Lessons of the First Congress of the Communist International

Capitalist democracy or workers’ power?

Lenin speaking at a congress of the Communist International.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and much of the socialist camp, social democrats and revisionists in the international workers’ movement contend that the ideas of working-class power and the dictatorship of the proletariat have been discredited. They say world developments have shown that social change can only take place within the confines of bourgeois-democratic politics. According to this view, progressives’ only goal should be to win influence in their national parliament or congress and other “democratic” institutions.

It is one thing to use these institutions as part of an overall strategy. Communists use every possible means to advance the class struggle. But it’s something else to rely on bourgeois institutions as the primary means of social change.

Revolutionary communists must expose this accommodation to imperialism.

Many groups and trends in the international communist movement are today seeking a regroupment of revolutionary forces on a world scale. Adherence to the principle of working-class power is one of the most important bases for real unity of action. It must be clearly understood by all Marxist-Leninists.

This isn’t the first time in history that the question has been sharply posed. In fact, it has emerged in every political crisis since Marx’s time as a focal point of struggle between the revolutionary proletarian forces and those who advocate reform of the system through class collaboration with the bosses.

Following the Russian Revolution it was the number one issue in the world workers’ movement. In 1919, revolutionary developments were sweeping the European continent. The choice — power to the workers or to the capitalists — was not just a question of orientation but of concrete action.

That year, delegates from the revolutionary movements of 22 countries met in Moscow, the capital of Soviet Russia, to found the Communist International. At the top of the congress’s agenda was concrete action to make workers’ power a reality.

Impact of the Bolshevik Revolution

Capitalism seemed to be in its death throes in Europe after the destruction caused by the first world imperialist war of 1914-1918. The leaders of most big European workers’ parties of the Second International sided with their imperialist governments in the war, betraying the masses of workers and peasants who died on the battlefields.

In the former Russian empire, the Bolshevik Party had seized the opportunity presented by a disintegrating peasant army and massive worker rebellions. In November 1917, it led the workers of Petrograd, Moscow and other key cities in the capture of state power. For the first time, a full-fledged workers’ state — though underdeveloped and impoverished — was born.

Sam Marcy wrote of Soviet Russia, “The new, infant workers’ state had thrust upon it three Herculean tasks utterly unprecedented in the entire history of the class struggle.” One was to defend the new workers’ state. Another was to lay down socialist economic foundations and raise the living standards of the workers.

In addition, said Marcy: “It had the duty and obligation to reorganize, on a revolutionary basis, the left wing of the social-democratic movement, put it on a communist basis, and lay the foundation for a new and revolutionary International. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were thus obligated from the start not only to give revolutionary leadership at home, but, in a way, to become the general staff of the world revolution which seemed visible on the horizon, especially in Western Europe and later in the East, in China.” (1)

This was no small task — especially for a communist party that also had to govern a war-torn, backward and impoverished land in the midst of imperialist aggression and civil war. Yet the Bolsheviks rose to the task.

The vast expanse of the former Russian empire was a virtual International in itself. Within its boundaries were well over 100 distinct nationalities and ethnic groups in many different stages of social development.

The multinational Bolshevik party reflected this. Its ranks included not only Russians but Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, Belorussians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris, Armenians, Turks, Chinese, Koreans, Jews, Germans and many more. Soon, revolutionary exiles and prisoners of war from the U.S., France and other European countries joined its ranks.

In 1922, the nations of the former Russian empire united to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Revolutionary upsurge

“In the years immediately following the Great October Socialist Revolution, Europe was a veritable revolutionary cauldron,” wrote Marcy. “Proletarian insurrections broke out in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, to some extent France, and later in Great Britain with its great general strike.” (2)

Soviets and workers’ councils sprang up spontaneously in many European countries, including Germany, Austria and Britain. Workers elected political representatives from factories and offices to represent them in the councils. Often, soldiers and even peasants set up similar bodies to represent their interests against the bosses and landlords.

