No organization in modern history was as transnational in its scope as the early Communist International. The men and women who worked for it had to travel across borders and forget about any kind of settled life as they sought to promote a global revolution.

Circa 1920 poster stating “Long live the third communist international!” in multiple languages. (Gallica Digital Library via Wikimedia Commons)

Founded in 1919 with world revolution as its declared goal, only to be dissolved without fanfare by Joseph Stalin in 1943, the Communist International (Comintern) developed a historically distinct form of political engagement that stood in the tradition of the European workers’ movement yet was in many ways unique. It formulated a new political grammar, a distinctive set of rules for a new form of collective, radical engagement.

Its means to this end were a strictly disciplined organization, a network that was in part underground and in part triumphantly public, directed and coordinated by an Executive Committee (ECCI). In the Comintern, the different facets of Communism came together: an international political program with a utopian dimension, cross-border political organization, and a territorially based political regime that had its own interests to pursue.

The revolutionaries more readily took on the challenge of this collective political adventure because the goal already seemed to be in sight. The fall of tsarism in Russia and the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 — or October 1917, as the Julian calendar had it — seemed to mark the beginning of a new age.

Entrepreneur of Revolution

The Comintern was founded as a fighting organization, an entrepreneur of revolution, but rapidly grew into a bureaucratic institution called by its own actors the apparat. This polysemously metaphorical German and then Russian term can mean both “instrument” (and so means to an end) and well-oiled “machine” (run by operatives or cadre). It could be said that the Bolsheviks, for reasons of efficiency, turned to a permanent bureaucratic apparatus and an employed staff to control a machinery intended to bridge the gap between those who gave the orders and those who executed them.

The Comintern was founded as a fighting organization, an entrepreneur of revolution, but rapidly grew into a bureaucratic institution called by its own actors the apparat.

As is well known, a bureaucracy in any event develops with time a distinctive logic of its own, in which self-preservation can come to take precedence over its original goals. Force of circumstance saw the ECCI quartered in Soviet Russia, the only country that had undergone a successful revolution and could therefore serve as a secure base for revolutionaries from all over the world, at least until the German revolution should take place. This, however, gave the Bolsheviks, as the party governing the country that bore most of the financial burden, the right to five voting members of the Executive, as compared to the one vote each granted to the ten to thirteen larger parties represented on the committee.

It was the Bolsheviks, too, who made the ECCI into a permanent body. While the German Communist Paul Levi had proposed regular meetings every three months, Grigory Zinoviev had opposed such routinism in the name of permanent readiness for action. For him, the ECCI was the “international general staff of the fighting proletariat.” It was “an epoch of revolutionary struggle.”

The ECCI — locus of micro-struggles with macro-political effects — was, however, able to meet only irregularly, as even its permanent members were not always in Moscow, whether from personal disinclination or on account of their many responsibilities in their own parties. The Third World Congress of 1921 thus decided to employ three permanent, salaried secretaries.

On the suggestion of the Russian party, these were the Hungarian Mátyás Rákosi, the Finn Otto Kuusinen, and the Swiss Jules Humbert-Droz — all representatives of small or banned parties with negligible revolutionary prospects, whose seasoned revolutionaries were thus wasted in their own countries. Their interlocutor would be Russian Osip Piatnitsky, channel of communication with the Soviet party and the Soviet authorities, and vice versa.

Rules of Conspiracy

Sometimes taken in a moment of enthusiasm, sometimes the culmination of a much longer political involvement in the workers’ movement, the decision to work for the Comintern was life changing. These activists became salaried employees with a determinate role in a rapidly differentiating institution with a distinctive division of labor, a role that might nonetheless quickly change in response to administrative requirements or a shift in political line.

Sometimes taken in a moment of enthusiasm, sometimes the culmination of a much longer political involvement, the decision to work for the Comintern was life changing.

