they would find they had no support when they got home (McDermott and Agnew 1996, 90–94).
The Communist International was dissolved by Stalin in 1943, as a concession to the other Allied powers and a gesture of good faith in their unity and mutual non-interference. Its life had been drained away since the Seventh Congress in 1935, when 76 member parties had met; there had been no subsequent congresses, and no major session of the ECCI. The Comintern had become largely redundant in the calculations of Stalin, who had not even attended the 1935 Congress. The Resolution of the Presidium of the ECCI proposing the dissolution of the Comintern of 15 May 1943 declared that the organizational form of the Comintern had ‘outlived itself’ (Claudin 1975, 40–43). After the Second World War the ‘Cominform’ was established, but the functions of the Comintern were delegated to the Department of Foreign Policy of the Central Committee of the CPSU. The work of directing the world’s communist parties from Moscow went on much as before, though under different official auspices, and soon under very different conditions. The Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong took power in 1949, and chafed under Soviet direction until a final rupture between the two powers in 1963. In addition, the 1956 ‘revelations’ about Stalin’s errors made the loyalty of many individual communists and some communist parties themselves conditional.
What has added to the Comintern’s aura is the importance which one of its founders, Trotsky, accorded it in his (already doomed) struggle for leadership of the Russian Communist Party in the mid-1920s, and his subsequent struggle for moral and organizational leadership of the international communist movement after he was expelled from the USSR in 1929. Trotsky continued the illusion that the Comintern was important, with his incisive analyses of communist failures in China, Germany, and Spain. To believe that had the Comintern followed Trotsky’s policies in these events the outcomes would have been fundamentally different seems heroic, though in a strict sense it is unknowable. Trotsky further reinforced the myth of the importance of the international communist movement with his founding of the ‘Fourth International’ in September 1938.
The conspiracy view of history assumes that there is a plan to be implemented. The Comintern, even on a casual view of its decisions over the 23 years of its existence, had no such ‘plan’. Its positions veered wildly from one extreme to another. Even if the formalized periodization of modern history into ‘First’, ‘Second, and ‘Third’ periods by which it justified some of these swings is accepted—and that seemed absurd even to some communist critics at the time, including Trotsky—we nevertheless need to acknowledge that the Comintern was primarily reactive to events, and that much of the time it did not really know what should be done to advance its goal of world revolution. What became a substitute, of course, was the raison d’état of the Soviet Union. The Comintern’s confusion seems apparent, for example, in some of the letters between Stalin and Comintern Secretary-General Dimitrov in the 1930s, in contradictory views on the proper approach in Spain (Dallin and Firsov 2000, 71–73), in the attempts to recreate the alliance between Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communist Party (106), and in Stalin’s generally low regard for the Comintern and its national sections. To see the Comintern as having a logical policy-making process is to mistake its propaganda image for reality. Yet whatever he thought of the value of the Comintern—and there are good reasons for believing he did not think highly of it—Stalin nevertheless wanted it under his control. Dallin and Firsov (2000) show that from the mid-1930s, at least, the Comintern was totally subordinated to Stalin’s will.