The growth of workers’ councils reflected a pre-revolutionary situation. Their spread in the advanced countries also refuted the widespread belief that soviets were a uniquely Russian phenomenon.

In the United States, “shop committees, hailed as ‘militant tribunes of the union members and nonmembers within the firm,’ spread through American industry,” according to historian Philip Foner. (3)

The first Russian Revolution, in 1905, had sparked national liberation struggles in China and Turkey. The post-war crisis greatly strengthened this trend. As the Communist International was being founded, rebellions against British imperialism arose in Egypt and India. Haitian freedom fighters led by Charlemagne Peralte were fighting to drive U.S. occupation forces out of their Caribbean homeland.

In most countries, though, disciplined, revolutionary Marxist parties of the Bolshevik type did not exist. There were only left-wing trends in the social-democratic and syndicalist movements. Among the handful of communist parties, most were formed only in late 1918.

The leaders of the Second International had become so thoroughly corrupt that their efforts were mostly directed toward saving the capitalist system. There was no hope they could lead the proletariat to victory.

Lenin and the other revolution-minded leaders knew there was only one solution: Communist parties must be built. In the critical circumstances of the moment, it would take a world revolutionary organization — a new International — to unite the various left-wing trends and forge fighting parties.

Blockade of Soviet Russia

During 1918 and early 1919, Soviet Russia and the Bolshevik Party were virtually cut off from the rest of the world. The U.S., Britain, Japan and all the belligerent powers — fearing socialist revolution far more than they feared one another — imposed an imperialist blockade.

The “quarantine” meant that Bolshevik propaganda reached the world working class only sporadically. The capitalist ruling classes and their mouthpieces spread the most incredible and vicious fabrications about the Soviet government — not only of an anti-worker, but of a racist and anti-Semitic character.

Nevertheless, the influence of the Russian Revolution and its leaders grew. Soviet Russia was a bright light of hope that shone on the workers and oppressed of the world.

Soviet Russia looked to a revolutionary development in the imperialist countries to ensure its survival and maximum ability to develop.

Lenin often made this point. At the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) he said: “We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states; and it is inconceivable that the Soviet republic should continue to exist for a long period side by side with imperialist states. Ultimately one or the other must conquer. Until this end occurs a number of terrible clashes between the Soviet republic and bourgeois states is inevitable.” (4)

With this reality constantly in mind, the Bolsheviks watched international developments with keen interest.

A wide variety of revolutionary trends and groups were invited to join in founding the Communist International. Besides the Communist parties and left-socialist groups allied with the Bolsheviks, the list included such groups as the Socialists in Japan; forces in the French syndicalist movement; the Industrial Workers of the World in the U.S., Britain and Australia; and the left forces in the Socialist Party of America, led by Eugene Debs. (5)

The call also went out to groups of oppressed workers living in the Russian Soviet Republic. Lenin was determined that the Communist International would build strong ties of solidarity and cooperation with the oppressed peoples.

It was not easy to reach Moscow. Anti-communist repression in Europe and the U.S. prevented many groups from even getting the invitation. A German delegate was arrested before he could reach Soviet Russia. Two Hungarian delegates were delayed by heavy fighting in the Ukraine. Others who succeeded faced innumerable dangers along the way, not the least of which was the imperialist military blockade.

Fifty-one delegates attended, representing 35 organizations in 22 countries. Nine delegates came from outside Russia’s borders. Fortunately, some groups had representatives living in Soviet Russia at the time.

Voting and consulting delegates from the following countries attended: Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, China, Finland, France, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Soviet Russia, the Serb-Croat-Slovene Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States. Communist organizations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Turkestan, the Ukraine and the Volga Germans were also present. (6)

The Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was represented by its foremost leaders: V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev and G.V. Chicherin. Soviet Commissar of Nationalities Joseph Stalin was also a delegate, but took no role in the congress. Other prominent Bolsheviks like Alexandra Kollontai and Lev Kamenev attended some sessions. (7)

The critical question

There were many political, ideological, strategic and tactical questions in need of clarification in the revolutionary movement. These ranged from the need for a highly disciplined revolutionary party to a correct Marxist view of the right of nations to self-determination.