Revolutionary enthusiasm could thus lead to an alternative career, as part of a corps of like-minded people. The increasing professionalization and bureaucratization of the Comintern brought new duties: to account for oneself, to report on the work one had done to a hierarchy whose own business was to supervise and control these things.

As with any other employer, there were budgets to adhere to, expenses to file, information to be passed on, professional standards and rules to comply with. Given this employer’s particular business, there were special precautionary measures to be followed, the so-called rules of conspiracy for work in illegality, but also in legality — rules that would later be taught on courses at the International Cadre School but which the first Comintern employees had to learn on the job.

That meant, notably, not using your own name but one or more pseudonyms when on mission or at one’s place of assignment, and so traveling with false passports, writing in code, or communicating by encrypted telegram, enclosing letters in a double envelope and sending them to a cover address from which they would be forwarded to the intended destination. Depending on the degree of illegality, it might also mean meeting secret party members or other Comintern representatives only at secure locations, checking to see whether the police were following or whether anyone might be eavesdropping.

Professional Revolutionaries

The Comintern apparatus consisted of far more than such well-known and high-ranking officers as Georgi Dimitrov, Palmiro Togliatti, and Walter Ulbricht. There were very many different kinds of jobs to be done, both at Comintern headquarters in Moscow and at its outposts abroad. International delegations and political missions likewise called for a wide range of skills.

As well as emissaries holding plenipotentiary powers (euphemistically called advisers), there were instructors charged with specific ancillary tasks, often technical or organizational; couriers, often women, who maintained communications, smuggling money and information across borders, or from one place to another; the senior staff of local outposts; agents of the OMS, the Comintern’s top secret International Liaison Department, which served as the Bolshevik party’s operational arm abroad; the journalists employed by Comintern newspapers and periodicals based outside the Soviet Union. All these short-term or more-or-less permanent deployments needed secretaries, translators and interpreters, radio technicians, cipher clerks, informal collaborators, informants, sometimes even military experts.

The Bolsheviks made themselves the voice of class struggle and the spearhead of the workers’ movement.

Delegations abroad often consisted of representatives of different organizations, such as the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern), the Youth International (KIM), the short-lived Women’s International, or Workers’ International Relief, to name only the most important of the bodies making up the planetary system of international Communism.

Comintern responsibilities could also be assigned to officers of local parties. Furthermore, someone like the German cultural entrepreneur Willi Münzenberg could work on behalf of the Comintern, which provided him with financial support. The same went occasionally for artists, writers, filmmakers, and photographers.

The Bolsheviks made themselves the voice of class struggle and the spearhead of the workers’ movement. But they also supported the demands of left feminists, anti-colonial activists, and national liberation movements, seeking to promote a sense of collective identity across such diversity. While the founding of the new International was contentious, it nonetheless answered to something in the spirit of the times. The old social democracy was worn out, and the future organization of the workers’ movement was very unclear.

Acting Globally

The twentieth century knew of no other organization or social movement so international in its rhetoric, so transnational in its practice, so global in its ambitions. A British, French, or Dutch Communist was thus expected to fight colonialism everywhere, including at home. The revolution was to be global, not sectoral, not confined to one country or one continent.

The twentieth century knew of no other organization or social movement so international in its rhetoric and so transnational in its practice as the Comintern.

The Third International practiced and promoted an internationalization that ran contrary to the general development of nation-states. At a time when most industrialized countries were tightening migration policy, it opted for a policy of ignoring — of getting around and fighting against — political borders. The Comintern’s networks promoted a transnational mode of life among its functionaries, people who spent years, if not decades, traveling to and fro between countries and continents, crossing and recrossing frontiers, most often in clandestinity.

Their nomadic life, now here, now there, afforded them little in the way of settled existence or fixed expectations. Least of all was it the result of their own free choice, and travel for them was no passport to self-discovery. They moved on when instructed to do so by the Comintern or when compelled by the forces of repression. The organization’s agents traveled abroad, or found themselves posted to their home countries, on instructions from above, and remained in regular contact with those who instructed them, by letter, telephone, or telegram, even if distance and time did sometimes pose problems.

