The Comintern: The Committee to Export Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

Lenin’s Bolshevik regime in Moscow and its allies worldwide awaited the outbreak of world revolution, for which they believed they had provided the spark. In essence, they sought a ‘Red Bridge’ to world revolution, whether through war, subversion, diplomacy, or a combination of all of these.

A large crowd in an open square with large Communist flags waving in the background, celebrating the Comintern.
The Comintern was created to bring Communists of all countries together, in order to spread the influence of the Bolsheviks and promote Revolution across Europe. Comintern congresses were public celebrations as shown in Festival of the II Congress of Comintern on the Uritsky Square. (Image: Boris Kustodiyev/Public domain)

The Advance of the Red Army

When the First World War ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the Red Army invaded the newly independent Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine, stretching to link up with an expected revolt in Germany.

Leon Trotsky in the uniform of a general of the Red Army.
Leon Trotsky, seen here in uniform as a General, made the Red Army a powerful force. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

These efforts continued and merged with the ongoing Russian Civil War, that confused a series of clashes between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and different sets of opponents. These opponents included Russian monarchists, socialist revolutionaries, anarchists, peasant partisans, and foreigners: some 200,000 soldiers from Britain, France, Japan, and the United States, and the Czech Legion.

Yet, by November 1920, the Bolsheviks had beaten their enemies. Created and perfected by Leon Trotsky, the Red Army proved the vital instrument for victory. The Bolsheviks knew they could rely on the Red Guards and Latvian Riflemen regiments, but these would not be enough. The order to form the mass army was given in January of 1918.

The Red Army grew to five million by the end of the Civil War. With its help, the state pursued a ruthless extractive economic policy named War Communism, which left a very deep stamp on their government. They centralized governmental control even more, nationalizing factories, and requisitioned food from farmers to feed the cities and the armies.

Learn more about the Revolution of 1905.

The Comintern and the Appeal of Communism

To spread the message of global revolution, the Bolsheviks sponsored an entire institution tasked with that goal, the Comintern, which was short for ‘Communist International’, also known as the Third International. The founding congress started on March 2, 1919 in Moscow and the Comintern would be based there in the Kremlin.

This organization was in some ways a company to export revolution, by spreading propaganda and offering help to other communist parties springing up around the world. The fiction was that it was an independent, private organization. Its official language was German, the language of Marx, which was only replaced with Russian in 1924.

At first the Comintern was small, mostly a gathering of Russians with a sprinkling of non‐Russian communists. But by the second congress the next year, delegates from 37 countries attended. At that meeting in Moscow in 1920, Lenin dictated the Twenty‐One Points: the conditions for a party to be admitted to membership in the Comintern. Grigory Zinoviev was made the chairman of the Comintern and working with him were Karl Radek and Victor Serge.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Karl Radek, the International Communist

Black and white photo of Karl Radek standing with arms folded in an interior space
Karl Radek, pictured here in 1919, was one of the prominent members of the Comintern. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Radek was the classic internationalist: he spoke Polish, Russian, German, French (all in his idiosyncratic way) and was a dazzling and witty journalist and conversationalist. He was described as half professor, half bandit.

At the start of 1919, he had been sent to Berlin by the Bolsheviks to help organize the German Communist Party with his old comrade Rosa Luxemburg. And he was there during the Spartacus uprising in January 1919 and after the revolt was crushed, he was arrested in February. Only at the end of 1919 was he released to return to Moscow, and then went to work in the Comintern.

Victor Serge, the Conscience of Bolshevism

Victor Serge was a striking and insightful character. Born in Belgium to Russian exile parents, Serge came to Soviet Russia in 1919. In his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he relates how he lived through a dilemma, as he worked for the Communist regime. He spoke of doing “double duty”: to guard against external enemies of the revolution, but to remain within the party to combat abuses within.

He condemned the Cheka, and its arbitrary arrests. He condemned the emerging privileged nomenklatura of the party elite with privileges of its own, but he did not break with Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

He would argue in debates against dictatorial rule and against the suppression of free speech, but then he would submit to party discipline. He spoke of the atmosphere of terror as “intolerable inhumanity,” but then he tolerated it by remaining within the regime.

The role of being the heroic inner conscience within the regime is fraught with problems. But Serge concluded, “Bolshevism was in my eyes tremendously and visibly right. It marked a new point of departure in history.”

Learn more about the relation of human social systems to evil behavior.

Foreigners in the Comintern

Many ardent radicals flocked to the Comintern. Other foreign communists became prominent in this movement, including an American, John Reed. His journalistic account of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Red October, Ten Days That Shook the World, became the basis for the Eisenstein film that mythologized the coup.

Reed, a war reporter, was thrilled by what he saw in Russia and crossed over from reporting to partisan support. He was among the founders of American communists, and he returned to Russia for the second Comintern congress. There he fell ill and died in October 1920 and was buried in a tomb set into the wall of the Kremlin, as an honored foreign communist.

Reed's body lying in state in Moscow, with a Russian guard of honor after the second Comintern.
John Reed was among the first foreign communists to be buried within the Kremlin. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The Chinese Communist Party, led by Sun Yat Sen, was organized in 1921. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the French Communist Party and came to Moscow to work in the Comintern. Sen Katayama helped found Japan’s Communist party in 1922. Later, Katayama moved to Moscow, and died there in 1933.

The Comintern sought not only active agents, but also sympathizers, to aid the communist cause. The Comintern sent agents with money and advice and expected to have its orders followed. The stage was all set for a world revolution, or so the Bolsheviks thought.

Common Questions about the Comintern

Q. How did the Red Army help the communists become powerful?

The Red Army grew to five million by the end of the Civil War. With its help, the state pursued a ruthless economic policy named War Communism. They centralized governmental control, and requisitioned food from farmers to feed the cities and the armies.

Q. What was the Comintern?

To spread the message of global revolution, the Bolsheviks sponsored an entire institution tasked with that goal: the Comintern, or the Third International.

Q. Why was Victor Serge known as the conscience of Bolshevism?

Victor Serge was troubled by the evil and the corruption he saw in the Bolshevik movement, and protested against it while remaining within the party itself.

Q. Who were some of the prominent international members of the Comintern?

Some of the international members of the Comintern were John Reed, Sen Katayama, Sun Yat Sen, and Ho Chi Min.

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