Lenin knew this. But he also knew the acuteness of the revolutionary crisis — which does not come often and must be seized in the right way at the right moment. Therefore, his focus, and the theme of the congress, was to clarify and sharpen the understanding of the character and means of the working-class seizure of power.

In fact, “the idea of the working class winning political power” was central in the debates and resolutions of the Congress.

“The delegates came to a very important conclusion, that a new epoch had opened with the triumph of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave that had risen in other countries, ‘the epoch of the disintegration of capitalism, the epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat.’ In accordance with that a central task was posed: the proletariat’s winning of political power and breaking up of the bourgeois state machinery; the counterposing of the Soviet system to bourgeois democracy. The road to victory lay through mass struggle, a preliminary condition of which was to break with the direct opponents of the revolution” in the working-class movement. (8)

The congress began the evening of March 2, 1919. Lenin opened the first session by asking delegates to rise in tribute to “the finest representatives of the Third International”: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. (9) These two leaders of the Communist Party of Germany (Spartakusbund) had been murdered by police during an abortive uprising in Berlin.

In his opening remarks, Lenin struck the main theme of the deliberations. “The bourgeoisie is terror-stricken at the growing workers’ revolutionary movement,” he said.

“Dictatorship of the proletariat — until now these words were Latin to the masses. Thanks to the spread of soviets throughout the world this Latin has been translated into all modern languages; a practical form of dictatorship has been found by the working people. The mass of workers now understands it thanks to soviet power in Russia, thanks to the Spartakusbund in Germany, and to similar organizations in other countries, such as, for example, the shop stewards’ committees in Britain. All this shows that a revolutionary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been found, that the proletariat is now able to exercise its rule.

“Even though the bourgeoisie is still raging, even though it may kill thousands more workers, victory will be ours, the victory of the worldwide communist revolution is assured.” (10)

Lenin was convinced, after listening to the speeches and talking with delegates, that the significance of the system of soviets was still not clear to the broad masses of the politically educated German workers, “because they have been trained in the spirit of the parliamentary system and amid bourgeois prejudices.” (11)

Bourgeois democracy vs. soviet power

The debate in the workers’ movement over whether to support a government of parliamentary democracy or of workers’ councils took its sharpest turn in defeated Germany.

German workers overthrew the monarchy in November 1918. In its place, a coalition of right-wing social democrats and bourgeois parties ruled, which later became known as the Weimar Republic. But the existence of strong workers’ councils put into question who would govern.

The new government denounced the workers’ and soldiers’ councils as undemocratic and instead advocated a constitutional assembly. Social-democratic leaders said that by simply winning a majority in the assembly, workers could secure the victory of the revolution and even “socialism.” To them, democracy was an abstract thing, with no basis in class rule.

The revolutionary forces, led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, refuted that. They pointed to both the teachings of Marx and Engels and the lessons of the Russian Revolution to show that the working class must rise up against the bourgeois state machine, crush it, and build instead a republic of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants‘ councils. That’s how a true democracy for the oppressed could be built.

Centrists, like Karl Kautsky’s Independent Socialists, wavered between the two positions. Kautsky advocated sharing power between the workers’ councils and the bourgeois parliament. Such a merger could only destroy the councils’ class independence; Lenin pointed out that this view reflected “the mood of the backward sections of the German proletariat.” (12)

Lenin answered the social democrats’ view in his theses and report to the congress “On Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” (13) It was a concrete, practical and theoretical answer to those who counterposed “democracy in general” to working-class rule.

The communist answer

Lenin’s theses, based on the lessons of the Russian Revolution and the post-war crisis in Europe, generalized the revolutionary concepts laid down in his classic work, “The State and Revolution.”