They had a job to do and responsibilities to discharge. They had false identities to assume, and regular changes of name to accustom themselves to. Yet so long as their political convictions held firm and they did not doubt what they did, they could feel that they belonged to a secret fellowship committed to a higher cause, whatever the internal disputes.

Travel was, for them, an aspect of work, one that called not only for great personal commitment and courage in the face of danger, but also for language skills, cultural adaptability, organization, discretion, negotiating ability, and tolerance of frustration. What is more, these cross-border workers served as go-betweens or mediators between two and sometimes more revolutionary contexts or spheres of Comintern activity, with all the maneuvering that might involve.

They might, for instance, have to sell new political positions or directives adopted in Moscow or by the local party. Sometimes they would have to act as bridge-builders between opposing fractions or groups. And increasingly often, invested with Moscow’s authority, they had to purge a party of its oppositionists, real or supposed.

In the late 1920s, their missions in many cases involved the removal of entire leaderships for recalcitrance, a goal generally achieved only with great difficulty and at the cost of considerable losses in terms of membership. And, in all of this, they had always to translate the changing conceptions embodied in the party line into another language, in a different context.

Loyalty and Betrayal

Work for the Comintern made great demands on the individual. Not only was the body totally engaged, but a considerable part of the self too had to be invested in one’s activity. While other occupations do not necessarily call for personal belief in the logic of the employing institution, the Comintern required absolute loyalty of its employees. Not only students at the international cadre schools but all those who worked for the organization had to continuously adjust their own ideas and representations to the realities of the social world that was the Comintern.

In the social world of the Comintern, to leave the party was to betray the cause.

In the social world of the Comintern, to leave the party was to betray the cause; so-called renegades were cut off socially and often defamed, later even persecuted. Materially, for Comintern employees, expulsion from the party meant loss of income. The stronger the commitment, the greater the danger that resignation or expulsion provoked an existential crisis.

Communism was like few political movements in the way it set itself up as supreme authority over the norms and practices of social and political life. With its adoption of the concept of the vanguard party, its quickly established routines of work, and the institutionalization of a bureaucratic apparatus, the Comintern helped create the conditions for this (which of course does not imply any process of compulsion).

Under Stalin, this ascendancy took on a new aspect, as with his writings on “Leninism” he increasingly promoted himself as the authority on theory. At the time of the Second World Congress in 1920, debates were open to all who wished to contribute, even if Lenin and Trotsky enjoyed greater political authority than other Marxist theorists. In creating “Marxism-Leninism,” however, Stalin prescribed an analytical method and in doing so gained a means of control over possible interpretations.

Argument gradually came to be confined to the translation of theory into practice, discussion limited to the interpretation of political directives rather than debating the political line and its abrupt changes. Students at the Comintern’s international schools learnt to eschew all forms of doctrinal deviation, being trained instead in the application of theory. Like those students, Comintern employees had to learn the ways of going about things and the cultural codes of the normative space they now inhabited.

The political space for organized opposition shrank visibly before collapsing entirely in the face of Stalin’s preference for repression as a technique of government. What began in the Comintern in 1928 as a global wave of mass expulsions for political deviation ended in the second half of the 1930s in the massacre of very many of those members of the Comintern who lived in the Soviet Union, a massacre that did not stop at the borders of the “Workers’ Fatherland.”

In the face of irrational and baroque accusations, tactical play demanded an almost inhuman capacity for discursive accommodation. In many cases, however, this was not enough to escape death. Only those who were beyond the reach of the Soviet secret police had the option of “exit,” though its long arm could sometimes stretch far beyond Soviet territory.

This is an excerpt from Brigitte Studer’s Travellers of the World Revolution: A Global History of the Communist International, available now from Verso Books.

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