“1. Faced with the growth of the revolutionary workers’ movement in every country, the bourgeoisie and their agents in the workers’ organizations are making desperate attempts to find ideological and political arguments in defense of the rule of the exploiters. Condemnation of dictatorship and defense of democracy are particularly prominent among these arguments.

“2. This nonclass or above-class presentation, which supposedly is popular, is an outright travesty of the basic tenet of socialism, namely, its theory of class struggle, which Socialists who have sided with the bourgeoisie recognize in words but disregard in practice. For in no capitalist country does ‘democracy in general’ exist. All that exists is bourgeois democracy, and it is not a question of ‘dictatorship in general,’ but of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, i.e., of the proletariat, over its oppressors and exploiters, i.e., the bourgeoisie, in order to overcome the resistance offered by the exploiters in their fight to maintain their domination.

“3. History teaches us that no oppressed class ever did, or could, achieve power without going through a period of dictatorship, i.e., the conquest of political power and forcible suppression of the resistance always offered by the exploiters — a resistance that is most desperate, most furious and that stops at nothing.

“4. In explaining the class nature of bourgeois civilization, bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois parliamentary system, all socialists have expressed the idea formulated with the greatest scientific precision by Marx and Engels, namely, that the most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie, for the suppression of the working-people by a handful of capitalists. There is not a single revolutionary, not a single Marxist among those now shouting against dictatorship and for democracy who has not sworn and vowed to the workers that he accepts this basic truth of socialism. But now, when the revolutionary proletariat is in a fighting mood and taking action to destroy this machine of oppression and to establish proletarian dictatorship, these traitors to socialism claim that the bourgeoisie have granted the working people ‘pure democracy,’ have abandoned resistance, and are prepared to yield to the majority of the working people. …

“10. The imperialist war of 1914-1918 conclusively revealed even to backward workers the true nature of bourgeois democracy, even in the freest republics, as being a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Tens of millions were killed for the sake of enriching the German or the British group of millionaires and multimillionaires, and bourgeois military dictatorships were established in the freest republics. …

‘Proletarian dictatorship is absolutely necessary’

“12. In these circumstances, proletarian dictatorship is not only an absolutely legitimate means of overthrowing the exploiters and suppressing their resistance, but also absolutely necessary to the entire mass of working people, being their only defense against the bourgeois dictatorship which led to the war and is preparing new wars. Whenever there is any serious aggravation of the class struggle intrinsic to [capitalist] society, there can be no alternative but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dreams of some third way are reactionary, petty-bourgeois lamentations.

“14. The fundamental distinction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of other classes — landlord dictatorship in the Middle Ages and bourgeois dictatorship in all the civilized capitalist countries — consists in the fact that the dictatorship of the landowners and bourgeoisie was the forcible suppression of the resistance offered by the vast majority of the population, namely, the working people. In contrast, proletarian dictatorship is the forcible suppression of the resistance of the exploiters, i.e., an insignificant minority of the population, the landowners and capitalists.

“It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the actual enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism — the toiling classes. …

“16. The old, i.e., bourgeois, democracy and the parliamentary system were so organized that it was the mass of working people who were kept furthest away from the machinery of government. Soviet power, i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other hand, is so organized as to bring the working people close to the machinery of government.”

Only Soviet power, the class power of the armed working people, can dismantle the repressive forces of the capitalist state and break up the bourgeois system. “Destruction of state power is the aim of all socialists, including Marx above all. Genuine democracy, i.e., liberty and equality, is unrealizable unless this aim is achieved. But its practical achievement is possible only through the soviet, or proletarian democracy, for by enlisting the mass organizations of the working people in constant and unfailing participation in the administration of the state, it immediately begins to prepare the complete withering away of any state.” (14)

Lenin laid out the main tasks of communist parties in all countries where soviet governments had not yet been established. These were adopted by the congress in a resolution:

“1. to explain to the broad mass of the workers the historic significance and the political and historical necessity of the new, proletarian democracy which must replace bourgeois democracy and the parliamentary system;

“2. to extend the organization of soviets among the workers in all branches of industry, among the soldiers in the army and sailors in the navy, and also among farm laborers and poor peasants;

“3. to build a stable Communist majority inside the soviets.” (15)

The communist congress officially voted to found the new International on its third day of sessions. Resolutions were also adopted on the international situation and policy of the imperialist powers; the conference of right and center social democrats in Bern, Switzerland; the need to bring women workers into the struggle for socialism; and the White Terror of the bourgeoisie against workers and peasants.

Delegates reported on the development of the workers’ movement in their countries. For the first time, an international Marxist gathering heard a report in the Chinese language. (16)

The second Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist International, dubbed “the second Communist Manifesto,” was signed by leading delegates, including Lenin. Red Army commander Leon Trotsky, who authored the document, read it to the delegates on March 5:

“Seventy-two years ago the Communist Party proclaimed its program to the world in the form of a Manifesto written by the greatest heralds of the proletarian revolution, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Even at that time communism no sooner entered the arena of struggle than it was beset by baiting, lies, hatred and persecution of the possessing classes who rightfully sensed their mortal enemy in communism.

“The development of communism during this three-quarters of a century proceeded along complex paths: side by side with periods of stormy upsurge it knew periods of decline; side by side with successes — cruel defeats. But essentially the movement proceeded along the path indicated in advance by the Communist Manifesto. The epoch of final, decisive struggle has come later than the apostles of the socialist revolution had expected and hoped. But it has come.” (17)

The Platform of the Communist International complemented the manifesto’s theoretical overview. It outlined the development of capitalism in the monopoly stage and how it had opened the epoch of imperialist wars and socialist revolutions. And it offered a guide to the tasks of the revolutionary proletariat.

At the close of the congress, Lenin remarked: “That we have been able to gather despite all the persecution and all the difficulties created by the police, that we have been able without any serious differences and in a brief space of time to reach important decisions on all the vitally urgent questions of the contemporary revolutionary epoch, we owe to the fact that the proletarian masses of the whole world, by their action, have brought up these questions in practice and begun to tackle them.

“All we have had to do here has been to record the gains already won by the people in the process of their revolutionary struggle.” (18)

After the founding congress

It did not take long for life to confirm the need for the revolutionary International.

Sixteen days after the congress ended, a Soviet government was proclaimed in Hungary. The Proclamation of the Revolutionary Governing Council of Hungary, issued March 22, 1919, declared: “Today the proletariat of Hungary takes all authority into its hands. The collapse of the bourgeois world and the bankruptcy of the coalition [previous government] compel the workers and peasants to take this step. Capitalistic production has collapsed. Communism alone can preserve the country from anarchy.” (19)

In Vienna, Austria, workers greeted the news with a thousands-strong march through the streets. They chanted, “Down with the capitalists!” and carried banners that said, “Long live the Hungarian Council Republic.” (20)

Soviet republics were soon proclaimed in Bavaria and Slovakia.

Though these heroic revolutions were crushed, they again confirmed the revolutionary character of the post-war epoch — and especially the need for clarity on such fundamental questions as the class character of the state and the need for soviets to be independent of bourgeois institutions.

Never before had the exploiters known such fear. Their overthrow seemed imminent. The capitalist class stepped up its repression against working-class organizations and oppressed peoples.

The founding congress gave a strong impulse to revolutionary forces in every country. It provided a theoretical and practical basis for different trends to unite in unified communist parties. At the Second World Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1920, over 75 revolutionary organizations were represented, many from the oppressed nations. (21)

These forces also built strong “Hands off Soviet Russia” movements in many countries. “Its main demand, constantly advanced at workers’ meetings and demonstrations, congresses, and conferences, and in the progressive press, was immediate cessation of military support for the Russian counterrevolution, and of the economic blockade and armed intervention.” (22) Bolshevik leaders credited this movement with helping the young Soviet republic survive one of its most difficult years.

Eventually, the revolutionary period ebbed. Capitalism was temporarily stabilized on the backs of the colonial peoples. But the rich revolutionary lessons of that era live on today.

The first issue of Workers World newspaper, dated March 1959, stated: “The founding of the Communist International was probably the most significant event in the postwar revolutionary epoch that followed in the wave of the great socialist October Revolution. It existed as a thoroughgoing revolutionary international only for the first four congresses — roughly to the time of Lenin’s death. But its impact on the labor movement has been unequaled in history.” (23)

History proves need for workers’ power

The whole history of class struggles since 1919 proves the necessity of soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and other countries where workers’ power has existed, the working class and oppressed peoples have won tremendous gains, like the right to a job, free quality health care and education. The workers’ states gave aid and support to national liberation movements in the Third World. All this was possible only through the transfer of ownership from the capitalist class to the working class and the political rule of the oppressed. And it was achieved under constant threat from the imperialist powers, especially the U.S.

In contrast, there are many countries, including in the West, where intense class struggles arose but were not carried through under revolutionary leadership. Social-democratic parties have governed the capitalist system in some of these countries. Yet nowhere have they eliminated the scourges of unemployment, racism and poverty that are built into the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Today, the ruling class is wiping out all the concessions won by workers and oppressed peoples.

In other countries, such as Indonesia and Chile, pro-socialist leaders tried to exercise power over the bourgeois state. They did not support the development of workers’ councils as independent organs of proletarian power. Nor did they arm the masses in preparation for revolutionary action. In both cases, the bourgeoisie crushed the government and the labor movement and instituted fascist terror.

“World history is leading unswervingly toward the dictatorship of the proletariat, but is doing so by paths that are anything but smooth, simple and straight,” wrote Lenin in his famous article “The Third International and Its Place in History.” (24)

Today, we live in a period of reaction and setbacks. But it will not last forever. The capitalist system itself plants the seeds that cause class struggle to grow.

Only a thorough socialist revolution that expropriates the bourgeoisie and puts state power into the hands of the workers and oppressed can smash capitalist oppression and build a socialist future. This must be the unequivocal answer of communists to those who urge reconciliation with the dictatorship of capital.


  1. Marcy, Sam, “Eurocommunism: A new form of reformism,” pp. l-2.
  2. Ibid, p. 46.
  3. Foner, Philip, “History of the Labor Movement in the United States,” Vol. 8, p. l3.
  4. Quoted in Carr, E.H. “The Bolshevik Revolution l9l7-I923,” Vol. 3, p. 115.
  5. Trotsky, Leon, “Letter of Invitation to the First Congress of the Communist International,” in “The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power,” pp. 450-1.
  6. USSR Academy of Sciences and Institute of the International Working-Class Movement, “International Working-Class Movement: Problems of history and theory,” Vol.4, p. 266.
  7. Riddell, John, ed., “Founding the Communist International,” p. 41.
  8. USSR Academy, p. 267.
  9. Lenin, V.I., “Collected Works,” Vol. 28, p. 455.
  10. Ibid. pp. 455-6.
  11. USSR Academy, p. 273.
  12. Lenin, p. 469.
  13. Ibid. pp. 457-74.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid, p. 475.
  16. Riddell, p. 204.
  17. Trotsky, Leon, “The First Five Years of the Communist International,” Vol. I, p. 19.
  18. Lenin, p. 476.
  19. Daniels, Robert V., ed., “A Documentary History of Communism,” pp. 91-2.
  20. Klingaman, William K., “1919: The year our world began,” pp. 191-2.
  21. Riddell, John, ed., “Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples Unite!,” Vol. 2, pp. 839-43.
  22. USSR Academy, p. 343.
  23. Workers World, Vol. I, No. l, March 1959.
  24. Lenin, “Collected Works,” Vol. 29, p. 309.

Originally published in Liberation & Marxism magazine, Winter 1994

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